Back in 2006, a friend Colleen and I took a whirlwind summer backpacking tour through Europe. Our jaunt hit some of the best European destinations: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Nice, and Barcelona (and everything in between from the window of a train, of course). This is by far my favorite trip undertaken yet, and but also the one with the most complications encountered. I will elaborate on that some other entry, but let me foreshadow by suggesting that it may involve missed flights, strikes, sleeping under escalators, getting robbed, lost passports and more…but let’s tackle one saga at a time.
While traveling Europe, we met countless remarkable people. The thing about traveling abroad with only one other person is that you tend to get sick of each other very quickly, which in turn makes you a little more open to meeting new people. You get to know a travel companion on a new level, and sometimes we don’t always like what we find. Well, we really must have wanted to kill each other with all of the fresh people we sought out (sort of kidding, Colleen). The most interesting people we met as we explored each country led to the best memories on the trip, and our trip to Nice was no exception.
The afternoon of our departure to Nice, Colleen and I lugged our heavy backpacks on sweat-soaked backs to the Termini train station. The heat that had enveloped Rome that day was stagnant, heavy and wet. We both severely regretted skipping our morning showers that day. Not a great situation when facing a long, overnight train ride (without showers) in close proximity. We dodged and weaved through the thick masses of Romans and tourists coming and going to the ticket office. Tickets in hand, our next move was to find a somewhat clean and unoccupied space of cement to sit near our train departure platform. For any of you who hasn't been to the Termini of Rome, you should know that it is chaotic and not always readily apparent where to go or even who to ask for help. Our exhaustion had us nearly spent, so we decided the best bet was to ask some people who looked like they spoke English and knew what they were doing what to do.
We found a group of three young guys, looking to be about our age, and overheard them shouting English (British English at least, close enough). As we walked over, we picked up on a lively exchange about their previous night's escapades, which must have been quite amusing given the animation in their voices, crazy hand gestures and the big smiles on their faces. I stopped a few feet away and hesitated to interrupt, but the red head immediately noticed my presence as I was listened in awkwardly waiting for a pause. I got one, along with quizzical looks, and I smiled apologetically.
Relieved, we dropped our heavy packs and began the standard "where are you from and where have you been" conversation that all fellow travelers have until our train began to board. As the train slowly pulled up to the platform, we stood to collect our belongings, and Colleen asked them which car they were assigned."Excuse me, I'm sorry to bug you guys, but do you have any idea how we find out which platform we need?"The red head one smiled warmly. "'Course, no worries, where you off to?""Nice?""What time?""7:15?""No shit, so are we!" he yelled. "Platform 4, right here. Take a seat, Americans!"
"Oh, we don't buy train tickets, we just get on." said redhead, who had told us his name was Sam. "We'll just stay with you ladies in your car." And that was that.
Faced with a disgruntled ticket man on board, the boys did eventually have to buy their tickets, but our car was only spotted with a handful of other backpackers. Sam and his two companions, Jamie and Mark, squeezed into our compartment for the long train ride. We crammed in, and laid out like sardines across the compartment benches in a futile attempt to get comfortable. The train was jerky, the seats minimally padded, everyone smelled and even with the windows cracked and the sun set, it was hot.
If that wasn't miserable enough, around 1 am the screams of an old woman cut through the silence of our car in an unfamiliar language, waking everyone abruptly from half sleep. She and a man down the hall were having an argument, but her screams reminded me of the sound a rabbit makes when caught by a predator. After 15 minutes without any signs of stopping, despite protests from several car member for her to shut up, I resigned. I crammed my earbuds into my ears tighter and cranked up my iPod to the max, letting the Postal Service muffle the screams and lull me back into a half sleep.
