I spent the rest of my first week in Europe, in Paris…eating croissant…alone. If you’re a Sex and the City fan (as me!) then you certainly remember those scenes from the series finale, where a nostalgic and melancholic Carrie spends all her time exploring Paris all alone. Well, that was pretty much me in Paris…minus the smoking and fabulous wardrobe. Of course I was still ecstatic to be there, to walk into Notre Dame, to wander thru the Château du Versailles, to go back to the Tour Eiffel and make it all the way to the top, to spend lovely afternoons sitting at the Jardin des Tuileries or admiring the Seine River; but I would lie if I didn’t admit it got a little bit lonely at times. I mean to make such a big dream come true, to witness such beauty, and to not have someone there to share it with…yeah, it got lonely.
Paris was the only city during my whole trip where I didn’t meet someone new everyday or made friends with fellow travelers (other than my first night there). I don’t know if it was because I didn’t speak the language or because the French can be, ahem, unfriendly, or maybe because I wasn’t sharing a room with other travelers…most likely it was all of the above, but no connections were sparked. I still fell in love with the city, but my time there was for sure one of mixed emotions, bittersweet even.
At some point during that week, I decided that my next destination should be Italy. I sort of knew someone in Milan, who had agreed to let me couchsurf (that term hadn’t even been invented then!) at her place, and after that lonely week in Paris it seemed like the best idea to go somewhere where a friendly face awaited. And that someone was my friend Gaby, who would indeed become a dear, dear friend after that visit. Truth is we weren’t really friends when I first came to see her in Milano. In fact, we had barely met before that. Actually, it was so random how we met that I have to share that funny story, and this is how it goes…
My now husband, who was just a friend at the time, had extensively travel thru Europe for business back in the mid-90’s, and on a long, overnight train ride from Milan to Paris, had met a Mexican girl named Gaby, who was living in Italy. She wasn’t very fluent in English and Gregg spoke barely any Spanish, but a couple of older Argentinian ladies who were also on the train served as translators, and a connection of sorts was made between them. They never saw each other again after that train ride (’til this day they haven’t seen each other since), but email addresses were exchanged. Correspondence didn’t last very long, after a few emails back and forth, they lost contact.
One day, after first deciding to make this European trip on my own, I was talking to Gregg about it and mentioned that being on a tight budget, I was really hoping I could find some acquaintances over the pond, kind enough to offer me a roof for a few days so I could cut down my travel cost. He told me the story of how he met Gaby and said that he hadn’t talked/written to her in years, but that he still had her email address and that maybe I could get in touch with her. And so I did. I don’t know what possessed me to think I could just email a stranger saying “hey girl, we’ve never met before, but can I crash on your couch for a few days this summer?” but that’s kind of what happened. Lucky for me, she still used that same email address, and when I wrote to her telling her how I got it and how I even knew of her, she totally remember Gregg. We started some online communication, and it turned out she was a native of Monterrey, where I was living at the time. She was still living in Italy, but on one of her trips to visit her family in Monterrey, we got together so we could finally meet in person after a couple of months of online chatting. I don’t remember exactly at what point in our correspondence I actually told her about my plans to go to Europe and about the possibility of crashing at her pad if it was ok with her, but I do remember she didn’t hesitate to say “of course you can stay with me in Milan!” Looking back on it, it amazes me how kind and generous she was to me. We never really set any specific dates for when I would visit, we had just left it at a vague “sometime this summer”, so I was a little nervous when I called her from Paris to say “hey, sorry for the short notice, but any chance I can stay there next week?” Again, luckily for me, she was so cool and easy-going, and that ended up working just fine for her.
So on my last day in Paris, I sat on a street bench outside my hotel, trying to soak in all the Parisian air I could before leaving. I was just in the middle of that, when an old Italian man came to sit next to me and wanted to start a conversation. He must’ve been at least 70 years old, and didn’t speak any English or Spanish, but he was too friendly to care about the language barrier. That’s how I discovered that Spanish and Italian are more similar than I could’ve ever imagined, because we managed to communicate just fine with him speaking in his mother tongue and me speaking mine. That’s also when I first realized that after spending a week of several encounters with rude French people, I was in for a treat of hospitality from Italians. He inquired where I was headed with my luggage, and after hearing that I needed to get to Gare du Nord to take a train but had no idea how to get there, he decided he would take me. We took public transport of course, but it was nice not having to figure it all out on my own. He was so kind as to not only getting me to the train station, but also helping me find my train, and then my seat on the train, and he didn’t leave until he made sure I was comfortably situated on it. Just one more random act of kindness and generosity I got to experience on that trip.
I was so excited and ready to move on to my next destination, and so happy to get to travel by train. I grew up listening to train stories from my family because my grandpa and uncles worked on the railroad their whole lives, and now finally I was going to have my very own first train experience ever. And so off I went…au revoir Paree…ciao Milano!