TROPEA—My gratitude was tender, softer still when he was gone. He was only the second man in three weeks to offer me any assistance with my luggage, and in this case it saved the proverbial day. The transfer in Rosarno was to be a close one, a log-jumper. There were two trains already idling in the station when mine pulled in. I hurled my suitcase down and then up a steep flight of stairs to get to the main station and find out which of those rattletraps was taking me to paradise.
Platform six. The station attendants leaning against the wall surveyed the spectacle of my battle to raise Cain up the stairs of the termia and the inevitable bobble back down with equal sanguinity. The underground hall of platforms wasn’t numbered, forcing me to gauge platform six at a glance. I made the wrong guess, and atop that traitor, platform five, I saw the conductor on six making the telltale sign of imminent departure: the toss of his cigarette. If I missed this train I wouldn’t make into Tropea until late that night, so I resorted to waving the “hold on” wave of the misbegotten, as my case and I bounce-passed each other down the stairs. That’s when I saw one of the men from the hirsute firing line at the station round a corner and motion shyly to my bag. I said “Binario sei … Alla Tropea”, thanking him profusely. He said nothing but took my bag, which was still an overfed albatross despite shedding a bulky sheet and 10 small boxes of pasta, gave it a piggyback to the platform and then right up the train stairs and onto my feet, where it belonged.
It was a great relief. It usually is when you can avoid one of traveling’s banal happenstance. As I settled in, pawing at an armrest and holding my bag plumb between my calves, my gratitude fell off the bone, and I warmed further thinking of how good I’ve been. I had prepared tonight’s dinner on the stove in Reggio — ah, happy stove, where I lit the gas range every night with increasing flair, or at least decreasing fanfare — and bought my fruit; getting a hotel was my only task. Having discovered this tremendous comfort in providence, I had even packed myself a utensil. At that moment I turned to spot my bellboy scrambling onto platform seven. It was the last platform, completely shielded from the rest of the station by the train I had boarded. He positioned himself just outside my window, seeming to have something of great urgency on his mind. I knew I was on the right train but leaned forward instinctively and saw that his hand, the one whose nice lines I had paused to notice as he handed my bag to me, was taking its own tour of southern Italy. And what was it he was mouthing to me? It could be lip-syncing to Eminem or, perhaps equally likely, “Ave Maria” at 78 RPM.
I glanced quickly around the car; two young boys were sparring in the aisle, engrossed in a verbal round of keep-away. So do I look back? Wasn’t this train about to bolt? Wasn’t that why Hands diGregarious helped me in the first place? What the hell were we still doing here? C’ma c’ma c’ma. In the second minute of this torpid tableau I decided to do a litmus test for shame, staring him down. He won. I returned my eyes to my lap and wondered if all Italian men had this little performance in them somewhere. Had I mistaken the look on my grandpa’s face in the photo at home for the promise of confidence when really it was just the promise of the photographer’s rack? Has the time/space continuum turned and left me here or what? Let’s GO! I had been singing “Nature Boy”, the house tune that has played under every scene since I got the idea to track down evidence of my family’s original name on my first night in Reggio. Finally the train began to whinge into action, easing itself out of the station as if abandoning a favoured chair for a much-dreaded chore. I lifted my eyes to the shimmying blotch in my peripheral vision just as it flashed into pillar. Another look through the car — could they really have missed that? — and I ducked into my bag, where a treatise on the perils of globalism was waiting.
The ride was soothing, 90 minutes of heading up the west coast for an inflamed little toe knuckle on the tip of the boot. We were bored and German, now, after a few stops along the way, lightly dressed in a gossamer sweat. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Tropea, besides paradise. And what was paradise to me, anyway? Would there be Italian tourists chucking one another in ecstasy at the foot of various spoils of erosion and architecture, snapping photos of the meal, juxtaposed sunburns, their hotel from an unexpected vantage point? Or perhaps just me, a desk clerk, and 20 square miles of fig trees. Either one of these sounded OK, I just wanted to be left alone, and maybe find a computer. My first wish came to pass rather pointedly, as all the Germans got off in Nicotera, a neighbouring, sportingly lush beach resort. I rode shotgun into Tropea.
