Sorrento, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast

Italy is bursting with springtime today. The sky is blue and the air is perfumed with flowers, and I see red bougainvillea and roses in all colors, dripping over fences, mixing with the smell of bus fumes and Vespas, and a sugary breeze of frying doughnuts.

On this vacation we decided to take the boys to see Pompeii. We stayed in Sorrento and rented a car so we could also drive along the coast to Amalfi, Positano, and Ravello (but mostly because Mike really likes to drive). Everywhere the streets were busy and bustling with people wearing sandals and sundresses, holding cones of gelato and fried calamari, and eating giant scoops of lemon sorbet out of real, hollowed-out lemons. They sit and talk in outdoor cafes with plates of flakey sfogliatella, and somehow manage, in that European way, to make a tiny cappuccino last for hours.

The traffic was a little crazy but Mike is an expert driver, dodging bicycles and weaving through traffic circles while barely fitting behind the wheel. To drive here is to drive without apology or fear, to narrowly miss the corners of buildings or other cars, or Vespas carrying tanned people in shorts. Vespas are like flies, and they are everywhere! They drop kids off at school and deliver the mail, and apparently, you can even ride a Vespa in a Speedo.

The Amalfi Coast deserves its reputation for being The Amalfi Coast. Italian life is on full display with people smoking cigarettes and sipping spritzes, and little girls saying “Mama Mia!” Grandmothers, children, and young couples all mingle together at the beach, taking selfies, changing diapers, and digging holes in the sand. Old men crowd together on benches and birds swoop around expensive yachts, where the boys noticed women with evident plastic surgery lounging on the decks.

It’s interesting that at the beach we are all pretty much the same. Eating chips, slathering sunscreen on children, pulling up sagging swimsuits, napping. Music and voices mix in the breeze, a calming hum of white noise that becomes everything and nothing, as we pass the day anonymously half-naked together before going home sleepy and sunburned. One more day passed where we, too, do everything and nothing. It is a peaceful nothing, to lie here on this beach chair and watch my husband and children dive into the Mediterranean Sea.

At dinner we eat pizza in a restaurant with hams hanging from the ceiling, and watch while the bartender mixes drinks and delivers huge platters of prosciutto. Another night we eat in a lemon grove, where twinkling lights wind overhead through the lemons and everyone seems to be celebrating something. Why is Italy like this? And why aren’t we?

As daylight fades, the hillside towns are vibrantly aglow with yellow, pink, orange, dusty blue, and every other color of the sunset as it shines on the pastel plastered walls, scattered with lines of fresh laundry hanging to dry in the breeze. How does Italy turn age into beauty like this? There are cracks and crumbles everywhere but they sprout flowers instead of weeds, and the elderly live right along side the young, redefining “age” as something valuable and full of life. I think this is what I love most about being here. This country does not allow Youth Culture to win, because it’s wise enough to know that there is quite a lot of wisdom in being old.

One afternoon we took a bike tour, and our guide, Fabio, took us up the hillside on twisting dirt paths overlooking the ocean. The wind blew past our ears as we pedaled along the coast, through villages full of Italian people living normal lives that seem to revolve around lunch, tiny cars, and nice shoes. Eventually we landed (or crashed) in a lemon grove, and met a family that has been making limoncello on their farm for four generations. The afternoon air was warm with sea salt and flowers, and I understand why people who are born here never leave. I wouldn’t leave either.

Four days later we are calmed by our spritzes, and inspired to be kind to each other by new family memories of a volcano, an ancient city, a lemon farm, a bike trip, a secret note, a Fiat parade, rum babas, pizza, a day at the beach, and a magnificent botanical garden overlooking the sea. The comments from our teenagers on this trip ranged from “This is stupid, I hate this!” to “Mom, this is the best trip ever, thanks!”

Being a parent to teenagers is a reminder that life is a lesson in contrast. The low parts don’t feel so great, but we would not soar with joy through the good ones without them.