Sadly, 2020 was a year of ZERO international travel. And since it is still too early to tell if things will return to normal anytime soon, I thought I'd share a travel story that will either make you
(A) Miss traveling abroad
(B) Be grateful to remain at home.
It could go either way, really.
This is the story of how I had to desperately avoid daylight and lurk in the shadows like a vampire while visiting sunny Sicily, also known as the "Godfather" region of Italy.
It was the summer of 2001, and I had been laboring nonstop on a grueling dance production called Temple of the Heart for over a year. The thought of a vacation was the last thing on my mind because I was simply trying to survive rehearsals. And when I say survive rehearsals, I actually mean SURVIVE rehearsals. The production contained REAL swords and REAL whips that were being wielded by dancers REAL-LY untrained in whip/sword wielding—which is why one of my cast members suggested that we make tee shirts with the slogan, I survived Temple of the Heart!
So yeah. I was too busy to think about a vacation. But I sure needed one.
Then one day my husband came home from work and announced that he had to go to Milan and Rome for some meetings. You know, like it was an everyday thing. So I made an announcement of my own.
"I'm coming with you!"
I felt a tinge of guilt about abandoning my cast when we were only three months out from our debut, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do! But I gave my dance company a solid excuse.
"I need to go to Italy for two weeks to examine real Roman columns in person so I can properly design some for our production. I'm anal that way."
I don't know if the dancers bought my story or not because I was too busy packing to go to Italy.
But as the departure date approached, I came down with a head cold that I couldn't shake. I mentioned my pesky symptoms to my pastor and he told me that long flights and head colds were a miserable combination and advised me to get some antibiotics. I usually take my pastor's advice, so I made an appointment. Unfortunately, my regular doctor was out of town and I saw someone new who didn't know my history with drugs which is I NEVER take them because I usually have some weird reaction. The doc prescribed some pills that only a horse could swallow and told me, "Don't go sunbathing while taking them".
"No problem!" I chirped. "We're going to spend almost a week in Venice and Milan before we head to Sicily, where we will spend our days swimming and kayaking in the shadow of the smoldering Mt. Etna. I will have plenty of time to get the antibiotics out of my system before that."
"Okay. Just remember that you could have a reaction if you get too much sun."
A week later, Dan and I were coasting down the canals of Venice, our eyes bulging and jaws dropping from the city's splendor. We spent three days weaving our way through alleys, exploring the stores showcasing Carnevale costumes and masks, the leather book shops, the cathedrals and gobbling gelato in the magnificent St. Mark's Square.
A street scene you'd only find in Venice.
Hanging out around Doges Palace.
(I still fantasize about owning this gate.)
Carnevale costumes on display.
Crossing over the Ponte Dei Carmini pedestrian bridge.
Studying columns so I could honestly tell my dancers that I did.
On our final day, we took a speedboat to the island of Murano and upon our return to the hotel in the early evening, Dan noticed something odd.
I was very pink.
"Wow!" Dan said. "You got a lot of sun today. It probably reflected off the water during our boat rides."
"That's weird." I muttered as I went to examine my face in a mirror.
"Yeah, you usually have to spend a LOT of time in the sun without sunscreen before you get a sunburn because you have that olive skin tone."
"I know! And you're not showing signs of sun at all, which is strange because you always burn before I do."
"Does it hurt?"
"Nope. And my skin doesn't feel warm, so I'm not burned."
My "sunburn" covered my face and neck, but what was really strange was that it had travelled almost to my sternum, where it ended in a perfectly straight line.
"This is so freaky," I exclaimed. "It's like I have a sunburn equator running from armpit to armpit."
I found this most puzzling because I had been wearing a sleeveless turtleneck that completely covered half of my neck and all of my chest, so I couldn't figure out how the sun penetrated my clothing. Meanwhile my arms, which hadn't been covered at all, were not pink. Not to mention the fact that sunburns don't usually end with such geometric precision. It was bizarre, but painless, so I didn't think much about it as I swallowed the last round of my antibiotics.
