Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The day after my return from the US, T arrived. This was his first trip abroad and we were delighted to be able to share it with him. Having not slept on the plane, he was pretty zombie-ish the first day. We went out for a late breakfast and he was mesmerized by all the different cars here, stopping at several and gazing at them with a rapturous look on his face.

He took a long mid-day nap, sleeping through Jack's lunch hour (although waking long enough to say hi), which sadly didn't seem to help his tiredness any, and then we went out to visit the royal residence and the Atomium. What he needed was...a good long haul to wear him out so he would sleep well. Yeah. We stopped at a fritterie to pick up some fries for the walk, and there were a bunch of guys hanging around it, mostly drinking Jupiler beer. One was smoking pot, however, which was the first time I'd seen someone doing that in public here. Most of the group (although not the reefer dude) were dressed in uniforms that suggested that they were municipal workers, but I choose to believe that by that time they were off the clock rather than taking a beer break. On the way back to the tram stop we got a peek at the Japanese Tower and the Chinese Pavilion, which were part of Leopold II's ambitious plan to construct buildings of the typical architecture of many places around the globe. He only got around to building these two. That man seemed to lack focus--interesting architecture, destruction of his African colony, public green spaces--he just spread himself too thin.

The tram ride home was uneventful primarily due to T's napping, although we did have a hard time finding the stop to get on, as it was in a narrow cut in the terrain one level below grade, disguised as a naturally landscaped area. That night we went to the Irish pub for dinner and happened upon their quiz night. Although we didn't play, it was fun to follow along. Being only three of us, I don't think we would have won, but we did manage to answer a fair number of questions correctly. I was so excited at times that I'd call out the answers, possibly giving a leg up to the table of people next to us.

T made it clear that his goals for the trip were to investigate the chocolate and to find the only beer he had ever enjoyed, the Duchesse de Bourgogne. The chocolate research was very systematic: he would start at the bottom in terms of quality and work his way up. We stopped off at a night shop before concluding the evening, thinking that we could find some bad chocolate there, and we three panelists agreed that it was pretty awful. Thankfully, T was good enough to consume it all before he left.

Tuesday morning, Jack and I had an appointment at the Commune to complete the paperwork for our ID cards. The contractor Jack's company had hired to usher the process along met us there with an armload of cookies. Apparently she had been there for someone else's appointment earlier in the day, and was returning prepared for another go. The cookies were the cheapest grocery store variety, which just goes to show that even if they make excellent chocolates and pastries here, government employees will scarf up any free junk that is given to them. Reminded me of home. The woman processing the paperwork somehow managed to forget about my existence, even though my name was right there on the file in front of her, but our helpful contractor was able to get her straightened out. The staff person was a bit flustered in the change in routine, though, and neglected to ask us for our photos, so the contractor had to return later on and hand them in.

Later that day T and I wandered some more. Eventually we ended up at a bar for some mid-afternoon loitering. We had a pleasant surprise when we discovered that T's beer was on the menu! He ordered it only to have the wrong beer brought out. He took it back to the bar to tell them it wasn't what he had ordered, but they told him that the brewery had just changed the label (the beer was also named some kind of Bourgogne, but not Duchesse). It was no real shock when he had his first sip and learned that the wait staff had misled him. T put on a brave face and drank it down.

That evening we went out for dinner at a bar/restaurant that Jack and I thought might have his beer. And lo, they did! It was the perfect accompaniment to T's spaghetti bolognaise. I got what I thought was going to be lobster in a packet, but turned out to be gigantic whole shrimp that were by and large inedible with the tools I had been provided. It was okay, though, and T left happy after his second beer. That day's chocolate, purchased from the grocery store earlier on, was also a step above the last. Double success!

