Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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One Friend, Two Friends: Old Friend, New Friends

When Kathi and I returned from our excursion on the river, we parted ways for our separate plans that afternoon. She had a date, and I actually had another friend who lived in Vienna whose birthday, as it happened, was that very day. It’s not everyday that you accidentally arrive in your friends city on the other side of the world on their birthday weekend, so we had made plans to catch up for a drink to celebrate both his birthday and my being in Austria.

I’d originally contacted Stephen asking if I might be able to crash with him when I was in Vienna, but unfortunately he didn’t have any room for me in the place that he lived in with his girlfriend. Luckily things had worked out through Couchsurfing in the end, and I just met up with him on the afternoon of his birthday instead. I had met Stephen when I was studying at university – he was on an exchange semester at The University of Sydney, and we sat next to each other in one of our philosophy tutorials. Now, almost exactly a year later, we were sitting at a beach-themed bar on the side of the Danube in the middle of the city, catching up and reminiscing and soaking up the sun. I say afternoon, but it was actually closer to 7pm – what I would have typically called “evening”. But this was European summer, and if we measured parts of the day by how much daylight the had, “afternoon” wouldn’t end until approximately 10:30pm. I ordered another Radler and sat down to tell Stephen more about my travels, and what I was planning to do next, both short-term and long-term. “You could always get a working visa and come back to Europe to teach English,” he had suggested. “I know of a lot of places that are always looking for native English speakers to help adult students perfect the language, especially places in Austria and Germany.” Scenarios flashed through my mind of living in Berlin, teaching English to the locals during the week, and spending my weekends on the dance floor or in a dark corner at Berghain. I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my life, but at that stage I was thinking as little as possible about my life after my year of travelling. I’d been on the road for months now, and I wasn’t even halfway through my journey.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Stephen and I.

Stephen and I.

Eventually Stephen had to go, so I wished him a happy birthday one last time as we bid each other farewell. I hadn’t drank too much, and I ended up just heading back to Kathi’s, but that night was still rather significant. After all the travelling I’d done in the past few months, that conversation with Stephen had planted a seed in my mind, an idea in my head – the idea of living abroad. Every following city that I visited, and every time I cast my memory back to the places I’d visited, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked the city or not, but rather, ‘Could I live in this city?’

***

The following day was my final one in Vienna, and since Kathi had to work for most of the day I figured it would be the best opportunity to do my loop around the tourist ring and see some of attractions Vienna had to offer. The inner city, or Innere Stadt, of Vienna is a designated Unesco World Heritage site, and the architecture easily takes you back to centuries past. I wandered the streets and got a little bit lost, just soaking up in the atmosphere as I strolled past the coffeehouses and other eateries and watched the flocks of other tourists come and go.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

A lot of the major sights are situated along a tram line that does a consistent ring around the city centre, but after I finally made my way out from getting lost in the Old Town streets, I decided that it was such a nice and beautiful sunny day that I would walk around the ring, instead of staying cooped up on the public transport. Some of the highlights of the sightseeing in Vienna were Stephansdom, or St. Stephens Cathedral, a 12th Century Gothic church that towered above the streets, and the impressive neo-Greek architecture of the Austrian Parliament Building, complete with a gold trimmed fountain depicting the goddess Athena, with the four figures around the base of the fountain representing the four most important rivers in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

I didn’t take too many photos, but then I didn’t know too much about all the different sights in Vienna. It was kind of better that way, I think. There was no pressure to see all the important things, like their had been to visit the greatest hits of Rome. I was able to just meander around, stopping when I saw something I thought was interesting, taking the odd picture here and there, strolling through the greenery in the various city parks and just enjoying the relaxing atmosphere the city had to offer. I laid down in grass and had a snooze, had a slice of cake at a coffeehouse – it was all just so chilled out that it didn’t even feel like sightseeing. It just felt like living.

