Milan, Verona, Venice, Rome (Days 10 - 17)

5.23.2014

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.

Cinque Terre, Bologna, Milan (Days 7, 8, 9)

5.18.2014

"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 dryI was parchedand 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.

Cinque Terre (Day 6)

5.16.2014

"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.

Cannes (Days 5, 6)

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Cannes was abuzz upon my arrival, its skinny streets swarming with visitors and their suitcases, thousands more flooding in each hour. It was a very pretty seaside town, for sure, neat and tidy with a big blue skies and big blue waters and big sandy beaches. Designer shops, too, dozens of them stacked along the boulevard, with swanky clientele fluttering in and out, designer handbags and designer plastic bags clutched by jeweled fingers and freshly painted nails.

It was maybe a bit too extravagant for my taste, but then again, I knew what I was getting into; this was the south of France after all, an annual hub for the cinema elite, a place known for its style and its decadence. And nowhere in town was style and decadence more abundant at that moment than along the beach, with red carpets rolled about at all angles and photographers already flashing their bulky cameras at whomever strolled by, with hundred of little white tents set up to cater to ticketholders or otherwise sell their wares, with police posted on each and every corner of the small city. It was already a scene, spectators lined up along the fence outside of the main venue, where in three hours the sixty-seventh Cannes Film Festival would officially begin.

Looking down the coast, I spotted a series of parapets up in the hills, and found whatever was going on up there vastly more intriguing than my current surroundings, so I escaped the busy downtown and hiked through narrow, steep alleyways to a lovely little landing with a church and a museum and an old fortification, a lovely little landing with an even lovelier view of all of Cannes below, the spotlights and the camera flashes just tiny little twinkles against the sparkling sea.

I sat up there for a while, reading and reflecting, then returned to town as the sun began to creep behind the mountains. I passed a barber shop on my way back in and went aside, long overdue for a bit of a touch-up after beginning to grow out my hair for the first time in over a decade, hoping the friendly barber spoke English but disappointed to find he did not, but accepting his offer to have a seat anyway and carrying about in a mutual miming that left me feeling one part confident and two parts dreadfully uncertain that we were on the same page, and then he pulled out his clippers and went to work, and I was relieved when he didn't chop it all off in one fell swoop, destroying my month's work, but carefully and tenderly and artfully began to work around the edges and trim what needed trimming, leaving me fifteen minutes later feeling clean and refreshed.

And then back outside I went, and I was amazed to find an even more chaotic city than the one I had left just moments ago, a divided city, a tale of two cities, one made up of the haves and the other the have-nots, one with tickets and tuxedos and tourists in tow, the other holding signs reading "EXTRA TICKET S.V.P.?" and following the stars around like fanatics. The city had been divided into two another way, as well: physically, literally, the main boulevard cordoned off like a Checkpoint Charlie, spectators unable to cross from one side to the other until the walk down the red carpet was over.

I'd planned to leave around this time, but morbid curiosity got the better of me, and I grabbed a sandwich and stuck around to observe the observers, to watch the watchmen.

I find the notion of celebrity a fascinating one, a novel one, one I truly don't understand. It seems strange that we worship idols, particularly idols who are merely doing their jobs, reading lines written by someone else on a camera being handled by someone else, doing a great job, sure, but just doing a job, plain and simple. I have great respect for cinema, to be clear, for all the artists of all the arts, but respect and worship are different islands all together. If we are to run through the streets chasing anyone to hoist upon our shoulders, let it be humanitarians, or teachers, or public servants, let it be community leaders and sanitation workers and the migrant farmers who do the hard work we no longer will; what is it about someone being broadcast to the millions that makes them suddenly important to the millions?

I didn't like what I saw at Cannes, as those actors and actresses walked down the red carpet. For one, many of them made that walk with phones in hand, socially sharing the I'm-walking-down-the-red-carpet-at-Cannes moment with their friends and followers and thus nipping the potential for a great moment in the very bud, a tacky show of self-aggrandizement that left me feeling sorry for those lost souls, those who somewhere lost the ability to live in the here and now.

And then there were the fans, the fanatics, rushing the fence and pushing up against each other and throwing phones and cameras and camcorders high above their heads to capture a shot, any shot, of some star, any star, some glimpse of celebrity from fifty or a hundred feet away, so as to say, "I was there and I saw an important person and thus I am now important."

And then Nicole Kidman arrived, elegantly stepping out of her limousine, and the great masses squealed and cried, literally cried, and they pawed over each other to be the best documentarian, did the best they could to angle their cameras around the fifteen professional videographers actually documenting the event, and as this all happened in its chaotic glory, the theme music from Kidman's latest film, the one opening at Cannes that night, played over the speaker system, a slow, somber, profound piece that set the score just right for the pandemonium before me, such desperation, and for what?

