New York City theater director Andrew Grosso and his costume-designer wife Becky recently took the ultimate freelancer plunge: a three-week unpaid vacation in Italy. He recounts some of the charming, bewildering, lost-in-translation moments below.
No matter how hard you try explaining that you're mostly Irish, emphatically point to your sunburn, and haltingly state the history of American cross-ethnic coupling, the fact remains that when you're in Italy, and the waiter sees that the last name on your credit card is Grosso, he's always a tiny bit disappointed that you speak so little Italian and took so long to visit. You feel like a prodigal son.
The good news is that very few places in Italy take credit cards. And, according to the Bible, people really like to embrace (and feed) lost children.
Monday: Wherein I'm perpetually scolded by Italy.
Fresh off the red eye, at car rental counter.
ME: Bon giorno! Scuzzi, no parlo Italiano but I. Made. A. Reservation. (Present confirmation print-out to agent.)
AGENT: Oh. You made a reservation on the internet?
AGENT: That doesn't work. The internet site doesn't check to see if we have cars. We have no cars. You need to try someone else.
At the Hertz counter.
AGENT: You have no reservation? You need to make a reservation on the internet. We only have cars for people who reserve on the internet.
Three agencies later.
AGENT: We have no cars. Oh wait. We have a Fiat Panda.
We packed into a Fiat Panda and headed south. A Fiat Panda turns out to be a compact suggestion of a car with the relative horsepower of a small outboard motor.¹ Unlike, say, California, Italy often decides that two lanes are just fine for a major highway connecting its most important cities. I respect that choice, but it means that if you happen to rent a car like the Panda, you have a conundrum if there is a slow-moving oil truck in front of you.
In our case, it unfolded like this: We're stuck behind a mini convoy of trucks. Feeling confident, I think, let's pass 'em. I look in the mirror; it's all clear except some dark speck on the horizon. I pull into the passing lane and accelerate. Only the car does not. I push the pedal harder and feel my foot touch the floor. Now that I am "flooring it," we slowly pull abreast of the first truck. I casually glance, again, in the rearview mirror and notice the speck is now a Porsche, practically propeling us with its impatience. Panicking, which is one of my better states, I have a brilliant idea and turn off the air conditioner. The Panda purrs in delight and starts to almost imperceptibly pull ahead of the first truck.
A minute later, sweating but confident, we pass the second truck. Only before I can exhale, I see the Porsche, headlights flashing, pushing its bumper precariously closer. We turn off the radio; no good. We lean forward; no good. I'd downshift, but I'm not very good at it and worry the Porsche will hit us when I make the car lurch. My wife offers to throw stuff out the window to lighten the load. We briefly consider it, but a bag of cherries, a bottle of water, and an iPad probably aren't going to help.
In the end, we opt to downshift, and live to tell the tale. I still don't know exactly what a kilometer is, but I do know that if your car can only do 140 of them per hour, you should stay in the right lane. The autostrada isn't for tourists. Not even trucks. It's for Porsches.
¹The Panda is also stick shift, so if you haven't driven one since you were eighteen, this might lead to such things as stalling out every single time you try to stop at a tollbooth. And lurching forward every time you start it back up.
Wednesday: Wherein my wife attempts to shop for a pair of cute ballet flats.
Except, all the shops in Florence were closed at lunch. For three hours in the middle of the day. The sort of thing the internet might have told us. If we could find the internet.
Friday: Wherein Dario makes me the greatest single meal of my life, dollar for dollar. (Or euro for euro.)
It started a few moments before 7 p.m., which I think is what Italians normally consider late lunch. We arrived early because the website (or at least the Google Chrome translation of it) informed us that all meals begin "without lateness." It also stated, perhaps more ominously, "there will never be steak" and "you will eat with conviviality." We did not want to mess with Dario.
Dario the Butcher owns a mini empire of three restaurants and a butcher shop in the town of Panzano. One of them, Solociccia, translates loosely as "nothing but fat."
We sat at a table set with jars of whimsically cut crudités, fresh breads (including the local-organic-sustainable-artisanal-Italian version of Stella d'Oro breadsticks), and carafes of wine. There were supposedly only eight courses, but I remember at least seventeen. The chef does things with meat that I can only dream of adequately describing. Some are in familiar form — carpaccio, meatballs, a roast — but even Shakespeare stole his plots. Dario's creations are transcendent; somewhere in the middle of a rhubarb slaw with pork, the retired Norwegian next to me said, "this pig is so, what are the words — light and airy?" Somehow those were the right words.
We got kicked out at 9 p.m. — without lateness — after paying 30 euros a person for dinner. That's not a typo. But lest we feared the mandatory conviviality was over, we were sent down the street to Dario's butcher shop, where the owner passed out shots of grappa and bear hugs. When a municipal truck drove up, I was sure the authorities would shut down the party. Dario delivered grappa shots and bear hugs, and they continued their municipal rounds.
Saturday: Wherein my wife drags me — against my will — to the Prada outlet.
ME: This place is so cool. Don't I look so dapper and Italian in this jacket?
BECKY: Hmm. It's beautiful, but a white raincoat seems impractical. And it's two sizes too small.
ME: It's 85 percent off!
