Hiking to Heaven, Pt. 2

As my words trailed off in Part 1 of this story, Harman and I were left to enjoy our gelato in the harbor for quite some time as we found ourselves floating hazily into the afternoon. The sun was still high and there was still plenty of life swarming around us, mostly American and Asian. Almost everyone was sunbathing to some degree. I looked around and was certain that nobody knew what the word worry meant. Or at least they had playfully decided to forget as soon as they put their sunglasses on.

But as I mentioned previously, a group of fellow travelers had loosely invited us to watch the sunset in the south at the Bay of Poets in Portovenere later that evening, so we messaged them to establish some sort of schedule for the rest of the day. They were still unsure of a time, but Harman and I decided that we should probably continue onto Monterroso al Mare, only this time by train. Within minutes of arriving it was easy to see that this was the premier beach destination amongst the five villages. A shoreline filled with umbrellas and chairs, all whimsically decorated with green and orange stripes that stand out against the blue of the Ligurian Sea. In the middle of the shoreline erupts a massive rocky outcrop that stands as a one-of-a-kind jumping-off point. There are ‘No Climbing’ and ‘No Diving’ signs drilled into the side, all of which are all clearly visible even from beyond the sand. But that does little to dissuade a group of teenagers from scaling the top or a model from posing for pictures along the base of it. Again, what was this worry people speak of? 

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Following the shore for a bit, we eventually reached old-town where we could fulfill our  ‘postcard from every location’ quota. We found a little place that had been converted into a tourist shop from an old slaughterhouse, which – while ominous and creepy – was oddly charming in a ‘giant rusty hook hanging from the ceiling that used to hold the drying halves of dead cattle’ sort of way. The village is also, among other things, known for its lemon trees, which are practically everywhere. The soap that is made from the fruit is also intoxicating, even though I’m not usually a fan of citrus scents when it comes to body wash. But I bought some anyway because they were molded into the shape of adorable miniature lemons. Whoops.

After this, we continued to just roam around for a bit, up and down the cobblestone streets and alleys that run like veins throughout all five villages. At one point Harman and I passed three elderly women that lived in the area, who were sitting on a bench in the middle of what sounded like a heated conversation. (Although most Italians speak with a constant sense of urgency, myself included, so I’m sure everything was fine.) I wanted desperately to take their photo – which was perfectly staged to be a black & white image – but just felt too intimidated by the whole situation. We were mindlessly parading through their backyard and home. Tourists holding cameras in their faces surely wasn’t out of the ordinary to them, but I figured it might be better to just keep that one with me and let their story wander off in mystery.

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But as so much of life is simply being at the right place at the right time, I was lucky enough to pass a small girl who ran out the front door of her family’s home, perhaps escaping her mother’s grasp, as she turned and stuck her tongue out at me from the alley steps. What it would be like to grow up here, I thought. I wondered if she would ever hope to leave as she grew up. I also happened to look up at the exact right time to spot an elderly woman sweeping her balcony a few stories above, just finishing the day’s chores. Because her home was part of one of the most congested tourist destinations in the world, I wondered if she was ever bothered by it. Then I thought about all that her life had seen – what changed with the seasons and what always seemed to remain the same. Then she finished up, moved the mat back in front of her door, and went inside.

It’s easy to get caught up in lives you’ve never lived, places you’ve never been, and people you’ve hardly known. The incessant ‘what ifs’ that play over and over again in your mind like a record without any B-sides. It all brings with it an overwhelming sense of melancholy. It’s all relative, of course, and perspective is one of those things that simply can’t be taught; It must be lived to be understood. But I struggled to understand it then just as I have most of my life.

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Before traveling to Europe with Harman, I was a trade worker in Seattle at the Green Tortoise Hostel. Those six weeks were some of my happiest, during which I met some of the most impactful souls of my adult life. You learn the lesson of letting go very quickly when traveling, especially when it comes to the people you meet along the way. But we must also learn the lesson of letting go when it comes to those parts of ourselves that we do not wish to carry with us any longer. After all, it’s best to not take too much baggage on your journey. Like I’ve said before, when you leave behind everything you ever thought you wanted, you come to find everything you never knew you needed.

What would find me if I dropped everything and spent my energy in Cinque Terre or La Spezia for awhile? I was in Italy. What more did I need? This was another instance in which I came to regret buying my return flight before I had even landed in the first place. So many of us are simply passing through life at any given moment, myself included, which is a feeling that found me frequently as a first-time solo traveler this year. Each of us is gifted the opportunity to see all that the world has to offer, but we never open our eyes. Our ears are open to all the sounds of life, but we rarely hear a thing. How many of us are nothing more than tourists in our own stories?

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Now, this is all been said before, by countless people before me and in many different (and possibly better) ways. Recently, I stumbled upon a quote from Herman Hesse discussing the difference between knowledge and wisdom. “Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. One can find it, live it, do wonders through it, but one cannot communicate and teach it.” Maybe it just takes realizing all of this for oneself, at one’s own pace, in one’s own words, for some of these universal human truths to finally make sense. 

But perhaps I’m getting away from myself. Our day was quickly fading away, we still had two villages to see, and Harman and I were both getting hungry. The setting sun wouldn’t wait for us. And while the train would be arriving soon, there would be too many tourists and not enough seats. So we put the souvenir lemon soap, refrigerator magnets, and postcards in our backpacks, and got on our way. We would find Manarola next and, after that, a little bit of heaven in Riomaggiore would find us, itself.

Hiking to Heaven, Pt. 1

When we first arrived in La Spezia, admittedly, we struggled a bit more than usual as we spent a solid twenty minutes searching for the hostel, walking around in circles. We ended up bothering a sweet, elderly Italian woman for directions while unsuccessfully trying to locate ourselves via Google Maps. She didn’t speak English but she did speak with her hands. I’ll let you imagine what she was saying to us.

Eventually, behind a nondescript door next to a seafood restaurant, we found the logo of the hostel printed on the glass. The Grand Hostel Manin is located three stories up, which you can either reach by following a set of winding stairs or by hopping on the glass elevator that rises through the middle of it all. Despite our difficulty finding the place, this was by far one of the best hostels we stayed at on our trip. The reception area is large and bright, with a mini-fridge of wine available to purchase, and an impressive amount of information and event flyers to keep every traveler engaged with their trip. You also are given a coupon for a free drink at a restaurant around the corner. The kitchen is narrow and seats about five or six at a time, they offer free breakfast, and there’s a small balcony to watch La Spezia wake up right alongside you. The rooms are spacious, the bathrooms clean and private, and the WiFi is reliable throughout the whole place.

The only downside is the common area closes at around 10 p.m., and the corridors themselves are somewhat confusing, almost resembling the moving staircases and hallways of Harry Potter. The door that led to my floor was actually only accessible from a door on the wall in the middle of the staircase, but that really just adds to the charm. If you ever find yourself in the area, I can’t recommend it more, and the prices are reasonable, too. Also, upon getting to our rooms, Harman and I immediately made friends with two lovely Australians, Emma and Maddie, and we suddenly found ourselves having plans for a night out on the Italian coast.

In Milan, Harman and I had helped ourselves to some of the best pizza Napoletana we’d eat while in Italy. But we figured it was time to get some pasta in our stomachs. The four of us went to a cute little restaurant called Joe Bistrot, where we shared a couple bottles of wine and some delicious, authentic meals. The portions aren’t huge, for your information, so that’s why we made our next destination Gelateria Vernazza. The chain has a few locations in the area, with one falling in the namesake village up the coast. As I’ve said before, I’m not a religious man. But if you are ever able to go, get the Strawberry Ricotta gelato. It will make you believe in God, herself.

The four us spent the night talking about our lives back in the States and Australia, respectively. We spoke about school and jobs, crazy exes, where we’d already been and where we hoped to go next. We sat outside on big, comfortable patio furniture enduring hectic waves of customers and relishing in moments where we found our voices to be the only ones on the street. We enjoyed some gelato in Italy with our new friends from the other side of the planet, and it was blissful. Did we really have to go back?

It was getting late, about 10 p.m. local time, and Emma and Maddie still had to pack for their impending departure the next morning, and Harman and I still had to figure out how we would be getting to Switzerland in two days time, so we headed back to the Manin and said goodnight to the Aussies. On the fourth floor, in the lobby outside my room, we began planning for Luzerne and how we would spend our last full day on the Ligurian coast come sunrise. We were greeted by a group of rather intoxicated travelers, some from Chile, some from other parts of the world, and we made loose plans to watch the sunset over Portovenere the following evening with the group.

When we woke, we had our typical European breakfast of Nutella-covered everything and casually said, “See you later,” to both Maddie and Emma as they went back to their room, not yet realizing that by the time we would be back that night they would be gone. To both of you, it was great meeting you and, even though we all followed each other on Instagram, I apologize for not properly wishing you safe travels in person.

Harman and I made our way to the train station which was about a 15 minute walk from the hostel and proceeded to stand in line for a special ‘all village’ ticket for the better part of an hour. But soon enough we were on the train to the first stop on our list, Corniglia, and began our 2 hour hike to Vernazza. Admittedly, the trail gets somewhat crowded at times, but the views are worth the tourist-pace.

The thing that struck my soul the most was just how vibrant the water is. The sea fades into the horizon through a foggy pastel blend of blue and white, the clouds disguising the rest of the villages up the coastline until you’re close enough to truly appreciate them. From where we hopped on the trail, the third village, Corniglia, is visible in the distance as you head either north to Vernazza or south to Manarola. Throughout the trail, you meet multiple paths that lead you into the backyards of the people who call the heavenly hillside home and footways that bring you to one-of-a-kind lookout spots that are tangled up in trees and thorns.

At one point we were lead through a small cluster of restaurants, homes built into the rock, and those iconic water fountains that line the trail and are perfectly safe to drink from. A part of the trail actually lets you (or at least Harman and I did this) climb onto the flat roof of a what is either a house or café, presenting you with a truly time-stopping view of the Sea, the sky, and the hills. We took some photos then swung our legs over the edge, put our things down, and breathed deeply. Neither of us said a word for quite some time. After hopping back on the trail, and after grabbing a handful of rocks for myself and my mother back in Ohio, I stopped and turned to my best friend.

“We’re hiking Cinque Terre,” I repeated multiple times. It didn’t feel real, nothing for the next 12 hours would come close to any reality that I had ever felt before. And maybe I had my week-and-a-half of lackluster sleep to blame once again, but my spine was a tangled mess. Admittedly, all of this sounds and feels a bit overdramatic, even just to write. But maybe this part of the world is known for the romance languages because it’s impossible not to romanticize almost every single interaction and event. The feelings that find us in the evening are rarely those that greet us when we wake. But the truth always finds us when we are our most vulnerable, and everybody is a vulnerable mess at night. Yet there also isn’t a single person who can help but feel entirely open to the universe when standing thousands of miles from home in the one place they’d always dreamt about visiting. I like to think that something greater than myself was just trying to get through to me.

