FULL DISCLOSURE: long post ahead but there are lots of great photos.
The thoughts below are directly affected by a post-Europe travel brain and my best attempt at gathering my thoughts. Paragraphs may be rather random. “May be?” They are.
People travel for different reasons.
To see the world, visit friends, taste new food, for adventure or sight seeing, to fulfill a long held dream or desire, spurred on by innocence and a grand “Why not?” gesture.
My sister Laurie and I just returned from a 13-day trip to Southern Italy and have learned a lot–about each other, about God’s care and about doing Very Hard Things. It was supposed to be 17 days but we came home early.
Laurie was going to be celebrating her 67th birthday on the trip and we were greatly looking forward to a special occasion. I turn 70 in August; this would be an early birthday present to myself. We saved up for a year (thank you federal rebate checks).
We thought we’d be intrepid explorers and make like the locals. Stay in apartments, go shopping for food, fix our own meals, venture out during the days….. On our own. Who needs hotels and tourist traps? Um, turns out we did.
The most relaxing places we landed were where we DIDN’T plan to go, after we moved out of our planned lodgings and headed to hotels and tourist-y sights.
But I digress.
In my pre-trip excitement I created an Instagram account–“Lucy & Ethel Go to Italy” (after that infamous television pair) and shared our adventure with a small band of followers along the way. There were also a multitude of posts on my Facebook account as well as my personal Instagram sharing our journey.
One might gather from the photos and comments on social media that it was “a marvelous trip.” Many, many readers were grateful they came along for the ride.
But pictures don’t always tell the entire story.
It was not a marvelous trip. And we’re both pretty sure we have Italy out of our system.
Several things factored into our difficulties.
Of course we overpacked. This was our first trip to Europe. We are old. We need stuff. Or so we thought. We did not need our sweatpants, or stocking caps or rain jackets. Oy. Our clothing choices were based on the VRBO listings with the words “beachside” in them; we assumed that meant cool ocean breezes. We were wrong.
Schlepping our suitcases and carry-ons while juggling purses on and off multiple trains and buses was tragic at best and comic I’m sure.
And we had zero help from anyone in those train and bus transfers. Multiple times there were young men not more than six inches away from us who never lifted a finger to help. The lack of chivalry was disheartening. Pazza Americanos! I’m sure they were thinking.
But “don’t overpack” was never communicated with sentences like, “wear only cotton” because of the heat and mugginess. If I was writing a travel book I’d include that.
We traveled to Southern Italy outside Naples and to the Amalfi Coast. Italy has twenty different regions; we traveled to one. Southern Italy is vastly different than the North or even the middle of the country. A friend who private messaged me said her “heart sank” when she discovered we were traveling to Naples–she is well aware of the noise and congestion and filth and the harsh character of the city’s inhabitants. (Sorry, Naples. We discovered all those things to be true).
We know that now-basing one’s opinion of a country on a small area is like making a judgment based on one’s impression of California by a visit to Watts in Los Angeles or a barrio in Orange County where I grew up. Like deciding what the entire state is by experiencing one small city. Not fair or accurate.
We knew we did not want to visit Naples as a city because of the congestion and noise and filth so we chose a site (we thought) away from the city, supposedly on the water, being beach lovers and all. We did the research and chose Posillipo, an ‘upscale’ residential area outside the city, close to the water.
Posillipo The listing we found (on VRBO, sadly not Air BnB; now we know better) was nowhere near the beach although listed as such. To process our angst and disappointment at 1 a.m. the morning we decided to leave (after only two days) we made a list of what was woefully misrepresented. You can read it here.
The weather was unseasonably hot and muggy–85 ish with 80% humidity–and our rooms had no fans. Thank God I’d brought a tiny portable USB cord fan… My sister had an open window, but still, it was hot. When we messaged our hostess to ask for a fan, she said “there was one down in the cellar if we wouldn’t mind going to get it.” At night. Down these stairs. I am not making this up.
When we messaged her “we’d rather not, as it looks dangerous,” she showed up with the fan the next day. Thankfully, it worked well.
