Once more, I am bitten by the self-created demon by the name of “treating myself;” I am once more being bitten by mosquitoes, too, for that matter. In Milan, I decide to stay a night, eat an all-you-can-eat sushi dinner, and get up early to go to Switzerland and Liechtenstein hoping that I can then catch a late-night bus to Munich, then a bus to Prague, and be out only one night’s sleep with the benefit of not having to reserve a hostel bed in the confines of infamously expensive Switzerland.
Late at night, I lie awake in a Milanese hostel without air conditioning; my sleeping pill decides not to work tonight, and I have just recently slept in a bed, quite soundly, the night before in Rimini. It seems my body has developed a new circadian rhythm, and while it’s a groovy one it means I cannot sleep two nights in a row. I am now on a ten-hours every forty-eight hours kind of beat, and beat doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. In the sleepless nights I write, or think of what to write, or start thinking in tongues until I can’t remember what language I speak fluently. What is my name? Where am I from, where am I going, when is the next bus to…? and so on. When I do catch a few precious minutes' sleep, upright on a Flixbus from somewhere to somewhere further east, I wake up not knowing where I am at all and taking up to five minutes remembering where I got on, what the road signs say, and how I got to sit here in this exact seat. I have transcended highway hypnosis to discover the next level of psychosomatic somnambulance where you are traveling so fast and to so many different countries that you no longer know where you are, where you are going, or what language to speak. I call it autobahn amnesia.
Back to my money woes. I blew a bunch of cash in Milan—even though I told myself I’d be good because I’m already spending so much money just trying to get through these lovely but expensive Italian countries—and here I am being waited on by three different Chinese people at an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant, eating countless spicy tuna rolls made with Tabasco. I figure I’m already in this thing, and I have to get my money’s worth. I spend 25 bucks but eat 75 USD worth of sushi. In Switzerland, I will have my one real Swiss meal and go to Aldi or Lidl or whatever their cheap grocery store is for the rest of the trip. No more wasting cash in Europe. I have too many countries to go, and too little money to spend everything on food I could eat (or make) at home. This all swirls around my head as my bunk-mates snore peacefully and I and stew and sweat profusely. There was some Baldwin quote about Harlem in the summer. What was it?
There is a twenty-four hour grocery store in the neighborhood where I am staying near the Milan bus station (though the hostel is still an hour’s walk away even from that). I skip the sights to spend an hour perusing the freezer section of the grocery store around 1 a.m., only to pass the cashiers and buy a cold half-gallon of iced tea at the bodega next store. I drink almost all of it on the stroll back to the hostel and in my bed. I had enough time awake to see something of value to a tourist in Milan; I should have gone on a midnight promenade. I am told there is an opera house in Milan where Madama Butterfly first premiered, and where the audience laughed audibly because it was so bad. This caused Puccini to rewrite the opera which has now been hailed as brilliant. I’m not a big opera guy, but I would like to see that just as a monument to human perseverance. ‘Maybe next time,’ I think. ‘If I’m ever in Milan at a cooler time of year.’
Just as I am about to fall asleep, I get a message that my late-night bus out of Chur (pronounced koor), Switzerland is canceled, and that I will have to leave the city at noon the day after I planned to. My plans of saving money on lodging in Central Europe are destroyed, as I will now have to book a hostel in Chur. The cheapest option for accommodation is 40 bucks, and to make matters worse I will now have to book a new bus from Munich to Prague, resulting in a hefty cancellation fee. I am able to change my itinerary in bed, on my phone, and exhaustion puts me to sleep at 3 a.m.
No matter who you are, you likely have not been to—or ever heard of—the small yet U.N.-recognized nation of San Marino. If you have, odds are you could not place it on a map. Of the handful of European micro-states, this mountain enclave east of Tuscany is perhaps one of the least known and least influential. Furthermore, San Marino is so off the beaten path that public transport does not even reach it.
No trains or city buses operate from Rome or Bologna to the nation’s capital, also called San Marino, and so my only option is to buy a 5-Euro ticket with Rimini-based company, Bonelli Bus, which makes the 45-minute trek several times a day into the mountain micro-state. When I board, the bus is nearly empty and when I reach the capital at 7:40 only a few more people have boarded en route. I enter a small restaurant next to the bus station, and buy a lemon soda and a piadina, in effect little more than an Italian quesadilla, for breakfast as the fog obscures the valley below.
