Tuesday, December 31, 2013

On the Road to Nowhere

On the Road to Nowhere

            The gently folding waves of a blue jade-streaked sea greeted us as we arrived at the port.  It was not exactly the intended shoreline we had expected to see following our departure from Calitri.  I'll have to explain the snafu as it unfolded that Sunday morning, which found us first headed to Naples and then by ferry for a leisurely escape to Ischia.  There were four of us; myself, Maria Elena and our stateside friends, Dan and Roberta, who were staying with us in Calitri.

            Calitri, our Italian address, is located in the extreme eastern part of Campania. It lies within out-the-window sight of the neighboring Italian region of Basilicata, sitting as it does at the convergence of three provinces: Foggia, Potenza and Avellino.  Downtown Naples lies a little over an hour away on the coast to our west.  Our immediate objective was the main Naples port of Molo Beverello, today a bustling tourist port but late in WWII known as 'Fleet Landing', arrayed with warships from the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet.  There we'd purchase our tickets to paradise.

We began with elegant zigs and zags down from our towering perch high atop the ridge that cradles Calitri in its side.  The fun in beginning any trip from Calitri this way is that you can almost imagine yourself at the Monaco Grand Prix, no pun intended.  All that's missing are some hay bales by the side of the road.  Everything else was there from blind turns to the possibility of instant flight off the side of the road through an invisible door on silent hinges into the Ofanto River valley beautifully arrayed far below.  The return trip has nowhere near the excitement.  The frequent, quick, 180 degree snap turns to reverse direction as you gradually make the climb call for first gear all the way, meaning slow journeyman's work, nowhere near the fun.  But maybe I'm getting too deep in the telling.  Let me just conclude by saying we were on our way, dizzy though we may have been after all the turns.  Arrived on SS7, at the base of the plateau, we hesitated just long enough for gas before really departing on this adventure and an adventure it would become.  As those immortalized words of Elwood Blues put it, with "a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes (not really) ... and wearing sunglasses", we were on our way.

            It's an enjoyable ride to Naples.  That is unless you find yourself behind an eighteen-wheeler or are unexpectedly waved over by the Carabinieri for a random document inspection, or worse, both!  Whether stopped or otherwise delayed, the scenery remains dramatic.  We soon passed anvil-topped Cariano and the new town of Conza della Campania in the shadows of its parent village destroyed years ago by an earthquake.  The lovely though lethargic Lago di Conza soon appears before reaching the sprawling town of Lioni.  Following Lioni, we enter an enchanting valley, my favorite part of the trip.  Up and over a few more ridges and you get your first glimpse.  This sprawling valley is blanketed by chestnut tree forests ranging to the heights of bordering mountains that together do their best to conceal villages like Montella and Bagnoli.  Across the impressive highway on concrete stilts, something Italians are masters at constructing, you shoot past tiny Cassano sitting on a pinhead of a ridge so close you can just about see inside windows.  Eight or so gallerie (tunnels) later you reach Atripalda, which signals me that we are just about to join the A16 toll road.  From there, it was a smooth ride to the outskirts of Naples summarily heralded by a giant Ikea lollypop signboard smack in the center of your windshield.

            To get across the city to the busy port with the least agita, guaranteed to happen from the unbridled traffic so rightfully associated with Naples, we planned first to return our rental to Capodichino Airport.  No need to pay for a car when we wouldn't be using it for a while; I'd get another on our return.  With aircraft on approach to landing over the Ikea ‘outer marker' it's not far at all to Capodichino.  Following the turn-in, we decided on a taxi instead of taking a bus to the port.  With four of us along, the economy and efficiency of this decision made it the easy no-hassle choice.  Only later did the significance of this decision come home to us.  

            The taxi stand was just across the street from the rental return lot.  We were traveling light so it made for an easy walk.  Arriving at the head of the queue, which consisted of just us, we explained where we wanted to go and negotiated with the driver.  How should I describe him?  Tommaso appeared to be in his mid 40s.  Oddly, he sported a bright, long-sleeve white shirt.  No tee-shirt for this guy.  Then again it was Sunday and just maybe he had been to Mass or was soon headed to mommas for dinner - really good Italian boys do both!  He had a muscular build topped with a head distinguished by a strong face and short thinning hair.  It came together to endow him with an alert air and an adventuresome, almost swashbuckling look – seemingly something you’d want as a Neapolitan taxi operator.  There wasn't much haggling on our part once we realized that what he was asking for was 25 Euros.  We readily agreed especially once we realized that this was the total cost, not per individual.  With four of us along, this was a good deal.  We quietly congratulated ourselves on how adept at bargaining we had been.  For all I knew, just as the price of an espresso in an Italian cafe is regulated by the government, this may have been a set fee from which he couldn't deviate.  We were prepared to pay more but as you will see that would just have to wait for later.  

