Thursday, August 2, 2007

Traveling Solo Contest: Essays Four, Five and Six

by Amy Novesky

En Route to the Museum
by Natalie Galli

I dragged my luggage along the quay, the cobblestones such slippery terrors that my stupid valise careened sideways and landed splat in a puddle. I made sure to check the Orario for my return trip tomorrow. I didn't see taxis anywhere. The few other passengers had quickly vanished. Where was the populace of Reggio di Calabria?

A little car pulled up. "Hey! Do you need a ride?"

"No, thanks, I need a cab."

"Do you see any? I don't. I'll take you."

I squinted through the downpour. He had a beard, unusual in Italy. Maybe a kindly professor-type.

"Where do you need to go?" he asked politely. "I'll take you there."

"Why are there no buses or taxis here?"

"None at this time of day. It's siesta. I will take you. Hop in."

"Only if you'll take me straight to the Museo? I will pay you for the ride. Agreed?"

"No charge." He opened his trunk for my suitcase.

"I can hold it in front." I adjusted my wedding ring. We zipped through the slick maritime streets.

"My name is Carmine."

"How do you do." I gave him a business-like nod. I thought, I've just made a mistake.

"Where are you from?"

"The United--"

"Are you married?"

Here it came.

"Yes, I am. Of course." I touched the fake ring slipping around my finger.

"Me too. I'm married also. With two children. A girl and a boy."

"Congratulations." My shoulders began stiffening.

"Yes, I love my children. They're beautiful."

"How nice. Is the Museo up there?" I pointed to some civic-sized buildings.

"Soon, not quite. Here they are." He flipped down his visor, revealing a photo of two toddlers.

"Sweet. Precious. Your wife and you must be very proud."

"Where's your husband?"

"He's in Rome, doing research." I hooked my thumb through the strap across my chest. "I'm on my way to meet him tomorrow."

"Why aren't you together?"

"Because I've been doing my own research."

"Your husband lets you go off on your own?"

"Let's me?" Never mind I'd fabricated a husband. It's no concern of yours, pipsqueak. "I have my own work."

"I read that eighty-nine percent of American men have less than average size penises."

Oh Christ. "I wouldn't know."

"Yes, and I read that seventy-five percent of American men have sexual affairs."

"I have no idea." I eyed the door handle.

"Yes, What do you think about these things I have read?"

"I don't think a thing about them. They don't concern me." I readied my thumb on the handle.

"Yes, I've heard that most American men are very small in size, unlike Italian men." He was gaining speed. The tires squealed.

"If you're trying to impress me with the hugeness of your manhood, I'm not interested." The fingertips of my left hand pressed into the cracks in the dashboard. "I am happily married."

"Everyone knows that Italian men are so much better at making love."

"Isn't that nice. Please slow down, I want to get out now."

"Why? This isn't the museum."

"Stop the car."

"Don't worry. Stay calm."

"Pull over, please."

A traffic light ahead changed to red. I grabbed my suitcase from the floor.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm getting out." I pulled the handle. The door pressed shut against my arm as he sped through the red light.

We were now on an overpass. Everything tilted at loony angles: the roadway, the distant buildings, and, horribly, my body into his from centrifugal force. "Take me back!" I screamed. He dodged other cars, honking and cursing. "What are you doing!"

Saliva caked at the corner of his mouth, a sweat stigmata appeared on his brow.

"Slow down!"

He pushed the pedal to the floor. Why did I get in? Mea maxissima culpa. Next time he braked coming out of a bend, I would jump. Suitcase first, like a raft or a boogieboard. The herringbone fabric would shear off, but I would ride with it, shoulder first, keeping my head down. I would roll, keeping my head tucked. I could do it.

"Are you crazy? People know where I am. The carabinieri will hunt you down if you harm me in any way."

The tires shrieked. We were off the overpass, back on city streets. Teeth bared, he was weaving right and left, shooting through red lights, as if we were inside a video game. Maia and Primo, back in Palermo, crowded into my mind. At least the authorities would inform them of the details. They'd be told I was trying to escape when I got smeared all over the asphalt.

"You know, we Italian men like to talk to American girls because we've heard they are sexually uninhibited, because we think we can get them into bed."

"Basta!" I grabbed his emergency brake with my left hand. "Basta!" It shuddered in my grip, and caused the car to jump and shimmy all over the road. "You can't, you can't, you can't!" We kept skipping along the asphalt. "You can't, alright?" We scraped to a stop at an angle, pointing in towards oncoming traffic, my suitcase wedged between me and the windshield, his mouth hung open, a canopy of black fillings. Everywhere a halo of horns went berserk.

