Posts Tagged ‘italy’

Coffee and Cookies

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

Corridor

Every single morning, Maria makes me coffee. I wake up with the sun, the beams of it streaming through and illuminating her dark, angular little house, the whole thing done up in dark greens and gold and tile—the colors of the landscape, the stringy weeds poking through the railroad tracks just up the street. I let myself sleep in.

On the first night, she offers me her spotless bedroom with its heavy bed—old as a century—and I can tell by the way she holds her hand out, the shortness of the words, that she doesn’t want me to accept so I don’t. I sleep in the living room on a kind of wide couch on a bolster pillow, on afghans that look and feel and smell exactly like the ones my grandmother crocheted for the couches in her own railroad apartment in Lawrence, Massachusetts. When my eyes open, every single time, I am confused and disoriented, remembering sleepovers of decades past in my grandparents’ living room, the couch cushions on my face.

Maria’s hoarse, early-morning voice is so like my grandfather’s when she says, “Ou, Laura,” scratching the side of her head. She hasn’t put in her teeth yet, smoothed her hair, but I know the sound of what she’s saying, what’s expected of me. Get your ass out of bed, in so many words. And she makes me coffee.

She makes it on the stove in her silver coffee pot that’s identical to my grandmother’s silver coffee pot. Americans would call it an espresso pot or a moka pot, but to Italians, there is no other kind of coffee pot, no other word or qualifier for what comes out of it. She watches it and waits, sometimes talking, sometimes just watching.

“The doctor,” she says holding up a small box, “He gave me this stuff for my face that burned and turned me all red. See? It’s junk. All of it. Doctors are all crooks.”

She will not start making it until I’m seated, until I’m facing the edge of the table, hovering over the blue cotton table cloth. She lays out a cup and a saucer, a spoon, a cloth napkin, a dish of cookies, a sugar bowl. One morning I was sleepy slow-moving and sad, thinking too much about my family, and I said, “Zia, go ahead and start it. I’m coming.” She didn’t say a word, but she didn’t start it.

Usually, she pours the milk first, exactly enough and from the little porcelain creamer—never directly out of the bottle. She made me coffee six times on six sunny mornings and I never once saw the bottle. Other times she pours it at the same time as the coffee in two long streams without spilling a drop, a little showoffy. Only once, on the morning I leave, does she pour the coffee first and I can tell she’s in an awful mood, stomping and clanging things around the kitchen, the coffee pot hitting the burner with a clank.

It is useless to tell her that I don’t really drink coffee, that it makes me jittery and disturbs my sleep. There is nothing else for me to have, no other kind of breakfast on this island. On this continent. And then I take a sip and fall in love. It is the best coffee I’ve ever had, whole-meal worthy, smooth and soothing and warm.

In six days, I eat 35 cookies. I don’t even care. I’m in Sicily and I’m starved. Starved . After months in chilly Paris without family and with few friends, months of salads, of French moderation, I want cookies. I want mountains of cookies. And maybe that’s why I eat 35 and maybe it’s because they are the taste of morning at my Nanna’s house all the way across an ocean.

Because you have to understand. When my family emigrated, they took everything with them. They took their language and their jittery nerves and their taste for gold couches and their cookies. They are the same cookies in Sicily that I ate every day at my grandmother’s house in America.

Once, I found a box of them in a shop in New York and ate the whole thing, every single cookie, in a night. I called my mother and she laughed into the phone. “I used to give you those when you were teething.”

This is my Sicily, every minute of it. It is like remembering something so old and specific, something that comes from a time before speech, before real thought. And all I can really remember is the taste.

I leave two in the bowl and Maria frowns. “Just eat them.”

Zia, I can’t. I’m full. I ate so many.”

“What’s your problem? Eat them. Mangia. You’re too skinny anyway.”

I finish them. Because in that instant, before it fades and goes off somewhere, returns to the back of my brain, to some other part of the universe, I can chew and swallow and remember.

A Walk Around the Edge

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009

Beach Blossom

The man draws a circle around the whole island with a blue ballpoint pen. He says, “Ischia is good for swimming.”

Two months before, I had never heard of the place—a tiny lump of volcanic ash nudging out of the Bay of Naples. And then I stood on it and I swam.

I lay facedown on a tiny towel, the only person without an umbrella in the burning July sun. I’m so dark at this point that it hardly matters, that I only use dime-sized drops of sunblock for my nose and cheeks.

There is a single road that loops around the edge of the whole island, a way to get anywhere and back again. And maybe all tropical places are like this, a protective circle where you can never get lost. There is a similar circle on Oahu, around the edge of Sicily, a line drawn by a finger in the sand.

They tell me I can walk to the beach, and I do. I follow the road along the edge of a cliff. The busses zoom by, make the hem of my skirt flutter. Every once in a while, I turn my head around and watch the line of footprints my sandals have made in the gravel and I think.

Every second of my life so far has been in preparation for this. Everything that seemed so awful—my sick dad, my thrice broken heart, a masochistic former boss, a pretty water glass kicked over and shattered—was what culminated and bore this. Take away a single thing, an instant of that distress or struggle—putting my arms around my sobbing mother one morning when I was 12—and I never would have stood on Ischia. I would have skipped it entirely, headed to Sorrento three days early. I would have never left New York.

Beaches switch on all of my senses, make my nerve endings shiver. That’s why I spent a whole summer floating from one to the next.

The man is right about Ischia. It’s good for swimming. The white sand at the bottom is soft on the soles of your feet until it drops out entirely, leaving you to tread against the waves, which are gentle—just a nudge in either direction. The water is warm. No assimilation necessary, no standing on your toes to save the two inches around your navel from the freeze because even that would be too much to bear. On Ischia, the easiest thing is just to dive.

The water does not shimmer like diamonds, not like Sardegna. The sand is not entirely free of cigarette butts, a single unbroken curtain, like Crete. The color near the shore is a mucky blue. A snarl of weeds occasionally floats by. A lazy cloud or two blocks out the sun sometimes, sends a chill through every peeling back. An ice cream wrapper flutters by and the sand bakes so hot that I can hardly bear it through shoes. To have it differently, though, would be to have someone else’s life. To have somewhere else in summer.

