"That's what moving about, traveling, is; it's this inexorable glimpse of existence as it really is during those few lucid hours, so exceptional in the span of human time, when you are leaving the customs of the last country behind you and the other new ones have not yet got their hold on you.” --Celine
I'm writing this, in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Right now, I've got 2 hours until boarding time. I expect there will be a last minute gate change... they're continually announcing them. The gate change will make me late for the flight, even though I've been here 5 hours, already. Through the public address system, I hear a new gate announcement every few seconds. I'm waiting for mine...
It's now an hour after the flight should have left. There's no action at the gate. (Yes, it was changed.) The curse did not remain in Italy. It follows me to the end of the trip. What will yet happen at the NEXT security check? Customs? I expect to get home at two or three in the morning. I'm sure there'll be no ground transportation. Maybe I can get a SuperShuttle. That's probably best. Naw, they won't be running at that hour. Will my key work in my apartment door?
I'm losing computer battery power, and there are no sockets here. I don't understand how my fellow passengers can take it so well. I guess they didn't start at 6 in the morning... from Rome.
Backtrack: I'm in Bari, waiting to get on the train to Naples (not Naples, exactly... There is no train from Bari to Naples. The guy at the train station sold me a ticket to Benevento. From there, I need to get out of the train and buy another ticket to Naples. I have an hour wait in Benevento, said the ticket seller. Plenty of time to buy another ticket. He lied.)
Now, on the train, I text Maurizio, not the Tirana one, but the Italian couch-surfer who responded maybe to my request to stay at his place in Naples. He wrote: Even if I can't host you I can help you find a place and see something of this crazy town.
I text him that I'll be in Naples around 5:30 and ask him if he's free. I actually talked to him once. Texted, several times. Called several times. No answers to texts. One answer to the call. Since then, nothing. Still, I figure it's better to try. Even though things won't work out.
The train arrives in Benevento at 4:10. Only ten minutes after the scheduled time. In Italy, that's on time-- or maybe early. So I leave the train and run to the ticket office. There are half a dozen windows, all over them closed. There is a sign in one of them. It says something in Italian. Under that, it says, in English, Windows closed. Use machine. <-------
There is a small line at the machine. While waiting, I look at the schedule to confirm the leaving times. Next train to Naples: 4:25. Next after that: 7:30. Where's the 5:00 train the ticket seller told me about. Oh, there it is. It doesn't run on Sundays. Today is Sunday.
I get to the machine at 4:15. I can still make it. It looks pretty advanced. It even has an UNION JACK flag that you touch and it gives you (a kind of) English.
I tell it that I want to leave on the next train. (I still have 5 minutes.) It asks how many passengers. I press ONE. It asks if I want to buy the ticket. I press YES. It flashes TRANSACTION NOT AVAILABLE. PLEASE SEE AGENT AT WINDOW.
Ok, I pressed a wrong button somewhere. I hear the train pull into the station. I push the Union Jack. I push the Naples. I push the number one. I push the YES! It flashes TRANSACTION NOT AVAILABLE. PLEASE SEE AGENT AT WINDOW.
“You fucker!” I yell at it. “I'm only using you because I CAN'T see the agent at the window!”
The line has grown rather large by now. I ask the guy behind me if he speaks English.
“Un po,” he says.
I explain the problem. He says he'll try in for me. He does it in Italian and gets the same mystery message. He shakes his head. Tries again and then shrugs.
“You should go to the café there,” he says pointing. “You can buy a ticket there.”
Of course. Why didn't I think of that? The window signs say USE THE MACHINE, WINDOW CLOSED. And the machine says SEE WINDOW AGENT. All you have to do is see the cashier by the espresso machine. How could I be so stupid and not have guessed that?
The train pulls out of the station.
I buy my ticket from the lady selling water and croissants. While waiting, I sit down and text Maurizio: Train trouble, will be there around 8.
After a long wait, I get on the train, arrive in Naples, switch to the subway as Maurizio explained, go one stop. And there at the station is Maurizio waiting for me. Yeah, right.
