Our sojourn through Italy had started off terribly. We were somewhere in the deserted streets of Savona at three in the morning, wandering through the rain, only to end up in a wailing train terminal where we found a bit of comfort and sleep in the cramped confines of a photo booth. Jason and I eventually caught a regional train and bounded off blindly to Genoa or any city that would get us one step closer to my family in Livorno. Our transfer in La Spezia was cancelled due to an assault of some kind and the police had ordered that the train stop indefinitely. We weren’t all that far from Spain, but we felt further than ever from any sense of familiarity. We had predicted quite poorly that our grasp of Spanish would be of some use in Italy, but quickly found that even saying “por favor” instead of “por favore” didn’t quite translate.
After paying a small fee to use the public bathrooms at the station and killing time at the McDonald’s cafe we eventually caught our train to Livorno. The view was incredible. Old brick houses wrapped down lush hilltops like rows of steps descending into the sea. The villages were nestled in between and around old churches, ancient castles, and crumbling forts. I caught a glimpse here and there during a restless nap across the Tuscan countryside.
Staring out the window of the train provided a great opportunity for reflection and assessment. The time spent trying to get warm enough to fall asleep in the train station photo booth definitely qualifies as the lowest moment for this trip so far. I’m not forgetting the evening I “slept” with a knife in one hand and a flashlight in the other, anxiously awaiting attackers who never came nor the 17 kilometer hike the following morning. It’s just that I would definitely rather relive the whole episode than have to endure anything like our hellish ferry ride to Italy and the subsequent evening spent wandering around in the rain. In Southern Portugal we faced down danger and escaped unscathed. Between our departure from Barcelona and our randomly hopping on the right train for Livorno we were in fact quite scathed. We looked like it and we smelled like it. The view was nice enough, in between stations that is. Somewhat ironically to me, every train station we passed through in liberal, market-friendly Italy looked like what I think most Americans envision when they hear the word “Soviet.” It was cold, grey, run down, and in need of some attention. That goes just as much for structures as it does the people milling about in them.
I woke up just outside the Livorno station. I remember thinking how impoverished the neighborhood looked. There was a section of tracks where decommisioned passenger cars had been left to rust and decay, skeletal structures of steel supports replaced any signs of arboreal life, metal towers loomed over the hunched passengers in queue to board their next train, and the inhospitable colors of grey and brown dominated the landscape. Even the graffiti looked uninspired, unmotivated, and filled with a ghostly angst as if the artists had all been painting in their sleep. Jason and I exited the train and made our way to the front of the station. The sky was overcast and it was obivous that the whole region had been recently hit by a thunderstorm. We stood out awkwardly with our tall, skinny bodies and large backpacks. Everywhere we went in search of a wifi connection we caught curious stares from the passing locals.
“I don’t think a lot of tourists come to Livorno,” I said.
We walked several blocks, stopping at every coffee shop and bar to ask in Spanish, then English, then in the few Italians words we knew if they had a wifi connection we could use. Not a single shop had internet.
“I can’t believe no one has wifi,” Jason said.
My aunt was expecting us, but without a phone we were completely reliant on the internet to send out word of our arrival. Almost none of the pay phones worked and the ones that did were too confusing to feed any more euros into the hollow, unyielding slots.
“Let’s ask if we can use their phone,” Jason suggested, as we approached the ninth coffee shop in ten blocks.
There were a few people smoking out front and two of them rushed inside when they saw that we were potential customers.
“Do you speak English?” Jason asked.
The man behind the counter called to the woman still smoking outside. She put her cigarette out, came inside, and introduced herself saying that she spoke a little English.
Jason explained our situation and asked, “If we buy something would it be possible to use your phone?”
The man behind the counter let me borrow his cell phone and I tried the two numbers I had. Neither of them worked on his phone. The lady who spoke English pulled her phone out, I put the number in, and it started ringing. Joyce answered and arranged to meet us back at the train station. We thanked the baristas profusely, finished our coffees, and met Joyce and my cousin Angie, neither of whom I had seen in over a decade.
“I’m surprised they let you borrow their cell phones,” Joyce said as we climbed in the car, “Most people in Italy wouldn’t do that.”
They drove us back to their flat and after a long-winded argument in which Joyce won the hospitality award, Jason and I eventually agreed to take her room for the week despite our adamant protest that we would rather sleep on the floor.
I sometimes snore when I sleep on my back, especially when I sleep heavily. I know this because I’ve been told by most everyone I have ever shared a bed with. Usually this information would be accompanied by a lot of giggling and grinning. On our first morning in Livorno, after our first restful sleep in days, Nathan told me that I was not as cute as some of my previous bedmates may have thought.
“Man, you were really snoring last night. You woke me up. I had to push you over.”
I didn’t have much time to dwell on the fact that given a choice, he’s not who I would be waking up next to anyhow. We had a busy day to get ready for. Joyce and Angie were taking us to Florence the first of several outings they had planned for us for the week. We rushed to get ready and neglected to make the bed. We would come to regret this when we discovered that the bed would in fact be made, whether it was our doing or not.
