When I was a college freshman living in the dorms, a girl in my hall lent me her Josh Groban CD, insisting that I just had to listen to it. I was entranced by the exotic, beautiful music and immediately fell in love with the sound of the Italian language. Maybe it just sounded really good in Josh Groban’s voice, but I wanted to experience those sounds on my lips, have my own affair with this romantic language. I registered for Italian 101, and before I knew it, I was a declared Italian minor and all signed up for the 2006 summer study abroad program.
We spent our first week in Rome touring ancient ruins, neck deep in incredible history, then the rest of the summer we made Siena our home, a medieval town right in the heart of Tuscany. Our first day in Siena was a whirlwind. We arrived by train, then my roommate and I were driven to our apartment in a taxi cab. The little car zipped up windy, hilly roads, seeming to take the least-direct path possible to our quaint home. Our building had idyllic green shutters, and some residents grew flowers in their window boxes. I was delighted to be living in a place that just looked so…Italian.
“When do we have to go meet the group, Allie?” I asked, heaving my suitcase onto my bed. The laminate floors, designed to imitate wood, were smooth and encompassed the entirety of our one-room apartment, extending into the miniature living room and kitchen.
“We have an hour. We can unpack, then let’s find a map and figure out where to buy some groceries.”
I was excited to have Allie as my roommate. She had a calming personality and seemed to take everything in stride. Her confidence was contagious, making me feel stronger simply by being in her presence. After unpacking, we pulled out our map and figured out where to meet the rest of our classmates.
Our teacher gave us a brief tour of the city, pointing out the city center (il centro) and showing us how all roads eventually wound up there. Allie nudged me and whispered, “Look, an internet café. I want to email Phillip today, and you can check in with Chris.” I nodded and grinned, giving her a thumbs up of approval.
“On your left, here, is the school where we’ll be meeting every day,” Professoressa Noble said, gesturing to a two-story building with cream walls and those same green window shutters. She was a short, good-natured Italian woman with skin that always looked sun-kissed. “Please don’t be late to class.”
The city seemed easy enough after the tour, examining the map, and learning about the intuitive structure of the road system. Before heading back to our apartment, Allie and I found our way back to the internet café. We happily settled ourselves down at a couple computers and were soon lost in the gentle hum of electricity, the soothing glow from the screens, and the rejuvenating messages from loved ones.
Allie tapped my shoulder. “Hey, I’m all done here. Are you about through?”
I considered it. “I’m still finishing my email. It’s okay, you don’t need to wait. I’ll meet you back home.”
She raised her eyebrows uncertainly. “Are you sure? I don’t mind waiting.”
“It’s fine. I remember the way back. I’ll see you soon!” I waved her off, and she left me to the sweet nothings from my new beau.
Aww, he misses me! My heart swelled, full of the giddy joy that comes with new love. A pop-up on the screen shocked me out of my trance, alerting me that my time was up. I packed my things and left the café, surprised to see it was starting to get dark.
Okay, right out of the café. Go down this hill, which wraps around the centro. Hmm…was I supposed to take a left at some point?
The roads looked familiar, and I enjoyed my stroll down the cobblestone streets. There were still people roaming about their business. A toddler rode her father’s shoulders, a dripping gelato clutched in one sticky hand. I continued on, buoyed up by the recent letter from my new boyfriend. Chris and I had only been dating for a few weeks, but I knew he was special. He was funny, resourceful, and so steady. He was always there when I needed him.
It was well past dusk now, and I realized with a jolt that I didn’t recognize where I was. I scoured my surroundings for landmarks, anything familiar that would give me a clue as to where to go. The previously cheerful green window shutters now felt foreboding. I quickened my pace, my thin-soled summer shoes tapping the cobblestones with every step.
The streetlamps had turned on, beaming down pillars of eerie yellow light. Where did everyone go? The world had grown unnaturally quiet, though I could have sworn the streets had been bustling not long ago.
My lungs filled with air, in and out, in and out. Faster and faster. My hands slickened with anxious sweat, and my eyes scanned the area, hyper-focusing on the dark patches between streetlights. I’d heard stories of college students being abducted overseas and sold into sex slavery. What was I going to do if I couldn’t find my way home? I didn’t have a cell phone, and when I was brutally honest with myself, I knew my Italian language skills weren’t that great. I wished Allie were here. She was practically fluent, and I was pretty sure she’d memorized our map already. What was my address again? Who could I even call if I did find a phone? I was completely alone in a foreign country. I said a silent prayer and picked up my pace.
I urged my feet forward, quads burning, ready to sprint if an attacker leapt out from behind a bush. I rounded up another hill and saw movement in my peripheral vision. Full of adrenaline, I jumped before processing the data from my eyes.
It was a person, but small. Clearly, not a hulking man who would surely murder me, or a hungry, wild dog bent on satisfying its appetite. As it moved closer, I could tell she was a woman, and based on the posture, she seemed old. Okay, an old woman was safe. I had to ask for help.
As we neared each other, I called out, “Scusi!” I wracked my brain for how to say “I need help” but came up short. What was my street name? Something Ovile, something about olives.
She squinted up at me appraisingly.
“Dov’é Via Ovile?” I asked, figuring “via,” the word for “street,” would be a safe bet. The once-romantic words now felt clunky in my mouth.
She looked puzzled. Crap! Then a light of understanding flashed on her wizened face. “Porta Ovile?”
Yes! Yes, that was the one. “Sì! Porta Ovile.”
“Ah, sì. Porta Ovile é…” She gestured wildly with her arms, gibberish flying off her tongue. I
stared at her blankly, and we had a moment where our souls seemed to connect. Perhaps she felt my growing terror at being lost and alone in the dark, or maybe this wasn’t the first time she’d had to help a lost tourist in her beautiful city, but she looked at me with pity.
“Vieni,” she said and walked me back down the hill I had just climbed. We turned left at the next intersection and crossed a small bridge and passed through a large stone entryway. She pointed ahead, and I saw my very own building, right where I’d left it.
“Grazie! Grazie Mille!” I thanked her with all the intensity I could muster in my limited vocabulary and prayed she felt my sincerity.
“Di Niente,” she said, turned on her heel, and hobbled back up the hill. I all but ran to my apartment and burst through the door.
“Where have you been?” Allie jumped up, worry etched in her face.
“I got lost! And then this old lady helped me find our street! I thought I was about to be abducted!”
As the adrenaline worked its way out of my system, I went to bed reflecting on the experience. I
grew up a lot that night. I no longer believed I was immune to bad things. Though I’d never be sure how close I actually was to danger, the power of my imagination convinced me that I was in mortal peril. I resolved to be more prepared while out exploring a new place, having now tasted the fear of various unsavory things that could happen. I was also significantly more committed to my language classes so my tongue wouldn’t feel so dumb in conversation.
I didn’t like feeling so helpless on my own. I wouldn’t always have confident, capable people like Allie or Chris with me to rely on, and next time, strangers in the dark may not be so kind. I needed to be able to draw on my own strength and intelligence.
And maybe I’d start carrying a map, just in case.