A Little Italy
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I made a pilgrimage to the land of my ancestors in October of 2000 with my father's Italian lawyer club. I traveled there with my parents, Uncle John and Auntie Camille, Uncle John and Auntie Marie and my friend, Tara.

We began our trip in Sorrento, a lovely coastal town in southern Italy. Our bus took us up steep cliffs and along winding narrow streets to our hotel. The grounds were magnificent with hibiscus, birds of paradise, prickly pear cacti, orange, lemon, lime, banana, and coconut trees. The group was lined up waiting to check in, but I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of the place, I couldn't stand still.

Our room was small and retro. We had a bidet and a lovely view of Mount Vesuvius. We considered the bidet an invaluable prop for our creative photography. In our jet-lagged state, we shot a variety of photos ranging from pretending to sip from it as if it were a water fountain, to spitting graceful arcs of water across its existing fountain. Often we would leave it continuously running for good feng shui.

The first day’s tour would be a morning trip, return to the hotel and then an afternoon trip. Tara and I decided to sleep in, spend the morning exploring and meet up with everyone for the afternoon tour. We slept ravenously, awakening once to what sounded exactly like a rooster. We decided that it couldn't have been, since roosters are not nocturnal. We awoke the next morning to the sun grinning happily over the great Mountain of Vesuvius.

It was late October, but as warm as a midsummer day. Church bells chimed and a rooster crowed. - Perhaps Italian roosters were nocturnal. - Birds sang and dogs barked in the distance. We showered and put on shorts and tees. Then we headed off on our greatest adventure. Tara wanted to shop and I wanted to find a beach. We would shop first. Following the vague directions from the hotel desk clerk, we went to the street and turned left.

Tiny cars were parked along the side of the road. We walked past quaint little houses with wrought iron trellises and lovely gardens. It seemed that every house had a clothesline and Italian laundry was bountiful. Five minutes down the road we found an espresso bar and bakery. We each got some coffee and a pastry to share and enjoyed our breakfast at one of the outside tables.

Across the street, a small truck parked in front of a three-story apartment building and sounded its horn. A woman poked her head out of a third floor window then lowered a basket on a rope to the driver waiting below. He removed an envelope from it, then filled the basket with chestnuts. When it was full, the woman carefully pulled it back up into her window.

After breakfast we continued walking and found a florist where I got some blue roses for our room. The shop was on a narrow street lined on either side with steep cliffs. It was a small, cool, windowless round space that seemed to have been constructed by blasting a hole into the cliff. The walls, floors and ceilings were a lovely cool, damp gray. We took pictures with Carmella, the proprietor, before continuing on our walk.

The streets grew narrower until the sidewalks disappeared. Little Italian cars beeped angrily as they passed. The men in the cars made strange guttural noises. One man made a gesture that I remembered from my childhood, and though I knew not what it meant, I giggled with delight.

"Did you see that?" I asked Tara. She nodded, laughing.

"He did this to us!" I said holding my right hand eye level, my palm towards my face and my fingers extended with the tips pressed into a tight circle. I waved my hand to and fro, trying to perfectly duplicate the gesture while we both laughed hysterically.

The street grew narrower and we walked in single file behind an old woman who seemed undaunted by the fact that we could feel the wind from the vehicles passing us. A large bus approached and Tara and I cried out in fear and flattened our bodies against the cliff rock on the side of the road. The little old lady continued on.

We looked at each other. "We're going to get killed." I announced with a calm certainty.

"But the stores are supposed to be down this way," she replied.

"Maybe we took a wrong turn, or missed a right one," I suggested.

"Let's walk a little further," she said.

There seemed to be less activity the further we went. The little cars continued to beep at us, though they ignored the other pedestrians.

"I don't think they like us very much," said Tara.

"They do seem a bit hostile," I agreed.

"Let's go back," she said, and we retraced our path towards the hotel. We returned to our room, put the roses in water, and immediately continued on our adventure.

Armed with my Italian dictionary, I approached the hotel desk clerk and tried out my favorite new word. "Spiaggia?" I asked.

She pointed to the right and we headed off. The street was much wider and felt safer heading in this direction, but the tiny cars continued to beep at us. We passed a cute little restaurant and crossed a bridge underneath which was a valley, rich with foliage and dropping to a lovely turquoise ocean. A bit further along, we discovered a pink and white stucco church with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mother in its front garden. Her hands were in classic prayer position and draped with all manner of rosary beads. She had to be holding at least 50 if them!

Tara and I were enchanted. As we were taking her picture, we were startled by the church bells. Another car drove by and beeped just as the church bells started ringing. We turned in time to see everyone in the car make the sign of the cross.

"Did you see that?!" asked Tara.

I nodded, smiling.

"Are we not supposed to take pictures of Mary?" She sounded concerned.

