When Francesco decides to embark on his first trip outside his native Italy, he leaves behind a difficult relationship with his father, the narrow vistas of a small provincial town and the stifling atmosphere of a country he feels has become degraded. All he brings with him are a change of clothes, a map of Europe and the desire to discover new places, new people and, perhaps, a new life. But a chance encounter in Munich takes him off course, on an incredible journey that will see him fall in love in Sweden, lose all his money in Amsterdam, sleep rough in the streets of London, win big in Monte Carlo and get caught up in an international imbroglio.
|Product dimensions:||5.12(w) x 7.84(h) x 0.73(d)|
About the Author
Alessandro Gallenzi is the founder of Hesperus Press, Alma Books and Alma Classics, and the successor of John Calder at the helm of Calder Publications. As well as being a literary publisher with fifteen years of experience, he is a translator, a poet, a playwright and a novelist. His collection of poetry Modern Bestiary - Ars Poetastrica was published in 2005 to critical acclaim. He lives in Richmond with his wife and two children.
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By Alessandro Gallenz
Alma Books LtdCopyright © 2012 Alessandro Gallenzi
All rights reserved.
Rome, Bologna, Munich
There's nothing truer and more sinister than what Pascal once wrote: that if Cleopatra's nose had been a quarter of an inch shorter, the entire face of the earth would have been changed. That Saturday morning, as Francesco was climbing off the train at Munich Central Station, one of the three old spinsters who are said to weave our destinies took her eyes off the spindle for a moment, and the thread she was holding in her hands got all tangled up. This kind of accident, though not uncommon in a man's life, can drive people down uncharted and unpredictable paths.
The day had promised to be beautiful. A ray of light had filtered through the blinds of Francesco's coach, jogging him awake. With somnolent eyes he had opened the doors of his compartment and peeked out into the corridor: through the windows, snapshots of the Alps were flickering by, bathed in the haze of sunrise. As he gazed out, he remembered his solitary departure from Stazione Termini, the girl from Berlin he had met and played chess with on the train to Bologna, and his spectral night tour of that city's deserted centre before boarding the 00.47 overnight Espresso to Munich. Then the image of his father giving farewell blessings, in a sauce-stained vest and unzipped shorts, strayed into his thoughts.
"If you wanna go on this Inter-Ray, then it's fine by me," the old man had said. "You've bought the ticket with your own money, so good luck. But then don't come knocking on this door for help if something goes wrong. Do you understand?" And to press the point, he had banged the door in his son's face.
Soon other passengers began to rouse themselves. Outside, as the sun ploughed across the sky, the fields revealed herds of sheep and cattle, with trees and little wooden chalets clinging to the mountainsides above, while inside people were waking up and shambling into the corridors to stretch their limbs or smoke their first cigarettes of the day. At last the wheels started to screech as the train pulled into the Hauptbahnhof. Passengers got out of their compartments dragging heavy suitcases, outsize cardboard boxes, surfboards and even in one case what looked like a ping-pong table. Francesco queued in the corridor with his small Invicta shoulder bag containing all he needed: a pair of jeans, spare shirts and underwear, a jumper, a map of Europe, a notepad, a pen and two books.
It was just at this point that the Fatal Sister lost her thread.
As he was putting his foot forward to climb out of the train, the woman behind him, impatient to get off, gave him an inadvertent push, and he missed the footboard and landed on the platform face first. For one long moment, all was dark. When he came to, a knot of curious onlookers had gathered around him. He sat up and then stood, signalling he was all right, though his nose was bleeding and he felt as if it was on fire, and there was blood in his mouth. As the passengers dispersed and flowed towards the exit, someone tapped him on the shoulder. Francesco turned and, through a cloud of cigarette smoke, saw a man of about forty, wearing a beige cotton suit and a loose white shirt unbuttoned at the top. He had a most extraordinary face, with a hooked nose of the Mediterranean variety, slanting eyes, a large mouth and a protruding chin.
"Tutto a posto?" he asked, taking another puff on his cigarette. "You all right?"
"Take this," the stranger said, pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket.
Francesco dabbed his nose and his inside lip, then looked at the red blotches of blood on his hands and on his T-shirt.
The man patted him on the shoulder and said: "You'll survive. Come on, let me get you a cappuccino and half a pint of blood."
They sat at a table of a coffee shop nearby. The man waved at the waitress and ordered cappuccinos, mineral water and croissants. Then he took a small silver case out of his breast pocket and offered Francesco a cigarette.
"Thanks," Francesco said, picking one and putting it in his mouth.
The stranger gave him a light from his own cigarette, then said, after taking a long drag: "So, what are you up to in Munich?"
"On your own?"
He shrugged. "A friend of mine – Leonardo – bailed out on me at the last minute. Says he's too busy, trying to write a novel. He decided to stay with his mummy."
"Ha! You been travelling long?"
"Not really. I left yesterday."
"Rome? That's where I've just come from. Where are you staying?"
"Don't know. Some youth hostel, I guess."
"Well, if you want to get changed or take a nap, or even stay for the night, I've got a room booked in a place round the corner."
