The Road to Sorrento
Then, they stuck me in seat 42E, the very back row of the plane (the check-in desk never asked me "aisle or window?" just gave me a boarding pass). Problems with the back row? Noise from the galley behind you, folks waiting for the bathroom (also behind you) abusing your personal space and leaning on your headrest, and the seats only recline about 1.5 inches. Also, Delta hasn’t yet invested in those plane seat headrests with the little adjustable wings that help sandwich your head in an upright position for a slump-free and crick-less nap.
The only saving grace was that I had the whole row to myself. Huzzah! I never manage to sleep sitting up on planes, so for the first time in about 40 overnight flights, I would be able to stretch out across three seats and actually doze off a bit. Then, just before we taxied onto the runway, some guy got out of a middle seat ten rows up. As he picked his way down the aisle, the already strapped-in flight attendants sternly called out (apparently not for the first time) "Sir, you have to stay in your assigned seat until after take-off. Once the captain has tuned off the seatbelts sign, you can look for another seat."
"Screw that!" He spat at them in a self-important tone, settling into the other aisle seat of my row. "I’m not about to sit in a middle seat!" He then proceeded to arrange all his worldly belongings in fussy piles taking up the entirety of the empty seat between us.
I sent hate-vibes at him during the whole, sleepless nine-hour flight.
Fiumicino had, in its infinite wisdom, decided to open only four passport control windows to handle the dozens of incoming morning flights. The line stretched the length of the immigration room, around the corner, and down the corridor to the base of the escalators down from arrivals. It took nearly an hour to get through.
Then, the doors on the shuttle train from the airport to Termini closed on my foot as I put it on the first stair in order to clamber aboard. I yanked out my abused shoe, the doors snapped shut, and I watched the train pull away. Damn. Half an hour until the next one.
Luckily, at Termini I managed just to make the InterCity train to Naples, and was delighted to discover it was one in the old compartment arrangement. In this era of straight-through carriages that always make me feel more like I’m commuting than traveling, I revel in this throw-backs where you get to investigate a microcosm of six people crammed uncomfortably close for a few hours.
Across from me, in the other window seat, sat a hulking teenager with a do-everything cell phone permanently attached to his right ear by an umbilical earbud. Like a first true love, he ignored the world to pour all his attentions and devotion into this slab of plastic and microchips. First he played video games on it, then used it to chat with friends, and later fell asleep listening to tinny mp3s. In the seat by the door, a raisined little Italian man in a salt-and-pepper beard and cheap, threadbare, but scrupulously clean clothing carefully worked his way through four different newspapers over the course of the ride to Naples. Across from him, a dumpy Korean tourist clutched her purse on her lap and darted her eyes constantly for the full two hour trip, as if she suspected us of being the pickpockets she had been warned about.
Just as we pulled away, a nice older couple from the South Island of New Zealand arrived, panting and sweaty from having dashed for the train (which had switched arrival tracks at the last moment), and collapsed across from one another in the center seats. They were clearly excited to be in Italy, en route to Pompeii, and had a remarkable knack for looking out the wrong window at the wrong time—staring at a bleak suburban wallscape, for example, when the Mediterranean was glittering out the other side of the train.
I took it upon myself to catch the woman’s eye periodically and silently point to the other window at appropriate times so they wouldn’t miss things, starting with those oh-so-Romantic broken, weedy stretches of ancient aqueduct arches that parallel the tracks through farmland of the Castelli Romani. (Unlike the Acqua Vergine and other Imperial Age aqueducts that still run fresh water into Rome from the Appenine foothills to the east, the aqueducts south of the city weren’t kept in good repair by the popes, and long ago gradually crumbled to create scenes straight from a Piranesi print, complete with milling sheep.)
By the time we were in the Campania heartland, the woman broke our compartment’s silence, first to ask politely if I spoke English, then why we kept passing water buffalos? I explained about the mozzarella, and they broke into delighted grins. A bit later she asked "And are those olives?" No…but those are, with the dusty silver and dark green leaves. As we fell to chatting, they bemoaned having spent so long waiting in line at the Vatican, so I told them about reserving Uffizi tickets, and later, in Paris, to buy the Carte Musées et Monuments in order to save money and skip lines.
