Okay, enough delay. It's bulky and it's boring, and I've been putting it all aside since Vienna, Paris even, to rewrite and reword, but this seems the best I can do when memories outnumber minutes with still more adventure to come. Rough and rambling (and full of incessant alliteration and woeful wordplay), my past month in Europe, part one:
I shuttled to the airport from the south and Abby flew to the airport from the north, some thirty thousand feet overhead, and I arrived about an hour earlier than she did, just enough time to do a little tidying up of my week-old pack. I'd been happy with its size and its weight, at least as happy as I could be with the utility it afforded: clean clothes and toothpaste and a whole library of books on one tiny device, and then of course a tent and a sleeping bag, a literal home away from home. Some items, however, had disappointed: a cord I hadn't used, a shirt I'd worn but once, and most woefully, a pair of canvas shoes that simply couldn't hold up to the rigor of my European travels. I had chosen those black Toms deliberately, carefully, hopeful that they could provide comfort and protection without the need for socks, for more luggage and more weight and more mass, and I left for Europe a week earlier with nothing but them on my feet in the way of shoes.
And they were comfortable, that was still true, but their simple canvas couldn't breathe, and so a few hours after slipping them on every morning, I'd begin to feel gross, one part odor and five parts sticky sweat, feeling stuck to my shoes and stuck in my shoes and stuck with my shoes, and by the fifth day I'd wanted them gone, gone forever. So I asked Abby to bring a pair of my sneakers with her and I'd purchased a cheap pair of flip flops in Cinque Terre to hold me over until then, but those flip flops dug into my skin like daggers, every step bringing me closer to blister, and so for those next four days I found myself perpetually choosing between the two, between feeling gross and feeling pain, between sweat and scabs, neither ever a clear winner. I alternated heavily and I cursed them both, and in those final minutes before Abbilyn arrived, I tossed the Toms in the trash with joy, telling the flip flops not to get too excited, for they would soon be next.
As I packed and repacked at the arrival gate, a little boy and his mother waited for a visitor of their own, perhaps a returning relative, and the little boy wandered about the empty seats, climbing above them and crawling under them like an obstacle course. He neared me and watched with fascination as I pulled tightly on the straps of my pack, drawing it all in. He smiled, seemingly as pleased with my work as I was, and asked me something in Italian: what I was doing, maybe.
"Ah, me despecia," I said, "non so parlare italiano."
He was shocked. "Non parli?" he shouted, unable to comprehend that a grown man couldn't speak his language, perhaps unaware at his young age that there were other languages to be spoken. He spoke again, and again I couldn't understand the boy's words. "Non capisco!" I replied, upturned lips and upturned hands, a great shrug of sorrow. "Parli inglese?"
He shook his head and smiled back, making motions with his hands, pointing to my bag and pointing to me and criss-crossing his arms in the sky, communicating something, though I wasn't sure what. I mimed back, bemused.
He sat down next to me, his mother a few seats away watching with a smile, and we stayed in silence for a few minutes. "Ay, Stefano," I said, using the name his mother had called him earlier, "Quanti?" And I held up two fingers in front of him.
He stared. "Quanti?" his mother repeated, adding a few more words for clarification: Stefano, how many fingers is he holding up?
Stefano continued to stare. "Due, si?" I asked. "Si, due!" he offered back. I then held up five fingers and repeated my question, and he again stared with uncertainty. "Cin ... que?" I said slowly, and he nodded.
He knew otto, eight, but left the rest to me, one and two and three and four and everything up to nineteen, and I wasn't sure whether he was teaching me Italian or I was teaching him numbers, or both, or neither, but it helped to pass the time and his mother seemed to appreciate the gesture, and I was sad when they left, when their guest of honor arrived, and I bid them both adieu with a heartfelt ciao!
But I wasn't sad for very long, because twenty minutes later Abby arrived, stepping out of the gate with a big beautiful smile. We hugged and cleared the area and she handed me my sneakers, and I was almost as happy to see them as I was her—though not quite, not at all, I was just happy to see them both—and I pulled them on quickly and threw the flip flops in the wastebin with pleasure.
