We’re living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

I have spent a considerable amount of time in this life living outside of my comfort zone. I like it there and that is where I grow. In fact, I am most comfortable living there because my comfort zone is very small. It is for that reason I suppose I have accomplished the things I have and lost some of the things I have acquired. It has taken me 40 years to become comfortable in my own skin. The other 39 odd years were…well, uncomfortable despite whatever facade I was able to put up and maintain. I am, of course, speaking about mental uncomfortability (I know, not a real word) and am happy to say that I can luckily remember no physical uncomfortabililty (still not a word, I realize) and have been able to meander throughout this world free of pain. There are many things that just don’t occupy very much space in our minds as we go about our busy days. The price of tea in China, will Kim Kardashian ever find true love, and what were the true economic impacts of the Reformation come to mind. Another would be toilets. How often do you wonder where the next toilet in your life is? while at home, at work, driving, flying, or riding on a train the chances are pretty good that facilities are available. On an Italian bus…not so much. And this fact had never occupied any space in my mind and surely didn’t occur to me when I boarded the bus in Salerno for the 4 hour ride to Taranto.

The morning in Salerno was the 9th day of my European trip and up until that time I had been in major cities where many people spoke English or I was fortunate enough to be with friends that spoke English as their 2nd or 3rd language so I had no problems comunicating or understanding. I was, in a word, comfortable in all my travels. Salerno is a town of 139,000 people and although it is a gateway to the famous Amalfi coast, an area that has for years been a resort town for English travelers, Italian is principally spoken and from what I could tell there were not many that spoke or understood very much English at all. The day before I had navigated the bus ticket to Amalfi transaction in broken Italian and  that morning at the bus station had to purchase the bus ticket to Taranto in Italian also. I was in a regional town as opposed to a tourist metropolis and would be traveling deeper into the heart of Italy and for the first time had come to realize that English would not get me very far. I was a minority.

Salerno is a beautiful little city and as a light rain was falling while waiting for the bus outside a nearby cafe with a coffee in my hand, I was looking forward to the day and looking forward to making it to Bari, Italy where I would catch the 15 hour ferry to Patras, Greece, the last stop before meeting my friends again in Athens. The radio sounds of a familiar song were being sung in Italian and just as I realized it was Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 smash hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart”, I also noticed several people around me singing along. This made me chuckle. The only reason I was taking the bus was that I did not leave enough time to take the train to Naples where I could catch the train to Bari and I was not concerned with this as I wanted to spend as much time in Amalfi as I possibly could that morning. Better planning would have made the trip much easier and the aforementioned Salerno to Naples to Bari route would have been much more comfortable and this is actually what all the tourists do as I found out later. However, I wanted to be among the people and experience the life of the common man like some Steinbeck or Hemingway fantasy I have always had in my mind. As my travels had been easy and relatively stress free to this point I have to admit I was very proud of myself and a little smug that I was taking the road less traveled, an attitude that I generally take. I was outside of my comfort zone again and feeling good about it thinking, as always, what’s the worst that could happen? I boarded the bus, showing the driver my EuRail pass and found an aisle seat near the back, the chorus of “turn around bright eyes” stuck in my head. So far so good. The bus quickly filled up and then it was too full, several passengers standing in the aisle with no seat to sit in. Busses are slightly more cramped than the trains and there was not room for my backpack in the rack above and it was too late to put it below with the other luggage, something I did not want to do anyway so I sat with my pack in my lap and tried not to think about how hot it was becoming with all the passengers who were standing in the aisle . The bus was scheduled to leave at 11:35am, which came and went with no motion. At noon the driver began to speak and from what I could tell was saying that we couldn’t leave until all riders had a seat, something which made some of them upset. Now, I have come to know Latinos as passionate, hot blooded individuals and have become accustomed to dealing with this but Italians are another story altogether and I was not prepared for what was about to happen. A man who was traveling with his son was sitting in the exit stairwell and apparantly had been asked to exit the bus. I can only assume this because he immediately jumped up and began shouting at the woman that had asked him to exit so we could leave. With both hands flicking fingers from the underside of his chin he continued yelling his point that he had a right to get to where he was trying to go, especially since he bought a ticket. A twenty something woman across the aisle next to me began shouting at the man and someone towards the front of the bus began shouting at her. A guy in his twenties a few rows ahead of me stood up and yelled to be excused so he could yell to the driver from his seat which started out calmly but quickly escalated into more shouting and chin finger flicking. The passengers sitting were at war with the people standing and nobody was budging. I noticed the clock said 12:17 and I also noticed that I was starting to experience pressure on my bladder. There was no way I was going to get off at this point and turning around I noticed there was no bathroom on the bus. The driver had given up and was going to let the passengers fight it out and eventually people began to exit. The old man sitting next to me got off the bus but not knowing if he was going to return I didn’t call attention to the empty seat as the shouting resumed and became more passionate. All I kept thinking to myself was not to make direct eye contact with anyone and praying inside “Don’t kick the American off the bus, don’t kick the American off the bus.” Apparantly the station was selling anybody who wanted to buy one a ticket and since I had the Eurail pass I’m sure I wasn’t counted anyway so I felt bad that I was part of the reason the bus was oversold. Eventually a yong man in the aisle turned around and noticed the empty seat next to me and asked if it was free. I did not know if it was free and could not understand a word he or the others around me were saying in my direction. At no time did anybody offer to speak English so I just shrugged my shoulders, pointed to the seat and waved him in.  It wasn’t long before we finally rolled out of the station at 12:28 and I didn’t know if it was just me but the bus was friggin hot. I do know that everybody was stressed out. To make things just a little more interesting, the seat I had selected was broken and would not raise to the upright position which the guy behind me did not like….and expressed. And I now had to pee. Yes, this was the Italian experience I was hoping for and surely a four hour bus ride would stop for bathroom breaks, Right?

