Waking up to Winter – Published Version

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As published by Lonely Planet in their anthology “Rite of Passage: Tales of Backpacking ‘Round Europe”. Edited by Lisa Johnson. Available online and in bookstores everywhere.

Waking Up to Winter by John Morgan

I’m breathing with a light and free feeling as I disembark my plane. It’s a feeling of release and independence as I begin my European journey. Backpacking somehow sets me apart from everyone. Even in this airport. True, people here are traveling, but they each have things to do, deadlines to meet, particular people to visit, itineraries to follow, specific things to see. Not me, I’m different. I have everywhere to go and anything to see. My destination is culture and knowledge and experience. Although I’m traveling amongst scores of others, I am different.
It’s my first time in Italy and I just need my bag, then I can float around aimlessly. What’s a backpacker worth without their backpack?
Upon leaving the baggage claim, I attempt to follow the signs to the trains. I find a machine and buy a ticket. All I can understand is the track number and time. Good enough.
Almost as soon as I climb aboard, I know something is wrong by the way the train conductor is talking to some other Americans. Something is the matter with their tickets. Well I’m sure my ticket is correct at least. Nope. Parla inglese? “Validate!” Oh . . . sorry, I didn’t know I needed to validate my ticket. “When you come to Italia, you speak Italia!”
Oh geeze . . .
I’m frustrated with this man for giving me trouble because I don’t speak fluent Italian. I’m coming to visit his country because it’s a wonderful place! He should be grateful! Err . . . well, actually I don’t really agree with this initial defensive attitude. I remember I’m in a place foreign to me, not foreign to him. If I want to make this place unforeign to me, then that is my responsibility. So, within a minute, I go from being frustrated to realizing I’m wrong to actually reflect on what just happened. I’m even smiling and chuckling a bit to myself.
When you come to Italia, you speak Italia! This, only an hour after my arrival in Rome, is a sharp reminder that when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The train pulls into the station and I move for the exit before we come to a halt. I head for the door at a timid rate, which seems to solicit quite a few comments from those in more of a hurry than me. I don’t want to stand out too much, so I step up the pace and walk briskly but aimlessly. I don’t think anyone notices that I don’t know where I’m going.
I have a hostel in mind, so I figure I should call and find out how to get there. Of course, a sweet voice with an Australian accent answers. I wonder if Australians run over half the hostels in the world. It seems that way. Anyway, I get directions to Hostel Alesandro and head out into the street.
My first taste of the brisk Roman air is quite a mouthful. Every city has a scent to it, but this is intense. I can taste the noisy mopeds almost as much as I can hear them. A whiff from a nearby bakery overpowers the smell of grease and oil, and demands a deep breath. Maybe fifteen strides pass and I have already become accustomed to this new air.
I eventually reach the hostel, which is a nice place. I check in and then toss my pack into the pile of packs owned by other trusting travelers. I can’t help but wonder if anyone will touch my stuff. I’m so accustomed to worrying about my possessions, day in and day out, that it’s hard not to think about my belongings sitting in an accessible pile, alone for hours. Everyone else is doing it though, so I suppose I need not be concerned. We’re all independent travelers and there’s that mutual respect and trust. Somehow that’s never enough to make me completely comfortable though. Just to be safe, I secure the essentials inside my daypack.
It’s a fun feeling, knowing I’m carrying everything I need to survive in one small bag. I head back out into the streets with a lighter load. The sun is setting and my stomach is growling. I decide to see as much as I can before dark, then grab something to eat. I am awestruck by the sights, so unlike home. This city was built well before beauty began to be sacrificed for efficiency.
I’m taking everything in: all of it. The colors, sizes and shapes of the buildings and monuments, the chainsaw-like sounds of the mopeds, the high-pitched European car horns, the smell of the outdoor markets and leather shops. I think about how truly immense our world is. It boggles my mind that so many millions of people in so many millions of places all over the world have their own lives, their own circle of friends, their own homes. This place, so foreign to me, is home to so many people. I begin to think about how everything that makes one place or people foreign to another, is the result of our own creations: language, culture, government, religion. At the very heart, we are all humans and we all basically live life the same way. We always have and we always will. The only force, which separates us, and ironically brings us together, is our mind.
As I walk the streets of Rome this evening, I feel like I’m fighting a battle against human separation. By trying to see and learn I am making one more place in this world less foreign to me; and myself less foreign to the world.
At this thought, a sudden rush of excitement about the weeks to come sends chills down my spine.

Back at the hostel, I prepare for my first hang-out-and-meet-people-in-the-common-area session of this trip. I’ve got my guidebook handy, so I can look occupied as I scope out the situation. The television is on and they’re talking about news in America. I’m quickly reminded and annoyed at how much my country is forced into the faces of everyone on our planet. It’s like our culture – or multi-culture or anti-culture or whatever we have – is smothering the rest of the world. I’m wondering how many non-Americans in the room are thinking about the same thing and hate my country right now. I think I’ll wait until after the news to speak up.
Oh! Hi Britney Spears! I should have guessed “MTV Italia” would come on next. I give up waiting for America to stop jumping around like an idiot on the television, and strike up a conversation with the loud Dutch guy at the table. How long have you been here? Where did you come from? Where are you going? Etc. The questions are routine, but everyone is always genuinely interested in the responses. They’re also guaranteed to spark conversation in the room. Someone has always been there last week or is going there tomorrow. Talk about travel, with a roomful of like-minded people, is motivating and exciting. Hearing all the descriptions and stories, in all the different languages and accents, about all the places people have gone quickly passes time and ignites friendships.
Finally, I say my mellow goodnights and scuff my feet up the stairs and into my room. The beds, which held only bags before, are now filled with motionless bodies. It’s time I get some much-needed rest.

