VIETRI SUL MARE, Italy — When a friend of mine, Helen, heard that I would be spending a week on Italy's Amalfi Coast, she said I should be sure to take special note of the "unusual, very pretty" ceramic dinnerware made in that part of Italy.
She was right. But little did she realize the costly and worrisome adventure her innocent, well-meaning suggestion would ultimately cause another friend, Lucy, and me.
In the dining room of our hotel--the grand and glorious San Pietro, clinging to a cliff above the Bay of Salerno--and in virtually every other restaurant where we dined along the coast, we were delighted by the plates we saw, all filled with bright, warm Mediterranean colors and playful, almost child-like drawings of chickens and fish and fruits and flowers.
Plates and Platters
We decided to buy some plates for ourselves--a dozen pasta bowls and a larger serving bowl. Then we had a second idea: Why not buy a few platters for relatives and a close friend or two (like Helen) who might especially appreciate them? I was particularly pleased with that idea because I often purchase some small gift or other for family and a couple of friends when we go to Europe, and I can never decide what to buy; I wind up spending an inordinate amount of time looking, comparing, thinking and rejecting before finally choosing.
Some travelers enjoy shopping when they're on vacation. Not me. I like to give but not to shop. The plates would solve that problem. I'd buy one for everyone on my list and finish it off in one quick stop.
Or so we thought.
We asked the concierge at the San Pietro where we should go to buy the dishes. He suggested the factory in Vietri Sul Mare that makes the hotel's dinnerware. By making a small detour we could go there on our way (sort of) to Rome, our next stop. We could buy the plates and have someone at the factory package them and send them to our home by ship. They might not arrive for two or three months, but there was no hurry; the delay would give us something to look forward to after our vacation.
But when we got to the factory, early on a Friday afternoon, it was closed. The Long Italian Lunch. I walked to the nearest open business, a market across the street, and asked when the factory would reopen. They didn't speak English. I don't speak Italian. For some reason, they seemed to think I wanted to buy a kilo of tomatoes. When I shook my head, they offered half a kilo. Finally, I tugged one of the clerks into the street, pointed to the door of the factory, pantomimed opening a door, pointed frantically at my watch, said "Che ora?" and shrugged helplessly.
As near as I could tell, he said it would open again at 4:15 p.m., more than two hours later.
Not wanting to believe him, we went next to the garage down the street from the factory. A similar pantomime produced an answer of 2:45 p.m. We walked around the town for 45 minutes, had an espresso, then returned.
A few minutes later, the factory reopened. But no one there spoke English either. Still, they were patient and helpful, and in a matter of minutes we made our selection. Then we took out our phrase book and tried to explain that we wanted everything packed and shipped to Los Angeles. No luck. We tried French. None of us spoke it fluently, but it was the closest we had to a common tongue. Gradually--painfully--we were able to make ourselves understood.
But our problems were just beginning.
They said it would cost us $300 to ship the plates home. As the plates only cost about $185, that seemed excessive. We decided to have them packed for shipping but to take the boxes with us and try to mail them home from Rome, where, we assumed, we could find English-speaking people and cheaper delivery services.
One of the first things I did when we checked into our Rome hotel, the vastly overrated d'Inghilterra, was explain our problem to the concierge. He promised to help. We never heard from him again. We asked the resident manager. He promised to help. We never heard from him again. We called the post office.
As near as I could tell, I had two choices--spend about $400 to send the plates home by air mail or spend about $300 to have them shipped home--which could take six months and which, in all likelihood, would result in the arrival of two boxes of broken dishes.
I called Don Schanche, The Times correspondent in Rome. His secretary made a couple of calls. She found an Italian firm that said it would send the plates to Los Angeles by some unspecified means at a cost of 7,820 lire per kilo, about $2.60 a pound. Based on my very rough (and probably wildly inaccurate) estimate of the weight of the boxes, it sounded as if it would cost me about $100, still expensive but a helluva lot better than anything we'd heard so far.
We were told to call later and ask for Sergio, who spoke English, so we could make final arrangements.