As if the beer and chocolate weren't enough, T also took on the tasks of rating the waffles purchased from various locations (vans, metro stations, restaurants, etc.) and seeing what Belgian fast food had to offer. How he managed to juggle it all at once I'll never know. Wednesday we went out and looked at some key touristy spots and he got one of the waffles that is so piled with toppings that it's almost as high as it is wide. A nightmare for wusses like me who don't like the waffles in the first place, but he enjoyed it. We also visited the Quick Burger chain, where he got a "Demoniak" burger (the tagline for which translates to something like "go to hell") with a suspiciously deep-orange bun, as if it had been canoodling with some carrots. Were there vegetables hidden in there? He also discovered that the condiments giddily distributed in such vast quantities in the US were not, in fact, free here. I had a hot dog, which was rather limp and grey, although it did come with a piece of cheese and some grainy dijon mustard, so it wasn't a total loss. Later in the day we stopped by the weekly market and he tried a waffle at a stall that had been recommended by Jack, but didn't think that the value to quality was up to par. I got a lovely persimmon, shining with ruddy ripeness.

Thursday I came down with what has now become my monthly ailment of sore throat, fever, and runny nose. Could it have to do with the wall that quietly moulders above my head while I sleep? I don't know, but it certainly is annoying. I sent T off on his own with a map, a camera, and instructions to visit the Herbert Hoover exhibit at the Military Musuem so I could rest. (Did you know Hoover was instrumental in feeding the Belgians during WWI, when their food supplies were cut off by the Germans? He was. They love him for it.) On his outing T conducted more chocolate research and visited our local branch of McDonalds to see if the fries were consistent around the world, as he had been told. He found them to be surprisingly similar.

The next day Jack took off work and he and T headed for Antwerp. Not having been there I can't comment on what went on, but they brought back some nice pictures of some kind of wacky bicycling bar that seated 10, a public toilet constructed to look like you were sitting on a stack of large books, and a restaurant that had religious tchotchkes in crammed into every available space and good waffles. T was somewhat disappointed that the length of his stay didn't lend itself to visiting another country, so it was nice for him to get out of Brussels for the day. He brought back a 750 mL bottle of his favorite beer so he could enjoy it again before he left.

That night we went to the American bar around the corner for burritos, and the owner dude recognized us and conversed briefly with our new guest, this one from the DC area. T was very particular about his burrito needs, and the extremely young-looking chef came by and listed the ingredients for him. T requested that there be no tomatoes in the vicinity of his food. Needless to say there were tomatoes, but he managed to overcome and chatted with the waitress about the use of different glasses for each type of alcoholic beverage.

Saturday we made plans to go to Liege to see the soccer team Standard Liege play. Jack and I had always been interested in going to a soccer game, but there were restrictions on the availability of tickets for the good team in Brussels, the Royal Sporting Club of Anderlecht. It was our understanding that you had to live in the commune and present ID to that effect in order to buy tickets. Not knowing anyone who lived there, we were stymied. But the Liege game was open to anyone, and further, there was a kid from Bethesda who played for the team.

We headed out on the train around mid-day, and wandered around town for a bit to see the sights. Liege got the heck bombed out of it during WWII because they were an industrial center, so there aren't as many pretty old buildings, but they do have a nice river through the center of town, and various shops and eateries and a sprinkling of old stuff. Also, apparently, a square named after Hoover, but I don't recall seeing it when we were there.

We stopped off at a restaurant and Jack had the Liege-style meatballs, which were quite good. After some additional wandering, we went back to the train station to catch our bus. There was some confusion about the correct bus to take, but there were a lot of people around sporting the team colors so we suspected that we were in the right spot. The bus dropped us off at a grassy slope on an exit ramp for a thoroughfare, which didn't seem right, but again we just followed the red scarves. The streetlights around the stadium all had orangey-red coverings, giving the twilit walk a bit of extra drama. As we crossed the river to get to the stadium, Jack noticed that the scene to the west was reminiscent of Youngstown 20 years ago, with smokestacks and molten metal visible on the horizon.

