It was Thursday November 22 1973, and I purposely got up early and managed to head out from the hostel and avoided encountering Derrick, Matt and Michael. It was raining again. There had not been a single completely dry moment since I got here three days ago. I was happy to be on my own, or at least without ‘the boys’ for now, as I walked through the streets of the old city in the light rain.
Yesterday had been a different sort of day. I had slept in until nearly 11 o’clock when the hostel staff kicked me out of the bunkroom so they could clean it. Then ‘the boys’ had ambushed me in the common room. To try and fend them off without being rude, I told them that I had a day of ‘chores’ planned; buying groceries, going to the post office to mail postcards, and finding a place to wash my clothes, which hadn’t been washed since Spain a couple weeks ago, figuring that agenda would be boring for them and they’d leave me on my own for the day. But Matt and Michael said they needed to get all those things done too so they suggested accompanying me. Derrick grudgingly agreed. I didn’t have the heart or balls or whatever organ was in play there to say no.
So logistically challenging as it was with the seemingly endless rain, that is what we spent the remainder of the day doing. Michael was ‘brilliant’ enough, as the Brits would say, to suggest instead of lugging our packs to the laundromat to carry all our clothes, that we stuff our laundry in our sleeping bag sacks instead. Of course it turned out Derrick did not have a sack for his sleeping bag, so he had to carry his pack, and bitch and moan about it the whole time we walked to the laundromat, which was more than a mile from the hostel. He was so annoying, that the rest of us agreed to return to the hostel with our clean clothes, in the rain of course, before heading out on our other errands.
I had slept in because I had had trouble sleeping the night before, my mind still processing that wild day with ‘the boys’, Jen and Sarah, and Trix and her crew, culminating with that big gathering at the trattoria. The “Hey Coopster”s, Sarah’s blown kiss, Trix’s dirty joke, Rosie’s lusty laugh and outrageous ponytail, Amelia’s flirty wave and cute freckled face, and Jen’s hands on my shoulders and tits in my hair, taking me under her wing. It was like my vibrant circle of comrades de jour were looking at me as this interesting character that they were enjoying being part of their vibrant lives. Not quite the force of nature that Jen was, but maybe with the potential to be something along those lines.
Between Derrick and the weather, tasks I might otherwise have knocked off on my own and on a dryer day in a couple hours had taken the rest of the day. Once we were heading back from our last stop at the post office, what light there was from the sun behind the rain clouds started to leave the sky, and all my three male comrades and I could think of was that warm dry wonderful trattoria and its offerings. But alas, though hot tasty gooey lasagna as always, no delicious Jen, Sarah, Trix, and the rest of them.
We did see Trix and her crew briefly across the street headed for the trattoria as we were walking back to the hostel. There were lots of waves and several “Coopster”s, and I waved back. Matt and Michael did too, but Derrick insisted on pressing on, and his two comrades dutifully followed, and I letting myself be sucked along in their wake. It was only when we were a ways down the street that I recalled Evelyn saying something about leaving on the train for Vienna that evening, and it hit me that I might never see her, Trix and the rest of them again.
I should have right then and there excused myself from the company of my male companions and gone back to the Trattoria and said a proper goodbye, but I didn’t. Maybe it would have just been one last round of handshakes and “It’s been a pleasure”, but at least that would have been some sort of closure. Maybe they would have invited me to sit with them for one last session, before they headed off to the train station. Of course it probably wouldn’t have been anything like those magical hours I spent with them in the train compartment riding to Firenze. Sharing our food, mugging and enjoying drinking the shitty wine, and sharing our personal, even intimate stories. Them letting me into their all female circle, and me surrendering any of that “Me Tarzan you Jane” male bravado, to the extent that I even had it.
But finally back to today, up early and ‘the boys’ thankfully nowhere to be seen in the common room, I headed quickly out of the hostel. The gray clouds were still above but the rain had mostly let up, Mother Nature just sloughing off the ‘light drizzle’ card. But I couldn’t trust she didn’t have another ‘rain’ card ready to play in today’s hand so I wore my poncho, now a familiar covering for my body. My light jacket long since lost, my down jacket wasn’t necessary so I figured I’d manage with just a now clean t-shirt and my flannel shirt under my orange nylon poncho. With so much rain these last few days, the old brick and stone facades of the old city were glistening in shades of gray. I headed up the street to the market where I bought a loaf of fresh ciabatta bread. As I walked I held it under my poncho nestled in my right hand and forearm like a football player carrying a football, reaching under my poncho with the left to tear off big hunks to chow down on.
