The seven of us return from Cinque Terre with enchantment percolating in us. A tribe has emerged. In class our teacher Jonathan asks us how our weekends were and says, “I know some of you went to Cinque Terre,” with a big smile and we all look at each other with a glow, the remnants of our time there all over us. Omri and I nudge each other, plotting our return to the beach towns through stolen glances and elbow nudges as class goes on.
At a reading at Palazzo Strozzi on Wednesday night we tell Chris our plan to revisit Cinque Terre as a smaller group. She tells us she wants to join us and we all wriggle within our skin, excited at the prospect of having our teacher all to ourselves.
She has just stepped away from the microphone after delivering a reading that has left me quite speechless. A dainty thing, she tells the story of a man who has just emerged from prison and is working his alcoholics anonymous steps. She tells this with such candid honesty that I am transported to a time when my own mother was released from jail and beginning her journey toward sobriety. There is a wisdom in what she is saying that tells me there are seeds of her own life woven into her fiction and I love her all the more for being able to tell a story like this so sincerely, with such life, such vigor, despite her girly presentation. She is warrior through and through. I can see the living she has done all over her and yet she wears it well, with such class. It hasn’t weighed her, only made her, made her all the more beautiful, all the more real. It turns out that Eileen, one of the poetry teachers is a close friend and may come with her to Cinque Terre over the weekend–Perhaps we could all meet for lunch or a hike?
I am almost drooling. I want to soak in everything these two women have to offer, bathe in their understanding of what it means to write. The prospect of meeting them outside of our class setting sounds too good to be true. Omri and I whisper to each other about our plans then talk loudly as we explain to Chris so that she can hear us. As previously mentioned, her hearing is fading and I keep glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one is listening to our extra loud but private conversation. It is selfish but we want to keep the number of people on this trip to a minimum. It’s not that we don’t like to be around the others, it’s that there is a that the intimacy of this particular trip and the nature of departing without a plan for where to stay calls for us to keep the numbers down. At this juncture we have decided it will just be the three of us, Charlie, Omri and me.
We spend the week with our heads down in our school work, giving each other knowing smiles when we pass in the hallways, a nod at the happening that lies ahead. After this weekend there will be only one week left before we all head home or off to our next excursions.
The week is full of readings in the evenings, one with writer Vendela Vida, who apart from the many novels she has written, happened to write one of my favorite films, “Away We Go,” with her husband Dave Eggers. I’m starstruck. I want to ask her everything there is to ask. I’m shy about asking questions but i raise my hand and ask, trying not to sound like too much of an awkward fan. I can’t believe we are alone in a villa with her in Italy, just 20 of us writers there to ask her anything we like. I’m still not sure this experience is real and not some wild dream I could wake up from.
We walk back To Villa Natalia that night and people are buzzing around the common room talking about going out to a pub and I am thrilled when Omri looks to me and says, “Hey Jen Jen, shall we put our house clothes on?” This has become a nightly routine. When all the young ones go out for drinks we put on our PJ’s and hit the common room with our computers and our ideas and write, drink coffee, laugh at each other’s jokes. Charlie often joins us though he heads to bed much earlier. Sometimes I bring a mug of red wine down with me. Charlie drinks whiskey from his mug. Some nights I sit outside on the picnic tables and swing in every now and then to say hello and get another espresso from the vending machine.
I am editing pages from my manuscript and Omri and I are both working on edits for essays that we are submitting to Mercer Street, NYU’s collection of essays from the previous years writing the essay course. Each year it is printed and used as a text book for the incoming class of students. We have been hard at work on these essays since arriving in Florence, fitting in time to work on them on top of the school work assigned to us in our writing classes here in Florence. We print pages for each other to read and mark them up with notes, then we make changes, send them back to our respective teachers and continue molding. My teacher Jenni puts my essay into a google doc and we both make changes to it simultaneously via the internet. It’s amazing what can be accomplished from afar using technology. I feel almost as if she is sitting beside me helping me make choices as to what to cut away, what to move, what excess words to strike. We finish our work just in time for the submission deadline.
I hear back from Mercer Street almost instantly, telling me they would like to include my essay, “Repairer” in this year’s edition. This will be my first time being published. My chest swell with pride and accomplishment.
Omri gets an email back asking him to make a few changes and to stay on call for edits and we scream with joy that one or both of the two essays he submitted will be included in addition to mine. There are 450 essays submitted each year and 28 are chosen. “What are the odds of both of us getting in?!” we scream as we jump up and down, so incredibly happy for one another.
