summer travel musings from 2010

travel thoughts while train-ing through Italy, summer 2010

I cannot quite remember who I am. I know I speak Italian, and that I have two bags and a purse.

A little surreal, but not absurd.

Fat metal poles, rusted red around the tops, looking as if they had impaled the hands of giants.

Capri scenic, salty, and a work out- as hard on the legs as on the wallet.

Special price- it costs more than that

Texas of Italy. I’ve never spent time there but I think its what the midwest must be like. Empty and vast and lonely in the afternoon stillness, but hilly here. Do the people who grow up here feel this sense of desolate irreproachable isolation that I feel in this moment? Is this provincialism perhaps. Is this where the farmers or the serial killers come from, here in the middle of nothingness.

This is how you find the best food… I searched for that pastry for hours, I knew I would find it somewhere. I peaked into every shop, but patience was my virtue, and by the time I was an hour late for dinner I finally passed The shop, it made a clicking sound as I passed by. Inside, looks good, but I have no point of reference. Baba’, the rum soaked cakes of Naples, and the version with pastry cream and rum soaked cherries on top… best pastry I’ve ever had

I don’t even know where I am, I could not point on a map even in the faintest way to indicate my present position. I am in Campania, I know this, and I may be in Italy but I do not speak the language here. A sense of floating, of in betweenness, lost identity in the twilight of exact location. It is unnerving, perhaps even spooky, but I like it- I can feel the proverbial wind in my hair. It reminds me of the realization I had as a kid that transportation is an enormous web of possible escape, that as long as I am near the commuter rail I can go to the Metro, and the Metro will take me to the airport, and the airport will take me Everywhere. I am Everywhere now, undefined location around me so profoundly that I don’t even know where I am and have only a vague idea of where I am going.

I am filled with a strong desire to write, to share my wandering thoughts and my journeying with some undefined audience. I could never say these things out loud, there is too much to say and I would monopolize the conversation and feel obnoxious. What makes me a person? What do my experiences mean? Why am I travelling here, endlessly, out of two bags and a purse? and why is that comfortable? School was reality a short time ago, I think I should be horrified to find it utterly finished and past. But I’m not. I define myself so strongly against other people, who am I alone?

Bus to Salerno- 8:30 we leave Sorrento, ready to be dazzled. I am the only one with suitcases, and some american behind me comments noisily ‘People have suitcases!’ I suppose they don’t realize that this bus does actually go somewhere, and might theoretically be used for transportation as well as tourism. Off we go, winding around and around, vague sense of carsickness. Sick by the beauty too, so stunning you kind of want to barf. Towering cliffs up to mountain tops ringed by gray mist down to sparkling blue, rocks, white trails behind mini boats filled with lucky people. I listen to Bjork, very evocative and surprisingly appropriate, maybe for its epic quality. I think of old loves, of E’s idiocy and my uncomfortable discomfort at his public announcement of romantic engagement, and of K’s tragically melancholic last text, ‘I’m sorry, I wasn’t ready for you…’
We arrive in Amalfi, that ‘jewel’ recommended by everyone, the pinnacle of italian seaside experience. It makes me sick. I am hot, it is hot, I begin to sweat (there goes another clean shirt), I have my two bags and no desire to move with them. I have missed my bus to Salerno by a few minutes and will therefore miss my cheap train. The beginning of the misfortunes. Amalfi is a banner of touristic propaganda. Every store sells ‘amalfitano’ goodies, limoncello or stupid figurines or purses and other shit. After a day and half of elevated prices and catered ‘culture’ I can bear it no longer, and I am left claustraphobic, grumpy, and hungry, but unwilling to pay five euros for a crappy miniature sandwich. Finally the bus to Salerno decides to show up, we board. At each stop more people come on, and finally it is mobbed, people standing in the aisle and sitting in the stairwell, yelling, throwing bags around that no longer fit in the underneath compartment. One grumpy old Italian points angrily at some American’s suitcase. “Its full” she explains, pointing underneath. “Pieno” he translates, then mutteres something in italian about how things should be different and how he does not like it one bit. She smiled and shakes her head as if to say, ‘I don’t understand but your language is so beautiful!’ I find myself disgusted by these tourists now, overhearing some conversation about ‘Five weeks, yes, but only 10 days left! Paris, then Barcelona, then Florence, Rome…..’ This is my country, I think, you don’t know it and you never will. Humph. I thank God for my seat, although I do feel some distant guilt about the Italian Hierarchy of Seat Right rule, first little kids and their parents and pregnant women, then old people (but old enough not to be offended at your implication that they are old), then women, then men. So I should give my seat up to grumpy old man in the aisle, technically… Nah, not gonna move.