The other cars spilled their bilge onto Tropea’s nondescript platform, but they dispersed before I could get a sense of them, how had they all filtered through that one door so quickly? The air smelled clean and hot, and I felt the same, a mantle of incongruity resting across my ever-lightening hair and darkening brow. Tropea felt good.
On the other side of the platform was nothing, really. A dusty road. I spaced a demure distance between myself and two locals before trailing them down the shyly sloping hill, suitcase snapping at my heels like a border collie a stoplight away from a park full of tail. I was ready to be killed softly, to smile sweetly: for many things, fools and kings. I pulled my address notebook handily from my shoulder bag, where I had very lovingly put it for just such an eventuality. Rambling into town I spotted a map of myopic tourist proportions in the main, deserted piazza. As I searched it for Via Liberta, a young girl with elbows as round as her cheeks made a Fellini-worthy entrance out of nowhere, and slowly cruised me on her tricycle. I think she wanted a ride on my suitcase.
There weren’t many people around and the first street I turned down was filled with glossy ceramics, embossed T-shirts and cellophane bags of inky pasta. On the balconies one tier above these stores, however, sat bona fide nonnas in black crepe and lace. Grandmothers with hands folded lightly in their laps, each one nodding her head softly in time to the rhythms of filial disappointment, market lists and the throb of her knees. I trolled Via Liberta for the Hotel Miramare, but the street keep downshifting until it stalled altogether. Turning back, I saw an old man mirage shimmering in a garage door on the horizon. Yes! Despite hauling quite obviously and for some time right for them, their three or four simultaneous conversations drove on until I skidded out at their feet, with an inadvertent donut denouement.
With each mention of the Miramare the taller, tanned one reached new heights of agitation until finally he just started off, leaving his friend to his lawn chair and jurisdiction of the road. When I caught up he was still talking. “Meglio” (better), he said, “molto meglio.” We ended up at Hotel Sur Mare, and I was ungracious enough to ask if the Miramare was close by. This one looked way out of my league; there were multiple floors and a restaurant and stuff. It sat atop a cliff overlooking the beach, and peering over I got my first look at the broad waist of ocean that divided the sky from the trees, its belt of fine sugar studded with technicolour ants.
The albino desk clerk with epic sinusitis and my escort each immediately lit cigarettes upon sight of the other and my fate was thrown on the counter like the catch of the day. After much head shaking and disconcerting “what-are-ya-gonna-do”-type pizza dough toss gestures, I was presented with a list of rates. Granted, I was not going to find a place for 10 euros a night if Miramare was out of the question, but I balked at a room thrice my Spartan budget. Sniffles graciously called up my second choice, the Il Vulcano. They had a room, but my stalwarts resumed making sweeping, conjuring gestures, casting their arms ever further into my uncertain immediate future, fly-fishing for a scrap of evidence that would make me understand. A taxi was called under protest, and soon enough I saw what all the windmilling was about. My ancient, toothless cab driver and I drove for 10 minutes, leaving what little I had seen of the town for the country, millions of towel-lengths from the beach. Although the ride allowed me to plan my running route, as soon as we pulled into Il Vulcano’s narrow driveway I asked for a return trip. 35 euros a night was not all that much, I needed to get a grip. Maybe I would even have my own shower.
My flightiness was rewarded with what I decided must have been the best room in the hotel. Left standing in it, I turned to catch myself in the mirror through the bathroom door and yelped with shady recognition. I went out onto my balcony, a completely private corner balcony on the top floor, and ran back inside to throw myself on the double- and doubly bedded- bed. But what’s that there, on the other side of my hair and through my fingers? A TV? Oh — no. Nono.
I was instantly protective of my monastic streak and vowed not to touch or even look at the TV, opting for a more healthy verse or two of “Nature Boy” while undressing. I was headed for what I thought would be more of a confessional than a shower. “Bless me, fountain, for I have lint. It has been three weeks since my last proper shower.” It was an improvement, certainly, but the hot water ran for only 45 seconds and I’d bet the toilet caught the better part of it.
