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Disenchanted April

Susan H. Evans

Vienna dazzles white in the drizzle, but it casts a dismal sheen. And it isn’t really a drizzle so much as a daylong siege, a drowned dog wet — wringing out your socks wet. I waddle along under a morose gray sky, trying not to slip and hurtle down the 1,000 stone stairs over the canals connecting one street to another. Gondolas bob up and down in the downpour, like cradles or coffins, depending, tethered to poles. They yearn to drift out to sea. I can relate.

I endeavor to keep up with my companions. Their baseball caps flicker bright red in the deluge. I crane my neck, searching for them constantly, wind and rain blowing in my face. I wish to beat them over the head with the hats, and throw their carcasses in the canal for a gondola to plow over.

The wind chill makes it feel like 47. Dressed in every stitch of warm clothes I packed, and floating in a plastic raincoat, I look like a translucent mushroom with a small bobble head. I’m soaked, exhausted, and demoralized, and shrouded in a mist of misery. The last glimmer of hope I had to redeem this Trip of Horrors vanishes, a watercolor in the rain gurgling down the drain. Water, water, everywhere. Only one day in Vienna and I’m strangled by these albatrosses — the Type A, dreary lot I connected to on Facebook. They made sure to pack lots of alpha female hormones and slung high drama carry-ons over their shoulders for the trip. The hormones and drama pair well with the copious amounts of wine they imbibe.

Margo alternates between tears and rage and is mean as a pit bull chained in a thunderstorm. She is our bipolar trip facilitator at the Villa Dontnothinworksata. Sometimes her wedge haircut gets caught in her hyena-laughing mouth, and the next minute, rims her red eyes and screwed-up face, as she boo-hoos over a crush she could have dated. When she was 14. Not long ago, at 4 am, she sends me a text exalting red poppies she discovered, but later in the day admonishes me sharply, “Don’t touch any of the stove dials.” Her rental car nearly runs over a motorcyclist in Florence. She screams at the man and beats the steering wheel bloody with her fists.

Then there is Victoria who dresses in odd assortments of pocketed brown corduroy pants, tee shirts, vests, and jackets. No real sightseeing for her; the woman rushes down Italian streets like the Hounds of Hell nip at her heels. She tells me she’s a consultant, a singer, an actress, a World Bank speaker, and a patented “systems” guru. In her red cap stuffed over her straw-colored hair, she sits at the villa’s dinner table many nights, inviting “clearing the air” confrontational pow wows. She speaks her mind often. Very often.  

And then there’s Jackie O lookalike Kit who pins her short hair back in clips, and is the only one that can figure out the convection oven. Her Italian family made the first frozen pies in Michigan, she says in a nasal voice. Once she backs the rental car into a big geranium pot. Then she drives over a big rock and dislocates the bumper. Victoria fixes it with two Euros.

Kit isn’t so bad by herself, but she has a twin… a Canadian doppelganger who skips along after her mindlessly, a shadow puppet, speaking like she has a mouthful of rocks, and smiling constantly. She enthuses, “I like everybody. And this is a trip of a lifetime!” as she jumps into one of the Eurocars with her girl crush and away they go. She’d be pretty with her long chestnut hair if one could overlook her mouth disorder. I learn Charlotte was married to a control freak for 30 years that told her she could visit her family, but if she smiled, they were going home. If he weren’t dead, I’d feel sympathy for him. Only undertakers grin as much. She stops at every shop in Florence, oohing and aahing over wooden Pinocchio puppets. Like attracts like.

I splash doggedly on through the flooded streets of Venice, hating Italy and these women, as they sprint around the circular, narrow, crowded, cobblestone streets, attempting, it would appear, to outrun any nearby ambulances. Tourist fools like me pass by, blurry faces obscured by plastic jackets and sodden umbrellas. I crave to plead to the sympathetic in the throng, “Please wait! I need to vent to someone about the murderous desire that burns in my heart, my cramps due to constipation, my twitching eye tic, and the red, itchy contact dermatitis from the villa’s soap running up and down my inner arms.”

Once I hesitate and gaze wistfully into a store window at Venetian glass, and I am left behind like an errant bread crumb. Not knowing which way to navigate in this city of labyrinth, I wait under an awning. In a short while, the Canadian with the perpetual smile and personality of dry toast collects me, irritating sloth that I am.

What have I seen in Italy these last few weeks? A better question is what have I not seen: San Gimignano, Castiglione delia Pescaia, Luca, Florence, Verona, and Siena, although my scurrying, aching feet attest that I was sort of there. Mostly I’ve viewed the inside of a small rented car, stuffed into the back seat, cloaked in a protective layer of hermit crab, my claws clutching a backpack.

By the time plans were being made to see Rome and Sorrento, I knew to bail, preferring to stay at the villa and listen to an old CD — Italia: 150 Songs — and watch the green-spined Podarcis sicula (Greek for “agile feet”) lizards slip through cracks in the porch steps. Ah, for their fast, suction-padded feet.

The Villa of Usher, I call the manse, is a nineteenth-century heap of ornate architecture —  dark, uncomfortable, not ready for the twentieth century, much less the twenty-first. We’re antiques living among undusted antiques. The boiler blows up, the indoor temperature remains in the high 40s, we must hang our clothes on shrubbery to dry, and I want my money back from the elegantly-clad Alessandra.

Yes, I’ve sampled the Italian wine, but the grapes taste sour; and I’ve observed the cedars from the terrace and they appear very black. As for the red poppies, well, they remain hidden among tall grass along the roadsides.

I have learned that sometimes it is not the journey, nor the destination. It is the company you keep. Honestly, I’d rather hang out with a good friend on top of a nuclear waste dump than go anywhere else with the Italian road crew. 

Susan H. Evans lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and enjoys writing poetry, creative nonfiction, and memoir.  In April 2022, she (quasi) toured Italy for a month, so her story is true with only name changes to protect the guilty. Evans truly loves travel, and has also been miserable in Scotland (twice), Northern Ireland, Spain, Switzerland, the Philippines, Alaska, and Portugal. She is published in many online and print magazines and journals.