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Wednesday
Jun172009

The Things You Collect When Traveling

It’s been36 days since I’ve been back on U.S. soil. The assimilation process into my life as a corporate man has not been as dramatic as I had anticipated, although it became very clear to me when the Continental Boeing 737 left Amsterdam and I began relentlessly gnawing at my finger nails that the thought of returning to my banal corporate existence weighed heavily upon my mind. Incidentally, my finger nails have always been the tell-tale sign of what’s going on beneath the surface.While traveling throughout Europe,my nails looked as strong and healthy as whenI was in Africa. By the time I arrived in Seattle at 11pm, twenty hours after leaving Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, there were no nails left to bite.

When I went to bed that evening, I wantednothing more than to sleep for two days, but there was very little sleeping for methat night in my Phinney Ridge neighborhood...and so on the next night...and the next as my mind struggled to remain in Europe despite the fact that my body was now in Seattle.

The following morning through no choice of my own I was up at 7:30am. “Wow...” was all I could think as I looked around my basement apartment. You would have thought Hurricane Katrinahad swept through my room as the night before I delved into my bags to remove my toiletries and a massive 11 Euro chunk of Old Amsterdam Cheese, and in the process spread this and that here and there.

Around 8am, tired but wired, I walked up to thePhinney Market to grab a Sunrise Breakfast Sandwich and a cup of coffee in preparation for the Herculean task of unpacking and reorganizing my room and life. Little by little I picked apart the pieces that had been a part of me for the past five weeks, things I had either brought with me or collected along the way. Little by little I organized these possessions and artifacts into smaller, more manageable piles. Little by little order was being restored to my world. This is the process by which I do most tasks in my life, whether it is cleaning, writing, solving a problem at work, and so on; break up the mass, divide it into smaller, more manageable parts of similar characteristics, and eventuallyput them back together in a new way. It is a process thathas always worked for me for everything from doing laundry to writing paragraphs.

That morning there were two things lying on my floor besides what I brought back from Europe. The first was a photo album I must have been looking at the night beforeI left for Europe while pulling an all-nighter so as to not miss my early morning flight. I picked up the photo album and randomly opened it to a picture of me and an old girlfriend who was the firstreal love of my life. It was with the girl in the photograph I learned about love, about needs, about longing, and about the concessions one must make in a relationship.It was with her that I learnedabout thethings two people can do and expresswith their bodies when they are in love. And it was also with herthat I experienced my first real heartbreak which took me to new, uncharted depths of sadness.

This photo stopped me dead in my tracks as Istared at the younger version of myself looking back at me through a mirror of time. It was humbling. There in the album,preserved and protected behind a sheet of cellophane was a carbon copy of a past moment and time in my life. My past was looking back at me through the eyes of a kid who was asfull of hopes, dreams, and goals as he was innocenceand naivety. From the outside, this timeless kid looked as if he had everything going for him,and yeton the inside, the life he was living felt very different. On the inside there was a deep-seated pain and sadness that seemed to come from nowhere, and a pain thatseemed to be going nowheresoon. That familiar kid wasn’t sure ifhe would ever be able to feel any differently than this feelinghe had come to know - and to be quite honest,he wasn’t surehe wanted to. Allhe knew was that this pain and sadness had become like a lover with whomhe became so comfortable and complacentwith that the love had long since moved on and all that was left was familiarity. You know that feeling you have when you’ve been dating or married to someone for so long, and then one dayyou wake up and you’re on your own? It isasterrifyingas it iscrippling. Who wouldthis kid be ifhe did not have this sadness to identify himto himself?

But being that I was the person who experienced the intense feelings and emotions of this kid, I was able to see that photo as if it was a holographic image. In the photo I could see the many layers andlevels of that person. One of the images Isaw was of an ambitiouskid who had a vision of a lifehe wanted to live; a life that was full of unbounded freedom, raw life experience, and deep self-reflection. The problem wasmy mind was not yetstrong enough to imagine what living that life would actually feel like - or even look like - and without being able to toimagine it, how could I become it?I really can’t fault that kid though; he simply didn’t have enough life experience to form a foundation of faith upon whichhe could stand.

I’ve spoken of this faith before. Simply put, there is nothing miraculous and divine about this faith and yet that it is where the miracle and divinity is found. That faith is simply about being strong enough and having the courageto realize that somehow, even amongst the darkest despair of your youth, adolescence, and20s, if you justkeep persevering, things will eventually get better. What an awful cliche it is when you are at the bottom, buttomorrow is always another day. What if that one night years ago, in my darkest night of the soul as St. John of the Cross penned, when I felt I was walking alone through the deepest, darkest valley I had ever known, when I thought I could no longer go on because of the weight of the pain and sadness, I actually followed through with my thought to take my own life? That is the thought of a young mind, a mind spiraling out of control.

It is the natural progression of human beings that we must traverse the peaks and valleys of lifefor if we didn’t we would never learn anything or evolve as individuals, societies, or human beings. Nature partakes in the dance of evolution and we are a product of evolution, so why too wouldn’t the soul of the individual undergo evolution as well? To evolve, one must make great strides in adaptation and one way to do that as a human or spiritual being, is to move through our pain, as opposed to numbing it,keeping it at arm’s length, or keeping it in the peripheral.

There will always be peaks and valleys on this journey of self-discovery, but I thinkas you get older, sometimes you get lucky enough to hang out on some really cool plateaus for a while. Although I only have 33 years of life experience, from watching those around me, it seems every decade these plateaus become more and more expansive and the peaks and valleys less and less steep; either that or years of conditioning have prepared us for these parts of the journey.

This is not to say there will notalways be something right around the bend that will challenge us and shake our tree of lifeto the core. What we must remember, however,is that when that tree is shaken, from its boughs and limbs fall fruits and seeds, and from this regenerative process,the cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth,continues and perpetuates.

There was oneother thing that lay on the floor that morning which I had rediscovered when I moved into my house several months prior. In aneffort to not misplace it, IScotch-taped itto the wall where it blended in and once again Iforgot about it. But thereit was on the floor, a message from the past that was as timeless as whenI first received it.It was a note my friend Eileen had written me several years prior on a piece of paper torn from a “While You Were Out...” memo pad. On it the quote read,”The universe expands or contracts in proportion to one’s courage.”

