Margaret loaned me a slate blue floor length knit dress. After a few weeks of wearing nothing but jeans to work in the kitchen, I felt rather elegant walking up the hill to meet the Maharishi. Staff and students on the meditation course were spread out over several hotels in the small ski resort town of Livigno. We’d be told that when the snow and high paying ski tourists arrived, we’d need to relocate. In the meantime, I stayed at a family owned inn that looked like one of those Swiss chalet jewelry boxes that played music when you lifted the lid. The woman of the house wore two braids pinned around her head to form a kind of crown and never smiled. Six days a week, I walked uphill maybe fifteen minutes to work in the big hotel where meals were served. Truthfully, I often woke late and had to run, arriving a hot, sweaty, mess.
My tastebuds came alive in Italy. That commercial kitchen was where I first tasted good, fresh, foods; olive oil, avocado, cilantro, crusty breads, and aged cheeses were new flavors to me. I think I was utterly indifferent to food until then. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1960s and ‘70s, it seemed food came from tin cans, boxes, or cellophane wrapped packages. Macaroni and cheese, frozen fish sticks and canned spaghetti were the norm. In fairness, my mother had to cook for eight picky eaters on a daily basis which strikes me now as preparing a dinner party every twenty-four hours for a bunch of rude and ungrateful guests.
I loved the smells of the restaurant. I loved the confidence of Evie, the main cook, shouting orders in the kitchen. I loved the muscled men who delivered fresh produce every morning. And the pig farmers who took the food scraps away in metal canisters. The restaurant itself was all natural wood and windows. I thrived on the adrenalin rush of prepping food before meals, the clockwork chaos of stocking the buffet tables as the crowd descended like locust, the quiet let-down as they went back to their meditation, yoga, and lectures while we wiped down tables and swept floors.
On my days off, I typically hung out with a group of young locals and a beautiful Egyptian boy named Farris, who shared an apartment in the town. They were young and fun. They wanted me to go with them to this new thing called a discotheque. I loved to dance. But the Maharishi was coming! So instead I primped at my hotel and allowed myself plenty of time for the uphill stroll so I would appear suitably serene to meet the Maharishi.
As soon as I walked into the restaurant in my borrowed finery, I knew something was up. Everyone else wore their everyday clothes. I hadn’t heard the news. The Maharishi cancelled. Disappointment hit me in the belly. Margaret spotted me and invited me to join her table where she sat with four other Americans.
“I knew he wouldn’t show,” said a guy with a curly dark hair and a big mustache. “He never does the first time.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“I’ve seen it before. They say he’s going to come, everyone gets excited, then they say he got called off somewhere so had to cancel, everyone feels bad, then it happens again, anticipation, disappointment, over and over.”
“The Maharishi is in demand,” Margaret reasoned.
“They do it on purpose,” said the guy. “They build up the excitement so that by the time he finally does show, people go cuckoo nuts and feel so grateful for his presence.”
“That’s a very cynical thing to say,” said Margaret.
“Well, it’s true,” he said. “It’s all about manipulation and mind control.”
“There’s no mind control,” said another woman at the table. “If you want to leave, leave. Walk out the door now. No one is going to stop you. No one is trying to control you.”
“Of course, they are,” the guy said. “They strip us of our free will.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Margaret.
“Is it? If I had free will I would grow my hair down to my shoulders and I’d wear jeans and old t-shirts and sandals and then they wouldn’t allow me to stay.”
“Wait, I’m confused,” I said. “Do you want to be here or not?”
“Of course, I want to be here,” he said. “But only because they’ve made me want to be here with their manipulation and mind control!”
Everyone at the table laughed, none harder than the guy who’d said it.
Later, in a quiet moment, I asked if he really believed the organization was manipulating emotions with rumors, why did he stay?
“Because the meditation is good,” he said.
OVERLAND memoir; image @194angellstreet @ellowrites @ellocollaboration @ello