Thursday. November 11. 5 p.m. Dulles Airport. Waiting to board an Air France jet to Paris and then Naples.
The week of November 8th was just… bizarre.
I was thrown so many curveballs. But it is amazing what you can do with a “gun” to your head.
The weekend was devoted to processing carts of (mostly) old books. I was thankful for the time change—”fall back”—that gave me an extra hour on Sunday. I don’t know how many I did, but I did a lot. I even got to many that had been collecting dust for months.
By Sunday evening, I was pleased with my progress. Tired but pleased.
I could go away and the place would not get too backed up with carts that have my name on them, carts laden with books that only I can “kill off.”
The getaway week has begun.
I was so pleased that things were under control that I rode up to the Hagerstown store to do some culling and brainstorming. The new manager there is doing great. I wanted to show him that the “warehouse” cares and wants to help.
I’d arranged for Clif and a helper to go pick up the Sherlock Holmes collection I’d looked at in a man’s basement 25 miles east a couple weeks ago. I carefully wrapped up the two antiquarian books the man wanted to trade for. He would also kick in a check for the difference in value.
Things were going so smoothly.
My travel agent had told me I should get a COVID test after 6:30 p.m.—which is 72 hours before my flight. That’s easy—right? You can just walk in to any pharmacy, and there are other testing sites galore. He suggested CVS. I searched for sites on my phone while Ernest drove.
Hmmm… everyone wants an appointment? I searched and searched. I finally went to CVS.com and signed up, so I could search their site. Appointments in the area were scarce—but Wow!—I can get one—the only one—at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday at a location on the far west side of the city. I booked it right away. “Results in 24-48 hours.” 48 would be cutting it close. What if I test positive?
In the Hagerstown Wonder Book store, we spent a couple of hours culling overflow sections. We put the books into plastic tubs and labeled them with subjects for Books by the Foot. Some old crunchy stuff was put in tubs to be pulped. I pulled dupes of popular trade-size novels to be marked down and put outside at 95 cents.
We’d done our duty. We’d made a lot of space in overstuffed areas. There were too many tubs to take with us. Ernest would have to return the next day with an empty van to pick them up.
Driving back… I decided I might as well get my third COVID shot. I’d been getting robocalls from Maryland Health urging me to. My doctor, who I trust, said it was a no-brainer. My former doctor and best friend said it was a no-brainer. My two Pfizer shots from last spring had lost 80% of their effectiveness. I don’t want to get sick in Italy. I’ll just walk in and get one after I take my swab test. I don’t want the shot to trigger a false positive.
Not so fast. I searched and searched while Ernest drove us back. Nothing. Or many miles away. Or not for a week or more.
This was supposed to be easy.
I finally found the State of Maryland had a text messaging service. I tried that. I requested a Moderna booster near my zip code.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know that answer.”
Followed a minute later, “How can I help you?” (Followed by a list of options)
Option C was “I want to message a human.”
Thence began a rather long dialog. I finally got a link about 20 minutes later for places offering the jab within a 25-mile radius. “You will notice a green check mark next to the locations with appointments available.”
Ok. I searched the grocery stores and pharmacies on the list. No check marks. Or the appointments were too far into the future. There were some doctors’ offices listed. I called one I knew only because we follow each other on Instagram. A manager answered and seemed a bit confused. “Are you a patient?” “No. I found you on a list I got from Maryland Health. I do follow you on Instagram.” (Hoping that might help.) I explained my timeline. She told me, “Ok. We can give you one at 1:30 tomorrow.”
She started taking my info. My email address ends in “wonderbk.com.”
“Wonder Book! I love that place. Do you work in the Frederick store?”
“I kind of own it.”
“Really! Is it a franchise?”
“No. I own all of them. I started the company a long time ago.”
My broker texted, “Can I get keys for the outbuildings on the East St property? The buyer wants access.”
“I only have one of each. I’ll get a copy made.”
I got back to the warehouse and caught up on emails. I got the bundle of the 8-10 keys to the property.
“Which ones are the outbuildings?” Hmmmm… “Damn! I’ll just get them all duplicated.”
Things were still fine—just getting a little dodgy.
I took an empty van to the Frederick store. There’s a Home Depot across the street where I could get keys made. The machine wasn’t automated. I had to track down a human to make a half dozen keys. She wasn’t thrilled.
