Tales of a wandering lesbian

Posts from — June 2010

Sidenote: Mosco

Sidenote:  Mosco

The mosquitoes in southern Italy can be bad.  So bad, they drove the Greeks from Paestum when they wiped the city out with malaria.

We experienced these bad boys in a major way.  With around 20 bites a piece, we headed to the pharmacy to try to find some spray.

It was pretty early in the trip, and I was still trying to get my vocab bearings.  I walked up to the clerk and declared, “qualcosa per mosco,” pantomiming something flying through the air and stinging me.  I knew that I knew the word for “mosquito,” somewhere in the back of my brain.  Mosco seemed to fit.

“Afterbite?” came the question from the clerk.  Sure, it wasn’t really a surprise that she figured out I couldn’t speak much Italian.

It wasn’t until after we’d walked out of the store that I realized my mistake.  While “mosca” is “fly,” “zanzara” is “mosquito.”  “Mosco” either meant nothing at all, or it meant mosque.  I wasn’t sure.  I could see a picture of a fly in the children’s vocabulary book I’d studied months earlier, but I couldn’t remember seeing a picture of a mosque.

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June 19, 2010   3 Comments

A gay old time in Paestum

After a couple of days in Salerno, it was time to spread our wings and venture out.  Our new maps and bus schedules in hand, we considered our options.

“There’s Paestum,” suggested the Ant.

Now, I’m basically tagging along on this portion of the trip, so I’ve done embarrassingly little research into the area.  I’d never even heard of Paestum.  So I picked up my handy-dandy tourist guide and learned a couple of fun facts about Paestum.  First, Paestum has the largest collection of Greek temples outside of Greece.  Coolness.  My family is Greek and Italian.  We’re other things, too, but we mostly claim the Greek and Italian.  This sounded like our kind of place.

Second, I learned that Paestum was deserted when most of the population was wiped out by mosquitoes carrying malaria.  That’s much of the reason the temples remain intact.  Not good.  But not surprising.

The Ant and I had spent the first two nights battling insane mosquito-like beasts.  These things were big.  I could hear them winging their way toward my headlamp each night while I was reading Pema Chodron and trying to find a little peace.  An interesting challenge.

And they did something funny to our skin.

This is two days after the Ant was bitten about 6 times on the side of her face.  I was bitten, I believe, 3 times on the ear, (it was hard to tell how many times, due to the intense swelling and redness) and it’s still itching, 2 weeks later.  At least the open wound has healed up.  The 20 or so other bites on my face and legs never really took hold.  I’ve just been considering this training for Survivor. Regardless, these things are bad news.

Brimming with understanding of our Greek/Roman mosquito-bate ancestors, we hopped a bus to Paestum.  That’s Pa-ace-toom.  Get it right.  Or the bus driver will act like he doesn’t understand where you’re trying to go.  Then he’ll correct your pronunciation.  Or maybe that was just my experience.

I sat in my seat, going over it in my head:  “pa-ace-toom, pa-ace-toom, pa-ace-toom.”  I’d have to ask him later if we were getting close.

We scuttered along through town after town, noting the differences in the styles of apartment buildings, or the way people hung their laundry.

The country got wilder, and more open and we wondered how much further.  Passengers ebbed and flowed along the winding track we took to the ruins.  Tourists, workers, grandmothers, coming and going between the villages.

We saw a municipal sign of some sort.  “Welcome to Paestum” or something similar.  When we’re traveling by bus, there’s often not much to tell us where we are, other than signs on buildings.  If we miss the sign at the beginning of a town, we could go the entire length of the town without having a clue where we are.  This big sign for Paestum was more than we usually get.  We grabbed our bags and jumped up, moving forward several rows to make sure the bus driver could see us.  When the bus stopped, he signaled to us.  “No.”  We weren’t there yet?  Wow.  Our fool-proof method had failed us.  How many stops could there be in Paestum?

20 minutes later, we were still driving.  Whoops!  I was starting to like our bus driver more and more.

I consulted the pages I’d torn from my trusty Rick Steves book; we tried to find our location on the Ant’s smart phone.  No use.  Rick said the bus would let us off outside the old city walls.  I peeled my eyes and kept them on the horizon for city walls of some kind.

When we finally rumbled up to a lonely gelato shop at the intersection of two country roads, I was a little surprised to hear the driver bellow, “Pa-ace-toom!” and wave us forward.

“Qua?”  I wanted to make sure.  “Pa-ace-toom.”  He just nodded again, but this time smiled.

“Ciao, grazie!”  we smiled as we climbed off alone.

The city walls were there, low, thick, and old.  We smiled at the folks under big umbrellas outside the gelato shop,  and walked inside the ancient city walls.

“That’s a good sign,” I said, jerking my head in the direction of the trees and columns.

We located the ticket office, purchased our combo ticket for the temples and the museum, and headed out into the fenced field bordered by vendors selling trinkets.

We spent the next two hours walking through the tall, flowing grasses, looking up at the temples.

It’s amazing how much I find myself affected by places like this.  I find I could sit on a hunk of rock and contemplate my ancestors for hours, days, ever maybe.

The Ant read a sign about the destructive lichen eating away the ruins, and decided she’d come back with a toothbrush to volunteer her time and rid the temples of the beast.  I thought it was pretty.

