Summer 2009

 

FEATURE

 

At Capo di Sorrento

 

by Sheila Wright

 

 

At Capo di Sorrento, I leap from the orange Circumvesuviana bus and dash through olive groves down the cobbled path to the sea. Old Adamo is waiting. I can see him waving from the sea-spattered rocks below. I carefully negotiate the wooden staircase that leads to our cove and greet him with the obligatory three kisses: left cheek, right cheek, then left again.

 

“Porca miseria!” he cries. “Where have you been? I was so worried!”

 

In fact, I am only a few minutes late, but this is Adamo. Although I am twentyeight, he treats me like a young granddaughter, and I love it.

 

“Have some freshly roasted chestnuts, bella.” Adamo speaks in thick dialect. I understand, mainly because he is holding out a large paper bag full of warm nuts, but also because Adamo and I communicate on a deeper level. My grandfathers died long before my birth; I have chosen Adamo and he has chosen me. Sometimes I hardly finish a thought in my faltering Italian and he has already understood. We are from different worlds, different generations, yet our spirits are connected and have come together in this place of my dream.

 

Right now we are perched on a bench-shaped rock a few feet above the Mediterranean’s gently lapping waves, our backdrop the ruins of Villa Pollio Felice. The shining columns from my dream have long since been washed into the sea. All that remains are a few arches built into the rocky outcrop behind us. The arches, once part of a palace, now support a grassy plateau that commands a view of Sorrento in one direction and the island of Ischia in the other.

 

The remains of Bagni della Regina Giovanna, Queen Giovanna’s baths, are found behind this outcrop, where an archway, part natural, part manmade, allows the sea to flow into a deep hollow the size of a large swimming pool. A tiny pebble beach awaits those willing to climb down the ancient stairs to reach it. Pieces of the ruined palace lie just below the surface of the water. Sometimes I float here and imagine its original splendour.

 

Every weekday, dodging motor scooters and dog merda, I make my way to the Royal School, which, despite the pretentious name, is really a converted apartment where I teach English illegally. With no work permit, I live in fear that the labour inspector will show up and report me to the police; but when I arrive at Capo di Sorrento, all worries lift from my shoulders.

 

“Cielo,” says Adamo, pointing with knotted olive-branch fingers to the cloudless sky.

 

Haltingly, I repeat the word. Adamo’s eyes, nestled in sun-worn crinkles and blue as the sea, laugh at me. I study Italian in my room at night. Poring over books and newspapers, I memorize verb tenses and words like smottamento, mudslide, and traboccare, overflow, just because I like the way they sound. But it is here with Adamo that I learn the essentials: amare, sognare, ridere: to love, to dream, to laugh. He introduces me to his wife, children, and grandchildren, who welcome me into their home for many languorous lunches. I come away with pearls of old-school Italian wisdom: have children early, live off the land and the sea, keep the family close.

 

Of course, I understand few of the words that are spoken and often the whole family speaks at once, but somehow, through instinct, sign language, and guesswork, communication happens. Misunderstandings occur, however. Once, while dis cussing family values, the general opinion seemed to be that it is women’s work to raise children.

 

“But a child needs to spend time with his or her father,” I said. My pronunciation of papà, father, accent on the last syllable, came out as papa, pope, accent on the first syllable.

 

Si, si,” agreed Adamo’s wife, indicating a portrait of Padre Pio. “Such influences are imperative in a child’s upbringing.”

 

I tried to clear up the confusion, but the conversation had already veered off in another noisy direction. Across the table, Adamo smiled and shrugged. “Have some more wine?” he asked silently, the carafe raised in question.

 

Every Saturday, Adamo must leave our cove early in order to prepare for la messa at the small chapel up the hill. This means he has Sunday mornings free for the usual schedule of chores around his lemon and olive farm and a swim before lunch.

 

Adamo is reluctant to leave me alone. Although I’ve been here for over a month, he feels he has to remind me of the dangers that await solo foreign females. “Stai attenta,” he warns. “Keep your eyes open. There are pappagalli around.”

 

Although the word pappagalli means “parrots,” in this case he is referring to Italian men (often astride motor scooters) who follow women (usually blonde with walking shoes and a day pack). “Tedesca? Tedesca?” they ask, assuming I am German. When I remain silent, walking determinedly, they try all the English phrases they have learned by heart: “Where are you from? You go to beach? You want company?”

 

I am accosted like this repeatedly in town. A quick No, grazie, no eye contact, and a detour into a shop or church is the best bet. Alone at the cove, however, I am a sitting duck. The following scenario unfolds: Adamo leaves. I watch the hydrofoils crossing to Capri and listen to their wake crash against my rock. Then I sense a presence just behind me. It moves closer to my left or right and sits down at a distance that says, “I’m in your space; you have to notice me.” After a period of about thirty seconds, the intruder speaks, whether eye contact has been made or not: “Where are you from?” I am left with two options: chat for a while to practise my Italian, or move away and hope not to be followed.