I turned full from the red carpet to the people at my back, and I began photographing them, their strained faces and their strained arms, in the process capturing a haunting shot of an old man holding his phone up high with a sad look on his face, the next frame with his eyes trained on me, as if silently asking, "Why are you photographing me? Don't you see what's happening in front of you?"

But then something beautiful happened, something I couldn't capture on film. I put my camera down and looked at the man and he looked at me and he put his camera down, and then, as if I had silently asked him "Why are you photographing this? Don't you see what's happening behind you?", he turned around and he did the same, he raised his camera and he found subject matter to shoot, real art, the raw, pained emotion of those behind him.

Keep in mind the score, the beautiful score filling the air, and I hope you'll understand how powerful that moment felt, meaningless as it may have been ten seconds later, when I left the man and his crowd, when he very well may have gone back to shooting hundred-foot-shots of Kidman's left side. I suppose I'll never know, but I take comfort in an alternate possibility.

So I left the chaos, because I had taken too much of it, and retreated to a quieter section of the beach, where I sat and read until the sun went down. I still hadn't figured out lodging for the night, didn't feel like getting back on a train and confident that I could find neither affordable nor available accommodations in Cannes, so instead I returned to my overlook from that afternoon and set up camp in a quiet corner of the church's courtyard, happy to finally be putting my tent to some use.

The courtyard didn't remain quiet, unfortunately; I slept a short night interrupted by loud and strange noises, nocturnal birds who cawed like monkeys and French travelers who spoke in whispers outside my tent that I couldn't understand, crouched frightfully inside. By early morning, I was ready to leave, so I caught a 5;40AM train to Italy and found myself in Genova by eleven.

Genova was merely a transfer point, but I had ample time to take in a little of the city, so I got off the train at one end of town and hopped back on at the other, wandering about Genova's shadowy alleys for a few short hours, and then I returned to the rails, rocketing eastward, away from the new world with its glitz and its glamour and returning to the old, to the rugged Italian coastline, to the five villages of Cinque Terre.

Marseilles (Days 4, 5)

5.13.2014

The views were spectacular on that train to Montpellier, stunning countryside dotted by tiny villages and old stone towers and little dirt roads; I half-expected to see Don Quixote de la Mancha and Rocinante trotting over the horizon at any second. We left Spain and we entered France and the language turned over quickly, my Spanish now useless in understanding the conductor or the route's newer passengers. I brushed up on a handful of French words along the way—please, excuse me, thank you, that sort of thing—putting a few of them to immediate use as we rolled into what I thought was Montpellier, confirming with a fellow traveler that it was, indeed, Montpellier with a simple "excusez moui," point-to-window, "Montpellier, oui? Merci!"

I transferred trains, another downgrade, this third train dirtier than the second and much dirtier than the first. But c'est la vie, as they say in France; this was my first train without a compulsory reservation, so I could hardly complain. I squeezed in next to a boy and his guitar and, at the table next to us, watched a French love story unfold before my very eyes. It went like this—

Act I, The meeting. Boy meets girl. Boy faces girl and girl faces boy, for girl and boy sit on opposite ends of the same train table. Boy and girl sit in silence for ten minutes until train starts moving, then boy asks girl in clumsy English if she smokes. Girl yanks a headphone from her ear and boy repeats his question; girl replies in French that she does not, and boy seems pleased that girl speaks French like him. Boy and girl continue a brief but not very mutual conversation in French, in which girl attempts to replug her ears after every sentence while boy tries futilely to keep the conversation going. Boy fails. More silence.

Act II, The courtship. Boy pulls a small tin from his pocket and unscrews the tin and the smell of marijuana fills the train car. Boy smiles at girl. Girl rolls her eyes. Boy removes rolling paper from his other pocket and begins to roll a joint in his lap, but not before boy begins to play Wiz Khalifa's "Roll Up" (clever, right?) at full blast through his headphones. Sound joins smell in filling the traincar. Girl rolls her eyes, boy with guitar rolls his eyes, I roll my eyes.

Act III, Unrequited love. Boy messes up joint twice, unrolls and rerolls. Boy's one-song joint-making playlist draws to a close and is replaced by an equally loud but more violent and offensive flavor of hip hop; Eminem features prominently. Finally, boy rolls a successful joint and looks around proudly. Boy smiles at girl, but girl has nearly fully receded into the cushiony back to her seat, so desperate she is to melt away from boy.

