Category Archives: For Your Wanderlust Wishlist

A Few Words About Cappadocia.

I hesitate to finish this sentence, but here goes– Cappadocia is the most beautiful place I have ever seen. At least it seemed that way after weeks of the smoke- and traffic-filled streets of Istanbul.  Did you ever see the video of a herd of cows being let out to pasture for the first time after a winter spent indoors? They practically somersault onto the grass, probably squirting milk into the air from sheer excitement. Minus any leakage, that was how I felt when I arrived in Cappadocia.  I got to climb mountains, poke around in cave dwellings and early Christian churches carved into rock, follow paths through cavernous valleys, wander onto private property, with the occasional vineyard completely accidentally and eat grapes that don’t belong to me, also completely accidentally. At night I sat at a restaurant overlooking it all and drank a glass of wine, probably made from an earlier reincarnation of the grapes I had been filling my mouth with all day.

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The region is made up of a network of valleys that got their distinctive look thanks to three terribly active volcanoes, which expelled lava, ash and all kinds of sediment across hundreds of miles.   After millions of years of wind and water erosion, what’s left is a landscape of meringue-shaped ranges, ripples of soft rock that look like confectioner’s sugar, freestanding pillars, cones and chimneys that served as homes as recently as the 20th century.

 

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The town of Göreme is at the center of Cappadocia’s most sought after sites and hiking trails. What used to be a small village is now home to more than 100 hotels and seemingly as many tour companies, souvenir shops and cafés.  I chose my own perch well—high above the town center, Mithra Cave Hotel leans into the side of a cliff, shying away from the calls to buy, eat and drink below.

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It’s quiet up here, with spectacular sunrises and several terraces from which to watch them, curled up in a rocking chair with a coffee, though the sun is not really why anyone’s getting up at dawn.  Every morning dozens of hot air balloons take over the sky and I think it’s fair to say that if you find yourself in Göreme at six in the morning you are either one of the hundreds of people suspended above the town or like me, one of the six people who chose to stay on the ground in their pajamas.

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From up here, the city of Uçhisar, with the two crumbling castles at its highest point, looks like an anthill and autumnal trees weave a fiery path through the valley below.

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The infamous Love Valley! Because no matter your age, education level, or highbrow-ness, no one can resist looking at giant, towering rock penises.

 

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The Rose Valley is blushing, perhaps due to its proximity to the Love Valley.  See above.

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As far back as the 4th century, Christian churches were carved into the rocks. The altars, pillars, frescoes and even graves that made up these spiritual burrows are still here. There is no greater joy than to be able to run around climbing, exploring and touching all of the above.  Easiest way to shave thirty years of that old soul of yours.

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This mountain was gutted into a maze of stairs, rooms and tunnels that can lead to literal dead ends if you’re not careful.

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There is a quality to Cappadocia that has left me unsuccessful in finding the right word for it. The valleys seem timeless, having withstood millions of years of nature’s abuse, and surrounded by them I feel timeless too. Maybe that stoic solitude is what’s left when everything else is gone? Maybe that is why it leaves me speechless, because it’s what remains when even language disappears.

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Pilgrimage to Konya

I stepped off the bus in Konya, one of the most conservative cities in Turkey with my pants falling down. I had bought them the night before in a rush and without trying them on. When I realized, first to my delight and then to my horror that I had underestimated how much weight I’d lost in four months of walking, I was already late for my date with a dead Persian poet in small city in Anatolia.

Fighting a losing battle to keep my butt covered up, I walked from the bus station to my hotel and gave myself a silent talking to. “Why can’t you just get off a bus and walk to a hotel like a normal person? Why does everything in your life have to be an audition for a comedy sketch?” Then I thought about the joy my friends will feel when I tell them this story, a joy similar to what they felt when I told them that I showed up to my job at one of the world’s top fashion magazines wearing one brown and one black boot. My self-shaming took a surprising turn as I began to see what a gift it is that in my life, even the most ordinary act such as getting dressed in the morning, turns into a story worth telling.  Thanks to my inability to just wake up and start my day “like a normal person,” an otherwise unmemorable walk down a wet, grey street in Turkey was now etched in my mind, much like the occasionally visible lace of my underwear is now permanently etched in the memory of the pious citizens of the town where Rumi created his magnificent poetry. I think the Sufi mystic would have been proud of my journey from self-chastising to self-awareness.

