No Bag Big Enough

I’m back. I’ll have more to say about the trip’s conclusion (Tab and Brianna joining us in Sorrento, the four of us going on to Venezia, Tab and I in Giovinazzo, and the awful trip home with both of us weak and very, very sick), but something just jumped out at me and I have to write about it now.

Months ago, on my other blog, I wrote about buying a leather bag my first weekend in Sorrento, the day after my mother died. It’s a good bag and I carried it across Europe for the last few months. In fact, I can’t say for sure that I ever left the

Tab and I in St. Mark’s Square, Venice

apartment without it. After four-plus months of hard use, the bag has faded a bit and lost it’s shape a little. I could see taking it with me on a flight to the Midwest, or maybe a day-trip to Boston, but it will never be used on a daily basis again.

So I cleaned it out today and after I had found better places for the NINE ink pens and multiple little notebooks, and Neapolitan playing cards, and charging cables, and European USB plugs, used train tickets, and the hundred or so scraps of paper…I went to hang it on a hook in the mudroom. But there was already a bag on the hook.

It was the bag I took to Oxford as a student in 1993. I went there for a study-abroad program with a group of fellow English majors (mostly) from my college in Missouri. It was an army-surplus (and army-green) bag that looked sufficiently manly to ward off my American-male fear of the “man-purse” label. For that whole trip, it was always full–lots of pens, little notebooks, used train tickets, calling cards, travelers’ checks, and hundreds of scraps of paper. And it was full of so much more because it was my dead brother’s bag and it helped me carry my grief everywhere we went.

I can’t tell you how Brian died in this blog post. That story’s too complex. But he had died less than three weeks before. I loved him very much. I was run-through with

Brian and I on Little Brown’s Creek Trail, Colorado, May, 1993

guilt over his death. I smothered myself with remorse for my (unwitting) last words to him. I woke up with all of it every morning. I lay down with it at night. Everyone who
went on that trip experienced that grief with me…whether they wanted to or not. On the bus to Stonehenge, I would begin weeping in my seat. On the croquet lawn of Oxford’s Manchester College, I would have to lay my mallet in the grass and lean against the wall to cover my face. Once, I remember hanging up the payphone in the ground floor of the building where the guys’ rooms were. I had been talking to Tab, or maybe my Mom and Dad, and I was sobbing. Around the corner from the phone, I started up the narrow steps only to find Tony standing there. He held onto me while I wailed.

Tony was my best friend. The Best Man at my wedding, one-time house-mate, and now room-mate on this trip. We went everywhere together. He heard it all. And he wasn’t merely sympathetic (as if being sympathetic weren’t enough), he was grieving too. Part of the too-long-to-tell story is that my brother drowned with one of our

Tony and I in Amsterdam (I think), June, 1993

very-best-friends, Wendy…wife of one our other very-best-friends. Our whole little community had been rent. Tony looked into the same hole-in-the-world that I looked in every day. He hadn’t known Brian much, but he loved me and we shared a fierce grief for Wendy who had died with Brian. Our room in Oxford was awash with wine-bottles and photographs of the dead. I never needed to explain any of it to him.

Twenty-three years later, I grieved Mom very differently. I had been grieving my mother’s death from the moment (a year-and-a-half before) she was given her terminal diagnosis. I had grieved with her. This time the guilt was for not being there, not being with my family when they needed me. But, once more, I didn’t have to grieve on my own. My daughter had lost her grandmother. All the friends who Maya would have leaned on were on the other side of the world. So we leaned on each other. Mostly. We also reinforced what we knew was Mom’s wish: don’t let grief block out this experience. I think we honored that wish. The night of her service, Maya and I

Maya at Marina Grande, Sorrento

went to Marina Grande and sat on a bench in front of one of the many still-closed-for-the-season restaurants, and watched the waves come into the harbor. We talked about Mom. We held each other. We threw coins into the water. We recorded the surf and the bells that rang and rang and rang.

After that, if we were sitting on the couch and noticed the other gazing into the hole-in-the-world, a brush of the hand and a murmur would pass between us. We made room for the grief between us. It was enough.


Anyway, today there were the two bags together. Empty now, having carried the things I needed on the other side of the world. When I sat down to write this, I thought I was writing about the bags. But it turns out this is a love letter to two fellow-travelers…to the one who let me wail, and also to the one who let me be silent.



