A Morning in Vernazza, Italy

Here I meet the Mediterranean Sea. I can walk all the way up to its powerful, rolling, green body and stare directly into its eyes. The salt spray clings to my hair and the humid wind draws sweat from my pores. Behind me stand rusted orange, yellow and pale pink buildings with dark green shutters sprawled open on every window. From behind them peaks the little dome of the cream-colored chapel halfway up the hill. A train passes along the sea cliff and disappears into the rock tunnel beneath stripes of grape vines stretching wildly in every direction.

The sea is a translucent green, defined by a line of navy blue as the water deepens farther out from the pier. It pushes its waves around the rocky cliffs with intensity; where they collide, big white sprays leap into the air and drop again, leaving dimples for a split-second before melting back into churning currents.

I’m staying in an Inn where a resident cat greets me each morning with a raspy meow. In 30 seconds from my door, I’m at the water’s edge, glistening under morning sun. I’m two months into my travels, and I’ve seen a lot of incredible places, but Vernazza feels like a dream. It’s so piercingly beautiful and idyllic, it’s hard to fathom it’s real, and that I’m somehow here.

Vernazza is one of five colorful cliff-side villages that make up the famed Cinque Terre in Tuscany, Northern Italy. Today I’ll hike to Monterrosso Al Mare, a village north of here, but first, I need an espresso.

Her hands move skillfully with ease as she flicks milk foam atop the fragrant brown liquid. I smile widely out of excitement, and she stares back indifferently, swatting the flies now gathering above a piping hot plate of focaccia vuota on the counter. A graying mass of wild curls frames her tan, sun-soaked cheeks and full lips. The brown mole above her left upper lip twitches momentarily as she slides the cappuccino my direction. “Grazie,” I say, blushing at the sound of my obvious American accent.

Next I head to the only grocer in town, which is stocked with local produce, fresh pesto in gallon glass jars, cured meats, olives, cheeses and the other necessary items like toilet paper and pasta. I buy a container of pesto, a hunk of cheese and some prosciutto to take with me for lunch on the trail.

The sun is already hot on my shoulders, so it’s time to get a move on! As I make my way toward the trail and begin climbing up through the hillside vineyards, I look back over my shoulder and fall even more in love with Vernazza.

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The view down the trail wasn’t too bad either!

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The City with a Fur Coat and A Black Eye

Reflections of passersby glisten and slant as they scoot past sheer cliffs of glass and steel. The tall buildings stand with arms crossed glaring down at us, and I feel like a mouse. On another morning, though, when the sun peeks through the gray net of clouds overhead, I think “All this silver reminds me of a great river,” and I marvel at the way the glass glints like gold atop splashing waves.

It’s my first time in Vancouver, British Columbia and we’re staying at a hostel on Granville Street, the main artery of the city center. Outside our little room, the streets pulse and thump with activity. Fashionistas strut their catwalks, and us Oregonians watch wide-eyed. I find myself trying on a purple designer dress and tall heels, imagining life on the fancy side.

We eat sushi and crepes, explore the various neighborhoods and chit-chat with a young shop owner. It becomes clear there is a gap in the city between the wealthy Vancouverites and the large population of homeless, who wander blurry-eyed and desperate, grinding their teeth in unnatural directions, jaw bones jutting out of concave cheeks. They ask for money at the crosswalks and weave through the crowds with palms outstretched. We spend a lot of time dodging these grimy and heartbreaking characters, but they seem to be everywhere: tucked under eaves of decrepit buildings and lying in bundles of blankets on the sidewalk. They’re mostly harmless, but I find myself uneasy when they approach. It’s clear many are under the influence of hard drugs, and it makes me feel sad.

On another day, we take a hike through Stanley Park and are dazzled by views of misted mountains hovering above steel-blue sea, while the city’s montage of glass condos stand stoically to our right. The colors – blues, greens, silvers and grays are stunning like the scales of a fish under sunlight. The air is fresh and the breeze smells like salt and rain. We both agree it’s quite beautiful outside the city center.

The hostel we stay in is outfitted like a hotel with white crisp towels and starched sheets. We sleep in a bunk bed and brush our teeth over a little sink in our room. The shared bathroom is up the hall. I hear a strange cooing sound and look out our second-story window. There, beneath a tiny awning, is a family of pudgy pigeons sitting in a row. Out beyond their stoop is a grimy apartment building that looks like it might collapse if there were a strung gust of wind. Directly to the right of it stands a tall, upscale building made out of modern brown and black bricks. Each morning when I pull back the curtain and look up, I see a young woman with long black hair wrapped in a red-checkered blanket smoking a cigarette on her brick bordered balcony, gazing off into the gray, misty distance.