It is not an exaggeration to say that the country, and to a much greater extent the capital, is a mountaintop kingdom sealed off geographically from the rest of Europe, and for that matter the rest of the world. One gets the feeling of being somewhere remote, climbing through the clouds to San Marino, without actually being very far from some of Earth’s busiest cities. For this reason, San Marino has maintained its independence for hundreds of years as few nations have thought it worth conquering. On a cloudy day, it seems entirely plausible that they evaded capture simply because no one knew that the Sammarinese were even here. In this way, a stroll around the city of San Marino feels either like heaven, some extraterrestrial land, or else, like some kingdom that rests above the clouds, only accessible via a magic beanstalk.
To travel here in the morning is especially surreal. Before the dozens of souvenir shops with signs in Russian, Italian, and English open for the day, I feel as though I have the whole country to myself. It is only when the fog burns off that tourists start driving in from the Italian border to snap photos of themselves, in the land likely missing from many an Italian tour book, in front of a mountaintop castle that could be anywhere in central Europe. My piadina breakfast is deliciously simple, and when I am done I take a public elevator up the mountain switchbacks and walk through the abandoned streets until one of the towers of San Marino, depicted on the nation’s flag, opens for business. I elect to visit the oldest tower (from the 11th century), because it is supposed to give me the best view of the city’s other two, each built on separate peaks of Mount Titano. It runs me 5 Euros to climb up, but is more than worth it to see the peak of the kingdom practically perched atop an umbrella above the clouds.
Though completely exhausted by my 5-country no-bed challenge, I am afraid to leave San Marino too quickly. I have fulfilled my requirements: eaten the local food (piadina), stepped out of the bus station (and climbed a mountain), and taken in a cultural display (the tower museum). I wish to see what the other two towers look like up close, so I choose to walk the path connecting all three on my way to lunch. Between the first and third, I see many other tourists walking along the stone path. These are the suckers who paid for the 7.5 Euro combo ticket, thinking they would get any extra satisfaction from the second, much newer, tower. I do not buy a ticket, and merely want to lose myself in the micro-state. Past the second tower, a stone path, lampost, and overgrown greenery commandeer the landscape and I step through a wardrobe outside Rapunzel’s tower into Narnia. Before long, I lose all my New England Eagle Scout sensibilities and begin to think everything is poison ivy, snakes, and thorns, certain that everything in this wet humid mountaintop will kill me. Oh how far I have fallen from that brave boy who spent his eighteenth birthday alone in the Green Mountain wilderness. College has made me soft.
Ironically, the third tower is guarded by the least menacing possible stand-in for Alsan the lion: a thin tabby cat with a yellowish belly who quickly rolls over onto her back when she sees me coming to say hello. She has a nametag with “Joli” engraved on it, and quickly gets bored with me, slinking off into the bushes. I emerge from the forest to find the nation’s local TV and radio station, which happens to share a building with the national congress. It is not busy so I assume congress is not in session. For all I know, the station might not be on air. I can imagine how challenging it would be to operate a 24/7 TV and radio station for so few people. Who is there to tune in?
A popular local restaurant offers a 50-cent discount on pizza if you order take-away, and I am happy to sit in a park and scarf down a couple slices while sweaty tourists climb the steep switchbacks that lead to the top of the mountain at midday. I resolve to only go downhill from here. Tossing my pizza paper into a trash can, I find several shortcuts—small residential alleys and staircases leading directly down the hill—which leads me back to the bus station where dozens of Russian tourists are rushing to get pictures of the farmland below, babbling about how glad they are that they took a tour and did not drive here themselves. There are few public parking lots because there is little even land. I board my bus, likely cheaper than the SlavExpress, and head back to Rimini satisfied that I have seen all there is to see in San Marino.
After ruinous Rome, of which my favorite monument was Julius Caesar’s assassination site (now a cat sanctuary), I awake the rest of the way from my semi-sleep on my late-night bus to Pescara. When I reach the bus station, after passing within a few miles of the small village where my great grandfather was born, I walk into the Chicken Hut for a bathroom and as much water or juice I can put away before my 11:50 bus to coastal Rimini. There I intend to sleep the rest of the night on the beach like oh so many Springsteen songs, a bucket list item I hope to tick off.