Mamma Mia!!! A joyful night in Sorrento!

Maybe some few southerners in the US really say “Y’all come back now!” and probably we exaggerate the number of brits who refer to each other as “Old chap!” But italians DO say “Mamma mia!” and they say it a lot. No one I have met in Italy says it more frequently, more passionately, and more joyfully than Annamaria at O’Sole Mio Pizzeria in Sorrento.

And I love it.

IMG_0254.jpgMarisa LaGreca took all of the Study Abroad Italy (SAI) students studying at Sant’Anna out for one last meal together. And the kicker was going to be that we could make our own pizzas. The pizzas were delicious. Top notch.

But the food was beside the point. In the months that I have been here, I can’t think of a happier place, or a happier person, in all of Europe. She spoke not a word of English, and any single one of us who attempted to speak to her (especially in Italian) earned an immediate embrace and then Annamaria would step back with her radiant smile, wiping tears from her eyes or fanning herself, and say “O, mamma mia.”

You’re probably saying, “Whoa, Scott! That’s some serious hyperbole you’re laying down.” Or maybe you’re wondering if we had a few bottles of wine with our pizza. Nope. Cokes and waters all around. IMG_0333.jpg

Within just a few minutes, every single person in our party of 14 was smiling. And I don’t mean polite smiles that you “put on.” I mean I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life-and-my-face-can’t-either smiling.

Involuntary brain stem joy.

It’s the kind of happiness that penetrates into the back warehouse of your brain–the place where, despite the happy situation you find yourself in right now, a dedicated crew of workers is always making sure all of your grief, and fear, and uncertainty are in good working order, ready when called–so that even there the darkness is illuminated.

You don’t believe me? Look at these faces.IMG_0168IMG_0210IMG_0166IMG_0316IMG_0229IMG_0329IMG_0331

Oh, but there’s more.

Annamaria told us that we had given her such joy because she had not for a long time seen so many young people with such happy faces and that she felt young tonight, like a girl herself.

But I only half believe it. I’ll bet anyone who walks into O’Sole Mio and flashes even the faintest smile will get this love. I think she carries this radiance around every day and can barely hold it in. I plan to take my family there before we leave Sorrento so they can feel it. I hope to cross the ocean to come back  some day for one more of these smiles.


Then again, maybe we are special. Of all the meals we’ve had out in these past four IMG_0351months, I can’t remember the group spontaneously deciding to write a thank you note on the spot. And judging from the amount of tape they used to attach it to the wall, the folks at O’Sole Mio treasured it as much as we treasured this night.

I’m so grateful that our trip ends on a note like this. Soon, the faces and voices and places of Sorrento will begin to fall away from our memory like leaves. But this beautiful Italiana will stay with me for many years.

If I am lucky.

I hope I am so lucky.

Skin and bones…well, bones and skin

We met up with Alberto in Napoli today. Alberto, a professor at Sant’Anna who teaches the wildly popular “History of the Mafia” and “Italian Tourism” classes, is a loyal son of Napoli. He acknowledges it has real problems (the trash, in particular, seemed to perturb him), but the city could not ask for a more devoted booster. He met us coming out of the catacombs where Marisa had taken us for a tour (and where I had not gotten many good pictures since it was all empty niches carved in the walls where the bodies had been long-since removed to another catacomb).IMG_0032IMG_0045

We were soon briskly moving through some of the poorest, most densely populated neighborhoods in Naples. Without Alberto, I confess, I would have been nervous to come to this neighborhood. Like many Neapolitans, when I told him about being robbed in February at the train station, he was a little defensive. “Yes, but tourists get robbed in every city” is the invariable reply of Neapolitans weary of the bad reputation their city has. I agree. Even in small towns there is crime.

Still, I’ve only been robbed in this one.

Anyway, you want to see bones? Alberto took us to a 16th century “cemetery” for plague victims (free admission!!!):IMG_0053IMG_0057IMG_0055IMG_0058IMG_0061IMG_0059IMG_0060

So then we went and had pizza.

