Sunday, June 26, 2011

Escape from Italy, or ... No Fear and Loathing in the Rome of the North

Originally published in SHADOW BOXING: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Kristen Iversen. Copyright © 2004 – Pearson Prentice Hall

I’m not sure if I had five minutes or an hour of sleep, or if I had even slept at all, but when I opened my eyes and looked down below it was a welcome sight to see those gray overcast skies above the vast, green, plains surrounded by walls of tall, slender, perfectly-vertical trees, standing in rigid obedience to the cold vigor of Frankfurt.
“Jonathan, look. Frankfurt,” I said.
Jonathan Reagan, my attorney, sat with his chin tucked into his chest, his eyes peacefully closed, hands in his lap and clasped, holding onto his wire-frame spectacles. He was wearing dark blue corduroy slacks, a huge Versace necktie and three days worth of beard on his chin. Caked into the corner of his lip was a white spot of dried saliva. It was just after ten in the A.M. He looked like he could use a drink.
“Huh?” he said, his eyes still closed.
I, on the other hand, never drank in such situations. What we needed was a plan. We were now in Frankfurt after having narrowly escaped with our lives from the thugs and the secret police of Rome. They had chased us from our hotel, waving cleavers and clutching at carbon papers of unpaid bills, with the proprietor’s daughter dressed in bare feet and a torn nightgown, crying, pointing at us, screaming something unintelligible in Italian, her long dark hair upturned.
We jumped into the nearest Metro station, EUR Fermi, losing the hired help in the insane crowds that fought to get into this already-packed underground tram. We really had no idea where we were going. It took us south, just to the next stop, Laurentina, and then we hopped back onto the next northbound tram – just to throw them off our trail.
And it worked. For a while.
We rode up to Roma Termi. We had to get the hell out of Dodge, and fast. I had no idea what they were angry about – something my attorney must have done. My lawyer was always feeding women with lies, and they usually worked. This time it got us a master suite in the Oikos Grandé – it wasn’t my fault all the credit cards I had given them had been declined. If I hadn’t had all of my cash stolen in their establishment in the first place, then we’d never have had to go down the unrecompensed liability route at all. (At least that’s what it translated to in my pocket Italian-Made-Easy dictionary.) My lawyer had assured them all that I was in good standing. And they had all taken his word. Even her.
“Look Jonathan, Frankfurt.” And there it was, right out our window: Germany. Safety. And he didn’t seem to give a damn.
From Roma Termi we took the first express train available to Pisa where we had booked a flight out of that Mediterranean hellhole. I was smoking a Corona and hiding behind an Italian copy of FHM, my lawyer a copy of GQ – although neither of us could read Italian. The articles weren’t too difficult to follow. Agents in mirrored aviator glasses stalked the terminal, communicating with hidden microphones and tiny earplugs, and it wasn’t until the last possible minute – after the conductor cried, “Andiamo!” – that we jumped unnoticed onto our car. At my lawyer’s insistence we had booked coach so as not to look too obvious.
But once we had arrived at Pisa Centrale it was close to 12:30 at night and no taxi could be found anywhere. What we needed was a place to sleep, and the airport was supposed to be that, so we hoofed it the two and a half miles to Pisa International – which happened to be closed for the night.
“Oh shit, Jonathan. You never told me this might happen. I want new counsel!” I demanded. I had never heard of an international airport closing at night – and obviously, neither had he.
The automatic doors were all bolted shut and from inside a sawing, scraping, high-pitched whirring sound could be heard. The night custodians were busy inside buffing the marble floors. There was no way we could get in. And even if we could have, there was no way we were getting any sleep in there with all that racket going on. I knew as well as he that a law suit in this violate, lawless country would only prove futile – this was, after all, where all the great Spaghetti Westerns were filmed. Here, only the strong survived. The weak were stepped on and starved. Or froze. At this time it was approaching 1:30 and we had no accommodations for the night.
“As your attorney, I advise you to use your bag as a pillow,” Jonathan said, taking command of this situation. “Make yourself as comfortable as possible on a bench for the night. There, over there,” he pointed. “There’s two green benches. Those should be acceptable for the next couple of hours. At least until 5:30 or so. Hell, it’s not even that cold.” Then he added, “Plus it’ll make for some good reading for your travel writing.”
“Right. Travel writing,” I agreed.  “This should be perfect.” We grabbed our bags and headed over to the benches, not yet freezing in this Mediterranean night air. “ ‘The worst trips make the best reading’,” I said, quoting Paul Theroux. “This should make one helluva story.”
Theroux says that good travel writing takes health, strength and confidence. Well, I had plenty of health, and my strength was still holding up – after my lawyer had advised that we stuff our faces with McDonalds hamburgers back at Roma Termi before hopping the train – but my confidence at this time was waning. This wasn’t what I had bargained for at all. But Theroux also says that “half of travel was delay or nuisance.” Well this must’ve been exactly what he was talking about. Here we were, Jonathan Reagan and I, hiding out from the mob, trying to lie down on these flimsy green metal benches and catch a few hours of sleep before checking in for our flight.  Sleep was just what my attorney had ordered, so we could deal with the next 24 hours in relative sanity. I set my alarm clock for 5:30, placed it in my jacket pocket, clutched my bag-like-pillow, shut my eyes and tried my best to overcome the discomfort of that metal bench … and sleep. At least for a little while.
But the bench wasn’t big enough for me. Or I was too big for it. I tried my side. I tried my back. I even tried my other side, but this bench wasn’t going to work. I tried the ground, but after a short while the pavement began to feel like a meat locker. Then I tried to just sit on the beach and lean against my bag … but the night quickly got much colder.
Italy is like an island, out in the middle of the Mediterranean, and those sea breezes began to cut through all my layers of clothing. I was shivering, chattering my teeth.
“Jonathan. Are you asleep?” I asked.
“What the hell?” I didn’t know what kind of response I would get from that profound remark. But after a bit he replied:
“As your attorney I advise you to get some sleep.”
“I think I’m going to be looking for some new counsel pretty soon.” He knew I was just bluffing. I didn’t need another lawyer. What I needed was some hot chicken soup, a warm bath and a soft bed. I got out my travel journal and started writing.

