Monday, January 11, 2016

24 Hours from Rome to Ljubljana: Waitress Doctors, Bridge Physicists, and Taxi Guys

The moon on my last night in Rome

I'm currently in a coffeeshop in a small town in Italy outside of another small town and the story of today is a story for a proper blog post*. It was tiring and stressful and filled with pain and wonderful people and it all turned out okay.
I head to Slovenia tonight. I am dreaming of the bed that awaits me- or, hopefully awaits me, since I haven't booked anything.”

*Three months later, here’s that backstory post.

James and I have this history where we wait until the last minute to get food before rushing off to our respective trains, well and properly late and terrified we’ll be left behind. Thus, the last night in Rome, for old time’s sake, we were darting through the streets, weaving through pedestrians, stopping for on the go pizza, and then, in a final dramatic moment, I rolled my ankle and fell to the ground in the train station parking lot under the weight of everything I own. It was, in terms of collapsing under all your things, quite graceful, and I managed to not tear my $125 “your legs suck at being legs” stockings, so all in all, I was still happy.

We managed to shuffle inside and up to a café, where a very concerned waitress gave me latex gloves filled with ice. James was already dangerously late for his train, and after trying unsuccessfully to convince me to go back to his family’s apartment, he reluctantly left me to sit with my situation.

Behold! The glamorous life of your wandering narrator. 

I confess, as he walked off to a train to get on a plane to get on another plane to head back to Australia, and all the shops were closing around me, and families were helping each other with bags and friends were walking in laughter and conversation, this was one of those times of solo travel when all I could think was “Why the hell am I making this so hard on myself?” The waitress who had gifted me these homemade (handmade, is that too much of a bad pun?) ice packs chewed her lip and looked nervously out at me as she busied herself counting down the till and cleaning up for closing time. Right before she left for the night she came over with another set of ice packs and asked me, in a speech in English that sounded considerately and carefully rehearsed while she had been sweeping, if I needed to see a doctor. If so, she could call one for me.

At this point my ankle was throbbing, but to be fair ice pack gloves given by a friendly waitress in a train station for free was exactly the extent of the health care I could afford, so I politely declined. She seemed to doubt my ability to make good decisions at that point, but, having done all she could, she left me to die alone in the woods wait for my train.

I managed to limp down the stairs with my backpack, front pack, and roller bag (aka the Roller Bag of Shame, which has garnered, at every single hostel, a slightly sneering “geez, do you have enough STUFF? remark, no matter how many times I tried to explain that while everything fits in my backpack my legs are not into heavy lifting anymore and I have to parcel these things out, and furthermore, this is everything I own in the world, back off). Never forget that backpackers are, first and foremost, very self-righteous about what good travelers they are, and carrying a roller bag is a clear symbol that you need too much to be on a trip at all, so you should probably just give up and never leave your town. I wanted to shake my fist at these gap year know it alls and rail about near death experiences and biopsies in Albania, or wax survivalist about eye metal and crazy dogs in Laos, or reminisce about washing clothes in buckets and squatting over “toilets” all over the world, roller bag be damned, but I finally stopped fighting this issue. I have a pink roller bag. I am not a real backpacker. I submit to the judgment of 18-20 year olds who are on their first trip. So let it be written, so let it be done. But wait, back to the story I was writing…

Of course on top of the ankle thing and the too many bags experience, I also was stopped by security and had to find my ticket on my quickly dying laptop. Satisfied that I was not going to cause any trouble, I was permitted to make the first limp of what was going to be a very, very long journey. Thankfully, I was blissfully unaware of that truth.

Once I was in my night train compartment I rigged up my handpacks again, and in spite of looking kind of insane by virtue of balancing leaking udders of watery gloves on my foot, I still made friends with my bottom bunk neighbor, a Ukrainian born physicist who was studying quantum mechanics in Austria. He had just been at a conference in Rome. Describing the talks at the conference made for some enchanting bedtime conversation about the nature of the universe, which led to politics in Russia, which put me right to sleep with a head full of weird visions that made even weirder dreams.

The next morning the train got into the Venice train station far too early, and Venice, enjoying her off season break, was not planning on waking up for two more hours. I had entertained the idea of dropping off my trio of bags in luggage storage to go for a nostalgic reunion wander of the city, but at twelve euro a bag that was out of the question so I pouted a bit and settled for committing to watching the sunrise from the bridge. I draped myself over my things and dozed for about an hour on the train station floor, because these are the things you do when you’ve been traveling for twelve hours already and can’t afford things like bag storage. I elevated my foot in the interest of my cranky ankle and thoroughly enjoyed the kind of sleep you might imagine you get on a cold train station floor. That is to say, I awoke with a start several times, reached for all my important things to be sure they were still with me, and then passed back out to await another theft nightmare.

