Trip Start May 14, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Italy  , Emilia-Romagna,
Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Time to hit the road.
The original plan was to stay in Geneva for tonight and tomorrow, but I should know better by now than to depend on concepts as fragile as itineraries. Plans have changed - I need to get to Croatia by Saturday, or Friday if possible. Which means I need to get through the mountains and into Italy tonight. I reach for my trusty grocery bag/hitch sign.
I start tracing the letters for MILANO/BOLOGNA but my sharpie runs out - I should have expected this sooner, actually, but the Alps lead me to expect the miraculous. Yannick says I don't have to go out of my way to get a new marker as there's a print shop on the way to the bus stop. Excellent. He stumbles on my pants and out the door to grab me another tea while I pack my bag.
I'm counting the last of my Swiss Francs (a bit less than seven, which should be enough for a decent marker) by the time my host gets back to bid me farewell. He tells me he has a friend who's heading past Trieste (an Italian town near the Slovenian border) in two days (Friday) so he'll ask if I can nab a ride with her if we meet up in Padua or something. Sounds awesome to me; I have nothing to lose by asking. He plants a baguette in my hand as I shake Gizmo and Cookie from my sandals. A wonderful host.
I say goodbye, walk down the steps and head into the street. It isn't far to the print shop but I check the time anyway - the highways through the Alps are quite meandering and I don't know how long it'll take for me to get to Bologna. I have another Couchsurf booked tonight with a guy named Luca and I want to arrive early enough so I don't have another repeat of last time. I glance a my clock (read: eReader) and am content to know I still have most of the morning ahead of me.
Holdup #1: the print shop has the necessary marker but it costs three Francs more than I possess. Holdup #2: unlike every other shop in town, this one doesn't except Euros. Adventure time. The clerk tells me about a nearby ATM and a route necessitating beaucoup weaving through tight Genevan streets. Bring it.
But, alas, I am Brought. After realizing the streets keep changing names, going the wrong way down a fork, finding a different bank anyway, returning to the print shop to pay too much for a single (glorious) black marker, running for the tram, crossing the border into France, finishing MILANO/BOLOGNA, I realize the check stop where I hope to catch a ride is completely inaccessible from the French side. Holdup #3: I try climbing fences on both sides but they seem strangely effective at what they do.
Needless to say, I have to backtrack to the pedestrian border and weave my way through Geneva trying to find the car-only route to France. (ps: a wonderful thing about vehicule-only routes is the effort required to dodge cars and guards trying to find a good spot to raise one's sign).
After a few false starts (read: cars stopping to ask me for directions in Italian) I catch a ride with Danny, a guy my age of French-Moroccan descent. Lucky for me he's able to take me near the Mont Blanc tunnel where all the traffic will be heading into Italy. He's a good host and tells me about his family while I oogle the passing Alps. They're not as different from the Rockies as most people imply but they still have charms to drop.
Danny leaves me at a truck stop just outside of his town, waves and disappears around the corner. I'm uneasy about small truck stops near fast-paced highways: does one solicit rides from parked cars? Or wait at the exit in case someone's heading the same way? Or present myself a bit before the entrance to give cars a chance to pull into the stop and pick me up? There aren't a lot of cars so I buckle down for what may be a while.
But I don't have to think about it more than three minutes: in my most providential pickup to date, I find myself being hailed from a trucker in the nearby parking lot. I haven't even held my sign yet - he just saw me walking with a bag and waved me over. Works for me - the whole hitchhiking experience won't be complete until I slug my bag into a hyper-masculine giant truck cab. I show the driver my sign and he waves me aboard.
His name is Donny (hmm). He mostly speaks Italian so we don't have a whole lot to talk about - but eventually I gather he's going to Torino (Turin) and'll drop me off on the other side of the Mont Blanc tunnel - the border into Italy. I can hitch from there to Bologna.