***

In the late afternoon I met up with Kathi and one of her housemates who had returned the previous evening, Anna-Greta. Kathi had suggested meeting at Naschmarkt, a popular market that had all kinds of amazing foods and fresh fruit and produce, as well as flea market stalls that were selling all kinds of things. Unfortunately I didn’t have much need for all that food, since I’d be jumping on another train to a new city the following day, but it was interesting to check out. Kathi and Anna-Greta bought a few things, and then we sat down to have some food at one of the restaurants that was set up along the market. We ate Thai food – something I hadn’t seen since Thailand – and I told them how popular it was in Australia, and we discussed other cultural differences between Austria and Australia. My favourite moment, however, was when it took us at least a few minutes to translate the word “bruise” from German to English. I thought something was seriously strange when they were telling me how they sometimes got “blue stains” on their skin – it still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

After we’d finished eating, the three of us just hung out at home for the rest of the evening. Anna-Greta had been partying all weekend at a big festival, and all three of us had to get up relatively early the next day, so we didn’t feel like heading out anywhere. Kathi and I pulled out our ukuleles and Anna-Greta grabbed her guitar, and I gave them a couple of lessons and taught them some chords to be able to play a few new songs. I introduced Kathi to Paramore, whose most recent album has a couple of ukulele tracks that I had learnt how to play. She loved the music, and was pretty stoked when I taught her how to play ‘Interlude: Moving On’, and we also learnt how to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a challenge that Kathi’s other housemate had set for her. Then we just sat around chatting, and the girls told me about parties that they throw, and the music that they play and all the fun that they have, and it made me a little sad to be leaving the next day. “You’ll just have to come back next time we have a party,” Kathi said with a grin. “And at the end of the night we can run around being crazy while we play the ‘Spanish Flea’.” We all laughed, and I smiled to myself, sincerely hoping that one day that would actually happen. I’d made some great friends during my travels so far, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that some of those people such as Kathi – despite the distance – would remain my friends for life.

Down the Danube

Thankfully, unlike my trek from Ancona to Zürich, I only had to catch one train to get me to Austria. I did have to travel from the western tip to the eastern tip of the country though, but travelling through the mountainous terrain did provide some pretty spectacular, picture perfect views. After the long day of travel I finally arrived in the beautiful city of Vienna and was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host. Kathi was the first female that I was staying with whom I had connected with through Couchsurfing – Susanna in Finland had been a family friend – but I had still found her within my search for hosts in the Queer Couchsurfing group. Robin had showed me how Couchsurfing can be used not just to find places to stay, but also to connect with people who had common interests. I decided that I would probably feel more comfortable staying with gay people while I was travelling, since most of my friends back home are gay, and they would be able to show me some of the queer hotspots – but up until now I had only stayed with other guys. It wasn’t a conscious choice – I think there were just more male hosts available, in general – but when I’d stumbled across Kathi’s profile I’d gotten a really good feeling from it, and she had happily accepted my request to stay with her. I had been tossing up between trying to visit Vienna, or travelling slightly more north to visit Holger – who I met in Barcelona – in Munich, but I had had trouble getting in touch with him, so once again my potential Couchsurfing host had been a real game changer in the direction of my travels.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

View of the Austrian countryside as I sped towards Vienna in a train.

There was a kind and carefree air about Kathi from the moment I met her at the train station. She was also relatively new to Couchsurfing, so she was pretty excited about having me stay with her. I think the fact that I was Australian helped win over a lot of my hosts – to all of them I must have seemed exceptionally foreign and exotic, all the way from that mysterious land down under. She explained some of the culture of Vienna and the basics of the city to me – such as the ringed town layout and the different zones – while we got caught the metro to her apartment, which she shared with two roommates. “The coffeehouse culture is a really big thing in Vienna”, she advised me. “That’s something most people want to check out. The centre Vienna is divided up into rings, in particularly the main ring that encloses the city centre. Most of the things you’ll want to see or do will be there.” I wondered how I would have coped on this trip I hadn’t had hosts like Kathi, Umer, Ike and Valerio to help know these things about their various cities. I imagine I would have done a lot of unintentional aimless wandering around – as opposed to a lot of the intentional aimless wandering around that I still did.

