The Tramp Abroad After much dithering back and forth, I decided to leave my iPod home when I left to spend a week in Venice, Padua, and Milan. The inconvenience of trying to recharge it with foreign plugs, coupled with the idea of having to protect it from being stolen in a country notorious for not caring about crimes inflicted on tourists culminated in my decision to leave it at home in its cradle. It's a mature machine; it can take care of itself for a week.
This is the story of that week.
Leaving on a Jet Plane
Hour 1: I spend the majority of my morning routine convincing myself that I've made a moral decision, rather than a practical one. I'm leaving my iPod home because I want to bring as little physical and cultural baggage with me as possible. I'm going to go there and let the sounds and sights of the Continent wash over me. I will accept everything without falling back into my comfort zone. I am not a stuck-up Ugly American tourist! I am a backpacker, a citizen of the road, and it's time I reject the narrow parochialism of the music I've chosen and reclaim my birthright amongst the peripatetic few, the proud, the scruffy: the backpackers.
Hour 2: And I'm off to a half-day of work! This is the first day since I bought my iPod back in January that I've gone to the office without it accompanying me on my trip, cushioning me in a wall of sound. The morning train-ride should be easy, since I was out way too late last night with friends discussing love, life, the universe, and "Krull," and so I should just be able to drift off for a half an hour.
But my security blanket of sound is back home in it's cradle, so when I sit down next to the severely autistic 30-year old, there's absolutely nothing to block out the sound of his toy playing the Sesame Street Theme on repeat with a MIDI "Let's go!" shouted by a digital lemming everytime he hits a button, which is everything three seconds or so, with no discernible pattern. Perhaps he was signalling, "Please kill me," via Morse Code. It was certainly the thought running through my head, at least.
Hour 3: With a couple of cups of crappy work coffee in me, I'm more alert, but I become more aware of how much I try have come to rely on that little sleek hunk of metal and silicone. Am I in fact an addict? Do I abuse my iPod? Am I twitchy from too much coffee, or MP3 withdrawal? It's not too late. I could still go home before my flight.
Hour 6: It's now too late.
n8 managed to deftly plant Jim White's "Static on the Radio" in my head, and it'll be a week before I can exorcise it properly.
"Everything I think I know is just static on the radio."
Damn you n8.
Hour 7: Damn you MTA. Your rank incompetence is overwhelming even my expectations of disappointment. I mean, it's not like the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is going to be a busy day for travel or anything. Christ.
Hour 8: Great, now I want a cigarette and my iPod. And as long as I'm wishing for futile things, I want a pony. Not world peace, though. I feel too irritable to wish for that.
Hour 10: Smoked the last cigarette in my pack and entered the airport. I have 10 hours of double withdrawal to look forward to. Luckily, I have airport security to humiliate me and photograph and me so I can spend a healthy portion of my time not only missing nicotine in my blood and music in my ears, but also padding around without my shoes wishing I'd remembered to wear socks without holes. Also, some time spent realizing how hard it is to hold up your pants when you have to have your arms extended and you aren't allowed to wear your belt. Apparently, I've lost weight.
I think they're making airport security more humiliating by increments, so that each time you go you don't notice that you have a mite bit less dignity than you did the time before. Like the proverbial frog in a pot slowly being brought to a boil. Maybe it's one more item of clothing you need to remove, or a new machine that goes bing! Or, in this case, a machine that blows compressed air at you from all angle,s creating a nasty little explosives-sniffing vortex with you at the center--as the bloody thing records the entire thing on videotape.
Hour 11: There should be a special section of the plane devoted to screaming babies. The cargo hatch, perhaps. Your own little baby gulag, away from the rest of the passengers.
I don't want a cigarette at all. Nope. Sure don't. Or my iPod. I certainly don't have "Debaser" running through my head. Oh ho ho no.
I am perfectly fine.
That damn baby isn't going to be soon, though.