Relaxing in St. Mark's Square, Venice.
The little pink line in the photo above shows where my sunburn/equator line ran across my chest.
I turned bright pink a few hours later from that line upwards . . . And nowhere else.
Clearly, the sun doesn't usually work that way.
The following day we caught a train to Milan and spent the next two days exploring the city.
I still had the "sunburn", which made me look like I was blushing all the time, but it was remained pain-free so I paid it no mind . . . until I crawled into bed the night before we were scheduled to leave for Sicily. Ten seconds after Dan had switched off the light and zonked out I began to feel uncomfortable. I shifted and shifted. I pulled the covers up; I kicked the covers off. Nothing felt comfortable.
Then I began to itch. And itch. And itch and itch and itch. I felt like ants were crawling all over me. I decided that I must be having an allergic reaction to something that I had touched, so I crept out of bed to take a shower. The shower did not work. I sat on the side of the tub the rest of the night in the bathroom, shaking and itching and not understanding what the crap was wrong with me.
When Dan got up the next morning, he was horrified to find me in a quivering puddle on the bathroom floor. I was feverish and wanted to claw myself out of my own skin, which was now a lovely shade of blushing pink everywhere—with everything above my "sunburn equator" even pinker. With an early flight to catch, we had to immediately decide if we should cancel the Sicilian part of our vacation. I figured that I was going to quiver and itch whether I was on a plane or not, so I opted to go.
By the time we were lining up at our gate, I was hanging in Dan's arms like a rag doll. He practically carried me on the plane. No one, not even the flight attendants, paid any attention and I am left to assume that all the Italians thought I had a very bad hangover or that I was being kidnapped by a Mafioso and they knew better than to get involved. (We were flying to the land of "The Godfather", after all.)
The postcard that we sent our kids. Our hotel was one of those buildings on the side of the cliff.
Fortunately, I passed out from itching and exhaustion during the flight. Unfortunately, the flight wasn't that long and before I knew it, I was conscious again and, supported by Dan, stumbling to baggage claim.
Wouldn't you know it . . . my bag was the LAST bag on the belt. And Dan's bag wasn't on the belt at all. As Dan drug me and my suitcase over to Hades, I mean The Lost Baggage Claim Station, I suddenly heard myself tearfully saying, "I have to go! I have to get to a doctor!" These are not words that Dan often hears me utter, so he shook his head in agreement and I raced off, staggering through the terminal looking for an Emergency Room. I finally found a lady at a ticket window who spoke enough English to point towards a room down an empty hall. I lurched through the door with a weak cry of "Helloooo? Anybody? I need a doctor!"
A lady dressed in nurse-y attire came out of another room and began rapidly assaulting, I mean quizzing, me in Italian while I struggled not to pass out. I finally managed to interject, "English . . . por favore!"
But she didn't speak English. I was sure I might die then and there.
Then a doctor-y looking man—and by doctor-y I mean he was wearing a white coat—walked out and the twosome began to confer in Italian as I stood there, swaying from side to side and wondering if peeling my skin off would provide an easy-to-diagnose clue regarding my symptoms. Then I remembered my weird "sunburn line" and pulled the neck of my shirt down. The moment they saw my "equator" they both were like "AAAHHHHHH!" and nodded their heads in mutual agreement/acknowledgment of something, and began speed-chatting in Italian. Relief washed over me. Clearly they knew what was wrong and how to fix me.
My relief turned to horror when the doctor rushed out of the room, only to return with the largest hypodermic needle that I have EVER seen. It was thick and silver and looked like a relic from WWII. Before I could utter a word, he began squirting the liquid out the end of the syringe in preparation to plunge it into my body while his nurse motioned for me to drop my drawers.
And that's when I began speaking in Italian too, shouting "NO-NO! NO! NO! NO!"
