Monday, March 28, 2011


Days one and two....

Sirenland, Day One…

Arrived in Rome yesterday at 8 a.m., which for me was sometime in the middle of the night. 3 a.m.? They hadn’t turned their clocks ahead yet (they did the very next day), so yes, 3 a.m. I’d slept about two hours total on the flight, and frankly was grateful for that much. So I went to the hotel and left my baggage and went out for some sightseeing. Rome is really easy to navigate, if you can follow the map. One street name changes abruptly into another, and one side street off an avenue has a different name than the one going off the other side. But I made it to the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, and St. Peter’s. I only sat down a couple of times because I knew that once I stopped I wouldn’t be able to start again. And I only had gelato once.

It was a gorgeous day—just beautiful, probably high fifties/low sixties. It was Saturday, so the crowds were amazing. I didn’t even try to get into St. Peter’s because the line was so long, and you had to go through metal detectors first. Had it been my first stop, I probably would have, but by then I was wiped out. I made it until 3 pm and went to the metro (I’d crossed Rome by then) and got back to my hotel, intending to sleep 3 hours and then go out again. Well, the alarm went off—I do remember hearing it—but I didn’t get up until 9. And then I was starving. So I went to a trattoria about 3 blocks away, ate too much dinner (but it was so good!) and went back, took a Tylenol PM to make sure I got to sleep on local time, and then went to bed and slept again. Nice. Today, day two, I don’t feel jet lagged at all—a first for a European trip.

This morning I went to Termini Station to get the train to Naples. I had ordered my ticket online, but the machine wouldn’t print one out, so I went to the ticket booth to get it printed. I showed the ticket to a woman at the counter and she stared and stared and stared. “This date,” she said. “Three-twenty-seven-eleven?” I freaked out a bit—was today not the 27th?—“We write the date different here in Italy. We write month first.” Okay. Right. I nodded, but she seemed mad. So she kept staring at the printout. “You pay in dollars?” she asked. I nod. That’s all I could do, because you know, it was online. She says, “You are in Italy. We use the euro.” I stared at her some more. In situations like this I find it best not to attempt a language I am less than fluent in, lest things get lost in translation on my end. She huffed out of her seat over to a supervisor, and I’m thinking, oh crap, did I waste $86 buying this online? She huffed back and handed me a ticket, which her supervisor helpfully printed out for her. The lady seemed quite mad at me, but she said, “Is okay.” And I got on.

I met with a fellow attendee, Ellen, and her husband Fred. We didn’t know quite where to go, so we got onto the first car and wondered if we had assigned seating, if we should put our bags above our heads, or what. A woman came onto the train to show us the baggage area to put the bags, and we said okay. Then a conductor rushed over and tried to speak with Fred, who doesn’t speak a word of Italian. I heard him try Italian and then Spanish, so I rushed over and said, “Yo hablo espanol!” Because, you know, that’s a language I am fluent in. He gestured at the woman who’d left and said, “Que miren sus maletas. Ella se les va a quitar. Es gitana.” HUH WHA? “Ella nos va a robar?” I said. He nodded. He said that once the train got moving it was safe to leave the bags there, but before it left she was counting on us going to our seats where we couldn’t see them, and then she’d take them. Nice to know. Fred sat right next to the door and watched the bags until we left.

And we got to Naples, where we were met by a driver and whisked to his Mercedes (we spent about 3 minutes total in Naples) and driven along some incredibly windy roads to Positano.

Positano is incredible. It’s a bit like Sorrento, except much steeper. It’s cut into the side of the mountain, which seems taller than the Rockies, at least those around our house, and it’s so steep that the roads have to be cut into the side in hairpin turns to go up and down. They warned us to take Dramamine. I didn’t, because I don’t often have that problem (and the resulting sleepiness isn’t worth it…maybe I would have felt differently had I thrown up. Actually, my car-mates would have felt differently had I thrown up.); I just got very sleepy toward the end.

So I got here and checked into my room, which is a junior suite, spacious, tiled with white and painted ceramic tile on the floor, a white bedspread and a Marie-Antoinette mini-canopy (just at the center of the head of the bed, with the curtain extending down from the ceiling) and a couch and chairs and a luxurious bathroom with jetted tub and, best of all, a little balcony facing the bay. I can see kids playing on the black-sand beaches (not going in the water; it’s too chilly) and the boats on the water and a big island off in the distance. Pretty incredible.