As we walked, we talked absentmindedly about the Greeks and their superiority, and I thought about the first time I’d seen Greek ruins up close.  It was on a trip to Greece with my family when I was a teenager.  We were looking for family, but taking in some sights along the way.  I spent the day at Olympus with my dad, Greek grandfather, and uncle.  I remember clearly the feeling of disgust I had for the people of Greece.  How could they let their precious temples be ruined like this?  Why didn’t they stand the columns back up?

Hilarious.

In Paestum, I was amazed at how intact the temples were.  So much so that we could do side-by-side comparisons of architectural changes over 500 years.  Brilliant.

At the end of two hours of strolling and thinking in the sun, we were starving.  It was most assuredly time for pizza.  After a ridiculous episode whereby we unknowingly tried to enter a restaurant from the back side, left in a bit of a huff, walked 4 blocks and unwittingly ended up entering the same restaurant from the correct direction, we were seated with 2, count them 2, huge bottles of water in front of us.

Note:  the Ant and I carry our own water bottles with us wherever we go.  By this time we had consumed every drop.  The only way to really get water in a restaurant in Italy is to buy it.  From a bottle.  Or to fill in the restroom, which we do regularly.  Today, we bought water.

On our first attempt to enter the restaurant, we’d spotted a menu and scoped out the pizzas.  We already had our favorites picked out:  cherry tomatoes and rocket for the Ant, squash blossom for me.

One bottle of water already in our stomachs, we scarfed these heavenly pizzas down.  Most pizzas come served whole in Italy, with a knife and fork.  You get to cut to size and eat however you see fit.  Some people cut pieces and eat with their hands.  Some cut slices and then cut them into smaller pieces to eat with a fork.  Others eat the center, and leave the crust (I consider this a great crime).  On days like today, we start with big pieces folded and stuffed in our faces, then cut smaller and smaller pieces, packing the dough and cheese in.

Whatever water was left, we poured into our empty bottles and prepared for the second half of the day:  the museum.

The second great historical site at Paestum is the tomb of the diver.  Dating back to the Greeks, this sarcophagus is rare, maybe unique in its preservation (thanks, mosquitos).  The insides of the box were painted with scenes to entertain the dead.  The lid of this one was painted with an image of a diver, gracefully leaping from a great height into the unknown, a peaceful look and feel about him.

The walls of the box were painted with scenes from a party.  A very festive party.  Perhaps even a very gay party…


As we stood and looked at the panels, a tour group of British school-kids came through with a tour guide.  I stood nearby to catch a free lesson.

“The panels depict a typical party.  The first man sits on a sofa, beckoning for more wine, waiting in anticipation.  The second grouping shows two men playing a game in which a plate is balanced on a stick, and the last drop of wine is flicked from the glass in an attempt to hit the plate, knocking it to the floor.”

He paused.

“The third group shows one man playing an instrument, and engaged in a show of affection,” another pause, “more than just enjoying each other’s company.”  The kids looked closer.  The guide continued:

“Now I’m not one to say whether this is a scene of homo-eroticism, but that is the prevailing view of the experts.”  I chuckled a little.  The musician was all but pinching the other guy’s nipple.  Maybe I should consider a career in ancient Greek art.

Feeling like we should make use of our museum tickets, we cruised through, checked out the super-old bronze vases, and penis-shaped pots.  Gay.

Leaving the museum, we praised the gods and goddesses for the lack of present-day mosquitoes in Paestum.  We’d commune with our ancestors later.  For me, I’d found other connections with my ancient brothers and sisters.  Any people who celebrated ceramic sexuality, squash-blossoms, and leaps into the unknown were my people.

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June 18, 2010   1 Comment

Salerno, take two

So, here’s the thing.  We might have thought we had visited downtown Salerno, but we were wrong.  The day we arrived here, we had been traveling for something like 40 hours.  We were tired and disoriented.  We walked straight out of the train station and into a cab.  From there, we kind of lost track of things.  Water was on the right, we made some turns, and BAM, we were there.

When I woke up on our third day in Salerno, I remembered Carmine telling us something about a TI.  The tourist information office was right across from the station.  That was a good thing to remember.  We’d already figured out the bus, and thought we could probably stay on the one we’d ridden the day before, and hit the station.  At any rate, we’d have an adventure trying to get there.

We made some coffee and toast and heated our cornetta (croissants) in the toaster oven.  Then we hopped a bus headed to the station.  (I confirmed with the driver that we were, indeed, headed “alla stazzione”.)

We rode along, past the private beaches, through the run-down commercial district, and to the farthest point we’d turned around the day before.  About 2 blocks further, the bus pulled into the train station.  We had a good laugh and tried to clamber off the bus with everyone else, as hoards of others pushed on.

“Permisso!” I tried, nudging the Ant forward.

The “shhhhhh” of the door closing came and a little lady with grey hair hollered, “un attimo!” in her high voice.  I followed her lead.

“Un attimo!” I bellowed.  One moment.  It was too late.  We looked at each other, and the little lady shook her head.  We’d tried.  At least we knew were it was at, and we could walk back.  We were also good at walking.

As the bus turned the corner, I caught sight of the Vodafone store.  Brilliant!  I’d been borrowing wireless from the neighbors, and it was just about driving me insane with the cutting out and bad signal.  I’d spent hours on the patio with my laptop on my shoulder trying to upload pictures.  I had a Vodafone internet key from my last trip, and just needed to recharge it at a store.  This was my chance.