My thoughts persisted of Trix, remembering that first moment when I encountered her in the corridor of the train. She, a bundle of extremes. Probably the shortest fellow backpacker I’d encountered in Europe yet atop the biggest shitkickingest boots imaginable, and carrying one of the biggest packs I had seen. Sporting the wildest hair and the most mesmerizingly exotic alien from outer space green eyes. Taciturn and thoughtful but with more gravitas than even big bad Aussie Jen. She was not to be forgotten.
I was headed to 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 and Florentine history. Morgan had given me a quick sketch of that history and the powerful Medici family that ruled the city and its surrounding area for many years. They had built or otherwise obtained a series of palaces and other structures in close proximity to each other, in what was now, though probably not back then, called the ‘old city’. Since my hostel was in the same neighborhood, it cracked me up that there was this big modern ‘Firenze’ out there, probably just another mile or so out, not much different most likely than any other big Western European city. I was in this little time bubble. Or semi time bubble actually, because there were 20th Century cars on the streets.
Speaking of inner sanctums, I was headed to the Palazzo not to see it so much, but to see and walk the Vasari Corridor. Back in Rome, Morgan had told me about the Corridor, and it had sounded to me like just about the coolest thing ever. It was an above ground internal walkway built in the mid 16th Century, commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, 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 or assassination in the political intrigues of the time. Though it was the paranoia of a ruling elite separating themselves from the common folk, 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 to give me a temporary world of my own separate from my parents.
Beyond the kilometer-long elevated connected corridors, Morgan had said that a 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.
Under the flat gray sky through the lightest of drizzles I walked along the north bank of the Arno, a low wall to my left separating the sidewalk I was on from the river bed below. I could smell the dank slightly rotting smell of the water and could hear just the faintest whoosh of the current of the thing, presumably swelled by all this rain. Ahead of me down the river I could just make out the Ponte Vecchio against the dull horizon and across the river from it what I figured must be the silhouette of the Palazzo Pitti. Limiting my gaze to the length of the river and the old bridge and palace in the distance, I felt like I had walked through a timewarp, until a car sped by on the street just to my right. Farther off to my right, lording over the three and four story buildings that lined the other side of the street, the distinctive tower of my destination loomed, with its rectangular construction and high parapet around its belltower.
I had studied the city map I had purchased at the market before leaving the hostel, and now had it crammed in the back pocket of my jeans, trying to keep it dry but available when I needed to consult it again. I was looking up ahead of me for the right turn on a street called ‘Piazzale Degli Uffizi’, but saw only a continuing facade of building fronts where the perpendicular street ought to be. As I got closer I saw an archway through the ground floor of a three story building front above. When I finally reached it, the archway opened on the other side to a long straight narrow street with four story stone buildings on either side with colonnades along the ground floor. With no cars able to get through the archway, it was really a wide walkway rather than a narrow street. As a lover of spaces, both exterior and interior, it brought goosebumps to my forearms under my poncho.
I traversed the length of the thing hearing the slightest echo of the sound of my hiking boots clomping on the stone surface below and the audible drip of water off the roof on either side, amplified by the acoustics of the parallel building facades, not more than thirty feet apart. Finally it opened up on the other end to a broad piazza to the left, and the corner of my destination to the right, the stairsteps up to its entrance doors guarded by two fifteen-foot naked human statues standing atop six foot pedestals, stark white and almost gleaming in their wetness against the mottled beiges of the stone building behind them. The statue farthest from my looked exactly like Michelangelo’s David, and later I would read that it was in fact a copy of the famous statue, which had originally been carved to be placed here at the entrance to the palace, but later moved inside to its present location. The statue closest to me was of a man with carved curly hair and beard grasping a club in his right hand and with his other hand the head of another man on his knees in front of him.
I was glad ‘the boys’ weren’t with me, because given the proximity of the kneeling man’s head to the standing man’s naked crotch with carved penis and balls, I could just imagine Derrick captioning the image with something like, “Suck my dick or else!”
Happily alone in this instance, I ascended the half flight of stairs through the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio museum, and was very pleased to see a coat room where I could hang my wet poncho. I paid for my ticket and proceeded inside.
