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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: the 5th Tale (The Trip to Amalfi)

Ravello in the light

A Ravello ceremic shop



The street below my entry room window



My balcony at Smeraldo

A view from the front of the balcony at Smeraldo

A Positano ristorante at midnight


Some of the Chapman students: Danielle soucy, Kellye Zollers, Jaclyn Javier, Midzara Pencenkovic, Wesley Frazee, and Hyrum Taylor at my vineyard reading

Jean-Luc reads the Italian. All the women students (and I) were agog!


From Pompeii Marty, Rebecca, the two students, and I had planned to travel up the Amalfi coast to the small town of Praiano, where Rebecca had found a hotel in which we would stay the night. Somehow, however, we missed the coastal road, and Marty decided to take the mountain route, coming in from Ravello and driving down to Praiano.

For what seemed like forever, he darted down side streets in the town near Pompeii, but we soon lost any signs that might indicate the direction of the road we were seeking. Indeed, there seemed to be no other path, and we repeated it several times before pulling into a small gas station. Suddenly two beefy men, covered with grease came forward as Marty, speaking in Italian, attempted to get directions. The bovine mechanicals looked us quickly over, as one leaned into the car on Rebecca’s side where a map sat on her lap. He began to speak and soon after reached in and pointed on a spot on the map, the other quickly followed his lead, furtively placing his hand on the map as well. All of us looked on in consternation and they joyfully punched at the map, pleasuring themselves, evidently, by touching the paper that separated them from Rebecca’s crotch. We quickly pulled away, realizing that we would never receive any cogent information from them.

Soon after we pulled down a side street, stopping in front of an old man who stood on the sidewalk. Marty called out to him, again explaining what we sought. Suddenly the man beamed a huge smile, as if absolutely delighted with the question, almost as if he had been waiting his entire life for just this moment. He moved a bit forward and began to talk:

Abon me uh da umm bunbun ju jee gon abonma fe quo ja ja,

he mumbled, continuing for a long while in a private language of babble of which none of us could discern a single recognizable word.

Me a mo abon jug on de de mmmmm aaaabbbbb jjjjjjooooooo,

he continued, smiling beneficently. Daniel and Nidzára had slipped to the floor of the back seat in uncontrolled giggles, as the remaining three of us sat erect, pretending a friendly comprehension everything the old geezer said. I waved to the students, hand out of sight, to pipe down, but they simply could no longer hold it in as we continued the charade.

Grazie, said Marty as he began to drive away. We had moved only a few feet when Marty stopped the car as we all exploded into gales of laughter.

Another circle around the area brought us to a gellati truck, where this time Rebecca asked for directions in Italian. The gellati workers said they would be happy to give directions—if we would all buy ice cream from them. Rejecting that idea, we drove away, one of them jumping onto a motorcycle that began to follow us, finally speeding away in a whoop of derision.

The only thing we could imagine now was to turn around and take the same route in the other direction. Sure enough, a large sign proclaimed the way to road we had sought!
Soon we were approaching Sorrento, thereafter, climbing into the mountains on roads so narrow that when a bus approached, we had to pull over as close as we could to the treacherous lip of the highway just to let it pass. The drive continued in an excruciatingly terrifying trip that, from time to time, triggered my sense of vertigo, forcing me to simply close my eyes. But when I did open them, briefly, I witnessed beautiful sites.

After winding up and down the mountain trail, we reached Ravello, where we stopped, grabbing up the only parking space that seemed to remain, to tour that small, lovely city, celebrating its annual music festival. The square at Ravello looks out over the mountains on one side, flanked by two large cafes at the center of which sits a lovely white, stucco church. The light was absolutely luminous, reflecting, so it seemed, the colors of the large stanchions of flowers that stood about the place.

Ravello is also the center of a region famous for its tiles and mosaics, and several of the shops were devoted to that craft. A gallery, showing work by Yoko Ono and other performance artists was of particular interest to our small group. We also attempted to enter the church where many of the festival’s concerts were held, but it was, at the moment, closed. We walked about the town for an hour before returning once again to the road.