Me and everything I own (which is somehow still too much, per every hostel receptionist ever) at very too early in the morning to be smiling about anything.

Right before the sun came up I schlepped all my belongings out into a cold morning, all blue and black clouds and silent streets. I had never imagined I would ever see Venice like this, having visited the first time in the high heat of summer during full on tourist time. I thumped my Roller Bag of Shame up the bridge, recalling the first time I had fought through sweaty crowds to do the same thing two years prior. 

At this point the physicist appeared, toting a vintage camera with a cumbersome assortment of lenses, the burden of which was clearly a joy. Without speaking we acknowledged the other. We leaned over the railing of the bridge to watch the sky make changes, and to periodically take pictures of those changes if they particularly impressed us. He kindly took this picture of me.

Loosely titled "Unbrushed Teeth and Unclear Ankle Injuries: A Homeless American Abroad"

It wasn’t the best sunrise of my life, but it felt triumphant because my ankle was only mildly whining in complaint and I felt out of the woods in terms of an injury that could really derail me (train pun definitely intended there). I spent a leisurely half hour on the bridge, waiting until the sun was well and truly up, and then, armed with detailed instructions from (a website I highly recommend!) I returned to the train station to start what I thought would be a relatively easy trip to Slovenia.

Dear reader, I should know by now.

The first train, an early morning hop from Venice to Trieste, was quite simple- a ticket purchased at a kiosk on my own, a quick two hour train, and here’s Trieste, thank you very much. I had decided to play it by ear- if, upon arrival, Trieste enchanted me, I would stay. If not, I would continue on to Slovenia, specifically Ljubljana. Trieste failed to impress on first glance, so I quickly started to work out the next leg of my trip: walking from the train station (with the Roller Bag of Shame and my other two bags, all on my now yelping ankle) to the historical tram, which would take me up a mountain to some small town no one knows of: Villa Opicina.

Somehow this simple task took me about three hours. Just trust me, it was a mess. From trying to find the tram tickets to politely enduring the rants of the local raving man who haunts the front door of the kiosk by the tram tracks, to getting a terrible dinner and then losing twenty euro down a grate, it was a comedy of errors, all acted out while I played the role of Itinerant Donkey, American Laden with Belongings. The tram, once it was found and a journey purchased and a raving man avoided, was a funky little Luddite adventure up a mountain, but it did, accurately, end in Villa Opicina and not down the side of said mountain.

Elevation, historically

And here’s where it all really fell apart, against the background of my now shouting ankle.
I had about three hours to kill, and I imagined a quaint nook of a small town Italian train station, in which there would be some charming café with wi-fi and pastries and coffee, where I could blog and Skype and relax before I continued on. I walked into a café to get directions for the Villa Opicina train station, where, supposedly, a train hopped the border into Slovenia. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my query for directions assured me that I was going to find no train there, and that they had no idea what I was on about but it seemed like a strange and pointless desire to get to Slovenia this way. Undeterred, I soldiered on, ignoring my ankle, which wanted very much to deter me and go awol. I just had to do the following, covering about two miles with all my things: walk into town, go left through the roundabout, go down the hill, turn right around the corner, and then head down a long, empty, one lane paved road to the train station.

The real climax of this story is as follows: picture me, draped in bags and limping down the streets, sweaty, tired, and having a yelling match with my ankle about what I could expect from it in terms of being functional. When I hit the empty, one lane paved road to the train station I readily engaged in delusional expectations that I would still be greeted by my quaint nook of a small town Italian train station. Even as I began to walk past squat, dim buildings that were definitely part of the train station I brightly pressed on, pretending I didn’t see that the last possible building that could be the train station was also dark. Empty. And definitely closed. A printed sign, which did little to communicate any type of authority or trust, assured potential passengers that if they simply showed up in time for the train, tickets could be purchased on board.

Faced with these facts, I decided I needed to give up, pack it all in, and just build a home and a new life right there. Clearly there was no other option. I dropped all my bags and lay on my back in the parking lot to put my legs up (the legs, having grown jealous of the attention I was giving my ankle, had decided they, too, needed to make their protest known). There, alone, on my back in the watery dusk light in the middle of nowhere in a tiny town nestled outside of another tiny town I decided to think of every horror film I had ever seen. This was probably motivated by the unnerving arrival of a single 1980s style sedan, occupied by a lone man, who, poor guy, seemed immediately sinister given the context. I looked up at the sky and wished I had a phone to call a taxi, or even to use to pretend to be talking to someone who would notice my absence should the man in the car live up to my dreams, but my phone had been stolen in Prague. Fantastic.