|This is me, just after waking up from the screeching woman. Obviously, not happy.|
|Left to right - Johnny, me, Jamie, Sam, Mark, and Colleen|
|Our hostel room in Pepto Pink|
We watched nearby as tourists went out to para sail, and Colleen and I decided we had to do it. We strapped ourselves into the harness, and before we knew it, we were floating over a serene view of south France under a rainbow sail. The experience was terrifying and exhilarating all at once, and we both agreed it was money well spent. Soon after our para sailing adventure, we walked about a half mile down the beach to the cliffs. We climbed to the top and took turns with some local kids, taunting each other to leap the 20-some feet down to the sea below.
|Colleen and I taking off|
|Cliff Jumping with Sam|
|Jamie being silly|
As the sun sank lower in the sky, we packed up our beach settlement. A fellow tourist had told Jamie about a great English pub in the heart of Nice, and since our Brit friends couldn't resist the idea of a pub, we decided to start our night there and went our separate ways. That evening at the pub, we danced, laughed and met many other backpacking tourists, and after a couple hours we took to the streets of Nice. We found a little town square filled with people and street performers to hang out at. Jamie found his calling as a tambourine accompanist to "Miss Stephanie," one of the performers. We laughed and clapped along as Jamie and Miss Stephanie performed American show tunes for the square.
|Jamie and Miss Stephanie|
"What happened? " Jamie asked as he wiped a streak of blood off his forehead.Colleen was OK, thankfully, but she was obviously shaken. The boys all congratulated Colleen on taking her first punch with grace, which got a smile and a laugh out of her, and then they proceeded to congratulate each other on a good fight.
"I'll tell you what happened," Mark yelled, a smile on his face, his shirt missing. "Colleen took a punch for me!"
|The guys celebrating their victory|
"Guys, do you see them anywhere?" I asked.We all stood up and walked down to the still water, scanning the dark for any sign of them. Nothing. We called out their names. Nothing.
"My god. They are in no state to be swimming. What if something happens?" I asked, squinting out at the inky black water.I shuddered as neither Johnny nor Jamie protested Colleen's plea. Yes, I was a strong swimmer, and yes I was sober, but the thought of that dark water and of not seeing what was under the surface terrified me.
Colleen turned to me and grabbed my arm. "You're the sober one, and you're a lifeguard! Do something!"
"What am I supposed to do? I can't swim out there! It's pitch black!"
"Liz please! I cant see them!"
"Mark! Sam!" Johnny yelled at the top of his lungs one last time.Still nothing. Everyone was now looking at me to see what I would do. I let out an exasperated sigh and stripped down to my bra and underwear.
As I began to walk into the cool, inky black water, all I could think about were sharks. Scenes from Jaws began flashing in my mind. The water reached my knees and began to shake. I walked slowly and by the time the water hit my waist, my heart was pounding in my chest. The water finally deepened to my chest and I kicked off the bottom and began to swim into pure blackness. A few strokes out, I gasped and stopped abruptly, my fear almost forcing me to turn around. I collected my breath for a few seconds of treading water, reassured myself that sharks don't eat people in Nice in the middle of the night, and continued forward. About 100 yards out I looked back again, my friends waiting anxiously at the waters edge and shouting in support on the beach. They seemed uncomfortably far away.
About another minute of swimming I began to call out for Mark and Sam as loud as I could.
"MARK! SAM!"With the silence that followed each call, my panic increased. I desperately scanned out to sea, continuing my calls. The water was too still. Just as I began to think the worst, I heard a splash in the distance and figured Jaws was finally coming in for the kill. I turned to the left, and instead saw two pairs of arms splashing towards me. Thirty seconds later, Mark and Sam popped their heads up for air.
"Hey, fancy meeting you out here!" Sam called in a cheery voice.I couldn't respond with anything but a laugh of relief. We swam back to our cheering friends waiting on shore, and had a good laugh about the whole thing as we made our way back to our hostels. As exciting as the day was, I had never been so happy to see a cat-hair covered bed and pink pillow in my life.
My fury swelled. "What the hell is the matter with you guys?! I thought you drowned!"
"Nah," Mark said as he laughed and splashed the water. "We're too good to drown."