Our accommodations were hundreds of feet above the water. One could travel down a long, winding road on foot if you wanted to see the water, the edge of which was surrounded by rocks. If you purchased lunch, you’d get a free ride back up on one of their buses.
We were situated in a gated community surrounded by curving roads and 50 steps up to the nearest main street. There was no “garden.” There was jasmine, however, the fragrance of which will forever make me smile. Thank God for small mercies.
The night we arrived, there was a disco bar on the beach below us where a concert lasted until 2 am, booming music like a 1980’s cover band on eternal repeat. We did not sleep. Our hostess has a dog who barked repeatedly at the door adjoining our unit, scratching and clip-clip-clipping her little feet across the kitchen floor on the other side.
The neighbor’s two German Shepherds were kept in a 5×8 patio space the entire day; their yips and yowls were a constant companion not more that six feet way from my open bedroom door/gate. The sounds were distressing to say the very least and wore on me greatly. Sleeping was challenge no matter how many herbal remedies I tried. Even Tylenol PM was useless. (Did I say we are old?)
Walking around Posillipo in this “upscale residential neighborhood,” nothing prepared us for the debris and garbage piles in the main squares and on the streets. The empty fountains, the unkempt parks and lawns, the weeds. Everywhere. Such neglect and abandonment was disheartening and completely unexpected. The conditions did not just happen in the last two years due to lockdowns and the pandemic, they had been going on for a long time.
A large park that was touted as “a gem” was also covered in nothing but dry, grown grass, weeds surrounding trees and flower beds and debris and trash everywhere.
“But look at this view,” one person said. The view did not make up for it. Also discouraging, disheartening and distressing.
None of my social media posts showed the piles of garbage stacked next to garbage cans, the weeds surrounding statues and fountains, the diapers and broken bottles in the dried and empty waterways. You’d never know from looking from the photos because I purposely pointed my phone camera up and away when I shot the picture.
Naturally, my sister and I wanted to communicate with our families while we were gone and had our spouses and my kids download WhatsApp. (Yay WhatsApp). Everything you need to manage when you’re traveling–particularly transportation like bus and train tickets–is done online. The weather app is online. All of my social media posts need internet availability.
Our hostess had outdated information regarding connection to her wi -fi and sadly we spent the first 12 hours (until she physically showed up at 10 am) without it. Wi fi availability and spottiness was an issue throughout our trip, taxing us greatly as it limited our ability to communicate or do something as simple as listen to music. We did not expect this.
Speaking with the locals was an excruciating challenge in the neighborhood. We spent a good deal of time in the two days we were there going for walks and sitting in the Piazza, and thankfully found willing conversation participants with the young people at Bakery Burger, of all places. Best burgers we’ve ever eaten, hands down.
Although the young people spoke English, despite Laurie’s best attempts at conversation the rest of the folks either ignored us or disdainfully dismissed us. My sister has an uncanny knack and ability to learn languages and with decades of Spanish under her belt was speaking pretty understandable Italian. Didn’t matter; her attempts were not well-received. Except for a sweet man named Franco (one in maybe 500?) it was nearly impossible to converse. “There are not enough hand signals and arm gestures to make up for this,” she lamented.
It is true “everyone speaks Italian……” IF you’re in large cities where the tourists are. We discovered this later.
The distressing situation with the dogs, the noise, the inability to communicate and be well-received, the heat, the mugginess, the inaccessibilty of the property, the fact that we never got anywhere near the beach, the spotty wi-fi….it was all too much. The second night when neither of us could sleep, I stormed into Laurie’s room because I heard her phone going off. Turns out she was trying desperately to find reservations in Salerno so we could move. I was so grateful for the way we were both sensing the exact same thing. We agreed to leave.
This was not a vacation. Never mind the cost, we were going. We stayed up until 1 a.m. typing out a list of grievances (too many to name here) to share with our hostess, woke up at 6 am and started packing, texted the hostess at 9 am (who didn’t respond until 10 am) and told her our plans.
By that time we were in a taxi and on our way to the train station, headed to a hotel in Salerno. No regrets. (The money will be refunded. Small mercies.)