BECKY: It is. But maybe 300 euros is still too much for a trench coat that you can't fully button?
Monday: Wherein we find awesome old shit.
Fine. I'll admit it. I used to confuse Pompeii and Atlantis. It's embarrassing. But, come on, one's an "ancient city destroyed by a sudden volcano eruption and swallowed by lava" and the other is an "ancient city destroyed by sudden rogue wave/earthquake and swallowed by the sea." It's a reasonable mistake. Anyway, if you ever did doubt the veracity of its existence, the ruins of Pompeii provide all the mundane details you might need to become a true believer: house with a Craigslist-style room-for-rent advertisement. Restaurant ruins, including a heating system for giant chaffing dishes. "Beware of Dog" welcome mat. Brothel with signs indicating house specialties (prepare to blush).
Tuesday: Wherein we visit the Amalfi Coast, and learn about cash economies.
Steinbeck arrived and said the majestic cliffs made him weep. Sailors thought the Sirens of the rocks would tempt men to swim overboard. I wondered why there were no ATM machines.
We arrived in Marina del Cantone on the Sorrentine Peninsula and thought it would be fun to get a drink and watch the sunset. We walked down the beach to the first bar, but they didn't accept credit cards. Nor did the second. Nor the restaurant after that. We asked for the nearest ATM. It's in Sant' Agata? Great, how do we get there? The road up the hill to that town at the top? What is that, a mile and a half? No, that's Nerano. You go through Nerano, then through Casa, and then you get to Sant' Agata. It's about 15 kilometers.
I paused to do the math. Ten miles. And we were on foot. (Note: The guide books say you can get around just fine using the SITA bus. They are wrong. The SITA bus is reliable, cheap, and easy to use, but it runs hourly, at best, from Marina del Cantone and stops around 9 p.m.)
Fortunately, the locals are as warm and generous as their coastline is gorgeous. A sympathetic fruit vendor gave us peaches on credit. A tobacco shop owner insisted we do shots of his homemade limoncello "to feel better," and, the following morning, a bemused ferry captain let us stow away to Amalfi, which, in addition to having a beautiful duomo and breathtaking views, also has a Deutsche Bank ATM.
Thursday: Wherein I learn the true meaning of lunch.
Lo Scoglio is not a fancy hotel. There are no mints, doilies, or turndowns, just simple beds and seaside views. But they make magic out of the simplicity. For example: On the menu at Lo Scoglio is an appetizer called, simply, "Tomatoes with Salt." In actuality, it's a heaping bowl of fresh, perfect, earthy, tangy, sweet tomatoes tossed with sea salt and basil. Magical. My wife ordered it five times before we left town.
The same magic was found in the fish, lemons, and olives, so that it was like eating the idyllic version of fish, lemons, and olives. All ingredients are local, sometimes only traveling five minutes from the earth to our plates.
Friday: Wherein I suddenly understand Italy.
Nights at Lo Scoglio were filled with the rhythmic sounds of waves lightly breaking in the sheltered harbor and the lulling smell of the night air gently leaving dewy kisses. For a New Yorker, the lack of car alarms, police sirens, or sense of pervasive anxiety left me unable to sleep. After staring restlessly at the sky, I decided to go for an early morning run.
My intention was to do ten miles — maybe not a long distance for a serious runner or an Italian in need of an ATM, but challenging and a little scary to me considering that it was still sort of dark, and the windy Amalfi roads are barely wide enough for two Fiat Pandas. Needless to say, I spent the first 30 minutes focusing obsessively on the pavement. When I climbed to the top of the ridge in Casa, the sky turned pink, and I took my first real look at the scenery. I'd seen the lemon trees and olive trees all week, but, from the top of the ridge, I could see how they were meticulously planted, in stepped rows down the side of the hill. It's like the Amalfi farmers abhor an uncultivated patch of land; even the steepest hills are cut into four-foot ribbons of carefully tended tomato plants.
I normally hate to stop running — less out of discipline and more out of a fear that I won't start up again. But as the road followed the ridge from Casa west to Termini, there were spots where I could see water on three sides: the bay of Naples on the right, Capri in the front, and the Amalfi Coast on the south. I stopped. And stared. And I felt, well, true awe.
I started up again. Around the next curve, a farmer worked a patch of basil, and I thought, "Oh, my god! That must be my wife's basil. I'm running through our next meal!" And suddenly, it all became clear: the determination to farm every speck of hillside, the roads that aren't meant for long-haul trucks, the fierce insistence of shutting down commerce in the middle of the day, the devotion to local ingredients. The entire infrastructure of Italy is centered around creating the perfect lunch.
Maybe it was the altitude, the dehydration, or the view, but as I got closer to the farmer, I wanted to tell him everything — about my tomatoes at lunch, my new insight into Italy, how much I loved his country. But I wasn't sure the farmer wanted his early morning chores interrupted by a grinning and slightly teary American jogger. And I had no idea how to say "infrastructure" or "verklempt" in Italian.
So, as I passed by, I just yelled out "grazie!" way too loudly.
While the sound hung in the air, the farmer turned to look at the linguistically handicapped American in front of him. He just smiled, shook his head, and said, "prego."
Welcomed. Like a prodigal son.
Andrew's morning jog (Google Maps)