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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

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