I was in Cinque Terra, Italy in 2007 and I had just earned my associate's degree in English. I was proud of putting myself through college, for earning awards and scholarships, and I wanted to celebrate by going on a trip. I decided to do the quintessential Eurotrip -- nine countries, 20 cities, 21 days. London, Paris, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Monaco, Nice, Interlaken, Florence, Venice, Pisa, Rome, Cinque Terra, Munich, Salzburg, Amsterdam.
I was one of four 20-somethings. The rest of the group were 18-year-olds, freshly graduated from their elite high schools, and ready to drink like they were 21.
It was about two weeks into the trip when I found myself around the only other people my age: Patty, her boyfriend Gabe, and the assistant tour guide, Lucia. After dinner, we walked down to the cove. It was a perfect night, fueled by delicious local wine and the buzz of the reality of being in Italy. Somehow, our conversation turned to skinny dipping. Patty didn't think I was serious when I said of course I would do it; why not? (This was pre-YOLO days, but that's pretty much what I said, Drake.) Patty didn't believe me.
In an effort to prove her wrong, to show her how carefree and wild I could be, I started taking off my clothes. It didn't take long since I was just wearing a dress and sandals, so I didn't have much time to let the reality of what I was about to do sink in.
The water was violently choppy and black, like "The Princess Bride" right before the eels attack. The moon hung above us, providing the only light to see where I was throwing my body. And just like that, I was in the middle of the Mediterranean. Instantly chilled, gulping liters of salty water, flapping my arms like a baby bird, I struggled to keep my head out of the churning water. I did the only thing I knew how -- doggy-paddled my way back towards where Patty was standing by the cliff.
"You guys!" I huffed. "You guys!"
"I can't believe you did it! You just jumped in!" They were excited, celebrating my midnight bravery.
"You guys," I tried again. "I can't swim!"
"What?! What do you mean? Seriously?"
"No, I mean, yes, I'm serious. No, I can't swim!" A wave pushed me closer to the cliff and I clung on slippery rocks. It was hard to grip and I was afraid I would be taken under the next wave. Or maybe an eel was going to eat me alive.
"Why would you jump into the ocean?" They teased, but were legitimately puzzled.
"Can you just help me out?" They offered their hands as I climbed out, shivering in the night air, shaking more from my near-death adrenaline rush than the cold, as I put my clothes back on. "Ah, I think I scrapped my knee on the rocks."
Patty stepped back to examine my body. "I don't see anything."
"There's no blood or anything? It feels like I got a cut and the salt water is stinging it," I said. "Ow, and my foot too. Owww."
"No blood," Patty said after she looked again.
"You don't think I got stung, do you? By a sea urchin?" I was remembering my tour guide's warning-- don't step on the rocks!
"No way. You'd feel it. You'd be in a lot more pain. And you'd have like a needle or something sticking out of you."
"Right." I put my sandals back on but kept feeling the pain increasing to a strong, stinging throb. "Okay, owww. No, owww, this really hurts. Are you sure you don't see anything?"
"Wait, what are those?" Patty pointed to a splash of small black dots, an angry red around the edges, on my left knee, toe and ankle.
"What is that?" I panicked. "Is that dirt? Are those rocks inside my cut?"
We walked back up into town, into the nearest restaurant, the only one that was still open this late in the sleepy seaside village. The rest of the group was there drinking beer, eating gelato.
"We need you guys to pee in a cup," Patty said. "She got stung."
The boys laughed, but then surprisingly rallied, as a cup went around outside. I poured it on my ankle right then and there on the streets of Italy hoping to get some fast relief, praying my future husband wasn't in the crowd watching me with disgust. The pain kept mounting.
Back in our room, Lucia tried to use her tweezers to pluck out the nubs of the needle that had broken off into my skin. I rarely cried, but this pain brought tears instantly, drops of water flooded around my collar bone.
The tour guide came by, but instead of checking on me (perhaps my yelps of pain weren't convincing or sorrowful enough), he opened the bathroom door to take a photo. "You'll laugh at this later."
"GET OUT!" I yelled.
Exhausted by the evening, I passed out on my bed, only to wake up with a throbbing, crimson leg. The sea urchin sting had caused my calf and foot to swell, puffy and doughy, too swollen to put any pressure on it; bedridden on day two in romantic Italy. How would my soulmate find me cooped up in here? Maybe the local young Italian doctor made house calls...
But the pain interrupted my daydreaming. I thought about what it would be like to die in Italy. It sounded pretty glamorous to me, but I still wanted to try weed in Amsterdam. I still wanted to skydive over the Swiss Alps.
I stayed in bed, contemplating the cost of getting air lifted out of Italy, flown back to Los Angeles where my mom would surely know what to do. I was just about resigned that this was my only option for survival, when I heard a rush of Italian words tumbling my way. It was my host, an old Italian couple who owned the house I was sleeping in. They didn't speak any English, and always seemed happy, but today they looked concerned, as if saying: It's a beautiful day and you're in Italy, what are you doing in this bed, you lazy American? My eyes welled up as I dramatically uncovered the white sheet to reveal my boiled-hotdog leg. More Italian words. Lots of gesticulations. And then they left.
It was worse than I thought. Soon the poison would go to my heart. I bet I had hours to live. Maybe only minutes.
But instead of croaking, the Italian couple came back into the bedroom with a tiny bowl of what looked like oil and vinegar. This is no time for a salad, I thought. Although I could always go for a bowl of pasta.
They motioned for me to put it on the black nubs. It was the quickest, simplest remedy and I was praising Jesus (though I'm not religious) that I would be able to live another day! And all thanks to a little Italian oil and vinegar. Buon Appetito!