"Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places. He enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a life or an instant that could be his; he could now be in that man's place, if he had stopped in time, long ago; or if, long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he had come to be in the place of that man in the square. By now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is excluded; he cannot stop, he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else's present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches ... Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I had come to love the trains as much as the places the trains took me. Each one had its own character, each station its own history, each car its own people with their own lives and their own destinations. They afforded me time to think, time to read and to write, to document my adventures from the night before or perhaps that very morning, but they never left enough time, the train of steel and iron always moving more quickly than my own train of thought, always reaching its destination before my work or book or inner monologue were through. And so I looked forward to each train as a continuation of the last, a return to this pleasant meditation.
Sitting aboard these trains and studying these people, passing by these small towns and big towns and poor towns and rich towns and all the coastal Mediterranean had to offer, I found myself consumed by the growing awareness of my own life's trajectory, my own place in this grand world, puzzling over just how one ends up where they are, never the consequence of one deliberate decision but the summation of hundreds, thousands of tiny ones, some chosen and same not, some one's own and some nothing of the sort.
I found myself catching eyes with Italian laborers on their early morning commute to work, to swarthy men with weary visages perched on their platform outside my train car, off to Ventimiglia or Genova or La Spezia, to Milan or Naples or Venice, to anywhere in the world, really, or maybe just home to their simple villa to kiss their wives and their children good morning after a long business trip, and I asked myself, why them and not me?
I never decided to leave Italy, to come to America, to be born in Brooklyn and be raised in the outskirts of New York City. Those decisions were made years ago by my parents and their parents and their parents' parents, a hope that America could provide a better life than the Italy they were from, that Brooklyn might be a good place to start a family, that New Jersey was a better place to grow up than New York. And there were more decisions, decisions I made, decisions to attend university in Delaware because I was dating a girl in New Jersey, or to attend graduate school in Washington because I was dating a girl in Delaware, or to get a job and build a house and call the District of Columbia my home these past five years because, well, inertia.
It's not that I regret these decisions, those I made and those I didn't. It's just that these decisions shape us, become us, mold the very confines of our very lives, they change every experience we'll ever have and we have so little control over them, over choosing them deliberately and knowing where they'll end up in time.
It's chaos theory at its most existential, a numbing paralysis of the inevitability of consequences. I chose to start my journey on the ninth of May, for example, an arbitrary date if there ever was one, and I chose to arrive in Madrid instead of Frankfurt or Helsinki or Istanbul or Vienna, and in doing so I left a fingerprint whose waves and edges and ripples would shape every last bit of my next ninety days. The people I'd met so far, those in the hostels and those on the trains and those working the cafe on a particular morning or afternoon, they were all consequence of that simple decision; were I to choose the tenth of May, or entry via Berlin, every story I've recounted and every story I will recount would be a different one, the places the same, maybe, but the adventures altogether different. There would be no Sara and Lisa and Damien, no beautiful Israeli in Marseilles, no scuffle in the plaza, no lovely night in Cinque Terre with three Aussies and a Kiwi.
And what of catastrophe? I never regret an adventure, the good being memories to treasure and the bad being lessons to learn from, but when calamity does strike, it will be for the very conditions I have inadvertently set, date and place and time all converging at random; though not truly at random, but as a logical coincidence of circumstances I unknowingly constructed in every decision I've made to date. Each reckless driver who tears through European streets and doesn't strike me down, each falling rock that stumbles down a cliff and cracks an empty sidewalk, I've escaped those calamities by chance, by not being there, by choosing a different street to walk down or a different day to explore the cliffside. But just as I've evaded danger by my own doing, so too will I arrive at it in time, a traveler's whimsical itinerary always her possible downfall. It's paralyzing, is all.
But I digress, quite a bit. These are merely the thoughts that accompanied me to Cinque Terre, thoughts the speedy train didn't allow me to sort out before my feet touched down on the rocky shore of Riomaggiore, the first of the five towns of Cinque Terre, Italy.
Cinque Terre follows the same fate of many worldly gems: it was "discovered," and in doing so its true charm has begun to atrophy, its sharp carats dulling under the footsteps of so many countless tourists, counting myself in that lot, and never is the place the same.
Literally translated, it means "Five Lands," the five small villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso etched into the rocky cliff of the Med, trusted terraces and buttressed balconies carefully constructed over a thousand years, the first settlers arriving as early as 650CE. The people were fishermen and they led simple lives on those simple hills, each town just a few kilometers apart, and for eons they went undisturbed, isolated, unshackled from the thirst for more sweeping through the rest of the world.