The nightlife on Granville Street is international, and the clubs are swanky. We hear a handful of languages on the dance floor and truly feel like we’re outside the U.S. It’s a matter of minutes until we’re surrounded by young gyrating men wearing button-down shirts and hair gel. It smells like cologne and booze, and everyone is a little too handsy. I close my eyes to listen to the music and tune out the unwanted attention. When I open them again, I’m surprised to see an exotic dancer on stage. My friend and I give each other the look and head to a different room in the club. We end up meeting a friendly and raucous group of twenty-somethings visiting the big city for a night on the town. We decide to join forces and the festivities continue until dawn.

In all, Vancouver is a wonderful city, and I enjoyed my visit. At the same time, I can’t shake the feeling that beneath all its glitz and glam lies a sizable bruise, like a black and blue shiner glistening in the bathroom mirror.

But that won’t keep me from coming back. After all, what’s a city without a little underbelly?

IMG_1237 Where city, sea and trees meet.

Looking back at the cityscape from Stanley Park. Looking back at the cityscape from Stanley Park.

No Better Feeling than a Traveler Sleeping on My Couch

Something bulges out from the sides of her back and hovers above her head like an extra body part. Shoes dangle from laces tied to a piece of webbing. Her body is weighted, but her spirit cheerful.

I recognize the outline of a traveler before our eyes even meet. We hug and I welcome her inside. She unbuckles the waist strap and swings her pack to one side; it rests momentarily on her right hip, then slides down her side and onto the floor.

I put fresh linens on a pillow from my bed and prop it at one end of our small black leather couch. I hand her a glass of water. We chat amiably about her day, and my heart swells just hearing her speak. It reminds me of being in Spain. It reminds me that my heart now holds countries, and street corners, and seas, and friends, and cities, and beautiful moments in it from many thousands of miles away.

Seemingly from a dream.

But then again, so real.

I can feel them in this moment more than ever before, and hosting her, Nuria, the couchsurfer from Barcelona I’ve just now met, is like being reminded of the sky’s color or the smell of rain on concrete. I now know I have to return.

Europe is forever a part of me, and I want to forever be a part of it.

Nuria flops on the couch, tired from a day of hiking and exploring. Then the familiar routine of settling into a new place; home for the night. I watch as she ruffles through her pack for the essentials — toothbrush, cell phone charger, pajamas and sleeping bag. My housemate hands her our Wifi password on a piece of paper, and I can see the relief as it moves across her face like a cloud uncovering the sun.

She relaxes a bit more now that her means of communication to the other side of the ocean is whole again. I know this feeling. I felt it so many times in foreign places when I had no bridge to home, aside from the internet and my own thoughts.

I tell her “My home is your home,” and a warmth blooms somewhere beneath my ribcage.

We say goodnight, and I fall asleep smiling.

In the morning I make coffee for two and leave a cup and an orange on a little table in the living room. I write her a note and tell her to enjoy the day and that I won’t see her until later that evening.

Tonight is her last night in Oregon. I call and arrange a taxi to pick her up in the wee hours of the morning to deliver her to the airport.

In the living room, me sitting cross-legged on a chair, and her on the couch, she talks about life in Sweden, where she is working on completing her Postdoctoral. Then we chat about love. She tells me how she met her boyfriend. It took two years for their paths to cross again by chance on the subway. And even then, they didn’t exchange contact information. But she found his email by contacting a mutual friend — she was determined.

He replied right away and they met the following day. And then the day after that…and again the day after that. It was as if there weren’t enough days to spend together, so days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months turned into years — 7 total now.

When she speaks about him, her face shows the calm and content knowing of love, the kind I imagine is as real and as alive as a mountain that withstands windstorms and rain.

Mountains are as forever as we can hope for in a lifetime.

We let silence hold us. And I think of memories of all the couches I’ve slept on and of the people who took me in and welcomed me as family, even though I was a lone woman traveling on the tail feathers of wanderlust, easily excitable and unsure of what came next.

Suddenly, she looks up from her book and asks “Who is Jerry Garcia?”

I play her Touch of Gray by the Grateful Dead, and we grin at each other, nodding to the song.

Eventually, it’s time to say goodnight. She says if she leaves anything behind, I will need to return it to her in person. We laugh and I say “Deal!”

She invites me to both of her respective homes in Spain and Sweden.

I get the feeling, as I sometimes do, that we’ll meet again.

Backpacking Europe: morning in Prague.

Backpacking Europe: morning in Prague.