Note: Lonely Planet’s new anthology Better Than Fiction 2 is a compelling collection of true travel stories written by acclaimed fiction writers. We are pleased to excerpt the story below, by Karen Joy Fowler, recalling an especially memorable youthful adventure abroad—an adventure that captures travel’s unexpected detours and delights. Fowler has written literary, historical, and science fiction books. She’s published three collections of short stories, most recently What I Didn’t See. Her novels include Sarah Canary and The Jane Austen Book Club. Her most recent novel, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award and the California Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.
In 1966, when I was sixteen years old, I went on a trip to Italy. This was my first trip to much of anywhere without my parents. It was billed as educational. We would be enrolled at the University for Foreigners in the lovely hilltop city of Perugia to learn whatever Italian we could pick up in four weeks. Students from several high schools were participating; my English teacher was coming, along with three other girls from my English class – Carolyn, Janice, and Ellen, all friends of mine.
We students were lodged in a number of places, but on the cheap. My particular cohort of four landed in a convent. We shared a room on the second floor, spartan but bright, which looked down on the street below. There were bars on our bedroom windows, which we wondered about.
The nuns did not speak English and we, despite the dozen or so hours we’d eventually put in, did not speak Italian. We called the Mother Superior the Hitchcock nun, because she resembled the creepy sort of painting whose eyes follow you around an empty room. Her expression soured visibly whenever she looked at us. The other nuns were friendlier and we had friendlier names for them.
Imagine a trip to Italy, only with terrible food. Perhaps we ate what the nuns always ate: dry rolls, fatty meats, tasteless cheese, bitter tea. One of the teachers complained every morning that they must be making a pretty penny off us. She eventually bought her own jam, taking it out of her purse ostentatiously, this jam that they should have provided, but didn’t. We found the ugly-Americanism of this embarrassing, though in fairness to her, the food was truly terrible. I lived those four weeks on bread and water and a daily trip to the gelato stand.
So there we were, tucked up in the nunnery, and yet most of my memories of the trip have something to do with sex. Not real sex, but the rumor of sex, the specter, the shadow. I was sixteen years old. Sex came in all manner of guises.
This same teacher, the teacher with the jam, was often in a bad mood about something or other. Our guide, a young man from England, told me one day she was probably going through the change of life. He had a girlfriend back home and occasionally asked one or another of the prettier students to model some bit of clothing he was thinking of buying for her. He sang Frank Sinatra songs when we were on the bus, but even this did not diminish his appeal, because it was 1966 and all it took to be sexy was to be British.
The change of life was a phrase and a phase of which I was ignorant. Once explained, it was unwelcome knowledge – someday I would be in a continual bad mood and young men would find that amusing. Yet I was flattered to be confided in. Taken in all, the conversation had provided about equal amounts of pain and pleasure.
At orientation, this British guide had warned us about the Italian boys. They were very handsome, he said (as it turned out, some of them were and some of them weren’t), but very aggressive. They mustn’t be encouraged. We must, at all times, be demure in our dress and deportment. No pants, no short skirts, no bare arms. No make-up. Sensible shoes. We were told to be actively unfriendly.
We four walked to school every morning and went out again on our own after siesta, exploring Perugia’s steep, narrow streets and hidden staircases. We made a game of looking for 12 steps, 39 steps. We saw few girls of our age, but many boys to whom we were not friendly. They didn’t appear to notice. Despite the warnings, it was startling to be pinched and prodded. Carolyn was not the oldest of us (that would be me) but she looked the oldest. Blond and curvy, even in her demure clothes, she was tormented beyond her endurance. One day in a small public square, she turned and slapped a boy across his face. He instantly slapped her back. She began to cry.
An old woman appeared, hugged her. ‘Brava!’ she said. ‘Brava!’ She turned to shout at the boy. He shouted back. Red-faced, he gestured furiously at Carolyn. Slowly a crowd gathered, men shouting at women, women shouting at men. A gender war had broken out. Since we could understand none of it, we slipped away while it was still escalating. I have no idea how or when it ended. For all I know, they are shouting there still.
Another day, an older man, a man about the age of our fathers, came and chased the boys off for us. He spoke good English and was courtly and kind. After that, we often saw him and often talked to him. We felt that we had made an Italian friend. One sunny afternoon, on our way home to dinner, we passed him seated at an outdoor café. He waved us over, got us chairs. It was soon clear that he was very drunk. He moved close to Carolyn. He put his arm around her. He put his other hand in her lap. Something happened under the table. When she jumped up, he spilled his drink down her dress and over my legs and that was the way we had to go back and face the Hitchcock nun, wet and reeking of alcohol.
The School Dance
Janice was our resident expert in all matters sexual, the one who explained the change of life to me. She was the only one of us with a boyfriend back home. She wrote him letters and talked about him endlessly. He was sort of a boyfriend and sort of her piano teacher. He was much older, and had an actual girlfriend, so their affair had to be conducted in secret. All this seemed adult and sophisticated to me, not a bit sad or unseemly. The fact that it was also illegal interested us not at all, since it carried the suggestion that we were not capable of making the smart choices we were so obviously making.