Island of Islands

Friday, October 10th, 2008

Gate
On Ischia, island of flowers, garbage piles in the streets. In some places, it has not been picked up in a week, in two. It is not so obvious in the places that are frequented by tourists, but if you wind down the backroads, stepping careful on the wide black paving stones, you’ll see it — trash — wedged behind grates and bursting out of double-ply plastic bags. You will certainly smell it. The island is separated from teeming, stinking, wonderful Naples by stretches of blue water, by ferry boats, but Ischia is still Naples, and if Naples has a garbage problem, Ischia has a garbage problem. And by garbage problem, I mean that Naples has a problem with organized crime.

On Ischia, island of flowers, I swim every single day. Floating on my back under jewel –toned sky, I think about how I want to swim every single day of my life, and not in a pool. In Lap Swim. In a single lane. At that point, you might as well not even swim.

I take the bus on a sweltering, cloudless day to the tiny town of Ischia Ponte which has one street, one church, two open-air restaurants, a fountain in the square, pastel tile, fishing nets, a store selling English-language books, and a castle.

The castle is built on a rock that is connected to the island by a narrow strip of pavement that I walk, heavy-shouldered and sucking down bottle after bottle of water. On either side of the pavement in the water, people swim. Families in tattered swim suits shout at each other and splash, hop off the rocks and squeal, or just sit in the sun, motionless, dripping with sweat. There isn’t even breeze.

I pay admission and pack into an elevator with six German tourists and an instant later, I am at the top. The universe spreads itself out below — Naples in miniature, Sorrento balancing precarious on its cliff, Vesuvius looming dark under its veil of smog and clouds — and blue water between.

I am not sad, but something settles, a kind of malaise. I want to see the castle because you can’t come here and not see the castle — this tiny dot that’s been wrested from hand to hand, from nation to nation, since people walked upright and could string a bow. But at the same time, I want to maybe go back to Naples to wander in its seedy little souvenir shops, to use my fractured Italian with its amiable fish sellers, to sit quiet and lazy and still under the gilded arches of its churches, to flirt with its ever-game population of excitable young men. Or maybe I just want to swim, to take the bus around the tiny ring road, to get off where it seems calm, to let the tangle of kids and day trippers and locals swarm around me, to get more tanned, more burned, to trace new stripes across my body. But I stay at the castle. This is, I tell myself, today’s civic lesson. Today’s attempt at Travel as Education.

I am an unwilling student and the sun does not help. I walk the tiny paths around the castle, sweating through the layers of my clothes. I stop to rest in the chapel, under the branches of an olive tree, behind a low stone wall, in any shady spot that will have me. Finally, I reach the convent.

The dormitories have been converted into a luxury hotel and are closed to the wandering public, but the place I want to see has not. The convent was once home to an order of nuns who believed that the living should be continually reminded of their journey back to the earth. When one of the nuns died, the others would place the body in a cell sitting upright on a special stone seat that had been fitted with a hole for drainage. Then the nuns would pray in the cells, day after day as the body decomposed. The rotting corpses often spread disease, leading to more deaths.

Of course, these cells are all I want to see. Because I want to see proof that such mania, such pure human nuttiness, was real. Using the printed map, I make my way down a narrow staircase into one of the cells. It has been whitewashed and swept and whitewashed again, undoubtedly to reassure squeamish tourists. It is lit with a single lamp set into the ceiling as though it were a designer kitchen showroom and is, by all accounts, hygienic. So there is nothing, really, to account for what happens next.

I freak out.

The feeling that rises is not so much one of panic, but of shear terror, as though I’ve just emerged into a torture chamber with blood splattered across the walls and not an entirely neat little room that could double as a cheery wine cellar. I have trouble breathing, thinking. All I know is that I must get out. I scramble up the stairs as though I’m being chased and am spit up into the sunshine, safe.

Disoriented, I follow the signs toward the exit, canceling my plans to see the other side of the rock, to chase more sun-drenched views, more cascades of flowers. I am grateful when I am joined by other tourists in the elevator, when I walk back to Ischia Ponte, surrounded by cloudless sky, by shouting children, by the stink of garbage, proof of life.

What Rises to the Top

Tuesday, August 5th, 2008

And Placido Domingo Sang

The idea of climbing down a cliff to lie on a beach is not so bad, of downhill rhythm and exertion and then sleep, sand, water. The idea, though, of climbing one up after you’re done, of heavy limbs and mild dehydration and a sopping wet towel, is something else.

Sorrento is on the top of that cliff, sungold and hovering above the sea like a city in a dream, and its beaches — tiny, with bath cabins perched on wooden docks — are at the bottom. The thought of going down, I could entertain. The thought of going up — hundreds of little stone stairs that weave in one direction and then the other, flush against the rock — I could not.

So I took a bus to the edges of town instead. I had read about it in a book, like everything. You know the books are right only when the bus drivers nod and smile, when their eyebrows go up, because they’ve been there themselves and they’re surprised that you know about it, that it would be in any book at all. When I arrive, a shopkeeper sells me a Powerade and points me down the path that looks like it begins nowhere, a curve off a suburban street, nothing.

But it descends away from the main road, sheltered on both sides by ragged stone walls overhung with swaths of pink and purple flowers. Cobbled and too narrow for cars, there is no one around to say what must be true: That it was traversed for most of its existence by nothing but feet and tiny carts by the grandparents of civilization. All of them dead, the road remains. The people on their way to the baths.

The wall on one side ends and the sea hovers into view, but between it and the path is an olive grove, abandoned or just waiting for the right season, the twisting limbs of the trees betraying their incredible age. The ground beneath them looks soft, weedy. A stray beer bottle betrays what happens here later, after the sun falls.

At the foot of the path, the ruins and the rocks are almost indecipherable from each other except for the occasional and obvious curve, a glimpse of real structure. There is no preservation work, no gate or plexiglass to protect anything from graffiti, from the oil of human hands.

