Tales of a wandering lesbian

At home in Salerno

We’ve spent the last few days in the coastal city of Salerno.  Never heard of Salerno?  Not surprising.  Even frequent visitors to Italy are unlikely to have spent much time here, unless they were touring the popular Amalfi coast.  Then they might have stopped here when their bus turned around to head back north.

Salerno is at once beautiful and depressing.  The city has seen a lot.  Allied forces landed near here during WWII.  The part of the city before that time is beautiful.  A medieval city that reminds me of many in Tuscany. But the part where we are staying, the newer post-WWII part comes in the form of high-rise apartment complexes.  Lots of them.  There is a feel of quiet desperation about the place.  I don’t know what the industry is here.  I need to do some research.  There has to be something going on locally, as the city is home to 150,000 people.  Funny, that’s the same size as Salem…

We arrived Wednesday, after an eventful night in Rome.  We’d taken the train through Naples, where we stopped for just enough time to grab a cappuccino outside the station.  It became clear, quickly, that our language skills would be tested more now than ever.  After trying to order coffee, we thought we were being dismissed.  With a wave and something that sounded like “go,” we gathered our bags and prepared to head back to the station, stunned.  Having seen us looking quizzically at each other, one of the baristas came out to tell us to sit and to confirm that we wanted the cappuccino.  She cleared out a couple of local guys who were camping at one of the sidewalk tables, smoking and talking.  They scattered like birds.

We sat down, our big bags giving us away as tourists as clearly as anything could.  The locals quickly returned to chat with us, telling us repeatedly how nice people in Naples are.  We assured them that we were enjoying our time, and eagerly slurped down our excellent cappuccino.  We bid arrivaderci to our new pals and headed back into the station to catch our train.  We were rusty.  We’d been able to buy the high-speed tickets from the machines in Rome, but forgot to validate on the platform.  Cazzo. I realized this as we stepped on the train, and ran back to find a little, yellow machine while the Ant staked out our seats.

We’d made the mistake of not insisting on sitting in our seats on the trip to Naples.  We had assigned seat numbers, but there were people sitting in them, so we found an empty compartment and sat, hefting our huge bags into the overhead compartments.  This worked just fine for the first half of the trip, when a group of well-dressed older Italians bustled in to claim their seats.  We pulled the bags down, trying not to bludgeon anyone, and moved one compartment over.  Where the scene was repeated about 20 minutes later, this time with a confused younger couple.  “I don’t understand,” he told us in his decent English.  “Why did you let them take your seats?”  He’d taken our tickets to look at them and help us to our seats.  We knew where our seats were, we just didn’t want to go through the hassle of trying to remove guys from our seats in our super-poor Italian.

“No, no, va bene,” I insisted as, once again I dead lifted my backpack.  He was preparing to take us to our seats and kick some serious ass.  “It’s not right,” he insisted.  “I know, I know.  I’ll do it.”  Now an older gentleman in a sportcoat was getting up and pushing past me into the corridor.  A minute before he’d been feigning sleep.  Now he looked like he was about to toss someone out of the train by his lapels.  I stepped in front of him and assured him that it was alright.  I don’t have any problem asking for or accepting help, when I need it, but I hadn’t even tried to get the guys in our seats to move, and I thought it a little unfair to send these two gentlemen after them at this point.

So, I steeled myself, took a deep breath and walked into the third compartment.  I pointed to the seats, pointed to the tickets and said something like “quelli sono nostro.”  I have no real idea if that’s correct, but it worked enough for us to grab a couple of the seats.  After a final placement of bags, this time one precariously balanced in the overhead rack and one sitting in the corridor, we sat down.  The young gentleman who seemed to be serving as the informal “train police” walked by a couple of times to make sure we had recovered our seats.  We waved and smiled, and he seemed mildly placated.

Then we settled in for the rest of the train ride, which was rapidly becoming interesting.  The city had given way to green, and, as we rounded a bend in the tracks, a strangely familiar site came into view.

Being from the northwest, I know a volcano when I see one.  Still, this one was startling.  Vesuvius. Destroyer of Pompei.  I jumped into the corridor and pulled down a fold-up seat from the wall so that I could snap a few pictures through the dirty train window.