I continued the process of organizing and sifting through the mess my travels abroad had now made in my room. Since I am a writer, or perhaps a more accurate description would be an archivist of my own life, I was amazed to see the things I had collected on my trip. Each item wasanartifact from an archeological dig of the mind, body, and spirit. Each artifact brought with it vivid images that would forever link me to a time, place and a uniquefeeling I experienced at one brief moment of my life. Among the items were; maps of cities such as Amsterdam and Genoa, tickets to museums, business cards of people who I had briefly encountered, scraps of ripped out notebook paper with phone numbers, a lighter from a coffee shop in Amsterdam, a small bag of “coffee” hidden from my final inspection before I left Amsterdam, airplane boarding passes, train and ferry tickets, a travel insurance policy, index cards with ridiculous questions on them, a handful of Euros, my own business card of a “company” that brought form to a formless idea (which turned out to be the driver of the whole trip), five books that I dragged to Europe, two of which I carried in my backpack all over the south of France and none of which I actually read. How can I be expected to read others people’s books whenI barely have enoughtime to write my own? My mind went back to the planning phase of the tripand I could hear Bret say, “Timbo, all that crap adds up andyou don’t need it.Your pack might feel OK now but after a few hours on the trail it’s gonna get a lot heavier.” Every morning in a different village in Provence, I would pack up my gear for the day’s walk and Bret would say sarcastically, “It’s a good thing you brought those books, huh Timbo?” To which I would reply with matched sarcasm, “I am getting so much reading done.” It was part of our daily routine.

***

Perhaps the hardest part of returning to my daily life in Seattle is that my dedication to my writing suffers. As the daily hum-drum existence of going to work slowly eats away at the mountain of inspiration I’ve been hoarding, I find it harder and harder to be disciplined and make time to write. As always, I have either my journal or a small pocket notebook at arm’s length and as always I am writing down ideas, images, or pieces of conversations. Finding the time to formulate these sketches into something of form is proving to be challenging, however.It may sound ridiculous to the layman, but as a writer or as with any type of creative person, not being able to get those thoughts, ideas, and feelingsout of youweighs soheavily on your mind that it can throw off the balance of your entire world. And thus as a creative person,going too long without being able to express one’s self means walking a fine line between madness and depression.

To carry the momentum of inspiration that a grandexperience like travel affords a personrequires one toreally be conscious of maintaining it. Part of that challenge is learning to keep your eyes fresh and attentive to the minutia of your daily life and surroundings; in other words, being present in the moment and being able to draw inspiration from the smallest and sometimes seemingly inconsequentialthings in your life. As our new friend Darby from L.A. said at a wine tasting in the little hill town of Giogondas, “It’s not hard to be present in Provence, but being present in yourdaily life is an entirely different challenge. It’s fucking hard,” she added.

That first weekend homethere was plenty of celebratory drinks to mark my return. One eveninga friend of mine said to me, “There is something different about. I can’t put my finger on it. You seem more grounded, centered, at peace or something.” I couldn’t help but think about this comment the next day. It made me once again think about my trip and my life as an ever-evolvingprocess and unfolding.I think part of what occurred on this trip, andwhat continues in this part of the process I amliving,is that I shed the final layers of a former angst-ridden and uneasy self. This most important part of the life-process I underwent and continue to undergo, began when I made the decision to go to Africa ten months ago. Will thiswave of momentum and good-feeling continue? Is it real? Is it just the delusions and grandeur of an inspired soul? How long it will last I can not tell you.

What I can tell you, however,dear friends and readersis thatit began when without a clue as to what I was getting myself into, filled with fear and trepidation, I put onefoot in front of the other andtook that first step forward.With that step I said “fuck it all” and went to work in an orphanage in Africa by myself. It was a blind leap of faith I think even Kierkegaard would have beenproud of.

If there is one thing I learned through that leap of faith, it’sthat fear isjust a wall you have to blast through if you ever want to get anywhere. I’ve found in my own life thatwith every wall of fearyou blow through, as you burrow and mineyour way fromcenter earthto the surface on your ascent towards the heavens,more and more light fills your life. And consequentlyeach wall you move throughis easier than the last. Perhaps that incandescent light that illuminates the sometimes cavernous regions of our soulsis the light of faith.

***

As I said in the beginning of this story, through processes I can’t explain, the tectonic plates of my interior life have been shifting andon the move for some time, and when tectonic plates shift, they alter landscapes, mountains, oceans, and continents. I think within me a new continent has been formed. Perhaps it happened on Bastille Day, the most powerful “Serengeti Moment” on this trip. Unlike the original Serengeti Moment (which actually occurred in the Serengeti), this was notan introspective happening that gave birth to an epiphany. Instead,Bastille Day brought me to -and opened me up to -a new space for joy in my life. There is an ever-growing part of me that believes this is what life is about; experiencing the unexpected and unbounded joy that is found in the loving of your own life. After all, you can’t begin to love others until you love yourself.

Again, as I said before and as I continually (perhaps even annoyingly) reiterate, you can frame this internal experience I speak ofin a thousand different lights. Earlier in the story I called it a part of the spiritual experience of life. Regardless, language limits it. If you mixed all the colors on a painter’s palette in all the possible variations, you still couldn’t touch this experience for it is beyond human communication and exists as an intangiblewave of internal feeling.

The best way I can explain it is that this spiritual experience is about finding and bringing it into the worldthejoy, peace, creativity, inspiration, freedom, and truth that exists in each of us.It is aboutbringing form to the formless. It is about being a master of your fears andthe lighthouse of your mind. It is about giving up the fight and, like water, taking the path of least resistance. It is about becoming free enough to move in the many directions your lifewill take you. Most importantly,it is about doing whatever it takes to find that within you that gives you joy, because we were made to experience and create joy in this life -at least that’s what I think. You can either look at the world as I did for so many yearsas a place full of pain and despair, or you can look at the world as a place full of love and hope. I choose to live by the mantra of the latter.

I’m feeling these days like I’ve been given a chance to startfresh and anew. I feel like time is no longer mastering me, but instead for the first time in my lifeI am the master of time. I feel as if Ihave made new clearings in my life, clearingsto be filled with an abundance of love andcreativity. I am excited, revitalized, and focused on the goals I have ahead of me. The challenge for me I know, the challenge for all of us, is to be the gatekeeper ofour thoughts, and to keep our thought focused on theabundance ofblessings in our livesin the form of friends, family, love, and support, because like any free-standing structure, a human being needs support as well. No man is an island, as John Donne said in an attempt to portray the interconnectedness of mankind.

