Characters I’ve Met
Of all the reasons why traveling has rejuvenated my spirit and captured my heart, the characters I have met along the way are some of the greatest. The fields bobbing with sun flowers and lakes brimming with sunlight may move me to tears, and the sweeping architecture of the Portuguese castles may silence me in awe, but nothing gives me hope like the kind and curious strangers who have greeted me like a friend, and helped me along my journey.
While hitchhiking in Italy, Austin, Alexey, and I gained the acquaintance of the loveliest couple I’ve ever met. They both had tousled, blonde hair, snow white skin, and hands that fluttered about as they talked. They lived together in a reinvented RV, they were madly in love, and they traveled around together wherever their whim carried them. They were originally from Germany and had rich accents that we sometimes had trouble understanding. They had not showered in many days but did not smell, except for a strong, earthy musk that filled the RV. We sat in the back on cushioned benches as they drove, gazing at pirate flags and maps they had pinned to the walls. The sun poured in through one tiny window and made that RV the most magical Neverland that has ever hit the highway.
In France, we were picked up by a gray headed man, thick as a tire around his middle, with dark yellow teeth and trunk full of bulldog puppies. His favorite dog had given birth to a litter of twenty, and when his young girlfriend had threatened to toss them in a river, he had packed up his things in the dead of night and left– taking all twenty newborn pups in his car trunk. When we had stopped to grab lunch from a supermarket, he would unload the puppies from his trunk and arrange them in our laps, having us sit on the roadside. He wanted to sell the puppies as pure bred bulldogs although they were mutts, and since I was the only one of the three of us who spoke French, he asked me to sell his lie for him. Instead, when a potential customer asked me about the puppies, I would respond with “Je ne sais rien,” or “I know nothing,” repeatedly until they gave up and walked away. He was a tattoo artist– not a very good one at that– and, as we later found out, more of a con artist than we could have guessed. He tried to trick us on multiple occasions into investing six hundred euros each to buy piercings and tattoo supplies at whole sale price, so we could resell them for double. After checking his phone, we realized that all of the lengthy phone calls to his “supplier” had been faked, and he was looking to scam us of our money. He was quick witted, funny, and kind in conversation, but after five days of traveling with the old man we planned an escape, and slipped away to the train station in Northern France.
One of our nights couchsurfing in France, Austin and I were lucky enough to stay in the cozy home of Jean-Paul, a health enthusiast with a talent for cooking ratatouille and a distiller of the strongest digestifs I’ve ever tasted. After each dinner, we would sip Ginipe– a sweet liquor that stung the throat– that he had distilled from the blossoms of a flower he had picked on the mountainside. He claimed that the flower was only found in a few places in the world and he glowed proudly as we sipped the drink. As we went to bed each night, I tried hard not to reveal how tipsy I was, walking carefully to the pull-out bed in the living room, my head spinning.
Two of my favorite souls that I have met along the road, I bumped into while in Italy. The night before, we had slept on the ground in an olive grove, and since we had a bit to drink while watching the Eurocup, we hadn’t even set up our tent. We had slept in sleeping bags on the uneven dirt, and when we awoke groggily to the bright sun, our skin and bags were covered with tiny ants. At lunch the next day, we were laughing about our adventure, scratching the swollen bites that covered our thighs. Two older men overheard us and joined in the conversation, congratulating us on getting out to see the world while we were young. The men were in their seventies, dressed in shorts, suspenders and tweed hats, socks folded neatly above the ankle. They explained that they were best friends, finally chasing a lifelong dream of walking together down the entire coast of Italy. They had been at it for a month, their legs were tired but they were ready for more, they had told us jovially. Unfortunately, they explained, they couldn’t sleep on the ground anymore like our young bodies could– they would wake up much too sore, bruised, and miserable. Instead they slept in hostels and homes of generous strangers– making friends wherever they went because of their bright and open nature.
In Ireland, Austin and I met two sisters who were as opposite from each other as the sun and her sister moon. One was loud, boisterous, heavy and ruddy cheeked. The other was quiet and docile, with pale, sunken cheeks and pensive eyes. It was like something from a fairy tale– as though the one sister drained the other of all energy and vitality, becoming stronger every day as the other waned. We talked to the louder sister all night, sharing stories of mountain climbing and braving storms over our meals of sausage and cheese. I was so distracted by her storytelling that I began to cut the sausage with the wrong side of the knife, blade pointed upward toward my hand. She laughed at me wildly, saying “Oh, is that how they do it in America?”
While we were swimming offshore in Cinque Terre, we spotted a group of boys our age, leaping from a seaside cliff, arms flailing with glee. We swam across the distance to join them, and struck up casual small talk, hoping to find someone who would let us borrow a shower. (The only bath we had taken in the past nine days had been in the Mediterranean Sea.) Soon we had learned that they were Australian, and worked as a butcher, baker, and welder (respectively). They laughed at what they called The American Obsession with College Education and told us that they’d begun apprenticing for their occupations when they were very young. Now, as young adults, they were making more than many business men and women make in other parts of the world, and had saved up enough to travel, sans obligation, for a full year. Austin and I were overcome with envy, and maybe a hint of remorse for our ever-so-expensive college educations.