“Who could be so lucky? Who comes to a lake for water and sees the reflection of the moon.” 

Konya is said to have been quite a sight during the 13th century, when Rumi lived here, though now his legacy is all that colors an otherwise monotonous landscape of boxy apartment buildings, souvenir shops and expressionless hotels. Luckily, I had ignored the accommodation recommendations of well-meaning travelers and instead followed my heart to a small two-story house with an ornate gate and a garden where an eager black cat let me stroke its soft fur, even as rain fell on us both.

While I waited for my room to be ready, I wandered around the garden photographing dried up sunflowers, the scroll-like curled petals of zinnias and the velvet fringe of marigolds with no real aim except to acknowledge and capture the moment in the same way a much less poetic struggle to hold on to my pants had captured my arrival in Konya.

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In the days leading up to my pilgrimage I was constantly drawn to flowers. I bought a pink scarf tipped with red, blue and peach blooms, a top with swirls and pale carnations and a notebook with a reproduction of Mignon’s painted tulips, bearded irises and red currants. I even packed a bottle of rose oil into my backpack before leaving. Flowers have been an important part of my life ever since I got my first job as a florist at eighteen. They have always been my escape. While writing is more risky and demanding because there is more of me at stake, flowers are my creative refuge, a world where I wholeheartedly embrace myself as an artist, without judgment and let myself play without any policing. They connect me with my past as the appearance of tiny clusters of grape hyacinths remind me of the time I fell in love early one spring. They also put me squarely in the present, as I smell the first paperwhite narcissus flower in November. Flowers remind me of both how fragile and prone to withering life is and how confidently and brilliantly it always comes back.

“The words that make the rose bloom were also said to me.
The instructions whispered to the jasmine.
And whatever was said to the sugarcane to make it sweet.
And to the pomegranate flowers to make them blush. 
The same thing is being said to me.” 

Between Gwyneth Paltrow quoting him on Oprah and his poetry, which can be playfully naughty and includes references to sex outside of marriage, it’s easy to forget that Mevlâna as he is known in Turkey was a dedicated Muslim, given the name Muhammad at birth and who exalted the Quran in many of his poems.  I can’t think of any other man whose words have burrowed into the hearts of Hollywood actresses, lovesick teenagers, veiled women and literary college students alike. Everyone loves Rumi—the Pope, atheists, intellectuals, and even a very smart and sweet woman I met in the hotel who believes we come from a different planet entirely.

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river,each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged” 

In the kitchen of the hotel a tall, pencil-straight, grey-haired woman, who was clearly a guest was grating cooked quince.

“What are you making?”

“I’m trying to make my grandmother’s dessert, but I think I’m failing.”

Having been given the rare gift of watching someone other than me crash and burn, I decided to stick around and get to know this lady. Her name was Muriel and she was a French ex-pat living in England who adored the owners of the hotel and has known them for years, which explained her taking command of the kitchen.  She is an expert on Rumi, lecturing and writing about the Sufi mystic and his poetry.

“I wrote a book called ‘Rumi’s Daughter,’ maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s been translated into nine languages.”

I wanted to say “ But can you do this!” and do a back flip off the counter except I remembered that I don’t know how and instead offered to take over the grating for a bit. Despite our efforts, the quince did not resemble the smooth paste Muriel remembered from her childhood so we called it quits and went to the tomb of the teacher we had traveled here to see.

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When Rumi’s father died in 1231 the Sultan Alaeddin Keykubad offered his rose garden as place to bury the well-respected mystic and scholar. Forty years later, after celebrating his “wedding night” as he had asked his death be referred to, Rumi was laid to rest in the same place. Though the rose garden is still there, it blooms in the shadow of a marble and tile complex that has developed around father and son over the centuries.  At first, a sea green, rippled conical tower was built over the two graves. Then the Mevlevī Sufi, an order of Rumi’s followers built a Dervish Lodge where the members of the order lived, studied and prayed. Suleiman the Magnificent built an adjacent mosque in the 16th century and eventually more than forty people, including members of Rumi’s family and prominent dervishes (followers) of the Order were buried in the Mausoleum.

