The saline mist of the “wine dark” Tyrrhenian Sea splatters over my face mixing with the scent of diesel as I struggle to stand at the back of the rapidly moving vaporetto. The mythic Isle of Capri fades into the distance, the wake of the boat leaving a watery spuming trail of threads and fragments of time and remembrance of things past that bubble, froth and tumble together, up again and again rushing up against the roar of the hydrofoil motors. The spray blurs my vision darkly, refracts the Southern Italian sun to a soft focus dimly illuminating my memory. Two shadowy figures laugh on the starboard side of the ferry as I stand staring back out, trying to keep my balance as my three travel companions slumber inside, weary wedding guests steaming across the choppy Bay of Naples from Capri back to its sister island of Ischia. The sirens, tempting me once again to dash myself on the nearby rocks, are slowly coming into focus, luring me lulling me back to my wanderings – chance encounters, wayward paths, shoals and shipwrecks, secrets and serpents, dalliances and delights, wonderful and terrible creatures – that brought me here to this place, this moment, and this time far, far from home…
The Lotus Eaters
The barbarians had reached the gate at home and the war on terrorism had begun. It was only a few months after the horrible events of 9/11 when my partner, Gary and I decided to journey to Rome – our favorite city in the world after New York. We were again drawn back to the Eternal City for solace, escaping the terrifying trauma of the collapse of the World Trade Towers.
Intrepid travelers, we were coming back in style, our pockets now lined with the new Euro, equal to the dollar in value. No Pensione Suisse (which always smelled of Pine-Sol and Clorox) this time around. We were going to slum it at the new five-star stylish Hotel de Russie, unofficial home to celebrities, dignitaries and government officials. Our room was stark black and white like the cathedral of Siena, chic elegance in an Italian “W Hotel” kind of style. The smartly attired hotel staff looked liked they had stepped off the magazine cover of Italian Vogue. Off the lobby was a “secret garden” (everything in Italy is a secret!) for the post La Dolce Vita crowd to have lunch with a mistress before an afternoon tryst in the suites above. After checking in we went to their very “in” bar where we lethargically sipped on the then ,trendy addictive, Cosmo. Gary had to instruct the bartender on how to concoct the new American cocktail made famous by the gals in “Sex in the City.” After a couple of Cosmos we took an afternoon siesta drifting off into blissful apathy and narcotic like sleep leaving all the cares of home behind.
I woke up first and decided to explore the hotel and descended the stairs to the basement still drugged and feeling invisible to the world. I stumbled down upon a modern Roman grotto like gymnasium and spa. It was cool and quiet except for bad Italian pop rock music playing in the background. All of a sudden there was a grunt and a groan. I peered around a corner to spy a hairy giant of a creature hidden among the steel and wires of the exercise machines. As he got up, he wiped his face with a luxuriant white cotton towel so I could only see half his face, and one red eye strained from his lift. Bang! The metal weight bars clanged down sounding like Vulcan working his smithy and accompanied by an even louder bellow of expended energy as a droplet of his sweat catapulted across the room and landed on my nose. I quickly stepped back into the shadows wiping off the smelly bead as he staggered out of the grotto to plunge into the hot and cold baths in the next area.
Thinking there was no one but me in the gym, I gingerly made my way into the tiny workout area to do a few sets. Designer cologne hung in the humid air as I crept my way around. I stopped. Crouched in the corner, replacing some wayward weights in a rack was a Pan-like fawn of a man looking up into my eyes. I froze like Perseus shielding himself not from Medusa’s horrible visage but from the bright sun of Apollo. The wonderful creature looked up at me and smiled. I held my breath as I stuttered, “Buona sera, my name is T-T-Tony.” It’s eyes caught mine. “Piacere Tony, my name is Danilo; I’m the trainer here at the hotel.” As he stooped over tidying up the machines he reminded me of the famous Greek statue of the discus thrower, lithe, tight and graceful, sprung to toss the disc across the sky. Everything in its place, the dazzling creature jumped up, dressed in silky blue workout pants, tight, white muscle T and bicycle cap. He noticed I was wearing a NYFD cap and quickly expressed his empathy at the recent events in my home town.
The conversation flowed slowly at first but then cascaded into delightful spurts of broken Italian and English. I was intrigued and allured realizing he was not a god but a mortal like me. He was impressed with my knowledge of the local political scene, art and history and I was impressed by his sincerity, sensitivity, Mediterranean hospitality and of course his physique. Danilo was a quintessential Roman, stylish, savvy, cultured and opinionated. It wasn’t long before I engaged him for a session early the following morning.
