Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.74.1: O Sole Mio

V074-01_vesuviusmornIt was a breezy and chilly, but not a “dark and stormy,” night before I awoke to be greeted by a clear and bright view of Mt. Vesuvius framed in the balcony door of my cabin. Then, as the ship rotated on its anchor the old hotel swung into view, clearly identifiable against the cliff side and by the little fishing village below.

It was 1979 when our diesel VW Rabbit rolled onto the rooftop parking of that hotel and I checked the price and availability of rooms for the girls and Patty and me. It was a family run pensione. It checked out well; the rooms had a Vesuvius view, as did the cozy, arbored, al fresco dining deck. When I told the mama that Lisa had been sick since Rome she confidently asserted that her cooking and the sun-kissed fruits of the Amalfi Peninsula would be a restorative for my daughter (just like home).

Lisa had a strep throat. She had been cared or (and presumably prayed over) at the convent we stayed at in Rome, without much consequence. Now it was Ra’s turn (and ma’s).

We viewed panoramically from the decks of our rooms, the hotel being built smack into the side of the Amalfi cliff. A hundred meters directly below a small village spread along a slim crescent of beach.

[I pick up my reverie here from a Chapter in my book, The Stranger is Me]

The pensione seemed ideal: the family owners put fresh fruit out on the breakfast table and cooked items to our request, serving them under the grape-arbor patio that overlooked the gulf. After the petrified breakfast rolls and crankcase coffee we’d endured while staying in a convent in Rome this was ambrosia. We had been months on the roads of Europe, most of which were drenched with rain much of the time. The sun and the lazy pace of Southern Italy were gifts of the gods. We could read our books, let the sun dispose of the molds of the rest of Europe, and eat food that was the closest thing to what my grandmother used to set out. Patty could sketch, and the girls make game attempts to get into their schoolbooks and caught up on their journals.

My little project became watching the activities in the little village down below on the beach, which was a bit like observing an ant colony. A bustle of activities make up the circadian rhythms of a fishing village: nets drying and being repaired, kids swimming in the sea, boats being painted, shops putting out their wares, scenes right out of a travel brochure.

One evening I was watching the village activities from the parking lot on the roof, where I had skulked off to for the forbidden pleasure of a cigarette. I was particularly interested in a new fishing boat that the village had been readying for launch for a couple of days. It seemed to be taking a long time, apparently because it had been constructed behind the row of buildings that strung out along the beach road, and the only way to get it to the water was through the narrow little road that intersected the beach road.

The problem was that the fishing boat, maybe thirty-feet long and a good twelve-feet in the beam, couldn’t make the turn and was wedged at the top of the street, jammed against the buildings on both sides. This boat’s birth needed a Cesarean section, but that would mean tearing out, from my perspective well above, sections of at least two buildings, maybe three. Even at this distance one could discern the flailing and pleading arm gestures, and faintly detect the exchange of insults, explanations, and supplications of the various members of the launch team and assorted onlookers. It has often been remarked that perhaps only the Italians could have invented opera, with their histrionic and flamboyant approach to most of life’s mundane activities. This was aptly and amply confirmed in the incident of the jammed fishing boat, which was a virtual cork that bottled up the only access to the main road in town.

After a time I was joined on the roof by Fritz, a German I estimated to be in his sixties. Fritz was the name American GIs gave him when he surrendered to them in 1945. He’d since been grateful to the Americans; not only did they ‘rescue’ him from having to surrender to the dreaded Russians, but after the war the Marshall Plan helped him get a small brewery established. He was now prosperous enough be able to enjoy frequent holidays in Italy.

Fritz told me that, if they ever got the boat unstuck, I should go down to the village and try the restaurant at the end of the beach road. He pointed out the restaurant, its little parking lot, and tables along its dock, just below our pensione.

The following morning I awakened to discover on looking over the balcony the fishing boat floating contentedly about fifty meters offshore. Just when, and how, the birthing of the boat was accomplished I had no idea. Was something done under the cover of darkness? In any case, now released from the clutches of buildings at the intersection it now seemed much smaller at sea. It bobbed and rolled in the mild swells, like a young stallion anxious to try its legs, eager to test its element.

