Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Thin Line Between Heaven and Hell

The last thing I remember before my helmet hit the pavement was my husband's profile superimposed against a backdrop of black roadway as we fell to the right. The last thing I remember hearing was his voice shouting, "We've hit oil, we're going down!"

My first reaction was disbelief.

We'd ridden our 2011 Harley Davidson CVO Street Glide 20,000 miles safely in the United States - California to both Washington D.C. and Washington State without so much as a close call. We rode 600 miles across Texas in one day enduring 110 degree temperatures with nothing more than a sunburn.

Now we live in Italy. All of our friends envy us. We're supposed to be living the dream. It's supposed to be Heaven here. Dammit.

We're going down.

When the cracking sound of your own head on asphalt is something you actually hear and remember afterward, it's a good thing. As I looked up from my prone position on the A-1 Autostrada, I knew I had survived, and thankfully, had not lost consciousness. I could feel my helmet was intact but blood was dripping down my nose.

I wasn't dead. I could see. But what I saw were the blurred images of cars headed right toward me.

Facing backward, I had slid on my back away from the oily surface where our bike had pitched out from underneath us. Lying on the center line, my mind quickly went to the irony of surviving only to be hit by a traffic.

It was the first time I felt fear.

I heard my husband yell somewhere behind me, asking if I was alright. That meant he was, and I felt relief. We were both alive. I yelled back that I was OK, but honey, get us out of the road. Like Bambi staring at headlights, I couldn't move.

I felt Scott dragging me under the arms across the pavement. He propped me up against a rock wall and begged me to tell him over and over again that I was OK. A combat medic with training to handle injuries on the battlefield. I could tell he was panicked. I wasn't a soldier, I was his wife, and he was desperate.

We were OK. We'd gone down at maybe 65 miles per hour, and we were staring at each other incredulous that one or both of us wasn't dead. Looking around in a daze, I saw the Street Glide on its side far down the Autostrada on the right shoulder. Scott ran for the first aide kit and I yelled after him to retrieve my camera from the tour pack.

We needed pictures.

Pictures of this Hell. The hell where a journalist on assignment for three publishing clients is sitting on the side of the road with blood on her nose and oil on her boots, realizing everything has just changed in a flash of bad luck.

We were the accident causing a traffic jam on two lanes of the A-1 Autostrada northbound at Florence. Our destination had been Brescia, Italy, the starting line for the historic Mille Miglia race. For five days and four nights we were slated to be the first Americans on a Harley Davidson press bike following and photographing the race for American publications.

It had been a dream for years to see the Mille Miglia - covering it for clients was an added bonus and riding it on a Harley was the dream gig. My version of Heaven. Not a bucket list entry for most women - but certainly near the top of mine. So what the hell had just happened?

I would find out.

Setting my camera down next to me, my overwhelmed husband was dabbing at my wounds, eyes wide with fear. An Italian woman in a black Mercedes stopped and was calling the Italian version of 911. Cars were still roaring by us, but the police had also arrived and were keeping traffic away from the shoulder.

It was chaotic.

I asked the Italian woman to photograph me with my camera.

I tried to reassure my husband that I was OK, then asked him to do exactly what I knew he didn't want to do - leave me and go do my job, which was to photograph the scene. Never try to dissuade a reporter when they smell a need for information. Reluctantly he walked back a hundred feet and was shocked to find an entire lane and half of another black with oil.

Like the husband of a photographer, he shot it from every angle, just like he'd watched me do at car shows, races, rallies and events.

Sitting on the shoulder inert, I felt gratitude for the kind woman who had stopped. While she spoke rapidly in Italian on her cell phone, I looked down the road at our bike still lying on its side far down from me on the shoulder, and up the road toward where Scott was shooting.

It was a long distance.

How long? I guessed two football fields. Maybe more. Maybe 300 yards.

The ambulance arrived and four people tried to load me into it and hurry off to an Italian hospital where I knew more hell awaited. I live in Italy, so I know. I knew I'd arrive taped to a backboard only to wait and wait some more. There would be confusion, delays and frustration. I would be in a hospital in a foreign country without a phone, a passport or anyone who speaks English.

I wouldn't go.