 

Although it is somewhat scary at times because we have a tendancy to fear a crash when things are going well in our lives, I feel as if I am in a space of my lifewhere I am attracting into my world that which I need to take me to the next level, whatever that level may be or mean. What is new for me is that I know, after feeling stuck for so many years, that I am moving forward into new and exciting unchartedwaters of my life.

 

It’s not justa mere hope or wish anymore that I become that which I have always wanted to be, but insteadsomething I innately know and feel in my entire being. I am. And whenI am feeling at my best and living as I am these daysin a healthy mind, it’s as if every living part of meis aware of the process of movement my life is undertaking,and every part of me, down to the cellular level,is working in communion toward Creation. I think it comes down to me recognizing and accepting the person within me, the person who I have always been, and the person whoI have always been meant to become. It was only a matter of having the fortitude tolearn to how touse the vessel I have been given,setting my sails to the wind, and righting myself on the course upon which Ihave always been meant to travel.Sometimes you justhave to be lost for a while to find your way home.

 

The windows through which I have been looking out most of my adult life have been cleaned. Instead of peeringthrough the muck, dirt, and grime of failed expectations, disillusionment, and seemingly paradise lost,Ionce again peer out through the windows of my youth. I am, at least in this moment, a soul who is more at peace with himselfthen ever before. The windows are clear and clean, the view unobstructed, and on the other side of this pane of glassis a world that awaits my imagination to transform it into a playground.

 

September 8th, 2007
Seattle, WA

Wednesday
Jun172009

We’re All Backpackers in One Way or Another

Kim and I said our goodbyes at the train station in Vernazza at 7:15am and so began a long day of traveling by train, bus, and plane. As I was boarding the plane from Genoa to Amsterdam, I was not thinking about the new no-liquids in flight rules so they tagged me for trying to take down a plane with Olive Oil, Wine, anda lemon liquor (In their defense, itcan be a lethal combo if paired with the right foods). This meant I had to either depart with my purchases or pack them in my carry-on backpack and check them at the ticket counter. So I checked my backpack with near certaintythat it would be reduced to a sopping wet mash of shattered glass.I was convinceit would be the only bag on the carousel that couldbe sautéed with vegetables.

I was in a tired haze the whole day and as a result, continued my clumsiness by knocking over a glass of water on the flight from Genoa to Amsterdam, which happened to spill into the shoe of a cute girl who was sitting behind me. As luck would have it, the spilled glass of water served as a conversation piece as Saskia, the girl with the one wet shoe, and I were exiting the plane.

As you do when you are traveling and meeting many different people, sometimes briefly, you give them your two-minute download-life story and why it is you are traveling and meeting at this moment in time. Saskia was a classical and jazzcello player who had been playing music and vacationing in Barcelona. We discovered at baggage claim that Judith and her boyfriend Wouter were common friends. The world is so small sometimes. We carried on talking because it appeared that AlItalia Airlines lost my bag and her suitcase. We waited for a good hour at baggage claim as flight after flight was unloaded on the carousels with no apparent sign of either of our luggage. We walked off to baggage claim and Saskia said that since I only had two days left in Amsterdam, I should enjoy it and not have to worry about coming back to the airport to get my luggage. She said she could pick it up and we could meet for a drink near where she lived. While filling out our claims for our missing luggage, mysteriously my bag appeared after an hour-and-a-half,miraculously intact. We said we would like to get a drink together in the next day or two, butunfortunately I ran out of time and that just never happened. I made my way back to Susan’s around 7pm and fell asleep early.

My plan for my final two days in Amsterdam was to spend one day with Bret and one with Judith, since her internship had ended and Susan was working. The following day, however, Judith had come down with the flu. While we were traveling together in Africa, she came down with malaria and she has not been healthy ever sinceand seems to be susecptible to sickness more than others.

***

When Bret and I met up Tuesday morning in Leidseplien our energies were a little off, but after a while we were back in the groove. I rented a bike and we took a ride outside of town and had a picnic on a canal. Afterward, we stopped at a park for a “coffee” break and continued the conversation of, “What the hell is Jack Will Travel? What are we going to do with this?” It was feeling to me as if Bret was not interested in a common vision as he was talking about doing all of these other videos and posting them on his site. Then what is the purpose of Jack Will Travel, I was thinking? But in the mean time, he was feeling as if I was driving all of this traffic to my Web site as opposed to Jack Will Travel. There was some head butting going on but there had to be a way to marry these two visions.

We went back to Bret’s place and looked at some of the pictures and videos we had taken on the tripand traded a bunch of music. He also introduced me to the wonderful world of podcasting and video blogging. During this session our creative energies were coming together and we discussed perhaps creating a spin-off of Jack Will Travel where we would create identities for small businesses, since after all that is what we did for Jack Will Travel. We created something out of nothing, which was a “perceived” company with an identity - or at least an identity we wanted to portray - so why couldn’t we do this for other people? When Bret and I come eye-to-eye in one of these creative spaces, the possibilities seem endless. There seemed to be any number of directions we could take Jack Will Travel. I left Bret around 6pm and headed back to Susan’s place on my rented women’s bike. She made me dinner and we had another mellow evening as she had to study for work the next day.

The following day I awoke on the earlier side and headed to the Van Gogh museum before meeting up with Bret. I got there at 9:45am where a line had already formed for the 10am opening. As I was walking through the museum, I was overcome with emotion and almost brought to tears. I knew very little about Van Gogh besides what most people know, that he cut off part of his ear while under the influence of absinthe (supposedly). His “psychotic” episodes were more likely caused by epilepsy it is now believed.

Van Gogh spent his early life working for an art dealer until he was fired at the age of 26 for his overtly-religious views. It was at this point, with the support of his brother Theo, he decided to become a painter. Imagine that, at 26, with no experience as a painter to decide to just become one. This was just one of the many aspects of Van Gogh that moved me and inspired me. As I walked around the rooms of the museum, I noticed the evolution of his brush strokes and subject matter as they moved into the realms Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, which eventually gave birth to his own style, Expressionism.

