Love At Almost First Sight In The Amalfi Coast
You may know an individual who claims to have walked into a town for the first time and thought, “This is it. I am home.” It is not an unheard of experience. Perhaps less heard of is walking into a town, thinking you have made a huge mistake by coming there. Then going to sleep and waking up to think, “This is it. I am home.”
Perhaps the bad first impression represents more poor planning on my part than any fault of the town, which - I assume - did not alter itself significantly during my slumber. Circumstances beyond its control, though arguably within mine, demoted what could have been love at first sight into the far less romantic and rarely depicted in movies “love after an unimpressive night sleeping together.”
The town with which I fell in love at nearly first sight resides upon the western coast of Italy, south of Naples in the Amalfi Coast. Any town along this ragged, cliff-infested, obnoxiously beautiful coastline possesses the charm and good looks to make anyone swoon and begin casting aside articles of clothing. But my town introduced itself in its sexy Italian way as Positano.
The way Positano and I met proved less than magical. But I must take the blame for this. Cities exist that warrant a night time introduction when they look their best, Paris or New York City being such examples, but Positano is not one of those. Not because Positano doesn’t possess night time charm, but due to simple physics. Finding your way around a vertical town in the dark which you have never been to makes a scavenger hunt in the Sahara to find “that one sand dune” seem quite reasonable. It also, quite frankly, puts a great deal of undeserved pressure on Google Maps, which has clearly not been programmed to get frustrated and give up, but instead insists with rage-invoking casual pleasantness that you have reached your destination when it may be 5 streets above you.
My original plan did not involve arriving in Positano under cover of night. Unfortunately, my plan failed to take into account one small detail. A serendipitous flaw as things became apparent, but serendipity only becomes serendipity in hindsight, as the saying would go were there a saying clever enough to say that. Many people have been aware for millennia, apparently, that an individual may not, under any circumstances, rent a vehicle without ownership of a credit card. Fortunately, this only effects me and the other five human beings who don’t possess credit cards; but its affect on us is quite staggering when we fly into Naples to pick up our rental cars to drive to our temporary residence in Positano.
The end result means arriving in Positano by taxi late at night with directions that only make sense during the hours of visible light. The hours during which directions such as “When you climb down the blue stairs there will be an arrow painted in red on a pink wall next to the tree that casts a shadow that resembles a three armed juggler wearing a Turkish fez. Not the one by the tree with the shadow that looks like a six-legged spider monkey standing on its head holding a light saber. Someone mixed those up once and they never did recover the body.”
Armed with directions, the equivalent of a 2.5 watt bulb’s luminescence from a cell phone, and an egregious lack of good sense we set out from the cab into labyrinth of stairways that is Positano. Just under 1 million (yes, I counted) steps later we had found our way to, not only shelter, but dinner as well. Not just any dinner either, but we enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner at a closed restaurant, the Elisir di Positano.
“Go ahead and have a seat,” the charming woman said to us. “We are closed, but I have some vegetable lasagna I just made for our dinner if you would like some. I can throw some prosciutto on it.”
This becomes one of the most memorable parts of the Positano experience. “I can make you a sandwich” and “Would you like me to throw some prosciutto on there?” are the town catch phrases. Like saying, “Bless yer heart” in Nashville or “You f...in moron” in Boston - which curiously mean the same thing.
Walk into an establishment and you are greeted with a casual acknowledgement, as if you belong. The greeting is not overtly friendly. More like a good morning to someone you live with than a dramatic so excited to see you to family you only see at Christmas. Visiting Positano isn’t going to Aunt Matilda’s house, whose entertaining skills have inspired many a Pinterest post. It is more like staying at your Uncle Larry’s cabin. He is happy to have you, but his hospitality skills really don’t extend beyond, “Help yourself to whatever you find in the fridge.”
Positano doesn’t make the list of most welcoming towns. Positano is friendly enough, but it, more accurately, simply is. Positano is about the business of being Positano in the same way it has been doing for centuries. As long as you conduct yourself in a sensible manner and don’t act like a jackass tourist, you are welcome to come and settle in as a bit of town. They won’t fawn over you like some valuable money-stuffed piñata, trying to figure out how to open you up so the coins will pour out. Of course, they will not treat you like a filthy, plague-ridden outsider either.
