My friend and former TV news colleague, Denise Vickers, recently returned from a trip to Italy with more than just travel souvenirs and photos. She brings us this reminder that travel is truly all about people and connection.
By Denise Vickers
For years I romanticized about spending my 50th birthday in Italy with my husband, Mark. I had been there roughly 25 years prior with my mother and had convinced my husband that my milestone birthday would be unsatisfactory if my passport did not receive an Italian customs stamp.
Planning a Birthday Trip to Italy
I had loosely planned our vacation itinerary. We would fly into Rome, spend a couple of days there, then a week at a timeshare condo in San Vincenzo (Tuscany), a night or two in the Dolomites at Lago di Garda and then stay the last night in Venice for our return flight. Beyond our arrival and departure dates, there was a lot of flexibility in our schedule. We prefer to travel that way so that we can let our vacations evolve spontaneously and not be dictated by minute-by-minute plans and deadlines like those that dominate my daily life as a multimedia news executive.
As the date for our trip approached, instead of being filled with excitement, concern consumed us. Hurricane Michael threatened the Gulf Coast. The target: Mexico Beach, Florida, the location of our beach home.
For a decade, we dreamed of owning a vacation home in a coastal community. We discovered Mexico Beach a few years ago and immediately fell in love with its pristine beaches, great fishing, and relaxed vibe.
We purchased a small corner lot three blocks off the beach, and over the course of two years prepped the land and built an unconventional home with a footprint of less than 700 square feet. When I say we built it, I don’t mean we hired people. I mean my husband, who is a carpenter, and a half a dozen skilled friends and family members did a majority of the work.
Travel Day and a Hurricane Hits Home
On October 10, 2018, while we waited to board our flight to Italy, we anxiously watched The Weather Channel’s live streaming coverage of Hurricane Michael making landfall as a near Category 5 monster storm. We were sick, stressed, and powerless.
Once we landed in Rome the next morning, we scoured every news outlet imaginable, searching for information. The images of the destruction from the hurricane’s 150 mile-per-hour winds and the crushing storm surge gut-punched us. Mexico Beach was ground zero. Obliterated.
Making the Best of Rome
Resigned to do our best to enjoy our Italian adventure, we hopped on vintage Italian bikes and pedaled around Rome on a three-hour bike tour that I booked through Airbnb Experiences. Afterwards, our guide, Giulia, recommended a locals’ pizzeria, Er Panonto, where we chowed down on a delicious salsiccia and fungo (sausage & mushroom) pizza which we washed down with multiple bottles of Birra Moretti. The exercise, interactions, and eats momentarily distracted us – until we returned to our room. The news reports and aerial videos we watched online gave us little hope that our tiny home survived.
I awoke Friday morning around 4 a.m. to discover several people had tagged me on Facebook or sent me a link to NOAA’s satellite imagery. Using that, I could zoom in to our exact address and confirm that our house was still standing. A few hours later a news crew from my TV station arrived and provided further visual proof that the house was intact, and floodwaters had not breached it. An intense feeling of relief overcame us and then seconds later a conflicting emotion – survivor’s remorse.
As we ambled around Rome and toured the Colosseum later that day, the enormity of the devastation proved difficult to process. Fortunately, copious amounts of Italian vino and a newly-discovered drink made with Aperol called a Spritz helped our mood.
For the next week we trekked across the Tuscan countryside – eating, imbibing, and engaging in activities that you don’t normally associate with a trip to Italy. One day we set out on a mission to find a free, natural hot spring near Petriolo. On another, we rented kayaks from Aguaraja in Bagni di Lucca and enjoyed the company of Steve, the owner, who helped us navigate the rapids of the Serchio River.
Sunrise over Lago di Garda
From there, we made our way to Lago di Garda and Hotel Villa Maria Au Lac. We arrived well after 9 p.m., but a woman named Aneta cheerfully showed us to our well-appointed waterfront room.
The next morning, I intentionally got up ahead of the sunrise to witness it and soak up nature’s soundtrack – the waves lapping the shore, the squawks of the waterfowl, the faint breeze rustling through the leaves of the olive trees.