In the Eighteenth Century, when exploration was still possible, Edward Gibbon wrote that a travel writer ought to be “endowed with an active, indefatigable vigor of mind and body, which can … support, with a careless smile, every hardship of the road, the weather, or the inn.” I guess that would include Ryanair, where we got our tickets out of Pisa. Even getting to Pisa, using Ryanair, we had to use an airport named London Stansted that is so far from London it should be renamed simply Stansted.  It took us an hour and a half to get to London Stansted, on a coach, from
Leicester Square
, at 2:05 in the morning. With zero traffic. We didn’t arrive until after 3:30 in the morning. But once there, we at least got to sleep in the airport for a few hours, with a good number of other early morning travelers.
It’s like saying it’s Los Angeles Airport but flying out from Anaheim. Or San Diego. It’s that far. So finding the Pisa International Airport closed at night shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise to us. But in my life I’ve never heard of an international airport closing at night. It was like a big joke to me – or on me – and the punch line being, “Yeah, I was flying Ryanair.”
Browsing through my travel journal for a good quote or a tid-bit of information that would brighten my spirits I came across another quote by Theroux: “The truth of travel was unexpected and off-key, and few people ever wrote about it. … Travel had to do with movement and truth, with trying everything, offering yourself to experience and then reporting it.”
There’s a lot invested there, in the Truth. Truth with a capitol T. And where was I in all that Truth? What was my part in that Truth?
And then it all came back to me: Why I was here, what we were doing, where we were going, what our plan had been all along. Truth is we were flying into Frankfurt Hahn to catch a train to Bremen so that we could visit with my old friend Holger Klein. I had been on assignment from San Jose State’s Reed Magazine, the oldest literary magazine west of the Mississippi, with my attorney, so that I could cover the Easter holiday in Rome – but something had gone terribly wrong. The local mob in Rome weren’t going to rest until they saw us dead – or worse. So we were headed up to Bremen, the Rome of the North.
No, that’s not right either. Truth is, Jonathan wasn’t exactly my lawyer. He and I were both SJSU students, on an exchange program with CAPA, living in England for a semester, and traveling through Europe for the Spring Break. What with all my travel reading for class, our substantial lack of sleep from staying at the hostel in Rome, and a healthy influence of Hunter S. Thompson, we were both feeling a little screwy. But he could very well have been my lawyer. And one day when he graduates, he just might be my lawyer. Time will tell.
Still though, Truth is (with a capitol T), that that night in Pisa we had about 90 minutes of sleep back at the train station waiting area, where we had walked back to after finding Pisa International closed for the night … after freezing on a park bench for two hours in front of the airport. At least the train station waiting area was indoors. They had no heat, but there was no wind either. And at around two in the morning, with the wind coming right off the Mediterranean and putting the Chill (with a capitol C) into the both of us, Jonathan Reagan and I, two university students, traveling around Europe together on Spring Break, by train, coach, boat, bicycle, car, foot, subway – and of course, Ryanair, where every trip is an adventure – had decided to adventure our collective asses back to the train station for an hour or two of shut eye.
The truth is that we were now finally coming into Germany after having had maybe just two hours of sleep for the night. And we were coming from Rome, where in approximately 72 hours we had combed the entire city, had seen virtually everything, staying at our cute little hostel, the Oikos Grandé, and sleeping as little as possible. Now finally in Germany, we were both completely exhausted. But it felt good getting into Germany.
“Jonathan, look. Frankfurt.”
Still no reply.
“Sir, you’re going to have to fasten your seat belt,” said the stewardess to Jonathan. “We’re coming in for a landing.”
“Oh, yeah. Thanks,” he said.

