"If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city's name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off. The suburbs they drove me through were no different from the others, with the same little greenish and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we swung around the same flower beds in the same squares. The downtown streets displayed goods, packages, signs that had not changed at all. This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically, looking through the same goblets at the same swaying navels. "Why come to Trude?" I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave. And they said to me: "You can resume your flight whenever you like, but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
We all woke late that next morning and said our goodbyes, then scattered like buckshot across the great boot of Italy: Elouise and Chancy to Florence, Tess and Ash to Venice, the Americans somewhere south, and me to Milan by way of Bologna, but not before I explored a little more of those five ancient towns.
I had only yet seen the one, Riomaggiore, my plans to jog through them all dashed for damaged trails. Instead, I took a train to the other end of the coast and milled about Monterosso, the largest of the five, alternatively sitting on the beach and futilely searching for food, something, anything, to eat.
I had managed to get by in Spain and France without (knowingly) eating any meat or cheese or eggs or fish, but doing so seemed impossible in the tiny towns of northern Italy, so heavy a diet theirs was with the formaggio. By noon I had simply given up on eating that day, figuring I'd find some sustenance after departing Cinque Terre that evening, but by mid-afternoon I began to feel faint, and so I made a great exception to my strict vegan diet, allowing myself, when necessary on this particular adventure, to eat simply vegetarian, and only in those instances when the animal product ingested is one I don't particularly care for: parmesean in pesto, eggs in a cookie, that sort of thing. I wouldn't allow myself gelato (milk and eggs), delicious as they looked, or a crispy slice of bacon, for I'd enjoy either far too much; this was a compromise that kept me both alive and morally comfortable. And with that I ate my 3PM focaccia in quick bites, savoring the fluffy bread and fresh tomatoes and really wishing it weren't tainted with the sharp twang of cheese, but scarfing it down nonetheless.
Satiated and up for an adventure, I left the beach and took to the rocky mountains within which Cinque Terre is carved, both the villages themselves and their substantial surroundings a national park of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Though the easy footpath between towns was destroyed, I knew there was still a hike to be had between Monterosso and its neighbor Vernazza, a strenuous trek up and down the rocky cliff faces from one town to the next.
The hike felt wonderful, my first real hike in months, the kind of hike that leaves your mouth dry and your face wet and your skin sparkling with salty sweat in the sweltering summer sun, the kind of hike that leaves you with calves aching and heart pounding as you gaze out in appreciation of the marvelous view you've earned for yourself, all glory and beauty and natural silence, the kind of silence interrupted only by the occasional chirping bird and crashing wave and, of course, the heavy breathing of your own well-taxed lungs, the kind of hike and the kind of silence that awakens the natural man or woman inside of you, the one born to do these great things, to be of nature, to be within it, to be unable at that moment to imagine life without it.
It was truly awesome up there, away from the noises and the people and the gimmicks of the little towns below, too far up to make out cars or cameras or any of the modern things, just an uninterrupted view of one town after the next, as they had sat undisturbed for a thousand years, and I found it so easy to imagine myself in that earlier time, standing where I stood, the very same spot where some distant great-aunt or great-uncle of mine maybe stood, stood with that same pounding of the heart and panting of the lungs and euphoria of the mind, the same simple appreciation of the simple things I had worked so hard to rediscover long after they, and those simple things, passed away into the world of the dead and the lost.
Sadly, my mouth really was dry—I was parched—and I had to continue on to Vernazza for water. The crowds became thicker as I neared town, the Americans in full force, Americans everywhere, and shortly after arriving I decided it was time to leave. Three of the towns were enough for me, their natural beauty and unique charm growing ever more outmatched by the cancer of tourism that spread through them in force, tumors by the names of Cirque Terre Souvenirs and I <3 Cinque Terre sprouting in a malignant fashion along the veins of the coastline's thin body, until one day the cancer will consume it all and all its charm with it, and it will be like all else I try to avoid in the world, the routine and the normal and the trite and the uncreative. And I couldn't help but feel that me, my presence, was a small but symbolic part of that problem.
