Today I left Barcelona, spent six hours in Bologna, then took a train to Trieste, where I took my first little steps on international land almost 10 years ago.
Picture this: a baby-faced, somewhat-skinnier version of me with short, Veronica Mars-esque hair let loose in the northeastern Italian countryside with other international high schoolers and no parents. Living in a small town of about 2,000 people, the best place to hang out was the bowling alley/arcade/pizzeria/pool (yes, it was a one-stop shop). (But don’t worry, they also had a bar.)
We stayed in a small town half an hour away from Trieste, whose claim to fame is a series of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. The only things in Duino (said small town) are a castle, a marina, and a satellite campus of the United World College. We came from countries all over the world: Eastern Europe, China, Haiti, the States. And we were there to be total nerds and spend three weeks debating and journalism-ing.
This was my first for a lot of things: first time in a foreign country, first time drinking Jack Daniels (verdict: nail polish remover), Limoncello (verdict: delicious), and rum & Coke (verdict: Coke is still gross). First time where being a argumentative nerd felt kinda cool.
Being 17 and getting to explore a foreign country for the first time, sans parental units, felt like every teen-movie cliche come true. Except for the fact that we were spending maybe 70% of our time researching debate resolutions and producing photo spreads or radio stories. Not exactly the same as bar-, bed-, or hostel-hopping. But I did get to eat ice cream whenever I wanted without anyone chastising me, so there’s that. Also I tried absinthe, which no longer has the wormwood that made people hallucinate, which I think kinda defeats the purpose.
At one point, we had a photojournalism assignment, and our teacher (a proper photojournalist) was extremely picky about what he considered a worthy topic. Actually, he was kinda a dick, but apparently that’s pretty normal for photogs. The only problem is, it’s quite difficult to find dynamic, action-oriented stories to report in a sleepy town of 2,000 when you don’t speak Italian.
My partner Isabel (who was only 15) and I decided to find a winery in search of a story. It wouldn’t be anything exciting, but there would stuff to take pictures of, right? People harvesting in the vineyards, or stomping grapes, or bottling wine, right? Sure, of course.
We asked the town’s sole English speaker, a 20-something guy who worked at the tobacco shop, how to get to this winery. He gave us directions on which bus to take, where to change buses, etc. But rural Italian buses are not the most organized or reliable, and we end up totally lost. We’re wandering around a small town, trying to find a) our way to this winery, and b) a post office, because I want to mail some postcards.
After completely failing to explain myself in Italian, I find someone who spoke Spanish. He’s in his 30s and offers to take us to the winery then back to our campus. It seemed crazy to us, but another woman was with him, also a stranger hitching a ride, so this 17-year-old and 15-year-old figure, eh, why the hell not.
Looking back, of course this sounds completely ill-advised and, well, bananas. I would never give any nieces, daughters, or wards under my care permission to do this. But the fact remains that we did, and it worked out alright in the end.
It turns out that nothing happens at wineries in July. Grapes are harvested in the fall and the only activity is people coming for a glass of wine and a nice lunch (because they smoke their own sausage, because it’s rural Italy so of course they do). But if two determined, American teenagers show up with a middle-aged man translating, asking for a story, they will still show you around, give you a free sandwich, and half a glass of wine accompanied by a warning not to drink too much, ’cause you’re too young for that much day drinking. You know, typical southern European hospitality.
Now that I’m back, I’m planning a trip to Duino tomorrow to see the castle, which I did not set foot into despite living RIGHT NEXT TO IT for three weeks, as well as the rest of the town. I wish I knew where the winery was, because I would totally go back and buy a bottle. I’m hoping I won’t get lost this time, but if I do, I know it will surely be another good adventure.