Hour 16: Alcohol is my friend. My only friend on this flight. Sleep has abandoned me, left me here to my own devices. I'm really too tired to form much coherent thought, which benefits me only slightly, in that I feel a basic need for something, but can't quite fully articulate it even to myself what I need. Glancing back through this journal, I see that I'm most likely craving a cigarette and my vast collection of indie rock.
I woke up this morning with Monty Python's "Penis Song," stuck in my head for no discernible reason That seems so long ago that it feels like a different person who couldn't stop singing, "Isn't it awfully nice to have a penis. Isn't it frightfully good to have a dong?"
At least the baby stopped crying.
Hour 18: The plane I'm flying on has TV screens for each seat. For the last half hour of the flight, all screens are showing a live feed from a camera in the nose of the plane, pointing down. With my fear of flying, it has not been comforting to see the hillsides of Austria slip closer and closer as we approach our target. I feel like a bombadier. My grandfather was a bombadier, but right now, the one that I feel most like is Yossarian.
It is not comforting to start believing you are Yossarian.
The plane touches down. There is a particular moment, ill-defined but nevertheless real, when I can finally relax upon landing. I call it the moment of not-death (I'm nearly always exhausted upon landing, and at my least creative), when the plane has touched down completely and slowed enough so that I think to myself that, no matter what goes wrong--an engine flameout, the landing gear disintegrating like a dropped wine glass, etc--I finally think to myself, "We're going to survive!"
I am a bad flyer.
Hour 19: Ah, Wien! Wilkommen. Entschuldigung, woher soll ich rauchen? Ich moechte vier oder fuenf cigaretten rauchen. Hier? Viellen dank. Ich liebe dich. Ich moechte hier immer bleiben.
Hour 20: Glamis hath murdered sleep!
Hour 21: Huh. I have no idea where that came from.
Hour 22: Either I'm starting to hallucinate, or Austrian stewardesses are the most beautiful in the world. I'm spending fruitless minutes trying to remember how to say, "Please, come with me to New York and I shall make you my queen," in German. Sadly, I just keep remembering a line of David Bowie's from "Labyrinth." "Fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave." Which is admittedly not the greatest pickup line for a country at the center of two world wars.
My flight to Venice is a turboprop plane with thirteen rows of four in it. It's a tiny plane, and I'm in the row right next to the propeller. I'm unable to keep from thinking that if it were to go flying off the engine, it would go slicing through the plane like butter and seperate me in mid-thigh. I'm too tired not to imagine the mess my severed arteries would cause.
God, I'm a mess.
I wonder if this is an indicator of severe emotional problems or just a symptom of the post-partum depression from leaving my iPod to find for himself for a week.
If you're reading this, then either nothing bad happened, or someone was really quick applying the tourniquets.
Hour 23: Kaffee? Bitteschoen. Kaffee freut mich sehr. Ich liebe dich. Was? Hab ich das gesagt? Entschuldignung. Ich habe nich fuer vier und zwanzig stunde geschlafen, und bin ich ein bischen muede. Aber doch, ich liebe dich. Wohin gehen sie? Was hab ich gesagt?
Venice is Sinking
Hour 24: Now that I'm safely on the ground and away from the confusing influence of both Aryan goddesses and the blades of doom, I can reflect on the past couple of hours. I see that I just had what can only be termed a Christopher-Walken-ala-"Annie-Hall" mental break: "I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The... flames rising out of the flowing gasoline."
I'm much better now.
Not only have I finally arrived in Venice, but I've survived my first day off the iPod wagon. It hasn't quite been as successful and eye-opening as I've hoped--mostly because the nitty-gritty of travel requires you to be exposed to a lot of bullshit and generally obnoxious things that you gain nothing by paying attention to: whiny kids, obnoxious airline jingles, the same damn mandatory lecture on how to buckle your seatbelt in three different languages, given with all the excitement and energy of a 5am blow job in a brothel.
I can't wait for teleportation. Or even the proliferation of scramjets. Though considering how well I take subsonic flight, strapping myself Major Kong style into a missile probably isn't very smart.