“Do you have masks?”
“There are some in Aisle 8 and some in Aisle 19.”
Masks are no longer a big deal in Maryland, but I’d heard Italy wanted a certain kind. All I had were the flimsy paper ones—about 200 of those.
The masks they had were mostly dust masks for contractors. One style looked just right but was infused with copper (for health reasons?) Metal and airports don’t mix well.
I crossed to the bookstore and did a quick inspection. It is beautiful. I took the big truck back to the warehouse and backed it toward Dock 5 til it jolted against the big rubber bumpers attached to the building.
I checked in at the office. I’d vowed to clear off my huge pile of mail—about 8 inches of it. I rifled through it and pulled out anything I wasn’t sure were just statements from my insurance and doctors and electric bills (I prepay the electric company for about a year’s usage. I hate writing tiny checks and having to mail them. My electric bills, therefore, are always zero.)
Looking at the thick pile of unopened envelopes, I made up my mind. “Get someone else to do it!” I called a friend I trust.
“How’d you like to be my bookkeeper? I’ll pay you… It doesn’t involve much. Just open the mail I give you. If you find anything that needs attention, let me know. Put the rest in files. It won’t involve much. I only write a few checks a month.”
Ahhh… I swept the pile of sealed envelopes off into a little box for delivery.
I decided to make copies of my driver’s license and passport and vaccination card.
My license nearly broke in half?! It was literally disintegrating. Edges were chipping… I blame it on COVID.
I headed out to the MVA. The lines were long. A sign said, “You need an appointment.”
I asked anyway.
“No. You can use a kiosk. ‘
It was a bit of a learning curve, but it finally went through. They’ll mail it to me. I thought I’d need a new picture…
I headed for the East St property to figure out which spare keys were needed.
I pushed the windshield washer on my Ford. The liquid came out and in moments smeared the glass almost opaque.
I tried again. And again. I had just added a gallon jug to it a week or so ago. I got out. It was oily?!
Weird flat “crystals” formed on the windshield. Had I put in antifreeze? Something else? Impossible.
I kept squirting the stuff til the reservoir was empty. It took awhile. I got a gallon of windshield washer fluid. I double-checked the label. I and poured it in and began squirting. Eventually, the windshield cleared. My vehicle had thousands of tiny droplets of oil on the hood and roof.
I went to East St, tested the keys and left them on the counter next to the sink.
Chris Kline texted, “I know you’re going away, but can we meet tomorrow early and go over some new numbers?”
I’d told him I was getting cold feet about the warehouse project. I was really considering bailing—after I’d gotten my accountant’s opinion. There appeared to be no possible profit in it except in 20 years. I’m not that patient—at my age.
On the conference table—now mostly cleared off—remaining were only recently paid bills and things neatly piled to be filed. Plus, there was a big packet that had been there since June.
In it was my last will and testament. I’d been in avoidance, which wasn’t really fair to the wonderful estate attorney who had prepared it. I wonder if I can pull this off?
A D.C. bookseller had been at the Gaithersburg store for some bulk buying.
“Did it go ok?”
“Yep. Just finishing up!”
He cleared over 1000 books from the shelves there. The purge is very therapeutic. The huge discount he gets isn’t.
I headed home, stopping at WalMart to get a prescription. They’d disappointed me neither having the test nor the shot.
“Do you have masks?”
“This is all that’s left.”
I was led to a dump bin by a cashier. All they had was crap—about 25 masks in plastic bags—most with a local high school’s name on it. Italy wouldn’t accept any of those.
I went home and started doing getaway chores. Piles of dishes. Getting the potted plants on saucers with books underneath…
I’d gotten so many things done on my first day. Most of which were things I didn’t know needed to be done.
At 8 a.m. I got a group text from a neighbor to all the neighbors on the mountain. Six of us live high up. Three down at the foot.
“Coyote warning. Around 9 p.m. I was walking my dog in the driveway. Through the woods between me and the next house. 10-12 whooping it up and then ran off up the mountain…”
A bunch of dialogues passed among us.
I didn’t know they went in packs. 10—”up to 65 pound” wild dogs prowling together? I’d never heard of such a thing.
As soon as I got in, I met with Chris and was reassured by his numbers.