Act IV, 808s & heartbreak. The train stops and girl springs up and heads toward another car, as though maybe this is actually her station, as though not to hurt boy's feelings, but as though she really needs to get away from boy. And these star-crossed lovers never speak again.

Act V, More fish in the sea. Girl is replaced by new girl and seat adjacent to boy is filled by new boy. Headphones still dangle at boys neck, and DMX takes control of the airwaves. New boy exits the traincar. New girl rolls her eyes. Fin.

So, there was that, and then there was Marseilles, which really wasn't much better. Upon exiting the station, I was jarred by how loud it was, loud and fast-moving and dirty, so very different than Barcelona; I missed her dearly already.

I came to Marseilles because it was the setting of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo, perhaps my favorite story of all time, a beautiful tale of love and loss, of adventure, of vengeance and values, of redemption. Dumas spoke so beautifully of his nineteenth-century Marseilles, but things had certainly changed over the next hundred years. The city now had a reputation for crime and grime; my Lonely Planet guide warned that muggings were "common." Even the grand boulevard had fallen from splendor. In 1844 Dumas had written of the street of La Canebiere: "If Paris had La Canebiere, Paris would be a second Marseilles;" in 2013 the staff of Lonely Planet wrote: "Walking La Canebiere is annoying ... expect to encounter kids peddling hash."

And it was windy. I had planned to camp in Marseilles, finally putting my tent to some use, but the 40KPH gusts were a tad much, so instead I found a pricy but redeeming hostel, huge rooms with exposed rafters glowing with the warmth of an old convent, and I set down my things and walked about the streets in search of food; having only a muffin that morning and being on trains without food most of the day, I was positively famished.

My search for sustenance brought me to a vacant public square, a few bodies milling about the edges, but along an inner wall something caught my eye: a man and a woman, both in their twenties, the woman crying and the man tugging, pulling her toward the opposite end of the square. She was clearly resisting, swatting at him with hands and purse. I got close enough to make out the tears, close enough to discern that this was a lover's quarrel, but if hardly mattered to me, for no one has the right to handle another against their will no matter the familiarity.

I looked around to see if anyone else would protest—the last thing I wanted to do was impose my American self onto personal French business, but the distant bodies kept milling and a few passerby feigned only fleeting looks of concern. I hoped nearing the couple would bring the man to his senses, pressure him to compose himself, but still he pulled and tugged, still she fought, still he yelled and she cried.

"Hey!" I shouted. "Hey!" again, more angrily. The man looked at me dismissively, shrugging me off with my English interjections. "Non!" I shouted, "hey, stop!"

Again he looked at me, rage replacing indifference. I had become an annoyance, and he spewed a venomous string of French in my direction; if its tone was any indication of its content, I gather he was telling me to mind my own fucking business.

I ignored him and turned to the girl and asked if she was okay, which was a dumb question because she both didn't understand English and clearly wasn't okay, and she just continued crying and trying to pull away. We were now on opposite sides of this wall, a short barrier maybe four feet high and two feet wide and thirty feet in length, them leaned against one side and me right on the other. A few others neared, friends of his it seemed, sensing a situation and hoping to calm him down, attempting to alleviate the conflict from their side of the wall. One of them looked at me and smiled reassuringly and flashed me two thumbs up, as if to say "it's all okay," and I narrowed my eyes and nodded and backed away slowly, doubting whether it really was all okay but wanting to trust that it would be.

But then tempers flared again and the man was back to grabbing the woman and dragging her about, and I had enough of it, and I rushed back to the wall and threw my arm across it and grabbed onto his shoulder, restraining him from so brutishly handling this distressed woman any longer. Everything moved at once: him whirling around toward me with fire in his eyes, a friend pulling him back in restraint, me unclasping his shoulder and stepping back as well, the girl breaking free and retreating a few feet, a safe distance for the moment. We all paused for a breath.

I received another reassurance from the friend and began to step back slowly, ten feet, twenty feet, back to the edge of the plaza. Out of the corner of my eye I spied a police car, and still not comfortable leaving this woman in the care of the brute and his friends, I hurried toward it. There were actually several police cars, and they were actually parked aside a police station, and so I hopped the small gate cordoning them off and caught the eye of an officer inside the station who rushed out to see what I was doing trespassing in his fleet.

Hastily, I asked him in French if he spoke English; he said no. I asked if his fellow officers spoke English; he said no, but called for the four or five of them to come out and join us. I did my best to act out the predicament to no avail, tugging at my shirt and wiping invisible tears from my face and pointing again and again back toward the plaza, all for nothing more than puzzled looks.

