In the fall of 2008, I went on a three week trip to Europe. My best male friend Sammy had invited me to be his date for a Tuscan wedding, and it happened to coincide with my parents trip to Spain. Even though I was pretty broke at the time, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel, and booked the flight on credit. The journey proved to be incredible, a feast for the eyes, ears, tongue. I walked the cobbled streets of Toledo, experienced the serenity of the Islamic architecture in the Alhambra, marveled at the monstrous take over of the Cordoba mosque by the Catholic Church. In Italy I danced until 4 in the morning with the bride and groom, went wine tasting through the Tuscan countryside, had the most amazing seven course, five hour dinner in Florence. The trip was packed with culture, art, food, beauty, wine. But the most memorable experience actually came at the end of my vacation.
When I had booked the flight, I had misread the dates Sammy had sent me, and thus ended up with an two extra nights, one in Italy and one in Switzerland. I was nervous about this, as I had never been alone in another country before, but also thrilled by the possibility for adventure. I didn’t plan anything before leaving the United States, so on my last day with Sammy in Lucca I had no idea where I would end up. I took a train down to Florence, passing the hours simply staring out the window at the red, orange, and yellow leaves of the October trees.
As the train finally pulled into the station, my heart skipped. I was officially alone in a city with no idea where I was going, where I was staying. I reached up for the suitcase and struggled to pull it down. It had been wedged into the overhead cabinet, and I couldn’t get it out. Tears started forming in my eyes. What was I doing here all alone? Why did I think I was capable of this? “Can I help you with that?” a voice from behind me inquired. I turned to find a handsome, bespectacled young man, who looked about my age. I nearly hugged him I was so relieved to hear someone speak English. “That would be wonderful,” I replied. He easily lifted the suitcase down and smiled. “These are my parents,” he motioned to a kindly looking couple, “where are you from?”
As we departed the train, we unearthed a lot of common ground. We were both in college, both from the west coast, and he was currently attending the University of Portland, a campus I had grown up less than a mile from. We talked about traveling with our parents, and how much we enjoyed Italy. As his father stopped to hail a cab, a sense of sadness and panic overcame me. Without thinking, I blurted out “Do you think I could come with you guys and see if there’s an extra room in your hotel? I have nowhere to go.” They all smiled. There was so much warmth from this family, I didn’t want to leave it.
During the cab ride, I started to feel anxious about the hotel. What if it was really nice and I couldn’t afford it? I had less than 70 dollars left, and it needed to last me for the next two days. As I listened to the family talk, I became acutely aware of the father’s speech. He had an impediment of some sort. Not a stutter exactly, something else. I could sense his frustration. His wife was very patient, every so often finishing his sentences.
When we got to the hotel, my nerves calmed. Like my own family, they travelled frugally. The hotel was charming in its own storied way, but it lacked refinement. The wallpaper peeled slightly at the corners, the wooden banisters had long since lost their luster, the lift elevator groaned heavily. I was grateful for the absence of pretense; it felt comfortable. And the price was right – $35 for a tiny single with a twin bed. As we got off the elevator, I thanked the family for allowing me to come with them. “Would you like to come have dinner with us?” The boy asked. “Yes!” I responded too eagerly. I couldn’t help it – I wanted to stay enveloped in their affectionate energy. “Great, meet us in the lobby at 7.”
The room was no more than 10 feet squared, but as I unpacked my toiletries I felt an enormous sense of pride. It was the first time I’d ever rented my own hotel room. I felt distinctively adult. I was in another city, by myself, and I had found a place for myself within it. I laid on the bed and hugged myself. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers, I thought.
That evening we roamed through the piazzas in search of a restaurant. We found one in a rather touristy part of the city and ordered pasta and pizza. It could have been The French Laundry or McDonald’s, it wasn’t important – what mattered was the company. We laughed, shared stories, drank wine, spoke about home and the Northwest. I could barely contain the joy I felt as we stopped for gelato on the walk back to the hotel. This was living.
Back in the hotel, the parents retired to bed and I sat with the boy in the lobby, each of us checking Facebook on our lap tops. We chatted for a bit, and then I finally asked the question I’d been pondering all night – “So, what’s going on with your dad?” The words felt poisonous exiting my mouth. “I’m sorry,” I quickly followed up, “I don’t mean to be rude.” He looked at me tenderly, “No, it’s alright. He has Lou Gehrig’s.” My mouth dropped. I didn’t know much about the disease, but I knew enough. My eyes welled. “He has about six months left, we took this trip because it was always his dream to come to Italy.” I hugged him and started to cry. I had no words. After a minute we pulled apart. “He’s had a really good life, and we have a really strong family,” he said, “life’s not always fair, but it’s what you make of it.” I nodded, moved. A moment passed. “Wanna head back upstairs?” he offered.
The next day I sat with the family at the complimentary breakfast. We ate bread and jam, drank orange juice, shared more laughter. They talked about the places they were going to visit that day, and I told them about my favorite pieces at the Uffizi – the Cimabue I adored, the magnificence of the Birth of Venus. The boy gave me his contact information, and we promised to keep up with each other on Facebook. After finishing our last sips of coffee, we exchanged hugs and goodbyes. I headed upstairs and packed my suitcase, alone again. I broke down. The last 24 hours had been too special, too sad, too sacred. Their acceptance and grace – it would never leave me.
I took one last look at the room, and then confidently grabbed my bag. I still had a night in Zurich to figure out, but this time the only nerves I felt were of excitement. There are seven billion of us on this planet, each doing our best to navigate this thing called life. Whose path would I cross today? Whose story would I be told? Who would change my perspective on things, great or small? I couldn’t wait to find out.