Francesco didn't say anything.
"Don't worry," the man added with a smile, stubbing out his cigarette with his foot, "I'm not suggesting we play naked Twister in the shower."
The waitress brought the order and the bill, which the stranger insisted on settling.
"You ever been to Munich?"
Francesco shook his head. "I've never been abroad, actually." He took a last puff and put out his cigarette in the ashtray. "Where are you from?"
"Me? I'm from Corsica. From Ajaccio. My name's Pierre, by the way, Pierre Cordier."
"I'm Francesco." And they shook hands.
Once they were out of the station, Francesco asked Pierre if he could recommend any places to visit.
"There's loads. I tell you what: if you give me half an hour to check in and freshen up a bit, we can mosey around Munich together for a while. How's that?"
It was too early to check in, so Pierre left his luggage with hotel reception and went back outside to where Francesco was waiting. They headed towards the city centre in an almost straight line, until they reached a square where a large crowd of people was milling about, gazing up at the tower of a sturdy neo-Gothic building. Pierre explained that three times a day – at eleven, twelve and five – the bells of the tower chimed the hours, accompanied by a carillon and clock with moving statuettes. Since it was only a few minutes to eleven, they decided to stay, and watched the carousel of dancing figures right up to the third cock-a-doodle-do of the gold-plated cockerel. Then they followed a noisy group of Italian tourists to a smaller square, which was even more packed. On all sides there were stalls with every kind of food, and people sitting on long wooden benches drinking from massive jugs. At the centre of the square there was a kind of maypole, decorated with the emblems and flags of Bavaria.
"Fancy a beer?" Francesco ventured, inspired by the joviality of the place.
"Sure. And some grub. That little restaurant over there looks all right."
Pierre chose an empty table and ordered drinks.
The beers were brought over. Francesco took a sip and asked, wiping froth from his lips with the back of his hand, "So what kind of job do you do?"
"What kind of job do I do? Well" – Pierre took some time over this – "you could say I'm a jack of all trades. But mostly I am a poet."
"Yeah. I deal in finance. And money is a kind of poetry."
"Although some people claim that finance is the supreme form of institutionalized theft," Pierre added, almost as an afterthought.
"Oh yeah? Why's that?"
"Why? Because they say the capital used to produce profits should belong to the exploited labourers. But then again, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who pull the cart and those who sit in it." He lit up and added: "It's money that makes the world go round and stops society from falling to pieces. It's always been like that – history began not with the taming of fire or the invention of the wheel, but when the first coin was minted." He took a longer drag of his cigarette and exhaled a large cloud of smoke, then emptied his glass. "You should read Das Kapital – it's every bit as entertaining as La Gazzetta dello Sport."
Food was ordered and delivered to the table, followed by another round of drinks. Once they'd eaten and drunk their beers, two more frothy jugs landed in front of them. The conversation took on a philosophical turn. Pierre began to talk about saints who had fled to the desert, hermits in the mountains, Diogenes and other ancient thinkers who renounced all social life in order to embrace poverty and personal freedom. He explained that all great men had despised money and the rules and constraints imposed by society, which he compared to a big chicken run.
"'Behold the fowls in the air,'" he continued in a deeper tone, with a slight slur, widening his eyes for effect, "'for they sow not, neither do they reap nor gather into barns – yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.' You know who said that? Long hair, goatee beard, walked on water? ..."
"So we should all flee to the desert?" asked Francesco, deadpan.
"I wish we could, but life's a bitch. Money can give you freedom, but it can make you a prisoner too."
When the bill arrived, Pierre again insisted on settling it. There was a problem, however: none of his credit cards seemed to be working, and he didn't have enough cash on him. Francesco offered to pay up with some marks he had exchanged before leaving, but Pierre said:
"No, I'll take this. You're my guest. Wait here."
Banks, however, were closed for the weekend, and the two cashpoints nearby wouldn't let him get any money out, so he returned to the bistro mumbling swear words to himself, and emptied his pockets onto the table with a mock-thespian gesture, producing just under eighteen marks in total. Francesco looked up at him and said:
"I think I'll have to help you shore up society today."
After another couple of beers in the square courtesy of Francesco, they worked their way back down Kaufingerstraße and stopped to see the Frauenkirche from the outside and, to get some cool air, went inside the Michaelskirche. Then they headed north and out of the city centre, towards the Englischer Garten.
"I used to go there when I was a horny young devil like you," Pierre said, "to do a bit of bird-watching near the nudists' area."
"The nudists' area?"
