O Mio Babbino Caro

As I created the title for this post, I realized how close we were to ending yet another month. Seems like not too long ago that I was changing from March entries to April, and now this month has come to a close. I will end this lovely fourth month with a nice, spur of the moment trip to Cinque Terre, Italy, and with my first day (or three hours) in Italy coming to a close, I must say how ecstatic I am to be here.

Informing my mother and sister of my plans to travel to Italy solo one morning in an internet café was something I debated with. Should I tell them? Should I lie and say I’m going with friends? I knew the worries that would arise and I knew the potential of intercontinental fights that might be had over email, but I risked it – because as much as I deny the fact that every young American female tourist is at risk for a terrible occurrence like human sex trafficking, I understand that I am not invincible, and if something were to happen, it’d be real nice for my family to know which country I was in. So I risked it. The email was titled “Italy” and I informed them of my plans: the dates and the many methods of transportation I would take through many towns. I got back, “Are you going alone?” first from my mother, and “Have fun, I’m jealous!” from my sister. To my mother’s dismay, I responded with “Yes,” and immediately received a hasty and simple, “OMG.” Soon, my inbox was full of emails from mother and sister, informing me that my plans to travel solo were, among other things, stupid and that I should “reconsider my plans.” I also got excerpts forwarded to me from my dear mother about  travel in the “post-911 world,” whatever that means. Do you know how many “post-whatever” worlds we live in? I say, take a risk. The man who wrote this ridiculous article warning American tourists (and only American tourists, egomaniac that he is), called himself a “fear monger,” and then tried to justify his position. I didn’t let him finish, though, I’m afraid. Because anyone who writes about travel in a “post-911” world is a “fear monger,” and also anyone who calls himself a [any noun] monger is a douche bag.

So I wrote my mother back an email while I stood on a street corner in Prague, stealing Wifi from some café. I was typing quickly on my iPhone, and as I responded to a line like, “A young pretty girl can’t travel in Europe,” I thought about how I was standing on a street corner in Prague, and about how I’d walked around all day, getting lost in little alleys and finding myself in park after park to stick my nose in my book (Eat, Pray, Love, wonderful for women, wonderful for travelers) – and all of this, I did alone. Little, young, naïve, American me. How risky.

The truth is, nobody gives a damn about tourists. The most I’ve seen anyone react when they realize (or instantly recognize, rather) that I’m an American is with blatant annoyance. And in Prague, there is an actual district that houses expatriates. Many have lived here for years, and many are new, like me. And we are all basically ignored (often at gelato stands, where I am cut in front of EVERY time, never a “dobry den” extended my way).

As I made these plans to visit Italy, I was being encouraged and praised by a friend who had done it herself – solo. I was on a high of travel planning. When I got fearful emails from family members, my high went down a few notches, mostly because I was frustrated (but understanding!) with their reactions. I moved on after my email explanations and thought nothing more of it. Maybe they don’t think I can do it, but I know I can!

And then something kind of funny happened. I got locked in my bedroom (or my temporary bedroom at my friend Katy’s – thanks Maeve). When I meant to stumble into the kitchen at the crack of 11 for some instant coffee, my door wouldn’t give. No matter what I did to this knob and its skeleton key hole, nothing was happening. I informed the girls of the situation, which resulted in pushing and pulling from both sides, but it just wasn’t happening. Irrelevant details of landlords and ladders, blah, blah, blah, and 2 hours later, I’m at an internet café, constructing a very detailed itinerary of my trip to Italy, and fear starts to set in. Wait – am I taking a bus or a train to Brno? You dork! You don’t even know what kind of ticket you bought? Maybe you shouldn’t be traveling alone. Instead of listening to the “beat yourself up” voice, though, I just started planning the crap out of this trip. Take this metro to this stop, walk across the street and to the left 200 meters to the train station, also known as “hlvani nadrazi,” and load the bus by 8:10 am. After a few hours and some more book readin’, I was packing my bag and thinking, Am I really doing this?! It was too late though. I would do this, and I would like it!

The Trip

My alarm was set for 6 am, but my completely numb arm woke me up at 5:57. I was sleeping on two different pieces of furniture: a chair and a bed. Katy had so kindly let me push the chair to the end of her bed so that I could extend my feet (the last time all roommates were occupying the apartment, I pushed two chairs together. It was alright, but I never got to stretch out, and I had a sore back and neck the next morning.). Everything was fine, until my arm fell asleep. Oh well. I took the first hot shower that I’d had in a week, and I was so happy to be under a steaming faucet that I actually found myself singing in the shower at 6 am. Not even a real song – just humming a happy tune (which means the happiness is of the most sincerest form). I was out of the apartment by 7, last-minute morning packing finished and all.