In this age of Post-Tourism that Paul Fussell writes about, I was set to prove, or at least to find out, that using trains and small-market airlines, genuine travel was still possible. And with Ryanair, exploration and adventure is just a flight away. Frankfurt Hahn was another of those Ryanair-trick airports. It took us another coach to get into Frankfurt proper where we were to catch our train, at the Hauptbahnhof. And it cost eleven Euros.
Eleven Euros! I was enraged.
Jonathan got in ahead of me.
“Eleven Euros?” I asked the driver.
I gave him a few colorful notes of different sizes and then sat down next to Jonathan. “Shit, this better be a long ride.” I’d better be careful what I wish for, I thought.
The coach eventually got us to the Hauptbahnhof, past Frankfurt-am-Main, which was where we were actually supposed to catch our train. We found this out from a kind, English-speaking German who worked behind the Information desk at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. (There seemed to be many kind, English-speaking Germans.) He told us, in very good English, that all we had to do was catch the next train to Frankfurt-am-Main where we would then transfer and catch the following train up into Bremen. We would only be an hour behind our original schedule.
But still, we had thirty minutes to kill and there was another McDonalds to try, so we both had Royals with Cheese, á la Pulp Fiction, with plenty of mayonnaise. The Germans love their mayonnaise.
Feeling unfulfilled, I then purchased my first real German bratwurst. It was a Kodak moment.