We got our tickets and entered the stadium to wait for the game to start. I got scolded by security for having a bottle of water in my pocket--the woman took the cap and handed the bottle back to me. Clearly they had had problems with people throwing stuff on the field in the past. We took our seats and settled in for the game. There seemed to be three separate fan groups on the north side of the stadium. The opposing team's fan base was cordoned off in a small section on the south end by a tall chain-link fence, as if they were on a recreational release from prison and had a high potential for escaping. The Liege fans were upbeat so we were hoping for a good performance from the team and from their supporters.

The good thing about sports, as opposed to, say, live theater, is that there is no need for translation. We were able to enjoy the game without subtitles. Subtitles would have been helpful for Jack, though, since his neighbor kept nudging him and making comments like "primier boot!". At halftime, Liege was down one, and Jack and I went to check out the amenities. They were selling chips and Jupiler beer from coolers, although you couldn't take the beer back to your seat and it appeared that they would shut it down when the game started again. The beers were only 2 euros, which is on par with the prices that I've seen at other event venues, surprising given the gouging you usually get in the States when you're a captive audience. I visited the bathroom and discovered the cleanest stadium bathrooms ever, thanks to the mindful attendant. While a lot of the time I begrudge them my 30 cents, this was one of the times where it was evident that the woman was actually doing some work. Of course, given the paucity of alcohol and females within the stadium, it may not have been that hard.

The game resumed and, after initially being behind, Liege came back in the second half to win 2-1. The fans went wild-ish, but not as wild as I had hoped. There was confetti and one flare or firework, but that was it. We hopped back on the bus for the ride to the train station, and then took the train home. Jack commented on the way back that he had had a good time, but there was too much stress trying to time everything correctly: the hurried sightseeing and meal, the bus ride to the stadium and back, the train ride home, which, if we had missed, would have meant getting stuck in Liege or getting an extremely expensive cab back so that T could be sure to get on his plane the next day. What he failed to mention until later was that, probably while gleefully jumping around at a Liege score, he had somehow managed to lose our train ticket. This wouldn't have been the end of the world, since you can buy tickets on the train itself, but it does heighten anxiety. The ticket taker never came around, though, so it all worked out. When we got back, we shared the Duchesse beer from Antwerp.

T left the next morning, but not without leaving us with several mementos of his trip: uneaten chocolates, a European Coke and two shirts. It took us a long time to work our way through all the leftover chocolates, particularly the lavender one, which was like milk chocolate mixed with perfumey soap. Yech. I hope T made a note not to get that one again.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Ten Things To Like about America That You Don't Know About Till You Live Overseas for Some Period, As I Discovered on My Recent Trip to The States.

1. Almost complete absence of dog poop on the streets, so that you can spend time looking at the scenery rather than watching your step.

2. Free, ice-filled tap water brought to your table at most restaurants without having to ask for it or being charged for it.

3. Eye contact and sometimes even some form of greeting (nod, smile) from strangers passing you on the street.

4. Relative lack of bureaucracy. Seriously! (The downside of this is no one hires a company to deal with the bureaucracy on your behalf.)

5. Lots of people speak English, and many misunderstandings and miscommunications are thereby avoided.

6. Tacos. I can't stress this one enough.

7. Mom, baseball and apple pie. Except without the apple pie part. Why are moms so uniquely American, anyway? I'm pretty sure they have them here, too. I've seen women with babies. They might be cyborgs or aliens and not moms, though, as I have been unable to communicate with them. At any rate, I did get in a baseball game while I was there. And my mom gave me a cool Silk Road-themed cookbook, so she's alright, if perhaps not intrinsically American in spirit.

8. Lots of cereal choices.

9. Eight is a lot.

10. Really!

The only two negatives were the enormous number of political advertisements on TV and the fact that I was filled with such goodwill for the American people that I never would have suspected that any of them would have made such foolish choices while driving, and I almost rear-ended people about half a dozen times in the week I was there. And the lack of cheap yet excellent beer.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

We got back from Italy on Monday. Tuesday, M arrived after having been to a wedding in Algeria. We had been texting with him on the cell phone intermittently during the Italy trip so we could cheaply keep tabs on each other's whereabouts, and I was just beginning to get the hang of it when he arrived. I'll never be able to infiltrate the youth of today without more practice!