It was just like a movie—the kind of movie where the heroine is being treated like she's crazy, but she's not, and the evil doctor and his nurse are about to inject some kind of knockout drugs into her so that she will pass out and they can experiment on her unconscious, limp, soon-to-be-strapped-down body. The evil twosome began to shush me and cautiously approach me (with the big needle at the ready) like they were going to grab me and hold me down.
If they thought I was hysterical, they were right . . . I was! I had no idea what was in that needle and the room itself didn't look über-clean so I began to panic, terrified of being poked with a dirty syringe (from WWII).
I was just turning around to flee when my husband burst through the door. The doctor and nurse (still acting like movie villains) began yelling at him and making big shooing motions for him to get out. Dan was horrified because, well . . . how often do you go searching for your wife in an airport only to open a door and find a scary nurse and doctor waving a syringe at your close-to-collapsing wife?
Dan began waving his hands and shouting back, "It's okay, it's okay . . . I'm her husband!" while the non-English-speaking Italians kept yelling and shooing him towards the door. With my remaining bit of strength, I managed to bring an end to the ruckus by out-shouting them all, yelling the only Italian-ish words I could think of: "Mi espousa! Mi espousa!" (That's probably Spanish, but it did the trick.)
What happened next was a typical Italian turn-around. The doctor and nurse's confrontational, aggressive gestures immediately became open-armed embraces as they welcomed Dan into the room. They were all like, Come! Witness the insertion of a needle into your beloved's behind! (You gotta love the Italians - they certainly communicate with passion. And they welcome family members to all their events. Even butt stabbing.)
Now Dan has worked in the medical field his whole life. So he, like me, was not too keen on a suspicious-looking syringe full of an unknown substance being injected into my backside. He was already a little testy from the lost baggage claim experience, so he went head to head with the medical duo as they frantically explained (in Italian) the reason they wanted to shove a needle into my butt. At least we think that's what they were saying. They might have been recommending good restaurants in Taormina, but how were we to know?
After many FIRM hand gestures and attempts at cross-cultural sign language, the nurse and doc came to understand that NO NEEDLE was piercing my body until we knew the contents thereof. Dan went to find the English-speaking ticket lady and returned with her shortly thereafter. Her English wasn't prolific but we did get her to inquire as to what the mystery ingredient was inside the foreboding hypodermic plunger that was still being waved around. She translated something that sounded a bit like "court-a-sony" and Dan and I began chanting "Cortisone? Cortisone?" while pointing at the syringe. Light bulbs went off and the doctor and nurse began to nod "yes" vigorously, while chanting "Cortisone! Cortisone!" with triumphant smiles on their faces.
At that point, I knew I had to trust them because I was reaching the breaking point and was on the verge of flaying my own flesh to escape the itching. I offered my arm. They shook their heads and pointed to my tush. I shook my head "No" and re-offered my arm. The nurse crossed her arms, also shaking her head "No", as the doctor motioned towards my backside again.
Now I hadn't had a shot in the derrière since I was a small child and I wanted to keep it that way, so I began to quiz my ticket lady translator as to "WHY do they have to stick that thing in my butt?" But it quickly became clear that such topics were above her pay grade. She shrugged and said "Ciao!", then fled the room.
Given no other choice, I relinquished, offering up my right cheek. It was NOT fun. (And why on earth do we allow doctors to give small children shots in the butt? It's AWFUL!) Once the injection was over, everyone in the room sighed a sigh of relief. As I re-girded my loins, the doctor managed to spurt out a few words of English (finally!) and they were not the ones I wanted to hear: "NO sun! NO sun!" This was said so vehemently that I knew I would be in deep poop if I so much as ventured outside during the daylight hours.
"Great!" I whined. "Sicily is supposed to be the swim and sunbathe portion of our vacation."
"I don't even have a swimsuit," Dan grumbled as he helped me down the hallway. "It's still in Milan."
