BEFORE I LEFT
In October 2010, my roommate at that time and I decided to take a trip together. We chose Costa Rica! Yay! I had been wanting to go there FOREVER. I'm a teacher at a year-round school, so I have two weeks off in December, and the roommate would be on break from nursing school. All we need to do was buy the plane tickets (and plan the trip...but the important thing, in my opinion, is to actually get there). Well, I kept saying something and saying something, and she kept saying reasons and excuses to hold off...until it was too late. :( I moved in with a new roommate at the end of November (not because that last one ruined by winter vacation, although it was a sore point). This roommate worked at the same school with me, and we had a two week break coming up in March. So, we decided to go to Italy together. Yay! I had been wanting to go there FOREVER. So we talked and talked, and I even bought a travel book for us to pore over. And then, come beginning of January, she decided that she couldn't afford the plane ticket. Argh. :(
Well, I was not about to let a bailing travelmate spoil my dreams for a second time. I decided to go alone. I have never taken a vacation by myself before. But I figured, I moved to Austin by myself, so surely I can do this myself, too. I spoke with a trusted friend who had been to Italy before, and he had every confidence that I'd be fine on my own. So, one afternoon at the end of a school day, I bought myself a plane ticket! Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhh! I ran down the hall and opened of the door of any teacher still there - "I'm going to Italy! I'm going to Italy!" I cried out, jumping up and down in giddy circles. I don't think you could have slapped the smile off my face if you tried.
So, now that I was definitely going, what to do? I decided to couchsurf my way through Tuscany. I’ve always had romantic ideas of Tuscany, maybe from the book Under the Tuscan Sun, or maybe I’ve just made up dreamy scenes in my mind…but I knew I wouldn’t have enough time to explore all of Italy, so I settled on this region. (If you haven’t heard of couchsurfing before, please check out my explanation on the home page. It’s an incredible way to travel, and I can’t recommend it enough. If you’re curious about what it’s like to couchsurf, please continue to read.
I spent time crafting my couchsurf request and then translating it into Italian. I wanted to be polite and make my introduction in their native tongue. Alas, I was unlucky finding anyone to stay with in Siena, one of the cities I wanted to visit, so I decided to broaden my search. I figured anywhere I stayed would be new and interesting to me, right? So, I started contacting people in towns I had never heard of, until I was invited to stay with Claudio in Livorno. Sounds good to me! That would be my starting point, and I made arrangements to stay with four others on my trip. It was all planned! Now all that was left was to pack and go!
I'm sitting in the airport at my terminal - D11. The excitement and nerves coursing through my body are intense. When I approached the line for security, boarding pass and passport in hand, I felt an overwhelming sensation and thought I was going to cry. "Why?" I wondered. Not from sadness...fear? Maybe. Really, I think my happiness reached the tippy-top of the emotional continuum, so it had to cycle around to sensations on the opposite end. This is incredible. Am I glowing? Do others see and feel the gleefulness that flows through me? This will be one of my greatest adventures, or perhaps the first of many great adventures. Thank you, universe.
I have been on European soil for the first time, though I have yet to touch it. I have my first stamp in my passport - Amsterdam. The flight over was long, but thankfully I slept through most of it. I also slept through dinner and breakfast, but I don't really feel like I missed out. The Amsterdam airport was easy to navigate, and I even had time to exchange my American dollars for Euros ($1000 --> $670). My goal is to have this last me all twelve days. It is interesting hearing so many languages around me. I can't wait to begin using my (limited) Italian! Just a few more hours... I plan on sleeping for the duration of this flight, too. Right now I'm six hours ahead of Texas - 3:00 am at home. No wonder my head hurts with tiredness. Getting hungry, but I'm holding to have my first taste of Europe in Rome. :)
Sonno sorride. :) Roma sta crazy! I land in Rome. I follow the signs that look like a train to a ticket counter, where I ask for a ticket to Roma Termini, the main train station in Rome. There are only three tracks, and I'm directed to #2. I board the train with a throng of other travelers and take it to the Termini. Easy enough, I say to myself, I'm pretty good at this foreign travel. When I arrive, I need to buy a ticket to Livorno. But where do I buy the ticket? I walk, I look for signs, I see nothing. For the first time, I'm beginning to stress. I don't understand anything. I ask someone, and they tell me to go downstairs. I go downstairs and find a grocery store. I ask the checkout boy, and he tells me something, but I don't understand. Grazie, I say politely, and I leave. Next, I walk to the convienence store, also downstairs, and ask the cashier - She directs me back upstairs, to the left, all the way to the end of the platform (I think). I follow her directions, looking for signs, but no luck. I eventually see a sign for customer service, which is a good enough sign for me, and they manage to direct me to the ticket counter. Already I am learning my first lesson: Not understanding the language makes the simplest tasks much more difficult. It is frustrating. It is scary. I must ward off feelings of helplessness and remain determinedly optimistic. Finally, finally, I buy my ticket (final destination Ventimiglia), departing at 15:46, and I will get off in Livorno. Huge sign of relief...
