Retired in Rome Journal: Amalfi Coast the great escape for expat problems
MONDAY, MARCH 10
PRAIANO, Italy — No one in the world handles stress better than Italians. Unemployment nears 13 percent and you’re one of them? No problem. Go to a piazza. Have a caffe and look at the monuments that bring in 12 million tourists from around the world every year. Internet breaks down and it’ll take two months to fix? Go buy some fresh fettuccine, invite some friends over and cook a feast. Wife leaves you? Take your butcher knife and …
… (Oops! Sorry. I went native on you.)
Seriously, I’m up to my neck in financial anacondas and what did I do? I escaped to the Amalfi Coast. Many Americans have heard of the Amalfi Coast. It’s an impossibly romantic peninsula south of Naples. This is where the legendary Sirens lured love-starved sailors off their ships yet only to drown in the sea. The Amalfi sticks out of the Campania region like a languid, wet tongue which gives you an idea of what mood you’re in after a couple of days here.
I’m trying to move into a dream apartment in Rome Wednesday. Due to financial restrictions at my Colorado State Bank and Italy, which, in terms of finance, is one step above 16th century Ceylon, I’m wondering where I’m sleeping next weekend. To make a long story short, I have to pay cash for my first two months security deposit and first month’s rent. That means I must visit a cash machine every day, take out the maximum 250 euros a day and walk around with enough cash to keep an Italian family in fettuccine for 18 months. I felt oddly thankful that Italians can’t buy guns. So I donned a money belt that would soon weigh more than than the WBC championship belt and boarded a train for Naples.
I’ve been to the Amalfi twice before. How much do I love it? A framed oil painting of Positano, my favorite town in Italy, hung above my TV in Denver for 11 years. Whenever I got stressed, I would lay on my couch and stare at the multi-layered rows of bed & breakfasts, pensions and villas that cascade down a steep hill toward the turquoise Tyrrhenian Sea. I could be devastated by a diagnosis of brain cancer, the ax murder of a sibling or a pending trip to Nebraska and stare at that painting. I’d smell the sweet fragrance of lemon trees from the Amalfi. Suddenly, life is sweet again.
I wanted to visit the Amalfi before the tourists came pouring in, starting with Easter weekend. Returning to the terrific accommodation website, AirBnB, I found the perfect posting for a weekend away. Click this website and you’ll book a flight to Naples tomorrow: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1266281.
It is in the town of Praiano which I’d never heard of but is one of the little string of pearls dotting the Amalfi Coast. It sits between Positano on the southern part of the peninsula and the town of Amalfi on the eastern edge. Praiano is so small (pop. 2,000) it doesn’t show up on tourist maps. The kind, laid-back locals re-emphasize how to pronounce it (Pry-AH-no) to visitors just out of sheer habit of correcting people.
Picking me up at a bus stop in front of a tiny caffe with snow white patio furniture was Rino. Rino is 40ish with a big mop of curly brown hair, glasses and the lean frame of a middle-aged man who has spent a lifetime hiking the steep stairs that dot the Amalfi like veins. He rides along the coast on a little motor scooter with his dog hanging on for dear life between his legs. We wound down the coast and took a steep right turn. We headed down toward the sea and stopped right above a small beach that led to the kind of secluded cove you see on travel agency walls. Rino has lived in Praiano all his life and has built quite a little operation. He has a string of villas that wrap around the steep hill and overlook the cove like a cruise ship’s command center. Two restaurants serve his small gathering of guests, all with spectacular views of the water. A bar sits above the cove. I never thought anything could taste better than Italian wine at the end of the day. Here it would.
However, much of Amalfi doesn’t open until Easter so everything was closed — except my room. It was small with a queen bed, a sizeable bathroom and a flat-screen TV featuring the only English TV channels (BBC and CNN) I’ve seen since I arrived in Italy two months ago. What sold me was the balcony. It’s just big enough for two small chairs and a serving table. That’s it. But I could nearly belly flop from my balcony into the sea without getting hurt. I’d sit on my deck, drink a glass of wine, eat some local cheese and read my John Varley novel while watching a pair of fishermen in a tiny rowboat work the deep, blue waters below. Beyond the cove, barren rock cliffs would never be developed. Italy is known for its hidden corners of sheer natural beauty. I just added Praiano to my list.
It’s a hike to the village. A short, steep stairwell took me to the main highway which sharply curves along the jagged coastline. This stretch of road has produced more curdled stomachs than a thousand poorly tapped beer kegs. I reached the bus stop where a rowdy crowd of costumed locals were having a confetti fight. Carnival has arrived in Italy and from Sicily to the Austrian border Italians are dressing like fairies, clowns and mop-haired misfits. I heard a caffe owner mention the crowd looked like the Italian Parliament but I may have misunderstood. A man in a lime-green jumpsuit handed me two fist fulls of graffiti while two women — I think — buried me with a shower of little pieces of paper. Going with tradition I waited until a man in yellow tights opened the door of a passing car and I joined a half dozen in making the driver pick confetti out of his car for the next six months.
The Amalfites pick this time of year to celebrate. It’s not just due to Carnival. It’s before the tourists arrive and they have to open all their restaurants, inns and souvenir shops. It’s their one chance to act like their children before they put on their happy Italian host’s face.
The sunsets here, on one of the western tips of Italy, are something of poetry. I bought some cheese, bread and a bottle of wine and sat in the sprawling courtyard of a mustard-colored church. As the sun slowly set, children played soccer which I’m realizing is part of an Italian’s DNA. One time a ball rolled toward a middle-aged father. He picked it up with a flick of his toe, kicked it a couple feet with his foot then dribbled it in the air with the same foot for about 60 seconds. He looked like a retired professional. I asked him if he’s a former player. He laughed.
“Oh, no. When I was very little.”
My restaurant that night, Trattoria San Gennarro, had one other couple. Two Canadians had rented a car at larcenous prices and braved the treacherous road from Salerno, the first sizable town as the Amalfi Coast heads south. “We were told to get here you either look at the road or look at the scenery.” I had a very nice tagliatelle with clams ringing around the plate.
One reason little is open this time of year is it is sunny Italy in name only. The wind whipping off the sea made the 60-degree forecast seem libelous. I wore a turtleneck sweater on my deck and my swimsuit never left the bottom of my backpack. However, it makes for lovely touring weather. The next day I took the local bus to Positano where shopping takes a place alongside dining at the front table. The narrow main road curves down toward the sea and it’s lined with small boutiques, trattorias with views of the water and limoncello shops. The Amalfi Coast is covered with lemons. Some here are the size of cantaloupes. Limoncello, the lip-smacking lemon liqueur, is better here than anywhere else in the world. If you forget that fact, you’re constantly reminded by the sale of lemon-motiffed tablecloths, limoncello sets, lemon-flavored chocolate, lemon-patterned aprons and limoncello in every size bottle imaginable. One shop had what looked like a two-gallon brandy glass half filled with little yellow cubes. I put my head in and took a whiff. The lemon explosion nearly knocked me out the front door. During the summer, this shop is jammed. In fact, they post a note at the door, in English, reading, “NO PHOTOS.”
Carnival reached Positano, too. While eating a pepperoni pizza at Chez Black, a pizzeria that has been on the beach since 1948, I saw the Positano youth pour down toward the water. They had an odd Egyptian theme with slaves sporting fake six-pack abs, multiple Cleopatras and teen-aged pharaohs. They all danced to a combination house and rap music while their parents and few tourists snapped pictures from the seats above. I walked back to the bus stop with the setting sun following my steps.
Dream apartment? I’m already living a dream.