That dinner I had waiting touched me. It wasn’t like me to take such care. In Reggio I was unexpectedly in survival mode, always planning for the next moment. I gave myself Tropea in part to test my appreciation skills. Draped in three huge, differently patterned towels, I surveyed my suitcase, like a splayed carcass on the bed, overwhelmed at the munificence of it all. I told myself this was the beginning of a new vacation, that Consenza could come when it will; for now, I was resting up, calculating, laughing. A lot of calculating, though. Counting vitamins, euros, pages, things I no longer seem to be worried about; my daydreams now defaulted to fourth form math. Yet despite this life-as-an-abacus approach to relaxation, I let the hours remaining between that moment — T-minus six calcium caplets — and my expected arrival in Florence fudge themselves right off the map.
I began to list with pent-up happiness. I wheeled toward the mirror and saw for the first time how badly my back was peeling. I had burned myself on an unexpected day at the beach in Scilla, and could now see a white wonderbra equator underlining my shoulder blades. I have ruined myself for the dress I was supposed to wear to the wedding, less than a week away. Nestling up onto the sink, back to the mirror, I twisted around to get at my right shoulder, straining to keep focus until my eyes crossed, whereupon I would turn to the left and start over.
It seemed too perfect, and I immediately thought of ways to head off the gods of hating. Standing on the balcony as the sun mellowed to a low orange, the clouds goofing up the sky with cotton candy whorls, I stayed one step from the railing, close enough to be able to step inside should the works suddenly dislodge and jackknife to the ground. When I noticed the outline of Stromboli, the active volcano I’d forfeited hopes of visiting, erupting on the horizon, it was too much and I fled indoors to take comfort in my apples. I chewed with grave, ponderous flexes and swallows, and somehow managed to eat too many anyway. I was careful to retire to the side of the bed opposite the ceiling lighting fixture which could very possibly wrest free during the night and brain me into oblivion. Something was going to give, that’s all I knew.
For the rest of my stay in Tropea I climbed each stair — and there were stairs to choke a gym rat — with great deliberation, most conspicuously those leading to the medieval Cathedral on an archipelago in the ocean. The sign by the entrance said, “This is a sacred place. No bathing suits.” I tucked my bikini top’s strings, my breath, and my camera snug into the recesses of my shirt, preparing for a divinity no swimsuit dare fathom.
A meditative drizzle fell until 11 every morning in Tropea, which gave running a succulent, almost decadent tenor. I would head down a country road, past the snubbed Il Vulcano and the peach groves. When lemons turned to apricots, it was time to turn back. Tropea combined the best elements of each Italian city I had seen, from the rollicking green hills and lush farmland of Tuscany, the rocky white grottos of the Amalfi Coast, crystalline beaches of Crotone and dilapidated, medieval charm of Assisi to the sombre bombast of Rome’s Cathedrals. If you’ve ever found yourself in the centre of your own mental hurricane, you know that the silence is a little disorienting at first.
In exploring the twin perimetres of Tropea and my unexpectedly profound peace of mind, convergences of mental and physical circumstance became as routine as my trips to the local fruit vendor. Why was I so happy here, alone, unable to phone or e-mail anyone or even communicate with the locals? The thrill in the fact that no one I knew had any idea where I was or how to reach me was queer, considering that was the case much of the time at home. It seemed that swirling down into Tropea upon arrival, along with the rounded eyes of suitcase-dazzled youngsters, I had left a string of bright buoys — a cherished purpose here, discarded obligation there — bobbing with bemused abandon in my wake.
On just the second day, when Senorina Fruitstand let me choose my own peaches, I knew I was in. My reward was to be a trip to the town’s bleeding heart, that bustling suburb of marble lairs, dusty souls and sweet, rank-petal plans.
Reading in Tropea:
The Global Soul, by Pico Iyer