Yesterday was our day for returnings, the tour group back to Stati Uniti, Sandy and I to our sentimental second home.
As often, the return to the states began uncomfortably early. Wake-up call was 2 am. But my troopers were up and ready to go by 3. This has been without a doubt one of my favorite groups to lead in the 17 years we’ve been doing this, partly because the students are so bright and cooperative and fun, partly due to the fact they were so dependable at a time when I was least able, due to sickness, to ride herd on cats. We were taken by a charter bus to Fiumicino, formally, Leonardo da Vinci Airport. The nickname derives from the canal the Romans constructed from the Tiber River to the artificial harbor they had constructed at Portus; flumen is Latin for ‘river’ and the diminutive suffix makes it the ‘rivulet’. With our wonderful tour guide Reena’s invaluable help we fought the total incompetence of the Alitalia staff and and computerized boarding system and finally were forced to wait for more ticketing desks to open so that we could be ticketed the old fashioned way. Every female there (and they were all female) under the age of 30 was a total bimbo. We had two who directly contradicted each other, standing less than ten feet apart! But at last a quiet, competent woman in her fifties had us checked in in less than five minutes. At 5:30 or so, the group, minus the Fussels whose adventure now continues in Switzerland, bade Reena a fond farewell and Sandy and I put them in the capable hands of Darlene Adams, Sandy’s colleague and my new friend, to shepherd through Paris and Georgia and back to RDU.
Sandy and I had a bite to eat and some coffee while we waited for the rental car agency to open at 7. Mirabile dictu, the Hertz Rome office unlike the one in Florence actually sets hours to accommodate travelers and opens on time! And no more than 10 minutes after we began the process a pleasant, competent young man names Steffano had us booked and keyed and ready to roll. I suppose anyone too lunkheaded to make it as a Hertz counter agent simply strolls on over to Alitalia to find a job.
Our car is a cute little black Fiat Panda hatchback, named Franco in honor of the world’s best little American truck, now in semiretirement. Franco is worthy of his namesake, I’m happy to report. Wonderful driveability, an efficient little motor which is still powerful enough to pull the hills and mountains around here, a state-of-the-art stereo system to keep Sandy happy, and best of all, a bangin’ air conditioner. Accessing the road system from the car lot was a dream, and after toodling east for about 15 km we accessed the Gran Rolantare, the Grand Ringroad. Think outer beltline on steroids. We zipped around to the southwest of Rome and entered the A-1 autostrada, known as the Strada del Sole, ‘Highway of the Sun’. And then, something totally shocking, we were driving the A-1 autostrada, Italy’s busiest intersate, with no traffic! At least none by Italian standards. And wall-to-wall gorgeous scenery from the thigh of the boot all the way down to the shin. There are advantages to traveling on Sunday in Italy, especially if you start out early.
The disadvantage became apparent later. After all the stress of seeing everyone off and the cumulative stress of a rigorous if wonderful tour, I could relax a bit and just enjoy the experience. But that’s deadly for a guy who’s had only 3 hours sleep. Twice I almost nodded off. Nope, no way I’m going to just ‘soldier on’ and kill us both. We pulled into the Autogrille (the Italian Howard Johnson’s for you oldsters), I parked in the shade, put back the seat and snoozed for 10 minutes while Ms Sandy fiddled with her photography files. Then into the Autogrille for a quick espresso. Where we confronted a scene straight from Dante’s Inferno. It seems that all the locally owned rest areas were closed for Sunday, so by default it was here or nowhere. The place was jam-packed with tour bus groups of every description, all yelling at the tops of their lungs, pushing and shoving through the crowds, the Japanese tourists in their typical fashion often shoving their way to the front of the line or at least attempting to do so until someone screamed at them to maintain their place in line (at which, by the way, they simply smile blandly and stare blankly into space with never a word of apology). Why is it that these people believe with absolute certainty that they are entitled to first position in any line simply because of their ethnicity? Isn’t it unspeakably sad that the two nationalities whose racism caused incalculable suffering in the 20th century are once again reverting to type in the 21st? Or am I being paranoid?
In any case, the brave Sandy fought her way to the front of the biglietto (ticket) line and again to the front of the service counter while I battled my way to the toilets. We drank our coffee, ate our snacks, and scooted out of that place ASAP. The good news was that my poor nerves were so shattered from the trauma that I wasn’t the least bit sleepy for the rest of the drive.
Meanwhile, around 10:30 we received a text from Darlene that the group had arrived in Paris but that the flight out had been delayed to wait for the Delta flight bringing the Georgia group we had toured with. I should explain that the Air France flight and the Delta flight carrying our two groups to Paris departed and arrived 10 minutes apart. Now, Delta and Air France are partnered airlines, and if someone can explain how that sort of scheduling makes any sense at all I’d be most grateful. But thank God on behalf of our Suwannee friends it was Delta flying from Paris to Atlanta; had it been Air France they would have left those kids stranded just for spite.
