Friday, October 17, 2008

...and, after seven months of procrastination (Sarah-style):

As frustrated as I’ve found that you all are with my lack of communication, I’ve already accepted that you all won’t cry over this, my last blog entry ever, but maybe you all could pretend to be a little upset?  Or a fake sniffle or two?  Please?  Is anybody even bothering to read it anymore?  You know what, fine.  I’m going to write it anyway, just for me.  And, obviously, my blog’s last huzzah will be talking about my last huzzah—Italy. 

Having finally planned out an entire trip—well in advance!—I was pretty excited the night before I left for Rome.  My bags were packed and I even snuck in one last Semana Santa, KKK-style procession no joke—Google “Nazaren” to see the hundreds of people marching down my street every night the week before Easter) before I flopped into bed, ready to wake far before dawn to catch my painfully early flight to that seductive boot-shaped country I’d been dreaming about.  Imagine my surprise, then, when something other than my alarm woke me at 7:30, ten minutes from my flight’s departure time and an hour bus ride away from the airport…

Important life lesson learned: that’s what you get for making plans.

But, after the predictably tearful outburst of disappointment and a frantic phone call to my parents, I decided that I’d rather laugh than cry about it. So I bought myself another (120 euro) flight to Italy two days later and settled in to enjoy some relaxation and a pile of chocolate croissants from my true Spanish lover, Pan y Chocolate.

I made the next flight (after setting two alarms and arranging a call from Mom at 4:30 my time), and, without mishap, made it to my hostel.  And Rome was: Colosseum (long lines, expensive, mooched off all English-speaking tours by pretending my camera was broken and that was the reason I was lingering for such an uncomfortably long time right near the tour guide), lots of walking with gelato in hand (definitely lives up to all expectations), St. Peter’s Basilica (breathtaking and surprisingly empty on Good Friday, even for 7:30 in the morning), Sistine Chapel (waiting for two hours in the rain in front of a group of Americans who spent the entire time catching up—their words—on their Hail Marys, in I’ll-show-you-religious-fervor loudness), first experience with Italian pizza, the Pantheon (no words can describe it), ancient Catacombs (more fun to find than visitnote to self: just because Italian is easy for Spanish speakers to understand doesn’t mean that the reverse is true), etc, etc, etc…

The part I really enjoyed about Rome (besides the pizza, obviously) was its propensity to lend itself to stumbling upon fountains or statues or buildings so famous that I’d seen replicas of them in the Victoria and Albert Museum, or had read breathlessly sycophantic treatises about their artists.  And seeing the Pope.

Every Good Friday, the Vatican re-enacts the stations of the cross, starting at the Colosseum with a speech by His Holiness (in order to avoid confusion with the other HH mentioned in this blog, we’ll just call him number two) and then processioning through the streets in the exact places that Christ did his thing.  We headed down early in order to try and get a good view of something, and that we did—on the far side of the Colosseum, away from the crowds, was where the Pope-mobile was slated to enter, heavily guarded by Polizei.  We snuggled up under the umbrellas of some international priests-in-training, to whom I accidentally lied regarding the devoutness of my Catholicism…I’m going to Hell.  However, number two didn’t come, apparently due to the torrential downpour that we pious followers had been enduring for an hour, just for a glimpse of him.  How insensitive.  Prepared to throw in the towel, we were sloshing back to our hostel when we saw an enormous crowd gathered, facing a little white speck on a cliff.  Oh, yes, there he was, reciting the stations of the cross in seven different languages.  And no, I didn’t fall asleep this time.

You’d think that, being the seasoned traveler that I am, when I woke up the next day I’d have had some inkling that it was going to be at least as nightmarishly intense as the Day of That Busride in India…and, yet…

5:45 For the third day in a row, I woke up early to catch a train—my desire to see Italy was not curtailed with the length of my trip when I missed that flight.  Lugging my 50-pound pack down 7 flights of stairs, I waited in line (really?  A line?  It’s 6 in the goddamn morning!)  to retrieve my key deposit.  However, the cute-as-a-button old Hotelier wasn’t in on this plan, and instead of handing me back five euros, kept adamantly saying, “shit!  Shit!  You!  Shit!”  Uhhhh….  Assuming he meant my receipt for the deposit, I tried explaining in Spanish that I hadn’t been told I needed to keep it and threw it away (Hotelier: “shit, shit!”).  Eventually he fetched a policeman, who was of course just hanging out in the hotel at 6am, who interpreted: not “shit”, sheets.  Back up seven flights of stairs.  Wake up six roommates fumbling in dark.  Back down seven flights of stairs.  Wait in line again.  Receive 5 euro.

So at 6:55, 13 minutes before my train left, I ran to the train station.  Did I mention my pack was heavy?  Well, it was.  And a ten minute run to catch the train I had unchangeable reservations on forced me to confront my own mortality (foreshadowing?).  But I did catch the train, which proceeded 30 meters out of the station before decisively stopping.  Already half-asleep in the compartment I shared with a smiley Nigerian man, I decided to ignore the unintelligible strings of announcements (I did continually catch the word “mumblemumblepolizei”) and only wake up if somebody physically chiseled me out of my seat.

