And every once in a while, I meet a stranger that immediately belongs.
My first marriage proposal took place in the wee hours of the morning on the streets of Florence in April 2012.
I was wandering around Europe after my semester in Germany ended and found myself tagging along with some near-strangers to a new city in Italy. On that first day, I was able to get a hostel but was warned that it was booked the following night. “No matter,” I thought to myself and began to sing, “Just a small town girl… living in a LONELY wooooorld. She took the midnight train going aaaaaanywheeeeeere.”
Eleven o’clock rolls around, and my mobile phone hasn’t been allowing me to make calls all day. We wander back to the hostel, exhausted, and I go to check if there are any rooms available. No. Well, my friends have a private room. Can I pay to stay there? No. Are there any other hostels in this area? You don’t know. Okaaaay…
I picked up my bright red suitcase and made my way on foot to the nearest train station, only to discover that the tickets to purchase machines were locked inside the building. With no smartphone and little sense of direction, I began an hour and a half trudge in the dark hours of a Saturday night towards the main train station, getting turned around, staring at bus maps, and starting again. I stopped at several hotels along the way, but everything was full. Finally, the main station came into sight and my relief quickly turned to horror when I realized that not only was I locked out of the building, but out of the tracks.
The homeless population was lined up along the side of the building, so I double checked that all my money and forms of ID were separated and hidden, and laid down to try sleep outside. A construction worker woke me up after a few minutes because he needed to work at my wall space, so I shuffled further down. By this point, I had been awake for about 20 hours, so I quickly passed out again. This also didn’t last long, as a woman woke up and started yelling at me in Italian. Bewildered, I stared at her and she shuffled off. I lay back down to sleep, and was once again awakened by a small, middle-aged man, also yelling. He, however, realized that I didn’t speak Italian.
“Oh, oh, uh, sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he pleaded.
“Ja!” I responded, ecstatic. German, I could get. Sort of.
The man, clearly homeless, went on to tell me that some young men had been trying to steal my suitcase. “But I told them, ‘no’! You leave her alone! I’ll call the police!” Sleep-deprived, when he told me that we needed to get away from the train station, I thought it was a good idea to follow him. After about two blocks, I finally realized what I was doing and that I was about to get lost.
“I’m going to find a hotel,” I told him, still mumbling in German, and knowing full well that all the hotels were booked. He argued with me, and kept offering to carry my suitcase or backpack. I shook my head and went to the nearest hotel, praying he wouldn’t follow me.
“It will be expensive!” he argued, and looked altogether too pleased when I was turned away.
“Look,” I told him. “I’ll be fine. Please don’t follow me.”
“Are you and your boyfriend fighting?” he changed tactics. “Is that why you’re traveling alone?”
At this point, I was single, but as many women in our culture often do, I quickly invented a fella who was stationed abroad – naturally, this is why I was traveling alone.
My Italian guide looked crestfallen. “Oh,” he sighed, and continued, “You see, my wife and I are divorced, and I was hoping you would be my frau!”
With this tempting offer under my belt, I quickly excused myself and found a rank, shadowed corner on a one-way street and huddled up until the train station opened a few hours later, whisking myself off to Venice and leaving the memories of my night on the street behind me.
Over the next 18 months, I also was proposed to by a man from Ghana wanting a green card, an American soldier jokingly wanting to get married so the government would give him more money while he was deployed, and a Brit who wanted an American passport. Apparently I just have one of those faces that looks gullible enough to get married for fraud. But in case it wasn’t obvious – I never said yes.
“I’m not trying to hit on you or convert you,” the rabbi assured us as he amiably gathered up his things. “Are you from around here?”
Mel grinned, her curly blond hair flouncing as she turned her hair to look at the gentleman who had been sitting at the next table over. “I am.” He glanced at me, then. “I’m from out of town.”
“Nice to meet you,” he responded. “I’m the rabbi at the synagogue right around the corner and my wife and I just came for a coffee. I just wanted to say hello!”
Nodding his head in a final farewell, we watched him disappear out of Zanzibar.
For half a beat, we tried to return to our conversation that had been interrupted.
“Nope,” I said. “Gotta talk about that.”
“I love everything that just happened there,” Mel agreed. “Absolutely everything about that.”
That’s one of the best things about travel, I’d say: simply the people you meet along the way.
In seventy-six hours, I traveled an absurd 1274 miles visiting with friends that I have known ranging from six months to seven years. I once couch surfed through the formal website, but this was my favorite style. A futon one night, a wooden floor the next, a proper couch the next. The temperature soared from the 60s to nearly 100, and my mind was happily engaged in audiobooks about science and history.
Three days, four states. Friends who love languages, friends who love nature, friends who love aviation, friends who love Des Moines, friends who love wanderlust. People with souls that are larger than life.
We sat outside new restaurants and watched the sun go down. We watched meteor showers from untouched observation decks and plotted the (un)likelihood of a tornado that day. We drank coffee. I chuckled at my Polish friend’s disgust at Americans’ use of ice in their drinks. I successfully navigated Kansas City, but hit a snag in Des Moines less than a mile from where I’d spent a summer (it’s okay, I forgive your directions!). We laughed, we were serious, we learned from each other and of each other.
It was a whirlwind, and even though I am utterly exhausted (and will not try to do such a long trip by myself in such a short time frame again), it was worth it. It makes me feel so alive.
travel always does.
It’s been almost a year since I’ve touched this blog – ironic, since part of the reason I started it was to chronicle the changes and travel in my life. While there have been lots of both, particularly recently, that’s not my goal this round.
Instead, I’m going to use this as a story dump of sorts. Several friends have jokingly said I should write a book about my life, and with graduation bringing all sorts of unknowable free time, perhaps this is where I shall (re)begin instead.
If you have spent any time around me in the last two years, you know that I work in a coffee shop and am pretty much in heaven. Hence, many of my stories revolve around this place – especially now that I manage there and more or less live behind the counter.
I like people quite a bit, and the line between “regulars” and “friends” often blurs to the point where I can’t remember which is which. Today I watched that line blur – as I was walking downtown for my shift, a silver-haired ‘medium house’ reached an intersection at the same moment as me. We continued towards the law library together, sharing brief histories and parting amiably. I know that next time he comes into work, the interaction will be more than surface level. Something about being outside the box, you know?
I remember the first time I saw one of my regulars in the real world. A freshman decided that our coffee shop was his, simply because after a week we recognized him as a regular and figured out his name and order. While sitting in Old Capitol Mall one day, I looked up to see him striding past me. “Jarad!” I called. Startled, he looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he accused. Slightly insulted, I shot back, “I don’t LIVE in Capanna, you know.” “Well, yeah,” he agreed, “but you’re not supposed to exist outside the coffee shop!”
I suppose it is a bit like seeing a teacher outside of school, but still, just because I’m your barista doesn’t mean I never hang up my apron (yes – I used to wear one every day) and do things like, you know, be a full-time student!
The reverse situation has happened as well, though. I started spotting “large caramel latte” all over town, usually carrying a cup from a competing coffee shop. When she would notice me, she had the dignity to look slightly ashamed, and so began quips and jokes. One day I was early for work and spotted her sitting in our dining room. I, being my natural, awkward self, pulled up a chair and sat down. Nikki and I started chatting, and I found myself meeting several of her coworkers. A few weeks later, this regular came to my birthday party, and thus was the beginning of a beautiful friendship… And far longer conversations as I would make her latte every morning for the rest of the year!
The things I see and the people I meet behind the counter are kind of incredible. Brace yourselves 🙂