Burgess Joins the Yankee Jet Set

Fool's luck in beautiful Amalfi.

By Steve Burgess 15 Jun 2006 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Amalfi: Denise Richards alert!

Tensions are high here on Italy's Amalfi Coast. For one thing, international outlaw Denise Richards has been spotted in the area. Having stolen the husband of former best friend Heather Locklear, she is now flaunting said trophy, rocker Richie Sambora, on a triumphant seaside tour. Terrified local women are locking their menfolk away at night, thankful at least that Angelina Jolie is otherwise occupied.

It isn't the first time Richards has acted badly. And she certainly isn't the only misbehaving American here on this stunning stretch of shoreline just south of Naples. Unbridled tourism eventually consumes its host, and the Amalfi Coast is just another jet-age casualty.

It's not all Yanks by any means. They're outnumbered here by the Germans and Brits, and everyone outnumbers the poor Amalfitanos who secretly dream of their own getaways to sunny Southeast Asia. Apparently, this spectacular seaside lifestyle leaves one with the urge to get away to a beach somewhere.

Foreign flocking

Or so I was told by one Positano businesswoman. A voluble antique dealer with a wonderful supply of 19th century walking sticks, she told me that young people from her town flock to Thailand in the off-season. In fact, she claimed, there were over 3,500 of them in Southeast Asia when the tsunami struck on December 26, 2004. Since that would be roughly half of Positano's permanent population, it's a little hard to imagine. But her point was taken. Even in paradise, tourism is a two-way street.

Strolling around Positano, it's not too hard to see why a person might seek escape. Gorgeous as it is, the village is best appreciated from a distance. Living here would be like being stuck on a landlocked cruise ship. With the exception of the truly massive homegrown lemons on sale, anything remotely resembling local colour has been squeezed out of this picturesque cliffside settlement, leaving 100 per cent reconstituted tourist trap.

It's all a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1920s, English author Somerset Maugham made the astounding observation that if you visited Positano in summer you would have the place to yourself. Boeing, what have you wrought?

Positively Positano

It was once favoured by artists, and they are still around, I suppose -- these days they make a lot of stuff involving cats. A number of clothing stores carry good quality garments, and the restaurants and cafes are lovely places to sit. Nonetheless, you get the impression that a Las Vegas version of Positano wouldn't be all that different. The early scenes of The Talented Mr. Ripley were supposedly set in Positano. Having now seen the real thing, I am convinced the movie was filmed elsewhere. Could they digitally remove all those crappy t-shirt shops and puffy Texans? No snappily dressed Jude Laws or Matt Damons around here now. The international Bermuda shorts brigades mosey uphill and down, barking like seals and occasionally butting heads with trades people. If Denise Richards is here she seems to be disguised as a blowsy frau from Frankfurt.

It's not fair to single out the Americans from the tourist throng. They get a bad rap, and these days many of them, well aware of the antipathy they inspire as possible Bush supporters, seem particularly anxious to be gracious. But it's almost tragic to see how sometimes, proud American values can lead to trouble in far away places (and I'm still only talking about tourism).

Example: a 60-ish man with a Midwestern accent walks into a Positano deli and asks the proprietor for help choosing wine. She's delighted to offer assistance. "Do you want to try something very memorable? Say yes," she teases, offering up a bottle. He looks, grumbles at the price (I could have sworn she said nine euros), and starts muttering about how she's pushing expensive stuff on him. He seems intent on wearing his prickly Midwest independence like armour, and soon the owner is walking away, shaking her head and scowling. There are few philosophies so poisonous as the common suspicion that every retail transaction held in a foreign country is a disguised attempt at robbery.

Cell sing song

At least the Americans don't take any crap. Which can get you in trouble around here. One afternoon on the bus that navigates the oh-so-narrow Amalfi coastal road, a young Italian woman plopped into the seat beside me, pulled out her cell phone and, placing her elbow in my ribs, began blabbing away in a loud, singsong voice. I thought I was annoyed. But I had nothing on the American woman behind me, so enraged that she began a loud English-language impersonation of the call. "How are you?" she yelled over the seat. "I'm great. Everything's just wonderful, I'm sure."

Her husband shushed her. And the young Italian woman carried on chatting, completely unaware. Sometimes the language barrier can be a blessing.

As for me, I seem to have the luck of a fool. I chose my hotel, La Perla, based almost solely on price. It's located just down the road from the quiet (and relatively unspoiled) town of Praiano, somewhere between Amalfi and Positano. I had assumed the location would be a disadvantage -- hence the lower price. In fact it is here, in a little spot called Marina de Praia that the charm of the Amalfi Coast still survives. Far below my hotel a small cluster of beachside restaurants perches under the cliffs. Homemade pasta, boiled octopus, glow worms beside the cliff path in the twilight as I make my way back up the hill. The thunderstorm that shook the very foundations of the hotel this afternoon is now perched on the far horizon, booming like a distant battlefield. In front of me an ancient, crumbling tower is bathed in orange floodlights. There doesn't appear to be a soul around. I don't know where Denise and Richie are hiding right now. But that Amalfi magic must be working on me: with a bellyful of fine local cuisine and a half moon lighting up the Mediterranean, I'm only inclined to wish them well.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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