Published in Carbon 14 N°10, Spring 1997

Paradise is on the other side of hell, they say. Well, french and italian trains aren't quite hellish, unless you count as devils the scuzzy punks selling bootleg cigarettes on the Roma-Napoli run, dodging luggage, signorinas and conductors. Having time to stop at Napoli Centrale train station only for a taste of real coffee (forget mocha-java-kona-blue-mountain-super-special-espresso-roast-sacred-columbian-cocaine-cut-Starbucks-bullshit!!!! I'm talking real caffein champagne, concentrated in a ¼-inch thick layer of foamy sweet and tart Napoli crude, Espresso Machiato,virtually pumped-out of the deep, fragrant soil of Campania!), we find ourselves on the Circumvesuviana suburban speed-line on the way to Sorrento, on the southern tip of the Gulf of Naples. Now, Circumvesuviana (around Vesuvius) speed-line to Sorrento does sound a bit more exotic, even romantic, than New Jersey Transit to Perth Amboy, but , in both cases you have to go through Newark and Elizabeth to get there. And then, Perth Amboy sure ain't no Paradise looking out on the island of Capri, even though I'm sure there are rabid New York types who look to Staten Island as the Capri of the eastern seaboard!!!

An alley near Via Nocera! So, in our story, Newark is called Castellammare del Terme and parts of it look like a rerun of Newark-'67 or South-Central '92, except here it's WWII american bombings that did it and they haven't gotten round to rebuilding yet! (Come to think of it, Newark '67 and S-C '92 could also be considered a form of american bombing. And I don't believe rebuilding was too swift either...)

On the train, we find sexy young girls in deep conversation about philosOn the train, we find sexy young girls in deep conversation about philosophical school-work, middle-aged signoras lost in thoughts of what might have been, rough Camora-types eyeing our luggage and junkies on the nod, tossicodependenti in the vernacular, traipsing in and out of the train cars between Via Nocera and Castellammare della Stabbia, on their way to decrepit hovels catching the lemon-scented breeze in square miles of drying laundry sails, pushing the ship-city into the mediterranean sunset. XVIth century palaces deep into late XXth century decadence alternate with huge naval shipyards and.... the first marches of heaven, lemon groves and olive trees-speckled valleys, reaching over our heads and chuggling suburban train, into the emerald bay below.


After another espresso at the train station, our man Silvio shows up in his '96 Benz and takes us on a tour on this magnificent town. Actually, it's down to the sea in Benz and Fish ahoy for we hunger greatly after this mother of all treks: 15 hours from Paris to Roma, 2 more to get to Napoli and a last catatonic one to Paradise. And here we are, so give me the food of the Gods and Tiberius: pesci e fruti della mare. Americans, depending on their culture and upbringing, think of seafood as either Mrs.Paul fish sticks or broiled fillet of bluefish with paprika sprinkled on top. Period. And if cinnamon worked with fish, it'd be there too! Then again, with Coca Cola to wash it all down, why not!?! In all fairness, it must be said that cheap airfares and eurail passes have done wonders to enlighten americans to the existence of culinary delights beyond Mc Donald's, chicken a la king and pork roll! So, should I assume that a platter of shellfish swimming in butter, white wine, garlic and then more garlic will get you to salivate? Is it preposterous for me to assume that you have been sufficiently weaned of the Bambi syndrome to marvel in orgasmic delight at the Oh so freshly netted fish, complete with head and tail fin, lovingly grilled for you by our host, Gennaro. And this is where I first encountered Limoncello, an intoxicating concoction made of lemon peels marinated in grain alcohol and sugar, served frozen in frosted glasses, no doubt an ancient ritual!. Encouraged by Silvio, the bottle was left on the table, bonding me to no end with Mediterranean arcana. I first met Silvio at the Circumvesuviana terminal. Sexy Doctor Zoe is the connection here. I had met Zoe in Philadelphia three years ago, had been instantly smitten and mesmerized, only to see her fade away and disappear in a haze of uncertainty and hospital pressures. Then, out of the Atlantic blue, there she reappeared, rekindling the somnolent flame and whisking me off to Italy!

Capri from San Agata, Massa Lubrense Silvio fixed us up in an unheated, cold water, clean apartment, nestled amidst the olive and lemon groves, overlooking Capri and the Golfo di Napoli. A more stunningly beautiful sight is difficult to imagine! So, as we retire for the night in each other's arms, the island of Capri twinkles in Sorrento's embrace as I think of Caruso serenading our dreams as he once did all these years ago from his waterfront balcony. No crickets this time of year, only a few dogs barking to the hills' ancestral memories, memories of Napoli and Vesuvius, memories of Tiberius and Pompei!

