NB: RIP AirbnbMagazine, which commissioned this essay for a group feature on… I forget now, in 2020, right before folding. (But they paid for it! Honorable, that.) Little did they know how good the pandemic would be for the business; they coulda kept going. But that’s another story.
The Law of Wisdom (Wasted) posits that two young men backpacking through Europe for the first time will spend 5% of their time in cathedrals and the rest in less high-minded pursuits. In the summer of 2000, for my friend Kiro and me, that meant tall steins of beer, gluttonous meals, and too many 4AM bedtimes – not to mention hard-working conversations with women who couldn’t understand a single word we were saying. (Let no one say technology hasn’t bettered the world.) But eventually, traveler’s luck graces even the hapless. On a cross-Italy crawler from Naples to Bari, two young women not only chose the same compartment we had. They spoke English.
Kiro and I were busy figuring out something clever to say to our new travel companions when we learned that traveler’s luck is made to turn: They were belatedly joined by their parents. I let out a rather loud sigh. “If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” Kiro whispered, quoting at least one of our grandmothers, “maybe the way to a woman’s is through her parents?”
Even though the countries in which Kiro and I had been born – the former Yugoslavia in his case, the former Soviet Union in mine – were European more in imagination than in reality, our home cultures had taught us to do something far more common in Europe than in America: Speak to people of a different generation for a long time.
We learned that our fellow travelers were Americans, off to Greece to show the ancestral homeland to their daughters (whom I’ll call Victoria and Sophia). They learned that we were taking the long way from suburban New Jersey to Kiro’s cousin’s wedding in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia (now North Macedonia). We told them about slurping mussels in Paris and they told us about eavesdropping on all the balcony grandmas in Naples. By the time we reached Bari, the six of us were talking over each other. We were regretful to arrive, but there was a reprieve: We were all taking the same night ferry from Bari to Athens.
But how to get to the port from Bari Centrale? Here, no one spoke English. Eager to impress, I surged forth before anyone else had a chance to solve the problem. My family had passed through Italy as political refugees a decade before, and I’d managed to soak up half the language in three months. I hadn’t used it since, but if there was a time to rise to a more daring version of oneself, this was it. Dov’è la stazione maritima?! I demanded of a passerby, sneaking a glance to check just how impressed Victoria was. Dov’è la stazione maritima?! Where is the maritime station? Where is the maritime station? (I should have tried to be even more literal: It’s Dov’è il porto?) My interlocutor must have understood me to be foreign, or perhaps merely troubled, for the finger he stuck out indicated that the port was right in front of me, where the water was shimmering. I avoided looking at my fellow travelers, who pretended to be very grateful.
Perhaps because they’d found us to be sufficiently chivalrous or just exceptionally tiresome, Victoria and Sophia’s parents drifted away soon after we reached the ferry, leaving the next generation to survey the Adriatic as a velvet night fell over a star-salted sky. As someone who was having a hard time with his immigrant parents, I asked Victoria what it was like to travel with hers, and listened with envy as she said that, for the most part, she really liked it. But her enthusiasm was so effortless that my envy passed into something like aspiration – a brief fantasy that I could pull off the same with mine. Sentiments like that fly more easily when you don’t have to live up to them, but if that liberation isn’t the point of travel, I don’t know what is. Just as travel, with its occasional difficulties, sometimes redeems itself not when you’re taking photos in places that already have hashtags, but during what is essentially a slow commute from one place to another.
We were talking about being stuck between cultures, and how meaningful it was to travel to Europe, certainly the closest thing I had to a home continent, when we were interrupted by a thunderous sound. It took us a moment to understand that the ferry discotheque was now in operation. The dance floor was the size of a postage stamp, but the DJ was devoted (to Euro-trance), and we squeezed. Victoria was gracious enough to say nothing about the muscle shirt I wore to the dance floor. I remember drinking, though not eating: There may have been money only for one. A Serbian “businessman” tried to cut into our dance knot with offers of “free drinks,” but Kiro and I deployed that chivalry that Victoria and Sophia’s parents had so admired and boxed him out. Eventually, it became clear that no one was going to sleep.
After a while, Victoria and I wandered upstairs to the deck – empty – where we kissed. That was fun, but no more than just sitting in an alcove behind the bridge, enclosed in each other’s embrace, the night air hitting our faces, the world feeling like ours. And then it was dawn, right over our shoulders, Piraeus looming up ahead. This was the end of our lucky synchrony – Victoria’s family was going to look at the Parthenon, and Kiro and I were going to Paros. Victoria and I were about to exchange contact information, but then had the same thought. No kind of “keeping in touch” in America could measure up to talking about fears and dreams at 4AM on a rusty ferry in international waters. So we didn’t.