Navigate to Arts & Letters section

My Ski Vacation

A Russian Jewish story from the Dolomites

Maxim D. Shrayer
February 16, 2021
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

As Jewish refuseniks, we learned not to give up hope. This may sound like a useless truism today, and yet the imperative not to give up has served me well over the years. It has also hurt me, on a few occasions, for sometimes one needs to accept the finality of fate. And so it had taken me longer than it had my wife and daughters to accept that we wouldn’t be going back to the Dolomites any time soon. Until November of 2020 I had stubbornly clung to false hopes: The E.U. would lift restrictions for American travelers, a vaccine would be speedily developed, and so on. Hardly a procrastinator, until almost Thanksgiving I was holding off the decision to cancel the air travel to Italy. Now that, for the first time in a while, we have no ski or travel plans for winter break, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the Jewish Russian ski story I’m about to tell will have no tangible resolution. Below I’ve only changed or concealed a few names and altered some of the proportions of the so-called real life.

It all started in the winter of 2017. Visualize the sun of Veneto, end of February in Verona, and a happy Russian immigrant who had just arrived in Italy with his family from a wintry Boston. Ahead lay a sabbatical, a few lectures in Italian universities and a medical conference, but mainly a respite from taking calls (for my wife) and from students ever ready to chew off their professor’s liver (for me). Little compares in its fullness to the pleasure of recognizing the Italian beauty that we had first tasted as 20-year-olds, Karen as a Henry-Jamesian American girl abroad, I as a Soviet refugee waiting for America. And now we planned to reconnect with all this visual and sensual plenitude, not alone but in the company of our daughters Mira (age 11) and Tatiana (age 10 at the time). It took us a day and a half to: pose on Juliet’s balcony; see a performance of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the local opera house; stand on the arched bridge over the Adige (from which one observes the ruins of a Roman theater and the winged kayaks venturing to rise against the vernal waters); and perform a slow reading of the menu cards at Verona’s trattorias. On the evening of our second day, amid the dolce far niente we never practice back in Boston, I gave a talk at the local university. I spoke about the (mixed) marriage of V & V—Véra Slonim and Vladimir Nabokov, and my host was Count Stefano Aloe in a great black beret, friend of poets, philosophers, and itinerant musicians. On the morning of Feb. 21, my wife, daughters and I mounted a red Fiat and drove up to the Dolomites, where ahead of us lay eight days of skiing.

I won’t get into the journey from Verona to the former South Tyrol and the brief stop in Bolzano, where my daughters saw the famous Ötzi the Iceman, who is almost 5,000 years old. If you’ve been there, my description won’t surprise you, and if you haven’t—take my word. Just the archaeological museum alone justifies a visit to Bolzano. The museum and also a glass of the local Lagrein, in which one hears the guttural notes of the Ladin language laced with an echo of millennia. Why the Ladin language? Because our route took us to the heart of Ladin history and culture. In German this autonomous region of Italy—something of a bridge between central and southern Europe—is called Südtirol, and in Italian it bears a longer name, Trentino-Alto Adige. Lover of minorities and autonomous districts that I am, I was especially drawn to the ancient tribe of Ladins, proud descendants of the Raeti, whom the Romans colonized at the start of the common era. As I planned the trip to the Dolomites, I deliberately chose the village of Badia, the northernmost and farthest in the chain of ski resorts of Alta Badia. I so wanted to immerse myself in the life of this Ladin village, to hear the ancient language and observe the ways of this small European people, which numbers about 30,000 altogether.

At the sunset hour we had left behind the villages of Colfosco, Corvara, and La Villa and entered the village of Badia, located in the foothills of Santa Croce. When translated from the Italian, our hotel bears the name “Mountain Melody” or “Melody of the Forest,” and in the original this name didn’t scald our ears with banality but instead offered a promise of harmony. On its front, the hotel faced the ski slopes, on its back side, the snow-covered hills, overgrown with pines and studded with dairy farms. From afar, our hotel resembled an early flying machine. Each room had a balcony, each offered a special view or vista.

