It was my first time traveling to Europe. I had saved up a few thousand dollars after I graduated from university by landscaping and working on the oil rigs in northern Canada. I had been able to survive the first five or so weeks without spending almost any money due to the Incredible generosity of Sabine, a friend of my brother, who let me stay in her Paris flat for the first month and a half of my European adventure, asking nothing in return. She invited me to tag along everywhere she went with her young daughters. We went to museums and restaurants, excursions outside the city, we went to Belgium to visit her parents, and Sabine introduced me to the beauty of the French language over dinner parties with friends.
I already had so much to be grateful for, which I will perhaps share on another occasion, by the time I left her apartment, and took the overnight train to Rome, using the first day of my Eurail pass. (I only had five or six.)
Soon thereafter I met up with my former college roommate, and great friend, Isaac, and we took the train south to Naples where we had been invited to stay by Roberta, an acquaintance he had met on an earlier journey to Budapest. Again, Roberta and her family asked nothing in return, as they introduced us to the city of the sacred and the profane, the beauty of the Amalfi coast, and how to drive in Naples. Life was good and we were both grateful.
But the experience I wish to share happened several thousand kilometers and about a week later, Isaac and I had once again taken the overnight train, which we felt was an excellent way of saving on accommodation and more comfortable than sleeping on benches outside train stations. We were traveling with our backpacks from Arles, in the south of France. Just the day before we had missed the last bus from the Pont du Gare, the highest Roman arch, still standing today. Once again we had once needed to rely on the kindness of a stranger who took pity on us as we confronted the choice between sleeping under the arch or hitchhiking back to town with our bathing suits. Perhaps it was because we didn’t have a place to sleep that when we were brought back to town we set out for the train station.
A day and a half later, we had reached Sicily, and at another passenger’s recommendation had decided not to travel to Palermo, but instead, to continue to Agrigento and the famous Valley of the Temples. We had not showered, probably from the time we had swum under the arch, and having spent at least 36 hours on the train or sleeping in front of train stations, we may not have looked our best selves.
But being young men, on adventure, and experiencing this wonderful time of gifts, our appearance did not discourage us from striking up conversation and endeavoring to make new friends whose lives and knowledge would no doubt enrich our own.
Such was the state of things when Isaac and I found ourselves chatting with a couple of young Italian women, sitting across from us on the train, about halfway between Agrigento and Palermo. Neither Isaac nor myself knew much more than buongiorno in Italian and neither of us had said anything unbecoming a young gentleman, (though our appearance might have suggested otherwise) when a middle-aged man turned around in his seat, and began to speak to us in terms so unfriendly that both of us were taken aback. Just a week earlier we had overnighted in the Naples train station when a ‘bomba’ had been found on the tracks, even then we had encountered nothing but friendly greetings.
So we both found the attitude of the Sicilian man a bit strange, was he a mafioso, an aggressor, or just having a bad day? I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I remember that we continued chatting with him for the next hour or so until we earned his trust, until he saw that we were not trying to take advantage of the young ladies, and towards the end of the conversation he even recommended a pizzeria in Agrigento, apologized for speaking to us gruffly and gave us fifty euros, explaining that he couldn’t join us but wanted to buy us dinner.
I’ll never forget that surprising gift or the feeling of the next day. It was late May or early June, I recall the magical sensation of walking through the almond groves with the glorious spring sun as we strode across the Valley of the Temples. I remember feeling like some young Greek sailor arriving across the Mediterranean as I admired the hulking pillars of the temple of Hercules. A snake was sunbathing nearby. Isaac stretched out over the fallen stones, and we felt we had received so many gifts.
I have been grateful on nearly countless occasions since but the nature of gratitude is that it is always too much, always humbling, life giving, and nourishing.
It was not that we were more deserving than others, we were not really poor, we both had loving families and beds to sleep in when we returned to North America. But we were on an adventure in the age before cell phones and online bookings, and every time we sought to explore the open world, we discovered it waiting with open arms.
I guess that’s one reason Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, because it feels like the beginning of another great adventure.