This summer I travelled quite a bit, albeit under peculiar circumstances – not with my newfound college friends in a rusty yellow van, fortified by copious amounts of alcohol and other odd and illicit substances – but instead with my mother and grandmother, by train, through three European states. The trip was spontaneous, or so it seemed to all except my mother, in whose mind this had long been brewing, as we were quite soon to find out.
It was funny, really, the way in which this trip was so inadvertently forced upon us. I did try resist, believe me – but there really was no chance of getting out of something like this, something I knew my mother had been dreaming of for so long. She has an unconventional persistence in such matters – silent and unyielding. And of course there was the inevitable guilt associated with the fact that it essentially hung on me. And the fact of her naïve and annoying obsession with trains. And so I consented. And that has made all the difference.
Truly, though I have no desire to become sentimental, this road we took, which led eventually to Italy, has changed me forever. How refreshing travel can sometimes be! There are some places in this world where one simply feels a sudden and clear sense of belonging, and I suppose one cannot feel this unless they have travelled enough, experiencing that which is different, alien, and unfamiliar. So it was with Verona – love upon first breathing the hot, evening air of the train station platform.
To an Italian it probably seems ordinary, but by no means was it so to my uncontrollably excited, all-devouring eyes. I have long held a secret love and longing for Italy. I cannot explain it. I suppose it lies in music of its language, the landscape, the wine, the clichéd perceptions of the handsome and effortlessly charming males – and the list goes on… But to my great delight, finally seeing Italy with my own eyes only confirmed to me that my sentimental building of castles in the air was in fact founded upon a beautiful and romantic truth.
It did not, however, appear exactly so at the train station, which was far from picturesque, and rather filthy and deserted on the whole – especially in comparison to the standard set by the Austrians (we had spent the previous night in, and thus boarded the train from, Innsbruck, a wonderful little city high up in the Austrian Alps.) To be entirely truthful, all three of us, exhausted from a day of action and travel, were deeply distressed by the very forlornness of the station, and the fact that it was clearly far removed from the city centre. But one thing we learned quite quickly was that in Italy such anxiety was quite unnecessary. A (dashing) father and son very confidently – and oh so handsomely and kindly – sent us off in the wrong direction, which we only realised twenty minutes later, upon observing that we were basically walking on a highway – no fellow pedestrians in sight. At one point we were walking through a park, (where I swear I heard a rustle in the bushes) and so we wandered a while longer, until we finally were sent in the correct direction. The city really does give quite a sketchy impression at night – but nothing can mar the perfection that is Italy.
When approaching the town centre, but still completely ignorant of the whereabouts of the Hotel Arena we had arranged to spend the night in, I espied a man about to mount a Vespa, and, out of sheer desperation, chased him. He was blonde, bronze, and very warmly welcomed my questions, though he was quick to silence my very flustered rambling –
(Wild and imposing hand gestures ensued.)
“Show me the paper.”
The paper was a crumpled scrap on which I had scribbled down some directions earlier. But the man had authority. He looked at the paper for a while, and then offered to guide us in English, French, even German, although he hesitated a little at the latter, chuckling: “it’s not so good”. My mother and I found that hysterically funny, and so did he. Or maybe we were all just being hysterical. I have to admit though, that I wasn’t focusing much on what he was saying. I was far too fascinated by how he was saying it all. But he did – eventually – get to the point. In a beautiful accent, superbly confident and cool, and in a perversely beautiful mode of English, transformed by the melodious inflections of his native tongue, he said:
“Ok. You follow the street. The street he courves to left – and you courve with him!”
I think I fell in love with him in that instant – although it took me a while to figure out what ‘courve’ meant, and why the street was being addressed as a male subject. The man then zoomed off on his Vespa, honking his horn at us as he whizzed by and charmingly waved: “Ciao!”
I loved Italy already, and I hadn’t yet seen it by daylight.
Oh how exciting that first hour in Italy was! I believe we had more experiences in that hour than in an entire day in Germany.
Arriving at the hotel was a relief. Small and a little shabby it may have been, but the unbridled warmth and mirth of the receptionist Francesco abundantly compensated for this. Indeed, our encounters with such jovial, simple and yet utterly fascinating people were really what made our brief stay at Verona so profoundly memorable. Added to this was the beauty of the little streets, alleys and piazzas of the vibrant city centre by daylight, and the characteristic Italian balconies: colourful and abounding with flowers in full bloom. These seemingly ordinary scenes and encounters shall forever be imprinted in my memory as the most wonderful images of the city, wherein the true beauty of Verona lies.
One of the great beauties of travel is the opportunity to study another culture and way of life – and I quickly saw that there was much to be learned from the Italians. Among the many interesting Italian habits is a tendency to take very long and frequent coffee breaks, and a very long lunch break, usually from noon until 4pm. I remember my grandmother nearly falling over upon hearing this (she is Czech) – for truly, it does seem excessive when compared to the norms of the more central European states, but on the other hand quite necessary when I consider the length of our meals in Italy. One begins with the antipasti and wine, followed by the primo and secondo, some more wine, dessert, and all is of course concluded with a strong espresso. Such a lifestyle may not be exactly ideal in encouraging the growth of the economy, but it certainly benefits one’s health and esprit. It certainly had that affect on us; we sorely regretted parting with Verona.
A good journey so broadens the mind and enflames the senses – particularly one to Italy. There we –three generations of women– witnessed a glimpse of the true beauty and wonder of our world, and though our journey inevitably came to an end, it has proven to be only the beginning – for it has ignited a passion for travel that I trust will last a lifetime.
Lena Naassana is a half-Czech and half-Egyptian born in New York, but she has lived her entire life in the wonderfully chaotic city of Cairo. She is currently a second year reading English Literature and Czech at Somerville College, Oxford. She would love to be able to make a living, one day, as a writer.