I took a walk down through the tourist center to get lunch (our first official event isn’t until 5, and that’s yoga; dinner isn’t until 8), got a fantastic sandwich at a hole-in-the-wall deli-type place. I wanted some fruit but the prices were abominable, like 2.40 euros per apple. So I left. At the following deli the prices were the same, and suddenly it dawned on me, the price was per kilo, not per piece. I asked the proprietor to be sure, and yep, that was the case. Happy to find that my Italian is actually not atrocious. It’s not great, but I’m communicating! Yay!

The vista from below is quite incredible, too. It’s one thing to look at these towns from pictures, looking at the buildings built into the side of a mountain; it’s another to look up at them from the beach, seeing rock jutting out from the sides of houses. Very, very cool. The mountains seem to be higher than Mt. Ogden, but that might just be because we’re in them, from the bottom up.

We had a dinner with everyone, in the dining room that has about two dozen chandeliers made up of tea light candles, all lit. It must take several workers to light them all. Seafood risotto as the primo, fish with a lemon-butter sauce and grilled tomatoes as the secondo, and crème brulee for the dessert (though mine was overcooked, darn it). There was no option for chicken or veal.

A postscript to day one: Ellen and Fred survived the gitana, but her wallet was stolen when she went to lunch and left her bag across the back of her chair. In her defense, they had just flown in from San Diego, gotten an hour of sleep, and gone straight to Naples and then to Positano, so they’d been traveling about 30 hours at that point. Unfortunately the thieves got her driver’s license, 4 credit cards and $1000 cash.

Day Two

The first day of the real workshopping. We had a free breakfast, which was spectacular: all kinds of fruits, fresh homemade ricotta, other cheeses, pastries, eggs if you want them, juices. And looking over the bay, wow oh wow. After breakfast we went into a salon room and started talking about the first short story. We started out awkwardly, because we don’t know each other and don’t know how everyone will react to workshopping etc., but quickly got comfortable. And Dani Shapiro, my teacher, is really incredible. She put into words a lot of things I have felt while writing but couldn’t quite put my finger on, and things I had felt while reading Ryan’s piece that again I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Several of us went down to the seaside for lunch. I was good and had a salad. Well, a Caprese salad with mozzarella, so maybe that’s not that good, but I wasn’t hungry because of the large breakfast. I also forewent dessert, just to brag. (I’m going to go crazy enough in the days to come.) Then we had a group yoga/meditation session (heavier on meditation than yoga) and then I ran half an hour on the treadmill. Now we have free time before a group discussion at 6 pm. I have classical music going on the speakers and the doors open to hear the sea outside and the intermittent rain. Sigh.

I guess I need to go write something real now.

After dinner now.

Later in the afternoon, we had a discussion about publishing with the teachers of the conference and the Sirenland Fellow for 2011, Karen Thompson Walker, who just sold her first novel to Random House. Google her. You will be impressed. She is in my workshop group, and will be workshopping the first 25 pages of the novel, because it just sold and she’ll have to do some rewrites. I actually feel quite fortunate to be in her group and get a sneak peek!

Several of us then took a bus ride up to a rather famous restaurant, Il Ritrovo. You can take steps up, but I believe it would take 45 minutes at least, going vertically the whole way. The restaurant pays for the car service to and from—it’s in their best interest to do so—and unfortunately one of our group members got severely car sick (did NOT throw up, thank heaven, but didn’t eat a thing and left early) from the hairpin turns up and up and up. I kind of wish I had been there during the day, just for the view. Ah well. I had a fabulous pasta dish with a light cream sauce (sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not!) and mushrooms and then nibbles from the guy who got the 4-course meal. The waiter was excited to find out we were Sirenlanders, because at least one group from Sirenland comes up every year. He kept loading us with extra food, too: Italian cookies, extra cake, extra pasta, extra wine. I guess he might have felt bad that Pete kept getting food from his courses and the rest of us only had pasta, and felt like we all had to eat all the time. Fun stuff. He also asked us to sign his guest book, and proudly pointed out the page signed by Bruce Springsteen. All right, that will do.