Tales of a wandering lesbian

Not-so-free beach

I spent a couple of afternoons on free beaches in Salerno.  Carmine had pointed to a few of them on our first day orientation drive around the city.

“How are the free beaches?”  I’d asked.  The idea of paying to sit in the sand is a foreign concept to someone from Oregon.  The beaches in the state are all considered public.  All of them.  Every grain of sand.

In Salerno, however, probably 80% of the sand is contained within fences and barriers, cordoned off into color-coded parcels marked by striped umbrellas.

Early into the trip I’d decided to take a run over to one of the free beaches that was halfway between our apartment and downtown Salerno.  It was about a 20 minute run, perfect on a hot day.  I packed up my towel, water bottle and book.  I left anything valuable, including my camera and ID home.

When I returned with my aunt, a week or so later, however, I made sure I had my camera.  The scene was just too rich to miss.  I’d risk it.

The walk to the strip of beaches took us through the underground passage for the under-construction train station, along stretches of abandoned private beach resorts, and past an ancient lighthouse.

The day was really quite hot, and the humidity was pushing us into the realm of uncomfortable.  We laughed as we walked past a disembodied room fan on the sidewalk.

The Ant was a trooper throughout the trip.  Whether walking too far along the beach, or dragging a suitcase over the bridges of Venice, she only occasionally asked me if we were there yet.  Today, though, I could sense that she was wondering whether I had sent her on a death march.

“We’re almost there,” I said, pointing at the cabanas we were passing on our left.  “We just have to go past these ones with red roofs, then some blue ones, and then the other red ones.”

Almost there.  What it really meant was that I knew where we were and where we were going.  Not that we were, actually, close.  The Ant knew this.

“Okay,” she nodded.  I knew she wasn’t convinced.

Forty-five minutes, and several water-stops later, we were there, at the free beach, staking out our spots, and taking in the scene.

Free beaches are free for a number of reasons:

  1. Nobody cleans up the trash that is washed up or left behind.
  2. There is no shade.
  3. There is no fresh water, either for drinking or washing.
  4. Beach vendors are allowed to walk along, and peddle their wares to anyone and everyone, relentlessly.

The vendors are easily enough dealt with.  A simple, “No, grazie” said firmly, and often, even over the top of the low-toned pitch, will almost always work.  It’s just that the process has to be repeated every 2-7 minutes as a new vendor, always a young man, and almost always a dark-skinned African immigrant, wanders by, tries to catch your eye, moves in close, and presents his product.  Sometimes it’s beach toys.  Other times clothing, or bolts of fabric.  Once in a while it’s jewelry or small pieces of art.

They start in Italian, then move to English, or German, or whatever language they determine will garner the most response.  With each firm, “No, grazie” I lament my inability to connect on a human level.  Eye-contact always prolongs the interaction, serving as a kind of affirmative response to their wares.

In the US, I will usually take the time to look a street vendor in the eye before saying, “no thanks.”  But here, in a less-familiar place, I feel unable to do so.  And saddened by that reality.  I also feel humbled.  As I listen to these men, watch them comb the beaches for the few Euro they will make each hour, I am incredibly humbled by my ignorance.  And my privilege.  That’s not a word I use lightly, but it feels apt here.  I speak one language.  I know a few words of Spanish and a few of Italian.  Not enough to get by selling garments on a beach.  My fear of misspeaking gets in my way.  Yet these beautiful vendors speak unabashedly with me, passing through their rotating vocabulary, hoping to hit on a language familiar to me.  And here I sit, with the great good fortune to say, “no, grazie.”

Today, though, the vendors were light, leaving us room to take in the vignettes unfolding before us.

What I had found most interesting on my first trip to the beach was the gender dynamic that was so heady.  The boys were in one area, and the girls in another.  There was one girl that ventured into the area up against the paid beach wall where the boys had claimed the shade.  She had a bemused look on her face the entire time. Crouching inside the protection of her towel, as though she wasn’t sure how she’d managed to put herself there, and not entirely sure it was a good idea.