Curiously, the night before we had been awakened by the first explosions of what turned out to be the most impressive, and lengthy, fireworks display I had before or since witnessed. Sorrento was in the midst of a multi-day fete to its patroness saint, and the pyrotechnics launched from boats in the bay, and against the fitting silhouette of Vesuvius, must have won her continued favor (unless it was some elaborate diversionary tactic to misdirect prying eyes from whatever method was employed to dislodge that boat). In any event the fireworks having kept me up well past my usual bedtime I awoke too late to see the launch.

But there was still the ceremony of the blessing of the boat. Later in the morning its rigging was festooned with flowers and ribbons, food and wine were brought out to it in skiffs, and a priest sprinkled all with holy water and Latin incantations which I could only presume were supplications to a patron saint of mariners, or perhaps Poseidon, since this areas was once a Greek colony. With access to the beach now uncorked I resolved to try the restaurant Fritz recommended and see the village at sea level.

With the festive crowds in the streets of Sorrento it took a while to find the way down to the village. It’s a narrow, barely two-lane, winding, unlit road along which, owing to the steepness of the cliff, there were no structures, much less any places to pull off. I needed only the brake pedal on the VW Rabbit as we descended, engine idled, between the cliff sides and through the tunnels.

The road led directly to the intersection where the boat had been stuck. There was no doubt of it: a long stripe of bright blue paint smeared the wall of the building on one side, and broken bits of stucco still lay in the street from the tear in the opposite building. The street was also steeper than it appeared from above. Perhaps the boat’s weight just tore it loose and it rolled itself down to the sea. Its silhouette now bobbed contentedly a little ways offshore, colored lights strung in its lines.

I turned left on the beach road, which was illuminated only by the ambient light from the small shops and restaurants that lined it. After about one-hundred meters the road ended at the restaurant parking lot. It was wedged in between the cliff and the sea. 
I parked between two cars and turned off the engine. But as we were about to get out I noticed in the rear view mirror a Fiat that was about to pull out from the row behind me. Then it backed into place again and turned off it lights. From the restaurant’s lights behind them I could just make out the silhouette of four heads in the car.

I hesitated; some instinct signaled caution. “What are we waiting for?” Patty asked.

“Just a sec, I want to check something out,” I answered, straining to see what I could in the rear view mirror. The guys in the Fiat weren’t moving. I could see cigarette coals brighten every few seconds. They were in position to look straight ahead at our car, and the suspicion formed in my mind that they had noticed the white oval international plate on our VW Rabbit. It could have been that they were casing the little plastic Rabbit insignia on the trunk because that was later stolen in Ravenna. They might have more serious mischief in mind. The license plates advertised us as stranieri, foreigners, easy marks.

]The parking lot was dark, so I told the girls I was going into the restaurant to see if we needed a reservation. When I walked past the Fiat I glanced at its plates—they were from NAPLES!

Napoli, the “kleptopolis” of Italy, a city with one of the most beautiful natural settings in the world, Vesuvius behind it, the bay in front, “O sole mio” weather, some spectacular churches and museums, and beautiful islands. But while you’re contemplating all that beauty some Neapolitan might well be heading down a laundry-canopied street with your wallet, camera, and the last of your forbearance for the Neapolitan notion of sharing the wealth. Small wonder their motto is “See Naples and die”; since they figure you won’t need your possessions where you’re going they relieve you of them beforehand.

Actually I’ve never been robbed in Naples. But I’ve heard horror stories including one from a photographer acquaintance who had the rear window of his rental car smashed with a brick while stuck in a traffic jam on a Naples street. He watched helplessly, (and un-helped) as his cameras, and a bag of all his exposed film from several weeks shooting in Italy were casually carried away as the thieves made an unhurried escape among the stopped cars.

