Les Miserables

October 13, Sarasota, FL. For over a year, a group of friends have been planning this trip to Italy. It started with a promise made years ago by Marianne to her grandfather, that she would visit his hometown in Rocca San Felice. And so last summer she started investigating options and discussed the idea with several friends. (She & Bruce have since moved to Tucson.)

After a rough plan was formed, a deadline for commitment was set, and five couples agreed to make the journey. During the ensuing year, the plans kept evolving with changes to dates, length of stay, destinations, travel arrangements, local transportation and more. But the ten friends remained committed, despite disagreements on some of the decisions. And the betting odds were that we would go to Italy arm and arm, and return vowed to never speak to each other again. (Peter had pegged the over/under for the breakdown at Day 1 at the departure terminal.) All this sage thinking was based on the fact that here were 10 strong personalities, most with leadership experience and without a follower in the group. That’s a formula for disaster. Well, here’s the way it shaped up.

Tom did extensive research on many aspects of the trip and came up with important information and recommendations. Although most of his ideas were accepted, I’m sure he was disappointed that others were rejected. And even on the trip, Tom shared his vast knowledge, often pontificating on his (humble) opinions. Maggie would often interject following one of Tom’s sermons by mimicking him in a deep voice, “In my humble opinion . . .” and the crowd would roar. Her entertainment value was not to be underestimated, as she more than made up for Tom’s medication issues. Tom also did much of the driving, using his GPS for guidance and “trusting no one with his life in the balance.”

Chris and Bob have traveled extensively throughout Europe, and Chris had lots of insights and suggestions about destinations, attractions, restaurants, etc. Her ideas were usually accompanied by stories from her honeymoon trip to Italy with Bob. But since we were equal opportunity doubters, we often rejected her ideas, as well. While she might have been disappointed, she pouted briefly, smiled and carried on. Bob, for his part was our wine sommelier, selecting the best of the cheap stuff to meet our budget. A couple of times he selected a better bottle for the first round and the house wines for the follow up. Based on the quantities we were consuming at dinner (7+ bottles the first night’s dinner), we couldn’t afford premium wines on a regular basis. But in Italy, the lower-priced local wines were all good. And if we happened to get a poor selection, Bob heard about it from the irreverent crowd.

Bruce and Marianne were in awe of Italy. Every turn brought a new visual that dazzled not just them, but all of us as well. Bruce, who back in the beginning was lukewarm at best about going to Italy, took over 1,000 pictures. Marianne’s big day was the one spent in Rocca San Felice, where we were overwhelmed by the beauty and charm of the town and the warmth of the people. The euphoria carried over to that evening when we met Sara’s family in her hometown for a dinner feast at her cousin’s mountain resort.

Trish had the most difficult time on the trip, as her inflamed knee prevented her from doing extensive walking, or climbing stairs and hills. However, despite the health issues, she managed to include herself in most of the activities, overcoming her pain to enjoy the sights. Bill was his usual impulsive self, running out to a store to buy food items no one thought we needed, and making some interesting dish with them. Also on the trip to Capri, he quietly slipped into his bathing suit and dove into the water inside one of the grottos. Bill engaged everyone he met in conversation (translation was difficult at best), sharing untold volumes of minutiae with us. And although we worried that he would not be on time for every deadline, he didn’t miss one. Bill also split some of the driving time with Tom, and although he claimed he was an experienced stick-shift driver, the burned out clutch and bald rear tires proved otherwise.

Throughout the trip, Sara proved to be our security blanket. Her fluency of the language overcame many problems. While it’s true, that nearly anyone in Europe can communicate in English, the interpretation and amount of information can vary tremendously. Waving your hands and talking loud and slow gets you a limited response. “DOOO VAYY TOYY LETT?” may get someone to point to the bathroom door, but asking for directions to a mountain town 50 miles away, or information on birth records over 100 years old requires more subtle conversation. Sara also played the part of the teacher, correcting everyone’s Italian pronunciation and grammar. Like most students, we did not always accept this in the right frame of mind.