The rest of the girls were traveling in packs, venturing into the water, and out again, inching closer to the boys that were playing soccer in the foamy sand.  Interactions between the genders were punctuated by raucous clashes:  sand kicked at a girl, and the resulting screech.

More interesting, though, was the interaction between the boys.

It has taken me a while to become comfortable with the overt sexuality that is part of Italian culture.  It seems strange to some people, that the country that is home to the Vatican is so sexually charged.  Yeah, it’s a little weird, but it’s there.  And on the beaches, the sexual electricity that lies just below the surface was almost alarming to a kid who grew up in a country like the US.

Laying on my little towel, I peeked from under my hat and over my sunglasses to watch.

The four boys in front of me looked like they were maybe 19, maybe 20.  Old enough to have the bodies of men, but still awkward in their bravado, adjusting their tiny bathing suits, and opting to let the sun reflect off of their wet bodies, rather than towel off.

They would take turns hoisting their well-tanned bodies from the sand and diving into the sea to cool off.  They would emerge, and with a well practiced move, brush the water from their hair to good effect, leaving it spiky, erect, interesting.  Then they would lie down next to each other to let the sun dry them.

The girls would scamper around the sand, pretending not to notice, adjusting their equally tiny suits and making sure the ball they were kicking around would drift into the boys’ line of sight every so often.

For their part, the boys seemed honestly disinterested in the girls.  They took more interest in each other, leaning on each other’s shoulders, laughing together.  At least most of them.  Twice I watched as two older-looking guys came over and asserted their dominance – physically and directly.

First was someone who seemed to be a friend.  His towel was positioned with the other 3 in front of me.  In his racy red suit and shaved head, he was more muscular than the others.  Throwing all of that muscle on top of one of the smaller boys, he crushed his body into the other, almost the way a wrestler would dominate an opponent.

Hips ground into the other, arms pinning the smaller boy’s arms above his head, the bigger boy laughed into his ear as the others watched.  Then, when he’d decided the emasculation was enough, he rolled over onto his own towel, and all returned to normal.  Except for me.  I was a little scarred.

About a half hour later, as I was just getting over the first exchange, a much older and bigger boy with a tattooed leg, and longer shorts made his appearance on the beach.  He was apparently known to many on the beach.  “Nicola!” came the cries from different areas.  It wasn’t clear to me whether he was loved or feared.  Only that he was known.  He made a wide circuit, strutting from group to group, his soft body a contrast to the younger, more athletic boys.  His tattoo a brazen one, taking up the entirety of his left calf.

After spending time with the group along the wall, and kicking the soccer ball out of the group at the water’s edge and into the ocean, he came over to my boys.  Only one of them was on his stomach.  Nicola headed straight for him, and dropping his body down, placed one knee roughly in the other boy’s lower back, apparently trying to separate his hips from the rest of his body.

The boy screamed, actually screamed as Nicola pinned his arms to his side and laughed.  The others looked nervously over, but they only watched as their comrade struggled fruitlessly to move out of the hold, crying out, “Nicola, basta!”  When he decided it was enough, Nicola released his hands, and pushed off of the boy, up to a standing position, still laughing.

The boy did nothing.  He lay there, and adjusted his suit.  Nicola greeted the others.  It wasn’t a friendly greeting he received.  Just a nod and maybe an embraced hand.  Not like the hugs and heads leaned onto each other’s shoulders.  This boy, this bully was both enforcer and violator.  His presence was accepted, expected, but not appreciated.

Nicola walked away.  He had no towel.  He had no group.  He had no girls looking slyly at him, or boys welcoming him.  I didn’t see where he went as I gathered my towel and book and headed out.

On the way home from our beach excursion, the Ant and I stopped for an emergency gelato.  Along the dingy street that led to the underpass, we ducked into a nondescript bar with a dark-browed man behind the counter.  He peered at us, clear strangers in this locals’ bar.

We smiled our hellos, and moved toward the unpromising gelato case.  The flavors were meager, and clearly not house made.  But we were in a bad way, so it would have to do.

As soon as he saw us move toward the case, he melted.  Whether we reminded him of family members, or he just liked gelato, too, he patiently waded through our butchered Italian, and soon enough we had lovely cones of respite.  We sat in the cool shop and ate quietly, the World Cup showing in the background.