Should you break long established rules of proper decorum (For example: ordering a cappuccino in the evening) expect attitude and a look of scorn as a free side with your entree. But otherwise, feel free to move about town as though you have been there for centuries yourself, dining on olives, riding your Vespa or the bus up and down the street, and having prosciutto thrown at you.
Once fed and settled into the tiny, but clean room we went to sleep with plans to reassess the decision to come here in the morning and establish a plan of escape. Upon waking, however, I stumbled into the bathroom . . . and fell in love. No, not with the bathroom, which in size landed somewhere on the spectrum between a small broom closet and a slightly larger small broom closet. What I fell in love with was the window in it. Or technically, with the town that I could see through said window. Pink, yellow, orange, and white homes pop like flowers out of a mountainside framed by well adorned olive, orange, and lemon groves. Bakeries and shops decorated with magnificently painted tiles flow down ribbon roads lined with floral ornamentation and citrus trees until they plummet into the Mediterranean like a 5000 foot artist’s pallet washing into the sea. Positano is an architectural & engineering amazement . How these homes and bridges do not collapse and crumble under the weight of the roads that sit atop them is a question best not asked when standing in the midst of these roads. Roads traveled daily by cars, trucks, buses, scooters and the cutest three-wheeled trucks which look like wheel barrels called Furgoncino Apes, usually with men, knees bent to chest, balancing atop rubble & wood. Gazing at this mountain sized wall of corporeal art it appears that perhaps the only thing holding it all together is the entwined network of intensely hued and impossibly varied vines of bougainvillea which cover everything.
I walked, mesmerized, out of the room onto the rooftop/patio/ balcony. I don’t know the proper terminology, but basically everyone’s roof is someone else’s yard. The fact that there existed no conceivable way to equate this place to which every other place would hereafter be unfavorably compared in sheer beauty and charm with the place I had expected to run away from this morning was irrelevant because I was too twitter pated to think to do so. A glowing orange dome sat atop the glowing orange Mediterranean shooting out multi-colored streams of light into the sky above it and the sea below. At the time I believed myself observing a sunrise on the Amalfi Coast. In the evening, however, I would witness an equally glorious sunset while standing in the same place and facing the same direction, which I am pretty certain breaks a number of laws of physics.
While overcome by the dreamlike view and attempting to process the beauty as reality, we set off to explore this town from some previous, bygone era. At one point we wandered into a small store to garner some supplies. Whilst perusing the goods and debating food purchases the woman behind the counter announces, “I can make you a sandwich, if you like.” We liked.
We sat outside amidst the bougainvillea while eating and ogling Positano. The view of town refuses to diminish in outlandish enchantment regardless of where you stand or which direction you face. Beauty surrounds you. Every vantage point brings more wonders. Like Dr Seuss might say about the view: “You will love it from the sand. Atop the cliffs is just as grand. Have you seen it from off shore? Or stand in awe from your front door.” Eventually you are forced to make a decision: Put down the camera or purchase a refrigerator-sized hard drive to contain all the pictures that screamed to be taken.
Still, the first few days in Positano the vertical maze layout of town proved problematic for people coming from a country where the concept of walking to a neighbors’ home is ludicrous and may lead to recommendations for seeking therapy. Few things are more fundamentally embarrassing than moving to the side of the stairs so you aren’t holding up the lady whose hundredth birthday is a distant memory as she carries a bag of groceries that outweigh her. Over time, however, the 187 step climb to the main street became increasingly manageable and the confusion about the lack of obesity in a place where people live on pizza, pasta, and pastries began to wane.
The people who are privileged to live in this quaint, Catholic village have a sense of camaraderie without agenda. One day while sitting in a Lavazzio (laundromat) a car was attempting to parallel park, as all cars park there. His backing into said space, however, was hampered slightly by the white scooter already parked there. Pull out, back in, hit scooter, repeat. After a few attempts some townspeople appeared on the narrow, 1/2 lane road putting up their hands yelling, “Il fermo! Il fermo!” Stop! I prepared myself to be an eye witness for the atrocities I felt certain I was destined to observe. I feel confident suggesting that under similar circumstances in many places having people screaming at you and running toward you after hitting another vehicle produces a different outcome. Most likely ending in misery and police tape.
I was not prepared for what I actually witnessed. The men, calmly and without malice, proceeded to push back the scooter behind a large flower pot. They then guided the driver into the space, then left to go on with their day, the driver now in tow with them—no yelling, no discord. Just an everyday part of the Positano experience. You see, all cars have scrapes, crunched bumpers, and dents in doors, all just a part of life.