Two rides and only just inside Italy. I don't want to be anxious about timing, but I'm thinking about Luca - he's already been awesome by taking me last-minute and I don't wanna be late. I've already taken enough time with my marker-bank-marker-border-epicfail-border-pickup manuver; I'm lucky he previously mentioned not being off work until late.
Donny offers me a smoke before starting the first of ten he'll puff over the next hour. He notices my glance at the windcatcher on his rearview mirror and points to himself, saying: Navaho. He asks where I'm from and I mention Northern Ontario, and upon further inquiry I share my grandmother has some slight Native heritage. He jerks and asks what ethnicity she is and I shrug: mostly French. He starts rocking in his seat, grabs the microphone and rockets into rapid-fire Italian where I can barely pick up the word Metis thrown around ever minute or so.
A moment later, before I can try explaining I actually don't identify as Metis, he warmly offers to take me futher into Italy - all the way to where the highway veers off to Torino. My inner liberal screams filthy accusations like "claiming problematic identities!" and "using minority status for profit!" but I stuff it instead and stew in my seat for a few minutes.
The highway is the same for Milan and Bologna all the way to the Turino turnoff, he tells me, but they veer apart right after. That's okay with me: if I can find someone to take me all the way to Bologna that's awesome, but if someone can veer me over to Milan I'll also be satisfied. I'm sure it'll be easy to hoof the final ride from there. Soon we approach the traffic crunch known as the Mont Blanc Tunnel and I see hitchhikers using the slowing traffic to pawn rides into Italy. Donny glances at them and smiles at me to say, "we're full."
It doesn't take long to get from the end of the tunnel to the toll station near the Turino turnoff (the tunnel itself is another story). Donny slows down and helps me lift my bag from the cab. With a wave and a yelp of Navaho (unintelligible to my white ears) he shifts his air brakes and lurches through the station.
No one pulls over. Car after truck after motorhome after bike pass by without a single bite. Clouds collect in front of the sun. I can feel the droplets pocking my skin. I pull my IEC poncho from the pack and lose myself for a minute trying to find all the right holes. A precious, precious minute. Thunder ahead.
Then the rain hits.
I drag my bag under my poncho and see, through the heavy curtain of falling water, four cars pull over simultaneously to offer me a lift. Success. I pop into the nearest passenger seat (dryer than I thought the poncho would keep me) and introduce myself to Valerio. Valerio is a mechanic who lives just outside of Bologna - he tells me in broken English that he's able to take me the entire way.
As he chats about his business, girlfriend and nearby relations I realize how many Europeans consider it an honour to stay within fifty kilometres of their place of birth - how the same family network will occupy the same plots of land for over four hundred years. He laughs when I tell him the settlers hadn't even arrived in Quebec by the time his family came to occupy the land outside Bologna. Cultural supremacy established, we proceed to exchange dirty words in our respective languages. He is particularly amused by the similarities between some English curses and their homophonous counterparts. He laughs and yelps "Sheet! Sheet! Sheet!" I smile and notice how heavy my eyes feel.
Then I come to and realize I just took a nap. Valerio laughs and says if I slept then I must've needed it, but I'm a little embarrased. It's more than a small faux-pas to nap in someone's car - both for safety reasons but also for the fact that people often pick hitchhikers to have company on the way. Sleeping's kinda rude.
Valerio shuffs my apologies away and we stop to grab some supper before making the final stretch into Bologna. I recall Luca messaging me (you know, on that laptop thing that's mostly useless when one is on the road) that he lives near a train station so I ask Valerio if there's a main terminal near the road. He tells me it's only a short detour before he dives into a fray of hairpin turns and tight Italian streets. Short detour, he says.
He circles the station once, twice, thrice, saying he wants to make sure it's the right one - but I know from earlier conversations that he's more than certain. I'm hesitating to ask him about it, but then he slows the car and tries to say something. He doesn't finish, smiling instead with fragile eyes and wishes me well. I'm not sure what to say to him except good luck. And ciao.
His red car pulls into reverse, swerves through the Italian traffic vortex and melts in the light of the failing sun.

