Spring Break was to last for ten days and I wrestled with where I wanted to go for a long time before that. Ireland was a big contender. Bruges in Belgium was a big draw for me and I was looking into Norway for a while. I knew I definitely had to go somewhere in Italy, though, but I didn’t know where. My grandfather, as my mom told me, went on and on about Siena when he heard I was trying to decide where to go. I talked to my friend Brando, who lives in Verona, where he recommended and he mentioned Venice, Verona and Siena. As the break drew nearer and I became more serious about booking my flights, trains and hostels, the reality of my financial disposition became more illuminated and I decided to spend the whole of the week in Italy. I would fly to Pisa, where I would take a train into Siena and stay for three days, and then I would take another train to Florence, where I would spend the rest of my break. A girl I knew from high school, Alexa, was studying abroad there and she agreed to let me stay with her at her flat while I was there.
The Thursday before break came and with it a day full of classes. British Comedy in the morning and European Cinema in the afternoon. The next day my flatmates left, most for Barcelona, leaving me alone in the apartment until early Monday morning, when I’d leave. I spent that weekend going on a bus tour of London and catching up on a few things. It was a relaxing couple of days.
When I got up at 4 something on Monday morning the Oscars were still on in the US, but my British television didn’t get it. I checked who was winning on IMDb, then closed my laptop to head for the bus that was to take me to Baker street, where I’d catch my easyBus to Stansted airport. I didn’t experience any hiccups and the plane took off and landed easily. I was excited for the trip and excited to observe how I dealt with myself for a week alone. What a grand romantic adventure I was embarking on, but when the plane landed there was no time for any kind of emotional indulgence. I don’t speak a lick of Italian and catching pre-booked transportation stresses me out. I drank in the Pisa airport and observed the restaurants it had and the Italian on the walls, but I hastened to find where to catch the Pisamover, a tram that would link me to the rail station. I found it after navigating the signs and wandered outside to find the station where it would pick me up.
As I rode the Pisamover through Pisa towards the rail station (only about a 10 minute ride) I very clearly remember being struck by the poverty I saw. The houses were square and cream colored, the shop fronts were worn and scraggly, the people moved slowly and the general aura felt a little…jaded. This may have been due to the fact that it was overcast out that day.
I found my way around the railway station and manipulated a ticket machine to print out my ticket to Siena. Then I went into a restaurant area inside the station and got a slice of pizza, which was normal to the eyes but it certainly did taste more fresh. When I was reading up on Italy I was warned gypsies and beggars and that they were not only ubiquitous, but also sometimes aggressive. I was never harassed for money, but I was approached by these people about five times in the space of the half hour I spent at the train station. My ticket to Siena instructed me that my train didn’t leave for another 45 minutes or so, but I saw on the departures screen that there was a train I could take in about 5 minutes, so I decided to find that platform and find that train. I was nervous about having my ticket checked. I hadn’t done anything dishonest, but I think one always feels a little nervous, perhaps for no reason, when someone checks their train ticket, or subway card or boarding pass. I would soon learn that I didn’t have to worry because no one ever did. I hardly saw any Trentalia employees at all, furthering my absolute perplexity of European public transportation. First Berlin, now Italy? Do people here just trust that people pay for trains?
The Italian countryside was beautiful as I looked out the window on the train. The short hills rolled and lapped into themselves and homegrown vineyards curled up massive lawns and snaked upward in the foreground of olive trees. When we passed little towns the houses were all yellows and reds and had an overall rustic palate. Pastel is the best world to describe them. A few days later I would learn from a tour guide that Tuscany passed a law, maybe in the ‘90s, saying that buildings, including houses, cannot be changed whatsoever, in order to protect and perpetuate the lands history. Even if a homeowner wanted to add another window into a house, it wasn’t allowed. This explained the archaic charm of Tuscany.
The train rolled to a slow stop at the Siena train station and I got out and found my way to the main terminal. Train stations in smaller places like Pisa or Siena aren’t what you’re thinking of, if you’re thinking of things like Victoria station in London or equivalents in New York. The train stations I departed from and arrived at are very small. There are maybe 5 sections of track separated by medium sized platforms, and the inside the terminal you only find an information desk, a souvenir shop and a cigarette store. These are not bustling places with a great sense of purpose. They’re world weary and efficient.
The moment I stepped into the train station in Siena to the time I arrived at my hostel some four or five hours later can be described as hell.
