Italian Lessons

They don’t have Diet Mountain Dew, at least in Sorrento. 

That’s one of the many things I learned during a mid-December week Susan and I spent celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary. 

We decided to forgo attempting a grand tour of Italy. Instead, we stayed the entire week in Sorrento, where our room overlooked an orange grove and umbrella pines above the Bay of Naples, with Vesuvius in the background. 


Breakfast involved daily visits to one of several bakeries in easy walking distance. Susan learned by trial and error to order an “Americano” coffee, even though it was served as a tiny cup of steaming cappuccino and a small glass of cold water. I made do with overpriced Coke Zeroes. 

It was the Christmas season, and several churches offered musical programs at night. While enjoying local choirs, we noticed an intriguing innovation. I’m accustomed to seeing multiple stands of prayer candles in Catholic churches, often before an image of a saint. Worshipers can drop money into a donation slot, light a new candle from one that’s already burning and add it to the fiery collection. 

Rows of electric candles in Sorrento (Credit: T. Cartledge)

Not long before my daughter Bethany died, we visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. She wanted to light a candle for her friend Christopher. Ever since, I have lighted a candle for her. 

The trouble with all those candles is that smoke fills the air and gradually coats everything, including the artwork, with a layer of soot. 

Not in Sorrento: they’ve switched to banks of electric candles. The donation box is still there, just below rows of candle-matching switches to choose from. 

We learned that hiking in Sorrento is a real treat, whether on narrow cobbled streets or scenic paths that wound through olive groves, vineyards and lemon orchards. 

Hiking to the ruins of a first-century Roman villa reminded me that civilization has been at home in Italy for a long time. Sorrento has been settled since at least the 8th century BCE: while Hezekiah was defending Judah from Assyria, what the Romans later called Surrentum was being overrun by the Etruscans. 

I learned that Pompeii is both rich and exhausting. Just a half-hour train ride from Sorrento, the ancient ruins are as impressive as they are vast. Visiting in the off-season and eschewing a guided tour, we stayed all day and walked nearly 10 miles, taking in the city’s theaters, public spaces and hundreds of excavated buildings. Pompeii was a thriving city at least 800 years old when Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, coating the city with nearly 20 feet of pumice and ash. 

In Pompeii, I was reminded that fast food is not a new invention. We passed several streetside shops called thermopoliums (thermopolia?), where large pots of food were kept hot using a fire beneath the counter. An analysis of the remains indicates that food dished out to passing customers included stews based on goat, pig, duck and seafood. 

Thermopolium: Ancient Fast Food (Credit: T. Cartledge)

An interesting twist on clothing in Italy is that men’s zippers are backward from the U.S. I hooked my jacket to my backpack after getting warm on our first hike, but somewhere along the way, it fell off, and we never found it. That necessitated a new coat and the lesson on zippers.

Our favorite hike was a stretch along the mountains east of Positano, an old mule track marketed as the “Pathway of the Gods.” We didn’t see any gods, but the scenery was divine. The trail was rugged in places, with considerable elevation gain and loss. At times, the path curved through forested coves, and at other times above terraced fields and rugged cliffs towering over the Amalfi coast.

(Credit: T. Cartledge)

We had to hire a driver/guide for the experience, but the highlights were worth it. After hours on the trail, we passed a shepherd’s hut and talked with the owner, who had just finished milking his goats. On a rough-hewn table outside their small cottage, his wife served us wine and goat cheese, bread and tomatoes from their own garden. “Magical” hardly describes it. 

It will be a long time before we spring for another trip like that, but the charming restaurants, warm people, and natural beauty of Sorrento will enrich our memories for years to come. 

Rows of sausages and cheese (Credit: T. Cartledge)

Much of what we experienced was different: the array of sausages and cheeses on display in the grocery stores, the narrow streets and tiny cars, the ubiquitous shop displays of limoncello and the expressive people we met were daily reminders that life is different in other countries – but also the same. 

Though we relished the time away, our minds were often on the cruel conflict between Israel and Gaza. It’s tempting to avoid thinking about the devastated villages of Somalia, the gang-ruled pueblos of El Salvador or the beleaguered cities of Ukraine. All people want to live with dignity, have access to basic necessities and enjoy the company of others. 

When those things are denied, the innocent suffer. 

If there’s anything we can do to promote justice in this world, whether it’s prayer, financial support or active involvement, the start of the year is an excellent time to get on with it. 

Previous ArticleNext Article