Tuesday, September 12, 2006

italia and the dam, part I

I got back from Europe almost two weeks ago, and celebrated my labor holiday by heading straight to work for eight consecutive days. My trip was whirlwind, as they always seem to be. I landed in Rome at 8 am, and caught a train downtown, hit suddenly with the realization that I'd crossed the rainbow. I met up with Shlomo and Elisha, who'd arrived in the north of the country 10 days earlier. They'd just finished what was supposed to be the highlight of my trip, venice and the rained-out alps. We wandered around sweaty Rome, an ancient-modern metropolis comprising the dirtiest and holiest aspects of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in one. We played drums on the street with some Czech guys we met near the Colosseum, inhaled pizza and beer, and found ourselves on a slow train to Napoli. Somehow I'd already spent 20 euros.

Napoli was a whim. Shlomo wanted to go to Lecce, a beach town in southeast Italy, the Italian Jamaica, he told us, though admitted he had heard conflicting reports. It was a nine hour train ride and we had to be in Pisa for a flight to Amsterdam three days later. We asked around for some place closer and picked Napoli after someone in their Rome hostel told us she had needed at least another couple of days there to fully absorb it.

One thing I thought I learned in that last few years is not to judge a place by its bus or train station. Elisha and I were skeptical. Shlomo walked across the street to find a hotel. I hung back. I didn't want to leave, but I didn't want to stay there. We kept walking toward the beach, on the side of a never-ending urban highway, and through the winding alleys. The streets and buildings of Napoli are incredible architecture, but not equipped for tourists. We walked back to our roadside resort on the highway and sat down. Elisha suggested turning back - the first twinges of a theme. Shlomo was at a different pace - twinges of another. We looked through a book and caught a cab to the one recommended hostel on the outskirts of town.

It was the least expensive place we'd stay in for the rest of the trip. The shekel has nothing on the euro, except unique pictures of Israeli heros. I went up to my room, which was stuffed with bunkbeds and a disporportionately large bathroom. My Venezuelan roommate greeted me, climbing into bed. The other roommate came out of the bathroom with a wave and a toothbrush and said, "I'm deaf."

We told each other about ourselves with notes and elementary sign language. I still remembered the alphabet that I'd taught myself in 6th grade when I used to skip morning prayers and read whatever I found laying around. As soon as it became clear to me half an hour later that her name was Alex and not Anna, we were able to understand each other almost perfectly. She was a wild woman, traveling solo around Europe after a few months of trekking with two other deaf friends. When I told her we wanted to go to Pompei to see the preserved molten expressions of fear, she slapped the bed and told me that she was going the next day.

She nixed her sleep plan and came out for beers. Alisdair introduced himself in the lounge by signing hello to Alex and apologizing for his Australian hand-language. He was a big guy with a blond ponytail and creative piercings. He drank coke and ate gnocci with melted cheese with us while we drained beers. We sat at an outdoor table sewing a conversation of Italian, English, Hebrew and sign-language with each other and the giddy waiters.

It was hot and rainy when we arrived in Pompei after trying to navigate our way through the Italian train system. The piazza was rumbling with people. When we got to the cashier, Alex tried to explain that she was deaf and entitled to a discount from the discriminatory propretiers of the historical relic. After Alex showed her the code on her Missouri driver's license, the cashier wrote back that she could only give a discount to someone with valid European permission, was Alex by any chance from the United Kingdom?

Alex said yes and pointed me out as a fellow deaf Briton. The cashier asked Shlomo if he was also from the U.K. Shlomo said "yes," in a clear American accent. The cashier handed us our free entrance passes. Elisha paid the full 10 euros. Shlomo sailed through the ticket stubber at the entrance, who then stopped Alex and me and asked us why we should get in for free. Alex said, "because we're deaf and fwe're rom the U.K."

Pompei was a huge city, almost the size of old Jerusalem. The buildings were made of ancient stone stained by the amazing colors left behind by the volcano that consumed the city 1927 years ago. It's amazing how much is intact. The whole city was unearthed in nearly perfect condition due to the preserving effects of lava. We let ourselves get lost on the stone roads, watching Mount Vesuvius try to boil. It felt alive. The eeriest relics are the magma encapsulted corpses of some poorer citizens of Pompei who were caught in a submergence of molten rock that fateful day at work after all of their wealthier neighbors had heard the forecast and evacuated the city.

It started to rain, and everyone took cover next to abandoned shops. Alex pulled out a blue poncho in a Mary Poppins sort of way, and skipped on down the street, oblivious to the rain.