Occasionally, the little red cart with from the bar car would slide past our compartment, its pusher tinkling the bell occasionally and merely glancing quickly into the compartment to see if anyone showed interest. Much more proactive was the Old School itinerant drinksman. I thought these guys had disappeared, chased off by the now for-profit railroad and its exclusive license with Chef Express to provide crappy food and overpriced drinks on all the trains. But no, here was a small-time entrepreneur, trolling the corridors, swinging a heavy plastic bag at the end of each hairy arm, calling out a patter of "Caffe, caffe…bibite, aranciate, coca, acqua, birra…bibite!" Later, a barrista in Sorrento confirmed that the only bit of the entire national railways he knew of that still featured these bibite (drinks) guys was the Formia-Napoli stretch, where they were so entrenched and so much a part of tradition that no one seemed able to get rid of them.
At Napoli Centrale, I wished the Kiwis luck and hauled my bag down the station platform. I was about to take the stairs down to the basement and the long, twisting corridor leading to the private Circumvesuviana train line strung along the Bay of Naples, when I thought, "Damn. They’ll never find this on their own. No one does." Grumbling about the continued short-sightedness of Neapolitan authorities in not putting up a big sign for tourists saying "POMPEII"with a giant arrow pointing down the staircase, I backtracked until I found my Kiwis—looking, as expected, vaguely lost. I accompanied them down into the warren of underground tunnels, showed them where to buy tickets, and warned them about not accidentally getting on the Metro—the turnstiles for which are, confusingly, directly across from the Circumvesuviana ticket windows even though the Circumvesuviana tracks lie several hundred yards away, down more twists and turns of tunnels.
Waiting on the platform, I extended my adopted circle of tourists to a quartet of backpacked Americans by stopping them from hopping on the first train that came along, as it was headed for Sarno and they (as I) wanted the one for Sorrento. They squinted at me, unconvinced by this stranger offering advice. I shrugged and explained that, on this train, they’d end up clear on the wrong side of Vesuvius, wondering where the sea went and what all the buffalo were doing here. (I left it to my Kiwis to explain the buffalo-mozzarella connection.)
Aboard the correct train, I pointed out the gypsy family working its way through the car—mamma with an infant slung at her breast and small child in tow, little girl squeezing an accordion in a semblance of music as a distraction—and motioned everyone to keep their hands on their wallets. Then I left the tourists alone and got to finishing off my mystery novel as the ancient train shrieked and clattered its interminable way along the southern crescent of the Bay of Naples. It stopped every two to five minutes in identikit suburban towns to disgorge loud packs of schoolchildren sausaged into too-bright, too-tight clothing. I bid the Kiwis goodbye at the Pompeii Scavi stop, advising them not to miss the frescoes in Villa dei Misteri, and stayed on until the end of the line: Sorrento.
I shuffled along with everyone else down the platform stairs—the last line I’d have to stand in for the trip, hopefully—and muscled myself and my bag through the turnstile. I jounced the bag along narrow, red-cobblestoned sidewalks to the eastern edge of town and a small pile of dusty pink cubes clinging to the cliff's edge 200 feet above a little swimming pier. The black paint of the sign at the top of the main building's walls was flaking so badly it was almost impossible to make out the words "Albergo Loreley," the full name continued on the next building "et Londres."
I dropped my bag in room 15—hideous pea-green modular furnishings, no TV, A/C, or phone, but drop-dead views—and, while the light was still good, snapped a few pics of the room and its bougainvillea-lined balcony with the panorama of the sea and busy Marina Piccola port below. Stuffing the camera into my waist bag, I quickly soaped my hands and face to wipe away the grime of the road and weariness of a sleepless night, and headed right out the door again before the bed could tempt me to crash.
As I turned the simple skeleton key twice round in the lock, a smile spread across my face. Somehow, that did it. Sliding the deadbolt into place on the first of dozens of new hotel rooms that would crop up every night, that slid me into the groove. I was back. Back on the road and back on the job. Pocketing the key, I trotted down the stairs, poking my head in the slightly ajar door of room 6 for a peek and some mental notes on the decor, wondering if I'd make it to the curving, bamboo-shaded terrace in time to get an antipasto misto and plate of pasta alla Sorrentina before the chef knocked off for riposo.