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Embarcadero and now to this crazy 15-miles per hour cruise along the cliffs, my Canon's passion for the shot had superseded every U-turn demand from my Garmin - muted after the third wrong turn back toward Naples.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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Sitting here in my home office in Italy, I'm looking out at the Good.

The Good is the expanse of aqua blue Mediterranean stretched out in the distance. I can see miles of it from my desk. This is why we chose this villa. It was selfish on my part - one look at the two upstairs rooms facing the sun setting on an expanse of ocean and I knew this would be the perfect place to write. 

My husband leaves early every morning and returns after dark. Often he doesn't even see what I'm using as inspiration all day. Water has a way of inspiring most people. Living in Seattle and San Diego, quality of  life was always about the water. Even if you didn't get in it - you knew it was there. Seeing it was a bonus if you could afford a view. Fortunately, here in Italy, the amazing view is not expensive. Which is Good.

The Bad is the driving. Italians are friendly, warm, engaging people who embrace you immediately. They ply you with homemade wine, shove dishes of pasta at you and kiss you on both cheeks. They become an enthusiastic and instant family. Until they drive. Then they become evil. The kind old man who offers you an extra handful of olives for free at the market will scare the hell out of you in his Fiat Punta. Your helpful neighbor who offers you bottles of his homemade wine will try to squeeze in-between you and the car in the next lane like a moped. 

Italian drivers don't drive. They go to war. The only way I will keep my weight in check eating all the bread and pasta we ingest in Italy is from the cardio exercise on the Autostrade. Yesterday I stayed as far away from trouble as possible. Cruising calmly in the far right lane, my heart started pounding wildly when the distinctive Audi LED lights behind me grew brighter by the second. Unwilling to wait for the fast moving traffic in the left lane to pass us cruise-controllers in the right lane, the Audi was splitting lanes at a high speed, pushing cars to the side like a parting of the Red Sea. My heart was beating double time as he swerved back and forth on my left bumper looking for an opening in-between my car and the left lanes. 
He couldn't have been more than 10 inches off my left taillight, so close I was frozen with indecision. 

Not easily rattled on any road in any town, in any country - I've driven test vehicles all over the world - I was incredulous and for the first time, scared. Unless someone was bleeding to death in his car, this just made no sense. I moved over onto the shoulder into the crunchy bits of garbage that make it a precarious place to drive and let him fly by me. Other drivers were also swerving aside ahead of me, cursing and making hand gestures I didn't comprehend. I was just glad to have survived the pass. It was Bad. 

Most baffling and embarrassing is the Ugly. People who live here don't talk about it, but the Americans who live here do. We talk about it every day. It bothers some of us more than others. It bothers me so much, I'm going to break all the rules of expats and write about it. Naples is filthy. Filthy in a way that makes you wonder what the hell is wrong here. I don't mean it is dirty. I mean it is filthy. Strangely, it's not all of Naples, just the highways and byways that connect communities. Yes, you read correctly. Piles and piles of garbage decorate the turnouts of major roads and shoulders of streets in and about Naples. 

Between my desk and the beautiful ocean view in the distance is a road lined with piles of garbage as high as six feet. On that same road are two luxury hotels. Further down that road are oceanfront resorts. Soon after moving here we rode our motorcycle to the beach along that road. The smell was nauseating. Passing the gated property of a high end hotel, we wondered how guests from outside Italy felt when their taxicabs from the airport drove past this enormous display of trash. Not just garbage bags of trash, but the kind of filth you see in the most decrepit parts of the world. Rusty appliances, dirty mattresses, rat infested furniture and mounds of old food. Every kind of waste you could imagine, piled in stinky heaps alongside a road to paradise. It's too much to comprehend sometimes, and it's Ugly.

One of the many beautiful views in Italy, this one from my office.