September 11th, 2010

Cruising Through Europe

There were several times today when I thought to myself, "It's September 11th and I'm not really doing anything special to commemorate that fact." But then, as midnight approached, I began to feel strange about letting the date pass unacknowledged. You see, I have a whole box of material from that fall that I have meant to revisit many times but have simply not been able to look at.

In fact, my aversion to recalling the months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon is so strong that it wasn't until a few minutes ago that I could bring myself to read the piece I started writing in November 2001 but never managed to finish. I think I might try to do that one day. For now, though, I thought I'd share it as-is, a long fragments whose incompleteness testifies better to my mental state then and, perhaps, now than something more polished ever could.

Cruising Through Europe


I


I couldn’t stop. Twenty hours earlier I had boarded a Lufthansa jet in Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport. Now I was in Italy for the first time, having finally managed to extricate myself from Venice’s Marco Polo Airport. I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t have the right map. I didn’t have Italian currency, having discovered at the airport that the secret code for my ATM card was too long for European machines. I was driving a Fiat Brava rental car with a clutch radically different from my VW Passat’s back home. And I was unspeakably tired. Yet once I found the road, I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to drive.

I was sure that everything would work out if I could just keep moving. I’m still here, so it must have. But in the short term, my faith in movement only made things worse. Because I didn’t pause to get my bearings, I ended up missing the on-ramp for the Autostrada. I drove for hours on regional two-lane roads that seemed to be headed in the right direction, but were exceedingly slow going. Periodically, I would see signs for the Autostrada and head in that direction, only to find myself stuck in yet another belltower-dominated town, navigating a maze of traffic circles and one-way streets. Since few roads in Italy are numbered and my map only showed major highways, I had no way of knowing how badly I had lost my way.

At one point, sitting at a traffic light, I realized that my car had a cassette player. Digging through my carry-on bag, I found my case of tapes and extracted Yo La Tengo’s I Hear the Heart Beating as One. I’m enormously fond of the American road-trip. But I can’t imagine taking one unless I have control over the music I hear. There’s something comforting about the fusion of new landscape with old sounds. And on this day it was particularly welcome. Hearing the record’s first track slowly swell to volume, I relaxed. The call-and-response of song and steering wheel helped me through another 45 minutes. When the tape switched over to Yo La Tengo’s Painful on Side B, however, I started to panic again. I was supposed to arrive at my destination in the south of Austria by 6pm. It was already 4pm and I was still seeing signs for the same cluster of towns: Venezia, Treviso, Padua.

Finally, I located an entrance to the Autostrada. But I had no lire. As it turned out, I probably could have used my credit card to pay the toll, if I had known which lane to pick. With no knowledge of Italian, though, I was too frightened to get on a freeway I might not be able to leave. So I drove back to the nearest towns, looking for an ATM that might work. Because it was Friday afternoon, the banks were already closed. But I was sure that my experience at the airport had been an aberration. There had to be a machine that would accomodate a secret code of more than five digits. Wrong. When I returned to the States, a friend told me that there are Citibank ATMs in every major city that will do the trick. But I was mired in the small towns of the Veneto.

Despairing of ever escaping Italy, I decided to backtrack all the way to Venice. At least I would be able to get a cash advance on my credit card at the airport. And the signs for Venice were a lot easier to follow than the signs for points north. After another hour, I arrived back at Marco Polo. I finally did secure some lire, though my worn-out brain requested less than I should have. More importantly, I managed to extract myself from the airport’s parking garage. A few minutes later, I was finally on the Autostrada.

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