When I ask the Middle Eastern owner if I can use the bathroom before ordering, he says that is ok, telling me also to “enjoy my moment.” In the bathroom, he has one of those toilet-shower combos, separated from the sink-antechamber by a partly toppled accordion-door. I enjoy my moment well enough, as per the owner’s request, but keep thinking how much more I would enjoy it if I could take a shower. For an instant I consider it, after all it seems customer satisfaction comes first at the Chicken Hut and if this is what it takes to truly enjoy my experience than who are they to question it? I brush the idea out of my mind when I realize how ridiculous I would look coming out of a fast food bathroom with soaking hair and a towel. Outside, the owner hands me my food and I enjoy it along with what I assume are all Euro Pop songs. I find this genre eternally fascinating. European pop has always fascinated me by its consistent ability to sound like Britney Spears songs that never became popular, because they are objectively terrible. Heavy beats, trance, and dance music have not died in Europe and perhaps never will. Half of the fun is listening to song after song, the common theme being beats you can dance to, along with equally simple and repetitive English lyrics, somehow making it curious English music for non-English speakers. If you have ever wondered why young Europeans speak English so well, I suspect EuroPop plays a role. I take a call from my brother, finish my chicken, and leave the Hut to get some fresh air as the prophetic words of Romanian singer Andra ring in my tired mind like ricocheting bullets:
Or am I better off
Without you now
Without you now
Without you now
Or am I better off
Without you now
Without you now
Without you now
There have always been a long list of things that keep me awake. Tonight, Andra got added to that list. My bus arrives after midnight and I watch a curbside lineup of young Italian men get cuffed and carted away while I am waiting on the same curb about twenty feet away, trying to hear what is going on.
It is truly the wee small hours of the morning when I disembark at “Central Studi-Rimini,” which is a small piece of asphalt that we would call a “commuter lot” back home. It is dark, and I feel a few drops of rain on my nose as I float through the ghost town's ectoplasmic Mediterranean fog. No one is out, and every block I hope to come across a cafe or bar that is open this late, so I can try the Italian coffee my parents have been raving about since their anniversary trip here. It figures that it begins to rain the one time I am without shelter. Alanis Morrissette doesn't know what irony is, but I do. I throw on my sweatshirt and as I walk to the sea, the rain subsides and I nearly step on at least a dozen snails who are happily basking in the moisture.
The beach is closed until five in the morning, and I haven’t eaten since the Chicken Hut, so I walk south until I come to an open bar, where I pick up a croissant and a coffee. I also read Kerouac until the beach opens. I cannot check into my hostel until 2, and so my plan is to only drop my bags off at the hostel and press on to San Marino that morning, arriving back for a midafternoon coma. Thankfully, the receptionist is happy to take my bags and I appear at the bus station before the first line leaves at 6:55. I am the only one on board, save one other backpacker, and so I stretch out in the last row and am rocked to sleep by the swaying mountain roads between Rimini and the mountain kingdom of San Marino.
I assume we all have things our parents said to us when we were younger that we just can’t get out of our heads, for better or for worse. Maybe your dad commented on your weight, or your mom thinks you sleep around too much. Even the idyllic Bernabeis, who magnanimously sponsored the last post, carry such unavoidable baggage. Let me tell you about the most recent instance.
In Barcelona, on one of our last days together, I started asking my parents what I should see in Italy, as they had recently taken an anniversary voyage to the quinquagenarian trip trifecta of Rome, Florence, and Venice.
“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll like Italy; the people aren’t incredibly friendly and it gets very touristy and crowded. Plus it’s gonna be hot.”
My mom, as moms have done for ages, often makes assumptions about how I think and feel that prove to be inaccurate. Just in the last few weeks, she has made a series of contradictory accusations to the effect that A) I am secretly gay but haven’t realized it yet, B) had sex with my best (male) friend of half a decade back in high school, and C) will, one day, marry a woman older than myself. I have no reason to believe that any of these three beliefs are true, let alone all three, which stand in opposition to one another like the eternally warring parties of rock, paper, and scissors.
Ponder this: If I was attracted to men, wouldn’t I be aware of it if I had sex with my friend in high school? Furthermore, if I did discover my latent homosexuality after laying my buddy Will, I imagine I would have trouble committing to a marriage with some older woman with that knowledge, seeing as I have trouble committing to one country, continent, or even hemisphere. And finally, if I did find sexual gratification in the caress of my dearest friend, I surely would not be marrying some lady, as Will and I are practically platonic soulmates. Marriage with a woman would be futile, as he completes me in all manners except sexual, and always has. Like I said, my mom’s accusations are preposterous.
