You go for days without talking and when you do it’s in the wrong language. I keep hearing Spanish. I don’t know if I’m tuned into it, but I hear it and then my questions come flooding out. I used to use Armenian like that in Georgia and Syria. Wait until you hear someone speaking Armenian and then ask them how to get to the Citadel, better than making an ass of yourself in front of the Syrians, pointing and grunting and saying shukran over and over.
I guess I liked it better with Armenian. It was more exclusive; even in Batumi, the guy couldn’t hide his amusement. After I asked him where I could find a cheap place to stay he asked, “but where’d you learn Armenian?” or rather, “but where’d you learn Armenian?” I was always waiting for that question just so I could say, “I live there” all enigmatically and walk away.
No one cares where I learned Spanish. I don’t speak it particularly well. I use the conditional in the wrong places and I never use the subjunctive, but it doesn’t matter, I can talk with no problem. I can express most things. In French, in German, I can only say ‘hello’ or ‘ thank you,’ and badly at that. In Spanish I can say, “excuse me; could you tell me where the line is?” I actually say podria. I say could.
Waiting in line for the Eiffel Tower, at the Paris bus station, I’m there eavesdropping on conversations. Sticking my beard right between two interlocutors and asking all sorts of stupid questions. On the bus to Geneva, for some reason, everyone is speaking English. It’s the first time I’ve really heard it in Europe. I feel like what I can say is too open, too unlimited, like if I start I might not stop. I make a comment, butting in again. Saying something like ‘yeah, it’s pretty cold,’ but all I get is a look. The other two, they’re already friends, travel buddies. I’m just some bearded guy practicing his English.
A few days later, I’m in Spiez, Switzerland. It’s not a big place and people keep trying to talk to me. It’s worse than French. I can’t understand a word. “Nien, uh, nien spreken.” People actually take a step back, as if this horrible way of speaking could somehow infect their own accent. I just smile and say danke over and over. Now I’m in the woods. I say guten tag to everyone that walks by; it’s a trail in the woods, you can’t ignore people out here. There’s no one else around. Luckily, no one pries into my horrible speech. They return my greeting and move on. Until a jovial dog walker passes by. He spots me sitting on a stump, looking over the marble-blue lake. The sounds issue from his throat like they’re sliding down a fire pole, some quickly, some slower. He’s directing this to me. He’s got a big smile. I shrug. “Spreken zie English?” He pauses. “No, uh, no speak very…” he says and trails off. We look at each other for a moment with regret, like we're trying to communicate through telepathy. “Would’ve been nice to talk to you, friend, too bad we don’t have a language in common.” Then suddenly he raises an eyebrow. “Espanhol?”
“Si quieres,” I respond and there we are, in the middle of the Swiss Alps and I keep calling this guy ‘vos,’ and telling him to come down to Paraguay the next time he’s in Latin America.
Spanish works a lot better in Italy, but I feel like a bastard using it. The languages are close enough that there’s a kind of mutual intelligibility, but there’s a presumptuousness using it; like being the uncultured American who can’t differentiate between various romance languages and cultures and goes around saying ‘hola’ in every European country. But, for the people who don’t speak English, Spanish is closer. At least I’m able to pepper it with Italian words.
I used to speak Italian OK, but after living in Latin America for a couple of years, I’ve found it’s gotten adhered to my Spanish like two kinds of candy in a kid’s pocket. It all comes out in a clump. I start alright, but then an ‘esta bien’ will just fire out of my mouth. After you’ve said something like that it’s impossible to go back and correct it. It’s better just to smile and shrug. At least now you’ve thoroughly established yourself as an incompetent to the person you’re speaking with. Now they’ll speak slower and use lots of gestures that should make them easier to understand.