I felt how Lassie must have felt, frustrated that my barking was going misunderstood, so finally I just did what Lassie would do: racing back to the square with the officers in tow. The friends quickly scattered as they saw us approach and the police hopped the wall and rushed toward the still-arguing couple, pulling the man back and patting him down. They waved a thanks in my direction and I turned to go, catching the glare of the man as I did and feeling a chill as cool hatred flowed in my direction from his dark eyes.

I felt uneasy, agitated, perhaps even a little embarrassed for my cultural insensitivity, for sticking my American nose where it maybe didn't belong, for causing such a scene, for dramatically escalating a situation I clearly couldn't understand fully. It would be fair to judge my actions, sure, but I knew I wouldn't have felt okay acting in any other way.

Cultural consequences aside, there were perhaps much more immediate physical consequences to fear. I was in an unknown city (one already with a reputation for crime), I spoke no more than a dozen words of the language, and I had just become the target of a man's hatred, a man who clearly didn't care much for other's personal boundaries. Moreover, his friends had scattered in all directions when they saw the police coming—when they saw me bringing the police to them—and they knew my one face better than I knew all six of theirs. I doubted I had anything to fear, but then again I feared my doubt, and so I rushed away and hid out in the most touristy restaurant I could find a few blocks away, the kind of place that plays the Grease soundtrack through its establishment and probably keeps locals far away. I ate and sat and then hustled back to the hostel, thankful I had booked myself a safe hideout after all.

***

I slept soundly in a quiet room with soft sheets, bunked with only one other traveler that night. I woke the next morning to her smiling across the room—"good morning" in a raspy Israeli accent.

She was beautiful, her accent even more so, her words coming up from the throat the same way a sip of cola would go down it, cool and bubbly and refreshing, but sharp. She made small talk as she dressed and asked if I'd like to join her for breakfast downstairs. She had cereal and I had some jam on a crusty baguette, and we talked about little things. She taught me some more French (she knew about ten words more than I did, which is to say double), she told me about her time in the Israeli army and about the time a Turkish family saved her life on the outskirts of Istanbul after she jumped naked into a freezing lake. She told me how much she disliked the French and all of France, really, how the hostel receptionist had been rude to her earlier that morning, Israeli temper flaring.

We finished our breakfast and she asked if I cared to join her for a little sightseeing, and figuring we'd be hitting the same sights anyway, and keeping in mind that she was beautiful and well-spoken and pleasant to talk to, I agreed.

The receptionist, a new one, a lovely girl from Armenia with a toothy smile, was happy to draw us a little map of the best Marseilles had to offer. We thanked her—merci becoup!—and went on her way, following her itinerary from cathedral to basilica to fort to museum. The structures were impressive, the views great, but the wind was still in force and the streets didn't really compare to the others of our respective journeys.

"This city is so dirty," she spat, "And the people so rude."

I was amused by her frank nature, by her in general. She was kind yet cold: she didn't smile  but her words conveyed friendliness, she spoke bluntly but her attitude conveyed a little more appreciation than she was maybe letting on.

We parted ways around lunchtime. She was going back to the hostel to cook some food, and I was off to Chateau D'If, or so I thought.

As I mentioned, my main reason for stopping in Marseilles was to see the city through the eyes of Alexandre Dumas, or perhaps his fictional protagonist Edmond Dantes, to paint a better mental image for my next reading of The Count of Monte Cristo. So there was no better excursion, touristy as it was, than to ferry out to Chateau D'If, the real-life island-fortress-turned-island-prison Dantes was falsely sent to in the pages of Monte Cristo.

Alas, as I rounded the old port and arrived at the ferry dock, a French sign with a rough English translation read "In the windy day, no ships to the Chateau." I frowned. I thought about staying longer, waiting out the wind, but those gusts had been going since my arrival in Marseilles the day before, and I had no sense of when they would end. Besides, I had gotten a great view of the island and its formidable prison from the terrace of the Notre Dame Cathedral, perched high above the rest of the city, spectacular views of the Chateau and the Med and all of the city below us. Yes, it would have been nice to tour the island and the cells, a second Alcatraz, but I didn't mind saving the fifteen euros and moving on from Marseilles; I wasn't crazy about it to begin with, and besides, I still had a potential gang of locals to worry about from the night before.

So like Romeo after slaying Tybalt, I fled. Perhaps not so dramatically, but with haste nonetheless; my timetable told me a train was heading east in thirty minutes, and I was a thirty-minute walk from the station. I hustled up those Mediterranean hills and found myself in the station twenty-nine minutes later, sweaty and frantically searching the departures board for trains toward Nice, but my route wasn't there, no train with passengers boarding parked along the rails.