Graffiti in Italy is like no graffiti I’ve ever seen. In France it is political — end the war, end the presidency, end capitalism. In America it is individual — tags, propaganda, groupthink, self expression. In Italy, it is blatant proclamation, always meant to be seen, and always of only one thing. Love.

SALVO, TI AMO

Scrawled across a bridge.

AUGURI, FRANCESCA!

It is not artistic, just long squiggling lines, one stripe and then another. Substance over style. Imagine if someone spray-painted HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TOM on the bottom of the Queensboro Bridge. In Sorrento, Italy, on an outcropping of rocks and ruins on the Mediterranean coast, someone has.

The path to the shore is weedy and overrun, but there are footprints in the dirt, something to follow. I have come late in the day in search of the second act, hoping to see sunset. Because sunsets in Sorrento are like no other sunsets, casting everything honeygold and luminous, the sun itself hanging midair off the cost, close enough to touch, spilling across the water and the sky and the cliffs. But mostly I just want to swim. To take the edge off a day of sightseeing, to wash the heat and sweat away.

As I reach the rocks, a woman is clamoring up with three yellow-headed kids in tow, all of them sea-and-sun drenched, lugging towels and coolers.

“Is it OK to swim?” I ask, eyeing the depth of the dark water, the sharpness of the rocks.

“It sure is,” she says with a smile. She’s American. She stops for a minute to catch her breath and looks out toward the sea, toward Sorrento on its cliff in the distance, toward ominous, black Vesuvius, hazy under clouds, the ever-shifting sky, absorbing all of it. “It’s completely great,” she says. “Just be careful getting out of the water. There’s algae and you can slip.”

I thank her and wave goodbye, grateful for Mom advice, for a California accent.

I find a flat spot on the rocks, unfurl a towel, and strip down to my bathing suit. There is no way to slide into the water from the rocks. The only way is to dive. Waves pound against the edge, encouraged by passing ferries and yachts. In one spot, instead of hitting the rocks and sliding away, the water catches and swirls and gurgles and there is a sucking noise: An underwater cave. Maybe more ruins, all of them sunken now, a universe swallowed by the sea.

I hesitate. The water is deep, but I have no idea how deep. If I split my skull open on the rocks, no one will ever find me. This is more or less what it means to travel alone, the whole sum total of it. And then, behind me on the rocks, someone calls out.

A man stands on the landing above with a towel wrapped around his waist. He’s in his forties, dark-tanned with a series of faded blue tattoos along his arms. He smiles and waves and then makes a motion for me to dive, to not be afraid.

“It’s OK?” I call up to him. Everyone in Italy understands at least this much English.

“It’s OK,” he says, making the motion again. But there is something else in his eyes. If anything happens, you’re not alone. Don’t worry.

A take a step. Another. I go. Headfirst.

An explosion of cool, a rush around my ears. I hit the water hard and fast and an instant later, both pieces of my bathing suit are somewhere around my ankles. I surface spluttering and laughing out loud, wildly readjusting. On the rock, the man applauds. Then he motions to the right, tells me to swim there.

There is an opening in the side of the rocks, a sliver cut into the cliff. I swim through, under the arch of rock, and emerge in a grotto, surrounded on all sides by steep cliff, the walls of the ruin obvious now around me, in the water under my kicking legs. Jagged pieces of it stick up over the surface, algae-slick and warm from the sun.

I spin in a circle, wondering how to remember every second of this, to freeze it in 360 in my mind. Weeds. Brick. Some ancient mortar. Cool water. Waves. It is silent in the grotto, just me treading, and the waves and the breeze. I want to just stay, to keep treading, just float, but after a day of sightseeing, I cannot gauge how tired I actually am, how much energy I have left under my awe and excitement. I swim back out.

I size up the shoreline, remember the Californian woman’s words about the rocks being slick, and I see what she means. Algae covers all the rocks along the edge.

A memory crops up from somewhere, so old I can’t even place the town or the circumstance, but in it, I am struggling to get out of deep water. I don’t have enough strength in my arms to hoist myself over the edge and more than just fear, I feel humiliated. All the other kids can do this. Can wriggle like fish, up and over. Eventually, someone helps me, pulling up under my arms. No one else needed this.

But here, an answer presents itself so immediately that I wonder if maybe the Californian woman was swimming somewhere else. Just near the spot where the water splutters and gurgles, near the underwater cave, a rock juts out. Perfect for a hand, something to anchor yourself. I reach for it and heave and an instant later I’m out of the water, hopping over the algae fast as though it could sting. I move so quickly and with such force that a crab — beautifully and curiously colored, black with a smattering of winking white spots — scuttles out of the way in haste, doing his weird sideways crawl into the water.

I climb back up to my towel and the man is there.

“It’s good, yes?”

“Yes.”

His smile reveals a gap between his front teeth. There’s a silver hoop earring in one of his ears.

He struggles to say something in English, gesturing with his hands.

“You can say it in Italian,” I say. “I understand.”

In Italy, these are magic words. The key to everything. To the best dinner you ever had. The most careful and earnest advice you’ve ever been given. The best secret you’ve ever been told. Opinions on the state of the world. The universe.

“But,” I tell him. “I don’t speak well. I speak only dialect, I’m sorry.”

“Dialect?” He looks at me like I’m crazy, so familiar at this point. “From where?”

“Sicily. My father was born there.”

This is when he gives me the most precious thing. The story of his life. How he prunes trees along the highway, so he’s used to the sun and the heat. How he’s always lived in Naples, but he’s traveled everywhere in Italy, has worked in the north, has friends in Calabria whose dialect sounds like a foreign language to him. How he has seen the numbers of Americans in Europe dwindle as the dollar got weaker, as the lira was obliterated for this new world, an Italy that is not really Italy anymore. And Sicily, he says. He says what everyone says about Sicily, Italians and not-Italians.

“Sicily is beautiful.”

He looks around. The shift of the late-afternoon sun has cast us, the entire outcropping of rock, in shade. “I’m going to go where there’s sun. It was good to meet you,” he says. He gestures out to sea, toward the sparkling view. Then he winks. “You take some of this back with you to America.”