I woke up in nervous anticipation and went downstairs early to warm up as instructed by Danilo. He arrived very un-Italian like, promptly at 7am for our session. After a quick assessment of me on the treadmill, he remarked in what great shape I was in – for my age! – Ah the charm of the Italians. We quickly bonded as he put me through my paces advising me how to improve even further when I returned to my NYC trainer. Once again we talked about the horrors of 9/11 and shared our mutual love for both our homes, Rome and New York. Like all Italians and unlike the ungrateful French, he was thankful of all the help the U.S. gave them during the WW II. The hour was up before we knew it and we planned to see each other again the next day. He was an excellent trainer who knew how to motivate his clients, and he was a world class athlete, winning many bicycle races and international triathlons – a true athlete and sports ambassador for Italy. He was also an Iron Man and I soon discovered inveterate Ladies Man!
The next day Gary and I hit Armani’s and helped keep the economy of Italy afloat for that year. We made quick friends with a particular handsome salesman with a “culo” that was the glory of Rome. Sipping espresso brought over by a cute, young waiter from the café next door, he enticed us into trying on elegant shirts, slacks and suits that were just too reasonably priced to pass up; especially since the post-Christmas sales were on and the VAT would be returned at the airport on our way home. Like Marco Polo returning from the Orient we carried our treasures from Armani parading in triumph down the Via Condotti with our newly bought spoils, back to the Hotel de Russie for Cosmos Encore!
The sun was setting as we strolled down the “secret” Via Margutta on our evening passagiatta. Shutters clanged down on little antique and art shops. Well dressed couples, young Romans dressed like stylish American counterparts, promenaded like peacocks in a bishop’s garden. It was near dusk as we entered the great expanse of the Piazza del Popolo. Bambini were running with dripping gelato cones topped with puffs of crema and ignoring a lonesome mime. Lovers walked hand in hand or casual arm around a waist passing an old lady in black, carrying a sack of blood red oranges. Sitting in the shadow of the towering Egyptian obelisk that jutted up into the night sky, a guitarist played for money singing a traditional folk song of unrequited love.
We circled the fountain in the center of the square like a small craft rounding a buoy. Off in the dim distance on the steps of the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, sat a fellow who had once temporarily dashed me on the rocks of swinish instability. I tried to change direction but the circle of curiosity and surprise tightened as I hazardously hovered close enough to exchange a few words. “What a coincidence! What are you doing here? What am I doing here?” But I knew my Homer and had already stopped my ears with wax from the previously perilous shipwreck after hearing the siren’s song and cut short our exchange. Listing a bit too close, I quickly steered us away from the piazza down the Corso, past the Pantheon to the Piazza Navona with its great Bernini Fountain. We dined on Spaghetti Carbonara and drank our fill of Frascati at a hidden osteria behind the Farnese Palace. Afterwards, Gary and I stumbled our way home through the night town of Campo di Fiore where drunken half human/half animal revelers danced around the statue of Giordano Bruno who was burnt alive at the stake for heresy.
On our last day, Danilo invited us for lunch at his friend Daniele’s hotel which was only a few steps from de Russie. The Hotel Valadier was once a convent turned brothel and now a hip boutique hotel that Daniele had lovingly restored. Daniele was the consummate hotelier and extended an invitation to stay there the next time we came to Rome. The hotel’s casual restaurant was in the basement of the convent/brothel/hotel and had a great pizza oven – good pizza, good wine and good conversation at the aptly named Il Brillo Parlante.
Danilo and I were simpatico from the very first hesitant hello at the gym to the last teary eyed ciao salting my Pizza Margarita. We exchanged emails and both swore to keep in touch. At the airport Gary and I collected our VAT refunds and it wasn’t long before we were in the arms of Morpheus as we flew over the Middle Sea across the Atlantic to the New World. Arriving home, we navigated through the Scylla and Charybdis of immigration and customs escaping with impunity with our undeclared booty.
