I flew into Paris, where I had a friend waiting who nonetheless did not get my last email saying I was definitely coming and telling him when I'd get there, so he was a little surprised when I showed up at his door. But being a gracious French host, he let me stay with him about ten days and even drove me down to Tours to visit his hometown and parents. It was very charming and very French.
There I met up with some old high school friends and did the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. It was a riot! The first night was crazy with the most crowded square I've ever seen, and it was raining champagne and sangria and milk and flour and eggs (literally), and the glass underfoot cut a bunch of folks in sandals, and there was puke mixed in as well, so by the end of the day I couldn't come within ten feet of my shoes. We washed 'em, though, and went out the next day to run. I only got charged once, and I was so scared that I fell down, but some other dumbass distracted it, so I didn't get trampled or gorged. This one drunk guy got trampled really bad, we all thought he was in serious trouble, but when the mob finally pulled him out, he just stood up and raised his arms triumphantly and gave a drunken yell, and then he was lost in the crowd again. Another guy crouched right in front of the bullpen to get a picture of the bull coming out, and it came straight out and rammed him back onto his butt! Classic. I ran for the side of the bullring once when the bull was sweeping around, and I heard this Australian guy yelling, "Oh my god, my god! It's chaos! I've never seen--have you ever seen?ómy god, it's insanity!" He had obviously never seen a rodeo before.
Then we went to the north Atlantic Spanish surf town of San Sebastian to chill out, and my friends had to leave after a day, but I stayed about five more days. Sit on the beach all day, bodysurf and swim and check out the hotties playing soccer, eat tapas and drink sangria at night, live easily on $30 a day... I could dig it. The best part was the fourth day when these six gorgeous 18-year-old Italian boys trooped into the woman's apartment where I was staying (I called it Casa del Two Old Bitches) to sleep in the giant spare room with me. Costantino, Leonardo, Marto, Luca, Francesco, and Andrea. They were all cool in their own ways, Marto was pure sexy and the only one who didn't really speak English (I respect that), Costantino was kind and a good listener, Luca had an American dad and Egyptian mom and shortish blond dredlocks and olive skin (in a word, divine), Andrea was thoughtful and blond and tall, kind of brooding, Leonardo had a boyish cowlick and dark brown eyes and a quick smile, Francesco was quiet but intense and also boyish and tall. We hung out that night and Marto bought some hash that he shared, and I ran into them on the beach the next day, too. I had to leave all too soon, though.
Barcelona was one of those chokingly touristy places, I didn't stay long. I visited Nice and Cannes in the French Riviera for half a day each, just long enough to walk along the stone beaches, look at giant yachts, and get turned away from restaurants because I wasn't wearing Armani. Rich people can sure screw up nice places.
Then I went up to Geneva, Switzerland, which is the most expensive place in the universe, and it rained the whole time, but was kinda cool nonetheless. Then on to Interlaken (giant frat party) where I went canyoning with a group and these two Swiss-German stoners as guides. One of them sounded just like The Terminator: "Ya, I sink you should unzip yoa vetsuits, ozavise you be wrizing around on zee ground like a little turtle." "OK, no more stupid questions, ya?" "Ya, I sink you may die today." It was fun, though, sliding and jumping down waterfalls into freezing canyon pools. Then I went south into the Alps where I stayed in a Mountain Hostel with some actually pretty cool folks, hiked around with Hunter, an awesome guy from Seattle, and saw more waterfalls and mountain peaks and green vertical pastures and raging mountain streams and goats and cows with bells around their necks than I'd ever thought possible in one place. Unbelievably orgeous.
Venice was cool, would have been super-romantic if I'd had somebody with me and the lame tourists would go back to Disneyland where they belong. The first night I just wandered around and got lost, which was the most fun I had there. Wandering along narrow alleys and canals, saying "Ciao" to manly gondola drivers as they glided under a bridge. I ended up getting back late to the convent I was staying at, and those demonic old nuns almost wouldn't let me in. So much for forgiving your fellow man.
People up in the mountain hostel had been telling me about the Cinque Terre, five tiny fishing and farming villages on the Ligurian coast in northwest Italy, and I headed there next for the weekend. It was pretty cool, but too many tourists had found it, people there were already getting sick of us, charging higher prices, serving worse food, being more rude, and abandoning age-old livelihoods to cater to rich tourists. I hiked the 11 km between the five towns, and that was fun, some amazing views. At night I found a little out-of-the-way restaurant where I was just about the only person there, and this flirty waiter thought I spoke Italian, and he kept babbling away, and I kept nodding and smiling, and then he gave me free liqueurs to go with my divine little tiramisu for dessert. I think he asked me out for beers later, but I was too tired and drunk on wine and liqueurs to try to understand what he was saying, so I just went to bed. He wasn't that cute anyway. But it was a fun night, and the food was the best I had on the whole trip.
