It is the beginning of my second week in Valencia and I am writing this on the terraza of the apartment I am renting, much against my principles, through AirBnB. Congruent though this violation of certain convictions I hold may be to my mode of travel to Spain—by aeroplane—I cannot in all honesty say that this does much to facilitate acquiescence by my conscience.
In plain English, I am unhappy about my decision to fly and I am unhappy about my resort to AirBnB for accommodation. The resistance I have for a long time felt to both air travel and what I consider to be one of its key accomplices in the case of Overtourism v. the People was, however, surprisingly easily overcome. (The People, of course, may well be said to be just as culpable, so there’s not much of a case there when perpetrator and victim are one and the same; still, we cannot truthfully speak of a victimless crime here, can we?) It was just easier. And that, of course, is precisely how we have got into all this turbo-tourism trouble, isn’t it? Suffice to say I left Portugal in a flustered flurry of snap-second decision-making, after feeling indecisive and unsure of what to do before, which may well have prompted a series of decisions that has led me both to Valencia and feeling ill at ease.
Resistance appears to be the dominant emotion in me at the time of writing. I say emotion and not feeling because it is very much an embodied experience. I have difficulty sitting up straight, there is a hunch in my back and a tautness in my abdomen and lower chest. Nor does it escape me that there is an incliniation to lean slightly to the left, making my rib case sink into my intestines. My brow is furrowed, the muscles on either side of my nose are contracted, my eyes are squinting. Altogether, my body seems to be shrinking as if in anticipation of some sort of confrontation: at once expecting a beating and preparing for a short but vicious fight. Just now I even noticed my lip curling up, baring my teeth.
What is going on? Why this tension, this apparent aversion?
I wonder if I have been putting off writing about Italy. Or writing about anything at all. Oh, this has nothing to do with my time in that wonderful and currently lamentable country. It was doing so well when it welcomed me from south to north. The Italians had been wearing face masks for three months, were as used to them as to the designated walking routes and hand disinfectant. The worst of March and April was behind them; life went on. At the time of writing this, however, COVID-19 has made its exhausting comeback and from the media reports I understand that many Italians have joined the ever-growing multitude of Europeans who are Sick of It. There are riots and civil unrest in Naples, Rome and Milan. Not again, they must be thinking, not when we thought it was under control. And we can sympathize with them, can’t we?
As an aside, I cannot help but observe that as I was leaving Greece, a rarely seen hurricane swept across its lands; upon leaving Italy, coronavirus infections suddenly started to surge; as I was saying goodbye to Portugal, the same happened there. Having arrived in Valencia, which had the lowest infection rate of Spain and indeed scored very well in all of Europe, it has now started spiking again here, too. It is almost as if…but no, come on, that’s silly…but still, it is…remarkable.
Last Sunday, a new state of emergency was declared in Spain. There is now a curfew in place and several more stringent measures have been imposed on social gatherings, alcohol sales and such. Let’s hope it will be enough. I find it easy to comply; at the time of the curfew, I am at home and in bed. I haven’t been out to a restaurant or bar in days, as one of my self-appointed goals here is to grow accustomed again to a more regular, healthy as well as financially prudent, daily routine that includes preparing my own meals.
It is not to this that I feel this resistance.
I’ll tell you what it is. It has to do with how I have been feeling in my current surroundings and it has to do with catching up this blog.
The first cause of resistance I find more interesting—and more topical: the here and now—than the second. So I am going to get the second one out of the way first.
There Is No Boss of Me. What a blessing! No employer, no supervisor or manager to tell me what to do and when to get it done. No one but yours truly. This is a helpful realization. It means that if I feel any resistance to perceived pressure to add reports on my experiences in Italy and Portugal, that pressure knows only one source: me, myself and I. (That is a literary ploy: by referring to myself as a trinity, I can more potently convey the intensity of the perceived pressure, as if there were three people pushing me to write an update. Don’t let it fool you.) Logically, then, I am resisting pressure from myself; I am resisting myself in the guise of a self-created boss. Traditionally eager to please and fearful of letting anyone down, I, quickly changing into the costume of diligent employee, will now attempt to drag you, my readers into the equation by claiming that you have a stake in this, too: “Surely they deserve full reports on my every travel adventure!”
