4 May 2019






school photos







           All original writing

           2014, 2015, 2016, 2017,            2018, 2019

           Ian McLauchlin



Let's have a change from a beach holiday. How about  . . . . somewhere without a beach?

The plane was descending into Naples. Lots of hills and we somehow found a route between them as we got lower and lower, winding through valleys with peaks either side. "Pull up, pull up." They even told you how to fasten your seat belt.

Naples had some well-dodgy areas and they told us not to venture out without a police escort. Fortunately we were whisked south, past Vesuvius and Pompei and round the Bay of Naples to Sorrento. The hotel was up a hill out of the centre and near the small town of St Agata. There were wonderful views across the Bay and not a beach in sight.

When we arrived, the Hotel Staff lined up regally, to greet us. Starting with the Maitre d', or the Italian equivalent. Very strong handshake. Then the waiters, looking very cheerful but not very well-paid. Then the Maids who professed to be very vigilant in the sniffing out of toilet misdemeanors. Bows and curtseys all round.

Not being used to Italian toilets, we were puzzled by the proliferation of receptacles. No, you couldn't flush the toilet paper away. It had to go in the receptacle marked 'non osare', which means 'If this isn't full to the brim each day, you're out on your ear'. Something to do with the sewage system, or maybe the indestructibility of the toilet paper/sandpaper.

If you walked up the road away from the coast, you came to the town, with its narrow streets, small Piaggio trucks and Lottery Ticket booths where we'd see waiters from the hotel surreptitiously trying to supplement their meagre income. (This was 1995, when a UK lottery was only a gleam in an entrepreneur's eye.) They smiled their hardest, clearly wanting us to remember them when it was time to leave our tips. The Piaggio vehicles were everywhere. They were small and narrow enough to squeeze down the tiniest streets. If you heard a 'phut phut' sound you'd jump out of the way smartly and hope you jumped in the right direction. Often you didn't. Those tyre marks took some removing.

There was a hotel minibus down the hill into town but we often walked the direct way, down a sometimes steep, long winding path. There be snakes. One day we encountered a fat adder basking on a hot rock trying to warm itself up ready for the first meal of the day. Didn't know what to do, and we didn't either. Just freeze, that's best. It slithered off. Further down the path there was a cottage and a girl, oblivious to our presence, singing at a window while brushing her hair. The gardens were growing oranges and lemons. It was baking hot and there was a smell of pine needles and citrus and it was all enchanting.

It was a long way down and I don't think we ever walked back up that way. When we reached Sorrento town, we usually stopped for a beer or a coffee, or browsed the shops in the old traffic-free streets. Below the town, there was a harbour where you could catch a ferry to Capri. So, having a soft spot for Gracie Fields, we did. You need to be rich on Capri. A coffee would clean you out and if you decided on one each then that was the last you had all year.

There was a sister hotel in the town, on the coast. It had a lift down to a swimming deck, so we took it. At that moment, and typically, there was a fire drill. The lift shuddered, stopped, plummetted a bit and finally deposited us at the bottom of the cliff just as the tide was coming in. I tried to do an Italian Canute but didn't have the language. Fortunately the lift came back to life just as the water reached it. With relief we stepped out into the lobby among puddles of sea water and a crab or two. The kitchen staff were used to fire drill day and quickly grabbed the crabs for the evening meal.

There WAS a proper beach. A little further round from the harbour a new boat was taking part in a ritual ceremony. Apparently, before it was permitted to enter the water for the first time, you had to find a man, preferably with a beard, and dress him up in a weird costume complete with strange hat. Then get him to swing something that was on fire while uttering incomprehensible latin words.

This ensured:

a. that more fish would be caught

b. the boat would only sink when you wanted it to.

c. strange men in weird costumes had continuing employment.

Having got in the way of the man's spell, and therefore being safe to travel without sinking, we decided to have a look at Pompei, an ancient Roman city near Naples which, in AD 79, hadn't sought the protection of a priest and so was buried by 6 metres of volcanic ash. We went by train and had chosen one of the five days a week when Italy was paralysed by strikes. Eventually they let us in.

This was a tourist Mecca. Guides distinguished themselves by holding up coloured umbrellas. We attached ourselves to one who only realised we were usurpers when we didn't shake hands and leave a huge tip at the end. Prior to seriously not tipping, we saw casts of people caught in the ash. The eruption happened so suddenly that everyone was caught by surprise and perished where they lay. Much much later the scene was discovered and plaster was pumped into the people-cavities before clearing the dust, leaving these shapes:

Interesting how the children were lying in the opposite sense to their parents.

We took in Herculaneum too, which suffered similarly but not to the same extent. This was a Herculean task all in the same day.

There was an option in the hotel to go and see an Italian football match. Strangely, many of the men guests were really keen and, even more strangely, so were their female companions who constantly gazed into the men's eyes. It was disconcerting and bewildering until Judith nudged me and pointed out that it was a 'Honeymoon Hotel' . . .  

One day we decided to explore and got the bus, hugging the coast, through Positano and Amalfi and back.

The concepts of fairness and queueing are absent from the Italian psyche.

The way to get on a bus was:

 1. don't wait till it stops

 2. get elbows oscillating early on

 3. make a dive for the bus so as to get there long before people who'd been waiting much longer than you

4. the more people you trampled underfoot the better.

Having failed to get anywhere near a bus on at least two occasions, and wondering whether there were any more buses that day, it was necessary to  do what the locals do. Judith was determined that I shouldn't have to struggle as I was waiting for yet another heart operation at the time. She grabbed my hand, put her head down and uttered an almighty roar. The crowd parted in wonderment and fear, we were first on the bus and even got a seat. Bonus? We were excused from taking the Italian Citizenship test.

By this time I was weary so Judith took in more sights alone. Coach trip north to Rome, which was . . . . Roman, followed closely by a coach trip south to Paestum, which was mostly Greek to her. As she'd been warned not to venture down any side streets, she had her money in a money belt round her waist, underneath everything. When it was time to pay for something her burrowing beneath the clothing antics stopped the traffic, drew crowds and caused cheering . . .

Soon it was time to go home. The Staff lined up with smiles and with an expectant look in the eye and in their back pocket. We shook hands and inserted paper money where indicated. The waiters were smiling too and one looked positively radiant. He must have won the lottery that day and stuffed money into OUR back pocket. In my imagination, I immediately took the ferry to Capri and bought one and a half coffees.

Soon, as another contingent arrived, the staff would be standing in line and doing it all again. "And what did you do today Daddy?" 'I stood in line, twice, and smiled my hardest, twice.' "I thought you worked in a Hotel?" 'Oh that's in my spare time . . . .'