A damp towel drapes over the back of my pack, swinging freely in the cool breeze as I walk to the station. I take a moment to hoist the heavy bag to my hips tightening the shoulder straps securely. I am thankful once again that I did not pack more. A gentle mix of sweat and laundry detergent drifts to my nose. It is my third day in this shirt. Time to find a place to do laundry. It will have to be when I stop in a place for more than a day; there are not dryers in most homes so I must rely on time for that.
I sat in my hostel room the previous night with a stout Englishman in his late 50’s and a demur teenage girl from Germany. We were all passing through, our paths crossing briefly within these four cement walls. The girl, named Ana, was on a short vacation to see Venice and Florence. In Europe it is common for people to travel on their own, stopping in hostels and using the rail to hop from one city to the next. John, my other room companion, was an English teacher that had moved from Australia to London for work. He had recently decided to do something exciting with his life. So he thought he would travel back to Australia to see his sister. However he would take the entire year to get there, traveling by land as much as possible. Sleeping in hostels and seeing all that he could along the way. He was boisterous and had twinkling eyes. He was as talkative as the girl was quiet.
The next morning I awoke to find Ana’s bed empty. She had an early morning train to Florence and had slipped out in the dark hours. John chatted happily with me about where he had sat for his morning croissant and coffee as I wiped the sleep from my eyes. We would soon part paths as well, he on his journey of exploration, and I on mine. It is a beautiful thing to intersect with another human. Each with their own story to tell. Chapters set on levels within them, unlocked through a listening ear.
Later, I sat quietly on a padded train seat headed for Milan. Gazing out the window as the locomotive sped by small towns that I will perhaps never visit. Brescia, Chiari, Melzo; full of people I will never meet. I stare out at a majestic castle sitting at the top of a small mountain and a train of opposite destination suddenly rushes by. It is inches from the glass my face leans against, causing my heart to skip and my blood to run fast.
I pull out my journal and listen. To the train announcement and to the conversation of two young men sitting nearby. And I long for the day that this beautiful language will open up to me like some secret code, unlocking mysteries. Little by little I am immersing.
There is a middle aged man in glasses and a five o’clock shadow sitting in the seat facing me. He wears an oversized blue dress shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He is slightly pudgy for an Italian, though not overweight, and carries a pensive look on his face. He taps away on the computer in his lap, and as I write I several times look up to find him pause and observe me. I get the distinct impression that he is a writer, and that he is adding me to his story. I find great amusement to think on the irony that I may be carried into someone’s story at the same instance they are carried in to mine.
I arrive in Milan and on exiting the train I make my way to the subway system. I ask strangers for direction in my newly formed broken Italian. Two subways later I arrive at the Gambara station to wait for my Milan host to meet me after work. As I wait I see a nearby supermarket and purchase a dinner of grapes, salami, and mozzarella. I have grown accustomed to the cuisine of the land in these past two weeks. I sit on a nearby park bench with my pack still hooked to my shoulders. As I eat a man in a suit rides up to the bench on a light blue Vespa. He pulls off his helmet and I see sparkling eyes and a welcoming smile. His name is Matteo and he is the perfect Milan host. He drives me by scooter all around the dark Milan streets. Wind rushes through my hair and a grin spreads over my entire face to discover a new place in this way.
Matteo is one of my favorite types of people, he is a teller of stories. Stories in the form of memories are very important to him. It is clear as soon as you step into his flat. For every wall is covered in memories. Small papers, business cards, photos, maps…all stuck to the walls in a life size colleague. I asked Matteo, “Can you remember a story for each of these things?” He confidently exclaims that he can. Upon further examination he confirms it to be true by giving a story for each item that I point out. He explains that he keeps them all in close sight because the people and the memories are important to hold on to. When he is surrounded by them, the old are constantly kept fresh even as he collects the new. Friends are fond of this idea and find ways to try to make it to his wall of memories.
Later, Matteo tells me that he had accepted to host someone before me but that she had booked a hostel before he could reply to her. So we decided to invite her to join us for dinner the next evening since she was also exploring the city and looking to meet new friends. The following morning I find a free tour of Milan and join the group. Very quickly a woman named Gol and I strike up a conversation and walk the tour together. She is an Iranian that had moved to Canada with her family when she was a child. Gol is a bright young woman that is working with neurology as it relates to psychology, trying to understand how certain mental disorders relate to the brain. As we talk she mentions that she is staying in a nearby hostel. She also says that she had almost booked a host in the city but arranged the hostel before he replied. I asked the name of the host and of course it was Matteo. She and I quickly decided since it seemed providence that we should meet, we must join Matteo that evening for dinner. And our little band of new friends began to form.
Later in the day I met Marcello, the son of the Battaglia’s. If you remember, they were the amazing couple that I stayed with in Pescara and they suggested Marcello show me some of Milan. He quickly became another new friend, showing me my third Italian castle. Marcello has kind eyes and is patient with teaching me the language, as his mother was in Pescara. Marcello decides he must join Gol, Matteo, and I for dinner. So once again the band of people on the path to meet grew.
That evening I found myself sitting for a delightful meal with three new friends. We meshed very well and laughed together as old friends. While we walked the city afterwards I was reminded of something the tour guide had said earlier that day. He spoke of serendipity. Serendipity means “a fortunate happenstance” or a “pleasant surprise”. As I travel these weeks, I feel that my life is full of these serendipitous moments with others. And though I believe they are arranged from a higher place and are not perhaps as much fortune as a plan, I am blown away by the feeling. As many of you may be reminded, my blog is The MissHappenstances. Happenstances are an amazing thing. Humans, their paths, touching another’s story. We are never the same again.