I sit, watch the sun move, the water. Wonder for the millionth time how I got here and how I will ever get back. By the time I finally leave, it has either been an hour or ten minutes. I can’t tell. I change and pick up my towel and climb up and over the rocks, realizing now that I can see directly into the grotto where I swam before, its neat horseshoe of pale brick and rock. When I look down, though, I realize that there’s a person there, wading in the shallow water. It’s the man from before. And he’s naked.

I back away and out of sight, but it’s too late. He’s seen me. I giggle. I cannot help it.

I wait a few minutes, back to the rocks, giving him time to leave. When it seems like enough time has passed, I step out again, but he’s still there. He meets my eyes and smiles, like it’s nothing.

I smile back, fearless, and continue on my way. I take the long route back to the path, up and over the ruin, past the graffiti, the ancient brick, its plaster ornament stripped away. The path winds uphill past the olive grove, a climb back to the suburban street, to real life. It’s steep, but not very.

The Garden

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Glarg

Note: The events described below happened in April, 2008, while I was traveling in Italy over spring break. Please forgive the lapse in my timeline. Sometimes it takes a girl some months to get things down on paper. Sometimes it takes a lifetime, so in this particular case, consider yourself ahead of schedule.

Transportation in Italia is either a crystal-clear, timely, marvel of a thing, a wonder of the modern age! Or a confusing knot of criss-crossing schedules and transfers, of late busses and missed connections and Sunday-only one-way trips.

I am told that I can get to Bagnaia, a little town about 100 km north of Rome, by taking a regional train and then a bus, so I do. Or I try to. This happens to me a lot.

When I ask the bus driver, he sticks out his fat lower lip and shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “This bus doesn’t go to Bagnaia.” This is fine, except the schedule on the wall says that it does. When he sees the look on my face, he thinks for a minute. “Actually, none of these busses go to Bagnaia.”

By none he means none of the 20 busses in the station. The woman at the counter, though, has sold me a ticket to Bagnaia. (I pronounced the name so poorly that, for the first time since my arrival in Europe, I actually have to pull a scrap of paper of out of my bag, scribble the name in huge capital letters, and press the paper against the glass with a Third-World-ish air of desperation.) Logic says that if a ticket can be bought to Bagnaia, a bus will likely go there. When I return to the ticket booth and ask her for the time of the next departing bus, she shrugs.

“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe not today. Look at the poster.”

Bewildered, I return to the bus. The driver sticks out his lip again as I climb the stairs for the second time. “So where does this bus actually go?” That I can say this in comprehensible, if not flawless Italian, is some sort of miracle, considering that I don’t really speak Italian, but my point is taken.

“Viterbo,” he says.

The town of Viterbo is familiar to me only because I’ve read its two-chapter description in a borrowed guidebook. I recall that it has a few sites that are apparently worth seeing but I can’t remember what any of them are, and — more importantly — that it’s very close to Bagnaia.

I validate my ticket. I take a seat. Almost there is better than nowhere at all.

*

I am the last person off the bus and the station in Viterbo is not just empty but closed. There is nowhere to buy a return ticket. The windows are dark. A janitor in an untucked shirt lazily nudges around a broom but doesn’t even pick up his head when I enter.

I had hoped that I could connect to Bagnaia from this station, that a local or tour bus — maybe a gleaming purple one full of chummy Australians — would take me where I needed to go for a reasonable price.

I walk into town past apartment blocks and through pedestrian unfriendly traffic circles, following the bullseye signs to the centro. Maybe, at least, there’s a piazza. A church. Lunch.

Italia on a Sunday is sleepy and dusty and late-rising and even after entering through the arches of a Medieval gate and crossing into a lush green park, there are only a few people milling about, the last stragglers from church. A fountain bubbles on a corner, water gurgling out of a fish’s pouting mouth, and it’s the only noise save the breeze and, faraway somewhere, a baby’s delighted giggle. I have no idea where I’m going or what I’m going to do, but clearly I am not going to Bagnaia. And if Viterbo was good enough for the guidebook, maybe it’s good enough for me.

*

There are two restaurants open at midday in Viterbo, Italy, and one of them is bustling and packed with families chowing down on meaty secondi and heaving plates of pasta. The tables are situated under a curving stone arch, a cave built into the wall by the storefront. Overflowing barrels of flowers mark the perimeter of this makeshift terrace, and the smell is warm and incredible.

When I ask, the waitress shakes her head. “Completo.”

The second restaurant is empty and silent and the single waiter looks panicked when I push through the brass-handled door and ask, cautiously, if they’re open. He says that they are, and even more panicked, shuffles me along to a table in the back.

I order a pizza and far too much wine for one person. After a week in Italy, I let go of the guilt, the mild cultural embarrassment, of not ordering secondi. The waiter — a bearded, middle-aged guy whose watery blue eyes never let go of their mild horror for the duration of my visit — says nothing, perhaps recognizing that I’m a foreigner and therefore strange and exempt from local dietary etiquette.

He brings my pizza. A TV in the corner shows Formula 1 racing and I watch, rapt, without a single clue as to what’s going on. The only other customers who come are two youngish women, one of them hauling a wriggling, cherub-cheeked little girl on one hip. While I eat, the little girl will pay at least half a dozen visits to my table, tottering on wobbly little legs, grinning, waving cautiously, and once — in a very brave moment — touching the corner of my skirt.

I drink the entire pitcher of wine — no fewer than four glasses — and feel miserable.

I wanted to go to Bagnaia. I had wanted to see something that was special but, through some miracle, not jammed with tourists. After the horrors of the Vatican, the flood of indecipherable languages and fanny packs, I just wanted to see something different. To break my travel mold: City, city, museum, city, museum, ruins, city. Instead, I got a pizza and Forumla 1 on a Sunday in a ghost town somewhere between Rome and Florence. I got real life. And nobody buys a one-way ticket and rides for two hours just for real life.

