Saturday, August 29, 2009

Capri - Reflections of the Island of Dreams

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

What may be Capri's best gift: the time and desire to dream. Capri is an island that worships the senses. The sweet, slow surrender to the sun, the tropical smell of lotion, the feel of fresh cotton towels and the sharp taste of the sea's salt on your skin. Sun bursts onto the water every morning. I open the hotel's wooden shutters to the brilliant light. Craggy rocks jut out of the water's surface, their reflections splayed onto the ever-rippling blue water. I look down to see roads narrow and winding. Compact-sized buses, stifling and glittering metallic, wend their way around the Island below me. Above me, a grassy hiking trail leads to the Island peak, where a 360 degree view of shimmering water awaits. The hike soothes the brain, calms the mind, taxes the body.

This is the heady, intoxicating mixture that awakens our long dormant senses. It gave us the tale of the seductive Sirens and headstrong warriors, Jason and the Argonauts. Centuries later, the Roman Emperor Tiberius was lured to the Island and made it his summer retreat. Far from the restrictions of Roman governance and society, Capri became his hedonistic playground. Such beauty and sensuality surrounded by the sea unlocked the Emperor's fantasies and ultimately, his good judgment. Perhaps he stayed too long in the company of the Sirens.

Now, so many years later, Capri retains this magic. You understand why Jason had to be tied to a mast to resist the call to leave his ship. I was not, so I could not. I dive headlong into the luscious decadence of sea, sand, and sweat. I surrender to the pleasures, at once earthy and ethereal. Where does this strong, almost magnetic pull come from? Perhaps from wearing as little as possible because of the heat. Perhaps from sensing the chance to live another way, to be a character in another life. Jason didn't know what he was missing. It ultimately killed Tiberius.

In a profound way, we are forced to acknowledge our separation from our usual lives and our connection to Nature. There is more of It than of us; no avoiding it. We are small and profoundly lucky at the same time. Maybe it's this mixture of opposites, these contradictions that blend inside of us and close us off to our usual states of stress and hurry. We surrender. We have no choice; do with us what you will. Capri obliges. It's ready to insinuate itself into our blood and our minds with its hypnotic beauty and heat. In a short time, our interior walls and protective barriers crumble, and we have no desire to rebuild them. At last, permission is granted to feel the breezes blow, the waters soothe, the sun caress. We are changed. It is glorious.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

May Day in Siena - Part 3

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Yes, breakfast was included in this wonderful sleep-over that Gabriele had arranged for us. It was set up in the dining room downstairs. We must have overslept because as we made our way up the hallway to the stairs, we saw that all the other guest rooms were emptied. The doors were open and Max’s hardworking mother was laboring away. Stripping the beds, opening windows, vacuuming, all in her measured, my-arthritis-is-acting-up sort of way. It slowed her down, but it didn’t stop her.

Max waited for us at the dining room table, complete with our place settings, a pot of espresso and a large plate with mounds of biscotti and fresh pastries. It seems Max’s Mom made these this morning, before she started cleaning the guest rooms. We had a few hours to kill before we were to meet Gabriele, so we settled in for a leisurely breakfast with Max.

Max seemed to be in his 30’s, attractive, lithe, with dark hair and those deep Italian eyes. The three of us talked about a wide range of subjects: Italy, America, working parents, children, cooking, Siena, girlfriends (he didn’t have one) and on and on. After about an hour, Max’s Mom emerged from the kitchen with a big smile and another plate of just baked pastries (we had pretty much decimated the first plate). That’s when we realized she had made these fluffy goodies and hadn’t just picked them up at the bakery. We feigned protest, but probably weren’t too convincing. After all, she’d already made them. We couldn’t let them go to waste. She walked slowly back to her chores upstairs and we continued to eat and pass the time with Max. We couldn’t help noticing that young, healthy Max was doing nothing while his mother did everything.

At one point, I went upstairs to use the bathroom. I was too paranoid to lock the door, so I just closed it and hoped for the best. As I was making my way downstairs again, Max’s Mom was walking a few steps ahead of me. Remember the slow, painful movements of this woman? There she was, singing a little tune and bounding (yes, bounding) down the stairs like she was 20. I was happy she was happy but still, what was going on?

