In April of 2002, I was studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France when my friends invited me at the last minute to join them on a trip to the Cinque-Terre in Italy. I ran home to pack my bag at midnight and I was bright eyed and bushy-tailed at 4am. I was quite easily THE most excited person of our group as we waited for our taxi ride to Marseille, then a 6 hour train ride to Riomaggiore, and my next European adventure...
Just like all the stories we had heard, we were offered an apartment right off the train, for 20 bucks a person. We reluctantly took a look at the place, because what could you really get for $20, right? After seeing the two story, 3 bedroom apartment with kitchen and marble bath, ten paces from the sea, we took it.
If you ever get the chance to hike the trails in the Cinque-Terre, you have to do it. It is the most beautiful site I have ever seen in my life. Nothing compares to it. We started in Vernazza and walked our way around the mountains to Corniglia, Manarola and through the Via dell'Amore in Riomaggiore. It was quite a hike, but it was breathtaking.
That night, we went to Blue Marlin, the local bar and hang out. The place was packed! However, we only had time for one drink, because it was closing. So, like an unspoken rule, everyone filed down to the piazza, or square. I was standing with a couple of my friends and out of nowhere, this guy joins our group and starts chatting with us in broken English. This guy was Leo, and he and I started talking about movies and joking about the scene in Mickey Blue Eyes when Hugh Grant was trying to say "Forget about it" like a New Yorker. I thought it was hilarious, but he didn't get it because Hugh Grant's English accent is just one of the many things 'lost in translation' due to Italy's insistence on dubbing everything.
As the night progressed, we were all invited into the cantina, or cellar, of Sommi, one of the old locals. It was a great experience, the kind that not every tourist gets to see. It was a small, cold, stone cellar with vintage prints, pictures of the locals spanning at least a couple generations, barrels of home made wine that could raise the hair on your neck and home-made salami hanging from the rafters. Everyone was having a great time and with more than 10 of us packed into this tiny place, each with a plastic cup of this wine that instantly turned your teeth black, it became a cozy and warm little festa.
What I remember most about that evening though, was this amazing guy that I spent the whole night talking to. At the time, I didn't speak Italian, and he barely spoke English, and even though he got his best friend to help translate, we seemed to understand each other just fine. Everyone else was partying, but the three of us spent the whole time huddled in the corner talking--and I had the best time.
The next day, we were supposed to return to France, but something in my gut just wouldn’t let me leave. I couldn’t figure out why, but I just could not bring myself to get on the train. My poor friends were probably so annoyed with me as I wasted time trying to decide what to do. But in the end, I only felt better with the thought of staying where I was. So I bid my friends farewell, and I went off to the next village, Monterrosso, to rent a room all by myself. That night, I returned to Vernazza to have dinner at the restaurant where Leo worked. As I walked in to his restaurant, he was just walking out and when he saw me his face lit up with a huge smile and he rushed over, grabbed my face and kissed my forehead! “You stay! You Stay!”
He ushered me into the restaurant, sat me down at a ‘special’ table and brought out the chef to introduce me. He was emphatically saying in Italian,
“This is the girl! This is the girl from San Francisco!”
For the next hour, it was the same story for many of his friends that stopped by to say hello. They were all shaking my hand, telling me it was very nice to meet me. I gotta say, it made me feel pretty special—and I didn’t leave Vernazza for the next four days…
Back in France, Leo and I started e-mailing each other constantly (with the help of his friend). His notes were so adorable that I was like a little school girl after reading them. After leaving the internet cafe, my friends would see me and exclaim:
"Oh my God, you're glowing! You got an e-mail from Leo again, didn't you? You are so crazy about him!"
Soon we started calling each other, and planning more trips to Vernazza. He started taking an English class and I tried to learn some Italian. When my semester in France was over, I took my mom to Vernazza to meet him and we stayed two weeks. After a painful, gut-wrenching goodbye, followed by a month apart as I finished my AA back home, I returned to Vernazza in July and Leo and I haven't parted since.