In Chris’s class Wednesday we learn that we will be taking a morning field trip on friday to the Museum San Marco in place of our afternoon class. We decide right away that this will give us the opportunity to leave for Cinque Terre on Friday rather than Saturday.
Friday morning I am ready early, I knock on Omri’s door and skip breakfast. People have been asking what we are doing this weekend and we have avoided giving an answer. Some are going to Rome, which sounds amazing but we are anxious to get back to the beach and explore all the nooks and crannies that we were only able to see from a distance on our last visit. We have declared the weekend one of no agendas. If you want to stop for gelato you just fucking do it. If you want to read by the sea for an hour, no one will stop you. If you want to hike without saying a word to anyone that will be fine. Omri and I keep quoting a line from some movie I can’t remember, “People won’t give you nothing in this world, if you want something you gotta take it.” And then we laugh like children, giddy with the anticipation of getting to do whatever we feel like all weekend, just roaming like Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums.
We have invited Monica to join our crusade. The four of us arrive at Museum San Marco a little late with stuffed backpacks on and the secret of our planned escape burning in our stomachs. The only other person aware of our plan is Chris. We wander the museum looking for something to inspire some writing. The idea is to plop down in front of a work of art and just write whatever comes to mind.
Most of the paintings are of Jesus on the cross. They don’t do a lot for me. They remind me of attending church with my mother when I was a teenager when she was newly sober. She would cry a lot and I was grateful for sundays when there were other arms for her to cry into, to lighten the load. I felt a bit helpless. I didn’t always know what the tears were for, which hurt they were linked to, or if it was merely her disease disrupting her insides. We would get there a few minutes late and fill little styrofoam cups with coffee and chew donuts and scones as the band began to play. We would throw our hands up in the air and sing, joy seeping from my pores. I had my mother again.
Capistrano Beach Calvary. In truth it was an old bowling alley that had been converted and it showed. Worn green carpet covered the stage and a piece of it lifted up to reveal a Jacuzzi tub right there on the stage where people could be baptized. I entered the warm water on a monday night at the youth group, still wearing my ballet clothes from a class right before. I came home dripping wet and my mom was thrilled. I’d wanted to do it alone, for it to be my own idea. I attended the youth group most monday nights. I liked the young hip pastor. I didn’t know anyone and I coveted the chance to be alone inside that big group. To anonymously be myself. I would sit in the same spot my mom and I would sit eating donuts on sunday mornings, and sing along with the band. I didn’t know if I bought any of it, but I enjoyed the opportunity to let some of my demons out, to express myself and whatever hurt I was smothering inside myself, the aches that I kept private as not to offset my mom’s progress.
Some nights I attended meetings with her as a babysitter in the next room so that mothers with small children could attend. I began babysitting weekly for a woman with three little girls who lived in a trailer park down by the beach. It gave me purpose to love those little girls for a few dollars an hour. I read them stories, made them bean burritos in the microwave, and put them to bed on mattresses that lacked sheets. Sometimes the three girls would fight over the single clean pair of underwear in the house to be worn to bed. A litter box piled with feces sat beside the youngest’s bed. I cleaned it, stroked the little girl’s head as she fell asleep. She was only four. What did Jesus have in mind for this kid?
I write, almost illegibly in my journal with all of this in mind, standing with my backpack for the weekend on, looking at the paintings inside San Marco. I find myself more interested in the tombs below the museum where the monks who once lived there are buried. What was it like for them to live in the place where they knew they would one day be buried. A mixed rumble of emotions and the lack of breakfast growls in my stomach. Part of me can’t wait to get out of there, and I can’t tell if it’s this place making me uncomfortable, the memories I’m recounting, the tombs, the Jesus paintings on every surface, the need for food to appease my growly stomach, or just the itch to get back to Cinque Terre.
We make fast exits when our class time is finished and head to Mercato Centrale for some lunch. I haven’t been there yet and Charlie has me really excited about a sandwich called “the orgasmic” which is made on a big baguette with peppers and onions, greens, mushrooms, prosciutto, giant chunks of cheese, and is dripping with balsamic vinegar. we charge to the deli where “the Orgasmic” is made and each order one and I ask them to make mine spicy and the man behind the deli case winks at me. We eat and grab baguettes and croissants for later. Jamie is with us and we admit we are off to the train station next to go back to the beach. She seems a little hurt that we didn’t tell her before but we know she is going to Rome and will have fun there. We eat quickly. I tuck the second half of “the Orgasmic”, which was truly orgasmic, into my pack for later. I eat too slow and I’m too excited, and we are all anxious to get moving.