I have to say that the doc must have fired a mother-lode of cortisone into my booty because I began to feel better in about 15 minutes. It was miraculous! I didn't want to chew my skin off anymore. We took a cab to our hotel to drop off our bags and then made our way into town with me darting from store awning to store awning, trying to evade the sun like a vampire. We were starving so we dashed into the first pizzeria that we spotted. We stepped inside and a waiter escorted us to an adjoining room and then I nearly passed out. But not from the allergic reaction; I nearly fainted from THE VIEW!
We had been ushered onto an outdoor deck perched on the side of a bougainvillea-laced cliff overlooking the Ionian sea. It was stunning. Any residual discomfort I felt melted away as Dan and I sunk our teeth into the freshest Margherita pizza imaginable while trying not to fall over in a swoon from all the beauty that laid at our feet. The deck was heavily shielded from the sun by a giant awning, so we lingered after our meal, enjoying the crisp sea breeze.
A typical Taormina view.
Afterwards, we made our way to a pharmacy. That was when we discovered that tubes of medications are MUCH smaller in the EU than in America. I needed enough cortisone cream to slather myself from head to toe but the only tubes they sold were about the size of my, ahem, middle finger. We bought most of them. And a big box of colloidal oatmeal just in case.
Dan and I stopped by a local deli for bottled drinks. Apparently it was the "go-to" spot for celebrities and the owner had a wall full of photos of famous folks who had dropped by. So I gave her one of my dance company's brochures and she responded with "Bella dancer!"
I included this picture so that my dancers could see that I was promoting them and so that you could see that my skin was the same color as the parma ham in the meat cooler below.
Our hotel room was incredible; featuring french doors at the foot of the bed that could be thrown open to our balcony, offering views of a smoking Mt. Etna in the hazy distance, and the sparkling sea below. I thanked God for that view because that room is where I had to live all day, every day, until the sun went down.
The view from our balcony. It didn't suck.
Mt. Etna was in the distance, but all you can see is haze because it was smoking the whole time.
Sadly, at the onset of twilight, the itch-fest began to return. I made it through dinner, but by the time we were ready for bed I was beginning to feel the way I had felt the night before so I decided to soak in an oatmeal bath for awhile. Before the tub was half full, I was back to wanting to claw out of my own skin. Ergo, I added not one, not two, but THREE packets of the colloidal oatmeal to the cool bathwater and filled the tub to the brim. The mixture was so thick that it was basically English porridge. If I had had a spoon and some honey, I could have eaten it.
I sank deep into the tub, bringing the oatmeal sludge up to my chin. Staying submerged from the chin down was the only way to get relief. I tried a few times to get out of the tub, desperate to go to bed, but as soon as I stood up, the itching returned full force. I had no choice but to spend the entire night up to my neck in what normally would have been my breakfast.
Dan found me in the morning, my head bobbing just above the surface. I was completely exhausted. I hadn't slept all night. I had been too scared to doze off. For obvious reasons. Death by drowning in oatmeal was not the way I wanted to go out.
I showered off the residue, hoping that my night spent soaking in soluble fiber had lowered my cholesterol. Then Dan called the front desk to request a doctor while I desperately tried to rinse the pipe-clogging sediment out of the tub. (I can't imagine what the hotel housekeeping team thought when they saw all the funky gunk I couldn't remove. It must have looked like someone had molted during their bath. Oh, that I could have!)
The doctor arrived, and by that time I was so desperate for relief that I yanked my shorts down and eagerly "turned my other cheek" before he had even finished prepping the syringe. The look on his face seemed to say, "Wow! You're the first person I ever met who ENJOYS getting shots in the butt!"
Après-injection, I thanked him profusely and he scurried out the door, likely thinking that I was one odd American. As the itching abated, I settled into bed with a good book and Dan made his way back to the pharmacy to buy ALL the remaining tubes of cortisone cream before heading to the pool. I catnapped and whenever I occasionally woke up, I would gaze at the beautiful view and sigh contentedly, happy to be in Sicily and pumped full of court-a-sony.