When we stood to leave, the shop-owner called to us in a friendly tone, and we waived, the familiar, “Ciao!  Grazie!” tossed back and forth.

In the now-short blocks home, we walked, looking down the alleys that led from the ramshackle street to the beach.  I pulled out my camera to capture a boat I’d noticed before.  And, as I raised the camera, something caught my eye.

“Redfish.”  The white name scrawled along the dusty red hull of the rowboat rang out to me, the name of the lake and the beach where I’d spent my childhood summer weekends.  The place where I’d played with the boys and watched the girls.  The little boat smiled back at me, playful and comforting.

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June 30, 2010   1 Comment

Unexpected beauty

Our trip to Salerno was a scouting mission.  An attempt to find interesting towns where the Ant could retire.  We spent our time taking day trips around the region, with days off in Salerno.  The days off were mostly days of rest, the two of us lounging around the apartment, or heading to the café down the street.  Food was always a part of the equation, whether pizza from our favorite place, or fried balls of stuff from a cart.

On one of our days off we decided to explore Salerno’s history.  We knew three things about ancient Salerno.  First, it had an important duomo.  Second, it had a big castle.  Third, it had some medicinal gardens.  We were most interested in seeing the castello, which overlooked the city from a big hill, so we took the bus into town and started walking up.

Our map, which wasn’t topographical and only showed us streets, indicated that it would be feasible to walk to the castle.  We picked out the right road and wound our way through the streets of medieval Salerno.  We happened upon the duomo, which seemed much more interesting in the guidebooks than in real life.

The dreariness of Salerno was only slightly less here.

Up, up, up we wound, the streets getting narrower as we walked.  Somewhere along the way we began to wonder if we were still on the right road.  So I ducked my head into some kind of a historical center, and found a beautiful young woman who seemed to be waiting to help us.

“Mi dispiaci, no parlo bene, l’italiano.”  I smiled my usual greeting, noting her abrupt movements as she came over to us.

“English?”  Like so many others, she’d guessed right.

I handed her our little map and asked where we were.

“Oh, mmm, allora, mmm.”  She muttered as she looked at the paper, turning it around on the counter we were leaning over.  She located our position on the map, after a good bit of studying.

“What are you looking for? Il giardino della Minerva?”

“The Castello,” the Ant and I answered together.

The woman looked at us.  “No, no, no.  It’s too far.  It’s not possible.”

The Ant and I exchanged dubious looks.  We wanted to see the castle, but we weren’t especially up for an impossible climb.

“But the gardens are very close.  Very beautiful.”

The Ant was nodding fervently.  “Okay.”

Our guide folded up the map and handed it to me as she led us to the door.    “Walk up here, and keep going, always forward.”  Good advice.  She returned the amused smile I flashed her.  We thanked her and headed up the hill in the direction she had pointed.

The Ant turned to me with a wry look on her face.  “Well you certainly do know how to find them.”  A little embarrassed, I chuckled and looked at the cobblestones we were walking.  Yes, it seemed I did know how to walk into a shop and find a helpful, pretty girl.

And she was right, it wasn’t far, but it’s not likely we would have found it without her instruction.  The undulating streets of this part of Salerno were a bit maze-like, due (as we would find out) to the fact that it was built on the side of a cliff.

Inside the unassuming gates of the garden, we paid our euros, grabbed the 4 page, single-spaced, English-language info pamphlet on the gardens and started mulling about.  The pamphlet told us that these gardens are recognized as the first medicinal gardens – ever.   The sense of peace and calm inside the gates was beautiful.  We spent the next hour or so wandering through the three levels of the gardens, snapping pictures, taking video, smelling plants, trying to identify some of them.  Plants strange to that part of the world, like Taro, materialized in the boggy beds around fountains.  Fish swam in pools with lily-pads.  I’m not sure if we saw any other visitors to the gardens.  It was like our own, private playground.

The gardens are built on the site of natural springs, so the entire location is filled with channels bringing water to the myriad of beds and fountains.

