Europe Stories

Part 1: Berlin

I arrive at consciousness, sort of “black-in”, and am confidently walking through a Berlin train station. Why this one? And how soon is my flight? Departure in one hour. Sprinting up the concrete stairs toward the pale light and rain is sobering. I desperately reach for a cab in each bevy of cars that passes, heart pounding.

The day had begun with a much more intellectual milieu. Berlin’s generous offering of historic architecture and art keeps the streets crowded with tourists even on a drizzly day. I was astounded by the scale of the Reichstag Building, like the Merchandise Mart in Chicago but with only a few floors, prayed at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and did not pray, but was impressed by the beauty of the Berlin Cathedral. At times I would look at some impressive structure and not have any idea what it was, having no wi-fi and not being able to read the German plaques.

Of it all, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe had the most impact. Rectangular cement slabs of various height are arranged in rows. The initial provocation as you approach from the street is a graveyard. Hundreds of gray weather-stained 6x6 enclosures — all unmarked, nameless. But as you venture through, not only do the slabs get taller, the ground begins to dip and then rise again recurrently. Entrenched, you are disoriented — nothing but straight lines and the space between them, everything the same in appearance and yet different, moving. I thought about the concentration camps and about the design of an ingenious memorial executing intention cogently.

With lunch, things took a turn. I chose a completely disingenuous German fare spot — the waiters dressed in lederhosen and space for about 300 tourists at beerfest-style long tables — which I loved and had three liters of Hofbräu. The natural follow up then was getting a bike and cigarettes. I don’t smoke regularly, or even properly, but the taste and smell and áffect in that rainy, euro-grunge city was irresistible.

With some wheels at my behest I was able to make a pilgrimage.

Berghain is known today as the best nightclub in the world — a capital of such German traditions as techno music, open sexual activity, and drug-fueled clubbing sessions that last days. Though I was only in Berlin for the afternoon, I wanted to stop and pay respect. For to me, partying is an integral part of the human experience, and this place was a mecca.

And boy was I being the change that day; after a few more bike stops Berlin got blurry. I found myself back in the Lustgarten, lying in the grass and taking in the sights once more. And then it was time to get back to the airport. A bartender provided me a to-go cup of vodka and Sprite which I thought would perfectly complement the subway ride; instead it derailed me. A few missed stops, a few transfers, much of this I don’t remember, and then an absolute fucking panic in the rain. But that cab did arrive. My shenanigans and mistakes yet to be made in other countries were left intact.

Part 2: Rome

The premise of this entire trip was visiting my brother Johnny studying abroad in Rome. Italy is, obviously, a dear place to the Antonini family — my parents spent their honeymoon here. They met up with our relatives in Asiago, a town close enough to Austria to explain our complexion. We are also in the line of Caesar, I tell myself, since the surname of Marcus Aurelius, yes that well-liked old emperor that they killed at the beginning of Gladiator, is Antoninus.

Johnny was housed in Trastevere, a neighborhood welcoming to the late night crowd. The alley-like, cobblestone streets are even livelier at night when the piazza bars are as animate as the restaurant patios. We sat around various fountains with Johnny’s study abroad group and did not talk about anything much different than we would amongst the porches of Ohio. We argued about John Lennon and Paul McCartney as songwriters and about their dynamic.

In Trastevere I enjoyed the most ambrosial walk of shame in my life. The sun slowly bled into my path as church bells clanged. A rose, which had been purchased the previous night from a street vendor, hung from my fingers for no good reason.

What was perhaps my happiest day in Europe was spent mostly on a wide stone step. For hours Johnny and I sat with two beautiful Canadian girls he had met and had gelato and Peroni which we picked up at small shops within the step whenever we had run out.

That afternoon we ate at the patio at Baccanale and ordered tagliere misto di salumi e formaggi (a charcuterie plate), grigliata mista di pesce (small full squids and other seafood bits in an oil base), and vongole y cozze (clams and mussels which Johnny enjoyed, tasty enough to not dip into melted butter as we do in America). We asked more bread and added salt and pepper to the olive oil and talked and laughed through two bottles of pinot grigio from Veneto (Asiago’s region).