I was the main driver of the second van, and shared the duties with Bruce. I was also responsible for chronicling the trip, so I spent a lot of time observing (mis)behavior and putting my observations in the computer. I also tried to interject my sarcastic sense of humor into our daily routines in order to keep the inmates from getting restless. After two and a half weeks, the fish begins to smell, so I tried to keep it fresh. I think I sometimes annoyed people as I was always up, even when they thought the situation called for cranky. However, I will say one thing about this band of renegades, they sure gave me plenty of material to work with.

And now that we’re back home, the naysayers are dying to know if the ten of us are still friends. Well despite everything I did, the SOBs are still talking to me (and to each other). Go figure.

Arrivederci Roma

October 12, 2010, Rome, Italy. For two days we’ve been exploring Rome on foot, in groups of two, four or six. Among us we have seen all the major attractions including the Vatican, Coliseum, Pantheon, plus a brazilian churches, piazzas, fountains, arches and statues. According to Maggie’s pedometer, we were walking 12 to 18 miles a day. But despite this rigorous touring regimen, we still managed to spend most of our waking hours in restaurants, cafes and salumarias (Italian pizzeria/sandwich shops). And like everywhere else we visited, the food was wonderful. Our last evening in Italy was spent sipping, eh gulping wine on the hotel’s rooftop terrace, and then dinner in a private dining room in the lower level of the restaurant next door. Once again we were not disappointed. Course after course delivered new taste sensations. And we ended the satisfying evening with hugs and kisses as we prepared to leave Rome on three different flights.

Italian chefs really know how to infuse a myriad of delicate flavors in their dishes, without overpowering them with garlic and other heavy spices like American chefs. For this reason, they don’t put condiments on the table, or even grated cheese. You must ask for any of these items, and you will certainly draw sneers, headshaking, and derogatory comments. The same holds true of butter. Tom, whose preference for butter is only surpassed by chocolate and scotch, was warned every time he requested it (every meal) that it raises cholesterol. It was usually served only after his third request. (Note to John Younger: Better bring your own ketchup.)

The taxi drivers, except for the one who stranded me at the first hotel, were very helpful. When Sara and I took a cab to the Vatican to meet up with some of the crew, my phone holster slipped off my belt (probably because I had lost so much weight from lack of nourishment) and was left on the back seat. Ten minutes later, when I had the disastrous realization that the phone was gone, all I could think about was paying the cost of the phone ($250) and the bill for the finder’s calls to all his relatives in Indonesia. Tom, thinking clearly, started calling my cell number, which after the second try was answered by the taxi driver, who was on his way to drop the phone off at the hotel where he picked us up. Just like the cabbies in New York City.

The other of our fortunate connections was meeting a fascinating taxi driver named Valerio. He is a 36-year old, part-time semi-pro tennis player and instructor, married to a younger woman and has two children and five pets at home. He struggled with his broken English until Sara made a comment in Italian. He snapped around and said, “You make me get headache trying to talk English, and you speak Italian?” And the two of them proceeded to have a conversation in the native language.

We used him again on the ride to the airport and he proved to be very entertaining. He showed us a video of his daughter on his cell phone, and explained the pros and cons of being married to a younger woman. “She can be active, you know? And she also can, scuse, break a ball.”

Speeding along the Autostrada, Valerio suddenly turned down a ramp onto a deserted road that looked like something under the Westside Highway in Harlem. Sensing my concern, he started laughing, “Not to worry. It’s shortcut. I no have peestool to shoot you.” At the end of the trip, he guided us to the correct terminal, despite the confusing signage. This was a huge break, as Tom’s limo took them to the wrong terminal, despite his instructions. They then had to wait 20 minutes to fight their way onto a shuttle and compete for 40 seats against 100 angry travelers. But at 10:15 AM it was wheels up, and we were on our way home.

The flight was long, but uneventful. We arrived at Terminal B, but had to go to Terminal C for our connecting flight to Tampa. While standing on the platform as our shuttle pulled in, the shuttle coming the opposite way stopped, and who got off but the “Little People.” Three of Sara’s sisters and her niece Manuela had come to Newark to surprise us. And by a miracle of timing, we ended up on the same platform at the same time. One minute either way, and we would never have connected.

After hugs and kisses, we went downstairs to the Euro Café and had cappuccino (what else). While sipping our brew, I noticed that Continental added a nice touch to the terminal for its international passengers. There were pigeons everywhere, flying around and picking up crumbs off the floor, just like the piazzas of every city in Italy.

