Abroad in Urbino: A student travel column


Gaige Davila, The Paisano

Gaige Davila

All thirty-four hours of travel was experienced second-to-second, with no music, no sleep, little food and no expectations. I thought about the woman from the night before; she kept saying not to worry. I wasn’t worried. Every flight, TSA line, cab train and hour without sleep was like a punch of fentanyl. I would get to my destination eventually.

This is my first experience traveling outside of North America. There was no excitement or fear in the time leading up to my departure for Urbino, Italy. Only the feeling of being underneath a great mass and not wanting to look up. My domestic flights were plagued with layovers, giving me more time under the mass. Nine hours were spent sardined in the back of a massive double-decker jet with hundreds of others who, like me, sacrificed their dignity by not paying a few hundred dollars more for seats with breathing room all the way to London.

Myself and the other steers were sedated with low lighting, tikka masala and the charm of British stewards. In front of me were three Swedish women who asked for bourbon every time a flight attendant looked in their direction. Behind me was a father and son arguing in Gaelic. The hum of the engines was the closest thing to silence. We were all prodded off minutes after landing. It was a dreary, cold day: exactly how I imagined London. I shuffled out of the terminal and into an elevator. Before the doors closed, a large group of stewards and stewardesses rushed in. They immediately asked how I was doing and if I was okay; I had not noticed the dark bags under my eyes or the mucus dripping from my nose. They included me in their conversation about the weather. British charm is alive and well; this small gesture of humanity carried me through the rest of my trip.

I walked the half mile underground to reach the other side of Heathrow. I passed through TSA, I drank several beers at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. Below were Gucci, Armani, Hugo Boss, Burberry, Dior and Starbucks. The airport had more high-end stores—and was larger—than the local mall in my hometown. I sat in front of a large screen that showed all the departures and arrivals. The beer and lack of sleep made me hallucinate: the times turned into stock numbers, then into HTML code, then into indistinguishable red and green shapes. I was beginning to believe this was my “Infinite Jest” and the end was coming. I questioned if this was the mass I felt during the four hour drive from South Padre Island to San Antonio.

I pulled the window up during the flight to Bologna. We were over mountains, but I wasn’t sure where I was. An hour later, we landed. The herd and I were corralled into nearby busses, and we were taken to customs. I had run into other UTSA students along the way and met with more after clearing customs. One by one, we loaded into taxis headed to the train station. “Bologna Centrale” became the first phrase I learned in Italian. My proficiency in Spanish didn’t save me from butchering it. The cab driver understood, assuring me with an ‘I’ve heard worse’ head nod.

Bologna Centrale had the traffic of Grand Central Station with a quarter of the size. We all became painfully aware of the language barrier between us and the not-so-forgiving staff of the station while attempting to buy tickets. Spanish was easier understood than English, and those that spoke it were able to buy tickets to Pesaro, our destination before Urbino. The two hour ride was spent awkwardly maneuvering ourselves and our luggage out of the way every time the train stopped. There were no seats.

Salvation came in the form of a Mercedes Sprinter van. Our coordinator had arranged the taxi to meet us upon arrival. We loaded the van and departed for Urbino. Our driver was very nice and completely reckless on the road. I was too tired and anxious to care. It was very dark outside, but I knew when we had come upon the wall. The same wall on brochures for the COLFA in Urbino program. Everything I had gone through before did not matter anymore; this was home now. I slowly digested this, and picked at how I got there as I dragged my suitcases down the stairs towards my dorm. A childhood without family vacations; binge watching “No Reservations” and anything else Anthony Bourdain related; countless Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and Graham Greene books; living vicariously through friends who had traveled, even if they turned foreign lands into Sixth Street and fell into every tourist trap; and years of pent up anger at the world for not having enough money, enough time, or enough connections to get the hell out of the United States. It was all over now. I collapsed into the small bed.

I woke up at seven the next morning. The room was blue. It was very quiet. I sat up in bed and wondered what the next few months would do to me. I wondered if the trip was worth it at all, if I was ready to live abroad, or if my wanderlust had made me as naive as the rest of them, the ones that didn’t understand my reasons for travel and never would. I drew the curtains and found the great mass. Hundreds of miles away was a mountain that claimed half of the horizon. There was snow all around, refracting the waking sun into blue light. There it was. My apartment sat upon a hill half its size, but the mountain did not loom over it. I was no longer looking up at the mass, I was eye-to-eye with it. There was no pressure anymore, only a reverence to things that are much larger than I am. I had finally come up for air.