Friends and acquaintances have asked me what it was like growing up in a military family, and in the past I have had to answer some pretty hilarious questions (if dad made us do push-ups, if we all had to say the Pledge of Allegiance before we went to bed, etc etc). Although these are clearly not true, I have also realized that there are many acronyms, terms, routines, concepts that have made their way into my consciousness and I wouldn’t want it any other way. A personal favorite is the ‘AAR’ or After Action Review: reflection or assessment of a specific event or experience so we might improve next time. SO, here is my ‘AAR’ on getting lost, robbed, and pooped on by a pigeon in the Italian port city of Bari.
The morning I left Rome I awoke in a frenzy. I had overslept my alarm, and with 20 minutes to make the train I threw backpacks on, stuffed things in pockets, and ran out the door without even taking a moment to brush my teeth (i regretted this immediately). If there’s anyone who can defy the limits of time and miraculously facilitate you making your train (that left 5 minutes ago…?) it’s an Italian taxi driver. Here was my first mistake: in celebration of my miraculous train-catching abilities, I relaxed. I spent the 4-hour train ride sleeping off my Roman hangover, listening to music, and congratulating myself on how awesome I am for not having yet had things lost, broken, or stolen. This is called a false sense of security – a travelers high. I arrived in Bari. I looked up the address to the B&B I had booked the night before in my iPhone and determined it walkable. Fast forward 30 minutes. It is something like 500 degrees outside. I can feel pools of sweat collecting in the small of my back and dripping down the nape of my neck – I was indeed wrong that the distance was walkable with my two big backpacks that seem to be getting heavier by the second. I am lost, I have walked the street listed in my phone multiple times, and I cannot find one sign for a B&B of any sort. Where is everybody? Why does it feel like I’ve arrived in a ghost town? Feeling desperate I stand at the small alleyway corner and pull out my phone to double check the address. Now what happened next seems to be too much for the way my brain perceives and digests things, because before I know it I am staring into the shiny sunglasses of a large Italian man on a motor scooter and he is holding my iPhone in his hands. I blink several times and look down at my empty hands and back at him, as if the next time I open my eyes I might determine that a strange Italian man holding my phone is indeed a hallucination. There is a good 5 seconds we stare at each other, I think he maybe even winks at me, I scream, the moped thief looks both ways so to be sure not to run over any old ladies, and drives off. I am running after him like an idiot, carrying double my body weight; I am waddling at a snails pace, throwing shoes, water bottles, whatever I can get my hands on, in his direction.
It took me about 1 minute to realize my phone was gone forever, about 10 minutes to get over it, but much longer to shake the feeling that my personal space had been violated, which is a really terrible feeling when you have no idea where you are. Because I failed to write down the address to my B&B I walked around in circles for hours, so annoyed with my own stupidities I could barely think straight. When I finally found the B&B in a tiny archway (not even a street), I discovered that the reception was closed for another hour. Once again, I thought that this might bring me to frustrated tears, but perhaps out of exhaustion or perhaps out of apathy, my dads voice comes to mind once again: “When all goes wrong, sit down and open a can of peaches, crack open that C-Ration.” Well I guess I didn’t plan well because I have no can of peaches, no c-ration, not even a bottle of water, and as I am thinking all of this I feel something heavy fall on my shoulder. Bird shit. Fantastic. I am laughing now, maniacally, the kind of absurd laugh that happens when you are in an empty room and no one else is around to hear it. I think if I had a can of peaches, I would be throwing them at the wall right about now. So, I devote this hour of stoop-sitting, too afraid to let the B&B office out of my sight, too afraid of being robbed again, to a little AAR time.
Things I did wrong:
- Never arrive to a new city/place on a Sunday afternoon. In my experience this goes particularly for Mediterranean countries and sub-Saharan African countries, but I think it is a good general rule of thumb. Things close on Sunday. Sundays are not a good reflection of the regular day-to-day hustle and bustle. People (minus the tourists and thieves) flee the smog and heat for the beach. No one wants to help a foreigner on a Sunday afternoon. Sundays are for family and locals and you are not one of them.
