South Italy Tour 2011 Buttons

South Italy Tour 2011

Day 13 Saturday October 15, 2011
Naples - Rome - Boston - Enfield

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The Hotel Chiaja seemed to be very nice. The room was spacious enough even for Americans. Everything except the stopper in the sink functioned perfectly. The staff was friendly and helpful. I ranked it as the best hotel on the tour; its consistently hot water gave it an edge over the Deluxe Hostel Ulisse in Sorrento. On the whole, IMHO the hotels on this tour were nicer places to stay than some that we had encountered on earlier tours.

Naples seemed backwards in some ways, but the cab service was both reasonably priced and quite reliable. You could negotiate fares in the usual manner, but they also allowed you to purchase a voucher at the hotel at a fixed price. The hotel called the taxi, and you just presented the driver with the voucher. Our cost for the ride to the airport was only €11.

The people ahead of us in line. If you look carefully, you can see the ones on the right who are close to the front.

Our flight from Naples to Rome was scheduled to leave at 7 a.m. Sue had arranged to share a cab to the airport with Debbie Radcliffe, whose departure for Milan was scheduled for 7:20. We agreed to leave the hotel about 4:30. The man at the desk called a taxi for us, and by the time that we made it to the street, it had arrived. I walked down the stairs with my luggage. Sue and Debbie took theirs down the escalator, which apparently could, in fact, be used by people only with twenty-first-century coinage.

The ride to the airport was almost spooky. The streets were dark and empty. The driver tried to make conversation with us. He told us about his cousin in Astoria, Queens. Sensing that his English might not up to a detailed pre-dawn geography lesson, Sue pretended that we were from New York as well. After a stress-free ride of approximately fifteen minutes, we arrived at Naples’ modern airport.

Debbie and a few other suckers were behind us.

It was silly to abandon a perfectly comfortable bed in order to arrive so early, but plenty of people were there before we were. The rule of thumb in the early hours – at least as far as Alitalia is concerned – should be this: Do not get in line. At first there was one very long line in front of one unattended desk. One by one other lines for various destinations opened up with clerks who showed little concern for the hapless mass of humanity trying to reach Rome. Then extra lines for Rome began to form. People migrated to them. The original line more or less deteriorated into a scrum.

The desk numbers on the big board were fictitious.

After a few mid-course corrections we reached the head of one of the check-in lines. Most people in front of us had required ten or more minutes to check in for their flight. It took Sue and me no more than thirty seconds. I never did figure out why what was so difficult for everyone else seemed so easy for us.

We were unprepared for the scrum.

Then we had to wait in line for security. A well-dressed Italian couple evidently felt that it was their right to jump the line. I made another brutta figura and cut them off with the arm move that I learned from Mark Ascoli in Capri. I let Sue go in front of me while I shielded them.[1]

I set off the metal detector even though I had no metal on me at all. Italian security had a machine that TSA has not yet discovered: a shoe analyzer. I give the lobbyists six months before the U.S. government purchases them for every airport.

On the other hand, I was not required to extract my computer from the backpack, and no one asked me to remove my Merrells. Furthermore, there was none of that nonsense about using transparent quart bags for liquids and gels.

We took the bus to the plane; our luggage rode in the cart.

The flight to Rome left a little late. Sue and I did not care at all; we knew that we were facing a few hours of layover time anyway. The plane first flew over mountains, then it headed out to sea, then came back onto the land. If you just looked at a map, you would not expect any of this. Air traffic control must have asked the captain to zig-zag. Or maybe someone put a little grappa in his espresso that morning.

Gate G-12.

We landed in the area of Fiumicino dedicated to domestic flights and then undertook the epic journey to gate G12. It started with a surprisingly long hike to the tram. Sue stopped along the way to get some cheese and who knows what else at the Duty Free Store.

Italian passport control unquestioningly stamped our books. So, we could prove that we had left Italy, but there was no evidence as to when, where, or how we arrived there because the agent had just waved us through when we arrived seventeen days earlier.

