Palinuro

Palinuro

No hesitations this time, no halfway measures, no roundabout routes. Straight to Naples, Capodichino airport, from Spokane, Washington. Late morning arrival, zero problems, caffé and sfogliatella first order of business. Hot, but it’s the humidity that gets to you, 80 degrees in Naples is not at all like 80 degrees in San Francisco. It is a Friday.

Message from my cousin Mimmo. We’re vacationing in Palinuro (which I already knew), come join us for the weekend, we have reserved a bungalow for you right next to our villa. We have no plans, no appointments, no internet, no house, no car. It’s a rare state of Nirvana. We have our telefonini and some dollars. Change some of those right away, switch to the vertiginously expensive euro. TIP: it’s always better to change to a currency in that currency’s home country.

So, what can I tell you about Palinuro, the ancient mariner? Well, let’s don’t talk about the ancient mariner, go to Wikipedia if you are interested, there IS a story. Let’s instead talk about the little town which is named after him. First of all, you can travel from Naples to Palinuro for free. Or maybe it just happens on Fridays. Be that as it may, we did honestly try to buy train tickets, but time was short and the lines were long and the ticket machines didn’t work. So we got on the train ticketless, resigned to paying the fine when the conductor came. But lo!, no conductor in sight for the entire 2-plus-hour trip, hence the proverbial free ride. And did I mention the free entertainment? Opposite us there sat a gentleman who would not stop obsessing about the train’s punctuality. On a little piece of paper he noted the arrival and departure times at each station, kept a tally of the number of seconds we were early or late, and a running (mono/dia)logue on the train’s performance. After the fourth stop it was all I could do to keep from ripping pen and paper from his fingers and tossing both out of the window!

Palinuro is a little town with one main street that comes alive on summer nights with summer people crowding its shops and restaurants, promenading and looking for friends. It is quintessentially Italian, a smattering of Germans and Englishmen, but not many. Everyone can be seen at night along the little boulevard, nay, everyone MUST be seen! Most summer people who visit in August have a summer house, and they come year after year. My cousin has been coming to Palinuro for 30 years, knows all the locals, and most of his fellow vacationers. In the evening we drift up and down the streets in a carefully choreographed dance: a pause here to greet a friend, a longer one a few meters away to exchange a few words with another, swap an amusing little story. Someone else drifts by, tosses a casual greeting of words, gestures, and smiles. We move on, another ten meters, another stop, a story about a wayward son or daughter, a quick update on some uncle’s health, a sententious opinion on a cruise just completed, a politician just installed, a football game just lost. Someone calls from a balcony, shouted greetings, laughter, generous gestures. The mean free path shortens, here’s another collision, news about a new shop in town, a pizzeria that’s just opened, other changes in the town, new faces, and always, the state of the sea, the temperature of the water, the wind conditions, the boats, the fishing, etcetera. And who is this? Ah yes, my cousin from America, great, big, hulking America, and he comes to little Palinuro? Smiles of satisfaction, it’s a vindication, handshakes, invitations; the whole world is a friend. We move on, we spy a gelateria, we sit, order gelato, take a rest from our labours. The Italian night, still young but sultry and seductive, smell of cyclamen on one side and sea smells on the other, the Mediterranean world venerable with age, still beating to its ancient rhythms and dreaming its ancient dreams.

The beach of Palinuro is nice, but not great. The water, always warm by West Coast standards, is clean but not pristine. The beach is sandy, but a two-foot wide line of pebbles along the water’s edge makes getting in and out of the water a chore for unshod feet. The vu cumprà, the itinerant vendors, come reliably with their entire inventory on display. You can buy jewelry, hats, scarves, purses and more. Some of the merchandise is surprisingly beautiful and inexpensive. Bargains can be had if you have the stomach to haggle. Rule of thumb: offer half the initial asking price. The vu cumprà used to come from Tunisia and Morocco, now they come from a surprising array of countries: Cameroon, India, Somalia, Senegal. Some nationalities are conspicuously absent: no Poles, or Rumanians or Ukrainians on the beaches, they are found mostly in the cities. Italy has become a country of immigration rather than emigration, with all the attendant social and economic stresses that Americans already know about. But it’s only the latest chapter in a millennial saga: Italy has always been, and will continue to be, at the crossroads, the traditional bridge between East and West, the meeting point of the Mediterranean world.

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