Salerno is abysmal grey against flakey pastel yellows, pinks and light greens: an awkward seaside destination with worn out exteriors. Stray dogs roam the streets, old ladies sit on park benches in matching outfits chatting, and old men play chess along the boardwalk, huddled tight for the game. The beach, though serviceable, opens to the sea with little inspiration. Unlike other water locales, the presentation does nothing. The locals do not use the beach. They look at sunbathers as if they are crazy.
Three hours south of Rome by train, surrounded by pre-historic mountains—dinosaur-looking territory—Salerno watches a fog of clouds reach down over the rounded peaks. This is not the Italy of some Fellini film, it is a backbreaking city, you either go uphill or down; the people here are workers, hill-walkers, ragged, mangy-looking.
Salerno was one of the hardest hit cities in World War II. In Winston Churchill’s analogy of Italy as “the soft underbelly of the axis,” Salerno was perhaps the belly button. The city served as the physical buffer between the German counterattacks on the Allied Operation Avalanche and even now, nearly 70 years later, the city still bears the scars of this infamous invasion.
“No one comes here from America,” a waiter says to me. He gives this a second thought, “Unless they are writing a history book.”
Public displays of affection are part of the daily fabric of life in Italy. In America we are typically guarded when we publically express our affection for others, and it reads as petty and self-involved. Italians are not afflicted this way: Lovers barrel over each other in a graceful choreography, mothers pull their children closer, always closer, and old women pat each other's hands to pass the time.
As in most of my travels, I came to Salerno alone. I’d been at a subsidized writer’s retreat in Umbria and thought it would be a shame not to extend the trip. Since I could not afford Florence, Venice, or Rome, I held up a huge map of Italy, closed my eyes, and pointed my finger. It landed in the sea; so I moved the tip laterally to the mainland and found myself in Salerno.
My time in Salerno was meant to be a self-imposed detox from the anxiety pills I’d been abusing for the better part of two years. But as is the case in all solo detox efforts, it was a joke. In the midst of this self-deception, I kindled a brief love affair with white wine. The Vermentino di Sardegna—the only white wine I care about enough to remember the name—accompanies every meal here. I finished bottles quickly and promptly ordered another.
Repeatedly, I was asked “Why are you here?” By the concierge at the Hotel Jolly, by the priest from the nearby church, by teenage girls who hang out at the internet kiosk. This great question and the fact that I was being asked in earnest by complete strangers put me in a complicated place. I tried to be honest.
“I’ve come here to restart, to see things differently,” I said, knowing that I would again end the day with my reliable pills.
“Here?” the teenage girls asked, giggling.
“We want to go to America! To New York City!”
“That’s where everyone in America wants to go. You’ll fit right in.”
One ought to arrive early for trains, always. Spending time in train stations is good for your constitution. The Salerno train station is a genuine piece of shit. I was afraid to sit down for fear of contracting a disease. The station was cast with people who resembled the most interior part of the city: Their faces were all dark purple lines and shadows.
A desperate mother entered the station with the dramatic flair of Gloria Swanson, arms outstretched and trembling. Her four-year-old son followed behind, crying and screaming, kicking and rolling over the shit-stained floors, and when it seemed he could go no further he ran full speed into walls, falling down, and then standing up again.
They were visibly destitute, but I couldn’t help but crack a smile, which was soon taken over by laughter. The kid falls hard onto the ground in front of me over and over again, and soon enough he is laughing too. We were both laughing as his mother shook her arms in the air, evoking a sad god. I eventually gave the kid two euros. When I did, he jumped back on his feet, surprised to be rewarded. I winked. He winked back.
I left Salerno with a sense of completion, no room for romanticizing; the city exists for itself and not for my judgment. Often journeys never feel so complete, always saying, “I will return. I must return.” This is a fault. What makes Salerno different is that I know I will never return. And for once, this is comforting.