by Kristin Pedroja
Lake Como is one of the most stunning parts of Italy. Tucked into the Alps that separate Italy from Switzerland, Lake Como’s shape resembles the legs and torso of a stick figure. At the base of the left leg is the town of Como, a bustling city with numerous hotels, lovely piazzas, great shopping and fantastic restaurants. And, of course, the gorgeous promenade lined with exotic vegetation, the shoreline boasting some of the most gorgeous villas in the north of Italy.
I had an epiphany in a kayak here in 2001 that triggered my move abroad two months later. So while working just over the mountain from Como one summer, I jumped at the chance to visit again with friends on a much-needed day off. We parked our borrowed van at the base of Como’s funicular and took a ferry to Mennagio, where we rented kayaks for a day on the water.
The experience was a first for my friends. Barry, a Northern Irish gem with a biting wit, decided to take charge of the tandem kayak. Emilie, a lovely French lassie who was also a novice, went in the front. I took the single kayak and away we went. Balancing the boats was easy on the calm water, and we soon were making our way along the coastline, in awe of the way the Italians nestled their brightly colored villas in the hills, staying true to the natural beauty of the area.
We couldn’t have picked a better day. The water of one of Europe’s deepest lakes is often cold but usually calm. Boats often pass via the center of the lake, ferries the only interruption to a paddle up Como’s western coastline. From the water, grand villas and vineyards look even more majestic than on land. Colorful buildings tumble down the steep hillsides adding drama to the landscape. The Alps stretch to the sky beyond the hills, layering to create the image of forever.
We paddled the day away, stopping every so often to chill out on a tiny beach or join our boats together to chat. The summer sun was deceiving, and it took our growling stomachs to realize it was probably time to paddle back to shore and feed ourselves before darkness took hold. The kayaks had filled with water along the way, and emptying them took far longer than we expected. By the time we had the kayaks returned, food was the only thing on our agenda. We knew we might miss the ferry back to Como but agreed to split the taxi fare if we had to. Logistics sorted, we set about finding a place for our feeding frenzy.
Mennagio has a typical Italian town centre of clusters of buildings surrounding a large piazza. We found a charming garden trattoria and ate well. The lush seafood risotto and freshly baked bread and litre of red wine had us buzzing from our day, and not yet ready to let go of such a glorious day soaking up Italy.
During our dinner, Menaggio’s main piazza had been transformed into a sparkling concoction of lights, music and low chatter. Kids ran around with streamers on sticks flying behind them, and strolling couples stole kisses as music piped from somewhere beyond. We lost ourselves in the scene for awhile, watching the life of this tiny town move slowly through the night. Then we set about trying to find a taxi.
This was easy—taxis were everywhere, parked on the pavements and halfway into the road and every haphazard way possible. The problem was that they all lacked drivers. We stood by the taxis for five minutes, then ten, then longer. Barry took off to find the drivers and failed miserably. We walked a bit further out of the town and waited along the main road for a taxi to pass. Nothing.
After an hour, Barry stuck his thumb out.
Now as an American-raised lassie, I was hounded with scary-as-hell hitchhiking stories as a youth. You’ll be murdered! Raped! Pillaged! Anyone who picks up hitchhikers must have an AK-47 stashed beneath his beaded seat cushion! I gently told Barry that this made me uncomfortable.
Then Emilie joined in. And I became the asshole.
Emilie and Barry had hitched their whole lives. They hitched through France and Ireland and Germany and Britain and Barry had even hitched in California (gasp!). Here I was, 29 years old and a virgin. I was still uncomfortable. And scared to death.
So Emilie stuck her thumb out while Barry left to find paper and a pen: COMO PLEASE, he scribbled in massive letters on the back of a restaurant placemat. I stood behind them, feeling exposed. This wasn’t right. I prayed that a taxi would come and save us. Minutes passed, and the darkness continued to envelop the night.
Eternity takes on a new meaning when time passes far too slowly. We waited and waited, as the clock in the town centre chimed six times, then nine. Finally, a BMW station wagon came to a halt a few yards ahead of us. Barry skipped to the front seat while Emilie and I squeezed in the back beside the biggest child car seat I’d ever seen. Barry’s rudimentary Italian discovered that the man was only going to the next village, but could leave us there to fend for ourselves. ot five minutes later he pulled into a parking garage beneath a waterside apartment building, waving us off as he slammed his car door and beeped the alarm system.