But I mean the best pizza I’ve had yet in Italy. Simple. Fresh. Sweet. Basililily.File_000.jpeg

And we set off again through this beautiful, and thoroughly Neapolitan, neighborhood.IMG_0075IMG_0077IMG_0078IMG_0081IMG_0049.jpg

Our final stop was Omega Napoli, considered the best manufacturers of leather gloves in the world.


Gates of Hell and Green Isles

As our time in Italy is getting closer to an end, we’re packing more and more in. Last weekend, with the Masons in town, we went to Pompeii (my 3rd time!), hiked Vesuvius, and hiked out to Regina Giovanna.

This weekend, we doubled down…

On Friday, Maya and I  went with the Archeology Professor, Ilaria, to the Campi Flegrei (Burning Lands) to see the brooding, boiling supervolcano that makes nearby Vesuvius look like a teapot, then on to more Roman ruins.

All photos, unless otherwise noted, were taken by Maya.

First stop was the Vulcano Sulfurata, one of 40 craters that make up the Flegrei supervolcano that will one day destroy Europe. That huge flat area was like walking on a dancefloor–you could feel and hear that there was hollow space beneath you. And it was hot–my feet were uncomfortably warm after a few minutes. And it stank. Because the sulphur-steam pouring out of the fumaroles STINKS. Science!


Beneath the arena at Pozzuoli. This is where the gladiators and the animals waited to be raised to the arena in elevators. They could raise whole small forests to recreate “hunt” scenes.

Left to right: Hunter Hawanczak, Brian Nazzaro, Kendal LaRiviere, [Abbie, photobombing] Libbie Jenkins, and me.

And then it was on to Baia, site of the Imperial Villa starting with Nero. This villa was famous for it’s baths, which the emperors allowed the public to use and which later Victorians believed to be temples.



This is some video Maya shot in the “Temple of the Echos”, which was really the sauna portion of the imperial baths that filled in with mud and sand and water from the mountain and created an eerie echo chamber…


Sunset from our balcony. (photo by Scott)

On Saturday, I took my PSU students to Capri to hike to Arco Naturale…and deliver a thank you present.

Capri (Photo by Scott)


This way.
VERY steep incline! (Notice I’m not lagging behind)
Left to right: Kendal LaRiviere, McCabe Hemmers, John Gavin, me, Hunter Hawanczak, and Thomas Radonich.
After that climb, the Arco Naturale is under construction!
Italian scaffolding really is the best.
The person who is always pointing the camera, get so annoyed when it’s suddenly pointed at her. (Photo by Scott)
Me and Gigi Bove.

This picture has a little story. Back in March, flying to England, I ordered lunch on the plane but had to hand it all back over when my credit card was declined. Our seatmate was Gigi, who owns a rental place on Capri ( you should check it out, VERY reasonable for Capri!) and he insisted that I have half of his enormous sandwich and a bottle of his water. I declined but he said, “No no, but how am I to sit here and eat knowing you are hungry just there? You must eat this!” He could see that I was unnerved about having my card declined (we were headed to London with no cash on the assumption it would be easier/cheaper to get pounds there) so he told funny stories and described the wonders of Capri. The food and the conversation helped to settle my nerves  (thankfully, once I was on the ground, the card worked fine). I swore to Maya that we would go out to Capri and take him a nice bottle of wine. We did. We met Gigi and his girlfriend and another friend who was a filmmaker on her way to shoot some footage of the Blue Grotto. We had caffè in a sunny sidewalk cafe and then Gigi slipped into the bar and PAID.

So now I owe him again.

I’ll have to go back to Capri. Dang.

This is Regina Giovanna, with Sorrento in the background, that we have taken visitors to on a few occasions. Cool to see it from the sea instead! (Photo by Scott)
And a view looking back at Sant’Anna and Marina Grande. (Photo by Scott)
Marina Piccolo (Photo by Scott)

Un giorno a Pompeii e Vesuvio con miei amici, i Masoni

I can’t begin to describe how good it was to see my friend Nick stroll out of the Continental Hotel this morning and into Piazza Vittorio followed by Heather and the whole crew. Soon after I announced that I had gotten the Sorrento gig, Nick and Heather decided to try to visit me. When Nick’s Mom, Missy, decided she want to take her whole family to Italy, the plan began to come together.