It was just about then, after our light bags had been placed in the trunk, that Mare picked up on something she thought strange.  She doesn't miss much.  Why would a group of taxi drivers, undoubtedly professionals in the byways of Naples, be in a heavy discussion on how exactly you'd get from the airport to the port?  It was curious all right, though later when she mentioned it, I hadn't even noticed.  A few minutes later we were on our way.  We had somehow managed to arrive during the lengthy festival of San Gennaro.  Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples, was a priest from Benevento somewhat inland from Naples who later became Bishop of Naples.  He had been executed during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian.  Each year, on the anniversary of his martyrdom, his blood is exposed to the faithful.  They eagerly await proclamation of the renewed miracle as a vial of his blood, preserved since the 4th century, returns to liquid form.  The faithful believe that failure of the blood to liquefy is an omen that soon some tragedy will befall the city and the region.  There have been rare occasions when the anticipated miracle has not occurred.  The most recent being in 1980, a year when a devastating earthquake crippled the region.  Calitri was especially hard hit.  In Calitri today, evidence of the devastation remains visible in the shells of destroyed homes close beneath the walls of the Gesualdo Castle poised above the Borgo.  The carnival-like San Gennaro festivities, still underway, took the form of parades, more solemn processions, street-side market booths crammed with every sort of item, along with the requisite throngs of people.  It was a challenge, ably countered by the persistent honk of the taxi’s horn, as we tried to safely make our way through the crowds and onto the Tangenziale highway through Naples.  Tommaso, a first class scholar of gesture, whether by horn or hand, was unfazed.  For us this was concerning, a reality show in the making.  For him this was normality, simply another day behind the wheel at the “office”.  Taking it all in stride, he began mumbling about something.  It was about then that I thought we heard him mention a BOMBA (BOMB)! 

At first, I didn't understand exactly what he was talking about.  As he continued to talk and maneuver through streets clotted with life, I vaguely began to comprehend his meaning.  Yes, it had something to do with a bomb.  A bomb, I thought.  Oh yeah, I understood.  He was talking about a bombola or gas cylinder, the kind we have in our home in Calitri.  These are cylinders of liquid gas, which we use to fuel what is commonly referred to as a cooker or gas stovetop in our kitchen.  They are larger than the gas bottles we are familiar with connected to barbecues here at home.  Besides being a little taller, another big difference between the States and Italy is that Italians are allowed to use them inside their homes, something safety types and insurance companies here have fought and succeeded in preventing.  In my superior RosettaStone broken Italian I tried to express that yes, I understood what he was referring to, a bombola.  As he bested another car by cutting him off as we turned and I marveled at his daring finesse, he continued his rant about a bomb and shook his head.  From his body language I quickly understood that he was being emphatic.  How could I miss it?  No, it had nothing to do with a bombola, which with my as yet limited Italian vocabulary now exhausted, could only mean that he was trying to tell us something about a bomb, the real kind, the nasty bad kind.

With the celebration of San Gennaro still underway, with all these crowds of people about, my next interpretation of what he was trying to tell us was that a bomb had detonated somewhere in Naples.  God forbid.  Images of the terrorist bomb attack at a recent Boston Marathon rapidly refreshed in my mind.  Was he trying to tell us that there had been a bombing?  Was a terrorist cell on the loose somewhere in Naples?  Bad as it seemed, what a day we’d picked to visit the big city, however briefly.  When I asked if this had anything to do with terrorismo (terrorism) he shook his head side to side and mentioned the Guerra Mondiale (World War).  That’s when things first started to come together.  This mystery had something to do with a WWII bomb!  And here all these years Maria Elena has said I’d never make a good detective!  How wrong was she?

Naples was the most bombed Italian city in World War II and heavily bombed at that.  It began over a year before the American entry into the war when in November 1940 RAF light twin engine Bristol-Blenheim bombers from Malta came up the coast and made their debut appearance over the city.  Their primary targets were the port facilities teaming with shipping and warships.  Over 200 strikes occurred between 1940 and 1944 with an amazing 180 of those attacks occurring in 1943 alone.  The largest raid occurred on 4 August 1943.  Can you imagine the aluminum overcast that day, a shadow cast by 400 American B-17 heavy bombers each with a bomb load of approximately 6000 pounds?  Could one of them have been a dud? 

