Travel: Those silent moments on a hard wooden bench in Venice...
I spent one night sleeping on roadside grass outside Nice, when sleek convertibles ignored my raised thumb. The next day, fellow hitch-hikers treated me to a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse for my 21st B'day
The first ride I hitched in Europe was on a tractor.
Our hosts in Belgrade had dropped us off where the highway headed north-west to the Italian border. We had drawn lots, which got Nikhil going first, then Gautam. “See you in Venice” - 750 kilometers away.
We had the barest bones of a plan: we would stay in the Youth Hostel for three days, beginning when the first of us checked in. Next Florence, then Rome and then up the Mediterranean to the south of France. Inevitably Paris, then on to London.
The bright red tractor took me all of 5 km, past fields of wheat ripening in the summer sun. The next ride was a long time coming, and by mid-day, I was only 50 km. from Belgrade. If I took more than three days to get to Venice, would Nikhil and Gautam move on to Florence? We hadn’t thought this through.
I was tugging at a bottle of orange juice for lunch, when a battered Peugeot pulled up. The driver was a young Italian, driving home to Venice, from work in Belgrade.
“I’m going to drive through the night, if that’s alright with you?”
Alright? My soul sang, as if rescued by angels. I remember little of that ride, till dawn broke as we drove over the causeway into Venice, a vast canvas of lilac sky and clouds sprayed in tufts of gray.
By the time I showered, breakfast was served and the wooden benches of the dining room were slowly filling up with other backpackers. Over croissants and coffee, I met Luc Schilling, who had cycled south from Holland. An American college student joined us. I can’t recall his name, but I’ll call him Andy. This was to be their first day in Venice, too, so we sauntered down the Grand Canal together, then took in the pigeons and the tourists at San Marco Piazza.
We found our way to the University, where students of any nationality could get a subsidised meal tray, with salad, main dish, a buttered roll, and a quarter bottle of wine, for 1100 lira, just over a dollar at the time. This is awfully civilised, I thought, as we returned our meal trays, and walked into the lawns to sip our wine.
After lunch, we took a ferry out to the Lido, where Andy gawked at the acres of sunbathing flesh.
“Lots of tasty chicken legs”, he salivated. After 2 weeks of rickety buses and grotty lodges in Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, Italy was sumptuous, giving flesh and colour to my dream of hitch-hiking through Europe.
“There’s an Indian guy here, right?” I stood up. “Your friends are here.”
They had reached Venice separately, within half an hour of each other, and neither of them was a happy camper.Gautam had lost his wallet. Nikhil said he realised he could not deal with the stress of hitchhiking, the waiting, the not-knowing.
They had a new plan -- they would catch a train to Geneva, where one of them had an uncle. Then, Gautam’s funds replenished, head to London, where the other had family. And, of course, I was invited to join them.
I went into a dark silent space, entirely within myself. Travel alone? In my core, I could see a bilious yellow creature, cowering with fear. Yet, I had not come to Europe to live in the homes of uncles.
In the tension that ensued, a sentence took shape, one word at a time - “I will never respect myself if I abandon my dreams.” “You guys carry on.”
I had more adventure and romance in the next 4 weeks than anyone has the right to expect in a lifetime. I spent one night sleeping on roadside grass outside Nice, when the sleek convertibles of the French Riviera ignored my raised thumb. The very next day, fellow hitch-hikers treated me to a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse in Lyon for my 21st birthday. I saw Munich with a German girl who was visiting from Hanover; as we entered the Nymphenburg Palace she pulled me onto the grass to dance, pointing to the sign -- “It is strictly forbidden to step on the grass”.
Outside Graz, I was propositioned over a breakfast of schnapps by a middle-aged architect. Near Linz, after I made an innocuous remark about Hitler and the autobahns, a colourless Austrian gave me a thumping lecture on the virtues of Nazism.
At the Yugoslav frontier, border guards bamboozled me out of my last 100 dollars, handing me useless dinar instead. By the time I reached Istanbul, I was out of money, and the booking agent at the bus station contributed the last 5 dollars for my ticket to Tehran. Here, I threw myself on old family friends, ate the most gargantuan breakfast of my life, and was put on a flight home.
Memories of a lifetime.
But those silent moments on a hard wooden bench in the Venice Youth Hostel were the gift of a lifetime, the divining of myself.
In every decade since, I followed my dreams into channels unknown, despite the fear, despite the ugly yellow creature that rises like bile. Because dreams are to be pursued. Because of those defining moments in Venice.