It started as the briefest tickle in my throat. Onboard flight 702 from Philadelphia to Germany, watching some mindless romantic comedy and thinking about sleep on a plane, I took a scratchy swallow. And then I knew it was there, my travel companion, the extra hundred pounds in my backpack. My grand Italian adventure would be visited by one grand Italian head cold. It took me a few days to admit I was sick, that this sweating, this coughing, this constant heart and head pounding weren’t the result of travel exertion or the unimpeded beauty of the Italian landscape. In Monterosso I spent a feverish morning tossing in my high, firm bed, dreaming of trees and monkeys and ice cream and The Beatles. First it was just the four nice men from Please Please Me, offering to write me a song, but as I watched they melted into caricatures of themselves and soon we were all on a yellow submarine and stars were bursting overhead into a groovy seventies dreamcloud. Ice cream. Paul’s blob of a hand takes my blob of a hand and he tells me he’s my uncle, to which I say that’s ridiculous because surely I’m older than him by now. And either way, does he have any ice cream?
You’d think after a dream like that I’d make a beeline for a gelato stand, a resource in abundance in Monterosso. Alas, I have still not had the pleasure. I don’t know what I’m waiting for.
I woke up that morning with a hacking cough, blanketed in a layer of perspiration, completely without the will to move. At home, this would be the kind of day that I would roll over, call in sick to work, wrap myself on a blanket on the sofa with some breakfast and hot tea, maybe watch my favorite movie. Give my immune system a chance to one-two punch that cold right out of existence. But I was in Monterosso, in Cinque freaking Terre! I had taken three planes and two trains, walked an unknown number of train station and airport miles with my belongings on my back, climbed hills and narrow staircases just to be at this very spot. Wasting an opportunity like this is something you just don’t do. And I had no choice but to get out of bed anyway because there was absolutely no food in my room and my stomach was starting to gnaw at itself from the inside.
There’s a certain moment during solo travel that I consider to be my own personal hell. It’s the realization that no matter what grueling, torturous, undesirable thing has to be done in any given moment, getting that thing done is entirely up to me. I don’t have the option of whining and giving up until someone steps in. It was like this in the desert of Joshua Tree when the baking sun was overhead and someone had to set up camp. It was like this in Hawaii when the bus stop was a mile from my hostel and someone had to strap on my overpacked backpack and limp-walk my enormous canvas duffel with all of my camping supplies up the hill. And it was like this in Monterosso, when every cell of mine toddler-screamed no no we want to stay in bed and yet someone had to pull some clothes on, navigate down all of those steps, avoid the (maybe even kind, generous) stares from the locals and figure out how to buy some food.
The market was tiny and close, crowded with people and with Italian-labeled products shoulder to shoulder on all of the shelves. At first absolutely nothing was familiar. It was like shopping the aisles of Freddie’s in a funhouse mirror. The colors, the fonts, the enthusiasm for each product made sense. I could feel that I was supposed to want to buy them, but I couldn’t put my finger on why. My eyes landed on a big jar of Nutella and relief washed over me. Oh Nutella, old friend! It’s such a pleasure to see you here! I’m afraid I don’t know anyone else at this party…
Emboldened, I started to make eye contact with the pictures on things. In the corner, I found a sweet jar of canned pear halves, on the top shelf a packet of benign-looking crackers. A stroll through the refrigerated section produced a yogurt (magical healthy-making properties) and a pack of cheese slices, my favorite go-to hungry panic protein. Nutella gazed longingly from its place on the shelf. I’m sorry old friend, if I buy you everyone will think I’m sitting in my room just eating you with a spoon. Which, let’s face it, is probably what I would be doing.
I paid for my purchases, avoiding everyone’s eyes. Sickness just pulls the plug on any social energy I’ve ever had. It reduces me to an awkward twelve year old, sure everyone is looking at her and finding fault. She only wants to hide. So back up the steps climb climb climb! Close myself in my room, relieve my gnawing hunger with eating, and that is everything I did in Monterosso that day.
I spent a similar day in Florence: fever dreams, bed, hunger, ignoring hunger, finally giving in to the pangs and searching for a restaurant that would be kind to fragile twelve year old me. If travel truly is the journey without that triggers a journey within, then I was absolutely getting my money’s worth. I was finding out — without distraction of silly things like renaissance art, or beautiful architecture or genuine interaction with other human beings — exactly what it is to be me. What I do when things get hard, what happens when whatever I would normally do to comfort myself just isn’t available. And it wasn’t pretty.
For one, I hide. Hardcore. I simply don’t want to face the world, even a world as gorgeous as Florence freaking Italy. Food has always been my comfort item, particularly fast food, and without that easy salt and fat and sweet and fried to make things better I find myself nibbling on my self esteem, chewing on my confidence and swallowing entirely my sense of self worth. I become timid and fearful in a really unfamiliar way. And loudly critical. Is it possible this voice of hatred was in me all along and the french fries were keeping it at bay?
But I digress. This is supposed to be a travel memoir, not a voyage to the depth of my internal muck. Here I am now, in Rome. Gorgeous Rome. Inspirational Rome. Everything I always dreamed it would be Rome. And I’m not alone on my trip anymore, I’ve met up with some of my favorite fellow students and we’re seeing it all together. Oh, and my friend head cold is here too, with all of his other weird emotional side-effects. And he’s taking me apart like an engine, all of my greasy inner pieces laid carefully side by side on the floor. I don’t know what he intends to find. I just hope he plans to put it all back together before he goes, because right now it’s a terrible mess.
Rome walked per day