Traveling to Italy in July 2017 involved some strategic planning.
July is notoriously one of the busiest months to travel, and Italy is the fifth most visited country in the world, according to World Atlas. I often arrive in a new country and don’t even know where I’m sleeping that night, but I wanted Italy to be perfect. I come from Italian roots, with my great-grandparents being born there, so I did not want to have to stress about a damn thing while roaming through the country I had been dreaming of visiting since I knew what a map was. I would be hitting a few spots; riding gondolas in Venice, making my way over to Florence via TrenItalia, drinking my way through Tuscany, a pit stop in Cinque Terre, onward to Rome, and finally, ending in the Amalfi Coast. I was most looking forward to the Amalfi Coast. Positano is one of the most instagrammed destinations in Italy, and for good reason; it is breathtaking.
With each of these destinations, I would be staying in a different form of accommodation. Venice: a decent hotel with free breakfast (prosecco included, score!), Florence: a hostel with no air conditioning (read the fine print, people), Rome: a hotel with very strong air conditioning, and The Amalfi Coast: a family-owned Airbnb on a lemon farm. At first, I was hesitant about staying with a family. I thought, I am going to be out of place, and it is bound to be awkward; but I often love traveling alone because of the people I meet. What better way to get to know the locals than by literally staying with them for a few nights? I assumed I would not be around much, because I wanted to jam-pack my limited time in the Amalfi Coast with activities; from visiting Grotto Azzura in Capri, to eating lemon sorbet on the coastal cliff side of Positano, to smelling the flowers in Ravello. The family-owned AirBnb would simply be a place to sleep and drink my morning espresso.
I took a ferry from Naples to Sorrento, where I would be greeted by Lia, the woman who owned the BnB. She said, via Whatsapp, “Look for the yellow panda.” What the hell is a yellow panda? I thought, but when I saw a yellow Fiat, I thought, “How typically Italian.” Man, do I love Italy. I got in her car, and started spit-firing conversation at her, thanking her, telling her how excited I was, that it was my first time there, that I didn’t understand what panda was but oh, of course it’s a Fiat!, until she finally calmly interrupted me, and said, “My English, not so good.” I felt embarrassed, guilty even, that I had assumed she spoke English. This confirmed that I was in for the real deal of Italian everyday life.
We drove through the narrow streets of Sorrento, up and down hills, backing up into little nooks and crannies so other drivers in their “pandas” could get by, all with the effort of lifting a feather. Lia reminded me of why I love Italian heritage: the women come equal parts strong as they do soft.
We finally arrived at the AirBnb, which was a bit further from town than I had anticipated. There were maybe ten to fifteen people there, and I realized they were setting up for a party. I quietly murmured, “Ciao,” as I passed by unfamiliar faces. I immediately felt I did not belong there.
“Today, it’s a party. You come?” Lia said, with a smile. “For the baby.”
The invitation was sweet. But what was I to do? My Italian is ehhh how you say- not so gouda. I wasn’t sure how I’d communicate. I also did not understand what was going on. I assumed they were throwing a baby shower, but then I remembered that baby showers are an American thing. To be completely honest, to this day, I still have no clue what that party was for.
I walked up to my room, dropped off my bags, and wanted to head back into town, but I wasn’t sure how that worked in this situation. Although the AirBnb description stated that anytime I needed a ride to “ask Lia,” I did not want to make her drive me back to where we came from when I knew there was a mystery party for the mystery baby. I also did not want to be rude and turn down the invitation for the party. My anxiety kicked in, but I knew no progress would be made sitting in my room overthinking it. I decided to head downstairs, and feel out the situation.
This is when two young, very sweet girls came up to me.
“Can I get you a drink?” one of the girls said in perfect English.
“I would love some water, please.”
I finally mustered up the courage to ask Lia to drive me to town, and she had no qualms with it at all. She told me to just text her fifteen minutes before I wanted to be picked up, and to tell me where.
