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The Molemate and the Secrets of Portofino
If you want to uncover the secrets in exotic locales like Portofino, it helps to learn the language, and to meet a waiter or three.
As wild a party town as it may have been in Renaissance, 21st century Florence doesn’t exactly give Manhattan a run for its money in the dining out and nightlife departments. Gorgeous yes, zinging with nocturnal hot spots, no. After a couple weeks in the stunning, if stony, city, it can feel as snoozy as Iowa, although certainly with more interesting architecture, enchanting views, and not so many cows hanging around.
So a while back it was with great joy that I pressed my face against the window a new eatery, noticing that the sprawling restaurant-bar was handsome (as were the waiters) and elegant (as were the waiters).
Brass chandeliers dropped down from high ceilings, long dark wood tables where you could dozens tasty wines by the inexpensive glass, the frequent appearance of famous opera singers – these were among the deciding factors in making this my temporary main hangout in Florence, as of course were the flirtatious waiters, who showed great panache in their service, and also had all their teeth.
By my fourth visit – after I’d sampled the strong cheeses and sipped wines made Sangiovese-Cabernet blends that smelled like violets and tasted like berries – I’d become friendly with the staff, which is helpful, because waiters are often tuned in to entertainment possibilities.
Months of teaching myself the basics of Italian had paid off, because few of them spoke English beyond “Here eeza your check.” Had I not spoken their language, or at least my version of it, I´d never have understood when the sandy-haired waiter with the strange name of Ig invited me to Portofino, a dazzling coastal town on the Italian Riviera.
That Monday, bells chimed noon across Piazza Santa Croce (where the church is home to the bones of Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini), I met up with cheese cutter Vincenzo, sommelier Claudio, and my handsome host for the day Ig.
The air was sticky and gray when we left Florence, and wine guy Claudio – whose skin was already cinnamon-colored from compulsive sun-worshipping – was moaning that it was going to rain and he needed to sun because he was fading, but two hours north everything changed, and Claudio’s whining ceased.
The air was light and clean, the landscape sweeping, flowers were blooming everywhere, and much to Claudio’s delight, it was sunny. Once we entered Liguria, the coast-hugging stretch where Northern Italy starts to takes a left, we were surrounded by stunning evergreen-tufted bluffs which dropped sharply to glistening blue water. Instead of the typical Tuscan stone houses, the buildings were splashed in pastels – apricots, pinks and blues – and boasted arching, metal-laced balconies in the romantic variety of nearby Genoa.
Once we departed the three-block downtown of Portofino and slinked along the knee of coastline, it somehow got increasingly more beautiful by the centimeter.
Near a U-shaped stretch of beach, we stopped at a house that at first glance looked pretty much like a normal old beach house, or rather a normal old wooden Italian double door built into the side of a stone cliff that loomed overhead. Across the narrow, winding street and down from a precipice where umbrella pines perched keeping watch, the sparkling turquoise water lapped at the shore, and everywhere we looked there was a striking, wind-sculpted view flecked with aquamarine and deep green that was worthy of an award-winning postcard.
Inside the building, there was a tunnel-like corridor ahead of us as we passed through a foyer and climbed a spiral staircase. At the top was a small, curving door and we entered the modest apartment of Ig’s friends, a beautiful plump woman named Anna.
Ig said that creamy-skinned mother Anna was an apartment caretaker, but I couldn’t figure out what complex she was caretaking, because only this tiny, hobbit-like dwelling was atop the spiral stairs. He said they’d show me the apartments later, and in the meantime, we headed down the curvy road towards Portofino’s private beach – where the boys, being delightfully Italian, paid my $10 cover fee and we sat on white plastic lawn chairs looking onto the sea, while drinking a crisp, slightly floral white wine called Pigato.
Claudio, who while sweet has a vaguely militaristic air, promptly made a show of dramatically doing one-armed push-ups on the sandy beach. With each push-up, he loudly announced, “Notta bad, eh? And I justa turned 30!”
“And howa old are you, Meleeza?” Claudio asked, a question that had obsessed the entire wait staff since our meeting the previous week.
“Younger than Madonna – both of them,” I said, neglecting to answer their queries about the latest Madonna’s age.
“You knowa Meleeza,” Claudio started, changing his push-up arm, “I hava lived eena Florida, eena Miami bitch, so whena I talka English I talka like a real American.”
“Hadn’t noticed Claudio,” I said, kicking back a bit of the cool white sand with my foot.