Hour 30: I don't know what we're doing wrong. I met up with a friend from Edinburgh, and the two of us set off into the city of Venice, sleep derived, woozy, and without a map, but we've completely failed to get lost. It's been two and a half years since either of us have been here, and we're both running of memories that were alcohol soaked to begin with, and yet we've managed to navigate this city impeccably. It's amazing how small Venice actually is--it seemed much larger last time, when a wrong turn sent you wandering for hours. Straight-seeming streets that you think are sending you north arc imperceptibly and suddenly you're going south-east. It's a fascinating city, dingy and graffiti-riden, but ineffably beautiful as long as you ignore the strange unnatural green of the water and the cigarettes and condoms floating in the canals.
Plus, I've been here eight hours, and I think I've fallen in love with a new woman about 23 times.
Hour 39: It's the strangest thing: all the female mannequins have very prominent nipples. I suppose it is cold in an Italian windowfront in November. I'd take a picture to prove it, but who really wants to be the perv snapping pictures of scantily clad hunks of plastic.
Hour 41: In the midst of all this decaying rubble from the 17th and 18th Centuries, we find a DVD store that strikes us as frightfully out of place. The full-sized Spider-Man cutout in the window only exacerbates the problem. Spider-Man would not like Venice. Too many impossibly tight alleyways and low buildings that would make web-slinging and web-swinging impossibly difficult. On the plus side, the canals are more forgiving of a mistake than a street, so if he were to misjudge a swing, he'd wind up wet and smelling horribly rather than dead.
Hour 48: We make our way to the a church north of San Marco, off the normal tourist track. The church is your standard massive cathedral with stunning religious art, but I'm already numb to the ever-present Madonnas and Pietas and Penultimate Suppers. But as I'm standing in the center, the setting sutting breaks free from the clouds and fills the church through the stained glass with such ineffable beauty that there's nothing for me to do but sit down. For a moment, I don't miss anything at all.
I sit there until the sun slipped away--behind a cloud again, behind the buildings, possibly even below the horizon. When I stand, I find that my hands have been clasped together. So that's what glimpsing the infinite feels like.
Hour 68: Okay, I'm starting to miss my iPod less and less, as I sit in a square in Padua listening to an accordian player play the theme to "Brazil."
And "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."
And "What a Wonderful World."
Yep, I came to Italy so I could hear all of this classic Italian music.
But it's been good. Valeria, my brother's Italian girlfriend is here, returning to the States with an extended work visa, so she showed us around Padua where she went to college. So not only does she know the cool out of the way tourist sites, such as the classroom where Galileo taught in with his original podium still there ("This is the room they held my graduation in," she tells me), but she also knows the best places to people watch and to drink Spritzes, which despite their Germanic name, are the local drink for when you sit in the square. I love that this place has a special Sitting-in-the-Square-Getting-Drunk drink.
Hour 73: Valeria's friend Laura joined us for the day. She seems very sweet, but I feel sorry for her--her English is non-existent. Still, she puts up with the three of us yammering back and forth for quite some time, so there is probably a special place in heaven for people with her type of patience. There is a little bit of confusion when we say our goodbyes; when I go to kiss her cheeks, she expects me to go left, then right, like an Italian, and I just go right. We wind up butting noses, but not in a cute movie sort of way. I try to explain that New Yorkers just kiss on the right, but it's entirely possible she thinks I was just going for a quick kiss.
I kind of wish I'd thought of that.
Hour 78: On to Milan! Milan is drenched in Fascist architecture, and has a chaotic train station filled with people chainsmoking and drinking cans of beer more akin to kegs than the little cans I'm used to from my college drinking days. We meet up with a Swedish friend of mine from my stint in Edinburgh, just as jet lag is starting to kick my ass harder than before.
On the walk to our hotel, a man approaches me and without even attempting Italian, brandishes a cigarette and asks, "Do you have fire?" Perhaps it's the Neo-Roman sculpture I was just in, but I feel downright Promethean in responding gruffly, "Yes. I have fire!"
