The night before my flight overseas, I threw on my backpack and did a little twirl in the mirror. Whereupon I noticed two things:
- I should never twirl in a mirror again.
- I’ve carried the same backpack since the seventh grade,
a revelation I made upon spotting the gaping, wallet-sized hole in its rear end.
Thank Jesus for Khai’s sewing kit.
The abysmal state of my travel gear sets the stage for my week in Rome, Florence, Venice, and Paris, during which I…
- Used a 14-inch hair turban as a towel,
- Washed my clothes in restroom sinks,
- Bathed exclusively with hand soap, and
- Trekked 80 miles fueled almost entirely by 1-euro half-sandwiches.
Part 1: The Plan
I’ve always told people I want to backpack through Europe.
It hit me one day that I was becoming my greatest fear: someone who dreams, but doesn’t do. So then, instead of saying I wanted to backpack through Europe, I started saying I was going to backpack through Europe.
Still, in the back of my mind, I knew the truth. I didn’t have money. I didn’t have experience. And most importantly, I possessed the street smarts and self-defense skills of a limp spaghetti noodle.
Eventually, it hit me again. I wasn’t becoming my greatest fear—I was already living it. I was making excuses instead of taking risks. Pretty soon, I’d graduate and get a job. Marry, pop a fetus or two, invest in stocks, buy a house . . . trod along, happy and ordinary . . . eat a muffin . . . retire . . . eat a couple more muffins . . . die . . .
So I bought tickets to Rome.
And that was that.
Part 2: Seven Small Stories
- “My Mother’s Name is Angela!”
- We Accidentally See the Pope
- Anne Pours Water on a Half-Naked Italian Dude
- Molotovs and Slippery Nipples
- A Secret At 3:47 AM
- I Barge Unceremoniously Into Some Venetian Housewife’s Foyer
- My Fairy Godeleine
The sun is setting, and we’re drifting northeast towards our hostel. Note that, by “drifting,” I do not mean “wafting over the cobblestone sidewalks on an air.” I mean “every few minutes, when we check the compass, we realize we’ve somehow managed to U-turn whilst walking in a straight line.”
At an intersection, I make eye contact with this guy in his forties. He’s lean and well-dressed; good posture, real cordial. I nod and look away.
After we cross the street, he ventures closer. “You are China?”
Hey, I’m abroad. I’m looking to meet people, and here’s a pretty decent local. I pretend I’m not peeved by his remark. “No. We’re from America.”
“Ohhhhh!” he says, delighted. “Oh, wow! That is even better! You have the look of a Chinese girl and the” —he gestures widely— “confidence of an American!”
Anne and I exchange the Would-You-Look-At-That-It’s-Yet-Another-Creepy-Racist-Dude look we’ve perfected over the years, being young Asian women and all that. In that split second, the guy’s already planned his next move. “What is your name!” he says, with that Italian flourish.
For a solid five Mississippi seconds, I scour my brain for fake names. I’ve used “Carol” and “Emily” and “Amanda” before, but now, I’m standing around like a disabled trout with amnesia. “Angela,” I conclude.
“AH! AHHH-NGELA!” At this point he’s in danger of busting at least quarter of an aorta from his passion. “My mah-ther’s name is Ahh-ngela! And you?”
Anne goes, “Anne.”
Our friendly neighborhood son-of-an-Angela actually loses his shit. “AHhhhhhHHhHhhhH! AH-NA! I-AH HAAVE A CAH-SIN NAMED AH-NA! BEAUTIFUL!”
There’s a lull. In my head, I pull up some GIFs of drop kicks and start taking mental notes.
“Angela and Anna.” He leans in, all charm and congeniality. “Want to come to a party with me?”
Which is precisely when I realize we are word-for-word reenacting the entire first scene of the action-thriller movie Taken, in which two incompetent millennials are kidnapped by a charming, congenial European dude.
I’m feeling adventure. I am not, however, feeling the type of adventure that involves being initiated into an underground sex trafficking ring. “NOPE SORRY OUR FRIENDS ARE WAITING” —some arm flails— “OVER THERE.”
We don’t look back. My dad has a habit of announcing, at arbitrary intervals, that he’ll Liam-Neeson me out of any situation . . . but my dad is not Liam Neeson. Anne’s dad is not Liam Neeson. Our boyfriends are not, by any stretch of the imagination, Liam Neeson.
I’m not done yet.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, we’ve trekked a mile towards our hostel. We’re crossing another intersection when a car honks and rolls down the window. The driver starts blowing kisses at us.
Typical. I don’t even bother to look.