Luckily, as least my understanding of Italian is alright, even if I answer in my broken Italo-Spanish pastiche. In Sicily, the common language is a dialect of Italian so varied that it’s often considered its own language. Most people speak standard Italian, but in the countryside, Sicilianu seems to be more common. Before yesterday, I’d heard people speaking it a few times here in Modica, but I hadn’t had to interact in the language. I hadn’t had to try to understand it.
Gina and I were walking through the baroquely ornamented town of Scicli. We had just come down from the rocky porch of a cliff-hanging church and were passing through the main square. Everything in Scicli is rococo. Heavy, snarling gargoyles hung above us. Every cornice was adorned with a Maria or a Gesu or a flock of cherubim. Fountains plashed over the worn and shiny cobblestones and the only people out all seemed to be over seventy and in no hurry to be anywhere or do anything. The old folks stood on the corners, leaned on their canes and looked around for each other. In groups, they talked while holding their hands flat together like they were praying and pulling them up and down as if they were trying to pull each thing they said down from heaven, yanking each word away from God himself.
The young people all seemed to be in cars, speeding away from the city like they were fleeing the crowds of the elderly on the plaza. Behind the windows of every small European car was a drowsy-looking and unshaven twenty-five year old, cigarette between his fingers and the window looking straight ahead, eyes focused on some vague and distant goal.
Every café had a few people standing around in it. Metal spoons rang like little bells with their solemn, ritualistic sound and children, who had complete run of the place, yelled for chocolate and cannoli in way that recalled the decadent aristocracy of ancient Rome.
Scicli is in a valley like most towns in South-Eastern Sicily. The town runs up either side of the rocky hillsides until it becomes too steep then topples back down upon itself in a baroque tide of yellowish stone and wrought iron balconies festooned in the long white flags of drying laundry. Above the houseline, the hill barred itself in a grey-rock corona that looked a billion years old. There was nothing up there but long yellow grass and perhaps a few tired snakes. From the bottom of the city, it looked like an amazing place to sit for a while.
“Let’s go up there,” I said, pointing to the hilltop.
The way at first was clear. We walked across town, stopped and bought some bread and olives and crossed an old bridge. On the other side of the river, the houses and streets rose up abruptly, almost reared up and the streets seemed to lose themselves among them.
A man with a pink backpack trundled past us singing something with a warbling, Arabic melody. "Salam," I said, when we overtook him on a narrow street. There was no one else around. He told us he was from Pakistan. We told him we were from the US and then he took off his backpack to sell us one of the bracelets he had inside. ‘No, Grazie,’ I waved my hand in the classic please-stop; you’re-too-kind motion. He shrugged his shoulders and as we walked on ahead, he took his patient, warbling song back up again.
A few minutes later, the man was gone and we were alone on a small street, about a single car’s width. When the street dissipated in a muddy two track, a parked truck and a tied up dog barking its head off, I decided that we should probably turn around. We had both come to a stop. Any second one of us would’ve said something like: ‘you want to go back?’ and we would’ve turned around, but before we could make any such directional suggestions, a man in mud-covered rubber boots and shapeless thick clothes (also mud-covered) and a mashed-looking baseball hat came out from behind a fence. He didn’t say anything, but his expression implied that we should probably explain what we were doing.
I brightened at the chance to find a clearer path up the hill, but instead of asking him for directions, I found myself pointing beyond the ferociously barking dog and asking him if we could pass through. “Where are you going?” He asked in a slightly accented Italian. “uhhhh,” I said, trying to summon an Italian word that mean something like, ‘to the top.’ Coming up with only ‘arriba,’ in my mind, I finally blurted out “there!” and pointed to the top like a kid pointing at a plane. “Can we pass?” I rephrased and made a sort of straight-line gesture toward that rocky hills in front of us. The man shrugged, his grey stubble seemed to undulate a little, as if he were shifting a weighty load of chewing tobacco under his lips. “Sure,” he said and shrugged. “Grazie, grazie!” I beamed, and began to stride bravely ahead as though I had grown up around this rocky patch of earth and knew the path perfectly.
