PART I: FIRST DAY IN FLORENCE
Kay put it best: “If Florence were a person, you’d hate her for being so perfect, but only because you’re a bad person.”
After arriving in Florence, it became my favorite of the visited Italian cities almost immediately. The sun was warm, but not as abusive as it had been in the other cities. There was everything to look at—it seemed like every bridge, tributary, building, sculpture, hill, cathedral, and really everything else, too, was lovely and picturesque. Florence’s seemingly effortless charm and beauty was complimented by an atmosphere that just felt more relaxed than anywhere else we’d been thus far.
Our hostel was even the best hostel yet! The walls of every public area were covered in recreated classic paintings, we were loaned free lockers, breakfast was free, there were cold water dispensers, and we could buy bottles of wine for 3€!
Walking around Florence, we became lost, and we embraced our lostness. We hiked up a steep and treed hill to find some impressive statues, a resplendent view of colored buildings with copper-colored roofs, arranged just behind the river, and several cathedrals, each majestic and with artistic details dipping into and protruding from their massive walls. We gave a good portion of our time to one cathedral in particular. The inside was colorful and unlit, and it was all quiet. Paintings and sculptures of Jesus were positioned every couple meters it seemed. I took some pictures (without flash), though I think I read a sign later that said it wasn’t allowed. I went downstairs. Collections of lit tea lights sat on plates on either side of a massive tomb, sealed away from the tourists and scurrying monks by a giant plate of glass (just like in the Bible). The tomb was massive and if a monk walked by–I saw one, young and copper-skinned, do this–he would turn towards the tomb, kneel, cross himself quickly and silently, and continue to where he was going. Unlit candles sat on a small column for people to light. I lit one. I didn’t exactly understand what doing so represented, but it seemed respectful, and I felt like being respectful.
In Italy sometimes the bike lanes are on the sidewalks, which is pretty obnoxious. Other times, the bike lanes are not on the sidewalks, and lackadaisical cyclists will still take up most of the space on the path. Ugh, is this how drivers in Chicago feel about me cycling in the street? At one point while walking, my mind was lost in Florence’s aesthetic charm, making my eyes farsighted and unaware of whatever might be nearby. It was at this moment that a sluggish and inaudible bike-rider would have ran my heels over from behind me, had Kay not yanked me out of the way like a protective mother.
That night Kay and I had dinner in our hostel, and I bought one of the inexpensive (yet still quite tasty) bottles of wine. We discussed what our day tomorrow in Cinque Terre might be like, shared stories about our mutual friends, and eventually revealed our impressions of each other when we first met in Australia the year prior. I had a crush on Kay when I was in Australia visiting my best friend, but she didn’t learn this until we reunited over drinks in Italy. My Australian travel schedule kept Kay and I from seeing too much of each other, but pursuing the foregone crush would have been in vain anyway, as she was seeing someone at the time. This we also chatted about. It was a surprisingly fun talk, and not at all awkward. Now mutually crushless (or would it be un-crushed?), Kay and I existed comfortably as traveling companions who are only often mistaken as being a couple. This relational arrangement was simpler, and our pragmatic principles kept feelings from straying—besides, some fraction of each of our hearts belonged to someone in our respective home countries.
We bought another bottle of wine.
We talked about breakups, beauty and self esteem, and some other things which have slipped my mind (since, at that point, the wine had made my mind start slipping).
We had been sitting in the hostel’s lovely courtyard, but now we tottered inside to avoid the hungry mosquitos. The wine was gone again. Kay wanted to stay up and keep drinking, and so after killing two bottles as a team, we each bought a completely unnecessary bottle of Peroni. It escapes me if we actually finished our beers, but we later both made it to our bunk beds just fine, and in pitch blackness, without waking our roommates. I remember chugging water and removing my socks, soaking them in water from the sink, and putting them back on my feet (I think I remembered Ron Swanson, a fictional character from television, saying this was a hangover-prevention method). However, I still woke up hungover.
PART II: CINQUE TERRE
The cold shower only soothed my dehydrated body and pounding headache for a moment. I was unsure if I had an appetite, but breakfast seemed like a good idea; I sipped coffee and forced eggs into my dithering stomach. We ate quickly and got a move on.
After walking a few blocks to the train station, we found the meeting point for our walking tour of Cinque Terre. A young half-Italian man was holding a sign that said “WALKABOUT,” which was the name of our tour. With his soft voice he directed us to the charter bus, which would take us on a two hour ride to the rugged coastal villages.