M was already on Euro time, so he didn't have any jet lag issues. He did, however, have suitcase issues, in that his rolling bag only had a short handle and he was using a belt to lengthen it so he didn't have to walk doubled-over (he's, like, 8 feet tall or something). Use of the belt led to stability problems, and he was almost killed right off when his he lost control of his bag in front of an oncoming tram (usually we prefer to kill our guests after they've visited the ATM rather than before).

We went to a Thai place for dinner the first night so I could break out of the glut of Italian food I had been having. In addition to his entree, M ordered sticky rice, thinking it would be dessert, but it turned out to be a plain bowl of unseasoned rice delivered to our table after we had finished eating. We ended up having a face-stuffing contest with the rice which I lost in a very embarrassing fashion. Sadly, we can never show our faces at that restaurant again.

The next day I hauled him around to all the usual sights: ruins of the city wall, the Mannekin Pis, the Grand Place, and the local grocery, which he immediately identified as being part of the Food Lion family. I vociferously denied this, naturally, since the quality was so much better here, but further research revealed that Delhaize, which started in Belgium, did in fact own Food Lion. Makes me curious why the American version is so crappy by comparison, but that's a question for another day. M was on the lookout for reasonably-priced gift items, so he got some Belgian cat food from the grocery store for his feline. He reports back that, being the patriotic cat that she is, she refuses to eat the stuff, which she claims is "practically French".

We tried to scare up some cheap shopping the following day by going to some less-touristy areas of our neighborhood, the African and University quarters. Not having eaten breakfast, M decided he was going to compare eclairs that he encountered on his route, but gave up after three since the price and quality were so varied. The African quarter had not yet come to life, so we headed in the direction of the University, but not before stopping off for water and a breakfast samosa at a convenience store. That hit the spot.

I took us down all the wrong streets and there was not much to see on our route, aside from the excitingly-named Fritkot Bompa, which directed us to Google their name to visit the website (not recommended, but if you insist...). There was even less to buy. We ended up in the Ixelles graveyard, where I hadn't been since our first visit to Brussels in March. It wasn't much more lively this time around, being a place of final repose and all, but we did get to investigate some of the interesting fringe areas, where the more impoverished and/or non-European types seemed to be concentrated. After seeing some of the more creatively cared-for graves, M decided that when his time comes he wants to have a tree planted on top of his head so it can be nourished by his brains (a "braintree", if you will).

Over lunch at a Vietnamese/Thai restaurant that had tables on the sidewalk, I kept noticing people who were carrying a sheaf of papers and who would get to the intersection, consult their papers, then turn in one direction or another. They seemed to be of all ages and nationalities, with no defining characteristic other than the papers. I decided that it was some kind of University-sponsored scavenger hunt. The real flaw in this theory is that no one seemed to be having much fun, nor were they in any particular hurry. It remains a mystery. We also saw a gaggle of students dressed in blue smocks (I later learned that it is traditional for them to have to dress in 15th century peasant outfits as some kind of hazing ritual), and an extremely posh-looking bowling alley completely done up in gleaming wood and with a bartender in a suit. Must investigate that further at some point.

That night we went to dinner at the awesome pizza place near our house. Giant rectangular pizzas with high-quality and sometimes unusual toppings, you order your slice cut to size, and they weigh it and heat it for you. There's always new varieties coming out of the kitchen, so your best strategy is to park yourself in a corner somewhere and order a small slice at a time so you can get a little of everything without filling up too quickly. After dinner we stopped by the American bar around the corner from our house for a nightcap. We hadn't been there before because it has a silly name and looks pretty dingy from the outside, but it does have the advantage of being close and having an English-speaking waitstaff. The waiter/owner/manager dude was very nice and spent some time living in LA, and was keen to discuss the CA experience with M. He seemed to be on greeting terms with nearly everyone who walked down the street, and now he has added us to his list.

