(If you're new to this story, here's the link to Chapter One: https://bicyclefreedom.com/the-mouth-of-the-wolf-chapter-i/)
WARNING: Some of this chapter might qualify as Too Much Information. If you think so, you should probably skip it. You’ve been forewarned.
The man behind the bar had an eagle's head tattoo on one of his muscular arms. He stood beneath a “No Smoking” sign, rolling cigarettes and smoking them one after another. His name was Francesco.
When I told him about my journey, Francesco described the route to the Temple of Jupiter Anxur and the Campo dei Paladini at the top of a steep hill.
“Non e’ difficile,” he assured me. It's not difficult.
I munched on a greasy cornetto while I waited for my espresso. A young woman walked in and said “Ciao, Francesco.”
Long, dark hair spilled down to her waist. She wore leggings designed with a pattern like a diamondback snake. Her breasts were practically spilling out of a bright green blouse with the top two buttons undone. It was hard to keep my eyes off of her.
Francesco introduced me to Irene (pronounced “ee-RAY-nay”) and told her I was a crazy American who was going to ride his bike all the way to Brindisi. When she walked to the restroom he nudged me and whispered, “Non e’ difficile” while giving her backside a long, appreciative look.
When you’re in Italy, women will tell you that Italian men are lecherous pigs. But Italian men aren’t different from guys everywhere. Some of them are just more transparent about what they want.
I was ready to leave, but I didn’t. I get lonely on these travels, and it’s always a comfort to buy a few minutes of company for the price of a coffee. Anyway, it’s a good idea to talk to friendly baristas in Italy whenever you can. They spend their whole day drinking espresso and chatting with people, so you’ll almost always learn something interesting.
Francesco had recently finished his obligatory military duty, and was studying to get a degree in politics. He told me the history of Terracina. It had always been an important location because it had access to the sea as well as high views of the Pontine Marsh and surrounding countryside.
I knew that the Romans, Samnites, and Volsci had fought over Terracina, and obviously the Romans were victorious in the end. Francesco told me that during World War II, a bomb blew open the side of a hill and uncovered the foundations of Roman and pre-Roman buildings that had been buried for thousands of years.
By the time Irene came back and joined us, Francesco had returned to modern times and was telling me about the local bands and local women.
“Irene, do you think I can teach this American how to pick up Terracina girls?” Francesco asked.
She put her hands together as if she were praying, and said “O Dio mio.”
“Look,” said Francesco, “You’re traveling all through Italy. You should be like Zeus and make love to a girl in every city. Non e’ difficile. Here’s how you do it.”
For the next minute or so, Francesco tried to impart his favorite observations and techniques. All the time, Irene looked at me, wide-eyed, shaking her head and her index finger, and mouthing the word “no.”
I knew that if I stayed any longer, I would never leave. I would learn all about Terracina girls from Francesco. Then I would find an excuse to stay in town for a week, and spend the entire time chasing Irene.
Next, I would find a job in Terracina teaching English, and eat through a whole year of my life like it was a chocolate cream cornetto. I would marry Irene and we’d open up a pizzeria and make lots of bambini, and I would wake up 20 years later to find I was too fat and contented to ever finish my bike tour. Finis.
Besides, I was already in trouble over an Italian woman. We’ll get to that soon.
I got up to leave, and both of them wished me luck. “Just do it a little bit at a time,” Francesco assured me. “Non e’ difficile.”
He winked as he said this, and Irene flashed him an angry look. It was a narrow escape, and it wouldn’t be my last.
In honor of history, I made the knee-grinding climb to the peak, sacrificing an ounce of my cartilage to Jupiter Anxur.
When the original via Appia went this way, it stopped in an area behind the temple called the Piazza Paladini. Campo (Italian for “field”) dei Paladini was a traditional rest stop for the ancient Romans along the via Appia. The old “high road” went up this way, skirting the city and coming to rest in a large square bearing this name.
The windy heights were a worthy home for a sky god. The city, the sea, and the Appian Way belonged to a different world, far below. Across a long flat distance, the tall mass of Mount Circeo stood out against the sea, the place where Ulysses went ashore and Circe the witch turned his men into pigs.
And of course I could see two neat rows of pine trees flanking the Appian Way, a dark green line stretching back towards Rome.
I returned to town and found the archeological site Francesco had told me about, the ruins exposed by an exploding bomb.
The place looked like someone had made a full-sized blueprint out of stone. They carefully lay down the outline of every wall in bricks, and painstakingly cemented the whole thing together, so than anyone who walked by could see exactly where the courtyard would go, where the people would cook, bathe, and sleep, and what it would all look like when it was done.