They kept insisting that we must leave. I demanded that we wait. I wasn't leaving without my passport, my husband, and dammit, I wanted my iPad. It has a translation app. They were frustrated, but arguing with them took time, which is good. Italians like to argue, and they like to take their time.

I was winning.

During our debate the Polizia had joined Scott in photographing the oil spill. Suddenly a road construction worker in an orange vest appeared and confided to Scott the oil is a product they put down first when resurfacing the road with asphalt. A large truck full of it was bumped and spilled dozens of gallons on the roadway earlier that day.

They left it. No signs, no warning, no cones.

Why? Because it's Italy. Italy where it's "Va Bene" if you sideswipe a car and "Domani" if your basement is flooded and you need a plumber. It is the Italy of my dreams and the Italy of my nightmares. A country where people are passionate beyond reason about minutiae - and don't care at all when they should.

Finally my husband, my equipment and all our belongings were piled into an ambulance that seemed to bounce over cobblestones for an hour after exiting the Autostrada. Inside the hospital, it was everything I anticipated it would be and worse.

It didn't matter at all. We were grateful.

Sitting in our hospital room that night, we thanked God and agreed that there must indeed be a heaven. A heaven where adventurous angels live. Some of them must love to travel, because we are sure two decided to ride shotgun on a motorcycle in Italy just for fun, and we each carried one on a shoulder. Their wings must have been beating pretty hard to keep us safe when we hit the ground.

It's rarely visited, but we've been on that fine line between Heaven and Hell.

#Italy #Harley Davidson #Motorcycle #Autostrada #Tours #Mille Miglia #Motor Valley #Florence

Monday, May 28, 2012

Some Don't Like it Hot

There it was again.

The intrusive buzzer that made us jump each time it echoed through our Italian villa. Someone was at the security gate, asking to come in. An unfamiliar part of our new life in Naples included a security fence around our home with a pedestrian gate for guests.

Looking out the window I saw our Italian neighbor, Rita, smiling up at me with a plate in her hand. It was her sixth visit in the three days since we’d moved into this small neighborhood, and I knew what the buzzer meant every time I heard it. 

Rita was delivering another plate of “welcome to our neighborhood.”

The first time Rita showed up the Italian movers were unloading our furniture. Delighted when she walked into the yard carrying a small metal pot of Italian coffee and several tiny plastic cups, the men eagerly swigged the potent shots of coffee.

I politely sipped mine. The strong acid flavor of the thick, dark brew was a far cry from the milky lattes I was used to drinking at home in California, but I didn’t want to be rude, and that quickly became a pattern.

 I felt a twinge of guilt every time Rita appeared at our gate.  The Italian fare she made was pasta or starchy Gnocchi which I politely sampled in small bites, mindful of the calorie count.

My husband on the other hand, was thrilled when Rita appeared.

“We are lucky!” he exclaimed each time I passed him one of her culinary gifts, which he devoured with relish. Yes, we were lucky to have a beautiful villa next to a friendly Italian neighbor.

“What did she bring today?”

 He was already sniffing the plate I’d carried inside. “It’s all yours,” I said, feeling relieved that Scott was so delighted with Rita’s cooking.

I had caught a whiff of the strong seafood aroma coming from the plate, and it was too pungent for my taste on a lazy Sunday morning when all I could think about was pancakes and eggs.

“OK, well, I’m eating it.”
 We sat on the back veranda gazing out at our view of the Mediterranean.
“Honey, this is wonderful, are you sure you don’t want some?”

 I was sure. Watching him pick up the tiny shells scattered atop the pasta to suck out the meat inside wasn’t stirring my appetite in the least.

“I wonder what kind of seafood this is?” he said, studying the shells on his plate. That’s when it occurred to me my husband did not know he was eating snails for breakfast.

“That is not seafood, those are baby snails.”

 I felt a little wicked. Despite being self-described “foodies” who often experimented with different cuisines, I knew my husband was no more a fan of Escargot than myself.

“Ack! Why would you ruin it for me?!” he exclaimed, setting the plate down and swigging his mimosa. “I don’t like snails! Why didn't you tell me?!” 

