Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Il pesce è morto

We had a layover in Istanbul on our way from Beirut to Rome. We took a smaller airline, Pegasus Air, and flew into the smaller of Istanbul’s two airports. We hadn’t slept; our flight took off at 6:30am and we were supposed to arrive in Rome some time after 1pm. It was our open night, so we had no reservation because we hadn’t decided whether or not to stay in Rome or go further south. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but neither of us had expected the Istanbul buffet.

It was because we hadn’t slept that I made a choice that would ultimately prove to be very costly in time and money. There it was, all laid out – the tomatoes and cucumbers and three types of cheeses and breads and meats. Oh, the meats. That had to be it. I ate a plateful of food while we waiting to board the flight that would take us to Rome, a flight through which we both slept. We were making our descent into Italy when the first pangs hit me. Ooh, THAT was uncomfortable. Little did I know it hadn’t really started.

Food poisoning. You get it in countries that don’t value governmental health and safety regulations. What I had was enough to turn any government-hating libertarian into a communist. We were going to take the bus from the airport to Rome, a far cheaper alternative to the train, but the buses didn’t have bathrooms in them, and I wasn’t going to make it into town without a bathroom. The train was our only option, though one that cost 17€ ($24) more than what we had budgeted. By the time we got to Rome, I was seriously considering going to a hospital, the pain was that bad. There could be no walking around searching for a pensione hotel for me. To top it off, it was raining and cold, and the train station bathroom cost a freaking euro, and we had no coins. We tried a hotel near the train station but it was too expensive. I needed a bathroom, badly, and we needed wifi to do a search, but where to find them?

A place near the train station saved us. It was a restaurant and normally you had to order dinner to sit there, but a nice Italian waiter named Tom let us in to sit, use the facilities, and for Chris, to drink a beer while he waited for my stomach to settle a bit.  But it wasn’t going to. We sat in there for at least an hour. By then, evening had arrived , and because I wasn’t going to be able to walk around Rome, we made a decision to cut our losses for the day and just head south so we could get to the Amalfi Coast the next day, the main destination of our trip.

But I couldn’t handle being on a train for so long, so we took the more expensive but faster train to Salerno, one that was 30€ ($42) over our budget. At that point, I didn’t care. I needed to get to a bed as soon as possible and try to sleep the illness off. We arrived in Salerno around 10pm to discover that it was pouring rain. We still had to find a hotel, so we tried the one across from the train station. Now, in Italy, it is common to negotiate a room price, especially at 10pm when the room would otherwise go empty. We asked about the rate for a room for a night, but the figure was nearly double what we were willing to pay, so we told the guy what we were looking for. But he wouldn’t even talk to us, not even to point us in the direction of more accommodation. What a snob. I can’t stand people like that. He’d rather make nothing on an empty room than take a few bucks off the rate.

We didn’t walk too far before we found a café of some sort, where Chris asked about cheap hotels in the area. The guy told us about a B&B about 300 meters down the road, so we headed in that direction. 14 Leoni was the name of it, a seaside guest house with views of the Med. Chris negotiated a decent rate, still 10€ ($14) more than what we wanted, but it would have to do.

It was the first time Chris really had to use Italian. The woman who greeted us loved to talk, but since she spoke no English, I was not really a part of the conversation. She was almost motherly in her concern about my illness and at one point shoved some sort of gooey digestif into my mouth before I had time to react. She even gave me a bucket for the night. While we sat in the lobby, the two of them talking and me wishing they would stop so I could go to bed, I noticed two fish in a pitcher full of dirty water, trying to suck air from the surface. They were suffocating, but how do you tell a stranger who has been so kind to you that she is killing the fish by neglecting to change the water?

We finally did get to the room, and I told Chris to salvage at least something in the day and go out and have a beer somewhere but bring me back some Sprite or ginger ale. Salerno is a sleepy town in the off season; it was nearly midnight and he had a tough time finding a place, but he did, and apparently enjoyed it. He brought me back Sprite and ginger ale, the first things I could keep down all day. The stomach was starting to get better. I had a fabulous sleep and woke up to the sea.

Chris had eaten a tiny piece of that awful meat in the Istanbul airport. We’ll never know if it was that unfortunate nibble or the fact that he didn’t eat anything all day, either, but he didn’t feel too well in the morning. My stomach was still cramping but I was able to travel. We went down to breakfast and I noticed the goldfish had died. Il pesce è morto, the woman said. The fish is dead.

