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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: The 1st Tale (The Crossing)



On June 25, 2007, after a day in Dublin with my dear friend Joe Ross, I took the plane to Naples, from where I had been told I could would the ferry at Beverello (the Naples harbor) to Ischia. But just before leaving, I had received an e-mail from my friend Marty Nakell, my host in Ischia, that the hotel where I was to stay had arranged that I should be met at the airport and guided to Ischia. Naples, everyone had noted, was a dangerous city, and a bit intimidating upon one’s first visit.

As the plane set down at the airport, the other passengers and I were taken by bus to what appeared to be a large hanger, something left-over, it seemed to me, from World War II, from the years when my air force-serving father had been stationed in that city.

It was beastly hot—an African sirocco was embracing Naples—and except of the languid movements of a large overhead fan high above the hanger, no air moved. At the passport control, an officer collected all American passports, letting the European Union members through before stamping our documents and returning them to us. My bags seemed to take forever.

As I exited, I was met by a driver who took the bags into his van. We drove to another terminal where he temporarily left me alone to roast, soon after coming back to remove my things and signaling me to follow him. In another van, he stashed my suitcases, leaving me to trail after him into the new terminal, where he passed me on to a “collega.” His “colleague” pointed to the chair, suggesting I sit there to wait as he went forward, sign in hand, evidently to pick up another traveler or travelers from Milan. Clearly they (my first driver and this new “collega”) were consolidating their passengers, but as time passed and no one returned, I began to imagine all sorts of other scenarios. I’d hardly gotten a glimpse of my “new” driver. He might have slipped out the door with the crowds, leaving me to guilelessly wait for his return for hours before the truth would become apparent! Was this a new method of robbery? I had no choice but to patiently endure, and eventually he returned with the elderly Milano couple.

They, like the driver, spoke no English, but we smiled at one another, greeting each other as best we could.

After a few more delays—the Milan gentleman evidently wanted to buy something to eat and his wife had forgotten to pur-chase film for their camera—we were off, presumably to Beverello. As he came to the Naples turn off, however, the driver took the direction to Poz-zuoli—a somewhat picturesque but di- lapidated harbor, heaped with mounds of garbage bags alongside its winding roads from the hills down into the harbor. At points the passage became perilous, as the couple from Milan, clearly commenting on the terrible filth their Southern brethren had to endure, snapped photographs of the mountains of local trash.

Finally, we reached the ferries, crawling into a line so close to water’s edge that I was sure we would fall into the dirty habor. Again the driver stopped the van, turned off the engine, and signaled for us to collect our bags and follow him. We entered the dark bowels of the ferry and were taken to a small iron cage into which he tossed our suitcases. Familia, he said, familia, pointing at the cage with pride. I presumed he meant that the placement of our bags in that location was not available to all, but was a special perk offered only family members and friends. Although family, of course, could mean…. I tried to ignore that possibility.

The Milanese couple climbed to the second level, I, after purchasing bierra, to the third level to better witness the Pouzzuolian landscape. From this distance the fading colored apartment fortresses appeared like a vision of a Mediterranean movie set. But if one looked closely, the glamour quickly faded.

Eventually cars began to edge forward, winding their way from the first line into the boat. I presumed our van would soon follow, but as the haul began to close, I could see that the second line, wherein our driver had placed the van, had not been permitted to enter. And the boat soon backed away without him from the dock.

So, I concluded, we were now on our own. I had been told that there would be two stops previous to Forio, near where our hotel was located. From Forio I’ll catch a taxi to the hotel, I determined.

A short while after leaving the harbor and rounding the coastline, the wind picked up and the waves of the Tyhrennian Sea became more blue-green. And just as suddenly an island appeared on the horizon. Despite the strong sun and my fear of sunburn I couldn’t bear to leave my observation post. Soon we were approaching what I presumed was Ischia Porto. The small town had a series of castle-like structures at its point, just as in the postcard picture I had seen of Ischia’s largest city and the castle Argonese at its tip.

But here my eye was even more drawn to the village itself, a town so absolutely enchanting that I could hardly find words to describe it to myself. It was a kind of fantasy scene as if painted by Henri Rosseau. Each building was a different shade of salmon, yellow, light blue and green—all flat as a stage set. The harbor street was strung up with little pennants and firefly lights. But the most amazing thing about this charming scene was the variation of windows, some half circles planted into the center of the seemingly flat surfaces, others turned on their side and set with no particular logic half way between the second and third floors. No building matched any other, which further gave the whole a sense of its being a movie or stage set. If this was, as the Nakell’s had described it, the lesser enchanting of the Ischian cities, what might Forio look like?

“Procida, Procida” the ship’s communication system announced. No such city had appeared upon my Ischia schedule. After a short stop, the boat pulled away from the village and, soon after, the island I later discovered was Procida disappeared. I was confused, if this was not Ischia Porto, where were we?

Three men in company T-shirts stood before me, and I attempted to ask them if Forio was the third stop, but none of them spoke English. I tried again, counting out my three known stops on my fingers: Ischia Porto, Lacco Ameno, Forio? “Si, Ischia Porto,” he repeated. I was confused, and began to seek out someone who spoke English. Apparently no one on this boat spoke anything but Italian, and I began to grow a bit concerned about my destination. A short while later, the man with whom I attempted to communicate reappeared with an English-speaking Italian in tow, who quickly explained to me that this boat did not go to Forio!

Why hadn’t Marty simply left me to follow the first plans we made, to catch the taxi from the airport to Naples itself where many boats traveled each day to Ischia and back? All right, I thought to myself, I’ll have to catch a taxi or bus to Forio from Ischia Porto—another 20 minute trip. No problem, I attempted to calm myself.

But just as suddenly new fears arose. Would I be able to communicate to whomever I needed to that my bags had still to be retrieved from that mysterious iron cage?

Forio, June 26, 2007

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