Friday we went to the comic strip museum, which was Tintin-tacular. Also Smurf-arific ("Schtroumpf-arific" to you French speakers), but to a somewhat lesser extent. The museum is housed in a lovely Art Nouveau department store, so it was a nice space even though the material was difficult to follow in spite of the English translations that they had given us in a binder. M seemed to be particularly taken with the portrayal of Africans through time. Disturbingly, there didn't seem to be any progress in the effort to draw them like real people until very recently, much more recently than I would have expected. The most interesting part to me was the section of comics drawn by contemporary artists, as they had some kind of relevance to me that most of the others did not. M took the opportunity of our visit to fry his brain at one of the interactive displays.

That evening we had a repast of Belgian food that consisted of stoemp for M, stoemp and meats for Jack, and mussels for me. After I placed my order they came back and tied an adult-sized cloth bib around my neck, which was a bit of a surprise. I'm sure I looked fetching. Since his return flight was at 5 the next morning and the trains weren't running at that hour, we sent M off that night so he could spend a fitful few hours trying to sleep in the airport. A short trip, but a fun one nonetheless.

Friday, November 10, 2006

On Sunday it poured intermittently all morning. In the midst of wondering whether we should just call a cab to the train station rather than risk the possibility of a drenching, there was a break in the weather long enough for us to check out of the B&B and hustle over to the station. We took the slow ride back to Naples, then on to Rome. It was pretty uneventful except for the fact that we got on the train to Rome with less than a minute to spare, and had we hesitated further we would have missed it. (The train was listed only by its final destination of Milan, so all we had to go on was the departure time.)

It was blissfully clear once we arrived in Rome, allowing us to make our way to the hotel on foot. Gulliver's is a small place with only 4 rooms in a large apartment building. We got the cheery Gold Room, which included a bath tiled in soothing green and blue that was roughly equal to the size of our room. Shortly after arriving it began raining again.

During a break in the weather, we went out for a quick lunch and then visited a church that had been designed by Michelangelo on top of some ancient Roman baths. It was huge and seemed to be more a house of looking at stuff than a house of worship. There was some kind of solar calendar built into the floor that was one of those crafty Renaissance-type things you always hear about, but due to the cloudy skies it was impossible to see it in operation. A small room to the side presented the history of the church through text and photos, and the lights were coin-operated. When they shut off after 20 minutes, everyone in there was too cheap to start them up again so we all squinted at the print in the moody half light entering from an open door.

Once we left it began to sprinkle, so we decided to break down and pay the admission to the nearby museum of antiquities. Shortly after arriving it started pouring, so we congratulated ourselves on a good choice. The museum was uncrowded, and we took our time wandering around looking at all the statues, mosaics, and murals they had hauled there from archaeology sites around the country. It was nice, but after seeing some beautiful stuff in its original location, it was hard to be blown away by it. There were two larger-than-life bronze statues that were highlights of the collection, judging by the fact that they had alarms that went off if anyone got inside the two foot perimeter around them. Two feet is excessively distant, so people were constantly leaning in for a better look and setting it off. It sounded like a two-tone electronic chime that would be go off if you entered a store, except much louder. After someone would unintentionally set it off half a dozen or so times, they would envision the perimeter and then set it off a couple more times just to fill in any blank spots in the mental image. It became a farce pretty quickly, especially since the place seemed to be staffed mostly by matronly volunteers who wouldn't be able to chase you even if you were carrying a very heavy, very large statue clutched to your chest.

There was an interior courtyard so that we could keep an eye on the weather as it continued to shower on and off. On the top floor, they were showing a full-length opera in a tiny theater, a perfect way to pass a rainy day. I would have been in there napping if they weren't playing it at such an outrageously high volume. In the basement there was a mummy and some of the things she had been buried with, the only ordinary personal items displayed in the whole museum, and some of the most interesting things they had.

