People who like to travel like to poop in holes in the ground and pay the guy at the counter for a scrap of paper to wipe their ass with. People who like to travel enjoy carrying backpacks full of too much shit on their backs through train stations, sweating and lost. People who like to travel can't wait to put themselves into the role of the wanderer, the visitor, the stranger passing through, and, sometimes, unfortunately, the victim.
I have no idea why, but I am one of those people. It's not that I prefer shitting into squat toilets that look like they haven't been cleaned since the crusades. It's just that, having done it, I get this incredible rush a feeling of accomplishment completely absent from my suburban roots.
I pooped in a hole for the first time during this trip to Italy. In a train station in La Spezia. Hit it right on the mark, too. Plop.
And I admit that a part of me likes knowing that I have everything I need to survive on my back. So what if that includes a laptop and two cameras. I still have the travel jones.
But travel always means risk. And this trip, for the first time, I wore the label of the victim. Almost.
Heather and I had been in Italy for nine days, long enough to sleep at night without chemical assistance. Long enough to grow tired of the relentless beauty and amazing food of the Cinque Terre and decide to take the long way to Milan.
The first train left us in Genoa a sprawling Italian hub, a fading memorial to Italy's former power. It was such a contrast to the tourist-friendly Cinque Terra, I had to reach around inside myself to find the urban shields I keep up in San Francisco. I'd lost them somewhere along the way, probably swimming naked in the Mediterranean.
We had time to kill between trains, so we checked our bags at the station (one giant backpack for me, one wheelie suitcase for Heather) and wandered out into Genoa.
Dirty. That's the first word that comes to mind. Not third world dirt that comes from the land. This was first world dirt, the kind that comes from construction zones and exhaust pipes that sticks to everything.
We sat down in a focaccia shop, downed some greasy bready goodness, whipped out the Rough Guide and did some planning. We had three hours to spend in Genoa, so we wandered down the streets and alleys. We sipped coffee and tea at a little table. We saw the giant ornate churches of black and white marble that are unique to this area. Every town's got its thing, and this was Genoa's. And it was stunning.
A few hours later we were thoroughly touristed-out, so we started heading back to the station. Weaving through a loose crowd in a makeshift marketplace, I noticed a "tabaccai" store. Heather noticed me noticing. "Go on," she said.
I'd run out of my favorite Canadian cigarettes the day before. Heather tells me that the brand I adore, Export A's with the gold box that slides out like a matchbox, is only smoked by sissies in her native Canada. "In America," I say, "they're smoked by cool geek boys who take their beautiful girlfriends to Italy."
My first attempt to replenish my awful habit had less than stellar results. Wanting to go with the local flavor, I selected a box called "Primo" which turned out to be cigarillos from Amsterdam.
So this time, with the exhilaration of Genoa boosting my confidence, I bounded into the cigarette store and used my best Italian. I pointed right at good old American Camel Lights, the addiction of my late teens, and smiled. The shopkeep understood perfectly, handing me my box of smokey treats and ringing up the sale on the register so I could see it, rather than say something to me that I wouldn't understand. Five thousand Lira. Cheap.
I pulled out my wallet and paid, happy to have finally bought something I could damage my lungs with. I shoved the box of smokes in the left pocket of my shorts alongside my camera, and slid my wallet into the right pocket. That's what you do after you buy something at a tobacco store. You put everything in your pockets. I know this. So do you. And so do the people who hang out near smoke shops by train stations.
As soon as I rejoined Heather in the bustle of the sidewalk and started walking, three children appeared in front of us. They were all talking at us in little kid sing-song tones, and waving their hands around, playing invisible castanets. There were two girls and a boy, and none of them looked over ten.
Those urban shields kicked right in. Heather and I waved our hands. "No," we said. "Sorry." We thought they were asking for change, but they weren't.
What happened next happened very fast.
Suddenly there was one girl on each arm, tugging at me. I felt a sharp pinch above my right elbow. And at the same time, I realized that there were tiny hands on my wallet on the right and my camera on the left. Tugs on the stupid tourist's shorts.
All the advice about pickpockets from the travel book came rushing back to me. The distraction techniques. The grab and run. The sucker punch.
Heather was waving her hands like crazy now and shouting "No!" I'd like to say I was cool and calculated, but I was now acting on pure instinct and adrenaline. I only knew that I really, really wanted them to get away from me. So I screamed: "Get away from me!"
Now, I'm a pretty nice guy. I smile a lot and tip well. I think I strike most people as pretty well adjusted. Sincere, even. Kind.
You'd never suspect that I was such a violent terror as a kid. I kicked puppies, I played with fire, I hammered things into bits. Basically I did a lot of stupid kid things. And, as an adult, after a lot of learning and life experience, I've taken a lot of that anger and violence and put it in a little tiny box inside myself where it's stayed nice and safe and unnecessary.
But I realized in that moment, surrounded by those kids, that I was in a foreign country, and these kids were trying to hurt me and my lover. And when I opened my mouth to yell and those words came out, that old box opened its lid, just a crack.
"Get away from me!" I yelled again. Their motions seemed to slow down. They looked at me, almost surprised. I was standing taller, puffing myself out like a bully pigeon. But they were still standing there, and I realized that in this moment, it was totally appropriate to be angry. In fact, it was necessary. If I wanted them to get away, I was going to have to make a scene.
"GET AWAY FROM ME!" I screamed, leaning into them. It was a good, throaty scream. And it did the trick.
People on the street turned to look. Shopkeepers came out to see what the fuss was about. Finally the pickpocket kids turned and disappeared down the street. Not rushing, not slinking, they just turned and were gone.
Heather and I stood there, winded. I couldn't believe what had just happened. We continued walking to the train station with our shields up, scanning the crowds for possible threats.
We went over it over and over, nailing down all the finer points. Did you see how young they were? Do you realize I had the claim checks for our luggage in my wallet? Can you imagine trying to explain to the Italian guy at the station that I wanted my luggage without the tickets? And my camera! I'd lose all the photos I took. And on and on.
I'd like to say that the experience left me shaken and sad at the state of humanity. I'd like to say I felt bad for them and went to donate to a charity organization to help kids in Italy. I'd like to say that I went and found them and we all became good friends.
But the truth is that sometimes anger is the appropriate response. Sometimes it's good to open that box a crack. The truth is, I felt exhilarated to have faced a traveler's trial and succeeded. I walked away with both my wallet and my pride intact, not to mention a story to tell.
Still, Heather and I were happy to leave Genoa. We even splurged on a fancy hotel in Milan.