Sometimes backpacking SUCKS…or, Florence to Assisi

OH. My. GOD.  Kill me.  Just kill me now.  Been a HELL of a day.  Absolute hell.  And at the end of it, all I have is gratitude for the angels set in place for me along the way and the sheer beauty of my surroundings.  When the Masters tell you, “Be not afraid,” they MEAN it.

Okay.  I’m on a clock and a VERY temperamental keyboard.  Excuse any mistakes I don’t fix.

Mom headed out this morning.  Like, EARLY.  She caught her taxi at 0530, took the computer and everything we could reasonably fit in that monstrosity of a suitcase, which was as fat as it was wide, and off she went.  I went back up and tried to crash out for another few hours, but really just lay there and watch the dawn break through the open veranda door.  I got up for a run at 0730, and for the second time in three runs on this trip, I ended up running in the rain.  It wasn’t that bad, though, just a hard sprinkle, and I ended up in the Palazzo Vecchio’s main square, where I got to take a break under the canopy housing the original Rape of the Sabine Women and a few other amazing statues, which I’d wanted to go back and see anyway…oh yeah, and a David replica.  I’d started out following the Arno River, and once I really looked for it, I spotted the Piazza Michelangelo way up on the opposite bank…I could see the copper David in the middle of the square, tiny and silhouetted against the early morning sky, brooding and alone as he surveyed the breaking of a new day over his city.  It was pretty awesome.  I wish Mom and I had known to look for him the days she was here…it was cool to see.

I won’t lie…my run was about half the length it should have been, but I got sick of having to watch my feet on uneven paving stones, and in the rain, I didn’t want to risk a slip and a fall.  So I went back and showered and had breakfast and tried to pack.  Then I decided to get the post office ordeal over with…my new leather coat, surrounding our ceramic tiles and accompanying our artwork we’d bought in the square the night before, was getting mailed home, and the bag containing all those items was HEAVY.

I later learned from a guy from Ohio who had been living in Florence for two months that the Italian postal system is the butt of jokes all over Europe.  I won’t go into it here because I’m on a time limit, but if I have time at the end I’ll come back and explain it.  Suffice it to say it took two trips, a dash to a cash machine (they don’t take cards), a total of an hour and a half of waiting, four other English speakers from around the world working with the ONE English speaking teller, and 43 Euros to send my 3.87 kilo package at the 5 kilo rate home to VA to arrive in about 3 weeks.  But it’s DONE.

In between trips 1 and 2 to the post office, I went back to the hotel to finish packing and hit the post office again on my way to the train station.  And as I finished packing, the sky got DARK.  At 11am.  By the time I was downstairs checking out, it was a DOWNPOUR.  I hung around in the lobby for a while, trying to get any kind of a weather radar map for Florence on the ridiculously slow/ineffectual Florentine internet system, without success, and finally gave up, tossed my jacket over my head and backpack, and headed out into the rain with my package covered in an unused Space Bag.

It was an hour later before I was out of the post office, five minutes after the departure of the train I was hoping to catch.  By the time I made it to the train station, I was wet, hungry, and thought I had two hours to kill to catch my train to Assisi (with no plans on the other end, may I remind you).  Luckily, I found a train leaving in just 45 minutes.  Used the self-service machines to buy a ticket.  It spit out TWO tickets.  That took me half an hour to figure out…the machine didn’t inform me I had a stop and a train change.  When I got on the train the information lady pointed me to, it did NOT say it was going to Assisi.  Or to the station where I was supposed to change.  I think.  So that led to a lot more anxiety and misery and trying to communicate with reticent fellow passengers who spoke no English.  The rain and the dark skies didn’t help.  I was feeling very alone and very forlorn and very much wanting to be HOME….  So I crossed my fingers, tried not to think about Friday the 13th, and hoped I was on the right train.

When I got off in Cortona, the only family who got off with me hit the platform and started running.  So I did, too.  We raced downstairs and back up to another platform where they were able to communicate to me (again, I was kinda guessing) that the tiny, 3-car train we were getting onto was going to Assisi.  No map on the train.  Hell, I don’t even have a map of ITALY, let alone of the train system.  More anxiety, finger-crossing, nail-biting, staring at the rain.  After about three hours total, we hit Assisi.  Tiny little train station.

NO idea what to do from here.

