The first time Yvette saw me cry was in a coffee shop in Milan over espresso and cannolis.
Just 12 hours earlier we were in Kiental preparing for our departure. I had my laptop open, reading an article on the top 20 things to do in Milan, when Yvette entered the room.
“I thought you weren’t going to walk today?” I asked.
“Yes, I wasn’t planning on it,” she replied without further explanation. From rooming together and spending extracurricular time hanging out, we’ve gotten oddly in tune with each other. Something was amiss, I could feel it in her air. We refer to these as “thinking days”- the days when we retreat more into ourselves, absorbed by something that plagues our minds.
On a tight schedule with last minute packing and things to wrap up, I dismissed it. I asked her if she wanted to look over the list, telling her the only thing I really wanted to do was see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper.
“No, I’m fine with anything,” she replied.
In a slight rush, we gathered our things and were wished well by a colleague on our way out the door. Her eyes crinkled at the sides, her excitement for us evident in her glow.
“Have so much fun in Italy! The weather will be much warmer and the men beautiful!”
We were all smiles.
Once we were finally on the bus to the train station, I asked Yvette if everything was alright. With sad eyes, she confessed that her impromptu walk was really a hasty jaunt up the mountain- a need to escape for a moment because it was the day that would have marked the 12-year anniversary of her recently ended relationship.
“But it is alright, Jasmine,” she said with a faint smile. I knew it wasn’t. In that moment my heart broke a little for her, remembering the hollowness that comes with mourning and missing something lost.
“Maybe it’ll be good to get away for a while?” I suggested.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
And that marked the peak of our optimism.
The denouement of the trip turned into an emotionally trying and exhausting journey, all odds seemingly against our favor.
Leaving on Sunday night without previously purchasing tickets proved problematic in itself, almost leaving us stranded in Brig with nowhere to stay and no way to get to our reserved bed and breakfast.
Luckily, two of the train attendants took pity on us, bending the rules a bit to get us where we aimed to go… for a slight fee.
Despite the stress of almost getting stranded, we arrived at the train station in Milan with high spirits and anxiously made our way to the MonteVerdi Bed and Breakfast.
We had booked the room rather hastily while “making party” the night before. In attempts to be social with our colleagues, Yvette and I sat over my laptop amidst dim lighting while all around us wine glasses were tipped up and gleefully drunk party goers belted “Thriller” in accented karaoke. In retrospect, this may not have been the best environment for international trip planning.
We arrived outside a gated building, pressing the appropriate button and waiting to be buzzed in. We ascended the stairs and were greeted by a young Italian who spoke virtually no English. We stifled giggles between stolen glances to each other, all of us crowding behind a computer as we communicated through Google translator.
The bed and breakfast appeared to be a renovated floor in an old building that housed a handful of flats. The pictures on its website did the place quite a service, and we choked on laughter as the young man opened the door to an austere room, decorated only with a purple celestial kitten bedspread and some stick-on children’s decals on a cupboard. This gem was the room we called ours.
The first thing we did was book a different space for the following night.
“Let’s go somewhere. I need a drink.”
We escaped into the night with hearty appetites, in search of a place that would help us minimize time spent at what we called “our super fancy hotel.”
Given the day (Sunday) and our 9 p.m. arrival, we wandered past graffiti covered gates that signaled that most every shop, restaurant and bar was closed. After scouting the area, we found a charming, well-lit restaurant that had a lengthy cocktail menu with Italian entrees and desserts to match.
We laughed at how fitting it was when my first drink came with a large bug drowning in the whiskey, and the bartender apologetically gave me a new cocktail alongside our late night crepes.
We reminisced on how, just hours before, a friend at the center had warned us sternly of the grave dangers of Italy- referring solely to the influence of the mafia. He didn’t think it a good idea for the two of us to travel to such a place without men. We had laughed it off in our typical nonchalant fashion, so it seemed shockingly apropos that the only other guests in the restaurant were three older men who could have been cast as Sopranos. With long overcoats, slicked back hair and solemn faces, they made futile attempts to converse with us, giving up after the language barrier posed too great.
As we dined, handfuls of cops filtered in and out, the only other guests alongside our mafia men. We thought it odd and briefly questioned the safety of the area, but we ultimately attributed it to the slim pickings of open restaurants.
Watching the cops from where we sat, I wondered if their side-glances in our direction indicated we were the subject of their conversation, but Yvette told me the whiskey was making me paranoid. We stayed until the servers started closing shop around 1 a.m.
As we paid, the mafia men reappeared to make their final passes, trying to woo us with “bellas, this!” and “bellas, that!” One man in a tan overcoat with Woody Allen glasses was so bold as to serenade me, kissing my hands and saying things we didn’t understand. He released his grasp only when I was a full arm’s length away, following Yvette who was already out the door. All the cops seemed to caution us, but we couldn’t make out anything other than “atenciὀn” – something they kept repeating until we were out of ear’s range.
