A big storm is approaching Cinque Terre, the cluster of coastal Italian towns where I am, at the moment, on vacation. We gave up on kayaking pretty early in the day; the seas were too choppy. There’s not much else to do here but eat, sun, and swim, so most of the afternoon was spent sitting on big rocks, watching the storm approach, and chuckling at a group of nutty Italian fishermen who were sabotaging each other’s lines. Fact: One of them was fishing with a chicken foot. A chicken foot tied to a piece of line, which was, in turn, wrapped around cardboard. I am sad to report that he didn’t catch anything all afternoon.

As I write this, my friends are still sitting on rocks and watching the waves and polishing off bottle of red wine No. 472. I’ve tired of this activity because of (a) mosquito bites, (b) I got doused earlier by a huge wave and half of my clothes are currently soaked, and (c) I don’t know how to relax. Seriously.

This place, however, is a good start. If you don’t know this area of Italy, it is on the western coast in what is considered the Italian Riviera. To get here, we went through Florence and Pisa and then a smaller town called La Spezia. Apparently, the “cinque terre” were, for a long time, vacation spots for Italians. But then Rick Steves found them and put them in some travel guides, and now they’re burgeoning with tourists—mainly Germans and Brits, who have no qualms about going full-frontal on the beaches. If you ever come here, the place to stay in Vernazza, the fourth largest of the towns. It has the best mix of street life (cafés and such) and an active marina. A quick train ride (or, conversely, a fairly strenuous but exhilirating hike) will land you in one of the neighboring towns.

The best part about being here, so far, has been witnessing the grape harvest (the towns produce a decent little white) and discovering a tiny little osteria that we found in the third town, Corniglia. Named A Cantina De Mananan, it is run by a very grouchy Italian man, who strictly forbids any funky menu business. You order his way (the order: antipasti, pasta, fish, etc)—or no way. Actually, it was pretty damn informative and it made for a great meal. Its funny, coming from Chicago, I thought I knew my way around a menu. But I’ve ordered wrong enough times to finally have learned the beauty of surrender. Sometimes it pays to surrender to the locals and to the owner.

Now if I could just surrender to the gods of vacation—and learn to relax.