Once stowing my pack in the bunk room, I had braved the rain and gone out to dinner with three fellow backpackers from Cleveland – Peter, Matt and Michael – who had been in line behind me to check in. With most of the other backpacker types a few years older than I, it was a very different dynamic to engage with these three guys who if anything were a bit younger than I was, or at least still in that high school, rebel without a clue, just escaped my parents, sort of jailbreak fragile exuberance and overarching naivete. I noted in my journal that they seemed, “Kind of corny and crazy and high school jockish”. Michael was one of the rare black people among my cohort of fellow travelers that I engaged with. Not since Stu’s black roommate among the U.S. “Army Brats” I stayed with my first nights in Munich, and I could not even remember the roommate’s name.
But to be fair, the three of them had the pluck and agency to be in Europe on their own, away from those parents and the control their adult overseers had previously exercised over their lives. The same pluck perhaps that had inspired my best friends Lane and Angie, in their senior year of high school, to hatch their own Europe trip plan, the one that I horned in on and became ironically mine and neither of theirs. Peter had the mane of long curly hair like mine, but his was blonde and formed a circle of spun gold around his face, making him look a bit like the Who’s Roger Daltrey. Matt you could tell had had that straight black hair neatly parted on the side now grown shaggy and not properly combed anymore. Michael had that same circle of hair like Peter and I, but his a natty afro with a headband ala Jimi Hendrix, which to me seemed a bit much.
Despite their tie-dyed t-shirts and bellbottom jeans they didn’t look like actual hippies, but rather dressed like hippies for Halloween. But then Zo, who had picked up Steve and I hitchhiking and taken us across France to Spain, had worn her Canadian flag headband under curly red hair and I had adored her and her look, which seemed so authentically countercultural. Guess I was harder on my male peers, not cutting them any slack. The three had all gone to some liberal private high school on the eastside of Cleveland and lived in the various upscale “Heights” – Shaker, University and Cleveland. They were impressionable and determined to a fault, kids in a candy store, and referred to all the young women of our cohort as “chicks” and were quick to comment on those with “nice tits”, at least to me and each other.
So making no connections this morning with my favored female types – Jen and Sarah, Trix and her crew – I headed out with “the boys” to do our walkabout tourist thing. The sky was gray and drizzly, but the hard rain from yesterday was gone. I kind of enjoyed the three of them looking up to me a bit like an elder, since I was already a year into college and now a veteran European traveler, though they were pretty much my age. I could tell they also were a bit in awe of my two-inch two-tone heeled shoes, and my resulting strut and physical stature above theirs, the three of them in their more kidlike sneakers – Keds and such.
First we walked through the Boboli formal gardens, which was the kind of place I would have loved to play army in as a kid. Pathways with shrubs and small trees forming an arch over the top. Little walkways winding off into oblivion. And right in the middle, a fantastic peaceful little pond, with sculptures and quiet, particularly on a cold drizzly day that may have scared off some of the “tourists” (that other group of older more conventional travelers who we differentiated ourselves from).
We spent most of the rest of the day at the flea market, learning how to bargain with the stall owners and eventually actually buying a few things. The boys really got obsessed with the whole bargaining bit, so they went around trying to talk everybody down on everything, which given they did not end up buying very much, was probably pretty annoying to the merchants, though they seemed to take it in stride. I at least bought a few things which I hoped my mom and dad would like. Given all the time I had spent obsessing over returning with Christmas gifts for my family members, I ended up spending my precious remaining discretionary funds on crazy things, exotic wrought metal earrings for my mom, and a glass decanter for my dad. We ended the morning having some cheap pizza and killer donuts for lunch, the boys sharing their tales of newly learned bargaining prowess.
Later in the afternoon we went to the Academia and saw “The David” (which I guess was so iconic it had earned a “the” in front of its name) and other fantastic sculptures by Michelangelo. The David was impressive because of the size and the proportions, full set of male genitals with carved pubic hair and all, Matt commenting on its small “dick”. But it was all the great sculptor’s other stuff that really blew my mind. Particularly a series of sculptures of men half carved out of blocks of stone so the rock they were embedded in became the context of the piece. I read somewhere later they were unfinished, but in that moment with their faces and bodies trapped in the rock they were partially chiseled out of, some half a millennium ago, they seemed to me to metaphorically long for the liberation of the human spirit, a key thread of human history in our modern era since his time at the beginning of that awakening.
