Tales of a wandering lesbian

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?


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

The ministry of soap

When my family first said they wanted to send a thank you box to my friends in Italy, I thought that was pretty great.  For the next couple of weeks, I got updates on what was going into the box, and provided info on the members of my extended Italian family.

I checked with my friends to see what the best way to ship the box would be.  We determined that something like UPS was much better than the postal system.  (My mom and aunt had spent 45 minutes in line one time only to find that they couldn’t actually buy extra stamps for the postcards they wanted to mail.)

Just before I headed to Venice I got emails from my mom and sister saying that the box had shipped.  It might arrive before I was away.  “I told them it had soap in it, and ‘personal hygiene items.’”  My sister, Cathy, had FedExed the box, and she and my mom had put a couple of bars of soap in for me, because I was having a hard time figuring out the Italian labels.  “I thought it was better than saying it had food items from Idaho.”  That sounded reasonable to me.  Shipping food items into Italy wasn’t probably something to advertise.

So I went to Venice and instructed the ladies not to open the box if it arrived while I was away.  When I got back I had a message from my sister:  the box had been detained when it arrived in Italy.  Apparently, the Italian Ministry of Healthy closely regulates the shipping of “personal hygiene items,” specifically soap.  Damn.  They needed someone from in the country to call.  It seems they had tried to contact me and had left a voicemail on my Italian cell.  Double damn.

I’d had a series of phone calls from blocked numbers while I was in a train station.  Thinking it was a friend playing tricks, I answered, “pronto!” to which they responded “pronto!”  We went back and forth for a while yelling pronto at each other.  Then I laughed manically and hung up.  After a few of these, I just let it go to voice mail.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how to set up or retrieve messages, because the instructions were in Italian.  So I forgot about it.  It seems it was the government calling to talk about the box.  Great.  And I’d mocked them, laughed, hung up and ignored their message for about a week.  Excellent.  Well played.

So, Cathy sent me the phone number for FedEx Italy, and Sandra made the call.  Then she made another call as instructed by the FedEx people.  On that call she learned that we would need to fill out some paperwork, make a payment of 40 Euro (approximately $60), and fax the paperwork back, along with proof of payment.  They’d be sending an email shortly.  We had 3 days to complete our tasks.

“Why did she say there was soap in the box?”  Evidently it was the wrong thing to say.  Who knew?  “Do you really want to pay 40 Euro for the soap?  That’s expensive soap.”  I didn’t give a hoot about the soap at this point.  I wanted the gifts for everyone.  So we waited for the email.

The paperwork, it turned out, was 5 pages of questions about my province of birth (assuming I was Italian), my company’s location, the name of my warehouse, and the weight of the soap I was shipping.  They, apparently, thought I was a soap importer.

Assisted by my personal translator, I filled out the pages and signed.   Deb’s mom took me to the post office to pay the fine and get a receipt.  The woman behind the counter had never seen forms like ours before, and didn’t know what we would have to do to get our box.  She could take my money and give me a receipt, though.

I gathered all the papers and faxed it the number I’d been given.  If I’d have known the patron saint of mail, I’d have said a little prayer.

The day I left for Rome, we still hadn’t heard anything at all.  I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever  see the box.

I had a wonderful time in Rome .  When I got back, Bertie came to find me.  A box had arrived.

I went downstairs to retrieve it.  It was like Christmas.  The box was intact.  It was wonderful to see my mom’s handwriting on its top.  Tom and I opened it and spread its contents out on the kitchen table.

Presents and soap

There were toys for the kids, and mugs for the ladies.  Jars of jam and mustard, and games appeared for everyone.  And there was soap.  The few small bars were the most interesting items to everyone.  “She should have told them it was books or something.”  The ladies found it pretty humorous that I’d had to pay so much for soap.

The next day, when I delivered a bag of goodies to Deb’s family in Barga, Ryo said that he’d had a box arrive as well.  And he’d had to pay a 35 Euro fee.  “What was in his box?” I asked Deb.  “Books.  His old used ones.”

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December 19, 2009   4 Comments


Tonight’s vocab word is dormire.  It means to sleep.  Here it is in a sentence:

Stasera, ho bisogno di dormire invece di scrivere. Sogni d’oro!

Happy translating!

Tonight, I need to sleep instead of write.  Sweet dreams!
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December 17, 2009   Comments Off on Vocab



Today’s vocab word is pieno/a.  It means full.  Here it is in a sentence:

“Dopo una grande cena, sono piena.”

Happy translating!


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December 11, 2009   Comments Off on Vocab

Culture Shock

It happened today.  Culture shock.  I’ve had a couple of moments where I’ve missed home, wished I spoke the language, or wasn’t sure whether I’d complimented or insulted someone.  Today was different.

I spent the morning largely with Barbara, Deb’s mom, and Andre.  We went for our daily coffee and focaccia at Marino’s shop where we talked about the importance of family and the uncertainty of leaving one’s surroundings.  Barbara had come to Barga as a young woman to be with her husband, Deb’s dad.  We shared our stories of intentional discomfort – her moving to a new country with little knowledge of the language; my decision to take a fundraising job in order to deal with my outright terror of cold calling.

We went shopping, first to a bookstore where I bought another Harry Potter book in Italian, and then to the local grocery store, where I spent a while staring at the shampoo and face soap.  I’ll just say that it’s much less intimidating to buy vegetables and jam, and even order bread from the meat counter, than to figure out what is face soap and what is laundry detergent.  I mean, if I get the wrong bread, Sandra laughs.  If I get the wrong soap, it could be a pretty miserable week.  So, I left with jam and toilet paper, and even dishwashing detergent, but no face soap (I’ll make Deb interpret the bottles later).

When I returned to the studio, I set to work on putting together a website.  I’ve been wrestling with the Italian site for the last week and thought I’d finally worked it out.  I’m very, very close, but not totally there.  After working on my little PC for a couple of hours, I switched to the big, pretty Mac that Ryo had left vacant.  It meant an Ethernet connection instead of the satellite one I’d been using, but it also meant using an unfamiliar operating system – in Italian.

I was able to find the web browser and, after about 15 mins, translate enough of the menu to figure out how to open up additional windows.  Brava!  Unfortunately, however, the internet was not cooperating.  I spent the next couple of hours battling against the computer and the internet, both of which kept giving me error messages in a foreign language.

When Sandra asked me what happened today to put me in such a bad mood, I couldn’t even explain.  “I battled the internet – all day – and it kept winning – in Italian.”  Not surprisingly, it didn’t translate.  So, we ate the fantastic meal that Sandra had prepared, joked about my hair, and, in the end, Tommy and I ended up playing cards.  And I won.  A lot.  In both Italian and English.  And he learned how to shuffle.  And that totally made up for losing to the internet.

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November 17, 2009   2 Comments