In my notebook I had the address and phone number of the hostel, but before I left I didn’t bother to find it on Google Earth or anything like that. I realized this as I was on the plane, and it didn’t come with panic or terror, more just confusion and surprise. I literally had no idea how to get to my hostel and it was really weird that I didn’t look that up before I left. As I was en route to Siena I just sort of shrugged and put that problem aside for future Dan. Poor future Dan.
The train station isn’t in the city center, where I knew my hostel was close to. So I had to figure out how to get to the city center. Luckily before I left I had had enough sense to find out how to get to the center from the station. I had to exit the station and go into the mall directly across from it, ride the escalators all the way to the top and buy a bus ticket for a ride to the center that would leave from right outside the train station. So I went into the mall and walked straight into a grocery store. I like to go in foreign grocery stores just to see what kinds of foreign stuff they have. Everything I’ve heard about Italy and wine I found to be true when I bought a bottle of red wine for the equivalent of $2. I also got some chips.
I put the cheap wine in my bag and the weight it added was quite substantial, but I figured I could power through it because really, how long could it possibly take me to find the hostel? I found the escalators and rode all the way up but couldn’t really find where to buy a bus ticket. The view was incredible from up there though, and I took a few pictures of Tuscany from above the mountain I was on. I had walking directions from the train station to the city center as well, so I decided to just walk back down and walk. Days later I would discover that it was only a short, straight walk from where I was at the top of the mountain to my hostel.
I left the train station and walked into the city, on the side of busy roads, and followed the signs for Centro. I was nervous I would get lost but the directions I had written down in London seemed easy enough to follow. And just when I was beginning to become extremely discouraged (I had been walking for about 20 minutes uphill and my whole body was killing me because of the bag) I rounded a corner and saw giant, ancient walls with a huge gap in the middle where I spied hinges with old wooden doors swung open. This was the entrance to the city center of Siena – or really the only interesting part of Siena. I smiled both in reassurance and awe as I looked upon it. The gates alone are something out of a period piece and the sight was awesome, but I also figured it was a mark that my journey was almost over. I crossed the street and went through the gates.
I didn’t know much about Siena, but I knew that the Piazza del Campo was right in the center of the city, so I figured I’d go there and collect myself. It was also, I knew, the place where the office of tourism was. I walked and walked and followed signs for the Campo. I was in a rush. I was starting to get discouraged again because I really didn’t know where I was at all. It was getting dark and the absolute last thing I wanted was to be alone in Siena at night with all my luggage and no idea where I was or how to get to any kind of shelter.
The city center of Siena is extremely beautiful. It is an ancient maze of thin, cobblestoned roads just barely big enough for cars to snake through. It’s hilly and close together and the buildings are something out of a dream. I would learn later that a law was passed in Tuscany making it illegal to chance any of the architecture for the sake of preserving history. Therefore all the buildings are the original stone and shape that they were hundreds of years ago. It is unlike anywhere else. The roads wrap around the city in a huge circle and the Campo was as the heart of it all. I made my way closer into the city. It was bigger than I expected and it took me some 15 minutes to get from the gates to the center. Once I did and walked down a narrow, downward slanting alley to come out into the wide open area of the Campo, I was met with a great sight. The center of Siena is huge. There is a great semi circle of restaurants, gift shops and alleys hugging once far side of the center (the side I came out on) and directly opposite the center was the great Tor and clock tower. Right in the middle, with no shops or anything – completely open, is a giant, downward slanting, red cobblestoned scallop shell of ground. Siena is famous for the Palio – a magnificent horse race that takes place every summer in the square that I found myself in. Siena is and has forever been divided into 17 different “Contradas,” or something similar to neighborhoods. Each Contrada has their own different home or territory within the center of Siena and each Contrada has its own insignia. The Eagle, the Snail, the owl, the dragon, the panther, etc. You can walk around Siena and you’ll find different insignias for the different Contradas slapped on the concrete of the walls, marking the territory. The Contradas have been around forever and each ranges from very rich to very poor. The Palio is a horse race that has features 17 horses and riders – one from each Contrada. I think generally the richest Contrada usually wins, but the Palio is a big deal. The center is swarmed with people every year and they watch from their houses and cram into the scallop square. The horses race around the scallop. So it was quite a place to be.
I took in the sight and walked around the square on the site of the race. I was looking for the tourist office but couldn’t distinguish it anywhere in the Campo. My arm was killing me. I walked into a gift shop and tried to ask the proprietor in broken Italian but she couldn’t understand me so I left. I left the Campo the way I came and happened upon a police officer. He spoke English and I asked where the tourism office was (I was trying to find it so I could ask where my hostel was) and he directed me to a church further up than the Campo. I walked through the center again and this time kept going and stumbled upon the great church. I found a security guard near where you purchase tickets to get inside and asked again, as I didn’t see the office there either. He told me it was in the Campo. I was crestfallen.