Hour 80: Everytime I light a cigarette now, I am drawn to proclaim loudly, "I have fire!" My companions laugh everytime, so I shall beat this joke until it's very dead.
Hour 81: I still miss my iPod, but what I miss more than anything right now is New York pizza. Sure, I know the Italians invented it, but their pizza sucks. They do have a wide variety of toppings, though. I have a slice right before me with tuna, corn, and artichoke hearts on it.
When I was living in Edinburgh, some of the Swedes at the hostel made pizza with the toppings they were missing, including banana slices. This is about as appetizing as it sounds. Which is to say, not very.
Hour 90: I wake at 8:30am, completely unable to get back to sleep. This would be okay--after all, I want to see as much as possible in my short time here--but we were up until 4am, and we polished off five bottles of wine between the three of us. Also, I'm getting sick. My sinuses feel like they've been filled with the sludge that flows through the Venetian canals, and my throat has been cleared out with a wire scraper.
And I have a Magnetic Fields song stuck in my head. "I'm so in love with you girl, it's like I'm on the moon. I can't really breathe but I feel lighter." I suppose the likelihood of finding a jukebox with 69 Love Songs on it is fairly slim.
Of course, the girls I'm in love with are...well, everyone that passes me on the street. I want to take everyone home with me, but alas, my apartment is too small for all of them. They also have an air about them as they parade in their stylish Italian clothes (all either standard black or pink, which is apparently the new black) that they are too good for me. They are probably right.
Milano women have the smallest asses in the world. This is not a scientific fact, but I've been to enough places on the world and glanced surreptitiously at enough of them in my day to say with reasonable certainty that these woman take the prize.
Maybe I could fit them all into my apartment.
If I could only have them walking in front of me for the rest of time I'd never need my iPod again.
Hour 122: Shopkeepers never seem to have enough money in the till to pay you back. It's highly frustrating to pay with a 20 euro note and cause such a fuss. It's like no one has ever seen a note larger than a 10 before. And when the ATM only gives you 50s, it becomes a bit of a problem. But Italian clerks seem to be irritated no matter what you do, so it doesn't really seem to make all that much of a difference one way or another.
Two Gentlemen in Verona
Hour 124: I am not easy to travel with, especialy with jet lag. I go through crowds and museums as fast as possible, I tend not to talk much, I have a low capacity to deal with bullshit from anyone, I tend to insist on playing an active part in the navigation and decision-making, and I hate to wait.
So it's not surprising that I have the urge to kill my traveling companion and dump his body into one of the murky rivers that snake through Verona. We said goodbye to our Swedish friend this morning, so it's just the two of us again.
I was up at 7:30 in the morning staring at the ceiling and wondering why I wasn't hungover at all. We'd retired to our hotel room to play the drinking game we'd collectively invented during our time in Edinburgh together. It was really like a championship drinking game that way, with three seasoned veterans duking it out iron man style, playing with wine rather than beer to raise the stakes. Since one of the rules of the game allowed the creation of new rules, we all turned into paranoid bastards, speaking haltingly in an attempt not to swear, call each other by name, say any form of the word "drink," or the words, "yes" or "no," or accept anything handed to us by another person.
Six bottles of wine were consumed between the three of us.
I should really be hungover right now. I slept less than four hours after that bacchanalian, and I really should be feeling some effect. It's a perfect day for a hangover, with the sun blotted out by the rainclouds, giving everything a dull and quiet tinge to it.
Oh well. I'll just have to try harder next time.
Hour 125: God, this weather sucks. Verona strikes me as a lovely city, currently hidden inside a raincloud. There is an old Roman arena at the center of town, which has been converted into a concert hall. Sadly, it's closed for the season.
Instead, we follow our habit, glance quickly at a map and then try to make our way through the city with a decaying mental image of what we're trying to find. It's a point of pride not to keep anything resembling a map, and we've still thus far been unable to get lost. We wind up stumbling on some really great things; we just don't learn what they are until we read about them on the way out of the city.
