Everything had started so very well. We had just spent two blissful months in home exchanges on the shores of the Aegean, initially in Turkey and latterly in Greece, on the idyllic island of Syros, where our panoramic views of the sea had to be seen, to be believed.
We took an early morning flight from Syros to Athens, which went to schedule. We passed quite a few hours in the airport. Athens airport has a museum upstairs which is really interesting and has lots of Greek artifacts and films and photos. Time went by quite quickly and then we flew to Naples. The flight was very smooth and easy. The trouble began after we landed at Naples airport....
No, actually, it had begun before then, but we did not see it as a problem. We had originally negotiated a home exchange in Sicily for two weeks however that exchange fell through, as they occasionally do. As I recommend to all exchangers, we had a reserve position in case a house swap does not materialize for any reason. We had been discussing the possibility of a home exchange in the mountains near Serino, in the Avellino area, in Italy, for some time and had contacted the owner before we left Australia, and finalized the exchange which was a backup to the one which fell through in Sicily. The house sounded so quaint; quite large with many bedrooms, nestled among the Chestnut trees in the cool mountain air, with all amenities including bicycles, washing machine, drier, fridge, freezer, internet, satellite TV and many more. It also included a car for exchange. When we were finalizing our arrival, the owner, an English language expert, let’s call her Revolta, to keep things anonymous, said that she could not exchange her car at this time of year. Although a little disappointed, we accepted this.
We therefore booked hire car through Rhino car hire, a UK based car hire company, who gave us a great deal, as they had done in previous bookings we had made with them. When we went to the local agent at Naples airport, “Sicily by Car”, we produced our booking number and Australian Driver’s Licence (as we usually do when we hire a car). They refused to give us a car because we did not have an international driver’s licence. Sicily by Car informed us that it is mandatory in Italy to have an international licence as well as a national one. We were devastated. The lady in the car hire company would not change her stance, saying that it was the law. We used to always carry an international licence when we travelled, however had decided in recent years not to bother, as nobody seemed to ever ask for one. International licences are usually cardboard paper documents, with a booth photograph, issued for a fee, by agencies such as the Automobile Association. What could we do? We had arranged that we would drive to the mountain cottage and meet Revolta there. We had Revolta’s telephone number. We could call her and ask her to talk with the lady who worked for the car hire company, maybe an arrangement of some sort could be worked out. We asked to use the Wifi in the car hire office, which they allowed us to do.
We called Revolta, using Skype, and put her on the phone with the car hire lady. Sadly, no result. Revolta told us to catch a bus to Avellino and she would pick us up there.
After a bit of asking around, we bought bus tickets at the airport newsagents, and we set off for the bus stop. It was a good 15 minutes walk away, but we were unsure where it was, so we kept stopping to ask people, most of whom did not know where it was. Remember this was in Italy, and we speak very little Italian apart from spaghetti, cannelloni and lasagna!
Eventually, we found the bus stop, and felt comfortable it was the right one, after a few conversations and gesticulations with the people waiting at the bus stop. Eventually the bus came, and we loaded our suitcases in the back, and had a very comfortable bus drive to Avellino. Ah, things are OK again, after that slight hiccup. All we have to do is work out a way to hire a car, and all will be well for the next four weeks. We began to relax a lot on the bus.
Little did we know that there were many, many more troubles ahead.......
Once we arrived at the bus station in Avellino, we were looking out for Revolta, but could not find her anywhere. We were unsure where to go. We had no Italian phone card, and no Wifi to use Skype or VOIP services. What could we do?
We asked a couple of people to call Revolta’s number for us. They called for us, but said that the number was not available, either it was engaged or switched off. The bus terminus seemed to empty. At one point, Michael asked the only person around the bus station, a girl who looked to me like a prostitute, or someone who had enjoyed a long night on the town, to call for us. On closer examination, her phone screen was totally smashed and she struggled to put in each number and did not succeed and eventually had to leave for her bus. Just our luck!
We decided to find a café, to see if we could get Wifi and call Revolta ourselves using Skype. The first café had no Wifi. The second had none either, but did have a man who was an interesting character. An elderly professor of Economics in Avellino called Jack, who also tried to call Revolta for us, unsuccessfully. We asked him it there was a place we could hire a car and he misunderstood us and offered to take his Fiat 500 home and pick up his large Lancia and drive us to Serino for E20. We agreed. He said he would return in 5 mins. We had a coffee, which are very tiny, expresso style, and then I decided to take off and find a shop to buy some wine because I reckoned whatever, we would want some wine that night.
