Sunday morning in Tellaro…


There will be days on this trip when nothing is going right, when the clean, quaint apartment we saw on the internet turns out to be a dump, when the view outside our window is a brick wall, when bus fumes and city noise rise up to fill our apartment.


Not today.


Today and all this week is Tellaro, a small fishing village at the end of the road on the Mediterranean coast that Dolora and I last visited ten years ago with Liam in our arms. We discovered it by chance when Dolora stumbled upon a guide book that told of the Gulf of Poets, of a region where the British Romantic poets Byron and Shelley came to write. A century later in 1913, the doctors of D.H. Lawrence ordered him to leave the damp English air for the mild Mediterranean coast.


It’s not easy to get here. You take a train to Sarzana, another smaller train to La Spezia, a bus to Lerici, another bus to Tellaro—which you’ll probably miss, so be prepared to walk three miles on a narrow road that hugs the coast. Walk until the road ends, and you’ll end up in Tellaro. (This time we came here in luxury: Titi and Fausto drove us from Modena, a spectacular two-hour drive through the Appenine Mountains that run like a spin up the center of Italy.)


There is beauty, and then there is Tellaro beauty. From all angles the Mediterranean plays IMG_2742out in front of you, its colors shifting to a new shade of blue with each passing hour. The coastline is rugged, like the Napali coast on the north shore of Kauai. A small church and town square with a few outdoor cafes are at the top of the town, and then from there down IMG_6053to the sea are narrow twisting alleys with apartments rising up three stories. These apartments, all a few hundred years old, are painted the traditional colors of Italy—an orange, a watermelon red, a yellow—with shutters painted different shades of green.


Anna, the caretaker of our apartment for the week, met us up top in the town square. She led us down one of these alleys where direct sunlight shines for a half hour each day, down closer to the sea. She stopped at #34 and led us inside.


The word “breathtaking” might be a cliché but that’s what happened here: an intake of breath at the view from all windows of the wide sea to our left and to the jumble of buildings that rise in twisting colorful tiers to our right, and down below us a dozen small boats with oars—boats painted light blue or red or white. The apartment is three stories: the bottom is the kitchen and living room/dining room, above that is a large bathroom and our bedroom, and above that is a small attic space with a twin bed for Liam—a situation that delights him in this phase of life that pulls him away from his parents.


I paid Anna in cash: 530 euros for the week. She waved away the 100 euro deposit that the owner, Elisabetta, had requested in the contract.


I leaned out the window. People were swimming or sprawled on the rocks like seals, an invitation for us to quickly change and get in the water. Fifteen minutes later we stood on the concrete ramp that led into the water—a ramp decorated with spirals of tiles—and I said to IMG_6087Liam, “I give you the Mediterranean.” We hobbled in—Liam, Dolora, Titi, and me, with Fausto doing the hero’s work of parking the car—navigating the rocks and rough bottom until we pushed off into and under the sea. Glorious. We swam for a bit but mainly chatted in a circle with easy strokes to stay afloat in this very salty water


“Are you happy?” I asked Dolora.


She rolled onto her back and floated. “I’m never IMG_6040leaving,” she said.


Later we walked the stone path that runs along the sea for a hundred yards in both directions. Attached to the railing at one spot was a plastic bag with a book inside.


“A book crossing,” Titi said.

“A what?”

“A book crossing. It’s where people leave books at random places or just take one that they find.”

“Could you repeat that?” I asked, amazed at such a concept.

She did, adding, “You’ll find this everywhere all throughout Italy. The book crossing.”

Reason #3681 to love Italy.



We walked uphill away from the sea and into town.  Along the way we passed a newly married couple posing for their photos. “Auguri,” I said, remembering the Italian word for “congratulations.” We passed old ladies with sturdy legs from a lifetime of climbing these steps. We passed cats and a tiny shrine to Mary dug into the rocks and a plaque in honor of octopi. Fausto translated the Latin inscription: that in the 1600s an infestation of squid overwhelmed an argosy of pirates aiming for Tellaro. This explains all the squid imagery throughout the village.


IMG_6065We reached the town square. There were a few characters from a decade ago that we wanted to see, not expecting any of them to remember us. We stepped into the small market and there he was behind the counter, Marco, looking robust as ever, and in a flash I recalled him bouncing baby Liam in his arms and squeezing his chunky thighs that he called “bombolinos”—the name for a cream-filled donut. Now ten years later, Marco turned to us after slicing ham for a customer. After two seconds of his synapses firing his hands shot up into the air.


“Mamma mia!” he exclaimed, and ran out from behind the counter to give Dolora and me kisses on both cheeks. His jaw dropped—literally—at the sight of Liam. “Not possible, no, is this the baby, the baby with the fat fat legs.” He planted big kisses on Liam’s cheeks and I felt my eyes fill up with tears—my boy all grown up, Marco remembering us, his lips on Liam’s skin, Tellaro, the bounty of life.


This same reception repeated itself across the square at the Hotel Ondine, where the owner, Stephania, remembered us and baby Liam immediately.



It’s now a day later, Monday at 7:39am, the sea crashing against the rocks. I look across the IMG_2792Mediterranean Sea and see our future: dark roiling clouds headed our way. These waves are the hint of trouble sent forward as a warning.


We spent our yesterday with Fausto and Titi at a beach about a half mile down the twisting cliff road from Tellaro. A random recounting:


  • While the rest of us carry paperbacks around to read at the beach, Fausto’s reading was about mathematical problems and theorems.


  • Fausto on language: “In English you have many words. 600,000 words compared to 100,000 in Italy, because you take the words from anywhere: French, Latin, Greek, Anglo-Saxons—everywhere, you are the thief of words. You understand, ‘thief’?” I nodded and he continued. “But all these English words are very good for concrete things, not for the abstract. For example, you have one word for thoughts: ‘thought.’ ‘I thought this and I thought that.’ In Italy like in Latin we have seven words for different types of thoughts. The same with intelligence. We have five concepts for intelligence and so five different words. Creative intelligence that takes information to a different place. That’s a word. Or intelligence that distinguishes between two very similar things. That’s a word.”


  • The other day while stopped at a light Fausto rolled down his window and asked for directions from the neighboring car.


“We do this all the time in Italy,” Titi explained. “We even go up to a house if we need directions. I think in America that no, you don’t do this so much.”


  • At dinner we recounted for Fausto and Titi our nightmare on the Vienna to Venice train when the three of us slept in a tiny closet of beds with two strange women. “I’m pressed up against the window,” I said, using my hands to contort my face into a flat surface, “and I have to turn myself on my side to make myself narrow—narrow as a slice of Parma ham.”


“Really?” Dolora said. “Narrow as a slice of Parma ham.”

“Oh come on, it’s brilliant! You know what I mean, ham that gets sliced on one of those machines we saw in Fausto’s cabin.”


“It’s good,” Liam said, and we moved on.


  • “The French have an expression that I like,” Fausto said. “’Par coeur.’ By heart. When you memorize something and you know it very well, you know it ‘par coeur.’”


“The same in English,” I said. “We say that you know something ‘by heart.’” And for the first time I thought about that expression, about knowing something so well that it’s in your bloodstream, in your heart. As Shakespeare says in King Lear when Gloucester has an epiphany, “I know it feelingly.”


“This is the reason,” Fausto said, “that older people have a hard time memorizing. It is because they are losing their passion, their emotion.”


  • IMG_2742I stopped Fausto on our walk and pointed to three adjacent buildings. “Why these colors?” I asked. “Everywhere in Italy, it’s this yellow or red or orange.”


From the looks in his eyes and the long pause, I knew that the mind of Fausto was gathering a very large pile of thoughts as if packing for a long trip. “For a long time,” he began, “it was not sure how many different colors to use on the map. One color for all? No, with only one you can’t tell one country apart from another. Two? Ten? How many is best?”


“Are you asking me?”


“No, I’m not, I’m telling you. The answer is four. Four colors on the map, that is the best number to keep the countries separate.”


“What does that have to do with the color of these buildings?”


“I’m getting there. Four colors on the map, yes, but just recently they prove this with math. They put together the formula into a computer and there is the answer proven with numbers. Four.”


He pauses, and I worry about that pause. Is that it? Is that his explanation for the orange and red and yellow paints? If so, he may as well be giraffe and I a sea horse, so different are we constituted. To fill up that disturbing pause I say, “Wow, that computer must’ve been powerful.”


That’s right. “Wow, that computer must’ve been powerful.” Those are my words, and to go with them, to show my earnestness, I wrinkle my forehead and narrow my eyes.


Who am I? Really: Who am I? More than anything it’s the “wow” that’s most alarming, as if I were looking upon the Grand Canyon for the first time.




And then Fausto, in all his sweetness, in all his patience, as if he were Einstein who just filled up the blackboard in Princeton with theorems of relativity and a student raises his hand to say, “Wow, that chalk really fills up a board!”, sweet patient Fausto says, “Yes, very powerful, the computer takes 10 hours to calculate.”


“Ten hours!” I just can’t help myself. “That’s amazing!”


Fausto says nothing.


I add, “The math, wow, it must be so complicated!”


Fausto shakes his head. “No, not complicated, just takes a long time.”


“Ten hours.”


“Yes, ten hours.”


Me the sea horse, he the giraffe. For me, replacing a light bulb is what I regard as “not complicated.” For Fausto, a ten-hour running of a computer at a speed so high that smoke rises off its coils, that’s his “not complicated.”


Coils? Am I suddenly an 88-year-old vet of World War II who thinks coils and vacuums and tubes and a bellows run a computer?


Perhaps, because suddenly I feel a surge of boldness arise within me, a boldness akin to a soldier parachuting behind Nazi lines. “But, Fausto,” I say, “what does this have to do with the color of house paint in Italy?”


“Ahh, yes, the colors. These are the colors of the dirt, of the ground.”


I nod as if all is now perfectly clear. As if soil is yellow. As if maps need four colors. As if the path toward understanding anything in Italy is as twisting as these alleyways in Tellaro.






  1. Adam Robertson

    “Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvellous than the land.” -E.M. Forster

    Thank you for your vivid descriptions of the Italians, which make me think of the Forster books I have read.

  2. Lainie

    The most important detail of all: what was the name of the book inside the bag?

    • Jim Toner

      Jim Toner

      Yes, great question! I’ll have to return tomorrow to see if the book is still there and to record its title. But isn’t that a great practice, Lainie, to leave books around town? I want you to do that somewhere in Lakewood.

  3. shannon

    Wow. I says wow.

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