The museum was open until 7 so we stayed nearly till the bitter end so we could progress right into dinner. We had scoped out some spots earlier in the day, but when we went back to take a closer look they were all unsatisfactory. After a fashion we ended up in another basement restaurant and enjoyed our last Italian meal accompanied by a liter of the house red. We turned in early so we could be well-rested for our journey home.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Friday we woke up to the sound of torrential downpours around dawn. Ah, the secret to not going nuts in sunny Sorrento: it's not sunny all the time! It was actually quite nice listening to it thrum on the roof, although the intermittent thunder meant we weren't going back to sleep. We took our time getting ready to go down to breakfast, since it was in another building and we didn't want to risk a drenching. Our door was unable to contain the onslaught of water running down the face of it and a puddle formed on our floor. We held it at bay as best we could, but in no time the towel berm was saturated and the water began seeping through. The floor was slightly sloped so the water made its way to the far end and formed a lake on Jack's side of the bed. Eventually the rain slackened enough for us to dash over to breakfast, and I told the staff of the problem. They said they'd send a crew to clean it up.

Based on the potential for more rain, we decided to keep close to town so we could duck in for shelter if need be. Our first stop was at the bar across the street from the B&B for supplemental caffeine, since the coffees at breakfast didn't take due to the morning's anxiety over the flooding. The espressos we received were in the tiniest of cups and the tablespoon or so of liquid only filled up about half the volume. We added some sugar and drank it down, receiving an immediate recharging.

We went over to Sorrento's municipal museum, which was full of ancient stuff they had dug up over time. My favorite was a stone tablet that apparently had an order for a clock repair chiseled in it. Written communication must've been so much more complicated back then. It also contained the art and housewares collections of the previous occupants of the manse (including a number of small chests of drawers that they referred to in English as "commodes") as well as an extensive temporary exhibit of what I felt was a very untalented living local artist. After a while we had had enough of the place even though we had spent a good bit of money for the pleasure of spending as much time as we wanted there.

Across the street was a municipal park/lemon grove that was supposed to contain old men doling out samples of limoncello, but due to the earlier precipitation it was a mucky mess and there was no one to be found. We strolled towards the center of town to check out some of the other highlights, which were all closed. As we were seeking out another restaurant from the guidebook that was impossible to find, we encountered the old mill. It was roofless and perched at the bottom of a narrow gulley a few stories below street level, sadly inaccessible to the public. As we continued up the street looking for the eatery, we passed under a bridge carrying the traffic of the main thoroughfare and ended up in a quieter, non-touristy section. We realized that it was unlikely that the restaurant was this far up and turned back around to descend to the main area when a downpour popped up not far off. I quickly sought refuge under the bridge but Jack continued to saunter, not knowing that he was being tailed by a curtain of water, even though I was urging him to hurry from my dry spot. He found out the hard way, but fortunately he didn't get too wet.

We had lunch at a spot memorable only for the fact that it was dry and the women's bathroom somehow escaped my notice so I used the men's room. The urinals were separated from the corridor by only a set of swinging saloon doors, but there was also a private stall. Later we visited the ruins of the Roman wall built around the town. On our way back to Sant'Agnello we wondered what state our room would be in. I retrieved the key from the office and the staff member there offered us a new room, since he couldn't guarantee it wouldn't happen again if it rained. We considered it, not wanting to be too much of a bother, but in the end we decided to move. We gathered our possessions and said farewell to our airy perch in the sky and descended to the floor below. The new room seemed to be part of the original construction, with a high, domed ceiling and a bathroom carved out of one corner. We settled in for the afternoon to plot our evening's entertainment of eating and hanging out.