On the bus ride into Florence, I shared a seat with a guy who had applied for a job at Ikea. He wore a tie, dressed sharp, and carried himself like a young man who had just picked up life’s eternal burden. He stated confidently that he would not get the job and neither would the fifty other people who applied.
In Florence we zipped through the churches, past the statues, through the hordes of tourists and souvenir purveyors, to stand on the only bridge to have survived the Nazi’s occupation of the city. The bridge is lined with shops and every single one of them is an expensive jewelry store.
“Definitely not the place you want to bring your girlfriend,” I joked.
We stopped for lunch before making our last stop at a popular Florentine monument. There’s already a line of people taking a photos of each other touching a bronze boar’s snout. We joined the throng and I snapped a picture of Jason touching the polished nose. My aunt insisted that I touch it too.
“If you don’t touch the pig then you won’t come back to Florence,” she said.
That’s the superstition at least. Throughout this trip I’ve enjoyed the idea that Jason, a rational and adamant disbeliever in the supernatural, brought with him several good luck charms and insists on interacting with the various Catholic touching surfaces that hordes of people flock to fondle every year. I have kept my hands clean of every one of them so far and did not intend to break my streak. My aunt and I are both very stubborn people and we argued about it for quite a while.
“I will come back to Florence and it will be because I choose to, not because I touched a pig nose,” I said, putting an end to the discussion.
There are statues and monuments all over Italy. It seemed like everywhere we turned there was a Pope or Emperor immortalized in bronze. The different visions of Italian unification, from king Vittorio Emmanuel II to republican-revolutionary Guiseppe Garibaldi, mix with figures from the powerful families that once ruled Italy’s warring city states. Drop by any half-decent bookstore anywhere in the world and the travel guides will give you some idea of the herculean effort that would be required in order to see it all. Most interesting of all, and slightly less well-known, are the monuments to the historic anti-fascist resistance. Since every square inch of Italy was interesting to me for some reason or another, I decided to focus on finding the Partisan memorial in each city. We saw the Leaning Tower and the 100 or so tourists taking a photo of themselves pretending to hold it up. We visited dozens of beautiful churches and took more photos than we’ll ever post anywhere. It was all very much worth doing of course but the little pilgrimages to each of the Partisan monuments helped give everything a slightly more personal and unique feeling than we might have gotten otherwise.
Pisa was crawling with tourists. They trampled the grass, stood all over each other, and waved their wallets like backstage passes to the exclusive concert of cultural heritage where brilliant masterpieces, archeological artifacts, and holy relics are laid out on proverbial buffet tables. At every entrance immigrants stood at their posts selling cheap trinkets or milling around the crowds thrusting their wares in everyone’s way. I saw them in Barcelona too. Like anybody else they were just trying to make a living, but I thought it was strange that they all seemed to sell a variation of the same crap. They arrived like unwelcome Santa Clauses with sheets of cheap Chinese goods draped over their backs. There was the guy selling wooden train cars in front of another guy selling posters, the guy with the posters was talking to the another man hawking reproductions of paintings, somebody else was bending jewelry to spell out the name “Amanda”, a guy in the center was trying to drum up sales for his noisemakers by demonstrating how annoying they were, and then there was the army of selfie stick salesmen who asked everyone in sight if they wanted to buy telescopic wands that attach to camera phones.
“Selfie stick?”, one of them asked.
I pushed the item out of the way and replied, “No thanks. I don’t like my own face.”
“Then,” he hesitated, “wipe it off.”
It was a cold comeback and I felt sorry that I had joked with him. Hardly anyone pays these guys any attention and I couldn’t help but pity the sort of isolation they must feel everyday as seas of people impassively drift by.
In addition to personal tours of Livorno, Florence, and Pisa, we were taken on a day trip to the town of Volterra. Nestled high up in the mountains, Volterra retains all of the charm of a 14th century city with minimal trappings of the tourist oriented commercialism of our present century. Of course most everyone was visiting from somewhere, just like us, but Volterra’s whole approach is fairly dignified. You can still find a John Paul II t-shirt or an “Italia” key chain in the shops but the attraction here was the authenticity, right down to the Etruscan ruins which have magically survived the various ravages of history. We spent several hours trekking through the winding cobblestone streets and gawking at towers, fountains, and a parade of people dressed in such a way as to give the impression we had gone a few hundred years back in time. It was here that Angie and her partner Claudio told us of their dream to restore a medieval village and turn it into a sort of eco-project focused on preserving a bit of history and a simpler way of life. It’s a lovely idea and the attraction of Volterra shows that they may be on to something.
We moved too quickly through everything but I was thankful to have at least spent time with my extended family. They were extremely hospitable and fed us well. My aunt Joyce and cousin Angie drove us to the train station on our last day in Livorno. We were heading to Rome. They packed us sandwiches, called us crazy, and told us to at least be careful. Last I saw, my aunt Joyce was running after the train as it left the station, waving goodbye with all the furious love the Italians have for strangers bound only by a few droplets of blood.
– Nathan and Jason