By Romina Monaco

This is not a story about sipping wine in private vineyards, savouring fine cuisine or enjoying the sun while sprawled on the pebbled beaches of southern Italy. I was on a holiday that had, unfortunately, turned out to be my incubus terribilis. The stress I experienced within those eight hours probably took a year off my life!

I was younger than today, a newlywed on her honeymoon. Tony and I had just sailed the Mediterranean on board a cruise ship that had departed from Spain, passed through the French Riviera, finally ending at the port of Civitavecchia, near Rome. From there we took a taxi to Fiumicino Airport to pick up the rental car we had booked months before. Tony had not seen his relatives in Cosenza, Calabria since early childhood and was looking forward to driving south for a reunion. I too was excited to visit Calabria but had also anticipated a pit stop on the Amalfi Coast.

When we arrived at the car rental agency we were told that there were no automatics available and that we should have procured this type of vehicle several months in advance. I explained that we had a confirmation of the rental. The agent smiled, shrugged his shoulders and held his hands in the air in typical Italian fashion. Eh, Beh! What were we going to do? Standard vehicles were available but Tony didn’t know how to drive ‘clutch’. We could travel by train but we had too much luggage. We checked for flights heading to Calabria but they were all booked. I finally managed to convince Tony that driving stick shift should be easy enough for him. Besides, the agency would probably give him a crash course anyway. Tony hesitated, not comfortable with this choice, but finally agreed with me.

I explained the situation to the agent. He reassured us that the vehicle would not be transferred over to us unless they felt confident it would be driven properly. We arrived at the parking garage and a rigid looking woman handed Tony the car keys to our red Alfa Romeo. I explained to her that we were promised an impromptu driving lesson. Callously, she responded, ‘Mi dispiace, Signorina’, slamming shut the glass window of her kiosk. I was dumbfounded! I knocked on the glass desperately hoping to get her attention. But she ignored me and turned away, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth.
I walked over to Tony where he had just finished loading the car and was now awaiting his instructor.

‘He is going to hit the roof!’ I thought to myself.

As expected, he looked at me in utter disbelief. I can not repeat the words that spilled from his mouth but once the storm had subsided we decided to give it a shot.

Reversing out of the parking space took at least half an hour. After stalling a number of times, we miraculously exited the airport and cautiously made our way onto the statale, the highway that would take us down the Tyrrhenian coastline, all the way to Calabria. I was the navigator as Tony was too preoccupied with the task of operating the car. Puttering out of Rome, Tony nervously hurried about to understand all the gadgets on the dashboard and the changing of gears and such. Periodically, I would throw my arms in the air, protecting myself from a head-on collision with the windshield. I wriggled my nose in repulsion at the horrible, burning odour coming from the engine. We were definitely in a dire predicament. I asked Tony if he thought he could slow down and stop the car if he had to.

‘No’, he responded angrily. He really didn’t seem to want to have any conversation.

My mind was racing. How were we going to stop at the first highway toll or refuel for that matter? We weren’t able to slow down at traffic lights nor were we able to make right or left turns in order to change route. Now I had anxiety like never before.

Rende, Calabria
When we stalled the car at the first tollbooth near Terracina, I suggested that this was the perfect opportunity to ask for help. The response I received from my husband was utter silence. This would have been a great case study analysis for the book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.

‘We’re having engine trouble’, Tony told the onlookers.

A few helpful ragazzi assisted in giving us a push so we could be on our way again. We resorted to this a couple more times but luckily, there were no more tolls south of Naples. However, we still had the dilemma of gassing-up. As per usual, we stalled the car in front of a gas pump off the highway. I ran inside the gas station, found a payphone and frantically made a call to Tony’s family who were waiting for us. I spoke to Zia Catia, explaining that it would be impossible for us to venture through Cosenza in order to arrive at their home, at least not without causing a few major accidents along the way. I told her, in detail, the severity of the situation. In an obvious state of alarm, her words became incomprehensive and her shrill voice had amplified tenfold. Holding the phone away from my ear, I calmly asked her to have someone meet us off the highway near their home. In the midst of distress she began to pray to God Almighty and the universe, but what I didn’t know at the time was that poor Zia Catia had also begun to recite the Rosary.

Amalfi Coast

Amalfi Coast
Another gentle push from some new amici and we were off again. I had forgotten all about Sorrento and the interminable stretch of rocky cliff. As we drove through the Amalfi I began to curse Italian engineering. The highway had narrowed to a single lane. With no guardrails in sight, we found ourselves just inches away from the open sky. I felt helpless. Any sudden jolt or swerve and we would have found ourselves tumbling down the cliff. Did I dare look down? Instead, I wisely chose to take in the panoramic view of the coastline. But Tony’s anxious breathing as well as a symphony of beeping horns disrupted my meditation. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw an endless stream of cars and their disgruntled drivers following us. Glancing at the speedometer, I realized to my horror that Tony was going no more than 35km/hr. We were holding up traffic and no car could pass us on the winding cliff, even if they dared to try. To make matters worse, my head was swimming from the fumes of the overheated engine, its stench hanging thickly in the air. I nervously steadied my gaze on the view. But the sea below drew me in and I did the unimaginable. I looked down. All I could see was the blue sea. Not the asphalt of the road or a gentle hill descending onto a beach. I had been paralyzed in fear for hours but in that moment I cracked. I threw my hands to my head and I began to sob uncontrollably. I had hit rock bottom.
I do not remember the rest of the journey as I think I may have blocked it as a coping mechanism. However, I do remember our arrival and the hoards of relatives that were anxiously waiting for us at the exit. I remember my first vision of Zia Catia running towards us, her arms fervently waving in the air with a set of Rosary beads hanging from her wrist. As I look back, I regret not enjoying the beauty of the turbulent sea crashing against the smoldering rock. But this was a nightmare realized and my memories of this stretch of the Italian peninsula will be as such. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life except, perhaps the time my friend, Denis, attempted a three point turn in the Alps. But then…that’s another story.

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