Kay and I sat down, and I put in my headphones so that I could sleep enough of this hangover away that it wouldn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the upcoming hikes. BUT ALAS I COULD NOT SLEEP. Because these two sweethearts, our tour guides Alex and Julian, spoke into the bus microphone for nearly the entirety of the ride. And their voices were not soothing, and their content was not interesting, so I was neither able to sleep, nor compelled to stay awake to hear any more.
I rarely experience rage, and frankly I tend to carry a disrespect for any of the hot-tempered and persistently irritable people with whom I’ve ever had the misfortune of enduring an interaction, but dadgummit if I wasn’t teeming with anger at the inane and poorly-delivered comments which delayed my precious sleep and therefore my recovery from my hangover-produced headache. My headache made it feel like my brain was growing horns, which came to a point, and put pressure against the inside of my skull, as if I had been cuckolded by last night’s drinks. Because these phantom horns could never actually penetrate my skull, like some sort of reverse craniotomy, it felt as if my whole brain was throbbing and then the waves of pain landed at a precise destination at the top of my cranium. It was horrible. And my increased pain only increased my anger, which only increased my pain, which only increased my anger, and so on and so on. And my outrage also increased with every sentence the guides spoke. They rarely had an interesting fact to deliver about whatever area we were driving through, but that didn’t keep them from having something to say. Alex, for example, went on a few tangents about his upbringing and his future plans. He’d also throw out some needless “facts,” like, “See that IKEA? A lot, a lot of people will be there today I bet, I mean, be-because they have, like, really good air conditioning.” I think the brothers Alex and Julian, our faltering local experts, thought they were bringing their own brand of adorable sagacity to the table, but their comments came at the wrong time for me, and my pointy brain couldn’t have found their words less profound. Alex’s English was perfect, but his public speaking was appalling. Rambles composed his sentences, and his phrasing was butchered by arbitrary stutters—and not because he actually had a stutter, but because he lacked confidence in just about everything he said. As someone who considers himself a confident speaker, and as someone who apparently loses all empathy when he’s even a little bit uncomfortable, the guides’ inability to speak well made me hate them all the more.
My only option was “fake it ’til you make it”—I just tried to mentally lock out any noise that existed outside of whatever came through my earphones, and I pretended to fall asleep, until I finally was.
I woke up when it was time to leave the bus and begin our first hike. Cinque Terre is composed of five villages (“Cinque Terre” means “Five Lands”), which are built on steep hillsides above the coastline; our hike was to start at Manarola, which is considered the “second” of the five villages.
I wasn’t hungover anymore. But I was still pretty sleepy, and the mostly-downhill hike to the Manarola train station was a splendid way to simultaneously awaken and accustom myself with Cinque Terre’s steep, sun-soaked trails.
Cinque Terre didn’t feel like a real place. With its apparent lack of industry, beautifully terraced agriculture, various strange plants (which seem to have been shaped from the mind of Dr. Seuss), and warm-colored buildings and homes huddled together up and down green slopes and atop protruding peninsulas, all with the backdrop of the bluest sea I’ve ever seen, Cinque Terre felt like some sort of obscure island protected from tourism, when it is actually quite the opposite: This collection of “hidden” villages actually contain more tourists than proper residents (also, it isn’t an island at all). But the folks who live in these darling cliffside homes don’t seem to mind the daily throngs of travelers. They waved at us kindly as we hiked and sweated past them.
High on the hiking trail I could see people sitting on long rocks, which poked out just above the seawater. Others were swimming near them in the glassy blue water. My hat had already absorbed all the sweat it could, causing unsoaked sweat to drip down my face, and being in that water was all I wanted to do. On the hike the guides made an effort to get to know their travelers a little better, and so I talked to Alex and Julian while walking down the trail. I hated them a lot less now that I felt a little more like myself, and also because the conversation was mostly questions about me, and I selfishly love being interviewed.
Like many others throughout our trip, Alex was fascinated that an Australian and an American met up in Italy to travel for two weeks, after not communicating outside of mailed letters for the better part of a year. Oh, and on top of that, they aren’t romantically linked. Most of the people we’ve met have assumed we’re a couple, and understandably so. We do, after all, refer to ourselves as “we” and start a lot of opinionated sentences with “we.” (“We loved Capri”; “We thought the Blue Grotto part of the tour was overrated”…)
In reference to Kay, Alex asked, “Does she live in Chicago with you now?”
“No,” I said, “We just met up here while she’s studying.”
He confirmed that we weren’t, in fact, a couple. By this point I (or we) had a few stock responses. “We’re not a couple; we fight way less than a traveling couple,” or “We’re not a couple; we’re way less boring than a couple.”
“A lot of Chicagoans are on this tour,” Alex said. “All four of them are teachers, too.”