We wandered past the statue and balcony of Juliet twice before finally walking in on it. As the story is fictional and Shakespeare never came to Verona, this isn't really the actual balcony. It fits the story, though. Juliet, on the other hand, is really too tall and well-endowed to be a 14 year old Lolita. The bronze statue's right breast has been polished to a bright shine by all the travelers who rub it for good luck in love. Feeling slightly foolish but willing for some good luck on that front, I grope the oversized statue of the fictional jailbait. We'll see what that brings me.
Hour 126: We leave Verona for Padua again. As we just checked back into the Padua HI hostel, this might be a good idea to tell you about Hosteling International hostels.
Fuck HI hostels. Fuck them right in the ear.
HI hostels are the McDonalds of hostels. They can be found everywhere, usually pushing out the nice independent hostel. They are clean, identical the world over, bland, and often your only opportunity for a clean--though spartan--toilet within a dozen miles. HI hostels segregate the men from the women, have curfews, limit you to five nights there, and require you to be out of your room by 9am. Worst of all, they don't allow alcohol, and they claim the right to refuse admittance to anyone too scruffy or disheveled.
They are hostels for people who don't want to stay in a hostel--non-threatening places for people who thought their RAs in college gave people too much latitude (full disclosure: I was an RA in college and I gave people too much latitude).
I lived in hostels for over a year. My home for half that time was a hostel in Edinburgh that had 100 beds strewn out over three large floors. It was dingry and chaotic, and the walls of the TV room had to be painted during my stay there because a toxic level of nicotine had been smoked into them over the years. But they sold alcohol there, were open 24 hours, put men and women in rooms together and encouraged people to live there. Some people had been there for years. This encouraged a community of travelers to form, and at any time of night or day you could find someone to drink with. It was home, and it was good.
This is why HI hostels suck.
Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for lights out.
Hour 138: Standing outside the HI hostel having a cigarette in the rain (because HI hostels are bastard sons of whores), I am approached by a woman who asks, "May I have some fire?"
I give her the gift of the gods.
Workers of the World Unite!
Hour 142: Cancelato. The baggage handlers at Venizia Marco Polo airport hcose today of all days to have a general strike from noon until 4pm. My flight was to leave at 2:40, which means I'm going to miss my connecting flight in Frankfurt.
Fucking workers and their desire for a better life.
The internet point in the airport seems to have shut down in solidarity.
My camera battery died trying to take a picture of the "Departures" board with everything reading "Cancelato." Nice to know inanimate objects have a sense of irony.
Hour 144: Where are the Pinkertons when you need them?
Hour 145: I just wiled away an hour writing something for happyrobot. I'll probably post it later in the week, if it passes the laughtest when I'm less sleep-deprived. At least this is a productive striek for me.
Hour 145.5: "Sciopero generale nazionale." General national strike. Berlesconi tried to lower taxes on the upper class and cut services to the middle and lower classes. The people decided to strike for a week. This could be a long week for me.
Hour 146: Serene Republic my ass! My flight? Cancelled. I have two options: catch a later flight to Frankfurt, spend the night there, and get a flight that drops me in Newark in the afternoon, or take the same flight I was originally scheduled to take a day later, and arrive back at JFK at 7:30pm. Oh, and the Frankfurt flights are completely overbooked, so there's no guarantee that I'd be able to get on either of them. So I stay in Venice a day longer.
Funny story, though. The bus back to Venice is still on strike, so I get to take a 20 euro taxi back into the city. The sound you hear is my credit card, weeping for relief.
I hope the bars are not on strike, because I'm going to hit every last one of them.