As with the Vatican, I moved quickly through the first rooms of the once palace now museum and was soon in the Salone dei Cinquecento, the ‘Room of the 500’ that Morgan had told me about.
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”. The place felt like a hunter’s trophy room with his biggest kills hanging on the wall. And in what seemed like the pinnacle of narcissism, 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. Such a dude that duke!
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 and trading 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 Mary Jane would say about 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 material wealth and military might while the Sistine Chapel about power derived from God, though both were seats of temporal power in their time.
Then I proceeded down the Vasari Corridor 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, the Uffizi’s 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 the actual Corridor itself, with its big rooms and hallways, and even more so the views from its windows. Long hallways, some longer than a football field. Beautiful high arched ceilings, some fantastically decorated with gold and brass and polished wood. And particularly the windows looking down to good views of the streets or the river Arno below on either side, giving one a real sense of both the interior space one was in and the exterior environs that surrounded it. I found it stunning. I could not recall ever being in any other place so architecturally gripping.
And in that spatial thrall I continued down the Corridor with the streets and buildings on my right and the Arno and the very sidewalk along the river I had been walking on earlier to get here on my left. That meant that I even crossed above the spot where I had walked through the archway below onto what I now realized was the courtyard which I could now see looking out the row of windows to my right. I strode along in my boots as if they were the footwear of a Florentine Duke. A song bubbled up into my mind at that moment. Strangely enough it was Simon and Garfunkel’s “For Emily”…
What a dream I had, pressed in organdy
Clothed in crinoline of smoky Burgundy
Softer than the rain
I remembered when the song had come to me in that little park in Chur what now seemed like ages ago, when it was raining and I felt so alone, and the full gravity of my fragile homesick soul faced with this long odyssey ahead took hold of me.
I wandered empty streets down past the shop displays
I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alley ways
As I walked on
And I did walk on, mostly on my own for the next couple weeks, through many long challenging days, until I got a respite meeting Steve in Paris. And here I was now, still walking, but now the storied adventurer of sorts. Travelling on my own once again and yeah, still homesick, but feeling like I had way more of my journey behind me than and more of the ‘home stretch’ ahead.
I took the left turn in the Corridor that now had me crossing atop the Ponte Vecchio (‘Old Bridge’) over the Arno and then another hundred yards or so up to the Palazzo Pitti. All told, with all its sections, I had just traversed an immense hallway roughly a half mile in length. When I got set to exit the Pitti back out onto the street, I realized my poncho was back at the beginning of the Corridor in the Palazzo Vecchio, but I was actually thrilled that I had an excuse to traverse its half mile length one more time.
As I walked its extent a second time, the implications of the size, scope and grandeur of the Corridor both thrilled and troubled my mind. The scope of what humans could conceive to do, had ALREADY DONE, half a millennium ago. And yet the ego, lust for power, and the separation of the elite from the common folk below that in my mind belittled that grandiose scope. An amazing thing so diminished by the motivation for its creation, so amazing yet so disappointing. I felt like we humans had to start again somehow. Yes, create the brilliant things we could imagine, like this place, but next time for the right reasons, reasons that included and celebrated everyone, instead of just the powerful few. I realized that my high school history classes, even my Modern Western Civilization class my freshman year at Western had not clued me in on this colossal failure of human vision that was starkly revealed to me traversing the Corridor and knowing its historical context.
I had always been enraptured by interior and exterior spaces and relationships between those spaces, perhaps my own version of my artist mom’s love for ‘negative space’. But I did not have the same sense of time and my linear progression through it from day to day, so I would lose track of what day of the week it was, let alone the day of the month, since in my travels, among the many factors I had to wrestle with every day, it generally did not matter to me. So it was only upon returning to the hostel and finally encountering ‘the boys’, my fellow denizens of the States, that they reminded me that today was Thanksgiving. It struck me for the first time that this holiday, next to Christmas, the most celebrated by my family, was unlike Christmas, not celebrated by anyone here in Europe.
And not being with my family and that larger circle of close family friends that we usually gathered with to celebrate the holiday, 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 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, Derrick, 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. The rain had finally subsided, so we decided to brave it without our ponchos. 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. We started with consommé soup. Then two plates each 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 four dollars U.S. each.
