Italian affair


Laura Fraser
December 1, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

Most business travelers don't know that in Tokyo it's possible to find a free tour guide, book a reasonably priced hotel room and get paid to eat a meal. By following a few tips, you can find travel to the capital -- whether for business or pleasure -- unexpectedly affordable.

If you're coming to town for an extended stay, you should know about a week-long air-and-hotel package that offers a tremendous value, a deal that was unthinkable two years ago, when the dollar was trading at only 80 yen. Both Airport Travel (800-310-5549) and Travis Pacific (800-227-4352) are offering one-week stays in Tokyo with round-trip flights from the U.S. on Singapore Airlines and accommodations at the Tokyo Hilton for $999. A half-day tour of Tokyo is included as well.

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If you're not traveling on a package deal, of course, you're on your own getting from the airport to downtown. What are the options? Well, you can always take a taxi -- but even if you're getting reimbursed, $200 for 40 miles of traffic seems excessive. The NEX (Narita Express) train is faster and a ticket costs only about $25. (All figures in this article are calculated using an exchange rate of 125 yen to $1.) The slower Keisei line costs even less. Another option that is slightly cheaper than NEX is the Limousine Bus. While it might take a little longer than the train, the big advantage of the bus is door-to-door service from Narita Airport to most major hotels.

One of those hotels, the Keio Plaza Inter-Continental, offers business travelers an especially good deal. Members of the hotel's "Executive International Club" can take advantage of guaranteed U.S. dollar rates starting at $190 for a single room. Membership offers a variety of other perks, including full American breakfast, health club passes and extended check-out time. And if you want to take a client out for drinks, the Keio's second-floor "Let's Bar" offers a budget-friendly happy hour special: Between 5 and 7 p.m. weekdays, all drinks are 600 yen (about $5).

Other Tokyo hotels such as the Okura, Tokyu and Four Seasons also have membership clubs and offer special rates and package deals. In addition, prices at the Prince chain are always good. Rates start at 13,000 yen (about $104) per night at the Sunshine City Prince and 14,500 ($116) for a room at the Shinjuku Prince.

In your travels around Tokyo, taxis should be avoided, except for short jaunts. The subway is faster and much cheaper, and the new automatic fare cards make it even easier to navigate the extensive train system. If you're in need of help, most ticket-takers can offer rudimentary guidance, or look for stations marked "Information" in the main subway stops. Of course, many passersby can also speak English and will be happy to help a lost traveler.

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Finally he sits with you in the sauna and tells you that you have the
most beautiful skin he has ever seen, the color of gold, so soft. And
your body. What a beautiful body, so nice from so much swimming, so
strong, so curvy. Bella, bella. He is, of course, saying all the
things a Blond American Divorcée is dying to hear, and in soft
Italian. But he doesn't seem to have much of anything else to say.
Here he is, the Italian lover you fantasized about. He's wild about
you, he'll make passionate love to you, and he leaves you absolutely
cold. Maybe, you think, you just have no desire for men at all anymore.

So you leave, explaining you have to meet a friend in Forio, and you
become just another fish that got away.

The next day you meet an American woman who has lived on Ischia for
30 years, and she and her friend, a 40ish photographer, take you in a
'62 Ford to a hidden canyon on the island where mineral water comes
pouring down through the rocks like a shower. Afterwards, you lie on
the beach and drink a couple of beers and have a cheerful conversation
and the photographer starts telling you how much he's attracted to
you. You swim out to get away and he swims out after you and suggests
that you two should spend the night together. He has some really great
music you could listen to. Some Carpenters and some Fleetwood Mac. And
he has studied yoga and he knows that your energy will be good
together. You have the perfect body, he says, you are the perfect
woman for me. For a moment you consider going back to the waiter in the
sauna the day before. You bide your time until you can politely say
you have a phone call to make to the States and return to Forio alone.

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Italian lovers, you realize, are as easy to pick up on Ischia as
ceramic ashtrays painted with lemons. You go back to the pensione and
read a novel and watch the ocean and realize it's just fine to be by
yourself. You fall asleep making plans to move on the next day. A
mosquito wakes you in the dead of night and you write a 12-page letter
to your ex that you will never send, but putting it all down in a
notebook in a pensione on Ischia seems to make it feel better. In the
morning, you're ready to explore someplace new, alone.