“The Magic Mountain,” I said to my wife as we stepped onto our balcony for the first time.

For many years the hotel had been in the same Ladin family, and its matriarch, a nonagenarian signora, served the afternoon glühwein and home-baked cakes. Most of the hotel employees were local villagers, the majority of them Ladin. And only the tall bartender hailed from a town near Trieste. Dinner at the hotel was elevated to a four-act culinary spectacle. Everything in the hotel immediately struck us as elegantly and thoughtfully arranged. This was a place one fell in love with and wanted to stay at, for the rest of one’s life—both the hotel and the mountain village. There was just one circumstance … On the afternoon of our first day we encountered several Germans and Austrians in the hotel sauna.

“Don’t you like Garmisch or St. Anton?” my wife asked the fellow steamers.

“Here snow is better and German is also spoken,” a smiley gentleman from Munich replied in English. “But most of all, the food. This Edenic food!”

The next morning, after having rented skis and helmets, Karen and I had left the girls for half a day at Scuola Sci Badia. We had finally taken the chairlifts to the top of Santa Croce. It was an ideal day for skiing. Windless, sunny, perfectly groomed snow without icy bald spots of the sort one can rarely escape in New Hampshire or Vermont. We went down twice, ascended the mountain for the third time and decided we would each take a different run down and meet at the bottom.

In a state close to levitation I was gliding down a wide, uncrowded slope. The next several minutes stand before my eyes in slo-mo. I registered, with some sort of an extreme side vision, how a silver arrow flew straight at me. I remember a red ink blot in the upper left corner of the frame. Then I remember falling down and the slope rotating as my skis shot off. And after that I remember feeling a beastly pain in my left flank. And the face—contorted with malice—of a snowboarder who had lost control as he turned. He looked about 45, and as is often the case when all one’s senses are at their sharpest, I have forever remembered his frog-skin face, shaved so clean that it looked like it had been splashed with sulfuric acid. The snowboarder had unfastened his boot strap, moved closer to me, straightened the gold-framed glasses sitting askance on his small nose bridge, and said in English:

“You made the wrong turn.”

This is verbatim what he said.

With difficulty I got up from the ground and looked first at the bottom of the lift, where antlike life was swarming, and then at the horizon lined with fleecy clouds.

“How can one ‘make the wrong turn’? What kind of nonsense is that?” I pressed out.

“You made the wrong turn, and we collided. You could have killed me,” the snowboarder attacked.

“How long have you been snowboarding?” I asked.

“This has nothing to do with the matter,” the snowboarder wouldn’t budge.

I felt an urge to smash his nose.

“You rammed into me at full speed,” I said, trying not to scream for pain. “I probably broke my ribs, and you haven’t even tried to apologize or ask if I needed help.”

“I have nothing to apologize for,” the snowboarder said triumphantly. “And I see that you’re OK if you can get up by yourself.”

“Are you a doctor?” I asked for some reason.

“Neurosurgeon,” the snowboarder answered.

I’ve seen him somewhere … doctor-death flashed through my head. At that moment I noticed an elderly spry skier in a sky-blue jacket who was step-laddering up the slope toward me. The last thing I need now is an SS man in retirement, I thought as a feeling of revulsion for the entire humankind possessed me. In reality the elderly “SS man” revealed himself to be a lovely old gentleman from Stuttgart, who immediately took my side.

“I saw everything. Entirely your fault,” he said in German into the tightened face of the snowboarder who had injured me. “He drove straight into you. Very very dangerous,” the old gentleman added in English and extended his right hand to me.

The snowboarder quickly assembled a semblance of a smile on his face and offered to help me with finding my skis and getting down the slope.

“I don’t need your help,” I replied.