View of the town above taken by the hotel pool. Dan took this photo. Obviously.
As the sun began to set, Dan escorted me around the town, keeping us in the shadows as I was still unable to let a single beam of sunlight touch my skin without dire consequences. It was slow going.
"Wait, stop here a moment. I'm waiting for that cloud to pass in front of the sun."
"Wow," Dan sighed. "I feel like I'm dating a vampire."
"Yeah, you kinda are! You'd better lead me to some pasta with red sauce soon because I'm starving and I keep noticing your jugular."
Strolling with Dan during sunset.
Nevertheless, Taormina was so stinking beautiful at twilight that I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Until bedtime, that is. Then the cortisone wore off forcing me to spend another night neck-deep in my coffin-sized pit of oatmeal.
In the morning, Dan called the front desk to ask for the doctor again as I struggled to rinse the tub. Unfortunately, it was a weekend and the doctor wasn't making hotel calls that day, so we had to dart (awning to awning) to the other side town to visit a clinic. It was in an old, worn building that looked like it had once been a school . . . during WWII. There didn't appear to be anyone inside and I felt like we were in the movie Saving Private Ryan as we ambled through the halls searching for signs of life. Eventually we found a lone doctor, who whipped out the all-too-familiar giant syringe as I chose which cheek to offer up as a sacrifice.
As Dan and I exited, we agreed that it was a good thing that we only had one more day left in Taormina.
"I have emptied the town of all of its cortisone and colloidal oatmeal." Dan warned. "So if you need anymore, you're screwed."
"I know. I feel like a vampire running out of fresh necks to bite. I need to move on to the next town to survive."
I spent a partial night in porridge for safe measure but could feel that the allergic reaction was finally beginning to recede, probably because I had had enough cortisone pumped inside me to medicate an elephant. The next day, my skin was merely tinged pink and I felt well enough to venture outside . . . IN BROAD DAYLIGHT!
Dancing for joy because I could face the sun (and crucifixes) without bursting into flames.
This is what we missed out on: swimming in the waters around the enchanting Isola Bella (also known as The Pearl of the Ionian Sea) and kayaking into the island's grottos.
But at least I got to see it in sunlight!
Teatro Antico di Taormina
An ancient Greek theater with coastal views that is still used for performances.
Vampire no more, I was ready to explore more of the area around Taormina. Dan thought that the best way to do this was by moped.
Unfortunately, at a Y intersection we made a right when we should have made a left and a few curves later we found ourselves on the island's major highway and there were no exits for miles. If we had been on a motorcycle, we would have been fine. But it was a moped with a top speed of maybe 30mph.
Do you know how fast Italians drive? Cars whizzed past us. The wind shear alone nearly blew us off the road. We prayed out loud every time a big truck passed us. Dan was clinging to the handlebars like a pilot when the chopper is goin' down, desperately trying to keep us from spinning out of control. I'm pretty sure we have never been physically closer because my arms were wrapped around him like a one-size-too-small corset.
All I could think was, For three days I have managed to avoid drowning in oatmeal and now Dan and I are going to wind up like smashed bugs on someone's windshield because of a stupid wrong turn! Our children will be orphans!
We drove for days. Well, maybe it was just fifteen or twenty minutes, but it FELT like days before we found an exit. We sat on the side of the road for a good while, just trying to screw up enough courage to turn around. Miraculously, we made it back alive (and caused no accidents) so we felt pretty proud of ourselves. And later that night I got to sleep in the bed.
ALL. NIGHT. LONG.
The funny thing is that before I left on the trip, I was telling a friend where we were staying and she said, "Knowing you guys, Mt. Etna will erupt while you are there."
I couldn't wait to inform her that it's not live volcanoes that you have to worry about in Sicily . . . It's finding English-speaking translators for syringe-wielding doctors or making wrong turns on mopeds.
Dan and I waved goodbye to the enchanting Taormina the next morning and began the beautiful and itch-free drive to Agrigento.