Okay, I'm feeling better now. I even begin to smile. Small bump, but I can handle a foreign country with a foreign language, no problem. I walk to the Departures board, find my time, find my destination, and see it leaves from binario (track) 20. I look and look, but now I can't find track 20. When I do find it, the sign says Cassino. Huh? I ask a passenger if this train is going to Ventimiglia, but he says no, it's going to Cassino. I look at the Departures board again. 20. I keep asking for Ventimiglia, and they keep telling me to check the board, and the board still says 20, but everyone else says not 20. "Dove? Dove?" (Where? Where?) I ask. Paranoid thoughts creep into my mind of being trapped at Roma Termini because no one can understand me well enough to help me find my train. I show my ticket AND the board to someone, and they say 20. I go back to 20 and ask another passenger, and they say, "No, Cassino." I'm confused. I'm so, so confused. And overwhelmed. Again. I look at the clock hanging along the track; it's almost quarter til. I go back and forth between the board and the train. I can't understand, and no one understands me. The doors begin to close on the train. Shit, I'm going to miss my train, I think. I'm starting to panic again, feeling like I might cry, but I just plaster a smile on my face. I ask another passenger, show him my ticket, plead with my eyes. No, no, he tells me, the next one, I'm too early. Ohhh... The next train. Uh, 15:46 is 3:46, not 2:46. Oops. And lesson #2 presents itself: Learn military time.
With that figured out, now I have time to pay attention to the hunger gnawing on my stomach. I find a little place selling gelato (how could gelato, what I've dreamed about, not be the first Italian food I eat???). I order a piccalo with fragoles and banane (small with strawberry and banana). Mmm, delicious. I find a little bench on the 20 line, so I will be here when my train arrives. At this point, I'm not taking any chances. While I'm enjoying my gelato, a man comes up to me, trying to sell me socks. "Non, grazie," I say politely. He keeps talking, but I don't understand. "Non Italiano?" he asks. "Non, non." "Anglais?" he asks. "Ci, ci." He leaves and comes back a minute later, talks to me some more. We have a hard time understanding each other. Where am I from? he asks in Italian. "America." Oh. "Tua bambina Americano?" (You are an American girl?) "Ci, Ci," I respond, excited that I'm understanding anything. Are you here alone (en Italiano)? "Ci, ci." ...More I don't understand. Finally, I figure out that he's asking me to marry him and bring him back to America! I laugh. "Non! Non! Non l'uomo Italiano con mia a America." I cry out. I laugh some more. Why? he asks. "L'uomo, a man, back in America," I explain. Oh, he says, I am here, but I have a man back home. "Un braccio," he says, as he blows me a kiss and walks away. I blow him a kiss back. My first Italian conversation! I enjoy the rest of my gelato in peace. Shortly after, my train arrives. Before boarding, I cross paths with Carlos, the sock seller, again. "Ciao, bella," he says. "Ciao!"
Oh my God, finding this train was nerve-wracking for a little bit there. At least the 10 - 12 people I approached were all friendly. It's not their fault I can't speak their language. I'm wishing now that I had spent more time practicing Italian - oh well. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing Claudio, hoping he knows as much English as I think he does. Speaking of, I dial Claudio's number to let him know my arrival time. Unfortunately, my phone, even though I was told it would work in Italy, doesn't want to make the call. Great. After trying a few times, to no avail, I start thinking about options. There is a middle-aged couple sitting next to me, and they seem pleasant enough. In a mixture of English and Italian, I manage to explain my situation, and the gentleman kindly allows me to use the phone to call Claudio. Together, we contact Claudio and through a scratchy connection manage to convey the message.