Chuckling at the reaction, I knew that despite my reluctance to partake of the pasta and snails, Rita had made something very special for us. Her consistent giving from her kitchen was a gracious Italian welcome, and it was time for us to reciprocate.  

But what does an American cook for an Italian?  

My specialties were international dishes – Thai and Mexican. They wouldn’t adequately represent traditional American cuisine at all.  

 “Why don’t we make something special for Rita?”

He must have been reading my mind. Scott was back to eating the plate of pasta, but I could see the snails had been carefully set to one side. “I’m thinking maybe I’ll deep fry a turkey for her” he said. A deep fried turkey?

Leave it to a boy from North Carolina to come up with fried poultry. Next he’d be suggesting corn fritters and collard greens. But who was I to judge? At least it was traditional food from our country. 
Two weeks later in our back yard at dusk, Scott looked like the culinary equivalent of a coal miner’s daughter. Decked out with a head lamp against the dimming light and clad in denim coveralls, he brandished a cigar in one hand and Kentucky bourbon in the other. My husband was boldly displaying his southern roots, gesturing proudly at the turkey fryer and 14-pound bird, waiting to be dipped.

 "Why don’t you go get Rita so she can watch?” He asked.  

When Rita arrived, we stood together on the terrace above the yard and watched Scott dip her turkey into the pot on stilts. Amazed at the bubbling oil and mouth-watering aroma emitting from the smoke, Rita was fascinated.

We watched for several minutes, sipping the homemade wine she had brought and letting the moment bridge the language barrier.

An hour later, the crispy bird arranged on a platter, Scott offered to carry it across the street. The look on Rita’s face spoke volumes, and strangely, I recognized her expression. 

It mirrored mine the morning the snail dish had arrived. Oblivious to the nuance and reading it as reluctance to accept his grand gift, Scott carved off a piece of breast meat and held out to Rita on a fork. The steaming bite had an unmistakably spicy Cajun aroma to it.

  He had injected it. I should have known.

Reluctantly, Rita took the large bite in her mouth then frantically began waving her hands in front of her face. Gulping her wine, her eyes were wide and watering.

“Troppo caldo! Troppo caldo! Molto Spezia!” She exclaimed. I rushed to get her water as my mortified husband stood by, unsure what to do.
Snails came to mind.

Consistent in her graciousness, Rita took the offending Cajun turkey home. We later learned the bird had been passed to the homes of three of Rita’s relatives – none of whom could eat the spicy fowl.

Two weeks went by with no more gifts from Rita, and we started to wonder if we had seriously offended our Italian neighbors and broken the chain of food gifts with our Cajun turkey.

One day two bottles of homemade champagne showed up outside the gate and I knew that the mistake was forgiven. Maybe my list of things to do while I live in Italy should include learning to cook snails. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mine is Bigger Than Yours

Rita started it.

The day we moved into our villa in Naples she was at our front gate. A small dark Italian woman with laughing brown eyes, she came to our house the first time with Italian coffee

The following week, the button on our security gate was pushed a dozen times by Rita. Buzz, Italian coffee. Buzz, pasta. Buzz, homemade wine. Buzz, Limoncello. Rita was a machine of giving.

After two weeks, I started to dread the sound. Not used to such an enthusiasm, I was anxious to reciprocate but not sure how. It was clear my spicy cooking wasn't going to be appealing to Rita. My specialties were Thai and Mexican. In fact giving her food at all didn't seem right. She was welcoming us to Italy with authentic Italian fare. I didn't want to take away from that. 

So what would be right?  

Maybe flowers would be a simple and adequate gesture. 

"Who are these for? The British woman working behind the counter at the flower shop was skeptical. Startled, I paused. "My very kind Italian neighbor who keeps bringing me food, why?" 

"I was afraid you'd say that," said the woman who later introduced herself as Maggie. "I've been married to an Italian for 15 years. Don't give her those," she warned, pointing at the bouquet of roses in my hand. "Roses signify secrecy to Italians and don't give her Chrysanthemums or carnations - they are only used at funerals. Don't use gold or black ribbon - or anything purple!" 

A sinking feeling ensued. Guided in the right direction I left the flower shop with a medium size bouquet of Lilies and Gerber Daisies. That night, buzzing Rita's gate for the first time, it surprised me to see embarrassment on her face when I handed the blooms to her. 