Grand Hotel Salerno
A hotel air conditioning, free breakfast, a beach. People who spoke English and were attentive to your needs. Gave us ice for our water bottles.
ICE! The sweetest word. Things were looking up (view from hotel balcony).
My Instagram post:
Vacation in Italy officially starts Monday May 30th, sister @lauriejharris birthday. After our first 2 days outside Naples we have changed our plans and are on our way to Salerno. Family at home you can hear the story later….it’s all good.
In Salerno, we got to know the neighborhood well and walked everywhere. Italians are used to this.
“Dove di mercati?” (where is the market?)
“Only 500 metres.” Walk 500 metres.
“Dove di mercati?” More hand signals and “only 500 metres.”
Everything is “only 500 metres” until you actually find what you’re looking for.
(Upside–both of us lost weight).
We enjoyed Salerno but finding places to eat were a challenge.
Italians don’t usually dine in the evening until 7:30, 8 o’clock. If you want dinner, you have to wait until then. Two or three nights we joined the evening passiagiata (stroll) stepping into various establishments seeking a bite to eat. Apertivo (happy hour) is 4-7 pm ish every day everywhere. Italians live for apertivo. Early dinners for these Californians was not happening–two nights in a row we had dessert for dinner–tiramisu and cheesecake. To die for. Totally worth it.
When we discovered the little markets on the main avenue we purchased mozzarella (Campania, the region we were in, is famous for their mozzarella; made from buffalo milk–did you know that?) and it is indescribable. Fresh tomatoes, basil, bread, absolutely everything tasted better. Flavors richer and fresher, deeper and more defined.
Yes, the food in Italy is amazing. Our favorite meal was the picnic we arranged ourselves by smuggling our purchased food into the mezzanine of the hotel, “borrowing” plates and silverware from their dining room (open only for breakfast).
We never had pasta as it was too hot to ever make any ourselves when we had a kitchen for a few nights. And the restaurants near where we were did not feature it. We were on the water; nearly every restaurant featured some kind of fish or octopus. Fried. Nope.
Our favorite place to eat or buy cappucinos turned out to be Zero Healthy Bar–smoothies, poke bowls and delicious coffee. The servers spoke English and the food was out of this world.
I promised you random and here I am talking about food.
There WAS a beach across the street from the hotel. But it was blazing hot (black sand) by 12:30 and consisted of a pebble strewn strand of land as you approached the water. The pebbles turned to cantaloupe-sized in the water….not exactly wadeable. But great for seaglass.
Our Amalfi Coast excursion to Maiori was next on the horizon and after much traveling–we spent most of our money and time on arranging transportation, paying for transportation, taking transportation (which no one tells you)–we arrived.
More mosquitoes. (French doors which must be closed for a/c to work, no screens.)
More non-wi-fi. “The wi-fi works on the patio.” At midnight when it’s 7 am in the States. When it’s dark and there’s no light on the patio and you’re on the main drag where motor scooters and ambulances and people and cars are going until midnight.
But the wi-fi works on the patio. Where the mosquitoes are.
It took us another 12 hours to finally get the owner’s personal network and password info, but we still couldn’t use our phones in our bedrooms because of the weak signals.
Had to ask for two keys. Had to ask for beach towels and toilet paper.
No written info about anything–how to use the washer, the stove, numbers for taxis or buses, local places to eat.
But we did get a 15 minute recitation about how to be absolutely sure we recycled everything correctly. True story.
When I shared this with my daughter, she researched the garbage and recycling situation and found this online. And you won’t find that in any Italy guidebook, Rick Steves’ or otherwise.
We did our level best to continue to make the best of challenging situations….My sister is expert at this, getting up each day saying, “It’s a new start.” Our favorite phrase each time we thought there’d be a positive turn ahead was, “Things are going to start happening to me now,” Steve Martin’s line from the movie “The Jerk.” It became a punch line for us.
But the strain of trying was beginning to wear on us.
