The Birkenstocks were stained and dreary; souls worn thin and the brand name long-gone from the bumping and brushing of my heel against it. At first I’d kept track of the scratches and blots that imbed themselves comfortably in the suede; a coffee stain from a nerve-racking first date, a few specks of oil and mysterious grime from a day spent polishing shotguns with my grandfather, a streak of black nail polish from the night of my high school best friend’s rock show, and a few snags from climbing chain-link fences…but now they’d become too shabby and tattered to remember all the stories they held. My birks were torn up, but they had taken me places.
On the day of my small epiphany, the birks had to have been exhausted. We’d spent the afternoon in Venice; taking pictures, journaling, shopping, discovering the city, people watching, and eating. We met people, too. Like the little old woman at the market. She was small, coming only to my shoulder in height, and walked with a hunch in her back. Her salt and pepper colored hair was wiry, it curled over her forehead and softly into her eyes. She wore a deep blue sundress with large orange goldfish spread about, and over that, a dirty black apron. Her dress fell just above her boney ankles, revealing aged skin and bare toes. She found me browsing in her onions and eggplants, smiled brightly, and greeted me with a, “Buona mattina.” Good morning, I think. Her voice was deep, raspy, and somewhat sweet. I never got her full name, but a husky old man, that I assumed to be her husband, kept calling her Ianna, perhaps a nickname for Vivianna. She and I talked for about 20 minutes about her vegetables, exchanging the words for each in our own language, and smirking when one gave a terrible interpretation of the other. Ianna’s broken English is something I can hear vividly in my mind, even now, four years later. I loved her beautiful attempt and her gruff diversity.
We had arrived in the city at 9:40 a.m., and our train was now departing at 6:03 p.m.
The conductor had already come by and checked my ticket as I settled into my seat. Strategically, I took the one near the window and placed my bag in the aisle seat, avoiding any odd loiterers. Like the strange women who brought her caged cat and sat him next to me once. Or the elderly African man, reeking of booze and peppermint, that explained to me why so many of ‘his kind’ could climb trees and sexually satisfy women so well.
As more and more people filed into the seats, the temperature and assortment of smells began to rise: garlic, tired feet, humus, and body odor. I reached slowly for the window latch, as to not look too urgent, and cranked it open. The early October air was incredible. It was cool and, somehow, bright, the way it opened up my nasal passage and lifted any sense of nausea. As I pulled the chilling breeze further into my lungs my spine grew longer and lighter, my shoulders pulled back and upright, and my spirits lifted. How could something invisible be so revitalizing? How could there be such a simple remedy for a feeling caused by so many different factors? How did nature produce something powerful enough that it could tear apart trees and homes, graceful enough to carry a bubble across tender fields of grass, and even still, diverse enough to settle a bothered stomach? Surely, this breeze’s creator was quite the artist.
As the wheels began to squeal and the engines hum turned to a growing roar, the train began to crawl forward.
It’d been 20 minutes of moving at full speed when we finally emerged from buildings and city-life, into rural northern Italy. My surroundings turned from large brick, graffiti covered buildings, smart-cars, and old men on bicycles to vast fields and blinding, golden sunshine. Each of these views held their own beauty and artistic revelation, but tonight I didn’t find anything in the urban human creations I saw. Tonight, unknowingly, my soul wanted to be satisfied by something else.
As we rounded a corner, Bon Jovi sang to me about Tommy and the docks and being halfway there, a whole new view took me by surprise. A person hasn’t seen every kind of beauty until they’ve seen an Italian grape vineyard at sunset on an early October evening. The rows were by the hundreds. Walls of green hills rolled up on each side of the field, rich with grass and purple wild flowers, as if to protect the chains of harvested grapes from the deformities of the world; large green giants, standing shoulder to shoulder clothed in grace and strength. Metal steaks stood tall from the ground with winding, sage colored vines crawling carefully up their legs. I could see jagged leaves the size of a grown mans palm, and underneath hid huge clusters of grapes. The clusters were the darkest of purples, almost black. Some of them would catch the sun just right and glisten and sparkle, while others were black and dull, but still adding to the beauty and richness of the vineyard.