I told a friend at work about my mask dilemma.
“I can get you some from Amazon. They’ll be delivered tonight.”
I went to CVS. In the drive-in I was handed a bag with papers in it and a test tube and a long cotton swap. “Stick it way up your nose and twist for 15 seconds. Stick it up the other side of your nose and twist… (I’m paraphrasing.) “Break the stick in half and put it into the test tube…” The plastic twist top slipped out of my hand and rolled under the car seat. “Damn!” There was a line of cars behind me too. I got out and dropped to my knees on the pavement. I turned the flashlight on in my iPhone and eventually found the thing.
A car wash was nearby. All the drops of oil were swept away.
Then to the bookstore. Then to the ATT store to have international calling turned on. Back to the warehouse. Then to the doctors’ office. I got there early. It didn’t reopen til 1:30. A crowd started forming outside the double glass doors. I was about the 10th one in. I passed the temperature test. I filled out the forms and sat and waited. I brought some 2022 magnetic calendars for the staff. I got taken back to a small exam room. The nurse who would shoot me also likes Wonder Book. The doctor knocked and poked his head in. He extended his fist—the COVID handshake. He likes the store too.
(Is this a good idea? I had a moderate reaction to one of the first two shots. If I have a bad reaction… my trip is only two days away.)
The time came, and I’m shot.
“Sit for 15 minutes, please.”
Another 2 hours gone…
We’d discovered the gas had been turned off on the East St property. It was an effort to get it turned back on. The earliest appointment was between 12 and 5 Wednesday.
“Can you call when you’re on your way?”
“We don’t give courtesy calls at this time.” (COVID?)
I went to the accountant and reviewed the new construction cost numbers. I also brought them a big pile of bank and investment statements.
Then to a bank to get some cash and make deposits.
I went home and put the last potted plants onto saucers with junk books beneath them. I started picking out clothes to take to Italy. COVID has not been kind diet wise. When I visited my doctor some days before all this, I discovered I’d gained over 20 pounds since March 2020. Many clothes didn’t fit well.
I’d started a master checklist on a legal pad. I added new things as I thought of them. I crossed out items when the task had been completed or the item found and put on the table.
It looked like this the day I left.
“What am I forgetting?” was my mantra.
Two more huge glass display cases had been delivered Tuesday afternoon. They took up a lot of warehouse space. There were spots for both at the Frederick store.
They weigh over 500 pounds each and are crated in wood frames.
I might well add them to my to do list.
I reached out to my contractor friend, who is always overbooked and too busy.
An email dropped in from CVS. My COVID test was negative!
Among the usual rat race going on, I had forced myself to tear open the paperboard package containing my last will and testament. There were a lot of other death documents to review as well. I told myself it is good for me and the family. I don’t want to leave a mess. I don’t want the government to get more than it legally has to. I read and read and read. I filled in some blanks. It was so depressing. A day will come when I can’t play with books and plant things and set stone walls and drive and look at the nighttime stars and watch the sunrise and play with the dogs.
And travel. See places I’ve never seen before. Experience cities and countries and seas and rivers for the first and likely last times.
When it was done, I sent my attorney and her assistant an email. I apologized profusely for my procrastination. I told them I was leaving for Italy on Thursday afternoon. I could come in anytime or it could wait til I came back. Though I didn’t say it, I wanted to get it over with. If I died in Italy, I would be so unhappy with myself for failing to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” of my life.
“Can you come at 4?”
“I have an eye appointment at 3:45 near you.”
I couldn’t go to the Farm and wait for the gasman for 5 hours. We needed to clear out the garage and shed. The previous owners had left a lot of stuff, and I hadn’t complained. The people who may be buying the property asked that it be removed. I asked Clif to get a helper. We rode over in two vehicles. I unlocked the buildings. Then I went to another bank to transfer money to fill the bank accounts—just in case.
I got a courtesy call from the gasman!?
I called Clif to warn him.
I signed a LOT of checks—just in case. I did a lot of carts of books so there would be fewer when I return. I reviewed the results of a couple of carts of collectible books Annika had researched. More odds and ends. More chores and errands.
What am I forgetting?
It came time for my eye appointment.
Then to the lawyer’s office.