The heat, the humidity, the transportation challenges all posed a barrier we could not overcome. Going anywhere to see anything was too much effort when all we wanted to do was relax.
The beach was across the street from the apartment, but it was directly above the main drag in Maiori where cars and buses and motorscooters and ambulances traversed until way past midnight each night. Italians go to bed between 10 pm and midnight. We are not night owls.
This did not bode well. There were not enough available, legal drugs to help us sleep.
A day’s salvation came the morning we journeyed to the island of Capri (cap-ree, not ‘kuh-pree‘, as we Americans say it.)
Laurie and I had been remarking on how very few Americans we’d seen in Salerno and Maiori–where are the tourists, those English-speaking compatriots whose voices we longed to hear? Then lo and behold, God sent five college age angels who “just happened” to sit in the empty seats across from us on the ferry ride to Capri. (the seats had remained mysteriously empty.)
This sparkling, Jesus-loving, energetic quintet made our day. All recent graduates from college, friends from Austin, engaging and interested in all that we were doing. We exchanged phone numbers, they found our Instagram account, asked me about my books, told us about their travels and listened while we bemoaned our challenges. Two of the girls are originally from the exact city where my sister lives. What a small, God-filled world. Oh, we were uplifted and encouraged.
A “trip-maker!” one of them said in her text. We have to agree. They got off in Positano and we waved goodbye.
Side note: The “just happened to be” moments were the unmistakable Thank You, Jesus occasions that were a grace-filled reprieve on this trip. Especially the time the Italian bancomat (atm) mysteriously gave me back my debit card. From my Facebook post:
We came back for cappucinos after lunch to cool down again (16 euros each, not kidding) but again, the ambiance and cool surroundings made it totally worth it.
As I type this the rain is dripping down in buckets outside my Seattleland home, pitter pattering on our deck roof. I have never heard a more magical sound.
We actually only stayed three more days in Maiori, again leaving our reservations early. The end of the 3rd day my sister was at the edge of her bed in tears and I too had had enough. “It’s not worth it, Jody. It’s just too hard.”
I had to agree.
The physical strain had been demanding–if we were 20 years old and had small suitcases (in your dreams) and could handle the heat it would have been a different matter.
The greatest toll was emotionally more than anything else, honestly. Laurie has a gift for reaching out to people and making them feel welcome, engaging folks in conversation in Italian, asking their names, petting their dogs, offering a smile.
But over and over again, when we expected to be welcomed, for instance by the Customer Service folks at the train station on more than one occasion, we got a scowl, a noiseless response with a finger pointing in whatever direction we’d enquired about and none of the smiles or welcomes we’d worked so hard on displaying.
The strain was too much–it wore us out and the cost was too high.
We finally checked out on June 5th after finding a hotel near the Rome airport in Fiumicino where we stayed for two nights before flying home.
Not until we got to that hotel did we actually relax. In fact, I got a sunburn.
The breezes from the nearby Tiber River cooled us down. There was a sparkling pool, lush landscapes, well-cared for premises, beauty, quiet, smiles. Kindness. Service. People were happy to see us. And the breakfasts were remarkable.
Our spirits were buoyed and replenished.
The day before we traveled home we had to get our obligatory Covid test (one has to be negative in order to get on an airplane back to the States.) The front desk had given us directions and with my trusty Google map lady leading the way we took an 8 minute walk to the Farmacia.
As we turned the corner to cross the street to our destination, lo and behold on our right was the very street down which we had traveled the first day we arrived, leading to the Fiumicino B&B.
God had brought us full circle and it was time to go home.
How do we process this experience? What did we learn?
- There’s no place like home. (Laurie’s home is in San Diego, mine is in Seattle).
- Beauty and care and joy and kindness are as essential to the soul as food is to the body.
- We can do hard things.
- Jesus loves us and sees us. He showed us that over and over again.
Laurie says I’m patient. I appreciate her attitude about a new start each day and her gift of making people feel welcomed and seen.
But what I will remember the most is God’s many, many whispers telling us He sees us in the middle of every hard thing we experience. He is with us and His love never fails.
No matter where we go.
Where will we step into next?