No, I'm not in Venice (more's the pity) I'm just a wistful virtual tourist heading towards a deadline and chained to my computer, while watching my friends gadding about the world. Pat, Mary Jo and Andrea, after speaking at the RNA conference, are separately and together exploring various corners of the UK — Scotland, England and Ireland, and Susanna is in Denver, Colorado, at the RWA conference. Add to that a number of other friends also overseas and posting glorious photos on FaceBook, and . . . my feet are itchy.
I love travel, but in the last few years the only time I've been away has been work related — conferences usually, with a bit of sight-seeing on the side. So I thought I'd share a story about a trip I made many years ago when I was backpacking solo around the world for almost a year. Travelling alone is not as daring or as foolish as it might sound — I was nervous to start with, but I soon learned that when you're on your own, you meet nice people so much more easily than when you're travelling in a pair. And I was always pretty careful.
This story takes place on one of the last legs of my journey. I was leaving Greece, and sailing up to Venice (where I'd been a month earlier) and then heading for Switzerland, where I would fly out to Asia.
I caught the ship in Piraeus (the port area of Athens). It had sailed from Egypt to Piraeus via Crete, and was heading for Venice, passing through the Corinth Canal. It was a big ferry, rather than a cruise ship, carrying cars and people and all sorts, and there were two overnights (or maybe three, I can't recall) so I'd lashed out and booked a bunk — sharing a cabin with whoever the company placed me with — rather than sleep in a chair.
I was put in with an elegant little old Italian lady, who smiled, said "Buongiorno" and took to her bed for the entire trip — except for meals, when she put away more pasta than you'd imagine a little old lady could. So it was a very easy share situation. All I had to do was creep in and out and not wake her.
One night it must have been a little rough because when I woke in the morning, I saw my shoes had slipped across the floor and were resting against hers. I'd been wearing runners I'd bought in the USA, built for comfort and lots of walking; hers were a dainty pair of Italian leather shoes, half the size of mine, designed purely for gorgeousness. My feet are not that big but the contrast in size and style made me laugh. They looked like the shoes for different species.
I spent most of the trip out of the cabin, on deck, gazing at the scenery that slipped past, spotting dolphins—magical, joyous creatures—and, while we were passing through the Corinth Canal, steering the ship. Not really, but wow, there wasn't much room between those towering stone walls. It felt like I could reach out and touch the sides. And the variations in the stone strata were fascinating.
I pretty soon met other people, including another woman travelling solo. She was a German girl who'd been living in Crete for some years, but who'd broken up with her Greek boyfriend and was moving back to Germany — driving a Kombi-van filled with all her possessions. Her English was brilliant, and she spoke Greek and Italian as well.
We got on really well, and met each morning for breakfast, and spent the rest of the day spotting dolphins, talking, and swapping books. And eating the delicious Italian food provided at each meal. On the last day she offered to give me a lift up to Switzerland. I, of course, was delighted to accept.
We sailed into Venice at dawn. It was early December, so it was cold, but not bitter. The sea was mirror calm but shrouded in drifts of fog. As the ship drew closer, Venice appeared, floating in the fog, all rose and gold and silver in the dawn, like some magic mythical place that might disappear if you blinked. It was breathtakingly beautiful, and if you ever get a chance to sail into Venice at dawn, take it.
So then it was time to disembark. My friend went to the area where her van was parked, but I had to disembark down a separate gangway for travellers on foot, so we arranged for us to meet ashore. As a lowly backpacker, I was one of the last to leave, and as I walked down the gangway, I saw my friend, waiting beside her Kombi.
There were uniformed police and customs officers everywhere. And at the bottom of the gangway stood two uniformed men and a beautiful Alsation dog. Now recall, dear reader, I had been away from home for the best part of a year, and was particularly missing my dog. So I walked down the gangway and without thinking, I stopped, bent down and started patting the dog.
Cue loud noices of frustration and uniformed hands thrown up in very Italian disgust. It occurred to me then that I probably shouldn't have patted a police or customs dog, but when I started to apologise, the men waved me on impatiently.
When my friend stopped laughing, she explained. They'd asked her why she hadn't driven away and she'd told them she was waiting for a friend. (And remember the ship had started in Egypt.)
Who was this friend?
A woman she met on the ship. An Australian backpacker.
So you never met her before?
But you're giving her a lift?
Apparently there was a bit of Aha-ing and some hurried consultation, and then several more customs men gathered eagerly at the gangway. Clearly they were expecting some desperate foreign backpacking hippy drug smuggler.
And then the desperate foreign backpacking hippy drug smuggler went and patted the drug-sniffing dog and told him what a good boy he was.
After that, we drove north through some beautiful country, and when we got near the Swiss border, I hopped out, said goodbye to my German friend, and caught a train to Zurich. It was only a few days out of a year of wonderful travel and adventure, but I've never forgotten that trip and the magic of sailing into Venice at dawn. And the disappointment and disgust of the customs guys when I patted their dog.
So what about you? Are you itching to travel somewhere? Ever taken a trip that turned out magical? Or are you happy to stay comfortably at home and indulge in a bit of virtual travel, in books or on line?