Rows and rows of blooming sunflowers make for a beautiful train ride through the Tuscan countryside. The rolling yellow fields outside the window are dotted with white villas and decrepit ruins, which leave my imagination confident that they must have been built in the days of gladiators and emperors. Sometimes all that is necessary to experience something amazing is to watch it fly by out an old, dusty window. So, a four-hour trip from Naples to Rome is spent mostly staring out the window. But when the warm sunshine hits that sunflower field just right and reflects a golden glow into the train cabin, everyone gets a second wind.
When we were growing up, my sister and I were never close friends, or polite acquaintances for that matter. We would fight and argue all the time. I didn’t want to share my friends, she cried to get her way, I bullied her with deception and she used her feet as battering rams aimed at my most crucial body parts. And then when I went to college, this all changed; like someone flipped a light switch. The day I left, we realized how much we loved each other and how hard it would be to live 1,000 miles away for the next four years. At her high school graduation, I sported a thick, red beard. It was massive by college sophomore standards. I tried so hard to be a man when she graduated. I went down to the front so my parents weren’t sitting next to me. I looked off into the distance as if pensive. My friends couldn’t see the vibrating smile, shaking a single tear down my cheek, a sharp left around the nose and settling into the tight curls of my mustache. Later, I made fun of my parents for crying over her graduation. When we dropped her off at Chico State in August, it was her turn to cry. She wasn’t ready, she didn’t like the school she chose, and she wasn’t going to make any friends. It was like leaving a puppy at the pound; she was hopeless and lost. On the way back, we passed a huge field of sunflowers. The car was silent as I marveled at the sunset dropping below the horizon, pulling a pink and orange hood over the sleepy yellow field. I remember thinking: Lexie would like this. Damn I wish I had a camera.
Tim and I are brushing up on our Italian in the train cabin, so we can woo local women we hope to meet in the Roman bars. Just as Tim loudly recites how to say “Would you like to play my skin flute?” from his Dirty Italian dictionary, a new traveler cautiously approaches our train cabin. The Italian man who has slept the entire time, wakes up and scrambles to his feet and immediately makes the plastic tray in the hall his new seat. The new guy is a monk carrying a faded backpack and dressed just in a brown robe, a dangling beaded rosary and brown sandals. He bows his head at the Italian man and smiles before taking the seat.
I’ve seen many people dressed like this in Italy; all around Europe, really. In Rome, there was an old woman lying face down on the sidewalk, hands clasped in prayer in front of an empty change tin. She was begging a monk to donate coins. I’ve never been a religious man myself. I’ve got too many fingers to count the times I’ve attended church in my entire life. A couple weddings or funerals, one favor to a friend, and one time doing community service in San Francisco. There is no call to prayer in my life. My mom tried to raise me Jewish. We had Passover and Chanukah, and I learned to spin a mean dreidel. But by age seven, I told my mom I didn’t believe in what the stories told. I still know the menorah-lighting prayer. You could say I’m atheist. Or agnostic; whatever term you see fit. Either way, there is no God to me. I’m more of an “I’ll believe it when I see it” type of guy. I tend to not have faith in in anything outside the scientific realm of possibility, but I still find religion an interesting topic. I wrote a term paper in my Rhetoric class, senior year of college. It covered whether or not intelligent design should be taught in public high schools. I argued that it should be taught. That was my first and last time getting an A+.
The monk and the man strike up a conversation through the open door. Both are clearly Italian and seem to like each other. They are both no older than 30, though the monk’s shaved head makes him look younger than his counterpart. They both seem very pleasant and I regret taking French in high school because I can’t eavesdrop on a very intense and enjoyable conversation. Still, I imagine I can understand what they are saying – a smile and a nod here, a hand gesture there. Just as I am sure about the architecture of rural Tuscany, I am sure they are speaking about religion. I want to be friends with them. They could be talking about the merits of Nazism for all I know, but it’s amazing what a lack of verbal communication and a light brown robe will do for our judgment of strangers.
That’s the great thing about Semester at Sea. I mean, sure. It’s my first time traveling to Europe and I’m getting to do some amazing things. I can go home and show my friends a rug from the Grand Bazaar and a rock from Mt. Vesuvius. But what really amazes me is the social dynamics of a ship cut off from Facebook and text messaging. When we are forced to communicate old school and really get to know each other in-depth through conversation. Some people know me as that guy. The one who added over 100 “friends” on Facebook from the ship before the Bahamas was even on our radar. Oh, we met on Facebook! But I can confidently say that I did it just to meet people. I never spent a night stalking walls and pictures deciding who would be my friend in real life. I’ve met tons of amazing people on this trip, because I put a lot of effort into meeting and conversing with everyone I came across. And it’s revitalized how I approach my relationships; there is a huge difference in the personality of most people from when I met them on Facebook to when I met them on the ship. Never judge a Facebook by its profile picture. This is a family, and I will forever love Semester at Sea for allowing me to be involved in it. Where else could I sit with my new brother Tim and watch a monk take a train through Italy?