7:15 Somebody physically chiseled me out of my seat.  And though he claimed to speak Italian, Mr. Nigeria was of no help in figuring out why we were then told to walk back along the tracks into the station and catch a train to Munich.  Yeah, sure, ok, Munich.

7:17 Ah, that would be it: the body of a railway worker lying in our tracks.  “Shit.”

7:29 found me attempting to reason (Mr. I-Speak-Italian Nigeria standing uselessly at my side) with the Munich-train worker to let me on, as I know this train stops in Florence, and yes, I know I don’t have the right ticket, but, see that poor guy on the tracks back there?  That’s why I’m not on my train.  So he let us on, and Mr. Nigeria found us the only empty compartment, where I promptly fell asleep, trying to ignore the feelings stirred by seeing my first dead body, before 7:30 in the morning.

At 8:45 Mr. Nigeria woke me up to kindly let me know that we would be in Florence.  In an hour.  And that he wasn’t going to let me fall back asleep, because otherwise I’d miss my stop.  Thanks.  Trying to figure out how to sleep with my eyes open, I was caught a little off guard when Mr. Nigeria looked at me suddenly and said, “Sarah…I love you.”

9:16 So I spent the next 30 minutes alternately sitting in awkward silence or trying to get him to stop.  How do you reason with somebody who insists that, though you only met a few hours ago (over a dead body, one might reasonably add), there is definitely potential in this marriage?  How do you drive into somebody’s head the idea that you don’t fall in love with everybody you meet?  And how are you supposed to react when he accuses you of being racist?

My solution: leave.  At 10:00 I disembarked in Florence, after spending the rest of the trip standing in the vestibule ignoring the pleading looks that he would occasionally open the compartment door to throw at me.  Checking my bag (though I still was stuck with laptop and small backpack), I set off to explore one of the most enchantingly medieval cities in Europe, though it was pouring rain and miserably cold.

11:20 found me chatting for an hour with an Albanian leatherworker who made me the souvenirs that I keep meaning to give you guys.  I made a point of asking him when the main event of the day, which was Easter, by the way, occurred.  He said it was definitely at 12:00, which was an independent confirmation of what I’d already heard.  I’d been reading about Italy for a while, and most of my guidebooks talked about this fantastic event held only in Florence on Easter Sunday, involving a bishop exploding a cartful of doves?  Or something.

Which does not explain why, at 11:27, the distinctive sound of fireworks sputtered through the rain.  His reply: “you can always see it next year!”

1:00 Having pretended to be part of a nice family I’d met, I skipped the hour-long line to see Michelangelo’s David.  Which changed my entire perspective on art.  It was by far the most amazing thing I saw in Europe.  Everybody has seen replicas in their favorite pizza shop, but trust me: they do not hold a candle to the real thing.  I spent a good 30 minutes standing in one place, staring, open-mouthed.

The rest of the day passed in an exhausted, rainy blur, until, at

5:30 I finally found a coffee shop to spend the last hour before my train left in warmth.  I ordered a cappuccino, then as soon as they brought it, realized that it cost six euros.  Yeah, that’s right, 10 bucks for a friggin cup of coffee.  I tried to nurse it as long as I could, but eventually had to peel myself out of my chair to go catch my train.  As I came out of the bathroom in my exhausted stupor, one of my two bags caught on the doorknob and fell.  As I whirled around to pick it up, my laptop fell, too.  Embarrassed but still trying to pretend like nothing embarrassing was happening, I picked them both up.  And promptly dropped them again.  Having noticed that a nearby French family was giggling, I turned even redder, as I bent down for a third time, and knocked over a large metal garbage can.  Which sealed my fate by producing a gong-like sound as it broke into two pieces.

I had no other recourse at this point but to burst into (slightly hysterical) laughter.  Leaning against the wall for support, tears rolling down my face, I glanced at the French family, thrilled to find that they were laughing, too.  As was the entire cafe.  Waiters hurried over to help me piece together the garbage can and hand me my bags, with many “don’t worry about it”s and “no, really, we don’t need any help”s.  As I was leaving, still bawling with laughter and followed by more eyes than I care to think about, I took a bow (careful not to drop my bags).

7:25 found me huddled in another train carriage, speeding (ok, more like sputtering for the price I paid) towards Milan, shooting apprehensive glances at the new man I was again alone in the compartment with.  Both way into sleeping, we independently decided to move when joined by a family with more kids than could fit in the postage-stamp sized compartment, and I jostled down the train, bumping into innocent passengers with my thirty ginormous bags, until we were unceremoniously told to sit down in the next available compartment, which was, funnily enough, occupied by more kids than could comfortably fit.  But at least these ones were cuter.  I spent the next three hours being talked about in Italian (again, far easier to understand than to be understood in; foreshadowing again?).