I find when I go see an art exhibit, it is not necessarily always the work of the artist that moves me or that I identify with, but the struggles andpain the artist endures for his or her own vision of truth, beauty, and expression. What moved me so much about Van Gogh was his sheer determination and focus to become an artist and to have the courage to create works which were not the norm of the day. This fact was compounded by the fact that Van Gogh’s entire body of work, which consists of more than 2,000 works, including900 paintings and 1,100 drawing and sketches were produced in a ten year time frame. Van Gogh shot himself in the chest at 37 and probably died thinking he was a failure. Imagine that. What moved and humbled me most was the single-pointedness of his focus, desire, determination, and quest for truth, and I hoped that some day I too could possess an ounce of that drive.

After the Van Gogh museum, I met up with Bret and we drove around the city for the afternoon on our bikes. We stopped by the old Olympic Stadium and finally came to a shared vision of what Jack Will Travel will become (more on that later). The true challenge, however, is; can we continue this momentum and inspiration when we return to our colloquial day-to-daylives?

For the rest of the day as we drove throughout the city, my mind was consumed by the visionwhat Jack Will Travel could become. The conversation moved in and out of Jack Will Travel all day. At one point we sat on the edge of a river on the island of Ijburg, which is a residential neighborhood in east Amsterdam and the island is completely manmade. Apparently, many of the architects and designers who built this island have been recruited to help build The Palms in Dubai. As we were sitting by the water, we started talking about the future, which included wives, kids, etc. He told me a story about when he was a child, how his grandmother used to drop him off at her friend’s place who was 70 and never had any children.

“I don’t know if my grandmother dropped me off because I was such a hyper-active kid and she couldn’t handle me or if she felt sorry for this woman because she never had any children,” he said. “But this little old lady said something to me that I will never forget. She said, ‘Don’t go childless, Bret.’” How is that for an impression-bomb to drop on a ten-year-old? I feel like somehow that has haunted him his whole life.It’s almost as bad as when my family put coal in my stockings when I was ten-years-old, but that is another story for another time.

He went on to talk about this older couple in the waning years of their lives and how Ernie, her husband, was practically deaf and used to hold a horn up to his ear instead of a hearing aid. “I mean, even at ten I wanted to be like, hey Ernie, there are hearing aids, you know?” He closed that part of the bike tour by telling me about the no-sugar rule his mother tried to lay down, which only last two weeks. He remembers being in someone’s house and spinning wildly round and roundon a bar stool and his Mom looked over at him with a straight face and said, “No more sugar.” After spending all of our time traveling together, I could totally see that whole scene. My only question now is, what is fueling that wild energy these days?

We drove around more that day and ended where it all began several weeks prior, in Leidseplien. We had a final beer at Dan Murphy’s Irish bar, which had sayings on chalk boards such as, “Liquor in the front - poke her in the back” and “Life is full of difficult choices, isn’t it silly Billy?”Our Jack Will Travel talks continued as we hashed out some final details of creative differences, reachingthe point where I think we both feel comfortable about what we are going to do next.

I gave Bret a hug goodbye and said to the him, “Imagine if we had someonepay us to doanother one of these things? Think about all we’ve learned and what we could do to take it to the next level.”

He replied with, “I want to move from a one-star hotel to a two-star hotel, and keep adding stars. Then you get better sanitary options, your own toilettes, new bars of soap in fancier packaging, TV, and then CNN on the TV,and so on.”

We snapped a few final pictures, and I walked off towards the tram to head back to Susan’s.

My mind was still reeling with the possibilities of Jack Will Travel when Bret called out to me, “Timbo! Aren’t you going to return your bike?” Sometimes when I am locked up in creative thoughtsI can be a complete space cadet. That would have made the following morning challenging, having to get back into Leidseplien to return the bikeand then head out to the airport.

I returned the bike and got on the train back to Susan’s place.I watched a backpacker who was obviously exploring the city for the first timecuriously and somewhat nervously looking at the sign which listed the stops of the train and then look out the window searching for names of stops or landmarks. Only a few weeks prior I was that same person, uncertain as to where I was going or where I was going to get off, much like all of us in life. We’re all backpackers in some sense, all trying to get somewhere, always moving from one place to the next, more often than not in a state of flux. Sometimes we land somewhere for a while, but mostly we are in transition, whether it is from one place to another, one addiction to another, one lover to another, one job to another, or one space in our minds to another.

When I did finally get home that night, Susan was waiting for me and we headed out for a final drink. Her neighbors sawa sight that had become common in her housing complex; her driving away on her bike and me running along side while trying to hop on the back as she drove me from one Amsterdam location to the next.

August 5, 2007
Seattle, WA

Wednesday
Jun172009

Vernazza’s Festa di Pirati

“I’ve taken a new Italian lover!” was one of the first things Kim said to me after I settled in next to her on the train from Genoa to Cinque Terre. “His name is ‘Cousin Bob.’”

As you can imagine, this statement momentarily caused me great consternation as I paused to question everything I had ever known about Kim, her past, and her family. It was quickly clarified, however, that “Cousin Bob” was actually the cousin of the bride at a wedding she attended the weekend prior. It did not stop us from exploring the topic further as we discussed the pros and cons of dating your cousin;

Pros

  • You never have to worry about who’s side of the family you will be spending your holidays with
  • You already know the family and will likely be accepted by 87.4% of the them (sure there are exceptions to the rules and yes there is going to be some sibling and relative rivalries but...)
  • You already know the in-laws and thus you already know what you are getting yourself into.

Cons

  • Most likely learning disabilities and birth defects.

It was only a few days later that Kim actually found out “Cousin Bob” was not Italian but Iranian,and his name incidentally was not Bob, but Boback- but I mean come on - Italian, Iranian...who can tell the difference these days as international love lines become blurred?

Ten minutes prior to meeting up with Kim as I stood on the platform waiting for her train to arrive,I had a feeling one of us had bad information and that one of us was on the wrong train. Kim was coming from Turino, Italy, where she was workingand we were to meet on a trainin Genoa, however, the time for the train she gave me did not match up with the train I was instructed to take. I ran across the street with my bags to an Internet cafe and quickly scribed a message to her which she never actually received. As it turns out, as I entered the train wondering, ‘If I were Kim, which car would I be on?” I looked to the left and lo and behold, up popped her head from behind a seat.