We both were dragging, so it was after 1pm by the time we set out for Pompei, the one place in Italy I had not wanted to miss, given my interest in ancient history and the Romans. The train would get us there in a half hour, we were told, so we’d be there by 2pm. The guys in the train station proceeded in their job the way things are done in Italy – as if clocks and schedules did not exist. We bought two tickets and made our way to the platform that the guy told us to go to. Not once had he mentioned it was leaving so we better hurry. We got to the platform just as the train was pulling out of the station.

You’d think there’d be another one, right? Ha! This is Europe. Of course there was a train strike! We went back to the guy at the ticket office and he got another guy who spoke English to explain to us that we should take the bus instead because there were no trains to Pompei for quite a while. And that’s what we did. We went to the bus stop and waited and waited and waited some more. Because of the strike, the buses were extra crowded. When the bus finally did arrive, we pushed each other to get on it and crushed each other once we were. We had only gone a couple stops when the bus became so full that the doors ceased to operate correctly and the bus couldn’t go. We were stuck there for 10 or 15 minutes before enough people finally gave up and got off. Yeah, it was that dumb.

When we finally got going, I enjoyed the ride. It was nice to pass through small Italian towns  and wind our way through the mountains. But we stopped at every corner, it seemed. The bus took TWO HOURS to get to Pompei. It was now 4pm. And then, the fatigue and the illness and the stresses on our budget finally got to me, and I started to cry. Why? Because the last tickets to enter the ruins were sold at 3:30pm. The one thing I had wanted to do more than anything on this trip would not be.

Poor Chris. I didn’t have any rationality left in me. I shut down. I didn’t want to talk. I was so upset that everything seemed to be going wrong that I forgot my number one rule of travel: make the most of every situation.  I could see the ruins from the gate, but I was not allowed to go in. My heart was broken. There I was, staring at Vesuvius, the first active volcano I had ever seen in my life, and I couldn’t see one of the greatest archeological sites on the planet because we were two weeks away from the summer hours and the stupid train strike and the two hour long bus ride and both of us not feeling well and Chris’s feet were blistered and the fish was dead.

See, at that point I thought it was significant because everything seemed to be going wrong and the goldfish died and “goldfish” was the name of our hotel in Amalfi. Pesce d’Oro. We were going there after Pompei. I was so distraught that I wondered if the dead fish were some sort of omen. I don’t believe in omens. But when enough is going wrong, you have to wonder about these things. I told a woman at work about it a couple of days ago and she said maybe the fish dying was a turning point. I laughed at the thought of the fish sacrificing its life so that we could have a good trip, but you know, the universe is a mysterious and wondrous place. All living organisms are bundles of energy and that energy has to go somewhere when we die. So it goes.

Eventually I did calm down. Chris told me we could come back, that it looked cool and he wanted to see it, too. We walked into the modern town of Pompei in search of food. Of course, it was siesta or whatever they call it in Italy and all the restaurants were closed for another two hours. In the meantime, we visited the Shrine of the Virgin of the Rosary of Pompei, a beautiful church. Those Italians sure do know about beauty. Churches like that can make a non-religious person wish he were religious.

There really wasn’t much else in the town. It seemed odd that a town existed there at all after the original town had been buried beneath the lava of Vesuvius in 79AD. I thought about the Pompeians praying to Jupiter and Isis and Apollo and all the other gods they worshipped as the lava covered their bodies, the horror of it, the burning and the suffocation and the knowing that you were going to die a horrific death. But the Pompei ruins aren’t about death. Quite the opposite, actually. Going to the ruins would allow you to see how people lived at that time. You just have to be there before 3:30pm to see it.

We found a restaurant that was open. I was excited to drink my first glass of wine in Italy. Like everything else, however, I was disappointed. The guy had given me bad wine that tasted like vinegar. The food was ok and I was happy to be able to eat it.

The trains were running again; we took one back to Salerno then stood to catch a bus to Amalfi. The sign said one was coming at 8:30, but I was not convinced until we were on that bus and sitting down that something had actually gone right in the day. The bus ride to Amalfi was harrowing. I had to close my eyes at times, because the coastal road is, well, let’s just say you stare straight down into blackness when you’re whipping around tight curves that don’t seem to have enough room for a big bus. We made it to Amalfi and found a cab to take us to the B&B since it was getting late. The guy ripped us off. He charged  20€ ($28) to go 4 km. If we had arrived earlier, we could have had someone from the hotel pick us up. So in the end, me getting sick cost us $108. Much worse, though, was the entire day we lost because of it!

Pesce d’Oro changed everything, however, starting with the bottle of wine the owners gave to us when we arrived. We were about to be awed…

To be continued...

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