Monday, January 30, 2012

My First Cruise

It was a long time ago but the details remain fresh in my mind. I was on the loose and feeling a little sorry for myself. Then I saw a flyer posted in a travel agent's office window in the small town where I was living. The flyer looked somewhat homemade, not slick like the usual ones picturing luxury grand salons with impressive staircases and elegantly dressed couples sipping champagne. On the other hand the price was right and it wasn’t going to be too much of an effort to get to San Diego where the one week voyage to Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, and La Paz was to set sail.

What did I know about cruising? Absolutely nothing other than it seemed a pleasant way to get some sun and a change of scene. Packing my new bikini and my 9-year old daughter off to the airport we headed for San Diego and down to the pier where the Good Ship Lollipop (otherwise known as the Orpheus) was awaiting us. 

Orpheus was the Greek god who was able to charm the trees and animals when he played his lyre. But the ship should have been named Dionysus after the god of wine because it soon became apparent that a large proportion of the passengers were AA dropouts. They drank and they drank and then they drank even more. I watched them fall off the bar stools, stagger dangerously near the swimming pool and fight on the dance floor. After shore excursions they had to be dragged into the tender and then heaved into the cargo bay by the crew because they were unable to navigate the gangplank.

My daughter was goggle-eyed watching the unintentional lesson in "adult" behavior while she feasted on lobster and Baked Alaska, treats she wasn't likely to see again any time soon. Meanwhile, I received frequent invitations to attend a “real Greek party” after hours, and our handsome cabin attendant regularly stopped by to ask if I “needed something extra.” The lure of my supposed attractions continued when I sensed that someone was following me on the beach in Puerto Vallarta. I turned around to see a tiny man with big muscles and a lot of chest hair. In broken English he explained that he would like to marry me and take me home to his mother in Greece. We had an extended conversation but in the end I declined that offer too and he returned to the engine room alone.

It wasn't just the passengers and crew that provided excitement. The ship ran into a tremendous storm while crossing the Sea of Cortez. Lines were rigged for the green-tinged passengers to grip hand over hand in the passageways. Most of the seasick crew retreated to their cabins. When the storm began to abate I found a deck chair where I could see the horizon through the flying spume. I was soon encrusted with salt from the spray, thus looking like Lot’s wife. But instead of looking back at Sodom I watched our approach to the tiny port of La Paz. We anchored next to a ship that was winching cattle from the shore into the hold for their own cruise back across the Sea. The unhappy animals bellowed strenuously as they swung in the air suspended from ropes tied to their horns and mid-sections. They reminded me of my fellow passengers coming aboard after a too-happy day shoreside.  

The Orpheus eventually left the Epirotiki Lines for a more sober life with Swan Hellenic cruises but it was sent to the breakers in 2000. On the other hand, I’m still cruising.

Monday, January 23, 2012


The narrow road from crowded Amalfi twists and turns while it ascends to Ravello, my idea of heaven on earth. Reaching the town requires effort as it does to reach paradise, in this case not by good works but by skillful driving. Looking down into the deep Valley of the Dragon below me as Glenn navigated the steep and sharp turns I could see tiny flat spaces filled with lemon trees, a small house with smoke rising from the chimney and one or two seemingly inaccessible B&Bs nestled on the vertiginous slopes. It was bitterly cold and windy on our last visit but the sun was shining in the clear blue air when we reached our goal, a town suspended between the sea and sky.

We parked near the new concert hall designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Its jarring design looked to me like a gigantic eye out of character to the surroundings.. We turned away from its hard gaze to enter the mellow and harmonious town center, the Piazza Vescavado. The sunlight fell on the piazza, the 11th Century Duomo, the Moorish-style Villa Rufulo and two bars with tables defiantly set outside despite the temperature. We joined determined sippers nursing their cappuccini while keeping hunched up against the cold.

The economy of Ravello is based on painted ceramics, limoncello, a famous summer festival where guests can contemplate the infinite blue coastline, sea and sky while enjoying the music, and beautiful luxury hotels to accommodate sybarites. Perfection.

Our goal on this short visit was simply to brighten our memories before we headed off elsewhere for new sights. As usual we started with a visit to the Duomo, one of my favorites because of its beautiful medieval decor. The cathedral, founded in 1086, is graced with mosaics of fantastic animals and the sinuously curling designs typical of the period, often called Cosmati work, after two brothers who popularized the style in medieval Rome. The elaborate layouts consist of strips of small triangles, squares and other shapes made of red porphyry, green serpentine, gold glass and black marble in concentric, intertwined or other geometric motifs set into white marble. The shapes often curve around large disks of colored stone as they move across the surfaces, snake-like. 
On an earthy note, the large free-standing pulpit is supported by six spiral pillars in turn supported by six anatomically correct lions, three females and three males. The females have their tails off to one side, seemingly waiting for their partners. The priest must have had difficulties keeping the parishioners’ attention with this visual competition. The religious iconography escaped us but the quality of the sculpture was superb.

