Our ride along the Amalfi Coast started out in another century. The night before, we slept in an old stone farmhouse in the hills of Campania, guests of the family of our friend Judy. How did we get there?
The Naples train station was its usual mob scene. We navigated with the help of Mario, Judy's family friend. An American studying in Rome, he spoke fluent Italian. He loved Italy; he adored the menswear. Studying the map, Mario told us we were going to a really out of the way place.
Around 3:00 in the afternoon the train brought us to a small town in Salerno province. Mario said it was another few miles to the house. We walked. Two girls in backpacks, their escort in sharply creased white pants. A smaller village. In the hot sun of mid afternoon, the main street was empty. Until the three of us strolled through. People started coming out of doorways to stare. Should we have dressed better? 'Well... ,' said Mario. He didn't have a chance to finish. An elderly man smiled and said 'Americani!' He clapped. More smiles. Mario waved. To us he said, 'This is a really out of the way place. They may not have seen an American since the war.'
Now we were out on a country road. Only an occasional stone house. Somehow Mario knew the right one. Under her breath, Judy nervously rehearsed a few phrases in Italian.
The greeting was explosive, the crowd immense. We were led into a courtyard. Three elderly women dressed in black sat on wooden chairs, bowls on their lap, shelling beans. Judy came up with her best Italian and kissed each one. A small car sped into the courtyard. A young man jumped out. 'Giuditta!' Another effusive greeting. He motioned to Mario, and the two of them started hauling crates of tomatoes out of the backseat of the car. One of the elderly women looked up from the beans. With a single sharp word, she redirected the crates into the house.
Next we were led from the courtyard to the fields behind the house. Here the driver of the small car grandly swept an arm across the horizon. 'Cultura!' Was there an orchestra in the distant hills? Evidently we didn't get it. With that unmistakable gesture of his fingertips gathered into a point, he wrapped his knuckles on an imaginary window and said, 'Pomodoro!' We looked into the setting sun. All around us fields of ripe tomatoes stretched to the horizon.
As we stood there in the early evening, a deep bell tolled. Motioning toward the hills, our host pointed out a distant stucco building with a red tile roof. 'Monastero.' Mario had a few words with him. The monastery was about four hundred years old. It was new to the neighborhood.
Dinner that night was a family affair for forty. We had already been coached on the ways of the Italian table. A slice of melon is a work of art, not meant to be gouged with a spoon. Instead it is sectioned into perfect cubes with the knife, each one then delicately speared with the fork. Mario was particularly firm about the use of a knife to cut up pasta. Never. In Italy a three year old can twirl up a forkful of spaghetti in the bowl of a spoon.
So we watched as a mindblowing array of dishes was brought to the table, rehearsing in our mind how we would approach each course. We saw the beans from the courtyard, the tomatoes from the field. The ladies in black supervised a cadre of daughters and nieces who served. We were in the home stretch. Bottles of wine. Water. The children grew especially excited. Someone said, 'Americani!' and beamed at Judy. With a final flourish, a bottle of CocaCola was placed at the center of the table.
Much later, after a lengthy family debate about the must-see attractions on the Amalfi Coast, we were sent off to bed. The farmhouse, from the outside a modest residence, had a huge number of rooms. High ceilings, cold stone floors. A bed with white sheets, a sink, an open pair of wooden shutters at the window. Late at night, the hills of Campania are completely silent. In summer there is still enough light to make out the shape of the distant monastery, maybe even to glimpse life as it has been lived for centuries.