So I left, I hopped a train to Parma and another to Bologna, and I watched the sun set along the green Italian countryside, small houses and small towns whisking by in the blink of an eye. It may sound too dramatic to say that I'd never seen a sunset like that before, a tad too hyperbolic to suggest that the sky was really of different purples and pinks and blues than I'd ever seen in the West, but it was true, and it was beautiful, an endless watercolor of cloudy swirls above and tranquil, pastoral lands below.
The sun was fast asleep by the time I arrived in Bologna, and I left the train station of that strange city without a place to go or a direction to head. It was warm, and I was tired, so camping for the night seemed the best option, but everywhere I turned there were gates and busy roads and people, so difficult it was to find a small stretch of secluded space to sleep safely in silence.
I headed for the green lands, my usual approach, those little circles and squares of green on the map that denote a park, grass, trees, typically a place to camp without being too much of a bother. But the parks in Bologna were small and their cover sparse, and I was pretty sure I had been offered drugs in Italian my first few laps around the area, so instead I began looking in alleyways and quiet streets and abandoned porticoes, not needing much, really, just twelve square feet of even ground with no chance of a throng of barhoppers passing by as I pitched my tent. And yet I walked and I wandered and I found nothing, and my phone died and I continued to wonder, lost in Bologna, a foreigner with no grasp of the city's language or geography, nor its safety for that matter, and I grew annoyed and frustrated ad even more determined to set up camp, having already invested too much time and energy to give in now and settle for a hostel or a hotel.
Finally I ended up back where I had started, that seedy park, and I no longer cared about its seediness, for a lone tent on the outskirts of a park can suggest a seediness and unapproachability of its own, and so I quickly made camp and climbed inside and did my best to sleep, though rest came only intermittently in that loud, crowded city.
My first disturbance was actually a mouse: I heard him scurry through the grass outside my tent, heard him crinkling tiny leaves under his tiny feet from five meters away, saw his shadow as he brushed up against the outside of my tent in brave curiosity. I felt him withdraw as I gently tapped his nose through the thin barrier separating us, and he scurried away, at least for the moment, returning several times that night at different angles to learn more of this strange tent staked into his turf.
He wasn't the only one. The park entertained visitors all night, its sloping circle paths a pleasant place for a midnight stroll with friends, or a place for carnies to circle the wagons and have an old song-and-dance right in the middle of them (this happened), and I woke often to hushed Italian passing by outside, sometimes loud Italian, always wondering if I was the subject of the conversation, this silly man in this silly tent five feet from the road.
Things began to calm around 4AM as most of Bologna's nightlife turned in, but I was woken again before sunrise by a new sound, a wailing, the agonizing cries of a man walking through the park, a drawn-out ahhhhh-ah-ah-ah-ah! that repeated over and over, occasionally punctuated by muttering of Italian in between, Italian that proved as incomprehensible to my foreign ears as his pained cries. It was a cry of loss, I knew, a grief so deep it could only be for someone or something gone, love lost or life lost, but I knew not what.
This went on for some time, five or ten minutes, maybe more; it sounded as though he had taken a seat on a bench nearby. It was heartbreaking, frustrating to hear such anguish and be powerless to do anything about it, so I just sat inside in voyeuristic wonder, no other choice I suppose, as he cried and cried, his lamenting sobs echoing through the Bologna night.
And then, almost out of nowhere (for I heard no other footsteps), a woman's sob too, more muffled, like she was pressed up against his chest, both of them crying, taking turns crying and crying together, his wails as loud as ever and hers still softer but no less deep, no less full of sorrow. And then he rose and walked away, crying into the night, while her quiet sobs trailed in a different direction.
I woke at the first light. It was early, maybe half past five, but I felt exposed in the golden morning sun, and so I packed my tent quickly and took off for the town center, nowhere else I could think to go.
My stomach growled, for all I'd eaten the day before was a sole square of focaccia bread, and it also twisted and turned, for that focaccia bread had more cheese than my body could remember how to digest. I needed food and I needed a bathroom, but I could find neither at that early morning hour, so I did great laps around the heart of town to keep my mind busy.
