I got up at 4:30am on the Saturday, the first day of the school winter holidays, and by 5:30am had left the house and was walking down the extremely large hill to town so that I could get the 7am bus to Ajaccio.
I arrived in Ajaccio at 10am. The bus was still free for unknown reasons. It has now been free since December and I can’t imagine the driver is doing a twice daily journey of 3 hours through winding mountain roads for the crack.
The morning sunshine had exhaled everyone out of their apartments and into the cafes along the promenade where they sat talking in sunglasses, minuscule espresso cups or wine glasses on the tables beside them. For once the assistant I stay with was already awake and so I let myself straight in to her studio shack with a ‘Vets’ sign above it. There was no sight of her, but through the wall I could hear the sound of a running shower.
Later, I grabbed some lunch and spent the afternoon doing arts and crafts in the courtyard next to the studio with the American assistant and the Irish assistant. I did a painting of the sea, palm dotted beach and colourful apartment buildings. I kept it throughout my entire trip in Sardinia, but threw it away the day I returned as it had creased and was stained.
In the evening we drank wine and the other assistants and a French guy who lives on a boat came round to the American assistant’s place where I was staying and we played music. One of the assistants who has recently joined a percussion group brought a cloche (like two cow bells on a stick) which I played as musical accompaniment. Midway through the night one of the assistants left and never came back but left her MacBook and backpack in the flat. Soon after we called it a night.
The morning after the morning after the night making music at the American assistant’s flat I got up at 5am and walked to the ferry terminal to take the 7am crossing to Sardinia. After three hours of half sleeping, we arrived in Porto Torres and I went off in search of the railway station. I didn’t find a railway station but I did find a Lidl which sold 79 cents red wine. Finding the railway station was harder than I expected as every road in the town finished in a dead end so you had to take one specific route reach it. After an hour or so I found it: a squat concrete box with three lonely ragged palm trees blowing in the wind besides it. The next train to Sassari was in over three hours.
By the evening, I had arrived in Alghero. I spent two days there but can’t remember what I did now. Although it was warm, the beach hadn’t been cleaned so I had to step my way through heaps of smelly seaweed. I spent a lot of time walking, drinking espressos and getting lost. In the evening I cooked pasta and drank wine alone. Once a German girl walked into the kitchen and asked me if I was on my own. Yes I said. “Wow” she replied and glanced at the full bottle of wine before me. I drank two shot sized glasses of it each night and left the rest. I hope she approved.
I arrived in Sassari in the late morning. After a coffee opposite the university, which was located in a complex above a shopping centre, I headed to my air bnb. My host was a medical student at the university. He was very tall. I imagined he had to bend his knees slightly when walking through the hallway so as not to touch the ceiling. I ate lunch with him, his brother and a friend. Lunch was a meat with breadcrumbs on it with some salad leafs and Sardinian style flat, crispy bread. His brother kept asking me if I liked it grinning. “He’s a great cook” he said.
In the afternoon I went into the centre and watched a funeral take place outside of a huge church in the old town. When the service had finished and people exited the church, I watched as close relatives and friends hugged each other and dabbed at tears. Some people smoked on the steps, shuffling awkwardly and couples who were only faintly acquainted with the deceased stood making polite conversations next to other couples at the edges.
I spent another day in Sassari and left the morning after to take the train to Cagliari, the capital on the Southern coast. I was staying with a guy who lives on a boat. When I arrived, I walked to the marina and could see his boat ‘Tiger Lily’ in the harbour, but he was nowhere to be seen. A few minutes later he appeared from behind carrying a carton of milk and some tonic in his hands. “Sorry I was late, I had just popped to the shops to get a couple of things” he said.
I spent the afternoon exploring Cagliari and in the evening ate dinner and drank gin and tonic with the guy who owned the boat. Later his friend from Poland, who teaches the oboe at the university, came round and we spent a lot of time Geocaching near the marina and later playing different jazz playlists on YouTube. The following day it was warmer and I climbed to the top of a park in the city and watched distant pink flamingos in a marsh below on the other side. In the evening we ate curry and drank gin and tonic like on the evening before. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so I had to sleep in my clothes, jacket and gloves, using my towel as a blanket. I got to sleep easily, but I woke up every half an hour from 4am shivering.
On the Sunday, boat guy left for the town of Oristano for the first day of Sa Sartiglia, which I was going to on Tuesday. I took a bus to Puglia and then walked to some roman ruins by the sea, called Nora. When I arrived back in Puglia my bus didn’t appear. I walked to the centre and bought ice cream. The main square was overrun with children in fancy dress spraying silly spray and throwing confetti over each other as part of the carnival celebrations.
I headed back to the bus stop to catch my backup bus, but it didn’t turn up either. It was dark now and people had started leaving the celebrations in the centre and were getting in cars, ready to go home. I drank a coffee and headed back to the bus stop in the hope that a bus, any, would come. My phone was on four percent battery so I turned it off and waited at the bus stop alone.
