My entire life has convinced me that anything worthwhile cannot be bought. Intangible assets like self-esteem, character and values or sentimental objects like heirlooms, a rock from your favorite place or a handmade bracelet from your sister cannot be bargained in any marketplace.
We were on the final ascent of the trip over the Apennines Mountains that divide the east and west of Italy, bound for Rome. From the corner of my eye I spotted a little rubber frog lying lonesome on the shoulder of the road. My brakes locked and I waddled backwards to retrieve the small token.
Captured in some piece of junk can be memories, feelings or emotions. My mom’s favorite creature is the frog. Peddling my bike thousands of miles from home, it was as if my mom popped her head around the corner just to say a quick “hello.” A stupid rubber frog doesn't make everyone smile, but there is something that reminds each of us of the love we feel from and for others.
Childhood memories of sitting in the front seat of my mom's car ran through my mind. She would always have some little toy or object she found on the ground glued to her dashboard. I remember a cute little orange goldfish with oversized eyeballs. Mom called them “Treasure Trash.” Lydia, my beloved, always has a heads up penny tucked in her purse for good luck. And a miniature pair of Puerto Rico boxing gloves hanging from her car mirror reminding her of dad.
One day, in my late teens, my mother came home from a walk with a giant stick. “It's just a cool stick, check it out.” she said. A decade later and it's still hanging up in her house. It holds a little memory of our old dog Gizmo, who trotted beside her on adventures through forested paths. Just a little treasure trash to remind us of the things we love. Even if that stick is thrown out, the essence still lingers, it's what made that stick worthwhile.
In the past few weeks Lydia and I have made some lifetime friends and memories while wandering among Italy. Here are some quick tales:
“What's wrong,” Lydia said.
“I don't know, it looks closed,” I replied, looking down at my phone.
The one star hotel Google suggested had all its lights turned out. It was empty, lifeless.
“Well, we should move on,” said Lydia.
As I struggled to get my bike into the street between seven thousand scooters parked along the sidewalk a young man pulled up on a motorcycle.
(Speaks in Italian.)
“Mi scusi, no parlo Italiano.”
“Hablo Espanol?” He asked.
“Do you speak English?”
He asked if I needed help and what I was looking for. I told him of our search for cheap accommodations.
“Why don't you just come over. I live above the Spaghetti House. I'll see you there at dusk.”
He handed me a paper map, showed me some places to see in the meantime and rode off on the motorcycle. What kind of angel is this and who sent him? All this happened in about 60 seconds. What made it more of a miracle was that we were looking for somewhere to stay a few nights because Lydia was not feeling well. It proved to be a godsend.
We spent 3 days with Marco and his friends, sharing food and conversation. The natives showed us the secrets of making real pizzas from scratch. We jazzed the deep questions of life's mysteries and cursed like the dickens. Our final night was spent with Marco and his girlfriend as they led us in dance to local musicians along the streets of Trieste. I asked Marco why he spontaneously approached me that first day. He said, “I like cycle travelers. And you guys looked nice.” I suppose that's all it takes to convince someone to give gracious kindness.
A week later, traversing the Croatian islands, we stopped to make sandwiches next to a bar. A man approached us and asked, “can I buy you a drink?”
“Sure,” I replied. “After we finish our sandwiches we'll be right over.”
We talked to Mauro and his wife Michela over perspiring drinks in the steady sun. It was our fully loaded bikes that had sparked their interest in us. They too have cycled much of Europe, climbed the highest mountain on the continent, and done many more impressive things than I have ever attempted. The offer was presented if we found ourselves in Rome that we had a place to stay. I must state, be careful when you invite us over, we show up.
Ten days later they picked us up by van on the outskirts of Rome to help us survive the city traffic. Out of sheer generosity, we were treated to the full Roma experience. Michela and Mauro took us on a thrilling scooter ride through the streets of Rome during sunset. In an hour we passed the Colosseum, Vatican City, beautiful Chapels, Piazza Venezia and more. I also got to experience some real European scooter driving - riding in between a semi-truck and brick wall at 60 kilometers per hour, into oncoming traffic to avoid stop lights, and making right turns from the far left lane. It was a treat!
The next three days included a beautiful bike ride on an ancient Roman road, home cooked meals and a trip to the ocean. Mauro did a complete repair on Lydia's bicycle that had been misbehaving since London; all this was shared with us without a question of cost or inconvenience. On top of all that, we were welcomed with genuine open arms into a real family. You cannot pay to be standing in the kitchen where someone grew up and being taught how to make a traditional pasta recipe. You cannot purchase hilarious conversations because they are lost in translation. The beauty and comfort we felt sitting around the dinner table those nights will never be forgotten.
Mauro and Michela dropped us off at the ferry to Barcelona, Spain. As the tears began to spill Mauro knew to pull Michela into the car and take off. It's better that way, not looking back. But I was left with the warmest memories sitting on the boat crossing the Tyrannian sea. The couple shells we scavenged from the beach will always spawn memories of the family we have back in Rome. Every time I make a pizza I'll go back to standing in Marco’s kitchen, covered in tomato sauce and flour. You couldn't pay a travel guide or tourist office a million dollars for gifts like these.
One thing Michela said that struck me deep was that she didn't believe family was a matter of genes. The world is one big family and should be treated so. Much of why we ache derives from the very lack of this. I've heard many people talk about this philosophy, but in Rome and Trieste, I've seen people live it. I could never repay these folks the kindness they’ve given, but I can bestow the world this same generosity that's been shown to me.
Mom's Treasure Trash Collection
As the little rubber frog endures the wind and sun on these last days of our journey, some “treasure trash” and their memories fill my heart. How could these things not make the world a better place.