Went into the souvenir shop in the station and bought a visitor’s guide to Assisi that was more like a little history book.  The map it included was more artsy than practical, I later found.  But the girl behind the counter didn’t speak English (noticing a theme here?) and I hit another impasse.  In the station was one – ONE – chick with a backpack, and not a big one.  As I passed her, I kinda muttered, “Speak English?” and God love her, she turned around and said, heavily accented, “Leetle.”  She was very, VERY kind…my first angel of the day…and shared with me the phone numbers for two hostels in Assisi.

Not that I know how to make a phone call here.  Or what to do if the person on the other end speaks only Italian.

At this point, I’m starting to feel REALLY stupid for being so unprepared.  And REALLY foolish for being so flippantly optimistic about being able to figure things out on the other end.

I had just decided to cross the street and give the pay phone a shot when the drizzle turned to a RAGING DOWNPOUR.  And it didn’t stop for the twenty minutes I stood in the station with my backpack, dancing from foot to foot in indecision, feeling 5pm coming on.  Finally I decided, screw it, I’ll take one of these cabs.

Angel Number 2 was the cabbie.  He took me to the closer of the two names the woman with the backpack had given me.  He was very sweet and kept thanking ME profusely, as though a rainy day didn’t give him more fares…?  Maybe it didn’t.  He dropped me off and I dashed through the deluge into the hostel.

And immediately a woman on the phone told me the hostel was full.

And it was at this point that I kinda felt myself starting to sorta kinda maybe get close to TOTALLY BREAKING DOWN.

If it hadn’t been raining, I think I would’ve been fine.  But it was ridiculous out there.  Like, animals two by two ridiculous.

I must have looked miserable, hopeless, destitute…which I was kinda going for, at that point…because she finally stopped pointing out how unprepared I was (REALLY?) and started making some calls around town for me…after pointing out that Sunday was an Italian holiday, so chances were slim we could find ANYTHING.  By then, all I could think was, “SCREW Assisi, I’ll get back on the damn train and stay on it till I get somewhere it’s not raining!”  I mean, I don’t even have the phone number for Christa in Vienna!  What was I thinking?  (In truth, this was all stuff I planned to iron out in Florence…but the complete failure of any kind of internet service for longer than 30 seconds out of every 10 minutes made it impossible to do ANYTHING I wanted to do…communicate, plan, research, find hostels, anything.  And the rain took care of the rest.  By the end of all that, I was a stupid American with nowhere to go.)  She started calling and chattering and hanging up, shaking her head and shrugging as the skies boomed with thunder outside and the rain hammered down.

After several tries, she found something.  (Cue angels singing.)  In Assisi, too, not a neighboring town. (Cue heavenly choir.)  She told me to sit down and wait till the rain stopped and she’d tell me what to do.

Another twenty minutes passed.  The rain stopped.  I waited.  And waited.  Tried to read about Assisi.  And waited some more.

Finally, when she acknowledged me again, she gave me a map and told me where to walk to get to the main square in Assisi and pick up a bus that would take me to the other end of town where my guesthouse awaited.  There’s only one bus, she assured me, so I wouldn’t get lost.  She wrote down the name, address, and phone number of the woman I was going to and gave it to me.  So I loaded up and off I went.  Thus ended my contact with (sort of curt and brusque) Angel Number 3.

I headed up the tiny little road through the olive grove towards the main street.  Along the way, because I was feeling a bit calmer and trying to lift my spirits, I picked an olive off one of the trees.  My dad tells a story of a time he tricked my brother, who was only 4 or 5 at the time, into eating an olive off a tree when we lived on an olive orchard in northern California.  Tastes just like the ones we have at dinner, he told my brother.  So Mike bit into it.  And it was AWFUL.  It’s a funny story, though my brother didn’t think so at the time…now it’s one of his favorites.  Trying to feel a bit better, I decided to kinda sorta try one, just a little bit.  The story is true. =)

Then I had the presence of mind to look around me.

Assisi is high on a hillside.  I was trudging up.  And when I stopped and looked behind me, I actually gasped.  Through the small olive trees that surrounded me, I could see the entire countryside spread out before me…rolling orchards, farmyards, cypress trees, mountains in the distance, all under the diffused light of the sun which had finally broken through the clouds.  And suddenly, against the backdrop of the purple sky which was finally moving away, I could see the castles and churches of Assisi rising high above me.  It was breathtaking.

So I made it to the bus stop.  Hemmed and hawed till I figured out which shop to buy the bus ticket in.  Got on a bus even though it didn’t have my piazza’s name on it, just because they said there was only one bus back at the hostel.  Found myself taking an entire loop of the new part of town.  Far down the hill I’d just climbed.  Back to the train station. Twice.  I was sitting outside the effing train station two and a half hours after I’d left it.  Finally, we headed back up the mountain and a gal sat down next to me and assured my frantic attempts to communicate that yes, we were going to Piazza Matteotti or whatever it was.

