Day 155, 156 and 157: Nonantola, Como and Milan

When we got back from Osteria Francescana all I wanted was a nap. When my stomach’s full of every ingredient I know and a thousand others I don’t – I categorise everything in too hard, fuck it. Well almost everything. Enrico was waiting for us with a message. His mate Guido was keen to show us around his family-run balsamic vinegar farm. Ah well I guess so.

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In the balsamic industry it’s tradition to buy a set of aging barrels at a child’s birth. Guido’s been making vinegar since then. The whole set up is in his family shed and a few rows of regional grapes. He’s not in it for the money because if you’re making balsamic the traditional way like him, there isn’t any. Most commercial vinegar productions add corn starch, syrup or other bits and bobs to make their products thicker, sweeter or more abundant. It’s the only way to make the products profitable.

Guido uses only grapes and time. He takes the grapes from his own vines, boils them in large vats for a day or two and wacks the sugary juice into barrels. For the next 10-40 years he tends to each barrel to make sure all the little bacterias are happily chewing booze and cooking sugar. The longer you wait the thicker, sweeter and less tart the vinegar gets until it becomes a dark caramel like lacquer.

Guido being a spectacularly nice guy let us try everything – including his 49 year old birth barrel.

I had my first bad experience hitchhiking. Honey Vader and I were waiting at a gas station on the edge of Modena. We didn’t really know where we wanted to go, we just knew we wanted to be underwater. After only four minutes a camper van stopped. I’ve never been in a camper van, how fun.

The driver was a short, stringy Bosnian guy who called himself Tony. He had ambiguous scars on his arms, smoked as much as he talked and ran his hands through his hair like a gangster with a debt. He showed us pictures of his bikini’d daughters and asked us questions about our lives. After we were all settled in and acquainted he told us a story of how he got robbed the night before.

He was in Florence sleeping in his van when two dudes picked the locks of his van door, grabbed his shit and ran. Tony, running his hands through his hair and puffing away like a little steam engine, said they took €1600, his visa and his credit card. Oh no, we said, what bastards.

He had been in Florence on holiday because it was his birthday week. The next day he was going to Milan to celebrate his 50th. He told us there was going to be rotisserie lamb, a Bosnian band, dancing, booze and 60 of his family members. I want in. I ooohhhed, aahhhhed, wowed and told him I thought it sounded like the best party ever. He liked my enthusiasm and told us to join the party. Honey Vader gave him a mobile number and he would call us the next day.

Later, after a long nap and few more excited chats about the oncoming party we reached a toll. Tony started freaking out. He had no money because of the florence robbery and he didn’t know what to do.

“I nervous.”

“Hey. Tony. Be calm, I’ll pay.”

“It will be thirty of forty euros.”

“Oh fuck. That’s expensive. . . Yeah, it’s ok. I’ll pay.”

“I’ll pay you back at the party tomorrow.”

“Ok cool.”

We arrived at the toll and the fee was €41. I handed Tony a €50 and he paid the fee. The change came and he shoved it in a nook of the dashboard.

“I’ll pay you the full $50 at the party.”

“Ok sure.” That was a weird thing to do but I thought he may need a bit of money so he could buy some dinner.

Then things started getting a bit weird. We had arranged to be dropped off at the highway to Como. When we were on the ring road around Milan he made a wrong turn – away from the highway where we needed to go.

“Tony. I don’t understand. I thought you were going to drop us at a gas station on the highway to Como?”

“I’m going to leave you near there in a good place you can hitchhike.”

What the fuck is happening? I started to get concerned.

“Tony, can I have your number?”

“I have your number I can call you.”

“I have fear now. €50 is a lot of money to me. I have now power to get it back.”

“You say I’m a bad man? I’m a good man. I take you where you want to go. I invite you to my party. I’m not bad man.” He mimes spitting.

“I’m a good man. You say I’m a bad man after I help you?” He was running his hands through his hair with every sentence.

About forty minutes later, after Tony had turned off into the city of Milan, I asked again.

“I told you. I’m taking you to a good spot.”

Then, in the middle of backwater Milan industrial/suburbia he stopped outside a fruit stall. He leapt out and started speaking to the vendor. They spoke fast but I understood he was asking about bus numbers. The chat ended and he beckoned us out. We grabbed our shit and followed him to the door of a bus.

“I’ve known this guy for 35 years. He is going to take you to where you need to go.”

We said goodbye and got into the bus.

“Hey do you know that guy?” I asked the bus driver.

“I’ve never seen him before. He probably says that about everyone.” I turned around to see Tony getting into his camper van. I’m never going to see that money again am I?

Tony never called again. He’d conned me.

We stayed in Como that night. Our host was Marco, a gangly eccentric musician who’d just discovered couchsurfing. Since he first logged in he’d been living in a social whirlwind. He already had another couchsurfer, a french girl with a confusing name and a frenchafied Daria like quality, but whatever someone can sleep on the floor. Get it into it! The next day (our morning was sacrificed for late night pizza and a personalised lute concert) the four of us went into town to see the lake.

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On our way we bumped into another Como couchsurfer. He had black clothes, converse shoes, facial hair and three guests – almost exactly the same as Marco. Sometimes when two tornadoes crash into each other they become one tornado – a single, bigger, more ferocious force never to be separated until it dies. I was like a little stick – first swept up into one storm and now being gleefully and carelessly whisked around the Como sights. The only decision I made in several hours was which gelato flavour to order. I now understand why Bop was so unfazed by anything happening in Berlin. He was a stick too, swept up in my storm.

We needed to go to Milan that night. Honey Vader had work in two days so we had organised a car share to take us to Paris the next day. We were going to meet our driver in the city, pay him £44 and he would drive us the eight hours or so to Paris. It’s not cheap but it’s certainly more economic than a plane/train/bus and far more reliable than a day of hitchhiking. Good business I thought. When we got to our hotel at midnight or so I had a message from the car share driver.

“I need you to confirm tonight that you are interested because other people are interested and I have no answers from them yet. The first to answer me is the first taken :).”

You can spare me that smiley face motherfucker. I’ve already sent you three messages expressing my interest.

Of course I was not the first to respond? I stayed up all night waiting to hear from him. By 7am we had no response. How are we supposed to get to Paris?!

Luckily there was two seats left on an easy jet flight – the cost €189.

Fuck that guy and fuck Tony even more.

I’d lost €240 – that’s how much I’d spent on one lunch a few days earlier. How much money have I saved over the last five months? Thousands surely. I didn’t really give a shit about that. It’s about trust. I’ve been completely reliant on a trust economy for months. I’ve been invited into hundreds of people’s cars, restaurants and homes and I’ve said yes every time. All those experiences have made my trip what it is. I hate those guys for giving me doubt, making me feel like maybe it isn’t safe, maybe I should just travel like every other backpacker.

I remember Honey Vader saying to me that travelling like this is a risk. I thought about that for a while. Yeah it is a risk but in a way so is taking a train or staying in a hotel. How many times have I paid heavy dosh for shitty trains that smell like hobo masturbation or how many times have I stayed in hotels with piss stains and ceiling fans that sound dying transformers? It doesn’t matter that I got conned by a wiry Bosnian, the trust economy is in fine shape. I’d lost money but I wasn’t about to loose my trust. I’ve had over 200 rides, countless hosts and a shit load more generally incredible people who’ve helped me just because their incredible people. The trust economy is strong – I’m so far into the green I’m laughing. I’m fucking Clive Palmer and Tony can do fuck all about it.

Hitchhiking summary
Rides taken: 1
Distance travelled: 174km
Average wait: 4minutes

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