It may have been the context, the moment in time and space with the cold and wet outside and us inside feeling the warmth of the blazing fire of the trattoria oven, but everything was absolutely delicious. The lasagna, as always, hot and cheesy with all the wonderful flavor notes in the marinara sauce, freshly grated parmesan cheese, 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 freshly baked. The wine soothing the palate and buzzing the senses 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 here in Europe, I had had on occasion some really good food since I had been here. 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!!
I told the boys that I was taking the train in the morning to Venice, and looking forward to experiencing that very unique city. Derrick snapped out of the whole Thanksgiving nostalgia reverie we’d all been in and made a face.
“I talked to this dude that said that the place was dark, dirty and depressing. He said that guy didn’t write Death in Venice for nothing. Prepare to slit your wrists!”
Come on Derrick, I thought, so you don’t want to go there, fine, but don’t try to ruin it for someone else. But though I was mad at him I only thought those words. But buzzed on the wine, I wasn’t going to be cowed this time, and fumble about making excuses for why I wanted to go there. I was pleased that I quickly came up with a sarcastic response, a good deadpan line reading I thought as I lowered my head and stared at him.
“Well, at least I’ve got a choice of two blades on my Swiss Army knife if it comes to that!” Michael and Matt both laughed, and Derrick coughed out a chuckle and grinned. All right, I thought, not my usual style, but I can play this competitive guy game. Then I thought of Jen and I went Coopster.
“And…” I said with emphasis, raising an index finger theatrically, “If I manage not to off myself in ‘Venezia’, I’ll be headed next up into Switzerland to this little place called Grindelwald! Sky chalet on the side of a mountain for a hostel, looking across the valley to the Eiger on the other side.” My hands gestured upward in front of me tracing out the silhouette of a great mountain. “Maybe just veg out in front of the fire for a few days and enjoy the view!”
I continued. “You guys have heard of the Eiger right?”
“Isn’t there that movie, the Eiger Sanction?” Matt responded.
“Huh”, Derrick grunted, “Well we’re on to Vienna.”
I was tempted to say that I had originally planned to go to Vienna, but had decided to go to Grindelwald instead. But I decided not to. I didn’t want to encourage his behavior by copying it myself.
It was in the middle of my schtick, that I noticed a guy enter the Trattoria, close the door behind him but just stand there and look around with a serious face. I’d seen him once or twice in the hostel common room. He seemed maybe a few years older than us and he stuck out both because of his very short hair and his brown skin. I guess he had noticed us while I had been talking and gesturing and approached our table.
“You sound like you’re from the United States. May I join you?” He spoke the words kind of formally.
Derrick looked at him, but I wasn’t going to let Derrick say something that wasn’t totally welcoming. I thought of Jen. She probably would have already figured out by his accent where he was from.
“Sure man”, I said, pointing to the empty chair next to me and I echoed Trix in the train compartment on the way to Florence, “Always a spot for a fellow traveler! Join us!”
He smiled and nodded and sat down. “Thank you”, he said, “My name is Moana.” His accent sounded definitely like some flavor of British but not quite Australian. I remembered how Jen and Trix and company had greeted people.
“My name is Cooper”, I said, sticking out my hand, “It’s a pleasure!” He grasped my hand and we shook, and I made sure to give a good solid grip. Surprisingly, Matt and Michael quickly followed suit, calling out their names followed by, “It’s a pleasure!” When they shook hands, I noted that Moana and Michael were the only two people in the Trattoria who were not white. Finally Derrick, sitting farthest from Moana, stretched his hand across the table and said, a little begrudgingly, “Yeah… It’s a pleasure!” followed by, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
“That is some sort of special feast day in your culture, correct?” Moana queried.
Derrick scoffed. “Yeah, you eat a shitload of food and then drink beer and watch football games.”
I decided I better play social director, and not leave any responses from ‘the boys’, well specifically Derrick, to chance. I told Moana I was from Ann Arbor Michigan in the States and that my three comrades were from Cleveland, just a hundred miles or so southeast of me. He asked if the four of us had come to Europe together. I told him I was travelling on my own and had met them here in Florence. I was surprised when Michael was the one to speak up and tell the story of how he, Matt and Derrick had met each other in high school. Moana got himself a plate of lasagna and bought a bottle of wine to share and we were off on our discussion.
