I love Italy. After the U.S. it’s probably my favorite country in the world. Considering I’ve only been to about 30 countries that’s not saying too much, but hey, there’s a reason it has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And I’ve known that the day would come for Anthony and me to part. After all, he’s been living on his last dollars for days, hoping his dad will buy him a plane ticket to hang out with his step-brother in London for Spring Break. But really he’s been hoping his dad won’t come through, because he wants to kick the nancy out of himself by living in the wild. It’s a two-step process to living in the wild abroad: 1. Get to a foreign country. 2. Run out of money. He’s ready. The tricky part is avoiding the bears.
We talked about this on the train ride back from Brasov, the largest town near Bran Castle, where Bram Stoker set Dracula. The castle is remote, right on the border of Wallachia and Transylvania, overlooking an ancient mountain pass. We had to take a half-hour minibus there after a two and a half hour train ride. I could only imagine how hard traveling this road a hundred years ago was, getting stuck in the Romanian mud, which unlike Dead Sea mud, has no benefits at all. What if the mule cart broke an axle? No one would care. You might be stranded in the Wallachian wilderness for hours. The larger the mode of transportation, the less likely something bad is going to happen. Because if an airplane crashes or a boat hits a reef, it makes international headlines. But if you’re riding a minibus or a donkey cart, hell, you know how many other donkey carts there are in the world?
When we arrived I was reminded of my American West. It was rugged country; light snow flakes were falling and it was clear that the people here were used to their high elevation. The castle was cold, it had hidden staircases, narrow hallways, and panoramic vistas. I didn’t bring winter clothes. I was wearing the sweater Anthony’s grandmother knit him. And since I was still recovering from my near-death illness, I needed soup. “Ciorba.” Which, homemade, for $2 is hard to beat.
Back on the 8:11 train to Bucharest, we talked about what’s next. Anthony’s been wanting to camp in the woods for a while. Wanting to toughen up. Me, I’ve been wanting to have the kind of Romantic memories that I’ll look back on and think, man, remember that time when I was 23, traveling through Italy, waking up on that gorgeous spring morning in that field of blooming lilacs with the sun shining on my face, with all those Arcadian picnics I had with fresh cheese and sausage and olives and tomatoes and wine. Those were the days. Anthony wants to be sad, hungry and alone. “How can I have any epiphanies with hot showers?” he cries. Diff’rent strokes.
“But how will you eat?” I asked. Cradling his beer, he said, “The Lord will provide. Consider the birds overhead; they neither reap nor sow and God feeds them. How much better are we than the fowls?” I wasn’t sure what the hell that was supposed to mean, but it sounded pretty good so I agreed. I said, “Yeah. Buddha didn’t worry about food. It comes and goes.” I intend to sleep outside too, but I’m not pressed to. I can stay inside if need be.
When I woke from my first great night of sleep in days, after dreaming of Mediterranean climes, beautiful women, warm waters and sparkler-shooting uzis, I knew what to do. Anthony did too; over breakfast he had a serendipitous meeting with a woman of another generation, a veteran Europe-walker. She told him to head up the Danube. Camp off the trail. Don’t let people see you walk off it. Get a bivouac. It’s an investment. And in a couple of weeks you’ll be in Germany. When I met her, she was clad in Gore-Tex. I explained to her my situation, said I was lucky enough to have saved up a tad more money–“It’s not so lucky,” she interrupted, “Sometimes having no money can be the most liberating thing in the world.”
Later we agreed she’s pretty weird. But then again I’m sure people say that about me too sometimes. When you do things most people don’t you’re bound to be odd.
So for our last day together we walked around some huge park in the southern part of town. I got immense pleasure from watching three kids sled down a hillside. Little sister went first, but she was a baby and slowed herself down with her feet. Scared. I saw how confident the little boy was and clapped for him to go really fast. He didn’t let me down–he went backwards, the little rascal. Heheh. Then I began to think about how much pleasure watching him sled down that hillside gave me. In sledding, you know you’re going to get to the bottom of the hill–it’s easy to derive pleasure from watching someone sled because you know what’s going to happen. What about travel? I imagined taking my kids to Italy one day, getting pleasure from showing them The Villa Borghese. But if my kids are punks they may not give a damn about the Berninis. And that would give me great pain. Or if they’re worth rearing they’ll say, “Dad, look that’s the Daphne and Apollo, it was sculpted between 1622 and 25!” And that would give me great pleasure. But there are so many ways it could go. Traveling isn’t quite as pure as sledding; there are many more vicissitudes. Like in Anthony’s case, you don’t know–you might wake up to find a bear sniffing your groin. Then again you might find the kindness of a beautiful and lonely Gypsy woman…
As I watch Anthony sleep in his armchair chair, Moby Dick open on his lap, knowing that he’s going into the vast Romanian wilderness tomorrow morning with just 12 lei ($4) to his name, I remind myself that we don’t have to be sad tonight–it’s our last one together (perhaps ever) and should be celebratory. God will provide for him. And for me too. Because I know one thing for sure, ain’t no bears in Italy.