The cars are still stopped for the red light when we reach the opposite walkway. That’s when I hear, very faintly, brimming with a great aorta-busting passion: “Ahhhn-gela! Ahhhn-na!”
As it happens, the inside of my brain is also going, Ahhh!
And that was the day I learned that Rome is a seriously. Goddamn. Tiny. City.
The way Rome’s set up, there are narrow streets bedazzled with shops, restaurants, and cafes on both sides. Occasionally, the streets percolate into open squares that host fountains or monuments.
Cristian, Anne, and I are hiking to the Pantheon when we happen upon one such square. Italian guards mill about, decked out in machine guns and camouflage jumpsuits. Thumb-twiddlers bunch up along the edges, making small talk.
The guards are everywhere in Rome, so we’re not surprised. You turn a corner—BOOM—attractive young guy with a buzzcut and a machine gun. Turn another corner—BOOM—attractive young guy with a buzzcut and a machine gun. Sometimes you may even turn a corner and—BOOM!—an entire Jeep full of attractive young guys with buzzcuts and machine guns! Makes you start to wonder if there’s a line on the job application that says, Do not apply if you are not confident in your ability to look good with a buzzcut and a machine gun.
We’ve got a packed itinerary for the day, so we take note of the spectacle and are on our way. “I wonder what’s going on,” Anne muses.
Cristian, the Californian we met at breakfast, laughs. “Maybe it’s the Pope.”
Me and Anne laugh too. We continue being on our way.
Soon, Cristian diverges to interrogate a civilian in Spitalian (Spanish + Italian). The poor guy is confused and, after a bit of haggling with hand motions, offers up a weak, “Papi?” with a question mark.
“That means Father,” says Cristian. “Oh my God, what if it is the Pope?”
“He didn’t sound too sure about it,” I point out, “and there aren’t a lot of people waiting around, so . . .”
We loiter for another five minutes, but we have no idea when this maybe-the-Pope-maybe-not-the-Pope is showing up, and we want to get to the Pantheon. So Cristian snaps a photo of the square and takes off. “Either way,” he calls over his shoulder, “we’ll tell people we saw the Pope.”
We amble through the streets, window-shopping, gelato-lusting, and getting to know each other. We’re talking about the strippers Cristian used to serve at his restaurant when I’m distracted by the zippy grunt of a motorcycle engine.
All three of us whip around just in time to see the butt of a car vanish around a corner. The zippy grunts belong to the police motorcycles vanishing in haste behind it.
Cristian: “WAS THAT THE POPE.”
Anne: “WE DID NOT JUST SEE THE POPE.”
Me: “YEAH THERE IS NO WAY WE JUST SAW THE ACTUAL REAL LIVE LEADER OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.”
“Like I said,” declares Cristian, “we’ll just tell people we saw him anyway.”
Anne and I agree wholeheartedly, though all of us are skeptical that we were really just graced with the presence of the holy father himself. We walk on, hitting the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Janiculum Hill, Spanish Steps, and Castro Pretorio. Every location blows my mind a little. I forget all about our encounter with the probably-not-the-actual-Pope-of-the-Vatican.
A week later, I’m back home, binge-eating finger foods on the couch. A lazy curiosity strikes me, and I Google “where to see the Pope in Rome.” I click around, find his calendar of events. Go back a couple days to Saturday, June 10.
Piazza del Quirinale.
It was him.
We saw the Pope. The actual real live leader of the Catholic church.
I guess if you want to be technical about it, we saw the disappearing butt cheek of a tinted-window vehicle in which the Pope was probably sitting.
But, you know, I just realized . . . what if the Pope saw us?
Completely by chance, the one full day we’re in Rome also happens to be the day of the pride parade.
EDM blares from the float in front of us, which is adorned with ferociously body-rolling male strippers. Along the streets, drag queens pose for photos in stilettos and feather boas. Couples hold hands; sometimes, they stop short so they can pull in for a kiss. Rainbow flags and poster signs bob above the crowd. As the mob pulses forward to the explosive bass, beer and confetti cascade from the sky like streamers.
My first few minutes, I get chills. There’s a feeling that soaks the parade like an invisible web. It’s so tangible I can almost see it up there like a glow or a sunburst, ballooning over our heads. I can’t box it up into one emotion. Love. Acceptance. Living. It’s all there.
Speaking of ballooning, the bouncing balloons are actually condoms. And the showers of confetti are—get this—even more condoms.
By the time we reach the Colosseum, we’re all tipsy, sweaty, dancing, and shouty. The stripper float stops and cranks up the volume; bodies wriggle, the bass drops, the crowd goes wild. Anne gets this weird look on her face, and I step back to see this skinny Italian dude grinding up on her. When she leaps away, he cackles and twerks like he is infused with the blood of Nicki Minaj on steroids.