We spent the next two hours catching up since we had not seen each other since the morning after the National show when she drove meto the airport at 6:00am after I pulled an all-nighter. As we chatted, the train chugged along the tracks that were built into the cliffs and below us stretching to the horizon were the crystalline waters of the Mediterranean. Talking, talking, talking we carried on, so much in fact that we sailed right past our stop, disembarking two stops too late in the town of Riomaggiore (truth be known, I did stick my head out the door at the right stop and saw ‘Uscita’ and only later did I realize it meant ‘exit’ as opposed to a town me might be rolling through). The mishap was fortuitous in the fact that we met Daniel, an Italian bartender who had an air of Jeff Spiclolli about him, but Italian of course. Daniel told us about the Festa di Pirati, or Festival of the Pirates, occurring on Saturday night. “Yessa, Johnny Depp and all...”What that actually meant and the evening entailed we did not yet know. There were rumors of pirates coming from the sea, a DJ, and lots and lots of drinking. All the above did in fact prove to be true.

When we finally arrived, we were instructed to find the Internet cafe in the center of Vernazza, and from there we were to ask for our landlady, who would be renting us an apartment in her house. The cozy apartment consisted of two bedrooms, a small kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and a refrigerator. When the woman and her Italian translator finally leftus on our own inthe apartment, Kim and I were dancing with elation.

Kim’s suitcase weighed about as much as her Mini-Cooper and when I saw some of the things she brought along it made sense. One of these things included iPod speakers. Brilliant. While she was on the phone talking with work, I went to plug the speakers in andthe moment I plugged it in I heard a pop -andin that moment all the lights in the apartment went black and the outlet gave off the smell of an electrical fire. I blew the fuse and fried the iPod adapter as I forget to plug the European voltage adapter in. Rookie move. Kim and I grabbed a big lunch and when we came back to the room. Since she was still jet-lagged, she took a nap andI set off into town to check things out.

Vernazza is one of, if not the smallest coastal villages of Cinque Terre in the La Spezia province of the Liguria region. Cinque Terre literally means five territories. Its population only consists of 500 people yet it thrives on the business of tourism and the only way to access these towns is to hike in, take the train, or take a boat. Its layout is quite simple; there is one winding street that makes its way through the town and ends up in a square which is protected by a rocky harbor. On the other side of the rocks, the Mediterranean sometimes laps against the rocks and at other times violently pounds the shore. Behind the town, terraced vineyards rise straight up from sea level giving way torocky, jagged,cliffs and summits.

As was similar to hiking through France, there are red and white dashed markers on rocks and poles to guide you on your hike from town to town, so I followed the trail behind the town south and found a nice little restaurant overlooking the town which washalf the price of what they were in town. On my way back down, the streets were clogged with an old-fashion Italian wedding procession and a very attractive wedding party. Tourists and the wedding party mixed together in the streets as friends gathered to hug, kiss, congratulate, and snap pictures of the bride and groom. At one point the couple disappeared and reappeared in a third story window that was garnished with sunflowers. I thought they would be throwing the bouquet down as is common in our American wedding tradition and the person who received it would be the next to get married. Instead, basket after basket of candy was thrown by the fistful into the streets. I thought maybe they would throw five or sobaskets but they must have thrown twenty plus baskets of hard candies and chocolates into the streets. Handful after handful they came from above like German bombs raining down on the streets of London. It didn’t take long before hearty Italian grandmothers were pushing me out of the way and diving on their hands and knees for the great candy grab of 07′.

Kim and I had a nice dinner that night above the town and afterwards we grabbed a bottle of wine and went to the town square to watch the merriment of the wedding party. Their dinner lasted hours and their singing went on for hours after that. In the meantime, Kim and I met two couples; Josh and Kristen from Washington, D.C. and Mary and Ryan from San Francisco. We drank bottle after bottle of wine and moved out onto the pier as the party began to splinter into individual conversation. From there, we joined the wedding party at a bar in town and danced until almost four in the morning. Kim and I ended the evening with one more visit to the edge of town where the rocks met the sea, and we watched as the full moon danced on the water, creating a shimmering carpet of moonlight that stretched on into infinity.

The next morning I was up and in the center of the town writing by 11 (writing the previous chapter) as Kim slept in until noon. By 1pm we were on the trail south to visit several of the towns along the way. It was a grueling but rewarding hike as the trail rose high above the Mediterranean, hugging cliffs and every once in a while revealing a hidden beach below. Kim and I stopped at one such spot and climbed down to the beach below. We swam like children enjoying the freedom of summer vacation and laid about the rocks like sunbathing-seals. We also had an impromptu photo shoot.In the late afternoon after getting a pizza in the town of Corniglia, we jumped on a boat in Mararola back to Vernazza. We showered, grabbed some dinner on the main square, and awaited the landing of the pirates.

Shortly after about 10:20pm, as the last hints of daylight were exiting the western sky, a cannon went off and loud speakers began blaring dramatic Italian music. Around the corner ten plus landing boats came to shorefilled with many variations of Captain Jack Sparrows. Now Daniel’s comment about JohnnyDepp made sense. They heldtorches and stormed the shore and atone point a pirate made his way to the clock tower to deliver a dramatic speech in Italian, which Kim kindly translate for us (despite that fact that she doesn’t speak Italian). When they landed, a Drum Major lead with his whistle and hand signals a drum line of twenty plus percussion players. Up through the streets they marched and back down again, ending in the square where they rocked out for maybe two hours as hoards of people danced in tribal and rhythmic movements. The drums were raising everyone’s energy and when the DJ finally started to play, the place was in a mad frenzy. Italian men ran about dancing with women and trying to kiss every one they possibly could. One man grabbed my drink, threw some pills in his mouth, took a swig, and handed it back to me.Kim and I danced with no inhibitions and not soon after our new friends Ryan and Mary were letting loose as well.

