Our blazing demeanors hardened as we stepped into a cool mist that was only so thick to send an occasional small drop of rain to the surface. Any pellet that peppered a fiery cheek in the middle of forming an increasingly heated rebuttal instantly evaporated. As if we were performing an interpretive dance of the emotional rise and falls of Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5 in slow motion, we waltzed out of Rome’s railway station emphatically gesturing our arms and stepping in front of each other. Each climactic point emulated the defiance of a trumpet. The chilled, humid air, only to be found at a particular time between winter and spring, wasn’t cold enough to freeze the inopportune quarrel that had begun shortly before just as the aged local rail line between Naples and Rome had reached its destination.
“Dude. We’re on a train in Italy. Stop trying to start a fight.”
“I’m not starting a fight, I’m making a point.”
“Your timing is incredible,” I looked out the window as my passive sarcasm caused my friend a moment of witless frustration. A break in the argument wouldn’t come until we guarded each other’s bags during our separate use of the rusty bathroom in the terminal. Roma Termini was first built in middle of the 19th century. Parts of the original classically designed structure, refortified in spontaneous ways, were still visible within its newer cathedral-like outer shell. We quietly shot snide comments out of the sides of our mouths as we strode through the harbored crowd of thousands towards the massive vaulted entrance.
“Listen, bud, I told you not to start something like this,” I lifted my finger and aimed it at his face.
“Don’t be condescending!”
“I have to be.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means I’m treating you like a child, because you’re acting like one.”
We had reached the curb. My mocking half-cocked smile faded as he stepped in between the lines of taxis and idling cars. Traffic blotted my view after he crossed the street into the old Italian capital without looking back. Refusing to protest his forfeit, I stood defiantly until he reached a dark stone store front with a half lit neon sign for American beer in the window and disappeared around the other side. I finally followed, slowly, in an uninspired effort to find him, but I never did. Suddenly, in an enormous Mediterranean city far from anything I could call home, I was alone.
A small beam of the sun’s blanketing light had found its way past the wall through the glass. The window was carved at the top of a slightly leaned building that overlooked a slowly awakening street. Overcoming what the rest of the light could not, the square of sun projected into the room, reflecting off of millions of once invisible specks, and eventually framing my face in the otherwise shadowy room of my hostel. I grabbed the thin wool blanket and pulled it with me as I shifted to avoid the intrusion. My eyes shot open as I heard a rustling sound that wasn’t mine and noticed that the other beds in the room had been occupied overnight by inflated covers with tuffs of dark hair peeking from underneath. Time to go.
Even though I had shared hostel rooms with strangers before, rather than letting anyone become familiar with my lone situation, I skillfully stuffed clothes into the military green hikers’ backpack that would be accompanying me in my efforts to find my way home to Barcelona. Tapping the breast pocket of my thick peacoat and two front pockets of my jeans, I ensured that my passport, wallet and cell phone were all correctly seated on board. In my wallet remained what was left of my last hundred euros that I had extracted from the cash box the night before. The rest was used to pay for the night at the cheapest hostel I could find, and the seventy-odd euros left couldn’t afford me a plane ticket, nor an international train.
After I accepted that I was on my own, I had found an Internet café and spent a few euros for fifteen minutes online in a room full of Italian urbanites, all of whom were talking and gesturing at little cameras. I hurriedly checked my bank account, found a hostel and plotted the first two legs of train tracks that I would take north towards France. On the way back from Naples I had noticed that the Italian local trains were poorly managed. Not one ticket I had purchased from Milan to Rome to Naples and back had been checked or stamped. Due to my impoverished financials, I formed a plan to sneak my way into unmonitored train cars back along the local tracks, one small train station at a time.
I returned to Roma Termini around 6:30 am. I found platform 11 and sat on a bench in the main corridor to observe people ritually read their tickets, look at the platform, repeat, move down the line of cars counting each number, then triple check their tickets with the help of conductors and finally board the train. Some cars remained unguarded, though. With what I figured was a perfectly nonchalant stride, I remained out of the distance susceptible to communication from anyone and survived uninterrupted all the way to an unguarded car and entered to find rows of open seats. Soon we left for Milan.
Every three sentences of This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I leaned over to look into the next car for ticket checkers.The perhaps irrational fear of waking up in an Italian jail kept me awake.
“TEECKKETTS!” The frequency of my surveillance had dwindled as the prose about Amory Blaine’s self-discovery as part of the lost geneation in the post-World War 1 era absorbed me. The old man in an aged blue jump suit sent the old aluminum car door into the cabin only to barely remain on its hinges. He did a quick scan of the car. As soon as his attention shifted to the old woman grumbling angrily for having been abruptly woken up, I grabbed my bag and casually went the opposite direction. Within seconds the neighbor of the still rattling train door quietly closed behind me.
In one swift movement, I swung into the bathroom backpack first. Over the next half hour my shoulders bounced off both walls as I continued to read on the toilet seat. When a girl’s voice crackled something in Italian through the speaker, I finally peeked around the bathroom door, offered a weak smile to the overweight, leather skinned man waiting to use the bathroom and found a new seat.
