On Again, Off Again
Chapter 1–3 FICTION
So many novels on travel start the same way — diving headfirst into the middle of a story with no acknowledgment to the preceding. I get it; it’s fun to tell a story that is non-stop fun. But this story isn’t always fun — and I’m not sure if you could consider it a travel story at all.
This story dates back all the way to the first time our paths crossed when we were teenagers running around an island in the Mediterranean. Footloose — and most the time barefoot, at that.
Her name was Isabella; it still is. My name is Jack, sorry if you prefer a more exotic appeal. We were both 19 and living away from our parents for the first time in our lives. She came on a plane from Hong Kong where her parents migrated before she was born. I came from New York City where the people are angrier than they are in the Mediterranean.
But, I guess the story starts even earlier than that. The whole story dates back to the early Nineties before either Iz or I was born. If told wholly, the story must start with our fathers whose friendship was as tight as their chubby shorts at the time.
They were placed as housemates at University in Manchester for three years and became brothers born across the world from each other.
My father always told me stories of his uni days when he’d stomp around the bars with his best mate Thomas whom he’d since lost touch with because of sheer distance. Thomas was Isabella’s father.
When Iz and I met in Malta, it was by sheer coincidence and it took an even more dramatic coincidence, yet, for it to happen.
I lived in the same apartment building as Iz our first few months studying on the island, but I didn’t know her yet. I’d see her in passing and give a friendly neighbor nod.
Simultaneously, our younger brothers were competing in a worldwide youth soccer league. When the Hong Kongian team matched up against my brother’s youth team in Italy, both Iz and I decided to make the short flight to Florence to see them.
I’m not a believer in destiny, but fate has a different appeal to me. Fate is what you can’t control. And I believe Iz and I meeting while boarding the plane at Luqa International Airport was a sign of fate.
She kept glancing at me as I tried to realize where I recognized her from. “Hey, ehm, aren’t you living in the Rosette building in Msida near to the skate park?” she asked with an unsure smile. She spoke with a level of uncertain confidence but I told her I recognized her too and we laughed at our uneasiness to approach each other.
“Where you going?” I asked. She laughed it off as a joke, but I really was just awkward enough to ask as we stood in line at the same gate, boarding the same flight.
“So, you’re studying at the uni, too?” she asked. I nodded. “Law. What about you?”
“That’s strange,” she said, “I’m in law too but I’ve never seen you around the law building.”
“I’m around there but not all too often,” I said. “What’s your name, by the way? — So we can formally meet and you’re not just a person who lives in my building I smile to in passing.”
She chuckled. “I’m Isabella.”
“Nice to meet you, Isabella. I’m Jack.” I shook her hand, the softest hand I’d ever held. A delicate hand.
“So, have you ever been to Florence?” I asked her.
“Ugh, yes. Unfortunately. Too many times.”
“What? You don’t like it? Isn’t Tuscany as charming as they say?
“Only if you’re into all of that movie bullshit,” she said.
“Oh, no — I mean, I’m not — I just thought someone like you — like, a girl might. . . you know. . .,” I stumbled for words.
“I get it. But that’s not me. That’s just a bunch of hype for tourist dollars — or Euros — how you like. Italians are great at that,” she said.
“So, you have work there?” I asked.
“Work? No,” she answered confused.
“You said you’ve been a few times too many, I just assumed since you’re going back again it must be work-related.”
“Actually, it’s my little brother — ,” she said but I interrupted her.
“Wait, is he playing soccer this weekend?” I asked hysterically.
“Football!” she corrected me with a wink. “You’re American, I guess?”
“Yep, you caught me. Where are you from?” I asked.
“Hong Kong” she said. “Wait, how do you know about my brother’s football league?”
“My brother is playing in the same one this summer. I figured it’s about time I go watch a match or two being so close to Malta,” I said.
“Agh!” she said exasperatingly. “My brother has been playing in this league since he was 11. My family has come to Florence every year on this weekend since I was 13.”
The line started to move inside the boarding gate.
“I think I’ll quite like Tuscany. We’ll see. It was nice meeting you officially, Isabella. Maybe I’ll see you around this weekend.”