It takes some effort not to be a victim of theft in Naples. A few years earlier I had brought a group of students down from Rome. We were to stay in Sorrento and make day trips to see Pompeii and Herculaneum. To do so we needed to switch from the Stazione Centrale to a local railroad called the Circumvesuviana, by which one reached Sorrento as well as the archeological sites. A moving sidewalk assists in this transfer, and as our group and its luggage were transported on it like ducks at a shooting arcade, motley hordes of gypsy kids and assorted guttersnipes ran alongside unabashedly eyeing suitcases, purses and camera bags for any opportunity for the snatch and run. They followed us straight into the terminal where we felt forced to pile our possessions in the center of the lobby and form a human wall around them. We felt like a herd of gnus, wondering, if the pack of hyenas picked off a suitcase with an injured wheel, they might be satisfied and leave the rest in peace.

At the Central Station I also had to change some traveler’s cheques to purchase our Sorrento tickets. As I stood in the cambio queue counting out the cheques two teenage boys sidled up on either side of me. One had a car radio, wires dangling, under his arm; the other I could hear counting along sotto voce as I counted out my cheques: “venti, quaranta, sessanta, ottanta, novanta, CENTO. . .”.

Those Naples license plates back in Sorrento refreshed that memory. In Naples, you snooze and you lose. Certain that my little VW Rabbit would be picked cleaner than a wildebeest carcass on the Serengeti I got back in it and said we would find somewhere else to eat.

The girls thought I was overreacting, but when I pulled out of the parking lot the Fiat’s lights came on and it began to follow us. Perhaps they were just deciding to leave the village as well, but as a check I drove about fifty meters along the road and parked in front of a shop. The Fiat stopped, keeping its distance. I could feel some beads of sweat form on my forehead.

I started up again, this time driving past the intersection with the road that goes up the cliff. The Fiat started to follow, but stopped and parked just before the intersection. Then I realized that they didn’t have to follow any further; they knew that there was no other way out of the village than the road through that intersection! I would have to turn around and make a left in front of them to get back up the cliff. My only remaining option was to just try to wait them out. Maybe they would get bored, or find another target.

But the girls were complaining about starvation and Patty suggested that we just go up into Sorrento where we could eat and the feast day crowds would provide a curtain of safety. Easily said, because first I had to get by the Fiat and up the cliff road.

When I threw a hard left into the uphill road my lights illuminated the interior of the Fiat. Yup, four guys, definitely. These were lousy odds, even considering that Patty had a left hook like the Irish middleweight champion. I scraped my palms on my thighs to get the sweat off them.

At the top of the street, where it turned to ease into the uphill grade I checked the mirror—the Fiat’s lights were slashing across the building. They were coming!
Now a VW Rabbit diesel not only sounds like a sewing machine, it is only slightly more effective than a sewing machine for transporting four people up the side of a cliff much faster than a rickshaw with a lame puller. I resolved to have a word with Fritz about “the people’s car” if I ever got out of this situation.

I gunned the Rabbit for all it was worth; momentum is everything in climbing steep grades with a diesel sewing machine. I gauged the Fiat to be about five seconds behind us according to when its lights came around one of the hairpins. Our headlights were the only illumination on the road. I was pushing the Rabbit to its limits, yet still afraid of rolling it, or slamming into the side of the cliff. But I was more afraid of being overtaken, which was looking like it was their objective. We were, as far as I could determine, the only two cars on the road.

“Are you making faces at those guys?” I yelled back at the girls. They were both turned around in the back seat, facing out the back window. They were.
“Stop that,” Patty admonished as though they were only committing some minor discourtesy.

“Great, why don’t you hold up a sign that says ‘you wop, mafiosi, castrati pimp your own mothers’,” I moaned, clearly showing my stress. I could tell from the first tunnel that they were gaining on us, and we were still only about a third of the way up the cliff. The diesel engine was putting out a good deal of smoke, clouding up the tunnel. Maybe I could asphyxiate the bastards. Either that or I had to hope that the little Fiat was going to blow its engine from pulling four big (my imagination had decided they were “big”) guys up a cliff. It was German engineering versus Italian engineering; it should have been no contest.