Rita wasn't used to receiving. 

The next day the annoying buzz I was finally becoming accustomed to echoed through the house again, and there was Rita. Opening the front door, I watched her walk toward me carrying an bouquet of yellow flowers so enormous I couldn't see her head. Shoving them into my arms, she smiled gleefully and with a "Ciao!" skipped back across the street.

Putting the huge stems into my largest vase, I wondered if my bouquet had seemed small.  

The following day Rita's husband, Franco, was out working in their yard. Like most Italian men, Franco made his own wine at home, and I'd been thinking of asking him about the large glass "demijohns" in his driveway. I knew Italians used for wine making. The giant light bulb shaped vessels of thick green glass were like the art pieces - but Italians view as them as strictly functional. I thought Franco might have some good intelligence for me on where to find them.

Translating the question from English to Italian on my iPad, I walked across the street and noticed an unfamiliar face peeking out of their garage interior.

"Ciao! I am Franco's daughter - my name is Simona. I'm visiting from Rome. You must be Laura? I'm down here sorting things in the basement to take home." Her English was perfect and after our introduction Rita and Franco joined us in the dark basement which clearly served more as a wine cellar.

I explained to Simone that I wanted to ask Franco where to buy demijohns - that I had been unable to find them. Franco responded by immediately pointing at one empty, medium sized demijohn sitting among many others full of wine. Then he pointed at me.

"Oh no, I didn't come to ask for one of yours!" Horrified that Rita and Franco might think I was there to request one of their beautiful glass globes for free, I turned to Franco's daughter. "Please explain to them that I cannot take this unless they allow me to pay for it."

"They will not take money from you," Simona explained, and they want to know which size you like. Maybe next time my father goes to buy some, he will get you another one."

Embarrassed but thrilled by the offer, I pointed to one of the largest demijohns in the garage, corked with Franco's latest wine harvest.

"Those, the 54 liter bottles are the most beautiful," I said. "I will give him the money in advance to buy one of those for me, but he must also let me pay him for this one he is giving me now."

The largest demijohns would cost 24 euros each and Rita agreed she would let me know when Franco was on a buying trip. But both refused to take cash for the demijohn gifted out of Franco's collection.

Walking across the street with my green globe, accompanied by Simona, she said in a conspiratorial tone, "you know, if you would like to do something nice for them, they like that fruity body cleaner sold in the American stores. If you could just buy a bottle, they would love that."

Fruity body wash?  Now I knew how to adequately thank my new neighbors. Not knowing which fruit was the best, I'd have to wing that part. So it was off to the American military base to find the sweet smelling bath products that would adequately express gratitude to our Italian friends.

Later that night, I proudly showed my husband the four bottles of strawberry and kiwi liquid neatly packed in a wine sack. A thank you card was tucked inside with them - written from an ipad translation like all of my communications with Rita. Walking across the street feeling triumphant, I hoped I was about to hit a home run with the neighbors.

Rita answered the door and gushed over the first bottle. "Grazia! grazia!"

I felt myself glowing with her appreciation and watched as she read the card giggling at my attempt to translate a simple thank you. Back at home, I was relieved. Finally, we were on an even playing field with our new neighbors. Now hopefully they were aware of how much we appreciated their largess. Maybe now we were all evenly settled with gifts.

I wasn't prepared when the security buzzer blared loudly the next morning. It must be a solicitor. They were frequent here, and the last one, selling seafood from his truck, had waved a fish at me over the fence. I ignored the buzz and continued with my work.

Buzz, buuuzzz, buuuuuzzzz. Whoever this was, ignoring them wasn't working. I looked out the window and there stood Rita. But instead of standing at the pedestrian gate where visitors on foot entered, she was peering through the bars of our large driveway gate.

Baffled, I scrambled for the remote that would open the big iron gate. As it rolled away,  I could see tiny Rita clutching two enormous demijohns. Bolting up the driveway and up onto my porch, barely able to hold the heavy globes by the neck, she carefully set them down at my feet then ran back to Franco who was waiting with two more. I could feel my jaw drop.