Other religious artifacts attracted our ever-curious eyes: vials of St. Pantaleone’s holy blood which is said to liquefy on July 27th, part of St. Thomas’ finger bone and Santa Barbara’s skull held in a gorgeous reliquary done up in gold and silver. These leftover pieces are a grisly pleasure to behold although the treasures in Ravello cannot hold a candle to those in Baroque Rome where there must be enough to make several new saints if they were all put together.

Our minds full, we turned to the idyllic Villa Rufolo and Villa Cimbrone, the best places to contemplate the beauties of the Amalfi Coast where delight is present in every direction: gardens with sub-tropical vegetation, statuary, fountains, towering cypresses, the sea far below and the sky far above. No wonder so many artists came to the town to paint, write, or think although the reality is that the town was founded in the 5th century as a shelter, inaccessible to the barbarians on the coast.

It is hardly possible to leave without buying a brightly painted plate or bowl. As usual I succumbed to a bowl with brightly painted lemons and a bottle of limoncello. Visions of a long summer lunch played in my mind, an aperitivo of the liqueur served ice-cold, followed by a Caprese with  mozzarella di bufala, and then pasta primavera showing off in the new bowl.

Ah – the delights of Italy.  

Monday, January 16, 2012

Via Etrusca

I have a friend who lives in a small town an hour north of Rome. Her home is on Via Etrusca, a perfect name for visualizing the area’s continuing Etruscan influence even though the Romans had finished them off by the Third Century BC. The town, set high on a cliff, has no tourist attractions but is kept alive by commuters and city dwellers who have restored their former family home for weekend use. The ancient row houses are thought to be between four to six centuries old, the year the buildings were actually erected long forgotten. To ensure that the structures stay in place for at least another half-millennium, the buildings are supported by arches vaulting over the narrow stone-paved streets. 

Late in the evening when there are only glowing embers in the fireplace flickering on the ancient oak beams and the art work resting in niches, and the red wine bottle is emptied to the dregs, the silence is as complete as it must have been when my friend's home was new.

A few lights shine over empty streets, through the arches and the closed shutters of my bedroom. I sleep, dreamless. But early in the morning I awake to the sound of Vespa engines. It's time for workers to get going and for me to open the shutters and let in the day. Instead I drowsily think about all the people who might have lived in this home in times past.


Later, my friend and I walk a few blocks to the small shopping street. If we get going too early the bar owner is still firing up his espresso maker for those dashing to the train station in the valley far below the centro storico perched on its rock. The giornalaio is putting up his rack with the day’s papers blaring out the latest political scandal, while fruit and flower vendors are pulling up their metal shutters and moving their wares outside in the clear light. Life begins anew for commuters hurrying to their jobs in Rome and for us to plan another day of sightseeing in nearby towns like tiny one-street Sovana, Bomarzo with its strange monster sculptures, or Viterbo's papal palace.

Like all small towns in Italy life goes on for the remaining residents. I can peek through open windows and doors to see remodeled kitchens, new televisions and other indications of renewal. By mid-morning a delectable smell of pasta sauce comes from kitchen windows and from unpretentious shops where fresh lasagna is prepared for those who don’t have time or inclination to cook. Shoppers are eyeing flowers, vegetables and fruit carefully arranged in the minuscule shops sandwiched between offices of the various political parties or those of the pompe funebri, undertakers. Artisans are busy making picture frames, mending shoes or painting ceramics. Butcher shops and tintorias, dry cleaners, bustle with business. Women buy knitting supplies in the merceria where thread, hosiery and shoulder pads for the home seamstress are displayed behind the counter.

But despite the liveliness, the unstoppable passage of time is always evident. Large death notices are pasted on walls between fading and tattered posters for the small circuses that had come to town in past years. When summer is over old men, wearing heavy sweaters under their jackets along with scarves and caps, will follow the sun as it passes around the piazza. They are living sundials as they move like dozing cats, smoking and discussing how the hometown soccer team is faring.

But I still have many places to go before I, too, want to doze in the sun.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Visit to James Norman Hall's Home in Tahiti

One of the most pleasant stops on the Island of Tahiti is the home of the author, James Norman Hall. Not far from Papeete the modest wood structure is now a small museum celebrating Hall’s life and his books and movies.

His most famous work is the Bounty Trilogy, comprising the story of the mutiny on the British ship, HMS Bounty, and the aftermath.

The first section, Mutiny on the Bounty, is the story of the ship’s voyage from the West Indies to Tahiti to collect breadfruit seedlings to be planted for slave food and the infamous mutiny led by Fletcher Christian who didn’t want to leave the sybaritic island. He and a few other sailors commandeered the ship and set the captain and the remainder of the sailors adrift.