But by the next tunnel they were right on my tail. The girls were quiet, Patty seemed very cool, and my heart rate was now approaching the Rabbit’s RPMs. Any second I expected they’d be slamming into my back bumper like that scene from In the Heat of the Night where four rednecks are chasing Sidney Poitier down some Mississippi back roads.

I was wrong. They tried to pass me and cut me off! I swerved to stay in front of them. They tried again, on the other side. My head was spinning from side mirror to side mirror, then ahead to check for the next curve. I don’t know how many times they tried to pass, but the Rabbit held them off. I prayed they’d stop trying before an on-coming car came along when I was in the on-coming lane to keep them from getting by.

Patty had been checking for on-coming cars as far up as she was able to see. Then she said that it looked like one more switchback and we would be at the top. Soon we were in traffic and pedestrian crowds that ensured our safety. With a flush of victory the girls resumed some insulting juvenile faces and gestures at the Fiat, which was now right behind us.

Spotting some Carabinieri at a corner I pulled up behind their patrol car, implying that I was going to make a complaint about our pursuers. The Fiat flashed its brights twice and cruised by. An arm came out of one of the passenger side windows, and made sort of a gesture of salute, like we had been gentlemen aviators in some kind of an aerial dogfight in World War I. I returned the salute with a less ambiguous gesture, though they might have interpreted it to mean—since I was the first to reach the summit of the cliff—that I regarded myself as “Numero Uno.”

Maybe it was fortuitous that we were scheduled to head for Greece in a few days. I’d about had it with Italian drivers. For that matter I’d pretty much had it with European drivers in general: The French, who seem to delight in trapping slower cars in an etoile roundabout, by exercising their inalienable priorité à droite to be in the ‘right’, as though it were something from the Napoleonic Code; the overpowering Germans in their Benzes and Beamers, roaring by like UFOs on the autobahn; and, of course the Italians, who seem to regard all motoring encounters as some puerile pissing contest. After weeks of this, and then being terrorized by four Neapolitan punks I was in danger of being transformed into a lethal amalgam of all three. It was time to get out of Italy for a while.

Two days later the Rabbit was loaded from trunk to roof rack and we were headed down the Amalfi Peninsula, destination Brindisi, on the other side of the Italian “boot.” We weren’t on the road more than a few minutes before I notice a Fiat behind us. It was the same model, and as near as I could tell, as it was now daylight, the same color. And, it had Naples plates!

But there was only the driver in it. There’s a zillion Fiats in Naples (probably half of them stolen) so I thought nothing of it. Anyway, I liked the odds much better than those with the other night’s Fiat.

But before I could relax the Fiat was blowing its horn. At the time in Italy all Italian cars seemed to be engineered so that the horn and the accelerator worked in unison. Use one and the other kicks in automatically.

The incessant blaring of horns could bring an American driver to erupt like Vesuvius, but the Italians seemed inured to the practice. They returned honks with silent shrugs, down-turned mouths, upturned palms, and other non-verbal communications that probably have a range of meanings from “do you expect me to run over that nun?” to “your mother’s marinara sauce tastes like dog vomit.” The latter would be close to fighting words, if they weren’t gestures. But the gesture that really gets Italian drivers to blow more than their horns at you is, aptly called cornuto, “the horns.”

Anybody can do the cornuto gesture, especially people from the University of Texas, whose “Longhorn” teams are urged to victory with the arm extended and a fist with the index and pinky fingers extended and slightly curved. Any Italian observing thousands of rabid football fans performing this gesture could not help wondering whether one side of the stadium was out to enrage the other by implying the latter were all “cuckholds.”

So to give an Italian guy the horns might well cause him to fly into a rage, or to stifle his anger by biting down hard on the knuckles on one of his hands (usually not his horn-blowing hand). To “give him the horns” is to imply that some other guy is diddling his wife. The thought occurs that this may well explain why Italian drivers are always in such a hurry: they’re desperate to get home to catch their wives in flagrante. An alternative explanation is that they are on their way to do a bit of cuckholding themselves. Being Italians there are no doubt other possibilities. It should suffice to say that the ultimate Italic gesticular insult is: “Cuck You!”