With a gasp, he spots our bottle of water. He thrusts his torso at us and runs his hands maniacally through his chest hair, screaming words in Italian.
Anne uncaps the bottle, raises her arm, and shakes its contents over him with the solemnity of a clergy member sprinkling holy water over the garden of Christ.
In all my twenty years of existence, I have never seen a happier man.
It’s eleven P.M. and the alleys are gaunt and silent. Craig, Anne, and I try the handle of the door to the Jazz Club for the billionth time.
Here’s a variation on a theme: the billionth time is not the charm.
We’re convening to re-think our plans when a voice says, with a strong British accent, “Are you looking for Rex?”
“No,” I say as the speaker comes into the light. He’s this large, well-groomed guy in jeans and a sweater. “We’re actually here for the Jazz Club, but I think it’s closed right now.”
“Well,” he says, “I’m heading for a bar too. Shall we go together?”
This is the “yes” that changed my life.
As Anne and Craig reminisce about their high school days, I get to know Rich, a London DJ in town for a wedding gig. He’s heading to Ibiza next, and his most frequent haunts are the underground clubs of Greece, England, and Shanghai. He has one piece of advice for me: “If you love doing something, go out and do it.” Or something like that. Read it in a British accent, and you’ll get the idea.
We stumble upon an Irish pub, and Rich offers to buy the first round. Naturally, we all vehemently protest.
Thirty seconds later I’m sipping from a glass of cranberry vodka. I haven’t spent a dime.
We end up leaving the bar with Hans and Melissa, a American couple who’ve bonded with Anne and Craig over college sports. As we converse our way across Florence, Rich continues to buy us all round . . . after round . . . after round . . .
- The Lion’s Fountain: vodka cranberry
- The Red Garter: Jägerbomb
- Zoe Bar: rum & Coke, slippery nipple (?!)
- Flò: rum & coke, Molotov cocktail
So here’s what happens with the Molotov.
At Zoe Bar, Rich stops mid-sentence and holds up a hand. Grimly, he says, “We have to go.”
We’ve already staggered 2.5 miles that night, though I won’t know this until tomorrow morning. “NooOOooO,” someone says.
“Come on,” insists Rich. “My DJ senses are tingling.” He pats his chest and fixes us with a smolder. “Thump-uh. Thump-uh. Thump-uh. I can feel it.”
At some point, he has become the herder of five American sheeplings. We groan and drag ourselves out the door behind him.
According to my phone, we walk another half mile along the river. Rich keeps saying we should toss me onto the road as bait for transportation. I keep suggesting he toss himself onto the road for coming up with the idea. And eventually we’re at the foot of a hill, and—I have no recollection of this—we proceed to climb TWO HUNDRED FEET to the top in the PITCH BLACK.
And suddenly: Flò. It’s on an outlook over the Piazzale Michelangelo, and even at the door, I recognize I am at the peak of my clubbing non-career.
Except then, the bouncer takes one scowly look at Hans’ shorts and shakes his head.
Rich says, “Take my jumper.” Hans dons the sweater and proceeds to yank it down over his knees. Here, you may imagine a burly college athlete pantless in a knitted black dress.
The bouncer’s like, Why is my life the way it is.
Then Rich pulls out his wallet. Five minutes later, we’re in.
Floating, multicolored lamps glow like underwater mushrooms. Blue and purple lights crisscross the dance floor. Sofa lounges line the peripheries and, over the edge of the wall, we can see the entire city of Florence, spread out like sparkling embellishments on a china plate.
We dance. The most accurate description I can procure regarding the experience is the word “unicorn.” That is all.
Around 2 A.M., we’re yelling small talk in a sofa lounge when a tray glides over the crowd, masted with a vodka bottle spitting six-inch flames. The bearer of the tray sets it down on the table in front of us, a masterpiece, a true work of art.
We dole out six servings, clink glasses, and take elegant shots of the actual Molotov cocktail as pink and purple lanterns flicker around us.
That’s not what happened.
Rich pours himself a glass. The rest of us dive voraciously to the left of it, where a tiny ceramic bowl of fresh fruit screams silently in terror. There is actually a 90% chance that a majority of the Molotov cocktail goes untouched.
At the end of the night, Rich takes his jumper back from Hans. We’re stumbling past a tiny bakery when he stops short and declares that he’s hungry.
The rest of us offer up a variety of slurred affirmations. A couple feet away, two gypsies circle another drunk American. The bakery lights buzz.
“Well,” says Rich. “This is it.”