A dark-skinned man slides between the monk and the Italian and apologizes to the Italian for interrupting. He is here to sell newspapers and make a few extra euros while traveling. The Italian shakes his head no, and the dark-skinned man turns around to try to market his product to our cabin. He holds up the newspaper and opens his mouth to speak, but spots the monk to his left and quickly tucks the newspaper away under his right arm. Mi scusi he says genuinely before bowing his head and moving on to the next cabin. I look at Tim and we marvel at the respect the monk has of everyone he encounters. This is a real live cultural experience.
In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. At a baseball game: peanuts, get your peanuts! If you say yes, you hand over half your life savings and get a big bag of too-salty nuts thrown at your head harder than a Nolan Ryan fastball. If you say no, you don’t exist. There is no in-between. Here, you can either admire the work ethic of the fake Rolex salesman as he follows you four blocks, chattering about best price, very nice watch and good gift for lady! Sister! Like all women love plastic timepieces. Still, it’s admirable that they have so much energy and passion for making money, which at the root, is based on bettering their lives and their family’s life. On the other hand, the customer service here is to be applauded. You say yes to the human megaphone from the kebab stand, and they will treat you to a five-star meal. Welcome, welcome! as they pull out your chair. No kebab lover gets by without trading family trees, favorite music or intimate secrets of their love life with the megaphone before the kebab even gets to the table. In America, we are expected to say yes or no, and then move on. These people here? They know how to be human.
The monk catches me looking at him. I look away quickly, but not before he can nod and smile at me. I look down at his feet to avoid the awkwardness of just being publicly busted and wonder why his small backpack is rounded at the back. Just a couple minutes later, he answers my question by unlatching the top and turning the bag to show the Italian what he is traveling with. It’s a familiar sight; in fact, I spent most of my childhood carrying one too. The entire contents of the monk’s bag are a shiny new, black and white soccer ball. He laughs at something the Italian says and puts the bag back at his feet. Tim leans over to whisper to me. This is awesome he says, before I shush him and continue my corner-of-the-eye observations.
I remember one soccer game in particular. I was 12 and my dad was still the coach. This was the end of the bookend for me. By that, I mean it was before I let life take me by the throat and make me its bitch. I lost that innocent sense of determination that made me such an easy kid to raise. The teenage years and most of college was when I was just part of the herd and never tried to stand out. This soccer game pitted the best of the best. My team, the Sting against the Scorpions on a local football pitch (as they call it on this side of the world). The game went down to the wire, knotted at zero. Then tied at one. The equalizer at two. And with ten minutes to spare, I took a shot and it hit the crossbar, bouncing into the net in slow motion. I told you I’m not a religious man. But for a moment in this game, I felt like I was floating through heaven. Waiting out the final minutes was agony; purgatory if you will. Nothing in the world was more important than beating the Scorpions and securing middle school bragging rights for years to come. The whistle blew. Sting 3, Scorpions 2. I ran like crazy toward the sideline, celebrating with my teammates. I jumped into my dad’s open arms and pumped my fist in the air as he held me, yelling like I had just knocked out Mike Tyson. I know my dad loves that moment. He talks about it all the time. Not the game, or the win, but the moment we shared on the sideline after one of the most memorable days of my life. When I tell that story, I shiver. I get that pre-tear feeling of moistness developing deep in my stomach and slowly, painfully, slithering up my chest and through my skull into the back of my eyes, before I clear my throat and kick the ladder back into the depths of my manhood. What is heaven like? Who can tell me? Got any photo slideshows? Perhaps an autographed halo? Well, I imagine that day, that victory, that paternal embrace; is what it feels like to be saved.
Another beggar walks by moments later, this time an older woman with long, tangled hair. She waves a small piece of paper with a picture of her hungry children on it above her head and says something in a curious tone. Her gaze lands on each passenger one by one until finally resting on the monk, who also kindly refuses to donate money. Whereas the newspaper seller saw a respected man of God, this woman saw a generous, empathetic opportunity for success. The variety in their attitudes catches me off guard. The woman mimes what I believe to be You think about it, I will come back. And when she does come back, the monk apologetically hands the paper back to her. She contests his decision and begs him to reconsider. The monk puts his hands together as if in prayer and softly says something to the woman. She smiles, nods and walks away, seemingly content with his reason. And I see why. Because this time I’m sure of what he said: Instead, I will pray for you.