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She can scratch this memory of Italy off her list

Ear pain, fire cures and hives are bitter pills, especially if you end up looking like a Pillsbury Doughboy on steroids.

November 24, 2002|Priscilla Lister | Special to The Times

Ah, Venice. Venice was magical. Venice was welcoming. And mostly, Venice wasn't Sant' Elpidio a Mare.

My hairdresser rents out his childhood home in Italy once or twice a year, and after viewing his photos of the charming country cottage, I decided to be one of those renters. Though the house was in a part of the country I'd never heard of (Sant' Elpidio a Mare is three miles or so inland from the Adriatic, about midway down the boot), how bad could any part of Italy be?

Bad. It probably wasn't Italy's fault, or even Sant' Elpidio a Mare's.

The house was charming, but it was, after all, a country house, which was isolating. Realizing country life wasn't for me, I decided to use Sant' Elpidio as a base for exploring Italy. My first foray was to Venice.

Seeing the city, I was amazed and dazed. It might have been the great beauty. Or it might have been the ear infection from which I was growing increasingly ill.

I went to a farmacia and asked for something to clear acqua nell'orecchio, water in the ear, which I'd had before I left California. The woman there did not speak English, but I thought I managed to communicate my problem, and she gave me a package.

Inside were two little cones of what seemed to be waxed paper. You were to stick one end in your ear and light the other end, allowing the flame to burn down to a cylinder of metallic paper that supposedly would stop the fire. The photo on the package showed someone administering the treatment to a child.

This was going to be tricky for a solo traveler.

I put my head down and lighted the cone, but I was so unnerved as the flame neared my hair that I threw it in a glass of water. I was dripping with sweat, and that seemed the remedy's only effect.

I tried the other cone the next day, but I still worried about flames shooting out my ear. Again, it had no real effect except to scare me senseless.

I tried some drops from another farmacia. On the third day I realized the problem was not going away, but I was worried that my hearing would be. I asked the concierge to send a doctor.

The doctor spoke no English but, seeing my dictionary, thought we could manage. She looked into my ears and said, yes, something was amiss. She gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and told me I was to take it twice a day, at 8 and 8, for seven days.

I was diligent about the medication. Soon I returned to Sant' Elpidio. The magic of Venice was gone, and it didn't follow me.

The problem gets bigger

On the seventh day I called my doctor in California. He told me the prescription was appropriate and that I should take it for a full 10 days. So I popped another pill that evening at 8, and I awoke the next morning just in time to take the next pill.

My lips seemed a little swollen, and I was itching a bit, but I downed the pill to stay on schedule. I wanted to be well enough to see Rome, my next side trip.

By the time my train to Rome left, my lips looked like collagen injections gone mad. As we neared Rome, I noticed little bumps on my neck.

Upon check-in at my hotel, I asked to see a doctor. He didn't speak English either but told me I had an allergic reaction to penicillin (I've never been allergic to anything), that the dosage the doctor in Venice had given me was strong and I had taken too much. He prescribed cortisone.

I was feverish, and the hives were no longer dots but huge splotches of red covering my body head to toe. And they itched. Oh, how they itched.

So here I was, in Rome and in misery. I stayed in my room, leaving only for meals. The doctor had told me I should be better in three days, but if not, to call him. I called him, and he summoned a dermatologist, who took one look at me, shook his head and gave me a prescription for a much stronger cortisone pill.

He also listed food and beverages I should avoid: aged cheese, such as Parmesan or Gorgonzola; anchovies, sardines and shellfish; spinach and tomatoes; cured meats, such as salami, prosciutto, ham; chocolate; and the piece de resistance, wine.

This was some cruel joke. Here I was in Italy, unable to eat the food, drink the wine, see the sights.

Finally I decided I might just as well be miserable at home, so I threw my stuff in a bag and, 30 hours later, walked into my house on Mission Bay.

I still have the itch to see Italy, but next time, I'll be a little more careful about how I scratch it.


Priscilla Lister is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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