I rejoined Lana and Max at the table where we hung out until we had to leave. There was quite a scene saying goodbye. Not so much Max, but his Mom didn’t want to see us go. She hugged us both so tightly we were getting confused. It wasn’t until we were walking over to the café to meet Gabriele that we put the morning’s events together. It seemed to us that Max’s Mom was probably like every other Italian mother we’d ever known or heard about: she wanted a wife for her son. She had morphed from cripple to singing athlete once she decided that at least one of us must have been interested in her handsome, available Max. Why else would we have spent so much time with him at breakfast? To Max’s Mom, he was the catch of a lifetime! What young woman wouldn’t want to hook up with Max and cook all his meals, do his laundry, clean up after him and then give Mom a hand cleaning the guest bedrooms, the bathroom, dusting, vacuuming, straightening? Ah, to two single American women it all seemed like such a mad whirl of delights! Really, we couldn’t walk to the café fast enough.

May Day in Siena - Part 2

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

After much shopping, eating, drinking and walking, it was well into the night and time to return to Acqua Calde. We got ourselves a cab at the taxi stand and started down the road. The driver spoke only Italian and seemed to be in a really sour mood. We, in all of our excitement of the day, had neglected to get the address of where we were staying or even the name of the establishment (did it have one? We had no idea). But we were confident that we would recognize the side street we needed when we saw it, and tried in vain to convince the driver of this. I say in vain because he became irate, complete with gestures, yelling and red face (as much as we could tell in the dark). We even showed him our money, in case he thought we weren’t going to pay him. We honestly couldn’t understand his anger, but we literally didn’t speak each other’s language. After much fretting and histrionics on all of our parts, he abruptly pulled over and refused to take us further.

To give you the sense of this moment, it was near midnight, pitch dark, a single lane road with tall grass on either side, no street lights, very little traffic, no houses, no businesses, nothing. We paid the driver (we were nothing if not honest) and started to walk the rest of the way to that side street we saw in our heads. All the way there, we tried to make sense of what had just happened.

We walked quite a while, but we finally got there. It was such a relief when we turned that corner and saw the little house. We walked through the front gate and tried to open the door, but it was locked. Oh no; we were never given a key! Just as we were sizing up the garden as a place to crash until morning, the door opened. Suddenly, we were staring at Max’s parents sitting on the couch in their living room, watching TV. Obviously not expecting visitors, Max’s mother had her hair up in curlers. Oh Lord, we used the wrong door! We backed up, apologizing profusely, out into the night.

We then found the correct door, dragged our tired selves up the steep, wide stairs, and went to our room.

I needed a bath. Leaving Lana relaxing on the bed (beside the non-working stereo, there was no other furniture), I took our bathroom key and headed out the door. The bathroom was down the hall, shared by all guests on our floor. Since it was very late at night, all the other guests were asleep, all the doors on either side of the long hallway locked up tight. So the bathroom was mine for the foreseeable future.

It was spacious with a large, sunken bathtub. The floors and walls were done in deep green marble tiles. It looks amazing but in my opinion, water and marble are a very dangerous mix. Instinctively, you try to create traction by putting a towel down on the floor as you stand by the sink or get out of the tub. But one quick move turns the towel into a runaway flying carpet. You grab hold of the nearest stable object to stop your momentum. Maybe it’s the sink. Or the slippery edge of the tub. Or the towel rack. Anything to keep from hurtling into to that luscious Italian marble you were cooing over just moments before. Now you’re wondering what you’ll scream as you skid across the floor. “May Day” perhaps?

Somehow, I made it out of the tub and got dressed without killing myself. I felt relaxed, refreshed and oh so ready for a good night’s sleep. All that stood between me and sleep was the locked bathroom door. So I gathered all my things and slipped my medieval-looking skeleton key into to the lock and turned. The lock made the noise, but nothing else happened. The knob didn’t turn. The door didn’t open. No problem, I’ll try again. So I did. Many, many times. Turn, clank, nothing. This went on and on. I wondered if I’d have to spend the night in the bathroom. My options weren’t pretty. I could try to sleep on the bruise-inducing marble floor or in the bruise-inducing bathtub. Then there’s the humiliation factor when the lucky stranger opens the door in the morning and finds me staring up at them.