I signaled a conductor and asked in garbled French if he knew what platform my train was at (to be clear, "asking in garbled French" here means a lot of pointing and frequent repetition of pardon, pardon) and he informed me in slightly-less-garbled English that the route I was looking for had actually been canceled that day, that if I wanted to head east, my best bet was to take the next train to Toulon and catch a transfer from there.

I thanked him and followed his instructions and found myself in Toulon an hour later, where a friendly conductor told me not to worry about securing a reservation for the overbooked and soon-departing train east, that I could just hop right on and find a spot in the snackcar.

The train was headed to Nice, which seemed as lovely as its name would have one believe, but not really interesting enough to warrant a stop. Either way, I wasn't passing Nice just yet. The night before, a friend back home had suggested I make a stop in one of France's southeastern coastal cities en route to Italy, a quick trip to Cannes, perhaps.

I hadn't actually given much thought—any thought really—to a stop in Cannes; I didn't know much about it except that it was the home of one of the world's most esteemed film festivals, overwhelming the small city for two weeks of every fifty-two. On a whim, I did a quick search of when those two weeks were, and as luck would have it, the Cannes Film Festival had begun that very day.

As serendipitous a coincidence as arriving in Lassen Volcanic National Park the day before it opened for the year last June, I figured a quick stop was in order. To be sure, I couldn't actually go to the festival, for it was an invitation-only, black tie, Hollywood affair, and having neither packed a tux nor received an invitation, I could do little more than wander about. This alone would be a treat for many, a chance to stroll down the streets of Cannes bumping shoulders with movie stars on their way to dinner, but I didn't actually care much for the notion of celebrity, always found myself hopelessly bored by stories of Hollywood sightings, and so my decision to check out Cannes was out of a sheer lack of reasons not to; I had time to spare and my train was stopping in the middle of town with others to pick me up whenever I was ready to go, and, well, the timing just seemed so perfectly coincidental, so why not?

And with that, I went to Cannes.

Barcelona (Days 2, 3, 4)

The train arrived and the train departed and I was all aboard, leg one of an immeasurable number of legs to come. To Barcelona.

The train itself was terrific. It was smooth and modern and clean and spacious, and I spent the first hour looking out the window in admiration of the rolling Spanish countryside, as pristine as Cervantes had described it some four hundred years before. It reminded me of Texas hill country, all shrub and rock and sand and dirt, pastoral but plain, brown but beautiful.

I wasn't yet caught up on sleep, and my eyelids drooped. So I stood and made my way to the onboard cafeteria, coche cinco, where I ordered un cafe, only the third cup of my life, and a muffin. I brought the pair back to my seat and made quick work of both, and soon my eyelids no longer drooped. I had time to spare and a wide laptable at my knees, so I began to write, and I didn't stop writing until the conductor called Barcelona! two hours later.

I was almost disappointed that I was already there—couldn't the ride be just a little longer?—but I knew there was much more train to be had later; right now, there was city to be seen.

I stepped onto the platform and out into the street and realized I'd planned my time in Barcelona even less than my time in Madrid, which is to say not at all, not a single destination jotted in my notebook. So instead I oriented myself east and took to it, knowing that sooner or later I'd hit the waters of the Mediterranean.

The streets of Barcelona meandered with me, unknowingly pointing me more than once back in the direction I'd come, until I found myself an hour later not much further than where I'd started. So I descended to the subway and ascended at La Rambla some minutes thereafter right in the thick of it all. Just moments from the pier, La Rambla was full of life on that perfect Sunday afternoon,  a sprawling pedestrian median with artists and vendors and performers along the sides, cars slowly working their way down the boulevard at either distant end.

I followed La Rambla to the water and onward to the peninsula of Barceloneta, and it was on those calm shores that I first set my feet into the waters of the crisp blue Mediterranean. Like reaching the Pacific after a month on the road just one year before, the great expanse of sea before me felt cleansing, indescribably momentous, a baptism signaling a communion with a new place and a new self.

I rested in the sand. Eventually I left, snaking my way to the Gothic district in search of a hostel, the roads becoming narrower as I walked, the buildings taller and closer, the architecture less modern, more historic, all the more beautiful.

Dios mio, it was beautiful. I liked Madrid, and I loved what I had seen of Barcelona to that point, but there in el Barri Gotic, I fell in love with the city, wooed by her magnificent stonework and her Old World charm, her lush flora and her lovely patios, her linens hanging from every last Juliet balcony that adorned her pink and yellow walls. It felt like the Europe I'd always dreamed about, like the Europe out of a movie, too impossibly enchanting to truly exist. But there it was.