While he hungrily ate his lasagna, he listened as we told all our standard stories of where we had been in Europe and where we were headed. When he had finished his dish and had heard our tales, he finally started telling his own. He was literally taking a year after college to travel around the world. His mother was Maori and his father 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 ship from Southampton in England across the Atlantic to New York. He said his trip would include no plane flights because he wanted to experience every bit of the planet’s surface circumnavigating it.
He said that of all the places he planned to see, the United States had involved the most preparation. It had taken him months, and repeated trips to the U.S. embassy in Wellington, to finally get a visa. I had now heard this a number of times from my backpacker comrades planning to visit the States as part of their travels.
From New York he had two months unlimited travel on Greyhound busses around the States, before heading up through western Canada to Alaska and taking another ship from Anchorage to Sendai Japan. Finally working his way by ship 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 three changes of clothes for my ten week trip, but he was doing similarly 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 though he did much more listening than talking. And when he did talk he was direct and plainspoken. He asked us questions about the United States, about U.S. culture, where we lived and where we had traveled in the country.
“So in your ‘land of the free’ are people comfortable with and helpful to travelers?”
That question caught my comrades and I by surprise and was particularly poignant and difficult to answer. It seemed like the answer was probably no in many cases, though what did the four of us eighteen-year-olds know really about traveling on our own in our home country. I was stumped as to what to say. I could talk about the logistics of travel in the States, certainly more difficult than here in Europe if you didn’t have a car.
Derrick made the first response, shrugging his shoulders. “I guess maybe it’s okay. I don’t know. If you’ve got money to pay for stuff most people are happy to take it. I’ve actually only gone places with my parents or a school group. They took care of all that stuff.”
Matt nodded. “Same here”, he said.
Michael wrinkled his nose in thought. Finally he said, “I’d say some people are and some aren’t, not that I’ve done any traveling on my own in the States. But my mother and father and some of the extended family have. I think it depends on the ‘vibe’ of the place you go, right? You can feel when that vibe is not right. Even if somebody is saying friendly words you can just feel the weird vibe.”
Moana’s eyes lit up and he nodded slowly as he listened to Michael’s thought, finally asking, “You mean some people are racist but are trying hard to pretend and even think they are not?”
Michael nodded, taking just the slightest glance at both of his white friends. “Yeah, something like that. I try not to think about it too much. My parents have talked to me about all that stuff, you know, what to do and what not to do in certain situations.”
“Yeah mine too”, Moana replied, “Endlessly!”
I wondered what they were talking about and figured it must be something about both of them not being white and how they had to deal with racist white types to stay safe. It was troubling to hear them talk to each other about it so obliquely, like they felt they might not be safe talking about it more frankly even around their white comrades.
The conversation moved on to the logistics of getting around in the States.
Derrick was back to form, at one point saying, “You basically need a car to get around in the U.S. or you’re screwed.”
I popped. I rarely got mad at anyone, and was generally not comfortable with anger at all, particularly when my mom got mad at me.
“C’mon Derrick!” The disgust and judgement was obvious in my voice, and Derrick was a bit taken aback. It was one thing when he said something like that to me, but it was embarrassing to have him say that to Moana with me right there. What would Moana think about me and the kind of comrades I surrounded myself with.
I threw some facts out on the table from my own experience, still an edge in my voice. “I’ve taken the train, the bus, or hitchhiked to school from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo. I’ve taken buses from Dayton back up to Ann Arbor.”
“I’m just sayin’”, Derrick responded defiantly.
I quickly reestablished my usual accommodating persona and acknowledged that mass transit in the States was nothing like it was here in Europe. In the States some cities were connected by trains but others, even major cities were not. Maybe to those places you could get a bus, but buses took much longer. Here in Western Europe you could take a train most anywhere at any time, and most cities had extensive bus networks if not subways or other light rail. We all concurred on how good the mass transit network was in Europe.
“Well”, said Moana, “I believe I have cast my lot in the States on the Greyhound bus network, for better or worse.”
And when we started talking about travel logistics in the States we realized that lodging was problematic too. There was nothing like the youth hostels here in Europe, where you could get a cheap bed and meet lots of fellow travelers. You might find cheap motels in the States, but there you were alone in your own room and no community of fellow travelers around you for friendship and support.