We had agreed to go on to Firenze together that night, where Alex promised a couple of free beds from a friend she'd met on couchsurfers. Shlomo and Elisha didn't want to go back after already having spent two days there, but it sounded like a great idea to me. A few hours later we found ourselves on a platform for a train to Firenze that was supposed to have left 20 minutes before. Alex and Alisdair had caught the train just before that, having more decisively evaluated their budgetary options and used their ticket-buying skills. Elisha and Shlomo and I decided after a tense hour to go to Rome. I still wanted to go north after that, so we agreed if there was still a train to Firenze when we arrived in Rome, we'd go there, even if it was 3 in the morning. No matter that we'd vetoed a ticket via Pisa from Napoli that would have brought us into Firenze at 3:30 anyway.

The Rome train station was emptier than we'd seen it and the next train to Firenze was at 6 in the morning. Elisha checked the time, We had 6 and a half hours to kill. There was a train leaving for Lecce in 15 minutes.

We stood next to the platform for a few minutes, then silently filed our way to the street. We stopped in at one hostel, then another. Twenty-eight, 30 euros, we were told after walking up four stories, but only if we had booked a bed in advance. We hadn't. Back down the stairs. Into another hotel, up as many floors as the last, but this time in a rickety old elevator large enough for two slim Italians and an operator. Reasonably priced, so we gave him our passports and paid. He showed us our room, next to his desk, with two single beds, and told us we would have to go to sleep right away as there was no extra key to the building. Back into the elevator. Elisha and I waited on the corner while Shlomo went in to a hotel to ask if they had room. I saw another hotel on the ground floor on the corner, so I went in to ask. Twenty euros and we could use the internet, the manager told us in Italian. Fanan.

We collapsed onto our beds, three floors of tall stairs above ground. Shlomo drank a coke, and then took a beer after Elisha and I counted the ethics of drinking from a minibar. I took the other beer, and Shlomo drank two fruit juices.

I was ready to go to Firenze right away in the morning, as we planned, but Shlomo decided it would take only ten minutes to get to the station, and stayed in bed until I had already gone down to use the internet. He came down 10 minutes later, and paid for the minibar. We got to the train station after the time I thought the train was leaving, but with 15 minutes to spare before its actual departure.

When we got to Firenze, we discovered the art of buying tuna fish, bread and cheese at the supermarket. Elisha discovered the art of boxed wine for a euro. He bought four.

We stayed in Firenze long enough to have lunch, and then got back on the train to go to Livorno. We didn't know anything about Livorno, but we could get there for five euros and then take a short train to Pisa in the morning. The book told us that we could camp on the beach.

An hour and a half later, exhausted by the train, we arrived in Livorno. I got flashbacks of Napoli's loneliness. We pointed to a map and said "mare" to numerous passersby once we got of the train, but nobody seemed to know. I wanted to go back to Firenze. Shlomo said he was staying and was going to go out on the town. I tried to convince Elisha to come with me. Neither of us had very much money on us and I knew that if I spent money on a room for a third night in a row that I would have a very boring time in Amsterdam.

The train to Firenze was leaving at 8:45. It was 8:30. Alisdair called me on Elisha's phone and said there was an extra bed for me at Alex's couch-surfing friend's house, but no room for Elisha or Shlomo. They wanted to stay. I told them they could probably sleep on the floor there. They didn't want to spend another hour and a half on the train. Neither did I. 8:42. We left the station.

On the other side of the tracks, in the exit behind us, Livorno was a very clean Italian suburb. I stopped someone on a moped and asked him where the mare was. He pointed down the road, trenta kilometers. I put my hands together under my cocked head and asked if we could sleep there. He said si.

We walked toward the beach, even though the map told us there was no beach, only a marina. Shlomo went into a hotel to ask about prices. Elisha and I had decided we were either going to sleep on whatever version of a beach or meet some friendly dreadlocked Italians at a bar. I wandered off to find the internet. I discovered that in Italy, police officers eat ice-cream instead of doughnuts. When I came back, Elisha was carrying my backpack and Shlomo was telling me he got a very good deal on a room and Elisha and I could each have a free bed if we wanted.

We wanted. We made spaghetti with cream of mushroom soup and drank boxed wine, then conquered Livorno. Well, we walked to the beach and saw that it was a marina with an enchanting old fortress, and found a cobblestone alley with a bar and our dreadlocked Italians, and then Shlomo went back to the hotel while Elisha and I drank wine on a ledge one hundred meters above a canal.

The next morning we went to aeroporto Pisa, to catch our flight to Eindhoven. The airport was the size of a small town bus station, with security just as lax. Shlomo consumed everything he didn't want to take on the plane with him, and we went to wait by one of the three flight gates.

I'll save Amsterdam for part II. (Don't be fooled by the first line of the previous post.)