We passed the town of Amalfi, reaching our destination, the hotel Smeraldo in Praiano. I don’t know how Rebecca had discovered this gem of a small hotel. A recent check of hotels in Praiano on the internet showed ten hotels, without listing our choice. But once we had reached our rooms, we had all fallen in love with the place.

What a surprise then to find these exceptionally beautiful accommodations—Marty and I stayed in the hotel proper, while the students slept at a hotel apartment (three bedrooms, a kitchen and a bath) across the street—all for a nightly rate of 140 Euro.

My space had its own entry room off the street (a stairway with what seemed three million steps to the sea—Marty later reported that he’d been told it was actually 400 steps!) That room, like the bedroom, was completely tiled in red, containing two stylish chairs, paintings, a large mirror, and a window that opened up to view those never-ending steps. A sizable bathroom stood off to the side.

The bedroom itself was designed in a style that I might have described as “sheik monk,” crosses hanging over the large double bed and another single bed (for any alter boy I might meet, I guess). The room, even by American standards, was gigantic, with a full desk and a huge dressing cabinet.

On the balcony was a round, stylish metal table appointed with two Mediterranean-style chairs. In both corners of the balcony sat marine-blue lounging chairs. The view from the balcony, both from the front and the side was spectacular—the sea below and the coast line, with a view of the entire city of Positano. For the first night a large yacht lay moored beneath my window. Marty and Becky had a Jacuzzi on their balcony, a couch in their room. But I liked my room better.
We had a pleasant dinner at the hotel restaurant, home-made thick, flat noodles for primi and grilled fishes (sword fish and large prawns) for the secondi. We ordered a bottle of white wine and Daniel had brought a gift of a very good red wine.

After dinner (11:30) all came to my balcony to the watch the holiday fireworks in the ocean
below. Tentatively the Nakells and the students wondered what I might feel about staying on for second day. “Oh, we must!” I readily concurred, “We’re in heaven.”

The next morning we all got up rather late for breakfast. Marty was especially exhausted from all the driving. As in Ischia breakfast consisted of beautiful rolls, breads, jellies, fresh fruits and meats—prosciutto, Genoa salami, etc.—and juices, thick muddy coffee served with hot milk.
I toured the small city after, walking down some of the 400 steps and back, visiting the lovely church of S. Gennaro, and stopping by the local fruit stand to buy some water and a peach. Marty and Rebecca were obviously off on their daily wander, and the students (we discovered later) were walking almost to Amalfi, running up and down the 400 steps and doing various other endless activities.

I determined to return to my beautiful balcony to finish my essay on Marinetti. The writing moved quite slowly, but I plodded through into early afternoon and finally completed it. I briefly napped and then begin reading IT, an exceptional book of poetry by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. It was truly pleasant in the blue lounging chair. What bliss!
The Nakells briefly stopped by before retiring to their room next door. We decided to dine at a restaurant at the bottom of the 400 steps at 7:30.

I retreated to a nearby bar, sipping on a campari, nibbling on prosciutto, crustini, and green olives while reading my book.

At 7:00 we met for the long descent. Marty, Rebecca, and the students all chose one of the daily fishes, while I selected a local squid, cut differently than calimari, into long strips and served with fried potato rounds. It was excellent, and I far perferred my choice to theirs. They all had marzipan fruits stuffed with gellati, I a slice of lemon cake for desert.

It was now quite late, and we knew we could never again climb the steps. So we took the advice of the waiter and took a water taxi over to the neighboring city, Positano, planning to return by land taxi by to Praiano. There’s something truly exciting about being in a small boat in the ocean in the middle of the night!