Claudio, it’s true, has an amazing command of English, which in itself is quite rare over there, but he never utters North America’s most important phrases – “Whatever” and “Anyway.”
“No, eet eeza true, I don’t talka with the foreigner’s accent lika when you talka Italian,” he added, changing push-up arms again.
“Oh really,” I said with a yawn, looking out over the sun-sparkling teal waters and the cliffs towering above.
“Justa listen,” said Claudio, his push-upping suddenly halting, “nowa I willa talk like a real American.”
“I’m waiting Claudio.” I took a drink of Pigato, the ideal wine for seaside sipping.
“Ok,” Claudio began, “You f……g HASSLE!”
“What?” I said, laughing so hard I sprayed my wine all over Ig.
“You saya this whena you driva the cars een America,” Claudio explained.
It was that “h” problem Italians halways ave…the one evident when they say, “I am very hungry with my father” (with whom they are invariably irate) or when they ask, as they whisk you into a trattoria, “Are you very angry? How many courses would you like to eat?” Or when they hold their stomachs and moan, “I hate too much!”
Thus began our English language lesson on the balmy “bitch” of Portofino – which light-haired Ig and dark-haired Vincenzo joined in on, and that no doubt sounded like a strange chant to passersby of “Hassle, hassle, hassle,” when Portofino, one of the dreamiest places on earth, is one of the most hassle-free.
And it was sometime around the time they were finally putting the “h” of “hassle” on the second syllable, that I found something I’d been seeking for the past twenty years.
It began when I looked at Ig’s semi-muscular arms, which in the course of sunning had gone from ghostly white to very pale beige.
“Hey Ig, you have some interesting mole formations,” I noted.
“Yes,” he agreed, quietly surveying his moles, his gray eyes matching the serrated outcropping of stone above us, and his profile looking arched and angled. “There are many groups of three,” Ig continued. “And what’s really strange is… they all make triangles.” He looked rather guilty in this admission.
I considered making use of all my advanced math classes to note that chances are whenever there are three random points they will make a triangle, but instead I demurely said what I always say to every man whose arm is exposed. “Hey, let’s see if our moles match. I’m not looking for my soulmate, but I am looking for my molemate.”
And a most cursory examination revealed something that I’d given up on ever happening, but there it was before my eyes: not one but two triangles on our respective arms matched – identically – as though I was staring at my arm moles in a mirror. In other words, after decades of searching, I’d finally found my molemate!
Although no in-depth studies have ever been conducted on matching moles and their potential meaning, this molemate discovery, in its statistical improbability alone, seemed to me to be grounds for celebration, and I happily would have ordered another glass of Pigato, except it was 7:30 and the private beach was closing. So instead we walked back in the soft breeze to the itsy-bitsy apartment of Ig’s friends. Little did I suspect what festivities awaited.
The sun was just starting to slip behind the jagged crags when we returned to the same old wooden door on the side of the cliff and rang. The painfully thin daughter greeted us and suggested a tour of the grounds, which I erroneously thought meant a tour of another two or three modest apartments that must have been hidden away behind a garage.
Instead Anna was leading us straight up into paradise.
From the front door we didn’t turn up the spiral stairs but instead wandered straight down a long, damp, chilly corridor – as though we were entering a cave, except this cave had decoration gone deeply surreal, with water trickling down stone walls and the passage eerily lined with low-lit lights and small diagonal mirrors hanging every few feet.
At the end of the very long hall was a small elevator, and much to my relief, we pressed 2, since any floor higher than three is enough to induce in me anxiety attacks.
“Two can’t be that high,” I thought to myself, as the elevator began its ascent and (like the Real Madonna) kept ascending and ascending and ascending.
After five minutes of ascension I was ready to flip, as it seemed we were shooting up a mountain, but finally we arrived at floor 2, which was apparently short for floor two trillion and two, and we hopped out and walked down another trickly stone corridor. It was all so hypnotically strange, as though we had stumbled onto a planet from ‘Deep Space Nine.’
After some time, the corridor spilled us out onto the most enchanting terrace I’d ever seen, with a heart-piercing view of the turquoise water crashing below, and the rocky precipices beyond, and everywhere there were staggered walls cascading canopies of extraordinary flowers, oriental and tropical, in pink and orange and red, and the air was thickly perfumed with an olfactory marvel that was worthy of heaven.
Well, I would have been happy to die there, but I didn’t have a chance, since within minutes we were moving on down yet another flinty, damp corridor in this strange cliff complex, to yet another small elevator and this time we pushed 1, which did not take us down but yet higher.
