What can a man who meets you at the station and offers to carry your backpack mean to a woman traveling the world alone?
I was scared, like anyone who has no sense of direction. The journey was a series of stops and starts. Whether to use the Eurail pass or post it back home and ask the kids to get me a refund. Giovanni appeared one European winter, thick padded jacket, woolen beanie, scarf and gloves, tall and imposing, I’ll carry your bag.
I was small, the backpack the length of my spine, the zip-off bag on one shoulder, the daypack positioned in front like a nine-month baby bump. That evening, as we climbed the steps of the Corniche – the wind bitter across the Mediterranean, the metal stairs covered with slippery ice, the railing melting beneath my hand. Soon it would become my railway platform, my steps, and Giovanni my landlord.
We walked there in the crisp night air. My own place. It didn’t cost much. No-one yet knew I was here. I could ask Giovanni if I needed any help. I knew my children would be pleased I had a base. I didn’t want them to worry. It was the thing I wanted the most secretly, studying maps, absorbing travel books. To be safe, a desire whispered to the moon that moved behind my shoulder at night. If you guide me to a safe haven I promise to be happy. And the moon listened. I did my best.
The winter sky closed down and the spring began its flowering. I took photos and painted and rang the children every week. Watch your money, don’t talk to strangers, be careful walking at night – you know the drill. The pebbly beach, the weekend markets, it was all there for the exploring. A glimpse of the sea between terracotta roofs – a vision in turquoise. The cobbled streets could show which way to follow – and none of them wrong. A room at the top of the stairs – till June I stayed reading the English books Giovanni had left in the bookcase, shopping for food, telling my kids and friends they should come for a visit.
Where had the months gone? Almost two years on the road. Summer approached. The rents would go up and the tourists arrive. Time to move on. I could only take with me what I could carry on my back. A Jewish gypsy they said. One more step into the unknown. Pack up, give away what I couldn’t manage, but keep the palette knife and miniature easel. There was stuff happening back home. The boys were grown and earning a living. Their sister turned twenty-one. People were reinventing themselves all over the place then coming back home. A thousand train rides later, my mother nearly eighty. I won’t be around much longer, she cried.
His was a helping hand in a world that says, but what are you doing there? What are you doing?
First published in Quadrant
Copyright © Libby Sommer 2016