At breakfast you say buon giorno to the signora and nod to the
gentleman at the table next to you. You notice he is not German and
you wonder about him. He looks remarkably like Bob Dylan did 10 years
ago, only less craggy, with shiny brown curls, a beak-like nose and
watery blue eyes. He's wearing a long soft denim jacket and a tapestry
vest and thick silver bracelets.

You're studying your hippie guidebook when he starts asking the
signora some questions about the island. You join the conversation by
asking her a question yourself without making eye contact with the
man. When she leaves you offer him a look at your guidebook. You speak
to him in the third person formal, Lei. You tell him what you know
about the island and when he asks, you say you're probably leaving
that morning but you're not sure, you still might want to climb the
mountain first. He slips into the second person familiar, tu. You find
out he is from Paris, half-Italian. He teaches art at a university,
the philosophy of aesthetics. He first guessed you are German, but
your accent is good and he can't tell, and you say you are from San
Francisco, which you always say instead of America.

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Your brain parts company with your mouth for a moment and you tell
him he has a face like Bob Dylan. He seems surprised at what a direct
and personal thing that is to say, you American you, and you quickly
add "10 years ago," though it's probably closer to five, and he
doesn't really look displeased. Amused. Wasn't it strange, he says,
that Bob Dylan just played for the pope in Bologna? Has he become a
Catholic or what? And what's with the hat?

It's always hard to know what religious phase Bob Dylan is in, you
say. But the hat was troppo cowboy. The day the Stones play "Sympathy
for the Devil" for the pope, he says, I'll become a papist. You like
his sensibility and he says that if in fact you do climb the mountain,
instead of leaving that morning, he'd like to come along. You shrug:
Why not. Pompeii can wait.

In a few minutes you climb aboard a bus and notice that he, like you,
has brought along a beach bag. He leans toward you away from the
Germans and asks you your name. "Laura," you say, with the pretty
rolling Italian pronunciation. He tells you his lovely French name and
you say, in your best formal schoolbook Italian, that it is a pleasure
to meet him. He laughs.

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The bus takes you to the highest road on the island and from there
you walk another couple miles until the road turns into a small
brushy footpath and reaches the summit. From here, you really know you
are on the island: water on all sides, Capri just obscured by the
clouds. You sit on volcanic rocks overlooking everything and he smokes
and says there's no sight he loves more than grapevines with the ocean
in the distance. You talk about all the islands you've been to,
Stromboli and Sardinia, Crete and Santorini, and find you've both
climbed to the top of Formentera, too, the tiny island off Ibiza. You
go farther afield and talk about Iraq and Egypt, French politics, then
Bill Clinton and Paula Jones. American politics are ridiculous,
he says. Who cares whether the president propositioned her? At least
Kennedy had better taste in women.

We are far too puritanical, you agree.

At Mitterand's funeral, he says, his mistress was right there with
his wife. Much more civilized. The problem with Americans, he says, is
they think a little affair will destroy a marriage. How can you be so
claustrophobic? It puts far too much pressure on the marriage.

On the way down the mountain, wandering through terraced farms with
lemon trees, tomatoes and figs, he asks about your marriage. We're
just traveling, he says, you can tell me anything. You tell him the
story in brief, so in love, only married a year and a half when he
left, a complicated psychological scenario. Did you have time for
affairs? he asks. No, you say. But my husband did. Well, he says, that
is all history. That is all behind you now, yes?

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And are you married? you ask. "I'm not talking," he answers in
English. That answers the question, you say. OK, he says, he has
been married for 10 years and has two children. I know better than to
ask whether you had time for any affairs, you say, and he smiles,
you're learning fast. You wonder to yourself whether you would have an
affair with a married man with two children, and decide that in the
United States, you would not. Then you figure that's why God made
French men.

You find lunch, and then decide to go to a beach you've heard about,
the Sorgeto, where hot water bubbles up from the rocks. After a swim,
lying on the pebbles, you realize the rocks on the beach are not
warmed from the sun but from inside the earth. The farther you dig
down into the rocks, the warmer they are. You lie on your stomach to
snooze and just when you're drifting off you feel a warm rock placed
lightly on the small of your back and all the desire you thought was
dead radiates from that rock through your entire body.

In the evening you find the only restaurant in Forio where Italians
are eating, and you talk over pesto like old friends. You discreetly
go back to the pensione at different times to your separate rooms.
Later, when you tiptoe around the open stairway to his room, the
eagle-eyed signora catches you walking where you have no business
walking and you realize you'd better leave in the morning.