Like these sculptures, I pondered whether Michelangelo saw himself, at least to some degree, as trapped. His life seemed to be a continuing battle with “the Man”, the powerful members of the elite who commissioned his work and allowed him to make his living doing what he loved. I really would have liked to have met the guy. I understood his stone faces, more so than perhaps any other of the great classic art I had seen. I’d never seen anything with quite their energy and expression. A face locked in rock pleading with me to be let out. Wild! The artist was talking to me across a gap of five centuries. Goya and Picasso had talked to me, but they much more contemporary, though Picasso in particular was a bit too sophisticated for me. But Michelangelo really brought it home. He had made all those beautiful realistic pieces to earn a living perhaps, and then these others to really send a message to people of his own time but also, as things turned out, into the future to mine.
Walking back from the Academia to the hostel we finally crossed paths with Jen and Sarah, who were on the other side of the street. Jen saw me and called out with a “hey Coopster” and Sarah followed by blowing me a kiss. My stock as an alpha went up as I could see my three male comrades trying to process the interaction, including rating the two women for their “foxiness”. Jen, who was physically large, a bit chubby even, loud and demonstrative, did not so much register on their conventional “fox” index, other than having the noteable “big tits”.
But the more demure, diminutive Sarah, particularly having blown me a kiss of all things, had them all a flutter as to my past dealings with this foxy female type, including Peter, the alpha of the three of them, brazenly (though trying to deliver his query offhandedly) asking, “Did you fuck her?” I bristled internally at his question, and struggled to decide how to reply within the context of this patriarchal male camaraderie. I so wanted to turn to him, shake my head and scowl, and tell him what an asshole he was to ask that, rather than asking something more reasonable and less rude, like “so how do you know these two?” or something of the sort. Instead my shyness got the better of me and I showed no disdain, and kind of cobbled together something about how I met them at the Rome hostel, and that they were “both nice”. I refrained from even mentioning getting gelato with Sarah for fear of the follow up questions it might engender.
Then upon returning to the hostel, Peter, Matt and Michael and I encountered Trix and her “mates” in the common room. The three guys were in awe of this coterie of young women who had shared the train ride with me from Rome. Trix with her short stocky stature, alien from outer space green eyes and wantonly random asymmetrical pigtails. Several of her mates with their more amazonian stature, cute faces, big hair, and requisite breasts, totally qualifying for the boys’ “foxiness” threshold. The women were all obviously three years or more older than my male comrades, which intimidated them a bit. It was only later when the young women were out of earshot that my three male comrades were animatedly discussing which one of the six had the “best tits”, “cutest face”, or was “most likely to put out”. A discussion they kept trying to drag me into and I tried my best to redirect, including not sharing with them what a thing I had for Trix.
Jen and Sarah, Trix and her crew were still the exceptions. The majority of the backpacker types in the hostels were guys, with most of the other women half of a couple with a guy. So a woman, particularly one considered good looking, really stuck out.
Though my male Cleveland comrades were plenty comfortable talking about the young women they encountered out of their earshot, they were much more comfortable talking to the other guys directly. I had not seen this discrepancy so starkly, at least not since my early highschool years, prior to hanging out with the three of them and being privy to their worldviews and resulting rules of engagement with their peers. Perhaps it was particularly pronounced because they perceived themselves (as I did) as a few years younger than most of the other backpackers. They were like Jekylls and Hydes, behaving one somewhat repressed way when female types were present and a completely different even salacious way when they were not.
In our conversation in the hostel common room, Trix had given me the heads up that the consensus was that the best place to eat good food cheaply was a trattoria just across the Arno river from the hostel. You got a good sized plate of spaghetti or lasagna for 200 Lire. Two plates and some bread for 50 Lire and you were pretty damn full, your basic hot delicious meal for less than a buck U.S. They had eaten there for lunch today and were planning to go back for dinner and suggested we might see them there. Close enough for a can’t turn down invitation for me!
Peter, Matt and Michael had pretty much attached themselves to me at this point, but it was a weird dynamic to be sure. Peter was obviously the leader of the trio, the fast talking fair-haired boy with the big blue blue eyes, it usually being him who started the most salacious discussions about the young women we encountered to kind of keep control of the discussions and assert his alpha status. But it was Matt and Michael that were more attracted to me and that bit of swagger I was beginning to develop atop my two-inch heels (which Michael in particular seemed to covet with his whole faux Jimi Hendrix fro and headband thing), along with the enticing young women who I seemed to know and bring them into contact with. In Peter’s mind I was another alpha male competing for the leadership of his coterie, but not one he felt confident openly challenging, since he was shorter (particularly in his flat sneakers), had had not spent a year in college like me, and feeling less experienced and worldly wise in our shared travel context.
