by Leah Fein

My grandfather instilled in me a deep appreciation for Italy through his childhood mafia stories; like when his front porch was blown up erroneously instead of the neighbor's or finding a dead man hanging in a tree down by the river or even through language when he would swear angrily in Italian in the car when someone would cut him off and I would mimic him from the back seat, "va fa'in culo scimonito".

As a small child, I knew there was this land far away, not sure where, but they spoke another language that sounded like they were singing all of the time and putting anything you could find in the fridge into their pasta.

I always wanted to explore this other land. Finally, an opportunity arose to go on the Rotary International Summer Exchange Program to Italy when I was sixteen.

The exchange entailed living one month with a host family and then the host sibling would spend one month at my house in Milwaukee, WI. My mother was cautiously excited, as nobody in my family had been out of the country before. Her wariness was born out of the fact that she was sending me somewhere that was known from my Grandfather only as a place where people sometimes get wacked. I, myself, only had one question though, "Does Italy have modern day showers?" I imagined that maybe they bathed in some kind of galvanized steel trough-like bathtub. Boy, was I in for treat, not only did they have normal showers, but they had what looked like a toilet bowl without a seat and squirted water up your butt.

A couple of months before my trip, Rotary Exchange sent me the host family placement packet. On the first page there was a passport sized black square in the upper right hand corner. Even though it was impossible to see his face, my girlfriends and I would convince ourselves that he was everything an American teenage girl would want in a young Italian. In reality, he was nothing more than a black smudge at this point.

One summer day in 1990, my entire family dropped me off at the exchange program's designated bus stop, the local Hardees, to see me off to Italy. The bus was full of fifty other exchange students anxiously waiting to get to O'Hare airport to cross the big pond. Who knew that waiting in a fast food parking lot would be one of the most significant moments of my life.

As soon as the bus arrived, my family helped me load my luggage and I said my goodbyes. As I walked up the stairs of the bus, I looked back over my shoulder and saw my grandfather watching me with a tear falling down his cheek. Little did he know that his eldest granddaughter was about to be de-virginized by a teenage hormonal Vespa riding Italian.

Finally, I arrived where my most unlikely Southern Italian blond haired blue-eyed host family picked me up at the Naples airport. There he was; seventeen-year-old Antonio with his younger brother, mother and father. He was beautiful; certainly no smudge. His mother squeezed my cheeks like a stereotypical Italian mother while babbling in a language that all I knew how to say was; "where's the toilet" and "whore".

On the way home from the airport we drove along side an older mountain range, geologically speaking, along the sea. Antonio told me that was where they threw the "dead people". My grandpa wasn't kidding; people really did get wacked in this country.

During the first two weeks of my trip, I was like a little kid seeing snow for the first time. I wanted to try everything that was different from the US, including the pizza. Apparently, Antonio found me to be different as well. He organized a soccer game with all his friends as they had never seen a girl play soccer before. It was the most Heavenly soccer game I'd ever played in my life, surrounded by more Antonioesque boys, except they had darker hair.

It was rather hard to deny that there was some kind of chemistry between the two of us with our innocent flirting. I still tried with much effort to fight the fact that maybe I was starting to like him.

After almost two weeks into the trip, Antonio started making his advances, beyond innocent flirting. I kept telling him that we were supposed to be host brother and sister. That didn't stop him though as his friend Pierre Francesco had already pointed out that I was looking at him with "occhi dolci" one evening at the local bar.

One late night at their Mediterranean seaside home, I finally gave in because I realized that I did have feelings for him. I was so nervous though that somehow Rotary International was going to find out about my naughtiness. I just had to put everything into perspective and think, "so what's a little foreign exchange incest?"

It was on, fuck Rotary Exchange!!!! For the remainder of my stay at the house in the city, Antonio and I had a secret plan where we would go downstairs to his father's Architecture studio and play "soccer" on the computer a few times a day. We were really just engaging in clumsy teenage sex acts sans intercourse. In fact, he had just seen the movie Nine and a Half Weeks and wanted to reenact the ice cube scene. That was a bit beyond my abilities as I had barely even kissed a guy before.

Finally, it was time for Antonio and I to go back to my house in the US where we continued our secret love affair. However, I think my mom knew something was up because it seemed as if she would purposely always try to be around and she never had a problem leaving me home alone before. Evidently, the chemistry between Antonio and I was more obvious than we thought.

Sadly, Antonio's departure was approaching so one afternoon we took advantage of the entire thirty minutes that my mom went out. That was more than enough. I thought to myself, "I'm sixteen, it's now or never", so Antonio and I finally did the deed on the bathroom floor. That seemed like a more suitable place at the time since I was concerned about messing up the bed. It was the first time for both of us and it was like the blind leading the blind. Yet, this was a feeling I had never had before. I was in young love for the very first time.

On our way to O'Hare airport to drop Antonio off to catch his flight, he and I sat in the back seat where we secretly held hands, hiding them behind our backs while tears ran down our faces. When we arrived at the airport, we quickly tried to get out of my family's line of sight just so we could hold each other one last time. We let each other go and he disappeared into the abyss of the airport security area. It was like someone had stuck a knife in my heart. I guess it was all part of the getting wacked thing, except I wasn't waking up with a bloody horse head. My first feeling of being in love turned so quickly into my first feeling of heartache.

We kept in touch for about a year after that Summer writing letters to each other and finally the letter writing just dwindled off. However, I always wondered where he was. I even started thinking about a silly feature film idea where I would run into him again one day.

About ten years later I moved to Barcelona, Spain where I lived for several years. During that time, I often traveled throughout Europe for work. In October of 2007 I had a typical business trip to Switzerland. Normally, I would take the direct train from Zurich airport to my ex-company's office. This time the direct train was not working and I had to change trains in downtown Zurich.

I boarded my second train and began to read some documents for work while we were waiting to leave the station. I glanced up from my work papers and saw a familiar man coming down the aisle. Whenever I see someone I think I know, my first instinct is to think that I went to high school with them. I did that with Ralph Fiennes once at a hotel in Berlin. As he was coming closer, I asked myself; "should I say something to him?" Finally, as he was almost beside my seat, I said with some hesitance; "Antonio?" He responded "si?". I answered with a holy shit kind of tone in my voice; "sono Leah ". It was him, dammit, and immediately we both began to tremble in disbelief.

What are the odds of running into someone on the other side (well, almost other side) of the globe after seventeen years of not speaking to each other. Why didn't the direct train work that day? Nothing ever breaks in Switzerland!!!

Maybe you are wondering if our encounter was destiny and now we're living happily in LA with a white picket fence or alternatively bars on the windows. Nope, he was married and I had a boyfriend at the time............so no destiny there, at least for us to be together, but it does make me want to go out and buy a Vespa.