So, including myself, there were five educators on this one tour, all of whom lived in Chicago. (I was currently without a teaching job, but I had just finished my second year of teaching high school English in Missouri, and was still living off of teacher paychecks, so I still considered myself a teacher at this point. When asked what I do for a living, it was just easier to say “I’m a teacher” instead of “I’m barely a comedian.”) Kay had met two of the teachers, a married couple in their mid-twenties named Sam and Leora. She introduced me. They both teach junior high students at affluent schools in the Chicago suburbs. The three of us immediately bonded over shared teaching experiences and all things Chicago. We talked classroom horror stories, pizza, sports fanatics, bicycle injuries, and the weather (Chicago folks love talking about the weather).
While Kay and I enjoyed our time together, when you’ve spent nearly every waking moment with the same person for days at a time, the company of others is refreshing and gladly received. Leora and Sam are married, and are barely older than myself. And Leora and Sam definitely acted like a married couple, too. They reminded me of the few couples of friends I have that have been together for so long they’ve each broken out of that phase where you stop being interesting to the friends you had pre-relationship, and go back to being a real person, except now you’re fully committed to someone, and you love them and all, but you don’t feel insecure about making fun of them or calling them out on telling a story incorrectly. I really enjoyed talking to them, and I was happy that we met them, and I was happy that they had each other. Something about them made them feel older to me than they really were, and I wondered how long it would take me to be happy with the idea of being married to someone, because that time certainly was not presently, nor in the near future.
(Growing up in an area where it wasn’t so unusual to see a couple married before they finished college, I’m equally fascinated and terrified of the idea of being too committed too young. I’m fine with other people lucking into finding the person with whom they want to spend the remainder of their lives (even if they’re both youngsters), but I can’t even begin to relate to that feeling—that confidence that they’ve got something as big and amorphous as love figured out. I can’t even change a tire; I’ve never cooked rice before—how could I possibly understand or experience a love so certain it compels me to marry?
Sometimes I have a Transcendentalist’s faith in my own feelings (meaning, that what I feel, not what I think, is the inarguable truth), and am certain I once was brimming with love for someone; and yet other times I’m convinced that what I thought might have been love was in fact confused because I was unknowingly trying to force infatuation into the shape of something more meaningful. Folks are fond of quoting 1 Corinthians and saying that Love is “patient” and “kind,” but we forget to mention that it’s subjective, too.
How do people even wind up together?—Two people that just agree they’re going to love each other. That’s crazy.
I wonder: On some subconscious level, do people commit to each other to keep themselves from caring about the people who don’t care about them; in order to peacefully move on from—or convince themselves they’ve moved on from—those past darlings who have already moved on?
Yikes. Where did that come from? OK, I should probably return to Cinque Terre, and in turn stop advertising how amatorially skeptical and unabashedly undatable I am. Despite my own enjoyment of the over-analyzation regarding this too-vast topic, I realize I don’t need to muddle this day’s story with mental detours concerning cynical and unanswerable queries of the heart. That’s something to be saved for a spoken conversation fueled by a bottle and a half of cheap hostel wine.)
Our tour guides said that the lunch planned for us today, which was from a cliff-side Mediterranean seafood restaurant, would be incredible. I wasn’t sure whether or not to believe them, because those two described everything as either “beautiful” or “incredible,” as if they either didn’t quite believe their own words and therefore kept all of their descriptions vague, or they just didn’t know very many adjectives. But they weren’t wrong—the food was incredible (whatever that means!) My meal was basically a medley of seafood, and I started with an anchovy. It was my first time trying the classic cartoon pizza topping, and it wasn’t that bad—it was really salty and oily, and that was weird, and I didn’t want another—but I didn’t hate it. I ate uncooked squid, and I could tell exactly which part of the squid I was eating. I also had octopus, various other fishes, and some potatoes, the latter of which I don’t think came from the sea. I ate with Kay, Sam, and Leora at our four-chaired table. Out of necessity, we reapplied sunscreen when we weren’t eating.
The short hike from Manarola led us to Corniglia, which is considered to be the “third village” of the five. Cornigilia is where we had lunch, and it is also where we started our “long” hike, which would lead us to the next village. (There are no cars in Cinque Terre—the only way to get from one village to another is by walking trail, train, or by boat.) The hike took the four of us around an hour to complete. It mostly consisted of a narrow dirt path, which weaved through the lush vegetation, and up and down the cliffside, occasionally positioning us close enough to the edge of the bluffs to catch spectacular views of the ocean. I was sweating, I was thirsty, I got a big blister on the side of my right foot. It was great.