She had been so kind and gentle and patient, explaining everything when this had been set up last spring. We reviewed the documents. I signed and initialed and signed and initialed. She signed and stamped and made me swear I was over 18 and of sound mind.
I solemnly did—without going into any details.
She brought her assistant in as a witness.
She asked where I planned on locking it away. Why have a will if no one can find it?
She put everything into a fat folder.
There! Now I can die in peace.
Back to the warehouse. I’d brought the dogs, Merry & Pippin to work. It would save time for me to take them to be babysat in Pennsylvania. I unlatched their pen, and we were on our way. After dinner with family, I headed home and packed and prepped some more.
The contractor texted. He wants to come tomorrow morning to move and install the huge glass cases. Surprise!
You take him when you can get him.
I awoke early and looked at my list. After I’d showered, I turned off the well pump and the hot water heater. If the power goes and the pipes freeze and then the power comes on again, the house could flood.
I watered all the potted plants. I counted them as I did. 77! Crazy…
I checked my list. ‘Done!’ I thought. I zipped up the big roll on. I put the essentials in the little Osprey backpack I got for the Iceland trip. I checked the security camera and turned the alarm on and stepped out.
An email came in the morning (one of hundreds)—the landlord had accepted my offer for a 5-year extension on the Frederick store and a 5-year option. I printed it out and signed. It was witnessed by one of the managers and mailed off.
I emailed the Hagerstown landlord with an offer for another 5 years and a 5-year option.
I did more carts and odds and ends in the warehouse that I thought were essential. I got a little snappy with a couple of managers—mostly because I was stressed.
Time to go. I looked at my list. Everything was crossed off.
I double-checked. Passport. VAX card. Italian Q code to track my movements. Euros. Credit cards. My negative COVID test printout.
I got an incredible number of things done. I was very satisfied.
I should go away more often.
I’m typing this on the plane.
We flew over the Alps about 30 minutes ago. (I moved to a vacant window seat after takeoff.) Now we are over the Mediterranean. There’s a little island below with only a tiny village on one corner of it. I wonder what it is.
The sun shines bright, and the scattered clouds cast shadows on the waves far below.
Ulysses and Aeneas plowed these seas…
I’m tired. My laptop says it is 5:27 a.m. If we were on time, we’d be landing by now—11:25 a.m. Italian time. I hope the person meeting me to take me to Sorrento is patient. We’ll be over an hour late landing in Naples.
The scene at De Gaulle was insane.
I’d worried and asked several times and of several authorities, “Is an hour and fifteen minutes enough time to get from one gate in Paris to the other?”
I’m pretty trusting—but I know everything takes longer in airports in the post 9/11 era. COVID has only added to it.
We landed on time. My baggage was checked through to Naples. I found the departure gate on a display screen and memorized what section of the airport I needed to get to. We were in 4. I needed to get to 7, I think. I hustled. No stop for the toilet or a coffee.
Closer. Closer. This will be cutting things close. Wait! There’s a train involved?
I have to go through a screening checkpoint!? Why?! The line was about 20 people long. I took everything out of my pockets and put it in my knapsack. I took out my laptop. I took off my shoes. Is there anything else they could possibly demand?
I got through. 50 yards more. I turned a corner. “Passport Control”?!
WHY!!!? I’m only passing through this airport to get on a plane to Italy!
The line wound back and forth upon itself. Row after row. 200 people?
I looked at my ticket. Then my phone. 15 minutes til final boarding.
I got in line. I looked for someone official. There was a woman with a badge. I held up my ticket and waved. She came over. I held out my ticket to her.
“You have time.”
A couple of minutes passed. The line barely moved. Another passenger a couple of people behind me began panicking. I asked her what time her flight was. Same as mine. We both waved our tickets in the air. The official came over.
My fellow passenger breathed heavily (everyone was masked) “My flight takes off in 10 minutes!”
She waved us under the [cloth canvas barrier] and led us to the front of the line. My passport got stamped, and I was on the run again.
I got to my terminal. I looked at the Departures sign to find my gate. They’d moved up the last boarding time about 15 minutes, which was… now.
I got to the gate, and I made it. I was the last to board… a bus which rolled out to our plane on the tarmac.
The plane backed from the gate and then stopped. For over an hour.
Finally, we were in the air.
