If you are jumping in here, you will have no context at all, so please jump back to the beginning of the story here. If you have just finished Part 5, let’s roll!
OK, so I am just over a week into my 1st trip to Italy in 1983, and I have seen nothing of the bucket list Italy. I have spent the entire time in my friend Rocco’s family home town in the deep, deep, deep south. I have seen and experienced things I shall never forget. But now we’re gonna see Italy! Rocco is coming along for part of the trip, and it will be a blast.
The Amalfi Coast
The first thing you need to know is where Rocco’s town of Gioiosa Ionica is. Today, some of the Italy bucket list destinations are not too far away. I mean, we could get to Taormina in a few hours, but back then Sicily was not a place you went. Puglia, which was relatively close, has since become a hotspot, but back then Puglia was more or less thought of as a place to get away from. And Gioiosa? Well, it is in the region of Calabria, and for the most part, even today, the only Americans that go to that region are going because their family was from there. So if you look at the map, the most southerly “bucket list” place was The Amalfi Coast. This map shows that you can get there in under 5 hours. But in 1983, we didn’t have all these awesome highways, much less that cool road that cut directly across the southern tip. You needed to go all the way around, and it was a 10-hour drive.
Back then, this 10-hour drive was something like the drive across west Texas, Italian style. There was nothing. n.o.t.h.i.n.g.
By the time we arrive at the Amalfi Coast, things had clearly changed. Yep, it was beautiful. Wow, that road sure is narrow. The beaches… well, they were beaches. I just came from a 9.5 on the beautiful beach scale, and this was, in my opinion, a 3. The coastline was beautiful, and there were lots of hotels. We stayed in one that was apparently the place to be. It was cool. It looked like a fortress of sorts. Wow, air conditioning would be really nice right now! It was the Hotel Saraceno, and to be honest, the place is amazing now. Back then, it was awesome on the outside. On the inside, well… it felt very 1960’s.
I can honestly tell you I don’t have a single memory of my visit to the Amalfi Coast, except the roads were small and windy. I can say it wasn’t nearly as filled with tourism then as it is now, and one day we went to the island of Capri, and Rocco and I went into the Blue Gotto and swam in it. That was pretty cool. Everything else, zero memory.
After our few days on the Amalfi Coast, Rocco hopped a train back to Calabria. I proceeded with my mom and her boyfriend to visit Rome. We were back in the Excelsior Hotel on Via Veneto where all good Americans went. Only now, the whole experience with Rocco’s family was in my rearview mirror and all of this opulence just looked like fluff.
I’m still mourning Mrs. Chicken. I miss Mr. Goat, Nonna’s tears, Enzo (Michael Jackson!), and that sense of home and family. Dude, this sucks!
Let me tell you about Rome:
- The Colosseum
- The Forum
- The Pantheon
- The Vatican
- The Spanish Steps
- The Trevi Fountain
- The Mouth of Truth
We hit them all, like marking boxes off a checklist. Were they all beautiful? Of course, they were! They looked exactly like they did in the history books and postcards I had seen! I could now confirm that all the photos I had seen of these places were, in fact, accurate representations of them.
Don’t get me wrong. They are great. They are must-see things. They are awesome! But did I tell you about the little old man in Rocco’s town that crushes almonds by hand every morning to make the most amazing Almond Granita in the world?
Did we have great food? Sure did! But did I tell you about that amazing lunch Nonna made us last Tuesday?
A Two Horse Town Called Soriano
For those that know me, don’t get all excited. This is not the part you are waiting for. We are a full year away from that part!
We leave Rome, and drive about an hour north. Remember in Part 1, I told you about my mom’s co-worker friend that picked us up at the airport? This was his hometown, so we were going to visit him for a couple of days.
This was quite literally, the low point of my trip. Umberto’s house was under construction, and we stayed in a little hotel in town. The following memories remained with me from these two days:
- The town had a really cool old castle on top of a hill.