The Dolomites are different from the U.S. East Coast ski resorts where first-aid patrols are everywhere on the slopes. And so I had to overcome the pain and ski down, which took about 20 minutes. Karen was waiting at the lift entrance. Next to her stood the German snowboarder, rubbing his shoulder with affectation.

“He told me,” said my wife, kissing me. “Where does it hurt?”

“It hurts like hell in the left flank,” I answered. “I think it’s the ribs.”

“The ribs will eventually heal. We need to rule out ruptured spleen,” Karen said confidently.

“And by the way, how did he figure you out?” I asked.

“No idea. He came up and told me you fell and hurt yourself. He’s a doctor from Berlin.”

“And that you had rammed into me at full speed? Did you tell my wife?” I asked the snowboarder.

“Colleagues, let’s not argue. You must quickly see a doctor,” the neurosurgeon said, his voice unctuous.

There I was, standing in a half stupor at the bottom of Santa Croce. My wife had run to the office and come back.

“I called for a car to take us to Bolzano,” Karen reported. “There’s a hospital there.”

The snowboarder waved to us with the fingertips of his right hand.

“I hope it is nothing serious,” he said. “Feel better.”

“By the way, what’s your name?” my wife asked.

“Dr. Becker,” the neurosurgeon replied.

“And your first name?” my wife added to her question.

“Ludo Becker.”

Atta girl, I said to myself. The most important thing in life is to marry well.

The taxi driver, a huge fellow with a bristly glistening face and blackened fingers, turned out to be neither Italian nor Ladin but a German-speaking Tyrolean.

“Why do you want to go to Bolzano?” he asked.

“Where else can we go?” I asked.

“I’ll take you to La Villa to see Dr. Martin,” the driver suggested, speaking in German. “Just five kilometers from here.”

“Is he any good, your ‘dochtorr Mahrrtin’?” I queried, impatiently.

“Delivered my three children. My wife thinks he’s the best in the region.”

Ten minutes later we were standing in the reception area of the office of Spechtenhauser Dr. Martin. Praxis für Allgemeinmedizin.

“To fill out paperwork. To wait near 2 o’clocks,” said a lady from the reception window.

“Do you have all the equipment?” I asked.

“You will go to Röntgen, and if necessary, to get other tests. Now to sit and wait.”

While Karen had gone out to fetch us sandwiches and coffee, I studied the waiting area. Sitting in it: a pregnant woman, a boy with crutches, a very petite old lady in all black and next to her a very old gentleman in a Tyrolean hat with a green feather, and, finally, a Levantine-looking man, his right arm in a sling. (He told me he was from Erfurt, formerly from Odessa.)

Dr. Martin Spechtenhauser was a tall athletically built man with a barrel mustache. Not so much through the likeness of stature but rather with the fleeting expression of aged sadness one sees on the faces of circus performers, Dr. Spechtenhauser resembled W.G. Sebald, that most tender of German memoirists who had spent much of his life in England and died in his car on a rural road.

“Well, let me see,” said Dr. Spechtenhauser.

“First we X-ray,” he said to my wife. “Then we do ultrasound. Please wait in reception area.”

“I’m actually a doctor,” my wife objected.

“Would you like to take my place?” asked Dr. Spechtenhauser, not in a rude but in a tired voice.

Karen didn’t argue and left the exam room.

A technician did the X-ray, but when it came to the ultrasound, Dr. Spechtenhauser stepped in.

“Broken, broken,” he announced, inviting my wife to come in. “But the spleen is intact.”

At the reception window they gave me a plastic sleeve with a note stating the diagnosis: “Fraktur der X Rippe und knöcherne Infraktion der XI Rippe Hemithorax links.” Inside the sleeve were also copies of the imaging, a prescription for painkillers, and the paid bill for 330 euros.