So today, their first day after arriving, they decided to beat the promised rain and see Pompeii and hike Vesuvius. Pompeii was FAAAARRR more crowded than when I was last there in February…and much of it was closed off so they could repair it for the even bigger hordes of tourists to come. But we saw some amazing stuff…IMG_9267

One of Maya’s artsy shots…


Look. There’s a thing.
Three happy Masons. And the other one.



A Chance to Play Host

Brianna came last week for a whirlwind visit (arriving in Naples Wednesday afternoon and departing from Rome on Monday afternoon). It was so good to see her…and it gave us a chance to play host for a change and show off what we most loved about this place (with the understanding that we are saving a lot for Tab’s visit next month). Here are some photos more or less in the order we took them…


We picked Brianna up at the airport in Napoli (she had flown Boston > Reykjavik > London > Napoli) and took the Circumvesuviana back to Sorrento. We went out for a little dinner and a walk, but we were all tired (especially Brianna).

Welcome to Italy!
Garibaldi Station waiting for the Circumvesuviana
Our first stop was the English Inn


Walk to Piano

On Thursday I had to work, but I took most of Friday off so we could walk around. We walked to Piano di Sorrento to buy coffee (closed) and mozzarella (closed) from the factories Maya and I had visited with my class.IMG_1914IMG_1922

Hike to the ruins and lagoon

My money is starting to run out so we tried to do as many free things as we could. On Saturday, we hiked to the ruins of a roman villa and medieval watch tower that sit above a sheltered lagoon. The path took us on a steep climb above the city of Sorrento, into the quiet farms and wealthy villas, then down steeply again to the sea.



That’s a bunny at the base of the tree in front of the lemons. Maya is convinced that this is bunny “sanctuary.”


Somehow it was my fault that the hike ended in rain…
Cure for rainy day grumps…


On Sunday we took the Circ back into Napoli…turns out Napoli on a Sunday afternoon is a pretty sleepy place…

Yay! Going to Napoli!


Soooo tired of Napoli….

Roma & Goodbye

And on Monday we took the train to Roma, saw a few sites, spent a lot of time on my phone dealing with a student-problem back at Sant’Anna, and ate some terrific pastrami in the Jewish quarter of the city.

Enjoying the stunning scenery on the way to Rome…


The seasoned traveler heading home.




Buona Pasqua

Americans, on first seeing the hundreds of men in white hoods, carrying crosses, torches, spears, and other instruments, invariably twitch at the sight. For us, the white hoods evoke the cowardly disguises of the loathsome Ku Klux Klan — America’s most famous bigots. There is some pleasure, then, in the irony that their costumes imitate the much older traditions of Catholics…one of the many groups the Klan hated.

This post will cover two Good Friday processions: the early morning white procession, and the black procession that follows in the evening. There were others. I don’t suppose the symbolism needs to be explained…

The White Procession

At 3 a.m., I was standing on Via Fuoro, not far from Via Torquata Tasso, when I saw these fellows round the corner.


And then I heard this:

And while I could see a few of the processionalists lined up, I had no idea how many hundreds there would be. I retreated to the corner of  Via Fuoro and Via Tasso, with a terrific band in pursuit. I’ll be honest, I’m not usually a fan of marching band music (think Sousa), but these were very accomplished musicians playing a haunting tune:

I had to stop recording and get out of the way. And following the band, rank upon silent rank of the men and boys of the town, organized according to their congregation and carrying the ritualistic symbols of crosses, scourges, nails, spears, and so on. It took over an hour for the entire procession to pass.



That’s a crank between his fingers on the cross. It makes a loud rattling sound.

For hundreds of years, the men and boys of the town have walked this route, from church to to church, carrying statues of Mary and robed in white as they help her search for her son, arrested in Jerusalem. The next day, his fate sealed by Pontius Pilate, they wear black and process again.

The Black Procession

And then, tonight, the even more solemn Black procession. First, I got far fewer usable pictures. Partly because this was held at 8:30 p.m., so it was far more crowded and there was always someone’s head in the way. Partly because it turns out to be much harder to get a good shot of someone dressed in a black hood and robe AT NIGHT. Who knew?

Again, they started with their rockin’ good band (I shot this video on the DSLR so it’s unwatchable…but listen to it as you look at the pictures that follow: