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The Money Supply and me.

“Give me a one-handed Economist. All my economists say ‘on the one hand…’, then ‘but on the other…” ― Harry Truman [image: Adam Smith Statue, Edinburgh]

“We’ll get you out of here.” Sympathetic to my hincillincphobia (fear of being trapped in enclosed spaces fulled with economists), concierge Mario had thrown himself into the quest of getting me as far from the conference-hosting hotel as possible. Today’s proposed escape was to the nearby island of Capri.

I’d done some research online, and discovered that Capri held two primary tourist draws: designer everything from OTT luxury boutiques, and the Blue Grotto. From reports I read, the savvy tourist would shop for custom fitted sandals, buy a bottle of limoncello, and above all avoid the Blue Grotto.

Mario and I did go back and forth over the guide issue. I’m not a fan, but he thought bus drivers wouldn’t speak English, and since I was on my own, I might have trouble making it back in time to catch the return ferry from Capri to Ischia. Reluctantly, I agreed to hire a guide.

At the port, therefore, I met with Luigi, a smiling man who introduced himself as the “mafioso” of the guide operation. I explained to Luigi that I did NOT want to do the Blue Grotto, but would be interested in a boat tour around Capri. He nodded, agreed with everything I said, slapped a group sticker on my shirt, and introduced me to Alessandro, a movie-star handsome young “English-speaking” guide. I’d been speaking with a mother traveling with her two-year-old, and one look at Alessandro had her deciding she’d prefer an English tour to the Italian one led by a portly middle-aged man.

On the tourist ferry to Capri, we were promised a commentary in a variety of languages. Sure enough, as the boat left Ischia, we heard a man’s voice intone, “Bong. Bong, bong. Bong…” This cryptic statement was followed by one sentence in Italian, repeated in English, Spanish, French, German, and Russian. The remainder of the “multinational” tour was in Italian.

Upon landing in Capri, Alessandro herded our little group of English speakers onto a waiting bus, where all the seats were taken so we had to stand at the back. A woman with a microphone elbowed Alessandro aside, faced the passengers, and bellowed out a nonstop commentary in Russian. Her patter must have been epic, because the rest of the passengers ooohed and aahed and cracked up at presumably hilarious Russian jokes. Alessandro didn’t meet our eyes.

Pray Prey

Eventually, the bus stopped and Alessandro shepherded us into a queue that seemed to consist of hundreds of tourists standing on steps leading downward to the sea.

Me [suspicious]: “What’s this?”

Alessandro [enthusiastic]: “Blue Grotto tour.”

Me […]: “Nope, nope, nope! I was supposed to be on a boat tour of Capri.”

Alessandro [pointing contemptuously to lines of boats bobbing below]: “Steps is better. Boat tour waits too long for Blue Grotto. And bus is-a gone now. Is only steps to Grotto and then bus comes back.”

Me [pathetic whine]: “But I don’t want to go to the Blue Grotto.”

Alessandro [incredulous]: “Is Capri! You will love Blue Grotto.”

I had time, over the next two-and-a-half hours spent standing on crowded steps in blazing sunlight—two-and-a-half hours I will never get back—to think about a tourist’s place (prey) in the circle of life. At an hour in, I thought, “Screw this! I’m getting out of here if I have to walk back to the harbor.” Just then the line snaked through the most brilliantly located cafe ever, past a stall full of cups of fruit. The bowl of watermelon I bought saw me through the next hour.

Because the Blue Grotto is now an official national park with a large workforce of tourist predators guides to support, those coming off the boats or down the steps had to get into one of the little rowboats who hovered in a fleet at the entrance.

By now, tourists were starting to come back up the steps after their grotto tour. They did not look like people who had just experienced something worth the investment in two-and-a-half hours of potential sunstroke. When those waiting on the stairs asked if it was worth it, we got glassy smiles and noncommittal comments about it being “nice”. But by then, we could actually see the bottom of the steps. After all that waiting, and given the certainty of a chilly day in Hell before I consented to return, I decided to stay in line.

In my research the day before, I read that the Blue Grotto served as Emperor Tiberius’ private swimming pool when he moved the Roman capital to Capri in 27AD. Statues recovered from the floor of the Grotto indicate that it was once lined with magnificent depictions of Neptune followed by a swarm of Tritons blowing on giant seashells, all standing in glowing blue water up to their knees, while (supposedly) the randy Emperor swam surrounded by naked girls and boys. Sadly, those fun times are long gone.

We were placed in our rowboat, then instructed to lie down so our heads would clear the one-meter entrance. I caught a glimpse of Alessandro over on a little platform, surrounded by other guides. All were looking at me and laughing—whether at the American who thought she was going to skip the Blue Grotto, or the way I lay down in the stern of the rowboat with all the grace of an elderly elephant. Both, probably… Our new rowboat guide then rowed over to a large official looking boat to verify that we had tickets, before joining the fleet of rowboats waiting their turn to enter the cave. At last our little boat approached the entrance to the cave, where our guide pulled us hand-over-hand along a chain to get through the tiny opening.

From there, it was one minute and 48 seconds inside. Really. After a morning spent standing in direct sun, our Blue Grotto experience consisted of the following:

  • A few perfunctory bars of O Sole Mio
  • A bit of patter about how the blue light was actually refracted from sunlight passing through the narrow entrance and reflecting off the cave floor
  • A reference to Roman Emperor Tiberius
  • A reminder that the guide would appreciate a large tip.

And now we were the ones climbing back up the stairs, passing hundreds of tourists asking, “Was it worth it?” I realized the truth: if we’d skipped downstairs, popped into the cave for less than 90 seconds, and then gone on for some serious sandal-buying, the Blue Grotto would be a non-event. But the waiting and the boat-transferring and the complex processes surrounding the whole thing raised it to life-event level, an experience supporting an entire Blue Grotto tour industry. So now I was the one with the glassy smile and vague comments about it being nice because…I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to point out that the emperor (no matter how Roman) has no clothes.

When the rest of our group was finally dis-rowboated and Alessandro managed to get us onto another bus (with an even fiercer German-speaking guide), he broke the bad news. Because ‘we’ had wasted so much time (!) on the Blue Grotto, we would have one hour to spend getting lunch in Anacapri, and then forty-five minutes for the luxury shops of Capri itself. 

The last one back to the bus, I was greeted by an irate Luigi with the information that it would be my fault if we missed our boat back to Ischia. But I think he saw how close he was to a tragic testicle-loss event, because he pretended to laugh and waved me onto the bus—where he informed the rest of the passengers that I had really been hoping to remain on Capri with him for the night. I wondered if Luigi knew I spent the trip back considering how long it would take to geld a fat middle-aged guy using the plastic spines of my Capri tourist fan and a gelato cup.

Score for the day?

Me: No handmade sandals, no limoncella, and a morning spent baking on stairs roughly the temperature of the sun’s surface. But not even a single mention of the money supply.

Luigi: No tip, but his manhood was still in whatever condition he’d started the day with. He was the clear winner.

And the day wasn’t a total loss for two reasons.

Reason #1: Love

View from cliffs above Anacapri

Reason #2: Eat (and maybe a bit of love. And okay: a sincere prayer of thanks!)

Mario was devastated to hear how my day had gone. He insisted on planning the next day immediately, plus set us up with dinner reservations at Dortas, one of his favorite restaurants. Apparently I really AM that shallow, because a sunset dinner of tuna tartare with walnut and smoked gorgonzola pizza-to-die-for was all it took for my day to be perfect.

Coming next? My last Italy post—lots of the EATing, ALL the LOVE, and (after another drive in Naples) quite a bit of the PRAYer.