We landed in Naples. Steps led down to the tarmac. I walked about 100 yards to the terminal. My baggage came out quickly. And wet. I stepped through the door marked “Nothing to Declare.”
I found myself in the exit area of the terminal. No passport check… nothing. I went outside to look for my ride. A bunch of drivers were there, each holding a piece of 8.5 x 11 paper with names on it. I found one that had my name and about 8 others on it. I pointed to my name, “Me. Roberts.”
I sat on planter behind him and waited. And waited. And waited. A lot of beautiful supermodels walked by. They looked like supermodels, but I think a lot of Italians like to dress fancy. After a while, his boss arrived. They chatted. The boss made a few calls. He came to me and spoke in broken English.
“We leave soon.”
I was patient. I was tired. I was getting grumpy. Finally, I got up and approached him.
No one had come out of the terminal in 20 minutes.
“It’s been well over an hour.”
“Ok. We go. Andiamo.”
I was the only passenger on the bus built for 20 passengers. The trip from Naples was about an hour. I was dropped off at the Grand Hotel Caesare Augusto. It was very nice. Not old enough to be classic. Not new enough to be modern. But everything was polished and shipshape. I got my room key—a real key attached to a heavy brass nob—maybe half a pound. No one would walk off with this. The room—520—was large. The floor was decorative ceramic tile. No carpet at all. It had a patio with a nice view. A couple ashtrays were there for outdoor smoking. (A LOT of people smoke in Italy.)
I took a quick shower and headed to the town square just a block from the hotel’s back entrance. I’d been given a city map and some tips on what to do.
Most of Sorrento is high on a cliff above the Tyrrhenian Sea. The views are stunning. The marina far below was inviting. I’d been advised the steps are the way to get down. I took about 200 rough stone steps. Down. Down. Down. Thinking all the while I would need to walk up them as well.
There are almost no tourists this time of year. (I was to find out later the reason—I think—but I thought then it was likely COVID.) The restaurants on the marina were nearly empty. I walked around and chose the one with the best views. I walked in and was outnumbered about 10-1 by owners and servers. They seated me over the water. I had a Roma Martini (2 parts gin. 1 part Campari.) And settled in. A couple gorgeous ferry/yachts left to or returned from Capri Island about 25 minutes away. It was stunningly beautiful but eerie because of the emptiness. I can imagine it would be a two-hour wait in pre-COVID summertime.
I had a small plate of ravioli and headed back. I was dreading going up the 200 rough-hewn stone steps.
“Signor, there is an elevator one hundred yards further down. It is 1 Euro. In Sorrento, there is a charge for everything.”
A Euro? Even I am not that cheap.
Thank you, thank you, thank you…
Back up in the old town, I knew my way back to the square—where the giant Christmas tree is already erected. I was exhausted but thought another cocktail might be ok on the way…
As I walked the ancient narrow streets, I looked at possible watering holes.
The one lit up in blue didn’t look promising, but sometimes I think one gets “guided.” Perhaps by my Book Muse nudged me toward the front door. I peeked in, and it was FULL of old books. VERY old books.
“Can I get a cocktail?”
There were only a few other people dining. I was hoping for a bar but was seated at a table.
“I’d like a martini but with two parts gin one part Campari. In a tall stemmed glass?” An old favorite Italian place in Bethesda—Cesco’s—used to call this a Martini Roma.
His English was excellent, but he misunderstood me and brought me the drink in a TomCollins glass on the rocks. My fault for not speaking any Italian.
It was fine.
I couldn’t resist and asked to see the menu. The name on the menu’s cover was Ristobibliotecamuseo.
Restaurant Library Museum (I think.) Its real name is Osteria del Buonconvento. I prefer to shorten it to:
Ristobibliotecamuseo osteria del Buonconvento
It is part of an ancient convent and has lots of Torquato Tasso material. He’s a hometown boy.
Books, prints, ephemera, stuff from the 1500s to the 19th century. Let’s just say I was in heaven. The back half of the little place dropped down some stairs. It was once the wine cellar. I explored a bit looking at the books behind glass and up high in a gallery. Then I went down some steps and into the back where there was a small bar. I pointed at the Martini glasses and asked for another in one of those. No ice.
I kept reading the 20-page menu trying to decide what would be the best choice out of 100 or more delicious sounding options.
The cocktail came out.
Here’s what they say about the place in the menu.
