A conversation today with a Navy wife started me thinking about a wonderful summer long ago. My boyfriend was in the Sixth Fleet, and stationed on the flagship. It was anchored at Gaeta, on the west coast of Italy, near Rome. I had traveled throughout Europe with my family, but never in Italy, and never on my own, so it was quite an adventure for my brother, Tim and me. He was 17 and I was 20. I spoke Italian and French, but Timmy couldn't even understand a South Carolina accent. We were so amazingly young, but we didn't know that. We thought we were quite the bon vivants.
I was so in love that summer. I lived on unfiltered Camel cigarettes and CocaCola all summer and went home pounds lighter. One bite of food and I was full. I had stars in my eyes, and Italy only heightened that giddy feeling. We walked everywhere or rode the train. People used to stop me in the street and tell me how beautiful I was, and give me flowers. I think being in love makes girls beautiful, because I never felt that way in normal life. The neighborhood adopted me, because I wanted to be part of them. I took my string bag to the market with the ladies, and got in the rhythm of the community. I was never so contented with a neighborhood.
My brother and I went off on our own for part of the summer, because the ship was gone and Cliff went with it. Tim and I went to beaches where young Italian campers shared their homemade wine with us, pouring it into our baby bird mouths from a goatskin flask. We went to Portofino, where I earned our room and board singing and playing guitar in the trattorias. We stood where Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor, where poets walked, where art was reborn.
One night, Cliff took us down a worn, uneven flight of stairs in Gaeta Vecchia--old Gaeta. We stumbled into the darkened stairwell, then into a maze of corridors, following beckoning aromas that turned out to be from pizza. Not pizza as we knew it in the U.S., but real pizza, made in a three-hundred-year old brick oven by beautiful young men who danced with the dough. When we tasted it, Timmy and I actually reached across the table and hugged.
On Capri, we climbed a thousand steps along a wall of flowers to reach a restaurant we had heard about. The lady grew her own vegetables, and we had our first real salad in weeks. We feasted on that salad, and then a piece of homemade peach pie, all the while looking at a view straight from a postcard, breathing the scented breeze, and looking at each other in disbelief that such a place could be real.
The summer ended too quickly. In the last days we went to the top of Gaeta, to a restaurant named A O'Re Burlone (The King of the Buffoons). We snuck up to the roof and danced under a full moon. I swear to you that the moon is bigger and closer in Italy. We saw fireworks from the flagship in the harbor. We talked endlessly and everything was possible.
Everyone should go to Italy at least once in their lives. While they're young. While they're in love.
(Photo by Stefano Viola)