Hah! As if you ever asked for any of this…
Please join me now in having a good, old laugh at all of this! Isn’t it easy to spiral completely out of control? Based on nothing more than the dissonant chorus of individual, internal voices? Oh, the stories that we tell ourselves! Hahahahahahahahahhahaah!
Yes, I actually laughed out loud (LOLed) as I was writing the above and look what’s happening. My forehead is relaxing. I have casually slung one leg over the other. A smile is on my lips: the release of laughter and the clarity that comes from reconnecting with reality. (Thank you, inner woman.)
Having got that out of the way, now let’s get on with it. 20 September until 7 October: Italy!
I visited Pompeii in the morning. It was mostly empty at first, then slowly saw more and more socks in sensible sandals and good-humoured elderly couples: the Germans were arriving, but in small, softly-spoken clusters, not in droves. Otherwise truly a ghost town, yes, though the open-air museum that Pompeii struck me as revealed little by way of spirit. Undoubtedly once a vibrant city, it was now deserted and only temporarily reanimated by the likes of us: visitors, not inhabitants.
It was bigger than I had expected. The volcano loomed, as you’re supposed to say of volcanoes, in the distance. Clouds gathered above it, nowhere else. I chose to follow my own path instead of the recommended route. Because of this, perhaps I saw things others may have missed, which were in far-flung corners and hidden alleyways. But they weren’t very interesting things. Just more walls of former houses. Anything of interest in Pompeii been demarcated, numbered and signposted. Because of my piglet-headedness in choosing my own path through the archaeological site, I ended up back-tracking several times to see what I would have seen sooner had I stuck to the route. Interesting. Pompeii impressed me mostly, really, due to its sheer size, which amplified to me the magnitude of what had happened: an entire society destroyed in an instant.
I only went to Naples in search of a COVID-19 test. Finally, finally, I succeeded at the local airport. I filled in a form, queued and was laryngeally and nasally molested by a massive, grey-haired man in a hazmat suit who I swear had taken on this task only to pass the hours when he was not working as a shish kebab sous-chef. The brute first made me gag and then laughed, before sticking a second long, sharp piece of plastic (no cotton on the tip of this swab!) so far up my nose that I could feel it poking into the back of my eyeball. He kept it up there for about five minutes, spinning his skewer around and around, chuckling loudly all the while. It was bloody torture. Then he went for the other nostril.
I had a headache for the rest of the day and decided that I absolutely did not have to go into that one church that houses the only Caravaggio of Naples. Instead I sat down to have a big, doughy Neapolitan pizza and a big, comforting glass of wine. Then I wandered around the National Archaeological Museum for a few hours. Tired, I took the train back to Pompei because Naples was too loud, crowded and filled with bloody kebab butchers for my taste. The next day, I received the test result: negative. Of course. Never again!
A lovely city filled with lovely people, I found Bologna to be. I could live there, I thought. Beautifully red-tiled rooftops, the famous archways that keep you out of the sun and dry when it rains, a laid-back vibe and a handsome waiter who left me his number on the bill. (Other than exchanging a few messages with this Andrea, I did not follow through on this, as I had a cough and therefore corona concerns and also, mostly, because I am not used to being pursued and I, what’s the word, chickened out—sorry, Mei Li, that’s unfair; I Da Donged out.) I enjoyed the city and stayed an extra day. That cough, however, was a sign. Was it my city cough? Climate? Diet? All too familiar before leaving Europe, in nine months in the mountains in China, it never showed up. Here, in Valencia, it has grown more persistent still. Read the signs, Eli. Read the signs.