As we took the train back to the center of the city, Abbilyn and I caught up on the past week, both of us amazed it had only been that long. We stepped out some time later in a much lovelier part of Milan, all beautiful brick castles and wide open piazzas and the unbelievably large and ornate Duomo, a Gothic cathedral with seating for forty thousand, and it seemed Milan wasn't a waste after all, that there was still beauty and history to be found in its modern bustling streets. We were hungry, so we ended our wandering at a simple ristorante, and we ordered pasta and a bottle of wine and passed the evening in conversation, walking to our hostel as the sun set, meandering about the tiled Italian alleys. Abby was a designer, and Milan a design city, so we stopped often to peek in the windows of the city's countless apparel shops, elegant neckties and simple dresses and fancy shoes, all of which my own fashion palette was perhaps too unrefined to appraise, but nonetheless open enough to appreciate.
And then we found ourselves outside the hostel, and we checked into our private double, and we set down our things and returned to the quiet streets for a late-night drink at a nearby bar. The clock rounded midnight and Abby turned a year older, and I felt honored to be in her company as time ushered in a new year, happy to have such a great friend joining me for the next three weeks.
We didn't stay long in Milan, catching a mid-morning train to Verona and arriving there an hour later. Fair Verona was, indeed, very fair, pretty in all the right places and just perfectly suited for the crowds of tourists the small town has come to entertain, tourists who come to Verona for no other reason than to visit the real-life setting where fictional Romeo and fictional Juliet fell in fictional love. Verona was my idea, I'll admit, if only because it was on our direct route to Venice, and so we trotted through the town, through its designer shops and well-manicured squares and that strange visitor-packed courtyard housing Juliet's balcony (the first Veronan to capitalize on the tourist crowd by designating his arbitrary balcony as "Juliet's balcony" must surely be the envy of Veronans all throughout town) and a bronze statue of the Capulet herself, for which it's good luck to climb up next to and take a photograph of you cupping her left breast, and such a custom this is that her left breast is now a shiny hue of well-oiled amber amidst a wider body of well-weathered brown, all of this a tad disturbing for several reasons, most notably, as Tessa from Cinque Terre put it, that "the girl is thirteen." And yes, so we saw all that, and Abby and I kept our hands to ourselves, and then we returned to the train as the clouds above let loose, showering the little town with a summer Shakespearean sprinkle.
Another hour on the train brought us to a worthier destination, the near-mythical Venice. It's difficult to describe one's arrival in Venice, for it's not the sights that overwhelm the senses, but the very feeling of it all that charms the heart and wins the soul. Yes, the canals are lovely and the buildings magnificent, yes, it's visually stunning, but there's so much movement there that borders on the magical: gondolas gliding gracefully below beautiful brick bridges, sensual shadows shimmering against ancient edifices, rocking rowboats and twinkling terraces, linens listing lazily over enchanting alleys in the wafting wind. Its romance is remarkable, its aura otherworldly: its the rare type of place that meets its own myth and multiplies it, a place of exceeded expectations that is sure to win over even the most jaded soul.
Venice is an island (this I did not know) and it is divided into parts and subparts and subsubparts by an intricate network of canals (this I did know). Venice is a maze, a perplexing arena of dead ends and winding roads, and as such it's great fun to explore, to pick a direction and stick with it until it casts you into the canal, and then to double back and try another way, to move with no real motive and to find the great little rewards of that tiny city: the empty alleys and the crowded student square and the precious little churches that tuck themselves away in the tightest corners of those narrow avenues.
Abby and I passed much of the afternoon in this fashion, circling Venice's larger districts and settling in the heart of it all for dinner, a picturesque ristorante on a picturesque canal in a picturesque city, the setting sun casting an azure glow against the aging facades around us, the smooth stone below us, the crisp white tablecloth on which our hands rested. We ordered another bottle of wine (this was Italy, after all) and shared a delicious primi platti, but the real treat of the evening was that dinner—oh my, that dinner. It was nothing more than a humble serving of simple gnocchi, to be sure, just a little garlic and oil and chili powder for flavor, but it looked and smelled and tasted like the ambrosia of the Roman gods, and I instantly and entirely understood why Italy was world-famous for its excellent eats. I ate it slowly, savoring every last bite, sampling Abbilyn's dish and finding it a whole different sort of absolutely wonderful, and when our meal was finally, sadly, through, we finished the remainder of our wine, helped ourselves to a liquid desert of sweet Italian limencillo, and then wandered back through the city for a second desert of fresh sorbet from a late-night gelateria.
When it was time for bed, we realized we didn't have a bed to sleep in, that the enchantment of Venice had kept us from the mundane responsibilities of, say, finding shelter. Venice was an expensive little city, and its budget options sparse, and as the city slept around us at that late hour, we worked in earnest to locate a place to do so ourselves. The first hostel we arrived at was fully booked, the second equally so, but finally, thankfully, we found a third, way on the other end of the district, a cute little place with a cute little room overlooking a cute little canal, and there we slept, wide open windows overlooking a skinny Venetian canal, the soothing sounds of gentle waters and fading footsteps spilling into our quarters that whole night.