It was difficult to be faced with, at least for a few moments, my privilege to be white and from the States, generally getting a friendly and supportive welcome wherever I had gone around Western Europe. Almost all the people I had encountered seemed very accustomed to all sorts of travelers in their midst, from my country, other places in the world, as well as their neighboring European countries. And the flip side to that was for a short while being drawn into imagining myself in Moana’s shoes, coming to various places in the States where maybe I wouldn’t be so accepted, even face hostility.
“I think you’d enjoy my hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan”, I noted at one point, “It’s a big liberal college town with lots of nice trees.” Then I thought about his timing, coming to the States in the winter. “Of course it will be winter and the trees won’t have their leaves.”
I told him he could stay with my family if he came to Ann Arbor, and wrote my address and phone number in his little address book. He seemed very grateful for that.
“Nobody wants to go to Cleveland”, Derrick chimed in, only temporarily muzzled by my little rebuke, “Our river’s so polluted it keeps catching on fire!”
“Shut up Derrick!” It was mostly quiet Matt now, my little insurrection was catching on.
“I’m just telling the facts”, Derrick muttered, scowling.
Matt said that he and his mom would love to have Moana as a guest and that he’d show him all around Cleveland. Michael nodded a second to that and both wrote their addresses and phone numbers in Moana’s little book.
Moana sensed the hesitation on Derrick’s part and took his little notebook back. “Thank you all so much. This means a lot to me!”
That moved Derrick to not be left out of all this connecting. “Hey dude, if you get to Cleveland I’ll buy you a beer. My buddies will let me know you’re in town.”
I watched Moana do his best line reading of a serious and heartfelt “Thank you!”
Yet another shared big jug of chianti later, this one bought by Derrick of all people, the five of us finally left the trattoria and walked back to the hostel across the Arno, for me one last time before my departure in the morning. The river’s now familiar dank smell reminding me how much a part of my life it had been for these past few days. I hadn’t really connected with a river since the ubiquitous Rhine and its Meuse and Moselle tributaries my first few weeks on the continent. I saw the Seine just briefly going in and out of Notre Dame in Paris and didn’t recall the Tiber at all in Rome, though I must have crossed it at some point.
Back in the hostel common room, me and ‘the boys’ said our goodbyes to Moana, shaking hands and calling out again that it had been “a pleasure”. We all wished him a safe and successful journey and hoped to see him again in the States in January or February. He headed up to his bunkroom and I now said my goodbyes to the three Clevelanders who had been so much a part of my experience here in ‘Firenza’, either in spending time with, or making the effort to avoid them. They planned to take the overnight train to Vienna tomorrow afternoon.
Invoking my Coopster persona, I made the point of shaking each of their hands though announcing just once, “It’s been a pleasure guys!” I couldn’t quite bring myself to swap in “boys” instead, the Coopster had his limits. I left them and headed up to my bunkroom.
Entering the bunkroom I was surprised to encounter Moana sitting on his mattress writing in his journal. I guess he had been there the last couple days and I just hadn’t noticed. His pack was huge, not as big as Trix’s, but certainly bigger and probably heavier than mine. I felt the need to say something about ‘the boys’ and Derrick’s behavior, wanting to differentiate myself from the three of them.
“I want to apologize for my three comrades”, I noted, “They’re pretty young, just out of high school!”
“How old are they?” he asked.
“Eighteen”, I replied.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Uh eighteen”, I suddenly felt like this was not how I had wanted this conversation to go. “I mean I’ve been in college for a year.”
He looked at me with a knowing nod and just the slightest chuckle. I felt like an idiot.
“Hey your eighteen. Believe me I understand. I remember.”
I decided I better cut my losses and retreat. “Have a safe trip”, I said.
“You too Cooper! Maybe we’ll meet again in your ‘Ann Arbor’ under the bare trees.”
I walked on to my bunk at the other end of the long room.
Finally ensconced in the cocoon of my sleeping bag at lights out, now lying in the dark, my thoughts were fixated on the whole eighteen thing and that last awkward exchange with Moana. It 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. Being eighteen was something I’d aspired to. As far back as I could remember I had felt capable of being responsible for myself and being treated as a fully empowered person, the things they conventionally bestowed on eighteen year olds.
Of course I couldn’t think about being eighteen, or not being 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
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 former being presented with and incorporating new shit all the time, while the latter already beaten down in ways by the vicissitudes of life and the frailties of one’s own soul.