I returned the ski equipment. At the lift ticket office they refunded me—in cash—for most of the weekly pass. Cursing fate, I returned to the hotel, undressed and studied the livid-purple bruises descending, like tongues of molten lava, from the left flank across the hip down the thigh. I ran a bath, took a swig of bourbon from a flask and tried to relax. Except I couldn’t shake the thoughts about universal justice.

Before stretching out on the sofa, I flung open the laptop and fed to Google the words “Dr. Ludo Becker” and “Germany.” I immediately got my answer. A Dr. Ludo Becker worked at a private surgical clinic in Wannsee. I clicked on the link, and the swampy eyes of the snowboarder who had crushed into me looked out through a film of mire. I only had the strength to type a very short email: “Dr. Becker, I attach a copy of the diagnosis and bill. I hope you won’t mind compensating me for the medical expenses. Yours, MDS.” Already before going to bed, after supper with my wife and daughters (who would ski without me for a whole week), I checked my email to discover the following reply: “Mr. S., for me the ski season is also over, my rotator cuff is torn. You broke your ribs through no guilt [sic] of mine. But still I forward your information to my insurance company. They shall contact you. L. Becker.”

In 1991, when I first started reading Nabokov in a serious way as a first-year doctoral student, I found too mannerish his Russian quatrain, composed in March-April 1950 during a bout of intercostal neuralgia: “O no, those aren’t ribs,/— this pain, this hell fire—/ those Russian strings/still ache in the old lyre.” At the end of February 2017 I saw these Russian-American verses in an entirely new light, now appreciating their precision. For the first two nights after the incident on the ski slopes I couldn’t sleep prostrated. I would sit in an armchair by the balcony door, staring out at the hills, silver-sprinkled with fresh snow. Then I got used to it and let the new fractured rhythm of life take hold. In the morning I had breakfast with Karen, Mira, and Tatiana. (Instead of ham the compassionate Ladin server would bring bresaola or smoked turkey.) I would then walk my family to the shuttle stop and set out on a long stroll around the village of Badia, making frequent stops to marvel at the details of carved windows and doors, at the deer grazing right below one of the chairlifts, at horses and cows at a farm adjacent to our hotel. I even tried to compose something or to edit drafts of what I’d written just before leaving Boston for Italy, but strong painkillers prevented me from thinking or writing clearly. Every day I took lunch in a Ladin restaurant where at noon the local men would gather at the bar for a glass of grappa. I, too, would have grappa ...

In a couple of weeks the pain had subsided, and I even drove a car and carried suitcases down narrow Florentine alleys. And I didn’t much regret not having been able to ski. We returned to Boston at the end of March, and I was prepared to leave the whole incident with the Berlin neurosurgeon at the trash heap of memory, but easier said than done … An envelope from Germany was waiting in the mailbox. It was a long letter from attorney Dr. Christian H., who represented Dr. Becker’s insurance company: “I was assigned to handle the case in connection with the incident at the Santa Croce mountain in the region of Alta Badia.” The letter contained detailed instructions. I was to provide “a description of what transpired on 22 February 2017 along with a plan to the area” and a step-by-step explanation. Only after that, attorney H. stated, “we would be able to investigate the issue of compensation of 330 euro.”

I have trouble with questionnaires and long insurance forms. Back in the summer of 1993, during my first trip back to Russia after emigration, I interviewed Leonid Leonov, a wonderfully gifted fiction writer and playwright but hardly a friend of the Jews. Among the pearls of wisdom the 93-year-old writer shared, two have stayed with me: “I’ve always had good relations with them” (about Jews) and “I belong to the unfortunate cast of stylists who take entire days to compose a simple acknowledgment, ‘I received three rubles from Vladimir Iosifovich.’”

