07/30/2012 04:03 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2012

Drive, Pray, Panic: Lost In Italy

Sarah O'Leary is an isolated, homesick American writer living somewhere on a hill in Italy. This is one of her stories about the experience.

Attempting to drive an Alfa Romeo station wagon through the ancient villages of seaside Italy, I felt like a morbidly obese woman trying on skinny jeans. Certainly, there was no way, no matter how hard I tried, that I would fit. These roads were built for chariots, not a soon to be lost 40-something American woman in a station wagon. The mission I had fearfully chosen to accept (I didn't see any other viable option that might ensure my sanity) meant driving 15 km from my hilltop hamlet of Pugliola to find new English speaking Italian friends in Bocca de Magra.

I had not chosen to operate the car in the 10 days I had it. Yet if I stayed one more moment by myself without anyone to speak with in English, I'd be rolling big, odds on dice at the whale's table with my already precarious mental health. Encouraged by text messages of the trip's ease by my dear Italian friend (Saint) Ilaria (I met for the first time in Milano a week ago) and bolstered by the three lattes in my stomach, I ventured into the paved and stoned abyss.

My unadulterated angst causing a very real need of Depend Undergarments was fueled by very real possibility of my own violent demise. It seems I was afraid of getting smashed into little, itty bitty teeny weeny pieces. I didn't welcome the idea of meeting my maker in a place I didn't even know how to pronounce, a direct result of driving with my hands over my eyes while in the already assumed crash position.

During my seeming eternity behind the wheel, I nearly de-biked and potentially de-brained dozens of innocent cyclists executing their own version of Tour de Italia. I narrowly avoided a head-on collision with a motorist passing by me at light speed while honking, flipping me off, talking with his cell phone in the other and (I swear!) singing an aria, almost ran into and/or over several homes and believe had more than one nervous breakdowns while praying for I Dream of Jeanie or God to save me.

Somehow I ended up in Bocca de Magra, but nowhere near my new friends who were waiting on their boat for me. Instead, I was somewhere in town near a church on the side of the road with very spotty cell phone service. Desperate, I waved to an elderly woman who was walking nearby.

"Permesso! Scuzzi! Lo siento! (Spanish: I'm sorry), Me despieche! (Italian, misspelled: I'm sorry), Mi chiamo es lost Americana."

"Ohhhhhh! (bunch of words I didn't know, followed by hand gestures that made me know she was safe)! Oooooh!"

I showed her the name of the street.

"Oooooooo? Ohhhh!" She seemed puzzled, and I became more than a bit concerned. Bocca de Magra is very small. I began to experience a full-blown "You can't get there from here" moment of utter panic. Realizing this, she patted my arm through the window and called to her friend nearby, a 50-something woman who was the town's street sweeper. After what seemed like an eternity of Italian, the volleys of which rivaled the finals at Wimbledon, the street sweeper got into my car to show me how to get to my destination.

It was then that I learned my most important Italian lesson. The vast majority of people of this country will do anything for you. They don't care that they don't know you or that you are not from Italia or can't speak the language. And they don't help you because they want or expect anything in return. As I watched the woman park her garbage can and broom on the side of the road before entering the car to become my navigator, I considered if such a thing would ever happen in 99.9% of the U.S.

Just as we were to set off in the completely wrong direction, my phone rang. It was Saint Ilaria. I couldn't tell her where I was, so I put her on with my new BFF, whose name I didn't even know. It seems I had needed to take a left before the village and go over a bridge and then down and unmarked street and down a winding gravel path to a private boat marina that I couldn't have found with God himself in my car. When my new passenger got out of the car, and signaled for me to stay put, I knew that Ilaria was coming to get me. Lucky to have survived, I vowed never to drive in Italy again.

Arrivederci, Alpha Romeo. I was made for the passenger's seat.