I decided to take a night ferry from Palermo to Naples, rather than driving up the island, crossing to Calabria and driving to Naples on the mainland. It was the simplest, easiest way to get where I wanted to go, which was Terracina, on the coast about two hours south of Rome. I was staying with a family friend of Lisa’s, a young university girl named Mena.
I left Cefalu after lunch with Mimmo and drove west along the coast. I wanted to see Monreale, a hill town on the edge of the port town of Palermo. The Cathedral of Monreale is a national monument of Sicily, famous in Italy, with a very beautiful cloister attached. I paid to walk up to the bell tower, which involved walking along the high roof of the cathedral and up very steep, narrow, outdoor staircases, which was scary but worth it for the view of Palermo and the sea below. It was a great town to walk around, with charming little piazza’s, fountains and café’s.
I went very early to the ferry, because that’s what I do; I wanted to be sure I had plenty of time to find it and get on board. Leona wouldn’t acknowledge any of the names I gave her for the ferry departure area. Palermo is fairly big, so I had no clue where to go. I wandered aimlessly for a while, searching for signs for the port, which were scarce and random. Finally, I just started driving downhill and north, which was the direction of the sea, figuring I could drive along the waterfront until I found ferries. This vague yet ingenious plan worked.
I drove Blacky onto the docks, where there were about a half dozen ferries with their giant rear ends open and car ramps linking ship to shore. I had no idea which one was mine, and I had to find the ticket office since I had been unable to print my online ticket. I started asking dock workers where the office was. They clustered around my car and discussed among themselves where I should go, came to a consensus, then they waved their hands in one direction, which led to the end of the dock and no offices that I could see. There was zero security, no signage, just big cranes, shipping containers and 18 wheel trucks everywhere. I turned around and drove back to the same dock workers, and they sent me in the exact opposite direction, towards the entrance I had come in.
I found a strip of what looked like offices but all of them were closed, this being Sunday. I parked Blacky and tapped on the window of the man parked next to me. He spoke no English but I showed him my phone which had the ticket information on it. He had on some kind of a uniform, and he just looked at me, then waved in a “Follow me” way and took off in his car. I followed him in Blacky, past the same dock workers again, waving cheerfully and shrugging my shoulders at them as I sailed by.
The uniformed man pulled up in front of a fenced and gated compound near the end of the pier, which I had seen but thought was closed. There was the tiniest of signs high up on the fence which had the same name as the shipping line on my ticket. He took me through the gate and to the office, where no one spoke English but they understood enough to print my ticket for me and tell me to go to the third ferry on the row. How in the hell I was supposed to know any of this is an absolute mystery to me. I guess the people that ride these ferries know exactly where to go, but there was no information booth, no signs, no authorities, nothing that I ever saw that let me know the procedure to follow.
The ferry ride itself was uneventful, the most exciting part was driving up the giant ramps and onto the ship. I thought I would meet people in the lounge area or at least be able to see some scenery but it was dark when we left and the people in the lounge were not super friendly. I went to bed early, snug in my tiny cabin, feeling like I was sleeping in a gently swinging hammock.
My only concern about landing in Naples was driving there. I had heard horror stories from foreigners and Italians alike about how scary and dangerous driving in Naples was, and had psyched myself out completely. My only hope was that getting from the ferry docks to the Autostrada would keep me on the edge of the city, not in the fray, and that my early arrival at 6:30am would avoid the worst of the traffic. Naturally, Leona was not cooperating, her little wheel spinning as she tried to figure out where we were. I had no instruction from her whatsoever, so I had to use my intuition to try to find my way. I followed the cars off the ferry, assuming that most of them were going somewhere other than Naples, and that they would lead me in the direction of the highway. That plan did get me out of the port area, but then we started to encounter the city traffic and I lost my guide dogs. Cars were whizzing past me, honking, cutting me off, but it wasn’t the worst traffic I’d encountered in Europe, and I really held my own. I was completely tensed, gripping the steering wheel for dear life, my back not touching the car seat, but I was driving in freaking Naples.
“Yeah baby, we’re doing it Blacky, you and me, woot, woot,” I shouted to no one, grinning like an idiot as we progressed slowly along.
There were actually signs now, which was wonderful, and I knew I wanted to go toward Rome, but there were four different Autostrada’s to choose from and I picked the one heading in the exact opposite direction of Rome.
Just as I entered the ramp to the left, Leona woke up and said, “Take the exit on the right.”
“Thank you ever so much Leona, that was very NOT HELPFUL. What the HELL have you been doing?” I yelled at her.
I went through the toll booth which had an actual person inside instead of the machines I’m used to. I told him I wanted to go to Rome.