This is Positano. It’s not backward. It’s not naive or out-dated. The people here have not so much adapted to the outrageous tourism, as more simply absorbed it into their way of life. If people want to come gawk at our town that is perfectly fine. We will just keep doing what we do and now you can come and pay us to keep doing it. Positano was going to be hanging out being Positano anyway, so you are welcome to come hang out as well.
This is all assuming of course that Positano exists in the real world. Numerous fan theories abound that perhaps Positano is nothing more than a hypnotic trance brought about by the gravity defying bus ride along the magnificent cliffs clinging precariously to the edge of the Mediterranean coast. Otherwise, you are forced to accept that Positano actually exists as a terrestrial location in a real universe, in which there are people who voluntarily opt to vacation in Texas.
Further proof of the non-existence of Positano: The flowers too abundant and colorful. The sun rises and sets over the same breathtakingly beautiful view. Buses that nearly scrape the buildings on each side of the serpentine roads in single file somehow manage to pass each other going opposite directions. Then there exists the conundrum that is limoncello? It is everywhere and it is amazing. I am convinced that it flows from the taps there, although I didn't actually test it. If I turned on the faucet and yellow liquid came out I would have been afraid to taste it anyway.
Should you need further proof, there is Mr Sandwich. That isn't his actual name, or, at least, it would be a bizarre coincidence if it were. Sometimes there is a grocery store on Viale Pasiea (Yes, I said sometimes. Like the Room Of Requirement it appears or vanishes without a trace depending on your hunger level). The elderly man who owns the store doesn't have an actual deli, but if you walk in hungry he says, "I can make you a sandwich." Which is accurate only in the most basic sense. He can "make you a sandwich" in the same way that Ray Charles could sing you a song or Stephen Hawking could help you with your science homework. And Mr Sandwich employs art and science both.
Mr Sandwich uses a protractor and slide rule to slice the tomatoes and mozzarella into the perfect size and shape for flavor enhancement and aesthetic pleasure, then layers prosciutto onto the warm, fresh-baked bread. Painstakingly, he covers layer upon layer of ingredients. Occasionally standing back to view his canvas then switching the position of two tomatoes or moving a hunk of mozzarella a half millimeter to the left. He then lovingly drizzles olive oil over each layer and sprinkles that with the laughter of a small child. The process seems to go on forever, but creating a work of art like “Prosciutto and Mozzarella On Bread” cannot be hurried. As with any of the great masters, Mr Sandwich recognizes that the sandwich is already there. He merely has to manipulate the ingredients in the correct manner to set the sandwich free.
At long last, Mr Sandwich steps back and smiles. It is finished and he is satisfied. With trembling hands you reach out and raise the masterpiece. The gustatory experience is unreal. Then you remember, none of this is real. You are in Positano and all this is a dream. You enjoy it all the same.
From most areas you can enjoy the magnificent Church of Santa Maria Assunta. The ancient green dome atop the spectacular yellow building making a perfect centerpiece for the thousands of photos you fail to be disciplined enough not to take. On December 8th the church’s sole resident, Mary, gets to come out for a little fresh air. The Feast of Immaculate Conception turns Positano into a festive party as the whole village goes out for a walk about town with Mary, which I am sure is her favorite day of the year. No matter how beautiful her home is, it still must be refreshing to get out for a look about. Being welcome to participate in this rare bit of festive Amalfi culture was, for me, a special highlight. Parading Mary like the celebrity she is about town, past the miniaturized sculpture of the town built into the rock, down the tiny streets lined with shops filled with ceramics or limoncello, to the beach with colorful boats covered in decorative tarps both practical and aesthetically pleasing, where the iconic painter creates bits of Positano on canvas for sojourners to take home with them. A fun-filled day of people joined in revelry, enjoying life for what it is.