We woke late and checked out later, well-rested and freshly showered. Our first stop was food and coffee, of course, a quiet cafe in a crowded square, where we sat and watched the gondolamen of Gondole Gondala do their best to sell passing tourists on romantic gondola rides, where we witnessed what appeared to be a competitive race through Venice's impossible streets, where we were nearly chased away by the boldest, hungriest pigeons I'd personally ever known. We did leave eventually, if not for the pigeons then for a stroll to San Marco's Square, a monumental piazza on the other end of town with marvelous views of the city's outer edge. Venice was crowded in those parts, however, its narrow alleyways around San Marco simply unable to accommodate the throngs, three-foot-wide passageways ill-equipped to fit us and so many others, so we quickly retreated to the city's quieter corners.
I had so many questions about Venice; we both did. The urban planners within us wondered how it all worked, how the city lived and breathed and even fit within itself each day. How did the trash get picked up? Where did the water come from? And what about sewage? Was Venice's ancient charm protected by rigid zoning or rigid custom? How old were the buildings? Was it a planned city?
We found a few books that provided some of the answers; others found us through a little more time on those Venetian streets. Trash along the canals get picked up by boats, we discovered on our second day, as we watched their steel limbs grab for wastebins by the water, picking them up and pouring them out like an aquatic crane game. Or otherwise it's collected by men with rickshaws in Venice's tighter landlocked alleys. We didn't learn where the sewage went, or where the freshwater came from, but we learned that Venice is drowning under its surroundings, the small island unable to cope with rising seas and high tides, frequent floods foretelling an eventual end to that magical place.
Having gotten our joint travels off to an expensive start those past few nights, we simply wandered about that day and prepared ourselves a simple picnic for that evening: a bottle of wine and some precooked goods from a Venetian grocery, and we took our picnic to one of the island's gorgeous little squares. We sat by a fountain and watched the setting sun cast a golden glow on the buildings around us, ancient apartments with more history than perhaps anything we could imagine, dozens of generations, hundreds of families, thousands of lives beginning and being and dying within those old stone walls.
And there it was, those lives in the flesh in that very square: Venetian elders ambling about for an evening stroll, Venetian children chasing each other with big smiles and bigger echoes, a Venetian family kicking a ball between mother, father, son. There was a happiness among these people, the simple kind that comes from love and family and community, from the freedom to run through streets free from vehicles, from a closed system with natural limits, from harmony. I loved it, and maybe I envied it.
I wanted to live in Venice, to spend my remaining days free from the cacophony of cars and the intrusion of an interstate, saved from the ways of a world of want, and of growth, of expansion that knows no end. I wanted to fall in love there, to woo and to wed, to court in the courtyards and to never wander farther than our feet could walk us or our arms could row us. I wanted to raise kids there, to pass pleasant evenings with them in those peaceful plazas just like the family before me, to kick a football with my son, and my daughter too, to braid her hair as she leans out the open window of our tiny, treasured walk-up and wonders what's out there, beyond the water.
I wanted to tie myself to this romantic ideal, to weave myself into the fabric of a drowning city that has no room on its lifeboat for voyeuristic vagabonds like myself, yet I was not Venetian and I knew I never would be, knew that my path was elsewhere, forward, onward. And so the next morning, onward we went.
We detoured to the Jewish ghetto on our way to the train, finding a very different Venice than the one we'd come to know, a small corner of Venice with simple synagogues and tall buildings, a lasting consequence of a Jewish people who were forbidden to build out, and so they built up. Even the peaceful Venetians, it seems, had skeletons in their canalled closet, and we drank in the little information we could find about Venezia's darker days.
A noontime train took us away from that, away from Venice's past and Venice's present and into a future of our own making, a busy day with a quick stop in Florence, or so we planned. Alas, the train we'd caught required a reservation, and we hadn't made one, so we were forced to buy one onboard, eighteen euro apiece, and getting off and back on in Florence would mean new reservations, new costs. And since we were already overbudget, and short on daylight, we skipped the stop and set our sights on our ultimate destination for that first week: Rome.