It looked just like someone had made this amazing, durable blueprint and never bothered to construct the actual buildings.
People lived and loved here, passed laws, fought and made up, and died in these crumbled walls. I tried really hard to believe it, to feel a connection with this ancient life. But I was too distracted.
I went to the main piazza, where a trace of the original via Appia runs straight through. I had spent years looking at pictures and drawings and diagrams of it.
An ancient cathedral covers one end of the piazza, built over an ancient Roman temple. The piazza is an exhilarating mix of architecture and decoration from ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 18th century.
I munched on a tomato and mozzarella panino, trying to find that same excitement I had felt when I looked at a photo of this very spot just a month ago.
Until this morning, Terracina had only seemed to exist in my mind. I had read about this place years ago. I'd lusted over pictures of Terracina in books and websites. Now it was real, finally a physical part of my experience. I should have felt like celebrating.
Yet, sitting there in the central piazza of Terracina, all I could think about was a young Italian woman not too far away. And her name was not Irene.
A tour leader for the Adventure Cycling Association once told me that most of the people who go on bike tours are looking for something more than just the ride itself. Distraction, a sense of meaning, a purpose in life--these are some of the treasures we seek on two-wheeled adventures.
Romance, or at least sex, is always near the top of the list. That’s why biking the via Appia was, among other things, a good excuse for me to come to Italy. I needed this excuse, because for the past few years, I had been in a confusing, long-distance relationship with an Italian woman.
If you're interested, you're about to learn a secret to picking up Italian women. Or any women, really. It probably works on men, too. So here it is.
You see, in Los Angeles, I'm just an ordinary dude who talks too much. But in Italy I'm a foreigner with an accent.
When someone speaks to me in Italian, I have to try really hard to follow along. Sometimes the only conversation I can manage is an awkward smile while I nod and say, “si’.” If I need to say much more than that, there’s a long pause while I struggle to remember the Italian word for peanut butter or how to conjugate the verb spalmare.
Apparently my weak language skills come across as intense concentration. The awkward pause makes me look thoughtful. To Italians, I appear to be a good listener.
It turns out many women can't resist a good listener, especially if he has a foreign accent.
Using my Good Listener Foreign Accent Mojo (GLFAM), I had once met a young woman who lived in a small town in central Italy. We were kindred spirits. She had traveled, worked, and lived in a lot of interesting places. We’ll call her Gisela , although that’s not her real name.
About a week before I arrived in Italy to bike the Via Appia, I think that maybe she broke up with me during a phone call, although the conversation would have been confusing even without the language barrier.
Then, a few days before I was going to start my ride, we texted each other and I thought the plan was to meet for coffee, but the texts would have been confusing enough even without the language barrier.
Somehow I ended up riding a train to her home town, then following her texted instructions to take the train to another town, where the coffee date became dinner and a wild night followed by a confusing day together.
I think we broke up again but the conversations were confusing enough even without the jet lag, the bottles of wine, and of course the language barrier. (I think she still likes me, but I can't prove it.)
Now here I was, at the beginning of one of the coolest adventures of my life, and all I could think about was Gisela.
When I looked at Irene, and whenever I looked at just about any Italian woman on this trip, I was really thinking of Gisela.
All of the excitement of a new journey, all the beauty of Italy in springtime, all the mystery of ancient ruins--it was nothing. Nothing could compare to the excitement, beauty, and mystery of Gisela.
What would happen if I went back to Rome, called her up, and invited her to dinner? Maybe all I needed to do was alter my travel plans a little, and maybe I could rekindle an old fire. Would I go back to her? Or would I just keep going, and run away from another relationship?
It was a narrow escape, and it wouldn't be the last.
I didn’t know if I wanted to embrace another chance with Gisela, or walk away. She probably didn’t know, either.
I want you to know the truth about my trip. This obsession over a girl makes me wonder if it's even worth writing this story, if it's even worth reading, or if I blew it before I even began.
You see, I traveled across half of Italy with only half my mind and half my heart, because I could neither embrace nor let go of the relationship I was in.
If you ever do a solo bike tour, keep in mind that your emotional baggage will color your adventure in unpredictable ways.
This is the 6th Chapter of my book, Rome to Brindisi: How Biking Down an Ancient Roman Road Saved Me From a Life of Quiet Desperation. I'll be posting a few chapters each week during the Covid19 shutdown. I'm also reading them out loud on YouTube (check the menu for links) so you can listen while you're shut in. Here's the next chapter: https://bicyclefreedom.com/chapter-vii-fear-draws-lines-and-tells-you-not-to-cross-them/
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