But so, we hiked on, eventually reaching the 3rd village, Vernazza. Just before the trail takes you directly into the heart of it all, a part of the trail branches off into a steep 10 foot stretch up the hillside. Once you get to the top you are greeted with a gorgeous view of Vernazza roaring out into the water like an arm of God reaching out to the rest of the world. The trail actually snakes back into the trees, so naturally, I followed it, eventually reaching the farm of a family who lived just above the village out of sight. I found two men in the middle of their workday; One older and the other who looked to be about my age, different generations breathing in the same story. I still couldn’t believe that people actually lived here, making their livelihood in paradise, surrounded by countless tourists who didn’t know more than a handful of words in their native language – myself included. I snapped their photo and waved to them, but they’d seen it all before. I thought I’d ask if they were hiring.

When I returned to Harman we continued on our way into Vernazza and grabbed a bite to eat before taking a seat on the harbor. Small fishing boats were everywhere, rowboats docked and tour guides ready. You can actually swim there, too, but the water was crowded enough and there would be larger beaches up the coastline. Besides, I had another cup of gelato in my hand so I wasn’t planning on moving anytime soon.

A Train Travels Through Italy

Harman and I would be leaving for La Spezia in just about an hour, continuing our journey on our way to Cinque Terre. I had always dreamed of seeing the five villages, and when we began planning our trip the previous winter it was one of the destinations that he and I both agreed was absolutely necessary. At that point, it still didn’t feel real. We had been awake until something like 3 a.m. that morning, right alongside our newfound group of worldly wanderers with whom we had decided to become best friends for the night. The Texan, the German, the Pol, the Brits, the French. Like I said before, our Milano Nights had been something that we’d both remember for a very, very long time.

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I am not a religious man by any means, but after being in Italy for only a few days it was easy to see why God reigns in that part of the world – even the most human of manmade structures and art were hard to comprehend as coming to life without some sort of divine intervention. I wrote of the Duomo that if I had been raised there, I certainly would fall to my knees every time I stepped foot in the cathedral.

But, like I said, I wasn’t allowed inside because I was wearing shorts. Another lifetime, perhaps.

For what it’s worth, all of Milan, despite what it may be lacking, smells heavily of wildflowers throughout most of the city. I was excited to smell the saltwater of the Ligurian Sea, next. It was all moving so fast and I was quickly reminded that life sometimes teaches you nothing more than the lesson of letting go. And I was content with that. But new friends can become old friends very quickly, and if you try too hard to find the words you want to say, you may never have the chance to say what is needed in the first place. Then I heard the echo of a gate come from a marble staircase, and it was time to go.

The train station in Milan was large and nearly impossible to navigate, but thankfully as Harman and I made our way to the terminal, a friendly face noticed the bags and panicked looks on our faces and asked if we knew where we were going. She said she was an ex-pat if I remember correctly, and she immediately empathized with us first-time travelers. She pointed us in the right direction and smiled. For a moment we turned our heads to get a better view of where exactly it was that we needed to go, and when we turned back she was gone. Thank you, whoever you were, because we made our train on time.

The train ride itself was pleasant enough. Not quite as scenic as our initial bus ride into the country, but I ended up being focused on what was happening inside the cabin, instead. Harman had fallen asleep in the seat across from me almost immediately, so I was left with my thoughts and whatever I could distract myself with for the better part of 2 or 3 hours. Maybe it was 4. I really lost track of time.

In the seat next to us, across the aisle, sat a woman with a headful of hair wrapped into a messy bun, headphones blasting, world deafened, and a look on her face that was somewhere in between resentment, disappointment, and determination. She was posed so poetically that I took a candid photo of her before the car even started moving. During the first 2 hours, of which she was still on the train, I’ll admit that I genuinely couldn’t stop staring. And because Harman was asleep through all of it, I had no one to pull me back down to earth.

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The Girl on The Train

I like to consider myself a very confident person. After all, confidence can unlock so many doors even if you never had the key. It’s precisely how I got through so many college speeches by simply making it all up on the spot. However, during those few quick hours on a train ride in Italy, I was met with the momentary sensation of being unable to speak. She was sitting alone – even the seats across from her were vacant for the majority of the ride – but no matter how much I tried to hype myself up to simply attempt to talk to her, my legs and arms and body became cement. My mouth refused to open. Her view remained fixed out her window for the majority of the ride, so I at least was safe from her seeing my pathetic attempt at getting her attention. All I could do was force a weak smile. I hadn’t been that nervous in a very long time. At one point she loosened her ponytail, shook her head, and let an excessive amount of long, wavy hair the color of honey flow down her neck and shoulders. Yes, my jaw literally dropped and remained that way until I forcibly clamped it shut.

I had taken my camera from my bag at one point to hopefully catch her gaze, at which point I would smile, point my Canon at her, grab her photo, go over to show her what I’d taken, and the rest would be cheesy, romantic, improbable history. Except the only moment I was able to capture was another candid scene that made well for street photography, further reinforcing the look that she wore on her face to begin with. Sooner or later I put the camera away and tried my very hardest to focus on anything but her. We were in Italy, after all! Eventually, our ride slowed down and we arrived at our first stop in Genoa. Harman was still asleep, I was still lovestruck, and the beautiful Italian woman who had somehow been ripped right from my dreams was getting off the train.

She collected her things and proceeded to move among the wave of strangers that seemingly came out of nowhere, and I struggled to get one final look at her — even if she had no clue that I had ever existed at all. But as she entered the aisle, less than three feet from me, she never looked my way.

Until she did. And in a moment so brief I wonder if it even happened at all, she turned, aimed her eyes at me, and smiled.

I was very close to grabbing my bag and following her off the train, a text to Harman already written that said, “Sorry, but she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen and I had to know how it ends. Take care, brother.” At that moment my body no longer had the weight on concrete, however, my soul had lept from my body when she smiled at me, and I was unable to move, once again. I think I verbally ‘gasped,’ too.

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On The Train Ride Home

But, as I have come to learn, sometimes it’s best not to know how a story ends, and with that our train rode on, the next stop the Ligurian Sea. If you are out there and somehow see this, I hope you are well. For now, I’ll simply remember you as Genoa, the girl on the train. Also, I hope you don’t find my fascination creepy or weird. I just simply had never seen someone quite like you.

As we got closer and closer to our destination, it began to feel more and more like a fantasy on a film reel, flickering right before my eyes. I then began to think of what was coming next – after Cinque Terre, after Italy, after Switzerland, when Harman would be heading back home and I’d have a week in Europe, alone. My plans were still very much up in the air, but I figured that Italy certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to set up shop for a while. Sure, they have one of the most corrupt, faultiest governments on earth, and their economy is basically useless. But you can get a bottle of drinkable wine for 1 Euro and 2 liters of water for .17 cents. And I could just sit on that train until I ran into Genoa again one day, so how bad could it really be?

But soon we arrived at our destination, Harman woke up, and we began to weave through the cobblestone streets of La Spezia, slightly dazed and exceptionally hungry. We were now on the western coast of Italy and I’d soon be able to check hike Cinque Terre off of my bucket list. I didn’t even know that my mouth could form the words. What else would I be able to cross off that list with the remaining two weeks on a different continent? I couldn’t even imagine. Then I reminded myself, once again, that sometimes all life has to teach us is the lesson of letting go. Goddamn the winds, I wrote, but bless those same forces of nature that push and pull us where we need to be, and take us where we want to go.

Milano Nights, Pt. 2

The next morning we decided to sleep in, however, we still had time to indulge in the typical European breakfast of assorted pastries, deli meats, and copious amounts of Nutella. We were then soon out the door and on the Metro headed to the city centre to explore a Milano afternoon with our new friend from Finland, Max. Despite our hostel being located about five kilometers away from downtown Milan in a rather unattractive part of town, I remember almost every street in the area smelling like fresh flowers thanks to the endless amount of budding trees and bushes that spotted nearly every corner of sidewalk. If that neighborhood offered not much to look at, at least all you had to do was close your eyes and inhale deeply to be reminded of the fact that you were currently walking through Italy.

The first place we visited was Castello Sforzesco, a castle built in the 15th century by the Sforza family. For those of you who have ever played the Assassins Creed video games you’ll immediately remember that name, and for awhile it was fun to imagine just what kind of events were held within the massive walls of the castle. We didn’t tour the inner rooms, but hundreds of years ago artists such as Bramante and Leonardo Da Vinci were commissioned to decorate multiple areas of the fortress. In the far corner that day there was an event company setting up some sort of stage for a concert that evening; In any direction a tour group could be seen lazily making their way through the courtyard with their matching name tags and flashing cameras; And hanging around each exit are a half-dozen men carrying armfuls of cheap, brightly colored yarn bracelets that they will quickly tie around your wrist without your permission while giving you an elaborate story of ‘one world, one love’ brotherhood in exchange for your pocket change (we didn’t fall for this, and I still have the bracelet securely tied around my wrist even four months after the trip.) But it was bliss to imagine that some of the greatest minds to ever walk the earth had walked along those same cobblestones at some point. It was one of the few places we visited that I had a hard time looking up from the ground.

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Sforza Castle

We made our way through the adjoining green space and at one point found a Japanese wedding reception taking photographs in the park. We also noticed countless couples enjoying the weather by making out in the shaded grass under the flower dotted trees. Italy.

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Harman and I continued to let Max lead the way, and we soon found ourselves in the shadow of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Duomo Milano. The Galleria was built in the 1800’s as an incredibly ornate, elaborate shopping mall housing multiple high-end boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Prada, Dior, and Mont Blanc – just to name a few. In the centre of the galleria is a beautiful floor mosaic depicting the Bull of Turin, which guests stand and spin on in order to bring them good luck. Apparently the new thing is also to take an exorbitant amount of selfies at this particular spot to bring good fortune. But it was interesting just floating around the Galleria, peering into the shops that I physically couldn’t afford, watching tourists in outfits that cost more than my flight twirl and pose without a care in the world. I had my camera with me and found a thousand photos to take, and at one point found a Russian model posing for her own photo shoot who was kind enough to let me take a few shots, myself.

 

 

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We wandered outside to the Duomo to take a tour of the massive cathedral, but upon buying our tickets were informed that if we were wearing shorts that sat above our knees we weren’t allowed in. Harman was the only one of us in jeans so Max and I instructed him to take as many pictures as he could inside, and we’d hang outside. Thankfully I found another wave of scenes to photograph so I wasn’t disappointed at all. I even was able to get a couple of my favorite photos yet, those of a woman sitting at the steps of the Duomo who burst into an infectious laugh and smile when I asked for her picture. Once Harman was finished with his tour the three of us found some lunch and made our way to the Piazza della Scala, which is home to a towering statue of Leonardo Da Vinci. Earlier this year I finished the fascinating biography about him by Walter Isaacson, and have been somewhat obsessed with the artist ever since. So standing just feet away from a nearly 150 year-old statue of Da Vinci – in the streets of Milan – was nothing short of humbling. But it was just about five o’clock at that point and Max was going to make his way back to his hostel to rest, and Harman and I still had to pack for our departure the next day, too. So we found the Metro, shook hands, exchanged Instagram handles, and parted ways.

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A poorly timed photo of the Duomo and Max, who is wearing the striped t-shirt. Sorry, buddy.