I didn't know what to expect when we got there: would Rome be a modern, vibrant city, or one living in the shadows of the distant memory of its distant empire? And the answer was both. Stepping off the train at Roma-Termini, I was instantly jarred but just how busy the Italian capital was. It had cars, for one, trucks and sedans and buses and scooters with cracking mufflers and smoky exhaust, thick lanes of thicker traffic, a world away from simple Venice with its tranquil pedestrian thoroughfares. Venice was slow and clean and gentle; Rome was nothing like it: all noise all around, fast and dirty and rough, too rough for my taste, and I recoiled at the first sip.
But as we walked, things got a little better, much in the way ones pupils narrow when stepping into a bright light, until minutes later the light doesn't seem so bright anymore, and then it's actually quite nice. Rome was like that—quite nice—lots of alleys and waves of music cresting against every corner, and oh, then there were the ruins.
When I say that Rome is a city living in the shadows of its once-mighty empire, I do not mean to stab at the city pejoratively. No, the city is quite literally living in the shadows of its ancient Empire, old stone ruins casting shade on everything around them, busy shopping centers built around an old plaza or an old market or an old capitol building, all crumbling stone now, and so the whole place feels so utterly historic. Then, of course, there's the Roman Colosseum, that world-famous amphitheater, and though I found it ludicrous that such a structure ever be built for bloodsport, I couldn't help but succumb to its awe as we neared it, to its age and its magnitude and its mythological proportions. We ate in its shadow, a hasty picnic of avocado and banana and some stale bread from Venice. And then, heavy bags and taxed shoulders, we made for our apartment on the other side of the Tiber River.
We knew we'd need nearly a week to really experience the city—Rome wasn't seen in a day, you might say—so a short-term rental seemed a wise investment, both for its comfort and its kitchen. The place was a bit of hike from the city center, maybe two miles south across the Tiber, but set in a lively student area and just minutes from the river—and not just any river, but the very lifeblood of ancient Rome. It was a lovely little walk-up with a small balcony and a big comfortable bed, and everything needed to cook a great meal, spare the food, so shortly after settling in we left for the market to get some produce and pasta.
Abby is an extraordinary cook, so while she assumed the natural role of sou chef, I assisted where my talents excelled, which included maybe uncorking the wine and possibly opening a jar with my brute strength, or something. In any event, within the hour we were seated at the wooden table, a balmy breeze billowing in from the open balcony, jointly finishing the wine and savoring the incredible pasta dish Abby had prepared, our first night in Rome coming to a pleasant, joyous close.
We walked perhaps forty miles over those next three days, sometimes with purpose and sometimes without, quickly learning that, like the old Gothic District of Barcelona or the whole of Venice, there are simply no wrong turns in Rome. We hiked to the beautiful panoramic park of Villa Borgeouse and marveled at the Roman cityscape from above; we took a day trip out to Villa D'Este and stood awestruck at the extravagance of the opulent estate and the sheer beauty of the green hills surrounding it. We ate well and drank better and sweat much, we hung our clothes out to dry on the balcony's clothesline, doing like the Romans do. We traced and retraced our homeward route along the Tiber each evening, first finding the backlit bridges beautiful, then finding them littered with live bats, then finding a new nighttime path to the loft.
We pissed everywhere. I write this not out of pride but honesty, and honestly, our water consumption and Rome's pay-to-piss toilets were at incompatible ends. Abby and I both balked at the idea of paying a euro per piss, per person, and so early on (in Venice, actually), we searched instead for the quietest alley we could find, and one of us would stand guard while the other would stand or squat and find some relief while not being found, and then if the other's bladder called for it, we'd reverse roles and add a second stream to the tiny new creek in the cobblestone.
In Venice, we were able to maintain our modesty; in busy Rome, less so. By the second day our expectations of empty alleys were tempered and tapered: a pair of cars was enough cover, or in desperate occasions, simply a gentle curve in the wall to obscure our sweet section of street from the alley's end. I felt guilty, maybe, a lousy American peeing all over such a beautiful city, but the smell of those skinnier walkways told me that we weren't the only ones, and besides, if dogs were allowed to do it, why couldn't we?
On the second day, or maybe the third or the fourth, having probably just finished a piss in a nearby alley, Abby and I strolled through yet another network of narrow Roman roads, all lined with cafes and ristorantes, that wonderful gentle curve of the street revealing a little more with each step forward, and I interrupted Abby mid-sentence with a what the hell is that?