I look up at the train station and hope I can pick up some kind of internet signal (I don't). It's 9pm. I see the Golden Arches nearby and turn into the HOLY WHAT DOES THIS EXIST WHAT NAME HOW HAVE I HAVE IS THERE DOES THIS IS THERE REALLY AIR CONDITIONING LEFT IN THE WORLD??? I'm sure I'll collapse from shock any minute (and drown in my sweaty t-shirt).
What snaps be back is a sign on the wall saying you need an Italian moblie phone to access McDonald's internet. Simple - I'm sure most people around here have smartphones or something. All I need is to plug their number and read the password in the text McD's sends them. I pick a target, a guy maybe a year younger than me, and share my predicament.
The restaurant hushes. The guy looks at me strangely for a while before a nearby burger-thrall shuffles with his mop to tell me it's a ridiculously personal matter and I should try to find some kind of internet point nearby. The look on a nearby family's collective face is uncannily close to the scrunched up 'huh?' given by nearly every Italian car passing me on the highway earlier that day.
I thank said thrall and walk into the HOLY HOW IS THIS DO I REALLY NEED GILLS AFTER ALL humidity and promptly fail to find an open internet point in downtown Bologna. It's getting close to ten at this point and I have no idea how to contact Luca telling him I'm here. Or confirming this is the right train station. Or confirming he's coming. 
There's an awkwardly positioned half-pillar in front of the terminal doors where I sit and take my marker to write LUCA on my grocery bag. Three guys start making their way over to me when I finish but they don't look Italian. One of them introduces himself as Niko - he and his friends (Johan and Friedrich) are Danish guys on a pre-university Eurotrip who don't want to pay outrageous hotel prices for another night in Bologna and ask me if I know anywhere to sleep tonight.
I tell them about the nearby park where I plan to crash if I can't find Luca, then think to tell them about Couchsuring. Not that it'll be much use this time of night. The three of them look oddly like child beggars and so I sigh and say I'll talk to my host (if he comes) to see if they can use his floor. They whoop and hand me their smartphone.
Smartphone. One connected to the internet. A European smartphone that will actually work here. Actually work. As in, will give me internet access and lets me into Couchsuring where I read Luca is on his way in half an hour and he's sorry he's late and he's more than happy to try to find space for these other guys and he lives near this exact train station and we should grab some water at some nearby fountain and wait because I FINALLY GOT HOLD OF HIM AND CAN GET OUT OF THE OCEAN THEY CALL ITALIAN HUMIDITY. I'm sure the Danes would have drowned had Luca come any later.
But he arrives and stuffs us into his tiny car ("So sorry, I didn't expect so many, I have to talk to my roommate, I'm so sorry I don't have enough couches, so sorry you have to sleep on the floor, so..." before the Danes cut him off with profuse expressions of gratitude, high-fives and obligatory jeers at Italy's cataclysmic epicfail in the Eurocup final) for the five minute ride to his house. His roommate is asleep so he tells us to be quiet - saying he needs to go to bed right away as he works in the morning.
He says this, you know, before hanging out with us for an hour and a half drinking and laughing and exchanging travel stories. Most of the Couchsurf hosts I've met have traveled themselves and carry strange stories. Luca is 26 and starting to get caught in the "I'm trapped here I can't leave I can't travel anymore my life is over I don't know I should have stayed in Australia" phase but even the Danes pick up how proud he is to still spontaneously host a small army of travelers. He knows how it goes.
I barely have enough time to check Hitchwiki's projections for the next day before being drawn back into the bizarre commune of languages, sweat and nostalgia: this bottled lightning in Luca's kitchen. Stories of cities, highways, trains and outstretched thumbs spill through the heavy air and past the open door as the guys say where they'll go and start asking the Other Questions. Can God make a Eurocup team so good He Himself cannot beat it? How long does it take to fall out of love? Where will you go tomorrow? But most of the time no one waits for answers - we know they wait for us. For me.

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