Back at the Hostel Colours we realized one thing: We were very, very hungry. And dehydrated just a bit. After dropping off our bags we made our way to the front door in search of the grocery store around the corner. But before we could leave we were asked a simple question by a delightful Polish man named Oscar. “Do you guys want some free dinner tonight?” He was standing over the stove, steadily stirring a pot of something that smelled as delicious as anything I’d ever eaten. He explained that a few days prior to that night his phone was stolen in a Barcelona nightclub, and he was trying to put some positive energy back out into the world to makeup for it. We asked if he needed any help or ingredients, but all he said was to be back by 8 o’clock. So we went to the grocery store, bought some water and some wine (both of which are impressively cheap in Italy, just another reason to go there,) and went back to the hostel kitchen to hang out with our new friend.

 

Before we knew it, a meal for three turned into a meal for nearly twelve, and our table grew to house souls from all over the globe. A couple of women from Munich, a woman from France, a cheerleader from Baylor University in Texas, two travelers from England (one of which was Nile from Manchester, who I proceeded to talk about Oasis with for a good majority of the night), and a pleasant older man from Pakistan. We were each in our own conversations but all of us were together. The time quickly fell away from us, however, and the Hostel Colours curfew was quickly enforced. But there was no time for sleep! We each had a world of new friends to explore Italy with, so we decided to hop back on the Metro and get some gelato at one o’clock in the morning in the streets of Milan. After enjoying some of the best pistachio gelato I’ve ever had (the best would come at our next stop on our trip) we found our way back to the hostel. Some people went to sleep, but a select group of us decided that our night wasn’t done yet. So we found a park just a few blocks away, sat ourselves on a couple of benches, and began to talk about anything and everything at three o’clock in the morning. Oscar and I spoke about the troubles of finding work after college, but more importantly finding purpose in that work. Currently living in London, he explained that he left Poland and arrived in England a few years prior without knowing a word of English, but took the first job he found and began building a life for himself.

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I told him he was very inspiring and that, because I hoped to be a (paid) writer one day, I’d remember him and his story. He told me he’d be looking forward to reading it. Then, almost without warning, he informed our little group that his bus was arriving in an hour and that he was going to make his way to the station. I opened Google Maps for him (because he was still without a phone) and pointed him the right direction. He told Harman and I that if we ever found ourselves around his way that we’d have a place to stay. And so Oscar shook our hands, said goodbye, and walked off into the Milano night.

When the rest of us got back to the hostel to sleep I began to think about just how quickly our trip was moving. I was still amazed that I was in Italy, and I admitted that I certainly wasn’t the same man I was before stepping on the plane to Barcelona. These were the times you traveled for, the time when a group of complete strangers agree to become best friends for the night. I was losing a part of myself in the best way possible. When traveling – no matter the distance – you listen, grow, ask questions, become brave, and learn how to speak up. You pass through and move on. I wrote that it is a terrifying thing, growing up. But that it is also beautiful, chaotic, maddening bliss.

Milano Nights, Pt. 1

After learning the very important lesson of always give yourself extra time when traveling – especially when abroad – the hard way in Marseille, Harman and I got to the Nice bus station almost too early. We set-up shop in the shade of one of the only covered benches and waited until a bunch of other clueless-looking backpackers began to float up and down the sidewalk, so we decided to follow the herd. At one point another weary soul approached the two of us asking for help finding the bus to Barcelona. He barely spoke English, so us arrogant Americans just gesticulated wildly towards the front office and said that we were sorry we couldn’t help him. He wandered around the station for a bit, looking hopeless, and eventually he walked off into the distance, into the streets of Nice. Hopefully he wasn’t trying to rob us – we wouldn’t have been able to tell difference. Good sir, if you’re out there and were sincerely just looking for directions, I hope you got where you needed to go.

The bus arrived soon after and we were then en route to Italy. The Motherland. Within the last year my mother took one of those DNA tests and it determined that there is a small amount of French heritage in my family, alongside what I already knew. That explains all the bread. But now that we were only hours from the Italian border I knew that I was truly heading for home. I was – and am still – jealous at the ease of travel in Europe. A few days before we were in Spain, then France, then Monaco, and we would cross into Italy in a few hours. I smile just reading that out loud.

This was the part of the trip that I truly began to understand that I was, most likely, born in the wrong time. Blame the old soul, blame my overly romantic mind, but dammit I felt that should have been born in the Golden Age of travel, leading a life of adventure and mystery, only to write about it one day and to be remembered as the man with a thousand homes. I felt like a stranger. I wanted to be a stranger. I wanted to see the true edge of the world and fall off, forever falling, never landing or washing up to any specific shore. Madness, madness, madness. What was this life for other than blissful madness?

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But so far I had only had *two* cups of coffee over the course of the entire week, so I was hoping some Italian espresso would both wake me up and shake me from that idealistic mentality, at least long enough for me to settle in and enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of Italy before I drifted fully into travel fatigue. I needed sleep, food, and coffee – not necessarily in that order. The three necessities of any traveler. So I sat staring out the window, waiting. At some point our FlixBus stopped for about 30 minutes at a gas station. All the signs and items and product labels were written in Italian. We had finally crossed the border. Instead of sitting down in the café attached to the gas station I walked to the little outcrop behind the building – the service area where semi-trucks pull in and out of – and stood facing some expanse of hills and grass and flowers and sea. Italy.

Not that it looked that much different than Spain or France, but it felt different. Maybe I just was imagining it all, but I felt different standing there on the side of the road behind a gas station in the country that is responsible for the largest part of my bloodline. As we continued our drive towards Milan we drove through countless tunnels carved into the hills and valleys. Scattered in the distance were farms and olive trees and vineyards, and old, forgotten houses that looked as if they had been dropped there in a perfect pattern, like stars in the sky. I wanted to know the stories of every brick and door, of every person who called them home. Home. Some of the last remnants of the old world, still alive today. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to explore the shadows in each of them. But we were headed to Milan and still had a few hours on the bus. Couldn’t spend all of my cheesy sentiments staring out the window.

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When we arrived at the Milan bus station we were quickly ushered directly into the train station in a wave of confusion. Max, one of the guys we roomed with in Nice the night before, was actually on the same bus, and being from Finland – where travel is as casual as any other European country – we trusted him to get us where we needed to go. Eventually the three of us split, but we’d meet the next day to roam the city centre. For the time being, however, Harman and I found ourselves walking the streets of Milan making our way to Hostel Colours. Before I go any further, if given the chance to stay at that hostel… don’t. The physical building was spacious, unique, and set-up much like a hotel, with a bar, kitchen, seating area, and loft. The breakfast spread was pretty good, too. But the lobby itself closed at midnight, the bar was ridiculously overpriced (even for hostel standards,) and the staff were less than friendly. (More on that later.) But this night we didn’t care too much about that – we were starving by the time we got there and were quick to find a local gem, Ciccio Pizza. Except there was one problem: There was a line out the door.

We walked up like two ignorant travelers – just walked straight into the restaurant, completely bypassing the very long line of fellow hungry travelers – and held up two fingers to bridge the language gap. Every waiter ignored us, and rightfully so, except for one particularly fiery woman whom we never learned the name of. She spoke to us rapidly in Italian, we smiled dumbly and held up two fingers once again. She held up just one – and motioned for us to stay put. We hastily avoided the bustle of waiters and servers and bus boys as we quickly realized we we practically standing in the middle of the kitchen, itself. Finally our Italian correspondent returned from the back and waved us to follow her out the front door. We weaved between a few side streets, and Harman and I both agreed that if we suddenly were to disappear after being guided down a dimly lit alleyway that we certainly would be happy if at least it happened in Italy. But the excitement stopped there, and instead our guide directed us to a partner restaurant, the Tutto Giusto, and we were seated immediately.

Within ten minutes we both had medium-sized pizzas all to ourselves, piping hot but without an ounce of excessive grease, both for under 8 Euro each. It was a cool, soft night in the streets of Milan with pizza between two friends. We toasted to still having another week in Europe together. When we got back to the hostel we did everything we could to not fall asleep immediately. We hung around the lobby for a bit just killing time, but were soon reminded of our impending curfew and were ushered into our room before long. But for as frustratingly upbeat as the front desk attendant was in order to get us out of his lobby, we were eager to pass out. In the morning we’d meet our Finnish friend, Max, to explore the heart of Milano, and in the evening we’d take on the city after dark with new friends from Poland, England, Texas, and Germany – all thanks to a pickpocket in Barcelona and a delicious pot of rice and vegetables.

Monte Carlo, Waterfalls, and Wine on Top of the World

We decided to wake up early so we could make the most of our last full-day in Nice. The rest of our room woke up at the same time, too, so we were inspired (and a little bit guilted) into getting out into the city. Breakfast was 7€ at the hostel which, if you’re traveling on a budget, is a bit steep for what you get. A typical European breakfast is an assortment of cold-cuts (salami, ham, cheese) and a mixture of wheat bread and small pastries, with a side of Nutella to spread on everything. All good enough, but Jeannot was the only thing on our minds. We got more bread – this time a baguette cereales, which is basically a baguette that tastes like a giant everything bagel – and more beignets. Then we went back to the edge of the beach and just sat in the sun for what seemed like an eternity. It was already hot and we were both still practically asleep, neither of us necessarily in a mood to make a decision. “What do you want to do today,” one of us would mumble the other. “I’m good for whatever,” the other would reply. “Yeah, same.” And so we sat in this loop of travel fatigue for almost twenty minutes.

We all know that spontaneity is the spice of life; Plans and itineraries only get you so far. And, neither one of us being fans of the things, Harman and I tried to figure out just what we wanted to do for our last full day in France. So, on a whim, we forced ourselves from our sleepy, carb-induced stupors. “Let’s go to Monaco.” Within an hour we were on the train heading to the City State that was home to the most famous casino in the world. The train ride traced the coast of the Riviera and provided views of Nice’s Old Town district. It was another moment when you feel as if you’re on the set of a big-budget blockbuster. The beaches in Old Town are sand, not rock like the ones in the city centre, and much less crowded because they are surrounded predominantly by residential housing. Almost like it’s this little secret world you don’t want to disturb but would give anything to be a part of. How could anybody ever leave this place?

After about an hour on the train, we found ourselves in the city that welcomes the likes of James Bond on a regular basis. You wouldn’t know it from where the train drops you off, but (obviously) Monaco is a haven for the world’s ultra wealthy. You may be greeted by simple apartments and other residential areas, but prices of those apartments can reach more than $9,000 per square foot. Just try to process that. Harman and I were scared to kick a pebble on the ground in the event that we were actually kicking around loose diamonds by accident. As you get deeper into the city and closer to the water, the obscene wealth hits you like a wave of expensive $1,000 cologne. It’s almost like the air you are breathing is just better, practically laced with essential oils and fine wine and liquors that you can’t pronounce the name of. The cars are insane as you’d expect, with Maybachs and Lambos and Ferraris driving around like any Cruze or Camry. You lose count of how many yachts are docked in the harbor. Every woman walking by looks as plastic as any reality TV star, and every man looks like the kind of guy that doesn’t tip at restaurants and always wears his sunglasses indoors. Just outside the casino is a small outlook point where Harman and I sat down to take five. There was a mother with her toddler son next to us, whose outfit of baby Ralph Lauren cost more than any article of clothing either of us had ever owned.

