There I was with blood running down my hands, forearms, and along my shins as it soaked into the glittery black volcanic sands of Ischia and I remember thinking, “I want to remember this day for the rest of my life.”
It was my junior year of college and I was attending university for one summer semester in Rome. I have wanted to travel to anywhere in Europe almost as soon as I knew that other countries existed outside of Texas. And yes, that’s a joke: “I’m from Texas, what country are you from?”
I had always thought of myself as so much more “European” than American, even though I had only ever been to Mexico or Canada at this point in my life. Perhaps that was because I knew that I didn’t quite fit in with the usual crowds of my hometown. Or perhaps because I wanted so desperately to distinguish myself from everything I had always experienced, excited to begin a life that I had only peripherally known.
Rome was not what I had expected it to be. Or more correctly, I had not expected to so abysmally clash with Roman/Italian culture. My parents, always on the look-out for the best deals, had booked my flight two days prior to the opening of my school. This meant that I wasn’t yet allowed to move into my dorm room on campus and I would have to fend for myself for two whole days before being enveloped in the social safety of my college and college acquaintances.
I didn’t feel threatened by it. I had been living in Chicago for three years, traversing the city on my own, mastering the public transportation system, and exploring strange neighborhoods. This was clearly different. I was in a foreign country, having only taken two semesters of college Italian, and admittedly, I hadn’t planned my trip hardly at all past those first two days.
Dazed from my flight, I stumbled through the airport and onto the airport train into the city and then onto one of the two major train lines in Rome. I remember staring out the window, exhausted but hopeful to start my next adventure.
Then I had to find a bus.
This proved challenging to the college Italian that I had taken. I quickly realized that people don’t care if you know where the accent mark goes over any given vowel and they don’t care for young American women who travel on their own. They also don’t care for those young American women traveling alone who are directly asking random strangers for directions to their hostel without opening up the conversation with any of those deferential niceties that I had yet to learn from my college professor several frustrated weeks later.
Somehow, I made it to the looming and slightly ominous youth hostel across town, dragging my gigantic and completely impractical rolling suitcase, which I had wrestled on and off the bus much to the chagrin of my fellow passengers. I don’t remember much of my stay there, but in bit and pieces: really cold concrete floors in the dorm and in the bathroom, splintery lockers with shitty padlocks to hold our “valuables”, a cavernous and lonely mess hall. This wasn’t how I was expecting to kick off my “European adventure”.
Finally, I arrived at school. I made friends with a couple of workers there at our school, namely, one Simone, a 28-year-old man who was part of the new generation of Italians; a generation that was starting to be comfortable with two income households and women having jobs and couples living together out of wedlock. Simone and I spent hours discussing Italian culture and sociology. He helped me unravel some of the confounding mysteries of public and private life. When I told him of my initial confusions and ongoing culture shock he said, “Good. Now you are having a real Italian experience. Not some fake Disneyland version of it.”
I was also lucky enough to attach myself to a fellow classmate whom I had known back in Chicago but who was more of an acquaintance to me than a friend. Her name was Laura and she was tall and earthy and blond; a friendly, laid-back girl who seemed to amass a group of people around her, not unlike the Pied Piper.
Everyone followed Laura around because she always had the best ideas of how we could spend her time. She was a planner, adventurous, open, and welcoming. She was also OBSESSED with Rick Steves; she was in the know. It’s no wonder we all tried to attach ourselves to her. I had my own ideas of fun like trying to track down underground gay bars or walking along the Tiber, but no one bit. Perhaps I didn’t have the ability to make people feel safe the way Laura did.
She picked things like trips to gelato places, picnics in the park, and train trips to ancient ruins. These are all things that I would be willing to do and would know about if only I had bothered to crack open a travel book or given more than a cursory thought to my trip.
At times, I felt myself lost in her crowd. Mostly, these people were friendly, bland, innocuous, but non-judgemental and usually game. We were a smattering of the average college students: you had your blondes (who gained much unwanted attention), your “effeminate” guys (who weren’t quite out of the closet), and then me. We weren’t the crowd that was looking to blow money doing jello shots at the local British-slash-Australian pub only because the bartenders would speak English to you. Thankfully, Laura always seemed to have a plan and I was always welcomed along.
One weekend, my school bused us down to Pompeii for a school-sponsored tour and we decided to spend the rest of the weekend off of the coast of Naples and onto the island of Ischia. Several weeks had passed by at this point and I was weak, fragile, broken down, and could barely walk up one flight of stairs without having to take a nap at the top of it.
Two weeks prior, I had caught some kind of really nasty bug that had me and three other girls who lived in my dormitory hospitalized. The American doctor who had seen us told us it was food poisoning, but this felt way worse than that. The Italian doctors were much gentler with us, giving us shots in the butt that made us stop vomiting and doing other things that I will leave to your imagination. It was a mystery how four girls who didn’t really run in the same circles got sick in the same way and no one else did. I was knocked out from it. This was not just feeling dehydrated and tired after a crazy weekend. This was feeling like I would never be myself again, that I would need naps after breathing for too many hours. My adventure was slowly killing me and my spirit.
After staring at the mummified and carbonized corpses of the victims of Mount Vesuvius and being introduced to the cobblestone penises pointing to the nearest brothels, we took a beautiful regional train into Naples. This train was one that I imagined many plots of Sherlock Holmes with strangers sitting across from each other in their individual cars, mystery ensuing. However, it did not turn into an episode fit for a Murder on the Orient Express. We then planned on taking a ferry to the Island of Ischia.
Even though we hadn’t gone that much further south, Naples felt even more foreign than Rome had initially. As we exited the train station, the bums in the city square seemed more ominous than even in the states. I felt exposed as a woman, an American, and a tourist.
We didn’t have to spend too long in the square on our way to the dock and onto the ferry that would take us past Capri and onto Ischia. I was refreshed by the winds of the Tyrrhenian Sea enveloping us on the way to our destination.
We arrived at our 13-euro-a-night hostel and decided to go to the beach that was only a few short walkable miles away. I had decided that for the first time in my life, I was going to sit at the beach all day armed only with a book and a towel. I’m sure that most people do this with some frequency, but I had to quash my restlessness for this “experiment”.
I brought my fat copy of The Fountainhead and settled into the beach chair that I had rented for the entire day.
Not an unreasonable swimming distance from the black shore of the island of Ischia was a large igneous rock that stood out in the water. It was steep on one end and sloped on the other with a bulbous head like a bubble about to pop on a plain. This rock was planted in the middle of my view of the sea, barely peeking over the top of my book, distracting me from my “relaxation”.
Maybe it was Laura who suggested what we were all thinking, “Let’s go climb that thing.”
We all ran from the beach almost simultaneously toward the rock, splashing in the water next to each other in a loosely-formed group. Within a minute we were at the base, poised to climb.
That is when we finally realized just how sharp igneous rock could be. At first, it felt like the small sting of a hundred paper cuts but as we gripped harder against the waves and as we heaved our bodies further up the face of the rock, the bigger the gashes became and the more noticeable and free-flowing our blood ran down our bodies.
Some of the group dropped off, laughing, exhilarated, and not a little too light-headed. But I pressed on. I dug in with the bottom of my feet and the palms of my hands, my forearms and my thighs. I finally reached the top and HOWLED to my companions before I dove into the crystal water below.
Upon surfacing, I felt calm and healthy and young and satisfied. I looked into the damp faces of my companions and thought out-loud, “I want to remember this day for the rest of my life!”
– Anita Mechler