Magical, the backdrop of a fairytale, a movie set, incredible and somehow emotionally moving: Venice did a lot to me and for me. I loved its maze-like, disorganized plan, its ubiquity of water, its bridges and above all the lack of the usual swarms of locusts, I mean tourists. Like the Athenian Acropolis, Delphi, Meteora, Pompeii before, here was yet another exceptional pearl in the treasure chest of Mediterranean Europe that seemed to be there just for me. Well, me and plenty of couples on a romantic holiday, always young and always boy/girl, and always bickering. I could not help but laugh when on one and the same day I first overheard a Dutch girlfriend complaining to her boyfriend, “It’s always the same with you!” and hours later a German boyfriend sighing to his girlfriend, “Es ist ja immer dasselbe mit dir!”
I suppose I could live in Venice, for a spell. Without the tourists. And without the romantic couples flaunting their tedious heteronormative lifestyle left and right. Strangely, I did not feel at peace there, though. Something about the city imbued me with a kind of hurriedness as soon as I left the hotel. Perhaps it was the many turns, the disorientation and the unexpectedness of what lies around the next corner: a lack of perspective, not much by way of a view in the streets. Until I got on the water, of course: then a peace came over me, even if I was standing in an entirely asocially/unhygienically undistanced throng of fellow passengers on a vaporetto (water bus). Whether on water or in it, I am immediately in my element there. Not, I have discovered, in or near seas and oceans. It has to be a river, a canal, a brook or a stream to make me feel instantly at one with myself and my surroundings.
That’s why I loved it so to be in Porto. One of many reasons: a river runs through it.
Pontito & Florence
From Venice, the train again to Florence, a tram to the airport, a bus to the airport car rental car parks, to collect a car and drive for several hours up to a house in the mountains north-east of Dante’s famed city. There I stayed a week, only going back to Florence airport on Friday to fetch Diana, my dear, dear friend from Wales and Utrecht, who fell in love with Italy over summer and cleverly combined catching up with me—after nearly a year!—and nourishing her fondness for the Bel Paese.
It was good for me to be there. No museums and restaurants, just taiji on the lawn, a walk, cooking and a book. The wooded mountain reminded me of Wudang: wide, depp views, clean air, quietude, nature. Clearly, I feel better there, healthier, more connected. Mountains or hills at least, and rivers, you see? What does this tell me about any notion to return to my native, submarine, nether lands?
My original plan for after Pontito and Florence had been to take trains through the north of Italy, south of France and then down and to the west, through the Basque Country, finally to head south into Portugal. COVID-19, however, in the end decided differently for me. That trip would have taken days and seen me on many trains and at numerous stations, running health risks left and right. More nights in hotels, more sightseeing, too: no more, I thought.
Diana helped me by listening and asking some pertinent questions; I do tend to think best in conversation with a friend. A conclusion was reached: I contacted Interrail and decided to end my train adventure then and there. As instructed, I tore up the Interrail pass, having been promised a replacement so that I could travel again when Europe was healthier and I was ready for it again. It will have to be next year.
After delivering Diana back at the airport on Monday (far too soon), I spent a few days in Florence, doing more of the same but noticing again that I was tired of travelling around, and of cities. Yes, the Uffizi were spectacular, Dante’s house a dull tourist trap but fair enough and the barber who cut my hair was friendly. Nevertheless, my time there confirmed to me that I had had enough of being on the move, of being a tourist, of cities, of rootlessness even, who knows.
And so, on 7 October I got on a train to Milan, then another one to Milan Malpensa. A TAP flight took me to Francisco Sá Carneiro airport and an hour later or so I got off the metro in Porto. I walked out the São Bento station, I heard the seagulls and smelled the river breeze, I recognized the hills and the old tram tracks in the cobblestones and even as I write this now, my heart swells and I choke up a little because, and I can’t explain this, but it made me happy.
For the first time since leaving China and perhaps even longer, I felt simply that: home.
I shall leave it there for now, confident that you are already beginning to understand the first cause of resistance that I mentioned before: resistance to being here. (And you can tell from my writing in this long, stressed, relentless piece, can’t you?)
But wait, before I let you go, just this. ‘Resistance’ is not the right word, I think. I don’t resist being where I am (how silly and pointless would that be!) but I do feel, both in my body and my heart-and-mind, that I am not in the right place. Do you want to know what that feels like to me?
Like I’m a round peg in a square hole.
Until next time!