Sue tried to find the VAT refund place, which was supposed to be right next to our gate. She went to where they told her it was, but there was no sign of it. The people at the Alitalia desk then told her that it was downstairs, but she never did locate it.

Sue found a precious chair in the gate area.

I went to the Autogrill that was near the gate to get some breakfast. Sue joined me before I could reach the front of the line. I picked up a dolcebosco, which was by far the worst pastry that I had sampled on the entire trip, and a cappuccino. Sue had a sfogliatella, which she liked, a cappuccino, and a bottle of water. All of this set us back €9.60. I forgot to get the water when I paid for it, but Sue got it later.

I saw a bird flying around in the G terminal area. No one paid it any attention.

This was the jetway to our plane.

There were, as always seemed to be the case in Europe, too few places to sit at the gate. Most people in our gate area were standing. At least an hour still remained before boarding started, so I sat on the floor and worked on the computer.

We had plenty of time, but I was as tense as I always am in airports. When the boarding time was still ten or fifteen minutes in the future, people were walking so close to where I was sitting that I grew testy. I arose, gathered up my stuff, and discovered that Sue had found a seat by the window. Shortly thereafter a lot of people got up and joined the restless herd. I took a seat.

When we finally boarded, the agents pretended to board by row number, but in actuality it was a free-for-all. The Alitalia people, however, were very friendly. First they registered the boarding passes, then they checked the passports. The lady who checked ours asked Sue if she spoke Italian. It must have been because of her name.

Benino will miss Italy.

OMG, where was Benino? For a while we feared that he had decided to stay in Italy or had been bunnynapped by Judy or Pina. Sue frantically searched through all of her bags several times. Finally she found him hiding in her wallet. He might have been embarrassed that he did not have any money to chip in for the cab ride.

Our seats were 28J and 28K, a window and aisle on the right side. I sat by the window and positioned my blue foam pillow around my neck.

The captain announced that we were “ready to roll” at 11:05. However there was a thirty-minute delay because of air traffic control. Both Sue and I fell asleep in the interim even though it was uncomfortably warm on the plane.

The brown hair on the lower left belongs to the bridge player.

Finally the engines fired up at about 11:45, and our plane got in line for takeoff. I half expected the captain to zip across the infield to cut off the unsuspecting planes from inferior foreign airlines, but even Alitalia’s pilot training program must emphasize the importance of staying in line. I wonder how long it takes to overcome the innate Italian tendency to avoid queuing. They must need to import instructors from other countries.

I loved the safety video that Alitalia used. The characters appeared realistically human, but when they moved, they sometimes looked like cardboard cutouts and sometimes like very stiff cartoon characters. Meanwhile, in a portion of the screen a lady in the Alitalia green blazer followed along with the narrative using sign language. Instructions were given first in Italian, then in English. “Cabin” was pronounce KAY bin. There were two very interesting Italianisms in the English version: “In case of ditching, ...” and “The crew is perfectly trained to assist you in every situation.” It surprised me that companies often published translations without asking a native speaker to read over the work. No American or Englishman would have approved either of those sentences.

On all of our flights Alitalia insisted on the blinds being down when the plane was in the air and up when it landed. I have never flown on any other airline that was so obsessed with the plasic shades. At least the airline now allows CD, DVD, and MP3 players, which they mysteriously banned in 2003.

Benino at Castel Nuovo with sword and shield.

The crew distributed lunches.

The crew served a full lunch and, a few hours later, a snack.[2] The lunch started with red wine and Salatini (which turned out to be little crackers) mix. Sue had orange juice instead of wine. We both selected the “meat,” which turned out to be a beef “stew.” It was beef with sauce, rice, and mixed vegetables – mostly corn and peas. The result was better than it sounds. There was also the usual do-it-yourself sandwich of a roll, salami, and cheese as well as a package of crackers and a separate package of cookies that were flavored with carrots (!), oranges, and almonds. I had another glass of wine with the meal; Sue selected beer.

Sue borrowed my camera and spent a good bit of the flight posing Benino in front of postcards that she had purchased. She used some of the Salatini as his accoutrements.