*

The thing I want to see so badly in Bagnaia is a garden. I have read about it and only seen a scant few pictures, but I have dreamed its knotty fruit trees and gurgling fountains; it is the stage set for every fairy tale I’ve ever been told. Only this is real.

*

I return to the train station and not the bus station, hoping I can catch a train that will deliver me back to Rome early enough to still enjoy a part of the day. Clearly, I would not be catching a bus, and I dreaded the walk back to that station, the office park, the stares from men.

But the train station, too, is empty. I see a man behind a desk in an adjoining office, and I willfully defy the sign on the door, even though I can understand it perfectly: This is Not an Information Desk.

The uniformed man inside tells me to buy a ticket at the machine, and I do. This time, though, there’s no mistaking the train schedule. The next train to Rome doesn’t leave for three-and-a-half hours.

I read, but only a little. I pace around the parking lot. I close my eyes behind my sunglasses on a stone bench under a tree, trying not to be utterly miserable for stupid reasons. Like, I’m in Italy. I ate pizza in Italy. I walked through a nice park in Italy. I have no reason for disappointment, for the nagging sense that I have wasted a day. A lifetime, who knows.

That’s when the guy comes up to me and says something to me in Italian, and I respond, in Italian, that I don’t speak Italian.

He’s wearing a dress shirt and dark pants and a pair of sleek Italian sunglasses and he helps himself to a seat and starts asking me questions in English.

“Are you here for one day?”

“Yes,” I say.

“What did you do?”

“I had a pizza,” I say.

“I live in Viterbo, but I just come back from Bagnaia. You go? Very beautiful. Very close to here,” he says, pointing to the road behind him, to the street sign that, I have just realized, says Bagnaia, in huge letters.

“Wait. How did you get there?”

“By bus,” he says, as though I have asked the single dumbest question I could possibly ask.

“There’s a bus to Bagnaia? Today?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Where is the bus? Where can I find it?”

“There,” he says, pointing to a parking spot ten feet away. “My bus. I drive. You want to go? I take you.”

“Wait. What?”

“To Bagnaia. We go.”

“Now?”

“Yes,” he says with a wave of his hand. “It’s very close. No problem.”

“How will I get back here?”

“How long you take to see it?”

“Well… I don’t really know. An hour? Two hours?”

He considers this for a minute and then nods his head. “Maybe twenty minutes?” he says. “Is small place. You see the garden. I take you back. You take your train.”

I weigh this situation in its totality — the risk of bodily harm, my current distance from Rome and an American embassy, the gleam in those sunglasses — and decide that this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me besides being stranded in Las Vegas at 2:00 am with nothing but my MasterCard and the latest issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

“Alright,” I say. “Let’s go.”

*

On the way, Antonio — that’s his name — makes me speak Italian and then laughs at the way I speak it, more or less setting the pace for the rest of my time in Italy. He tells me about his life, how he likes Australian tourists the best because they’re always nice to him, and about his daily trips to the garden at Bagnaia, which is called Villa Lante. His boss, he says, could call at any minute, and ask him to take another group.

When we arrive, he opens the bus door. “I wait right here,” he says. “Enjoy.”

*

I run up the hill. I run. I only have twenty minutes. And who knows. Maybe Antonio is the type of guy who would abandon me there after, say, twenty-one minutes.

At the top, I reach an iron gate and through it, I can see what is unmistakably the Villa Lante garden. Its lemon trees and low box hedges are familiar not from my research, but from what I think and know it should look like.

I am locked out. It’s closed.

I opt for the mature course of action. I rattle the gate.

Inside the garden, a white-haired man hears the commotion and totters over.

“Are you open?” I hear the desperation in my voice and know that I will beg this man to let me in, even if it’s closed. Just for a minute.

“Yes,” he says, scratching his head. “The entrance is on the other side.”

*

It is a beautiful day. I have twenty minutes.

Twenty. By the time I’m inside, I have fifteen.

The sound of water is everywhere. A series of fountains climbs a hill. One cascades from tiers of bowls situated between twin statues of reclining gods, moss clinging to their beards and togas. In another, water pours from the inside of a bell suspended over a basin by the bronze hands of sword-wielding war heroes. A hedge maze twists around it, lemon trees marking the dead ends. My favorite fountain is a long trough set on an incline so that the water cascades from the top to the bottom. The trough itself is carved into curling stone waves, so the water slides and swirls around them on its way.

My favorite part of this garden is a thing that I will not see, because the garden’s caretakers only exhibit it during special tours. Along the walls are carved faces, their mouths open in hollow Os to allow water to trickle out. As it was originally designed, the faces would randomly “spit” water at unknowing guests as they passed, earning Villa Lante a reputation as a “garden of secrets” or tricks.

I bound around the garden like a crazy person, taking dozens of photos without stopping to focus or count them. My heart pounds out of my chest. My day, out of nowhere, has turned into a Day.

I am given twenty minutes. I reason that this is Italy, after all, and I take twenty-five.

*

In the bus on the way back to the Viterbo train station, Antonio goes in for the kill.

Carina,” he says. A dozen times.

“I take you for coffee. For dinner.”

“My train is coming really soon,” I say, and at this point, it is.

I shake his hand and he wishes me well, looking a little sad. I say thank you in two languages and wave, hoping that something, anything, communicates.

The Way to Go

Saturday, July 12th, 2008

After the Feast

A guy takes me to Brindisi, across the wide ankle of the Italian boot, in his van. He picks me up where the taxi driver left me at 5:15 in the morning when light is just splitting the sky open — an underpass outside of Salerno that seems like a prime location for, say, a drug drop or a rumble.

This, I am told, is a far better option than the train. (When I ask why, the travel agent casts me a solemn look and says, “In Italy, transportation below Naples is a tragedy.”)

The other girl is a chatty, smiling brunette who gets on in Napoli and talks to the driver for an hour solid before we make our first pit stop.

“Do you need the bathroom?” she asks. “I need the bathroom. Let’s find the bathroom. What’s your name? My name is Stefania. I come from Palermo.”