So as Matt and Michael gravitated toward me, Peter would somewhat reluctantly do the same for fear that he would otherwise be abandoned, but quickly try to point out something that would diminish me somehow. Like when Sarah blew me that kiss earlier, it was Matt and Michael that thought that was awesome and longed to be in my (elevated) shoes. It was Peter who then tried to take me down a notch by crudely querying and confirming that I had not had sex with her, and implying somehow that he would have. It was more stealth resistance and guerilla war than open hostilities, but a dynamic between a group of male peers that I was pretty much unfamiliar with among my own male friends back in Ann Arbor, or among the circles of women I knew, including my same age theater comrades or my mom’s circle of female friends.
So we all ended up at the recommended trattoria across the river. It was still cold and rainy outside and the place was cozy and warm with it’s single room with little rickety tables and chairs for about twenty, surrounded by counters on three sides with additional stools to sit at, the fourth wall being the entrance and window looking out to the street. The big brick ovens were just behind the counter on one side, pumping out the heat and glowing with embers of burning wood, the smell of which filled the room along with that of cooked garlic, green peppers and onions, plus the aroma of juicy chickens roasting on spits. Though there were a few what looked like locals, or at least Italians, seated at the counters, the majority of the diners were young adult types I either recognized from the youth hostel or looked like they were fellow long-haired backpacker types.
When the guys from Cleveland and I entered the place, Jen and Sarah were there at a table, holding court with three or four guys clustered around them laughing at Jen’s stories and Sarah’s occasional pithy comments, between big slurpy gulps as they messily chowed down on big plates of spaghetti or lasagne. Jen pointed at and Coopstered me when I came in with the Cleveland guys, and Sarah grinned at me and rolled her eyes at her partner’s extreme extroversion. There was only a small table left by the door but we managed to all four squeeze around it amidst this whole scene. Later when Trix and her mates showed up, the diminutive Kiwi slash alien from outer space looked about at the crowd and shook her head, perhaps regretting having turned so many of the rest of us on to the place. But we all fit them in somehow, in a spare spot at a table, or a couple of stools at the counter in the same area.
Trix’s train compartment comrade Amelia, she with the long curly brown hair, thin wiry frame and the Hollywood breasts, ended up sitting down just to my left at the next table. Trix sat across from her with her travel partner Evelyn squeezed in on one side and next to Michael on the other. Trix quickly noticed Michael, Matt and Peter staring at Amelia’s breasts, and Amelia getting somewhat annoyed but not saying anything to them. Trix shot a knowing look at me, chuckled and said, “Okay boys, don’t be rude, yes she certainly has a pair!” She didn’t even say it angrily but more in a teasing sort of break the ice way. The three of them snapped out of their libidinous reverie and sheepishly turned their gaze at Trix’s oddly configured pigtails and otherworldly green-eyed visage but said nothing. Seemingly never at a loss for words, Trix stared back at the three of them and finally said, “I’m guessing the three of you blokes are Yanks like the Coopster here.” She stuck out her hand first to Peter farthest from her. “I’m Trix…it’s a pleasure!” Looking caught by surprise and a bit embarrassed he finally stuck out his hand and mustered all his gumption to say his name with some fortitude, as she seized and shook it with all the grip she could muster so he felt the squeeze. Then doing the same with Matt and finally Michael next to her.
And so the evening went, several dozen backpackers from the States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain, enjoying conversing in the English language they all shared and the camaraderie of each other in the warm and cozy confines of a small Florentine trattoria along the Arno river, on an otherwise inclement evening. Most doing the “circuit”, some come from Venice headed next to Rome, others come from Rome and headed to Venice. Comparing notes or suggesting what was “must see” in the Italian cities ahead for the others. Fellow travelers used to being in much smaller groups of two to four, but happily sharing a larger circle on this occasion.
I even had the opportunity and the pleasure at one point to introduce Trix to Jen. In a room full of mostly young male backpackers, these two bigger than life young women were still the two real alphas of the crowd. They each could command a room, tell a dirty joke, tell some guy off (even nicely) if necessary, and otherwise own the place. The two were well aware of each other’s proclivities as they briefly shook hands across a table, Trix more than a foot shorter than the towering Aussie, but the two of them probably physically tougher than any of the male types in the place.
The next morning I purposely got up early and managed to head out from the hostel without encountering the guys from Cleveland. It was raining again, there had not been a single completely dry moment since I got here two days ago. I was happy to be on my own, or at least without them for now, as I walked through the streets of the old city in a light rain. I headed for the Palazzo Vecchio or “Old Palace”, which my comrade Morgan back in Rome had told me was a must see in terms of Renaissance architecture.