With a renewed sense of adventure, we hopped off at the next stop.  I bounced into the Vodafone shop and worked through the details in my broken Italian.  Fortunately, I still had a copy of the contract and my SIM card with me.  10 minutes and 25 Euro later, I was assured I’d have internet in a couple of days.  Fabulous!

We continued on, back to the station and found the TI.  I swear, every TI has a 20 year old, super-cute Italian woman working there.  One who speaks darn good English, and gives tons of help and tons of hot attitude.  This one was no exception.  After listening with amusement as we struggled through our first couple of questions, she stopped us and continued on in English.  We left there with a couple of maps of the city (thank the gods and goddesses), bus, train and boat schedules, and smiles on our faces.

It turned out the real downtown – the beautiful, medieval part, was on the other side of the station, nowhere near where we were walking the day before.  Hilarious.

We walked down the main drag, window-shopping; enjoying the different feel in this more touristy district (though it was still far less touristy than any other city we’d be in).  Past more clothing shops and other retail establishments, through piazzas we walked.  I picked up a wicked-sweet knit argyle trucker hat in green and pink.

It’s rare that things like this call to me, but when I saw it in the window, I squealed (also rare) and ran inside, spurred on by the Ant.  “It’ll be closed when we get back from lunch.  You better go now.”

Hat in hand (well, in my swanky bag) we headed back into the street to find a pizzeria.  It was past time for us to eat.  However, as we walked toward the water, we were derailed.  Walking by a bread shop/rosticceria, we saw tins of pasta, peppers and eggplant parmesan.   Super-yummy.  “Let’s go in.”  I was thinking about the wood-fired bread that could be waiting inside.  We ducked through the plastic beads hanging down, and found ourselves in a dimly lit shop, over-stocked with bread, cheese, crachers, biscuits, and a thousand types of carbs.  It was heaven.

The woman came from behind the counter to help pull the food out of the window.  We pointed out one tin of eggplant and one of peperonata (roasted peppers), and I asked for the bread.  She held up a half a loaf – about the size of a dinner platter.  “Perfetto.”  I assured her.  We’d work through that in a day.

She carefully wrapped up our food, putting the tins in plastic to-go containers, and wrapping the bread in paper.  We paid something like 13 Euro and took possession of our feast.

“Forchette?”  We didn’t have silverware on us.

“No.”

“Okay, va bene.”  This would be an earthy meal.

The waterfront was a block away, with its bench-lined, grassy walkway.  We found a good place in the shade, and considered our meal.  We’d watched boys washing their hands in the drinking fountains that dotted the sidewalks.  There was one standing nearby, its big metal basin a friendly sight.

After washing up a bit, we set out the food, tearing off large hunks of the beautiful, eggy bread.

The bread was perfect.   Pulling it apart, we took the strips of eggplant, tomato and cheese and folded it inside.

Eggplant parmesan sandwiches on the waterfront.  Bello.  We sat for a while, stuffing our faces, and looking out over the water.  When we couldn’t eat anymore, we packed up what was left and headed back toward the station.

Vendors had sent up along the waterfront, and we cruised through, checking out their wares.  Children’s books, metal signs in English, pendants used to ward off the “evil eye.”  The vendors always amaze me.  Most of them speak 2 or 3 languages.  Pretty darn well.  Way better than I do.  I have a graduate degree.  And these guys always humble me.

A few souvenirs under our arms, we continued on, watching the sky turn to black.

We needed to catch a bus back to the apartment, but there was something more important we needed to take care of first.  We hadn’t had gelato in Salerno yet.  Just down from the station and the TI, we found a colorful place with smiling trashcans, and a zillion flavors.

Despite the plastic gelato bins, we decided to give it a go.  Even bad gelato was good.  But this stuff was good.  Winter cherry,  walnut, and stracchiatella filled our cones and our already over-full bellies.  We watched as locals ordered gelato and brioche – actual sandwiches of ice cream.  I promised myself I’d have one before I go home.

All sugared up, we walked to the bus stop, read the sign, and found the right bus back.  Sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get something right.  And we’d gotten this day right.

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June 14, 2010   No Comments

Salerno, take one

On our first full day in Salerno, we woke full of enthusiasm.  Carmine had pointed out the little coffee kiosk where we could buy bus tickets, and told us that today was market day.  Market day.  How fantastic.

So we got up at a decent hour, walked the two blocks to the bus terminal and located the coffee stand.  After a only slightly labored conversation with the owner, we had learned the details of the bus pass system.  1 Eruo 10 would buy us a 90 minute pass.  9 Euro 90 would buy us a week-long pass (Monday through Sunday).  We were feeling ambitious about our bus usage, so sprung for the week pass.

From the coffee hut pantomime, we understood that we’d only have to validate the little passes once in order to use them for the week.  Good deal.  We inquired as to the time and number of the bus that would take us “al centro,” and walked across the parking lot to wait.

It’s amazing how easily we stick-out.  Even with our dark hair and skin, our clearly Mediterranean profiles, my aunt and I are obvious foreigners.  “Straniere.”  This isn’t a tourist town, and we’re staying in an apartment.  In a place where locals live.   One quick look at our shoes is all it takes.  No heels.  No metallic.  Straniere.  You can watch the mental checklist as it’s rolled out.  We smile back and mumble, “giorno,” our mouths struggling to remember how to embrace this simplest of greetings.