I was not alone in the pursuit. We avoided interaction as if to respect each other’s quietude, but I shared the glory of that sunrise with a man and woman staying in the room next to ours. I observed that the man had set up a flexible tripod in order to record a time-lapse of the sunrise on his iPhone. I made a mental note to buy one of those tripods once I returned home. Meanwhile, the woman attracted the attention of a handful of ducks, as well as a large, grey rabbit with some bread.
Our reservation at Hotel Villa Maria Au Lac included what they called “B&B treatment.” A wonderful array of fresh-baked pastries, homemade jams, meats, cheeses, organic yogurt, poached plums, a honeycomb, fresh-squeezed juices and, of course, Prosecco, greeted us in the dining room. We filled our plates and found a seat at a bistro table on the rooftop terrace next to the couple from my sunrise encounter.
Travel is About Connection
I’m not entirely sure who or how we started the conversation, but we remarked on the oddly large, grey bunny and the beauty of the sunrise. The man showed me his time-lapse video. During the course of me raving about the video, we introduced ourselves. His name was Sven, but her name was so unique that I didn’t catch it. While I wanted to ask Sven if he would share the time-lapse video with me, I refrained, thinking it might be too forward. He must have sensed my desire because seconds later he offered to share it with me via iPhone’s Airdrop. He also shared his contact information the same way in case I wanted to keep in touch which, of course, I did want. The couple gave us some recommendations for enjoying our time in Lago di Garda and informed us they were leaving shortly to return to Germany. They said “ciao!” and wished us well on the remainder of our trip.
Sometime later I discovered that I had not properly saved Sven’s contact information. I tried every way imaginable to recover it to no avail. I was so totally irked with myself and verbally complained to my husband who, to his credit, never instructed me to “let it go.”
Later that evening I went to the front desk to see if they could help me connect with Sven. I fully expected they wouldn’t share his information. Turns out they did not have contact information for him due to the way his reservation was made. The woman trusted that I didn’t have bad intentions and cautiously shared his last name with me. That allowed me to search Facebook. Voilà! I found Sven and his companion, Rossi. Success! We were now connected.
A New Friend’s Generosity
For the next few days, we privately shared photos and details of our experiences in Italy. I continued to share pictures and news stories on my Facebook feed. One item in particular caught Sven and Rossi’s attention. It was a link to a Washington Post video that showcased the devastation in Mexico Beach through the eyes of our small town’s mayor.
Shortly after posting it, I received a Facebook message from Sven indicating they felt compelled to help the people of Mexico Beach and asked the best way to assist. I directed him to the American Red Cross hurricane relief page. Moments later I received a confirmation that he donated in Mark’s and my honor.
Sven’s efforts to help didn’t stop there. He tweeted to his followers in an attempt to activate his friends and colleagues to also help. Though the only German I know is what I remember from my trips to the Biergarten at Disney World, I immediately understood the sentiment of his Tweet. Still, I consulted Google Translate to confirm that it said, “Take a look at this report! Mexico Beach is devastated after the last hurricane. Many people have lost everything. Do you have a few euros left? Then you can donate here.”
It’s hard to explain the feeling that overcame me in that moment. Sven and Rossi’s act of kindness and generosity triggered an endorphin dump that did more than make me feel good all over.
It made me feel good about the world.
I messaged Sven on Facebook and thanked him profusely. During that exchange of instant messages, I learned that Sven has never been to the United States. Even more remarkable, he indicated he’d like to make his first trip in April — not for vacation, but to help Mexico Beach rebuild. The compassion of this couple stunned me.
At a time when the hate and violence associated with a deadly shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue dominated the news cycle, two people felt compelled to help a community they had no connection to — other than Mark and me, whom they barely knew.
In that moment I realized my trip to Italy presented me a much greater gift than the experience of seeing historic sites, indulging in incredible food and wine or purchasing a vase made of Murano glass. The real gift I received and figuratively unwrapped? The precious gift of HUMANITY.
Denise Vickers is the General Manager at WFXG Fox 54 in Augusta, Georgia. She has been a journalist for nearly 30 years and a lover of food, travel and meeting new people all her life. Denise worked with Lisa Lubin in the mid-90s at WIS-TV in Columbia, South Carolina.