I’M IN RESIDENCE FOR A MONTH at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, on Lake Como in northern Italy. The residency provides a bedroom, bath and studio in the Villa Serbelloni, a lemon-colored mansion once owned by a princess who was an heir to the Johnnie Walker fortune. Whiskey has yet to make an appearance, but other fellows have sworn they have seen the princess herself, late at night, wafting through the upstairs library where she died.
The princess gave the villa and surrounding 50 acres, which occupy the promontory over Bellagio at the spot where lakes Como and Lecco cleave, to the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1950s. The meetings that launched the Green Revolution took place here in the ’60s, so my working on a book about a rice farm in northeast China where I’ve lived, doesn’t feel too absurd — until it’s time for the set meals, taken with the other fellows as a group. Imagine a Thomas Mann novel in which the asylum guests talk of book projects instead of ailments.
The view over the village, slate-colored lake, and the kilometer-long driveway that corkscrews down to a key-opened gate, separates us from the world. It feels far away in emails from friends in Cairo, Beijing and Berkeley, where — in addition to the troubling news of students being beaten with batons on Sproul Plaza — my favorite cafe, Intermezzo, burned down yesterday. The International Herald Tribune arrives by car each day at 10 a.m., set out with the Corriere della Sera in the Music Room by a tunic-clad butler. The Tribune holds a procession of bad and sad stories from afar, while the Corriere reports on the fall of Berlusconi and Italy’s austerity reforms in the face of soaring debt. Yet all of that feels distant, too, as I type away in the Villa Serbelloni’s upstairs library, hoping to glimpse the ghost princess, and feeling like a bit of both.