I learned quickly that there are no wrong turns in Barcelona, that left, right, and straight were all equally incredible—hell, backwards too—each a secret door to an awesome surprise of comically grand proportions, each a reminder to expect the unexpected. Make a left down this skinny alley here, of course it leads to the insanely gorgeous Basilica of Santa Maria del Mar. Make a right over on that corner, well obviously you'll hit the thousand-year-old Barcelona Cathedral in all its Gothic glory. Thirteenth century not old enough for you? Just stay straight and you're bound to end up bumping into the fortifications of the Roman Empire built two millennia ago, what else would you expect? Or just head back the way you came and enjoy a little more of that old man's angelic opera, straight from his vocal cords to the wondrous streets of Barcelona.

I walked and I wandered about like that for hours, I'm sure, losing myself in the depths of this new world, this new Old World; I suppose when a place has two thousand years to age, it does so only like the very finest wine, rich and flavorful, classic, sophisticated. Finally, I turned into a little hostel. I checked in and I dropped my belongings, I got a meal, and then I hit the streets again for a long sunset walk, once again losing myself in bustling Barcelona.

This place was magic, seemingly not just in form but in function, for when I was finally ready to adjourn my walk some hours later, having navigated at random and losing all sense of direction, looking up for a sense of my bearings and a path back to my hostel, there it was, right in front of me, as though I had summoned it from thought alone.

I walked through its doors and I showered and I lay down in bed, legs relaxing after a long day. The door clicked open and a few roommates entered, Damien and Sara and Lisa, I soon learned—Damien a student from Colombia by way of Berlin, Sara and Lisa nurses from southern Germany, all on holiday, all in Barcelona for a few days of fun. They were heading out for a drink and asked if I wanted to join them. I hesitated a moment, unspeakably tired at that late hour, but quickly smiled and acquiesced; it was Barcelona, after all, and they seemed like nice people.

We found ourselves a charming little bar with local flavor and we carved ourselves out a little nook in one of it's dark corners. We ordered a round and we talked of our travels: how long we were staying, when we'd arrived, where we were from. The round came and then another, shots and then more beer, and I found that I was having fun, a whole lot of it, that as the minutes wore on these strangers were becoming less strange, that they were becoming friends, Damien with his great energy and Lisa with her jovial laugh and Sara with her thoughtful, sleepy eyes, all of us bonding over shared English and a growing pile of empty bottles between us.

Someone suggested we go dancing, and we were all for it, so we left the charming little bar in search of musica y baile. It was late, and the empty streets echoed with our voices, with the gentle rattling of Damien's skateboard on the uneven cobblestone, us each taking turns rolling along atop it.

As the alcohol soaked its way into the crevices of my mind, long-lost Spanish began to float to the surface. I spoke it with ease and with confidence, which is not to say with fluency or accuracy, but it seemed enough to be understood, enough for Damien to appreciate, though I should note that Damien was certainly the polyglot of our group, excellent command of English and impressive German and fluent Spanish, which, coupled with his pleasant and extroverted persona, led to more than a handful of good-natured conversations with passerby as we continued our search for dancing in those early morning Gothic streets.

Though fun, the search was clearly futile, not unless we wanted to catch a cab to the trendier, swankier parts of town. Instead we simply returned to our charming little bar and got another round, perhaps one more, before Damien had to return to the hostel for a few hours of sleep before his 5AM flight back to Berlin.  Lisa and Sara and I bid him goodnight and continued on to one more bar, one more round, then made for the hostel as well, sleepy and drunk on equal parts life and liquor.

***

We all woke the next morning at ten, Damien already gone, and quickly packed our bags as the hostel receptionist tapped his foot impatiently at the door. Tarde.

The three of us stepped out onto the balmy Barcelona boulevard and began saying our goodbyes, but then the girls asked if I wanted to join them in search of a new hostel for the next night, and I, also in search of a new hostel, gladly agreed. We stopped for a quick breakfast and coffee and then walked the alleys until we came upon a simple enough space, fifteen euros, and we paid for three beds. The room was clean but hot, uncomfortably hot, so I stowed some gear and wandered back outside, me off to the beach and Sara and Lisa opting for museums that morning.

I retraced my route from the previous day—I couldn't believe I'd only been in Europe for forty-eight hours—and arrived at an emptier beach than I'd remembered, cloudy skies and a cool breeze and a Monday morning driving others away, I assumed. But no matter: I spread out and opened a book—Hemingway's very fitting The Sun Also Rises—and passed a good hour sitting in the sand.