Morgan had given me a quick sketch of Florentine history and the Medici family that ruled here for many years. They had built or occupied a series of palaces and other structures in close proximity of each other in this part of the city. And what Morgan and I both thought was particularly cool, Cosimo de Medici commissioned the building of an above-ground walkway, the Vasari corridor, that connected them all, from the Palazzo Vecchio, through the Uffizi, over the Ponte Vecchio and the Arno river to the Palazzo Pitti. It allowed the powerful family and their functionaries to move between their key governing venues without having to go out on the street and be seen by their adversaries’ spies or risk attack in the political intrigues of the time. Though it was the paranoia of a ruling elite separating themselves from the common riffraff, it appealed to that kid-like imagination, still strong in me, that used to inspire me to build blanket forts in the basement of our house.
Beyond the elevated connected corridors, Morgan had said that the highlight of the Palazzo Vecchio was the Salone dei Cinquecento or “Room of the 500” in English. It was a giant hall, bigger than the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, 175 feet long and 75 wide and over 20 feet high, and big enough to seat council meetings of up to 500 people, thus the name.
On the walls were large frescoes celebrating the military victories by the Florentine dukes over their Renaissance adversaries, including names like “The Taking of Siena”, “The Conquest of Porto Ercole”, “The Victory of Cosimo I at Marciano in Val di Chiana”, “Defeat of the Pisans at the Tower of San Vincenzo” and “Pisa Attacked by the Florentine Troops”. In what seemed like the pinnacle of ego, the ceiling was painted with 39 panels representing episodes from the life of Cosimo I, the most powerful of the Florentine dukes, who had assassinated his relatives to gain total dominion over this city state in the mid sixteenth century. The place felt like a hunter’s trophy room with his biggest kills hangin on the wall.
In the content of the paintings and the general grandeur of the palace I could really feel the power and ego of these men who controlled the commercial empire that had put this city at the center of wealth, power and politics of the times. My feminist side imagined what my mom’s friend Maryjane would say of the place, with its glorification of patriarchal power, while my military strategist wannabe side was thrilled by the spectacle of it all. It also intrigued me the contrast between the two big rooms, this and the Sistine Chapel. Both celebrating power and glory, but this place so much more about power derived from wealth and military might while the Sistine Chapel about power derived from God, though both were seats of temporal power at the time.
The next day I went to the Uffizi gallery, which was part of that whole interconnected set of corridors built by the Medicis. After all the great art museums I had seen, its pieces seemed unimpressive, despite a few neat paintings by Michelangelo and Rubens, but nothing beyond what I had seen of the two artists elsewhere. But with my love for interior and exterior spaces and the boundaries between them, what continued to be most exciting for me was actually the big rooms and hallways themselves, and even more so the views from the windows. Long hallways, some as long as a football field. Beautiful arched ceilings, some fantastically decorated with gold and brass and polished wood. And particularly the windows looking down to good views of the streets below on either side, giving one a real sense of both the interior space one was in and the exterior that surrounded it.
As much as I had a strong sense for space and relationships in space, I did not have the same sense of time and my linear progression from day to day, so I would lose track of what day of the week it was, since it generally did not matter to me. The exception would often be Sundays, where church bells or closed stores would alert me to the Christian sabbath. So it was only upon returning to the hostel and encountering the Cleveland boys, fellow denizens of the States, that I was reminded that today was Thanksgiving. It struck me for the first time that this holiday, though the second most important after Christmas to my family, was not celebrated on this day by 95% of the people in the world.
It also reminded me how far away I was from home, which often lately would throw me into a funk of loneliness and homesickness. But not so much on this day! All the relationships I had developed in the past week with the fellow travelers around me, fleeting though they all were, were sustaining me, at least for the moment. Sure I would probably never see Morgan or Jen or Sarah or Trix again, but the fact that they existed on this planet with me and I had encountered them, and they me, and we had connected if briefly, would never be undone. I was kind of getting used to this impermanence, in actuality, from my now several previous years of theater experience. Developing intense relationships with my fellow cast and crew members during the run of rehearsals and performances of a particular play, only to lose that connection when the show was over.
So despite the fact that most people around us didn’t care that it was Thanksgiving in the States, Peter, Matt, Michael and I decided we would go to the trattoria and eat a big dinner, with an actual bird even, and of course pasta. It was late afternoon when we got there and the throng of our comrades had not arrived except for a few guys we recognized from the hostel. So we splurged. Started with consume. Then two plates of lasagna. A whole big spit roasted chicken that we split. Sauteed cauliflower. Lots of bread and wine throughout. The whole thing cost a little more than three dollars U.S.
