After discovering that a same-day plane ticket from Milan (on the way off chance I could make it there in my rental car alive) to just about anywhere in the U.S. would cost well over $2,000, I pondered deportation. Having never been arrested in any country as of yet, I realized the chance was razor thin that I would have the nerve even if I could devise a workable plan.
I continued talking to myself in a conversational tone as I walked down the mount-hill into the town of Lerici, now a daily curiosity to the three old women on their bench whom I pass every morning. I am the only one who speaks English I have come across in the several days since arriving in the area, and I speak it aloud for comfort. An Italian portioned main course of loneliness served with a big side dish of fear-laden anxiety is quickly driving me to from a place so beautiful I think God most come here on vacation.
July 10, I did something that is currently entrenched in the "What the hell was I thinking?" pile in my mind. I boarded a flight in Los Angeles bound for Italy, a nation I had never visited that features a language that I, even after nearly Rosetta Stoning myself nearly to death, cannot speak at all. I entered into a house exchange with an unbelievably gracious family from Milan whose summer home is somewhere above Lerici, a very small beach town near Tuscany where Italians go to get away.
A couple of hours from Florence by train, bus and feet (first walk down the hill from Pugliola into Lerici, catch a bus to La Spezia then get on a train), it is light years from tourist cities where citizens might know or want to speak English with a woman in their country on her own.
The trip began with a flurry of adventures. I spent two days hanging out in Milan with the house exchange husband (his wife and children were in my home in L.A.). There were parties with their generous, bilingual friends, bocce ball matches and the eating of goat on sticks. (For the record, bocce is harder than it looks, and so is goat). I rode a bike across Milan (my Italian host failed to mention the death defying nature of it before he suggested I give it a whirl) and took in the sites.
After a once in a lifetime dining experience the second night (we were guests of the founder of modern Italian cuisine Chef Marchesi at his restaurant in a vineyard), my host Davide brought me to their summer home in Pugliola, a place on a hill that's far too small to have such a big name. He spent the day showing me around the area with blazing speed. All of its hills and hairpin turns and roundabouts served to implode the GPS in my head, removing whatever hope I had of driving anywhere. After lunch and dinner with friends in a neighboring town and a trip to the grocery store so I wouldn't starve to death, Davide deposited me safely in his three-story home.
Pugliola consists of two café/bar/the bottom rooms of someone's small two-story house and a place to occasionally buy bread. I learned that the small bakery isn't open at any set times it seems, but there is a number in the window you can call if you need something. Davide told me days after he had left and I had ventured into it that the café/bar closest to the house was filled with Communists, and that they liked to eat Americans. I'm still a little uncertain if he was joking about either, but I have no plans to return to it. Add in a small chapel, tiny footpaths not fit for the scooters that fly around on them, a small serving of homes dating back hundreds of years and a view of the sea that is nothing short of breathtaking, and you have Pugliola.
When I asked Davide how to get into Lerici from on top of the mount-hill, he said to turn right out of the front door and walk. I have no idea if my combination of footpaths and Mini Cooper sized one-way streets and stairs is the correct way, but it is how I do it. It's 18 minutes down, 32 minutes with groceries back up. There is a bus that comes three times a day to Pugliola, but God only knows where it goes or where I would end up. I can also call for a taxi, but the phone I bought in Milan doesn't seem to want to make outbound calls.
I walk into town every day, just to see civilization even if I can't engage it. Once in Lerici, I walk the promenade on the beach until exhausted, from the castle on one edge of town to the castle on the other. Eventually, I make it back up the hill before dark.
If I make it to see another day here in Pugliola, I will write about it. At this point, the Communists running the gambling down at the bar aren't betting on it.
Sarah O'Leary is a homesick, isolated American writer who is currently living on a hill somewhere in Italy. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.