Not everyone enjoys Positano I must admit. While hanging out in Positano one afternoon at a pizza place on a busy - by Positano standards - corner. I happened to witness this fortunate, lucky man hit by a car driven by an unlucky man. We ordered a vegetarian pizza and had just been asked, “Do you want me to throw some prosciutto on there?” (Which we did) when it happened. Firstly, I should attempt to explain how driving works in the Amalfi Coast. Have you ever watched an ant colony before? Complete chaos to the naked eye at first, but patterns can be picked out in the chaos if you watch long enough. The citizens of the colony zig zag back and forth upon paths unseen by human observers, but natural to them. Now imagine one out of town ant attempting to pass through, . . . driving an SUV. In essence, anyone not from the Amalfi Coast driving in the Amalfi Coast is a danger to themselves and others. Thus, my good fortune of being one of those five credit card free humans left in the world. You are a particular danger if you happen to be a hot- tempered, A-type personality trying to survive in a world where lesser mortals continuously get in your way.
The fortunate, lucky man happened to represent the lesser creature that got in the man's way this day. An elderly man, perhaps in his 70s, he hung out with his friends on this popular, busy corner of Positano each day. His main source of entertainment - aside from the continuous banter with his friends - the scratch off lottery tickets he would purchase at the Tabachi across the street, seldom winning anything, but never displaying the slightest degree of disappointment.
The unlucky man appeared to be in his 40s, driving a rental car too large for Positano and an ego too large for anywhere at all. Already possessing a scowl on his face while arguing with the woman sitting next to him as he turned at the corner in front of us. The vehicle came to an abrupt stop as he slammed on the brakes and we could see him go into full on temper tantrum mode. A mode that seemed comfortable to him, as if he practiced it each day to keep up his skills for just such a situation as getting lost while driving in Positano.
The next few seconds seemed to occur in slow motion, as they so often do when a tragedy is about to take place. (Why this happens I can only speculate. But my theory is that God knows what is about to happen and wants to make certain that there are reliable witnesses to the atrocity about to take place. See, God doesn't like A-type jack asses any more than the rest of us. Yes, I know the Bible says He loves everyone. But I'm pretty sure that is simply a result of newer, more politically correct translations than the true nature of God.) Anyway, lucky man began to cross the street to purchase more scratch off tickets at the same moment that unlucky man thrust the vehicle in reverse and backed up just as lucky man passed behind him. Contact was made and lucky man disappeared from view. Those of us sitting at the corner leapt up and ran towards the car screaming for it to stop.
The vehicle slammed to a halt and the window rolled down. Then the impossible happened. We all received a verbal thrashing. Those of us who begged him to cease his setting a large car atop an innocent man were scolded for yelling at him. Lucky man was berated for daring to walk behind unlucky man's car. Lucky man took this with a smile as he climbed back up from the pavement. Positano received a strong talking to for existing upon the side of a cliff and having roads which were unfamiliar and confounded unlucky man. Lucky man limped toward the window, still smiling and saying it was okay and he was all right.
Unlucky man didn't care. He was livid and continued his tongue lashing in English of the lesser Italian being who had possessed the unmitigated gall to be struck by the car that unlucky man was driving. He then sped away. The last we saw of him he was still ranting at lucky man, the rest of us at the scene, the unfortunate woman in the car with him, and his inner demons which he clearly possessed, but would likely forever remain too arrogant to deal with.
The rest of us stood in shock and stunned silence a moment, which was finally broken by lucky man, "Well, that was close. He almost got me."
"What do mean? He did get you," one of his friends observed and everyone began to laugh. Unlucky man, already reduced to an unpleasant memory, all but forgotten.
Lucky man continued across the street still laughing and smiling. A few minutes later he came back out and the smile was even larger. Held aloft in his hands he carried a large wad of bills, the winnings from the last scratch off ticket. We all cheered and congratulated him. That evening lucky man laughed, partied, and enjoyed the company of people he cared about. Unlucky man continued to complain and rant about the idiot that ruined his day and probably his entire trip. Lucky man now possessed a funny story to tell in which unlucky man became a little more than a punchline. Unlucky man, the victim as always of other people, came away from the incident with something else to hold bitterly like a tiny treasure of misfortune in his heart. Even without the winning lottery ticket the story plays out basically the same way. But I think the money was a nice touch.
Lucky man symbolizes to me all the best of Positano and really the best of mankind in general. For him this world is a place we journey through with others. We discover people with whom we make connection as we go about looking for the beauty and joy in life. Simple pleasures, enduring optimism, and that gift of spreading happiness to those around you. Like the children running after the birds on the beach, laughing without restraint, Lucky Man goes through life. A wondrous life in a beautiful place where he can always find someone who can make him a sandwich.