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Muriel and I were approaching the Mevlâna Museum when we heard the first notes of a nearby mosque’s call to prayer. A second muezzin began just behind the first, and then a third, a fourth and on and on until the echoing voices were impossible to separate from each other and the words of praise to Allah became an indiscernible, passionate, pulsating cry that overtook the sound of traffic, tourists and even the endless stream of my thoughts. What is it about this Sufi man that gathers everything that’s magic around him and the nearer you get to him the more magic your own life becomes? Or maybe it’s that he inspires you to see the magic that’s already there?

“You wander from room to room
Hunting for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.” 

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The quiet space for reflection that I expected his grave to be was crowded with a stampede of people who were probably seeking the same solitude. While a recording of a mournful ney melody played on a loop over the loudspeaker, Japanese tourists took photos, despite the protests of the guards. A clean-shaven man in a suit prayed quietly next to them and an older Turkish woman turned away her tear-stained face when I accidentally caught her eye.  Muriel sat on her heels in a corner with her eyes closed, meditating. Rumi’s tomb shrouded in black and gold was the only grave I’ve ever been to where I felt like the person was actually still there, hovering and observing. I wonder what he would think of all this, given that he had wanted to be buried under an open sky. I wonder how he’d feel about a million people coming to see him every year.

“Either give me more wine or leave me alone.” 

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When we came out of the mausoleum, the sky was bruised with rain clouds except for one patch, through which a ray of light reached out towards the Mevlâna Museum, singling out the Master as the lucky recipient of its warmth. Despite the cold and the promise of rain, Muriel and I strolled to the Alaeddin Mosque, an ancient place surrounded by a park with views out into the plains beyond the city line. Rumi had attended prayers here, in what I imagine was then a majestic mosque, but was now dusty and worn. In the courtyard we found the grave of the same Sultan who had offered up a patch of his rose garden centuries ago to Rumi’s father. We wandered among the cream and orange dahlias and blue irises  just outside and talked about Rumi.

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“I’ve been thinking a lot about Rumi’s poem that begins ‘Come, come, whoever you are,” I started.

“You know there’s a good chance that it’s not actually Rumi’s poem?” Muriel stopped me.

“Don’t tell me that, it’s one of my favorites!”

“There is a theory that it was written later,” said the Rumi scholar.

“But it’s even in the Rumi book that I have,” I pleaded.

“Who is the translator?”

“Coleman Barks”

“You know that he doesn’t actually translate the books, since he doesn’t speak Persian?”  Seeing the shock on my face, she quickly added “But he’s not without his purpose, he adds some value to the translations, some interpretation.”

“My favorite poem of my favorite poet was not written by him and my favorite Rumi translator didn’t actually translate Rumi. Fantastic.”

“But that’s the essence of Rumi—he confuses you, he makes you lose yourself so then you find your own way back. You have to decide for yourself.”

I understood what Muriel meant.  Rumi isn’t the bones and dust lying below a slate of marble. Rumi isn’t the warm, fleshy thing those bones used to cling to.  Rumi is the inspiration, the love and the poetry that I feel when I read the words. Who wrote and who translated them has no importance.

“In your light I learn how to love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you,
but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

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In fact, Rumi might never have become Rumi,  the man that draws more than a million people to a small town in Turkey were it not for a fateful meeting with a basket weaver in 1244. Shams Tabrīzī had been traveling from town to town hoping to meet his spiritual equal, the one person who could understand him fully and his search ended here, in Konya. The two became the closest of friends and that friendship opened up some new divine place in both of them. Though Shams was almost thirty years older than Rumi, it seems their relationship was more teacher and teacher than teacher and student.

Hurry and get out of this wind, for the weather is bad.
And when you’ve left this storm, you will come to a fountain;
You’ll find a Friend there who will always nourish your soul.
And with your soul always green, you’ll grow into a tall tree”

Rumi’s disciples and his sons, jealous and distrustful became weary of Shams and his influence over Rumi. Legend has it, that one night while the two friends sat in Rumi’s home someone knocked on the door and called out for Shams. Shams went to see who it was, disappearing out of view. Rumi heard his friend cry out and ran to the door but found only a drop of blood in the snow. Or so one story goes. Shams was never heard from again and Rumi’s grief was endless. He wrote volumes of poetry dedicated to his Shams. He even said that the poetry was not his, but his friend working through him.

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”

On the way back to our hotel, Muriel pointed down a narrow street filled with souvenir shops and jewelry stores, “There is a mosque over there that’s supposed to be where Shams is buried, but I don’t think so.” Officially his tomb is in Khoy, Iran. There is another one in Pakistan. The legend of Shams has spread far and wide, it seems.