We head to the train station feeling freedom so close that our steps become lighter and smiles spread across our faces. We work like a well oiled machine, putting all of our tickets on one credit card and handing euros to the person who bought them, no time to waste using the machine with each of our cards and it doesn’t take cash. We have done this before and now we know the drill. Last week was the dress rehearsal. This time we will see everything,do everything, know what to expect, how to navigate our way. We stay together and with less people we don’t have to look around every minute to see if someone drifted into a store or slipped from the flock. It becomes easier to get seats together on the train. Our interests are the same. We are hungry at the same time, sleepy at the same time, our pace, our heart beats seem to link up. The train slips away from the station and we are free, our secret brimming inside us like four gloating thieves.
Two girls are whispering beside me about a camping trip tomorrow. It’s starting to get dark now. A full moon. I’m wondering what I will be doing all weekend. I consider going on the organized field trip to the beach. A Flyer was taped to my door when I got in last night. It sounds a little campy but could be fun. I haven’t exactly found my tribe here so I don’t really know what to do. Lindsey and Nick have gone to Positano and I feel it’s time to let them have a romantic vacation and stop being a squeaky third wheel.
We visited a castle on Monday as a class and everyone seemed to to peel off into friend groups that day, exchanging interests and the different things they hope to do while in Italy while we ate fruit and cheese under the trees at the castle. After lunch some of the girls sat in the grass and played games I remember from elementary school that involve chanting and clapping hands really fast. I took to one of the castle towers with a couple of the boys, Omri and Charlie, and we sat in the sun on the roof.
Another reader goes to the microphone but this one is Italian and reads from his book in Italian and I space out a little. I butt into the girl’s whispered conversation at the table beside me.
“What’s this about a camping trip?” I ask.
They giggle and fill me. They are going to Cinque Terre and staying in a hostel that is more of a camp ground and will be doing some seaside hiking. It’s against my nature to invite myself places, especially with people I’ve only just met, but I’m itching to explore and I get the feeling this will be more adventurous than the beach field trip. Just the the idea that these girls have arranged something like this tells me we will get along.
“I want to come!” I say, though I’m not even sure we know each other’s names at this point.
“Oh you should,” one of them says, “but we only have enough space reserved at the hostel for six people because it’s two to a tent.”
“You should just come anyway and we will figure it out,” the other says.
I decide I will just come anyway. At the end of the night we stand in the dark in the garden making our plans. Omri and Charlie are coming too, and Jamie and Hugh.
“Well I hope someone is okay with spooning with me incase they don’t have an extra tent,” I squeak, nervous about whether there will be room. Omri says he’s sorry that he didn’t invite me when they made the plans but figured I wasn’t into group activities based on the way I had been riding solo for most of the trip thus far. I tell him yeah I’m not really into organized group things but that this sounds fun and that it’s not that big a group.
There are fireflies everywhere on our walk through the valley back to Villa Natalia. Zoya catches one in a champagne glass and we watch it light the thing with the rhythm of a heart beating, all of us silent. We set it free and carry on, my pace quickening with the excitement of an adventure tomorrow.
I go right up to my room and pack my things. I can only take a backpack. I lay everything I might want with me on my bed and start narrowing down. I pack sunscreen, hiking clothes rolled neatly, face-wash, a toothbrush and my passport. I lay out a sundress for the morning. I don’t sleep much. I’m too excited.
In the morning I creep down to the common room and everyone is beginning to gather with wet hair from the shower and backpacks on. It’s hot already and it’s only 8am. We walk to the train station and I am already feeling I packed too much because my shoulders feel weighed down and there was talk of going straight for a hike before checking in and dropping our things at La Sfinge. Now I’m thinking it will be a tiresome hike and I wish I didn’t think I needed so much for just one night.
We get on the train headed for La Spezia and I sit across from Charlie. From the first day in florence I could tell we would be friends, both of us gravitating toward the same tucked away places to write, exchanging authors and books over cigs, content with quiet and the ability to sit without the need to fill the air with chatter. On the train we both attempt to read, fighting the urge to sleep. We spend most of the train ride alternating between reading and dozing. There’s a silent camaraderie to this that reminds me of driving with my boys as we made our way across the country just a few weeks ago. I’m reminded of the hours spent between dreaming and staring at the landscape as we covered the U.S. There was little need for conversation–more of a silent understanding similar to the one Jack Kerouac speaks of in the Dharma Bums when describing hiking with someone and not needing words–more like telepathy, like between animals, where talking just becomes obsolete.