Our earlier examination of the surrounding areas proved quite problematic in that moment, as we left and became immediately turned around. We had only weak notions toward the direction of our bed and breakfast. We walked circles in attempts to piece together familiar landmarks, all the while talking about anything but the fact that we were lost in downtown Milan in the early hours of the morning.
Two small women walking in circles, unattended. It was no surprise when we attracted the attention of late night dwellers. One straggler emerged from an alley, a short man with dark complexion, and he began to slowly follow us from a distance. Walking with unhurried steps, he clicked his tongue at us as if calling a cat. The innocent pet call sounded dirty and crude, and my heart raced at the amplified sound against the silence of the night.
Sensing my unease, Yvette attempted to comfort me, reminding me that he was only one while we were two. Her voice was steady and I wanted to believe her, but she was wringing her hands (something I had never before seen her do) thus exposing the insincerity of her words. I told myself to be present and attentive, convinced that we would be back to the hotel soon.
We picked up pace to increase the distance from our straggler, and after diverting down a different street, the man ceased to follow. Not a moment later, a car spotted us as it drove in our direction. Much to our horror and dismay, the car pulled over next to us, and as we hurried past, the three occupants of the car began to slowly climb out. Our strides increased with such fervor that we could have passed as late night joggers, and our panic heightened to an almost palpable state at the realization that we were alone on the street with no other passers-by.
Changing direction, yet again, we found ourselves on a different street, only to spot our previous follower ahead on the opposite sidewalk. Noticing us, he slowly crossed over with the same nonchalant pace of Michael Meyers chasing a victim in the Halloween movie series. I wanted to scream in frustration as he again began clicking his tongue.
“Do you remember where we are, Jasmine?” Yvette asked, this time not masking her rising panic.
We desperately assessed the area, and I begged my memory to recollect something- anything.
And suddenly it did. By the grace of God, our random direction changes had led us directly to the street that housed our now beloved bed and breakfast.
Darting to the gate, Yvette hastily jammed the key into the lock, fumbling with shaky hands to open it. Once inside, gate closed, we both released our subdued breath, hearts racing from the adrenaline of fear.
Back inside our room, we admitted our overwhelming relief at the sight of our creepy kitten bedspread.
“My whole body is shaking,” Yvette said as she hung her coat.
We mutually agreed to not be out after dark the following night, also agreeing never to venture out late and alone in a big city ever again.
“Tomorrow will be better.” We laid our heads to rest on that note.
The next morning we awoke early to the realization that our hopes for warmer weather had been lofty; instead, we had brought with us the snow from Switzerland. Unlucky for us, it wasn’t the beautiful snow, thickly layering itself beneath the sunshine. It was the ugly kind of snow. The snow that mixed with rain, falling from a gray sky. The kind of snow that made your clothes damp and chilled you to the bone. The kind of snow that made you want to stay inside.
Beneath our window, the few inhabitants of the streets were bundled up beneath umbrellas, their breath visible in the damp air. Discouraged but determined to make the most of our only full day in Milan, we checked out of the bed and breakfast with plans to acquire tourist information from the train station and then check into our new hotel at noon.
Sans map, neither of us were surprised when we found ourselves walking in circles, yet again, in our attempts to find the train station. This time, however, we operated on few hours of sleep beneath wet snow that soaked through our clothes. I thought to stop and ask, but Yvette’s pace had quickened and I couldn’t get her attention. We walked until my hair hung in wet clumps around my face, and Yvette turned for one backwards glance to make sure I was still accounted for. I noticed then that her distant focus was the result of a phone call.
Having already laughed off many of the trip’s blunders, I began to feel the weight of the luggage on my back. We squarely faced the results of an ill-planned trip, and I could feel us both beginning to unravel.
Trying to keep pace with Yvette, I slowly slipped into the misery of the weather, water soaking through my shoes and into my socks, my shoes squishing with each hasty step. I didn’t understand why she was ignoring me, and I felt resentful that we were lost…again.
And it was then that the first plights of homesickness began to set in. In that moment, I desperately wanted the comfort of something familiar. My optimism was quickly diminishing, and despite my inner chastisements (Don’t be a brat! You’re in Italy.), I wanted to call my friend, my former Italy buddy, and tell her that I was back in Italy… and miserable. I wanted her to be there with me, or for me to be back in the mountains of East Tennessee by a warm fireplace with her.
I wanted to hear my dad’s voice consoling me that this was just a passing moment- that it would all be ok. That on the other side of the world, people were thinking about me, that people still remembered me and cared. I wanted to talk to my sister, my inherent partner in crime, and I wanted to hear one of her character remarks, an expression of her cynical wit and humor that always made me laugh. In that moment, I could have really used a good laugh.
Instead, I scowled at the “no service” text in the upper corner of my phone and willed myself to not fall apart. In my unraveling, I was beginning to feel desperately alone.
Finally, Yvette was off the phone and I nearly begged her to stop, to let me catch my breath. We ducked into the first coffee shop we saw.
We ordered two espressos, and her gaze was set out the window, somewhere far from where we were. It was he who had called, she told me. Her ex-lover.