My check was incredibly inexpensive for the best pasta and amongst the best ambience I’ve ever had. (And two excellent cocktails.)
I made my way back to the Grand Hotel Caesare Augusto.
When I went down the next morning, a young woman seated in the lobby met my eye. She held up a piece of paper, “Globus.” My tour company. Her name was Sabina.
“I was thinking of taking a hydrofoil to Capri or a train to Pompeii. What do you think?”
“Capri… well, it is off season, and you should have made reservations. It looks like the next possibility is in two hours. Pompeii is 40 minutes by train. The station is two blocks away. Would you like me to walk you there?”
She saved me a great deal of learning curve. She guided me on buying a ticket out and one back. The total was about $6.
“Platform 1. Your train leaves in about 10 minutes.”
“Grazze mille.” (That’s about 10% of my Italian.)
My first interaction with our tour guide Sabina was the beginning. Her knowledge of history, geography, geology, culture, food… everything—added dimensions to the trip I could never have had doing things on my own. I would have missed so much without our “guardian angel.”
I’d dreamed of seeing Pompeii since I was a kid. The gate was a hundred yards from the train station. There was a very short line. On the other side of the rope, a few people were soliciting tours. “English.” “French.” “Spanish.” …
I’m too much of an expert and am too proud to take tours. Maybe it is a “guy” thing. Like asking directions.
I got my ticket after showing my Vax card. I opened the free map.
“Oh my God… it is a city!”
I swallowed my pride.
“How much is the tour?”
Oh my God. It was amazing. The guide was amazing. She led about 8 of us around for a couple hours. She explained things I never would have gotten otherwise. She took us down back alleys…
“This was a bakery.” There was a big brick oven that looked much like what you would see in a wood burning pizzeria today. “They found over 50 carbonized loaves of bread in the oven. Each was stamped with the baker’s mark.”
Whenever she was ready for us to move, she annunciated, “Ahhh lo! Andiamo!” [Hello! Let’s go!]
Then she left us to explore on our own.
Many of the features had only reopened in recent days (COVID)—including an evocative museum—so I was lucky in my timing.
I won’t go into detail. There were just too many buildings and sites and sights. But I saw everything from the large Cavi Canum (beware of the dog) mosaic at the threshold of the House of the Tragic Poet to the plaster cast of the remains of a pet dog, its body caught forever in its death throes by Vesuvius’ volcanic dust.
(I did write a “po-em” * while riding on the train to and from Pompeii. It is at the bottom of this story. If you care to just read it as a stream-of-consciousness paragraph, perhaps it will be more bearable.)
And from nearly every vantage, Vesuvius loomed over of the city just to the north—mighty, imposing, threatening.
When I returned to Sorrento, I sought out a grocery store. I needed hair conditioner. (NEED—if I don’t use it my hair goes wild.) I’d only brought a tiny hotel bottle. I found that southern Italian hotels don’t have these. Nor do they typically offer bar soap. That turned out to be far more difficult than I anticipated. There were dozens of plastic bottles that all appeared alike in most ways.—some with familiar brand names—but what is the Italian for hair conditioner? I didn’t have cellphone reception, so it took about 20 minutes using the process of elimination. Finally, I opted for this.
I also bought a little box of Campari sodas.
For about 5 Euros, it was an excellent investment.
I then wandered around the medieval part of the city. There are dozens—or hundreds—of boutiques and shops. All kinds of specialties from truffles to limoncello. It took a bit of thinking to figure how to return to the Ristobibliotecamuseo, but I found it and was greeted warmly. Same cocktails. I read and reread the thick menu and finally settled on Citrus Risotto. It sounded counterintuitive, but I had to try it. The driver the day before had told me in very broken English “Sorrento is lemons and olives.”
It was AMAZING. One of those unforgettable—rather two of those—hours that will be recalled in detail the rest of my life.
The risotto was actually a creamy golden color. Unfortunately, the color in the image looks weird due to the blue lights illuminating the glazed bookcase next to me. It was the color of slightly golden cream. More unfortunate—there was the welcome dinner for the tour group later that evening. That would be more of a duty I presumed. I’m not good with groups of strangers. This was both. The portion was so large and anticipating a large dinner an hour later, I only ate about 3/4s. When I said I was done and asked for a second G&C (gin and Campari) the waiter was horrified. The chef was horrified.