He comes around and gives us each a hug. Then he steps into the bakery and doesn’t look back.
Neither do we.
Anne, Craig, Hans, Melissa, and I end up watching the sun set together the next day.
None of us ever see him again.
“You’re lucky I’m here.” He has a stern, round face. “We lock the doors at three.”
“We’re really, really sorry,” Anne and I say, with the panicked calm of two really, really drunk people who know that now is a good time to be really, really sober.
The night receptionist shuts the hostel doors behind us. “Is that a tattoo?”
“Y e ahhh,” I say. Soberly.
“What is it?”
I manage some mumbo jumbo about wordsmithing.
“Ah,” he says. “You like writing. And you?”
“Art,” mumbo-jumbos Anne.
The man considers this for a moment. We float suspended in a sleepless haze as the clock ticks past 3:35. “Okay,” he says finally. He nods to himself. “I’m going to show you something, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”
“We can keep a secret,” I assure him.
He fixes me with a grim look. “Good.”
And, as the convent-turned-hostel sleeps around us, we follow him down a cramped hallway and enter a dim warehouse room. When the door begins to swing shut behind us, I grab the handle, suddenly on high alert.
“I am the security guard,” he scoffs, putting his hands in the air. “It’s unlocked. Try it.”
Still suspicious, I wriggle the handle. He’s right. Plus, my bladder’s about to explode, so I can projectile-pee on any male attackers if necessary. It will probably have the same effect as pelting tampons.
“Remember,” says the receptionist. He leads us to a rickety plaster door in the corner. “You cannot tell anyone about this.”
He throws open the door, and I catch my breath.
It’s 3:47 AM.
I’ve promised not to tell anyone.
Three words of wisdom re: Venice:
It looks small. It seems easy to navigate. From Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia up north to St. Mark’s Basilica down south, it’s practically a straight shot.
Then you step off the train and realize the concept “straight shot” does not exist, unless you are willing to hoist your backpack over your head and doggy-paddle through a murky brown canal.
Oh, and the concept “straight shot” double doesn’t exist, unless you are able to surpass the laws of physics and walk through the solid walls that signify the 29304802934 dead ends which make up 85% of Venice’s skinny streets.
Let me put it this way: the island is a mirror maze, except instead of mirrors, there’s gelato and carnival masks. And pizza. And at the end of the maze is a tour boat leaving the harbor in 55 minutes . . . 43 . . . 27 . . . 10 . . .
The instant Anne and I get off the train, we book it down south towards the harbor. Sixty seconds later, we U-turn and book it back up north, on account of the fact that we’ve been running headlong into bridgeless territory.
We sprint south. Dead end. U-turn.
Northeast. Fifteen steps. Dead end. U-turn. Southwest. Twenty-two steps. Dead end. U-turn. Northwest. Three alleys. Wrong direction. U-turn. Southeast. Eleven alleys. But wait! NO BRIDGES!
Another three words of wisdom re: Venice:
Keep in mind this entire spectacle occurs amidst sticky hordes of tourists and potential pickpockets, with the addendum of our fat backpacks and the 95-degree sun.
We miss our boat by 15 seconds.
No hard feelings, though. That’s the level of beautiful Venice is.
Feeling defeated, we sit down and inspect our backpacks. I notice with horror that the padding is actually wet. I have sweated straight through my shirt and into the backpack. Frankly, I don’t think the thing will ever recover. If we’d set up a Go-Pro, the footage could probably be mistaken for a horror movie.
We end up taking the next tour, which leaves at 2:30pm and returns by 6:45pm.
The tour’s great. We explore three neighboring islands: Murano, Torcello, and Burano.
Now, back to Lesson #1:
If we don’t check in to our hostel by 7:00pm, we might be forced to sleep in the streets. And considering there are practically no benches on the island, this means we will not only be sleeping in the streets, but also on the streets. Literally.
Round two: the instant Anne and I get off the boat, we book it up north towards our hostel. I’m slightly more adept at map-reading this time around, but we’re running faster than my brain can interpret the twisty turvies. It is a death-sprint in many more ways than one.
Finally, my map shows we’ve arrived. I screech to a halt; from behind, Anne nearly bowls me over. In synchrony, we look up to see a signpost designed, printed, and installed by the angels of heaven themselves: “OSTELLO SANTA MONACA HERE.”
I punch the buzzer and double over to wheeze. We’re fifteen minutes late, but maybe if I cry a little—I can definitely muster up a sob or two—
The lock clicks. I leap forward and bulldoze through the door, sliding to a halt in a magnificent marble foyer. It seems familiar, so I start wandering, practically psychotic with momentum. “Do you see the reception anywhere?” I ask Anne.