“My sister’s name is Stefania,” I say and she puffs up a little. “So… If I speak Sicilian, you’ll understand?”

“Yes, of course.”

What shocks me is this: The words are all still there. I don’t know how they got there or where they disappeared to or how they came back, but they’re there.

I tell her about my morning over espresso, standing at the counter. How I’m exhausted and I look terrible because I woke up so early, and after all that, the taxi driver dropped me off 40 minutes early. It is the most complete, complex conversation I’ve held in a language other than English in six moths.

Because while I’m pretty good at French and I can get by in Italian, Sicilianu is my neurological bedrock. My mother tongue.

“And even the guy at the hotel had to set an alarm for himself so he’d wake up early enough to call me a taxi and…”

She says nothing, but a smile has crept across her face and I immediately feel embarrassed and stop talking. I must be saying a million things incorrectly. Screwing up the genders of things or using words that are just English words with an A tacked on the end — Americano shorthand for immigrants and the kids of immigrants, the stuff you only learn in the New World.

“No,” she says. “Keep going. I was just thinking that I like hearing you speak this language. You speak well.”

I don’t. I know this. But the way she says it is not patronizing. And I undertsand.

These are your grandmother’s words and your grandmother’s grandmother’s words and hearing them is a kitchen, a person sitting next to you, a home.

Still, I like being able to put a finger on it after so many years. To know the worth of what I inherited.

*

In Brindisi port at dusk, right at the edge near the bus stop that takes passengers to their ships, a guy fishes with a line that has a weight tied at one end and two hooks attached a little higher.

He winds up like a major league pitcher, bending the line in two and spinning the end of it in one hand, the weight flying in a wide circle and then out, out, out into the water, halfway across the port. He tugs the line once, twice on a diagonal and then reels it in, hand over hand.

Three times it comes back empty, the weight spinning feebly when it emerges from the water, drippy and fishless.

Then another cast, the line flying out again. And then a tug on the line. A splash.

The man turns around and deftly hands the loose end of the line to someone behind him, a little boy in blue shorts and sneakers and plastic-framed glasses.

“Pull, pull, pull, pull pull!” he shouts. And the boy does, as quickly as his chubby little hands will allow. All the while, as the catch comes nearer and nearer to shore, splashing and gurgling on its hook, the boy giggles madly, so hard that he can barely concentrate on the task at hand.

Dad does the final honors, drawing the fish — mottled green with a gleaming white belly — out of the water. The little boy is beside himself with excitement when it rises out of the water, its fins flapping slow, defeated. He clamps his hands over his mouth, doubles over in two.

Another boy, a bit older, takes over. He’s sporting the same little-boy haircut, the same plastic-rimmed glasses. It’s his job to place the fish carefully in the bag, to make sure the knot at the top is secure. His hands are slow, careful. He takes his job seriously.

After they have caught four in this same way — one for everyone — the man, smiling, winds up the line and drops it into his pocket. As for the boys, you can sense the angels hovering over their shoulders, marking the moment, whispering in their ears.

You will remember. Always.

*

It takes a full hour for the ship to leave port. It leaves in sticky, humid darkness, the city lights winking as we pull back. I watch as the lights grow dimmer and smaller.

A thousand thank yous, literally. I think them one at a time, offering them up, tossing them into the dark water.

Ciao, Italia . For now.

As we pick up speed, the little coast guard boat pulls up right beside us to escort us out of port, a race between a giant and its pint-sized little sister, a calf nuzzling up to the side of a lumbering mamma whale.

The uniformed man and woman on the small boat wave up to us, smiling as though they’ve never done this before. Every few seconds, a flicker of light darts from the ferry as one of the passengers snaps a picture.

From the deck, I look up and see the North Star come into view.

The last star in the bowl of the Big Dipper points to the Little Dipper and…

We move due east, per the stars. Per the atlas in my head.

As we reach the mouth of the port, picking up speed, the coast guard boat pulls away. The woman waves one last time and, just before the boat turns around, tips her head to the sky and shouts into the darkness, “Buon viaggiooooooooooooo…,” triumphant like someone scored a goal. The sound echos and drifts upward, bouncing off the metal sides of the ship.

The small boat turns back, heads for home. We press forward into darkness alone, into the place where the horizon disappears.

Personal Philosophy in So Many Words and a Trip Up a Mountain

Friday, July 11th, 2008

Pretty Maori Crowned By Clouds

High above the water on the winding road amidst the fingers of cliffs, I realize that I stopped being scared. Even when I said I wasn’t scared, I was scared.

Never trust me when I say I’m not scared. Just like you should never trust me when I say I’m not drunk.

But on the road in the morning as the landscape changed, as the cliffs reached higher and higher into the sky, I knew.

I want to know when it happened, what city. To drop a plaque in that spot.

*

Secrets work like poison, slow and without superficial trace. Say them out loud and you explode them to bits, boom like the Death Star. You obliterate them, shatter them into pieces.

You will need to catch the shards, because they’re still yours. Pull them out of the air around you and dig them out of your wounds with tweezers and a needle.

And build them into something, a mosaic of all the sadness you bore, all the nights you prayed no one would hear you, a masterpiece of what you were and what you became, the reason why you stand up straight, skip, dance on occasion, instead of lumbering hunched-over, heavy with the weight of it, never really knowing how it was working under your skin to kill you, turning your blood black, drop by drop.

*

I do not realize they are gay or a couple until I have attempted to separately flirt with both of them, and even then, I don’t fully understand — not fully — until one calls the other one “babe.”

I cannot tell. I cannot ever, ever tell, even in cases where I am told that such things are obvious. Maybe I lack presumption, or maybe I only have one overriding presumption: That all men want to sleep with me.

When it’s fully established that neither of them does, we decide to be friends and go hiking.

They’re both from Chicago — Ravi is a GP and Tim teaches classes for gifted kids — and I like them immensely and immediately, so grateful for smart people, for actual humor, for people who have read the goddamn guidebook. Tim exudes sweetness and the kind of patient, understanding manner that I can imagine makes him insanely valuable in the classroom. Ravi is exacting and quick-witted, the engine that will carry them through Eastern Europe for three months, and then to South America for three more. They quit their jobs to do this. They saved for years. They’re grownups.

