After I graduated from college I flew to Rome. Before I got on the plane my friend George made me drink an entire bottle of champagne. He didn’t exactly make me: he busted into my room waving it like it was an old, honored tradition of European sendoffs to guzzle a champagne bottle. George was from California, did things like spray painting the words Wall of Voodoo onto his wall, and had an infectious laugh. “You gotta finish it,” he said, laughing. “You gotta!” (in fact, no such tradition exists).
Things were quite marvelous until George dropped me off at the airport. Rolling and weaving into the terminal I developed real concern about getting past the airline people and security, about FAA regulations barring drunk graduates from international flights. Fortunately, my college education included learning how to hold it together while being fucked up.
At 30,000 feet over the Atlantic I broke out a wire bound notebook, a journal I intended to fill with keen observations of my journeys across Europe, of fascinating people and old world culture and art, and I recorded my first steps. I had never been to Europe, never traveled alone, and knew no foreign languages. As the sun set behind the plane, everyone pulled down their window shades, reclined their seats and as sensible travelers bid North America good night. I was too excited to sleep. Champagne has always affected me strangely and at this point a woozy, out of body sensation nagged me. The plane, dark and still as a coffin, bore through the night with an ethereal hush.
In the Rome airport I shouldered my new Kelty travel pack from the baggage carousel. The novelty of being on Italian soil triggered my adrenal reserves. It was 9:00 am and the airport was deserted. I changed money at a counter for some lira — a weirdly inflated currency that always involves thousands — experiencing my first language difficulties. My carefully researched plan was to catch a bus for the main train station, Termini, then take a subway train to the Hotel Alimandi, where students with the Emory Italian summer program were living.
The other person waiting for the bus was an earthy girl with a huge scuffed backpack I knew instantly to be American. She was Andrea, and attended college in Katmandu, Nepal, she explained on the bus trip into Rome. My mind was blown by the concept of a Himalayan college… run by mountain climbers and Zen monks? She’d already spent time in India that summer, and was getting in some Europe before hitting Africa. She was negotiating entire continents alone. She resembled Claire Danes, but more athletic, and wore hiking boots, wooden african bracelets, and a short dress. A faded red bandana spotted with dancing Grateful Dead bears held back her dirty blonde hair. She seemed equally likely to sketch inside an art museum or hike to a summit. I was in awe of her as a seasoned and far superior traveler.
At the train station, vast and depopulated, we wandered between vacant window counters. No one seemed to work there. A posted English language newspaper explained that a strike was halting all trains indefinitely. Andrea, cool and unaffected, said something about finding a place to stay. A hot Roman sun rose overhead. I was thirsty and I took off my heavy pack. A savage hangover clamped by skull. I’d pulled an all-nighter (a common college occurrence for me but usually with disastrous results) and was having trouble thinking logically. I could not fathom another means to get to my hotel. The entire trip seemed in doubt. How was I to get to Switzerland during a train strike? I sensed there was no answer in my Let’s Go guide to Europe. It was D-day and my rifle was hopelessly jammed. I started to freak.
Andrea looked hard at me, squinting. Then she stepped closer and said, “You know backpacking across Europe, what you’re doing. This is what it’s like. This is it.”
It took a moment to comprehend her point. Then I felt immediate relief. It was not some disaster or a wrong circumstance I was experiencing. It was exactly right. It could be no other way. She and I had traveled from opposite sides of the globe to stand together on stones that might have been walked on by Michelangelo and Mussolini. One thing I like about writing fiction is the power to take a messy circumstance, perhaps a painful personal experience, and to honor it, to transform it. A story says: this is what it means to be alive, this is it.
Andrea made an offer for me to join her in finding a pensione. I was tempted by the raw freedom of this detour and the romantic possibilities of hanging out with this sage-like and natural girl. But my friend Cindy was expecting me at the Hotel Alimandi. I said goodbye to Andrea and grabbed a taxi, convinced I was being ripped off by the driver, but grateful to be delivered to my hotel.
**KNOWN THING NO. 23: It is unwise to begin a journey in a state of advanced intoxication.
**KNOWN THING NO. 24: Never underestimate the resilience and existential depth of a Deadhead.