With no knowledge where to find information about how to get to my hostel and no one, seemingly, to ask, I decided to slow my pace and walk easily back to the Campo to take it easy for a few minutes and conserve my energy. I think it was something like 5pm at this point. I saw someone pass me with gelato and I wanted to get one. This was my first day in Italy and I hadn’t really had any authentic Italian food, so I found a gelato place (there were a lot of them there) and got a chocolate one with whole nuts in it. I took it back to the campo, put down my bag and sat on the edge of the cobblestoned scallop. Night was falling fast but I was so exhausted I put aside my worries of ever finding shelter and let myself enjoy where I was. The square was pretty empty and I listened to the sounds it offered of the kids playing near the Tor, the restaurant forks and knives clinking against wine glasses and the clack of heels on the cobble stones behind me. It was beautiful and it was a shame I had to be introduced to Siena under these stressful circumstances. I hadn’t had time to register how I felt about being alone in a foreign country or anything profound like that. But I would.
After I finished my gelato I slowly hauled myself back up and began walking out toward the exit of the Campo. I had a new mission now. I remembered passing a sign for public telephones and I figured since I couldn’t find the tourism office I might as well find a pay phone and call the hostel. It took me a while to find it. The sign was a ways away from where the actual phone was. But I find a small nook in the side of a building where there were phone stands and I went into try and figure out how they worked. It took me a while to figure out as well because, you know, everything was in Italian. Eventually I figured it out and I dialed the number for the hostel, which I had at least bothered to write down before I left. The voice on the other end instructed me to take a specific bus from the bus stop near the Center of Siena to a stop called La Terreza or something that sounded like that. Apparently the hostel was right there off that stop.
I hung up and began the second half of my journey, or the worse half. It was good that I knew where to go, but there was the problem now of finding where the bus stop was and waiting for the right bus. I think it was the #9. I retraced my steps in order to leave out through the main gates of Siena, thinking I probably passed the bus stop on my way up to the Center hours before. I turned out retracing my steps was harder than I thought because of the layout of the city. As I said it sort of revolve around itself and the streets snake and twist in weird directions. So it took me about 20 minutes to find my way out and by this time, full on night had fallen. I timidly crossed the street and walked back down the street where I came, but soon found that this probably wasn’t the right place to go, as the twisting, narrow sidewalk ahead of me just led into darkness back down towards the train station. I turned around and decided to walk the other way, past the gates to the Center, a way I hadn’t gone before.
I kept on going and going but I didn’t come across anything. I walked until I saw a bus approaching me and figured that there must be a stop if I kept walking, which there wasn’t. I walked for maybe a solid 15 minutes in this direction, growing more tired, upset and hurt until I turned around, in a horrible mood. I walked back to the gates with the idea of asking someone in there how to find the bus station. After another 15 minutes I came upon them again and entered once more, looking for a police officer. My only break of the night came now, as I walked straight the way I’d gone before and happened to look to my right a few minutes in. There, down an alley I saw what looked like a bus terminal where the alley opened up on the other side. Sure enough, after some investigating, it was. I went in two buses and asked a couple drivers if this was where the #9 bus called at and they both said yes, just stay here. I found a stone slab and sat down, grateful at having finally found where I had to go but I also had to pee pretty bad at this point so there was no time to relax. I waited and waited and started to panic and give up hope that the bus would ever come but eventually it rolled in and I got on board through the center doors. Like Berlin, I had no idea how to pay for public transportation so I…just didn’t do it. I did notice that there was a little con machine that dispensed tickets on the bus but I didn’t bother with it. I rode the bus and listened intently at every stop for what the automated voice had to say but I didn’t recognize anything resembling “La Terreza” after about three stops. I approached the bus driver and asked in broken Italian if he stopped at that stop and he seemed to register my speech and said yes. So I sat back down and trusted him. I looked out the window at Siena in the dark and started to panic a little as the bus drove quite a ways past the train station where I started my journey. After two or three more stops I asked the bus driver again, to make sure he knew I was still there. “We passed it,” he said. I guess I looked noticeably crestfallen because he then added that he would let me know when we were there. So that was nice. It took about another 10 minutes until we stopped and he said “La Terreza.” I sprung up and headed for the center exit. “Grazi.” “Prego.”