I am not alone.

We hike with huge jugs of water up the cliff from pretty little Atrani on the coast to Ravello.

At the bottom, we ask a woman if we’re going in the right direction. She says, “Ravello” and points to the sky.

They have packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a money-saving measure, but I opt for mortadella and provolone at a local deli, feeling guilty about the €2, knowing that I should be more responsible, that I should have peanut butter and jelly of my own. All the way up the cliff, I can smell the mortadella right through the paper. It drives me insane.

Up steep, winding stairways, through lemon groves, past postage-stamp-sized chapels and rambling little houses, we talk about mostly nothing. Plans for the future. (They want to get married. I want to get a real job someday.) Travel. (Them: Eastern Europe/South America. Me: Anywhere with a beach.) Vegetarianism. (They are. I’m not.)

I am so comforted by them, by their easy-flowing conversation, their openness.

They always say. You meet so many people when you travel alone. And you do. But in the end, there are always only one or two.

*

At the top of the cliff, in the cream-colored piazza of beautiful, wealthy, flower-strewn Ravello, a well-dressed crowd gathers in front of the duomo while we sit on a bench across the way and eat our sandwiches. My shirt is stained through with a single, giant sweat blob. I can still feel it running down my sides.

I would rather be in a sundress and sandals. Sitting on the bench, I mentally pick out the outfit and try to ignore how I smell. Tourists in button-downs and polos, big straw hats, give us the eye.

An old-fashioned car pulls up in front of the duomo and the bride gets out, balancing gracefully on her father’s arm. Her dress is chic, beautifully tailored, without an ounce of superfluous ruffle or tulle. As she ascends the steps, Tim says, “Someone forwarded me this thing. Gay Wedding Day Etiquette: The grooms are not allowed to see each other at the gym on the morning of the ceremony. There should be an open bar at both the ceremony and the reception…”

“I want my wedding to either be nothing — four people in a field and a punchbowl — or the blowout of the century,” I say. “Ten hours of dancing. Endless booze and food. The most incredible dresses.”

“An Indian wedding,” says Ravi.

“Pretty much.”

The bride ascends the steps. A small crowd of tourists that’s gathered on the piazza breaks into applause. When the doors close behind her, a chorus starts to sing.

“Italians are so into weddings,” I say. “I guess because in Italy, getting married is more or less the most exciting thing you’ll ever do.”

Ravi smiles. “You mean like everywhere else on earth?”

*

The hike down to Maori is supposed to be easier, but it’s not. It uses the down-stairs muscles instead of the up-stairs muscles, and mine quiver, begging for mercy, as we descend and descend, to the blue sea below.

My plan is to sunbathe for a few minutes and then swim, but the sun is unbearable and my whole body aches. A streak across the hot sand. A plunge. I float, letting the salt water carry me to the surface. I don’t think about sunblock, about gunk in the water, about exhaustion. I think only about the sweet ends of things, of work and reward.

It’s begun. I’m preparing to go home.

Capri for Budget Travelers and Other Oxymorons

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

An Avalanche of Flowers

I spend €30 before I have even arrived, before I have set foot on its alleged and celebrated beauty. Pablo Neruda waxed poetical. The emperor Tiberius tossed his enemies off the cliffs. Frank Sinatra sang low and sweet.

And so I went to Capri. Say goodbye to the Isle, sang Frank. And so I wanted to, before I even said hello.

On the beach, I break my ass on pebbles and have forgotten my towel, but I cannot afford the €12 for an umbrella and a chair, so I sit on the rocks and read Agatha Christie and try to be awed, but I’m not. The water is full of algae-slick rocks and screaming children. I cannot move an inch.

After two hours, I admit something. I am bad admitting things that are painful and obvious when I do not want them to be real. Here’s what I admit:

I am bored and uninspired by this place.

For me, this is cataclysm. This is admitting that I am, for once, incapable of Making Lemonade. Because I am the queen of Lemonade Makers. I can find good, can work it out, can piece the shards back together with Krazy Glue. I pull silk purses out of thin air.

This is what I do. This is what women do.

But on this beach in this alleged paradise, with rocks in my butt, I think, I don’t think it’s my responsibility to make this place not boring.

So I leave.

For the first time in my life, I glance backward over my shoulder at the mess, and I walk away.

*

Capri town is Ferragamo sunglasses in a case and Americans in strangely-colored sarongs and big white sneakers talking too loud to their blonde teenage daughters who pull at the ends of their hair and nudge their aviators up their sunburned noses and say things like.

Mom. Can we just go back and swim in the pool?

Capri town is souvenir t-shirts with little fake jewels and an advertisement in English for a literary festival in the main piazza.

Junot Diaz.
A.M. Holmes.
Jonathan Lethem.

Who agree not because they care, but because they want to go to Capri in summer and stay in Villa Paula behind an ivy-hung gate and sleep on 300-thread-count pillow cases and get limoncello brought up in little glazed glasses. For free.

Capri town is everything you can get in New York, but once again as much because it comes in Euros and with sunshine.

Capri town is the other end of the earth, the opposite of paradise, full of your least favorite people, all of them overheated, wearing too little, frowning, and broke. It is hell in sandals, with Botox and jewelry that you will never wear again. Or maybe even once. Because it looks weird, sitting there in the box, like you bought it on another planet, as soon as you get off the plane.

*

I find the path and just follow it because I cannot think of anything else to do under relentless afternoon sun in my candystripe pink dress with my hair sticking to my back in a sheet, the ends drippy with sweat.

I do not own hiking gear of any sort. I don’t even really understand what hiking is. How it’s any different from just walking with a bottle of water in your purse.

No one follows. Not a single crazy American in a crazy hat. I am five minutes from the piazza on a little brick lane framed in by bougainvillea and clematis and ivy and I am alone and I cannot figure out why.

If you come to Capri, isn’t this what you’d want to see most?