IMG_20190604_154621We soon made our way to the doorsteps of the world-famous Monte Carlo Casino. The building itself is a work of art, with ridiculously ornate statues and paintings and architecture that lives up to the hype. There’s a surrounding garden that leads you out into a bouquet of high-end retail stores, including Prada, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Mont Blanc, and a few that neither of us had ever heard of before. Every shop has multiple security guards who greet you before you’re allowed to enter, and when we walked by the Cartier shop I smiled at the man standing in the doorway, but I’m pretty sure he could tell that I couldn’t even afford to look at anything they were selling so he simply told us, “Get the hell out of here, peasants.”

When you get to the front entrance of the casino you are once again reminded of the disgusting amount of wealth that gathers there at any given time. Vintage race cars that cost more than most houses. Suits and dresses that cost more than any car I’ve ever owned. Watches and jewelry that could wipe out my student debt. I was afraid to step on the grass the wrong way for fear of racking up a triple-digit bill. After you get past the security checkpoint you are greeted by ceilings that seem to go on forever, covered in paintings and gold and other precious metals that make you realize you are walking inside of an art history museum that just so happens to house the world’s most famous casino. So what are two broke 20-somethings to do? Play the slots, of course! (Only because there’s a 70€ cover charge to get into the room with the real gamblers; The penny slots are free to play.)

Neither of us won anything (we both lost 5€) but it was still one of the most memorable parts of the trip. However, we were getting tired of being surrounded by people who had more cash in their pockets than we’d ever seen in our lives, so we decided to go in search of something cheap to eat. We didn’t find anything (a bottle of water was $5) but we did get a chance to walk the streets that the Grand Prix races through, and because one of the events had been only a few days earlier I was able to grab some of the red tape that surrounds the out-of-bounds area. It was nice to imagine what it was like to be someone in the crowd or someone on a yacht as million dollar sports cars race around the harbor on the streets above. You wonder how (and why) anyone ever gets to that place in life. Eventually we made our way back to the Villa to relax before heading out again to climb the staircase that leads to Nice’s Castle Hill.

56474FF0-6486-4EB9-A9E8-DF79EA40C716Hiking up the staircase takes at least 20 minutes, and with the elevator out of order we had no other choice. But the walk was worth it: You get a near 360° view of the city and Riviera, making you feel as if you’re on top of the world. You feel like you’re an army general from the 1800’s looking out onto the sea to anticipate any impending pirate ships coming to attack. But I had a baguette in my hand instead of a telescope, so the daydreaming stopped there. The trail continues up into the connecting park, which I followed for at least another 20 minutes to find a hilltop, man-made waterfall that you can see all the way from the shoreline of the beach. It was still warm at that point in the day so the mist that cascades off of it felt as refreshing as anything. It was like you had serendipitously stumbled upon some sort of tropical oasis. But even further beyond that you climb to the very top of the park which gives you a dizzying view of the sea and country. I spent a lot of time trying to get some panoramic shots with my camera, but eventually got tired of accidentally photobombing all the selfies being taken by tourists alongside me, so I walked to the level below, parked myself on a bench, retrieved a mini-bottle of wine from my backpack and enjoyed a drink on top of the world. There was also a delightful tree that felt as if it had mystical capabilities standing beside me. I almost shared a bit of my wine and poured some into the soil.

IMG_3850Yet after one sip the Castle Park police waved me down and informed me that at 8 o’clock the park closes. So I found myself in a group of about 15 other tourists who were just as confused as I was about how to get out of the park. We were also joined by one very happy-go-lucky French woman who was dividing her time between walking down the hills of the park and the sandwich in her hand. I wondered how many times she’d made this walk. We found ourselves practically on the complete opposite side of Nice, with endless views of the Old Town district. So many of the houses had rooftop yards and gardens and I never wanted to leave. Along the way down I stopped and picked a few more wildflowers for the road.

IMG_3852After about an hour of wandering I made my way back to the Villa where Harman and I were greeted by Max from Finland and Merih from Turkey who invited us out for a drink. We were in France but found ourselves in an English pub for the night, sitting in a red-velvet booth at a round table’s worth of German beer. A Finn, two Americans, two Swedes (who Max brought with him), and a Turk. These were the nights that you desperately wished for when traveling, whether domestic or abroad, whether solo or with a group. Nights full of sights, sounds, and soulful experiences, alongside new friends – even if you know you’ll never see them again. Harman and I were already almost a third of the way finished with our trip. The next day we’d arrive in Italy but neither of us could ignore the fact that our suspended reality was quickly beginning to fall back down to earth.

I still never wanted to go back East; Any progress forward was seen simply as approaching the inevitable. But in a few weeks we’d be in Switzerland and Harman would be heading back home, leaving me with a week alone in Europe. The options were endless: Maybe I’d swing up to London. Maybe I’d take a bus to Salzburg. Maybe I’d stop and visit my friend in Essen, near Cologne. I am at the age in which I want to start living my life for me; Making decisions that will follow me for a long time and hopefully direct me down the right path. I was trying to embrace the choices that move our stories forward, never backward. I wanted to know how my story would end, but I needed to be the one to write it, myself.

Baguettes, Beignets, and the French Police

The next morning we both woke up in much better moods than the ones we went to bed in. We actually got some rest and were eager to get back out on the road and continue our journey, that day making our way to Nice. We helped ourselves to the Vertigo’s breakfast, careful to prepare our palettes for a wave of warm milk and cereal. I also noticed for the first time a literal sack of fresh baguettes sitting next to the table of jam, butter, and Nutella. I don’t know if it was proper etiquette to take an entire loaf for yourself, but there were at least two dozen in the bag, so I grabbed one and carried it off to our room like the Olympic torch. There was still a decent amount of packing to be done, but thankfully our friend Steve the German and the other random guest who was sleeping above him were gone, so when we opened our lockers and everything sprung out like a jack-in-the-box we were able to spread all of our stuff out for a quick and easy departure. We were very, very wrong.

To our surprise, there was something called “traffic” that morning in Marseille – and an impressive amount of it. Our bus was scheduled to leave at 9:45 and by 9:15 we still didn’t have a way of getting to the station, despite our many attempted (and failed) Uber driver requests. One driver actually accepted our request then, realizing how bad the traffic was, promptly messaged us the ‘shrugging’ emoji, and cancelled our ride. Panicking, we rushed to the front desk to find a solution. Turns out there is a Metro station just down the street in the city centre. So, with at least 30 lbs of gear on each of our backs, we began running (it was more like brisk waddling) to the train. Sweaty, anxious, and hungry for more beignets, we somehow managed to get back to the Marseille bus station with, quite literally, three minutes to spare. Settling into the last couple seats on the bus, we reminded ourselves that it would be about six hours until we got to Nice, which allowed us plenty of time to stare out the window and think about ordinary things far too deeply than we should have. Driving along the coast of Southern France, I realized that since flying into Barcelona a few days prior I hadn’t seen one cloud in the sky. I wondered if the rest of the trip would stay that way.

But the bus began to get a bit bumpy and my already messy handwriting took a turn for the worse (pun intended,) and I am having trouble now deciphering just exactly what it was that I wrote during the rest of the ride. So let’s just fast-forward to our arrival in Nice and our run-in with the French authorities.

IMG_3813The station in Nice is nothing more than a medium-sized parking lot with no clear direction as to where to go once you get there. We followed a group of fellow passengers through a tunnel that led to the platform. A tram car was already there and about to pull away, so we made a split-second decision to jump on board. But it was the wrong one, and just one stop later we got off and tried again. Now, despite the severe lack of public transportation options in the United States (outside of major cities,) we know that you need a ticket to ride. In Spain you couldn’t get into the train station without first buying a Metro pass. In Marseille it was the same way. So standing on the tram platform in Nice we were a bit skeptical because, for the life of us, we couldn’t find a ticket kiosk; We assumed you just paid on the tram itself. They made us pay, alright. When the next car arrived we hopped on and had only five stops between us and our hostel, but on the fourth a group of tram cops came on-board like the gestapo and began checking tickets. Harman and I did our best to act casually, never looking them in the eye and even doing our best to move to the back of the car. But with our giant backpacks we were a dead giveaway for tourists, and after pleading with the officer that we would happily pay – we just didn’t know where to do so – our passports were seized and we were escorted off the tram.

In Nice, the cops don’t carry guns or batons or tasers. They carry credit card readers. And after once again explaining our situation to the officer, detailing our intent to pay – rather, our excitement to be law-abiding citizens – he smiled at us and said, “Yes, I understand. Everything’s OK. But you each owe 60 euros.” Once the transactions went through, our passports were returned and we were given receipts as pseudo-tickets to use for the rest of the day. But instead of getting back on we just walked the rest of the way to the hostel. Welcome to Nice. However, I had a very difficult time remaining angry at what had just happened once we began walking away. Nice was startlingly elegant, a definitive vacation destination, full of beautiful architecture, monuments, and people. We each just got robbed of seventy dollars, but I couldn’t wipe a smile off of my face. I came to believe that nobody could be angry in Nice. (Even if none of the French people would smile back at you.)

We booked our stay at the Villa Saint Exupéry, and both agreed that it was one of our absolute favorites over the course of the trip. Categorized as a beach hostel, the Villa is located right by Place Masséna and is only about a fifteen minute walk to the beach. It was one of the cleanest, most-welcoming hostels we stayed in, with a full bar that served very reasonably priced drinks and three stories of bright, airy rooms, albeit with bathrooms that still had no soap. The coffee was even free after 10:00 a.m., too (before that time it is sold for 1€/cup, but it’s not even worth that price.) Yet Harman and I were both more interested in getting out to actually see the city, so we we quickly washed up, and were ready to parole the streets of Nice. We wove in and out an endless network of side streets and alleyways, packed with restaurants, food carts, and shops, stuffed with tourists, pissed-off locals, and quite a few dogs prancing around. Hungry and exhausted, we stopped into a café. And let me tell you – our lives were changed forever.

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Boulangerie Jeannot is about five minutes from the beach, and ten from the Villa. From the street it looks like any other pastry shop you might come across. But the line out the door will tell you otherwise: This is the spot that even locals are fighting to get into. The shop itself is narrow and only about thirty feet long, with a bakery case filled with sandwiches, quiche, flatbreads, cakes, macrons, strudel, cookies, crémes, and any other confectionary you could imagine. Harman and I were both so overwhelmed that we just stood in line (in the way, actually) while dozens of people floated around the speechless American tourists. When we finally got to the register, I motioned for a campagne loaf behind the counter while attempting to mutter, “Une baguette, merci,” under my breath. Harman scoped out the mini-chocolate beignets and ordered a handful. The bread was delicious – fluffy, yet it crunched with every bite. It was buttery and salty, with the perfect sourdough signature. I was in heaven. Then Harman turned to me and said, “Dan. Try this. Now.”

Remember the beignets I mentioned from Marseille? How delicious and soft and decadent they were? Yeah, those are like Little Debbies compared to the beignets from Jeannot. These were still filled with Nutella and as light as a feather, but along with the wafer-thin glaze that surrounded each glob, they were also dusted with powdered sugar. I took one bite and immediately said, “I’m sorry, I need the other half,” and wolfed it down. The trip could have ended right then and there and we’d have been content. I could have died at that very moment, looking the Universe in the eye and saying, “ I had a decent run. Those beignets were totally worth it though. Thanks for that, at least.” But instead, we vowed to return the following morning and we made our way to the beach.