The wake of another ferry going from Ischia to Capri jolts me out of my reverie. I can now see the couple across the beam of the deck, a handsome young Italian, his hand lightly cupping his young, sexy girlfriend’s breast as she tosses back her head as her Lolita sunglasses slides down from her hair. Between us, two Japanese take pictures of a seagull perched on the rail snapping it before it dives in for its supper. The ragazzo secretly stares back and smiles a sly smirk, knowing that I am watching him as he presses tightly against her, both hands now and kisses her deep up against the ropes to keep them both steady. The sirens wander far from the Fragolini Rocks. My ears glow red from the day’s sun, melting wax…
2003 – 2008
The milky way of the tangled internet held us together via email and instant messages. Gary and I returned to Rome the following year taking our entire office on an incentive trip. Danilo, our Virgi, arranged accommodations at Daniele’s hotel. Our first tour was a very Angels and Demons private visit to the subterranean tomb of St. Peter’s buried deep under the main altar of the basilica on the site of Nero’s Circus where Peter was crucified upside down. In one of the dark catacombs, our British red-headed satyr of a guide gave me a pat on my butt and tried to steal a kiss. Fortunately unattractive sirens are easy to fend off – no wax needed. I trained a few times with Danilo at the nearby Hotel de Russie before our early mornings excursions. We quickly caught up, discussing Mussolini and Bush and Danilo telling me of his Casanovian escapades. On final night, he showed up on his Vespa with his latest amante sitting behind him, terribly close. Dolce far niente
In 2004 Danilo met Saulia, an exotic beauty from Near East, Kazakhstan. They had met as his club and it took a year to go from buon giorno to baciame. Looking like a Mongolian princess or consort of Genghis Khan, she threw her spider’s net over the Roman gladiator and ensnared him with a kiss on Valentine’s Day; the vanquished conquering the conqueror.
At last Danilo came to New York City in 2006 with Saulia and their new born son, Alexandro (Danilo is a champion in every department!). We trained together at Reebok Sports Club and toured the town. One evening, I introduced him at a Mexican Restaurant to our NYC trainers to talk shop and compare notes. The margaritas went down very easy and so did Danilo when he had too many drinks. Italians do not have a cocktail culture! Saulia sat silently, not knowing much English, her thoughts weaving in and out, observing and taking care of baby Alexander the Great.
Our office in February, 2007 went back to Italy, this time to Florence. But our final night dinner was in Rome. Danilo, Saulia, and Alexandro joined us. There was an unknown guest in attendance that night, for nine months later Leonardo, their second son was born. After a splendid meal in Trastevere, I wandered back to the hotel alone via Campo di Fiore veering perilously close to the nighttime demons. The following July, Danilo trekked to New York City again to jump into the Hudson, bike to the Bronx and sprint to the finishing line in Central Park. Hail the conquering hero!
In the winter of 2008 Gary and I celebrated our 25th anniversary as happy as any couple in Ithaca. The big bash was celebrated up in the Bronx at Roberto’s, our good friend who owns our favorite restaurant in NYC. The guest of honor was Danilo who flew in from Rome for the weekend festivities. A few months
later, Danilo jumped into the Hudson River after a good night’s sleep at our house sans margaritas and placed fifth in the triathlon!
The sun begins to slant across the sky, I’m squinting now clouded by sea spume staring still silently spying the starboard siren sinews his wet hair slicked slacks clinging to his thighs. Still tracing the path that wound its way here, my three companions inside the cabin, swaying to the to and fro of the roll of the sea . Japanese metamorphosed to Germans in shorts loudly munching on a large bag of chips. Detritus floats by in the sea, maybe the effluence from Atlantis, my past sins surfacing from Father Poseidon’s lair. Gino that is his name I overheard. We are alone; his cumare has gone to the bagno. He smiles. I smile. Strange music plays from speakers. Closer, tension, coiled – wax holds…
Good stories always end in weddings. Danilo and Saulia after years of bureaucratic, byzantine religious, political entanglement were able to be married. Finally the stars aligned up and the nuptials were to be held in April at the magnificent Roman Basilica of Mary of the Angels and Martyrs built inside the frigidarium the Bathes of Diocletian. At the beginning of the 18th century, Pope Clement XI commissioned the astronomer, Francesco Bianchinii to build a meridian line, a sort of sundial, within the basilica to check the accuracy of the Gregorian reformatin of the calendar, to produce a tool to exactly predict Easter, and, to give Rome a meridian line. It was a perfect place for East to be joined to the West.
On a bright sunlit morning, a small group of Danilo’s extended family gathered around the main altar of the church. The sound of the great organ swirled around the baroque putti as a tenor sang Schubert’s Ave Maria. Little Alexander, the ring bearer, led the procession followed by the ever faithful, Saulia dressed in a beautiful gown that Danilo had personally picked out for his bride. The priest gave a lengthy, impassioned sermon in Italian on love and family. Meanwhile little Leonardo cried as his paternal grandfather tried to distract him by lighting matches and a distinguished guest completed a big art deal on her Blackberry; the thick marble walls not being able to withstand the onslaught of the 21th century. Rays of sunlight radiated down from the dome blessing the couple exiting the church as clouds of rice rained down upon them, gaily tossed by the guests, seeds of love.