Around four in the morning, after we lost Ryan and Mary, Kim and I found in the center of town a small walkway that hugged the water and we curiously followed it, at one point, schooching along on our asses because there was not enough head clearance and wenarrowly avoided falling into the water. When we made our way through this arched walkway, it opened up on the other side to the Mediterranean with sheer cliffs coming down behind us. It was the setting for an hour or more of some very intense conversations about our past, what we want from our lives, and our families. Being that it would have been my Father’s 84th birthday the previous day, he was weighing heavily on my mind and for the first time in a long time I lost it as I did those first few days after he died. It is hard to explain the experience of loosing one of your parents. You can talk about it in many different lights and angles, but when it comes down to it, it isactually something that must be lived and experienced to fully comprehend.The loss of your parents, or anyone you love in lifeis a wound that I don’t think ever fully heals.Beneath the surface, therewill always be scar tissue to mark thelife-altering event. But thisin fact is not necessarilya bad thing. In many ways I find it comforting to still be able to cry so passionately over the loss. For me it is a reminder of how close the connection can still be. It is also a way to still feel him as closely as I possibly can in this temporal reality,an existence in which we arelimited by the constraints and physicsof time and space.

When that part of the evening was over, Kim and I met a few Kiwis (New Zealanders) and a few Irish lads. We chatted with them for a while and headed back to our room but upon arriving there, I realized I wasn’t ready to go to bed. Kim fell asleep and I went out to chat with Lindsay and Michael, two 21-year-old Irish friends traveling together through Italy on their way to Rome the following day. Michael eventually passed out on the concrete and Lindsay and I chatted on and on, past the departure of their train at 5:50am. I invited them back to our place to crash on the floor and they got a good solid two hours before they left at 8:20am. Out of gratitude, Lindsey drew me a picture of what she imagined Seattle might look like and Michael gave me a lighter “especially designed for a bong,” as he explained inthe wonderfulIrish accent.

The next morning, being the early-bird I am, I awoke at 1:30pm and we were on the trail north towards Monterrosa al Marean hour later. The hike from Vernazza climbed straight up and it was excruciating. Because Kim did not want to carry a large bottle of water, she talked me out of the purchase and we both grabbed a small bottle of water for the grueling hike. An hour-and-a-half later when we reached the town, I was feeling faint and my leg was uncontrollably shaking. I was not only hung over, but incredibly dehydrated. As it turned out, the town was too much of a cheesy European resort so after re-hydrating and then topping off the re-hydration with a glass of white wine, we jumped on the boat back to Vernazza. As luck would have it, the water at the landing in Vernazza was so rough we had to go two towns down and take the train back up. I was looking forward to just getting home and was crushed by the prospect of not being able to disembark, however,Kim put a positive spin on it and said, “I can think of worse things to do than be on a boat in the Mediterranean.” We had another beer back in Manarola and just made the train back to Venrazza. As it turned out, back in Vernazza near the landing, there was a large pool of blood on the rocks and someone told us they had been pulling out people from the surf all day long as the angry sea hurled people like match sticksagainst the rocks.

Kim and I had a great dinner that night with a waiter who hated us. At one point we asked him what it was we were eating because we liked it so much and he said, “I don’t know,” and walked off. Not too much later I spilled an entire glass of red wine in my lap which was quite a buzz kill but soda water solved that problem. Kim bought a liter at dinner and poured it all over my lap. It was not the most comfortable dinner I have ever had.

After dinner we met up with Ryan and Mary for a nightcap at the Blue Marlin, promised to meet up in Seattle or San Francisco for our own pirate party, said our goodbyes, and headed off to bed for our final night’s sleep in the magical, coastal town of Vernazza.

August 2, 2007
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Wednesday
Jun172009

Genoa, The Gateway to the Mediterranean

 I am in paradise right now. I am sitting in an outdoor café in Cinque Terre, Italy, writing on Kim’s laptop. This is the life for me; cruising about Europe (or the world for that matter of fact) writing in its outdoor cafés, meeting its people, learning the different cultures and observing its many customs. In this moment, I am fulfilling a dream I have always imagined.

 

Time to rewind....

 

On the second morning in Genoa, I tried to negotiate a reduced price at the hotel. I thought I would be able to get them to drop the price but Jospehine was not at the desk and the old man, although incredibly kind, would have nothing to do with it. They were full, so they said, and the best they could do was the same price I paid the evening before. No matter. The people at the hotel were so great and accommodating I decided it was worth spending the 65 Euro for another night of peace of mind and air conditioning.

 

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Italy was how expressive people were with their body language, especially their hands when speaking. The simplest things somehow have a dramatic effect. The next thing I noticed, walking up the main shopping street of XX Septiembre where my hotel was, was the amount of beggars and homeless people on the street. This also struck me in Paris as well. I am not sure why this stood out so much in my mind as any city has its homeless population. For some reason, however, these people seemed more destitute and extreme than the homeless people in the States, as if there was a sliding scale of homelessness. I guess I assumed in these European cities where they seemed to have the perfect mix of antiquity and progressive thinking that they would have somehow solved this problem. That is naivety at its finest. Perhaps because I am just a tourist and visitor, I was more aware and sensitive to these people and my surroundings.

 

Here is a question for you; how do you tell the difference between a Genoese and a tourist? We the tourists are unmistakably recognizable by how soaked our clothes are with perspiration. The Genoese will walk about their city in vests and long pants and you will see not even one bead of sweat dripping off their forehead. It was the same deal in Africa. You would have these Africans walking around the city streets in jackets and fleeces in more than 100 degree weather and not a one recognizable sign that they were uncomfortable in the heat. Meanwhile, a walk from my hotel to the corner store to grab a bottle of water would appear to be a Herculean task according to the sweat stains lining my back and under arms. In addition to the perspiration pouring off my body, had I committed a crime in Genoa, they would easily be able to pick me out of a police line up because I so obviously stand out in my unstylish, unsophisticated, breathable trail-wear.

 

When I left the hotel that morning, I noticed a flyer that offered a free walking tour of Genoa at 4:30pm so I organized my day around it. I began the morning walking down by the harbor and at one point I was so soaked in perspiration that I decided to just sit on a bench and take off my shirt to let it dry. I listened to my iPod on random and organized my notes, more for the fact that it gave me the appearance of looking busy and having purpose rather than sitting there in my white, tan-less, cheap Irish skin looking like a Polar Bear in the Sahara. Since I was right next to the Maritime Museum, I figured I should probably learn something about the history of Genoa and the oldest port in Italy.