“Yeah, would be nice. I’ll find you when the flight lands,” she said laughing.
I followed her awkwardly to the back of the cabin as one does when saying goodbye and moving in the same direction. Row 33. We were sat in the same row. Right next to each other.
“You’re kidding!” she said. “Can this get any more coincidental?” she asked, almost as if she knew the surprises weren’t done.
Iz may have been dreading the weekend, but for me, it was a chance to catch up with my family who was on a trans-Atlantic flight to spend a week traveling Europe with my brother. My brother, sister, mother, and father — all were on their way to see me in Italy.
Isabella’s family was on their way from Hong Kong, as well; her brother, mother, and father. Little did we know it was about to be the reunion of a century.
The plane jetted off, down the runway, and up above the baroque-style buildings of Malta’s capital, Valletta. Soon, the countryside farm terraces shrunk to minuscule gardens as we climbed in altitude. The cliffs in Gozo seemed just as impressive and the bright blue waters of the Med were never bluer.
Everyone’s eyes are glued to the windows when leaving and landing in Malta. The landscape is too eye-popping and different to ignore. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how well-traveled, everyone wants the window seat aboard flights leaving Luqa International.
I gripped the armrests nonchalantly during the minor turbulence. If you counted the three flights it took me to get from New York to the island, then the flight to Florence was my fourth. It was all brand new — my entire life in Malta was brand new like something I’d never imagined it could turn into.
I arrived with the rest of the wave of international students enrolled in summer courses at the University of Malta in May. Clothes hung dry in the wind atop rooftop terraces and crumbling buildings. This was my forever first impression of Malta and I don’t know why I can’t seem to get it out of my head.
At first, the entire island was less than what I expected. Limestone apartment buildings, limestone governmental buildings, limestone banks, limestone fortresses, limestone fountains, and cliffs — even limestone McDonalds. It’s an island built on limestone and there’s not much more to say about it.
Generally, it’s a nice look — and the limestone has grown on me — but initially, it was all too the same. In New York City, we don’t have a lot of green but at least Central Park is only a 30-minute metro ride from virtually anywhere you are.
Other impressions were all on-point. My place was centrally-located, and, on an island that small, you’re never too far from the beach. I couldn’t complain about my early Malta life.
I wasn’t keen when I was placed on the island for the summer, but I got along better than I thought I would. When my university adviser recommended studying abroad to catch up on credit hours, I imagined a few months in Paris or Rome. Instead, I ended up in a country nobody’s ever heard of.
Though, as I found out, it wouldn’t have mattered if my adviser placed me in a studio atop the Eiffel Tower — what makes a term abroad what it is are the people you meet along the way. I was fortunate enough to be placed with a few decent housemates who I’ll introduce later and dozens of friends from all walks of the European continent.
I was the only American at the university and I took pride in that. Not pride in being American, but pride in being on my own. People tend to group with the likes of their own.
Whether it’s the jocks in high school, the techies in San Francisco, or Italian students crowded into a small coffee shop in Malta — everyone falls back on the familiar. I didn’t have the fallback of Americans like the French and their clique or Germans and theirs. I liked it like that.
The university would throw outings and everyone would have their comfortable crowd. I worked my own and mixed up others. Soon, I found a core group of friends who I couldn’t have liked more. Only a month into my time on the island and it felt like I had found a home.
I worked part-time hours at a dive shop along Tower Road in Sliema. In the evenings, I’d watch the sun go down through the window facing the Med. I’d wait for the sky to turn a soft purple with neon pink streaks running across it like watercolors. It was my peaceful hour. The rest of my Malta life was non-stop and I couldn’t get enough of it.
I quickly found out how much there was to learn of the world. I felt like I was breaking new grounds — a pioneer for Americans in Malta. I was the first I knew who spent substantial time in foreign lands and felt more connected to Europeans than those Americans I know who pose for a photo in front of the Eiffel Tower on their week-long trip across the Atlantic.
For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable and excited about where I was. I felt like a kid experiencing life for the first time.