With Gina behind me, I climbed straight up the rock behind the chained dog who was now producing rapid-fire barks in response to my climbing on what was clearly his property. It looked like it would be a straight climb. We might have to clear a little fence or two, but there would be no major obstacles and soon we would be at the top of the hill, eating our olives and bread and looking down on the quiet town.
There was a small cluster of bushes in front of us that obscured our view. When I climbed through them I noticed that we did not have a clear path to the top. Directly over us, stood a row of rambling cottages that I hadn’t been able to see from the road. They were all bordered by fences and I could hear barking coming from above us. I thought about the country dogs that lived up there, sheep dogs probably, and how they would probably not hesitate to bite someone who suddenly turned up in their backyard. I stood for a moment considering our options, waiting to see if I could make out anything barreling down the hill towards us. A movement drew my attention away from the top of the hill and the cottages to the hillside to the right of me. A cow was standing there regarding me in the patient way that cows do, but this cow wasn’t chewing anything, it was just looking at me. I noticed that it had horns and the longer we looked at each other across the rocky expanse, it began to dawn on me that I was looking at a bull.
I decided that we should go a different way and told Gina. “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe we should go to the left. Anyway, the farmer is yelling and waving in that direction.” I glanced back and saw that the man had not moved from his place below and did seem to be trying to communicate something to us. He yelled and jerked his arms around. As I watched, another man came out and joined him. We could see them both perfectly from our vantage on the hill as they yelled and waved. “Hmm, they must be warning us about the bull,” I declared, redundantly. “Let’s go back this way.”
We walked perpendicular the hilltop for a while until we came to a long loosely-cobbled fence. “Ahh, this must be the path,” I said. “We’ll have to find a way over this fence; maybe there’s a gate.” We started walking along the fence, but everything that looked like a gate turned out to be a section of something that was only a part of the hodge-podge fence: an old mattress frame, a sheet of plywood, even an old gate, but it was tightly wound into the rest of the fence with wire. Eventually, we came to the end. The whole thing looked to be closed off, but one part, made up mainly of bushes and tree trunks, seemed to be more surmountable. I didn’t want to give up and go back down to the farmer who still seemed to be waving and yelling below for some reason. “Let’s go this way,” I said, pointing to a pile of brambles and logs. Fearing that Gina would disagree, I bounded over the pile first and stretched a helping hand back out over the thorny, hazardous pile. Wisely, Gina ignored my hand and made her way over by stepping across one of the felled tree trunks.
Things didn’t look any better from the other side of the fence. Really, it looked even more tortuous than our original path had been. All kinds of housing debris was scattered around a dilapidated-looking shack and the ad-hoc walls that we had been trying to climb over now fenced us in with barbed and spiked piles of twisted fence posts and splintered and rotten boards that seemed to loom overhead. A lone white goat was standing about 30 feet in front of me. It watched me with curiosity or maybe complete vacancy. It looked like it had never seen a human being before and back in this rustic alley of refuse and torn branches, I could believe that it hadn’t. To me, the animal looked just as unfamiliar. Its white coat, a stark contrast to the mud and boards and the way it stood, with its knobby legs in a defiant ‘V’ alarmed me in some vague way. Maybe it was the memory of the bull, maybe it was the phantasmal white coat but I felt uncomfortable approaching the animal.
I suppressed my feelings and started walking up the rustic path, but when I heard barking nearby, I stopped. Just on the other side of the fence, two large dogs were running toward us. Neither of them were chained and they ran towards us with the intensity of a dog that’s been trained to protect something. I looked to the section of fence they were running toward. It was a loose pile of sticks about 4 feet high. It didn’t look like it would be hard to jump over or even to topple by merely trying to climb it. At the dogs’ advance, I took a few steps back. When they gained the fence and started jumping up and down and biting the air, I turned and started walking quickly back to where we had come in, stepping on Gina’s heels, unconsciously mumbling “c’mon, c’mon!”
