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Fluff: Cookies and the Kindness of Strangers

August 23, 2010

I recently met a lovely young woman who is about to travel to Italy for several months. Speaking to her about my own experiences studying abroad, I was reminded of a particularly eventful weekend I spent in Italy, years ago.

In 2001 I spent my spring semester living in Florence, studying art and language, and traveling across Europe. Most of my travels included group trips with my 5 roommates, staying in dingy hostels and hitting all of the then-hot spots: Interlaken, Prague, Budapest, and more. But on one weekend I decided to strike out on my own and visit a decidedly un-touristy location- Reggio Di Calabria- the area that my father’s family originated from. To get to Reggio, you need to take a train, another train, a bus, a boat, and I believe eventually a horse and then a smaller horse. I made it as far as the end of the bus ride and decided I was all set.

At the end of the bus line I disembarked and looked around at the small seaside town that was close enough to my family’s birthplace. There was not a soul in sight, and I realized that arriving without any idea of where to spend the night was not my most brilliant plan. Still, my 21 year old energy pulled me through and I wandered the town until I came across a hotel located on the beach, managed to express my need for a room in halting, broken Italian, and ignored the stares from the owners as I took my key, walked upstairs, and flopped on the bed. I was starving, but the thought of braving the near- desolate town filled only with people who had never even been to nearby Sicily, much less my friendlier homebase of Florence, was too much. The only thing I had brought with me to eat was a large bag of generic chocolate chip cookies, purchased at Standa (the equivalent of Star Market) in Italy. I ate my way through half of the bag, took a shower, completely flooded the room (European showers are tricky), spent 3 hours mopping it up with a rug I found in the armoire, and passed out, exhausted.

The next morning I set out to explore the town and find what I was sure would be amazing local cuisine to make up for my sad dinner the night before. Unfortunately, it was not exactly high season in Reggio, and the only “restaurants” that were open were the kitchens of the locals, which people seemed to just walk into from the street. I couldn’t bring myself to do it- the same 21 year old energy I’d had the night before was married to a 21 year old’s sense of foolish pride. I dipped into the cookies again.

I did spend a lovely day walking the beach and taking pictures of the town, which was filled with public gardens, orange and lemon trees, wild flowers, and stray cats. As the afternoon wore on, however, I decided I should head back to civilization (aka Florence)- I was hungry. I made my way to the bus stop and waited.

Here’s the thing about public transportation in Italy- all of Italy. Its not very reliable.* You may have a schedule that tells you when a bus, train, or ferry is departing, and that schedule may have been printed in the last ten years. That bus, train, or ferry may show up at the correct time, it may show up an hour later, it probably won’t show up at all. You may decide, after an appropriate grace period, that you should just start walking to the train station, even if said train station is many millions of miles away. That’s just the kind of logic that occurs in the brain of a 21 year old approaching starvation.

About two miles in to my trek, my backpack rubbing blisters on my hips, my cookies long gone, a car full of Italian men- no more than 25 years old- pulled over in front of me. The driver – young, dark, and handsome- said, in Italian: “Are you serious? What are you doing walking along the highway? Why is a gorgeous young woman like you doing something like this?”

I mean, that’s what I hoped he was saying. It seemed better than what he was probably saying, or propositioning, to me.

“Basta. Vado alla stazione treno” I said, still walking, head held high. That translates roughly into “Don’t bother me. I go to the train.” Even as an insecure 21 year old, I knew how to act aloof and thwart potential attackers.

The car’s passengers burst out laughing, the driver stopped the engine, and all three men got out. One gently removed my backpack and tossed it in the trunk, one smoothly maneuvered me into the car, and the third peed on the side of the road before getting back in. The car sped off, now with me in tow, and I figured I was either being kidnapped or getting a ride to the train. Either way, I was sitting and there was nothing to be done about it, so I figured I’d relax for a bit. The men continued to chat boisterously, talking – with me a bit but mostly with each other– clearly joking around and enjoying themselves. They smoked cigarettes and swore mildly, grinning and laughing, grown-up little boys.

Forty-five minutes later (I was never, never going to get to that train by walking), the car pulled up to the station and all three men got out once again. One pulled my backpack out of the trunk and set it in front of me, one helped me out of my seat, and the third peed on the curb. All three kissed both of my cheeks, said “ciao bella!” and got back into the car.

And yes, I then had to wait approximately 6 hours for my train to arrive, but I didn’t care. I was safe and on my way home, I’d been kissed by three kind strangers, and there were many, many cookies for sale at il stazione del treno.*

*Understatement of the century.

*All Italian in this piece is only sort of correct, except for the word “basta.” “Basta,” one of my favorite Italian words, means “enough.”

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