Where GPS Can’t Take You

Ravenna, June 21
I can’t worry about how bad the first inevitably shitty incident will be. I can only remind myself that it will make a good story in a Veronese bar a week later. My last night in Venice I came home from Marika’s, turned the key in the lock, opened the door and saw sitting on the desk a baise straw hat, the kind you see sold in the Rialto market. I don’t own a straw hat. I looked around and saw a collection of neatly arranged accoutrements: a sweater vest, wheeled suitcase, Ruth Rendell novel on the night table. None of these things were mine. I thought maybe I was on the wrong floor. But my key worked in the lock. The truth immediately hit me. I had mistakenly thought I had another night reserved at the guest house. When they saw my things after the morning checkout time, they removed them from the room. I had been evicted. The trouble was this guest house is run remotely. No one is on duty except the maid in the morning. I went downstairs. There was no posted phone number, which wouldn’t have helped anyway since I didn’t have a cell phone. So I did what any reasonable person would do in that situation. I began banging on doors calling “Maria,” the host who had booked the room with me through Air BnB. God knew where she was. I was sure she had sent me an e-mail warning I was about to be expelled, which also didn’t help much considering they had confiscated my laptop. I began opening every door I could and ultimately in a basement bathroom I found my things. I went through the printed checklist in my binder. Yes, everything was there including my sleeveless vest, medication and copy of Malcolm X’s biography. I got the fuck out of there. I went out into the streets filled with Saturday evening crowds. I was confident I could find a hotel, which I did easily enough. When I finally sat down in my new room I realized how disturbing it is to have your 53 items taken from you. Because when traveling alone those 53 items are all you have, you feel that somehow your identity has itself been momentarily stolen. The lesson is calm down and realize you are someone whole even without your physical belongings, even in a country where you are not sure how to say “What the hell is going on?”

Today has gone much better, though every day has its mishaps. I arrived at the Ravenna youth hostel to find it closed for the next two hours. But I saw there was a spacious park nearby so I changed into my running clothes in an alcove and took off for a series of loops. Space and time are uncertain commodities when traveling. I get lost a lot. Today after biking somewhere off the crude map I carried I asked a guy on the street where the hostel was. I asked him if he spoke English. He said no, but some French, which allowed us to talk more easily. Even with our bilingual effort I couldn’t quite get the directions. He was on a bicycle too and finally he waved his hand and said I’ll take you there. When he dropped me off I said “Grazie, Merci, Thank you.” It was the second time I had to speak French today. My taxi driver from the train station was Tunisian. I’ve had the chance here to cobble together various combinations of tongues. After trying badly to talk to Marika’s kitchen assistant in Italian, I found out she was Cuban and then we had no problem.

I am going to be a little judgmental for a moment here. I know this is arrogant of me, but I am really annoyed by the English speakers who don’t even try to speak Italian. I mean they don’t even say scusi when they bump into you on the train or buon giorno when they see you at breakfast. It’s not just the inaccurate presumption that everyone here speaks English and that English is and should be the default global language, it is the tourist consciousness where people aren’t really interested in the deeper culture of the place where they are invitees. Of course no one is obliged to behave in any particular way in the place they visit, but it also seems like some of the pleasure is lost. Don’t you want to hear Italian coming from your lips and connect with the guy at the newspaper kiosk? To me the language is the most exciting thing. Not to engage it is almost like eating only American style products from the supermarket instead of sampling authentic Italian food. I realize this is all going to sound bad to a lot of people, but I am trying to be transparent in my blog.

What got me to Ravenna was page 127 in an undergraduate art history book. I work with students at a certain high school on art history and music. It’s a survey course, which means they spend about 20 minutes on the 6th century. On page 127 we look at the 6th century Byzantine mosaics in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Year after year I talk to them about Justinian as embodying the Eastern Roman Empire fusion of church and state through the intricate green, blue, gold and shining sapphire tile images that cover the walls and ceiling of San Vitale. I had seen page 127 about ten years in a row. So now I took the train to Bologna and transferred to Ravenna to see what page 127 looks like when it’s not a page anymore. I discovered that in addition to San Vitale, Ravenna has several other structures with brilliant Byzantine mosaics with images of 26 virgins in a row, Abraham sacrificing Isaac, and Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. The churches, bapistries, and mausoleums are right in the center of town. When I had visited the sites, appending Dante’s tomb to conclude, I took my broken down one speed bicycle and pedaled around the cobblestone streets, making sure not to wear a helmet, because in Italy people don’t wear bike helmets when riding casually. It seemed in keeping with the general level of risk that this trip so far demands.

Siena, June 23
I made my first joke in Italian yesterday. It was with Diana at the rental car agency in Ravenna. Diana was showing me how to use the GPS. She said let me do this for you in English. I thought to myself good. Don’t even think about Italian. I can barely get things like GPS in English. When she was done I said I understood. Then I switched over to Italian. “I think maybe I must not use,” I said. She looked at me puzzled. “Sono uomo. No vorrei no masculino.” (I am a man. I would not like am not masculine). She laughed and I felt really good. You know you are starting to get a language when you can make someone laugh. So, I headed out from the car rental office and the GPS was not initially working. You could see the map on the screen but there was no voice. I went back to Diana. She came out to the car. After playing with the touch screens she said I should just use the visual map on the screen. She held the screen up with her right hand. You just follow this while you drive. Easy to read. I couldn’t believe it. I switched back to Italian. “Diana, sei prazzo? Soy Americano. No ando no avere vita in tierra italiana.” (Are you crazy? I’m an American. I am not going not have life on Italian soil.) We fixed it. I am going to call her today and tell her I made it.