I got off the bus and stepped into a pitch black night. The bus roared off and I looked around but everything around me opposite the street was dark and closed. I began to panic and think that my hostel must be somewhere adjacent to this place when I turned around and noticed a building I’d seen in pictures as my hostel. Words can’t really describe my relief and utter sense of joy as I almost ran there. I got in and saw a lone man sitting behind a small desk in the small, though nice looking, lobby. I checked in and he gave me my key and all the information I needed and I went upstairs and found my room.
I won’t say the room was worth all the horror I’d just experienced, but I suppose it came close. You can’t really describe this place as a hostel. It’s more like a hotel. I had a two bed, one bath hotel room all to myself with a television, mini bar and private shower. It was a hotel with hostel prices and it was way too nice for a lone, broke student traveler to inhabit by himself. But I did and the stay was really nice. I went to the bathroom and flopped on the bed, utterly and ridiculously exhausted. I laid there for I don’t know how long before I unpacked what I needed from my carry on. I was tired but I was also starving and one of the great thing about this ho(s)tel was that it was right next door, attached actually, to a pizza place. It was late but I walked next door and tried to order a pizza. It was a restaurant but they did take away. As I said, it was late and also a little crowded and the girl behind the counter asked if I wanted to eat in or take away and after I said take away she looked really worried and said it would be like 45 minutes. I told her that was ok and she went in the back and brought out another girl, who took my order and charged me. I think she thought I was cute and she said it would be 5 minutes. Sure enough, I was back up in my room with an honest to God Italian pizza in under 10 minutes. It was good but I think my body was so full of fatigue and stress that all I did was take a shower and go to bed. I still didn’t have time to process my feelings about my whole situation, but I would the next day. The next day I had a walking tour of the city center and I had to be there by 10:30.
When I woke up the next day I went down stairs to the basement, I guess, to find that I was mistaken that I thought breakfast ended at 9:30, it having ended a half hour ago. The owner said I could still squeeze some coffee out of the machine if there was any left and damned if I didn’t try. He also told me my mom called the hostel trying to see if I was ok. I had my London phone with me but since I was out of the UK it was useless, and I didn’t have access to the internet. So I didn’t blame her and since I was completely alone in a foreign country I was only the slightest bit embarassed. I asked which bus to take the the city center and relaxed fully for the first time since I got there when I heard it was the same bus I took to get from the Center to the hostel.
I went outside and was embraced by daylight and appreciated more than ever as a tool for survival after the Godless affair that was the night before. The only thing was that it was sort of a crappy day. The sky was grey and the ground was wet from rain while I was sleeping and it was actually a little chilly. I was grateful for my situation: for how amazing my living situation turned out to be, for the new knowledge of the bus system and for a plan ahead of me of what to do with my day. But I was still tired and I was still alone. I was excited, don’t get me wrong, but it was still day two of six in Italy by myself and the things I would have to do and the responsibilities I’d have to take care of in those next few days were always sitting dormant within me and looming over my head. I learned a lot about romanticizing things on this trip, and a lot about realism and responsibility. But I’ll get to that later, because I didn’t sit and thing about it fully until later in the day.
I got on the bus and went back to where I’d gotten on the bus the night before. The instructions I had said to wait by a cafe and I recognized it immediately when I got off the bus. The cafe was next to an alley way that led into the twisting core of the city, and here I waited for my guide, or for a group of people that would be waiting for the tour as well. I waited and waited but I still appeared to be along. There was a couple in front of me sitting at a table. The woman was smoking and they were both smiling at each other. I think the man was telling a story or something, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life.
Just when I was starting to think that I was in the wrong place or no one was going to show up, I heard someone say “hi, excuse me, are you here for the walking tour?” The slight German accent I heard belonged to a woman who appeared to be anywhere in her thirties. She had a kind face, a warm face and she was pretty, I would say. She looked like a mom and I would have said this anyway even if she didn’t approach me pushing a baby stroller forward with a little chubby baby in it. I would later find out the baby was called Rocko. I told her yes, I was here for that, assuming she was a customer as well and she was seeking solace in the fact that she wasn’t alone to wait. But it turned out she was actually the leader of the tour and I was the only one scheduled on it. Not what I had in mind and I was afraid the whole thing was going to be really awkward, but she seemed nice enough and I figured I would learn more, it just being myself.
