As I head out of Milan, the sun is coming up. It’s about 4 hours South to Perugia, and in the first hour the weather is lovely. I stop at an auto grille rest stop full of commuters and truck drivers for espresso and a sandwich. This is one of the more surreal moments on any tour: when the late nightlife of a musician collides, unassuming, with the purposeful, unflinching morning routine of the workaday world. This is exponentially more strange because I’m in Italy, trying to imagine myself on the way to work in a place I only know by its bar and restaurant culture.
People drive faster on the motorways of Italy than I’ve ever seen anyone drive. Two hundred kilometres an hour, at 7 in the morning. My mind cannot get a handle on this, and I stay in the slow lane. When I begin the drive upward into the mountains, the fog gets thick, then the rain, and, eventually, the snow. After a few hours of navigating winding mountain roads and tunnels in wet snow, I pull off at a rest stop and fall asleep in the car for two hours.
I get my bearings and roll on to Perugia. The venue is a fantastic bar/cafe/record store called T-trane. Within half an hour I’ve had an espresso, a local beer and bought a Bevis Frond album and the Kinks’ Lola vs power man on vinyl. While making the espresso, the bartender asks me, “who do you think is beautiful?” And before I can answer, tells me she thinks Charlize Theron is the most beautiful person in the world.
I check in to a room at a great little hotel up the street from the venue. At 8pm, I set up in the record store, and play to a nice crowd. Afterwards, people are very enthusiastic about the set. There’s also a great lost in translation thing in italy where people say “congratulations” to performers after a show. Makes me feel good.
I meet an artist and harmonica player named Jason Johnson from Atlanta, Georgia who now lives in Perugia with his family. After the show, I’m offered another incredible meal at the restaurant next door. Jason and I sit an talk for a good long while about Perugia, Atlanta, and Guelph, Ontario. He speaks of contemporary American politics as an ex-pat artist who is still very invested in the subject. He’s currently working on a vinyl-themed art show which will launch at T-trane in the coming weeks.
Jason explains to me that Perugia was the site of the Salt War of 1540, wherein Perugians resisted Pope Paul III’s salt tax and defied papal control. As protest, Perugians stopped putting salt in their bread. This has become the customary way of preparing bread in Perugia, and the result tastes distinctly bitter and a bit sweet at the same time.
I bid farewell to Jason and Damiano, the excellent promoter, and hike through the old arch to my hotel.
Up and out for a walk around Modena in the morning. Espresso, brioche and an apple at a beautiful corner cafe, reading Romanian Fantastic Tales - another gift from Vladmir - a translated collection of strange, folk-tale inspired stories by some of the best Romanian writers of the twentieth century.
A smooth drive to Milano, the sun shining on me again.
The show in Milan is at a beautiful restaurant/cafe/small show space called Gatto Bistro. I meet the promoter Claudio. he offers me a coffee and invites me to set my guitar case down beside the two year old son of a sister of the owner, who sleeps under a blanket in a makeshift cubby beneath shelves of pasta. The place is operated by two twin sisters, who live above the restaurant and allow me to do laundry, which I desperately need to do. Most of my clothes still smell of cigarette smoke from the Romanian venues.
We do laundry and go for a long walk through the city. It’s a lovely night. I buy a scarf.
The show is partly a birthday celebration for the twin sisters’ other set of twin sisters. I open for the ironically-named Sad Side Project from Rome, a duo who are great. After the show, we sit down for a beautiful multi-course meal in the restaurant behind the venue, including the most spectacular risotto (a regional speciality) I’ve ever tasted.
The birthday party goes late. I’m invited to crash on the couch of the restauranteur, and I thank her. as I pass out, she I heading back out to party more. Unexpectedly, the party comes back to her small apartment. It becomes clear that sleep is not in the cards for me tonight. Eventually, at around 6am, I pack up and head out. In my rental car, parked on a busy street, I try to rest for a few hours, but the temperature has dropped and I’m unable to let myself get comfortable. At 7am, I start the car, and head out on the motorway for Perugia.
An aside: when my dear grandparents, now departed, would tell me stories of their travels, my grandfather would preface every account by saying that my grandmother was his good weather charm. I have to assume that my grandmother, Betty Smith, is with me on this trip, as there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t had blue sky overhead.
After feasting on the greatest hotel breakfast i’ve ever seen, i catch a ride to the car rental place on the hotel shuttle van. this should be about a three minute drive, but the shuttle driver gets lost (?!?) on the way, and it takes about half an hour. Nice guy, though. We laugh. I pick up a rental car at the airport and spend a good thirty minutes in a parking lot figuring out the GPS.
A few tense moments in the first two or three roundabouts, and I’m on the motorway, headed for Modena. The drive is beautiful. Listening to the new Oneida album at top volume, and smiling at mountaintop cities in the sun.
Modena is a nice university town with small stone streets in the centre. The show is unamplified due to noise restrictions, which is a challenge in the palaver of a social space like this, but there are very kind people who sit close and actually know my album, which is really nice to hear. Several of the people at the show play music with Jonathan Clancy, who hooked up most of these Italian shows for me. Thank you, Jonathan!
it’s raining in Modena this evening, so as I’m walking to the car, I duck into a beautiful church, whose doors are open at midnight, and look around before heading to the hotel for sleep.