That night I dreamt that a sorcerer kept sending wild animals to attack me. Every time I’d fight one off, another one would appear. Exhausted and angry I pleaded with the sorcerer “Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me?”

“Don’t you know that I am doing it because I love you most? I am sacrificing these animals so that you can practice fighting. That way, when you have to face the biggest battle of your life you will be sure to win.”

Given how close the hotel was to Rumi’s grave, I am inclined to think that the mystic’s ghost is predisposed to sleepwalking and making poetry of people’s dreams.

The next morning while I loaded up my plate with cheese and olives and cucumber slices, I told the owner of the hotel about my dream.

“What were the animals you were fighting off?” he asked.

“I think they were wild boars.”

“Hmm,” he examined me for a second and walked away.

Alarmed, I looked up the symbolic meaning of boars.  I found that they could mean battle (usually to the death), needing to face a conflict head on and the odd man out—really passionate sex. I am hoping that the dream was not a prophecy of a life spent killing every opportunity for great sex.  Considering that I am on a quest, making my way around the world in search of answers, looking my fears squarely in their serpent-like faces, it’s easy for me to believe that there are more challenges ahead and with them more answers and more beauty. That the battles of today are preparing me for those of tomorrow seems logical, but who is this magician who is training me to fight? Who cares! Did you not hear the part where he said he loved me most? Except for that particular bit that most probably came from my egomaniacal subconscious, I honestly think  the voice of the magician is the same voice that told me to go walking around the world and the same one that told me to not leave the house for three days and write this all down.

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know.
The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given the door will open.”

On the whole spectrum of my life, there are pockets of time that I fall into once in a while that are filled with such perfectly orchestrated magic, that I begin to think I’ve fallen off the spectrum completely. If you haven’t guessed it, this trip to Konya was one of them.

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Before getting on a bus again I went back to the Mevlâna to say goodbye. It was sunny now and I sat in the rose garden with a volume of poetry translated by someone who doesn’t speak the language it was was written in and read my favorite words from the poet who probably didn’t write them.

“Come, come, whoever you are.
Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving.
It doesn’t matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times.
Come, yet again , come , come.”

And he was right—it didn’t matter.

 

 

 

 

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A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

A Day In The Life Of A Pilgrim.

6:30 AM

WAKE UP!

Since I started walking nearly four months ago I have woken up in almost a hundred different places. Can you believe that? Probably not, even I can’t and I’m the one who lived it! But I bet you can believe that I wake up every morning, groggy and confused and ask myself “Where am I?”  The answers I’ve received so far have included a graveyard, a château, a school infirmary, a mattress on the floor of a hospital, a parish house that looked more like a frat house, a stranger’s couch, a private room in a Franciscan monastery, a caravan, a tent on a roof used to dry peppers, a fish farm and a lavish hotel suite.

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7:00 AM

 WALK.

Wait. First, I need to make sure I look like I plan on bringing sexy back today.

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All set. Now we can go, following the signs for the trail which can be found on trees, rocks, and even on the ground.

FOLLOW SIGNS

This is my favorite time to walk—when the world is still cool and hazy and the sun has not yet commenced its daily efforts to melt the skin right off my face.

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9:00 AM

COFFEE BREAK!

10 kilometers later my caffeine addiction needs to be addressed and luckily for anyone I might cross paths with on this day, I usually reach a village with a café right around the same time. Sometimes I get to work on my fresh pastry withdrawal at the same time.

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9:30 AM

WALK. AGAIN.

Walking alone is great. It gives me time to think about big, important things like my own mortality and what I’d like to have for lunch. Better than walking alone? Walking with someone who will dance for me on command, like my cousin Anya and my friend Stefano.

10:00 AM

PET SOMETHING.

Horses, baby goats, baby ducks, donkeys, sheep, lhamas, stray cats– if it’s at least a moderately cute animal, I’ve tried to rub its face. You know that immigration form you fill out when you’re entering the U.S. where you’re asked whether you’ve handled livestock while you were abroad? Does cuddling with donkeys count as handling?  Also, does a domesticated deer count as a farm animal? Finally, can anyone give me some advice about surviving a year under quarantine?

PET SOMETHING

 

11:00 AM

MORE WALKING!