I was certainly enjoying this form of travel, the blank itinerary and directionless aims, but I figured it couldn't hurt to see a few of Barcelona's renowned sights, so I made myself a little map and took off for its starting point at the other end of town, hopping a bus and depositing myself on the outskirts of Park Guell.

It's astonishing how parts of Barcelona look just like San Francisco, architecture and greenery and some streets so strikingly similar. But out by Park Guell, it was the hills too, wildly steep ascents that leave one both panting at a street's summit and feeling well-rewarded with a stellar vista. The closer I got to the park, though, the more Barcelona seemed to outdo its California cousin, the hills becoming so vertical they required escalators, block after block of rolling metal stairs, maybe seven sets total before they gave way and forced its passengers to climb the rest themselves.

But what a worthy climb it was. There, atop all of Barcelona, a Gaudi-designed park with the most marvelous view of the city below and the sea in the distance, the enormous La Sagrada Familia jutting up from it all like the great palace of Oz. And in the middle of the park itself, a funny little village, the remnants of a long-abandoned project to build a little city in the middle of this grand park. There was a queue to tour the little city, a long one, so instead I gazed from afar and continued upward into Guell's heights, each look back toward the city more rewarding than the last.

At the very summit I had a snack, more bananas and an apple and a peach I'd picked up from a merchant way down below, and then I made for my next destination, La Sagrada Familia, not particularly knowing how to get there but confident that if I walked toward the towering palace in the sky, I'd soon enough figure it out.

La Sagrada Familia is another work of Gaudi, a cathedral. But La Sagrada Familia is not simply a cathedral, it is a Gaudi cathedral, which is to say it's utterly ridiculous. Construction kicked off in the 1880s, and it's still under construction—yes, some 130 years later—cranes towering high above and scaffolding flanking its sides. It's huge, indescribably huge, unphotographably huge. It's very large.

But it's size isn't what makes it ridiculous, at least not in full: it's the design. La Sagrada Familia looks a bit like a funhouse, all winding spires and cryptic scrawl and, perhaps, some giant carved fruit somewhere up there, all cubist sculptures that make the Romans look like Storm Troopers and the disciples look like Cylons and Jesus Christ himself look like Jesus Christ as he might one day return in the world  of The Terminator ("I'll be back").

It's a strange place, and I heard it's even stranger inside, so I was a little disappointed to see such a long line, wrapped around the cathedral itself, and an admission costing more than my hostel for the night. I debated lingering, queuing up amongst the tourists, but ultimately decided against it, certain I could spend my time better elsewhere in beautiful Barcelona.

So I continued my Gaudi tour, past Casa Mila and Casa Batllo, both with equally whimsical facades but a similarly substantial line and ticket price, returning to La Rambla and grabbing a pastry at El Mercat de la Boqueria and a hearty heaping of paella back in the Gothic district. And then back toward the hostel, where along the way I ran into the beautiful familiar faces of Sara and Lisa, my heart swelling at the sight of people I knew as a stranger in a strange land.

We stopped for a minute to chat. They had enjoyed a great day of sightseeing, recounted what fun they had riding the cable car from La Rambla to Barceloneta, and now they were off to dinner. I told them to enjoy, that I'd see them later.

In truth, I probably had a little bit of a crush on Sara: the way she smiled with those droopy eyelids, the way she spoke with her thick German accent, the way she wanted to come to America to see "the cowboys" of the West, the way she played German hip hop from the crackling speaker of her phone as we lay in our adjacent beds later that night without much to say, all of our shared English words by that point dried up. Yes, I liked her, but Barcelona had my heart, and so having already eaten and not wanting to impose on their dinner anyway, we parted ways. I returned to the hostel and rested, washing a few items of clothing in the sink and laying them out to dry in the stifling dorm, then took one more lap about the barrio, my last night with fair Barcelona.

***

I woke the next morning and packed my things, slipping out of the dorm without waking Sara and Lisa, sad to leave them but with places to be. I hustled to the train station to catch a 9:15 train to Marseilles, or rather to begin a series of connections that would terminate in Marseilles later that night. I was sad to be spending nearly a whole day, eight full hours aboard four separate trains, in transit, but Barcelona was a little rainy anyway, and I was also looking forward to more time to relax, read, and write after walking nearly fifteen miles the day before.

Though my interrail pass secured me limitless access to most of Europe's trains, some high-speed and long-distance routes required a reservation, which should really just be called a surcharge, for they come with a fee of about ten euros and are needed even if you're looking to catch an empty train departing in dos minutos.