 

After a two hour jaunt in the museum, I slowly meandered back to my hotel, taking in all of Genoa in its beauty and ugliness. I took a different route home and saw a bit of the underbelly of Genoa, which is I suppose is where the real population lives. It must have been a neighborhood where Italy converged with Africa. It reminded me of the streets of Dar es Salam, with people hustling and bustling to make a living and get by, selling Gucchi and Ray Ban knock-offs or whatever they could get their hands on.

 

When I moved beyond this neighborhood and back into the touristy and more affluent areas, I noticed something in the street-wear of the people; preppy is back. I noticed this in Amsterdam as well - people wearing yellow, pink, and green pants. Perhaps the preppy look never actually left and instead only made in the 80’s a great exodus from the states to Europe. Perhaps preppy has been hiding out in these two countries for all these years, or maybe the rebirth of the Izod brand has brought with it a whole new generation of patrons bound to purchase The Preppy Handbook.

 

After my first somewhat traumatic day in Genoa, I was ready to bail and just move on to Cinque Terre where I could just relax and be. The same thing happened to me in Arusha, Tanzania, but that place actually was a shit-hole and not worthy of spending any prolonged amount of time; but Genoa is a whole different story. I knew it was worth exploring and emails from Kim and Eva urged me to just spend the day relaxing, catching up on writing, and exploring the city. It didn’t take me long to wish I had a few more days to spend in Genoa.

 

The city of Genoa, like any other Italian city, is marked by countless Piazzas and winding streets not wide enough to fit a car, and lined by stone walls and buildings that are older than the discovery of the new world. Grandiose statues and monuments honoring the great citizens of Genoa and notable moments of its history jump out at you every time you turn a corner. The facades of buildings are monumental and stately and no detail was spared in their creation.

 

Genoa was Italy’s great crossroad where ideas, beliefs, languages, and religions melded together to create history. It was the gateway to the new world for it was here in its great port that the Mediterranean Sea linked different people, cultures, and goods. It is also here that its maritime history brought with it the Black Plague in the 17th century, wiping out one third of the city’s population. The streets of Genoa are where a young, innocent Christopher Columbus played as a boy, not even yet capable of imagining the dream he would achieve, a dream that would change the face of the map and forever alter the course of history.

 

As the day slowly started to get away from me, I rushed home to take a walk through H&M to do some clothes shopping. I simple couldn’t resist. I dropped my purchases off at my hotel and quickly rushed back to the Church of San Luca for the free walking tour. As was typical and for the fourth time of the day, I was soaked in perspiration by the time I reached the church. Unfortunately for me, no one showed up for the walking tour so I did some more walking and sweating on my own. I found a beautiful park that crept up one of the hills of the city. It reminded me of Portland, Oregon, where they have magnificent parks within the city limits full of all sorts of uncommon surprises. As I followed this trail through the park, priceless gems such as hidden grottos, small decorations honoring the Virgin Mary, and coy ponds revealed itself to me. From there, I went back to the hotel to do some writing, shower, and freshen up for the evening.

 

As I set out on my way, a hazy dusk hung over the harbor. My iPod, one of the most impressive and revolutionary inventions of the last 50 years, beside the cell phone and the Internet, was playing on random and Little Trip to Heaven, a mellow, somewhat easy-crusing song by Tom Waits provided the opening tune to the evening’s soundtrack. It was a relatively uneventful and unremarkably evening until the end when I sat in the main Piazza and watched a young Italian couple passionately arguing, limbs flailing and body language expressing fury. The young man would step into her personal space arguing his point of view as she would back up and I wondered if he was going to hit her. I was hoping he wasn’t going to hit her because that would have required me to step in and be the hero, and consequently most likely get my ass kicked by a group of young Italian men. On the sidelines, the couple’s friends looked off into the distance trying to keep their distance and keep a look of distant disinterest. I can still see the girl so clearly. She was incredibly cute but dowsed in her own tears. Back and forth and back and forth they let each other have it. I wanted to say to her; you are so beautiful. Why are you wasting your time with this thug – this mindless troglodyte? I wondered why she stayed in this abusive relationship because clearly he had the bigger problem than she did. But who can explain young love? We have all been there and for reasons unknown at that present moment, you just can’t walk away from that person you think you love, despite the fact that more often than not they make your life miserable. The only explanation I can give is young love is all heart and no head because you simply don’t have the life/relationship experience to have your head govern your heart. Young love is love at its best and worst. It is the beautiful and the ugly; the passion and the fury; the beginning and the end of innocence.

 

I had my earphones in but my iPod on mute and pretended like I was just a tourist listening to music and not paying any attention to them. The girl had her arms crossed over her chest and her body language suggested there was no way to communicate and there was no way he was entering the walled city she had built. The funny thing is, I would bet my wallet that they went home that night and fucked each other’s brains out, for what is more fun and passionate than the make-up sex of young love? I had the best taste of that in a small town on the island of Crete when I was 24 years old, but that is another story for another time. For this couple on this night, I can guarantee the same situation will happen over and over again until one of them becomes strong enough to walk away for good – or one of them takes a new lover.

 

I left the Piazza that night and walked home, and as is the miracle of the random option on the iPod, a lazy, drunken, meandering number called Virginia Avenue, by Tom Waits completed the circle; “Well I’m walking down Virginia Avenue, trying to find someone to tell my troubles to.

 

There was no trouble on this night, however, besides the turmoil of the young, troubled couple. I made my way back to the hotel and laid my head down in the air-conditioning for a heavy, dreamless Genoese sleep.

 

July 28, 2007, 10:26am

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

Wednesday
Jun172009

A Slice of Humble Pie

If you knew anything about my travel itinerary, you are probably asking yourself, what is he doing Genoa? I often find myself asking the same question David Byrne posed; “Well, how did I get here?” I guess I should back up.

The morning after the party in Westerpark, I went back into town to meet Eva and Noa for lunch and to find and repair the flat tire. Eva and I dropped the bike off and then went for stroll and found a little sandwich place a few blocks from the touristy area.We had a great time walking around chatting about our lives and love, politics, and art. We were both sorry we didn’t have more time to get to know each other but sometimes encounters on the road can be brief but last a lifetime. I failed to mention she has a communications company and I will be doing some editing for her so we have not seen or heard the last of each other.