Tommaso gradually confirmed the supposition I’d steadily inched toward.  A bomb dropped in WWII had been unearthed that morning.  I don’t know where the bomb was found but it was definitely somewhere between us and the port.  Most likely, some excavation work had uncovered this remnant from our forefather’s past.  More than likely, it was near the port itself since it had been such a high priority wartime target.  We learned that luckily it hadn’t gone off.  At least not yet.  Demolition crews were likely on their way to the scene.  I could imagine that scene, straight from the movies, as a sweaty trembling hand decided on whether to cut the red or black wire!  As a safety precaution, in case it decided to detonate after all these years, streets had been barricaded in the immediate vicinity of the bomb.  Who knows, while the odds were low, my mother may have worked on that very fuse.  Although not a "Rosie the Riveter" type fastening aluminum skin to the fuselage of B-17s destined to fly over Naples someday, she had done her part working in a factory making bomb fuses.  I recall her showing me one once.  Seems she brought one home as an unauthorized souvenir.  Luckily the fuses themselves were not explosive especially since I recall that the thing was kept in a drawer in our dining room where, white shirt or not, we did sit with momma for dinner after Mass on Sundays!  

An inevitable traffic backup had so clogged the city that now traffic was approaching a standstill.  The discussion with the other drivers, that Mare had noticed, had been all about how to get around the growing traffic snarl.  The question remained could we?  Tommaso would try his best.  We had no idea just how determined he could be as we finally departed the area of the airport onto the tangenziale, into the city.  From there it wasn’t long before he exited and we came to a full stop facing a line of bumper-to-bumper impenetrable traffic.  Slow as the going was, let me describe a few minutes of this mad-hatter adventure turn of events.

With the precise hand of a surgeon clutching a scalpel, Tommaso gripped his wheel and made an exploratory incision into the vein of that first lane of traffic.  It presented no openings, little opportunity.  With scant hesitation, he rolled into the bumper-to-bumper wall of cars.  His arm out the window as if shooing a dog away, he signaled his determination to continue his advance.  The vehicle he was assaulting gave no ground, would not yield to his (our) advance.  As if a gauntlet had been thrown, a challenge extended and accepted, a faceoff ensued to be resolved in creeps and jerks.  This was war, a war of wills.  The dual literally 'rolled' on.  There was no eye contact, no conversation.  His movement alone expressed his resolve as his opponent remained resolute, unwilling to give ground.  The driver of what I'll refer to as the accosted vehicle advanced on his aggressor until Mare could have put her hand out the window and touched it if she dared.  With his hands again clutching the wheel, unable to flail his arms for added expression, his recourse was his horn.  It was the Monte Carlo Grand Prix in reverse.  Speed was out of the question.  The skill was in the maneuvering, sometimes imperceptible as it was and requiring nerve.  Some of us clenched teeth, others closed their eyes.  His driving philosophy appeared to be that driving was a tease, his attitude, go ahead and hit me if you dare.

As hectic and chaotic as driving in Naples is, there are surprisingly few accidents.  Each operator somehow knows his limits, but like a card player in a high stakes game, holds his secret close - his secret, just how far he's willing to go before yielding.  Their daily joists on the streets of Naples continually redefine and tune their limits.  Personal wins and losses ensue.  All that is missing is some sort of placard of wins and losses posted on the side of their cars like fighter jets, bombers and submarines keep running score of kills or missions on their sides in times of war.  Only dents and scratches recorded defeats, though depending on your viewpoint, they might possibly also signify victories.  In a way, this was war on a personal level.  Had this become personal?  Had the four of us suddenly been forgotten, reduced to observers, potentially accident victims?  Were masculine pride, personal honor, or perhaps some twisted form of machismo in play here?  It was amazing to watch, nerve-racking to experience.  In the back seat, Mare clutched Roberta's leg.  Our driver was attempting either vehicular suicide or a Neapolitan form of vehicular anarchy.  We were hard pressed to decide at the moment.  Metal on metal was inches, only moments away.  Neither yielded.  No one blinked, at least not at first.  It was Tommaso’s relentless advance that eventually won out.  With little alternative but to hit us, the offended yielded to the gatecrashing interloper!