The bus arrived, and we climbed on board.  I confirmed with the driver, “vai al centro?”  He just looked back.  I smiled hopefully.  A nod.  Good.  That would work.  Surely the market was in the city center.  Surely we’d know the city center when we saw it…

The buss pulled out, circling around the apartments and out toward the waterfront.  We drove past palm-laden colonnades, and pay-to-play beaches, some brilliant, others hollowed out, graffitied shells.  The bus filled the further we drove.  Little (I mean little) old ladies with shopping bags, and young women with suitcases.  Men of all ages with different styles of aviator glasses.  All piled in.

The Ant and I looked at each other, unsure now if we’d know when to get off.  The bus headed inland, and we huddled together trying to divine our relative location to the market by the number of women walking with shopping bags.

Once or twice we leaped up, ready to try our luck, only to find that the stop wasn’t what we’d hoped.  It’s just a street vendor selling beach balls, or a crowd of surly-looking men.  We sat back down.  After about 30 minutes, we decided it was time.  The area had become more commercial, and several older-women were queuing at the door. “Ding.” Someone rang the call button and the bus slowed jerkily to allow us off.

We walked away from the bus stop before peering around to get our bearings.  Our shoes would be enough of a giveaway.  We don’t need to be gawking in the middle of the street.

There was no market in sight, but a promising row of shops stretched off to the right.


A fish monger had his daily catches on display, and shop after shop window was filled with cheap clothing – most of it purple.  It was clear we didn’t know where we were, other than Salerno, and neither of us really knew how to ask where the market was.  So we walked.  Salerno is a big city, and we knew there was a lot more down the road in front of us, so we continued on.  Eventually we found ourselves at the waterfront again and took in the view of the harbor and brooding sky.


“Maybe it’s time we find a map.  Waddaya think?”  The Ant was looking a little skeptical about our ability to find anything.

“Okay, shall we head back in a couple of streets?”

Along with the plethora of clothing shops and tabacchi, Salerno is home to a zillion newsstands.  Books, magazines, papers, and every kind of reading material imaginable hangs on the exteriors of the beefy shops.

I thought I remembered the word for map, so tried with the young girl inside the first stand we came to.  “Giorno.  Una carta?”  Puzzled, she furrowed her brow at me.  An older woman appeared, speaking rapidly in Italian to her apparent daughter.

“What are you looking for?”  It’s seriously, disappointing when I try to speak Italian, and after three words, the local can tell which is my native language.  I’m sure it didn’t help that I was using the Spanish word for “map.”

“A map of the City.”  The girl shook her head, and her mother shushed her, walking out and around the front of the shop.  She returned with a shrink-wrapped tourism guide to the area.

“Maps for all the area in here,” she said, nodding and gesturing grandly with her arms.

“Oh good, grazie!”

“Aspetta.”  The daughter wasn’t all convinced.  She took the book from her mother who was clearly displeased with the interruption.  “You are looking for a street map?”

“Si.  Of Salerno.”

“That is not in here.”  The mother now seemed in agreement.  This was not what we were looking for.  They didn’t have anything like that.

Really?  No map of the city?  Not good.  We’d have to keep looking, but I wasn’t about to waste this exchange.

“Dove una pizza piu buona?”  Locals are the best food guides.  There are lots of pizza shops, but they’re not all equal.

“Mama!  Una pizza bunoa?”  The mother came back from returning the guidebook to its out-of-sight location.  They had a quick exchange, in which much pointing and nodding occurred.  I only caught “pizza” and “forno.”

“Come.”  The mother was leading us into the street.  “Alla sinistra, there at the bikinis.”  A great big shop sign showing people’s hips in bikinis was at the second corner down.  “There e alla destra.”  I love speaking half and half.  Usually we can make it work, and this was working beautifully.

“Ho capito.  Grazzie mille!”

We smilled and exchanged “ciao”s.  In two minutes, we were walking into a hole-in-the-wall ristorante and pizzeria.  The front of the shop was dominated by the counter, standing sentinel over the seating area and oven.  It took a few minutes to get anyone’s attention.  It was clearly still early.  It wasn’t even one o’clock yet.  Another dead giveaway that we aren’t Italian.

On the way to our little table, I found myself staring.  The beautiful, wood-fired oven was a really, really good sign.  We’d be eating well.

As we were sitting down, there was a little commotion at the door.  Our friend from the newsstand had tracked us down.  “We have, una mappa.  Dopo, dopo.”  She was gesturing wildly.

“Si, dopo!  Grazie!”  They’d found us a map.  We’d return after the meal to retrieve it.  It’s not like we needed anyone to announce to the rest of the place that we were tourists, but at least now it was all out on the table.  And now we had a little bit of cred with the owners.  We were under the guidance of the newsstand lady.

Our cute-as-a-button waiter came over with his little pad of paper and the fun began.  We picked a pizza off the menu and ordered water.  Then I looked over his shoulder as he ran down the list of pasta specials.  I’m pretty good with food words.  I love food, so I’ve made these vocab words a priority.  Still, there are regional variations that can leave me totally puzzled.  I recognized a couple of the pasta dishes,  confirmed they contained no meat, “senza carne?” and thanked our patient waiter.

We waited, and watched.  The oven was right behind the Ant, giving me a fantastic view as they made the pizza.


The dough was rolled out, then coated with tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, cheese and “rucola,” or “rocket.”  I wasn’t familiar with this green, but evidently it’s fairly common here.  And it’s tasty on pizza.  I was even able to get some video of the process.