We climbed back over the topped section of the fence where we had entered only a few seconds before. When I turned around to make sure the dogs weren’t behind us, I noticed the white goat, still staring his unconcerned, caprine stare.
The farmer who had allowed us to pass was still yelling, but now he was accompanied by another farmer and both of them were waving their hands around. Clearly, they were trying to get us off their property. At that point, I was quite willing to concede and said to Gina, “Well, I guess we should get out of here.” I said this to her back because she was already well on her way down.
“There’s a bull up there.” I told the farmer when we got back down to his backyard. I couldn’t understand exactly what he was saying, but I think it was something like, ‘of course there’s a bull up there!’ His friend just kept yelling in Sicilian, as if speaking louder and faster would make up for our inability to understand. After we got our lecture, I asked him how to get back to the road that would take us to the top of the hill. He pointed to the road we had been on. “It’s right there. That road goes to the top. That’s what I was trying to tell you.” We parted as friends and upon walking away, I turned to Gina and said, “I bet they’ll be talking about that for a long time.”
We exhausted ourselves in Palermo. We had been staying with some young volunteers and spent every night at a bar and never got home before 3:00 am. I was actually quite impressed with myself. I didn’t know that I was still about to function so well with no sleep. Every morning, we continued to wake up around 8:30 as though we hadn’t been out until 4:00, but after sleeping only two hours our last night, it caught up with me.
I thought maybe it would be OK because we had a twelve-hour train ride the next day. ‘No problem,’ I thought, ‘we’ll just sleep on the train back to Rome.’ But even as I thought it, I knew it wouldn’t work. The Saturday before Christmas, I knew the compartment would be crowded; even alone, I have a hard time sleeping on transportation in the middle of the day. It doesn’t matter how tired I am.
The ride to Rome was surreal. My fatigue kept pulling me down from my book, down from consciousness. My eye lids would fall so hard, they made a sound like stage curtains dropping emphatically after a long performance, but I never fell asleep. I just sat there with my eyes closed, listening to the rhythm of the train and thinking disjointed thoughts. Most of the twelve hours were like that. Read for 10 minutes, drift off, sit there holding my book like I was reading with my eyes closed for another ten minutes until something would cause me to open my eyes and the whole thing would start again. By the time we reached Rome, my eyes were burning, the inside of my mouth felt like old carpet and I had hallucinated twice. Once, the old man sitting across from me had shrunk in stature and had floated right up to my face. When I opened my eyes wider, I realized my perspective had only gotten screwed up somehow and that everything was where it should’ve been.
We got to Rome at 8:00 pm with no place to stay. We could’ve left for Ancona at 8:50 and arrived there at 1:00 am or, alternately, we could wait until the 5:45 am train and spend the night in Rome. We had a place to stay in Ancona, so I figured staying out one night in Rome wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could sleep a little on the train the next morning (by then I knew I’d be tired enough) and we’d have beds in Ancona.
In the meantime, there were a few things we could do in Rome. It was Saturday night, so I knew there’d be people out. We could eat, walk around, get some gelato, maybe hang around the train station for a while. If we got really desperate, we could go to a bar, but the idea didn’t sound appealing to me after three nights out in Palermo.
There was nothing to do with our bags because the left luggage office at the train station wouldn’t take them overnight, so we had to shlep the damn refrigerator-size things around with us and look like total morons having to stand in doorways to ask people questions and maneuvering in the streets like drunken turtles. Around 11:00, we found ourselves eating another pizza on the stairs by the Cavour metro stop. More affluent tourists walked by and furiously ordered pizzas and cocktails in English. I watched them walk past our perch on the stairs and tried not to hate them, unfettered as they were by anything but their stylish winter coats, each with a hotel key card tucked into a silk-lined pocket. I thought of them having a drink or two, getting drowsy and going back to their rooms with their heavy comforters and high-pressure showers.