I lean my head against the window and look out at the passing landscape. Wow, I can't believe I'm looking at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean right now. While I slept, an entire ocean passed beneath me... It looks the same, but instead of feeling disappointed, I am enchanted with the idea of people so far apart enjoying the same view...
I get to the Livorno Centrale train station, and, of course, I have no idea where the buses are. I get to play the "I pretend to speak Italian, and then I pretend to understand your Italian" until I eventually due manage to locate the buses. And then I can't figure out how to buy a ticket. Why are such simple things suddenly so difficult??? Eventually, it's figured out. I get to my stop - Piazza del Republique. My texts aren't working. No Claudio. I try calling again (yay, it works this time!) - his phone goes straight to voicemail. Hmmm... a policeman. "Dove il Piazza del Mille?" I ask. He points me in the general direction. Someone notices I'm lost. I show him the address. Together, we ask two others, and we find Claudio's door. "Grazie, grazie," I say. I am SO grateful for the kindess of strangers. I push the buzzer next to C. Tofani. Long. No answer. Again, harder; maybe it's finicky? No answer. Hmmm. I wander, thinking I'll find a place to sit and wait. I decide on Mary Angel Cafe - it looks pleasant, a place where I could maybe get something to eat and linger. I walk back to Claudio's and leave a note on his door. Walk back to the cafe. Use the bathroom - no toilet paper, and I can't figure out how to flush or use the sink. It's actually a bar, and I only see pastry (I later discover that all bars are actually called cafes in Italy). As much as I want to sit, as hungry and thirsty as I am, I'm not in the mood for a beer and croissant. This isn't going to work. Change of plans. I dial Simone, and it rings - actually, it's more of a long beep - and I pray silently, "Please answer, please answer." A boy walks by and winks at me. That makes my situation a teeny bit more bearable. "Ci?" a voice. "Simone???" "Ci." And out my story spills. I sit on a bench and wait for my hero to arrive. Simone is on his way to get me. My journey to Italy, entering the god-knows-what hour, might finally be reaching a destination.
When Simone approaches, I can't help but give him a huge hug. It feels so GOOD to finally make contact with someone, to no longer be solo, to talk with someone that actually understands me! He takes me back to his home and presents me with an impromptu dinner of coppa (meat), peccorino (sheep cheese - my first time trying this, and it's delicious), brie, bean soup, and cookies for dessert. I sip my first taste of Italian coffee – which is nothing like American coffee. It’s strong and good (and needs lots of sugar), comparable to an American espresso. Over coffe, Simone translate some phrases for me: "Sono fellicia," is “I am happy,” and "Mia biache il vino," is “I like wine.”
Simone's a gracious host, repeatedly encouraging me to relax and make myself at home, treating me like an old friend. It’s late, so shortly after dinner, it’s time for bed – it’s been a VERY long day. I’m confused by the mini-sink next to the toilet in the bathroom – Is it an Italian custom to wash hands in a different sink after using the toilet? Clueless, I leave it alone (and later discover that, in fact, it’s not intended for washing hands…). I sleep well on an air mattress in the living room.