The second, Men Against the Sea, tells the story of one of the most amazing nautical feats ever undertaken: Captain Bligh’s journey in an open boat – 23-feet long filled with 18 loyal sailors – on a journey of 3600 miles to safety in the Dutch East Indies.

The trilogy is completed with Pitcairn’s Island, recounting the violent life of the mutineers after they settled on Pitcairn Island, a speck in the middle of the Pacific. The mutiny and the story of the mutineers' lives have been retold many times in film: first an Australian effort with Errol Flynn, followed by the American versions starring Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and most recently with Mel Gibson cast as Fletcher Christian, the lead mutineer. (I met one of Christian's descendants on Pitcairn.)

Of Hall’s 12 books Passage to Marseille, Hurricane and Botany Bay were also made into films.

The modest home’s living-dining room has a large bookcase to display the many editions of the writer’s work, each with its colorful book jacket depicting titles in dozens of languages. Movie posters from his films decorate the walls. Another room has mementos of Hall’s service in World War I when he joined the famous Lafayette Escadrille, the American squadron named in honor of France’s champion of American independence. Hall was shot down and spent time as a German prisoner of war. Later he was awarded almost every honor France could bestow including the Legion of Honor and the Croix d'Guerre. 

The home is open to the surrounding gardens filled with torch ginger and other tropical colors. When my husband and I visited we met Hall’s delightful daughter. The elegant old lady, wearing a pink dress, a flower over her right ear and a string of luscious black pearls around her neck, sat by a window overlooking the gardens. She regaled us with stories of her Tahitian childhood and read from the book her father wrote for her and her brother when they were children. She also talked about their fear of invasion during World War II, not without reason as nearby Bora Bora was used by the U.S. as a military supply base. Old naval defense guns still remain on the island resting on the jungled slopes above luxury hotels.

Whatever the fears of the past, the home was a haven, an oasis where it was easy for me to imagine the author using the peaceful surroundings to concentrate on telling us timeless stories.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Tea with Uncle Joe

Well, not exactly tea with a living Josef Stalin. But close enough for me. 

His dacha was not far from Sochi, a city full of new SUVs and hotels but still retaining remnants of the past such as an enormous picture of Lenin done in tile. He was close to the sub-tropical gardens full of strollers. A  nearby MacDonald’s tempted others even though Lenin's gaze was directing them in the opposite direction. Capitalism was hitting hard with preparations for the forthcoming winter Olympics.

The dacha, looking like a modest hotel,1930's style, was set in the nearby wooded foothills of the Caucasus. A circular drive led to the entrance where a fountain once splashed. It was removed on Stalin's orders - the sound might mask an intruder. The building was painted dark green, the same color as the surrounding pine and cypress trees, to make it nearly invisible, another element of paranoia (or realism) present throughout the building and grounds.

The main room was furnished with – Stalin. That is, his effigy was seated behind a desk with a map of the former Soviet Empire as a backdrop. Pipe in hand and dressed in his high-collared uniform he looked a bit stiff with age but all the same pleased. Perhaps he was thinking that his workers' paradise would last forever.

The other notable feature of the room was a large high-sided sofa, said to be configured so that no one could be sure whether Stalin was occupying it or not while American movies were projected for his evening's enjoyment. It was easy to imagine his aides only laughing at the films when he laughed, only watching what he wanted, yes men in perpetual fear for their lives.

A billiard table was set up in an adjacent room. I picked up a cue to picture him playing a game that he never lost. But at the same time I could not help remembering the tragic film, Burnt by the Sun, that so vividly portrays life under his regime when even the most loyal met death.

When he wasn’t running his empire, watching movies or playing billiards, Uncle Joe could swim in an indoor pool with walls decorated with mosaic panels. A worker was filling the small pool as I stepped over the threshold to take a look. A thick hose snaked over the floor. I tripped, stumbled further then caught myself just in time before making a splash. Probably would have been the death penalty when he was still in residence.

Looking at the dictator’s summer residence, no one could accuse Stalin of having lavish tastes even though he can be accused of just about everything else. Did he ever see ghosts wandering through the rooms? Did he ever give a thought to the millions who died in gulags? Probably not.

The dacha is now serving as a hotel, for what clients it wasn’t clear – a creepier place to stay was hard to imagine unless the guests were suffering nostalgia for the days of show trials and interrogation rooms.

It was time for tea after the tour of the living quarters and scruffy gardens. The samovar was bubbling; our hostess poured glasses of tea and sweet champagne and set out tiny canap├ęs on a table near a balcony. The French doors were open to the garden, dense woods and beyond. I sipped as I looked at the Black Sea in the distance, all the while being grateful that I was sharing the experience with a wax dummy instead of the real thing.