- Actually know if it is a Sunday afternoon or not. We all lose track of time when we travel, but checking a calendar when you are making moves to a new place is always good.
- Never take notes in your phone/other form of technology. The old pen and paper method is 1st priority – no one will ever want to steal your old scraps of paper with cheesy notes on sunsets and ex-boyfriends.
- Never look lost. Even when you are lost, better you walk around in circles for hours than stand confused on a street corner.
- Never become too comfortable with the sights and sounds of a city. Motorcycles, cars, sirens, loud noises – pay attention to all of these things as if you are hearing them for the first time. When I was living in Manhattan a bomb could have gone off and I would have assumed they were just fixing the water pipes on the Bowery for the 8,000th time.
Things I did right:
1. Never assume that everyone is out to steal from you, cheat you, trick you. Arrive in a city as if it could potentially be your new home.
Once someone from the B&B finally arrived to give me my key I was annoyed. “Really? You’re closed for four hours every day? What if someone arrives during those four hours?” I am restrained, but my eyes are sharp as daggers. The man apologizes for the wait but doesn’t seem too concerned. Poor Shahul. Shahul has also been running around in the heat, doing two jobs at once, and now he tries in broken English to answer my misdirected questions. I realize how ridiculous I look and sound. Shahul has come from Bangladesh to work two jobs in this tiny port city in order to find work, to bring his family to Italy. I am sour because my iPhone was stolen, I got lost for reasons all my fault, I walked around for hours and nearly had a heatstroke because I am carrying a bag that has more things in it than any one human on this planet should ever need. I am on a trip I decided to take for its educational, emotional, personal benefits, not because any political or economic situation forced me to do so. Getting robbed, lost, and pooped on by a pigeon in Bari, all by ones own decision, is truly privilege at its finest. And then privilege it rears its big ugly head in the form of feelings of anger or vulnerability. This is not vulnerable, I think to myself. This is the opposite of vulnerable.
Shahul shows me to my room, which is on the bottom floor with a broken lock. The owner has improvised a solution and has literally attached a tiny padlock – smaller than the kind one might find on a suitcase – to keep the door closed. After asking if there is perhaps an alternative room, one floor up, or one say, with a lock, I realize that this is the first time this entire trip I have actually experienced fear. Anxiety yes, uneasiness maybe, but fear in its most basic form has not paid me a visit on this journey. Yet now it has crept in so insidiously and completely, I found myself playing through irrational scenarios in my head. The morning’s events shook my confidence, and particularly emphasized the fact that I am alone and that I have created all of this on my own accord. Maybe I have become too brazen, maybe I won’t go explore Bari, maybe I will stay right here in this room, maybe I will die here in Bari, in this this alley the width of my bed (I was always one for dramatics…once again – the Greek in me). I push past these feelings, stare them in the face. Fear is circular, if you are not consciously hunting it down, chasing it, keeping track of it, it is certainly keeping track of you. Killing my fears is a conscious effort, forgetting that fear exists allows it to subconsciously take hold and convince us to settle for less. For a moment I let fear out of my sight, and it pounced on me.
I decided to leave everything in the hotel room except for a small wrist band with money in it and head to Saint Nickolas Basilica. Bari is well-known for having maintained the relics of Saint Nickolas, after several fisherman brought them over from Myra, in 1087. I went down to the crypt where the tomb is enshrined and sat for an hour , finding solace in the cool silence. I thought about my brother Nickolas and his recent return from Afghanistan, how I spent the last several months missing him and worrying about him. And here I sit, still missing him and still worrying about him. I wonder where our lives will take us and because this is too big and existential of a question I say some praters and head to the sea.