Actually, though, it's only a few minutes. In the middle of another text message, he shows up with his friend, Fabio. We shake hands.
“Mykel,” says Fabio, “welcome to Naples. You can stay right near here. In my office... like an office... for two nights. Then, I have another guest coming. But we found a hostel for you. Sixteen Euros.”
That's okay. I can stay in a hostel for one night. I've got my trusty steel cable bag guard, so my computer and the rest will be safe. “That's fine,” I say. “Gracie.”
So we go to “the office.” It's like an apartment that's been converted into an office. There's a bathroom, with a bathtub, toilet, sink... and bidet, with a single dingleberry hanging on to the edge by a hair ...a kitchen, and a bedroom. The bedroom has a double bed in it. In the middle of the double bed is a long black lump, like a huge dog turd.
“You will sleep here,” says Fabio. “You can either share that large bed, or we can put a mattress on the floor....
He looks at the lump on the bed.
“That's Jonathan,” says Fabio. “He's an English couch surfer, who suddenly became sick. He hasn't left this room in days. He's just too ill.”
“I'll take the floor,” I say.
So, I'm be sharing a sickroom with a leper... or at least a swine flu victim. Just what I deserve, huh?
That first night in Naples, though, is fun. We go for pizza (of course). We go bar-hopping. I meet Oli, a boistrous young woman and my first person from Luxembourg. The guys promise to go out with me again the next two nights. More bars. It'll be a great team, me, Maurizio, and Fabio. Finally, some spice in my Italian life. Yeah, right.
That first night. That's it. That's all there is.
Maurizio doesn't want to come out in the rain the next night. Fabio takes me for fried pizza (not bad), and then leaves me with a take-home box for breakfast. The next day, I text Maurizio: Yo! I hope we can meet up before I leave tomorrow. Call Fabio.
He calls. He can't go out. He has to stay home with his mom. Fabio also is gonna see his mom. Sorry, Mykel, you're on your own.
I go out to an experimental film festival. I picked up a brochure about it at the Italian tourist bureau. Ah, Italian experimental film. There'll be some naked bodies in those, I bet. The Italians like naked bodies.
The festival is in the back of an alley near Piazza Dante. It's on the second floor of an art gallery, probably in the ninth circle, someplace. Admission is free and there are about 30 seats. The “films” are actually projected video, but I guess they all are these days.
The first one is animation. There is a woman's body attached to some tubes. Some dots move along the tubes. Electronic music plays in the background. That's the film.
The next film is a close-up of a young woman with a bad complexion. Just her face, balancing a sugar cube on her nose. When the cube falls, she tries to catch it in her mouth. She misses. This happens five times. Finally she catches it, and eats it. That's the film.
Next, we see a naked foot. It rests on a linoleum floor. Slowly, the foot rises, the arch flattens, the foot rises higher until it stands on its toes. That's the film.
The next movie is a close-up (waist to mid-thigh) of a woman wearing a somewhat shlubby blouse and loose black skirt. She sits down. Then the film jerks to a stop. DISC ERROR it says on the screen. The message stays for a few seconds. Then we see a naked foot. It begins to rise. DISC ERROR. We see a black skirt. It sits down. DISC ERROR.
Next movie: a guy and a girl, both 20-something, not particularly attractive, run in the snow. They are wearing clothes. Lots of them. Ski gear, without the skis. They slide around and drag each other across the ice. That's the end of the show.
I leave the theater. It's raining out, as it often is when you leave a theater.
I go back to Fabio's. Steven is up. He rests on one arm in bed. His face is eerily lit by the screen of his Apple notebook.
“Myyyykeeeeeeeel,” he gasps, horse as Mr. Ed. “Did you see a pharmacy out there?”
“I saw many,” I tell him.
“Could you get me some ibuprofen and some declemarinka” (That's not really the name of the drug, but I can't remember what it was. Something extremely pharmaceutical-sounding.) He speaks in a hoarse painful whisper.