And there, after yet another trickling tunnel trek, we found ourselves strolling along yet another hilltop courtyard, this one more incredible, with even more devastatingly beautiful flowers lazily nodding in the evening breeze, and a more awesome view and trees planted about artfully in an Asian-Italian like way that made it look and smell like a small tropical rain forest. This was the private terrace of an international lawyer, who is so well-to-do that he has an entire suite just for his cat; for the first time in my life I found myself envious of a four-footed being.
Then, as it’s sinking in that it’s all one, multi-level building somehow carved into a hollowed-out bluff, we hiked up some stone stairs to yet another balcony, and this one was my all time favorite, being larger than most houses, with bright mosaic tables set up every few steps and quotes from scholars chiseled into granite walls, and unleashing a sweeping view of the wind-sculpted cliffs and the tranquil U-shaped beach to the right, and the fishing village with its bobbing boats enveloped by a rosy sunset to the left.
Everywhere I looked was yet another marvel of nature, the terrace being showered with blossoms and low-hanging trees, and we plucked Asian citrus fruits and apricots and other strange nectarous wonders as we scampered back down the many stairs, this time along a trail on the outside of the cliff dwelling, past a Venus fly trap the size of a small meteor, and more exotic plants all stunningly sculpted, and finally made our way down, down, down, to the apartment of Ig’s friends.
There we found the small table loaded with a feast – fried pasta, grilled vegetables, salami, cheeses, olives, and salted cod. This was followed by a mozzarella-gushing pesto lasagna drizzled with bright green Ligurian olive oil that tasted faintly herbal and almost grassy.
Over bottles of a tasty Cabernet Franc from Friuli, my new pals exchanged strange story after strange story.
Ig told about a recent year in Brazil, where he bought a garage and turned it into a bar, making table tops out of cross-sectioned tree trunks. Since the Brazilian currency was at that moment strong, he made oodles of money in the first six months. Alas, the value of the currency fell, and nobody went out, and after another six months of no business, he sold the garage-bar for a mere $30 and hightailed it back to Italy, the former highroller broker than ever.
Anna, the satiny-skinned mother, told of the two wild boars she had recently shot, skinned and turned into sausage. She illustrated the tale with photos of the huge, fanged cingale looking quite terrifying in their pre-skinned, pre-sausage state.
They both told the story about Ig’s crazy uncle in Friuli, who upon throwing a large dinner party at a posh restaurant, ordered a bottle of very fine wine and served it out of his shoe, which I was thinking may have been exactly what the lifeless Dolcetta D’Alba needed.
Typically soft-spoken Vincenzo, who often complains that he’s stuck behind the bar slicing cheese and never meets anyone, was suddenly yukking it up, talking about Buddhism and the many macrobiotic restaurants he’d found while living in Germany, and seemingly quite taken with the hunter to his left, Anna.
Claudio kept gazing at his arms saying, “Hey, notta bad – my tan eeza definitely coming back!” and going on to imitate how stupid Americans sound when they nasally pronounce “Portofino,” which prompted me to call him a “real hassle.”
And I was as happy as I’d been in recent history, gazing at the moles on Ig’s arms, and then back at mine, and then out the window at the hazy outline of the cypress-dotted bluff perched atop sandy shore, and then breathing in the salty marine air that was mixed with sweet, honeyed flowers.
This sort of luxurious travel adventure in exotic places, I decided with a deep sigh, probably always happens when one finds their true molemate.
We kept drinking and laughing until two in the morning, when we had to turn back because the boys, being professional waiters who work double shifts six days a week, had to show up in good form the next morning. And whether it was due to the beauty of Portofino or a side effect of the grassy green Ligurian oil, I was in a veritable state of bliss by the time we piled into the car.
Hours later, when the boys dropped me off in Florence, the morning sun was rising in a bright azure wash, and I stumbled into bed, arising the next morning with not even a postcard as proof that the day had in fact occurred. I’m not fully convinced that it did, or that I found a place that was worthy of spending eternity, and my friends don’t believe me when they I tell them a mere hundredaire such as myself set her foot in Portofino and clamored about a multi-level cliff complex that makes Tuscan villas seem puny. But Claudio has assured me that “eeta all really tooka place,” and eeffa Claudio says so, eeta musta be true.
So the next time you meet some cute waiters, ask if you can tag along on their day off, and the next time you look at a cliff, look again, because paradise may be rising up from its hollowed interior. And the next time you see someone’s bare arm, check to see if your moles match, because you never know what could happen when you meet up with your molemate.