Easy Rider

October 9, Rome Italy. When the Hotel Veneto sent us to the other hotel, they called a cab and had me follow it there with the van. The cab driver was then going to lead me to the car return depot, wait for me to check out, and take me back to the hotel. Now that’s service! So we get to the hotel, the driver drops off the luggage, and starts to leave. Sara stops him and reminds him that he has to take me to the rental agency. He now claims that he has no such instructions, and when Sara said she would call the manager to confirm, he jumped in the cab and took off. I later found out why.

We checked into the temporary hotel and I asked the desk manger how to get to the rental agency. He looked up the address and said it is very close, but difficult to drive to. He takes a map and starts to draw a line from the hotel to Budget’s office that looks like my cardiogram. He tells me when I come out of Budget, to walk straight down the street from the agency, about 10 blocks directly to the hotel. However, because of all the one-way streets, I have to take the circuitous route. “No problemo, signore,” I say. He hands me the map and says, “Si, si, easy. You go through the arch in front of the hotel, and follow the map.” I tell Sara to take the luggage to the room and get settled, while I return the car. Major mistake.

The hotel is situated on one of the largest piazzas in Rome, about a quarter mile wide. It is intersected by the Appian Way or some famous ancient viaduct. I jump in the van, and with the map in my lap, circle around to the viaduct. That’s when I had the first “Oh, shit!” moment. There were 14 arches with cars passing through, so I cruise around looking for the one with the street that starts with a C. The manager marked the map with a Sharpie, obliterating the names of every street I’m supposed to take. As I drive around the piazza, I can’t identify the right street. When I get to the fourteenth arch, I take it, knowing it is definitely the wrong direction. It puts me on a ramp that takes me about a mile out of the way. I start doubling back, looking for a cross street that I can identify on the map. Finding none, I get to a park that is on the route to the Rome Train Station (where Budget is located). Since I can’t read the obliterated street names on the map, I start counting the streets and alleys to find the lefts and right turns, and after about a half hour I turn onto a street and see the station about four blocks ahead. Am I good, or what? However, in front of me is total gridlock approaching the station. Cars, buses, taxis, and trolleys are all jockeying for position to get there, coming in from several side streets.

When I get to the corner of the street alongside the station where I’m supposed to turn right, just like the map says, the sign says “Left Only.” So I follow the gridlock around to the left, and make my way back through the maze of streets and alleys and after another hour I get onto the street I want in the right direction. The manager told me that the office was at number 36, and of course there is no 36, just the train station, which is easily a quarter mile long. And like any passenger terminal, cars are double and triple parked waiting for their arrivals. I realize that the Budget office is somewhere in the terminal, but I can’t leave the van to go in and find it. So I work my way out of the traffic, and try to find my way back to the hotel. Two and a half hours after I left, I’m back at the hotel, with the van illegally parked, and I stagger into my room. Sara, Chris and Bob are all frantic, but relieved that I’m still alive, although barely breathing from stress overload.

After I catch my breath and wash my face, I take the three of them with me, back for another crack at the terminal. I double-park and send Sara and Bob into the terminal to find out how to get rid of the van that was due back a few hours ago. After ten minutes, they come back and report that we’re not looking for Budget, even though that’s what the paperwork says, we’re looking for Tagament. They are located in a garage, a couple of blocks straight behind us, but of course it’s a one way street. So we drive through the gridlock again, go around the train station, down the other side, through a tunnel under the train tracks and to the garage. As I pull in, I realize that this garage was not intended for nine-passenger vans. Thinking that I am going to take out every light bulb and sprinkler head in the ceiling, we slowly make our way up to the sixth floor. The ramps and aisles are so narrow, that every turn at the bottom and top of each ramp is a three-point turn. It takes a full ten minutes to get to our destination. Some guy, who is at the top of the ramp directs me into a slot, takes the paperwork, checks the mileage, asks me to sign and tells me we’re done. I am so relieved, I grab the paperwork, and we head for the exits.

And just as the desk manager promised, the walk back to the hotel was direct and easy. We only encountered three hookers along the way. Even Sara recognized them for what they were. At six o’clock we completed the three and a half hour drop off that took place only ten blocks from the hotel. And then I had another “Oh, shit!” moment. What if this guy in the garage didn’t work for the rental company, and stole the van. I have no receipt or documentation, other than the original paperwork. I can’t wait to check my American Express Statement.

