Harman and I would be leaving for La Spezia in just about an hour, continuing our journey on our way to Cinque Terre. I had always dreamed of seeing the five villages, and when we began planning our trip the previous winter it was one of the destinations that he and I both agreed was absolutely necessary. At that point, it still didn’t feel real. We had been awake until something like 3 a.m. that morning, right alongside our newfound group of worldly wanderers with whom we had decided to become best friends for the night. The Texan, the German, the Pol, the Brits, the French. Like I said before, our Milano Nights had been something that we’d both remember for a very, very long time.
I am not a religious man by any means, but after being in Italy for only a few days it was easy to see why God reigns in that part of the world – even the most human of manmade structures and art were hard to comprehend as coming to life without some sort of divine intervention. I wrote of the Duomo that if I had been raised there, I certainly would fall to my knees every time I stepped foot in the cathedral.
But, like I said, I wasn’t allowed inside because I was wearing shorts. Another lifetime, perhaps.
For what it’s worth, all of Milan, despite what it may be lacking, smells heavily of wildflowers throughout most of the city. I was excited to smell the saltwater of the Ligurian Sea, next. It was all moving so fast and I was quickly reminded that life sometimes teaches you nothing more than the lesson of letting go. And I was content with that. But new friends can become old friends very quickly, and if you try too hard to find the words you want to say, you may never have the chance to say what is needed in the first place. Then I heard the echo of a gate come from a marble staircase, and it was time to go.
The train station in Milan was large and nearly impossible to navigate, but thankfully as Harman and I made our way to the terminal, a friendly face noticed the bags and panicked looks on our faces and asked if we knew where we were going. She said she was an ex-pat if I remember correctly, and she immediately empathized with us first-time travelers. She pointed us in the right direction and smiled. For a moment we turned our heads to get a better view of where exactly it was that we needed to go, and when we turned back she was gone. Thank you, whoever you were, because we made our train on time.
The train ride itself was pleasant enough. Not quite as scenic as our initial bus ride into the country, but I ended up being focused on what was happening inside the cabin, instead. Harman had fallen asleep in the seat across from me almost immediately, so I was left with my thoughts and whatever I could distract myself with for the better part of 2 or 3 hours. Maybe it was 4. I really lost track of time.
In the seat next to us, across the aisle, sat a woman with a headful of hair wrapped into a messy bun, headphones blasting, world deafened, and a look on her face that was somewhere in between resentment, disappointment, and determination. She was posed so poetically that I took a candid photo of her before the car even started moving. During the first 2 hours, of which she was still on the train, I’ll admit that I genuinely couldn’t stop staring. And because Harman was asleep through all of it, I had no one to pull me back down to earth.
I like to consider myself a very confident person. After all, confidence can unlock so many doors even if you never had the key. It’s precisely how I got through so many college speeches by simply making it all up on the spot. However, during those few quick hours on a train ride in Italy, I was met with the momentary sensation of being unable to speak. She was sitting alone – even the seats across from her were vacant for the majority of the ride – but no matter how much I tried to hype myself up to simply attempt to talk to her, my legs and arms and body became cement. My mouth refused to open. Her view remained fixed out her window for the majority of the ride, so I at least was safe from her seeing my pathetic attempt at getting her attention. All I could do was force a weak smile. I hadn’t been that nervous in a very long time. At one point she loosened her ponytail, shook her head, and let an excessive amount of long, wavy hair the color of honey flow down her neck and shoulders. Yes, my jaw literally dropped and remained that way until I forcibly clamped it shut.
I had taken my camera from my bag at one point to hopefully catch her gaze, at which point I would smile, point my Canon at her, grab her photo, go over to show her what I’d taken, and the rest would be cheesy, romantic, improbable history. Except the only moment I was able to capture was another candid scene that made well for street photography, further reinforcing the look that she wore on her face to begin with. Sooner or later I put the camera away and tried my very hardest to focus on anything but her. We were in Italy, after all! Eventually, our ride slowed down and we arrived at our first stop in Genoa. Harman was still asleep, I was still lovestruck, and the beautiful Italian woman who had somehow been ripped right from my dreams was getting off the train.
She collected her things and proceeded to move among the wave of strangers that seemingly came out of nowhere, and I struggled to get one final look at her — even if she had no clue that I had ever existed at all. But as she entered the aisle, less than three feet from me, she never looked my way.
Until she did. And in a moment so brief I wonder if it even happened at all, she turned, aimed her eyes at me, and smiled.
I was very close to grabbing my bag and following her off the train, a text to Harman already written that said, “Sorry, but she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen and I had to know how it ends. Take care, brother.” At that moment my body no longer had the weight on concrete, however, my soul had lept from my body when she smiled at me, and I was unable to move, once again. I think I verbally ‘gasped,’ too.
But, as I have come to learn, sometimes it’s best not to know how a story ends, and with that our train rode on, the next stop the Ligurian Sea. If you are out there and somehow see this, I hope you are well. For now, I’ll simply remember you as Genoa, the girl on the train. Also, I hope you don’t find my fascination creepy or weird. I just simply had never seen someone quite like you.
As we got closer and closer to our destination, it began to feel more and more like a fantasy on a film reel, flickering right before my eyes. I then began to think of what was coming next – after Cinque Terre, after Italy, after Switzerland, when Harman would be heading back home and I’d have a week in Europe, alone. My plans were still very much up in the air, but I figured that Italy certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to set up shop for a while. Sure, they have one of the most corrupt, faultiest governments on earth, and their economy is basically useless. But you can get a bottle of drinkable wine for 1 Euro and 2 liters of water for .17 cents. And I could just sit on that train until I ran into Genoa again one day, so how bad could it really be?
But soon we arrived at our destination, Harman woke up, and we began to weave through the cobblestone streets of La Spezia, slightly dazed and exceptionally hungry. We were now on the western coast of Italy and I’d soon be able to check hike Cinque Terre off of my bucket list. I didn’t even know that my mouth could form the words. What else would I be able to cross off that list with the remaining two weeks on a different continent? I couldn’t even imagine. Then I reminded myself, once again, that sometimes all life has to teach us is the lesson of letting go. Goddamn the winds, I wrote, but bless those same forces of nature that push and pull us where we need to be, and take us where we want to go.