Dawn's gentle light reveals much about a country

Early riser captures fleeting moments, treasured memories all around the world


February 02, 2003|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Special to the Sun

Halfway through planning a trip to Cuba, my travel agent warned me of a glitch in the schedule. "I'm sorry to tell you this, but your return flight leaves Havana at 3 a.m.," she said apologetically.

"No matter," I told her. "That suits me fine. In fact I prefer it."

There was a pause on the other end of the phone, then: "You do understand I said 3 in the morning." The idea of someone liking such a schedule seemed to shock her.

I, on the other hand, was already picturing my 3 a.m. departure from Havana. First, there would be a cup of strong Cuban coffee, sipped slowly in the peaceful hotel lobby. Then the drive along the Prado, a wide avenue lined with Spanish-style mansions that, despite their fading beauty, still startle the eye. And at this time of morning, down near the sea wall on the Malecon, it wouldn't be unusual to see a taxi driver polishing the chromed tail fins of a neon pink 1957 Ford.

"Sounds perfect to me," I told the agent. "Book it."

It was in Venice, about 10 years ago, that I accidentally acquired a taste for starting the day early -- although usually not as early as 3 a.m. On the night of my arrival, after hours of jet lag-induced insomnia, I decided to get up, throw on some clothes and walk to nearby Piazza San Marco. At a little before 5 a.m., I left the hotel and headed for the narrow calle leading to the square. But first I had to pass through a courtyard behind the hotel, one planted with little islands of shrubs and flowers. Walking by a long strip of greenery, I heard a soft noise, almost like a baby's cry.

Bending down, I separated a clump of bushes and saw a wicker basket lined with towels; inside was a plump orange tabby cat nursing two lookalike kittens. Because I never met a cat I didn't like -- and because I sorely missed my own feline companion -- I stayed for several minutes, observing these three ordinary tabbies as though I were a zoologist studying a new species. Then, thinking I was alone, I started talking to them in Italian-accented baby talk, the way I do -- in English -- to my cat at home.

Suddenly a woman's voice interrupted my one-sided conversation. "I see you like cats," the voice said. Embarrassed, I jumped up and saw a tall, stylish woman with cropped auburn hair and an amused look on her face. "Well, so do I," she said, her tone conveying there was no need to be embarrassed.

"See here," she said. "Would you like a coffee? My hotel is just next door and I was about to have some."

"I would like that very much," I told her. We walked through the courtyard and into the Hotel Budapest which, it turned out, was literally her hotel: Elena Toth, a native of Hungary, owned it.

Over the next hour or two, Elena and I sat talking about Hungary, her birthplace, and about Venice, her home for the last 10 years. We talked about cats -- "Feeding strays is a hobby of mine," she said -- and about the pleasures and trials of running a hotel. We even talked about men.

"Watch out for the Italians," she said, only half-joking. "They all tell you they're part of the Agnelli family and are due an inheritance."

When I rose to leave, it was not yet 7 o'clock; the entire day lay ahead of me. But I doubted anything I did would be more fun than my coffee with Elena -- except maybe my dinner with her that night in Dorsoduro, a neighborhood we both loved.

Over the next week, Elena and I met several times for coffee and cats and an occasional walk together through the sleeping city. Before I left Venice, we exchanged phone numbers and promised to stay in touch. And we did. But after a few years, we lost touch. Still, I never go to Venice without visiting the courtyard of cats. The cats are gone now and so is Elena -- she sold the hotel -- but the memories linger on.

Family breakfast

And so do the memories of my early-morning visit to the Nishiki-koji food market in Kyoto. While working in Kyoto a few years ago, a Japanese friend asked if I would enjoy visiting this famous market to watch its merchants set up their stalls. "You will see artists at work," my friend Tomoko told me. We agreed to meet in front of my hotel at 5:30 the next morning.

When Tomoko and I arrived at the market -- known as the "kitchen of Kyoto" -- rush hour on the subway was just beginning. After pushing our way through the crowds, we walked to the long, narrow alley, covered with an arched roof, that houses the market. When we stepped inside, it was like entering the beating heart of the city, a place alive with smells and sounds and excitement.

We listened to the voices of merchants calling out to one another as they cut fish, hung noodles on drying racks and arranged displays of fruits and vegetables in ways that would make the old Dutch painters gasp in admiration. And we looked, admiring the stalls decorated boldly with colorful lanterns or banners painted with calligraphy.

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