- All of the buildings had walls.
- It seemed like a ghost town. There was a cafe in the town square. It was old and dingy. Each time I went there, there were two men as old as time running it, but they did have my Latte di Mandorla (Almond Milk). Outside, you could shoot canons through the streets.
- Umberto had a friend named Mimmo. We ate at his house, and I took special note that he had indoor plumbing, wallpaper, multiple rooms, paintings on the walls, nice tile floors. There was no need for a bucket here. I noted the stark contrast between here and Calabria.
- Umberto had another friend named Stefano, and we ate at his house one day. There, I met an artist named Riccardo, who I really liked, even though we could not communicate.
- One of the days we were there, there had been a terrible thunderstorm with hail bigger than I had ever seen.
That’s all, folks. My two days in Soriano nel cimino in 1983 were remarkably unremarkable. It is hard to believe that seeds were being planted right there that would drastically change my life forever.
Florence, Pisa and Milan
Yep, hit them all. Florence was beautiful, I was able to confirm that the tower in Pisa was, in fact, leaning, and I visited some of my own family in Milan, thought it was a dirty city, and bought a great jacket. If I missed anything, I forgot. We didn’t go to Venice. But seriously, my mind was back in Rocco’s town the entire time. It was just that simple.
I know this must seem crass. I mean, it is Italy! But this is teen Michael’s thought process in 1983, and as I continue to write this story, it will all come together and fall into place, I promise!
Oh, by the way… we then left Italy and flew back to L.A.
Dude! How was Italy? (The Takeaway)
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this post in the series is something of a transition article. The night I got home, I remember being in my room, and two of my best friends came over. I was jet-lagged, and dying to sleep. They wanted me to go clubbing with them.
As they were trying to convince me to get dressed and go out, they are asking me all about my trip. All I did was talk about the time down in Rocco’s town. But they had absolutely no interest in it whatsoever!
David: Dude! Did you see the Colosseum?
Michael: Yeah, but let me tell you about Mrs. Chicken.
Jon: But dude, what about The Leaning Tower of Pisa?
Michael: Yeah, it leans. But let me tell you about the Witch!
David: How cool was the Blue Grotto?
Michael: It was a grotto, and it was blue… but let me tell you about my protection letter!
Jon: Did you go to Florence?
Michael: Yeah, but let me finish the story about the bucket!
David: How cool was Milan?
Michael: It kinda sucked, but listen to this song they were playing non-stop at a club in Rocco’s town!
I just had no interest in talking about all of the bucket-list stuff. All of those bucket list places were great to see. I do not regret having seen them. But it was the exposure to life there that impacted me.
It changed me profoundly. It challenged so much that I had assumed about the world, about humanity… about life. I sat there with two of my dearest friends, trying to convey this thing to them that, in hindsight, was impossible to convey with words or pictures.
I now had concepts and experiences that had widened my world view so much, that I couldn’t fully relate with my own best friends on the same level. It was truly uncomfortable, and while I didn’t know it yet, this was the beginning of a major personal life crisis for me. This was the beginning of a series of events and realizations that would completely alter what I thought my course in life was to be.
This was the first seed planted for what would eventually become Culture Discovery Vacations twenty-four years later. When we first had the idea for CDV, that conversation with David and Jon popped right into my head. I wanted to give people, as much as possible, the experience that I had. If we are gonna do a trip on the Amalfi Coast, yeah… you need to see that Blue Grotto. But can I find you a Mr. Goat? Can I give you that family experience? If not, we don’t wanna do it.
So that is it for now. Part 7 is another transition article that sets the stage for my return to Italy and a rollercoaster of life! You can continue on here: Part 7: “The Roof Is on Fire”
P.S. No, I did not go clubbing with David and Jon that night. I fell asleep during the discussion. They tried to wake me up to no avail, and the next thing I remember is very weak coffee the following morning.
Thoughts, questions, comments? Post ’em below, and I love reading them!!!