The terraces were connected by a staircase that was built as part of the outer wall, on the side of the cliff.  It treated us to spectacular views.

As we reached the top level, the woman from the admissions office came up behind us to tell us they were closing for lunch.

I grabbed a couple of last pictures and we made the climb back down to the gate.

We hiked back out toward the duomo, winding back through the streets where people live among a remarkable history.

We hadn’t eaten in something like 2 hours, so we were starving and stopped for a calzone at the first place we came to.  The Ant had something meaty, and I had something that equated to a salad in a calzone.

Much like the gardens, and the woman who led us there, it was quite unexpectedly lovely.

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June 28, 2010   2 Comments

A day at the beach

After a culturally significant trip to Paestum, we were ready for a day of rest.  The weather had been getting gradually warmer and sunnier, a challenge for my afternoon runs, but gorgeous for a bit of beach.  Salerno sits on the gulf of Naples in the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The water is warm, salty and blue, blue, blue.  The colorful umbrellas of the pay-to-play beaches called a siren song, inviting us to enjoy a lavish day in the Italian sun.

We gathered our books and towels, donned our suits and slathered ourselves in sunscreen.

The owner of our apartment, Carmine, had pointed out his favorite private beach and the underground passage that would take us from the bus stop behind the apartment directly to the crosswalk in front of the beach.  Beach bags in hand, we decided it was time for a mid-morning snack to prepare us for the sea.  Like every morning, we’d made our espresso in the stovetop Moka pot and heated our croissants in the little toaster oven.  But we weren’t sure what kind of food we’d find at the beach, and we didn’t want to cut the day short if we got hungry.  I like to eat, but I also like to swim.

Considering and rejecting the possibility of carrying a pizza box with us, we stopped by our local coffee shop for a cappu and pastry.  We’re good at ordering and eating these things.  We’re not so tidy with it, however.

This view would become a familiar one to us, and to our patient waiters and waitresses.

Once full of pastry, we located the underground pass-through and descended the stairs into the passage that used to serve an out-of-commission train station.  The entrance was obscured by an orange construction barrier, its walls plastered with colorful posters and littered with graffiti.  But it provided a valuable shortcut over the coming weeks, allowing us quick access to gelato and sand.

Carmine’s beach, Karsaal seemed to be a favorite for many locals.  With a large parking lot, fancy sit-down restaurant, fine pool and pretty beach, it was much more full than many of the others we’d walked by on our adventures in Salerno.

Along with mothers and children, grandmothers, and men strutting like peacocks, we followed the after-church rush through the gates.  For 15 Euro a piece, we had the run of the place.  Lounge chairs, umbrellas, pool, cabanas, and some of the best people watching, ever.  We headed to the waterfront and chose a couple of lounge chairs under an umbrella on the small black and white rocks.  We watched the locals for a bit, and I dragged one of the fancy chaises that littered the beach over to our camp.

The built-in shades were amazing.  For the next couple of hours we bathed in the sun, swam in the sea, and watched the scene unfold in front of us.  Spettacolare.  Sailboats danced across the bay, competing for our attention with the sea of humanity dancing on the sand.  A pair of men, lounging in their tiny swimsuits, and gold chains, gestured wildly, emphatically trying to convince each other of their position on some unknown topic.

A young buck of a man who looked like a statue of a tattooed Roman god strutted back and forth from the water to his chair, lovingly arranging his girlfriend’s towel on the matching chaise.

Despite our best efforts, the morning pastry was wearing off.  We’d missed the lunch rush, watching families disappear from the sand, and reappear with sandwiches.  I ventured out again and again, taking advantage of the deserted sea.

Eventually, we agreed it was time for food.  We packed up, smiled our goodbyes to the tattooed god and trudged up the stairs in search of a pizza.  Our first attempt was the restaurant.  It was short lived.  Walking along the patio above the beach, we peeked at the people who were dining.  They weren’t eating.  They were dining.  In dresses and white linen pants.  My hula-girl camo boardshorts weren’t going to cut it.