It was a Friday afternoon the day that I arrived in Vienna, and both of of Kathi’s housemates were away for the weekend. One of them wouldn’t bet returning until after I left, so rather than sleep on the couch in her bedroom, Kathi told me that she would sleep in her housemates room, so and that I could sleep in her bed and have the room to myself. It was more than I had been expecting when I had sent the request to Kathi, and it was probably one of the best set ups I’d had through Couchsurfing so far. As soon as we got to Kathi’s, I had a well needed shower – the countryside views through the Austrian mountains had been postcard-worthy beautiful, but the 7 hour trip had left me feeling less than fresh. “Be careful with the water temperature”, Kathi had said as I entered the bathroom. “It tends to just alternate between… Antarctica and Mordor.” I laughed, appreciating the reference. After the shower I joined my new host in the kitchen. “Are you hungry? I was thinking I could show you how to cook some traditional Austrian food, maybe.” I assured her that her national cuisine of schnitzel had made it down to Australia, but all the same it was fun to help out in the kitchen and do some cooking. We cooked the schnitzel and vegetables, and she introduced me to an Austrian drink called Radler. “It’s basically beer mixed with lemonade,” she said, placing a bottle in front of me. “You can mix yourself or buy it like this.” It was a little fizzy from the added soft drink, but the taste was extremely refreshing, the sweetness balancing our the flavour of the beer perfectly, and I enjoyed it much more than the Rivella I had tried in Switzerland. We sat and ate and chatting, getting to know each other as we downed a few bottles of Radler.

Kathi was particularly interested in picking my brains about the gay culture down in Australia. “What’s it like for gay girls in Sydney? Here, it can be really difficult for…” She was choosing her words carefully. “For more… feminine, girls. Like… sometimes I’m never really sure… You know, of where – and who – they are?” I realised she was talking about her gaydar – her ability to identify other queer people on sight alone. I must admit, the more feminine lesbians have always been the least obvious blips on my gaydar, but luckily stopping them had never been quite such a pertinent issue for myself. Kathi went on to tell me that queer girls also had less places to meet people, citing the recent pride festivities in Vienna, where there had been multiple parties aimed at all the gay men, and only one event that specifically targeted same-sex attracted females. I had to regretfully tell her that gender ratio of gay bars and parties in Sydney was of a similar level, though I won’t pretend I know much about the lesbian scene – not for the first time I pondered on the curious fact that the party scenes for gay guys and gay girls were so divided in the first place.

We continued to talk for hours about gay life, travelling and Couchsurfing, and even music. Kathi was learning how to play the ukulele, so as part of the condition of me staying with her I had promised her that I would show her a few tips I had picked up along the way. I was only teaching myself, but as an acoustic guitar player of nearly 10 years I didn’t have too much difficultly figuring it out. But before it we knew it, it had gotten quite late, so I said goodnight to Kathi and hit the hay after the exhausting day of travelling.

***

The next day, at Kathi’s suggestion, we caught the train north of her rather centrally located apartment to the banks of the Danube River. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and we had lunch at a little restaurant next to the river that served some excellent Austrian dishes, and of course, more Radler. That wasn’t the most exciting part about this restaurant though – after we had finished eating, I followed Kathi down to the small jetty that was actually a part of the restaurant. There, we hired a small electric motorboat and went for a cruise down the river. “There’s some nice views of the city from the water. Perhaps we could bring our ukulele’s and have a sing-a-long, or something?” Kathi had suggested the previous evening before we had gone to bed. I had told her that that sounded absolutely marvellous, so once we got out on the river I pulled out my ukulele and started strumming away.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The view of the city from out on the Danube.

The sunshine was streaming down on us as I worked my way through the small repertoire of songs that I had managed to teach myself over the last few months, and Kathi steered the boat up the river. We passed a couple areas that were substitute beaches for the Austrians – the idea of living in a landlocked country with no nearby coastal area still seemed so odd to me – but I have to say, they weren’t as nice as the riverside swimming areas in Zürich, probably because the water in the Danube wasn’t quite clean enough to be drinking quality. But it was still beautiful, and Kathi told me how she often comes down here to bathe in the sun and go for a swim. When we reached a wider part of the river, Kathi killed the engine and we just floated for a little while, watching others glide by us on their paddle boats, and soaking it all in while I strummed away on the ukulele. “It’s so nice,” Kathi said between songs, with a huge smile plastered across her face. “It’s just a nice, holiday feeling, to have the ukulele going in the background while we’re out on the water in the sun.” It was no tropical island getaway, she but was right. Kathi didn’t even end up playing her ukulele, and in the end I was just playing random chords to give the scene a nice and cheerful soundtrack. On our way back to the jetty we passed many boats full of other people, both locals and tourists, and they all smiled at us or exclaimed with delight when they saw or heard the ukulele. It really did feel like a scene from a movie, or even a travel brochure, but it was so much fun, and I couldn’t have thought of a better way to spend the afternoon.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Kathi took a sneaky photograph of me while I was playing the ukulele.

Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.