Friday, September 16, 2011

Day One in Italy - Are We There Yet?

     We arrived in Rome at 7:30am and rented a car to drive to Sorrento.  I was the designated driver of our Volvo station wagon because I drove a stick shift car thirty years ago and Vinny hadn’t driven one in forty-five years.  Only George Clooney can afford an Italian rental car with automatic transmission.  My first act behind the wheel was to back the car into a guard rail, almost smack in front of the Hertz counter.  I surveyed the damage, but was unable to distinguish my scratch from the others on the back bumper.  I then went to the Hertz office to complain about the car’s gas tank being only ¾ full.  I heard a ruckus outside the office and a man came in to tell me I had forgotten to put the parking brake on.  Vinny put his foot out of the passenger side, keeping the car from rolling into the wall.  My mission with Hertz complete, I threw the Volvo into first gear, screeched my way toward the exit, Vinny hanging on as we looped around the parking garage.
     Between Rome and Sorrento lies Napoli, famous for its Neapolitan pizza.  As long as we were somewhat going by the city of Naples, Vinny suggested we find a place for pizza for lunch.  We had the guidance of the Michelin Italy book for the names and addresses of the most authentic ristorantes.  And we had our GPS.  What could go wrong?  We didn’t realize that much of Naples is the Italian version of the South Bronx.  More famous than the pizza in Naples is the garbage, which can pile up for weeks during a strike.  The locals dump garbage in the breakdown areas along the highway.  By the time we arrived in the old city of Naples, we were skeeved out, tired and my left foot was cramped from jamming on the clutch in traffic.  We found one of the pizzerias, but there was no parking and we moved on to Sorrento before I burst into tears from fatigue and frustration.
     Two hours and one hundred shifts from second to third gear later, we arrived at the Hotel Aminta.  It is in the hills overlooking Sorrento , which lies in a horseshoe along the Bay of Naples.  In the distance, Mt. Vesuvius was shrouded in a haze of late summer humidity that afternoon.  We stood on our balcony overlooking this scene and were anxious to explore the sights.  We had been awake for 27 hours. 
     Having heard so much about the Amalfi Coast and Positano, which was a mere 12 km from Sorrento, we jumped back in the car to drive there.  Whatever you may have heard about the roads on the Amalfi Coast is an underestimation of how crazy the driving is.  Hairpin turns abound as you travel along the curves at the edge of the mountains.  Buses, cars, trucks, scooters and pedestrians all vie for the roadway.  Whoever has the most guts wins.  Scooters pass on the right and the left, squeezing into the smallest space in the steel menagerie. 
     We saw the sign welcoming us to Positano and then the sign for the next town about five km later.  We were still high above the bay and I could see houses below us, but no way to get there.  After we turned around,  we saw a one-way street leading back into the main road and realized there must be another end to this road that would bring us to the town of Positano.  After three km, we found the correct road.  To my amazement, the road was even narrower than what we had been driving on.  As we descended, the road seemed to end in someone’s garage, until Vinny pointed out the hairpin turn to our left that continued down the mountain.  Four native men sat side-by-side on the guard rail at the turn, chuckling at all the tourists that could not find their way into town.  The road drops several hundred feet to the town below, passing houses made of stone and small B&Bs.  We found a parking garage and walked to the nearest restaurant, where we sat roadside on a terrace just down from the four men of the welcoming committee. Each course for dinner was accompanied by the entertainment of watching the cars navigate the turn to get into town.  We sipped minerale con gaza and enjoying the pink-orange Amalfi sunset.  As we continued our drive after dinner, we saw the many shops and alleyways that give Positano its quaint air.
     The drive back to Sorrento in the dark was a challenge made more interesting by my lack of sleep.  I had bravely decided we did not need our GPS that evening, since the Amalfi Coast was accessed by one road.  We traversed Sorrento three or four times, stopping at several gas stations for directions.  Down one road, we found ourselves facing an alley that fit Smart cars, but not a full-size Volvo.  I backed out of the street, accompanied by glares of annoyance from local motorists.  I mastered u-turns in and out of parking lots.  At 10PM, after thirty-two hours without sleep, we sat on the pool deck of the hotel until the ability to converse left us and we finally retired.