"There's some Teutons who like to sunbathe au naturel," Pierre said. "What's that face? You don't believe me? I'll take you there and show you an eyeful of apples and pears – and bananas too, if that's what takes your fancy." He gave a wink and grinned. "I'll tell you a story. Once I went there in the morning with a German friend of mine. We were students then – full of pranks. We had binoculars and a little megaphone, one of those we used for our protest marches. There was this couple, about a hundred and twenty years old, who'd arrived before everyone else and stripped down to their bones – uno spettacolo magnifico. The man had a barrelful of guts drooping out, chicken legs and a tuft of hair clinging to his head. The woman was all droopy and wrinkly and jellylike: she looked like W.H. Auden's balls. Anyway, the man chooses a spot, spreads his towel out on the grass and puts down his picnic basket ... The old girl picks up an apple from the basket and hands it to him. He's about to take a bite when my friend yells into the megaphone in German: 'It is heb-so-lute-ly verboten to eat in ze park!'" Pierre scratched his nose and suppressed a laugh. "Boy, you should have seen their faces. I nearly pissed myself, and the old man almost swallowed his dentures. The lady jumps up, looks around and starts flapping her arms about. Then my friend shouts again: 'It is heb-so-lute-ly ver-bo-ten ...' – so they clear out without waiting to think twice ..."
"Adam and Eve's Expulsion from the English Gardens," was Francesco's comment. He clapped his hands. "Shall we check out what ales they brew in the Earthly Paradise?"
After a long walk in the park, three more beers, a few cigarettes and a piss behind a tree near the Chinese Tower, they headed back towards the city centre.
"I need a shower," announced Pierre, definitely slurring now. Then he added, waving down a taxi: "Let's go back to the hotel."
"I have no money," Francesco pointed out.
"Jump in," Pierre said, and he opened the door.
"I have no money," Francesco whispered again, getting into the taxi. "How are we gonna pay?"
The driver, a Turkish man with silver-rimmed sunglasses, a golden tooth and formidable moustaches, asked where they were going.
"Zoom Floock'afen, veea 'Otel Europa, beetteh," Pierre said, closing the door behind.
"Flughafen? The airport?" thought Francesco, and darted an interrogative look at his companion, who reached out and gave his arm a furtive squeeze.
There was traffic, and the meter kept clicking away. Francesco broke out in a nervous sweat. Ten minutes later they stopped in front of a large hotel, not the one where Pierre had left his bags in the morning.
"Un Moment, beetteh, veer 'ollen oonserr Ghebeck," Pierre told the driver, as they got out of the taxi.
They entered the hotel, walked past a smiling receptionist and straight to the lifts, got to the first level underground, crossed to the far end of the car park to an emergency staircase and came out at the back of the building, onto a busy street.
"Now run," Pierre said. "Some taxi drivers know the trick. They've smartened up."
Not long afterwards they were laughing and drinking beer in Pierre's hotel room. They slept for around two hours, took showers, went outside again and spent the rest of the afternoon crawling from one Biergarten to the other, until the additional money Francesco had exchanged near the station at rip-off rates was reduced to a bunch of Pfennig coins.
"I've drunk too much," Francesco said, light-headed.
"You're right – I think we should eat something."
They sat at an alfresco Italian restaurant, went through a three-course meal, ordered champagne and the most elaborate dessert on the menu and did another runner. Breathless, they crouched down under a tree on the edge of the Theresienwiese and lit up a cigarette, bursting out into fits of giggles from time to time.
The sun was now setting, and their shoulders were hunched under the weight of the long, hot day. Francesco suggested they return to the hotel, and reminded Pierre he had hardly slept the night before.
"You what?" said Pierre. "We have a whole night ahead of us."
"And no money."
"I've got credit cards."
"Which don't work. How are we going to pay the hotel bill? We've drunk the minibar dry. I don't know if I've got enough cash."
"We don't need money. We are intelligent animals."
"Even intelligent animals need money."
"You're wrong." And he flicked the stub of his cigarette into the street.
Pierre's grey eyes were watching two parallel processions of ants moving in opposite directions by the kerb. It wasn't clear where they were coming from or where they were going, but at one point of the long line the activity was frenzied. The ants were bearing along a dead insect – a black beetle. Francesco admired the intensity, the determination, the spirit of sacrifice shown by those foraging little creatures, which for some reason reminded him of the Candle Race at Gubbio he had seen the previous year. The beetle seemed to be floating along on a black tide, and its movement was hardly perceptible. Pierre bent forward, stretched his arm and picked up the dead insect. After examining it for a short while, he wrapped it in a piece of paper and slipped it into his pocket.
"Intelligent animals don't pay: they only take or are given. Noodleheads pay."
"And you're either crazy or drunk," Francesco said with a smile. "Or both." He lay on the grass and looked at the clear sky, where the first stars were visible. Once more, the scruffy figure of his father tried to break into his thoughts, but he chased it away, along with other unpleasant memories of his life back at home. He had moved out of his parents' flat the year before, and although he had managed to get by without their help, life on his own had been tough. He had a university scholarship, but the textbooks for his language courses were expensive, and he had had to work in the evenings and on weekends, teaching English to the offspring of wealthy shop owners and small-time industrialists or, even worse, waiting tables and washing the grease off dishes in grubby local restaurants run by despotic managers. Now in two days he had spent almost half of the money he had saved for his journey, and though his head was spinning and his throat was burning, he was happy and free, and felt he could travel and conquer the world.
Excerpted from InterRail by Alessandro Gallenz. Copyright © 2012 Alessandro Gallenzi. Excerpted by permission of Alma Books Ltd.
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