On the cobblestone sidewalks with my green rolling suitcase, I only thought about a few things, on repeat: how annoying the sound was of my suitcase on cobblestone (and how to type it out – I decided it was impossible, but just for kicks and giggles it’s something like ppddrrppddrppddrrppddrrppddrr), how I really wanted a croissant (or something) and coffee, and how I was actually traveling alone to Italy and was I stupid for this decision? I made it to the bus station a good hour before my bus was scheduled to depart. There I happily grabbed what I knew would be my last meal in Prague for a week, and settled down with that and my book. There was a crazy guy walking around talking to himself, and I remember thinking, Yep, sometimes ya just gotta deal with the crazies. And then he sat down by me.

There’s this custom in the Czech Republic in which people stare at each other. Did you know about that one? Yeah, apparently we Americans are easily recognizable with our “confident walks,” (the generalization is that we walk with our heads held high), but when it comes to eye contact, the Czechs take the cake. You can literally feel someone’s burning gaze on your skin, and even if you give them a look like, “Hey! I see you! Stop!” they hold eye contact. It’s happened to me and a few friends on the metros and buses, and it is mighty uncomfortable. You just kinda have to realize, or maybe convince yourself falsely, that they are not doing it to be weird (though it is usually just guys), it’s just what they do. Anyway, this crazy man that was talking to himself took his post at my right side, angled himself toward me, and just stared. Fun. I’m going to pretend that I do not notice. Is he still staring? I take a sip of my coffee and look up to see if I’m just imagining things. For some reason, when we make inevitable eye contact, I choke on my coffee and start a lovely and embarrassing coughing fit. The man starts laughing at me, his seemingly normal friend offers me water (in English – clearly I’m an American), and I’m left bent over trying to catch my breath. The man thought something of it, I know he did.

While standing by the bus and waiting to board, the “bus attendant” makes an announcement in rapid-fire Czech, none of which I understand, obviously (because I am convinced that this language is a mix of Japanese, German, and Italian). I wait to see what everyone else does. When most people (not all, shoulda noticed but didn’t) go to the other side of the bus, I follow. The driver is loading in suitcases and situating them according to destination, or so it seems. I hadn’t realized that everyone was saying a different destination than me (the one after Brno, don’t worry, same bus), but when I said “Brno,” and smiled politely and fearfully as he took my bag, he yelled something at me in Czech, waited for me to explain my fault (whatever it was), and then yelled something while he reluctantly threw my bag in with the rest. Whatever, Chesky. I got on the bus.

I wanted to stay awake to see the countryside of the Czech Republic, but I couldn’t hold my eyes open after an hour. I slept through the second half of the trip, waking up just before Brno.

Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul in Brno

I took another bus to the airport, and arrived 4 hours early for my flight (I planned for some serious mess ups). I pissed off the lady at the “bagetty” counter when I couldn’t understand her Czech (I even said, in Czech, that I didn’t understand or speak Czech. Her reaction? To speak louder…in Czech) and then pissed myself off for ordering a disgusting sandwich at 10 am.

I started to see Italians file in a few hours later (tiniest airport I’ve ever been in). This is when I finally got excited (or maybe it was seeing some countryside and realizing that it was kinda good to leave Prague). I love the Italian language, and I am convinced that I can carry on a conversation with a patient Italian while speaking Spanish. It felt good to hear a language that didn’t just shock my ears (nay mlooveesh chesky – just think of how pretty that one thing I can say is) and it felt really good to be able to understand some words (eat, goodbye, hello, pretty, yes, no) in rapid-fire Italian.

