Sofia, The Hunchback of Lucerne
“Oh, do not worry!” Sofia, the owner of the hotel said, as my friend Aaron and I stepped into her elevator without a door. I reached out and skimmed the interior facade of the building with my hands as we rode upwards. Aaron joked out loud that this elevator would never fly for American hotel safety standards. “Never!” Sofia agreed, throwing us a devilish smile.
The first thing I noticed about Sofia — she was an elderly hunchback. The second thing was how her face lit up with superhuman glee whenever she described things she owned. She had a taste for the odd and unordinary. She was a storyteller and story-maker, and I knew something interesting would happen between us.
We entered our room. It was fine, but two things stood out immediately to me. One was the massive painting of a fleshy white horse hanging precariously over our bed, calling to mind a certain scene from The Godfather.
The second was the color pattern: blazing red against white and black pattern that resembled the black lodge from Twin Peaks.
Sofia asked, “Two men…sleep in one bed? Are you sure?!” This was my first hint that Sofia was culturally more conservative then her gregarious demeanor indicated. But we assured her it was no problem. She shrugged her shoulders and launched into telling us how the horse painting was worth hundreds of thousands of francs.
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of construction at 7 AM. Men were hammering and drilling outside our windows, taking down scaffolding that had been up the previous day. I had slept poorly that night, with the horse hanging over my head, and both Aaron and I agreed to complain to the front desk. A well-intentioned but useless young lady apologized, said there was nothing they could do about it, all their other rooms were full, and that she’d ask Sofia to get in touch with us later.
It was later, and no one had talked to us, so we decided to try our luck in person. Sofia was nowhere to be found, but the same young girl was behind the counter, repeating the exact responses as before. Groggy and irritated, I smelled food from the dining hall next door. “How much is breakfast?” I asked. The girl replied twenty francs (about $22) a person. “Can we at least have a breakfast on the house or something?” I asked. The girl hesitated a moment, considered, and said she’d have to ask. I imagined a sumptuous, all-you-can-eat-American-style-buffet. What else could possibly be $22?
Sofia emerged moments later from behind the red curtain to the dining room. “Of course, of course! Follow me,” she cackled, and we followed.
“It is a tragedy!” she explained, motioning us to a table in the nearly empty dining hall. “The construction start when they want — 7:15 AM, 7 AM! My god! No respect. And we must do this construction on the building because,” she leaned in closer, “of zee pigeon. All the people in Lucerne, you see, feed the pigeon, and now they cling to my hotel! So the government say we must change the building, make the spikes, so no pigeon! And it cost 30,000 francs!” she cried, throwing her hands up above her hunch. “30,000 francs! But please, please, seat and have yourself a good time!”
But before we could sit, she motioned us back to her booth by the wall. “Come, come, I must show you the other horse painting!” she said and launched into describing every painting in the dining room. The “other horse painting” was a Still Life of a squash, no relation to the horse, just by the same artist. We got to see her husband’s mother’s impressionist painting of a street scene too nondescript to remember. And…Sofia had a Picasso. “Just a copy,” she added, when pressed. My stomach rumbled as I continued to smile on the outside.
Finally, we got down to our breakfast buffet, which consisted of bread, granola, and some meats and cheeses. My friend Aaron couldn’t eat bread, meat or cheese on his diet, so he scooped himself a bowl of granola valued at twenty francs. We ordered cappuccinos and commiserated, but Sofia wasn’t finished with us yet.
“You know,” Sofia said, sauntering back over to us, “it was here that we had the crime scene.”
Aaron and I made eye contact and looked back at Sofia.
“Yes,” she continued, her eyes wild and widening, “on zee fifth floor, in zee evening, many year ago, they take a man to the top. And they throw him out!”
“Oh my God,” I said.
“He live!” she cried. “They put sand, 60 kilo of sand, all around below my hotel, and he roll and roll into the sand! And then the other men at crime scene, they jump and roll! And the police and ambulance and people all watch and cheer!”
It occurred to me that her English was perhaps being lost in translation. “Do you mean it was a stunt?” I asked.
“Yes, yes! It is this company, this wonderful company, Tatort, and do they do crimes all over Europe! Germany, Switzerland, Austria! They commit crimes and love Lucerne because all the police and ambulance help them!” She clapped her hands, her hunchback jiggling slightly.
“And now today, many year later, the Chinese filmmakers come to my hotel to make a movie about the crime scene! And they shoot with my hotel name in the background. Good propaganda!” She looked on the verge of tears of happiness.
Aaron and I didn’t know what to say, so Aaron pivoted toward asking about check-out and possibly extending his stay a day or two after I departed for New York the next morning. “Oh, no problem! We have many good room open!” Sofia said, contradicting her front desk's prior statement about the hotel being full. “But you will leave a good review, yes?” she asked me, winking and smiling wide. I assured her I would definitely write about this. Sofia finished with us, turned to a new couple who had joined the dining room, and began conversing with them in fluent Spanish.
Sofia, the hunchback of Lucerne, blew me away.