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Notes on Travel
As is the case with love affairs, the romance of a vacation dies in logistics. To dream up a trip to Italy over an Italian dinner and a bottle of wine from Umbria, which proved a lucky selection, light and delicious and underpriced, and reminded you of those pictures that Gwyneth Paltrow posted on her Instagram, is different from searching hotels in Umbria that you can actually afford, or the ways to reach them when neither of you can drive, so you settle on Rome instead, with its overwhelming choices of hotels on tabs upon tabs of travel websites, which all seem terrible because that is not where Gwyneth Paltrow goes but tourists who look just like you, so you leave the planning for later, for the very last minute, until one of you says, Let’s just pick whatever, we won’t spend that much time in the hotel anyway, and you do end up with whatever, hoping it will prove as lucky a selection as that Umbrian wine you had with dinner.
Travel anxiety, at its core, is our inherent lack of conviction that we can be adults. A foreign country, a foreign language, a foreign airport. That is all it takes for us to navigate ourselves with the confidence of an eight-year-old traveling without a parent. Simple tasks, like getting a cab, following signs, asking a question, are accomplished with doubt and mild aggression. We reach our hotel room with the relief of an exam completed, collapse on the bed before we are to face the new challenge of “discovering the city.”
You pack light but the bag is still full of your old self. You want to replace all your clothes with new ones that fit the vibe of this sparkling city, of this new, transient you. The clothes you brought are those that got you here—reliable, bland, utilitarian, and seeming older than they ever did hanging in your closet. And so you try on the red-striped bikini that is meant for a much younger woman—is that really the price for just the bottom?—and you are much too pale because this is only the beginning of the vacation, and you are much too bloated from airplane food and whatever it is you’ve been feeding yourself back home (grotesque capitalism?), better go with the kaftan instead, a bright, extravagant affair that will end up hanging in the part of your closet you’ve designated for “special occasions”—so special that they never come.
Oh, but you feel light as a feather after one aperitivo and everything is wonderful. It’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, it’s wonderful, good luck my baby, because you will default to an age of innocence under the pink and golden shades of Rome and accept the rose the panhandler will offer you after you refuse to buy one, believing he saw in you something so special as to present it to you for free. “Give me anything, one euro,” he will say, and your exuberance will crust at the lips. Then the sorry business of looking through your purse for change and feeling doubly awful that you don’t have any when you can clearly afford a trip to Rome and a ridiculous kaftan and an aperitivo. “Where are you from,” he will ask, refusing to take back the rose with more dignity than is left in you. “Ah, America. That is opportunity. That is my dream.”
The site where Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by 60 of his senators, is now overrun by cats. It is their sanctuary. They lounge among the ruins, fat and lethargic, defiant of history, empire, power and ambition, in contempt of time, progress, disaster, greatness, of you and of me, of everything that ever was and ever will be. The place smells of cat piss. They are bored. Their life is boredom. Their eyes are murder.
You must take a wrong turn, have a bad meal, pay too much for it. You must end up in an ugly place. You must discover why the Tiber is not the same as the Seine. You must go where locals know not to go. You must be spooked once to have experienced a city. But only to add color to your experience. Three bad calls and it becomes a failed trip.
You will ignore the statue of the cloaked man at the center of the square. It is hot and you are mostly preoccupied with the heat. You stand under him for a sip of water and to avoid the street sweeper brushing aside fallen greens from the day’s farmers market. It smells a little. You look up briefly, can only make out something that reads like “Bruno” in Latin. Another Catholic, you think, and cannot imagine that Catholics burned Bruno alive in that very spot for heresy. It was 1584. He looked at the sky and somehow saw that the kingdom of God was “not only in one, but in innumerable suns; not in one earth, one world, but in a thousand thousand, spoken in infinity, a general space which embraces all of the infinite worlds, an infinite number of heavens, and each earth has its own sky.” You are just looking for a café. Your hunger, it is infinite.
You won’t quite know what you did wrong, but the man is insulted. And you are insulted too. You had every intention to pay upon entering if only there had been a sign. Or a person at the door. You can’t understand what each other is saying. Infuriating. No way to run a business. You are the client. You flaunt your money like a weapon. But actually no, you are the tourist. You are only renting a room, not the entire house. You are endured, you are not welcome. Unless you are Gwyneth Paltrow.
It’s for Instagram
He is a good decade younger and very helpful. The most helpful from the hotel staff. Speaks English, has worked in Miami. Tan and fit and friendly. Or is it flirty. You flirt back. He asks you to meet him alone for gelato after dinner. When did such invitations become bittersweet? You refuse him, and when you try to tip him at the end of your stay, he refuses you. You will think of him next time you taste salted caramel ice cream.
You study the plaque by the hotel entrance while you wait for the cab to take you to the airport. “What does this say?” you ask the porter. “Humani nihil a me alienum puto," he answers. “Nothing human is alien to me.” He puts your bags in the trunk, smiles as he closes the door. Everyone here knows something about you that you don’t.
It doesn’t take that long to reach it, after all.