Taken from the Plane - Bergamo

We got to Italy and the flight attendant said “arrivederci” to me but “goodbye” to the ladies in front. First sign that I can pass as an Italian: YES! I found the metro after an hour-long shuttle ride from the airport, and then I realized what I hadn’t done: get Euros. Crap. How was I supposed to pay for a 1 euro metro ticket with a credit card?! I wasn’t even sure if my card would work in Italy. Serious issues with my plan. Crap, crap, crap, I thought, trying not to look confused or like I had never been to Italy and didn’t really speak the language. I was really trying to look like I belonged there, while scanning the ticket machines for credit card slots. As I stood in front of one, debating whether or not to try to shove my card into a slot that looked like it could take a debit card (or spit out a receipt), a lovely Italian angel walked up to me. She spurted out Italian and I just stared at her, understanding only the words “ticket” and “35 more minutes.” Suddenly, I saw her hand holding a ticket out to me. She didn’t need her ticket anymore and saw me standing there, about to buy one, and she gave me hers! God bless this wonderful woman who saved my life. I found my stop on the green line of M2 (I’m such a metro pro these days), and waited for my metro. I found the street that I was supposed to exit onto, and once there, I stopped an Italian man and asked him for directions. “Perdon – duve Via Vallazco?” He informed me, in Italian, that he didn’t speak Italian. Okay. Great, thank you. I turned right, not understanding, still, that my instincts for directions are so consistently wrong that if I refused to listen to myself, I would get where I needed to go the first time. So I made a lap around the block, hauling my luggage and trying to look like an Italian girl just returning from vacation, not an American in an unknown city, and found my street. I did a happy dance in my head. Within about 5 minutes of walking, I was at my hotel. Yes, yes, yes! I made it! I can do anything! I am awesome! I thought. Then it took me about 10 minutes and three failed lock attempts to find my room.

I asked the little Italian hippie hostess at this one-star joint where I could find some excellent (-ly cheap) Italian food. She referred me to a pizzeria right across the street. But I wanted to walk! So I took off. Everything was closed. (Easter Monday is big in Italy as well as the CR, apparently.) I finally found a restaurant that was open. It, too, happened to be a pizzeria. The man working there sat me down, smiling all the while (a welcomed change from the CR, where it’s considered respectful to basically ignore you) and immediately brought me some red wine. Yes, yes, yes. I love Italy.

I asked him what the best thing he had to offer me was. He brought me spaghetti with seafood. It was delicious. Marco, at the table behind me, struck up a conversation – and since he knew very little English, I spoke in Spanish with him, he spoke in Italian to me, and we got along just fine (for the most part). I explained that I was a teacher (sort of a lie), but I couldn’t explain that I was living in Prague, because Italians don’t say “Prague,” or “Praha,” apparently, nor do they say “the Czech Republic” or “Chesky Republiky.” Finally, we settled for “otro pais.” I tried to see if “Alemania” worked, but my efforts were to no avail. When he asked if I was traveling alone, I lied yet again and told him that my friend was with me, but she was sleeping at our hotel. He asked if she was getting rest to go dance tonight. I said no. He told me that I couldn’t stay out late by myself, because when it gets dark, it’s dangerous. It was about 7:30 when he said this. Then he offered me a cigarette. I said no to that as well. When he returned from his cig break, he offered me food advice (I did tell him that I was going to Cinque Terre). White wine with seafood, always, bella. He kissed his fingers as he said this, like a typical Italian food lover does when talking about their favorite subject. As he said this, I remembered the wine rule and realized that I had really broken it. In all fairness, I ordered red wine before the seafood recommendation (and I loved every minute of that meal, red or white wine!). I was embarrassed by my faux pas, but he let it slide. But in Cinque Terre, bella, order white wine with your food! Okay, Marco. Will do.

I finished off the meal with some Tira Misu, which I’m not sure Marco approved of. (He had gelato). Thinking about the fact that I really wanted to try some real Italian gelato and tell the concierge upon my return that I had eaten at the pizzeria she suggested, I made a B-line for yet another pizzeria, where I ordered only gelato. Can I just type my thoughts as it happened for you?

Aw, it’s just regular vanilla ice cream. Damn. Oh well… I bet it’s still taste—ohhhhHHHHH MY GOSH THIS IS DELICIOUS! THIS IS THE MOST DELICIOUS THING I’VE EVER EATEN! ITALY! I LOVE YOU! OM NOM NOM…

Even the cute little Italian girls at the next table got wide eyes when they saw my bowl of glorious gelato. I smiled at them, and then at their mother, who was smiling at me. (So much happiness in this country! So many smiles!) I even smiled at an old couple on my walk home, and they smiled back! WHY HAVEN’T I LIVED IN ITALY ALL MY LIFE?! / I’m never going back to Prague.

I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow. I am so excited for this trip, and so glad I did it! And very glad that I can do it, because even when my family is worried, I know they support my sometimes stupid adventurousness, and without that, I wouldn’t be brave enough to take on such endeavors. So, thanks family.

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