Does anything ever go as planned? Not really, but if it did there'd be nothing to write about. We walked towards the center of Sant'Agnello to have dinner at a restaurant I had seen advertising their roasted meats. When we got to the main road, we noticed that traffic had been stopped by cops. We passed the main square where there was a festive air and a handful of vendors were selling trinkets. After browsing for a few minutes we continued onwards to the restaurant. We then noticed that there was a large crowd gathered in the middle of the street in front of a roadside shrine to Mary. A priest, surrounded by altar boys in white and a plume of incense, was reciting a benediction through a couple of bullhorns lashed together and raised on a pole. We watched as the ceremony came to a close and the crowd began to disperse in our direction. That was interesting, we thought. Suddenly we realized the mass of people was reconvening and we soon discovered why--a roadside crucified Jesus, backed by a wheel of lights, was being feted as well, this time by very loud fireworks. We retreated across the street to a gas station to be safe from the immediate danger of something fiery flying in our direction, to hold our ears (the explosions seemed very loud, for some reason) and to take pictures. It went on for several minutes, after which the crowd really dispersed. Unfortunately, my chosen restaurant was right by the action so it was completely full by the time we arrived. The Hungarian from our B&B was standing in the middle of the tables, looking lost. We waved at him and quickly exited, heading for the restaurant we had tried to go to the previous evening.

Although the interior of the place reminded me of the many wood-paneled establishments you encounter when you leave the US interstates, for some reason primarily in PA in the winter (way too big for the number of patrons, tacky furniture, lacking decorations, and a bathroom waaay on the other side of the nearly-empty place), the fennel salad with bresaola, shaved parmesan and balsamic vinegar was fantastic. I followed it up with an entree-sized salad, which was also good and a refreshing break from the pizza and pasta. To compensate for our limoncello misadventure earlier in the day Jack ordered one as a digestive. Delicious.

We sauntered back to the hotel, taking in the evening air, and ran into the Hungarian again. He regaled us with how good the restaurant he went to was, in spite of the wait. Best pizza, reasonable prices, blah, blah, blah. I think he had mentioned at that first dinner that he was a university lecturer, and he felt free to expound on the wonderfulness of the meal compared with the others he had had. Eventually we managed to beg off and sent him on his way to the bar overlooking the water where we had encountered him the day before. Ensconced in our comfy new room, we quickly drifted off.

And awoke to another morning of rain. Good thing we changed rooms! Once we got down to breakfast we overhead one of the staff people (who I decided were all part of a large extended family, including an elderly woman I referred to as "Nonna" who seemed to be shouting angry things at the sky as she carried her broom around) say it was the beginning of their seasonal rains, which were late in coming this year, and that it hadn't rained all summer before that week. Thanks for the warning, guidebooks.

We decided to go to the island of Capri so as to do something manageable and a bit different on our last day in town. I wasn't terribly excited about going there, as it was said to be the home or vacation spot for the very wealthy and packed with throngs of tourists, but decided to give it a go nonetheless. Plus we had been denied our previous ferry ride and there was the potential for riding up a mountain on a ski lift, so it couldn't be all bad. On our way out of the compound after breakfast we encountered the Hungarian again, who had thankfully already been to Capri and settled for telling us how wonderful it was rather than inviting himself along.

Before we left we stopped at a church in Sorrento that was notable primarily for the fact that they had a gigantic whale rib bone, but it turned out to be secreted behind a temporary wall so we could only see the top peeking over. We went in to light a candle for our trip, and there was a man a few steps ahead of us making the rounds to all the icons, dumping a few coins in each slot, then flipping the switches on nearly all the "candles", not pausing before going on to the next one--he must've needed some serious divine help for whatever his problem was. We found an unlit one to wish on and proceeded to the port.

We took a 25-minute hydrofoil ride over to the island. Sadly the open-air top deck was closed, and we soon found out why: the seas were pretty rough, sending spray cascading over the boat. The whole journey was pretty nauseating. Staff kept moving greenish passengers to the center of the back, where I assume it was a little less bumpy, but even so there were barf bags passed around. It was worse than the ride across the Chesapeake from Tangier Island in the 6-passenger crabbing boat during the remnants of Hurricane Ivan. But I digress. We managed to arrive in one piece and high-tailed it out of there.