Taranto is situated where the heel of the boot meets the sole and is a major port in the Mediterranean. The ride from Salerno to Taranto is a beautiful one, taking a route through the Southern Appenine mountain range with stops in Eboli and Potenza, the two largest towns along the way. It rained lightly for the first hour of the journey and was overcast the rest of the way but the rain and altitude created beautiful fog clouds near the peaks of the mountains. Despite the chaos at the bus station in Salerno that still had me a bit stressed and the guy behind me who kept kicking the back of the seat I was able to marvel at the scenery and dream of taking pictures. This only lasted for an hour as I really had to go and could only begin concentrating on when the next stop would be. Shortly after, the bus stopped in the small town of Postiglione but only long enough to drop off one passenger and we were on the road again. Damn. For the next 45 minutes I counted the kilometers to Potenza and figured that we would get a break. Apparantly the delay had put us off schedule enough that the driver had radioed ahead to the station and the boarding passengers were waiting in a line near the edge of the parking lot and the departing passengers were rushed off the bus and the new passengers got on. The terminal was only across the parking lot but might as well have been a million miles away and it looked like nobody that wasn’t departing for good was getting off and after the situation in Salerno I wasn’t about to get off and then be stranded with no seat when I returned. Besides, other than looking at the driver, pointing to my wrist and then pointing to my crotch I didn’t know how to ask if I had enough time to use the restroom and still get back in time to save my seat. I also didn’t know how to ask anybody to save my seat. I was also at this point convinced I was the only American and wasn’t going to rock the boat. The guy behind me did get off the bus but another guy who liked the idea that my seat was broken even less sat down behind me. Despite my attemopts of showing him I could not raise the seat and his efforts to raise the seat himself he frowned disapprovingly until the guy who had been sitting in front of me the whole time and had witnessed this scene with the other guy finally turned around to tell him it was broken and shrugged his shoulders. That episode distracted my bladder for about 2 minutes and we were off again with 2 more hours to go. I could do this. I have been in boardrooms and back alleys, both places that would scare the pee out of anybody and I had sat in a movie theater through the last hour and a half of Titanic without getting up to go the bathroom for God’s sake. And those scenes all took place in cold water. On a big screen. Yes, it was time to hunker down.