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Everything was blue. The water. The umbrellas. The sky. The bathing suits. There were dozens of people just lounging with books and enjoying the day. There was an old man sitting on the terrace that hangs over the beach staring out into the water, just writing and drawing in his notebook. I imagined I might be like him one day. There was the most picturesque cruiser bicycle I’d ever seen. Even another man who was sleeping on a bench in the shade seemed perfectly placed. Everyone was just coming and going, actually laughing and smiling with one another, each more beautiful than the last. Everything was so light and whimsical and happy. This place can’t be real, I thought. I once again began to question everything that I was seeing with my own eyes, the reality that I had found, and why the hell anyone would ever leave this place. But could things always be this way here?

IMG_7540Harman found a spot in the shade and I made my way onto the beach. It was crowded but the water was empty, so I found a spot and dumped my shirt and shoes, and walked proudly into the water. There was a reason the water was so empty: It was frigid. But I kept walking in further and further. For a while I just waded in the water, at one point finding myself about a hundred feet from the beach. Eventually my body temperature normalized and brain function returned: I was swimming in the French Riviera. I whispered it to myself about a dozen times and was surprised that my mouth could even make such a sound. I wasn’t just standing with my feet in the water, I was floating in the blue green waves of France. Forget jumping off the cliffs in Marseille; I could have drifted out to sea right then and there. At that moment I was happy that I was the only one in the water. I wanted that moment entirely to myself.

IMG_7537After about twenty minutes of contemplating the option of floating out to sea (given that I was already rather buoyant given the entire baguette in my stomach) I decided that it was, in fact, too damn cold. Getting back on land the first thing I realized was that the beach didn’t consist of sand, but rather was an assortment of sharp rocks and lumpy pebbles, and when I finally reached the sidewalk I was met with molten pavement. I then missed the icy water. After laying out for a bit next to Harman, we eventually decided it might be time to get back to the hostel. We’d had a long day and the bar sold whole bottles of wine for only 6€, so we shared a couple. It was a night for reflection. We were in Nice! I had never seen a more beautiful place in my life. After the wine we ended up walking around a bit longer, I found a late-nite café, and we watched a drunk man fall twenty feet down onto the rocky beach while a group of French teenagers screamed at us (in French) to call for help, despite the fact that neither of us understood a word they were saying. There was also a beach bonfire happening at the same time, a bunch of friends laughing and drinking and celebrating under the stars as the water patiently crept ashore. When we returned to the Villa again, we formally introduced ourselves to our roommates, both of which we’d get drinks with the next night. And in just about 36 hours we would be in Italy.

The trip was moving much quicker than either of us had planned for up to that point. We were in France, but it felt like we were in Spain. And a few days later when we arrived in Italy, for a moment it felt like we were back in France. Your mind is always a few days behind your body when traveling. Fatigue was no longer the issue: It was full travel anxiety. And in less than 72 hours, we’d be reminded of the lesson of letting go, once again. At this point in the night, however, I realize that I started to repeat myself quite a bit in my Moleskine and began to ramble on about The Stranger, written by French philosopher Albert Camus. So I’ll spare all of us those dramatics.

I’ll fast forward to Harman and I retreating to our room, chatting for a bit with roomies Max and Merih, passing out rather suddenly, and waking up to a spontaneous day-trip to Monaco to gamble at the Monte Carlo casino.

Limes, Churros, and Topless Beaches

The morning was a foggy, lucid mess. I felt like my entire body was vibrating. And I guess it was a good thing I didn’t see Anouk again because I hadn’t changed my clothes from the night before. But I was pleasantly surprised by a lack of wrinkles, so I was able to at least confidently – not necessarily coherently – roll out of bed in record time. Breakfast was as good as any free breakfast could be, but the coffee was instant and apparently they don’t always feel the need to refrigerate milk in France, so imagine our faces when we both took our first overly-excited bites of warm Cocoa Krispies. When Harman and I finally made our way out the door by about eleven o’clock, our first destination was the Three Brothers Bakery for a proper pastry filled start to our day. We sat on the curb and dined on a loaf of campagne bread and more beignets. It was delicious.

Now, being a relatively inexperienced traveler, I pride myself with not falling victim to the usual tourist traps, countless of which you walk past the moment you enter the heart of the city: Expensive trips or guided tours, fast-talking pickpockets that ambush you out of nowhere, and the endless souvenir shops that make you forget that you’re there to experience the culture of a foreign country and not sink all of your savings into cheap trinkets or tchotchkes or keychains. But dammit, the soap in France smelled remarkable, so I bought a few bars to use for the remainder of the trip. I recommend the ‘cotton’ scented bars from the little fishing boat docked in the port, named Lefada Marseille.

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Soon we began to roam outside the main stretch of tourists and restaurants, stumbling our way into what we figured what the more ‘historic’ part of town; A stretch of storefronts and roadways that were some of the most colorful and architecturally beautiful we’d see on the trip. Of course, many of those old buildings are occupied by modern retailers and thrift stores and pharmacies and salons. But it was nice to imagine what it would have been like to shop here just a few decades ago, if not even further back. As we got further into Marseille and all but lost the smell of sea water, Harman and I came across a multi-block-long outdoor market full of vendors selling everything from vintage Levis and Zippo lighters, to dusty books and jewelry, alongside a remarkable amount of absolute junk, not unlike that of which you may find at any garage sale in your hometown. Although neither of us sprung for the 5€ antique postcards, it was still interesting to be picking through the past lives of a bunch of French strangers. Turns out that they, too, hold the very-human inclination to hoard old toys and cassettes and shoes just like anybody else. I also came to realize that the French will only smile at you if they have a chance to take your money, and even then there’s no guarantee. A polite bonjour to a total stranger is most often met with a supreme look of disgust that screams, “Who gave you the right to say hello to me!?” While in Milan, a French roommate of ours would confirm my theory that nobody smiles in France (and hardly anywhere in Europe, for that matter) because, to quote her directly, “We’re all assholes.”

It was sweltering again and we both had conveniently run out of water at the same time. Straying off even further away from the city centre, we became a bit lost. Mapping it out, we found that the nearest grocery store was only a few kilometers away – nothing we couldn’t handle on normal occasions. But in 90 degree weather we were beginning to have our doubts. Scattered all around the city are those Lime brand electric scooters. Harman had used them a few times on the trip so far and daily when back home on campus. I never used them and wanted to give it a shot, but have a terrifying fear of embarrassing myself at any given time. Call it a character flaw. But it was unbearably hot at that point with the sun aimed directly above our sweating heads. Within minutes of downloading the app we were both up and scootering through the streets of Marseille at speeds of up to 20 km/hr – and I don’t think I ever had so much raw, unadulterated fun in my life, even though we were both nearly hit by at least a dozen cars on those impressively narrow cobblestone roads. It wouldn’t be such a bad way to go out, I reasoned: Zipping through the streets of France with my best friend and not a care in the world. Plus, there was plenty of wine and fresh baguette close by if we happened to get flattened like a crepe; A worthy last meal. And what is life without a bit of recklessness? (Boring, that’s what.) We spent at least 45 minutes just rolling along, not necessarily going anywhere at all, just seeing the city in an entirely new way.

 

Eventually we resupplied our water, got a few snacks, and headed back to the hostel to escape the sun for a bit. I was still in shock that I watched the sunrise over the city just a few hours beforehand, and even more surprised that I was functioning as well as I was with only a few hours of sleep. I could feel the first twinges of paranoia and psychopathy that accompany a severe lack of rest creeping up on me in the back of my mind. My head felt heavy yet empty. It was only a matter of time before my body began to cruise on auto-pilot, if it hadn’t already been doing so the entire morning. But a little crippling exhaustion wasn’t going to stop us anytime soon. We headed back out the door only about twenty minutes later, found two more Limes, and began scootering our way to the French Riviera.

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It was summertime in Marseille. How pretty does that sentence look, let alone sound when said out loud? The air was washed out and hazy, like photos from an old roll of 35mm film. But the beach just outside the city centre of Marseille is actually rather small. It was crowded and surrounded by your usual array of restaurants and hotels and heavy traffic, simultaneously being swarmed by waves of families and small children. The sand was rocky and unfortunately had a decent amount of trash and debris; A gallon-sized Ziplock bag actually floated to the shore and wrapped around my foot in the process. The water was also entirely too cold to swim in, despite the fact that I didn’t even have my swim trunks with me. But I still dove my hand underneath the water and grabbed a handful of sand and rocks, and pushed them around the palm of my hand.

Just off the edge of the beach was a sun bleached concrete stairway which led to a lookout point that reached out into the water, so I figured if I wasn’t going to swim in the Mediterranean I might as well get a better look at it. Hooking around the coast was a series of playfully colored buildings and apartments that stretched into the water, as well. I could hardly believe that I was standing on the shores of the French Riviera, let alone imagine what it would be like to live here and wake up to the water everyday. It’s one of those places you hear about in movies, a location that only the likes of James Bond ever gets to see. I wrote in my Moleskine over the course of those few days in Marseille that I was beginning to have a hard time determining what was staged and scripted at this point in my life. A few weeks later in my trip, someone would tell me that whatever I saw in-front of my eyes could, in fact, be my reality. It came to mind once again that sometimes life could be as simple as buy the ticket, take the ride. I was certainly proud of myself, that day, to be standing in the sand in Marseille.

Adjacent to the lookout point was a breakwater constructed of giant boulders that offered a perfect way to sit and tan and just take in the view. Harman and I carefully crossed the network of stones, stepping over the crevices that would have easily swallowed a cell phone or small child, and sat down. It was also the point in which we realized we were at a topless beach, and the woman just about fifteen feet from us was making perfect use of it. Squinting back into the crowded beach, now about 100 yards away, we noticed she wasn’t the only one, either. We didn’t see any signs and wondered if every beach is like this in France. But even if it wasn’t ‘officially’ declared as such, it was interesting to see just how casual nudity (and I guess sexuality, although the two aren’t always the same thing) could be in another country. In this case, there was no fear of what someone might say or think; Here, there was nothing taboo about being a human who was enjoying the sun and city. Male or female. I now appreciated that, “Who gave you the right to say hello to me!?” look a bit more. Everybody is just living their life the way they would like to, no need to intrude or question or stare. As long as it’s not harming you, for lack of a more eloquent way of saying this, who gives a shit?

IMG_20190602_184204After staring directly into the sun for what felt like a few hours, we both began to feel the effects of four days of travel washing over us. But we also felt a wave of hunger beginning to grow, so we hopped off those rocks and headed back to the city centre. It should be noted that on our way off of the beach I swung by a delightful churro cart aptly named 12 Churros (I couldn’t find a web page for them, unfortunately,) in which you got – wait for it – 12 churros for only 4€. I was partly hallucinating at that point in the day, but watching the man behind the counter drop the fresh batter into the pool of bubbling oil then coat the newly fried dough in at least an entire cup of sugar was nothing short of a religious experience. I couldn’t have picked a better first dinner. We walked back to the city instead of Lime-ing to account for the churros in our hands, and only exhausted ourselves more. It was about 7 o’clock at this point (I think so, at least) and our brisk, naïve, first-time traveler walking pace had slowed to a crawl. “What do you want to eat? I’m good for anything,” one of us would say. “I’m down for whatever,” the other would lazily offer back. And so we spoke ourselves in circles for at least another hour before finally settling on an Indian restaurant near the Vertigo. We both ordered the chicken tikka masala and both agreed that Harman’s mother’s rendition of the dish was far superior. We each threw our 15€ down on the table and slumped back to the hostel.