It may have been the context – the moment in time and space with the cold and wet outside and us inside with the blazing fire of the oven in our faces – but everything was absolutely delicious. The lasagna, as always, hot and cheesy with all the wonderful flavor notes in the marinara sauce and the noodles just the right amount “al dente”. The chicken so tender and garlicky. The cauliflower, sauteed in olive oil, like no vegetable I had ever tasted. The bread fresh baked. The wine soothing the palate between each delicious bite. We talked about the food, and each told stories of thanksgivings past with friends and family. Though I mostly had eaten really plainly out of grocery stores, I had had on occasion some really good food since I had been in Europe. But this place somehow seemed like the best. I wrote that night in my journal…
That little restaurant is fantastic, the best one in Europe that I’ve gone to! That’s a milestone – the best!!
At the Trattoria during our Thanksgiving feast we met a guy from New Zealand, named Maui, who was literally taking a year to travel around the world. Unlike the other New Zealanders I had met who were completely of white British or Northern European ancestry, his father was Maori and his mother Dutch. Like Miranda, starting from New Zealand he had traveled across Australia, through Southeast Asia and China to Kamchatka, and taken the Trans Siberian train across Russia into Europe. Going beyond Miranda, in December he would take a plane from London to New York and then had two months unlimited travel on Greyhound busses around the States, finally ending up in Los Angeles flying to Hawaii. Then in March flying to Japan and finally working his way by sea to the various island countries and coastal cities along the South China Sea back to New Zealand about a year after he started. I had successfully to date lived out of my backpack with just two changes of clothes for my ten week trip, but he was doing the same for more than fifty weeks!
I was impressed by him and his plan to take a year to traverse our planet. He seemed very present in our conversation and did much more listening than talking. And when he did talk he was very direct and plainspoken. He asked us a bunch of questions about the United States, about U.S. culture, where we lived and where we had traveled in the country. He asked if Americans were kind and helpful to travelers. The question caught us by surprise and was particularly poignant and difficult to answer. The best we could say was that some were and some were not, and that he would need to be careful who he reached out to in the States, not specifically calling out the racist and xenophobic attitudes many people had there. He nodded and said that he understood racism. We said that unfortunately there were no youth hostels in the U.S. like here in Europe, though we had heard that some big city YMCAs had something similar where young people could get a cheap bed for the night.
It was difficult to be faced with, at least for a few moments, our privilege to be white and from the States, generally getting a friendly and supportive welcome wherever we had gone around Europe. Putting ourselves for a short time in Maui’s shoes, as he would deboard from that plane in New York City and take buses across the heartland of our country, including small towns with possibly very provincial even racist people, with all our country’s pretense of being welcoming and the land of the free. I told him that he would enjoy my hometown of Ann Arbor, though it was cold and gray in the winter and the beautiful trees everywhere would be bare of leaves. I gave him my address and phone number and said that he could stay with us if he came to town. He seemed to deeply appreciate that.
Back at the hostel, ensconced in the cocoon of my sleeping bag at lights out I pondered my circumstances and the state of my psyche. My spirits were actually pretty high at the moment. I had talked with a guy in the common room before bed who had mentioned that he had been to Grindelwald and had loved the youth hostel there. I was so fired up at the thought of soon heading for Switzerland and 4 or 5 peaceful days in the mountains.
Lying in the dark, thinking about my future after returning to the States, the thought came into my mind that I would turn nineteen in April. I realized that I couldn’t conceive of me, Cooper Zale, being nineteen years old, it seemed somehow impossible. I was totally comfortable with being eighteen, in fact I felt like I had been eighteen all my life. As far back as I could remember I had felt capable of being responsible for myself and being treated as a fully empowered citizen, the things we conventionally bestow on eighteen year olds.
I couldn’t think about being eighteen, or being not eighteen ever again, without hearing Alice Cooper’s iconic song, “I’m Eighteen”, in my mind’s Greek Chorus jukebox…
I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart
Took eighteen years to get this far
Don’t always know what I’m talkin’ about
Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt
‘Cause I’m eighteen I get confused every day
Eighteen I just don’t know what to say
Eighteen I gotta get away
I’m Eighteen and I like it
I don’t know that I’d agree with Alice that I had a “baby’s brain”, but I got what he was going for, that sharp contrast between head and heart, the latter already beaten down in ways by the vicissitudes of life and the frailties of one’s own soul. And though from as far back as I could remember I had felt this way, felt eighteen as it were, it had taken me up to now to get somehow comfortable with this state of being, which would finally cease to be after my birthday in April. Not sure how that makes any sense but the logic went something like that.