Then, he writes down the drug names on a slip of paper and fishes ten euros out of his pocket.
I'm reluctant to touch that money, fearing I'll be next when that ferryboat driver comes to bring him across the river Stix. Finally though, I take it and walk out into the rain.
Few people are about. One woman hurries past me, running, like the shaving-cream terrorists who attacked me yesterday, before I can ask her anything. A fat man with an umbrella comes toward me. I corral him.
“Farmacia. Farmacia. Dove?” I ask.
“No capisco,” he says, shaking his head. Then he gets it. Farmacia! Farmacia!
“Si si,” I say.
He points straight ahead; then moves his hand back and forth like it's miles.
I walk about a half a mile. During that time I ask again... and again. It's always straight ahead... or some answer I don't understand. I walk another half a mile. Then I give up. Soaked and cold, I walk back. Empty handed and drenched, it won't be long now before I need some declemarinka myself.
“Sorry,” I say when I get back, shaking myself like the wet dog I am. “I walked a mile. Couldn't find a pharmacy...” I fumble through my knapsack. “Here,” I say, pulling out some of the pills I bought in Albania. “Have some aspirin.”
“I called my girlfriend,” whispers Jonathan. “She says not to take aspirin and ibuprofen together.”
Then he shuts the lights out.
I get up at 7 AM the next day. I decided the night before that if the weather is nice, I'll go to Pompeii. Even though I hate Italy, I shouldn't be cutting off my balls to spite my dick. Pompeii is one of those places you have to go to in your life. I didn't even know it was close to Naples until I saw all the books about it in the tourist shops, and local bookstores.
[Note: I have to give Naples credit. They have bookstores. Book stalls. Book booths. They have places to buy books like Albania has places to buy coffee. Every third shop is a bookstore. I bought a book for one Euro. I have no idea what it is, but it looks cool.]
Yesterday, I saw Mount Vesuvius... from yet another castle. I stopped for lunch on the way. A half-size can of Fanta (not as good as Albanian), and a thin grilled cheese sandwich. Ten Euros!! Ah, it's the gringo tax. Pisses me off, but that's travel biz-- everywhere.
Anyway, the castle (called the Egg Castle for some reason), houses some offices, and art galleries. It's strange. You walk into this ancient building, and there are guys at work, wearing ties, pushing paper around.
In the distance, is a cloud-covered mountain, that looks like it could be steaming. That is, it could be making the clouds that are covering it.
That must be Vesuvius, I think and take a picture.
Later, Fabio confirms I'm right.
[Oh yeah, I should mention a nice visit to the local synagogue, a Sephardic shule. Fabio brought me there. I would have never found it... tucked away in a courtyard in the rich part of town, by the castle.
Fabio says, “Of course it's here. Jews are rich.”
I ask him for my cut. He doesn't get it.
The caretaker, the only person here, gives me the tour. He tells me it's the only synagogue in Southern Italy. They have about 180 members: mostly old people, without so much money. The synagogue was founded by the Rothschilds. They had money.
My guide tells me that now, most of the money for the place comes from the Italian government which gives financial support to various religions. Not a very American idea... though, unfortunately, that is changing here.
He tells me lots of interesting things about the Italian Jewish community. One of them is about the city of Trani (Wow! Could you imagine living in a city called Trani? Could you imagine going out with a Trani tranny?) That city has is a community of Jews that has festivals, a monthly magazine, a regular active community. There are 18 Jews in the city. There are no synagogues.
“How come there aren't 19 synagogues?” I don't ask. “One for the religious variations of each Jew, and one that none of them would ever set foot in again if you paid me!”
(Sorry, it's old joke that the goyim won't get, I'm afraid.)
Anyway, I got a copy of the Trani Jews magazine, a few leaflets about Jews in Italy, and a nice calender. I was never asked for money. So much for the Jews and money myth.]