So you have the bright idea of escaping these German tourists and
going to Procida, a nearby tranquil fishing village, says the hippie
guidebook, and the French aesthetics professor is game. After a
crowded bus ride and a boat trip you land on Procida, which is
charming in its 1950s Italian movie style, but the beaches are dirty
and the pensione are deserted and the whole place is simply glum.
After lunch you return to Ischia, and you suggest St. Angelo, and by
evening you're back to the whitewashed village with the bright
geraniums and fragrant jasmine and oleander. You're hot and tired but
still in fairly good traveling spirits and when the hotel with the
great view says it's full you ask if there might not be a private room
to let somewhere nearby, and there is, with a terrace, and meals are
included. You drop your things and rush to the beach to jump in. "Lava
tutto,"
he says. The feel of the water washes away the whole day.

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Afterward, in the room, you mention that it's strange to share a
room, it's somehow much more intimate than making love. He nods.
"We've made a grand progression in a short time," he says, and then he
picks up a big white towel and offers to dry your hair. A little later
he thinks you are asleep and he traces his fingers down the curve of
your back and then he stops and you are desperately trying to come up
with the right verb tenses. Imperfect subjunctive: "If you were to
stop touching me," and then present conditional, "I would die."

Dinner is on another terrace, and the sun sinks red into the ocean.
There are grilled eggplants and arugula salad and roasted potatoes
with rosemary and tomato salad and bruschetta and that's just to
start. Over a lovely piece of sole he looks out over the view and
starts laughing. We have found the perfect place, he says, delighted.
"Gorgeous," you say in English, and he likes that word, tasting it
like wine.

The next day you stretch out on lava rocks away from all the people
as the sun washes over you. "La vita é bellisima," he says, and you
know that one of the things you have in common is a willingness to
believe that life is truly beautiful at times and you should enjoy the
pleasure of it completely. You talk about authors and films, Marcel
Proust and David Lodge and Marguerite Duras and Martin Scorcese. The
names and titles are a shorthand for what you can't express in your
incomplete Italian, but it's enough. You are drugged with pleasure,
lying on the rocks, going through cycle after cycle of swimming,
drying off, eating, making love, swimming and drying off again. The
next morning you ask what we should do today and he says, "The same
thing we did yesterday. In reverse."

At some point it occurs to you that these four days are unique, that
their particular beauty can never be repeated, and that probably you
will never see him again. And you realize you may never have another
lover like him, either. His lovemaking is like a long, languorous
Italian meal, full of delightful appetizers and side dishes, a variety
of simple, exquisite tastes, finished off by an unfiltered cigarette.
"After 36 years you decide to take up smoking now?" he asks.
You smile and tell him it is all his fault.

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When I get back, you say, I'm going to have to find a lover like you.

"Inutile," he says, and laughs. Your only hope is to teach someone.
Then he becomes more serious, avuncular. You'll find someone, he says.
All you need is a man who is older than you and younger than me. A
professor of literature who speaks Italian. There must be some of them
in San Francisco.

They're everywhere, you say, like German tourists.

Over dinner, when he's quiet, you ask him if he's thinking about
school on Tuesday and he says no, he's thinking about you. Cara
signorina,
he says, his only compliment. You dear woman. In such a
short time you know him better than most people do, he says. Then he
laughs: You even know about his secret life.

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Maybe, he says, we will find each other again some time.

I hope so, you say. You really shouldn't die before you see San
Francisco.

The next morning is all business, a bus ride to the port and a ship
to Naples where you practice putting distance between each other. In
Naples, he helps you find the train station and your ticket and takes
you to a very quick, noisy, wonderful Napolitano lunch. He crosses the
street to the train station and says send a postcard at Christmas.
Then he abruptly says, "I'm abandoning you here," and kisses you on
both cheeks, ciao, ciao. Piacere, you murmur, a pleasure, and he is
gone.

He is gone, but on the train ride back to Florence, the sad feeling
of loss that followed you to Italy doesn't return. You are lighter and
happier and even, somehow, feel more beautiful. The physical miles of
travel, you realize, can't make the pain in your life go away. But you
have traveled inside, too, and it has expanded you, let you discover
that la bella vita always exists alongside what is ugly, and you can
at least find it for a time, if you look.

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Laura Fraser

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based freelance writer. Her most recent book is An Italian Affair (Vintage).

MORE FROM Laura Fraser

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