My husband, Mark, and I had heard of Isola de Dino, a huge rock outcropping a few feet off the beach of Praia a Mare in Calabria, in the south of Italy. Here, in these clear blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea, where Ulysses was said to have been the first tourist, we could get a gorgeous view of this seascape that blended towering mountains with a long curve of strand. We drove along the street running the length of the beach until we came close enough to see that the rock was actually an island.
This beach was made up, not of fine sand nor jagged rocks, but of millions of pebbles, worn smooth over the millennia by the actions of sea and wind. This May morning we had the beach almost to ourselves, except for a few dedicated sun-lovers. A hard-packed road led onto the beach from the street, and halfway down to the water an old truck and a little car were parked.
“This must be so crowded in the summer,” I gloated. “Aren’t we smart to come here now!” Mark steered our little rented Uno toward the area where the truck was parked. “Drive as far as you can,” I said solicitously, thinking of the ankle he had sprained on a charming cobble-stoned street in Capri.
He inched past the truck, moved slowly on, then stopped. I heard the whirring of the front tires, unaccompanied by any forward movement. In 36 years of marriage I had learned enough not to ask why we were stopping here.
When we clambered out of the car, we got our sickening answer. Our front wheels had found a comfortable niche, burrowing like a mole into the morass of pebbles. No matter how hard Mark gunned the motor, forward or back, the car’s only movement was to spin its wheels and be sucked deeper and deeper into the stones.
I kept my visions to myself: one of us walking two miles to the tiny seaside resort, now almost deserted, trying to find a tow truck, while the other stayed to guard the car. We had been warned frequently against leaving valuables in even a locked car in these poverty-stricken areas where theft is sometimes the only work around.
“No problem,” Mark said soothingly. “All we need are a couple of strong guys to help push out.” We looked around. The only men in sight were a spindly teenager and a flabby middle-aged sunbather. Child labor or risk of sudden coronary?
Suddenly aware of hammering sounds, we made our way up the beach, which seemed to have grown longer over the past twenty minutes. Before our eyes were two fit, healthy, husky men throwing up sparks from a welding iron as they built a small oval track for racing cars.
With a creative combination of gestures and our few words of tourist Italian, we managed to get across our plight. The older and stockier of the men (Pippo, we later learned) shook his head, but the younger one, Angelo, said, “Aspetta.” (“Wait”) They finished their welding, put a long length of lightweight rope into their beat-up jalopy, invited us into its creaky back seat and drove toward our car, stopping just in time to avoid our fate.
Suddenly a third man, Tonino, materialized and joined his friends trying to push our car out of the stones. No luck. Pippo took Mark’s place behind the wheel. More pushing by the others. Nothing. Tonino told Pippo, (in Italian) “You’re too fat – I’ll sit in the car. You push.” More nothing. A collective head-shaking, looking at the tires, scraping some of the stones away. Then a walk back for the rope, which looked much too thin to do the job. But attached to the front of their car and the back of ours, it held. Their car backed up, drawing ours onto harder ground. We were released.
As our three saviors jumped into their cars and started to leave, amid our fervent thanks Mark tried to press a couple of 10,000-lire notes (about $20) into Pippo’s hands. But this hard-working laborer waved away the money. Mark proffered it again and was again refused. Not until the third, even more adamant pressing of the flesh and the lire did the men accept the money.
After all the warnings we had heard about Italians in the impoverished South who would steal from, cheat, and in other ways take advantage of tourists, this was a welcome affirmation of our belief that here, as in every other nation around the world, there are warm, gracious people who believe that in a world fraught with disasters, major and minor, we need to take care of each other in times of need.
Sally Wendkos Olds has written extensively about child development, family life, human relationship and health, and has won national awards for both her book and magazine writing. She is the author or co-author of eleven books and hundreds of articles that have appeared in major national magazines. She received the lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Journalists and Authors.