You might even bump into pilgrims whose rain gear matches your shirt!

MORE WALKING

11:15 AM

FORAGE FOR FRUIT ON SOMEONE’S PRIVATE PROPERTY.

Stealing is another common term for this kind of fruit picking.

FORAGING

12:00 PM

HAIL A TAXI?

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 Just kidding, I’m still walking.

 

1:30 PM

LUNCH!

Sometimes lunch is an elaborate feast with a cheese plate and cured meats and even fizzy cocktails that will take the sting out of your feet.

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Other times it’s a picnic in the fields.

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Or a loaf of bread eaten with your hands on the side of the road. True story.

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Sometimes it is followed by a nap.

NAP 2

 

2:30 PM

YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!

Yeah, you will. It’s walking. Walking is the thing that happens next.

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5:00 PM

DONE!

Before I can take my boots off I have to go see a nun about a stamp. On the Via Francigena, like on the Camino de Santiago a pilgrim receives a passport, a paper document that gets stamped wherever you stop for the night. The pilgrim’s credential serves two purposes. First, since pilgrims often get to stay in special places not made available to other travelers, a passport is their ticket in.  Secondly, the passport is proof that a pilgrim has made the entire journey.  This will be important in Rome.

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Depending on the person looking over their passport at the Vatican , a pilgrim could be questioned about missing stamps and asked questions like “Why don’t you have a stamp from the 23rd of June?” And then the pilgrim might say something like “Because I fell asleep with my face in a bowl of warm spaghetti and the waiter left me that way until morning.”

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Along the Italian segment of the Via Francigena, pilgrim’s hostels are much more common than in either France or Switzerland.  These houses are usually run by former pilgrims and include a dormitory, showers and a kitchen. Some even stock groceries for pilgrims to use as they like.

 

 

6:00 PM

THE SCRUBDOWN

Starting with myself and then moving on to everything I wore. One of the greatest motivators for getting to an accommodation early is having enough time for your clothes to dry in the sun. Otherwise you end up wearing cold, wet hiking pants at dawn or carrying soggy (and heavy) clothes in your backpack. You might even meet a nice, innovative German couple who will fashion a clothing line out of shoelaces and walking poles for you, like I did.

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8:00 PM

DINNER AND SOCIALIZING

I love improvising a meal with other pilgrims whenever there’s a kitchen available or going out together when it’s not.  This is the time to really get to know each other via enthusiastic and exhaustive descriptions of your injuries as well as by sharing your blister prevention action plan.

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Once talk of the physical hardships of the pilgrimage is over, the dinner table conversation usually gets very personal. WIthin an hour of learning someone’s name, I might learn about the most painful moment of their life, their divorce, their loss, their shame and they will learn about mine. Intimacy and trust come more easily here than in our respective homes. And what’s more, these confessions are not simply the result of the anonymity that comes with travel; many of the pilgrims I’ve met have become like family to me.

 

11:00 PM

Despite being exhausted down to the last eyelash, falling asleep is not easy. In the words of Dr. Seuss,  “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

I know quite a few people for whom the idea of walking up in a hundred places in the course of as many days is a nightmare. I know just as many who would  give up a year of their life rather than spend that year getting up at dawn and putting on a pair of hiking boots, but I wake up each morning barely able to contain my excitement and my bewilderment. My reality is a generous helping of my wildest dreams and I can’t wait to start living it each morning.

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Weekends With Torre

SATURDAY, 10 AM

Sitting on the toilet lid, I adjusted my towel and the angle of the phone so that it looked like I was naked on the john. I smiled and waved at the camera and satisfied with the result, hit “send to contact.” In a musty hotel room on the other side of the bathroom door, the lucky recipient of the toilet selfie, author Torre DeRoche sat on a bed with a bag of frozen peas tied to her left foot when her phone signaled the arrival of a picture message. Normally I would not recommend sending what appears to be a nude photo taken mid-bowel movement to someone whose professional endorsement you’d like to attain, but in my defense, she sent me one first.

That was Saturday and the start of our second day in Piacenza, a Medieval maze of cobblestone streets filled with well-dressed Italians riding around on bicycles or walking their groomed dogs. Torre and I were pausing in Piacenza indefinitely after after she’d hurt her foot on our third day of walking the Via Francigena together. The two of us had met only once before in New York and though that first encounter had been pleasant, it was not indicative of the kind of bond we would form after just a few days. I’m talking about the kind of bond that makes one comfortable eating canned tuna on the floor in front of another person, which is what I have a recording of Torre doing and it goes like this:

“Can you tell us what we’re doing here Torre?”