We were absolutely depleted. We left for Nice the next morning and both still needed to pack. I didn’t even entertain the thought of lingering in the courtyard or common area that night. Sometimes you just needed rest. Instead, I chose to write a bit before my eyes sealed shut. Travel fatigue had finally set in. I began to feel unusually panicked, worrying about anything and everything that flooded into my mind. Money, jobs back home, women who most definitely weren’t thinking this much about me. I didn’t know why I felt that way – I was with my best friend in France. I had no reason to feel that way. But it was like a veil was being lifted, or rather, pulled over my eyes. Was anxiety the fabled truth teller or the joker in our hands? I couldn’t tell the difference at that point. Much like ‘drunk thoughts,’ late-night feelings are simply a disguise for the truth, too. Your mind can’t be trusted when it hasn’t been properly taken care of. At this point I stopped writing and willed myself into bed and was attempting to will myself to sleep. But I couldn’t shake those images from my head that I didn’t want to see; The life I was desperately trying to leave behind instead of the life I was aching to find. I felt alone for the first time in the trip, an energy that would find me more often than I thought possible over the coming weeks.

I already realized that you couldn’t run away from yourself, but that didn’t stop me from trying. I didn’t know who I was or what I was trying to become. I didn’t want anything to do with the version of myself that I had fled back in Ohio. I never wanted to go back. I was excited to find who I was supposed to be, or at least take the first few steps on my new path. The thought of trudging to the airport in Paris in only a few weeks terrified me; The fact that Harman would be flying back in two weeks (one week earlier than me) – and the trip that we’d spent months planning would be coming to an end – didn’t feel real. I loved the Frenchness of the Vertigo and our specific room: The lighting, the chair, the desk. I loved that desk. I didn’t want to leave that place, to leave Marseille, or roam any other streets. But the next day we’d be in Nice, and in only a few more, Cinque Terre of Italy.

Sometimes you have to kill the part of yourself that you don’t want to carry anymore. This isn’t always the solution, but there are moments when you just have to tell yourself I’m not going to feel like this anymore – and that’s that. To face yourself truthfully and authentically; To ask yourself if your future is worth more than your past.

We still had a lot of trip left. And I would be damned if I didn’t make the most of it.

The Night I Snuck Into the Notre Dame de la Garde, Part 3

The streets of Marseille are as quiet as any after midnight. The air was thin and cool. The streets that led to the cathedral were lined with Renault cars and Vespa scooters and a surprising amount of Harley Davidson motorcycles, all crammed onto the sidewalks or wherever their owners could park them. Anouk led the way at a pace that made me think she’d forgotten she wasn’t alone. She seemed to bounce with every step, walking on her toes, carefree in a world just waiting to be explored. There was an energy about her that I would have followed anywhere. But the Notre Dame was only about a fifteen minute walk from the hostel, with the final push of the journey coming in the form of a road so steep I was convinced it had an incline of at least 102°. Like some sort of pilgrimage, it may have led directly to the cathedral, but it was so endless in it’s assault on your calf and thigh muscles that it could make even the most devout of priests resign themselves to the bottom of the road with a bottle of communion wine, vowing to try again tomorrow while secretly praying that one of those precariously parked BMWs would accidentally be relieved of its parking brake and would come speeding down the cobblestones, accidentally relieving the priest of their obligation to walk up the damn thing the next day.

Anouk wasn’t short of breath once during the entire trek. I, on the other hand, thought I was dying. And when we finally reached the end of that road, having climbed all the way to the top of that hill, we were greeted by a set of at least one hundred similarly inclined stairs that would bring us to the side gate of the Basilique. Thank god she was walking at a considerable pace ahead of me out of conversation distance. I wouldn’t have been able to muster more than a few pathetic gasps for air before sliding back down the road to join the priest at the bottom. When we finally ascended the stairs – which were those extra wide, oddly spaced ones that don’t allow for any sort of rhythm when making your descent – I leaned hard against the wrought iron fence and thought to myself that, if god is real after all, he’s got one hell of a sense of humor.

Anouk was already scaling the ten-foot-high fence that surround the side entrance of the Notre Dame. She took off her jacket so she could swing her body over to the other side without having to worry about the extra fabric getting caught on the spikes at the top. She waived me up and I waived her cute little Dutch butt right back down. “C’mon, it’s not that high up!” she argued. “And it’s not that far down,” I retorted. She relented and came shimmying to the ground. I handed her the jacket that she wedged in-between the spaces of the fence that she had been using as steps, and she told me there was another way in. Around the immediate perimeter of the cathedral is a small mess of trees and shrubs, laced with single dirt path that runs like an artery around the entire structure. The building was originally an old Medieval church but in the 1800’s was remodeled into the cathedral we have today, carved literally on-top of and into the side of hill. We followed that little dirt path all the way around. Thankfully there wasn’t another sky-high fence to keep angsty travelers at bay; It was a stone wall no higher than my stomach and we both swung our legs over to the other side.

From the ground the Notre Dame is a mirage in the far-off landscape, something that you can squint and stare at and only fantasize about. From that far away it is nearly impossible to appreciate its sheer magnitude. Over a hundred years ago people had to climb all the way to the top of that hill and build it in the first place. There was an energy in the bedrock and limestone, and in every one of those trees and shrubs. Now, sometimes things can be even more inspiring if you get close enough. But other times things can be a bit disappointing when face to face. That grand, ornate, gold statue that stood on top of the entire church – while a massive engineering feat – was surprisingly human. And without the collective drones of tourists from daytime tours or churchgoers during a service, it was all very still. Empty churches are always so still.

I wish I could say, ‘I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it all and fell to my knees at its footsteps,’ or something like that. But I was still practically catching my breath from the climb up. And because it was so dark, save for the handful of strategically placed spotlights, the whole structure was more difficult to admire even though I put my hands on it. I was also a bit distracted. So I just snapped a quick picture and went over to where Anouk had found a place to sit. If I ever make it back to Marseille I’d love to give it the attention it deserved. But at that moment there was something else I wanted to give my attention to.

We sat there for a bit, in the shadow of the Notre Dame de la Garde (which had a surprising lack of security, I mind you), staring out into the Mediterranean Sea that reflected the soft orange glow of Marseille after midnight. Paired with the unbelievable view of the stars draped above us that comes with sitting nearly 500 feet in the sky, it was all very romantic. We had the entire place to ourselves, the entire city to ourselves. We didn’t say a lot – in fact I don’t remember us saying anything at all. But after awhile we hopped back over that low wall and followed the dirt path that led to a small rocky outcrop which offers a 180° view of the entire city and all that surrounded it. We spoke about things like what we wanted to do with our lives and what we planned on after we left Marseille. I’d be heading back East in only a few weeks and was trying to make it as a writer. Her next stop might be the States, or maybe working on some sort of ship to see the ocean for awhile, or something completely different. That same carefree bounce in her steps followed every word she spoke. I told her I really admired that, and we spoke about the frequency (and normalcy) at which Europeans put off university for years at a time in order to travel and get a better idea of the world we are all an equal part of. She was amazed that I had never left my country before.

The ground was so rocky that it was almost uncomfortable, but when she suggested we lay down and just look up at the stars I said that it sounded like an excellent idea. At this point it was roughly four or five o’clock in the morning and we were both, to put it lightly, freezing our asses off. Our bodies took turns shaking and shivering like kites in the wind. In spite of all of this, I was hoping that there might be some newfound spark between the two of us to keep us warm, given the circumstances: She was remarkably pretty, her small face coming together in sharp Dutch lines. I like to think of myself as more handsome than your average sonofabitch, and had cleaned up my beard earlier that day. We were in the hills of France watching the stars and waiting for the sunrise. And we had both been flirting with the idea of flirting with one another all night.

Now, for a moment, I want you to imagine a jet plane with two huge Dreamliner engines. Don’t worry, nobody is in it. Hell, nobody is even flying the damn thing. I don’t even know how it got up there in the first place. It’s just floating and drifting alone through the sky, minding its own business, when suddenly it takes a dive and crashes nose-first into the mouth of an active volcano, which subsequently spits it out into a mess of molten metal and tiny bags of complimentary snacks.

That’s when I kissed her. And she kissed me back, but only somewhat enthusiastically. Let’s just say it left a severely burnt taste in my mouth, not much unlike that of freshly charred airline peanuts. I apologized for making her uncomfortable, but she stopped me. “It’s OK. I just don’t know anything about you,” she offered almost regretfully. She was being honest, which I admired. Honest moments are hard to come by. “Well, you could,” I said with a hopeless smile, “What would you like to know about me?” But she said that I wasn’t allowed to ask that, however, because I would just be giving her the answers she was looking for, nothing that I volunteered myself. I laughed it off in an attempt to put out the fire, but she persisted, so I started rambling on and on about…well, I don’t really remember. But she laughed from time to time and was still radiating energy. That energy you feel from someone – the energy you recognize instinctively in your gut – is more important than anything.

At that point I was talking too much so I turned the spotlight on her. She began discussing grand philosophical ideas, why certain things happen in our lives but others don’t, and left me to ponder, “How can we tell if anything is real?” I said I didn’t really know, save for Descartes’ I think, therefore I am credo. I started to ramble about consciousness and reality and perspectives, and how it’s much easier than we think to fool ourselves into believing something that we want to. But, looking back on the moment, I don’t think she was talking about any of that stuff at all.

Soon the sun began to creep into the background, casting our shadows down the hillside in-front of us. We moved from the little garden area to the rear-most point of the Notre Dame, the parking lot that had similarly shallow stone walls. There were those little coin-operated telescopes but neither of us had any change. So we sat on the edge just waiting, occasionally making small talk, and waiting some more. Finally the sun fully emerged over the distant mountains and flooded Marseille with streams of gold and orange light. A few of the morning shift workers pulled into the lot but didn’t give us a second look. They’d probably watched this scene countless times before. Such a cliché, they’d mumble to themselves. But there is still truth to be found in these cliché moments! I’d shout back.

It was now just after six o’clock and we were both beginning to drift. I felt a slight nudge and realized Anouk had fallen asleep with her head resting on my right shoulder. I thought about her, and then about some of the women I knew back West. It’s strange, the memories that sneak into your mind when you’re trying to forget everything. I imagined who might be thinking about me, too, half the world away. I thought it would be nice. But, as Robert McKee once said, “All fine stories flux with the rhythm of life.” As the sun continued to rise over France, it had set on our evening together.

We walked back down that inexplicably long cobblestone road, thumping and laboring with each declining step. Anouk was still bouncing, it seamed, albeit a bit slower. My hands were in my pocket trying to stay warm. Back at the hostel I walked her to her room, but she was still a few paces ahead of me and I think she once again forgot she wasn’t alone. I waived goodnight and spit out some words, thanking her for sharing the night with me. She smiled but was silent as she walked through her door and closed it. I went back to the room Harman and I had just two halls over. I found him in a deep trance-like sleep, and for a moment was deeply jealous. I crawled into my top-bunk fully clothed and collapsed onto the squeaky mattress, still in disbelief that I just watched the sunrise over the city, let alone snuck into the cathedral grounds. And we were in freakin’ France! I reminded myself. How can any of this be real? This feeling would follow me for the next three weeks. But I wouldn’t see Anouk again. I didn’t ask for any form of social media or way of contacting her. I wonder if she had been real all along, either.