The Amalfi road is a winding, two-lane affair with not all that many opportunities to pass slower vehicles. So my VW Rabbit, still recovering from its Sorrento Grand Prix victory two night earlier, and now so loaded that we looked like the Joads striking out for California, was extra sluggish. Could the Fiat on my bumper now be the one from the other night? Maybe the guy just wants to let me know that the wild chase was only the Neapolitans’ idea of a bit of holiday fun.

He blew his horn; I did nothing to change my speed or to move over. He honked again, and I checked my mirror. He seemed to be gesturing with his left hand out the window. I couldn’t figure out what the gesture was—though it definitely wasn’t the dreaded horns. He would honk, gesture and then sort of slap his door. Screw him, I thought.

This went on a few times every kilometer: honk, gesture, slap. The girls finally turned around to make some faces, though without much effect, and I was starting to mumble some violent intentions. Patty, who was navigating, said I should try to hold my temper in check as we would soon be at the base of the peninsula, and he would probably be turning north or we would get separated from him. But I wasn’t in the mood for a voice of reason, I was feeling the need to beat the living honk out of some Italian driver, any Italian driver!

At the base of the peninsula the road widened into more lanes and we came to a traffic light at a major intersection. I stuck my arm out the window and gave an aggressive wave for the Fiat to pull up alongside. My adrenaline was pumping, what there was left over from the other night, and I had been mentally rehearsing my insults: “Stronzo” (Turdhead), which I intended to combine with the horns. He would pay for the driving sins of his brethren. Patty counseled civility and restraint, but my teeth were too clenched to voice dissent.

Mr. Fiat pulled alongside close enough to where I considered tearing off his side-view mirror as an opening gambit. As he leaned over to roll down his passenger side window I could see that he was a good ten to fifteen years older than me, with thinning hair, and probably twenty pounds lighter. Unless this guy was Nino Benevenuti, the Italian middleweight champion, I figured I could end his honking days for good.

“Signore,” he said almost plaintively, “scusi, scusi, signore.” I didn’t figure on such a civil tone, but I was still fuming. Maybe the bastard was going to beg forgiveness; without his horn he was nothing but a wimp, and I considered telling him so. Then he said something else, though it was partially obscured by the truck noise from the intersection. “La porta, . . .la porta, signore. . .”

The door? Does he want me to get out? Does he want to settle this in the road?

But he was also pointing toward the rear of the Rabbit. “Aperta, la porta aperta, . . . pericolo,”

“What!” I yelled. “He wants me to get out? He wants a fight! I was about to say “let’s do it, Mario!”
“He says our door is open,” Patty interjected.

“Our door?”

“Laura, check your door,” she said. Sure enough, one of the rear doors was ajar.

Reflexively my index and pinky fingers detumesced. Embarrassment made my face prickly.

Patty’s glare made me feel even worse. “He’s probably followed us all this way because he was concerned about the girls falling out of the car. He might be the only nice driver in Italy and you were ready to kill him,” she scolded. Great, one minute I saw myself as the heroic protector, and in the circuit of one traffic signal I was a homicidal maniac.

Laura opened her door and slammed it shut. The man smiled, and then motioned downward with his palm over his door lock to indicate that she should do the same. When she did he brightened more, and I felt more like a creep.

“Bene, bene,” he called to her.

“Grazie tante, signore,” Patty answered.

“Prego signora, buon viaggio,” he replied, smiling more broadly. This amicable exchange wasn’t doing my ego much good; all I could manage was a weak smile.
The light changed and there was an immediate honk from the car behind our benefactor, another Fiat. He threw me a quick “whaddaya gonna do” type shrug, waved, and pulled away. When the guy who had honked at him pulled alongside us I flipped him the horns. It made me feel a lot better. It seemed an appropriate way to return the favor of the only civil driver in all of Italy.

Ah, Sorrento, O sole mio, I reflected, lying on my bed and looking at Vesuvius, that Italian sun warms even the most stressful memories.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 10.16.2011)