The next morning, the hills are swathed in low-lying clouds, fog banks rising from the sea, hiding the island, and drifting down through the valley and its lemon orchards. Wooden mesh and nettings shelter and emprison citrus trees and olive branches, as if to save them from the eldritch mist and the swirling wind, fearing they would shake their frosty limbs, spring from their ancient rootings and, stepping onto the bridge of clouds, disappear toward Capri and the mysteries beyond the mist.

Sreet and colonnade!!
Then it’s capuccino, cornetti and off to Pompei!
Pompei street!!

The forum and Vesuvio!!

Now, you all know about Pompei: a rich roman city buried under 25 feet of ashes (no lava!) in 79AD, under Titus, courtesy of our pal Vesuvius. Not the Pompeians’ pal, of course, but ours for sure, for had Vesuvius decided not to belch that August afternoon and, in the process, preserve for us all these marvels, they’d be escavating today for an industrial site and a shopping mall where the gladiators used to train, the brothels thrived and the rich merchant Vettii brothers entertained their customers with food, wine and ho’s!

The gladiators training field!!

It is in one of the Vettii’s dining rooms, where magnificent frescoes still showed vivid colors (« Now we know where Versace got his design ideas », quipped Zoe Ann!) that we got to witness an example of why the term ‘american’ always goes with ‘ugly’ and why that breed is properly despised throughout the world!
Here we were in one of the most inspiring site in all of Europe, an ancient parenthesis reopened after twenty centuries for our wonderment and awe, by one of nature’s cataclysmic event, and it was here, round the Vettii’s More columns and capitals!! exquisite fountains and atrium that Joey Schmo, fiftyish, perfectly styling in his baseball cap, Vegas Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt, beer gut and Thai mail-order bought bride (looking very conveniently docile), exclaimed in a loud voice, in the face of the refined and ever so courteous italian guide, who’d been trying hard to Same place, different angle!!convey a sense of appreciation to the 25 or so Yanquis on the hoof that made up our Joey’s Perullo tour group, it was there that he EXCLAIMED: « Yeah, right, but compared to the 2000 year old stuff we saw in Turkey yesterday, this looks like shit! ».


The vestal returns!!Now, we’ll never know what he saw the day before, wether the ruins of Troy, the Blue Mosque, a private audience in the Sublime Porte or a new McDonald’s in Ankara, but I cringed in shame and loathing, Zoe and I wondering if we should apologize to the guide, or grab Joey, shit in his mouth and call it a Big Mac, or sodomize him with the priapic statue in the next room! But shame and loathing shut us up, Pompei with Mount  Vesuvius watching in the distance!! I smiled meekly to the silenced guide, closed my eyes and prayed to the Vettii’s domestic Laris for this mutant extravaganza, this Darwinian impossibility to just disappear!

And you know what?
It worked: within moments, Joey and his touring metastases radiated out, and we were left in the quiet of ages past, listening to learned explanations from an erudite guard who had taken a liking to us, thrilled to find in Zoe a beautiful american with machine-gun italian, who respected him, his world and the greatness whence he sprang!

Columns and capitals! A Pompei Vestal !On the next day, our last day in Campania, Don Silvio took us on the other side of the Termini peninsula, to Marina del Cantone on the Golfo di Salerno, for one last feast of epicurean indulgence, another well lubricated (homemade white wine!) seafood adventure!
Our destination was Lo Scoglio, a restaurant famous with the jet-set and the millionaires haunting Capri in the summertime. But this was November and, had Don Silvio not said the right things where it mattered, Lo Scoglio would have remained closed to public business.

Lunching at Lo Scoglio!! Only the three of us and two other privileged signori shared the culinary magic of this unique place. The dining room is on an old wooden jetty, reaching into the deep blue and phosphorescent green waters of a small bay. On either side, chiseled volcanic crags watch over a medieval fortified village, a sprinkling of villas and our present den of delights. Carbon 14 not being a food guide I’ll pass on the stunning seafood antipasti and the grilled local swimmies to quickly mention the deep-violet after dinner drink, a home made concoction of wild blueberries (mirtillo). Peppino (the owner) and his family sat a few tables away from us and picked the wild mirtillos off branches cut that morning in the surrounding hillsides. The very psychedelic finished product certainly managed to put me in that proverbial place where everything becomes electric and invisible, and where you find yourself in the car, wisecracking with the driver, while having no memories of ever leaving the table.

So, it was in a certain nonchalant mood that we retraced our steps to Sorrento, the Circumvesuviana, Napoli and ultimately, Roma. But I think I’ve greatly overstayed my editorial welcome, so I’ll threaten Larry with Don Silvio’s wrath lest he overcuts this and I’ll bid you Ciao!!

All Photographs Copyrighted © Michel Polizzi 1997-1998

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