Pictures for this day are at:

Monday, September 12, 2011

When in Rome (or Pompeii)

     On our trip to Italy, as on all our journeys, we are finding the roads less taken.  We went to Sorrento on Sunday morning to look for a farmacia for suntan lotion.  It was a little too hot and humid for a day in town, so we took our expensive SPF 30 on a road trip to Mt. Vesuvius.  Betty, as we affectionately refer to our GPS, took us on the "shortest" route, which I am convinced means "most roundabout."  It was nearing 2:30 in the afternoon and breakfast was a distant memory.  We drove along a side street in Pompeii looking for a pizzeria. 
     The restaurant we found was a family affair, with six tables outside on a terrace and the inside dedicated to the kitchen, a small lobby and the WCs.  A local couple sat smoking and talking with the owner, who smiled and nodded at us.  We were far away from the tourist-friendly English-speaking Sorrento.  The waitress approached and Vinny said, "Pizza?"
     "No pizza, spaghetti," she started, then rambled on in Italian.
     "No spaghetti, we'd just like a pizza, " Vinny insisted.
     "No pizza, spaghetti," she responded firmly and we knew we would be eating spaghetti.  It was reminiscent of the Saturday Night Live routine of "Cheebugga" and "No Coke, Pepsi."
     We enjoyed al dente spaghetti in oil and garlic, along with crusty bread without butter, as Italians use the bread to sop up the oil.  Satisfied, we decided to be on our way.
     The waitress approached again, jabbering on in Italian, but I picked up one phrase "secondo piatti" and realized she was describing out next course.  Vinny and I looked at each other, I pictured my afternoon at Mt. Vesuvius flitting away, but we relented when she used her fingers to show how small the carni (meat) would be.
     As we waited for the meat dish, I pushed back the plastic lawn chair in which I was sitting only to find myself on the floor as the back legs collapsed.  After many apologies, the owner guided us to another table with wooden chairs for the rest of our meal.  We received a tasty dish of ground meat surrounding ham and cheese - an Italian version of Cordon Bleu.  Vinny and I tried to determine the type of meat, whether it was veal or pork.  I asked the waitress, describing the meat with my hands.  She determined that I was ordering another course and offered steak and potatoes.  We vehemently shook our heads and waved our hands, proclaiming "Fini."  She then described something else, which sounded like Pesce, which I knew in French was fish.  Again, we protested and she indicated dessert was coming out next.
     We received melone and pesca, melon and peaches, not fish, which were sweet and refreshing.  The owner's husband came over to our table to say hello.  I tried again to ask about the carni of our second course, this time using a picture to describe each course, my fall from the chair and then pointing to the second course, hoping the man would understand what we were asking.  He smiled broadly and pantomimed the preparation of the meal, complete with crying to signify onions, chopping of carrots and mushrooms, rolling of the meat around the ham and cheese.  When I asked again about the carni, he said something that sounded like Mooka and then mooed for us and we knew it was veal.
     At the end of the meal, as I went to pay the check, the waitress and the owners gathered around to ask if we were from Canada.  Over the next 15 minutes, I told them about our lives in the US through hand signals, pictures and some questions in broken English from them.  It was a most memorable lunch and such an example of Italian hospitality.  We felt at home.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Best Birthday Presents

     Sometimes my birthday celebrations extend for a couple of weeks as I connect with distant friends and family.  Tonight I joined with my brother Kevin to celebrate my birthday, almost a week after the actual date.
     As I've crept past the unforgiving milestone of 50 and become Kevin's guardian, birthday presents have taken on a new significance.  This year, Vinny gave me a card that brought tears to my eyes because the card and the sentiment he wrote were perfect.
     And tonight, I got another perfect gift - a dinner with Kevin.  In between courses, we took pictures, which gave Kevin the opportunity to put his hands on my cheeks and say repeatedly, "I love you, Sissa."  I taught him how to dip bananas in chocolate fondue and dabbed his chin as the inevitable dark brown rivulets oozed from the corners of his mouth.
    From the solemnity of my father's death has sprung a blessing beyond measure - to have Kevin living thirty minutes away and to share chocolate fondue for my birthday.