Bologna really is a lovely city, often overlooked in favor of its bigger sisters, but gorgeous nonetheless. Its grand porticoes lend the place a regal air, its center plaza an open, welcoming feel, and its two leaning towers a one-up on the tourist trap of a city called Pisa. It feels like a well-worn city, like it's been lived in for quite some time, which it has; its university alone is a thousand years old, the very first college in all of Europe.
By seven, shops were beginning to open, and I quickly ducked into one where I rested, recharged, and regrouped for a few hours before returning to the plaza for a more comfortable sightseeing experience. The city had awoken, streets closed and people all about, shopping and cycling and eating and drinking, and I loved the energy of it all, felt fortunate to have found myself in such an unassuming little city in the heart of Italy.
Pisa had been the other option en route to Milan, but I've never heard great things about it: just that it has a tower, and that tower tilts slightly on its foundation, and that there's not much else to the city except locals hoping to capitalize off that serendipitous slant. Bologna, on the other hand, was a great city in itself, something of a college town like Austin, Texas, and it didn't hurt that it had two leaning towers of its own.
Perhaps they weren't as immense, but they were tall and leaned, the shorter half the height but twice the angle, and I climbed the larger one for a modest three euros: no fanfare, not even a sign out front, just a tiny booth in which you hand the smiling attendant a few coins and she sends you on your way with a hearty Ciao!
The climb was steep and the tower hot, and I had broken a sweat by the top, but it was so very rewarding, such a terrific view of Bologna below, all pink plazas and pretty porticoes. I'm told Bologna is the portico capital of the world, as it so happens, over forty kilometers of grand arched awnings spanning hundreds of blocks throughout the city.
As I exited the tower, it began to rain, just a light drizzle, the first precipitation I'd come across on my trip. But there could have been no better place in the world to be stuck in the rain, for those porticoes served as a great umbrella for the city, shielding us all from drops and allowing me to walk to the station at the other end of town without breaking stride or running for cover. I said farewell to Bologna and caught a train to Milan, a fast train that pulled us away from the dark clouds in a flash, and in just an hour I was two hundred miles north, stepping out into my next Italian city. I trekked to my hostel for the night, a fancy affair with wide corridors and an imposing facade, and set down my things, then took off on the streets of sunny Milan for an evening run.
After my first run in Madrid, I had pledged to myself I'd do my best to run each day. I found a good run to be one of the best ways to take in a new city, and I loved getting lost in both time and space, winding the streets and winding the clock with no more care in the world than keeping your breathing steady, your form tight, and the gentle pitter-patter of your feet at an even metronome. And yet, my best hadn't been good enough that past week, late nights and early check-outs and occasionally simple hunger keeping me from those rewarding runs.
So as my bare feet touched the smooth stone on that perfect evening, I ran as fast as I could, the energy of six missed runs, the energy of six runners, propelling me at a sprint around the wide boulevards of Milan's northeast neighborhoods, soles smacking cement, pads pounding pavement. I steered artfully around pedestrians and leapt with long strides over broken sidewalk, I turned right at a moment's notice and left at a second's worth, heel, pad, heel, opting for east or west or north or south, it didn't really matter, anything to keep momentum going, anything to keep from breaking stride for a second.
Bits of gravel bit at my exposed soles, but I didn't care; I was myself an exposed soul, but I didn't care. Onlookers gaped at my odd presence, this strange man sprinting about sans shoes, they exclaimed in Italian and they pointed, smiled and laughed, faces of amusement and faces of bewilderment and faces of disgust all the same to me, for within a second I was gone like the wind, leaving nothing but a breeze in my wake.
It was certainly one of my best runs to date, in pace and speed, sure, but more importantly in bliss, in that euphoria that washes over you as you slow to a stroll, panting and sweating, shins sore and calves cramped, everything cramped really, but too at peace, maybe just too tired, to really care about any of it.
