Friendliness of foreigners helps make the world our oyster
I've been in Italy for a month, feel as though I've stepped outside my life for a decent stretch of time, absorbed new people and places, and been briefly suspended from the real world.
This column is not a travelogue, more a few random observations on being in this state. The first of these is that the trip from New Zealand to Europe does not get any shorter. Planes may be smarter, there are more distractions, the latest movies at the touch of a screen, but it is still a hell of a journey.
Whether you travel business class or cattle, you get herded out at stopovers, you stumble around feeling like death, tough it out on the next leg. At a low point on the flight home when I was stuck in the middle of a row of four, with the passenger in front of me fully reclined, I thought plaintively: "I don't think I can do this much longer."
You can't get off, so I told myself to get a grip. I powered through the entire eight episodes of British television cop drama Broadchurch (and never picked the killer). It was an excellent diversion, saw me safely home.
Broadchurch was the first thing I'd watched in weeks, unless you count the tragedy of seeing Italy's football team being beaten by Costa Rica in the World Cup, this shown on a big screen set up in the piazza of the small village in the Abruzzo region where I stayed with my friend Venetia. We'd gathered with the locals, where wine and beer, delicious lamb skewers on a charcoal barbecue, and cautious optimism were followed by obvious despair.
Our village was low-tech, which reminded me of the olden days of travel when communication was largely via postcards. You bought them as you were sightseeing, scrawled a few pithy lines to the folks at home, and the cards usually arrived a week after you got back.
Nowadays, there is seamless communication between home and away, you can be in touch 24/7, and you can Google the details of a monument or ancient church while you're standing in front of it. To the point that you can be more concerned about finding wi-fi connections than visiting said monuments and churches.
We failed to find wi-fi in our village, I was too scared to hot-spot my New Zealand phone in case a hefty bill came to haunt me, and the prepay Sim cards that Venetia and I bought for our phones at Rome airport turned out to be a bit of a crock.
After wasting valuable time fretting about this, I thought, damn it, I can live without Google. All I really care about is that the family knows I'm OK, and I can be contacted in an emergency. I stopped fretting, occasionally hooked into free wi-fi in the nearby larger town, but lived in the moment rather than living online.
Likewise, our daytrips were low-tech. We travelled everywhere by bus or train, became intimately acquainted with the bus schedule from our village, and came to recognise many of the regular drivers and passengers like old friends.
It worked, almost. There were a few moments when buses, and occasionally taxis, didn't show, and that's when we encountered the kindness of strangers.
The first time was after the long flight from New Zealand, when we took a bus from Rome airport to a small town where we'd arranged a taxi for the last lap to our rental house. No sign of the taxi, we couldn't raise it on the phone. So we were two tired travellers who'd been in transit for more than 30 hours, wrangling suitcases on a Sunday afternoon in a shut-down town.
When we met three women walking with two dogs, Venetia expertly asked them, in Italian, if there was a local taxi available. The women took charge, walked us to a nearby bar, and bought us coffee; one phoned her friend Francesco, a taxi driver, and he said he'd be there in 20 minutes.
Our new friends hugged us goodbye, Francesco charged us a lot less than we'd been quoted by the no-show taxi. We were very grateful, we gave him more.
There were many other kindnesses: stallholders at the markets put extra fruit and vegetables in our baskets; the owner of a bar in our village kept waving away payment for second glasses of wine; a uniformed member of the Carabineri - the national military police - made us coffee in a bar one morning while he was filling in for his family, insisted it was on the house; a father and son gave us a lift up a mountain on a blisteringly hot day; a man in our village drove us into town one day when the bus didn't show; another man, in another village, did the same.
The holiday is memorable for all this, and a lot more besides. Then there is always the comfort of coming home. I almost hugged my excellent shower, after a month of grappling with a minuscule space, a hair-triggered tap, and a wayward plastic shower curtain. There's nothing like your own bed, too, and I confess it's good to have wheels and wi-fi again. Until next time.