It was one of our first nights in San Lorenzo, the small town where we students were living while studying abroad in Europe, when I tasted my first Italian grape. David, a fellow student and new friend, and I decided to go on a walk. The birks came with, of course, and although it was still a little warm to wear socks and such heavy shoes, they tagged along. The roads David chose to walk down were rocky and muddy, but the midnight air was warm, the moon was brilliant and the smell of his cigarette was soothing. His conversation was alluring. Talk of his crazy teenage years, his hatred for church, and his desperation for God and theology, now and then interrupted for a long drag and thin exhale of sweet smelling tobacco.
“Here we go...” He said in a low rumble, veering off the path towards what I thought was a long wall of bushes. I stood still in the middle of the road and waited as he rustled around in the brush and then yanked hard, breaking something free from the branch. My eyebrows curled in curiosity as he got closer. Flicking his cigarette into the dirt, he reached out toward me and opened his hand. “Eat one…they’re incredible. Not like the ones from home.” I took one out of his hand…Grapes. I slid it over my lips, onto my tongue, and crushed it with my teeth. A dream…and it almost tasted cold. Sour, without a hint of bitterness. Its sweetness was incomparable and nearly beautiful. The skin was tough and crisp, but the inside the perfect texture…even the seeds enhanced the greatness of the fruit. An explosion of flavor like that which comes from only a branch is almost shocking.
By now, the sun had become a blazing coral semicircle hiding behind the horizon, casting an orange hue over everything in its path. The rattle of the train cars was comforting, and the vineyards of San Polo were well passed. Now my view was of long golden wheat fields, bending and leaning in the wind, reflecting the sun’s red gleam as if they were on fire. These fields were a great fiery sea.
These pastures of grain were teaching me to dream. In all of their grace and, now, vivid colorfulness, the wheat field’s sole purpose was to become; to allow its master’s provision to flourish in its growth and then spend itself on someone else’ behalf. The fields seem to whisper inspiration to me, to call me out of mundane living. They called me to write about my feelings, and speak more truth, to look for the beauty in the common place.
I pulled my journal out of purse and wrote down the lyrics Jack Johnson had just whispered thoughtfully into my ear, “But if all of these dreams might find a way into my day to day scene, I’ll be under the impression I was somewhere in-between. With only two, just me and you, not so many things we got to do, or places we got to be. We’ll sit beneath the mango tree…” Although I realize these words were written about two people in love, that night they meant something different to me. Dreams were finding their way into my day-to-day…I was living in Europe; I was currently riding a train back to my apartment in an old, refurbished brick barn after a day in Venice; I had just spent my night having revelation after revelation from nature and my maker. I had been living in Italy for a little over a month now, and tonight was the first time I’d felt real independence.
Something about that day awakened me to discovery. Somewhere between the cobblestone streets, good pasta, Vivianna’s goldfish dress, and the autumn breeze I had begun to find myself. Released in me was a desire for adventure and relationship. I longed for more independence, to travel to other places, to discover different culture, to love and know more people, and to define more of myself. I was free. I was exploring. I was 18 and alive.
That night began the most difficult and defining time in my life that has yet to pass. Starting that night, I was forced to discover who I was and what I believed in. On this journey of self-discovery I learned how to dream, and how to lead; how to cry without feeling weak, and how to diminish ignorance with a love for knowledge and a listening ear. It was a kick-start to my becoming…and the only thing that knew me were the things that carried me through it. The things that stepped on and off the train with me, the things that went all the places I did, the things that trudged through the puddles and basked in the same glistening sun that I did, the things that sat beside my bed when I fell asleep that night. The only things that knew me were stained and dreary; the souls were worn thin and the brand name was long-gone from the bumping and brushing of my heel against it. Like I said, my birks were torn up, but they had taken me places.