At this point you’re probably wondering, what’s Lana doing? Well, keep in mind that the bathroom is all tile and porcelain, and the hallway is all wood, no rug. So the sound of the key incessantly turning in the lock is resounding all the way down the hall to our room. Lana is sitting on the bed, head in hand, crying from laughter. It’s not like she could help me. We had only one bathroom key between us. I was on my own. She was flirting with a hernia.

Eventually, the lock gave in and I won. Turn, clank, open. Remember how relaxed I felt after the bath? Forget it now. I was some combination of overtired, stressed, relieved and dumbfounded. I made it to bed and fell asleep just in time for breakfast.

May Day in Siena - Part 1

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Let’s pick up this story at Il Querceto, a villa in Castellina in Chianti, during the last week of April, 1998. Laura, the owner, was an energetic woman who seemed to do the work of 3 people. She had already informed my friend Lana and me that due to the upcoming May Day holiday weekend, we would have to find other accommodations for the upcoming Friday night. This meant we’d have to pack up everything & vacate the villa Friday afternoon. However, we were welcome to return to the villa on Saturday & stay for another week (which we did; who says “no” to that?). No problem, we thought. Lana & I prided ourselves on traveling without compass or reservations. How hard could it be to find a place for one night? We had just landed in this cozy spot for another 7 days. Surely the gods are with us. Sometime over the next few days, I mentioned this situation to our Italian friend, Gabriele. He said he would find a place for us. Fine, we thought. Let’s go shopping!

As we flitted around Tuscany, we heard bits & pieces about this May Day thing. It seemed every Italian would take 3 or 4 days away, as this year it fell on a Friday. Hotels had been booked for months. We saw TV predictions of bumper-to-bumper traffic from everywhere in Italy on the way to everywhere else in Italy. Keep in mind that neither one of us had ever heard of May Day before, except as something you screamed if you were having a military emergency.

We didn’t hear back from Gabriele for several days. Lana & I discussed our options. We seemed to have only one: worst case scenario, we find some public place and/or a bench and stay up all night, returning to Querceto the next day. We’d take only a backpack each for easy transport, as Laura allowed us to keep our other luggage in one of her storage areas for the night. Thursday afternoon flowed into Thursday evening when our phone finally rang. It was Gabriele, telling us that he had found us “the last room in Siena.” Located through the ever-powerful Italian social network, one room of a rental property in Acqua Calde, just outside of Siena, remained unrented for Friday night. Gabriele would drive us there. This could work.

We piled into Gabriele’s car Friday afternoon and set off for Acqua Calde. Many winding roads later, we made a right turn onto a side street and pulled over. Walking through the gate to the front door, it suited Lana & I just fine. Quiet, surrounded by a green field and trees, we were welcomed by a large, enthusiastic Labrador. The front door opened and Gabriele did all the talking (in Italian, of course). We were introduced t0 Max, a late 20-ish, handsome and (we would later learn) single man who lived on the property with his parents. We met his mother who was very sweet but seemed to be just on the edge of physical pain. Every move she made was slow and deliberate, as if specifically calculated to avoid discomfort. Her smile was wide and warm, but we could see the pain in her eyes.

Meanwhile, Gabriele was wheeling and dealing. For all of us to hear, he confirmed the price of the room and how it would be paid (in cash). Max brought us all upstairs to see the room. The hallway was wide and our double room was at the far end. I was so happy to see a stereo set up at the foot of the bed. “Great! We’ll have music!” I said. Gabriele, smarter than I about Italian accommodations, turned to Max and said “Funziona?” (“Does it work?”) Max sheepishly replied, “No.”

The deal was made and as it was the middle of the day, Gabriele offered to drive us to Siena on his way back to Poggibonsi. That sounded great to us. After agreeing to meet the next day near a café by the rental property to bring us back to Castellina, he dropped us off and we were let loose in Siena.