Depositing the next pair on my front step, Rita said something in Italian, gave me a hug and a kiss on both cheeks, then darted home. Overwhelmed by the display of green glass on my front porch, I pondered the math. If Franco had purchased these four demijohns, that was almost 100 euro. My fruity gift to them had cost less than five dollars. This wasn't even close to equitable.

I couldn't accept this. It was too much.

That's when it hit me. Italians are passionate about many things. They love big, fight big, yell big, laugh big and eat big. Birthday parties are celebrated with fireworks. Trying to live like an Italian means doing everything with great appassionato! I was probably no match for that. My Italian neighbors have their own personal passion and there was nothing we could do but accept that they give Big and Rita's gifts would always be bigger than mine.

#wine #italy #naples #demijohn #glass

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Shrimp on the Boot

The man in front of me is smiling broadly and I can't help but think how many of my female friends would enjoy this moment, walking past a handsome young Italian man so anxious to get my attention.

"Ciao signora giovane! Vi piacerebbe alcuni gamberetti oggi? O forse qualche formaggio?"

Unfortunately it's not because he is at all impressed by the American woman strolling along with a huge camera. He is asking me if I'd like to purchase some shrimp, or would I like some cheese?

A strikingly different experience than shopping at my neighborhood Costco in San Diego, perusing the stalls at the Monteruscello street market is like walking onto a movie set. The Italian man is proudly gesturing at a plastic tub full of shrimp energetically swimming in circles, their transparent bodies busy with moving parts. It's a far cry from someone offering up a cooked sample on a toothpick. Some Americans living in Italy call what I'm doing today "shopping on the boot" due to the country's boot shape. A 30-minute drive outside central Naples, Monteruscello is one of many small communities with an outdoor market.

Next to the tub of shrimp, giant wheels of hard cheese are split open and stacked on crates filled with more enormous wheels. This is cheese the deli of a supermarket in the United States would have to charge many more dollars a pound for, if they carried it at all. Here, it is not only better quality but far less expensive. Like everything at the market, items are either hours old or painstakingly aged for months and years.

"Grazie!" I thank him in my best, albeit very bad, Italian.

"May I please just photograph the shrimp?

Amused, the man steps aside and watches me point my camera at the bucket of busy crustaceans. Most people would scoop up the fresh fare before other shoppers could, but I'm too distracted by their aliveness. Somehow the idea of carrying a plastic bag home with my dinner still swimming in it is too much for this squeamish American. Mentally I chastise myself. I love shrimp and they would probably be the best I have ever eaten. With time I promise myself, I'll loosen up.

The cheese, however, is a must have. Along with orchard fresh apples; tomatoes and lettuce culled from a local garden just this morning. The prices are so low I have to stifle a giggle when a dapper looking farmer dressed in a sweater hands me a head of Butter Lettuce the size of a basketball for one Euro.

The market is magical in a theatrical way. Unlike farmer's markets I've visited in France and other parts of Europe, the Italian markets are startling with their amplified volume and colorful characters. Italians shout when they are happy, bellow when they are joyful, gesture wildly when trying to make a point, and get more indignant then angry. The market sounds are as much a part of the experience as the sights and smells.

"Benventuto! Buoni prezzi oggi! Grandi offerte! Come stai!"

Whirling around to the shout of someone just behind me, I'm greeted by another smiling face, inviting me to photograph him. The enthusiasm the vendors have for being photographed is surprising. It's as though I'm making each one of them a celebrity by snapping their images. Afterward they laugh and high five each other like I've handed them a winning lottery ticket.

The one exception is a tall, quiet man standing over a table of Mozzarella. He smiles shyly and turns away when I ask to photograph him, but quickly points to a round of soft cheese packaged in a plastic bag full of liquid to preserve it. Clearly he's been watching me navigate the market for pictures. I accept his invitation and photograph the unremarkable package, then notice his table holds a variety of soft cheeses including the coveted Buffalo Mozzarella. A culinary staple of Naples, this particular cheese is moving the needle forward on my scale at a pound a month. Some people crave pizza, some pasta. For me, it's this particular cheese.