 

At the next stop the guy beside me got off the bus and I slid to the window side and a larger man sat in the now vacant aisle seat, plopping back without even trying to sit up like I had to alleviate the seat problem. Take that, disgruntled guy formerly behind me. This did not last long as the large guy got off at the next stop (the bus still only stopping long enough to let him and another lady off) and I had the whole row to myself. My back teeth were officially floating and we still had an hour and a half as I prepared various backup strategies in my mind. One involved emptying the full bottle of water I had with me and doing what needed to be done. Any ideas of  this ill conceived plan were thwarted when one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen moved to the empty row next to me . I would hate to embarrass both of us and gave up any MacGyverish notions of relieving myself on the bus but even this girl could not distract my bladder and I wasn’t even able to concentrate on her beauty. Oh the humanity.

Further down the road I was able to get a signal as we left the highlands and my phone’s GPS indicated that we were 45 km’s from Taranto. At this point I had crossed my legs, situated myself in a position that took all my concentration not to move from, and was white knuckling the handle of the seat in front of me. 15 minutes down the road and I began to rock back and forth with only one mantra in my head: “Don’t pee your pants, don’t pee your pants, don’t pee your pants.” Hell, I may have even been saying it out loud but the bus was not as full now and I don’t think the girl across the aisle would have understood anyway, not that I had a shot with her. I had noticed, however, that she had taken off her jacket and her cleavage was about to pop out her shirt, but there was no time to comprehend this, or even the ability to look. My brain needed all it’s capacity to concentrate on not thinking about the situation at hand. Just 15 km’s to go and the big ships in the port were coming into view. I love ports, I love ships. I love the hustle and bustle of cranes unloading containers. But I also love not peeing my pants in front of Italian strangers and could not gather the mental energy to imagine taking pictures down by the docks. 10 km’s. 5km’s. Where is that damn bus station? 3 km’s, the sign for the station, the exit, the red light. Ahhhh, I can see the station. A few short turns later and we are starting to pull in but the bus in front of us stops. I can’t take it anymore and summon the strength to lift myself up so I can be the first one off the bus. The bus moves again and so does my bladder but with jedi mind force I am able to stop the onslaught. As the bus stops and doors open, I jump off and quickly waddle into the station, thinking in Spanish but needing Italian. Oh yeah, the words are the same. “Baño!” I exclaim to the first person inside I see with a uniform and they point me outside through the back. I see the light pouring in from the exit but is it right or left? I quickly bolt out the door frantically looking to the left, then the right. Another uniform. “Baño!” I exclaim again and he moves to the side to reveal the blue WC sign that is sticking out of the wall 50 excruciating meters down the platform. As the last of my jedi mind tricks are exhausted I burst into the bathroom to see the sweet sight of porcelain. Was I standing there for an hour? two?  I could have no idea. I was in the zone and I’m pretty sure my life had passed before my eyes and as I calmly and serenely walked back out to the platform I’m almost certain I could hear birds chirping and singing just for me. Relief.

The rest of that afternoon was peaceful and carefree as I strolled to the station cafe for an espresso and a sandwich and waited the hour for the train to Bari. As I ate the sandwich my mind went to the finer things in life….like knowing there would be a bathroom on that train if I needed one. I can honestly say that the bus ride from Salerno to Taranto was the most uncomfortable thing I have experienced in my entire life and just like Jason Bourne always looks for the exits whenever he enters a room, the first thing I now look for is the bathroom. I know it seems a silly way to say it but as Americans, we do live in one of the most comfortable places in the world to never have to really worry about the little things like clean water and a place to put it.

 

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