“We are eating tuna on the floor.”

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SATURDAY 12 PM

Torre’s pained hobble to the corner café for cappuccinos made it clear that we would need to extend our stay by at least another night.  Now we just needed to let the management of our accommodation know. The problem?  Our place was less hotel and more abandoned residential building with neither a reception desk nor even other guests, as far as we could tell.

“I can’t get through,” I had been calling the only contact number we had without success while Torre and I lunched on baguette, prosciutto, mozzarella and white anchovies in our room.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if we just stayed here and they discovered us like a week from now?” Torre asked, reaching for the jar of anchovies. “Shit!”

Anchovy oil spilled all over the tablecloth and we jumped up to do damage control; Torre tried to mop up the mess with napkins, while I grabbed a box of salt and poured a mound onto the table. I had hoped it would soak up the oil but mostly I created an additional mess to clean up.

We looked around—our hiking clothes were hanging off chairs and bed posts, the table was covered in bread crumbs, salt and oil slicks and the hotel’s white towels had streaks of puke green from Torre’s leaky bag of peas.  What could we possibly say should someone from the hotel open the door right now?

“One more night?” Torre’s high pitch was meant to feign innocence to the phantom hotel employee we were both imagining in the doorway. But of course, the evidence of her complicity in our domestic chaos was too strong for any person with the gift of sight to overlook, even an imaginary one and we collapsed in our chairs with hearty, sidesplitting laughter. Every time I thought I was done, I saw a normal person walking into the absurdity of what had become our status quo and though I felt bad for them, I couldn’t help letting out another stream of giggles as I pictured how uncomfortable and scared they would be.

For the rest of the day, every time a hiking boot found its way onto the bed or another towel was stained green, one of us raised an index finger and repeated, “one more night?”

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SATURDAY 3PM

Once the sending and receiving of naked bathroom photos had lost its appeal and boredom began to set in, I came up with the idea to go and find us a board game. Several books and toy stores later I hadn’t found so much as a deck of cards but before coming home empty-handed I decided to sneak in a visit to the Duomo, Piacenza’s 12th century cathedral. I must have lost track of time as I wandered among carved columns, boxes of calcified relics and empty confessionals because by the time I stepped out into the street, I had received another message, with a more joyful and somehow more naked Torre.  The appeal of the toilet selfie hadn’t been lost after all and I ran back to the last toy store I visited and took a photo next to a toy bathroom set to the horror of the store clerk and the children.

“On my way home now,“ I added.

“Is that a tiny toilet next to your head?” Torre wrote back.

 

SATURDAY 7PM

Torre sat at the table soaking her foot in a pasta pot. The water was laced with green crystals, which had dissolved and now smelled like we were embalming her appendage rather than healing it.  This was ironic because though Torre had asked me to buy her Epsom salts, what I brought back (with no hidden motives) were salts meant to banish unpleasant foot odor.

Breathing through my mouth, I told Tore about what I’d seen in the Duomo.

“There was this glass box with a what I think was an actual body just dressed to the nines.  Do you think that’s possible, that there’s an actual person in there?”

“Probably.”’

“That’s so weird, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. Whoever’s in there is wearing gauzy gloves and I think you can see his finger bones!”

Our dead saint discussion was interrupted when we heard a key in the door.  The moment we had been imagining had come, the manager was here, and not only was the room unrecognizable but it also smelled like death and Torre sat with her foot in a cooking pot.

“Bonjourno! One more night?” The phrase we had been practicing all day came out of my mouth before I could think of anything better to say to the man surveying us with curiosity. This was absolutely the exact situation in which I preferred not knowing what was being said. We handed him fifty Euros and took some fresh towels in case we ran out of things to ruin.

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SUNDAY 10 AM

Torre woke up the next morning feeling much better and we decided to branch out and have our coffees two long blocks away at an outside table on a pedestrian shopping street. While we were on our first taste of cappuccino foam, the Piacenzans sitting around us were well into their morning wine, a Sunday ritual I’d noticed in other parts of Italy.

We were enjoying watching the kitten-heeled female population of the city weave in and out of our line of vision when I blurted out the following: “What if you’re just a figment of my imagination and I made you up so I don’t have to be alone anymore?”

