Did you know that there are almost two dozen kinds of snakes in Italy and that many of them make their home in the hills of Tuscany? No? I didn’t either until just a few days ago.
Torre and I were sharing a dinner table with Astrid, a lawyer from Milan at an “ostello,” a pilgrim’s hostel, nearly ten kilometers from the nearest town. We’d stopped for a cappuccino that morning on our way to Pontremoli, but couldn’t tear ourselves away from its green shutters, homemade relishes, walls plastered with regional maps, an umbrella stand filled with polished wooden staffs and a table with earring made of lace and necklaces of hazelnut shells. The place felt magic, so we decided to stay.
The magic ended for Torre soon after the cappucinos, during a meditation session which she did lying on top of an anthill, overlooking a hazy mountain range. Thinking the burning sensation on her back was a prickly plant, she decided to exercise her “nonattachment to comfort” and stayed perfectly still for twenty minutes. At the same time a colony of ants was trying their best to take on a “this too shall pass” attitude while a giant monster sat on their house.
My own soul crushing moment came during dinner when the proprietor of the ostello, a balding, grey-haired jokester wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt came over and started talking to the woman from Milan. While Torre washed down a painkiller with some wine, I listened.
“Oh my god. They’re talking about snakes. “
“I thought you didn’t speak Italian?”
“ A woman was bitten by a snake just outside, by the fountain and she had to be taken to the hospital. “
“How are you getting that?”
I don’t know exactly how I was getting it as I neither speak nor understand Italian, but just like someone with a fear of flying can detect the slightest loosening of a screw on a 747, when someone is mentioning my slithering nemesis in a foreign language, I become fluent just long enough to start obsessing over my death from a snakebite.
Here are a few fun facts about my snake phobia that will help you understand the depth of my madness. I occasionally become convinced that there is a snake waiting for me in the toilet of my fifteenth floor apartment. When I saw a snake in Russia, my grandmother heard my screams and thought I was being mauled by a bear. When I was island hopping in Thailand, I selected accommodations not on their merit or proximity to the beach, but on how closely they resembled an airtight shipping container. I have mistaken the following items for a snake in places as remote as my parent’s third floor balcony and Times Square: a shoelace, my own foot, a wire, my phone charger and a strand of hair.
Once our host moved on from our table, Astrid spent the rest of dinner educating us on the snake population of Italy while I practiced not throwing up. It seems there are lots of really long, thick snakes in Italy, but while they will just scare the shit out of you, they won’t kill you. The only snake in Italy worth worrying about is the viper, which is the one the woman in the story I overheard had accidently stepped on.
“But don’t worry, you have an hour to get the anti-venom,” Astrid reassured me.
I looked at Torre and knew we were both thinking two things—that we’d barely had phone reception in the mountains and that even if we did, we’d have no idea who to call since neither of us knew any local emergency numbers.
Seeing the distress signal written out on my furrowed brow, Astrid tried to reassure me.
“Don’t worry, vipers don’t care about you. You’ll only get bitten if you accidently step on one sunning itself on a rock.”
“Like one of the billions of rocks that make up hiking paths in Tuscany, for example?”
“And they’re not big, not scary just little and skinny, so you’ll probably not even see one, DON’T WORRY.”
“Okay, got it. I will just inspect every rock I step on for tiny, hard-to-see reptiles. What color are they exactly?”
“Cool. Wait, was that like a slate grey? “
“What is slate grey?”
“The color of a rock.”
I set out with the following morning having reached brand new levels of paranoia. The rustle of my hiking pants sent me into a stumbling panic. Every tiny lizard that darted in front of me heard some not nice things said about its mother and the occasional, unmistakable slither in the bushes signaled the start of my ascent onto Torre’s head. It wasn’t a terribly fun day for me or for Torre, especially when we did see a snake.
I know this is the moment where I tell you all about the snake—what color, how long—but I can’t. The truth is the second after I saw it I started Disney-fying it as a defense mechanism so that when I try to remember it now, the snake is bright blue, smiling and batting its long lashes as it dances next to Mougli from the Jungle Book. All I can tell you is that it moved really, really fast as it heard us approaching just a few feet away and that for a moment all of my love, my intellect, my hope and my sense of reality were pushed out and all that was left was terror. And then it was over and as I held back some tears, we had no choice but to keep walking.
I know you’re probably thinking that the rest of this post will be about how overcoming fear is one of the reasons I travel, how seeing a snake somehow changed something, somewhere, and something else about obstacles on the road of life but that is not the case.
Since I set out from Canterbury more than two months ago, I’ve been taken aback by how uncomfortable people (mostly other pilgrims) are with what I am doing. They watch me trip over my poles, or see me arriving just shy of sunset with no accommodation booked and their eyes climb up to where their eyebrows should be. I tell them I didn’t know how to pitch a tent before I started, that I’m married but traveling alone, that I am afraid of snakes and that I am not really the hiking type and the same people look like they are about to self-implode.
Who am I to go around the world when I already signed up for domestic living? How can I walk for three months without a guidebook? How in the world do I think I’m going to make it when I don’t even know how to start a fire/ kill a wild boar/ turn water into wine? How dare I worry my friends, my family or anyone else who doesn’t trust that I can do this? Where is my wilderness training? My years of trekking experience?
I love that I am hiking with a snake phobia. I love that I lose a hat once a week. I love that I found a partner who doesn’t make me choose between marital bliss and the bliss of leaving everything I know behind. I love that I am a city slicker with an atheist background walking through snake country on a religious pilgrimage. I am disorganized, I am carefree and I am scared of things that go bump in the night but my joy is not diminished by my perceived imperfections.There is nothing more exciting than showing up to my rendezvous with the world dressed as myself and I urge everyone to join me and revel in their own unique, messy way of doing things.
Since seeing that one live snake, I’ve seen quite a few dead ones—on the road and even one in someone’s garden that they’d just killed and then threw into the bushes like an old watering hose. The sheer number of them pressed into the pavement is a reminder that they are everywhere and it’s nice to know that I can rely on myself to freak out about each one of them and still make the last 400 kilometers to Rome.