Banished From the Kingdom

Oct. 8, Radda in Chianti, Italy. As mentioned before, our villa in Tuscani was the former home of an Italian prince. The estate comprises several hundred acres of vineyards and olive orchards, plus a couple of dozen buildings scattered around the property. We spent the late afternoon of our last day touring the winery, gardens and home of the current owner. He bought the facility 30 years ago, which now puts out one million bottles of Chianti a year. The owner also has wineries and residences in ten locations, including Charlottesville, VA. After the tour, we had a wine tasting, and left to prepare for our departure the next morning.

The Last Supper

On our final night in Tuscany, our housekeeper Angela prepared a wonderful dinner that consisted of three types of bruschetta: tomato, melted mozzarella and sausage meat, and liver pate (the best). Our second course was caprese salad, and the main course featured both chicken and rabbit cacciatore with mushrooms cooked in white wine. Dolce was her version of tiramisu (incredible) and biscotti dipped in Vino Santo. Prior to dinner, Bill had this nagging fear that there wouldn’t be enough to eat, so he went into town and bought additional provisions. He served a pesto sauce dip with Tuscan bread, stuffed hot peppers, and chunks of Parmesan cheese. With dinner he put out steamed carrots, and to supplement dessert, he bought blueberry/fig torte and Baci chocolates. What was he thinking?

When Angela served the dinner, she reminded us that we had to be off the premises by 10 AM, so she could prepare for the house for the next arrivals. When she made the announcement, nine heads turned to Slo-Mo Prendergast and he said, “What? Knock on my door at 7 and I’ll be ready.”

Breakfast with Stefania

On the morning of our departure I was assigned to wake everyone up at 7 AM. Chris had already come down at 6:30, made coffee and brought a carafe up to her room to share with Bob. Marianne came down shortly after 7, as I was preparing my own breakfast. I made an omelet with the dinner leftovers that included mushrooms, chopped tomatoes, mozzarella, and salami. She and I shared this wonderful breakfast, which included fresh-picked figs and persimmons. Immediately after we finished, everyone started coming down, jealous that they didn’t get up early enough to share the omelet.

All Roads Lead to Rome

At 9:30, a half hour ahead of schedule, we hugged and kissed Angela and her husband, Guiseppe, and drove off towards our next adventure, the mean streets of Rome. Here again, the group split up with three couples staying at the Hotel Golden, and Sistis and Stouts going a few blocks away to the Hotel Veneto. As we later found out, the Golden has better security than Attica Prison. You can’t get into the building without identifying yourself, and can’t get to your floor without calling down to the desk to get buzzed in. When Tom inquired about the paranoid level of protection, the manager claimed that it was a very safe neighborhood.

The Veneto was the better choice, as they didn’t require you to pass through a metal detector and a retina scan. However, there was a glitch at that hotel, as the credit card reservation was entered wrong, and we had no rooms available. A quick conversation between Sara and the manager in Italian, got them to send us to another hotel for one night, arrange transportation both ways, upgrade our rooms to include breakfast, and had a bottle of wine sent to each of our rooms when we returned to the Veneto the next day. All this was arranged while we sipped espresso in their café on their dime, eh Euro.

Living the Italian Life

October 7, Radda in Chianti, Italy. Yesterday, we went to Florence for the day. It took us 45 minutes to get to reach the city line, and another 45 minutes to get to a bus stop that could take us to the center of the city. Here the main streets are wider, but the traffic is much worse. Florence combines chaos with bedlam and brings it to a crescendo. In addition to the cars, trucks and motorcycles, this city adds cyclists, inline skaters and pedestrians, all moving to the constant cacophony music of blaring sirens from ambulances, police cars and fire trucks. It was the warm-up for Rome that was yet to come.

