You're bound to run into problems on any long trip, whether you travel by boat, train, plane or car. Something, somewhere will go wrong, and the likelihood of this happening only gets greater the longer you're away from home.
Of course, proper planning can keep catastrophes at a minimum, but when I was in my 20s, I hadn't really gotten into that sort of thing yet (and many would argue that I still haven't). So a week into a month-long Europe trip, I ran out of money. Some of it was my fault, and some wasn't, but the long and the short of it was that I ended up sleeping in a McDonalds in Florence, Italy.
I've since enjoyed much more pleasant road trips in Italy, but at the time I was carless, coatless, cashless, and stuck in a city that can eat through insufficient funds more quickly than a fat man inhales buffet food. Here's how it all happened.
At six a.m., I heard the sound of locks being opened as the McDonald's staff came in to get ready for the morning rush. Best to ignore it and hope not to be discovered. It would look pretty dodgy if I came strolling out of the basement when the restaurant wasn't even open yet. I continued dozing as the delicious smell of egg McMuffins wafted down the stairs, through my nostrils, and into my hunger-crazed brain.
The noise upstairs made sleep impossible, but I tried to relax. Suddenly, the mop bucket next to my head moved, and I opened my eyes reluctantly. Time to get up. I blinked a few times and everything came into focus. A young woman stared down at me, a look of faint curiosity briefly curling the edges of her mouth.
"Did you sleep here?" she inquired casually.
"Um ... yeah," I replied, casting my eyes toward the business end of her mop.
"Oh." She went back to mopping. The curiosity was gone. She was indifferent to my presence there. Another dumbass American to add to a burgeoning crowd of such stonzi on Florence's otherwise quaint medieval streets. The restaurant was now open for business, so I went upstairs to make my exit. There were already people in line for breakfast, and I sighed a breath of relief as I walked unnoticed out the front door.
The air outside had a cool edge to it, and I was elated that I hadn't spent the night on the street. Sure the marble floor inside McDonald's had been a little chilly, but nothing like the frosty outside air. It's impossible to sleep in the cold, and being a thin fellow, shivering misery begins sooner rather than later for me.
My first thoughts were of food. Having run the gamut of possible solutions to the problem of my negative checking account balance, I had figured out that the only way to get out of this situation was to get someone to put money into my account.
How embarrassing-two years before turning thirty, I had to get bailed out by my grandfather. I'd suggested that someone buy me a 60 Euro rail ticket back to Palermo, where I could hang out at Zio Enzo's house for free until my paycheck finally arrived at the bank.
"Why, so you can bother him some more?" my grandfather had snapped irritably. "As soon as you get the money I'm giving you, you're going to go to London to stay with your mother's friends until it's time to fly back to California. That's an order! I don't want to hear about you traipsing all over Europe, blowing even more money. And leave my brother alone!"
I was hungry and didn't argue, but after I hung up the phone, I began thinking of trying to get a little work done after my funds revived. Up to this point the trip had been debauchery-focused, so I was pretty anxious to do something productive before returning home.
I needed to go to Normandy to interview a handful environmental activists for their international beach cleanup day. That was the plan I was sticking to, although I decided it was best not to mention it to my grandfather, who was more pissed off at me than at any other point in my life. I think what miffed him more than anything else was my blasé attitude about the whole thing. In retrospect, I was acting pretty, well, irresponsible-rich-kid for someone raised by a financially responsible middle class family. When he had asked what lesson I'd learned from the experience, my answer was not to his liking.
"Yeah!" I laughed into the phone, "Next time I'll make sure to bring a credit card with a higher limit."
"Goddammit! You don't travel when you don't have enough money!" my grandfather, a normally calm man, screamed in reply.
Having gotten little sleep on the cold marble floor of McDonald's, I knew it would be a long morning. Basically, I had to keep moving until it was warm enough outside to return to the riverbank and take a nap in the sun. I'd only slept for three hours. Across the street at Florence's sprawling train terminal, the gaggle of suspicious police officers who had been guarding its heated waiting room against encroachment by bums like me had been replaced by a more viscous mob of milling tourists. I slid through them and took a much-appreciated seat near a heater vent.
Through the lounge window, I caught a glimpse of a familiar "Jesus is my Homeboy" trucker hat headed in my direction from across the platform, and jumped up to go meet him.
"Johnny, what's going on, man?!" I exclaimed with a smile. We'd met at one of the city's ubiquitous Californian-packed Irish pubs a few nights earlier, when I was squandering the rest of my dwindling cash supply on drinks for people I'd just met. Johnny was traveling with Adam, a thick-accented Kentuckian who had also been a recipient of my last spending spree. The unlikely pair was about to board a train to Venice and go spend a few days at Johnny's place. After making a bit of small talk, I got to the point.