After neglecting to answer and return two of her calls the day before, he had unexpectedly called back on the day following their would-have-been anniversary. I suddenly understood the urgency and precedence of the call, feeling guilty for housing my earlier selfish thoughts. She told me that the call had been lost and her phone wasn’t working. We sipped our espressos in silence, and I could see the unresolved call weighing heavily on her heart and mind.
We paid and the barista pointed us to the train station. There we wandered around in pursuit of the tourist information station, greeted by a bored attendant with short cropped hair and straight across bangs who sat playing a game on her iPhone. After standing for a few seconds unnoticed, we tapped on the glass and she slowly looked up, annoyed by the distraction from her game. She slid across the counter a map and a pamphlet for a tour bus.
“What’s the best way to get to the museum to see the Last Supper?” I asked her.
Having already resumed her game, she tersely replied, “It’s closed. All museums are closed today. It’s Monday.”
My heart sank through the floor until I was a standing definition of disheartenment. It was the one site I had wanted to see in Milan. “Of course, it’s Monday. A perfectly normal day for tourism businesses to close,” I thought to myself. I wanted to be angry but couldn’t deny that this was simply another fault of our poor planning.
“Come. Let’s find something to eat,” Yvette said in soft response to my visible disappointment.
Unable to stand tall any longer, we sat down to pastries and espressos and my unwanted tears began to flow in free abundance. I cried from frustration and disappointment, and then from embarrassment and anger at my inability to hold it all together.
I cried until we finished our pastries, and then I cried walking through the snow, my tears warm against the chill of the snowflakes. I cried as we checked into our new hotel until, finally having regained phone service, I was able to phone home.
And across the ocean on the other side of the world, my parent’s home phone rang in the early hours of the morning, their oldest daughter sobbing at the other end of the line. In accordance to fate and her sense of humor, Yvette’s phone rang in that time as well, her ex-lover recalling to tie up the loose ends.
And I wish that I could say that it was the turning point of the trip. That we calmed down and the trip only got better from there.
But that moment did mark the end of my tears, my dad’s avuncular ability to soothe prevailing. Yvette’s weight lifted a little as well with the ability to resolve the call on her own time, not on the time of a failing cellular device. I apologized for being an emotional mess; Yvette thanked me for being comfortable enough to be myself around her, to show her my true face even when it wasn’t strong.
We took a moment to breathe before stepping out again, laying on the full sized bed in silence, staring at the ceiling.
“I think in Milano, we will only eat,” Yvette declared. It sounded marvelous to me.
So eat, we did.
We walked around the city, occasionally stopping to duck into stores, mostly just searching for a new place to sit and indulge. We ate pizza, and we ate pasta. We stopped at nearly every pastry store we passed to have another espresso alongside cake, dolces, and croissants- baked goods filled with crèmes, mousses and Nutella alike. In preparation of our departure, we bought enough pastries to carry us home to Switzerland. They were rich and decadent, every bite giving us the pleasure of Italy that we didn’t receive from any other part of our trip.
But it was a pizzeria called Fabbrica’s that highlighted our trip. At the recommendation of the hotel patron, we took a map and got lost all over again in a different part of Milan. But it was different. It was the kind of lost that made you feel like a child. We saw the nicer parts by foot and passed through stores, until we finally reached our destination.
It was in that pizzeria that we talked about personal reasons for venturing to Kiental.
“What are your goals?” Yvette asked me.
And maybe it was the exhaustion or maybe it was the Prosecco, but in that moment, a year’s worth of memories flashed through my mind before I blurted out, “I just want to be ok.”
And then came the confessions. The year I spent moving and searching, crying in different bathrooms of different offices, piddling around with bum boys and parties. It was a year that I stopped investing in joy and invested in what was easy. It was a year that, at the end, my family and closest friends pulled me aside, gently asking, “What happened to you?”
It had all led to this.
And then there I was in Milan, Italy; it was evening time and the bulk of that short trip lay in the past.
It had been, in large, miserable, and I silently recounted it all as Yvette lay beside me, having instantly fallen asleep from exhaustion. I lay awake, unable to turn my mind off, examining the emerald green of the curtains against the dirty yellow wall of the hotel. It was in that moment that I realized I was a little bit lonely.
I could have been anywhere with anyone. Yet there I was, in a two star hotel room in the heart of Milan with an Austrian girl that I had only briefly known. And the world seemed overwhelming big. And we seemed oddly small. Both of us a little hollow. Both of us searching.
I was broken and lonely in Italy with a lonely, broken hearted companion, and our trip was disappointing. But we were exactly where we needed to be. I knew it.
And in that moment, I realized that life takes you to unexpected places to teach you unexpected lessons. And sometimes the right places aren’t the happy places- the places at the tops of mountains where the views are beautiful and hard earned. Instead, sometimes the right places are the low places. The sad places. The lonely places. They are the places that quiet you to make sure that you really listen. And from there, you move up and on and you learn.
On that trip, we could do nothing but let ourselves be engulfed by the disappointment of our high expectations. But in that moment, in that dingy hotel room, I knew it would be ok.
We were going to be ok.
For more stories about my time in Switzerland, click here.