The pizza stayed in the oven for maybe 8 minutes, probably less, and came out bubbly and chewy and delicious.

We shared this one and waited for our pasta.

Mine was a rigatoni with eggplant and pomodoro.  The Ant had gnocchi that was almost a soup.  They were both lovely.

Against the odds, we scarfed down every last drop, and considered dessert.

“Qualcosa dolce?”  We needed something sweet to finish the meal.

“Torta?”  Cake, perfect.

“Si!  E due caffe.”  I mean if we’re going to do this thing, we’re going to do this thing right.

We never really figured out was was in the torta, but it was tasty, and we were happy.  As we nursed our coffees, we watched the wait staff welcome an older gentleman and lovingly bring him plate after plate of food.  We watched as our waiter sat down with his daughter and the rest of the family as they fed her lunch.

We finished up, paid the bill and headed out to return to the newsstand.  Horror slowly dawned on us as we walked the two blocks.  It was after 1:30.  The stand was closed.  And we didn’t really know where we were.  It wasn’t that we were concerned about our whereabouts, we just felt terrible that our friends had gone to the trouble of finding a map, and tracking us down.  And now we couldn’t even say thank you!  Slightly dejected, we walked back toward the water, taking note of where we were.  Hoping that we’d be able to find the stand among all the others.  These people were like our family.

I think, if we were judging Italianness based on love of food and family, the Ant and I would be indistinguishable.  It’s just our damn shoes.

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June 13, 2010   1 Comment

Power

Today, after a week of running up and down the coast, the Ant and I decided to head inland to the city of Potenza.  Potenza isn’t in our guidebook, and we didn’t find a ton of information on it, other than it’s the highest regional capitol in the country, and that it has a lot of historic churches.  Oh, and its name means, “Power.”

We spent yesterday afternoon examining bus and train schedules, and planning our trip.  It seemed best for us to catch the 9:35 high-speed train from Salerno.  Because the station is an hour and a half walk, we hopped a bus to downtown.  After a week, we’ve got the busses pretty well figured out (knock on wood), so we ended up at the station with tickets in hand about an hour before the train left.  We congratulated ourselves and decided a cappuccino was in order.

It took about a week for us to have a favorite cappu place.  It’s our favorite gelato place, too.  Just up from the train station, on a corner by the sea, it’s also our favorite bathroom stop.  They’ve started recognizing us.  This morning after ordering in Italian, I heard the girl who has helped us 3 or 4 times tell one of the other baristas something that sounded a lot like “these don’t understand anything.”  Funny how I understood that.  It wasn’t said with malice, just an acknowledgment that we reach for our money to pay too early, or that we struggle a little with the size of the coins, pulling a 50 cent piece out instead of a 20.  But we made it through today, and our girl said, “thank you” when we paid.

Even after our cappunation, there was still about half an hour before our train left, so we went to the tabacchi to buy stamps.  Another successful exchange.  I think.  Not sure if we put too much on the postcards, but we got them posted and the right slot on the big-red box.  We were feeling pretty confident.

Back in the train station, we located the right platform, and after letting several other trains come and go, we boarded the right train, and even found our seats, where we informed a gentleman that he was sitting in themSuccess.

The ride out of the city and to the interior of the country was magnificent.  As the train rumbled along, I got an intense, soul-filling feeling.  I realized I’m more of a hill town girl, than a costal town girl.  The beaches are nice, but the rivers flow a milky turquoise, dancing atop the rugged, bleached shale and bedrock.  It’s otherworldly to me.  It feels deeply and powerfully like home.   Like time could stop and I could plant myself in one of the little caves that flank the rugged riverbeds.

But the train rolled on, and I watched the locals watching us through my sunglasses.  I even watched as the woman across from me took a covert picture with her phone.  I could hear the little camera “click” and watched her close the cover.  So I took a picture of her.  I think that’s super-fair, don’t you?  She probably thought I’m an American celebrity.  Understandable, really.

As we rolled into the station, it was clear we had our work cut out for us.  “Seems pretty spread out.”  The Ant was looking around at the non-city that surrounded the train station.  The night before, when we’d considered the train schedule, we noted that there were a couple of different stations to choose from.  Without a guide, we opted for “centrale,” hoping it would get us closest to the city center.  We were good with busses, but would we be able to navigate when we didn’t know where we were going?  “Nah.”  I was confident we could walk this one out.  “Let’s start walking.”

After a short debate about which way we should go, we started up the hill.  After all, we knew the city sat at the top of a hill.

“I think maybe we should ask someone.”  My Ant did have a point.  It was already about 80 degrees, and there didn’t appear to be any shade ahead.  We’d tried the lady in the tobacco shop, but, without a destination she wasn’t able to give us much.  Not even a map.

There was a guy walking ahead of us, but I wasn’t too excited by the way he felt, so I turned and looked behind us.  A middle-aged, dark-haired man with a jovial walk and newspapers tucked under his arm was moving toward us.  I waited until he was in earshot.

“Prego.”  He looked up.  “Dové il centro?”  He looked quizzically at us.

I find it takes a minute for folks to understand my accent.  I don’t really speak that much Italian – enough to eat and get around – and I mumble to boot.

“Il centro?”

“Si, della città.”

He rocked back on his heels.  “English?”  Awesome.  I prefer it when I can get through a conversation in Italian, but it’s kind of nice to get directions in English, when you’re going to walk in the sun for an extended period of time.  “It’s a long way,” he said, looking from one of us to the other.