I showered, and I stared into the mirror as beads of water rolled off my weary body. It had only been a week since I'd landed in Madrid, and yet I felt different, I looked different: my hair was growing in, my face all bushy with beard, my skin bronzed and dark in some places and still white in others. I felt leaner, having eaten little and walked much, I felt my eyes ran deeper, dark with fatigue but also with the glint of adventure, a fire reignited inside them.
I was happy--I couldn't believe it had only been one week--but I was tired too, and so I took it easy that night. I walked to the corner shop and I bought some pasta and some tomatoes, and with those two ingredients I cooked myself the blandest bowl of pasta I ever did eat, but I missed cooking, and so I enjoyed it for so much more than the taste; to me on that particular night, it was the most delicious meal I'd eaten in some time.
As I ate, I watched Before Sunrise, a sappy film I think I'd seen once before but under less apt circumstances, which is to say not in Europe, not with an interrail pass of my own and the fanciful dream of finding a soulmate aboard one of the many trains I'd taken, that I would be taking, someone with whom I could say, "Hey, let's get off in Vienna and spend a magical night wandering the city, for why not?"
This was the plot of Before Sunrise: man meets woman aboard European train, man and woman fall in love over wonderfully unplanned night in romantic European city, and though it was a silly plot, maybe an unrealistic one to my more cynical self, it warmed my heart, but at the same time it brought back that paralyzing feeling of the chaotic consequences of our simple choices, that the most mild decision can so tremendously transform the trajectory of our lives, for what if my own perfect partner was riding the rails at that very second, what if she had been on the next train to Milan, what if I would have sat right next to her if I had just stayed a little longer atop that leaning tower of Bologna, or what if she had boarded one train before, and my decision to stop for coffee brought with it a different future, a different life altogether? For that matter, what if she was going to Pisa instead of Bologna, what if the nonchalant choice for the latter meant our stars would never cross, that they'd come within just a few light years of each other but then keep moving undisturbed, one never aware of the other, just forever alone in that deep dark sky?
I found solace in sleep, maybe also in the recognition that any soulmate of mine wouldn't be headed to Pisa, anyway (I really should stop poking fun at Pisa, for it may very well be lovely), and I didn't wake for ten hours. When I did, I packed my things once more, that little routine of slinging my whole world upon my back every morning had come to be quite fun, and headed toward the station from which I'd come the prior afternoon.
Walking across Milan a second time was as boring as it had been the first. I didn't find it to be a very remarkable city, I must confess; it felt like nothing more than a dubbed version of any American metropolis. But I wasn't there for the sights or the surroundings: I was there for something far better, a long-anticipated rendezvous with a dear, dear friend.
I had made quick work of my travels thus far, from Spain to France to Italy in six days, but it wasn't because I was bored or restless. Rather, Abbilyn, a cherished friend from back in DC, was joining me for the next three weeks, and we'd planned for her to meet me in Milan a week after I landed in Madrid, and so I had one week to get from one to the other, and that day, Sunday the eighteenth, had happily arrived.
I was excited to have company, particularly Abby's, excited at the thought of our next three weeks trekking through Italy and Greece and Turkey and Amsterdam, excited to have a backpacking buddy of the very best kind with which to share my lame jokes ("Gaudi? More like gaudy, am I right?") and return them with either a chuckle of sympathy or a roll of the eyes, excited to share the wonders of Europe with such a wonderful person.
I love traveling alone, I love what it does to the mind and to the person, how it opens up the possibilities for adventure and for new friendships, how it forces the lone traveler out of her comfort zone and into something far more educational, more immersive, the zone of another world altogether. I love the quiet of it and the time for one to live in their own thoughts, the ability to move on a whim with so few cares, to maximize enjoyment by maximizing your enjoyment. Selfish as it may be, it's a great way to travel, and for anyone who has never done it, I promise it's something you won't regret.
But I love traveling with others as well, others who share a similar philosophy and a willingness to learn, others who are open to new experiences and eager to find them. "Happiness is only real if shared," Christopher McCandless wrote in his dying days, and though I don't agree with the sentiment in full, I felt fortunate and happy to be sharing the happiness, and the adventure, with Abbilyn those next few weeks.
And so off to the airport I went to greet Abby at the gate.