Cinque Terre, 2015.
I stepped off the train into the station at La Spezia, and consulted the picture of her I had saved on my phone. We had never actually met, but solo travellers have a way of seeking each other out. Since we both wanted to see Cinque Terre, we had arranged through an online forum to spend the weekend there together.
A girl in a very short skirt and high-heeled ankle boots stepped off the train, wheeling a suitcase behind her. I felt underdressed in my ripped jeans, tank–top and backpack. Hi! She trilled, throwing her arms around me, I’m Ali! It’s so funny we have the same name!
Her heels and wheely suitcase didn’t fare well on the tiny, cobbled streets that twisted there way up the cliff that is Manarola, but she didn’t seem to mind as she tittered on about a strange man on the train who wouldn’t stop harassing her for her phone number.
We wandered around and around, my backpack growing heavy on my shoulders as we wound our way up in search of our hostel, which we finally stumbled upon, at the very top of a steep hill, after walking for about thirty minutes. I don’t think she stopped talking the entire time, but I kind of liked her.
We dropped our bags in the dorm, which held three bunks, six beds, and she decided on a pair of trainers, in place of the heels, to go exploring in. We meandered our way back down towards the harbor, admiring the colourful houses tucked into the side of the cliff, and the sparkling blue water that came into view below. There was something magical, quaint, and anything but rushed about this little village. I was charmed.
After a seafood dinner with a spectacular view, we decided to see what we could find for late-night fun. We soon passed a small pub, with music spilling out onto the street, and ducked inside. The pub was a few steps down from street level, and was dark but cozy inside. The music we had heard from above was coming from a dark corner at the front of the room, where a man with dark skin and thick dreadlocks was playing a guitar and singing with a deep but cheerful voice, next to a grey old man with a beard on a stand up bass. We ordered a beer, took a seat and got to chatting.
Not only did we share the same name, but we were both from Canada. More than that, we were both from southern Ontario, a strange but comforting coincidence. We talked about what it was like being abroad on our own, the people we had met so far, and the beauty we had seen that day. We had witnessed the most amazing golden sunset, one that I will never forget.
Before we knew it, a very energetic man sprang onto one of the tables near the front of the room, flute in hand, and joined the melody while leaping from table to table, dancing and grinning as he went. We both burst out laughing at the intensity and sheer joy with which he worked his flute and the room, high notes piercing the stale pub air. There was something utterly contagious about his joy, and we couldn’t stop laughing as he twirled around the room like a pied piper.
Soon he climbed down from the tables to take a break and headed towards the bar, where at some point, a birthday cake had been brought out to celebrate someone in the room. The cake was cut and pieces handed out to anyone and everyone. The pied piper himself handed me a piece of cake, saying Welcome! as he did. Thank you, I said, taking the paper plate and fork with a smile.
We stumbled back to the hostel feeling content, having glimpsed such a lovely moment among the locals of this very small village. Want to go for a swim tomorrow morning? I asked her, feeling inspired to make the most of the sea before our morning departure. How early? she asked warily, I’m not really a morning person.
Let’s go first thing, while the harbor is still empty.
The next morning, I dragged my new friend out of her bunk, and we headed down to the harbor, climbing up onto the rocky pier and looking down into the sapphire waves as the crisp morning air nipped at our bare arms. I hadn’t packed a bathing suit, having assumed that October was too late for swimming, but I slipped out of my jeans and t-shirt anyways, discarding them on the rocks, and leapt out from the cliff. The freedom I felt in the split second between the rocks and the waves was bliss, and I felt all the uncertainties about uprooting myself and moving to Italy melt away, as the water came up and over me. I broke the surface and laughed.
It was then that I fell in love with the sea.