Anouk, if you are somehow reading this, I hope your travels since have been everything you hoped for. Oh, and please tell your friend I’m terribly sorry for still not remembering her name. It was lovely meeting you.

I eventually forced myself to sleep and when I woke up just three hours and thirty seven minutes later, Harman and I began our last day in Marseille by having a breakfast of baguette, cereal, coffee, and orange juice in the kitchen of the Vertigo. Thankfully, Rémi was nowhere to be found.

The Night I Snuck Into the Notre Dame de la Garde, Part 2

The Vertigo was surprisingly empty that early at night. Save for the front desk attendant we seemed to be the only ones there. The WiFi wasn’t reliable in our room and Harman needed to get some paperwork filled out online, so we relegated ourselves to the common area next to the kitchen. Nobody was cooking anything, either, save for a rat I saw scamper under the sink as soon as I turned the corner. All I wanted to do was thank Rémi for his work in Ratatouille. 

However, as someone who doesn’t quite know how to sit still, I quickly decided that while Harman was busy I’d go hangout in the courtyard with my Moleskine and bottle of wine in tow. Outside there was a small garage full of chairs and tables, but it, too, was vacant and airy and very, very French, so I sat down and began to write, sip after sip. But I quickly realized that I just wasn’t in the mood to form any sensible thoughts – even if I was the only one reading them – and that the wine the man behind the counter at the convenience store had recommended was actually, unfortunately, absolutely disgusting.

Instead of brooding alone in the empty garage I began to pace around the cobblestone courtyard. The sky was fantastically clear. I smiled knowing I was looking up at the starry night all the way from France. I took another few sips out of principle but decided to cork it, and I set it on the ground for anyone who came along and was more desperate for a drink than I was. I turned the corner to go back inside when I nearly collided with two women who simultaneously burst out laughing, mumbled something in another language in my general direction, and proceeded to walk passed me to go sit inside the garage which had just recently become vacant again.

If nothing else in life, I have to say that my timing nothing short of impeccable.

But rather than going back into the hostel or going to introduce myself (or to see how they’d both respond to the encore presentation of my brooding writer performance,) I just wandered the courtyard, back and forth, hoping that I’d either be struck by a stroke of inspiration or a stroke of lightning to finally put me out of my pathetic misery. Whichever came first. But before that could happen the two of them meandered back into the courtyard and up the staircase that led to the rear entrance of the Vertigo. It was dark and I could barely see the two at the top of the stairs, but one of them shouted through a smile, “What are you doing?” I said I actually had no clue and that I was basically just killing time. And before I could begin to question if we all are just killing time on some existential level – and before I could realize just how ridiculous I must have sounded – they both laughed again and went inside. I was really hoping that lightning would hit sometime soon.

A few minutes later I gave up all hope and wandered back to find Harman who was just getting ready to go upstairs to to bed. And who would you think just so happened to be coming downstairs at the exact same moment? Again, my timing is nothing short of impeccable. Both realizing that it was, in fact, I, the weird pacing guy from the courtyard standing at the bottom of the stairs, they decided to take pity on me and try again to start some sort of a conversation. One of them had long hair made up entirely of frizzy black coils. She told us her name, but I couldn’t understand it under the cloak of a foreign accent and felt awkward asking her to clarify it a thirty-seventh time, so I simply said “Nice to meet you.” The girl standing next to her, who looked undeniably Dutch with shoulder-length blond hair and gentle blue eyes, said her name was Anouk. My mind was able to decipher what she said just enough that I perked up, “That’s a very pretty name.” But she responded, “Actually, it’s pretty common in The Netherlands,” and I think I heard a rumble of thunderclouds beginning to form outside.

The friend with long black hair mentioned something about getting gelato and seeing the city at night. I said I still had no clue what I was doing but just smiled politely at both of them, not wanting to be the weird guy who tried to get himself invited, or worse, tried to invite himself. I figured my pacing the courtyard alone just moments before was odd enough. Then I noticed the cute Dutch girl with that innocent, airy laugh just so happened to be shifting her view from my eyes and lips to something on the floor every few seconds. She was clutching her left arm with her right hand, too. But we all just ended up stumbling through some sort of goodbye and they left, remaining silent as the door closed behind them. Oh well. Getting rejected when you could only partially understand what the other person was saying felt more like a misunderstanding than anything, so I followed Harman upstairs. But I quickly realized I wasn’t actually tired, just a bit unsure as to what I wanted to do with myself at 10 o’clock at night in France. Remember, I’m not very good at sitting still, and decided to go try and find some more wine – this time a bottle that didn’t taste like I was drinking a cocktail of grass and dirt.

One thing worth mentioning is the ease at which one could find themselves a bit lost in a city like Marseille, as well as many others in Europe. Away from the city centre, so many of the streets are nothing more than glorified passageways that all somehow connect to each other in a varying assortment of ‘one way’ postings and stop signs, barely wide enough for a car and scooter to be next to each other at one time. Turn down the incorrect street and before you know it you’re six blocks away in the opposite direction you were originally headed, dodging unpredictable traffic like our aspiring F1 Uber driver from earlier in the day. Most of the streets surrounding our hostel looked identical and bore no way of identifying just exactly where you were at any given time. Probably designed to deter tourists. As with any place, if given enough time you could at least make a sort-of mental map of your immediate area. (It also doesn’t hurt if, ya’ know, you actually speak the language.) But Harman and I had less than 48 hours in most of the cities we would visit, and I would come to discover that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to get lost every once in awhile.

I ended up navigating the city for about an hour, eventually coming across one of the only convenience stores open that late, and purchased one of those pint-sized bottles of a Cabernet-Shiraz blend. It wasn’t much better than the other one, but it was only 2 Euro so I really couldn’t complain. My steps were now a bit hazy, however, my mind was absolutely clear: I was wandering under the stars in the streets of France, with a bottle of wine and no definitive direction in which I needed to be going. All I needed was a baguette in my hand and my night could have ended there, and it would have been close to perfect.

At that point I had no clue what time it was but eventually decided that I should probably get back to the hostel and attempt to sleep. As I weaved my way back through the winding cobblestone roads and side streets, I emerged back at the city centre, just blocks from the front door of the Vertigo. As I made my way passed the bars, shops, and restaurants, I noticed two women were staring at me and smiling, sitting under the outdoor umbrella of what looked to be a very tasty gelato shop. I think I heard them giggle to themselves, too. Impeccable.

Anouk and the friend who I still didn’t know the name of waived me over, and after about twenty minutes of small-talk invited me to share some wine with them back at the Vertigo (boxed this time, and as refreshing as I could have hoped for.) Before I knew it, our group of three had grown to more than a dozen, mixed with fellow American, German, and Italian travelers. Everyone was friendly and sharing stories of their lives back home and their travels thus far. If I had been looking for any sign of life in the hostel that late at night, I had found it. The couches were comfortable and the coffee table was full of boxed sangria. We were all just happy to be there. I could have sat all night talking with the Americans from California about life on the West Coast, roaring with the Germans who had the most bellowing laughs I’d ever heard, and trying desperately to understand and impress the lovely Dutch woman who was sitting next to me.

At around midnight (give or take – who was actually keeping track of that sort of thing?) one of the Germans addressed the entire group, commanding almost, to figure out who among us had ever seen the Notre Dame de la Garde. I didn’t even know what it was. “That big cathedral on the top of the hill!” Anouk proudly contributed. The group had begun to whittle away, with Anouk’s friend sneaking off with one of the Americans and most of the Californians having gone to bed for their early departure come sunrise. But despite the loss in numbers, our group of six or so planned to make the late-night journey to the Basilique, which turned out to be not much further than a few winding, curving, and inclined cobblestone roads away. But after a combined near-twenty minutes of assorted bathroom and smoke breaks, and after realizing just how much sangria had actually been consumed, the entire group seemed to come to the consensus that it was time to go to bed. I nodded along even though I wasn’t really that tired, all things considered. But if the night had to end at some point, that wouldn’t have been the worst place to do so.

As the rest of the group began to make their way out into the courtyard and back to their rooms, Anouk asked me what I was doing for the rest of the night. It was late, obviously, but I refused to check my phone to see just what time it actually was. I also wanted to make sure I understood her this time, so I naïvely asked, “Who, me?” and batted my eyelashes. “Do you want to go see the Notre Dame with me?” She batted her lashes right back, those soft blue eyes making their way around like they did when we first introduced ourselves earlier in the night. She didn’t have to ask me twice.

The Night I Snuck Into the Notre Dame de la Garde, Part 1.

Getting off the bus outside the station in Marseille left us a bit dazed and confused. It was hot – much hotter than we had expected after sitting in the conditioned air of the bus for the previous eight hours, and even more so with 20-40 pounds of clothing hanging from our backs. Harman and I scrambled into the station in an attempt to find WiFi in order to call an Uber to our hostel. It was about 20 minutes away by car and neither of us felt like intentionally torturing ourselves in that heat. After relieving ourselves of the weight on our backs for approximately twenty-three seconds, Harman perked up, “Shit, he’s going to be here in two minutes!” We immediately threw our bags across our backs much faster than we should have, nearly snapping both of our spines into pieces. But we were in freakin’ France! And they have great healthcare in Europe.

We hustled and ran around almost the entire perimeter of the bus terminal just to get to the front of the station, which wasn’t much more than a modest driveway that could have been mistaken for a service entrance. And then we saw our black Mercedes sedan zoom right past us. “Well, shit” was our collective response, but thankfully the man behind the wheel – who we would later find out was something of an amateur F1 racer – turned around to pick up the clueless travelers who had no desire to take the scenic route. I had never driven around the streets of a foreign city before (save for the highways on the bus, but that wasn’t very exciting) but if you think you know aggressive, speedy driving, you haven’t seen anything until you’ve driven through France. I likened it to that old show Whose Line Is It Anyway? – where all the traffic laws are made up and the signs and pedestrians crossing the street simply don’t matter.

The driver also had an awful taste in music. (Sorry, Kelly Clarkson fans.)

We quickly arrived at our hostel in the heart of the city, Vertigo Vieux-Port. It was so well disguised by scaffolding and the surrounding shops that we almost called another Uber, but we eventually saw the sign on the window and buzzed our way in. Inside I realized that we had stumbled into some sort of dream. The walls were all brick and stone, the ceiling had ancient exposed wooden beams running throughout each room – the arteries of the entire building, and there was just a sense of openness about the entire place. The hostel was actually a combination of three separate buildings all connected by a slanted brick courtyard, decorated with a handful of potted plants and one perfectly placed Vespa.

Our room was spacious, all things considered, and was outfitted with nothing more than a desk, a chair, and a few lamps. I wanted to sit at that table forever with a never-ending supply of paper and pens and coffee, just to see what I had to say. The floorboards even creaked the way I hoped they would. We also were able to meet our first new roommate, a delightful German man who went by the name of Steve. We would later go on to speak to him about everything from the ease at which Europeans travel their own continent to American politics. It turns out, we learned, that most Europeans are more concerned and informed about the inner workings of Washington than most Americans are. It didn’t surprise us, but we acted like it did. Like many things in life, it was something that you don’t really like to think too hard about for fear of hearing an answer you don’t really want to know. Then Steve said, “Auf wiedersehen,” and left to be a tourist, himself.