The initial presentation of the MEAT wasn’t the most elegant, ...

... but it tasted pretty good.

After lunch Sue tried to get some sleep. I worked on the journal for a while. Then I broke out my iPod and Bose headphones and listened to the Neapolitan songs by Roberto Murolo that I purchased in Milan in 2005. This relaxing music made me very sleepy, and I yielded to Orpheus.

After I woke up I listened to Murolo’s “Reginella” again. Then I disturbed Sue in order to use the bathroom. I stood waiting for a minute or two for the one that was only a few rows behind us. The Occupied sign was about half lit. A lady came out of the one across the way. No one went in, so I crossed to the other side as I had done on the first flight seventeen days earlier. This time, however, I did not seem to disturb anyone very much. None of them had their legs extended.

When I got back to my seat, I listened to La Boheme with Victoria de Los Angeles and Jussi Bjorling. This was a truly great recording, even though it was in mono, and it never failed to improve my mood. I went back to work on the journal.

This couple certainly enjoyed their game.

Across the aisle from Sue a couple was engaged in a game of gin rummy. I had played the game with my dad a few times before his vision deteriorated, but he considered remembering the cards to be impossible, so he was not much competition.

The woman sitting directly in front of Sue was reading the latest edition of The Bridge Bulletin. I later had a chance to ask her if she was a bridge player. She said that she was from Vermont, and she played in a club there once a week or so. I told her that I would be attending the regional tournament in Danbury the next weekend.

There was a show on the overhead televisions about opera. I glanced in that direction occasionally, but I did not use the headset that they gave us. It did not seem very interesting.

I listened to Callas and Di Stefano in Cavalleria Rusticana. What a performance! I also have the Pavarotti version of this short opera. Big Luciano is great, but Callas is just astounding. Her singing never failed to curl my toes.

The snack.

They served the snack at one o'clock Boston time. It consisted of a small calzone filled with ricotta, cookies, and red wine. Sue had coffee and orange juice in lieu of wine.

We had to fill out the stupid landing cards that the U.S. government required. Our plane set down at Logan a little before 2:30.

Our first view of cloud-covered Boston.

The lines at passport control were shorter than we had previously experienced. The procedures for entering the United States were still absurdly elaborate compared to what other countries require, but at least they appeared to be getting a little more reasonable. I finished before Sue, and for some reason they did not let me wait for her. Then they made me and several others who were waiting for their traveling companions go down the escalator and then move about ten feet across a blue line that was drawn or taped on the floor. I had no idea what they might have been afraid of, but two people seemed to have no other responsibility than moving people to the other side of the blue line.

No other country requires anything likes this.

Sue called Mo and Carol on her cell phone while I waited for the luggage. Our bags were almost the last to arrive at baggage claim. Mine came before Sue’s. Thank goodness her bag finally showed up. She is uncomfortable with the concept of checking one’s bag.

Customs was surprisingly easy. We both made it through quite quickly. No one from the Department of Agriculture asked us about our trip.

We strolled out of security into the main terminal. We scanned the sea of faces looking for Mo and Carol. Sue waved at someone whom we did not know. Carol spotted us before we noticed them. Carol called Sue on her waving to strangers. It would have embarrassed me, but Sue just laughed about it.

Mo reported that it had rained almost every day since we had last seen them. I guess that we should not complain too much about the couple of sprinkles that we had encountered in Italy. 2011 turned out to be the wettest year in recorded history in New England. The Hartford airport reported a little less than seventy inches of precipitation.

Mo and Carol had thoughtfully brought both Sue’s Subaru, which had been parked at their house in Quincy, and Mo’s Jeep to the airport. I paid for our short-term parking at a machine inside the airport. Then we walked out to our car and followed the Jeep out of the parking lot to the Mass Pike.

We stopped at the first rest area on the Pike. I went to the bathroom and purchased a large Diet Coke at McDonald’s. Sue called Patti on her cell phone. She was still in the hospital, but she expected to be released in a few hours. The call got dropped in the middle. Tom called back a few minutes later, and we arranged to visit them at their house on Sunday.

