Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sisterhood of the Traveling Backpack

On my last morning in Trieste, I tossed my map of Trieste (if I ever return, I won’t look at it even once), packed the last of my clothes and set off again with my red backpack. The backpack belongs to my sister. She brought it to Spain over five years ago when she traveled there to learn the language and see the Andalucian horses. She returned bilingual and full of stories of the food and nightlife in Spain, the country of naps. Clearly, the backpack has magical properties. I hope to return from my trip with a new language and a backpack full of stories.

The only magic the backpack lacks is weightlessness. I made it to the lobby of the Filoxenia hotel and already needed a break, so I left my bag and set off for my last walk in Trieste. This time, my mission was simple: to find Kelly Lenox, fearless leader of the Slovenian Writing Workshop—my next destination. We planned to meet at the Hertz office in downtown Trieste by the water, but as plans often go in Italy, there was a twist.

Unknowingly, I’d planned my visit to Trieste to coincide exactly with the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the G8 Summit. Streets were blocked off from use and I’d already spent some QT (quality time) chatting with the Carabienieri—heavily armed Italian policemen—about where I could and could not venture. I pictured James Joyce having it out with the Carabienieri—not too far-fetched since the Carabienieri was formed in the early 19th Century.

As I ventured in the general direction of the Hertz office, I spotted my friends in their stiff blue uniforms with their arrogant expressions. Ciao, come stai? I could have said, but when heavily armed Italian men are blocking my route, I usually find myself at a loss for chatty phrases. All my Italian went out the window, and I reverted to indignant American tourist (the worst role to fall into—not recommended in any situation, no matter how dire).

“Hertz!” I said, in the universal language of commerce (and rental cars).

“No,” they said. “No one is allowed in.”

How was I to know that the G8 summit was having their “Family photo” of the Plenary Session delegates in the Palazzo della Regione, just steps from the Hertz office? How was anyone going to rent a car today in downtown Trieste? The latter did not seem a grave matter of concern to the Carabienieri who were released en masse in the streets to carry out very simple orders. These guys were not about to bend the rules for me. I suggested the idea that we go to the Hertz office together, figuring that a group outing would be less threatening to them. No. No. No.

When I first learned Italian in high school, my teacher Mr. Hammond told me that the only word I would need to know when traveling in Italy was “no.” And here was that very word, calling out to me loud and clear. Thank you, Mr. Hammond.

Plan B: Call Kelly’s cell phone from the front desk of the Hotel Filoxenia. Good thing she wasn’t screening her calls…. She too was stuck outside the barrier in the other direction, having walked from the spot where her taxi abandoned her at the sight of the Carabienieri (the welcome wagon on the borders of Trieste). The Hertz official met her at the barricade and then cheerily informed her that the car itself was located a mile or so South in a random parking lot at the edge of town. Ah, the joys of foreign car rental.

I shouldered the red backpack again along with some books in a cloth bag, my carry-on from the plane, and the black bag with my lifetime supply of toiletries. I looked more like a pack mule than a writer going to a workshop, but I was on my way.

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