Slept on and off during the 8 hour train ride to Budapest, leaving the crags and cliffs of northern Transylvania for the open plains of Hungary. The ride was surreal. I’d fall asleep surrounded by fog and rain, and wake up an hour later in bright sunshine. This happened several times throughout the trip.
The border crossing into Hungary happens in a bleak place. Stone faced police hold out their hands, take your passport and walk off the train without a word. The station at the crossing looks about to collapse. My passport is returned, and the ride commences. We leave the hand-built shanties and wild dogs of northern Romania behind, for the open farmland of Hungary.
I disembark in Budapest at the massive central train station, and realize how far I am from home. Until now I’ve been in good company or in transit, but as I step out into the city, cross-eyed from sleeping in fits and starts over the last eight hours, I feel desperately alone. I wander around the train station and its surrounding blocks, with a terrible anxiety and longing for a moment with my family. I manage to change some euros in for Forints, by writing “ft?” on a scrap piece of paper and apologetically showing it to the woman at the exchange office. The decision to come to Budapest was rather impetuous, and I’m unprepared. I feel as though i’m wearing colonialist entitlement like a t-shirt.
I buy some lunch, and decide It would be best if I just take my time walking through the city alone, until I have to catch the train to the airport. Eventually I stumble into a massive park, and I walk around in the autumn leaves for two hours. This helps a great deal, and the fresh air lifts my spirits. It’s really a perfect autumn day. Kids are chasing each other through the playground, dogs are rolling in the grass, and an old man tells me a joke I can’t hope to understand. I laugh openly.
Gradually I make it to the train station, ride to the airport, and catch a plane to Rome packed with students who make announcements to the plane in Italian which elicits applause.
We disembark at ciampino, Rome’s smaller airport. There are no customs officers on duty, and the woman working at the information booth tells me not to worry about it, and that I look like I need sleep. Taxi to hotel, check in, and check out for 8 hours. Goodnight.
I awake to the sound of Andrei and Florin enthusiastically serenading me outside the door of my room. We eat breakfast together as the sun burns the mist off of the surrounding mountains. Another lovely travelling day. We thank our hosts and head out for Cluj Napoca. Today is St. Andrew’s day, a national holiday for the patron saint of Romania.
In the middle of the trip, we stop in a small village where young people are dressed in traditional clothing and a band of two violinists and a bowed double bass are setting up at an intersection. We join the crowd that has gathered to watch, and the young men and women dance in synchronized circles and chant with the music.
We stop once more to find souvenirs in a village with craft stands and shops lining the roadside. Handmade rugs, embroideries, sheepskin coats and painted plates cover the walls of each small shop. Vladmir gives me a small ceramic bird statue that whistles when you blow into it, to take home to my son.
The drive to Cluj takes longer than expected, but we arrive at the Flying Circus club with enough time for quick soundchecks.
The venue is underground and shaped like a cement cave. The show is sold out, way beyond reasonable capacity, and I get the feeling everyone chain smokes roll-your-owns at shows in Romania. I play my folky tunes on a rented Les Paul through a Marshall stack. The show is fun, The Backstabbers again turn the crowd into rock and roll maniacs, and they’re mobbed for autographs for several hours after their set.
After an hour’s rest in the hotel, I’m hugging my Romanian friends goodbye and heading for the train station. Robin and I have a bleary eyed walk around downtown, both trying to explain how much the last four days have meant to us. We promise that our paths will cross again, and I board the train to Budapest at 6am.
I miss them dearly already. It has been an overwhelming trip so far, and I can’t believe I’m on my own after making such strong connections with these kind people.
The crags and cliffs of Transylvania are cloaked in fog and rain.
I fall asleep on the train to Hungary.
Andrei takes me to visit his brother, who has a shop where he modifies cars for off-road driving. Both Andrei and his brother have participated in cross-country off-road races, and, as such, Andrei is the only person I ever see behind the wheel of the Backstabbers’ tour van, which has also been modified for off-road use. We discuss the possibility of simply driving in a straight line across the countryside to the next show in Cluj Napoca, Transylvania. By the time we gather the gear and band members scattered across the city, and say farewell to Livia, it is already getting dark.
Andrei expertly handles the five hour drive on wildly curving mountain roads in the rain and dark. Many jokes are made about the fact the rain begins the moment we cross into Transylvania. Cue fog. The show in Cluj is not until tomorrow night, so Robin’s father has invited us to stay at a villa belonging to friends of his in their hometown, Miercurea Ciuc. As we arrive, the clouds break to reveal a full moon.
We arrive at the beautiful villa in Miercurea Ciuc at around ten pm, and are treated to a fantastic pasta dinner and karaoke of Italian standards, sung by our hosts and Johnny, who teaches French and Italian in this town.
I am introduced to a locally stilled plum moonshine called Palinca. A guitar is passed around, and Johnny sings and plays some of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.