Back to today: If it's nice, I'll go to Pompeii. If it's raining, I'll hit the museums. Weather report is rain. But at 7AM, it's a beautiful day.
So I'm off to Pompeii. Fabio gave me directions. It's a Metro to the main station. Then a regular train to Pompeii. From track three... It's easy. Yeah, right.
Track three is deserted, except for a young American couple who must've just started their European journey. All-American looking. Clean cut, the guy looks like a young Dave Matthews. The girl is slightly more exotic, with a touch of henna in her bobbed hair.
They're lovey dovey. They talk to me, then stop to gaze longingly in each other's eyes. It's a good thing I haven't eaten yet.
“We're from San Diego,” they tell me. “I heard the Pompeii train leaves from here.”
“I heard that too,” I tell them. “I can can't find it on the timetable though.”
The young guy does. We're on the wrong track.
We've got three minutes to catch the train on track one.
We race up the stairs, over to Track One, just as the train is pulling into the station. The guy and his girlfriend are ready to board, but I've been in Italy long enough to know better. (Almost two and a half days, by now.)
“Wait,” I tell them, walking over to the engine and speaking to the guy sitting in it.
“Pompeii?” I ask.
He says something that I don't understand. But it's definitely NOT Pompeii. We don't get on the train.
In about 10 minutes, the train pulls out. Another comes into the station. For some reason, the Americans seem shy about asking if it's the right train. I don't get it. It's not like you need to speak Italian to say Pompeii.
The second train goes to somewhere else I don't understand. But it's not Pompeii. The third train doesn't go there either. The fourth does... I think. At least the engineer nods when I say Pompeii? I hope he's not Albanian. (Remember? In Albania a nod means NO!)
We get on the train.
During the trip, we talk jobs. I tell him I'm a teacher, writer, the usual. The guy says he's a musician, in a band.
“We sound like Dave Matthews,” he tells me.
We talk travel. They're on some cruise. This is a port of call. All they do is eat, they say.
“We call it THE FAT CAMP,” says the girl.
We talk about Italy. They say it's their first trip to the country. I say the last time I was here before this trip was 1998.
“I was in elementary school,” says the girl.
“Yeah, well....” says I.
When we get to Pompeii, we share a cab to the old ruins. After the cab-ride, before entering the ruins, we stop at a food stand. They buy some water. Me, I'm hungry. I order a melted cheese sandwich.
“We'll meet you by the entrance,” says the guy.
It takes awhile for the cheese to melt. When I finally get the sandwich and pay my 11 Euros to get in, I realize I've been ditched.
So I'm on my own in the ruins of Pompeii. It's a huge place. After all, it used to be a city.
There are several gates in what used to be the city walls. As I step through the one closest to the ticket booth, it begins to rain.
Already worried about my health (rooming with the leper, out in the rain in the cold last night), I find myself depressed. Besides, I'm walking through a city where everybody was killed in the Mount Vesuvius eruption. not really cheery.
The guidebook that comes with admission tells me a few things. There is an ancient BEWARE OF THE DOG “welcome mat” floor tile mosaic.
There's a snack bar.
There are a few well-preserved corpses. My favorite is one where the lower half of the face is preserved in lava dust, but the upper half has disintegrated, revealing the skull.
It's interesting enough... but I'm wet, and how many walls and empty rooms can you look at? About an hour and a half's worth, it turns out. I head for the exit and just past the point of no return, there's THE SOUVENIR shop.
They've got postcard pix and ceramic re-creations of all the good stuff. It's pornographic. Penis upon penis. Where was all that? I can't believe I spent money for a train, a cab, entrance fee, walking in the rain, and I MISSED THE PORN! Now I feel even worse! I don't even want to buy a postcard!
I take the train back to Naples and walk to Fabio's office. It's about 3 in the afternoon.
Fabio is at work with some others in the large office.
I head right for the bedroom. Maybe I can take a nap.
The room is pitch dark. The windows are shuttered tight. On the bed, I can just make out a long lump, wrapped in a blanket.