The wedding feast was held at Di Rienzo, a restaurant owned by Gabriele, a close friend of the couple. It is beautifully sited on the Piazza della Rotonda in the shadow of Emperor Hadrian’s Pantheon. Flocks of birds hovered over the square, searching, swooping down on a tourist’s’ ort. circled It was our turn to be the guests of honor from America as we drank prosecco, grazed on elaborate antipasti and met many of his Danilo’s dear friends at the reception in the ristorante’s private room. Luncheon was held outside under huge umbrellas on the square. Danilo designed a light, health conscious, delicious menu of Roman springtime vegetables, pasta and frutti di mare. It seemed I had returned home for the wedding of my brother, a prodigal returning to Italy after the emigrant exodus of the 1900’s. Danilo had taken special care to seat us with his most interesting and illustrious English-speaking friends: antiquarians, intelligentsia and entertainment personalities. A small sparrow tried to peck at Antonio’s bread, a lawyer sitting next to us, who practiced in the crazy legal system of Italy. I shooed it away as he was revealing horror stories of the Roman courts. We had a great conversation sometimes turning deep and philosophical, the good life. It wasn’t until Gary asked him to write down his mobile number that we realized he was totally blind.
As onlookers on the piazza gathered around, the same tenor from the church serenaded the wedding party to operatic arias and we all cried when he sang: “Con te partirò -Time to Say Goodbye” made famous by the singer, Andrea Bocelli. Danilo dedicated the last song to me, “O Sole Mio” in honor of my Neapolitan heritage. The happy couple cut the wedding cake and Saulia passed out the traditional almond wedding bomboniere as guests began to leave with kisses on both cheeks, and intimate hugs. Tears welled up as I said goodbye to our new friend Antonio as I helped him into a taxi.
Alone now – the siren and the sea – a match struck – Gauloise – flame limning a Roman nose – nostrils flared – haughty expression of contempt or provocation – inhale deep – exhale –- smoke wisps – cerulean sky – ferry lists – Cumae stirs – staggering closer – cerumen melting – closer – Vesuvius – smolders – il sole- closer still – too close – portal opens – the pubescent Sybil in sunglasses returns – ssssss – sea spray – ssssss – mist –ssssss – sea – men – cooling – harding- secrets – soft – safe …
But the festivities were not over since Gary and I were to continue with Danilo and Saulia on their “honeymoon” to island of Ischia. At party’s end, we hopped into the wedding van and off we went to change at their house before rushing off to Stazione Termini to catch the express train to Naples. We arrived in the madness of a Neapolitan holiday rush hour, and kidnapped a wild taxi ride to the dock. We boarded the hydrofoil; pushed and jostled by the crazy Italians who acted like it was the ark before the great flood.
Danilo had arranged our stay on Ischia at Albergo Il Monastero, a hotel that was once a monastery and fortress. It was perched high atop a volcanic rock, a castle in the sky overlooking the sea. We arrived late at night so the gate keeper has to escort us up to the summit on one of those tiny European elevators. We had a drink before going to our monk’s room that had a balcony overlooking the island sea. It was a long day of festival, fun and family. A late night gull swooped down onto its cliff side nest. Sleep.
Friday was May Day, a major holiday in Italy. I guess Danilo was hanging around me too much, the event planner, he reserved an excursion to Capri for the four of us. When we got to the dock to catch the pre-booked ferry, Danilo realized he left our boat tickets back at the castle not a few kilometers away. In a mad dash he flagged down a cab, raced across the fortress causeway, jostled himself to the head of the elevator line to the summit of the rock, retrieved our tickets, and sprinted back to the taxi and coolly arrived almost as the ferry was lifting its planks to depart for Capri – a mini triathlon.
It was a glorious sunny day with teeming crowds of Neapolitans on a Ponte weekend, sipping espresso in the little piazzas, lining up for gelato and shopping at all the “ucci” stores. We explored the island of Emperor Tiberius and today’s rich and famous from bottom to top – “Funiculi Fanicula”. Our long day concluded on the veranda of the Grand Hotel Quisisana , home to the Capri’s jet set. Like F. Scott and Zelda we toasted each other on Cosmos. I think it was Saulia’s first Cosmo, well actually she had two as we did we all except for the health conscious athlete. She had been holding out on us and could hold her liquor unlike her husband! We chit chatted with our fellow upstarts and parvenus and discussed what was the correct temperature to serve a chocolate martini. We talked about how lucky we all were to be here together, sipping cocktails, laughing as the passing onlookers thought were celebrities. Danilo taught me when to use the Italian phrase, Ti Vgolio Bene, “I wish you well” meaning deep affection between friends and family.
