Postcard from Capri: “Vacanza con il Morto” (“Vacation with the Dead”)

Marco in Capri
Marco in Capri

As I sit here on a very frosty January morning, I am planning my next escape to Italy – the hills of  Tuscany.  A bit of a winter retreat for me and a chance to find that now familiar sense of tranquility that comes from being in Italy in the quiet of winter.   As I pour over my map of Italy,  I spot the isle of Capri and smile at memories of past vacations and one very interesting jaunt early in my traveling career….a tale that needs to be told simply for the sheer amusement of the experience.

“Vacanza con il morto”.  Vacation with the dead. My fondest memories of Capri.

The year was 1996. Month of March.  My BFF travel buddy, Joan, was living in Europe at the time and we decided we needed a girl’s weekend away. So we settled on a long weekend in Capri.  We arrived in the Marina Grande, Capri with no hotel reservations which was our usual Europe-flitting modus operandi. However, I did have the name of one contact on the island – Marco Lembo.  My brother had taken an Italian class in LA and when his teacher married, she asked her students if they would host her guests from Capri for a week.  Enter blond haired Marco from Capri (that is him up there during a trip in 2001).  Joe had visited Marco a few times in Capri so off I went with a photo.  Joan and I arrived in the bustling port and stood patiently in line at the ‘Ufficio Turistico” to ultimately get booked into a tiny 1-star pensione in the heart of Capri. (Thankfully, I have graduated from 1 star status over the years!)   After being checked in by a rather grumpy old man, we were shown our accommodations – through their living room and adjacent to the room where Mr. Grumpy and his wife slept.  After a chuckle over our luxurious surroundings, we headed over to Anacapri to check out the sights.  As we sat on the steps of the local church eating a gelato, I glanced up to see none other than Marco Lembo passing by. I quickly grabbed his photo to be sure it was him but his distinctive blond hair gave him away.  I shouted ‘Marco!’.  He and his friends suspiciously headed over and when he learned that I was Joe’s sister from America AND that American women were carrying around photos of him, his chest quickly puffed (especially in front of his male Italian friends) and offered kisses and hugs.

Marco was the perfect host and when he wasn’t taking tourists into the Blue Grotto for work, he made sure to meet up with us at the local hotspots and restaurants.  He found us late one evening already tucked in at the local hotspot, ‘Anema e Cuore’ (‘Heart and Soul’) dancing with the bar full of locals- including 86 year old Anna and her 84 year old tambourine-touting sidekick.  We were the only ‘americani’ in the bar and Marco arrived to find the band playing a song in our honor – ‘Due Americani’ (‘Two Americans’).   After a rather rainy but fun weekend, Joan and I spent our last full day over on the Amalfi coast and returned late afternoon to the pensione. As we entered the foyer, we found a roomful of family along with two polizia sitting around. Unsure of what to make of the gathering, we politely nodded and scurried past. The living room soon erupted with screams of  ‘Non e’ possible! Non e’ possible!’ (It isn’t possible!) Uh-oh! We waited in the room wondering if we should head out to find Marco.  It wasn’t long before we heard an ambulance siren grow louder and finally stop just outside our hotel.  With sirens still blaring, we saw the ambulance folks leap out, scoot to the back of the ambulance, throw open the doors, and pull out Mr. Grumpy – dead as a doornail – on a stretcher, complete with gauze tied round his head to keep his chin from falling open.  With our mouths completely agape (WE needed the gauze), we could do little more than gawk out our window.  After about an hour, we thought we could risk sneaking out to find Marco so he could speak with the hotel to find out if we should leave.  As we tiptoed down the hall, we realized that they had laid out our formerly-grumpy friend in the room just adjacent to ours. This was going to be a long night!

We found Marco who quickly made a phone call. The family insisted that we stay the final evening as we were leaving the very next morning.  Uncomfortable to return any time soon to spend the night sleeping with our friend, we headed over to Anacapri and waited at a restaurant owned by Cesare’,  a friend of Marco.  While Marco finished up a soccer game, we nervously munched on the antipasti buffet – numerous trips to the buffet and lots of wine kept our spirits in check while we waited.  When we received the check, we realized that Cesare’ had charged us for each and every visit to the buffet table! We tried to explain to Cesare’ that in America you could visit the buffet as many times as one wanted – all for one price. Well, not so from Cesare’s point of view as he proclaimed in his best English – ‘Michela, I saw you a-go to da buffet six a times!’.  We dissolved into a fit of giggles that I chuckle over to this day.  Marco finally made his appearance and rescued us. We took a final evening walk out on the bluffs watching the amazing landscape of stars and shooting stars above us.  (My Italian grandmother would have said the shooting stars were a bad luck omen signifying that someone had died!) With some trepidation, we returned to the hotel, only to now find our friend dressed in his Sunday best still on the bed in the room adjacent to ours, candles and flowers encircling the headboard.

After a rather restless night of sleeping with the spirits, we quietly packed the next morning. We could hear numerous voices in the living room and we emerged to find ourselves in the middle of a wake, as it was common practice in Italy to hold the wake at the house.  Mortified to be interrupting, we hurried to the little desk near the living room to pay.  When we pulled out a credit card, the daughter began wailing at an alarming pitch trying to explain that ‘it was all in her father’s name’.  Faster than a shooting star, we dropped our luggage where we stood and darted out the door to find a bank and converted loads of traveler’s checks to lire so as to not cause a stir upon our return! We quickly paid with our pile of lire and headed off to the port, relieved.

It is rare I speak with Marco these days but in 2001, I visited the island with my then husband (now ex-husband – thankfully).  We took a boat tour with the throngs of tourists over to the Blue Grotto. On the large tourist boat where one waits to be loaded onto smaller boats to enter the Grotto, I inquired if our guide knew of a Marco Lembo.  He smiled and quickly pointed over his shoulder – ‘Si, si! Li!’ (Yes, yes! There!) Sure enough, there was Marco on his little boat. “Marco!!” I shouted. He looked up and recognizing me, smiled excitedly – “Michela di America! Vacanza con il morto!”

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