Lecce, I find utter and inexhaustible hospitality. Endless delicious unbelievable traveling miracles. How can it be possible that I travel all day, I lose myself utterly in chaos and disorder in empty and unfortunate Salerno, sweaty, crying, frustrated- the low point of my entire trip- then utterly inexplicably alone on the train forever and forever, lost in this nothing landscape, a few dirty men and silent students as company, and then emerge, gasping, in the arms of complete and instantaneous friendship? Couchsurfing has made this possible, perhaps, but not only. Also an openness I have rarely encountered, and my own strange capability of looking, talking, engaging that allows me to meet twenty people in one evening. On the voyage I am responsible for myself, for my things. No one is waiting for me and no one is taking care of me.

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Hemingway

Why do I love Hemingway so much? I’m not sure.

Is it the light simplicity of his prose? His detached catalog of events, conversations, and beverages (his characters live one bottle of wine to the next)?  Quiet banality finally interrupted by a description, an emotional confession, a love scene, which among the austerity strike you through the heart in surprise?

It might be that I relate to his main characters, in turn an extension of himself- melancholy, independent, would-be lost souls longing in the end for love and for soul-connection but who cannot quite bring themselves to give in to such cliches, whose life-lessons are inevitably inward-facing despite the presence of other people, of friends or lovers (or fellow drinkers, or F Scott Fitzgerald).  They come looking for love and leave even more fiercely alone.

Maybe, but in the end it may just be the armchair-traveler in me who loves Hemingway- he remains one of the best travel writers, easily transporting the reader to create irrational fantasies about Paris or Spanish sea-side towns or elephant hunts or bullfights or even wars.  You find yourself drifting alongside his characters in the Venetian canals, breezily drinking a bottle of white, good and dry, or in a Paris cafe with a glass of Pernod, tight, happy, and longing.  How many Americans have followed his example, as drinkers, writers, or travelers, searching for their own playground of love gained and lost without too much fuss, only total heartbreak, sitting wordless at that quaint cafe only trying to emulate his simplicity and coming up with only over-descriptive messiness.

Images from his work drift into my head often, places I know no longer exist with company that I would hate to keep, but they have created a backdrop for my irresponsible travel fantasies: lovers in the city, taxi rides in the dark to nowhere, an endless European summer drifting ever further South to follow the heat, good wine and better food, simple and wholesome and totally filling.  Writing.  Traveling!

I am about to indulge in this dream, to get it out of the way, to complete my 16 year old desire- I have bought a one way ticket to Paris and I will stay for as long as it takes to remind myself that Hemingway was not only a misogynist but lived in a time that no longer exists… so What does Paris, or train hopping through France, have to offer me now? Now is the time to jump off that sweet cliff- to fly one-way to Paris and to be disappointed, or to fall in love, or to feel nothing, to drink Pernod and coffee and finally write, the way I have always meant to, to chase the ideal of Hemingway that has rattled around my head so stupidly, to have my Paris as a Young Man, and to see what feast that is, really.  And then to continue on to probably more interesting places, where I can create my own mythologies and my own images.

But this first I must do. So call me romantic, or absurd. This is the first step in a long journey.