Then I stopped by Pisa to see the leaning tower on the way to Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, where I saw so many Renaissance masterpieces that by the end I felt like throwing up every time I saw a painting. I appreciated it immensely, but it was overwhelming. I took trains and buses down to some other little towns in the Tuscan hills, watched some peaceful sunsets, drank lots of cheap wine as always, it was a good time. Seriously, looking at dozens of rooms full of paintings that each took months or years to create, each has profound meaning waiting in every corner, each has fun details that not everyone picks up on, each has a story and a history and a theme and a reason and a real live person who did every single brush stroke, trying to appreciate that much art in so short a time is utterly exhausting and overwhelming. Really cool no doubt, but hard to keep up for so many hours straight.
Then I stopped by Bologna, a cute college town, on my way to Ancona to catch a ferry to Split, Croatia, just across the Adriatic Sea. I was at first going to go straight from Split to Hvar Island, and then Dubrovnik, but it occurred to me that Hvar, such a touristy beach town, would be crawling with Italian tourists (the obnoxious rich kind, not the adventurous shoestring 18-year-old kind) on the weekend, so I grabbed a bus for Dubrovnik instead. Turned out to be a great decision, because I met a cool Aussie girl on the bus, we ended up getting a room together, and the people who'd lived in the room before us came back to get their shampoo, and they were both awesome, and we rode the bus to the Old Town together and met a bunch of other folks they had met, and pretty soon it was a big ole party. We went down to a jetty, and I and a Kiwi (New Zealander) went swimming in the warm, crystal emerald aquamarine water and watched the sun set over the islands, and then we all went to dinner, and I sat across from an Aussie former business major who had gotten disgusted with the whole thing and decided to be a poet instead, and he looked like a cross between Tom Cruise and a young Christopher Reeve, only slimmer and more thoughtful and shy, and we talked all through dinner. His name was Brendan.
Then we went to an Australian bar, and again I was talking to Brendan. Meanwhile this kind of obnoxious Aussie asked a guy sitting alone if he could take his other bench, then he invited the guy to come sit with us, but I was too wrapped up in Brendan to notice. Then the Swedish girl he'd been travelling with, nice girl he'd met about a week before, moved over close to him and grabbed his attention, and I was like, ah, I see. OK, no Brendan for me. I was sporting about it. She had more of a stake, more time with him, I just kinda thought he was cute.
So instead I talked to the new guy, an Irishman, and we hit it off pretty well. We had an amazing amount in common. He studied math and physics at university, too, and he had Irish (duh) and Cherokee blood like me. He had a Harley and seemed the type who took life by the horns, but for some reason that was never quite clear to me, he joined the Irish Navy after he got his degree. He's in the Special Forces now and had stories about sea rescues that made A Perfect Storm sound like An April Shower. He'd also done UN "peacekeeping" work in Lebanon and "peace-enforcing" in East Timor, and he'd been stationed in Sarajevo, not far away, and other crazy places. He said after all that, he couldn't pick up a cup of coffee without his hands shaking all the liquid out, and he was taking a year off to find himself again. Just a genuinely good guy, he'd saved a lot of lives and seen a lot of things, and he was only 24 years old. We connected in an uncommon way and spent the rest of our time in Croatia together. He had some crazy stories to tell that made me think hard about life.
We went to Hvar together and sat in white marble Old towns looking over sapphire water drinking white coffees and cherry vodkas and prosek (Croatian brandy) together and talking, it was a great time. It was hard when we had to part ways, and he's due to dock in San Jose, CA, some time next spring, so hopefully I'll be able to see him again.
I went to Rome last of all, and the first night, like I often do in a new city, I threw out the maps and guidebooks and just started walking along the Tiber River, listening to music floating up from various places, walking by a man in a tree who threw me a fresh fig to eat, watching the water and the sky. In the next few days I went to the Forum and the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the Palatino, dodging giant Asian tour groups and rude Americans all the way. I went to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain (gorgeous) and St. Peter's Giant Basilica, which was pretty impressive I must say, in a disturbing way. I even visited the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, which was way too cool to be some rich pope's private study. Walked through the Hard Rock Cafe, but there was no need of it since I'd be home so soon.
I think next time I travel I'll avoid the tourist traps. I mean, I felt like I had to see Michelangelo's David and the Uffizi Gallery and the Louvre and the Leaning Tower and the Colosseum while I was in town, but what a downer when such cool places are drowned in boring tourists. I'm kind of glad I grew up in Oklahoma now. It's not interesting, but at least there aren't twelve millions tourists destroying our natural economy and turning everything expensive and cheap-looking and homogenous and lame. There's a McDonald's across from the Pantheon! I think next time I'll spend more time in villages and national parks.
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