There was a funiculare that climbed the hillside through a tunnel to deposit people at the city of Capri on the top, but we took some paved paths and steps up to the main square. Sure enough, there were tons of people loitering around looking like they were just bursting at the potential for a celebrity sighting. We made quick work of the town center and hurried to a less crowded spot, the Arco Naturale. Predictably, this was a natural stone arch. The stroll there, on a path that overlooked the whitewashed rooftops of many dwellings, was pleasant, as was my lunch of rabbit at a hillside spot with a view of Sorrento. The threesome at the next table were busy discussing the decorating ideas of one of their party. I couldn't see them so didn't get a good feel for whether the three were friends or a rich woman and her hired hands, but Jack concluded it was the former. Based on their discussion of the redecoration, my only conclusion was it was true that money can't buy taste.

We took a path high above the water, passing an ancient nymphaeum (outdoor bath in a natural grotto), a funky-looking house that was previously owned by a member of the Fascist party, and many rosemary shrubs perfuming our steps, making our roundabout way back into town. We walked by the shop that developed the original Capri pants and then stopped off for a gelato sandwich on brioche, which was cool because the melting ice cream dripped into the bread and there was no mess. Also quite tasty.

We decided to hop the bus to Anacapri, the other town on the island. This was another perilous bus ride, in part because most passengers were standing and it felt like if the group didn't hold on tight enough we might end up throwing our weight to one side of the bus at the same time, toppling it over the edge. At the top we checked out the ski lift only to find that it was shut down. Not being much else to do that wasn't a hike, we hung out in the square plotting our next move. It began to rain a bit so we decided to look for the nearby church of St. Michael. We arrived there in time to wait out the worst of the downpour. The floor of the church was entirely made out of tiles depicting the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Most of the myriad animals shown had human-like eyes with a knowing gleam in them, as if they had all eaten from the tree of knowledge--when was it that people began looking at animals closely enough to realize they didn't look like that? Surely it was before the floor was constructed. Perhaps it was artistic license. We spent the storm in the organ loft, listening to the couple below try out cell phone ring tones. How rude!

We exited the church and Jack spied a rainbow over the town, which could only bode well for the rest of our stay on Capri. We headed back towards the main square by another route and were excited to see the chair lift going, although when we got there we discovered that it was only operating to let people down off the top. Another denial! As it was getting on in the afternoon and we were out of ideas, we felt it was a good time to head back to the port for the ferry ride home. The line for the bus was very long, though, and the first one passed by without picking up any new passengers. Unreasonably fearful of being stuck there (Tangier Island memories again), we decided to take the Phoenecian steps down. The steps used to be the only thing linking the two cities until they built the road, and were described in our book as "punishing" to go up, so I wasn't really looking forward to them. The only other alternative, though, was walking the road itself, which seemed to have a higher potential for disaster.

As we made our way down, it was easy to see why the steps were described in such negative terms: each riser was about 1.5 times the normal size, which I imagine would be a workout to climb. Our biggest threat was from the rain-slicked, rounded stones that made up the treads. That and the fact that we weren't supposed to be on them at all--about 1/3 of the way down we encountered signage indicating that the steps were closed. Given our options, we decided to keep going, and it turns out that a small section of the stairs had a tree across them that we had to bypass. No biggie.

We got to the bottom and made our way to the port. There were some people a few steps ahead of us on the road, and when we passed them the woman asked me something, which I assumed was along the lines of "what were the stairs like?" I said "oh," blew out my cheeks to demonstrate tiredness, and made some swooshing motions with my hand to indicate the steep angle of the steps. Given my obvious inability to speak any Italian, she then proceeded to ask a follow-up question! It involved the word "rapide", so I just said "Si, si!" and we hustled past the group to prevent further interrogation.

We made it just in time to catch the ferry, thankfully a smoother ride this time. As it was our last night in Sorrento, after visiting some of the previously-closed attractions and having a beer at an English pub during another downpour, we decided to go for a fancier place than the more casual eateries we had been frequenting. The back of the restaurant opened onto a glass-enclosed orangerie and in general was a very pleasant setting. I had a white bean soup with arugula and quail ravioli--a satisfying end to this portion of our trip.