Positano at midnight was a madhouse of celebration, filled with young and middle-aged, rich, loud frat-boy and sorority girl types, women dressed up in bizarre fashions that made them look more like call girls than the attractive, wealthy women we knew them to be. It was the first time I had heard so much English since I arrived. The whole city seemed to be literally partying, hopping with drunken whoops of noise. I didn’t like it, and, like some Puritan elder, led the way through the narrow streets up and up where we might find a taxi, the others trailing in their obvious desire just to wander about. When I arrived at the point where I recognized a taxi might appear, I could see the Nakells conferring with the students, and soon Becky came forward to announce that they wanted to stay on in Positano for a while. Fine with me, I responded, but I was taking a taxi back. I was tired. It was now 1:00 a.m. I told them to go on and enjoy themsevels, but as they often do, they stood frozen in place, and when the taxi finally appeared, Daniel suddenly decided to join me. He had seemed to be in a kind a funk all day. And the next morning he explained that he had run out of his thyroid medicine, which had drained him of energy. By that time, his whole personality had returned to normal.

Marty and Rebecca, so I later found out, had sat with Nidzára in a bar for a while, before wandering on, until someone poured a bucket of water upon Rebecca from a window overhead. By 1:30 I was safely snuggled up in bed.

The morning after we had returned to Ischia, I taught Marty’s class, discussing my publishing activities and attempting to explain what publishing was in relationship to being a writer. Then I turned to my own poetry, Bow Down, a book in both English and Italian which they had previously read. It went nicely, although they had only a few questions.

I then walked into Forio again, forgetting it was a holiday. The town was dead, with no shops open except for the bars. I sat at my favorite, Bar Maria, for a single campari, where I caught up on my daily journal and attempted to make some notes on Paul Auster’s novel, Oracle Night, which I’d finished reading on the plane.

The next day I returned to Forio, where I had a lemon-lime soda at Bar Maria writing letters and updating my journal. I returned to the hotel, read some, and wrote a little before dressing for my scheduled poetry reading at a nearby vineyard.

We took a taxi to the vineyard up the hill further from the hotel. It was a lovely spot, under a parabola of grapes where visitors come to taste the wine. The vineyard also served dinners (everything grown fresh, fish caught in the sea below and rabbits trapped in the hills about), and the Nakells and I decided to return for dinner two days later as my going away celebration. Since everything was cooked to order, we were asked to decide on our dinner choices ahead of time. I ordered the rabbit. But Marty and Becky couldn’t escape the vision they’d had of a man with a bag of rabbits they’d encountered in Ischia Ponte a few days earlier. Obviously he was on his way to slit their little throats!!

The reading was attended by the students and two British women doctors (M.D.’s) who had happened to visit the vineyard from their hotel in Ischia Porto. It went very nicely, with the handsome Jean-Luc (the manager-owner of this small winery) reading three of the poems in Italian. He was an excellent reader, who told me he’d performed all the Goldini plays in high school.

We then returned back to the hotel for a dinner of pasta and fresh pesce, retiring to the terrace to sip a dessert wine Marty had purchased at the vineyard. It had four fruits—apricot, cherry and two others—consisting of 45% alcohol content! Our waiter, Augusto, served it up like it were wine (the bottle might have lasted for many months) and Marty and I had no choice to drink up the brew right there and then! I woke up the next morning slow and achy, not quite awake.
Rebecca reminded us why we were feeling so groggy!

I had slept well again, however, listening to the ocean waves all night.

The following day, July 4th, Marty took the students on a boat trip around the island of Ischia. Already filled with good memories and needing to get some time to write, I stayed behind to work on my essay on Auster. I read, and caught up with my cleaning. Despite all the shirts I brought, I didn’t bring enough clothing for all the heat and perspiration I had endured.

The meal the next evening at the winery was excellent, a perfect balance of each course and pre-selected wines—but it was so filling I was almost ill. Besides, I was now quite depressed. In another day I would have to leave Ischia, when I felt my time on the island had just begun. By now, however, most of the Germans had left, and the Neapolitans—not at all appreciated by the local Ischians—were soon to arrive.

At a birthday party for one of the students, Wesley Frazee, I sadly said goodbye to the hotel staff and students. The next morning Marty and Rebecca went with me by taxi to the ferry for my last trip across the bay. “I can’t leave yet,” I protested. “We never did get to see Amalfi!” By midnight I had flown back to Dublin, leaving for Los Angeles again early the next morning.

Los Angeles, July 9, 2007

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