So we doubled back and hit the snack bar.  They had colorful industry signs for gelato and snacks.  And an empty case that looked like it might have held real food at some point.  I sidled up to the bar and braved a question, “qualcosa para mangiare?”

The girl looked back at me and pursed her lips, looking at the empty case.  “Un attimo.”  She disappeared into the back of the shop and reemerged with a middle-aged woman, who was carrying a good amount of sas in her mane of auburn hair.

“Di mi,” she commanded.  Okay, but tell her what?  I tried again:

“Qualcosa para mangiare?”  We were just looking for something to eat.  The people outside were eating.  Was she the keeper of the food?

“Si.  Panini?”  I nodded.  A sandwich would work.

“Formagio, salume?”  She ran down the list of ingredients, shrugging.  “Prosciutto.  Cotto o crudo?”

I looked at the Aunt.  “You want ham and cheese?  Cooked or raw?”

“Cooked.”  She was nodding.

“Cotto,” I confirmed.


“Due, per favore.”  There was no way we were sharing today.

“Okay.”  She turned to walk away.

“Pero, sono vegeteriana.”  I didn’t want ham, cooked or not.

She turned halfway around, and looked at me, challenging.  “Quindi?”  So then what the hell did I want?  “Formagio?  Pomodoro?”

“Si, si.  Buono.”  I get pretty thrilled when it comes to food, and my excitement about the sandwiches this woman was about to make was starting to show.

She turned to face me fully, “buonissimo?” she asked, an amused look on her face.

“Si.  Buonissimo,” I said, smiling and giving an affirming hand gesture.

She nodded, closed her eyes briefly, and disappeared into the back room.

While we waited, we cruised around the little shop.  We looked at the gelato, and perused the bags of chips, deciding we’d probably need some of the “Wacko” brand.  A few minutes later, the auburn food commander reappeared with two wicker baskets, and two beautiful sandwiches.

The girl at the register looked at her, and the commander told her how much to charge us, shrugging as she apparently pulled the number out of thin air.  Perhaps this wasn’t where the locals were getting their sandwiches.

The little patio outside the shop was empty, and we chose a table closest to the view.

On closer examination, it was clear that the sandwiches we’d seen in people’s hands weren’t these.  Those were more like pre-packaged deli sandwiches.  These were not.

I’m not so sure how it is that we came to have these spectacular sandwiches.  We didn’t see any others like them.  We gobbled them down, along with the un-spectacular Wacko chips and a decent, no-color-added Fanta orange soda.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the pool, by the edge of the turquoise water, rimmed with mahogany cabanas, more lounge chairs, and people in colorful bathing caps.  I’d been looking forward to a dip and a swim, but first I thought I’d let my lunch digest.  Safety first, you know.

We sat and watched the kids running around the edge, the lifeguards yelling at them, the girls tucking their hair into the swimcaps.  The boys tucking their hair into the swimcaps…then the Ant noticed it.  Everyone in the pool had a cap.  90% of them looked the same:  yellow with a white racing stripe.  Maybe we needed a swimcap to go in the pool?  Interesting.

I pulled out my little dictionary (I bring it pretty much everywhere – even to the beach) and looked up swimcap.  “Cuffia.”  The Ant had seen a couple of girls picking up yellow and white packets from the front desk.  I gathered change, practiced the word, “coof-ya” and walked to the desk.

“Ciao,” one of the women was looking at me with a friendly smile.  The other looked like a puppy that someone had kicked.  “Una cuffia?”  The puppy woman looked at me like she didn’t understand.  The other responded.  “They are all done for the day, I’m sorry.”

“Can I swim without one?”  She looked shocked.

“No, I’m sorry.”

Back at the pool, I watched the swimmers taunting me.  In their colorful caps, they lazed about, up and down the lanes.  Teenage boys splashed each other.  I was quarantined to the poolside, my short hair a menace.

As we packed up, I reviewed what I’d learned that day:  if you’re hungry, ask someone to make you a sandwich; also, along with my little dictionary, I should always carry a swimcap.  These were valuable lessons for someone who likes to eat and swim.

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June 20, 2010   Comments Off on A day at the beach

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.


“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   Comments Off on Salerno, take two

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