“We walk a lot,” the Ant assured him.  He continued to look at us.

“How far?  Venti minuti?”  I tried.

“Si, si, about twenty.”  The Ant and I looked triumphantly at each other.  We could do twenty.  Twenty was nothing, even if it was hot and uphill.

“Bene.  Molto grazie!”

We all smiled and nodded, and headed up the street, our new friend in the lead.  The Ant and I chatted and wondered if there had been a better station for us to use.  Our friend stayed close, but not too close.  After about a minute, he turned.  “I am going to the center.  I will take you.  You can ride with me if you like.”

“Vero?”  The Ant and I exchanged a grin.  “Grazie mille! Thank you so much.  That would be wonderful.  Are you sure?”

We walked on just a bit, exchanging pleasantries.  Yes, we’re from America.

“New York?”  He asked eagerly.  Usually people wanted to know if we were from California.  “My parents worked in New Jersey.  Patterson, New Jersey.  You know it?”  We shook our heads.  “I was there in 1980.  Thirty years agao.”  He shook his head in disbelief.  He was walking toward a small, white, 2-door car.  He opened the door for us and we climbed in.  Something I would probably never do in the US, but something that seemed completely natural here.

During the 5 minute switchback ride to the city center, we exchanged names.  He was Paulo.  He worked for PostaItalia.  I noticed he had a wedding ring, and wondered what his parents had done in Patterson, New Jersey.  He asked how long we would be staying and how many times we had come before.

When he dropped us off, it was across from a very tall building.  “Inside that big door you will find, how do you say, ascensore…”

“Lift.  Elevator,” I supplied.

“Si, brava.  Elevator.  It will take you up to the next street.  Via Pretoria.  That is the main street.”

We climbed out and waved as he drove away.


So we needed an elevator to get to the main street.  This city really was on a hill.  We climbed in with the lines of locals and took the quick ride up.  At the top, we looked down, taking in the excellent view.


And the stairs that we could have climbed.


We were grateful for Paulo.  We prepared ourselves for the walk back.

The top level of the city was before us, maze-like and strange.  The streets had been paved over with new blocks, giving the city a clean, new feel.  We took a look at a map posted in the first piazza we came to.  I even took a picture so that we could take it with us.  Unfortunately, the map was posted facing the wrong way, rendering the “you are here” icon pretty unhelpful.  After an hour of wandering through the streets in a big circle, we realized something wasn’t quite right.  Thankfully, though, the hilltop felt something like an island.  I didn’t think we could get too lost on this side of the elevator.

We took in the architecture.  The Napoleonic city wall, the painted buildings, the hitching posts.

Starting from the map, we headed right, in the other direction, toward a group of people that seemed to be window-shopping.  I was fairly certain I knew where we were, but that didn’t help us fill our stomachs, which were rapidly becoming demanding.  We saw alarmingly few eateries as we walked, and only one pizzeria, which was closed, though the smell wafting from the kitchen was fantastic.

We decided it was time to take Paolo’s advice and find Via Pretoria.  Perhaps we’d have more luck finding a pizzeria there.  The side street we chose had nothing that looked like food on it.  “Maybe we should ask someone.”

I’d already started feeling around for someone who could point us in the right direction.  I could see the Ant was melting a little, and marveled at the feeling of openness I’d been experiencing since I arrived in Italy this time.  It was not at all like the pressed feeling I had come to know during my last visit.  The discomfort with being unable to communicate.  The paralysis of feeling out of control of my surroundings.  The feeling of being in a bell jar.  Being able to see out, but not to move in the world the way I wanted to.  I could feel the Ant going through a small grief cycle as she experienced this feeling of loss now, in a strange city, with no guidebook, no guide, and little language to help us along.

A young woman stepped out of a shop into the street in front of us. “ Prego!”  She turned.  “Via Pretoria?”  I wasn’t really up for conjugation.  She smiled.

“Diritto,” she motioned ahead.  “Sempre.”  Okay, go straight ahead, always straight ahead.  We could do that.

“Grazie.”  She turned off, and we walked ahead, following a red line painted on the cobblestones.  We followed it to its end.


Then we went on some more.  Until we saw a sign for a restaurant and pizzeria.

“I think we should go there.”  The Ant and I travel well together.  We’re pretty easy going, until we’re not.  And then we’re direct.  She was done.  Enough wandering.  It was time to eat.

I paused at the top of the steep stairway leading down to the restaurant.  Vines hung down, and I wasn’t sure whether we were going into a café, or a piazza.  Walking down it became clear.  This was a nice place.  We were in for a treat.

“Aperto?”  It wasn’t entirely clear whether they were open.  We were a little early for the lunch crowd.  There was nobody else there, but we were welcomed in and seated near the middle of the restaurant by an older gentleman with a bald head, baggy jacket and designer glasses.  He looked like he was probably the owner.

He took our drink order and explained where to find the daily specials.  Then he left us to look over the menu.

“We should go all out.”  This place reminded me of the restaurants in Venice, and I was eager to have a real pranzo.  “What do you think?  Primi, secondi, the whole thing.”  We rarely do this, opting for the less expensive pizza route, often disappointing our wait staff.

The Ant agreed, and we started translating the menu, my little dictionary at the ready.  There was spaghetti with tomato sauce, fettuccini with artichoke, and other things I couldn’t even translate.  The Ant settled on maccheroni  al forno – baked maccheroni – and a timballetti of lamb and eggplant.  I chose pasta with lentils and a plate of vegetables.

