In last week’s column I mentioned that I had been out of the country and that I wouldn’t bore readers with the details of my fabulous vacation. I said I had endured no pathos, problems, or porn, and that I had no epiphanies while abroad. This, of course, was not true. I experienced plenty of the above-mentioned items. I suffered sorrow. I encountered difficulties. I saw several dirty pictures. I had a few insights.
This week I renege on my promise to keep quiet about them.
Through the generosity of friends I went to Italy. One cannot go to the birthplace of the Roman Empire without running into pathos, problems, and porn, no? And the very nature of Italian culture incites some pleasurable, ass-kicking epiphanies.
So I had a few in Italy. But first the pathos, problems, and then a little porn.
Pathos: At the end of my fabulous vacation I felt sorry for myself. On the return non-stop flight from Rome to New York I sat beside a man who was pissed off at Alitalia for screwing up his seat reservations. He could not park himself next to his wife and daughter. He had to sit by me. He was damn glad to be returning to his New Jersey home where he would write a letter to Alitalia and tell them just what he thought.
Instead of reflecting upon the beauty and splendor of Italy, I was forced to brood over my bad luck in seatmates. I longed to be across the aisle, next to the diminutive Italian nun who closed her eyes and crossed herself before indulging in a bottle of red wine while playing a video game on the small screen attached to the seatback in front of her.
Problems: In the tiny, vertical village of Massa Lubrense on the Amalfi Coast, my friends and I could not find paper filters for the electric coffee maker provided for foreign visitors in the kitchen of the villa where we were staying. Italians don’t use electric coffeepots so they don’t have a need for filters. This was a minor inconvenience blown up bigger than it should have been. The less said about it the better.
Porn: There is porn in Pompeii! (See below under Epiphanies for details.) There is porn along the Amalfi Coast! Dove La Trasgressione Puo’Diventare Un Gioco is located on a side street in Sorrento next to a church and across from a pizzeria. It has the same gadgets for sale that can be found at Good Vibrations, but they run on 220 volts, not 110, and the operating instructions are written in Italian.
Epiphanies: The last time I was in Europe was in 1993. My mother and I visited Switzerland. We flew for nine hours, took trains and busses to Kandersteg, dragged our bags into our hotel room and collapsed. We awoke, hiked around town and shared a bottle of German wine.
My mother got a little tipsy from lack of sleep and the excitement of crossing the Atlantic for the first time. She raised her glass to me. Her eyes filled with tears. “Susan,” she said, “I so adore Sweden!”
My epiphany? Italy is a country that can never be confused with Sweden—or with Switzerland—or with anywhere or anything else. You can’t get tipsy in the heart of the Mediterranean and forget that you are there. The ruins won’t let you. The homemade cheeses, wines, and pastas do not allow it. The ancient olive groves and fat lemon trees whisper over and over again: “Italy, Italy, Italy.” The narrow cobblestone paths flanked by crumbling buildings, the archways, frescos, and faded doors, the peeling paint and wild drivers, the roosters that crow at dawn, and the laundry strung out to dry between noisy apartments all repeat the same thing: “You are in Italy and nowhere else.”
And yes, there was porn in Pompeii before Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city in layers of soft deadly dust.
Everything changes, and yet in some ways it all stays the same.