But at last it happened: the perfect constellation that had hung above my trip cracked, shattered, rained down in a million filaments on to my cigarette-stained clothes until the smell writhed back out of rank layers. Not that I could smell it.
On my best trips—well, no, even on my worst trips—I don’t really feel in charge. That’s one of the things I love about traveling: it shatters any illusions of being in control, of running the show, so to speak. Serendipity drives the car; you just ride shotgun.
And I’d been really quite pleased with Serendipity’s navigational prowess on my latest trip, taking me to random small towns, big crazy cities, introducing me to rad people, giving endless writing material, keeping me in good spirits. I approved. “Job well done.”
But on my way back to Rome, something snagged, tripped, pulled the plug. It was my attitude. And my health. Things were no longer going my way. And so I ended my trip slumped over in a plastic airport chair, achy-boned, runny-nosed, sleep-deprived and pissed as fuck.
I didn’t want to leave Tirana. The only date I locked myself into on my itinerary-less travel was my flight from Tirana back to Rome, mostly to avoid another sleepless, freezing cold ferry ride. It was a cheap ticket, the kind you can’t change—so when I had to pass on the opportunity to drive up to Shkoder to get tattooed in an abandoned bunker and instead fly back to expensive-ass, whacked-ass Rome, I was slightly bummed. To say the least.
On the flight, I began to feel a tickle in my throat. I coughed. I assumed it was the result of the pack of cigarettes I’d smoked in the previous 48 hours, or the succession of late nights, or the guzzling of tap water that I wasn’t really supposed to be drinking. And it probably was those things. It was also the beginnings of what I’ve dubbed Albanian Death Flu (incidentally, also the name of my new metal band).
It started slow and steady as a rumbling drum beat—the amplified echo of my own heartbeat in congested ears. It’s okay, I could power through. I had a few different friends that also happened to be in Rome at the time that I wanted to meet up with, some events I wanted to check out; I’d fill the time.
It was like a see-saw: the more things unraveled, the shittier I felt. Or the other way around. Whatever. I never got in touch with any of my friends. The events either fell through or were kinda lame. After blissfully cheap, tourist-free Tirana, Rome was an expensive, American-swarmed jolt to my sick system. And I wasn’t helping myself any. I was cranky, torturing myself with the shoulda’s and why-didn’t-I’s. Serendipity may have been driving the car, but I was being a pretty big backseat driver.
It all came to a fevered pitch at the airport. I didn’t sleep at all the night before, six hours of tossing and turning and coughing and groaning. The overpriced train ride to the airport had robbed me of my last few Euros, so, with no cash for breakfast, the post-nasal drip stirred in my stomach in an unsettling stew. And I had no patience for my fellow travelers.
Rome is a most beloved destination of Americans, right up there with Paris and Disneyland. But it’s a pretty culturally conservative place—not a lot of contemporary arts or music going on—so it doesn’t tend to attract our most dynamic demographic, what I call our A-Team. It’s most popular with the Joe-and-Marge-from-Iowa demographic. Not that I have anything wrong with Joe and Marge; it can be, actually, just as culturally fascinating and foreign to observe them as Romans.
It’s just that Joe and Marge don’t travel much. They get stressed out easily, and they bicker with each other. They aren’t as adept to rolling with cultural differences, and feel it necessary to (loudly) point out contrasts and the discomfort those contrasts provide. They get lost easily. They aren’t urban people, and they get confused by public transportation, crowded spaces, the Italian irreverence for lines at espresso counters.
All this I’m more or less willing to take in stride. Except when I’m sick, nauseous, sleep-deprived, and generally fighting the gods of circumstance. Then I sit in a plastic airport chair with steam seeping out of my ears and one eyeball slowly twitching.
I gave up. I couldn’t fight it anymore. My body—and Serendipity—were trying to tell me something: the party was over. It was time to slow down, sit still and accept what came my way.
I went to a pharmacy and bought some mystery Italian cold medicine on my credit card. I changed a little cash back into Euros and bought a stale, overpriced panini. I moved over to an empty gate and slowly munched my bread in relative peace. Then I boarded my plane and promptly passed out in puddle of drool and sneezes (yeah, I was that person).