"Is there any way I could bum five or ten Euros, guys? I feel pathetic asking, but I haven't eaten in two days."
"I'm really sorry mate, but we've just spent all of our money on these bloody train tickets." Said Johnny.
"Wait," Adam interjected, "I have a couple of Euros here. You can at least get a cup of coffee or something with that." I accepted the gift gratefully, calculating how much shitty fast food I could stuff into my mouth with two Euros, 20 cents.
Johnny handed me a cigarette and smiled apologetically. "Sorry mate, I wish I had somethin' else to give you."
"No worries, man." I said, bidding them farewell and making a beeline for the food court. My goal was to find the most economical and filling food available. The most filling meal my newly-acquired handful of change could buy was a couple of McDonald's hamburgers and two large packets of ketchup.
It was the first time I had eaten McDonald's in two and a half years-I'd boycotted it after watching Supersize Me. But at that point, I was too famished to be ashamed about breaking the fast and tore into the two mushy hamburgers. Even the ketchup tasted like a delicacy, and I mopped up every last bit, making sure to get the last smears in the corners of the little plastic tub with a couple pieces of soggy McBun.
It was still only 8 a.m., so I had some time to kill until I could go down to the river bank and sleep in the warm midday sunlight. For a while, I amused myself by talking to some tourists from Pittsburgh. Then I saw a familiar face standing in line to get some McBreakfast. A girl named, Kayla, one of the first people I met when I came to Florence, was headed to Cinqueterre for the weekend with one of her friends. Thankfully, my belly was full of McDonald's hamburgers, so I didn't feel the need to beg for money-even though I could have eaten another three or four burgers. Instead, I kept what was left of my dignity and settled into a cheery conversation until it was time for them to leave.
Although I was hungry, tired, and not in the best situation, I was still a tourist, and wanted to see some sights. Before going to the river, I headed toward Piazza San Marco, intent on checking out the basilica there (as well as using a much-cleaner-than-McDonald's university restroom to brush my teeth). The basilica at San Marco was full of scaffolding, obscuring the ceiling, but there was some nice artwork there, as well as one of those dead saint skeletons in a glass case-always a bonus.
My famished wandering was cut short when I received a call from Sari, a girl I'd met at the bar the night I'd liquidated my meager self worth. I lucked out. She took pity on me, so I had a place to stay for a few days. "You slept in a McDonald's?" she asked when I told her where I'd been. "I wish you would have told me. I was out of town, but I could have left you my keys or something."
Exhausted from aimless, foodless wandering, I headed to her apartment, a tiny garret in an unusually quiet neighborhood. But even though I'd temporarily solved the shelter problem, food was scarce. Sari was an undocumented Sacramentan without a job, and had spent all of her money on rent. She scavenged friends' tables to get by. Between the two of us, we scraped together enough change to buy some bread, cheese, cured meat, and a couple huge bottles of very cheap wine. Sari had neither television nor radio in her pad, so we amused ourselves by sitting in front of its single window drinking wine and smoking cigarettes for hours on end. The scene before us was the perfect backdrop for idle, tipsy chatter, a tapestry of varied terra cotta rooflines reminiscent of an M.C. Escher print.
At night, when the window scene was too dark to behold, we ventured out into the city with our cheap wine and cigarettes, enjoying the mellow nighttime vibe at Piazza della Signoria and Santa Croce. Drunken (usually American) revelers spilling out of bars along Via Verde provided entertainment. We ended up running into a lot of the same people down there as well. As we sat on the steps of Palazzo Vecchio, a policeman came up to chat. We were well into our second bottle of crappy table wine, so I was a bit apprehensive about interacting with an officer of the law. But I needn't have worried. We were in Italy, not the U.S. He didn't give a hoot that we were drunk-he was just bored and wanted someone to talk to. As we were, he was merely passing time. If only American policemen, with all of their tactical gear and brusque military speak, could be so relaxed.
My much anticipated paycheck deposited a couple of days later, and I wasted no time rescuing my coat (which I'd been chilly without) from the tailor shop and buying a flight to London and a free place to stay. My flight didn't leave until the next evening, so I had an entire day to see all the sights penury had kept me from seeing. Another night spent swilling cheap wine meant that I didn't rise until almost noon my last day in the city, but it gave me enough time to wander through Palazzo Vecchio and marvel at the grandeur left behind by the Medici.
Waiting for the bus to the airport in nearby Pisa, I cracked open the last bottle of inexpensive wine and lit a cigarette as the sun sank below Florence's ancient skyline. My buzz deepened with every pull from the bottle, and I basked in recollections of a pretty pointless week in Florence. I couldn't help but wonder what lay in store for me now? I didn't know, but I was pretty sure that it would be anticlimactic. Had I learned my lesson? Maybe, maybe not. But how many people can say they slept in a McDonald's basement in Florence?
Photo credit: Benjamin Preston