Unlike Mozzarella made from cow milk, "Mozzarella di Bufala" is somewhere between cheese and butter. Thickly sliced atop a vine-ripe tomato, crowned with fresh basil and parked on top of freshly baked olive bread, the Italian delicacy packs the calories of avocado without the benefit of healthy oils. Regardless, it is winning a battle for priority in my kitchen. Every time I buy it I swear it's the last time for a while, but who can resist such a great deal? Resigned, I had him two euros and add the liquid-filled package to my booty.

Juggling multiple bags of market treasures, I readjust my camera case and begin the trek back to my car, reflecting on my expenditures. I've spent seven euros and enjoyed the lively scene for two hours. Larger than many street markets in Italy, the Monteruscello market only happens on Wednesdays and there is much more to see than I've seen today. Next week I'll be back. Waving to the vendors with weighted down arms, I pass the shrimp swimming in the plastic bin and tell myself, next time, they come home too.

Next time, I'm buying shrimp on the boot.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Lost on the Amalfi Coast

The bus was coming straight at me. Slowly, deliberately, right at my car. There was no place to go. No shoulder, no turnout, no options. My first thought was surrender. It would be a romantic death to perish in a convertible, on a sunny day, high on a cliff above the Amalfi Coastline of Italy. There were worse ways to go. The second thought was more rational.  "Just stop, he's done this before, the driver will figure it out."

Figure it out, he did. Carefully inching past my stopped vehicle, the bus driver gave me a cheerful wave as he cautiously maneuvered past, and it was clear this was normal. A twisting, narrow and dramatically beautiful path along the the Amalfi Coast between Salerno and Positano, it was amazing to see the dance of vehicles familiar with the road. With sometimes mere inches clearing each other in opposite directions, it was impossible to photograph most of the road. For this experience, a video camera attached to the dash would have made more sense.

Note to self.

Getting lost on a drive in a foreign country is exhilarating. For those of us who thrill at the idea of an undiscovered nook in some cranny of the world, getting lost just means joyfully off the grid. But being off the grid doesn't include driving one of the most highly acclaimed stretches of road in Italy - the guidebooks are full of photographs and vivid descriptions of this zig-zagging stretch.

So how did I end up here by accident?

Construction. This is where Garmin updates will not help you. When an anticipated exit off the autostrade is closed due to construction and your GPS begins the monotone mantra "recalculating," the adventure officially begins. After passing my desired exit, I kept driving. Unfortunately, a photographer behind the wheel is vulnerable to one thing more than any other - a beautiful shot. Navigating myself through the lens of camera, I simply followed the shot at every turn, which ultimately, mysteriously, got me here.

From a turn-out on the autostrade, to downtown Salerno, to the waterfront Embarcadero and now to this crazy 15-miles per hour cruise along the cliffs, my Canon's passion for the shot had superseded every U-turn demand from my Garmin - muted after the third wrong turn back toward Naples. Driving with a camera in my lap; waiting for the curves ahead to be revealed as empty, I'm passed by a Porsche. Passed.

Lucky for him the bus had already gone by. I marveled at his efforts to pass the car in front of me, and watched my rear view mirror. Normally there would be a dozen more behind him flying past me the same way, with no regard for blind turns or two lanes narrowing to one. In Italy the drivers are like a school of fish or flock of birds traveling together. There are no lines on the road, no signs, no rules. Even here where the tap of two vehicles could send one plunging down to the beach far below, the fast drivers travel together in a rhythm.

Passing small towns tucked into the hillside, the light is getting low. My GPS, set for Naples, continues to silently demand a U turn. My fuel is at less than a quarter tank, and I haven't seen a gas station since leaving Salerno an hour ago. Despite the seduction of golden light, running out of fuel on a road like this after dark might be too exciting. Pulled off in the hamlet of Maiori, I turn around and head back toward Salerno and an autostrade exit.

Arriving home I poured a glass of my favorite wine and Google-mapped my route. Only then did I realize that of course, at any point I could have looked at my iPhone to determine exactly where I was located along the coast, but it had simply never occurred to me. Hypnotized by the beauty, I'd relinquished technology to simply enjoy being lost on the Amalfi Coast.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Wrong Way on a One Way

We were going the wrong way.