The train ride to Bremen was a long, luxurious trip that took just over five hours. It made a sweeping arc along the map, east and then up north, following the massive Rhein, past Mainz, and up to Koblenz, and then to Bonn, on the other side of the river, and up into Köln, where they did their farming on sheer vertical slopes of the mountain, sectioning off giant areas of the black cliffs, and then veering back over to Düsseldorf, and into Duisburg, moving north-westerly now, away from the river, up to Essen and Bochum and Dortmund, and then north up into Münster, picking up speed here as the stops got farther away from each other, and up into Osnabrück, and finally Bremen.
I was able to compare the luxurious German trains to the old spaghetti-western trains throughout Italy. In Italy, you have to be sure to sit in one of the front cars, as the back cars have a tendency to unfasten and be taxied away by another engine – to where, and for what reason, I know not. Only that the kind attendant told us in his best broken English, when we left for Pisa, that we had to move up to the first or second cars. The others, he said, were going. “Gone,” he said. “Soon. You. Move. Up to front. One or two. Others gone.” This was all new information for me. Nobody had ever written about that, as far as I knew. And in fact, another friend of mine, who had traveled extensively throughout Italy during his Spring Break, had had the experience of winding up in Venice when he was originally headed for Florence. His car had simply detached while he slept, and when he woke up, there was water everywhere!
But besides being more comfortable, and having better cafés, and having the first class sections marked clearly and separate from the coach seating, the trains in Germany were also faster. Traveling to Rome we had accidentally sat in the wrong section and were forced to pay fourteen Euros extra, or else be shipped back to America … or worse, Canada. But the differences between the seats were very minimal. In fact, I would have rather been in coach the entire time, because there you get your own individual cabin with windows and curtains. In Germany, though, first class seating was like the difference between riding in a Mercedes Benz or in a Volkswagen Bus. An air cooled Volkswagen Bus.
Once in Bremen, I began to wonder how we would find my friend Holger. Previously, I had sent him some e-mails, letting him know I had been in England and was looking forward to visiting him in Germany, and the first few messages he had responded to. But the last one I had sent, that said when we were coming, and for how long, he never replied to.
The Bremen Hauptbahnhof is a large building with almost a shopping mall-like atmosphere. We had found out which side of the station to exit from by walking out of the wrong side. We left from the back where a giant Easter carnival, called the Osterwiese, was set up. They had roller coasters and fun houses and games and food courts and biergartens everywhere. The bright lights of the Ferris wheel and merry-go-rounds and the thumping Bavarian music, the sounds of screams from the people on the whirligigs were all inviting, but our first priority was getting to Holger’s flat.
I had a map from the internet, and another, more detailed one that I bought in the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, but I wasn’t entirely sure if my friend would be home. The last time I had seen him was about a year earlier when he had stopped by my house in San Jose, unannounced, on his way to Hawaii to go wind surfing – but first he had had a couple of days to kill in San Jose. I had had some time off myself, so we had driven over to Santa Cruz to check out the ocean then, driving north on Highway 1, looking for unpopulated beaches to explore. That was when he had told me to come to Bremen anytime – they saw very few Americans there.
So Jonathan and I started for Holger’s place, which I figured was about a mile and a half from the Hauptbahnhof, on Osterdeich, right next to the Weser River. My maps proved to be impeccable and my sense of direction faultless, this time, and very shortly we were standing in front of his flat. Well this is it, I thought. If he’s not here we can always stay in a hostel.
I opened the front door to see a line of doorbells, one of them with the name “Holger Klein” neatly typed next to it. I rang it. I looked at Jonathan and smiled. He looked to me very tired. His blonde hair, normally parted sharply, was ragged at best. He had dark bags under his eyes. And he definitely needed a shave. Shit, I could use a shave. And a shower. I hope he’s here.
I rang the bell a second time.
“Hallo?” came a voice from the speaker.
“Hello? Holger? It’s me, Ian!”
“Oh. Just a minute,” came his sleepy response, and then a BUZZ! as the door was unlocked. We opened it and climbed the long spiral staircase toward the very top.
“God damn, Holger. You live in the penthouse!” I exclaimed when I reached him.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
I gave him a hug.
“This is my friend Jonathan. Jonathan, Holger.”
They shook hands and then he welcomed us in.
“I was going to send you an e-mail and ask when you were going to come,” said Holger.
“Didn’t you get my last e-mail?” I asked stupidly. Of course not. Then he would have responded. “Well, umm, is it all right if we stay here for a while?”
“Oh yeah, I just have to check with my roommates. They’re downstairs right now. Can I get you something to drink? Beer? Water?”
“Yeah, I’ll take a water. You want something Jonathan?”
“Yeah, water’s good.”
When Holger left for beverages, Jonathan turned to me, suddenly awake now, his eyes fierce and bright, and said, “You mean! – he didn’t know! – we were coming here?!”
What could I say? I shrugged. “Well he knew we were coming. I sent him an e-mail. I guess he just didn’t know when.”
Holger came back with a pitcher of water and three glasses and we were set, comfortably finally, sitting on his little white sofa and listening to some music, talking about our trip, shoes off.
That night, Jonathan and I both slept for a complete 12 hours, right around the clock, dreaming about chocolate and girls in lederhosen and what exactly we would do now that we were in Germany.

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