The train whistle blows – It’s 9 am and we are pulling out of Milano Centrale train station. My giant Gregory pack is stuffed to the brim, the items within packed so intricately I am afraid trying to remove one will set the whole thing off balance – it will end in an explosion of t-shirts and underwear. As I prepared to continue my journey this morning, I realized that packing is no longer routine but ritual (and if you saw what I can fit in this bag you would agree that it is damn near spiritual – divine rite). I can hear my dad’s voice: “now you want to pack all the heavy things at the bottom, roll them up tightly, sugar.” He watches patiently. I wish I were as good at packing up my emotions as I am my rucksack. Roll them tightly, heavy things pushed down to the bottom, shove the little things in whatever extra pocket space you can find…most likely in a few days you’ll forget those are even there. Melancholy and uncertainty stuffed down between my sleeping bag and heels, happiness, excitement, and anticipation somewhere near the top for easy access. Tim O’Brien’s description of the physical and emotional baggage that soldiers carry (in “The Things They Carried”) comes to mind. Today I carry with me my own sleeping bag and mattress pad (because you should always be prepared to provide your own bed), 20 thank you cards to show gratitude towards those I encounter along the journey, a book of travel quotes to inspire the least inspired traveler, my mothers adventurous spirit, my fathers discipline to deny fear and move onward. I carry with me privilege, and a tinge of guilt for leaving behind family and friends. I carry longing, and a compass, stuffed in a sneaker somewhere I carry a frayed postcard from three countries ago, one that I have yet to send to an old friend. Always pack your flashlight and map at the top in case it is dark and you are lost (it is almost always dark when I am lost).
When I first arrived in Frankfurt back in June, dazed and confused as to why exactly I was there, my friend Geoff picked me up at the airport and immediately grabbed my cumbersome bag and lifted it into the car. “What do you have in this thing!?” What relief I felt to rid myself of its weight, even just for a few moments, and what indescribable joy to see a familiar face at the other end of a long journey. I stayed at Geoff’s for two nights before we drove to Berlin for the weekend (more notes on that later). When we returned from Berlin I was in crisis. I didn’t know where I was headed, I didn’t have any tickets. I had a vague idea, a giant rucksack, and nowhere to go with it. “Geoffrey, I am so lost – I will die alone, an old cat lady.” I tried to chuckle between these morbid comments to lighten my mood, but to a certain extent I meant all of them. He shot me a wide grin and laughed. “You…listen, come here, sit down. Lets research some tickets….just think of the next 3 steps.” He talked me down, sitting next to me as I researched potential options for the next 2 weeks. Days later I ended up changing plans completely, but the process of exploring possibilities and Geoff sitting next to me saying “you can do it” was enough to prevent a full blown anxiety attack. In the morning Geoff drove me to the train station where I would catch the train to see my cousins in Vilseck (with 3 changes: Frankfurt, Munich, Nuremburg). He once more lifted my big backpack out of the trunk and listened to my nervous sighs.
“Hey Geoff, here is your extra key.” He had given it to me when I first arrived so I could come and go while he was at work.
“You know, you just keep it, I have another copy and that way you have a place you can come back to whether im in town or not.” He said this casually and without pause, already moving towards the car door. For a split second I thought I might cry. We both knew the chances of me coming back (and coming back when he wasn’t home) were slim but the gesture was so perfectly timed that I think for the first time since leaving New York, I actually took a breath. There was no sufficient way to express the gratitude or release that I felt, I took the key and zipped it up in the inner-most pocket of my bag, between my newly stamped passport and my travel journal.
Such gestures from strangers and friends have kept me going. Meeting with old friends in distant corners of the world is hard, leaving old friends is harder. Leaving my friend Andreas in Milan this morning was no exception. Our friendship alone is counterintuitive to how a ‘normal’ relationship should grow or develop, but our lives vagabonding (As Third-Culture-Kids) have led us to cross paths more than once. We went to elementary school together in Greece (I had a childish crush on him…he won’t ever let me forget it). When I arrived at my new International school in Holland 6 years later everyone kept telling me I should have met a fellow “Greek kid names Andreas” who had just moved away…it seems we had just missed each other. We saw each other again when he returned to the Netherlands to visit old friends, and again later in college when he visited family in New York. It is a friendship that is not linear, one that is more dependent on shared experience than time spent together. I love our friendship not only because I enjoy his company, but because we seem to have redefined friendship all together to fit into the context of our lives. This is a huge victory for two people whose “contexts” are homes, friends, and family spread across countries and continents.
Since Andreas has been preparing for grueling medical exams this week Ispent the last several days regrouping, meandering around downtown Milan alone here and there, but mostly reflecting, thinking of my next steps, and drinking espresso at his lovely little table, in his lovely little apartment. In many ways, returning to Europe felt like returning home, so I do not feel the pressure to check museums and cathedrals off the list. If we’re talking about the kind of lonely one feels in a hostel dorm with 12 other strangers so close you can hear them breathe, the opposite of this lonely is sleeping on a friends couch, knowing that there is someone in the next room over who knows your name and maybe another thing or 2 about you. You don’t have to talk, you just have to share the same space. In the evenings when Andreas was able to break from his studies we cooked dinner and enjoyed a bit of wine. Because at times there is a bit of masochism involved in the life of a traveler, a wanderer, our conversation often touched on our fears and hang-ups. Having these conversations with someone who shares similar experiences is both cathartic and comical – a bit of a blind-leading-the-blind situation.
“One of my biggest fears is that I will never be able to stop, to stay still in one place.” I think I smiled when he said this, not because it is something to smile over but because it was nice to hear this in a voice that isn’t my own.
I have often reflected on this fear of the inability to settle, as if it is some uncontrollable third force – something I will not pursuit but it will inexplicably creep into my life and I’ll wake up at 40 and be the old lady in the hostel. For now, perhaps naively, I will think of knowing when to settle similarly to the way Andreas explained how to make Italian Espresso.
“How long do you leave it on the fire?”
“Just leave it until a few moments after you can smell the coffee, don’t leave it longer or else it will burn.”
Easy, no? Coffee is perhaps the most universally identifiable scent I can think of, and even still once you recognize it, you have a few moments – just a few – to take it off the fire, to transition. I think that settling will be a bit like this, there will be a sign, you will begin to smell the coffee, you will know when to take out your espresso cups and stay a while.
As Andreas walked me to the taxi ring this morning I thought about what it might be like if I could stick around a while, what we might find out about each other, what I might find out about Italy, what I might find out about myself. This is the constant musing of a traveler who is given a peek into someone else’s life on the road – I Imagine myself stepping into their life, one that is more stable and consistent in its day to day tasks. Yet still one eye is fixed on the horizon, and as of now, this one always wins out.
“Thank you for carrying my backpack!” I say to him as he hoists it into the back of a station-bound taxi cab. He tells me to message him if I need anything, if anything goes wrong, if anything goes right, updates. We say goodbyes, we hug.
When I get to the train station the taxi cab driver hands me my smaller backpack and then looks at the larger one. He asks me in Italian “now what?” He wants to know what I plan on doing when no one is around to help me carry the larger one.
I smile, I have done this before. I hoist the large one on to my back, I adjust the straps, i carry the smaller one in front, I put my sunglass on my head effortlessly. I am not sure if he is impressed or feels bad for me but with a train ticket in my pocket, I have no time to stick around and find out, and with a “Grazie, Ciao!” I am off.