Since we had the option of the local bus or the tour bus to take into the heart of the city, we chose the all-day tour ride. In this way we could use it to get around the sprawling city as we traveled from attraction to attraction. We alternated from exploring as a herd of cats to breaking up into manageable size groups, and this worked out well. With Trish’s inflamed knee, walking, particularly stairs and hills was a problem. Bill took her on the full bus tour, while others of us took pictures of statues. We regrouped at 4:30, and then split up with half of us taking another bus tour that took us to Fiesole. This really ancient city/state was founded atop a mountain overlooking Florence 600 BC! The ride up and back as the sun was setting was a magnificent visual experience. The other five, had dinner in Florence and went to an opera aria concert. Their leisurely dinner ran too long, and the restaurant had to shuttle them the dozen blocks to the church where the performance was held. The shuttle vehicle was a converted scooter that they squeezed into.

Meanwhile, we left the city and returned to Radda and had a delightful dinner at a local restaurant that featured wild boar stew and local sausage with Tuscan beans.

Today was a day of leisure where we stayed in the Radda region, exploring the village and visited a couple of wineries. In the morning, Bill made a great breakfast of fried eggs, cooked local salami, and toast from bread baked in the village. After breakfast, we bought some produce at the traveling market, and salami, prosciutto, cheese, olives, and sun dried tomatoes at the local market and made a wonderful Tuscan lunch. And now, everyone but me is napping, just like the Italians.

Under the Tuscan Clouds

October 5, Radda in Chianti, Italy. While we were roving the mountains of central and eastern Italy, Tom, Maggie, Bill and Trish were planning their last meal in Sorrento. They decided on Del Fino, one of the top rated restaurants in the area, and it was only 12 blocks from the hotel. They drove down the main street leading to the restaurant, but the road kept getting more and more narrow. Several hundred yards into what was now a passageway, the width was so tight that they reached out and folded in the mirrors. Still further, with the mirrors scraping along the walls on both sides, they came to an area wide enough to turn around. They scraped their way back to the main street, and tried another road, only to encounter a similar fate. They then parked the car and took a cab, which was narrow enough to pass through the road to the restaurant. The 12-block excursion to the destination took over an hour, but the food was excellent.

On Saturday night, the entire group reconnected at a remarkably beautiful villa set in a vineyard in the Chianti region. This 700-year old palazzo was the home of Italian royalty. It contains six bedroom suites, terraces, balconies, and a six-hour a day homemaking service provided by a delightful young woman who lives on the estate with her husband and two young children. She made our beds, cleaned up after us, washed and ironed our clothes, and even cooked two wonderful meals for us. The only negative we encountered was that the weather was cloudy with periods of rain for the first few days. But then it cleared up and was beautiful.

From this home base, we made day trips to Siena, Lucca and San Gimignano. These destinations were typical ancient walled cities with winding alleys, churches and buildings that were many centuries old. We climbed the steps, walked the alleys, shopped the shops, had lunch at the restaurants on the piazzas, and hit the gelaterias. We even stopped at a traveling street market in one of the small towns on the way to the famous cities. We were tourists, after all, and we acted like them.

In these cities that cater to visitors from all over the world, the locals speak some English. So even without Sara’s fluency, we were able to communicate. Bill, however, was at a disadvantage, as he speaks Extreme Bostonian, with an Irish accent, which could not be understood by anyone we encountered (we even have trouble understanding him). This was a particular problem in restaurants, as he likes to give specific instructions to the wait staff. In one restaurant, he asked for his duck to be extra crispy. The waiter translated that to the chef and the duck came out with the moisture content and consistency of beef jerky. The same thing happened the next day, where he asked for his pizza well done. The waiter tried to explain that they don’t prepare it that way, and brought it out “regular” asking Bill if it was OK. Bill said to cook it more. When it came out the second time, it had the texture of plywood. We kept trying to tell Bill to enjoy his food the way the chefs meant it to be served, rather than his interpretation. But he can’t help himself. He’s been like this ever since he was passed over for the Executive Chef position at the Sludge Factory Grill.

Observations

Italian Medical Services

The morning after Sara’s family dinner party, Bruce woke up feeling very ill. After eating wonderful regional food for nearly a week, he had yet to relieve himself of any of the residue. He was feeling so bad we decided to take him to an emergency clinic. After a short while, the doctor arrived to examine him. When he entered the facility, none of us would have taken him to be the Medical Director. He looked like he was coming off a two-day binge, unshaven with rumpled clothes and a physician’s valise that had been run over by a bus. One look at Bruce and the doctor said, “To sei malattu.” (You look sick.) Bruce’s curt response: “No shit.” The doctor: “Ah, si, si” He then wrote a prescription for constipation medication and discharged him. Since he was a friend of Sara’s cousin, he laughed when Marianne took out a credit card, and refused to take any payment. Try to get out of your doctor’s office without payment, or without a bill being sent to your insurance company.