Sandy and I motored southward, past Cassino, Capua, the western flanks of Vesuvius, through the series of tunnels that takes you through the Monti Lattari and from the Bay of Naples area to the Bay of Salerno area, exited the autostrada onto the SS18 and meandered through several towns before stopping for lunch at a small town. Lunch at a local trattoria specializing in sea food. Sandy’s farfalle con salmone was excellent, as was my scialiatelli con frutte di mare. Thank God I can actually begin to taste food again! We called Fernando to tell him our ETA, then began to search for a florist or nursery for presents for our Agropoli buddies. No luck. So we decided to ditch the susperstrada, a sort of hybrid between an interstate and a state highway, and travel the local roads for the rest of the way to look for presents for our friends. Meanwhile, the text I most wanted to see from Darlene, the group had boarded at Charles de Gaulle and was awaiting departure. I don’t know whether it’s just me or if every American feels this way, but I always feel like the airlines are conspiring to delay my return home to America but if I can just get airborne they will have reached that point of no return and will have to deliver me to my homeland despite all their nefarious schemes to the contrary. Delays once we hit American soil? I can handle it. Just get me to my country.
Not much luck in our search for potted plants and we were becoming a bit alarmed as we passed through Cappaccio Scalo and Paestum and approached Agropoli. Gifts to a host are pretty much de rigeur in Italy, not necessarily expensive ones, but sentimental, and of course this was no ordinary visit so it would have been positively rude to show up empty-handed. But it was Sunday and most places were closed. We remembered a local florist in Agropoli and were headed there when we turned a corner and saw our favorite pasticceria (pastry shop). And, could it be? The beads in the doorway used here to discourage flies while maintaining airflow were gently beckoning us in. A quick check by Sandy and a motion to come on in, and there before us were two huge display cases filled with an incredible assortment of dolci. Not just a gift but a perfect gift for these dear friends! Hardly expensive, but from the heart, a special little treat. The gods were smiling on us.
As were they when we hit the roundabout and accessed the Fuonte highway. A left at the Via Ludovico Ariosto, up the side of the ridge, progressively steeper, a quick dogleg right-left and hell-for-leather up that last ultra-steep slope to the driveway. But brave little Franco couldn’t quite make it. So down we go, backing slowly down the ridge to the bend where the ground is flattest, then, air-conditioner off, hell-for-leather again in second gear and, twenty feet from the driveway a lightning quick shift into first so as not to lose momentum, and up the driveway we go!
And there are our dear ones on the terazza, making last-minute preparations. And then nothing but excited shouts and laughter, and this time none of that kssie-kissie semiformal stuff (which I adore, by the way) but good old tight embraces and kisses. Home. Frost famously says that “Home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Perhaps in some sad regions of the heart, but not in this place. Home here is being with some of your nearest and dearest and knowing with certainty that they feel the same way.
After much excited exchange of news and some practical matters, Fabio is off to work and Fernando promises a trip at 8:30 to a wonderful new pizzeria tradionale he has discovered in the Centro and he is off too. Sandy and I settle in a bit and then I’m off to the bedroom for a short snooze which turns into three comatose hours. After I’m at least half conscious I take a stroll along the terazza to look at the fruit trees and out into the orchard and vineyard to the north to see the tiny little olives destined to make Rolando’s magic elixir this fall and full clusters of Nebbiolo grapes he has naturalized in a new southern home and I look out over this gorgeous little farm and across to the ridge beyond the highway. Villas nestle in clefts in the hillsides. On the lower slopes, serried ranks of olive trees create glaucous little puffballs. On the upper slopes of the ridge, forests of chestnut and rowan and holm oak cloak the earth in a green mantle. Down further south in the distance I see the imposing mountains of the Cilento.
I’ll never make a fortune from my writing. I remember after the book on Roman foodways was published, one of my students, all wide-eyed innocence, asked if I would be rich and famous. From an academic book! But the book has brought me other riches, far greater to me: the chance to mingle with others who value good, natural, healthful food as much as I, the chance to travel to this formerly blighted, now blessed part of Italy where it is still made largely in traditional ways, sometimes dating back more than 2,500 years. The chance to live in this beautiful place, not once but three times, and to be with some of the dearest people in the world. There is no price for such things. As I looked across to that ridge I don’t mind confessing that tears started to my eyes and I stood happily crying like the doddering old fool I probably am, and I kept repeating to myself, “Dave, Dave, did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine....”
Before we left North Carolina, a bank clerk called our sojourn a once-in-a-lifetime trip. When Steffano saw our return date for the rental car his response was also a bit shocked and as we left his response, obviously based on a preconception that there was a nonno some generations back in our history who had crossed the big water, said so much about the best of Italy: “Enjoy your family!” Perfect. Not strictly true but absolutely correct.