Toward the end of our trip, the university hosted a dance. I could see only two possible outcomes to this. The first was that I wouldn’t be asked to dance. The second was that I would. And I didn’t see how I could manage it, dancing while being actively unfriendly. Both possibilities made me so anxious that I told my friends I wasn’t feeling well and stayed behind at the convent, playing checkers with the nuns. We had a rousing game and I went to bed early.
My friends returned around midnight and woke me. A group of boys had followed them back from the dance. They were in the street now, calling up to the open windows. ‘I can kiss you! I can kiss you!’ Several of them made it, hand over hand on the columns and cornices, to the second floor. They hung there, looking in. Their hands came through the bars. They howled at us.
The nuns sprang into action. Checking first to make sure we were all in our bedroom where we belonged, they armed themselves. Not Catholic myself, I had imagined the nuns would command a certain respect. They did not. We watched from our windows as they attacked the boys with mops and broom-handles, trying to knock the ones on the edifice to the ground, to chase the ones on the ground away.
In the end, they triumphed, as nuns will do. They came back inside, heads high. ‘How was the dance?’ I asked my friends and they said it was good. Really fun! I should have come!
A few days later, there was a drama involving one of the girls from a different high school. She’d gotten engaged to an Italian boy, our British guide told us. Her parents arrived as quickly as you can fly from California to Italy, possibly quicker, to whisk her home. They had some words with the guide to the effect that he was not supervising us properly. He pointed out that none of the rest of us had gotten engaged, only their daughter. It was a standoff.
After four weeks, we left Perugia, down one student, no more fluent than when we’d arrived. There followed a week of travel on the bus. The food improved immeasurably, which was a great relief as I’d spent all my remaining gelato money on a local artist’s rendition of Don Quixote.
We saw the iconic works of art – the Sistine Chapel, the Pietà. I remember the David best, but mostly because Janice bought a small replica and shipped it off to her boyfriend with a ribald note. The note was very funny, she told me, but she wouldn’t read it to me, because she said I wouldn’t approve. There is nothing more annoying than being told there is a funny joke that you can’t hear. How did she know what I would approve of? I was the one who made her whole affair possible, driving her to meet him in out of the way places, lying to everyone about where we were, providing the cover of my own spotless reputation. I felt hard done by.
In Florence, we aroused little of the attention we’d gotten in Perugia; in Rome, none at all. Our remaining adventures were less sexual than life-threatening.
We were booked home through Shannon Airport on Saturn Airways in a modest four-propeller plane. Janice had the window seat. About twenty minutes out, she turned to me. ‘One of the propellers has stopped,’ she said. Across the aisle, Carolyn and Ellen were sleeping. ‘Should we tell them?’ she asked and we decided we would not.
Moments later, the pilot spoke over the intercom. ‘We’re returning to Ireland. We’ve had a little engine trouble, but not to worry. We could get back on a single propeller if we had to.’
Those on the right side of the plane didn’t know a propeller was out on the left. Those of us on the left didn’t know that both propellers were out on the right.
Plus the wing was on fire.
The pilot continued to talk to us. He was calm and cheerful. The crew behaved less professionally. Perhaps I’m misremembering that we could hear one of the flight attendants throwing up in the bathroom. I’m certain one of them quit on the spot, loudly and publicly.
We had a beautifully smooth landing. When we debarked, the runway was lined with sobbing Irish. They seized and hugged us. ‘You had the best pilot in the world!’ they said. They shook their hands heavenward. ‘The best pilot in the world!’ The best pilot in the world had completely persuaded me that we were in no danger; this was my first understanding otherwise. I turned to watch him come down the stairs. His hands were shaking; his face was drained of color. Someone handed him a bottle of whisky. He stood and drank it right there on the tarmac while people cheered him and cried.
Again, there were compensations. A cute boy from another high school who’d never said a word to me before asked if I was all right. Saturn Airways was forced to buy us all a lovely supper and put us up for the night. I remember this as one of the most amazing meals of my life. Roast chicken. Rhubarb pie. We had hotel rooms with feather beds. And also this – a whole new plane sent from Germany.
We finally arrived in New York in the middle of the great airline strike of 1966. We spent a night at the airport, which was crammed with people sleeping on the chairs and floors. If our parents ever wanted to see us again, they were going to have to pony up for first class. This remains the only time in my life I have ever flown first class and I slept through the whole thing. Janice told me they served frogs’ legs.
But these final adventures, dramatic as they were, are not what I think of first when I remember my trip to Italy. Instead, I remember how it rained every day during siesta, but stopped politely when we wished to go out. I remember the pantomimed amazement of the nuns that we could sleep in the large curlers we wore to bed. I remember our British guide singing “Strangers in the Night” and our English teacher telling me I should write it all down, because I would be a writer someday. (I did write it all down. I lost that diary decades ago.)
And all this is still not what I think of first. The very first thing I remember, and with enormous pleasure, is the great battle at the convent. The boys on the walls, the nuns with their brooms. The four of us watching from above, just sixteen years old and already that epic struggle below, waged for us and only us.
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Reproduced with permission from Better Than Fiction 2, 1st edition, edited by Don George, with contributions by M.J. Hyland, Francine Prose, et al. Copyright © 2015 Lonely Planet.
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