But then the rails came, and with them a few intrepid and published travelers, and they saw the charm of these simple little towns with their simple little people and they wrote of them, of the stone walls of Manarola and the brightly painted facades of Venazza and the one steep street snaking through all of tiny Riomaggiore, and other intrepid travelers read of these simple little towns with their simple little people and wanted to see for themselves, to step into a different time and a different life, and they came in droves, and with them they brought money and all their want, their shiny new things from the shiny new world, and the simple little people of the five villages became not-so-simple: they realized that they, too, wanted money and shiny new things, and so they stopped fishing from the sea and started fishing from the streets, opening simple little bodegas outside of which they cast their lines, hoping for a bite from a pack of tourists with their fat wallets and heavy suitcases, or otherwise turning to hotels and American bars and walking tours on the hour and half-hour, and with that simple little transition these simple little towns changed ... they became the very thing that they once were not.
And that was the disappointment of my first day in Cinque Terre, that even the most well-intentioned traveler can leave toxicity in her wake, that though we travel to places to change ourselves, our travel changes those places too.
There was a sadness in the history, sure, but not in the town itself: different as it may have been, my first stop of Riomaggiore was still a very pleasant place. Making my way around the packs of wandering people and their silly walking poles, I arrived at a door advertising rooms out front, and I greeted a man in my limited Italian and asked him for a bed. He was gruff, he frowned and he grunted and he didn't seem too eager for my business, but I smiled and he relented and grabbed a set of keys and showed me the way, up the hill and then up even more, up five sets of steep stone steps, all along the way him muttering and grunting.
The room was cute and the beds cuter, an old house turned into a simple hostel, the living room bunking three and the two bedrooms bunking another six altogether. I set my things down and walked back and forth about the small town, stopping for a bite and returning for a shower a few hours later, catching the grumpy old man playing the most beautifully sorrowful piano music from the back of his little office along the way, and imagining a life for him, one in which he is young and his wife is beautiful, and the two of them open a little hostel for weary travelers, and his wife loves the people who come visit and checks them in with a smile, and the young man smiles too, smiles all the while as he plays happy songs upon his piano for him and for his wife and for their guests, for all those fortunate enough to hear the crisp chords wafting out onto the quiet street. But then the happy couple is robbed, robbed by time and poor health, and the young happy man loses his beautiful happy wife and he becomes an old sad man, one who keeps the hostel open because his wife loved it so much, and it is all he has to remember her by. But he hates it, too, for each traveler greeted is one he must greet, one his wife's charming smile no longer will, never again will, and so he does it with a deep sadness, a somber sorrow, a grim gruff, and he has happiness no more, just the piano, which no longer plays happy music, but sad songs, pained pieces by which to lament over a life and love lost ... or so is the story as I imagined it.
The five villages, I knew, were connected by a nine-kilometer trail, and I'd hoped to take a sunset run out and back, running by and through each of the towns along the twelve-mile round trip. But I soon learned that the path, which I knew had suffered damage after flooding in 2012, had still not been repaired, and thus my plans for a long run were dashed. Instead, I went downstairs for a drink and to read a little more—Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, a short, splendid book imagining a poetic exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, with beautiful words sure to resonate with any traveler or, really, person who lives in a space of any sort—and then returned to the room once again.
I was greeted by two roommates as I entered, two Aussies backpacking around for the better part of a year, Tessa and Ashley, though they went by Tess and Ash. They had just sliced a heap of vegetables for a pasta dinner and were struggling to work the old stove, flipping switches and striking matches and at a loss for how to get the rickety thing to light. I offered to help and struggled a bit myself, until discovering that the gas had actually been turned off, and they thanked me profusely as the flame of my match whooshed a rim around the front burner.
I really need to stop falling in love with my roommates, I thought to myself as I chatted more with the pair and found myself enchanted by Tess, by her wide smile and her Aussie slang and her generosity as she handed me a full glass of sparkling wine, which I drank blissfully as we talked some more over their dinner, shutters open and the precious painted porches of Riomaggiore glowing in the setting sun. I realized it wasn't really the cute faces or the cute accents, neither the looks nor the lilt of language that was drawing me to these fellow travelers, it was that they were fellow travelers in the realest sense—backpackers in body and spirit, adventurers, women who wanted not for dull stability but for wonder, for the endlessly changing horizon and the rocky trail and the crowded hostel, who cared more for memories than maintenance, more for fun than familiarity. There was an essence about each of them, about Tess and the Israeli-whose-name-I-couldn't-hope-to-spell-and-thus-haven't-tried and Sara, each sharing with me a purpose and a passion that I had such trouble finding back home.
As if to act as living evidence that the open road is the best place for those who love the open road to meet others who also love the open road, we were soon joined by two more roommates for the night, Elouise and Clancy from New Zealand and Australia—folks down under must really like Cinque Terre, I surmised—who met while backpacking a year ago in Honduras and have been together and traveling ever since, through Central America and through France and now Italy, heading toward eastern Europe for cheaper travels. They too made dinner and joined us at the table, and the five of us passed the evening talking about travels and immigration and the strange land of Australia, interrupted only briefly by three more late-arriving roommates, all from America, who joined the circle for a bit before we all headed to sleep in the early hours of the morning, empty bottles left strewn about the table for the selves of tomorrow to worry about.