I walked around Sorrento, and quickly realized it had a very different feel from the rest of the Italy I had seen. I was looking at menus trying to decide what to eat, and figured seafood was my best bet. I sat at an overpriced, over-touristic restaurant on the water, ordered a seafood pasta dish that was triple the price of anything I had to pay in Florence or even Rome, and there were three pin bones in it. My Amalfi Coast dreams were slowly being crushed. Damn you, Instagram.
Lia picked me up. This time she had a dog, and the two young girls who had offered me a beverage earlier sat in the backseat.
“I’m Ana, and this is my sister, Angela,” said the older of the two.
Ana studied English, and though she was only nine years old, I realized she was the translator for all of these guests that come to stay with them on their quaint little lemon farm.
“What is the dog’s name?”
“Fortuna,” Ana replied.
Lia chimed in. “Fortuna… you know… Fortunata… The dog… Abandonment.”
I realized she was telling me they rescued the dog.
I was full from my mediocre pasta, so I was surprised to come home to dinner being prepared. There was fresh mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, bread, some salad, and the best part, homemade vino. It was made clear that I would be included in all of their meals, and become a part of their family for the few days I would be spending with them. That first night, I told Ana some things about me; that I am a singer, I am a traveler (or as Lia would say, “voyager”), and that my great-grandparents were born in Italy. Through Ana, I asked what was their favorite subject in school, if they liked having all of these weird travelers with oversized bags come into their home, and I made sure they knew how lucky they were that their mom makes really good food (and wine). We watched an Italian version of The Bachelor, where a guy was caught cheating on his girlfriend, but tried to use the fact that she smokes cigarettes against her. (They gaslight everywhere, gals.)
“She fumare, but she forte!” Ana said.
I sat back, relaxed, lightyears from my anxieties just a few hours before. I was sitting in a kitchen in Sorrento, watching bad Italian reality TV with a nine-year old and a six-year old, while their mother was cleaning and refused to let me help.
Every morning for the remainder of my stay, a cup of fresh cantaloupe juice, an espresso, sheep’s cheese, and some prosciutto awaited me. I told them how Americans usually eat a breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and fruit. They seemed astonished by how large the meals were in the US.
“What do they eat for lunch?” curious Ana asked.
“Usually, a burger, or some type of sandwich or a salad. What do you guys eat for lunch?”
“Pasta. Always pasta.”
Lia dropped me off at the bus station for me to head to Positano, the place I was looking forward to visiting the most. There is no arguing that Positano is visually a beautiful city, but after an hour or two of walking around, eating yet another overpriced fish dish, I thought, “I would rather be with Lia and the girls.” This pattern continued through the rest of my stay in the Amalfi Coast. On my last day there, I had plans to head to Capri. I followed through with said plans, and Capri, like Positano, is undoubtedly beautiful, but I felt like I was given the rare opportunity to immerse myself into everyday Italian life, and here I was, trying to capture Instagram shots in front of flower walls on an Italian island instead.
When I returned from Capri, as usual, dinner was ready for me. It was my last night there and I was dreading leaving this family that had made me feel like I belonged. I had come a long way from the anxious girl arriving at the baby party, to watching Italian reality TV with some kids and their mom. The girls told me, that night, that they love to sing, and that their dream is to be on American Idol.
“Alright, show me what you got,” I said.
We held a fake American Idol competition, where they sang Katy Perry and Lady Gaga songs to me, dancing all around the yard, swinging around like little monkeys. Lia trusted me to watch over them, which felt comforting. I knew I couldn’t actually choose a winner; I didn’t have the heart to hurt their feelings, and they were both amazing in my eyes. They did not like that I wouldn’t choose a winner, so they kept going, and singing more songs, and dancing harder. Young Angela swung a little too hard and bumped her head. I felt responsible when she started wailing. Lia came out, concerned, but I picked Angela up, and said, “You’re like the girl from the show…forte.” Angela wiped her tears and high-fived me. Lia smiled.
I left the next morning and did my best not to cry. I will forever be grateful for eating sheep’s cheese on a lemon farm in Sorrento, with two sweet Italian girls and their mother, who forever changed my outlook on where to stay when traveling.
If you’re interested in staying with this family, you can book your Airbnb stay here.
Kaitlyn spent one month in Italy.