Today was a bad day on my vagabonding trip around the world. I woke up early in Belgium, and at 8am I say goodbye to the host family that has given me shelter the past week and make my way to the train station. I will fly to Verona, Italy and spend the evening as I make my way to my ultimate destination: Budapest.
The Journey Begins
My first train pulls into the station. I hop off, jog to the central lobby, and quickly get my ticket for the second train going to the airport. I find the platform and enter the train just in time for it to start pulling away. The woman at the ticket counter had assured me this train went straight to the airport, so I’m feeling relaxed. We come to a stop halfway there though when a voice comes in over the intercom to announce some news. It’s not in English so I remain in my seat, confused, as every other passenger promptly stands up and exits the train. I run after someone who can interpret for me.
“The train is broken so they are going to do some maintenance.”
“How can I get to the airport?”
He points to the train a platform over, “that one will take you to Brussels, and you can change trains there.”
Okay, and how long will that take? No time, just get on before it leaves. The beast pulls into Brussels central station and I scan the screens to find a recognizable name, no time to find help. I see a box that reads “airport” and indicates platform 1, and the train is leaving in two minutes. I hurry that way, trying to ignore the nagging question in my head: “but Brussels has two airports . . . ?” I’m on a lead and if it’s the right one I don’t have time to second-guess it. Besides, I should feel proud of myself; a couple of days ago I wouldn’t be this quick on my feet in a train station. When I get to the platform I enter the train, turn to a passenger and ask “Zaventem? Airport?” She nods. I sit down.
The train eventually comes to a stop in the bottom of the airport. I’m still on time, and I’ve been here before so I feel at ease; a sign of familiarity, however small, is welcome in the moment. I go through security, somehow convincing them to let me keep my razor blades, and find the gate with time to spare. I can relax, for now.
In the air, the clouds break for the first time and I look down on Northern Italy. The ice-capped alps rumble as far as the eye can see, and the view is inspiring. The view of Lake Garda comes in to view and I am captivated by the string of orange roofs lining the coast. As the plane starts to descend, I feel anxiety overcome me.
I should have found a place to stay for the evening. I could have booked it at the airport in Brussels, but I was too lazy. Rumors that I have heard about Italy start to surface and expand my anxiety disproportionately. I am suddenly aware of the fact that I don’t have any money; I lent my last euro to a friend the other night. Oh well, I will just have to be resourceful.
The plane lands. These are the cheap seats so we’re going to have to walk down the stairs to the pavement below, and wait for a bus to take us into the building. As everyone around me is getting up and gathering their items, I find myself sitting still. Staring out the window. What will I do? Where will I go? I think that I will just sit here in the plane until every one leaves, and then I will get up.
“Is that how you want to travel? You just want to sit? If you had courage you would not back down from uncertainty. Go out into the world with confidence.”
Fine. I muster a bit of courage, stand up, and walk out the door and down the stairs to the tarmac. And now I am standing with the other passengers, waiting for the bus, and as we wait I see a snowflake drift by.
“If you had courage you would interact with the people around you.”
Turning to the woman beside me I say “I think it’s snowing!” She glances at me and looks away. I look away too. So much for that. I should really work on my smile, it’s not very good.
Inside the airport, I am struck by how small it is, and not in a good way. The terminal is just one room, and there in front of you is the exit; the unknown. The anxiety is rising. Luckily I have a few American dollars in my pocket. I go up to the “tax-free currency exchange” kiosk and ask the man behind the window how many Euros I can by for $40. He checks the computer and then with a straight face says “oh…twenty two euros and fifty cents.”
I would rather sleep on the sidewalk than admit defeat by throwing money away for a small sense of security. It would feel like failure. Difficult situations are useful in that they inspire creative problem solving. If I am not smart enough to come up with something better than that then perhaps I should sleep on the sidewalk.
I walk outside and look at the map. It would take 2.5hours to walk to Verona’s city center from here, and from there I could probably figure something out. I decide to do it. At least I will be certain about where I am going for the next couple of hours. I head out on the open road, and as I am leaving the parking lot, and turning on to the main highway, I start to feel like I’m making a mistake. This too feels like failure; like giving up. It’s not exactly the easy way out in terms of patience and physical exertion, but it is an attempt to avoid using my brain, of interacting with people and problem solving.
I go back towards the airport determined to apply myself with a little more effort. I see a couple waiting at a bus stop and I ask them where it goes. It will do. “How do I get a ticket?” I ask. They tell me. When I find the automatic ticket machine back inside, I realize after trying to stick my card in the bill acceptor that it only takes cash. “Maybe I should just exchange $20 for euros so I can get the bus ticket and then I will get more money in the city.” Stop being dumb. There’s got to be a better solution.
I look around, and for the first time I open my eyes. There, not ten feet from the currency exchange window is an ATM. I have not used an ATM yet since I started this trip, and I am struck by how obvious it is. I go up and withdraw twenty euros at the standard rate in what feels like sweet victory over the greedy man and his computer beside me. I buy the ticket, I ride the bus.
