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What the Cactus Knew: The reward of not getting what you want

By Marian Sandmaier

As I packed my bags for a two-week getaway to Italy, I gave myself a brisk pep talk. “You’ll love Rome,” my inner cheerleader promised, “and you know Florence will be awesome.” But as I tossed jeans and Fodor’s guides into my suitcase, I dreamed only of Manarola, an out-of-the-way village perched on the cliffs of the northwestern coast.

In planning this vacation, a second honeymoon for my husband and me after 16 years of marriage, we’d cut a deal with each other. Dan—my bustle-loving, cosmopolitan spouse—would get his week of sightseeing in Italy’s megacities; in exchange, I’d get my week of serenity in the tiny town of Manarola.

When I’d first read the description in the Manarola hotel’s brochure—“a small and quiet inn on the sea, in a village of multicolored bungalows and terraced vineyards”—I’d actually sat down, nearly overcome by longing. I’ve always been something of a tranquility junkie—drawn to the kind of locales that might soothe, rather than stimulate, my easily overheated brain. This Mediterranean fishing village called to me.

During our first week in Italy visiting Rome and Florence, we took in some breathtaking art, but also contended with hordes of motorbiking locals who swerved without warning from the streets onto narrow, jam-packed sidewalks. Crowds of chattering, photo-snapping tourists accompanied us wherever we went, from the Uffizi Palace to the corner café. “Breathe,” I instructed myself, but I didn’t, not really, until six days later, when we boarded a tiny, rickety train bound for the coast.

Arriving in Manarola three hours later, I felt my body expand, like bread rising in a warm oven. The town was as whimsical as a child’s picture book, crammed with ragtag stucco cottages tumbling down the hillside to the aqua sea. Fishing boats, painted in bright yellows, blues, and oranges, bobbed in the tiny harbor. I breathed deeply, letting the colors and rhythms wash over me. I felt as though I’d come home.

Because cars weren’t allowed on Manarola’s narrow, twisting lanes, Dan and I began to haul our suitcases to the hotel, which we discovered was halfway up a steep hill. “Non importa,” I assured my husband as we trudged forward with our four bulging bags. “Once we get to the hotel, we’ll go out onto the terrace, have a drink, and relax.”

At that moment, Dan let go of his suitcases and stopped in front of a squat, soot-colored box of a building. My heart seized as he pointed to a sign indicating that this was our hotel. I’d envisioned a quaint, whitewashed inn, dripping with red geraniums. This place was a dump.

We made our way through the front entrance and found ourselves in a cavernous, poorly lit room that appeared to be the lobby. In the far corner of this murky chamber, we could just make out the blue glow of a TV set and, in front of it, the outlines of two people: an overweight, elderly man asleep on a couch and an unshaven young man seated nearby staring blankly at the tube. As we approached, neither of them stirred.

I planted myself in front of the younger man. “Can you help us?” I asked in my bad Italian. Sighing, he stole a furtive glance at the flickering screen and shuffled over to the reception desk to check us in. The room was so dark that when he shoved some papers across the counter for us to sign, we couldn’t read the words we were agreeing to. At Dan’s third request, he switched on a light. Then he showed us to our room—minuscule, but mercifully clean—and disappeared.

After we’d revived our spirits with a dinner of fragrant pesto and a stroll around the fairy-tale town, we returned to the hotel and prepared for bed, trying hard not to bump into each other in our doll-sized room. Burrowing beneath the coverlets, I heard the faint slupp, slupp of waves against rocks and soon drifted off.

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  • Comment Link Saturday, 27 July 2013 13:38 posted by Tim Barraud

    Great story. Hope she can keep this going every month. Thanks.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 27 July 2013 13:32 posted by linda carroll

    What a treat; to read such a fabulous well-written article about the unexpected rewards of turning into "what is". I would love to see a regular column by this terrific writer.
    Linda Carroll

  • Comment Link Monday, 22 July 2013 15:50 posted by Phil sandmaier

    I felt as if I was along on the trip! Very well done!!