In this winning entry to the Travel Fiasco Storyteller Contest, Jill Paris illuminates a universal truth: Romance on holiday is never what it is in the movies. Especially if Italian men are involved.
"Come on!" Sarah snapped in a tone best used on disobedient pets. She pulled me by the wrist as we traipsed along another unfamiliar street. It was past three or four in the morning and there wasn't a creature stirring, not even a pigeon. The city's golden sunlight of day had turned purple-black with darkness. We seemed to be the only two people awake in all of Florence. Even the scooters that buzzed non-stop had called it a night.
We'd arrived two days earlier and checked into the five-star Hotel Regency because my motto is travel like a jet-setter. I am by no means a jet-setter. I lack the jet and most definitely the set, but I'm obsessed with luxurious hotel amenities. I love freshly cut flowers flooding an opulent lobby. I adore a hotel bar that looks like a movie set with patrons resembling the cast of Casino Royale. I yearn for bellmen that double as GQ models in their spare time.
"You're hurting me," I whimpered, shaking loose from her vice-like grip.
"You've got mascara running down your face," she pointed out.
Yes, I'd been crying. Getting lost, combined with acute intoxication will do that to me. And those four-inch heels pinched my feet like crazy. I remember thinking Italian women must be trained at birth to glide atop cobblestoned streets without fracturing an ankle. I would have gone barefoot, but then there'd have been those cavernous spaces in between the stones filled with pigeon shit, urine, and God-knows-what-else.
"Where the hell is everyone?" I yelled. "Where are the taxis?"
I looked up at closed shuttered windows that danced before my eyes in pairs. "I thought Italians were — hic — suppozzed to be friendly."
"I'm sure they are when they're awake. Shhhhhh!" Sarah said, grabbing me by the arm again. A few lights were now visible from above. I bet my loud American voice bounced off the towering buildings like a pinball machine at full tilt.
"I can't believe they left us stranded," I murmured. The faint barking of a dog shut me up for a minute.
"Yeah, Italian cads. What a shocker," she said.
"They" were Paolo and Roberto. I'd met Paolo the day before at a parade in the Piazza della Signoria. He was perfect. Tall, dark, aggressive. He claimed to be an architect. His Alaskan husky entangled its leash around my legs causing an embarrassing incident that made us laugh like characters from a Fellini movie. After a few minutes of meaningless conversation, Paolo offered to take us out to dinner the next evening. He told Sarah he had a very nice friend for her. I'd prayed he hadn't seen her eyes roll back in her head. He asked us where we were staying.
"The Regency," I said proudly.
The flecks of gold in his puzzled eyes hypnotized me.
"The Regency on Massimo D'Azeglio," Sarah added curtly. "You know, the five-star hotel near the small park."
"Oh, so far away," his sultry voice sounded disappointed. "You will meet us at the ristorante, yes? I cannot drive my car where your hotel is."
As he scribbled the address on a page torn from my guidebook, I pictured the two of us living in a Tuscan villa that he restored with his bare hands next to a vineyard that yields award-winning grapes.
"He seemed like a gentleman," I said childishly.
Sarah wasn't listening anymore. She was probably planning her escape (or my murder) if we ever found our way back to the hotel.
If Paolo and Roberto hadn't shown up almost two hours late, I wouldn't have ordered that third bottle of Chianti. Our waiter kept giving us the "order something or leave" look, so we felt obliged to keep drinking. Earlier, Sarah and I had taken a Siena excursion and skipped lunch to catch the last bus to Florence. By the time our fashionably late dates bothered to turn up, I must have resembled Courtney Love after a hard day's night.
I kept seeing Paolo's bald head gleaming in my mind. He'd totally shaved off his dark wavy hair and I'd rubbed his skull like a crystal ball. I vaguely remember leaving the restaurant. Roberto's face was a blur. Sarah and I had taken a taxi to the restaurant and I hadn't noticed crossing the Arno River. The only thing I remember with perfect clarity was Paolo's convertible Saab leaving skid marks and Roberto crying out, pointing, "Walk that way!"
"There's the duomo!" I cried, as if I'd struck oil.
"Our hotel is nowhere near the duomo."
Our hotel was nowhere near anything.
While booking the room online I'd been swayed by the caption "Regency - Situated Perfectly for the Florence Attractions" that I'd failed to realize it is about as far from the city's center as you could get.
I stopped walking and looked down at my gorgeous new black strappy shoes. I'd stepped in something and a trail of floss-like string had attached itself to the right heel. Sarah walked silently about twenty feet ahead.
Just then a pair of headlights came up behind us and stopped.
"Yeah, right," Sarah said.
I was so happy to see human life that I ran up to the driver's side and rapped violently on the pane. The vehicle, a large white van, was driven by a mannish-looking woman who spoke no English. She reluctantly rolled down the window.
"Regency Hotel?" I said with a pitiful expression. Oh, please rescue us from our endless walking marathon. These heels are killing me. Not to mention I'm drunk and really need to pee. The lady turned to her partner in the passenger seat and muttered something in Italian. She looked back at me, shrugged her shoulders, and drove off.
"Wait!" Sarah cried out after the van sped away and turned out of sight.
I started to cry again. I felt like banging on a random house and offering whatever change I had on me for the use of a toilet. Just as I was about to knock on a large wooden door, the lights appeared again. The lady in the passenger seat opened the side door and pointed for us to sit between them, or maybe directly on their laps.
"Niiiice," Sarah said under her breath, trying to squeeze in next to the driver.
I didn't care if they were mafia drug smugglers. I needed to get off my feet.
It was a silent ride with the language barrier. But after about ten minutes, our heroines found the Regency. The Florence sky was lighter when we finally arrived at the hotel entrance. I offered them 20 euros, and they refused politely. I think I even blew them a kiss as I toppled out of the chariot. The hotel was locked up tight. Sarah rang the bell. I dropped my purse and teetered recklessly on my Italian stilettos trying to collect it. When the night attendant peered through the glass, he recognized us at once. Before the door could close behind us, he must have caught a glimpse of the ambulance pulling away with the two women paramedics waving good-bye because he said indignantly, "This is a five-star hotel. We do have a complimentary car service for our guests here at the Regency."
I must have missed that amenity.
Piazza M. D'Azeglio, 3