When we reach La Spezia we need to change trains but we get out and walk for a while and get some lunch. All of us are thrilled to see the ocean and can’t wait to get in the water when we reach Deiva Marina. We walk a while. I stop for a mango gelato. Omri isn’t ready for sweets and refuses to walk and eat ice cream at the same time. He insists it’s a thing to be enjoyed while seated. I can understand. Omri is thirty but started school as a freshman this year like me. He was previously a Navy Seal in Israel. He knows every Al Pacino quote known to mankind. He often beats his chest like King Kong. He’s a man’s man. But a real softy too. His affinity for enjoying chocolate gelato while seated really charms me.
When everyone is ready for gelato I get another one, coffee flavor this time, and we sit down and eat it under an umbrella. Just as yummy (YummMMEEE) as the first, and I feel a little silly eating more just moments after finishing the first, but hey, when in rome.
We get back on the train but this time it echoes through tunnels and there is no A/C. I almost fall asleep again but the train explodes from inside a tunnel and we are rushed with a stunning view of cliffs and ocean and ocean smell and little colorful villages along the seaside. We clamor to the window to take it in. I try to read some more but the view is just too wonderful. It’s a short ride and we get off at Deiva Marina and catch the shuttle bus to La Sfinge, our home for the night.
We check in and I hang off to the side while Jamie gives her passport and asks if there is an extra room available. (There had not been one when we checked the website in the morning.) The woman tells us that there is indeed a spare but it will not be located next to the other cabin tents. I don’t mind. I am a bit relieved, though sharing wouldn’t have been terrible. Everyone pitches in a little so that I don’t have to cover the cost of a two person tent alone. I am stunned by the generosity of this gesture. I offer to let someone else have the single room if they like but everyone seems to be happy to share.
We drop our bags and I am pinching myself at how quaint the place is. I’ve never stayed in a hostel and never expected something this sweet and clean. Little colorful cabin tents with floral bedspreads line the hillside. There are RV’s lining the area near the showers. There are some permanent trailers mixed in among the tents and little vine covered cement slabs with sinks for washing are spread throughout the place. I would stay for a week if I could, sitting just outside my tent and writing all afternoon. I place my things in the tent and change into a bathing suit. Charlie and I buy beer in the little community store. The girls buy some champagne. We head to the beach.
We lay on the beach and drink beer and read and frolic in the water. We get hungry. We wander up to a restaurant and order pasta and house wine. I wash my face in the bathroom, brush my teeth and put my salty sea water hair in a bun.
We get drinks for the road at a bar with a “to go” window and head back down to sit among the rocks and watch the sunset. Zoya and Charlie and I each take a rock and settle in for a gorgeous sunset. I breath deep. I am glad I came, that I chose spontaneity. I am grateful for this place, my new friends.
Jamie and Hugh take the shuttle back to camp. The rest of us walk and on the way we find a restaurant and sit down at a table outside for house wine. Omri does movie quotes for us. He and I recite some lines from a play we love, “The Motherfucker with the Hat.” We all laugh. We ask the bartender how far we are from La Sfinge and she says it’s just a minute up the road and we head home, laughing when we realize it is almost directly across the street.
Everyone scatters off into their tents and I am a little too excited to go straight to sleep. I put on my PJ’s and wander the grounds. I grab a toothbrush and face-wash and head to the wash basin at the bottom of the stairs and brush my teeth among the vines beneath a full moon. The whole camp seems to be sleeping. I head down to the wifi hotspot near the little office at the entrance and sit on the steps and FaceTime with M. I wrap my scarf around my body and head like a tent to keep the mosquitos off my face and legs. The old man inside the office (Working graveyard security?) comes outside wondering who I am talking to underneath my self-made tent. I wave at him and show him I am on the phone and not completely crazy. He waves and goes back inside.
I head up to my cabin and pull the extra comforter from the spare bed and put it on top of the other one and go to sleep. I wake around 8am and it’s hot inside the tent and I have kicked the covers and my PJ pants off in the night. I go down to the showers and find Monica and Zoya just finishing. They give me some shampoo and I shower and put on some sunscreen and hiking clothes.
We all gather around a table and eat avocados, some prosciutto bought in the little store, cheese, bread, yogurt, some cookies. We head off for a day of hiking but first we will have to take the train. We have already reserved the camp for an extra night. We decided one night wasn’t enough and were happy to find they could accommodate us. We don’t have to be back in classes until Tuesday.
The next train leaves in an hour so we doodle around by the beach eating gelato. I help myself to an entire half of a watermelon from the little Italian grocery store next to the train station and I eat it with a gelato spoon while we wait.