The sun was setting. I was on my own tired, bored, and hungry, and potentially getting ready to star in Silence of the Lambs: Italy Edition, or, Why the F*ck Didn’t You Take a Plane? I realized that walking back into town would mean walking back to the train station again when I had to come back, but I resigned myself to the task in the interest of food and being alive. Goodbye, potential new home- it was good while it lasted. Goodbye, man in the sedan- I’m onto you. Halfway through the return trip I came across a creepy gate covered in broken mirrors. It seemed like the best place to take a self-portrait that really summed up my mood. It also reinforced the horror movie plotline in my brain. I walked a bit faster.

Mood like...

Thus, roundly defeated, I returned to the café and told my story. All workers, the manager, and the customers overhearing my story chimed in with the advice that random pieces of paper printed and stuck to doors with tape were not to be trusted. I should let the manager call a guy he knows, and that guy could take me across the border to the train station. The manager looked up trains that were guaranteed to run on the Slovenian side, picked a time, called the guy, and set me up to wait in a corner, where, as luck would have it, I ended up getting my charming Italian café experience (I ate far too many mini-cheesecakes at this point, but what is too many, really, when one is on such an arduous journey?). I did take the precaution of e-mailing my friend and telling her that I was going to be getting in a “taxi” that wasn’t so much a taxi but more like pre-planned paid hitchhiking across the border, but basically if you don’t hear from me in a few hours I’ve been abducted by the friend of the guy who manages _________ Café in Villa Opicina, Italy.

Dear parents- don’t worry, I’m always making back-up plans!

The guy shows up in a rush because he has to take the Russian choir singers somewhere since he’s their official driver. He tells me how nice they are and how well they pay for his services while they are in town. A laminated sign is hastily procured from the floorboard, and even though it, too, is nothing more than a word document printed in landscape with large letters, much like the train station sign no one believed, somehow this has the power to convey to me that he is legitimate, and that once I am safely dropped off he will certainly be making a u-turn to pick up a gang of golden voiced Russian lads.

Against a backdrop of Balkans political talk we make a breakneck dash across the border, his choirboys weighing heavy on his mind. He drops me at the most forlorn train station tracks have ever crossed, with a final note to remember that things were better in Slovenia about ten years ago and to be understanding. I promise I will, and I hurry off to buy a ticket in a lobby that looks like a hospital ward. A tiny old man sits in the corner, nursing a hot chocolate. Above him a bizarre old movie poster tries to peel away from the wall to submit to the floor, which is strangely tiled and worn down by a time before, when this was perhaps not so desolate and apocalyptic. My handwritten ticket tells me that there is one track and one train, and I get on something that looks like your grandma’s living room in the 1980s- that is, it’s comfortable, clean, and hideous, but it feels homey and dependable. I rolled into Ljubljana in the dark, tramped a final walk with my ankle screeching an assurance that THIS WAS CERTAINLY THE FINAL WALK, and arrived at a hostel that thankfully had a vacancy. It was about 24 hours since I had left Rome. I slept for 12 hours straight that night.

All I could think, as one mishap after another befell me during that long, long day, was how much more fundamentally hard it is to travel alone, on so many simple levels. There is no one to watch the things while one of you runs off, unencumbered by Roller Bags of Shame, to find information/get food/buy tickets. There is no one to keep you company when you walk down a long stretch of road, past creepy empty boxcars and wide open fields and into dark train stations at dusk. There is no one to consult about what makes the most sense, doing this, or doing that? There isn’t, simply, a companion with whom you can share a “Seriously? This is bullshit” glance of solidarity and understanding. Maybe, if you’re unlucky that day, there is an argumentative ankle to talk with, but I mean, one usually hopes there isn’t. Usually it’s just you, and whatever you’re doing, and however you’re trying to get there.

So many times on this trip I have gone into situations without a plan, or with fuzzy information, or with a general idea but definitely not specifics, and it’s all worked out. This is what I was hoping to understand about traveling this long solo. I wanted to know what it was like to throw myself on the mercy of whatever might come my way to help me. It might not be the way I would have chosen it, or the way I expected it, but I’ve always been taken care of; I have never gone without food or a place to stay or a way to get where I need to be. The travel magic thing about going it alone is that while it’s definitely you, single-self, marking a solitary line through a journey, it’s also all the people who, upon seeing your aloneness, step in and help out of generosity (or pity, but I’ll take that, too).

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