The wrong way on a one-way street in the tiny coastal town of Arco Felice. Usually roundabouts went around. Getting lost or confused about which direction to take while you're inside one is an easy fix - you just keep driving in a circle until you figure it out. It's a merry-go-round of traffic and much simpler than an intersection requiring immediate action. But this was not a roundabout at all. It was a round-a-straight. We'd driven the motorcycle in a circle and were facing oncoming traffic. A Bambi-in-the-headlights moment, all for one cigar.

The cigar store in Arco Felice is famous for its Cubans. Plunking down twenty eight Euros for one of Cuba's  finest was the only goal on this lazy Sunday afternoon. Thumping around oceanfront Arco Felice and the sister community of Pozzuoli was relaxing compared to the death-defying speeds required to survive the Autostrade, so we were taking it slow - albeit in the wrong direction. Calmly pulled off to the side of the road, we smiled and waved cheerfully at the other drivers like we'd done this purposely to entertain them. After a deft u-turn, the elusive cigar store was spotted and we parked, only to discover what we should have already known.

Italians take a three-hour lunch.

Yes, from noon or 1:00 PM, to 3:00, 3:30 - or maybe 4:00 if the mood strikes and the wine is good, the shops are often closed. Which means in the winter when the sun sets at 4:45 PM, you might be running to a vegetable stand in the dark. An easy way to pick a bad tomato. But, it's all about the adventure and seeing the metal shutters closed over the doors and windows of the cigar shop only makes us more curious. It's time to kill time, and here that always means Cappuccino and Italian pastry.

The girl making our coffee in the Up and Down Cafe across the street from the cigar shop didn't look like a barista from Starbucks. She was fancy in black clothing with a white apron and stood a few feet away from our table ready to jump into action should we need anything. This attentiveness isn't typical in Italy and anyone working at a Starbucks in the United States would be shocked. We appreciate it. She's shy when I asked to take her photograph. We'd burned 30 minutes. Fifteen minutes to go. Time to kill more time.

We wandered across the street and watched the keepers of a flower shop open the doors. Living in San Diego, one of the endearing things my husband did on a weekly basis was bring me roses from Costco. I know, you're thinking "Costco? Really?" But hey, it's the thought that counts and it was always touching to see him come through the door with a 12-pack of paper towels and my dozen roses. He ducked inside the flower shop and I pretended not to notice, wandering up the sidewalk to ponder more closed shops.

Fifteen minutes later he hadn't reappeared and wondering if my roses are seeds that have to sprout first.
I peeked inside the shop and saw that my flowers were getting an elaborate treatment. The shop keeper had cut and tied them in a bundle, sprayed them with an oily substance to make them glossy, and was wrapping them in an elaborate bundle of what looked like wire lace. It appeared to be a painstaking process, and I wondered if adorned like this, the blooms would even fit on the bike. The last bit of packaging was finally attached and we left, me wondering how to unwrap, water and work with the lattice work he had crafted around my bouquet.

It was past time, and the cigar shop was still not open. The wine must have been very good. We stood outside the metal shutters and pondered whether to wait. Suddenly an Italian man stepped up and reached into his pocket - but instead of emerging with keys, he pulled out a five-euro bill and moved up to the building. This is the first time I notice the ATM next to the cigar shop's front door. But why would you insert money into an ATM? This is where the man I laughed at for driving the wrong way on a one-way street gets his laugh. The bank machine is actually a cigarette machine with a variety of choices - including prophylactics.

Not since I visited Japan in the early nineties have I seen a cigarette machine. They are non existent in the United States and I can't remember when or where I last saw one in a public place. The man was baffled at my fascination and flattered when I photograph him securing his Pall Mall's. Another 10 minutes have elapsed, and the man with the keys to the door that unlocks cigar heaven finally arrived. Only 30 minutes late, which we've learned is on time.

An hour later, we were home, having experienced everything we would have enjoyed on a Sunday afternoon in California. A sunny motorcycle ride through what might have been La Jolla or Del Mar at home, a good cup of coffee, an aromatic cigar shop with another gem for the humidor, and my roses. Arranging them in a vase, the odd wire mesh around them looked like a bad hat on a girl attending a royal wedding. But remembering his laborious effort to trim and curl it, I stuck the entire display in water. It might have been the wrong way to do it, but living in Italy we're learning there's more than one way to do everything.