Having washed up (as much as we could given the surprising lack of hand soap in our bathroom, let alone most bathrooms we used in France) and successfully stuffed our backpacks into the tiny lockers beside our beds, we made our way to the heart of Marseille which was only a few blocks away. You could faintly see the water from the front steps of the hostel, and we aimed ourselves directly to the left and navigated down that narrow cobblestone street. When we reached the end of the road we realized that not only were we right on the water, but we also were in the direct center of all the tourist attractions, shops, and restaurants. It was then that I realized I couldn’t give my heart entirely to Spain just yet. From my eye, there was so much to be seen and loved in Marseille.

But we were both growing more ravenous by the minute. I was convinced that any passers-by were whispering to themselves, “Look at those emaciated Americans. And I thought all they did was eat at buffets over there?!”

We found a nice Middle Eastern restaurant that was also conveniently located near one of the highest rated bakeries in the city, Boulangerie Les Trois Frères, so we both were able to dine like kings. I, a baguette; Harman, a chicken sandwich. And after those we shared in one of our trip’s greatest pleasures: Mini chocolate beignets. Just read that again and let it sink in. Tiny puffs of light-as-air dough, surgically injected with Nutella, and coated in a thin veneer of glaze and powdered sugar. We seriously considered ditching the rest of the trip and sinking all of our money into a lifetime supply of those little heavenly globs, but we decided against it. (And I’m glad we did, because the ones in Nice ended up tasting twice as good. But I’ll just let you fantasize about those before telling you about them anymore.)

After that we figured what better way to end our first night in France than to head over to the water and watch the sunset. As Harman so eloquently describes himself, he’s a “slut for sunset pictures,” so we headed to the historic Fort Saint-Jean at the edge of the port. We traced the perimeter of the old stone castle which was now parallel to the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations, an intimidating structure that, while a stark contrast to the ancient architecture of the rest of the city, is beautifully composed of glass and lattice steelwork that make it appear as if it had been dropped there accidentally.

The surrounding walls of the fort that surely once housed canons and other artillery equipment were now just giant windows in the stone, facing the sea. But because there were no actual canons still in use, travelers and locals alike were welcomed to climb on-top of the five or six foot tall structures and take a seat, perhaps with a bottle of wine or two, and simply enjoy the spoils of living on the French Riviera during the sunset. So that’s exactly what we did. Except we didn’t get the memo about the wine – that would have to wait until later.

At the risk of sounding like every other starving artist dying for attention, the sun that set that night over foreign water finally made me feel that I was in another world, one in which I was convinced I should have been born into. Small fishing boats would sail in and out of the harbor. More couples could be found flung into each other’s arms, despite sitting on those slanted stone embankments that could drop you straight down thirty feet into rocks and debris if you got too excited. There were families enjoying their time together, families not particularly enjoying their time together, runners and elderly walkers, and even a few people who sat facing the sunset with a notebook in hand doing their best to capture a seemingly once-in-a-lifetime experience. (Myself included.)

I’ve never understood how some people can say things like, “You can’t pick your home.” That never made any sense to me. You may not be able to control where or how or why you’re born in the first place, but why should that dictate where you truly feel comfortable, where you truly feel you belong? Circumstance is a tricky beast to conquer. But a view like this could convince anybody to sail off into the night over the edge of their known world, chasing lives they thought they were destined to find, searching for the treasure in the sand or the star in the sky. Just like all the people who are brave enough to jump off the cliff or board the ship, I, too, wanted to be lost, forever losing interest in the life I would come to know, always following the temptation of tomorrow. It was then that I asked god or whatever or whoever was up there to take me before I should have ever had to leave that place. I asked to be forgiven for loving so deeply those things I was never meant to have.

Then a group of teenagers directly across the harbor on the other side of the cliff took that leap of faith, their faint splashes and screams of joy pulling me from the trance that I found myself stuck in. How tired was I? I peered over the edge and wondered just how far down the water actually was, and if I could successfully and gracefully leap over the jagged rocks and debris and make a break for it swimming to that far-off shore, never to be bothered by student loans or Capital One again. I promised that I would send postcards. But I didn’t jump off the edge of the Fort Saint-Jean and I didn’t swim to some far off shore, and god or whatever or whoever is up there apparently isn’t ready for me just yet.

It was about eight or nine o’clock and even I had about had it with my own thoughts. Thank god or whatever that nobody could hear them except for me, or everyone around us would have wanted to leap from the side of the fort, too. And we were both beginning to freeze a particularly important part of our male anatomies off, as well. Harman would get some work done, I’d grab that bottle of wine on the way back to the Vertigo and try to make sense of the craziness that I had just spit into my Moleskine, and we’d both just spend the night relaxing in France. But this is not how the day ended. Because in only a few hours time I’d be convinced to sneak into the Notre-Dame de la Garde to watch the sunrise over the entire city of Marseille.

A Bus Ride Through Spain

The following morning was absolutely beautiful. The two block walk from the Be Dream to the train station was coated in sunlight and a bit of heat, but we were the only ones on the street at the time and were met with that strangely aloof feeling that only comes when wandering out into quiet streets before you’ve had enough coffee – or had the chance to think twice about getting some more rest. The thought of traveling to a new city and a new country made up for our unsurprising lack of sleep (the snoring French girl performed her swan song the night before.) But sitting on the train was like being in an entirely different world. It was packed from car to car, and Harman and I barely found seating for the hour-long ride. It was refreshing to be around so many people and so much energy that early in the day.

About thirty minutes into the train ride a woman in a beautiful red dress with flowing amber hair and a face that needed no makeup floated on board. She was on the other side of our car with her headphones in, camouflaged by a crowd of businessmen and businesswomen and teenagers catching the train home from a night out. She never looked up and we never made eye contact, but she was radiant and I decided that she was Barcelona. I think I fell in love right then and there. However, I knew that I’d fall in and out of love for the next three weeks with every new city and with a dozen more strangers who I’d never know the name of or ever see again. I was a hopelessly romantic fool in Europe, after all. If nothing else, I was at least looking forward to having some good stories to tell.

We eventually made it to the bus station and, after a small bit of first-time-traveler confusion, found our ride that we almost missed. Although being that far into the city centre, seeing the architecture and the street life and the world that was so alive already at eight o’clock in the morning…well, I don’t think I would have minded if we had to catch the next bus.

Word to the wise, if given the choice between a $35 FlixBus or a $100 train or flight, don’t let the price scare you: They have air-conditioning, give you a free checked bag, and provide outlets to charge your phone and a decent amount of free WiFi for the ride. It’s not luxury, but it’s enough to get you where you need to go. And that was what mattered.

Now for anyone who knows me (or wants to know me or doesn’t have the slightest clue as to who I am), you’d agree that I have a slightly severe obsession with the band Oasis, and particularly the song “Don’t Look Back In Anger” (there’s a live version of the song on YouTube that makes me cry every time.) And on the radio, which happened to be tuned to nothing but American and British music, what song would you believe crept in through the speakers? Harman and I were in the middle of a conversation when I – quite literally – said, “Stop. That’s ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ on the radio!” He smiled politely even though I was alone in my obsession. But I thought it was fitting and a very serendipitous way to continue our travels through Europe.

The notion of spending a few thousand dollars for a few weeks of sporadic, sometimes unclear romping through multiple foreign countries and cities inherently brings some level of anxiety. Because, like I mentioned earlier, I was still attempting to find a “real” job back home while also trying to figure out where the hell I’d be living, let alone who it was that I wanted to be when I got back. But the timing of the trip was perfect; When again would I be able to backpack through Europe with my best friend and without a care in the world? Things hadn’t necessarily been going my way back in the States for quite awhile. But I was young, good looking, and in Europe. I didn’t mind what I had to look back on, because all I had to do was focus on what was coming my way. Serendipity had a way of letting you know that maybe, just maybe, everything was going to be alright in the end, after all.

And at this point in the trip it happened to be a sign on the highway that read, “FRANCE: 141 KM,” so I slipped inside my seat and kept my eyes and mind fixed on the world that was passing by.

Leaving the congestion of Barcelona and the surrounding cities shoots you right through the hills and valleys and mountains of the Spanish countryside. Even from the slightly tinted and cloudy window of my bus seat, it all reminded me of a dream that I never had. At that point in the trip I became mad at myself for not trying harder to find wine over the last few days.

“FRANCE: 54 KM”

Then I thought about the fact that everything can be new to somebody, the same as everything could be the usual hum and drum to somebody else. I read once that living in Paris is not like visiting Paris, which always made me question the sanity of both the author and myself. (That doesn’t stop me from wanting to run off to a little studio flat and write the next great American novel on-sight, barely scraping by on nothing more than cheap coffee and baguettes. But I digress.) However, despite all of this, sometimes we just need to step out of our own comfort zones to find something that could light our souls on fire that we might not have known was even there in the first place. Traveling makes you fearless. I felt that only two days into our trip and I was ready for anything that was to come next.

As we approached the French/ Spanish border I distinctly remember a lone, starkly bent, almost jagged tree along the side of the highway. Like a sculpture it rose from the dirt and blacktop. It was beautiful, too. Everything in Spain was beautiful, I determined.

“FRANCE: 6 KM”

Finally having made it across the border I was overwhelmed with the red and yellow wildflowers that ran along the side of the highways and fields and dirt roads, alike. Everything was yellow and bright and like something out of your favorite painting.  At some point our bus made a pit-stop at some gas station and there were still heaps of those flowers sprouting up, even there. They smelled (and still do weeks after picking them) seductively sweet and horribly bitter at the same time. I wondered if that was a sign as to what to expect of France. But I shook it off and grabbed a handful, stowing them between the pages of my Moleskine. I then got back on the bus where Harman and I shared an afternoon meal of Swiss Chocolate, French designer lollipops, and more water.

Our bus had another stop a few hours later in a small town that I determined was used as nothing but a chance to make sure you were going in the right direction. But there was a bakery and I had a delicious baguette, and there was a small park about a block away that had more wildflowers popping up all over, this time with blues and purples to match the reds and yellows. So I grabbed some of those as well and stuffed then between my pages right alongside the others.

I ended up writing more and more about those flowers and the countryside by which we floated by in our FlixBus. It was a mixture of naïvety and hallucination, given my remarkable lack of sleep over the course of the previous few days. It wasn’t my best work and I laugh now even just reading it back to myself. They were foolish words attempting to sound much more intelligent and original than they actually were. I wrote things that were ridiculous even by my standards, like, “This is a dream inside of a black & white world” and “The flowers are as delicate and fragile as I’ve ever held but as beautiful as anyone or anything I’d ever seen.” I really just needed some sleep. We then arrived in Marseille, the remarkably picturesque port town that felt as if it was trapped in time in the south of France. It was filled with shops and life and more sailboats than I had ever seen in one place at any given time. I felt like a tourist and wanted to see it all, wishing to sail out into the sea just to see where I washed up.

I was thinking like a crazy person and writing like a fool. But I already knew that I was a fool who was quickly falling in love with France.