The sea, with its waters so iridescent it looks as if its glow comes from within its depths rather than the boardwalk lanterns that cast their light on the still, glass, surface. I sit on a stone wall and dangle my feet above the bay and a childhood memory of playing with glow sticks pops into my head. Despite my mothers warnings I broke the plastic stick, its iridescent fluid leaving a magical coating all over my hands and shirt. I feel as though if I jump into its stillness, the water of the Adriatic may have the same affect, I would emerge glowing. The locals seem less enchanted, having brought their lawn chair and Peronis to the boardwalk they are engaged in what seems to be the local gossip. Everyone is outside and Bari has come alive again. I carry nothing on me, and I am suddenly stripped of all the things we convince ourselves we need to fully experience something new. I don’t have one picture of this night in Bari, only what exists in my minds eye. Before heading back to the B&B I stumble upon a small restaurant for dinner and order a giant plate of risotto with mussels and a small carafe of Chianti while I make a few notes to myself on the back of my old train ticket stub. I make plans for the morning: file a police report (for insurance purposes), contact my family, visit the tomb of St Nick one more time, buy snacks for the boat journey, check in at the ferry boat office.
In the morning I head to the police station with its old rusted sign “Polizia.” I tentatively pushed the buzzer – if the police station looks this uninviting what do Italian prisons look like?
“Pronto?” A voice emerges.
“Ummm yes, I…my phone was stolen and I need to file a report?”
“Eh? Como?” and then silence. This does not sound promising. Maybe I’m actually AT a prison? I stand for 30 seconds or so in silence and am just about to turn and leave when suddenly a buzzing sound, a latch unhooks, and the gate slowly and ominously begins to open. Well, here goes. The Polizia officer emerges…”Eh, what is you problem?” I start with the gestures…phone…in hand….man on motorcycle…stolen….me sad. I look ridiculous but not quite as ridiculous as I did getting my phone stolen. “Momento, momento.” He goes and gets another man. He waves me into an office. There are pink files falling out of every crack and crevice, every drawer, stacked on every surface – it is an organizational disaster. A fly lands on the officers forehead but he can’t be bothered to swat it away..
“Yes what is the problem?” I explain that I realize I am never going to see my phone again, but I need a report for insurance purposes. “ah I am sorry.” He tells me to sit down. “Could you describe person who stole?” He continues to ask me questions like this as I fill out my report. “Your only phone? You have other phone? You like phone? You like Skype? Your favorite color blue?” I continue to answer these questions as they start to become more and more irrelevant. “You like Bari? You like pasta?” Im starting to wonder where this is going as it begins to sound more and more like a bizarre doctor Seuss poem. “Black phone? Blue phone? Old phone? New phone?” I am just about to say I have to leave, that I don’t have time for this, and then he looks at his desk and sighs and says: “You know, in Bari, not many English. I like to learn, but there is no practice, there Is no one with English.” All this time, and all he wanted was a language partner, someone to speak with. I smile.
“Well your English is very good!” He lights up. “Much better than my Italian. I think I stand out as a backpacker….maybe that’s why I got robbed…I got played.”
“You got played?”
“Yes, its an expression, you can say ‘I got played, I got tricked.’” He laughs and repeats, “I got played!”
“Perfecto! Your accent is perfect, you only need someone to practice with.” I thank him and get buzzed back out to the narrow streets of Bari and head to the port.
I am reinvigorated having survived the night – not only having survived it, but having emerged a better person able to recognize the silliness of ever questioning my ability to survive the night. When I checked out of my room at the B&B Shahul gives me a mini bottle of champagne and tells me how sorry he is that I had a rough day, to contact him if I return to Bari. I experience these kind gestures once again, these gestures that I am not always deserving of. I settle on to the best deck seat on the boat three hours early, I am on my game today. From this distance I have a perfect view of old city, the port, the way the light looks as the sun sets and I am ready to start the journey to Greece – after a one month detour.