My 9:15 route to Marseilles avoided these charges by making connections in Gerona, Cerbere, and Avignon. Though this slowed things down a bit, it would also afford me the opportunity to peek my head out of the station at each transfer and, if I liked what I saw, spend a little more time in any of those smaller towns and worry about getting to Marseilles later.

But actually getting my ticket proved difficult. My Spanish had definitely strengthened in those few short days, conjugations and syntax beginning to flow back to me, and I was having a grand time of buying coffee and pastries, even responding to small talk from those who offered it on the street. I knew I was nearly intelligible, but I was trying, and the locals seemed to appreciate that, seemed able to parse out the meaning of my mumbles and my missteps. And so I approached the ticket counter with confidence, greeting the receptionist with a "buenas dias" and explaining that "necesito un billete a Marseille con el Eurail Pass, con coneccions, salida de aqui a las nueve y quince."

The agent didn't seem impressed; rather, he seemed quite confused. I showed him my Eurail pass and, to make things easier, even slid my phone across the counter, the full list of train numbers and connections already compiled with the aid of a mobile service Eurail offered. But still, nothing. He understood that I wanted to get to Marseilles, that I knew, but he seemed to be wholly unfamiliar with the Eurail pass, as though it were a foreign document with no worth to the Spanish rail system. He sent me to the information desk.

So I went to the information desk and repeated my request, a little less confidently, and they seemed to understand well. "Ventana vientiuno," I was told: back to the ticket window.

I obeyed, almost, choosing ventana vientidos instead. This was probably a poor choice, for the man behind the ventana of ventana vientidos seemed much less friendly than my confused-pero-muy-simpatico agent at ventana vientiuno. He welcomed me with a cold grunt and I once again explained my request and once again slid my phone to the other side of the counter. He examined my route and frowned.

"El route es ..." he paused, "no bueno."

I returned the frown. ?Que? I thought. Es muy bueno, !y cuesta nada!

He told me to go back to the information desk where they could provide "ayuda," and I reluctantly did, annoyed that I had missed my planned train, annoyed that my perfect route had been dismantled (and insulted!), annoyed that I was being passed between these two ends of the station like a ping pong ball.

I tried my luck with another agent at the information desk and she found me a new route, a route with only one connection and three hours less of transit time, a route which skipped all the great chances of exploring Spain's smaller towns and required a reservation of eleven euros for the first leg to Montpellier.

But it did leave later, which would give me another few hours in lovely Barcelona, and I didn't have the stamina to keep at this ticketing business for much longer, so I relented and thanked her and paid the eleven euros and went on my way, back out of the station and back into town.

I found a simple cafe for a simple  breakfast, wrote for a bit, walked to Les Corts, home of the University of Barcelona campus and a futbol stadium, and then slowly meandered back to the station around 13:00 in search of my train platform, which didn't appear to be printed anywhere on my ticket.

I may have been subtly scammed by the ticketing agents—I couldn't tell whether their dismissal of my preferred route was a deliberate upsell or an attempt to help—yet I had otherwise felt safe while in Spain, blending in enough to not attract attention and not worrying too much about the safety of my person or possessions. But as I walked about the train station in search of my unnamed platform, a West African man, tall and perhaps forty years old, made a nod of familiarity as we crossed paths, as though we knew each other, and said something in Spanish that I didn't understand. I apologized—lo siento—and turned back in the direction I had come, and he had turned his head as well and his face was a mean scowl and I quickly repeated lo siento and hurried away.

But as the minutes ticked by and I still hadn't found my platform, we crossed paths again, this time by the ticketing machines, and he demanded a euro so he could get a ticket. Lo siento, a third time, and an about-face once more, to more angry mutterings splashing in my wake.

It was probably a harmless hustle, at least in the physical sense, but his intimidation angered me until my mood was buoyed upon finally finding the platform, platform five, and onto the train I went. The "reservation" here was definitely superfluous—I had nearly the entire car to myself — though I was disappointed that the train was a bit muskier and darker than the one from Madrid. I took the opportunity to spread out, feet up on the seat at the other end of the table, and smiled at the idea that this train was actually headed to Paris by way of Montpellier, that if I wanted, I could simply abandon my plans of transferring to Marseilles some three hours later and be in Paris—Paris!—by supper.

Patience, I told myself. Paris would come. But first there was Marseilles, there was Italy and there was Greece and there was Turkey and Holland and Denmark and more, more cities and more countries and more people and sights and experiences and lovely European days and nights than I could ever imagine.

Yes, Paris would come, but first: Marseilles.

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