“Oh Signora,” he said as he rolled his eyes, shook his head and smiled, making a circling motion with his hand, “you are very wrong direction, get off next exit.”
I finally got headed in the right direction and headed north. I wasn’t supposed to be at Mena’s until around 4pm, she was in Rome that morning taking an Exam for Universtiy and wouldn’t be home until then. I figured I would just play it by ear and see what town pulled me in. I found Gaeta about an hour out of Naples.
This was another seaport, and contained both a shipping school and the home base of the 6th Fleet Flagship, and those that support it. There was some kind of military base, built upon fortifications originally put in place by the Romans, presumably now connected to the Italian Navy. Even with both of these, the old part of town felt almost empty. I walked along the harbor edge and up into the hilly streets. I would come to a street that looked promising for views, but signs saying “non entrare, zona militare” would stop me. I had a delicious lunch at an empty restaurant, then decided to move along to Terracina.
I had been emailing back and forth with Mena for several weeks but could never get a handle on her exact living situation. Was she in an apartment, did she live with her family, was she in a town or in the country? She had said she lived in Terracina and gave me an address for my GPS but it was only a street name, no house number, and it didn’t include Terracina as part of it. I put everything Mena had given me into Leona, but she wasn’t buying it. I drove to Terracina, hoping that Leona would kick in when I got closer, but she didn’t, and no one I asked knew the street name.
This is what Mena gave me: via Gonella, Frasso, Sonnino. Was she in Frasso or Sonnino? I never saw Frasso on a sign, but I did see signs for a town called Sonnino, so I went there next. It was a tiny hilltop town, the kind that makes you nervous to drive up to, with no guardrails, everything I love about hilltop towns. I still wasn’t finding via Gonella, which was the street she lived on; Via means street. There was no Via Gonella here so I headed back down. Finally, I just typed in Gonella-“Strada” Gonella popped up as one of the choices on the screen. Finally!!! Leona was really messing with me now, it’s like the difference between “Street” and “Avenue”; you would think she could have been a little more flex.
By now, it was way past 4pm, but I couldn’t call to ask for directions because there was no wifi anywhere. I went down “Strada” Gonella, looking for a restaurant that Mena said she lived next to. I was in farm country now, lots of fields around, whitewashed farmhouses scattered about. I finally found the restaurant, next to it a farmhouse with an old woman in the yard gardening.
“Scuzzi Signora, do you know Mena?” I asked her over the fence.
“No, no,” she replied, shaking her head and looking quite fierce and unfriendly.
I drove up the restaurant driveway and went inside. There was only one car in the lot, and the restaurant was actually closed for business, but four older men were sitting around a table in the darkened dining room.
“Scuzzi, do any of you speak English? Can you help me?”
“Little English,” one of them said, “What do you need, signora?”
“I’m trying to find Mena S---, do you know her?”
“Si, si, signora, this one is her Tio (Uncle),” as he pointed to a friendly faced man.
“Oh thank God. Can you tell me where her house is?”
“Si,” said her Uncle, “Vi prendero.” And he got up and walked with me to my car and got in it. I guess “vi prendero” means "I will take you."
We drove to a house that was sort of next to the restaurant, about two farm fields in between them. Mena’s Tio went to the call box and phoned the house inside the fence. The gate slowly opened and we walked in as a young woman came out of the house towards us.
“Did you have problems finding us?”, said Mena.
Normally I would say no, but her Uncle ratted me out just by his presence.
I met the whole family, they all came out of the beautiful house, to meet me. Only Mena spoke English, but they all greeted me with kisses on the cheek. Alessandro was eight, the cutest boy, with big brown eyes and short dark hair, very curious about me. Mena then introduced her “first brother” but I never could understand his name and she always referred to him as her first brother so I was too embarrassed to ask. Her mother, Palma, with a gentle, peaceful loving face, hugged me and her Dad, Graziano, shook my hand.
They got me settled in my room, which the first brother had given up for me to use, gave me water and snacks as we sat and chatted for an hour. Mena then asked if I’d like to walk down to see her grandmother’s house.
We walked right up to the old woman in the garden, and Mena introduced her Nonna.
“Mena, this is the lady I saw earlier. I asked her if she knew you and she said no.”
The woman laughed and told Mena that she thought I was asking if she was Mena, so she said no. Plus, I was pronouncing Mena’s name wrong. It’s May-nah, not Mee-nah.
Mena’s Nonna and Nonno are both near 90 but still work around the farm. They have chickens and milk cows, a large garden. Truly salt of the earth and in pretty good shape physically. I felt like a giant around the whole family, they were all about a foot shorter than me and I’m only five-eight.
When we got back to Mena’s house, we all had dinner together, a wonderful meal with friendly, loving people.
I was in the heart of the family again, happy and content.