So we ventured on, just the three of us. I learned that my tour guide, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, was German and from Berlin. I told her that I went there and went the Berlinale and we hit it off from there. She moved to Tuscany with her boyfriend and lived about an hour from Siena. She was nice and I liked her. But unfortunately almost as soon as we started walking, little Rocko started to cry. He cried and cried and the poor woman tried everything she could to keep him quiet. I did manage to learn about the Contradas from her and that all the richest people in Siena come from old money. As we all awkwardly stood in an opening off a main street while Rocko wailed and individually disturbed the peace of the Italian morning, my tour guide quickly stopped whatever information she was telling me and apologized on behalf of Rocko. She a lot of things in quick succession as she maneuvered the baby out of his stroller. The next thing I knew she propped the kid on her lap and started breast feeding him. Right there in from of me, her only paying customer. My heart went out to her though because I’m sure she was beyond mortified that she had to do that. And even that ended to no avail, as Rocko continued to cry for the duration of the walking tour. She took my picture by the Campo and still Rocko cried. We snaked through the streets in the drizzling rain and still Rocko cried. She got us tickets to go into an ancient awe inspiring cathedral and Rocko’s cries reverberated off the walls and the marble floors until she breast fed him again in one of the pews while she informed me of the particulars of the architecture. When his cries crescendoed to a screech she had no choice but to apologize profusely and end the tour, wishing me well and dragging the little lad out of the church. I liked her a lot, and I learned a lot. I hope Rocko isn’t still crying now.
I stayed in the church a little and looked at all I could. It was gigantic with a wide variety of marble statues depicting the stations of the cross. Ancient paintings dominated another room depicting the same thing. I left and the drizzle hadn’t gone away. I walked out and back into the streets, trying to decide what to do. I felt that I’d seen enough of the city in the day and a half I’d been there, to be honest. Siena is very small, but it was only about noon. I decided to go back to my hotel. I didn’t do this because I was tired or bored. The rain didn’t help, but mainly I wanted to go back to write. Leaving for Italy, I had it in my mind that I would get a lot of writing done on the film I planned to write about my experiences in London and Europe. I anticipated being alone in Italy for a week to yield some great results, and thus far I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and thing of anything. I figured this was as good a time as any to start. Plus I was a little tired and I still had half a bottle of wine there.
Back at the hotel, the immense silence that comes with being indoors alone at noon engulfed my room and brought with it, like that sort of situation does, a small tinge of guilt. I shook it off as I prepared my little table with my black book that used to contain this blog and a sheet of thin paper that came with my pizza the night before that I’d written a poem on, and my trusty pen that I’d been using the whole time since I’d been abroad (it was a Millennium Gloucester Hotel pen I’d gotten at the hotel during my first week in London – a pen I’d use to write with for the duration of my time abroad and a pen that still sits safe in my room now) and I re opened my wine. All set to do some writing, I sat there, motionless. This was the first time since I’d gotten to Italy that I was totally, completely unencumbered by immediate plans. It was 12:30 or so and I didn’t have to be anywhere until the next day at 10:30 when I had to be back where I’d found tour lady and Rocko, to get on another tour, this one a wine tasting, of the nearby medieval town of San Gimignano. I didn’t write for a long time because the thoughts of my situation were coming to me new and interesting. I was lonely. So far the grand romantic pilgrimage to Italy alone for a week, to be met with cultural immersion and never before seen sights and sounds and people and experience had brought upon more real world stress than I’d ever experienced, rain soaked clothes and groping around in the dark with no place to go but somewhere I didn’t know how to get to. I don’t think it had been scarring so far, but it certainly wasn’t romantic. Maybe it is now that it’s over, but when I was happening to me it was the worst. There were times the previous day where I had a chance to stop and look out over Tuscany and marvel at the Campo and things like that, but they were all bordered by the underlying notion that the clock was ticking down the daylight and I had no idea how to get to shelter. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, but this was the reality of the situation. And it was really an interesting thing to be feeling considering where I was. But now that it was over, now that I was safe and in control over what I was doing next, I had the opportunity and the ability to take those negative experiences and render them into something creative and something to say about reality in the midst of paradise. And because of where I was and the beauty of where I was physically I had the opportunity and the ability to take those aspects of my trip and render them into something creative to say about romance and beauty and all the positive things Siena had given me so far. What I had gone through sucked, a lot. But because I went through them I had the power to take these good and bad aspects and marry them together and comment, through my film or poetry or anything, about, what I said I’d strive for in my very first blog post, romance and responsibility. And then I wrote.
(and then I drank and then I took a nap).