GPS is a black angel of technology. I really do have that masculine thing going on. GPS? Hell no. I have geographic skills and anyway doesn’t it take the joy out of exploring? But GPS saved me yesterday. Without it I would have had to stop countless times to ask for directions. I probably would not have made it to Siena in less than 14 hours and I was coming from Ravenna, about 150 miles away. But GPS is scary. It makes you a slave to its dictates. My GPS had a placid voice but underneath was a quiet sadist. I naively decided it would be nice to go a side route to Siena. Someone showed me a route on the map and said here you can go through the mountains. When I took off from Ravenna GPS started taking me on all these small roads at seemingly random roundabouts. And then it led me into the mountains where I had to drive on sinuous tiny roads with barely enough space for two cars to pass. I guess this is what they talk about when they extol the beauty of Tuscany. I wanted to turn back but I knew I would be forever lost, so I just submitted to the totalitarian voice finally saying after 47 straight silent kilometers on a mountain road “in 400 yards, turn right.”

I’m being light about the day’s adventure, but truthfully by the time I had taken the two buses to the car rental agency in Ravenna, driven through the Tuscan mountains and arrived nine hours later in Siena, my spirit felt like it was starting to break. It wasn’t just the drive. I’d been increasingly burdened in the 48 hours since being evicted in Venice. The Ravenna hostel was disappointing. I had wanted to meet people there. Hostels tend to be lively places. There was almost no one there and the place was in the middle of nowhere. I have also faced an unending series of momentary crises, any one of which might be individually quaint, but collectively have been quite stressful. For example, yesterday I came to my exit on the superstrada toll road. I had to get in a lane to pay. There was traffic behind me and I had to decide quickly. I got in a lane for those who have automatic pay cards and I saw to the left three lanes over you could pay cash. I started panicking, envisioning myself stuck at the toll kiosk with Italians behind me honking their horns in an opera. Then I would have to drive through the wooden barrier. I got out of the car and put my ticket in the slot. Then I noticed a red button if you need help. I pushed it and a voice came on I couldn’t possibly understand. I couldn’t tell if it was a live voice or a recording so I said do you speak English? There was no response. Then I noticed a credit card payment slot. I put my card in. It came back out in about two seconds. Shit. But then the barrier magically lifted. Could the machine have read my card in two seconds? Or maybe the Italian voice from the red button was real and she was granting me mercy. I didn’t know, but I drove through and on to Siena. Deliverance feels good, but it does not dispel the residual anxiety of the event and I had about ten such events in the previous two days. Once in Siena I began to look ahead anxiously to the bike trip I was planning another two days further on and I was troubled by the logistical pains that for this Italy trip I had already underestimated. Just getting the bike alone would be stressful as the shop was on the outskirts of town in a location hard to get to. Although I was looking forward to getting out on S222 road, which is Italy’s Chianti version of the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley, navigating out to the road from the city center would be difficult and more fundamentally, you know the bike shop would probably give me some rustic machine that would inevitably snap a cable, leaving me in Monte who knows where trying to hitch a ride back to Siena in the heat. I was struggling with this as I was crossing the beautiful Piazza del Campo, the spiritual center of Siena, and it occurred to me that ease is a critical commodity and I realized I would not go on the bike trip at all and walking across the piazza in the early evening I cried. And then I was on vacation again because actually for two days I hadn’t been. And suddenly I wanted a gelato. And you might think wanting a gelato is a little thing, but it isn’t. I hadn’t had any gelato because I don’t allow myself gratuitous sugar, because I do the seemingly good thing. I can be that way. I have a lot to learn. And so now I am sitting on my terrace in the old city. I just listened to U2’s ‘Ordinary Love.’ Maybe it was a little bit too loud because the old woman across the terra cotta roof closed her window. But that is okay. You have to claim space for a better story.

Feeling much better after my first evening in Siena, I was ready to go to one of the key attractions on my itinerary, an Italian shoe store, and I was talking with the sales clerk (in 70% Italian, 30% English) about the Italian shoe industry. “How many these, Italian,” I asked. “In America very few shoes domestic.” She put her arm in mine and strolled me around the men’s section. “Look at these,” she said. “These are all Italian-made.” She pointed to a photograph on the wall behind a desk of a guy working on the sole of a shoe. “He makes only ten of these a day.” Then she brought me over to a shoe, picked it up and showed me the brand. I recognized Ecco from back home. She turned back the tongue and said with a hint of shame in her voice “made in China. We should not sell these.” Then I walked across to the women’s section and she said “you don’t want to see these? Why do you want to see these?” Italy I believe has stricter gender roles than San Francisco.
“Understand,” I said. “I am from San Francisco.”
“Crazy city.”
“I speak to you English word, yes. ‘Drag queen.’ I have a story to speak to you.” I switched over to English. “I went to see a U2 concert.”
“Oh yes, U2.” She sang a few words to “Mysterious Ways.’ “I had floor tickets. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to see well. I’m short for an American. I wanted a little height. So I went to a women’s shoe store and bought boots with six inch heels. No, I didn’t wear them on the bus. I brought them inside in a bag. Security checked my bag but they didn’t say anything. Inside I took off my men’s shoes and slipped the boots on. They really helped me see Bono. Then the next day I went back to the store. ‘These are a little small,’ I said. I need to return them.” The Siena clerk’s English was pretty good, good enough for her to put her arm in mine again before she went off to attend to a customer.