Day-by-day, my friendships with young people from all parts of Europe grew. I learned not only Maltese culture (the laid-back island vibe) but also various aspects of lifestyles all over the continent.
I learned how Belgians do dinner parties. How serious Poles take their traditions. How tender the Portuguese are. How complex Berliners are about music. How hospitable Austrians can be. How Slovakians drink everyone under the table. How romantic the French language is even when translated. How business-oriented Italians can be despite what movies say. I learned how loyal Greeks are. How heart-breaking Spaniards can be. I even learned how wrong the world has the Muslim religion.
Most of all, I learned I was inspired by all of it. The whole experience. I felt myself living and that’s a sensation I no longer take for granted.
Malta introduced me to my whole life. As cliché as it is, I truly found myself like never before. Engulfed by a crowd of internationals, I found a 15-mile-wide island of unlimited inspirations.
Every morning, I woke up expecting to learn something new or pick up a new interest. New friends came like the flood, all with a different accent and difficult to communicate with at first, all with the same will to find what it is they were looking for.
If the island could talk, it’d welcome anyone and everyone and it gave us all that we were looking for. With all of its flaws, what makes you fall in love with Malta is deeper than what meets the eye.
The first month couldn’t have gone by quicker and I felt like I had hardly scratched the surface. As a new wave of internationals eager to study on the island was soon to swoop in, I knew one summer term in Malta wasn’t good enough. I’d already made up my mind to extend my stay.
Isabella, or Iz, as I’ve already called her, grew up in a small town. Her father was a well-known artist in France which led him to Hong Kong and it reflected in her. She rock climbed on the weekends and generally stayed focused on her studies during the week. Though, no one would ever be surprised when she was pouring herself a glass of red wine at five.
She enjoyed the simple things life offered her better than anyone I’ve ever known and that’s as much as needs said about Iz.
One weekend, I went climbing with her and her crew from Marie; in Malta, instead of house numbers, they’ve named every building. We lived in Rosette but most everybody else in university lived east of Msida in Gzira and Sliema where Marie was.
We got terribly lost en route to Panorama — a lesser-known climb in the west of Malta. After exiting the bus on the coast, we trusted in maps on the internet to get us where we needed to go. You know, it’s the 21st Century and that’s how things are done now.
But online maps in Malta might as well be laid out by six-year-olds. We were utterly confused and one turn away from calling it a day and heading back without a climb.
This wasn’t good enough for Iz. We came to climb and she was going to climb whether we found a bolted route or she had to install her own.
This part about Iz could drive anyone up a wall and she knew it so she exaggerated it. She was as stubborn as they come when she couldn’t make situations work in her favor.
When we met her father at Arrivals in Florence, I knew exactly why she was the way she is. He was bargaining with the taxi driver when we found them. I don’t know why I was introducing myself to her family, but she insisted.
“Oh, c’mon, now. I’ve been coming to this airport for six years. I know exactly how much a taxi to the city costs and you can’t make me pay a Euro more,” her father said. The driver seemed uninterested in him.
“Can’t you acknowledge this? You’re just going to let business walk away?” he said. Still, the taxi man didn’t budge with the fare.
“Come, Thomas. We can find another taxi. There are millions of them here,” Isabella’s mother said. Of course, she spoke in French but I imagine this is what she was saying.
“It’s not about finding another taxi. This man is a con-artist! A total crook!” Thomas said, raising his voice, making a scene.
Finally, the taxi man relented.
So, that’s how I knew Iz would climb the wall whether it was safe for her or not. And climb it, she did; making me come with her.
She practically dragged me the entire way up. I felt like extra cargo but I kept climbing even when my heart tried to leap from my chest.
“Doing this every weekend has to be detrimental to your heart’s health” I hollered at her about fifteen feet above me. I was hugging the wall with nowhere to move.
“See that crack right there?” she asked looking down on me.
“Right here?” I said, pointing to the only crack which I saw as able to grip.
“No,” she said. “The one outside your left hand.”
“This one?” I said, pointing to a bump in the wall no wider than a strand of hair. She nodded her head.
“How can you even see this one all the way up there? How am I supposed to grip this?” I asked.