As the bus rolls to a stop somewhere near the city center I check the time; it’s four in the afternoon. I notice that it seems like it’s getting dark already, and I should make it my top priority to find a place to stay. I remember seeing a likely candidate on the map back in Brussels, and I make my way in that direction. I walk through a valentine’s day festival and the aroma of fresh-baked chocolates and sweets reminds me that I haven’t had anything to eat yet today. Keep walking, we can come back for food later.
I find the street I’m looking for, and I walk up and down it several times, but there is no sign of hospitality, and it’s getting darker. Okay, if I find an internet connection I can figure this out more easily. As I walk, I keep the list of nearby wifi connections open on my phone, and when the name of a café across the street pops up, I go inside. Behind the counter are various pizzas and pastries on display, and I point to the most appetizing thing I see. I ask for the wifi instructions and sit down. As she sets the pizza down on the table — a snack not more than two inches in diameter — I find an address for a hostel down the road which will work for the evening. Great, but they only accept cash and I don’t have enough. I go up to the bar and hand over a euro for the pizza, and go out into the street.
As I begin the search for another ATM, I’m kicking myself for not withdrawing more at the airport. Worse, it begins to rain. I throw the hood of my jacket over my head, put my hands in my pockets, and walk. Forty-five minutes later, with cash in my pocket, I am once again down a familiar road searching for my bed for the evening, but this time I know the address. And now I’ve found it, except I’m more confused than before. Standing in the street, I look up at the wall above the door in front of me to confirm the address. The 80 confirms it, but underneath it I see a door with iron bars across the glass, and nothing but darkness beyond. Maybe the business closed? I approach the door and peer through the window, a dark hallway. I look up and down and spot a button on the panel next to the door with a piece of tape under it that reads “Reception.” I press it and after a few seconds the door unlocks with a loud clink. I push it open.
I walk through the darkness slowly. Is this real? To the left I see a flight of stairs with a dim light radiating from the top, and I follow the source up the stairs to the next level. When I peer through the open door at the top, I see a man sitting calmly under the only light bulb that’s on in this entire building. He sits behind a high counter so all I see is his head, and when I approach he greets me with a gruff “hello.” I introduce myself, hand over my passport, and receive the key to my home for the evening. I go up one more light-less flight of stairs and find my door. Inside I locate the bed, which could be more accurately described as a cot, and let my pack fall to the ground. I open the window to look out over the balcony. It’s still raining, and the air is cold, but my objective is complete. Okay. Food.
It is now seven in the evening and I have not had anything to eat. The man at the counter gave me a recommendation for a cheap café with authentic pasta a few blocks down, but when I finally locate the café it looks like it hasn’t been open in a long time. I make my way to the main city squares. As the rain bounces off the hood of my jacket, I wonder how water found its way down my shirt. Keeping my eyes up to find a place to eat, I step in the third puddle of the evening. The cobblestone walkways can be unforgiving if you are not paying attention. My feet are soaked completely, and I look down to see dirt on the bottom of my pants. I was planning on wearing these pants again tomorrow. Screw it, tomorrow is laundry day. Not satisfied with any of the food options I see, I step into a kebab shop and get the usual. Sitting at the counter and looking out the window, I appreciate the shelter from the rain and the cold. I finish my meal and head back outside.
Once back at the hostel I am wet, tired, and defeated. I go to the main lobby, which consists of a vending machine and a couple tables with chairs. I try and do some work on my computer but the connection is not good enough, so I give the vending machine a 50 cent coin and it spits out some hot chocolate into a small plastic cup. With the cup in my hand I check the time: 9pm. I’m not going back outside so I sit down and wait for something interesting to happen or until it’s time for bed.
As I sit silently, people start coming in and out. I meet a girl from Chile, who is rewarding herself with a two week vacation around the world before she heads back home to finish her last semester of school and search for work as a civil engineer. I meet a guy from California who goes to school in my hometown of Atlanta. He’s studying finance and economics out of Emory University. Small world. And I meet a couple from Brazil. They offer me Pringles and wine and ask me my plans. I tell them I don’t have any plans, I just have to get to Budapest on Monday.
“And you came to Verona of all places?”
Sometimes winging it has it’s disadvantages. They tell me that if I’m going to Budapest I should fly out of Milan. I look up the available flights and find one for a good price so I book it immediately. Well now I have plans; I’m going to Milan tomorrow.
“But wait, if you’re in Italy, you have to see Venice. You just have to.”
Oh really? It’s not far and I have a friend there. I text her. “Are you still in Venice? I might come tomorrow.” She says yes, and sends me the details for trains leaving out of Verona to Vernice. If I catch one of the early ones in the morning I can arrive by 10am.
I tell my new friend from Brazil that I’m going to Venice tomorrow. Another round of Pringles.
Things are not so bad after all.
Originally published on medium.