I had spilled tomato sauce from the pizza all over my jacket and lap and I sat there, drinking our of a dented plastic bottle that looking like something I’d fished out of the garbage and scowling. Bike rickshaws passed by; the night was young, but I was old. I looked at Gina, “‘d’you want to find someplace to lie down?” She looked up from under the scarf that she had wrapped around her head babushka-style, the expression on her face infinitely weary. “Yeah,” she said. I helped her up, we saddled our loveseat-sized bags and set off into the Roman night, as so many others had done before us, seeking a quiet corner to lie down and sleep a little.
We tromped around for a while, looking down blind alleys and inspecting various stoops. Everything was either too exposed or too hidden. I didn’t want to climb down into the sewer, but I also didn’t want to be lying in the middle of the sidewalk. There were no benches, no parks, nothing but endless streets and tiny European cars. We followed the stray cats to see if they would lead us to any good spots. We noted where the other homeless people slept and tried to draw inspiration from their choices. We stopped by a church having a midnight service and briefly discussed going in and asking for sanctuary; we reconsidered when we remembered the other homeless people we had seen that night. If Roman churches allowed people to sleep in them, no one would be in the streets. Obviously, they don’t let anyone sleep in them; they’re all full of gold.
“Right there up those stairs. Doesn’t that look like a good spot?” I said, pointing to a niche by a black iron fence. After we approached, I was overjoyed to find cardboard pieces carefully laid out in the opposite niche. “Look,” I said, pointing again. “Other homeless people sleep here. It must be a good place!” We agreed to try it, but just as we got everything spread out, a car drove up to the gate that, up until then, had looked ancient and rusted shut. The people got out and looked over at us, but said nothing. They said merry Christmas to each other and drove off leaving a man who went up to the gate, opened it and went inside. After he walked away we lay still for a while, trying to decide what to do. The sounds of the Saturday night continued. Cars honked, motorcycles revved and people yelled. I lay back down but couldn’t close my eyes. Every time headlights swept over me, I wanted to turn around and make sure they weren’t coming up the driveway. Once I opened my eyes to find Gina urgently glancing from my face to some area above where I was lying. “What?” I mouthed. “There’s someone standing there.” She whispered back, probably not realizing how terrifying it sounded. “What are they doing?” I asked in an almost breathless whisper. “He’s looking at us.” I lie there, unwilling to turn around and yet awaiting some kind of assault. Eventually, I heard the man’s footsteps receding back into the night. I should’ve gotten up and left, but I was too tired and a few seconds later I was asleep again.
A few minutes later, another man came up and stood directly over where we were sleeping. I woke up with a start when his shadow blocked out the streetlight. I thought he was a cop and hurriedly turned over to apologize or plead or something. But where I expected to find a mustache and a badge, I found only a baby-faced countenance and a key ring. He was trying to get into the door we were sleeping in front of. We moved aside and after he’d passed he wished us a merry Christmas.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said to Gina. “This has got to be the stupidest place to try to sleep in around here.” We repacked our sleeping bags and went stumbling half-awake and cold into the night. A block away we found a gap between some parking blocks and a wall beyond which was the Roman Forum. Besides waking up to cover myself when it got cold, I slept until 4:00 am when we had to start back for the train station. 14 blocks away, the grandiose building rose like a unadorned marble sepulcher into the cold and dark morning. There were people sleeping all around it; the place smelled like piss and there were boxes of wine spilled all over the cobblestones like some kind of unholy bum Sabbath had taken place since we’d left it earlier that evening.
Although the train didn’t leave until 5:45, it was already waiting at the platform. The lights inside were partially on, but the heat wasn’t. We pulled a door open and found some seats. I snuggled down into my coat, pulled my hat down over my face and fell asleep with no problem. When I woke up we were totally alone in the car and completely inundated in a shroud of Sunday morning fog. I could see nothing out of the windows and only the clacking sound of the train moving over the tracks indicated we were going anywhere at all.