“Did you not like the food?!”
“It was WONDERFUL! I must go to another dinner soon and need to save room.”
He was still upset. I wrote out a thank you and high praises of the dish on the back of a coaster and left a large tip.
The tour group dinner was in a lovely sprawling garden room at the back of an ancient restaurant. It would have been fabulous in the US, but I’d been spoiled.
(This story is already too long and we are only on Monday. I’ll stop it today.)
The Grand Hotel breakfast buffet was just ok—but then I’m sure they have suffered greatly during COVID. The place was classic and old school which I appreciated. From what I could tell, our tour group of 39 were the only guests.
Sabina gave us a short tour around town which I felt obligated to follow—but of course she showed us things I never would have discovered otherwise.
I’d opted for the Positano excursion. “Charming Positano.” The trip along the cliffs along the Amalfi coast would have been stunning, but it was raining hard and fog bound. I had a guidebook and read up on Positano. The chapter began with a quote by Steinbeck.
Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.
Here’s more on Steinbeck’s time in Positano.
He even wrote a story about it. I don’t think I’ll drop $590.00 on it.
We got to the cliff above Charming Positano, and you could sort of see it far below.
The bus descended about halfway and dropped us off. Sabina led us down to the beach. We’d each been given a little electronic box which we could hang around our necks. Using it, Sabina could speak to each of us via an earpiece. She called it the “Whisper Box.” We trudged down and down like so many waterlogged ducklings following our leader. The steps were steep and rainwater flowed down around my feet. At the beach, she told us we were on our own for a couple of hours.
It was still pouring. I wandered along the breakfront. Sabina had pointed out some fuzzy shapes on the Tyrrhenian Sea surface a few miles out. They were the LiGalli—the islands of the Sirens who lured sailors to their doom with their songs. Ulysses had himself strapped to the mast of ship—The …—what was its name? He ordered the rest of the crew to plug their ears with beeswax so they could not hear the siren song. He couldn’t resist and had himself bound to the mast by the crew with his ears unplugged. When they approached the islands, the song was so seductive Ulysses wanted to jump ship and swim to them. His sailors could not hear his orders. Their ears were plugged.
I found a likely looking beach front bistro—Chez Black est. 1949. I wondered if Steinbeck drank there. I was graciously seated under the covered patio. I never drink at lunch, but what else was there to do? I ordered espresso and a Campari on the rocks.
The espresso was only about a tablespoon of thick delicious coffee. I thought I should hydrate, so I ordered Cafe Americano. The Italians call this Dirty Coffee. Indeed in another place, I was given a large cup with espresso in the bottom with a small pitcher of hot water to dilute it.
It was a lovely introspective time. I tried to find where Steinbeck had visited on my phone. I could see the Siren’s Islands from Chez Black. I studied up on the islands just visible through the fog.
Of course, I wrote a poem (below)**. (Again just read it as a kind of stream-of-consciousness paragraph and it won’t be as daunting or painful.)
Then it was time to trudge back up to the minibus that had brought our small excursion group. The rain had lightened, and by the time I got back to the top, it was clearing. We were able to get an unobstructed view of the Charming Positano. The sojourn was aptly named. The trip back was stunning. (Hint—choose the sea side of the vehicle you are traveling in when on tour.)
I even got a nice picture of the Siren’s Islands—Le Sirenuse.
I’d also opted for the farm dinner excursion that evening. I’ve found the extras are almost always worth it.
About 10 of us were driven up to a hillside near Vesuvius. The farm was organic, old and maybe 10 acres. Most of the land had been sold off long ago—before there was agritourism.
Still, it was lovely with a long pergola above the entryway. It was covered with vines laden with Kiwi Fruit.
We got a mini tour of the minifarm with its plants and livestock and lemon orchard. Then we were led inside for a dinner—with much of the food produced on the property.
The third-generation son who showed us around also demonstrated making mozzarella from scratch. It was delicious.
Several large Italian families sat across from our group. They’d been eating and drinking since lunch. It was now about 5:30 p.m.
They stared at us unabashedly. I furtively glanced at them and wished I was that happy.
(I lied—just one more day on this story.)
It was pouring rain. We boarded the bus and drove across Italy, over the Apennines.