After arriving in Vernazza, the first thing we did was find a beach. Sam and I thought it might be nice to get our daily fix of gelato before getting salty and sticky in the ocean. But our companions’ determinedness to be surrounded by the cool blueness that had tempted and teased us for so many hot hours outweighed our own dedication to probably anything, especially the idea of slightly-more-pragmatic gelato. We did want to swim as well, so we said OK. Sam had almost developed a mantra by the end of the trip: “I’m easy.” Sam’s preferences were just barely so; he could have fun participating in any events in any order. We were all pretty easy, and even though I’m quite sure I’m very easy, Sam might have been the easiest, though not easily. If Sam’s “easy-ness” is a symptom of his being married, then there were nearly two married couples between the four of us.
The Mediterranean Sea’s water felt so perfect wrapped around my sweaty body that it made enduring the heat worth it—like a happy ending to a clammy fairy tale. Like dummies, Kay and I forgot to bring any swimwear, though, so I went into the sea in nothing but my cotton skivvies. Kay also went into the water, but elected to keep on every article of clothing she was wearing, save for her shoes and socks, which sat unguarded next to all of our shoes and socks on the rocky beach. I didn’t love walking on those rocks—they were shifty and arbitrarily jagged—and I made an effort to tread water while in the sea just to keep from stepping on any unseen sharp things (because I exert extra physical effort when it comes to being a wuss).
Still at the mercy of the tour’s schedule, we had to eventually remove ourselves from the oceanic oasis, in order to explore the rest of this village before it was time to take the train to the next one. We awkwardly made our way back into our shoes (without socks, because we didn’t have towels to dry off our feet) and clothes. We found a gelato shoppe. I had lemon and caramel scoops—the lemon might have been the best flavor I’d tried all trip. We ate with our tiny spoons and sat in the sun.
Kay almost got hit by a train. Standing on the boarding platform, waiting for the train that connects various villages, a train we assumed would stop for us did not. It rushed by us without slowing a bit, blasting wind and mechanic roars past everyone standing at the stop. Kay was standing really close to the rails, and as the blur of metal pushed by her, Leora reached out and hugged her, pulled her away from the edge of the platform. We were all pretty freaked out. Wide-eyed and relieved, we waited for, and then boarded, the next train, which took us to the fifth village (though, it would only be the fourth one that we’d visited yet).
Monterosso involved less seaside/cliffside viewing than the previous villages, and the four of us mostly walked through the sloped streets of the town, peeking into shops and bars. We came across a wine and jam shop, owned by an overtly friendly local. He proudly told us that he had made everything in his store himself, and encouraged us to sample anything we wanted. So we went to town on the wines, jams, and pestos. The owner’s hair was tied into a ponytail, and it was white like his trimmed beard, which seemed especially bright in contrast to his very tanned skin. His smile was as large as it was genuine, and his English was very good.
We were drinking some drink, perhaps limoncello or a red wine, when Leora asked the man, “Do you shoot this or sip it?”
“Ohh, sip. Sip,” said the storeowner, resolutely.
“Do you usually sip in Italy?” asked Kay.
“Yes,” he said, “Everything you must sip. You have to sip. Like when you make love—you sip.”
We all chuckled at that, but not out of disrespect. The phrase took us by surprise, and we laughed while we pretended to understand the sure wisdom which had been just related to us.
We bought crackers, biscuits (and by that I mean cookies), and jams for the boat ride, which would take us to the “first village”—the last village we needed to visit. The combination of boat motor, crashing waves, and wind made consistent conversation impossible, so we had to take a minute to shut up, fill our mouths with cookies, and enjoy seeing where we’d already been from the ocean’s point of view.
Riomaggiore offered one final, and apparently very steep, hike. The hike was optional and Sam and Leora decided to get their money’s worth by burning their calves at the tour’s final attraction. Kay and I did the opposite of seeking more exercise and instead decided to go chase those boat cookies with some more squid. We found a restaurant among the stacked pastel buildings and sat down to eat our first real food since lunch. We also hadn’t pooped all day, so we patronized the restaurant in order to take advantage of their facilities. We ordered calamari and had to eat the poor critter before it could even cool in order to make it back to our bus by departure time. While tasty, the food was overpriced, and we were shocked to find that our bill was much higher than what the menu indicated. Turns out some restaurants in Italy make you pay a “cover charge” just for entering the restaurant, like they’re some terrible American dance club, but with fewer STIs and tribal tattoos.
Kay and I left the restaurant in enough time to get back on the bus, which would take us back to Florence. With our tour guides back in their original positions, van microphone in hand, they managed to spit out that they were going to “reward our efforts” today by letting us rest on the nighttime ride and by not talking to us. I clapped, but for only a second, as a joke just for Kay, but she didn’t find it funny.