We did.  An old man pointed me to my street.  I was terrified that I’d taken too long…the lady at the hostel called this old woman back when I left to tell her I was on my way, and I was afraid she’d give my bed away if I didn’t show.  But there she was, hollering and waving from an upstairs window as I approached a tiny little set of steps, drowning in flowers, in a little mews that could only be described as a postcard.

Signiora Maria Alunni Bocchini is, like, an ARCHangel.  She speaks no English and I speak no Italian, and it was amazing how much I was able to understand her anyway.  She’s a gem.  My room has two twin beds, close together, and I assume by now I have no roommate.  The bathroom is down the hall…she even has towels for me (I thought at first she didn’t), and I have a key for the front door and a key for the room.  I was so happy I actually cried a little when I got into my room and set down my pack and shut the door.

That didn’t last long.  I sprang back up and decided to make the most of the remaining hours of daylight.

I walked EVERYWHERE.  The roads are steep and quaint, with stonework houses lining the streets and absolute RIOTS of flowers on every housefront.  I’m taking amazing pictures.  Mom, every other shop is a tile shop.  Here, the number tiles have roses on them.  About the seventeenth tile shop I went into…I FOUND THE BORDER TILES.  I have them.  They match.  (Cue heavenly hosts of seraphim trumpeting and all the like.)  Cease the search, call off the dogs.  I’ve got ’em.

I’m down to like ten minutes now.  I walked all over town till dark and didn’t find internet.  Funny thing…I came to Assisi because of the Camino, because of my Peace Corps aspirations, because of the theme of simplicity St. Francis represents.  And yet the thought of retiring at 9pm, with no computer, and no one to talk to, and no window to the world, and no way to communicate and no one to communicate to, and no way to tell my family I’m safe, and no one to tell the day’s story to…and I nearly lost it.  I couldn’t stand it.  My addiction to communication is too great, I suppose.  I went back to the piazza and found a giant touring coach waiting.  I asked if he went to San Pietro, the square where I first walked to, and he said yes.  I was sure there would be internet there.  He didn’t even charge me…gave me my own private ride in a huge bus all the way down town.  And so here I am.

And now it’s ten o’clock, and I’m not sure the bus runs this late, and if not, I have a long, uphill, but probably peaceful and meditative walk back home.  I won’t get lost because I’m at the friggin’ TOP.  I’m kind of looking forward to it, even if it takes me an hour or more.  I have a lot to think about.  Today was an incredible roller coaster ride of emotions…I can’t tell you how foolish and lonesome and miserable I felt when I was caught in the downpour with nowhere to go…not even any precautions for rain!  I was in Spain for a month, and it only drizzled ONCE.  Rain wasn’t even on my radar.  Yet there I was, completely unprepared.  Stupid.  And to contrast that with how I felt by about 8pm, when the sun was setting and the now-clear sky was turning colors over the mountains, with the mists creeping through them and the valley laid out before me over the stone walls, with Signiora Maria so warm and welcoming back in my little pension house, quiet and peaceful, and I have two nights secured there…wow.

All I can say is...blessings.

I’ve bagged Verona, by the way.  Juliet’s balcony just isn’t worth the hassle.  And as much as I hated it around 5pm, Assisi is beautiful.  I want two days to explore it.  And now I know where the computer is, so I’ll write again tomorrow night.

So, I’m safe.  And now it’s time for a long walk…and bed.

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About merlintoes

Amateur marathoner, constant wanderer, sometime teacher, and pilgrim for life. As of July 2012, I have picked up and moved my life to Colorado, a state where I know no one, have no job, and hear it is very beautiful. I don't understand it myself...but I'm gonna run with it.
This entry was posted in Italy & Austria 2010. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sometimes backpacking SUCKS…or, Florence to Assisi

  1. Fran Phoenix says:

    You found the tiles and the internet and a bed! What more could you want? A poncho?? You are having a great adventure…I will be happier when you meet up with your friend. Much more fun with another person!

  2. Patty Engelen says:

    House numbers with roses. . . hmmmm. We have roses in our courtyard! But I’m committed to the lemons, so I’m VERY glad you found the border tiles!! Looks like Someone was watching over you during your very trying day! Can’t wait to read about all that you see today! Wish I was there to take pictures with you!

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