I met the couple from San Diego and their Welsh friends at a train station in Naples. I was on my way to Pompeii, not sure I’d found the right platform and confused by the lack of station maps. They were on a cruise and had taken the day to sightsee.
I knew families back home that went on cruises. I’d gone on one myself as a kid. I have vague memories of a February head cold, the book I was reading, jewel-green-blue ocean on all sides. Now I was into my last college semester, spending a week in Rome at a hostel near Termini. I wanted to see the ancient sites. I’d already done the Forum and the Coliseum, Ostia, the Appian Way: Pompeii was my last item before I took a plane back to Norwich and the University of East Anglia.
The cruise ship couples were also confused about the station. We muddled through and found the right tickets, the right platforms. They seemed concerned about my safety, a young woman all alone on a train in Italy. I thought about the women who’d shared a room with me in the hostel: groups, pairs, and, yes, several others alone, on gap year or backpacking through their monthlong vacation. I was paying twenty euros a night to share a six-person room. I’d set up my whole trip by Googling on a university computer.
On a cruise ship, I’d have a room to myself and everything would be taken care of for me. I realized I preferred to meet strangers in a cheap hostel and to spend my afternoons looking for the tastiest gelato in the neighborhood. I liked figuring out how to find exactly what I wanted to see. I wondered when that had changed.
Still in Rome: two nights before. Dinner at the restaurant around the corner, which the hostel had discounted. I had a book. Not long after I sat down, I heard someone nearby give her order in flat American English. I looked up and spotted a woman about my age, alone at her table, dishwater blonde and fair beneath her tan. We established, a bit awkwardly, that we were both American students abroad, both at this restaurant on the hostel’s recommendation. I joined her table. She was from Spokane and spending the semester in Florence. She’d never heard of my college town in northern New York. I told her about UEA in England, its seventies concrete-block architecture and the prestigious creative writing classes I hadn’t gotten into.
Talk turned, inevitably, to what we would do after this final glorious semester. She said she’d thought about applying to the Peace Corps. I’d never heard of it.
“Two years in another country,” she said, “you live like a local, and, you know, you build houses and stuff. I think they’ll take me, because I speak French, and there’s a lot of programs in French-speaking countries in Africa.”
I did not, just then, think to ask any of the usual questions: Do you get paid? Do you choose where you’ll go? Do you have internet, electricity, running water? It was just something she was thinking about — she hadn’t researched it much. A talking point, the same sort of interesting as the roommate who was a travel agent or the one who let strangers couch-surf in her London flat. Something you ended up with after the travel bug bit you.
Naples again, afternoon, hanging around for the train back to Rome. An idea had waited patiently in the back of my brain for two days. Now I was unoccupied, and it demanded my attention.
I could do that. That’s it. That’s what’s next.
I paced around the station for twenty minutes and then sat down to write in my travel journal.
I think I might join the Peace Corps.
I shouldn’t put this into writing — I don’t know enough about it; I might do a bit of research & consign the idea to oblivion.
I am often asked questions about beginnings — Where did you hear about this, when, why, how did you decide? The answer I give depends on how pragmatic I’m feeling. That first entry is full of a self-conscious idealism. I am not adventurous, I always thought, I am not in search of danger, and as for good deeds — well — this is not a feasible option for me so let’s leave the good deeds to people who are capable … And now I’m thinking, Damned if this lark in Rome isn’t an adventure. And, I need to get past this idea that anything is unfeasible just because it’s strange or daunting.
I don’t put it into those terms now. Adventure is a thoroughly impractical reason to dedicate oneself to two years of anything, and the ethics of government-sponsored foreign service projects aren’t as simple as they looked back then. But at the end of the day, this is the moment it began: at a train station in Naples with the aftermath of my undergraduate degree hurtling toward me and a stranger’s words alive in my brain. The sum total of a semester alone on a new continent. One of those moments when my narrative identity was laid out glass-clear and straight, and I was intensely aware of the constructed fragility of it all — that this story I tell myself, doing and being and becoming, is an illusion of coherence my brain imposes on a random and nonsensical world. No story I tell you can approach the complexity of truth.
But, well, it seems to be working out for me so far.