She’s about to respond when a woman in her late forties comes trotting down the stairs. “Hi,” I say, in my oh-thank-God voice, “where can we check in?”
The woman is confused for a second.
This makes me confused.
Which makes Anne confused.
We all stand around for a bit. Finally, the woman bursts out laughing and points to the right. “Hostel that way!” she says in heavily accented English. “I think you are my son, so I let you in. Hostel that way.”
I have never let loose a more genuine round of sorry’s in my life.
The Notre Dame is one of those buildings that sucks your chest out in a vacuum, spits it into the Fountain of Youth, and rolls it around in chocolate pudding before popping it back in.
Note how I didn’t say “heart.” It’s your entire chest.
So Anne and I are standing beneath the main entrance, basking dumbly in this chest-vacuuming history, when a frail, lacey voice inquires, “Are you from Chicago?”
As semi-seasoned travelers, we’re immediately suspicious. Even though she’s dainty, withered, and wearing a pink cardigan, I keep my guard up. Ah, paranoia.
“It says Chicago on your bag.” Her French accent goes in curlicues, which further textures the wrinkle in her voice. “I attended high school in Massachusetts, back in 1959. Now, before I forget, let me tell you something about this cathedral here . . .”
Her back is hunched and her chin is quivering, but her poise is steady. She tells us tale after tale about the statues lining the doors, the stained glass, the construction, the murals inside. After each one, she checks her watch. “I should go,” she keeps saying. “I’m a tour guide here, you see, and I was just finishing work when I saw you ladies. And I thought, wow, usually the tourists come, take a photo or two, and leave. But you are . . . puzzling? I don’t think that’s the right word.”
And then she spirals into another story.
We end up staying at the Notre Dame long after twilight, entangled in her dusty magic. Finally, after I ask her to write in my Field Notes, she checks her watch one last time. “I really must go,” she says.
We don’t have time to give her the thanks she deserves. She turns, waves, and totters off towards the south. Anne and I look at each other, not having words, but not needing them either.
When we look up again, she’s gone.
Godeleine, said her tag. Godeleine Allard.
Here is the snippet she left in my Field Notes:
Part 3: Field Notes
On Roma- hills with their heads lopped off, graffiti (napkin killer & SCREAM), fruit stands, prickly trees to cup in your hands, artisanal sandstone, nostril-breeze
- Visited: Colosseum, Palatine Bridge, Square in Piscinula Exhibitions Palace, Piazza del Quirinale, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Janiculum Hill, Spanish Steps, Castro Pretorio
On Firenze- cardboard-box streets, bikes and mopeds, plucky resonance, east steps of the Chiesa, striped twilight
- Visited: Duomo, Piazza Santa Maria Novella, San Lorenzo Market, Central Market, San Lorenzo Basilica, Piazza della Signoria and Ponte alle Grazie, the Rose Garden, Piazzale Michelangelo
On Venezia- cats and gondolas, per rialto and per s. marco, musty strings, narrower and narrower
- Visited: St. Mark’s Square, Murano, Torcello, Burano, Rialto Bridge, Vivaldi Museum
On Paris- green quadrilaterals, music crisscross overhead like shield, latticework, sacred ambiance, portrait of a woman dreaming to fly away
- Visited: Notre Dame, Louvre, Pont Neue, Victor Hugo’s House, Modern Art Square, Tuilleire Gardens, L’Orangerie Museum, Eiffel Tower
People We Met
Part 4: How We Did It
Over those seven days, we traveled 80 miles on foot with 1 backpack each. Excluding plane tickets, we spent about $450 each, which includes:
- Lodging: We booked all our hostels in advance for $20-$30 per night (see: HostelWorld).
- Food: For breakfast, we bought 99-cent pastries. For lunch and dinner, we split a sandwich or slice of pizza. We budgeted for one sitdown meal in each country.
- Transportation: Intra-city = walking. Inter-city = rideshare, trains, and cheap flights (see: BlaBlaCar, Rome2Rio, Skyscanner).
- Activities: Because our main goal was to explore and meet people, the only tickets we bought were for the Venetian islands and the L’Orangerie.
- Data: We survived without any! Whenever we found free wi-fi, we’d message our friends and parents. Otherwise, we used airplane mode and offline maps. (see: HERE WeGo, Sygic Travel)
- Souvenirs: So we caved and bought our loved ones some trinkets…
I would say so much more, but you’re probably sick of hearing me ramble. I know this for a fact because I’m definitely sick of hearing me ramble. So to conclude, let me tell you one of the most significant things I learned over the course of this trip:
If I can do it, so can you.