We stopped at the resort town of Trani on the Adriatic.
It was pouring rain. I had left my umbrella in my luggage. That was buried under other luggage in the bus’s storage area. My raincoat was not rainproof. I walked around the town. It was lovely. Narrow medieval streets lined with ancient building built with creamy yellow worn limestone (I think.) Everything was closed but a few bistros along the marina.
I’d seen just about everything including (the outside of) a Knights Templar church. I was damp and grumpy. Sunny Italy…
I looked for a place to get coffee and a drink.
The first place I stopped in the young person gave me a blank look when I asked if I could buy a drink.
“Cocktail?” Blank stare.
She led me to a table with no setup. I guess so I wouldn’t mess it up.
“Menu?” I requested.
I was moved to another table. A piece of paper with a Q code was placed before me as was a local beer.
A Wifi code was written on a piece of paper. I couldn’t get it to work.
No one ever came back.
Eventually, I went up to the register and asked, “Quanta costa?” I paid in cash and left a big tip.
This was wrong too. She insisted I take back the tip or most of it.
I felt like such… an “American tourist.”
I saw some of the travel group seated outside of the next place. There were under an umbrella. It leaked. Especially on me.
I asked the trattoria owner who was attending us if we could move inside.
“Please do!” He was getting wetter too. I wasn’t an ugly American after all.
It was cozy. I warmed a bit but was still damp.
When we got to our hotel in Bari, I searched the internet. A bar graph showing the average rainfall in Southern Italy indicated November was the rainiest month at 7 inches. December and January were about 5. June, July, August were 1 inch.
I should have checked.
The trip did get better… lots and LOTS better.
[To be continued…]
* 11/13/21 Train to and from Pompeii
Sorrento Sant’Agnello Piano di Sorrento Meta
Seiano Vico Equensa Seralo Pozzano
Castellamare Via Nocera Pioppaino
Ponte Persica Moregine Pompeii Scavi
Tunnels and seaside cliffs
Darkness, light and chiaroscuro
Rumbling scraping rattling swaying
A train took me from today
to another November day
nineteen hundred forty-two years ago
Long streets of silent stones
Walls and doors but no roofs
And from any view Vesuvius
dominating the north—
a mountain peak broken in two
Ghosts of women men dogs and horses
wander aimlessly eternally
in shock from their sudden snuffing
Their breath, their lives taken
Then an unnatural burial
by a torrential downpour
of dry hot ash and stone
A catastrophe almost two thousand years old
with no connections to today
but that they once lived and loved
played fought ate and drank
They planned for a future
but that ended for all
the same day the same hour
I walk among their silent stones;
along their ruined walls;
through their doorless doorways
into long dead rooms
The spirits in the houses, in the shops, in the street
chat endlessly and silently
Dogs bark in the alleyways mutely
Horses clop on the rugged stones streets noiselessly
I sense them all in the bustling city
Unaware their interrupted lives live still
in this century and for millennia to come
When I strolled through this city
the November sun shone bright
Just warm enough and calm
Vesuvius loomed dominating the north
Its slopes green and black.
Quiet. Serene. Threatening
The city buried near two millennia
Now resurrected bit by bit
Street by street. House by house
I will leave this blue and white bright day
Another November like thousands before
Millions more will come after
But the Pompeians will stay forever—home
Life stopped in surprise then shock
Some minds deranged by terror
Then smothered with family and friends, enemies and animals
Their normal lives stopped at once; together
The unquiet spirits all turn to living
in the moments before
Before the world rained
poison and fire and death
I pass by them
til I cross the border
from then to now
11/6/21 Bus—Land of Bari
From a cliff high above the see
I see three rocky islands
They rise above the waves
A song wafts across the sea
far more ancient than I’ve ever known
Three sirens—Parthenope, Leucosia, and Ligeia—
the lyre, the flute, the voice
Words I have never heard speak to me
I understand their meaning and context
Drawn to the music I lean out
I could fly from here and join the three
that are calling me
An unseen hand touches my shoulder
The spell is snapped
and the song stopped
I am rushed from the past
into this present
I look longingly at those stones
atop the dark sea
The enchantment was brief but lasting
Perhaps in dreams I will hear them again
Perhaps breathing my last breath
I will be sung to on the journey
from which I can not return