We get off in Vernazza and grab sandwiches of prosciutto and mozzarella and start the hike to Monterosso, the next town over. I hang back and hike alone for the most part. I listen to music and enjoy the time to myself but among new friends. I’m missing a man who used to share these sort of adventures with me. I find it a little easier not to talk, just to put one foot in front of the other and take in the sea air. Something tells me that if I start talking it could lead to tears and I just want to enjoy this day, this experience, this life without making things heavy.
The view is incredible. As we make our way toward Monterosso Vernazza starts to look like just a little toy town in the distance. We find a railing where lovers have carved their initials onto locks and left them locked to the metal bar. It seems this place is a big honeymoon spot. I feel sweet and sour all over. I hang back a little further, stop to pee in the bushes when no one is around and then keep going. Eventually Omri comes up behind me. Evidently he was hanging back even farther than I was. We stop to take in the view together. We look at each other a minute. Then both of us suddenly blurt the same idea to each other. We should come back to this place and do all four hikes next weekend. We could stay in a different town each night, carry only what we need for the weekend on our backs, hike all day and stay in hostels, no plan, a small group–maybe just the two of us–perhaps Charlie too. We could just go, sneak away from the big group and explore further. We get excited. He stops to pee and I keep walking. I’m hoping he means it.
I find Charlie up the way and he asks me where Omri is and I tell him he’s hanging back taking it all in alone and Charlie says he wants to do the same and I want to tell him our plan to return but I figure it might be too soon. We reach a little waterfall and we all sit and meditate a while. We hike some more. We are almost to Monterosso, we can see it in the distance.
On a hillside we come upon a man in a little shack with rock music blaring from a boom-box and he is selling lemonade and limoncello and we buy lemonade and Hugh gets some limoncello and we keep going.
We reach Monterosso in the late afternoon and retire on the beach. Monica swims out to a rock and sits a while. She looks so peaceful out there. Omri joins her. Hugh disappears to write a poem and I tell Zoya to wake me when it’s time to go and lay down and nap on the beach with my baseball cap over my face. No towel. Just my body in the sand. It would have been one more thing to carry and it feels good to be this close to the earth. I sleep soundly for a good hour.
Zoya wakes me with a laugh that I have gotten to know by now and quite enjoy, and tells me it’s time to go. We find a restaurant for dinner and Charlie and I share an enormous bowl of spaghetti and clams. We order things that are dripping with delicious pesto and pay the bill just in time to run to the last train and get back to La Sfinge. It’s dark when we reach camp. The showers are running and all the german tourists with RV’s are sitting outside on their makeshift porches with wet hair, reading next to lanterns in their beach chairs. People are washing dishes in the bathroom sink. Two backpackers read on the steps using the light from the bathroom while their cell phones charge inside. People are washing their clothes. Many are tucked into the little hut at the front where the wifi signal comes from, charging devices and booking hostels for tomorrow night. I pop inside and charge a while. I meet some other americans who can spare an outlet and let me slide in. I send a few texts to M.
We decide to shower and meet at the front gate and head back to the place across the street for house wine and dessert. Omri and I order some kind of pastry covered in chocolate mouse and we eat it in three bites and I literally lick the remains off my plate and we take our dishes inside and ask for another round. We drink wine. We go home. The gate seems to be locked and Hugh climbs it and it turns out it’s open and he falls flat on his face in the dirt. We make sure he’s okay and then laugh hysterically along with the people huddled around the wifi hut who witnessed it.
In the morning the girls decide to stay a while and explore and I decide to head home with the three boys because I want to get back and get school work done for tomorrow’s class. We leave pretty early. On the way back we have to change trains in Pisa. We decide that since we will be stopping in Pisa anyway it would be foolish not to go and see the leaning tower of Pisa.
We walk in the heat and stop for yet another gelato and make it to the leaning tower where hundreds of tourists are busy taking pictures that make it look like they are kicking the tower over, punching it, karate chopping it. Some cute Japanese couples kiss in front of it with umbrellas over their heads. I wander in front of it with a green apple I’m in the middle of eating and Omri takes a few photos. We take one of him punching the tower in his Krav Maga T-shirt for him to send to his guys at Krav Maga in New York. We are satisfied. We head back to the train station.
We get back to Villa Natalia and I print 115 pages of my manuscript and I take them into the garden with me and spread them in the grass and begin trying to discern which pages I will be workshopping in Jonathan’s class next week. I drink a tiny cappuccino. When the sun starts to go down at 9pm I collect the pages and head inside and work into the early morning hours feeling fulfilled by the weekend that has already begun to fuel this week’s work.