I wake up and open the shutters to look out on the narrow Italian street. My first day in Italy! I breathe deeply the salty, coastal air… We eat a breakfast of eggs, cheese, meat and coffee at Simone’s, then prepare to explore Livorno, a poor port town, and the surrounding area. The day is beautiful – bellissimmo! We ride his motorbike, and I’m excited to be his first passenger, since he only got it last week. The road winds along the coastline – which I discover, to my acute embarrassment, that it’s actually the Mediterranean, not the Atlantic…duh. Guess I need to brush up on my geography…
It is intensely fun riding on the motorbike, as we apparently don’t have to follow any traffic rules: we just drive between two lanes of traffic or squeeze past on the curb. The air takes on a brisk chill, so I stick my hands in his jacket pockets to keep them warm. Simone takes me to Cala del Leone, a beautiful beach accessed by walking down a long flight of stairs carved in stone. I find small treasures on the beach – lira (old Italian money) and groppa [spelling?] (a stone found only in these region). I inquire about a castle on a nearby cliff, and I’m in shock when I learn that it’s actually someone’s home! What is must be like to live in Castella Sydney, I wonder…
Then we ride to Castilioncello, a small town nearby. It’s a very popular summer destination, but right now it’s quiet, closed up, and practically empty. It’s a very pretty spot, though, and I can imagine the throngs of summer vacationers walking along the quaint sidewalks, sitting outside the cafes, and sunning on the beach. As we’re heading back to Livorno, I keep noticing signs with a word slashed out by a thick, red line and surrounded by a thick, red circle. It brings to mind the Ghostbusters sign, and I’m wondering, No what? When I ask Simone about them, it has nothing to do with banishing ghosts or banishing anything – the sign marks when you’re leaving a city or town.
Simone asks me if I’d like to eat at the ostrichaia for lunch. It’s a local restaurant right on the water that serves local cuisine. Well, I think, I’ve never eaten ostrich before, but I figure part of experiencing a country is tasting local flavors. Besides, I like other poultry, so I’ll probably like this as well… You cannot imagine my shocked realization when I discover that ostrich had nothing to do with birds in Italy. It’s shellfish. Gag. I have never touched shellfish in my life, nor have I had any desire to do so. It’s mushy and gross, like eating a slug. So, it’s not a pleasant surprise when a large dish of shells and their slimy insides are placed on the table. Well, the last thing I want to do is insult my host, or seem unappreciative, so I gather my courage. Game on, Melissa. There is shellfish from France (capansanta) and Livorno (tartufa). I tip it into my mouth, trying to let it land as far back in my throat as possible, in order to avoid as many taste buds as possible. It slides down quickly in one gulp, leave a salty aftertaste. “It tastes like the ocean,” I say. And it does. I can just go swimming in the ocean for the same flavor, but with the added bonus of no slimy accompaniment. I gulp down a few more, so as not to be rude. They’re not horrible, but they’re definitely not good. Who knows, perhaps a lover of shellfish would think these are amazing. But not me.
We stop at Terrazza Mascagni, a beautiful plaza along the sea, before parking his bike at home.
Today I continue my journey. Simone take the train to Pisa for work, and he suggests I come along to check it out. I really wasn’t interested in this tourist monument, but since it’s on the way… I also decide to stop in Florence for a few hours, also on my way. Simone helps me buy a train ticket from Livorno to Arezzo (my final destination), that’s good for 24 hours, so I can make these stops without having to buy new tickets each time. On the train, I study the map, confused when I can’t find Florence. "Is Firenze near Florence?" I ask. Simone bursts out laughing. "Firenze is Florence," he explains. Wow, good thing I asked - would have been difficult to find my train otherwise. Why do we change the names of cities? It makes no sense to me.
Simone and I part ways at his work, and I continue down the street to the infamous leaning tower of Pisa. And that’s exactly what it is. A leaning tower. With lots of scaffolding because it’s currently under construction. Hmmm… Perhaps the multitudes see a fascinating tower, an amazing feat of architecture, but it’s lost on me. Still, I do the proper tourist thing and take pictures. I notice an old man eyeing me as I'm photographing the tower and church. I am weary. Is he choosing an easy target? Looking for someone from which to pickpocket? I am a young girl traveling alone. He finally approaches me, asks where I'm from, am I traveling alone, do I like Pisa? I'm pleased that I'm getting better at understanding Italian. He invites me for coffee. “Non,” I politely refuse. Why? I say that it's time to meet the man I'm with who works here (which is sort of true). He compliments my hair. He walks with me, and then says his goodbyes. So bold and full of flattery. I must admit, I enjoy this unabashed appreciation Italian men express. I appreciate their willingness to speak honestly, the sincerity in their words, the lack of fear in speaking kindly, which I find so many Americans reluctant to express. I don’t find this attention an invasion of my personal space or crossing a line at all, although I can see how some might feel uncomfortable.