Jack drove us to Serino. As we were driving along, a thought hit me. Here we were, accepting a lift from a stranger, just the sort of thing we had spent years telling our children NOT to do. We had only met this stranger that afternoon, we knew nothing about him. I settled, once I realized that I was in the back seat alone with two bottles of wine. If anything untoward happened I would use the glass bottles as weapons.....
Of course, he was not any kind of devil, he was a very helpful person. He kept calling Revolta’s number as we drove. No answer, no answer. Had she turned off her phone?
Eventually, as we were entering Serino, Revolta switched her phone on, and answered. Jack arranged a place for us all to meet. She met us in a small, two door car, driven by her daughter’s boyfriend. There were three of them in the car and there was obviously no possible way could we also have two additional people, plus luggage, so we had to make two trips. No reason was given for her having had her phone switched off. They were all very displeased that they had to make two trips. How inconvenient of us to have luggage on a four month vacation!
Things were not looking good. Out experience, until now, with home exchanges, has been that our hosts or their agents have always gone the extra mile, to assist us, if we encountered any problems or issues. We have done that, too, for guests who have stayed in our home. Always going out of our way to be extra helpful.
Revolta just did not seem helpful at all. She was an angry lady and seemed to struggle with English, although was supposed to be an expert. She informed us she was only doing home exchanges, for her daughter, who wanted to travel. I suspect that this was her first home exchange.
Then they drove us, one at a time, to the idyllic country cottage in the mountains. When I was awaiting my turn to ride, I bought one or two groceries in a nearby shop. The drive there looked promising, the house was about 20 minutes outside of Serino. There were locked iron gates at the end of a driveway, and the cottage was at the end of the driveway. There were no views, as the trees in the garden obstructed all views. The first things we saw were the gardens, and the garage area, all full of ROTTEN GARBAGE and absolutely FILTHY. Oh my goodness, what had we come to?
Inside was worse, we could not believe our eyes. I don’t believe anyone had lived in this house for many years. It was FREEZING, and damp and filthy throughout. There were WIRES hanging out of the walls and COBWEBS on every wall. There was a PLASTIC table inside, and a few, old, wooden, dining chairs and ONE small, old, dirty lounge chair.
We remarked on how cold it was. Revolta said she had brought a gift for us. She rummaged in her bag and majestically presented us with a bottle of pink alcohol fluid, to squirt on a fire. (Normally, in home exchanges, we leave gifts like wine and cheese and pasta and milk and butter, this is the first, and I hope only, time that we have been presented with a pink plastic bottle of fire lighting fluid!)
There was a bundle of old newspapers and a few old tree branches so we lit a fire in the hearth. No sooner was it lit, than smoke began to beltch throughout the room and the house. We thought that the flue was closed, but there was none. It became obvious, that the chimney was blocked, because it had not been swept. The smoke was belching into the house, instead of going up the chimney. We asked about it, but were told that this was normal. My eyes were streaming, and the smoke throughout the house was thick and pungent.
Of course, we realized that we could not stay here, in this house of FILTH. We showed our displeasure and stated that we would probably not stay here, and could Revolta help us to hire a car. She said she could, her husband could arrange it for E500 per week. We explained that we could hire one on the internet, for less than E500 for a MONTH. She was displeased, and did not believe us. She said she and her daughter and boyfriend would have to go now and leave us. She said that nothing could be done until Monday, as it was now Saturday evening and everything is closed on Sunday. She said that she would return on Monday afternoon and help us. Until then, she said we would be OK, and left us with a parting surprise, a dog appeared which she put a bowl of water and food out for, and said it would be company for us. She and her family then disappeared.
So here we were, a 20-MINUTE DRIVE from the nearest town. NO car, no bicycles, no internet, no telephone, no satellite TV, in fact, of all the amenities the house was advertised as having, all we could make work was the hot water.
Here we were, stranded in the middle of nowhere. It was Saturday evening. All shops closed on Sundays and no hope of seeing anyone until Monday afternoon! At least we had wine and hot water, we consoled each other, as Revolta and her family disappeared down the driveway...........