Let's have another round for the bright red devil Who keeps me in this tourist town
Hour 150: My credit card gets no relief. I torture it by having the most expensive meal it's ever encountered, at a restaurant recommended by the two guidebooks I brought with me. I feel very out of place in it in my Hard Rock Cafe Memphis shirt (a long story I only tell when drunk, that shirt). But when the appetizer comes, I know I've struck gold. The first bite of grilled mussels is quite possibly the tastiest thing I've ever had. I wait until no one is looking, then suck the sauce off the shells, relishing the sand from the freshly harvested seafood. I am out of my league and I love it. The gobbie fish risotto is great, as well, but the second course, the veal with pine nuts and pepper, is to die for. To finish, creme brule. Like Amelie, one of my greatest simple pleasures is to crack the top of a fresh creme brule.
Hour 164: I give up I set out specifically to get lost for my last morning in Venice. I went in completely different directions from my previous wanderings, tried to turn off my innate sense of direction, and deliberately didn't pay attention to which way the roads were taking me.
And yet, through no conscious decision of my own, I soon find myself in a square that I recognized from my first time through Venice: a campo with the church I'd searched for most of an afternoon two years ago because it had the church used for the library in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." This time out, I'd stumbled on it in less than 20 minutes of wandering. Sure enough, down a path just beyond the church I found the store where Stanley Kubrick bought the masks for "Eyes Wide Shut."
So, new rule. When you can't even get lost in Venice anymore, you've been there too long.
Hour 165: The general strike is to extend to December 3rd. However, for today, it's limited just to public transportation workers. So the plane will fly, whether I'm on it or not. Wouldn't that be ironic.
Hour 166: Graffiti seen as I'm working my way through Venice the last time: "Yankee Go Home."
I'm trying, man. I'm trying.
Hour 166.5: I luck out for once. Even though public transportation is on strike, I manage to find a private bus company employing scabs that take me to the airport. Which is good because my money situation consists of a pocketful of shrapnel and some transit cheks.
I finish a bottle of wine on my way to the airport, for fortitude. I try to argue to myself that it's okay to drink a bottle of wine at noon, because I'm attempting to get myself back on NYC time. That works until I remember New York time i six hours behind, and what that really means is that I've finished off an entire bottle of cheap red wine before 6am.
It's my normal preparation for flying, though. I do hate to fly. Something always seems to go wrong. In the past five years I've spent nights stuck in the airports of Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Chicago O'Hare, Chicago Midway, two nights in London Stansted, and been arrested in Amsterdamn Schipol. I've spent more time in airports and airplanes that some stewardesses have.
It's entirely possible I'll see my iPod before this day is over. And, almost as important, I'll see my bed as well.
And not a moment too soon. My left foot is swaddled in moleskin from all the blisters and abrasions that make it look like the world's smallest leper colony.
Hour 168: The very chipper German pilot of my Lufthansa flight has just chirped, "Wir sind puentlich!" as we pull away from the gate in Venice. You can always count on the Germans to be on time and to do what they say (other than that "no, of course, we won't annex the Sudetenland and invade Poland if you allow us to have Czechoslovakia. We'd never do such a thing."
Hour 168.5: Okay. Ummm. The Alps. They're there, and...
So tall. So pointy. Like chips of stone embedded in the ground.
Hour 172: We've been chasing the sunset for the last two hours. It's getting away from us finally, but it's been lovely nonetheless. Even if i have spent it smooshed up against the window because my two seatmates are too fat to even fit in their seats with the armrests down.
Unlike people with tiny children, I don't think drastically overweight people should have to ride on a completely separate plane. However, I wish engineers would build a couple seats on the plane for the plus-sized crowd.
Hour 176: Bits of sleep. Very disoriented now. Fat lady next to me keeps elbowing me, but worse, with the armrest gone, our legs are touching. Everytime she shifts her weight, her thigh roils with the shockwaves. Once that thought crosses my mind, I can't get it out. I snap in and out of sleep with the word "roil," running through it like an evil mantra.
Hour 178: JFK airport is larger than Venice itself!
Hour 179: I am tempted to kiss the ground. I think, "It's nice to be back in a place where people speak my language, and I won't have to struggle to understand everyone."
Then I get on the NYC subway. To Washington Heights. I understand no one.
Hour 181: Oh frabjous day, Callooh! Callay! I am reunited at last!