I guess after a millennia or so, it shouldn’t be son intimidating, but this mountain intimidates me.

We finished out the ride and managed to get off at the right stop and find a taxi to take us to the other side of town where we would meet the owner of the apartment we would be renting for the next 3 weeks.  The cab ride was quiet.  The Ant phoned ahead to Carmine, and I mumbled to the driver that I was sorry that I didn’t speak Italian well.  Then I thought about whether it would be insulting to try to ask him where he was from.  I thought I could get the question right, but would he consider it a waste if I couldn’t understand the response?  So I sat, thinking about the Italian classes I’d promised myself I would take before returning.

And then we were there, Café Verdi, a super-cute, upscale café in the middle of blank-looking apartment complexes.  We sat and thought about what we would drink in the 80 degree weather.  We were sweating, and it was too late for cappuccino.  “Something cold and wet” said the Ant.  I thought I could manage that.  By the looks of things, the locals were ordering fancy cocktails.  Not so much what we were looking for.

Even with our huge bags, it didn’t seem that we’d been noticed by the wait staff.  I walked in and ordered at the bar.  A sweet young guy helped me through the process.  “Qualcosa freddo, senza alcool?”  He was game, but the waitress had now noticed me, and commanded me back to the table.  So I smiled feebly and went back to wait for her.  “I guess we order at the table,” I told the Ant.

Carmine had told us he’d meet us in 30 minutes, and we were getting close to the time limit.  Eventually, though, the waitress came over to us.  We went through the same song and dance, and she came up with a good solution for us.  Orange juice.  Fantastic.  10 minutes later, we had fancy glasses of orange juice in front of us, and a plate of savory snacks.  We watched the locals scurrying across the busy street, wondering which one was Carmine.  Surely he would be able to find us by our big luggage.  When the phone rang, the Ant answered it, and I looked up to see if I could find someone on a phone.  There he was.  A stringy, well-dressed man who had walked by us a few minutes early.  We waved frantically to get his attention, and he jogged over, a big smile on his face, and a dictionary under his arm.

Over the next hour, Carmine showed his to his rental apartment, which resembled a beach house, with its adequate kitchen and sparsely decorated walls.  He also took us past the supermarket, the beaches, the public park and the pizza place across the street from Café Verdi.  We learned that he is a professor of Italian in the neighboring town of Eboli.  He inquired as to whether we ride bikes, and when I responded enthusiastically and lamented that I didn’t have one here, he showed us where his were locked up and promised to drop the key the next day so that we could ride in town.  Fabulous.

He bid us good bye and we bid him ciao, both trying our best.  Then it was time for food.  We put off grocery shopping in favor of pizza and headed down to Pizza Vesuvio.  15 minutes later we were eating pizzas, one with eggplant and one with bufala mozzarella.

We were happy.

Next, we located the Sisa grocery store, a major victory, as the walking paths and streets are vastly different in this part of town.   Past the cement church, and across the busy street we walked, pausing to smell the jasmine blossoms on the air.

I’ve always gotten a thrill out of shopping in Italy.  It’s a relatively safe environment in which to test my language skills.  I fell back into the routine I’d developed during my last trip to Italy.  We looked for the cornettta I was used to eating at the house in Fornacci, the yogurt, pomodoro sauce, pasta, and cheese.  We even picked out some local cookies.  The only thing I couldn’t get my hands on was pane coto nel forno a legna, though when I asked the deli clerk, she gave me a knowing look.  She told me they’d had it earlier, but they were all out.  Oh well.  We grabbed another loaf and headed out.  We’d make do for tonight.

Through the checkout stand, the greeting, total due, bagging and salutation.  We made it.  We even found our way back home, where, exhausted but  exhilarated, we prepared a humble dinner of pasta marinara, which we enjoyed on one of our excellent patios.

We even made some tea and ate our entire selection of sandwich cookies, comparing our favorites and trying to guess what the marmellata filling was.  I think we settled on peach.  Then we settled into our beds, doors and windows flung wide to take in the Salerno night.  For the next three weeks, we were home.

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1 comment

1 Madeline { 06.08.10 at 8:20 am }

Enjoyed reading this and looking forward to following your adventures in and around Salerno over the next few week!