"Disgraziato," a cool voice - mine - said. I flung open the door. "How dare you!" Suitcase first, I pried myself free and stumbled to my feet.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," he groaned. "I did what I said, I brought you to the museum."

"A thousand thanks. Here's my tip." I threw some lire bills into his car and lurched toward the stone building in front of halted, honking traffic.


The Detour by Judith Gille

If my daughter asked permission to do it today my answer would be a resounding "No!" But in 1975, hitchhiking through France by myself, after my Eurail Pass expired, seemed like a great idea.

My destination was the vineyards of Burgundy where I planned to work the vendange, but I was in no hurry to get there. I started hitching with an acquaintance who turned out to be a liability. So, one morning, I struck out alone. It wasn't long before a Frenchman picked me up. Rotund and a bit slovenly, his nickname "Dodu", translated as Chubby, suited him. His corpulence flowed over the driver's seat of his decrepit Deux Chevaux. His greasy, black hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his thin beard looked like it was having difficulty catching on.

Taciturn for the first twenty minutes, Dodu warmed up some when he discovered I spoke French. After a few hours he mentioned he had a house and we were near the turn off. He invited me to stay the night rather than try my luck at getting another ride. As I weighed my choices afternoon was quickly fading into evening. Though my instincts told me Dodu was trustworthy, I considered the consequences if I was wrong. Blocking out the troubling thoughts I said yes to his invitation.

He signaled our arrival and turned off the highway. But he continued driving deeper into the country along winding, unmarked roads. Darkness crept in and with each passing kilometer there were fewer houses. When he turned off the road onto a dirt lane panic set in. For ten, tense minutes my heart was in my throat before we rolled to a stop on the gravel driveway of a small, stone house. The crunch of gravel under the wheels and drone of crickets were the only sounds.

Dodu climbed out, grabbing his bag and my backpack in his monstrous paws. Silently he led the way up the unlit steps. He showed me the guest room and said he was going to take a shower. I sat down on the bed and considered locking myself in for the night but decided to shake off my paranoia. I wandered into the kitchen where Dodu, fresh out of the shower and wearing his pajamas, was scrounging for something to cook. In minutes, with a few simple ingredients, he threw together a memorable omelet. We shared it and his last beer as our conversation rambled past midnight. Then he got up, announced he was tired, and
went to bed.

I ended up staying with Dodu for several days. We foraged for wild mushrooms in the hills near his house and he taught me a recipe for tarte tatin I still use to this day. I felt fortunate, as we dined on vegetables picked from his garden and drank wine under the stars, that my instincts had been right on.

And if my daughter someday asks me if she can hitchhike around Europe, the answer is still no.


The Frenchman by Maria DeFilippo

I had spent an entire day in the Louvre in Paris and was only able to see a small portion of the exhibits. After the museum closed I sat down to relax out by the fountain -- took a few touristy photos and then pulled my map out. Yes, I know you should never pull a map out in public but it was a great map. It showed restaurants as well as their price ranges. I was starving and ready for dinner so I opened the map knowing that now I was pegged a tourist. Before I had re-folded the map someone was sitting beside me. Too close to me.

I looked up half expecting to see an old ogre looking man but was very surprised to see an attractive, younger man -- obviously French. He spoke almost perfect English which made communication very easy. We sat discussing the exhibits I had seen and he asked if I had seen certain paintings, most of which I had not. "Let me show them to you." That seemed like an odd comment since the museum had already closed. I simply replied, "But the museum is closed." "That doesn't matter. They're on the first floor." I must have hesitated because he took my hand and lead me over to the wall of the museum. Standing below the towering window sill he said, "Grab the window sill." I reached for the sill as he lifted me up to look through the window. He directed me to one painting after another going from window to window till we slipped and fell. In a pile on the hard stone plaza of the museum, we couldn't help but laugh. We must have looked absurd laying there on the ground.

This disruption to my tour of the first floor brought me back to my hunger and I asked him about nearby restaurants. He suggested a small cafe not far away -- we could get a bite along with some wine and continue our conversation. I wasn't ready for the conversation to end so I agreed. As we sat sipping our evening cup of coffee, I told him about the United States and he told me about France. Mentioning that he had always wanted to see the United States. I teased that that was why he was being nice to me -- I was his free place to stay. We both laughed. Me at the possible absurdity of it -- him, maybe at me guessing his true motivation.

That conversation was never brought up again over the next week which was filled with long walks along the Seine River holding hands, dinners in small cafes and stolen kisses as he showed me the Paris that he loved. We spent the day together exploring room by room the different exhibits in the Louvre. Heading to the door at the end of the day we got separated in the crowds. That was the last time we ever saw each other.

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