We were shocked that there was virtually no color visible on the trees on the roadsides of the Mass Pike. The middle of October was pretty close to the usual peak for leaf-peeping, but half the trees were bare, and most of the rest were still green.

Our custom on these trips had been to try to offset the effects of an extended healthy diet of fresh food as quickly as possible. We always picked up takeout chicken from KFC for our first supper. Since the franchise in Enfield had closed within the last year, we had to drive to East Windsor, the town immediately south of Enfield. I went inside to make our purchase of a ten-piece feast. I had to stand in line behind a really obnoxious couple. She was quite pregnant. While we waited to order, he spent the time loudly talking to someone on his cell phone about making bets on football games.

The KFC in East Windsor serves burritos.

When they reached the front of the line, they asked about ten questions of the minimum-wage employee at the cash register. Then they ordered a twelve-piece family meal plus three extra orders of macaroni and cheese. I knew what I wanted: mashed potatoes and gravy, cole slaw, and sweet corn as contorni for the extra crispy chicken.

Benino riding a star for an overhead view of Marina Grande in Capri.

We drove back to Enfield, and as we were parking the car we saw Giacomo lounging under the big maple tree. He let me pet him, but he definitely was taken aback by my approach. Soon thereafter I spotted Franklin. This was a great relief. No trip was considered complete until both cats had been sighted.

I set up my meal on the TV tray and turned on the set. Godfrey Daniel! My Wolverines had lost to State by two touchdowns. Let’s go back to Italy.


The one thing that this tour lacked was intimate contact with Italians. Maybe if the lady who owned the hotel in Matera had been there, she would have provided this personal touch. If I ruled the world, I would replace the stay in Positano with two nights at an agriturismo in Calabria that was run by someone with loose connections to La'ndrangheta[3]. That, plus the strong Calabrian food, might provide the spice that the tour seemed a little short on.

It was difficult for me to pass judgment on this vacation. Both Sue and I had strong misgivings about it before we even signed up. During our stay in Italy we met some nice people, saw some amazing things, learned quite a bit, and enjoyed some tasty meals. However, the life lessons and the worry about our traveling companions dwarfed these things in our thoughts and feelings. The events of the tour seemed trivial in retrospect.

Patti and Tom cleaning the mud off of their shoes after the truffle hunt near Montone.

Patti Corcoran died on December 13, 2011. This was therefore the last trip for a foursome that had remained friends and boon companions for thirty-nine years. This fact was very hard for Sue, who had known Patti even longer than Tom and I had, and we had met her in 1972 when Tom and I started working at the Hartford Life Insurance Company.

Sue and I had a great time on our first “back door” trip in 2003, the Best of Italy tour. It seemed incredible to us that we had been able to cram such a wealth of experiences into such a short period of time, and we could likewise not believe that we had found such a wonderful group to travel with. We could not wait to share our pictures and our stories with the Corcorans, who lived about twenty-seven miles south of us. Evidently we piqued their interest because they suggested shortly thereafter – or maybe we suggested – that we try a Rick Steves tour as a foursome.

The last night on the tour brought all of us together, but it was something extra special for the Corcorans.

In 2005 we signed up for the Village Italy tour. We all arrived a few days early so that Sue and I could show the Corcorans what we knew of Venice. For Patti it was literally love at first sight. She was totally breathless when we got our first view of the Grand Canal.

We all had a great time on that tour. We never laughed so hard as we did during the introductions of the buddies. The crowning moment of the tour was the afterglow party following the final supper in Levanto. I doubt that any of us had been so happy since we reluctantly forsook plaid bell-bottoms and the Doobie Brothers in the seventies.

At Patti’s first meal in Poland she sat between Tom and our Slovene driver, Bojan.

Two years later we all signed up for the Eastern (really central) Europe Tour. One of the primary motivations was for Patti, whose maiden name was Lewonczyk, to be able to visit Poland, the land of her ancestors. For the same reason Sue wanted to see the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

This tour was not the rolling party that we had so enjoyed in 2005. Dealing with so many languages, so many different types of people, and so many currencies was not easy for any of us. On the other hand, it was extremely educational, and we saw some truly stunning sights.