We were exhausted by the heat, the crowds, the shopping and the Cosmos as we slowly plopped down on the hydrofoil back home to Ischia. We were aglow with the warmth of the sun and deep affection for each other – Ti Voglio Bene. I never could stand the heat so I got up from our stall and left them inside the boat in their seats. As I looked back I smiled seeing Saulia’s head resting on her beloved Danilo while Gary’s head bobbed up and down trying unsuccessfully to fight off sleep. I went to the back deck for some cool air and a final look at magical, mythical Capri. The droning of the motors and the rocking of the boat lulled me into a state of sweet reverie. A young Italian couple wrangled close by.
That evening, our last at the hotel, we shared a bottle of local wine on the veranda before our final intimate dinner together in the refectory in our aerie in the sky. Saulia wore a white cotton chemise and a lovely turquoise necklace that Danilo had purchased that afternoon. She seemed lit from within, a happy bride, laughing and joking in her new found English attended by her Italian husband and her two dear amusing friends from America. We had a leisurely, lovely dinner and drank another bottle of wine listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles playing in the background. A round of limoncello’s made the perfect aphrodisiac; citrus elixir that lifted you up and gently laid you down to a tranquil sleep.
It was time to retire and end this fantastic journey. Gary and I had to catch an early flight to Rome the next morning so we said our good nights and goodbyes since we would not see the honeymoon couple in the morning. Saulia gave us hugs and kisses. We weren’t sad; we knew there would be more tomorrows. We turned off the lights as we went down the long austere hallway to our rooms; Danilo took Saulia to his bed and Gary and I went to ours.
The linen curtains billowed blithely in from the balcony on a lemon breeze, a gull cooed softly resting on a nest below us, mothering her brood, some ragazzi revved their scooters below on the causeway to impress their girls; two lovers laughed from an open window, a dog barked. Soon we would all be home in Rome and New York City. Time is not measured in distance or distance in time. Ti volgio bene
Yes this is where I belong on a boat sailing back to Ischia Yes there is another siren standing on the other side of the deck Yes a young god Yes I have learned that sirens are everywhere and to be admired from afar Yes you can’t pick your family but you can choose your loved ones Yes my loved ones are back there maybe dreaming of me Yes Gary eyes hidden behind his sunglasses reflecting me as I look back through the portal window Yes Danilo the happy bridegroom, proud father, athlete and soul companion Yes Saulia looking like Cleopatra on her barge regal queen, bride and mother Yes all of us travelling in time and space together as friends and lovers and family Yes wise men, blind men, fools yes sun lowering in the west, Capri behind our Ischia castle fortress rising from the sea church spire circled by a seagull Yes ferry lurches and groans noisily into the dock waking all the sleeping wanderers Yes I am a fortunate pilgrim Yes This is how one gets here from there Yes paths taken over rocks and smooth ways, hidden paths, straight lines, craggy hills, secret gardens with serpents Yes moving Yes loving Yes lucky Yes love is what you find Yes friends are what you make Yes roads not taken take you somewhere Yes maybe here Yes maybe there Yes wandering off the path sometime lost sometimes not Yes always circling home Yes home Yes sirens hidden among the rocks Yes beware Yes Yes home is where you are
Yes Yes Yes
(click to see video)
E mancan le parole
Si lo so che non c’e luce
In una stanza
Quando manca il sole
Se non ci sei tu con me, con me.
Su le finestre
Mostra a tutti il mio cuore
Che hai acceso
Chiudi dentro me
La luce che
Hai incontrato per strada
Time to say goodbye
Paesi che non ho mai
Veduto e vissuto con te
Adesso si li vivro.
Con te partiro
Su navi per mari
Che io lo so
No no non esistono piu
Its time to say goodbye.
Q uando sei lontana
E mancan le parole
E io si lo so
Che sei con me con me
Tu mia luna tu sei qui con me
Mio sole tu sei qui con me
Con me con me con me
When I’m alone
I dream on the horizon
And words fail;
Yes, I know there is no light
In a room
Where the sun is not there
If you are not with me.
At the windows
Show everyone my heart
Which you set alight;
Enclose within me
The light you
Encountered on the street.
Time to say goodbye,
To countries I never
Saw ad shared with you,
Now, yes, I shall experience them,
I’ll go with you
On ships across seas
Which, I know,
No, no, exist no longer;It’s time to say goobye.
When you are far away
I dream on the horizon
And words fail,
And yes, I know
That you are with me;
You, my moon, are here with me,
My sun, you are here with me.
With me, with me, with me