And so I struggled with the stupid insurance explanations. I wasted half a day on the composition of the required answers, appended copies of all the necessary forms to my letter, and mailed it all to Germany. On the same day I telephoned my own insurance only to find out that they would compensate me for the overseas medical expenses, but I would have to get another X-ray (which they would cover). More dogged gibberish, I thought to myself, translating a Russian idiom, yet made an appointment for additional imaging. As luck should have it, the radiologist who read my film was our family friend Dr. Sabina B. She was born in the town of Orhei, also the homeland of the Jewish poet Dovid Knut and of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. Hence their shared sense of Bessarabian Jewish humor. Sabina called me to say that I was “beautiful inside” but I had not two but actually four broken or fractured ribs. “They are healing now, and will be stronger in the end,” Sabina added.

A few months later came the second letter from attorney Dr. Christian H. It stated that I had not provided exact details—where from and where to I was skiing, at what speed, what the meteorological conditions were, and most importantly, if there were witnesses to what transpired. I was really pissed off but forced myself to reply. Naturally, I didn’t have the name of the charming old “SS man,” who “saw everything” and would be able to corroborate that the incident was “entirely” Dr. Becker’s “fault.” And so I had to state that an elderly gentleman from Stuttgart (such and such details of appearance and clothing) was there, but I hadn’t written down his name or contact information because I was in a lot of pain. In a follow-up letter, which arrived in another month or so, attorney H. notified me that “an unnamed old gentleman from Stuttgart was not acceptable to serve as a witness to establish what transpired,” and that in order for the insurance company to continue the investigation I would need to supply additional information.

“Why do you need this?” asked my wife. “They’ve already reimbursed us.”

“What about justice? What about fairness?” I replied.

“The world is not a fair place,” Karen said. “I’m sorry.”

“I can’t just give up,” I said to my wife. “I just can’t. The rat ruined our whole trip.”

My wife knew me to be inconsolable about certain things.

In my reply to attorney H., which I would gladly quote here except it would make my story two pages longer, I expressed a particular view of bureaucracy, as well as pointed out how absurd it was that for his services the attorney would probably charge 10 times the amount of the compensation I asked for. It was one of the worst letters I’ve ever written and sent. I mailed a copy to Dr. Becker’s office in Wannsee. Let him gorge on it, I thought while waiting in line at the post office in Chestnut Hill.

Three years went by. Our older daughter had become a bat mitzvah and entered the holy order of teenagers. For my 50th birthday my family took me back to the Dolomites. We stayed in the same hotel in Badia, and every day I looked for Dr. Ludo Becker at the slopes. The following year we returned to the Dolomites, and I was still hoping to confront the snowboarder with swampy green eyes. I’ve learned from this experience that we’re not only drawn to scenes of crime or places of first love. We’re also drawn to sites where we might run into our past offenders.

I’m typing these lines on Dec. 16, 2020, at our family dacha in the village of South Chatham on Cape Cod. This is where we had sheltered in place during the worst months of the COVID-19 invasion, and we escape to the dacha from Boston at every opportunity. Ours used to be a very quiet pocket of the Cape, especially off-season, but the place has changed over the past six months. In two houses just around the corner from us, refugees from the pandemic have taken shelter, a couple of musicians who can no longer tour and a Jewish poet and his wife, an archaeology professor from the Bay Area. The place feels livelier, but also more crowded with people. It’s the seventh night of Hanukkah, and a Nor’easter is fast approaching. The girls and I are talking about going skiing to New Hampshire for a couple of days. My wife cannot go because of her medical work and travel restrictions, but also because after the Dolomites it’s hard to get excited about New England skiing. But I feel like we can’t be too choosy during a pandemic.

Now imagine my bemusement when, just a few weeks ago, I received another letter from Dr. Christian H., the attorney for the German insurance company. The letter “formally notified me” that because I had not “supplied the requested information concerning the ski incident of 22 February 2017,” the compensation procedure was now permanently closed, due to “lack of evidence.”

Maxim D. Shrayer is a bilingual author and a professor at Boston College. He was born in Moscow and emigrated in 1987. His recent books include A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas and Immigrant Baggage, a memoir. Shrayer’s new collection of poetry, Kinship, is forthcoming.