All I could make from that leftmost sliver was something big, enormous, and as we rounded the long corner the rest of it came into view, even bigger and more enormous: the Pantheon. I felt caught positively off-guard; I had expected maybe a small fountain in the courtyard, maybe a statue, but instead we had, by chance, arrived at a true wonder of the world, a booming building with a formidable facade so at odds with every last thing around it. It was astounding.
It says much about a city, about the sheer density of its marvels, when something like the Pantheon can hide away in a simple square, and better yet be found, discovered with neither map nor motive. How fortunate Rome's residents are to live in such an embedded environment every day, to have such a wealth of history at the tips of their toes, a remarkable ruin never more than a short walk away. I suppose one could say the same about the District of Columbia, that it's beautiful and historic and architecturally glorious, and I suppose I wouldn't disagree, but next to Beijing, I've never seen a city so fortunate for the gifts of its ancestors as Rome.
Our time in Rome went by quickly, its memory a glowing ethereal cloud, and then it was Sunday and it was time to leave. We ate breakfast—the remnants of the produce we'd gathered from the markets some days before—with a map stretched out between us, all of Europe staring up at us from the face of the wooden table. Our next destination was Athens, that we knew, but we didn't really know how to get there, so we pondered our options around southern Italy and Greece's lacking train service. A train to Naples, a bus to the Amalfi Coast, then a long train to Bari and a ferry to western Greece? Maybe, but that would be slow, and how would we get to Athens from there? Instead, a direct train to the east of Italy and then a flight from there to Athens? Or just a flight from Rome? Perhaps, but that would be expensive, and we had already invested in our pricy interrail passes.
We puzzled over this for a while, annoyed we hadn't discovered how logistically difficult an Italy-Greece jaunt would be. And then we had a new idea: forget Greece altogether.
I don't remember who said it, but I remember we both agreed instantly. Yes, the Greek islands were lovely, but we could find beautiful beaches elsewhere, and as for Athens, neither of us were particularly excited about it. Striking Greece from our itinerary would save tons of time, and opened up a tantalizing new possibility: Croatia.
Though I had opted for the global interrail pass, which afforded me unlimited travel to nearly all of Europe, Abbilyn had instead chosen a more regional pass for her three weeks, for obvious reasons, and had selected Italy, Greece, and Turkey as her "region." But the pass allowed her to select four adjacent countries, a bonus of sorts, and so she selected Croatia (and Slovenia, which came with it) as that bonus. And while we didn't have time for the eastern Adriatic with Greece in play, suddenly we had nothing but time.
Fifteen minutes later, we had a plan. We'd catch an overnight train from Rome to Villach, Austria, just a few kilometers over the Italian border, and from there we'd pick up an early morning train that would deliver us, sleepy-eyed and sore, to Zagreb, Croatia, where we'd begin working our way south on Croatia's limited rail lines.
One hour later, our plan had been blown to pieces. After a lengthy queue at the train station's ticket office (the overnight trains required reservations) we were informed that Abby's pass wouldn't work with our route, for it stopped in Villach. Ach! We hadn't even figured this in, as we had no desires to be in Villach ... we didn't even care to leave the station, nor would our transfer have given us time to. But because Villach was in Austria, and because Abby's pass excluded Austria, no sad transfer story would rectify the situation.
Fortunately, the friendly train associate helped us build a new route, slightly adjusted, that would still get us where we wanted to go—Zagreb—by roughly when we wanted to get there, the next morning. It was a route to the very edge of the Italian border, Gorizia, where we would walk across town to Nova Gorica, in Slovenia, and from there catch a morning train over to Zagreb. It wasn't perfect, not as quick as our dashed route, but it'd work.
We booked a pair of couchettes for about forty euros each—pricy, but our lodging for the night—and found ourselves with an unexpected extra evening in Rome, this train not departing until 22:30. So while we waited, we picked off a few final sights we'd missed earlier, then nestled into a cozy sandwich shop in the Monti district to read up on Croatia.
While we were at it, I flipped my Lonely Planet guide to its Slovenia chapter, since we were now traveling through it, and was thoroughly pleased to read such an enthusiastic review. "With more than half of its total area covered in forest," it read, "Slovenia really is one of the 'greenest' countries in the world." It promised "beaches, snowcapped mountains, and wide plains blanketed in sunflowers," along with a capital described as "a culturally rich city that values liveability and sustainability over unfettered growth." It sounded wonderful.
Abbilyn agreed, and without really needing to do anything, we altered our plans to spend a little extra time in Slovenia, to still take the nighttrain to the border but to take it a tad more slowly from there, to work toward Zagreb in days, not hours.
And with that settled, we left Italy.