This was no win, however, since we continued to only inch forward.  Tommaso soon exited to try another avenue of approach in his own relentless attack on the port.  From one place to another he continued trying to reach the port only to be stopped by additional traffic jams.  As he literally skirted the problem, he would even pay tolls in his attempt to advance our position from another direction.  At one point he made an exceedingly bold move that scared us to death.  We were in the far left lane of traffic, though I guess “traffic” implies movement, which there was little of.  Why he had pushed and persisted into the far left lane we did not know.  We couldn't read his mind.  Maybe there was a stop ahead and a need to turn left.  What he mumbled in Italian was lost to the disharmony of horn blasts and the whoosh of traffic headed in the opposite direction, beyond the median.  We were incredulous when he veered to the left, mounted the curb of the median and entered the opposite lane facing oncoming traffic!  Only guard rails could have deterred him of which there were none.  He had his mission, he was driven.  It was surprising how much 25 Euros could underwrite in determination!  Avoiding first one approaching vehicle then dodging another amidst the blare of horns, he headed for an exit ramp, which of course favored the oncoming traffic.  Undeterred, he sped to the exit ramp, performed a rapid 120 degree turn to the left onto the ramp, all the while causing other vehicles entering the ramp to halt.  In our white-knuckled ashen states we were dumbfounded and speechless.  Miraculously, there were no collisions.  We relaxed some, but only slightly, as we sped down the ramp apparently headed for another try at the port.
Tommaso seemed undeterred.  Unlike nearby Vesuvius known for eruptions, there was none evident here in the likes of sweat erupting on his snowy white shirt.  He remained cool – maybe there was value in being the driver verses passenger.  He’d tried all the routes he could think of, certainly employing any advice he'd received from the other drivers before we'd departed.  His fallback position was to seek more advice.  Pulling over to the side of the road, he talked with a maintenance crew.  They confirmed that the city was basically locked down; the snarls of traffic visible evidence of this.  For an irresolute moment we thought we were stuck.  Once he understood the scope of the problem, combined with the fact that in all his attempts we had made no progress, he suggested we return to the airport.  It was then that I suggested that he try for Pozzuoli.  Maria Elena and I had been there once before and knew that ferries regularly departed from there to Ischia.

Pozzuoli sits on the Phlegrean Peninsula, a headland that juts into the Gulf of Pozzuoli as part of the Bay of Naples.  It lies just west of Naples.  It was here where Saint Gennaro, mentioned earlier, was martyred.  We had already come close!  From the airport, it is about a 30 minute drive to Pozzuoli.  We were back at square one.  Fortunately, we hadn’t taken a bus to the port from the airport or attempted to drive there on our own.  If we had, we would most likely still have been locked in traffic, compounded by the fact that once in the snarl there would be no way back.  Luckily we hadn’t.  We’d also survived a potential bomb blast and auto crash.  It had to be a walk in the park from here.  Pitifully easy, sure, but at what renegotiated cost?  We soon learned that from the airport to Pozzuoli would be considerably more costly.  Curse those B-17s!

Tommaso counted on his fingers as adept as a Bedouin trading camels at a bazaar.  As though using an abacus, he quickly arrived at a new fee to take us around to Pozzuoli.  His renegotiated number was 110 Euros!  Renegotiated, however broad its meaning, may be a misnomer here since it usually involves give and take.  In this case, it was far more 'take' but then the alternative was unacceptable.  It would have proven unacceptably far more expensive to find a place by the airport and stay the night, all the while paying for unoccupied rooms on Ischia.  Our swashbuckler had us over the proverbial barrel.  He knew we had little recourse and about then indulged me with a smile.  I expect that with that haul and the fact that the roads were essentially impassible, our driver took the rest of the day off.  But decorum reigned.  No ugly Americans here!  Oh well, I guess it is all in keeping with the main tenant of social Darwinism - "Survival of the Wealthiest!

Following those earlier, most tortuous attempts to nowhere, we reached the Port of Pozzuoli in less time than it takes guacamole to turn brown.  On our way through town, Tommaso pointed out a small prison where in 1974 iconic Italian actress Sophia Loren, having cut financial corners, once spent 17 days of a 30 day sentence for tax evasion.  After all we had been through, I felt like dropping him off for a temporary stay there myself.  It was the sight of sea that put me out of the idea.  The sight of a ferry at dockside kept my spirits afloat.  Lovely Ischia was less than a horizon away now.  At portside we settled up.  By this time, I felt Tommaso should have been paying us for the mental anguish suffered and the imminent threat of bodily harm endured!  I softened considerably though when I thought how he’d tried his best to reach the port and hadn’t easily given up.  For him this had almost been a routine day, while for us it made an indelible memory.  In the end, we don’t remember days do we, we remember moments.  Our trip had been one of those memorable moments, a case study in taxi mania, big enough for the record book.
From that Rogue Tourist,