Sarah O'Leary is a homesick, isolated American writer who is currently living on a hill somewhere in Italy. This is the second installment in a series she's writing about the experience.
When climbing Everest, I imagine it's a good thing not to have a paralyzing fear of heights. My Everest was a house in a thimble sized Italian village on a big hill high above another small (yet significantly larger by almost 1,000%) Italian village where I will live for several weeks by myself. And my greatest fear, one I hadn't even realized I had, was wildfire spreading before my very ears.
A Type-A personality obsessive planner/thinker/semi-regular doer, I thought I had considered all potential Italian disasters, feigned or real. I tried to learn the language, Rosetta stoning and app-ing and translation booking myself for hours on end. I studied Italian customs and etiquette. I rented a car and studied maps. I read travel books and watched videos.
Rick Steve's Italy assured me that language wouldn't be a barrier provided I began every engagement with a word or two in Italian. The natives, touched by my use of "salve" or "scuzzi," would reward me with full-blown conversations in perfect English. (One suggestion he made was to break the ice with adults by engaging their small children, a move I certainly wouldn't recommend to anyone visiting the States and one I don't plan on trying here. Ah, but I digress-io ...)
Suffice it to say, I soon discovered old Rick was dead wrong about the 100-story high, set-in-concrete language barrier. Or maybe he just never made it to (Mount) Pugliola or the beautiful beach town of Lerici. I soon realized that my Italian was unusable and none of my new neighbors spoke any English at all. A deaf mute, I soon realized that without successful, regular human interaction, I emotionally suffocate. I become the desperately homesick kid at sleep away camp with a pocket filled with quarters and no payphone for miles. I was in a part of the world people would love to experience just once and all I could do is fantasize about ways to escape it.
To say that I kind of enjoy interaction with people is like saying Julie Child kind of liked an occasional glass of wine with dinner. Some people love to golf or read or sky dive or fish or play canasta. The world is filled with workaholics and shopaholics and sports fans and computer geeks and synthetic role players. My passion is human connection. I love to hear stories, and I live to tell them. In person. On a daily basis.
I never read Walden because the mere idea of living alone in the woods for weeks on end sounded like a fate worse than death. I live to engage people of every shape and size, socioeconomic background and race in every age bracket. And now, I was unable to speak to anyone, nor could I understand what the people around me were saying.
The finest steak doesn't taste as good when you're alone as a burger with friends. I was in one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen, and couldn't begin to enjoy the experience.
In an act of desperation yesterday on the anniversary of Week One of my Italian adventure (and at the insistence of a loved one in the U.S. who thought I was teetering on the edge of insanity), I walked up and down and up and down the hill and into the town to catch a ferry to Cinque Terre. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the stunning beauty of five small towns built into the sides of mountains, but I wasn't spending €2 for the view. I figured that as a UNESCO site, it would be the best place, if I were really lucky, to find English-speaking tourists.
With the eyes of a tenured pickpocket, I surveyed the crowd lining up for the ferry. Italians. A couple speaking something that sounded like Dutch. More Italians. And two 20-something people who were silent at the moment, but who had lips that looked like they could form English words, and maybe even American ones. Desperate, I tailed then accosted them. No attempt at Italian was made this time.
"Excuse me. Do you speak English?" I leaped, praying that an intelligible net would appear.
Christy and Scott Maguire, thank God, were visiting from California, and are two of the nicest people you could ever meet. Those who disrespect the young adult generation in the United States need to meet them. I nearly cried when they started to speak, and graciously invited me to spend the day with them. Mom, Ellen and Auntie Holly and their husbands and the twins met us after our two-hour hike between towns four and five, and adopted me into their family. Yes, God does indeed operate in remote parts of Italy, and He had remembered I was there.
Grazie, Dio, for Family Maguire. I imagine it would be bad to pray that they become trapped in Lerici for the next few weeks, but if You could do a little something along those lines, it would be wonderful.
Ms. O'Leary welcomes comments and email: email@example.com. If you happen to be in Pugliolia and speak any English, she will give you food, shelter and large denominations of American money in exchange for conversation.