On the night before I was to leave, we agreed to shave into mustaches. At the second or third bar we were on a waiting list to sing karaoke when someone said to me, an American, “this asshole is in everybody’s way”. I followed his index finger to my favorite human being, Johnny, dancing with a girl he did not know. While I will concede that Johnny can be lacking in self-awareness, there was nothing wrong with where he was now in this rowdy, singalong bar. Another thing to know about Johnny is that he does not deserve to be called an asshole, ever. At his worst on the worst day of his entire life he would not even begin to approach the embodiment of an asshole. The American went backwards to the floor with one punch but my chest still pounded so I pursued. I hit him very hard in the face maybe four times. While friends and security wrestled me off one shoe came loose. Quickly grabbing it off the floor I whapped the American across the face with the sole, a frankly ridiculous final blow which brought me some pleasure. When Johnny and I reunited in Trastevere he was not pleased. He pointed out to me the devastating potential consequences of being arrested in a foreign country as we had one more beer.

Grazie per aver letto!

Part 3: The South of France

Tucked into a mountainside in the South of France are the sleepy, orange-tree-lined avenues of Menton — heavier oranges lie damaged on their sidewalks. A tennis club in the city center hosts the only noticeable activity. Where picturesque became problematic is with “sleepy”, and also the mountainside. There were no cabs to take and I set off for La Tournerie Hotel on foot.

Within fifteen minutes I was the star of a 1980s comedy in which an affable, clueless American goes on a zany vacation. Carrying all of my luggage and sweating as if I had just jumped into the fucking Riviera, I followed ascending stone pathways and stagger-leveled surfaces one after another. Some parts were so steep that you had to consciously lean forward to stand, as if you were on a roof. I could not make up the fact that I was wearing my completely unbuttoned Cubs jersey for all of this. Only the hotel receptionist Julien, who kindly offered a glass of water, witnessed the quavering, heaving American hilarity I was that evening.

In the next days, La Tournerie was the institutional manifestation of the feeling you get taking your shoes off at the end of a long day and falling onto a made bed. The view from the breakfast patio was the most complete. At the pool only two other swimmers joined quietly while I mixed whiskey and Coke in a plastic hotel-standard cup from my room. During my stay I listened to exclusively the below songs, which I wanted to share so that you are able to visit La Tournerie Hotel without having to first climb half a mountain, though that’s the way I recommend.

A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left — Andrew Bird

I Can’t Breathe — Bea Miller

Caroline No — The Beach Boys

PPP — Beach House

Piazza, New York Catcher — Belle and Sebastian

At My Window Sad and Lonely — Billy Bragg & Wilco

The Wolves (Act I and II) — Bon Iver

Silver — Caribou

Les échardes — Charlotte Cardin

All Through the Night — Ella Fitzgerald

Jennifer — Faust

Tous les garçons et les filles — Françoise Hardy

Oh oh chéri — Françoise Hardy

Le temps de l’amour — Françoise Hardy

J’ai jeté mon cœur — Françoise Hardy

Liebestraum in A-Flat Major, S. 541 №3 “O Lieb so lang’ du lieben kannst” — Franz Liszt

Ask Me Now — Jon Batiste

Modern Love — Lea DeLaria

Liability — Lorde

I’m an Animal — Neko Case

Wandering Star — Portishead

Wild Horses — The Rolling Stones

Life On Mars? — Seu Jorge

America — Simon & Garfunkel

VCR — The xx

Part 4: Monte Carlo

In 1297 a family called The House of Grimaldi grew so powerful that they managed to claim a few kilometers of the Mediterranean coast, not only as their property, but as their own sovereign principality — Monaco. It remains a haven for the wealthy. Famous for its palaces and casinos, yacht competitions and the Grand Prix Formula One race that takes place on its streets — I spent the day there and watched from the beach as a helicopter dropped someone off for dinner.