When I asked for a plate of mixed vegetables, our friendly waiter/probable owner, was accommodating, considering what he’d bring me, and making notes on his tablet.  Then I tried for a cheese plate.  He did me one better.  He would put cheese on top of the grilled vegetables.

Wow.

Seeing his face light up, I celebrated for a moment when I realized that I’d understood the description well enough to respond with a genuinely excited face.  This was a good day.

The pasta comes first at a meal like this, and this pasta was fantastic.

The Ant’s maccheroni was beautify and crunchy.

My lentils were amazing.  Delicate and savory, they were prepared with olive oil, and a small bit of tomato sauce.  We swirled the bowl around trying to identify ingredients.

With alarming speed, our plates were empty, and we were soaking up the remains with bread.  Any concern that we wouldn’t be able to eat everything shoved aside.

I wasn’t sure exactly what a timballetti was, but we got an approving look when we ordered it.

The little patties of lamb and eggplant sat on a bed of roasted red pepper and olive oil.

I grinned at my plate of cheesy veggies and dug in.  I’ll be grilling my greens much more when I return.  I forget about how earthy and sensual this can be.  Arugula and hearts of romaine, as well as zucchini, eggplant, tomato and potato were covered in slivers of pecorino and parmesan.

We marveled at the flavors and the perfect serving of each.  Again, the food disappeared.

The restaurant was now starting to fill.  Locals, including carbinieri filed in.  Other than us, there was one other woman in the place.  I started to notice looks coming from the table next to us.  Quick glances and mimed photographs told me I was being watched.  Not in a comfortable way.  I try to be respectful and not too obvious with my photographs of the food, but I’m not always successful.  Regardless, I was enjoying the meal, and our service was lovely, so I put it aside.

We ordered dessert, one of each of the torte brought to the table for us to choose from, and a couple of coffees.

The waiters were all now bustling about.  Several more had appeared, and those who had earlier been in shirtsleeves with visible chest hair now had on ties and vests.

The guys at the table next to us were quiet.  Very, very quiet.  Not even really talking.  I’m sure I was projecting, but I felt like they were agitated with our intrusion into their routine.  I tried to let it go.

We paid the bill and took turns in the bathroom.  The Ant first and then I headed in.  “I’ll meet you outside,” she said as she gathered her purse.  I thought about the great meal, but my mind wandered back to the guys at the table.

I walked out, looking for the owner.  He’d been so helpful, I wanted to give him a wave and a “grazie, arrivederci,” but he was in the back.  I paused, and smiled, but wanted to get out of the gaze of the quiet table, so I hurried out, not sure he’d seen me.  I greeted and thanked another of the waiters on the way out, and then walked up the stairs to find the Ant.

When I saw her face, I froze.  She looked shaken.

“You alright?”

She looked at me with big eyes, and nodded just a little.

“What happened.”  My mama bear was coming out.

She opened her mouth and looked like she was going to lose it.  “Did he say goodbye to you?”

“What?  Who?”  My mind was still on the table.  “I smiled, but I’m not sure he saw.  Why?”

“Well, he came over and asked if everything was good, and then he shook my hand and grabbed me and kissed both cheeks.”  She was on the verge.

My tension melted.  I felt sheepish.  “That’s awesome.  He was great.”  I walked over to the little stairs and peered down, hoping to see his grinning face.  If the owner was pleased with our effort, delighted with our enjoyment of his food, I didn’t care much what anyone else thought.

We hugged, and headed up the street back to the piazza and the map, finding it easily.  It was 1:30.  Stores were closing, and we’d seen a lot of the hilltop, so we decided to head back to the station to catch the 2:20 back to Salerno.

Down the elevator we went.  Then we tried to reach a lower level by escalator.  But that just took us under the street and through an interesting art display.


This left us with the option of walking down the street, way around the downtown area, switching back to the lower levels, or taking the stairs, and hoping we could find the right street to the station.

We opted for the stairs.  Which went on.  And on.  And on.  Not steeply, just in flights, switching back and forth, crossing streets, working us further down into a gully.  At one of the street crossings, we saw a guy cut down the stairs in front of us.  He looked like the trek was a familiar, jolly one, and disappeared quickly.

We looked around, trying to assess if we’d gone far enough down to be at the level of the train station.  Despite our best efforts, neither of us had paid very good attention while in the car with Paulo.  We continued down the last flight.

When we reached the bottom, the guy from the stairs was there, talking animatedly with two women: , one wiry, with long dark hair pulled up on the top on her head and a tattoo of Asian characters on her neck, the other smaller, in pink with bleach-blond, short hair.  They moved as a pack, lovingly jostling each other as they crossed the street toward a car.  I’d been watching them with curiosity.  In this comfortable town I hadn’t felt anyone quite like them.  “We’ll ask them.”  It was clear to me they were our next step.

“Prego?”  The dark-haired woman stopped and looked at me.

“Di mi.”  They were all looking at us now.  And they were curious.

I’d tried to work out a way to ask how to get to the station.  “Come andare alla stazione centrale?”

They all gathered around and began the deliberation.  The dark-haired woman wanted to send us the long, direct route, while the short-haired blonde thought the short route was better, but more confusing.  They all agreed it’d be too hard to tell us how to get there.  They looked up at us and motioned, saying something quickly.

“No parlo bene.”  My hands coming up in a plaintiff gesture.