The train reached Milan in the middle of the afternoon where I found a small corner table in the station’s coffee shop. With a map and a schedule covering every inch of my makeshift desk, I found a string of tracks to Montpellier. After finding the train lines in the schedule, it became apparent that hopping border-to-border on various local trains wasn’t a one-day feat. Turin, the small town in northern Italy that once hosted the Olympics, would be as far as I could make it from Rome on the first day. I would reach the mountain metropolis around eight in the evening, and the local schedules wouldn’t continue until the next morning. A thousand miles on trains that topped out at forty-five miles per hour and only three times a day; it would be a long trip.
Soon, I found myself in another train bathroom not even ten minutes after the train lurched towards Turin. Hungry and anxious with my mind racing, I eventually returned to a seat tattered with pealing pleather no longer retaining any comfortable amount of cushion, and I began to reflect.
A month before, while journaling the events of my travels, I had noted that we had become close friends and that I would enjoy exploring Europe with our similar outlooks on life persuading our adventures. Isolated in foreign lands, far from the reality of home and our mutual interests, I began to see our friendship as a mirror reflecting many aspects of my own personality. I soon discovered that I did not like what I saw.
Looking out at the streaming mesh of Italian landscape, it gradually became clear that my distaste of his dispositions had little to do with how I now felt about our friendship and more with how I felt about myself. As the revelation crystallized, all I wanted was to distance myself from the reflection. I needed a new view.
My forehead screeched across the window and the breaks shook me forward into consciousness.
The affect of the Olympics on Turin is more than apparent. Directly outside the railway station are several blocks of modern designer stores all of which proudly gushed light into the dusky stretches of granite resembling the touristy main street of a resort town in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Unfortunately, it was just as expensive as a resort town, and as I scoured the information guide for any provider of food selling within my budget, options such as sleeping in the train station began to increasingly seem like a probability.
It was getting darker and less people shuffled between the storefronts. I found a little hotel called Hotel Roma around the corner from the main street and entered through an elaborately designed Baroque style door into an equally impressive interior. I almost turned around and left immediately, but with the nearest hostels being miles away and closing their offices at nine, I had to at least ask.
“Hi, English?” I rested my hands on the desk in front of a blue-eyed thirty-something wearing a puffy white button down.
“Yes. How maay I help youu?” her English pronunciation was elongated by her northern Italian accent.
“How much is your cheapest room?”
“Foorty euros for uh a wana bed room.”
Groaning to a stuttered halt, the ancient mismatch of railroad cars jerked me awake from yet another short nap. Relieved that my backpack was still by my side, I shook myself into awareness so that I could remember which stop I had reached. France must be close. I lazily stood into the dusty light, and walked past the rows of seats and down the stairs onto the platform. With fifteen euros left in my wallet, two more days of trains, and an afternoon of hunger to go, I took a deep breath in and a panoramic look at my surroundings.
As the border hub between two countries, Ventimiglia’s station was the most well kept that I had seen since Rome. Squinting in the mid-afternoon sunlight I could see six empty tracks paralleled across a gravel bed and back dropped by a wall of mountains. The vibrantly green ridges were spotted with lazy sun-beaten trees and perched houses each displaying the same burnt shade of orange on their tiled roof. I suddenly realized I had come to the edge of a famous region: the French Riviera. Signs with international symbols guided me to the station lobby. Many small red light bulbs on a large screen displayed the schedule of departures conveying to me that I had a couple of hours to explore.
Outside the station I was faced with a street of storefronts neatly inhabiting stretches of uniformed sandstone colored walls topped with the same orange roof shingles. A small back road extended to the left and led my eyes towards the base of the mountain and inexplicably prompted me to seek higher ground. I followed the alley to a bridge that crossed above the tracks towards the upwards slope. I climbed higher and higher focusing on simply not collapsing into the impressively steep road under the weight of my backpack. A small car crawled by, somehow. Each house I passed appeared to be embedded into the hill as if they had been flung by a giant. Balconies, hanging accessibly into the street, sported extravagant plants and furniture so welcoming that I ached to steal a nap in one of the many hanging bowl chairs.
The struggle to continue higher in my exhausted, famished state brought the recent events to the forefront of my mind. I could have called home to be bailed out of the situation by my family. Many would have; the well-travelled included. Perhaps I wanted to prove I could navigate such a challenge. Without much hesitation, I followed through with the help of no one’s by my own.
I didn’t realize how far I had ascended. Turning finally, the sight that extended to what seemed like the edge of the world lay in front of me like a giant painting. Rolling out of the brilliantly blue Mediterranean were mountains stretched along the coast into the horizon. Perfectly sprawled along the shore, the town harmonized with congruently toned buildings thriving between the two picturesque natures. I don’t think I blinked for minutes as the image melted into my mind. Like life itself, beauty lay before me: freedom.