“Use the choc I gave you. Use that finger strength. Balance your weight in your toes,” she answered briefly. Her focus returned to her own climb. I didn’t hear from her much when she was focused on her art. If I fell, she probably wouldn’t even realize until she looked down.
I scrambled my way through the trickiest part of her new line, but by the time I did, she had already finished the ascent and was laid down with her head hanging over the wall, telling me where to move each limb next.
With her assistance, I also got through the climb, but not without fearing for my life. Every time I went climbing with Iz I swore it’d be my last. But she is a pusher and I’m a sucker.
Finally standing on top, she started to throw her clothes down to where we just came from.
“Woah, woah. Why do I have the feeling you didn’t tell me something about the route down?” I asked.
“I didn’t tell you anything about the route down because there is no route down, mate.”
“How are we getting down, then?”
“Well, that’s up to you, Jack. You can join me for a little swim if you want,” Iz said with a devious smile. She knew it all along that I wouldn’t be keen. I quickly rejoiced as I removed my shirt and her expression went from fun and games to a wide-eyed open jaw.
“Alright, then. Let’s do this,” I said with all the bravery I never had before. I could feel the breeze from the Med flow through my toes which were now hanging off the ledge.
I looked down. Between me and the Med was about 40-feet of free-fall. “Are you insane, Iz, there are rocks down there. Big boulders. You’d have to jump perfectly in-between all of them.”
“It’s okay. I read about this before we came. You see the gap in the three rocks that surround the water in the shape of a right triangle?”
I scanned the rocks. It was like finding constellations or shapes in the clouds — even if you think you have reason to believe your vision, you always second guess your judgment.
“They say the water is ten meters deep in between that right triangle,” Isabella said as if directing your leap of faith perfectly between three boulders was a piece of cake.
“Are you really going to do this?” I asked her.
“Well, my insurance doesn’t cover heli evacs. Does that answer your question?” she said.
“Does your insurance cover sea retrieval services?” I asked sarcastically.
Suddenly, this was a real situation. “Fifteen-meters up, Jack — and you have to jump first.”
“Me? Why me!”
“Cause, Jack. If I jump first, you’re going to get stuck up here when no one threatens to push you,” she reasoned. She was right. I didn’t want to be up there alone.
“Fine. But remind me to never come climbing with you again. This is absolutely why my mom told me I shouldn’t try to match you in climbing,” I said.
“But you did match me, Jack. And I’m proud of you for it. Just one more step and you better hurry cause that sun is setting quick.”
“Oh, quit rushing me. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it. . .I’m going. . .”
The sky was so perfect. The moment could have been so tender. I wondered what a moment like this with Iz would be like if she was anybody else but herself.
To Iz, the moment was anything but tender. Romantic sunsets didn’t exist in her world. Those days in Malta were frustrating because I felt everything that would eventually lend itself to fate. But I kept all of it to myself.
I didn’t mention it that day or any other day, playing my way deeper and deeper into the friend zone. But Iz never let anyone deeper than the friend zone.
I took a heavy breath and jumped. I may as well have closed my eyes because once my momentum started moving toward the cliff, my focus was on everything but where I needed to hit the water.
Off the toes of my right foot, I leaped into the air as far as I could. I reasoned with myself mid-leap that it’d be better to overshoot my target than undercut it. I was now not touching the Earth, flailing my limbs, feeling the free-ness. It felt good. I hit the water as hard as I expected.
I emerged from the water in a gasp. A gasp for air. A gasp for my heart. A gasp that I was alive.
“There you go, Jack. Well done, you made it. Could work on your landing, though. That was anything but graceful,” she hollered from above.
I gave her the finger, “C’mon now. It’s your turn. Don’t be scared!” I mocked her, but she wasn’t phased in the slightest. She backed up out of view and like a lion leaping for her prey, launched herself into a full-on spread eagle dive landing dead center of the supposed safe zone.
And that’s Iz. Graceful like a stone skipping across water, with balls like a bull, and wittier than Oscar Wilde himself. She looked like Paris and felt like le campagne Francais. She was everything I wasn’t.
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** This article was originally published at www.adamcheshier.com **
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