Torre turned and stared right at me. I felt my stomach drop. Like a lovesick schoolboy, I said too much too fast and freaked out the object of my affection by crossing a line that even she, who eats tuna on the floor, respected.

Finally Torre spoke. “Can I just tell you, I’ve already thought the same thing about you? Sometimes when we’re talking, it feels like I’m talking to myself.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“You want to go see the dead guy in the Duomo after this?”

“Sure.”

 

 

SUNDAY, 12 PM

It just so happened that we showed up to leer at the body of a respected saint in the city’s holiest place during Sunday mass. We tried to be as inconspicuous as possible while we shuffled past pious Italian grandmothers, but our anonymity, had we any in the first place, was lost when I almost knocked over a statue of Jesus along with the velvet roping meant to keep idiots like myself away from the son of God.  To be honest, the assault on Jesus was not even the most wrath-inducing thing about our appearance at the service. I think that honor went to our tank tops, Torre’s short shorts and my floor-length yet transparent skirt.  When to the relief of the congregation we made our exit, we noticed a sign on the door showing two figures wearing pretty much our exact ensembles with a big X through them.

“So now that we’re done with our naked romp through the church, want to get some gelato?” This time it was Torre who said what I had already been thinking.

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SUNDAY 3PM

If you were upset earlier because you weren’t planning on reading about bathrooms today, don’t blame me, blame my friend Stefano—the original toilet selfie messenger and the man who was coming down from the north of Italy to spend what remained of Sunday with us. Earlier in the week Stef had sent me a birthday greeting with a photo of himself smiling and waving, bathed in the unmistakable fluorescent lighting of a bathroom. Stef’s face showed no signs of embarrassment or even awareness of there being anything strange about sending someone a shirtless salutation from the toilet in the middle of the night.

Stefano took us to lunch in the Piazza Cavalli, and we filled him in on our adventures and showed him the slew of photos he had inspired over a plate of parmagiaono, bresola and arugula.  Stefano is an incredibly caring and giving man, and not just when it comes to photography inspiration and his lightness diluted our madness in a very psychologically sound way as we talked about books and ligaments, love at first sight and gelato.

 

SUNDAY 5PM

Torre’s foot began acting up again so Stef and I sent her home while we scoured the streets looking for the one pharmacy that’s open on Sunday to get our patient some Arnica cream and some painkillers. This should surprise no one, but we made a detour to the bathroom of a café to check in with Torre via a text message.  At first we couldn’t decide what was worse, explaining to the staff why we were piling into the single bathroom together or letting them find a suitable explanation on their own. In the end we decided it was best to leave something to their imaginations, though this approach may have been more suitable when Torre and I had been selecting our church outfits.

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SUNDAY 10 PM

After dinner at a tavern sharing plates of local specialties like ravioli with stinging nettles and spinach we said long and warm goodbyes in front of our empty apartment building.

Torre and I had decided that on Monday we would look for a used bike to buy so she could ride alongside me while her foot got better. It was an inspired plan and we were optimistic as we were getting ready for bed.

I thought back to lunch when Stefano had been telling us about a scene in a memoir he was reading. The author, a woman traveling through Australia met with a spiritual man in a cave who said to her, “Do you know why we are here? Because we have planned this meeting between us millions and millions of years ago.”

The idea that we choose what happens to us in this life really appeals to me. It’s a way to gain back some control when you feel powerless. It could be an incentive to trust that even in the worst of times, there is a deeper purpose that your eternal self put there, assuming of course that your eternal self isn’t a masochist asshole. In my own life, I have had a thousand moments that were too perfectly timed and effortless to seem anything but orchestrated, like this meeting with Torre and our weekend in Piacenza. Lying in bed, I could picture the two of us billions of years ago, two spirits hovering over a couple of beach chairs, bronzing our souls in the eternal sun of the pre-life.

“Hey, you know that lifetime where we’re both writers and you’re Australian, but raised by Americans and I’m Russian but raised in the States?” I’d say.

“Yeah?” Torre would ask, turning over to get a bit of color on her paler side.

“I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be funny if instead of our original plan you came out to Italy when I’m doing that walking thing and then we ended up stuck in this Italian town for a few days eating gelato and bonding over bathroom humor?”

“That’s so weird, I was JUST thinking that.”

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