Renée Bintje is a travel and leisure writer, whose professional work in the environmental and humanitarian sectors saw her living and travelling across Asia, Europe and Africa. In this column she shares some of her travel sketches, which is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
By Renée Bintje
The station in Assisi was small, quite empty with very few people waiting. There was neither elevator nor escalator. To get to another platform, I had to go down many stairs and then climb up many stairs… As I struggled to descend, a young man who was on his way down kindly offered to carry my luggage and take it up to the next platform. I was very grateful for his help.
Waiting at this platform, I was unable to determine whether it was the right one. I had lost all sense of directions. The names of the destinations on the information boards made no sense to me either. My brain informed me that I was not on the right platform, so I struggled again with the luggage to go down. Like an angel, the same young man appeared and asked where I would like to go. I told him to the same platform I arrived without knowing why, and he carried my luggage back to the original platform, asked me to take care before disappearing from my sight.
At the platform, I suddenly had a clear realisation that I could not continue with this burden. I opened my luggage and started chucking out heaps of stuff, leaving them on the platform benches with multiple seats. I emptied my rucksack, emptied everything this new impulse in my brain was identifying as unnecessary. I was no longer thinking nor considering, I was just emptying my luggage mechanically obeying a higher order that was overtaking any choice nor decision like a tsunami. Beautiful summer dresses, precious winter clothes, formal wear, casual wear, clothes my friends would have dearly liked to have, clothes I received as presents, shoes for different occasions, toiletries I thought I could not live without, books, everything went out.
What remained were my wallet, identification documents, laptop and dongle, a few clothes for everyday wear, my walking boots, some wool and knitting needles. My brain told me that even the luggage was unnecessary, so I left it behind. Now I only had the laptop rucksack that I could sling over the front and a much, much, lighter pack on my back, with both my arms freed.
Now I could move freely.
I walked to a nearby hotel and checked in for the night. There was a phone in my room. I rang one of my closest friends, Charles, and told him what happened.
“I am having a nervous breakdown. I am losing all short-term memory. I took the wrong train and lost my way. I am perceiving everything in a strange way. I feel people look at me like cheap labour, unwanted immigrant, robbing the poor of their incomes. It is a hideous feeling,” I related all the crazy interpretations my brain was making involuntarily.
Charles is one of the few friends I can make insane confessions to, and yet be completely understood without being made to feel insane.
“Come on, Renée, calm down!!! There’s nothing to worry about, just take it easy. You are in a civilised world, this is Europe, it is easy to find your way. Where are you now?” he asked calmly, although I could sense he was trying to cover a worried tone.
I carried on about how I was translating every conversation and felt like I was not supposed to be here doing what I am doing.
“Your feelings about being a ‘cheap labourer, unwanted immigrant’ are probably partly right, by the way, and not due to a nervous breakdown. Indeed, there are many refugees now in Italy and it is a very big deal right now in Italy and all over Europe. You are just in panic, you made a mistake, there is no need to be worried. It has happened to me before, so I understand the feeling.
Please can you give me the hotel name, room number and phone number so I can call you. For now, I think you should get something to eat and go to sleep. You will feel better when you are rested.
As a matter of fact, you ended up by accident in Assisi, which happens to be a very nice city and you will never forget this moment. You should stay here till you recover,” he tried to soothe me.
I was unable to calm down and got in touch with Karen to let her know what happened. I told her that I was losing my mind.
“You lost it ages ago! Why are you in Assisi? Why did you leave the retreat? What’s happening there?” she asked, concerned.
“Yes, I left the retreat. Gianna is tough, and while she can be nice from time to time and funny, she used me to do all sorts of jobs and at the end of the day made me feel as if I had not done enough. She just did not like to see me doing any of my own stuff, the minute I sat down to study Italian, she would come to ask about this and that. And since I live there, she does not seem to understand that someone has finished their duties and is entitled to their own space.
I also find her counting pennies in ways that drove me insane. The yurt was too cold for me in the night, and she was unwilling to rent a simple flat with heating for around two hundred euros in the village so I can do all the work unpaid… Each time we used the car at the retreat, we were charged fifteen euros. And when I was feeling unwell, and asked for some paracetamols, she charged me seven euros!!! I had to walk for ages for supplies…in order not to use the car.
