By January, 2008, it had become clear that my co-workers and I weren’t going to have jobs for much longer. Weeks went by, projects wrapped up, and no new ones replaced them. Then one morning, we learned that the company was getting bought out by a massive conglomerate. Ownership would officially change hands at the beginning of March, and the very next day they’d scheduled a company-wide meeting.
There was nothing on the calendar after that – not a single thing for all the days and weeks and months afterward.
Rather than watch the bitter end unfold, I left the country on a chilly February morning, knowing that I would likely not have a job when I returned. My boss Angela wrote me a send-off email that said, simply, “Take care. HAVE FUN FOR ALL OF US.”
And so I crisscrossed all over Italy, heavy-hearted and trying to enjoy a vacation that was as fiscally reckless as the company’s last few months had been.
I did not go alone. My friend Kati, who I’d known since we awkward teenagers (before we blossomed into awkward adults) came with me. I cannot definitely say when in the trip she and I first fell ill. A safe estimate puts it at somewhere between five and 10 minutes after landing, that upon breathing the sweet citrus-scented Italian air and realizing that the only obligation we had for the next two weeks was to eat copious amounts of carbs and to enjoy ourselves, our immune systems collectively said, “Screw it.”
Whatever the case, it felt instantaneous: Upon landing, Kati and I were struck by a virus that, had we been heroines in a Victorian novel, would have killed us.
After several days of watching Kati and I lying around, emitting low, miserable moans, her cousin Silvio (who was hosting us in Genoa) decided that he needed to show us around, rather than have us squander our vacation watching House, MD dubbed into Italian while coughing up a lung.
I had mixed feelings about this. We were very close to Cinque Terre, supposedly one of the most beautiful parts of Italy, and arguably the world, but listen: The dubbed version of House is a masterpiece.
Despite my claims that sitting around watching one of Italy’s three television channels was a viable way to appreciate the country and its culture, Kati was hell-bent on actually seeing Italy. Since she was sicker than I was, I relented; when Silvio generously offered to take us to the Cinque Terre on one of his days off, we agreed.
The three of us took the train to Monterosso from Genoa.
Slowly, as we rolled south along the coast, the sun began to burn off the marine layer, and I could see the Ligurian Sea, calm and shimmering and blue green. I’d never seen the Italian Riviera before.
The Cinque Terre is a cluster of five small towns that sit on the northern Italian coast, built precariously into the cliffside and right up to the water’s edge. Our train arrived in the northernmost village of Monterosso. The town is a long crescent that mimics the curve of the turquoise bay it looks out upon. The shoreline is flanked with sun-bleached buildings the same creamy color as the beach. It was too early in the year for sunbathers, but there were people in cafés along the shore, sipping coffees as they enjoyed the view. We walked around, taking in the sunshine, snapping a few photos, and doing what I thought was an admirable job of not collapsing into a feverish heap on the piazza.
The specifics of what happened next will likely remain up for debate in Kati’s family for many years. But as she and I remember it, her cousin casually asked us if we wanted to go for a little walk.
That is what we both, specifically, recall him saying. Una piccola passeggiata.
In his defence, there is no word in Italian for “hike.” Certainly no phrase for a “two-hour-long-journey-that-you-may-not-survive.”
You can see why we readily agreed to una piccola passeggiata.
It was a long while before Kati and I actually realized what was going on. Silvio was a good stretch ahead of us, and we followed, dutifully, not wanting to seem ungrateful to Kati’s cousin, who had selflessly given up his day off to lead us to our deaths on a picturesque mountain.
The sun we’d been basking in was now beating down upon us. The trail was steep, rocky and dry. With each step we kicked up a little bit of dust that stuck to the backs of our already parched throats.
I realized that none of us had thought to bring water. I’d figured that if I needed hydration, I’d just down a couple of frozen confections. But there was nothing – no people, no signs, and certainly no gelato stands – in sight.
It was Kati who finally spoke up.
“Silvio,” she said, pausing to wheeze and release a well-timed but nevertheless genuine cough, “how much longer until? …”
She let her question trail off there, realizing that she didn’t know how to finish. Neither of us knew where we were going.
He looked around noncommittally, as though the landscape – rocky, unwelcoming, and covered in bramble – might provide a reply.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “If we pass anyone, I’ll ask them.”
For another 10 treacherous minutes, we encountered no one save for a few feral dogs that lived high up on the mountains.
We would eventually come across two hikers who stared at Kati and me with looks usually reserved for three-legged kittens or children who’d cut their own hair.
Silvio chatted with them while Kati and I drifted in and out of consciousness.
“Good news,” he said, as the hikers skipped down the hill, flaunting their hydration and appropriate footwear. “It’s only another hour or so to Vernazza.”
Kati and I let this horrifying information sink in. Somehow, we, feverish and sick, had inadvertently agreed to a nearly two-hour-long dusty hike under the searing Italian sun between two of the five towns of the Cinque Terre.
It was around that time that my dear friend, the voice of reason and moral compass for my teen years, turned to me and whispered, “I’m going to kill him.”
“You can’t,” I replied. “He’s the only one who knows where we’re going.”
I don’t remember much of the rest of that trek. It is lost to illness, to the sun, to the dust and heat of that mountainside. I only remember when we rounded a corner, breaking through the prickly, dry shrubs, and saw Vernazza for the first time below us.
From this angle, we could see it perfectly – the buildings were crowded together, a messy pile of jewel-colored little boxes. They extended from near the top of the mountain all the way to the turquoise blue waters of the Ligurian Sea. It had the unplanned precariousness of a tower built by toddlers: bright, chaotic, and leaving you with the sensation that at any moment, it might go tumbling down.
Even now, when I consider that the hike likely prolonged our illnesses, causing us to be miserably sick for the entire duration of our trip, I have no regrets about not murdering Silvio on that hillside.
This is the strongest testament to the beauty of Vernazza that exists.
When we reached the bottom we found a café where Kati and I, starved and exhausted, ate lunch while Silvio stared at us with a look of terror (and, I would like to think, a measure of admiration) on his face. Have you ever seen how pythons eat? How they swallow adorable woodland creatures whole and without chewing? It was like that, but way faster and with bruschetta.
When we’d finished, Silvio asked us if we wanted to hike back. Kati emitted a low guttural growl and I pushed her knife out of reach.
We took the train.
In the coming months, I’d think about that hike we took. How I’d never have done it if I’d known what lay ahead of us. I’d have stayed in Monterosso, safe and comfortable. And I’d have missed the sight of Vernazza from above, now indelible in my memory. I’d probably also have gotten better sooner, but that’s antithetical to the moral of this story, which is this: Sometimes it’s best not to know what you are up against; if you are acutely aware of the challenges involved, you’d never do a damn thing. Being clueless is weirdly empowering. You can’t worry about the things that you don’t yet know you should be worried about. You end up doing wonderful things that you never would have had you been the least bit informed.
You run off to Italy. You take horrific and beautiful hikes. You ruin your hair and possibly your chance of a future political career. And when it’s all over, you can’t help but feel anything but incredibly, overwhelmingly grateful.
From the book All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft by Geraldine DeRuiter. Copyright © 2017 by Geraldine DeRuiter. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, NY. All rights reserved.