So there we were, on the same highway, only this time in a tiny blink-and-miss-it village called Cadennabia, a darkened village save a nearly-closed café with a large, surly black-clad woman counting Euros from the tip jar. We popped in to buy a bottle of water (as we all desperately needed the toilet) and swigged down three limoncellos before resuming our task at hand.
More eternal moments passed, and we found ourselves squished into the backseat of a tiny VW Golf with a frowning woman in the passenger seat and a jovial driver who promised only a quick ride before he turned off to drive to his village in the mountains. We passed another tiny village and moments later the car slowed down, letting us off at a dark intersection.
No one drove past. For twenty minutes.
So we started walking—Barry backward, sign in his hands just in case, and Emilie and me along the side of the road. Ahead, we heard accordion music blaring from a hotel. As we came closer, round, white-haired figures swirled to and fro to the music on a long veranda that expanded the length of the hotel. We planted ourselves in front of the balcony and began to dance along with them. A few of the dancers leaned over the side of the veranda to ask us why we were dancing, and dubbed us the “Dancing Thumbs”—which we found far less intriguing than the Dancing Hitchhikers.
As Barry held our paper plea toward the few passing cars, Emilie and I danced to our heart’s content, smiling for tourist photos and somehow becoming the main attraction for the hotel guests. The fresh breeze coming off the water, the aroma of food from the buffet on the veranda, music filling the night air—it was a freeing moment, twirling around on concrete, overwhelmed by the surrealism of that exact moment.
And then it was over. We were picked up by Luigi and Luca (to much applause from the hotel guests), two tanned, charming Como natives who blasted Bob Marley as they cruised with us along the lake.
“We take scenic road,” Luigi said, turning around to face us as we huddled together in the tiny backseat of their VW. Luca abruptly turned onto a narrow road far closer to the lake than I would normally be comfortable with. Luca navigated the sharp curves in the road like a pro, even to the beat of the music, as Luigi told us stories of how the lakefront had changed in his lifetime.
Suddenly, on a curved strip of road, they slowed down near the back of a gorgeous, darkened villa.
“Clooney,” Luigi said, oblivious to my and Emilie’s rapidly expanding grins. Luigi went on to tell us that our George fit in well in Como, that he treated waiters and shopkeepers well and liked a drink with the locals. As we crept down the road behind the darkened house, Luigi reasoned that the house was probably empty just then, though he was certain that if George were home, he would certainly invite us in.
At this point, Luca had brought the car to a complete stop. He lit a cigarette and bobbed his head to Bob Marley.
“See? Not busy road,” Luigi said, pointing to the darkened street. “New highway has made this old road a quiet road.” Luigi lit a cigarette too, and turned up the music.
We were silent in the backseat, waiting for what was next.
“Versace place next, up there,” Luigi said, pointing with his lit cigarette. The car remained stopped, and Luca turned off the ignition.
Now we were getting uncomfortable.
Barry opened the window to a beautiful Italian evening, stars out in full force and a fresh breeze coming off the water. It was almost enough to make us forget about any possible laws against stopping in the middle of the road in the middle of the night.
Moments later, Luca took a long drag off his cigarette and tossed it out the window. He turned the car back on and nodded at Luigi.
“Ciao, Clooney,” Luigi said, waving out his window as we continued down the dark road.
Luigi continued to name-drop celebrities he’d seen around Como, trying to name people from all of our countries—a sweet gesture to ensure a connection between us. The little car twisted down the road and finally toward the lights of Como, twinkling against the nightscape.
Within minutes we were at the parking lot where we’d left the van hours before—luckily, the traffic police were kind to us and the van was still there. Luigi and Luca wouldn’t take any money from us for gas or for their trouble, yet they promised to visit us in our countries one day. As we packed ourselves into the van, exhausted from our evening, Barry and Emilie took one last shot at my overdramatizing of the whole hitchhiking thing.
I was, indeed, proven wrong—perhaps the human spirit can be helpful when behind the wheel. Some people will do all they can to find a common denominator between cultures, ages, genders, whether it be music, fame, or just the common goal of getting somewhere. And best of all, I got to do something I’d never do on my own—sit outside the Italian residence of a world-famous film star—and feel that perhaps Luigi was right—maybe, if he’d been home, George would have invited us in for a limoncello.