However, when she told me I was not going to absolutely fall in love with my ancestral homeland, I believed it. If Italy is so great, why have four generations of Bernabeis only gone for brief visits--like short, sweet sips of limoncello—to the country's more touristic locales, rather than a full journey of self discovery from the roots up? Furthermore, conundrum as to why my great grandfather decided his life would be better in Steubenville, Ohio (to where I recently tracked down his immigration papers) than in the land of sun, wine, goat cheese, and Parma ham adds additional intrigue. I never knew the man or his son (my grandfather), who died well before I was born, but from what I heard he was a real wild, running around-type guy. Allegedly, he got run out of some town in Pennsylvania for trying to unionize coal miners, just another chapter in a life of changing towns, losing interest, and moving on. Some genes skip a generation. That one seems to have skipped two.
In Italy, I am very interested in how I fit into this whole “thing.” Will I get special treatment for having an Italian name? Or will I be another obnoxious tourist who doesn’t know the language and insists on speaking English? The only preferential treatment I seem to receive is not having to pull up my ticket when the Italian bus driver calls my name in France. I am the last one waiting and he is waiting for one more to board, so he just waves me in. I choose to think he does this because he doesn’t want to stand in the way of an American Bernabei returning to his ancestral homeland, and not because he is impatient or lazy.
No one I meet in Italy is mean or rude, but no one is particularly friendly. In fact, I sort of connect with the keep-to-yourself Italian attitude, where no one is your friend except your actual friends. It’s not unlike New York City. In fact, I would be more than willing to bet that this is where New York gets it from, several waves of Italian immigration later after no-time-to-talk pizza-shop culture has sunk into the five-boros mindset. I get to enjoy many a Roman argument from afar, as people try to exchange money for less-than-desirable rates, buy tickets from the bus driver with less than the assigned fare, and walk by the Trevi fountain without getting mauled by guys selling bracelets. I enjoy it all. Did their mothers not warn them Italy would be this way?
When a Senegalese man tries to lure me into buying a 10-Euro Louis Vuitton purse, we play with each other in Franglish until he gives up on trying to make the sale, but smiles at my humor and sense of fun. The truth is this: these tourist joints are objectively terrible. Regardless, I have a lot of fun watching the tourists, the locals, and the salesmen all interacting. For those who love realism and performance art, it is the best-value ticket in town, even compared to the other free stuff. Why go to the leaning tower of Pisa, when you can watch a thousand sunstroked Staten Island relationships sink underground more quickly and spectacularly? True people-watchers can find a nice shady spot near the Vatican and watch as God’s children grow to hate one another more and more as they try to just enjoy a nice Italian vacation, waiting in a mile-long line to see St. Peter’s Basilica.
Spoiler alert: they won’t.
While I enjoy my cleverly laid-out, nearly-free tour of Rome and the Vatican (Spagna-Trevi-Pantheon-Navona-Sant Angelo-Pizza by St. Peter’s Basilica-Colosseum for those following along at home), what I most enjoy are the people. Not just the aforementioned triumvirate of tourist, Italian, and refugee, but the mad pizza-makers who dance around one another with impressive speed and tact, the flamboyant tour guides who impressively don’t hate their jobs in 90-degree heat, and the Vatican Guards in big blue pantaloons who ask where-do-I-think-I’m-going when it is more than obvious I’m trying to split a slice of prosciutto pizza with the Pope. In this way, my mom is wrong: I love Italy. It’s just that the monuments, buildings, and the general idea that Rome has the best preserved remnants of early Western society is kind of a cop-out for me.
As I wait for my bus, the Pakistani men in the kebab shop by the bus station are happy to tease me in both Urdu and Italian as they kindly charge my phone gratis, and take my order for dinner. It is hot, I am dehydrated, and this is going to be my third night of travelling in a row. And yet I am in good humor. Previously, as you may have noted, I have been staunchly opposed to night buses on the account of decreased security, discomfort, and my own inability to sleep in an upright position. My opinion, however, has flipped on this matter entirely as I have begun traveling on higher-quality buses in the much more expensive region of Western Europe. I have made it my mission to never spend more than $20-25 on a hostel, and so I have ended up skipping many nights of good rest to feign sleep on a bus. Partially noting how expensive Italy would be, and realizing I didn’t want to do three whole days on exhausting tours with much more exhausting tourists, I decided it might be best to spend most of my time in the land of my ancestors without a bed, wandering from place to place, in the spirit of my great-grandfather who came to my country hoping to make it his own.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.