After learning the very important lesson of always give yourself extra time when traveling – especially when abroad – the hard way in Marseille, Harman and I got to the Nice bus station almost too early. We set-up shop in the shade of one of the only covered benches and waited until a bunch of other clueless-looking backpackers began to float up and down the sidewalk, so we decided to follow the herd. At one point another weary soul approached the two of us asking for help finding the bus to Barcelona. He barely spoke English, so us arrogant Americans just gesticulated wildly towards the front office and said that we were sorry we couldn’t help him. He wandered around the station for a bit, looking hopeless, and eventually he walked off into the distance, into the streets of Nice. Hopefully he wasn’t trying to rob us – we wouldn’t have been able to tell difference. Good sir, if you’re out there and were sincerely just looking for directions, I hope you got where you needed to go.
The bus arrived soon after and we were then en route to Italy. The Motherland. Within the last year my mother took one of those DNA tests and it determined that there is a small amount of French heritage in my family, alongside what I already knew. That explains all the bread. But now that we were only hours from the Italian border I knew that I was truly heading for home. I was – and am still – jealous at the ease of travel in Europe. A few days before we were in Spain, then France, then Monaco, and we would cross into Italy in a few hours. I smile just reading that out loud.
This was the part of the trip that I truly began to understand that I was, most likely, born in the wrong time. Blame the old soul, blame my overly romantic mind, but dammit I felt that should have been born in the Golden Age of travel, leading a life of adventure and mystery, only to write about it one day and to be remembered as the man with a thousand homes. I felt like a stranger. I wanted to be a stranger. I wanted to see the true edge of the world and fall off, forever falling, never landing or washing up to any specific shore. Madness, madness, madness. What was this life for other than blissful madness?
But so far I had only had *two* cups of coffee over the course of the entire week, so I was hoping some Italian espresso would both wake me up and shake me from that idealistic mentality, at least long enough for me to settle in and enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of Italy before I drifted fully into travel fatigue. I needed sleep, food, and coffee – not necessarily in that order. The three necessities of any traveler. So I sat staring out the window, waiting. At some point our FlixBus stopped for about 30 minutes at a gas station. All the signs and items and product labels were written in Italian. We had finally crossed the border. Instead of sitting down in the café attached to the gas station I walked to the little outcrop behind the building – the service area where semi-trucks pull in and out of – and stood facing some expanse of hills and grass and flowers and sea. Italy.
Not that it looked that much different than Spain or France, but it felt different. Maybe I just was imagining it all, but I felt different standing there on the side of the road behind a gas station in the country that is responsible for the largest part of my bloodline. As we continued our drive towards Milan we drove through countless tunnels carved into the hills and valleys. Scattered in the distance were farms and olive trees and vineyards, and old, forgotten houses that looked as if they had been dropped there in a perfect pattern, like stars in the sky. I wanted to know the stories of every brick and door, of every person who called them home. Home. Some of the last remnants of the old world, still alive today. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to explore the shadows in each of them. But we were headed to Milan and still had a few hours on the bus. Couldn’t spend all of my cheesy sentiments staring out the window.
When we arrived at the Milan bus station we were quickly ushered directly into the train station in a wave of confusion. Max, one of the guys we roomed with in Nice the night before, was actually on the same bus, and being from Finland – where travel is as casual as any other European country – we trusted him to get us where we needed to go. Eventually the three of us split, but we’d meet the next day to roam the city centre. For the time being, however, Harman and I found ourselves walking the streets of Milan making our way to Hostel Colours. Before I go any further, if given the chance to stay at that hostel… don’t. The physical building was spacious, unique, and set-up much like a hotel, with a bar, kitchen, seating area, and loft. The breakfast spread was pretty good, too. But the lobby itself closed at midnight, the bar was ridiculously overpriced (even for hostel standards,) and the staff were less than friendly. (More on that later.) But this night we didn’t care too much about that – we were starving by the time we got there and were quick to find a local gem, Ciccio Pizza. Except there was one problem: There was a line out the door.
We walked up like two ignorant travelers – just walked straight into the restaurant, completely bypassing the very long line of fellow hungry travelers – and held up two fingers to bridge the language gap. Every waiter ignored us, and rightfully so, except for one particularly fiery woman whom we never learned the name of. She spoke to us rapidly in Italian, we smiled dumbly and held up two fingers once again. She held up just one – and motioned for us to stay put. We hastily avoided the bustle of waiters and servers and bus boys as we quickly realized we we practically standing in the middle of the kitchen, itself. Finally our Italian correspondent returned from the back and waved us to follow her out the front door. We weaved between a few side streets, and Harman and I both agreed that if we suddenly were to disappear after being guided down a dimly lit alleyway that we certainly would be happy if at least it happened in Italy. But the excitement stopped there, and instead our guide directed us to a partner restaurant, the Tutto Giusto, and we were seated immediately.
Within ten minutes we both had medium-sized pizzas all to ourselves, piping hot but without an ounce of excessive grease, both for under 8 Euro each. It was a cool, soft night in the streets of Milan with pizza between two friends. We toasted to still having another week in Europe together. When we got back to the hostel we did everything we could to not fall asleep immediately. We hung around the lobby for a bit just killing time, but were soon reminded of our impending curfew and were ushered into our room before long. But for as frustratingly upbeat as the front desk attendant was in order to get us out of his lobby, we were eager to pass out. In the morning we’d meet our Finnish friend, Max, to explore the heart of Milano, and in the evening we’d take on the city after dark with new friends from Poland, England, Texas, and Germany – all thanks to a pickpocket in Barcelona and a delicious pot of rice and vegetables.