Italian Women

There are two types of women in Italy. There are the traditional women (Type B), who opted not to audition for Jersey Shore Housewives. These pillars of the community never wear slacks, capris, shorts or skorts. It’s always a skirt with stockings, and the mandatory apron. The other group (Type A) are the savvy, fashion-conscious women that carry themselves and walk with a certain self-confidence and grace that sets them apart from the rest of the women in the world. Whether or not they have a beautiful shape or face really doesn’t matter. They think they are beautiful, and so they are. And they will turn your head. While German engineers are known for the cars they build, Italian engineers are the unsung heroes of women’s undergarment design. Properly equipped an Italian woman walks with her shoulders still, while her hips and breasts are in perpetual motion. Whenever they are walking towards me, I inadvertently step on my tongue.

Italian Conservation

Italians waste nothing. Rather than having a walkout basement on a severely sloped lot, they add more buildings right down the hill (or cliff). On the smallest spot of dirt, they plant tomatoes, zucchini, and fig trees. Their terraces, balconies and windowsills are jammed with flowerpots, overflowing with beautiful blooms, along with basil, rosemary and other herbs.

The roads, as mentioned in an earlier blog, are very narrow. They don’t waste space on sidewalks or curbs. Even the Autostradas do not have shoulders, and sometimes a building comes right up to the guardrail.

About the only time the Italians abandon their conservative ways (other than politics) is in driving directions. For instance Route 55 may be called A1DIR toward ROMA CENTRO/GRANDE RACCORDO ANULARE/AEROPORTI/E80/A12/CIVITAVECCHIA/ROMA NORD (Sections toll). Try driving at night and reading signs that say all the above. There must be some code we haven’t figured out.

Italian Public Toilets

Here again conservation comes into play. Most facilities are unisex, with one anteroom with sinks, mirrors, etc. And off that are one or more water closets, in some cases graphically marked his and hers even though they are often used interchangeably. Under this arrangement, it’s important that you completely store your equipment before you leave the stall, as there will undoubtedly be someone of the opposite sex waiting to use the toilet. For some reason, nearly every toilet I used had the seat ripped off and lying on the floor. The only possible reason I could guess is that the seats often do not stay upright on their own, causing intense pain if they unexpectedly come down on your boys.

It’s All About Family

Scafa, Italy 9/30. This was easily the best day of the trip, so far. Six of us left Sorrento early in the morning headed up into the mountains of central Italy. Our destination was Rocca San Felice, the hometown of Marianne’s grandparents. We didn’t know what to expect, but were blown away by the beauty of this tiny village. We parked in the small piazza, and got out to inquire about her family. Sara, our interpreter, asked a group of the town elders, who were standing around smoking, if they might have known Marianne’s family who emigrated to the US in the early 1900’s. The spokesperson for the group told Sara that she would have to ask someone old. I looked at them and laughed. There wasn’t one that was younger than me, so I’m wondering what’s old?

As soon as we arrived, people started coming out of their homes to check us out. One gentleman named Mario offered to take us to see the statue of Padre Pio, who is up for sainthood. The statue is at the top of a hill overlooking the town, in a garden in front of Mario’s house, and where he is the caretaker. After taking in the view, Marianne asked where we could find a public toilet, and Mario invited us into his house to use the facilities. He also offered us something to drink and eat. While we didn’t accept his offer for refreshments, Chris hinted that Sara loved figs, so Mario went out to his fig tree and picked figs the size of pears for all of us.

We then went to the municipal building to locate documents on Marianne’s family. The people there were incredibly helpful, as they pored through records for about an hour, and finally found her information. They gave her copies of the data, and we went back down to the piazza and explored the town. Before we left, we bought paninis (sandwiches) and water for the ride to our next destination. Two large sandwiches and a bottle of water cost about $7. This was about a third of what we would have spent in the tourist cities.