• 2:12 a.m. I’m woken by the loud Dutch guy storming back into the hostel after hitting the pubs. “WHO VANTS TO PAHTEEEEEEE?” I put my headphones back on and start the CD over.
• 3:40 a.m. I’m woken by snoring. At first I’m amused by the differing frequencies of the two snorers, causing the snores to go in and out in time with each other, but I become quickly annoyed. I jam the headphones deeper into my ears and replay the CD again.
• 5:20 a.m. Awoken by a fellow traveler who has decided to wait until morning to pack. Why is it that people who pack in the morning always seem to have noisy paper or plastic bags to mess around with? Every zipper zipped and every clip clipped is loud and painful. His meek attempt to dull the pain by moving ever so slowly does nothing but prolong the torture. I chuckle to myself while driving my headphones deeper into my cranium. I know I’m guilty of making the same early morning racket from time to time.
• 6:36 a.m. The sun blasts through the shutters on the hostel window. It becomes obvious that my bunk was the last choice for a reason. Even with my eyes closed, the early morning sun blinds me. It’s not worth fighting it anymore. I’ll catch up on sleep tomorrow. I hop down with surprising energy, my bare feet slapping the cold hostel floor. I slide on sandals and grab my toiletries and travel towel.
The one bonus of rising early is clean showers. It takes me a few minutes to work the strange lock on the shower door and to balance my clothes, towel and gear on the seat-level shelf in the shower. I wonder if anyone ever actually sits on this thing. Who sits down in the shower? Once I complete the balancing act, I turn to my next assignment. I’m facing three knobs with no labels. I figure I have a one-third chance of getting scalded with hot water, a one-third chance of getting blasted with ice-cold water and a one-third chance of getting it right. I stand close to the wall, attempting to miss the spray. COLD COLD! I frantically turn the other knob . . . HOT HOT DAMN HOT! Turning the cold knob all the way does nothing; it can’t overpower the practically boiling water. I’m quickly surrounded by a warm fog and nearly become disoriented, but I finally find that turning the hot knob nearly off solves my problem.
I make my way through cleaning quickly, unsure of how long a hot shower will last here. I’m not surprised that my towel and clothes are wet: it’s near impossible to find a dry spot in hostel showers. I dry myself with my damp towel and put on my damp clothes. I imagine that as I travel from town to town and stay in new places every couple of nights, small things like this will affect the smoothness of normal activities. As soon as I get a handle on the shower here, I’ll move on and face the same challenge at another hostel. I don’t think I could ever measure the number of factors that make a constant environment comfortable.

After a quick breakfast, I decide to visit Vatican City. I head to the subway and emerge a block’s walk from the Vatican. As I saunter around the corner at the end of the block, I face a giant castle wall. The size and length of this wall is quite amazing, but what’s even more astonishing is the number of people lined up along it – and it’s not even 8 a.m. But after a surprisingly shorter wait than anticipated, I reach the Vatican entrance. If, before today, I had to pick one place in the world where I didn’t think there would be a McDonald’s, I just might have picked Vatican City. To my embarrassment, the big yellow arches sit practically over the entrance.
I spend half the day finding my way through this monstrous maze of an art gallery. I walk down what seems like miles of hallways lined with sculptures. Each of these masterpieces really deserves its own place in which to display its magnificence, but the overwhelming number of them makes that impossible. There are mosaics everywhere. I’m walking on art that would be found behind glass and guard at home.
As I turn into each new room, I wonder if this is it: is this the Sistine Chapel? Yes, this is it! Oh . . . no it’s not. I think it’s the next one. This goes on for hours. Eventually, I find myself in a chapel with an obvious and overwhelming difference from the rest: the largest and most crowded of all the chapels is also the most calm and quiet. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel necessitates no discussion between its visitors. Barely a sound echoes through this room. It is filled with faces from all the earth, aimed in all directions, attempting to take in all they can. I remember these images from photos and from books, and now I realize their pictorial representation does only minor justice. I am not seeing, I’m experiencing. I am not looking, I’m dreaming. I am not believing, I’m praying. I leave awestruck, reliving the experience in a surreal daydream.
It’s well past midnight when I decide to get up at 4am for the 3-hour train-ride to Naples. I hardly get any shut-eye before a sprint to the train station in the pitch dark and freezing cold. Once aboard, I assume a contorted, but relaxed enough position to lose myself into another short sleep.
Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is playing softly in my headphones. Daylight begins to break and wakes me from my intermittent slumber. Leaning my head on the window has made me shivering cold and left the glass so fogged, that only shapes and colours are visible. The vibrations of the train-car are rattling my jaw and I’m quite stiff from the position my body is kinked in. However, I choose not to move. Instead I lie still…listening to the piano dance, memorizing the scent of this train and watching a golden sun light up the Italian countryside. I find such solace in the present, that not a single thought stream is necessary. I’m uncomfortable, I’m dirty, I’m tired and I’m cold, but somehow… waking up to winter has never felt better.

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