10:17 saw me arrive in Milan, instructions to the hostel clutched in my sleep-deadened fingers, confident that I could easily maneuver the two trains and one tram it would take to get me to the end of the directions, which doesn’t explain why at

11:08 I was unceremoniously kicked off the tram that was supposed to be taking me there.  I had hustled onto said tram after waiting thirty minutes on the wrong side of the street, realizing my mistake, just missing the tram going in the right direction, waiting thirty minutes in the freezing cold, getting on and pretending that the ticket I had wasn’t expired because I was too tired to figure out how to buy a new one, then realizing I had no way to determine when I’d gone two stops if I was the only one on the tram and it was only stopping on request.  Solution: push button once, wait for first stop, play confused tourist (easy!) when doors open in front of me but I don’t get off, wait for doors to close plus decent grace period, push button again.  At which point, the driver, clearly completely aware of my whole silly act, slams on the brakes, opens the door, and doesn’t move again until I get off.  Nowhere near my hostel and without walking directions to get there.

So…at 11:15 I knocked on the door showing the only signs of life around, which was opened by a moving-picture-perfect Italian doorman, who obliged me with a bumbling, pidgeon Italian-Spanish-English conversation about who I was and where I was trying to go, made a few phone calls, and directed me down two streets and a five minute walk.  Grazie-ing profusely, I stumbled out of the door and down the streets of Milan to fall, far, far later than my bedtime, into bed.

Whew, what a day.  Wouldn’t it be great to have a nice, long, relaxing sleep after that?  Sure would.  Too bad I was up at 4:30 the next morning to catch my train to Venice!

I really, really am a masochist at heart.

I won’t say too much about Venice, except that everything they say about it really is true: you’ll get lost, you’ll be amazed that the whole town is caught in a fairy tale and yet still doesn’t hesitate to charge you ten euros for a calzone (damn good calzone, though), you’ll see gondoliers, blah, blah, blah.  I always thought that Disney was a phenomenon relatively contained in America, with that notable mistake Eurodisney, but Venice made me think otherwise: what with the prices, the painfully consistent Venetian theme, and the elbow-to-elbow traffic, no matter which winding alley you turned down, I really couldn’t tell the difference between Epcot and the old town.  But I did spend the six hours I was there for happily meandering around, eating gelato and basking in my last Italian sun.  Or rather, rain.

Having decided not to pay the overpriced hostels in Venice, and desperately wanting to stay two nights in one place, I returned in one piece to Milan that night, showered and packed, finished my ten euro calzone, and crashed, only to wake up early again the next morning to catch my flight to Barcelona.

Stupid airport mistake number two: assuming that, just because the security lines in all the other airports thus far have been non-events, the one in the titchy little Milan airport will be similarly negligible.

I arrived three hours ahead of time.  I checked in.  I tried to find more pizza (even at 8 in the morning).  Then I sat, basking in the joy of finally not having to move for a few hours, until my alarm went off (see! I was taking extra precautions!) 45 minutes before my flight left so I could make my way to the gate from the seating area.  I found myself momentarily panicking at the line for security, but, realizing there was nothing I could do about it, took a deep breath and waited, and hoped, until I reached the front with 15 minutes to spare…only to see a sign on the metal detector: Security Line B: for all domestic flights.  And a similarly blasé sign pointing to significantly longer Security Line A: for all international flights.  AKA, Barcelona.  Thanks, guys, for making that clear only at the front of the line.

Unable to really get a grip on my fear now, I hurried to the end of the other line, knowing that I hadn’t a hope, when I spotted a quick-pass gate, staffed by a flight attendant, intended only for first-class passengers of a certain airline.  Crossing my fingers, I held out my ticket, quietly explained my mistake, watched her purse her lips, and, miraculously, wave me through.  Wherever you are, randomly kind woman, thank you, thank you, thank you.

So I made my flight, made it to Barcelona (which you should all be pronouncing in your heads Barthelona), made it to my hostel, and crashed on my bed to finally read up about the city with which I was soon to fall deeply in love.

I have very few words to describe my enchantment with Barcelona.  Honestly, I’m not even quite sure where it comes from.  I know that it’s mostly the responsibility of the architect Gaudi, whose stories-high works of art saw me actually on the verge of tears, standing in the middle of the ongoing construction of La Sagrada Familia, laughing aloud at the eternal vagary of Parque Guell, and eagerly scraping together the last 98 euro cents I would spend in his most perfectly delightful market.  But I don’t know why two days of constant sightseeing, something that, when done alone, I had long renounced as a productive way to travel, left me consistently moved to tears or laughter.  I guess it was that by that time in my trip, I had finally mastered the art of traveling cheaply yet happily, at least as much as it can be mastered.  Barcelona was my perfect playground, a flirtatious finale of everything that is good about traveling.

I also bought my sister a guitar, handmade in Spain and hand-carried through five airports, for her birthday, which I’m still considering keeping.

Needless to say, I was flatly surprised to find myself unceremoniously boarding the plane for the last time (save five changes…damn cheap tickets), neither sad nor happy to be writing the final the end on the last vacillation of the story that had been my life for six months.  Not that I ever do finish traveling, really.  Or writing my story.  So isn’t it appropriate that I’m only finishing recording all of this (which has been more for me than for you all along, I’m afraid to say), almost exactly a year from the day I first left for Ireland?

…but wait…what is that unsettling little tickle I feel as I sign a year-long lease on a house in Seattle…?  Something tells me this blog won’t remain dormant for long...

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