Our drive up the east coast of Italy took us along the Adriatic Sea to Pescara, which has a beach as wide as Siesta Key’s. We went to meet Sara’s cousin Ida, who lives Scafa in the house where Sara was born and lived for 10 years. The property, while only a little wider than the house and driveway, went back a few hundred yards through the fruit and vegetable gardens to the Pescara River, where Sara played as a child. The river was about the width of the Cow Slough, but with three times the flow. While in Scafa, we visited Sara’s family’s building supply facility that is easily as large as the biggest Home Depot you’ve ever seen. It was the outgrowth of the small hardware store started by her father over 60 years ago.

Nest stop was a 20-minute ride up the mountain to Ida’s tourist villas. The three buildings were built in the 1700s, left in ruins, and completely restored by her and her husband, Carmine, including plumbing and self-generated electric.(I can’t describe the beauty of these stone buildings and the setting at the top of the mountain. Hopefully, I’ll be able to post some photos.) We each had our own apartment, decorated with beautiful antiques and unusual wall art. After we unpacked and freshened up, Sara’s family began to arrive for a reunion, and feast of roast stuffed pork, fresh vegetables, cheeses, wine, and of course dolci.

Life in the Fast Lane

Sorrento, Italy, 9/29. Traffic in Italy can only be described as organized chaos. There are no traffic lights, as everyone is expected to alternate at intersections. And since all Italians went to the “Every Man For Himself Driving School” in New York City, there is congestion on every corner. The Piazzas are large squares where several streets come together. If there isn’t a statue or fountain in the middle, there is a pole with lots of arrows around it, all pointing right. These are the intersections where gridlock was invented.

You quickly realize why cars are so small in Europe. By comparison, Smart cars and Mini Coopers are considered luxury sedans here. And of course, there are the motorcycles. They are like a plague of locusts, coming at you from every direction.

Yesterday, we decided to drive to Positano and Amalfi, and by some stroke of luck I got to drive the bus carrying all ten of us. Did I mention that it has a six-speed gearbox with a 1.5 liter engine? So with all the elevation and speed changes, I was constantly shifting gears. We took the main highway, which was no wider than the cart paths as Misty Creek, and was all blind hairpin turns along cliffs that rose thousands of feet above the sea. There was also no center white line, so everyone drove in the middle of the road. Among the other obstacles were parked vehicles that were everywhere, on both sides of the street and facing either direction.

When we encountered oncoming traffic, which was constantly, we squeezed to the right trying not to touch mirrors. This often meant, making contact with road signs, trashcans, parked vehicles and in one case, the wall of a building. When we drove through the tiny villages, the buildings came right to the edge of the road on both sides. There are no sidewalks, so pedestrians, and even dogs were always in our way. When we encountered a car on a blind curve, and some of the curves occurred in tunnels, one of us had to back up to a point wide enough to pass. If it was a tour bus, we had to back up a lot. Once, I accelerated into a curve and was face to face with an armored truck. We both jammed on the brakes and stopped within an inch of each other. This near-death tragedy was avoided with some very careful maneuvering by both vehicles. Then of course there were the above-mentioned motorcycles that were our constant companion. They were always there, passing us, on either the right or left, and sometimes both at the same time, on the straight-aways as well as the curves. It seemed that there was always one passing us as we slowed down to squeeze past an oncoming oversized truck.

The four-hour round trip required three underwear changes, and drained me completely. The constant focus on all the hazards, and the continuous shifting, plus 9 passengers, either praising me for avoiding a near miss, or complaining about my reckless driving, all left me limp.

And just when we thought it was safe to drive back into Sorrento, I missed a left turn to the main road that brought us past the hotel. But no problema, I went down about a half mile to the next intersection and made a hard left into a street that was so narrow, Bruce folded in the passenger side mirror. I inched down this street and as we came around a small bend, we encountered a building blocking our way. We are now screwed, as it would have been impossible to back all the way out. Bill, with years of experience maneuvering his lawn tractor, jumped out and guided me through 12 three-point turns and we got the bus turned around. As we completed this driving demonstration, an older gentleman came out of his apartment, shaking his head, using words like stunato, cafone, and pazzo. But ten minutes later, everyone was back at the hotel, happy to be alive.