The most amazing part of this journey was the side trip that Sue and Patti engineered. While the rest of us in the tour group enjoyed a leisurely lunch in Levoča, Slovakia, and the bus ride through the hilly and forested lands culminating in Eger, Hungary, Sue and Patti hired a cab driver (who spoke no English) to take them to visit the town of Slanec, Slovakia, and the eponymous castle. They then caught a train and met up with the rest of us in Eger. Sue reported that they almost got on the wrong train, which would have delivered them to the Ukraine!

Patti and Sue in Wawel Castle.

The world will probably never know what Lucy and Ethel actually did in Slovakia. Sue told a pretty convincing tale, but all Patti would say about their adventures was that whatever Sue said happened, that was what happened.

Patti rescued me from a bit of idiocy on this trip. I was not watching where I was walking during our delightful lunch break at a farm in Croatia. I twisted my ankle. I was astounded to learn that Patti had brought an ankle bandage with her – just in case – and she allowed me to use it. It no doubt enabled me to get through the hiking required on the next day in Plitvice National Park, which for me was the highlight of the entire trip. I wondered whether, if I had broken my leg, she would have been able to fashion a cast for it. I would not put it past her.

Once again the companions and the tour guide, who helped the ladies with the logistics for their adventure, were just terrific. We resolved to do it again.

They would always have Paris.

In 2009 we signed up for the Paris and the South of France tour. Patti fulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting Paris, and Tom fulfilled his dream of not having to listen to Patti nagging him to take her to Paris. This time the Corcorans arrived earlier than we did, and they did a fantastic job of taking advantage of what the City of Lights had to offer. On our final day before the tour began, the four of us took a day trip out to Versailles and were knocked out by the beauty and sheer opulence of Louix XIV’s chalet and its grounds.

Patti and Sue in Arles.

Patti loved Paris. If it were up to her, we probably would have stayed in Paris and let the rest of the group motor down to the south of France. If we had done that, however, we would have missed out on cassoulet and the Pont du Garde. This was also the trip on which Sue and Patti accidentally invented the (relatively easy) game of six-dice Yahtzee.

The next year we tried something different. We signed up for the river cruise offered by Viking between St. Petersburg and Moscow. The pace was much slower, and the camaraderie of a Rick Steves tour was absent. Nevertheless, we were very lucky in our selection of a local guide for the St. Petersburg days. We all had a very good time there.

For Sue and Patti the highlight of the tour was getting to try on the traditional costumes in Uglich. They were both beaming as the photos were snapped. As I looked at those classic shots I could not help but think that Patti might have been imagining herself as the fourth false Dimitri coming to reclaim all of Russia for Poland. God only knows what role Sue would be playing in this fantasy.

Patti was the only one with a program at the ballet in St. Petersburg.

The Russian trip ended badly. Nearly everyone on the ship had a cough as we left the horrendous smog of Moscow behind at the end of the tour. However, Patti’s persisted, and not long after that she got the bad news from her doctor.

This is my favorite photo of Sue and Patti. It embodies the 'Lucy and Ethel' approach to touring that they embraced.

Nevertheless, Patti wanted to return to Italy. We signed up for the South of Italy tour mostly so that Patti could see Rome and so that I could do my pope thing for a few days. She gave it her best shot, and she did get to see St. Peter’s and the Catacombs, but the tour itself was never really in the cards.

The four of us at the Captain’s Dinner on the Surkov.

I will definitely miss traveling with Patti. The four of us had some truly great times together, and almost no bad ones. Sue put on a brave face, but she was a fish out of water without Patti on this tour. I doubt that we will ever be able to recapture the magic of our splendid adventures.

The task ahead is to figure out how to concoct some new magic.

[1]  I later saw them strolling around the airport in a carefree manner.

[2]  Italians have traditionally engaged in a formal afternoon snack called la merenda.

[3]  Calabria has its own mafia, and it is fearsome.