The path begins to wrap around the far coast and the villas and walls start to fall away and the sky opens up. And for the first time I see it — what Neruda saw. Island of flowers, of lemon trees and quiet and butterflies.

I see cliffs that vault up to the heavens, rocky little islands inhabited by nothing but seagulls because they are the only ones who can reach their craggy tops, coves fit for mermaids.

When the path narrows, I wonder if I should keep going. I am not dressed properly. I am not… a hiker. But I follow. Even when the path dips into a shady wood and gets so narrow that I need to walk one foot in front of the other. But I go.

I come to the ruins of something. A villa. A very grand house. Something crazy old Tiberius left behind. Built inside a stalagmite-hung cave. I climb a million stairs, my calves throbbing, the original Roman road, maybe. Where the Emperor brought his friends, lovers, enemies, to show them. This is all mine.

And finally, at the end of the path, a stone arch. Not one built by human hands, but one built
by the gods, by a million years of geothermal tumult, a perfect stretch from the cliff to the sea with a neon blue stripe of water winking below.

I watch as a bird swoops down from the top of the arch in a lazy, perfect spiral down to the water. And the bird says.

Actually, Tiberius. This is all mine.

Taking the Waters

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Sorgento Hot Springs Cove

The Canadian woman and the Spanish woman and I make our way past swaths of bamboo and lemon trees and trees full of fluorescent blossoms, following the signs and hardly believing that we are going to the right place, because we seem to be walking away from civilization, from reality. It is dusk. My towel has not dried in three days.

We walk downhill, toward the cove, which we can see in the distance, the two tall ends of it poking into the sea. Then we come to the steps which twist along the rock face, all the way down to the shore below, the tiny lapping waves. There is no one but us.

I am first into the water, fast. A huge plunge. Not even thinking.

Along the edge, steam rises from the rock which is tinted a sour yellow from the sulfur. Signs warn: The water is boiling. Your own risk.

It comes in stripes, a warm one when the waves pull back and a cool one when new sea water rushes in, but moving closer to the edge, it just warmer and warmer. The rocks, green with algae, slide under our hands. It’s good for the skin, they say. A wave from a boat hits the shore and water from the edge splashes up and drops burn across my back.

I face the gaping mouth of the cove and watch as the ferries glide by, silent, their lights blinking in the growing dark. I am more tired than I have maybe ever been, my limbs like lead. I have walked for three hours already today, swum for two, in baking heat. I hardly have enough energy to rearrange myself to avoid getting burned.

A big wave crashes against the shore, sends me sliding off my algae-slick rock. I get a mouthful of seawater and gasp. It is sharp and metallic on my tongue, all strange volcanic minerals.

I rearrange myself toward a warmer spot near the edge. I can take it, I think.

The women and I marvel. We watch a tiny crab perched on a rock a few feet away, waiting his turn. On the shore, we change in the darkness without looking for rocks to hide ourselves. The air is warm. No towel necessary. No one will come along to disturb us.

I try to think of what this means, how to arrange this in the Stuff I’ve Learned file, but it doesn’t fit. It is not catastrophe, no moment of brilliant strength or insight. That will come twenty minutes later when, truly exhausted, I genuinely have trouble staggering back up the hill. I worry about collapsing in the dark, being a burden on these women, on some poor person passing on a scooter, their night interrupted by a fluid-deficient American. But for now, it is me, floating, enjoying the warm. Watching the mouth of the cave again, the open sea beyond it, the last streaks of dim orange in the sky, my impulse says. Go for the literary.

The world makes a space for you, an opening between two cliffs. Go through.

What You Think You Are

Tuesday, July 8th, 2008

Wedding Blossoms

There is something I hate about this hostel and I cannot put my finger on what it is, because it is clean and spacious and blue and up a tangling little street and situated in a former convent and the owners are kind and they like to organize trips to eat pasta and lounge in the hot springs and I am mostly comfortable here.

Mostly.

Because while I know rationally that this is one of the top-rated hostels in Europe and the tangle of dorm-room-chic graffiti on the walls in reception extols all the fun of this place, I have trouble seeing it.

I see twenty of us sharing two bathrooms. I see breakfast where there is only hot milk for Corn Flakes. I see huge signs above the sink saying that we are to BOTH WASH AND PUT AWAY DISHES when there is no soap and no towels. I see other signs in the bathrooms telling us to KEEP SHOWERING TIME TO A MINIMUM SO WE CAN ALL ENJOY THE HOT WATER, except one of the bathroom taps is clearly leaking… hot water. I see the adorable house puppy — we are all expected to love him, clearly, as no one attempts to restrain him — whose messes of every sort wind up in our bedrooms, in the front hall, in the kitchen twenty minutes before breakfast.

(The management’s amazing solution to a particularly smelly mess in the main dorm? They locked up the room, not the puppy.)

But it’s not really any of those things. Clearly, there are disorganized, sub-par hostels everywhere in Europe, and I’ve stayed in at least four of them. It is something else. A thing running under the surface. And I only realize what it is when I see the hostel’s brochure.

It is printed in tropical blue and yellow and plastered with photos of former guests. Hugging. Drinking. Kissing. Laughing. Having a GREAT TIME. On the cover, letters proclaim, “Ischia: The Island,” except that before the word “island,” a karat cheekily inserts the word PARTY on the line above.

And it hits me. It’s the marketing, stupid.

An American did this.

An American with a marketing degree has branded this hostel. Like The Pink Palace in Greece or The Flying Pig in Amsterdam. This hostel has designs on the Top-Tier Party Hostel Circuit. There is even a sign behind the desk I had not noticed before: WE ARE ON FACEBOOK. ADD US AS A FRIEND!

All of this is fine, except that this hostel is on a tiny island in the middle of the Bay of Naples — a place that, thanks to the piles of garbage in the street, has a bit of an image problem at the moment — and your dog just shit on the floor.

PARTY!

Later, I am not even remotely surprised to see the American in the flesh. To hear a guy talking about her in the common room.

“Yeah, she’s from New York. She’s the owner’s girlfriend. She used to be in marketing… somewhere.”