After I left Eva, Bret and I met up to discuss what our next part of the journey would be. The plan was to go into a travel agency and book a last minute flight to somewhere warm and sunny since it was cloudy and raining in Amsterdam. Our plans didn’t go as planned as we couldn’t find a cheap flight. We began discussing the possibilityofdoing a beer tour in Belgium but my mind was on the Mediterranean and I couldn’t shake it. We decided to hold off on our plans as my friend Kim,who I was house-sitting for at the earliest part of this story, was going to be in Cinque Terre, Italy. I wanted to explore the option of meeting up with her so we decided to chat the following day.

It didn’t take long after I left Bret and began my bike ride home before the tire went flat again. They charged me 17.50 Euro but I’m pretty sure theydid the 7.50 job. I guess that is “typically Dutch” in the tourist areasas Susan would say.

The following day I received an email from Kim confirming the dates she would be in Cinque Terre so I walked down to the travel agency and booked a flight to Genoa, Italy as it was the closest place near CinqueTerreI could get to. I made all my last minute arrangements, packed up, and was ready to go by the time Susan got home that night.

Susan and I met up with Judith that night at the Concertgebouw, which would probably be the equivalent of New York’s Carnegie Hall, except much smaller. It was a beautiful, ornate building with a grand pipe organ in the back and around the balcony the names offamous composers from Strauss, to Wagner,Debussy and Tchaikovsky. Thebest seat in the house was dead-center above Mahler, and if you had those seats and the queen happened to show up that night, well, tough luck.Built in the 1890s, the sound was impeccable. Judith’s boyfriend, Wouter Huzinga, was playing that evening with Nynke Laverman so he got us some free tickets.

Nynke was born in Friesland, a northern Dutch province that more or less speaks their own language and for inspiration she travelled to Mexico and Portugal. What she brought back with her was a hybrid of traditional Portuguese music which she translated into Fries, so even Judith and Susan didn’t know what she was singing about. When I heard traditional music I wasn’t to excited but wanted to see the concert hall none-the-less, however, the music and musicians were quite impressive. It had a gypsy/mariachi feel which wasaccentuated by her dramatic presentation. After the show we had a drink with Wounter, and Susan and I made our way home.

***

The following morning I was up at 6:30am and at Schipol Airport well ahead of my flight. I looked for a book on Italy or a map of Genoa - something that I could ground myself with but to no avail. What the hell am I going to do when I get there? I thought. Dealing with a hint of anxiety, being as I had not been in Italy in ten years, did not know one word of Italian, and had no idea how big or small Genoa was, I gathered my senses on the plane and devised a plan. First, I needed to learn five phrases so I asked the stewardess how to say the following things;

•1. Excuse me

•2. Do you speak English

•3. Hello

•4. Please

•5. Thank you

Yes, that should make my journey in Italy smooth. They either thought I was funny or another jackass-American.

Flying into Genoa, I was surprised that the city was much larger than I had imagined it. I guess when a city is named on a country map, and it is in larger type than any of the surrounding cities, that should be a pretty good indicator of its size.

As I was walking off the plane, I asked a cute Italian girl if she knew how I could get into the city. Turns out she was studying law in New York City and was here visiting her parents. She asked the proper authorities and I found out that there was a bus leaving in 15 minutes. Perfect, I thought. That gives me time to go to the information desk, grab a map, go to the vending machine to get a bus ticket and be on my way. I was so excited at how smoothly everything was going I forgot to pick up my bag at baggage claim. I am a simple man and my mind can only process so many things at once. No matter. The airport was small enough that I could buzz in and out and still have plenty of time before the bus left.

The bus left me off right in front of the tourist office so I went in and gathered some more information. This is great, I thought to myself. I am really getting good at this travel thing.

Patting myself on the back and using some of the knowledge I gained from Bret, I decided it would be foolish of me to jump at the first few hotel I came across. Instead, I made my way into town. After a half-kilometre walk I followed a sign to a one star hotel down a dark alley. I walked in and asked the woman if I could see the room, even though she wasn’t the most welcoming host I have ever come across. I went up to the room, checked the water pressure, checked the cleanliness of the sheets, made sure the fan worked, and all looked well for 35 Euros, with the exception that the shower was in the hallway. I should have called it a day but my head was getting so big I could barely get it out the door. “I’m just going to check one more place,” I told her and I could feel the tension and her angerin the air. I remember thinking, I have probably just insulted her.

I can decide to go to Africa or Europe, or move across the country at the drop of a hat and yet I can’t even decide what to order on a menu, sowhy should choosing a hotel be any different? No sooner had I walked out the door and stood on the street then I thought, what the hell am I doing. I just want to be done with this. It is hot as balls out and I am exhausted. I walked back into the hotel and said, “I changed my mind! I’ll take it!” expecting to be welcomed back like a sailor who has been long out at sea - but no. With people walking in the door she barked at me with her finger wagging, like a good Italian woman reprimanding her child, “No! Now you may not have the room!”

Bitch showed me. That was the biggest slice of humble-pie I’ve ever had.

It had me rattled for a bit and as I walked back into the sunlight from the dark hovel,the sweat poured down my face and it looked like I had just participated in a wet t-shirt contest. From there things just got worse. It was hot, I was dehydrated, tired,and I was having trouble finding hotels in the part of the city I was at. Of the places I did find there were no vacancies.

Finally, I came upon the Bel Sorroggio. Josephine was the kindest woman I have come across in a long time. The hotel was going to be full until about 8pm (because people who bring their boats into the harbor rent the room for certain times) but she offered me other solutions like renting a place at her flat for 35 Euros, but again, she wasn’t going to be off of work until about 9pm and I had to be out at 11am. I just needed to lie down or sit down. We finally agreed and for 65 Euro, I would have a place come 8pm. I went into the small bathroom, towelled myself dry, changed my clothes, went to the corner store and downed three small bottles of water in a row. Bret told me about one time when he got dehydrated in Shanghia and how terrifying it was. I was not that bad but I was not that good either. What did I say earlier; HYDRATE! HYDRATE! HYDRATE!

As luck would have it, when I returned from the water run, she had decided to just give me a double room instead of a single for the same priceso I could go right to my room, shower, and rest for a while before I went out for dinner.

 

July 26, 2007
Genoa, Italy, 11:16pm