“English?”  Really?  Wow, they were good.

“Si.”

“Okay, you’re coming with us.  We’ll take you.”  Well of course they would.  Truthfully, I had been waiting for the offer.

“Where are you from?”

“America.”

“AHhh.  America!”  They were super-excited.  This was the best reception we’d had.  The women looked at me with what seemed to be a new understanding.  Yes, short-haired women were more common in America.  I’ve honestly seen 3 since I’ve been here.

We turned to their car, a four-door, blue one, perhaps a Panda.  I pulled at the handle and the blonde, who was climbing into the driver’s seat said, “baby, wait a minute.”  Baby.  Okay.  The other woman smiled.

The door clicked and we climbed in, moving aside whatever random backseat items were on the seat.

“Grazie mille,” I started.

“Niente.”

“No really, for something,” I laughed at the hand she’d put up, trying to stop a stranger from thanking her for interrupting her day for a ride to the train station.

Their other friend had disappeared, walking over to his car.  As we fired the engine and drove past, the Ant and I joined in waving goodbye.  The ladies slowed, and motioned him over, yelling out the window that they didn’t want him to feel abandoned.  He came around and climbed in, the three of us pressed into the back seat.  What a riot!

The ladies told us that they were dangerous, cackling wildly.

“Oh good, “ declared the Ant, joining in the laughter.

“Ciaro,” I added, realizing I was using the term “clear” incorrectly as I said it.

We drove and talked, the usual questions about where we lived in America, where we were staying in Italy, for how long, whether we liked Potenza.

“We like the people very much.”

“Oh, well thank you.”  They all seemed disillusioned with the little town, but happy we were enjoying ourselves.

“Yes, you’re all very nice.”

“Well, except for him, eh Vicenzo?”  The ladies were laughing.

“Si, il unico.”  He was the only grumpy one.  Not likely.  His warm, scruffy face was beaming.

“So, Vicenzo?”  I said motioning toward the man, “and what are your names?”

A hand came over the driver-side headrest.  I missed the dark-haired woman’s name, as I shook her hand, amused by the other hand in my face, the driver impatient for me to shake it.

“Mary.”  Not Marie, not Mari.  Mary.  Interesting.

“Kistin.”  They all said it, “Christin.”  Better than the usual Christina.

“Leslie.”  They all let out little joyous sounds at the name.  Something unusual.  “Lezli.”

There was much shaking of hands and laughter.

And then we were at the station.  Just like that.

Mary unbuckled and hopped out of the car.  I pushed the backseat clothing onto the floor and climbed out to thank her.  She positioned herself stoutly in front of us, her tiny frame looking resolute.  Her pink hoodie and piercings distracting from her serious face.

She started speaking, then stopped herself.  “No.  Francais, um…”

“En Italiano,” I encouraged.  Maybe I could work it out.  It seemed important to her to say whatever it was.

“Ok.  Il mundo,”  She was making a circle in the air.

“Yes, the world.”

“Si, il mundo e rotondo.  The world is round.  And you and I,” she had removed her sunglasses – something I always do when I’m wanting to make a connection.  Realizing that I was looking into her clear, beautiful, amber eyes, I took mine off, too.

“You and I siamo interconnessi, mmm….”

“We are interconnected, si.”  I knew this.  We’re all connected.  Even the guys at the restaurant.  But sometimes it’s more clear than others.  And right now it was clear.

“This is my philosophy.”  She dropped her hands form the air where she had been making connections between the three of us.

“It’s ours too.”  We smiled at each other.  I moved toward her, kissing her cheeks, embracing fully.

“Molto grazie.”  “Grazie mille.”  The thanks flowed heavy as she moved to the Ant for another round of kisses and hugs.

Then we stood and looked at each other, appreciating the connection that was so obviously there, unexpected and welcome.  She and I moved together at the same time, one last kiss on the cheek and a hard embrace.  And then the Ant and I were walking into the station, and the blue car was pulling away.

I looked over my shoulder about a dozen times, wishing they would come back, wondering why we hadn’t thought to exchange contact information and wondering if we’d be able to find them if we walked back up into the city, or returned on another day.

In the station, we bought tickets for the 2:40 ride back to Salerno, and then I ran to find the bathroom.  When I came out, the Ant looked worried.  “You sure you didn’t buy bus tickets?”  Crap, she was right.  The 4:20 was a bus.  We’d decided not to try taking the long-distance bus, as we didn’t know how to purchase tickets, or where to pick it up.  And now we had tickets, but 4 minutes to work out where to board.

Walking out the front door, we stopped a couple of guys in suits.  One was on the phone.  “Prego,” I tried with the other.  “Autobus?”  I handed him my ticket.  I didn’t have time for grammar (don’t tell anyone).

“English?” came the question from the man on the phone.  I nodded.  He finished his call and took my ticket.  “Wait a moment.”  He headed into the station while we waited with the other man.

“I’m not a train agent.  He is.”  Wow, good luck for us today.

The agent reemerged with my ticket.  “Yes, this is a ticket for the bus.  You catch it just over there.  It will arrive at 2:20.  It is a green bus.”

“Grazzie mille!”  We crossed the street and waited for the green bus that would take us down from the hill, back to Salerno.  The Ant and I thought back to another day in Italy without a guidebook, in another hill town, and the connections we’d made there.

Yes.  I’m a hill town kind of girl.

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June 10, 2010   1 Comment