"Of course we are! Look at her," I said gesturing towards the smiling statue, resplendent with a halo of Christmas lights. "How often do you see Mary holding all those rosary beads?" I reasoned.

"True," she replied.

Shortly after we passed the Blessed Mother, we reached our destination. To our right was an ancient castle-like structure surrounded by an expansive marble plaza. A tunnel led underneath the center of the castle. The sign above the entrance read, "spiaggia".

"We found it!" I cried excitedly, skipping towards the tunnel.

We emerged onto a generous round stone deck atop a high cliff. To our right was a mountain rich with lush tropical foliage and peppered with tiny colorful stucco houses. To our left, a cliff with a medieval style hotel carved into it. It was rockier to the left, but more thickly settled.

Directly in front of us was a glorious expanse of turquoise ocean, dotted with tiny fishing boats and sparkling in the sunlight. Either side of the deck had a winding stone staircase that led down to a larger deck.

"How are we going to get to the spiaggia?" I asked Tara as we walked down the stairs.

"I don't know," she replied.

The view was magnificent and we took many pictures. I leaned over the stone wall, looked down and saw the tiny black-sand spiaggia to our left.

"There it is!" I cried happily, pointing to the distant little patch of sand. "We must get there somehow so I can put my feet in the Italian ocean."

"Christine, how are we going to get down there?" asked Tara.

I looked around and noticed a big, dark tunnel behind us. A sign above the entrance read, "spiaggia." I pointed to it.

"That's how." I replied, feeling like a great discoverer.

"It's dark in there and the beach is really far down. It has to be at least a mile," she said.

"I know, but it will be a great workout. Besides, this is how the Italians do it. Surely they wouldn't have it here if it wasn't safe," I reasoned.

"I'm not going in there," she said.

"Okay, but I have to. It will be my greatest Italian adventure. You wait here; I'll run down, put my feet in the water and run right back up. I won't be long," I promised.

"Christine, don't go in there. It's dark. What if something happens?" She asked with concern.

"What could happen? The Italians do this all the time." I said. She didn't seem comforted. "Well, if I'm not back in twenty minutes, or if you hear me scream, just go get help." I continued.

Her eyes widened. "But don't worry, nothing is going to happen." I said reassuringly. "I'll be right back," I said and started into the cave.

"Wait," said my friend. "I can't let you go in there alone. First, let's take pictures of each other. We can stand inside the entrance and make faces like we're really scared," she suggested. God bless her.

"You don't have to go. I'll be right back. I promise," I said, feeling guilty.

"I am not letting you go in there alone," she insisted.

We took our looking-scared pictures then entered the big dark cave. There was Italian graffiti on the inside walls and footlights so we could see where we were walking. We traveled down little ramps and winding stone staircases.

"What if there are bats?" asked Tara.

"Don't worry, they're more afraid of us than we are of them. But if they're not, maybe we could catch one and keep it as our little hotel room pet," I suggested.

"I don't think the Italian maids would appreciate that," she replied.

Our voices echoed over the sound of the waves crashing outside of our mountain. About ½ way down we saw sunlight. There was a window in the cliff tunnel and we stopped to check out the view.

We continued on and found a miniature statue of the Blessed Mother perched in another cliff window. Tara waited with Her and within earshot, while I descended the last two flights of stairs to the spiaggia. It was nearly as small as it appeared from above, and the cliff shaded it from the sun. The sand was black and coarse, but the water was clean and deliciously warm.

We climbed back up, returned to the hotel and relaxed by the pool, exploring the gardens surrounding it. Soon the group returned. Anne joined us. My Dad worked with her husband years ago and I've known her since I was a kid.

"Hey Anne, how was your morning?" I asked.

"Nice. We went to a church and then to some shops. What did you girls do?"

Tara and I shared the story of our adventure. "Hey, I'll bet you would know. What does this mean?" I asked Anne, showing her my new Italian gesture.

"You'd better ask your father that, honey," Anne replied with a faint smile.

Our pretty, young tour guide, Tiziana joined us and asked Tara and me about our morning. We told her of our travels.

"The only weird thing was, cars kept beeping at us," Tara said. Tiziana smiled knowingly. "Were you wearing what you're wearing now?" she asked. We nodded.

"That's why. Everyone dresses up more in Italy than you do in America," she explained.

"But it's 90 degrees out!" I replied.

"Yes, but we are in winter here," she told us.

My father joined us. "Hey Dad, what does this mean?" I asked him demonstrating my new Italian gesture and having a pretty good idea by now of what the answer would be.

"It means you're stupid. What's wrong with you? Don't you know any better?" he asked.

Tara and I looked at each other. "Well I guess the natives aren't very friendly," I said.

"I guess not," she replied.

"That's unfortunate because it's way too hot out. I'm still going to wear my shorts," I said defiantly.

"So am I," she replied.

We were rebels in a foreign land.

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