I am in a BlaBlaCar, sitting snugly in the backseat behind two French ladies also on their way to visit Cinque Terre.
I met them at a roundabout in Mandelieu–just south of Cannes and the ‘world capital’ of the mimosa flower. Sitting on a patch of sidewalk just out of traffic, I felt more like a classic hitchhiker than ever.
BlaBlaCar has enabled me to take trips that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Today I’m using it instead of the trains to cut costs, cut travel time, and (perhaps most importantly) avoid the grèves–the nationwide SNCF railway strikes liable to put a serious hitch in travel plans.
Still, there’s always a bit of a niggling worry that the conducteur might show up late or even–worst-case-scenario: change their mind. This isn’t technically permissible, but the only consequence for the driver would be a bad review and the obligation to refund my twenty bucks. I picture sweating alone on the sidewalk for hours. I wouldn’t have another good option to get to Italy.
Happily, my two French hosts swing around the traffic circle right on time: early, actually.
The women point things out to each other, labeling what they see as we wind up and around cliffs on the road from southern France to southern Italy. They make the pleasant, unnecessary comments that flourish in good company. They’ve known each other for years; I can tell.
We are in Genova. The road is squeezed between clusters of melon-colored buildings with dark-green shutters and the edge of cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.
There is much to look at. I am dizzy with palm trees, sunset, a grand ship in port, the whine of Vespas in impossible places, crumbling stone arches, mustard-yellow apartments with flagrant flapping laundry.
Les marguerites. Que c’est beau.
They comment to each other, to me, to themselves. They comment with matter-of-fact appreciation, nothing sentimental about it. They note orange trees and lighted tunnels through mountains and particularly shameful parking jobs. In the hills they spy a lighted glass cube, like a futuristic science lab. It sits strangely on top of an ancient stone bridge.
I listen and consider it a good exercise in vocabulary practice.
I appreciate this last stretch of comprehension before I will open the car door and–Italy.
I am already sufficiently new-culture-ized, at the point where the newness is felt and I don’t take communication for granted. We stopped before at an ‘autoroute’ complex off the highway. Tirare on the doors instead of the Tirer I’m used to. Donne and Uomini for the bathrooms. Ciao, grazie and the tre cinquanta I paid for salami, crackers, and a hunk of Parmesan with a cute white mouse on the wrapper.
Already I’m thinking about what language to assume. To apologize in. To fall back on. To confirm a number in. It’s strange to think that I have a choice. I can represent myself as an American speaking in a ‘female, upwardly-mobile dialect.’ Or. I can be something else. I have French now. Greetings and numbers and etiquette. I know how to sigh French, how to make sounds of frustration or apathy. I do these things every day. And crossing the border in a BlaBlaCar doesn’t make it any easier to stop doing this.
So, will it be pardon or sorry that comes out of my mouth when my (6 months of) Italian fails me?
I consider this and make my own lists, labeling. A gigantic “pirate ship” in the bay. Italian flags hung like laundry. Signs advertising Gelateria. Pasticceria. Foccacerria.
I think of the coffee I’ll get tomorrow and drool.
It’s getting late, around 8:30, and a fat pearly moon hangs over a yellow basilica.
Il y a la lune, one of the ladies says, predictably. There’s the moon.
The mountains, as we climb through them, have folds and wrinkles like some fantastic laundry. Like a lumpy green quilt hastily thrown down to disguise a mess.
I am inspired.
I am nauseous.
There are many more mountains and tunnels before we make it to La Spezia, where I have reserved a hostel.
We spend thirty minutes trying to find the place. Increasingly frustrated, my driver stops near a restaurant and wine bar on a lonely street. “Someone go ask if this is it,” she says. The other woman turns to me: allez !
This is certainly not the hostel, but if I don’t want them to leave me in an enoteca for the night, I should probably acquire some direction. So strange now to have to ask: vous parlez français ? (No one does, so it looks like my language question is going to have an easy answer. It’s straight back to la langue maternelle for me).
After some clarification, I’m back in the car and we are chugging up a steep hill with more hairpin turns in a row than I’ve ever seen, a child’s squiggle-drawing of a road, or something from a cartoon.
It’s a matter of faith, because we see no lights and the GPS quit working halfway up the hill, as if it were declaring- yeah, not in my job description.
Before long, we are all laughing. One of the ladies actually wheezes.
Imaginez, they say. “We get to the top and there’s nothing there.” They say if it’s not there we are done looking for it. I will come back with them and they’ll share a bed and give the other to me.
It was there.
I’m here in my comfortable bed. The place has spacious lockers, remarkably clean bathrooms, a restaurant serving dinner and breakfast. It even smells good.
(Words can’t describe how different this is from my last hostel experience in Italy…but actually I did write about that, click here to read)
A domani !