Then, the exchange with Elena changed everything. I started to see that the way I was travelling by volunteering robbed real people who lived there of their real jobs, while transient phantom travellers like me fulfilled their roles…
I have been thinking a lot – like, what’s the point of it all. You know about living, dying, drama after drama while living, all the pain, pleasure, agony, joy, repeat all till death, what is the point of it all? If humans ever learn from mistakes and not repeat them, why is the world in such a state? And if no one is learning and we are all feeding this monstrous treadmill life called The World, with all its suffering and agonies, happy today, miserable tomorrow, how do you get out of it?” I went in a loop with existential questions.
“When I look at the brave little broad beans standing up in their pots on the windowsill, strong and green, with their leaves shining in the sun, I see just how like them we are. They don’t know, as they turn their leaves to the light and warmth, that they’ll be big plants and by August they’ll be composted. What they have is their sunny morning. Rejoice in yours! He of the headlights is waiting to compost us in our turn…,
Don’t keep thinking about everything. Just accept for a while and live from day to day in a very simple way. Stop worrying about the world and the rest of it. You’re alive, the sun is shining, the world is beautiful, you have no diagnosis, though from what you say, I suspect you must be very deficient. Get some good food in, and proper rest! Be a broad bean!!!!” she settled me back gently into the fleeting nature of life.
I could not be bothered with food but drew the curtains and switched off all the lights. I slept for over twenty hours.
When I woke up it was already noon the next day. Famished, I walked to the city centre and had a hearty lunch of salmon carpaccio, creamy pasta with olives and mushrooms and a divine omelette with black truffles. I consciously included the fish even though I wanted to be fully meat free as I felt extremely depleted after months of not eating anything nourishing. I thanked the fish for giving its life to me.
With good food and sufficient rest, my memory and energy steadily came back. In fact, Assisi is truly beautiful, I walked around the ancient centre and came upon the Temple of Minerva. The Greek temple façade stood out distinctly from the rest. There was no one inside, and I sat on one of the benches. I felt safe and protected in this space and remained here for a long while.
I don’t normally pray but in that moment I prayed. While it was terrifying to lose one’s memory and not understand the workings of this “World”, and I was grateful to have it back in order to function on this plane, my mind was flooded with questions about life and living. I questioned whether human beings had any real choices, or whether we were just the living dead running around like wound up mechanical toys, neither understanding the significance of living nor dying.
It was enough that one had to dearly pay to the monstrous world with large chunks of one’s life, first by being educated by that system from childhood to youth, and then make a living to compete and survive in it from youth to old age. I did not want to give to that world any more than I already did. It doesn’t matter what one does, whether one is a scientist, a ballerina, a peasant or a politician, a cook or a king, the deal that the monster makes with every human is that one has to spend chunks of one’s life to feed it. No one is an exception.
For sure I could not and did not want to return to Oxford. I had sublet my flat for at least six months, with the agreement of my landlord, so I had no home to return to. I had also given up my job because I wanted to get out of that monstrous contract every human has signed up with since they are born, so that one is working until all the youthful energies have been exhausted just to spend their last days in the grey twilight of compromise and indifference. I could carry on with volunteering while I travelled Italy and ignore the locals who were denied of earnings because of volunteers, until I got my flat back. I could sleep on friends’ couches until I figured out what to do, or I can continue to explore Italy and do whatever I wanted to do until I ran out of money. I wondered if I had any real choice because at that moment, I did not want to choose any of these.
Charles rang in the evening when I returned to the hotel. Now that I was much more composed, and in order not to worry him more, I steered the conversation off the existential questions that were occupying my mind to how I started chucking out my belongings at the station. My precious belongings, my dearly cherished belongings….
“Do not worry about your clothes and stuff, you will buy new ones. Anyway, you are always complaining that ‘this is soooo last year… so out of fashion!!!’ just to find an excuse to buy new clothes all the time. So now, you do not need any more excuse to enjoy buying new stuff. You are in the right country, by the way, to find your new fashion!!!” he tried to cheer me.
I agreed with him even though I was still sad about parting with my belongings in one prodigious move.
The next day, the fog in my head cleared up and I felt a lot better. With just a light backpack and a rucksack, I realised I had exchanged attachment for freedom. I could now move easily and go wherever I wanted. My train ticket to Perugia had elapsed, so I can buy a new ticket to anywhere. I left the hotel and went to the station in Assisi.
There was nothing left from the pile I left behind. Everything had been wiped out, without a trace.
‘When it is time to let go, one must let go while one still has a choice to do so…If one clings to attachments like grim death unwilling to part, life would do it for you…. choicelessly’…, my brain, which could not help me with the right platform, train directions, nor names of places, at that moment gave me a deep insight.
Only one option was open to me, continue to travel until money runs out or something new opens up.
End of Part 1