The second-smallest country, Monaco has about 38,000 residents, but less than a quarter of these are true Monégasques — locals, members of the community whose wealth is a nation. In front of the Casino de Monte-Carlo there are tourists who stand in the sun and enjoy the arrival of Ferraris and Lamborghinis. They snap photos of the casino patrons, not knowing whether they are princes or captains of industry or actors and models. But I did not visit Monte Carlo to window shop. After bathing in the sea I dressed up and walked inside. Not a frequent gambler, I knew my fake-it-and-make-it strategy would be busted at a table, so I headed assuredly for one of the bars along the gilded perimeter. I spoke at length with Eliza, from Nice. Supposedly Hugh Grant, Bono, and Michael Phelps are regulars of hers. Though she was not yet 21 she made a fine Old Fashioned as far as I was concerned and had a pretty smile.

Along the docks I failed repeatedly to land an interview for my story on boating culture in Monte Carlo, or on native attitudes toward the growing travel industry — it changed vessel to vessel — for The Atlantic, for The Economist, and then I came upon two old women. Journalist Joseph P. Antonini was invited aboard their yacht and convivially poured a glass of red wine. One of my subjects, Patricia Kelly, was more talkative than the other and she told incredible stories. Born in Liverpool she “danced her way out”, joining the ballet in Monte Carlo. This was in the time that Grace Kelly — the American actress from Hitchcock movies — was the princess of Monaco and when Patricia’s company performed at Queen’s Palace, Grace approached her. “I have been so longing to meet you, the person with my name in Monaco” the princess reportedly cooed; I scribbled all of this diligently into my journal to maintain the guise. The Beatles came up, being also from Liverpool. Patricia had lived down the street from them at one time. She also met Frank Sinatra, a rumored suitor of Princess Grace. As we uncorked another bottle I was no longer sure who was putting on who.

Part 5: Barcelona

In my final stories, from Barcelona, two themes which I have tried to make prevalent in this series will reach full realization — immersion and limit exploration.

I didn’t take any tours in Europe. My goal was to take each day as if it were one in perhaps years of residence. If that travel-like-a-local ethos sounds unoriginal already, know that I was much inspired by, of course, Ernest Hemingway. His non-fiction collection A Moveable Feast recounts his years as a young man living in Europe. In one story, F. Scott Fitzgerald is concerned about the size of his penis. He confers with Hemingway and the two writers visit The Louvre to check nude paintings and sculptures for comparison — both size and trajectory. I read that one morning while on the Mesón Castellano patio, barefoot and eating a plate of sardines. Yes, reading Hemingway while sitting at cafes and drinking and writing. Reading Hemingway while doing Hemingway. Completely banal, but also I can tell you serene; and I spent about three days doing this. You eat sardines whole — bones, skin, eyes. The waitress will notice you studying your menu and bring another cerveza, though you were really only checking spelling (because Hemingway diligently notes what his characters drink). You will order another after that one anyway.

Then there was the beach. Johnny met me in Barcelona and between us and our friend Gustav, who we found there each day, we were always able to put together a beautiful group for volleyball, swimming, working the beer vendors — whatever the Spanish sun appealed. Many women went topless and before I fully knew the depravity in that city it was a kick to me, worth a juvenile comment to Johnny.

In Barcelona it is morning before the night begins, in a sugary-drunk trance. You can call a cab at two and still dance for five hours at Opium — a gigantic color-blinding steam machine and slut-packed nightclub that spills you out onto the beach at sunrise. Forget your ears ringing — imagine if your whole body could ring, inside and out, for days after. I left around seven, but El Gòtic does not rest. There were prostitutes perhaps every thirty meters who would reveal themselves and click their tongue at me suggestively. It was already bright. This was my outer perimeter, and it was a health-encouraging relief to find that I had one. Partied out, averting my eyes from titties. And that’s where it ends. Five countries later, having discussed Luther and read Hemingway, been blessed by Francis, spent time with Johnny and Franz Liszt, and now coming to know the exact diameter of the dark areola of my soul, it was time to get home.

Joseph P. Antonini

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