 

At the Royal School, however, pappagalli are my most polite, attentive students. They respect me as the authority on what they most want to learn: English Grammar for the Seduction of Foreign Women. I take advantage of my position to bring them up to date on the workings of the female mind. I explain that in North America, a woman who is followed relentlessly and badgered by incessant questions, grammatically correct or not, is unlikely to warm to the perpetrator. I, in turn, find out that although a southern Italian expects an initial negative response, he believes that persistence is the key. The fact that he rarely gives up easily must be an indication of some rate of success.

 

There is an Italian comedy sketch in which a man approaches a woman alone on the beach. He asks her if she would like some company. When she answers “yes,” he doesn’t know what to do.

 

Today I hear the glad lilt of native English. Two Welsh women introduce themselves and invite me to swim out to the large flat rock that lies in the middle of the cove. “A friendly young Italian man escorted us here from the station,” they tell me.

 

Oh really, I think. So not even women of my mother’s generation are exempt from the attentions of pappagalli.

 

“We had no idea how to get here, and he offered to walk with us.” They indicate a tall, slim, athletic-looking man who stands on the shore watching something in the direction of Capri. He looks familiar, and I wonder if I’ve seen him here before.

 

I spend a little longer with the Welsh women, showing them how to climb on the sharp volcanic rock. Although I could never know this cove the way Adamo does, I am learning where to find soft mossy footholds, smooth crevasses for leverage, and how to walk carefully on the spiny surface to a safe diving place.

 

Later, we retire to our respective towels to bask in the afternoon sun. From where I sit, I can see the Welsh women and their friend, but they are too far away for me to hear what they are saying.

 

There aren’t many tourists today. It’s November, after all, and la stagione, the summer season, is long finished. I enjoy the silence and solitude, munching on the chestnuts and sipping the wine Adamo left me. A light breeze brings the pungent scent of rosemary from across the cove. I inhale deeply, appreciating these autumnal blessings with my whole being.

 

I can’t believe it’s true, but I have begun a love affair with my old enemy, November. We frolic in the Mediterranean together, forgetting the sordid past we shared in Canada. I gain an absurd sense of satisfaction from knowing that, back home, the skies have turned grey and the first slushy snow has begun to fall along with the last brown leaves.

 

Footsteps tread on the rock behind me, and my body tenses. A man, hardly more than a teenager, stands beside me, so close I can smell the lingering odour of cigarettes on his clothes. “May I sit here?” he asks, with a leering grin.

 

“I’d rather be alone,” I reply, certain I am wasting my breath. Sure enough, he sits down, practically on my towel. I get up and start to collect my things. Before I have a chance to devise my next plan of action, I hear my name.

 

“Sheila! Come and join us!” call the Welsh women. They have been watching and are rescuing me. I wave gratefully and move my things. Their Italian friend greets me. “You must watch for such men,” he says.

 

I start to laugh, since he’s certainly no better himself, but stop in mid-thought, mid-smile. There is genuine warmth in his eyes, and I am struck by what seems to be a memory of him. It is there on the tip of my mind, but I can’t place it. I am so convinced that I must know him from somewhere that I break my ask-no-questions-of-strange-men rule and come right out with it: “Have you been here before?”

 

He looks at me for a moment before answering, and I feel he is searching for something, perhaps the right English words. “Not this year,” he says slowly, choosing each syllable. “I am from Napoli. Is some distance.”

 

At this, my rational mind shoves the memory back, away from the place where I can almost grasp it. I have never been to Naples. I can’t possibly know him.

 

The Welsh women start to pack up. “Good-bye Sheila, good-bye Gino. We must be off. Thank you both for a lovely day.” They leave, and I am left alone with the Italian man.

 

“I am Gino,” he says. “Is pleasure to know you, Sheila.”

 

Gino has a mauve and turquoise day pack into which he slides the book he had been reading.

 

“What’s that?” I ask, breaking my rule again. He hands me a slim pink and grey paperback, taller and wider than most, with a small red heart on the front.

 

“I buy today,” he tells me, “with intenzione to read here in this beauty spot.”

 

My Italian is improving daily, but I stumble mentally over the title: dove ti porta il cuore. Gino translates it for me. His soft, rolling voice fills the words with meaning, and the phrase “follow your heart” sings itself into my soul. A simple phrase, a cliché, but I can’t help embracing it. I feel as if I now know something about Gino, something more profound than anyone would expect from a first encounter.

 

 

*Excerpt from the forthcoming Amare: A True Italian Love Story. Sheila Wright won the 2006 Accenti Magazine award for “The Nature of Italy,” an adapted excerpt from Amare. Her story also appeared in Travelers’ Tales: 30 Days in Italy.

 

Sheila lives in Ontario, Canada, with her husband and two sons where she teaches French and English and facilitates a writers’ group.

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