Gaia Borino decided to start her 10-day American vacation in Covington, Ga., for one simple reason: “Vampire Diaries,” she said.
The 22-year-old Italian, who lives in Luzzane, a town of 600 about 30 miles outside of Milan, landed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on Dec. 24 but immediately ran into the kind of trouble that discourages many people from traveling in the first place: her car rental reservation fell through because of credit card issues and she spoke little English.
After giving up on the rental, Gaia (pronounced GAY-ya) took a $110 cab ride to Alcovy Road, where she had booked a room before leaving Italy. On Christmas Day, she made it to the square to the Mystic Diner, the prop building — which actually houses other types of businesses — that appears in the vampire TV series.
But without a car and an imposing language barrier, Borino was lost alone on Christmas Day and did not know what to do next. Then it started raining.
Lamar and Kimberly Brown spotted her sitting on a bench next to the diner.
“My wife said, ‘That doesn’t look right,’” Lamar Brown said. “We pulled over and asked if she wanted help, and she said she was waiting for a taxi (to drive by).”
After working through the language difficulty — neither speak Italian, so they found an application for their smart phone that could help translate for them — they found that Borino was trying to find a car rental business that would accept cash so she could go on with her trip, which included stops in Hilton Head, Savannah and Nashville.
But because it was Christmas, the Browns invited Borino to dinner with them, first with Lamar Brown’s sister, then to their own family dinner that evening. The next day they toured the city in search of Vampire Diaries stops, including the café and the Ginn House.
Several days later, the only vehicle option they could help her find was a rental company in Decatur that would lend her a car, but wanted a $750 deposit and a $600 rental fee. So Kimberly Brown decided to help Borino, a total stranger, by driving her to her destinations.
“It’s just what you do,” Kimberly Brown said.
Borino contacted her mother and her friends to let them know she was all right and had met some new friends.
Borino and Kimberly Brown went on to Hilton Head, Savannah and Tybee Island after Christmas. “She wanted to see the ocean,” Brown said. Borino got a helping of Southern American cooking with a chicken pot pie and biscuits at Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, where they walked around the historic downtown district.
On Tybee, which was mostly closed during the holiday, they walked on the beach and had pizza, which Borino said was good, if a little thicker than she was used to back home. Counter intuitively, Borino also discovered a new favorite food: Caesar salad, which she had not had at home.
After a dress-shopping stop in Statesboro, Brown and Borino returned to Covington and spent some time in Atlanta, including a visit to the Georgia Aquarium and a Hawks basketball game.
The next leg of the trip took them to Chattanooga, Nashville and Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery.
“We walked everywhere,” Brown said. “Chattanooga has wonderful trails for walking and biking.”
On Tuesday, sporting a new Johnny Cash T-shirt, Borino was getting ready to fly back to Italy. “They’re very good people,” she said. “The thing I like is everybody smiles.”
The Browns said they were surprised at some of the things they learned about Borino, including that she did not drink wine and only had coffee once a day.
“I hoped to learn more Italian, but I didn’t,” Kimberly Brown said.