After half an hour, a woman and her child came to wait next to me and I calmed down, thinking they were also waiting for a bus. Five minutes passed and a car pulled up in front of me. The woman and child climbed inside. The woman in the house behind kept peering through the curtains at me. A man came and waited to at the bus stop, but he left after a few minutes. Losing hope, I noted down the number of a taxi company, ominously stuck to the lamppost next to the bus stop. I hoped my phone would have enough battery to phone them if I had to. Eventually, a group of more than ten teenagers came to the bus stop. They asked me where I was from and I said Manchester, which isn’t the truth and asked them if they were waiting for a bus. They said yes and asked me “City or United”. Not wanting to talk, I said “City.” It worked.
The bus eventually arrived. The group of teenagers formed a huge queue in front of me and the driver took the money from the first two. He glanced at the queue again, sighed and let everyone else on for free.
The bus arrived back in Cagliari. I was intending to go straight for pizza and then head back to the boat, but when I got out of the station I could hear drums banging ahead and see a distant crowd of people. I followed the drums and it turned out to be the carnival procession. The sounds of the drums and whistles were intensified by my hunger and light-headedness and I took lots of videos whilst whispering to myself “this is sick.” As the crowds receded and the detritus of confetti replaced them on the streets, I went off in search of the pizza. When I got back to the boat, boat guy was already inside boiling pasta. We ate together but were both tired and I didn’t wake up shivering that night.
In the afternoon of the next day, I, the guy on the boat and his friend who plays the oboe took a train to Oristano. The oboe playing friend was late so didn’t have time to buy a ticket. He arrived on the train, sweating, damp patches discolouring the collar of his shirt. When he told the conductor he didn’t have a ticket, the conductor said just to buy a ticket when he got off the train at Oristano, so he got the train for free.
In Oristani, I stayed in an air bnb in a terraced house, on a street one block from the centre. The woman who owned the house only spoke Italian and had a bell in her hallway that I was to ring if I required her attention.
In the evening I went out for pizza and was just about to turn into the pizza shop when someone said “Oh it’s Rob” in an American accent. I turned around and saw a girl wearing a cowboy hat grinning at me. It was the American assistant who I stay with in Ajaccio. To either side of her stood another American assistant and an Irish assistant, both also from Ajaccio. They had just arrived, having taken the ferry in the morning from Bonifacio, where the American assistant had found the hat left in the women’s toilets at the port. They were searching for food. We all ordered the same Panini con carné from one of the food stalls open for Sa Sartiglia. Then I searched a taxi number on my phone for them, before saying goodbye and hoping they’d reach their hostel okay. Their hostel was 15km out of town.
The day of Sa Sartiglia, I rose early and took coffee and a croissant at a basic café cum Tabaccaio in the centre of town. Then I followed the horse procession around the town, as a man who was presumably the messenger, read out something in Italian, approximately ten times in total. It was midday by the time it had finished so I grabbed a sausage sandwich from a food stall and tried to get in contact with the others. The guy with the boat was staying with the Californian assistant in another air bnb on the street one block from where I was staying and I met them and the other assistants outside of there.
After a very long detour to Lidl for alcohol and watching the horse procession for a couple of hours, we decided to sit on the curb and drink for a bit. Opposite me there was a woman selling masks and to my side a man pouring red wine from a bottle into plastic cups. The Californian assistant and the boat guy went off in search of the hog roast and I went in search of toilets, which culminated in me buying a plastic bottle of red wine from a street seller, complete with 4 plastic goblets. When I got back, the other two hadn’t returned from the hog roast and the two American assistants and Irish assistant had opened the gin they had brought.
I sat down next to them on a bench. To the right of us European trash EDM was playing out from a stall, around which a group of Italian men had gathered. They had their arms around each other and were signing different songs to the ones playing. One of them kept coming up to us and trying to tell us something in Italian which we couldn’t understand. I poured a cup of wine drank it and we decided to leave. Before we could, a woman approached us selling tiny rosette pin badges, which one of the American assistants picked up and said she was interested in.
“How much is it?” she asked.
“5 euros” said the woman.
Later on, we found the Californian assistant and boat guy, before going to watch more of the horse procession. After, we returned to their air bnb for drinks and iced bread which I had bought whilst in Cagliari and the boat guy had taken with him. The two American assistants were pretty wavy and climbed up the stairs to the rooftop terrace where they started dancing. I drank some more wine and some gin and tonic and went onto the roof terrace. You could see the church’s dome and hear music from somewhere in the centre. “We should check out what’s going on in town” the Californian assistant said. I agreed.
When we reached the central square, there was trash Euro EDM blasting out from an elevated stage and a porous crowd of people chatting around it. A few people were dancing, but most weren’t. After drinking some more wine, me and the three assistants from Ajaccio started dancing. The music went from trash EDM, to rock and roll, to ‘Murder on the dance floor’ with the occasional house track. The Californian assistant and boat guy left shortly after. At midnight the music stopped and I said goodbye to the other assistants and managed to order a kebab sandwich with salad from a takeaway.
The next day I left with the three Ajaccio assistants and took two trains to Porto Torres, before getting the ferry. The ferry crossing was rough and I sat trying to concentrate on my French book, whilst the other assistants slept opposite me. It was evening by the time we arrived in Ajaccio. The streets were quiet and fresh. When we reached the American assistant’s apartment, I fell asleep almost straight away.
The first week of school came and went. It is warm now, sometimes hot. On Friday I ordered a glass of water at a café and got served milk, which I sat sipping through a straw outside in the sun. When I came to my afternoon lesson, the librarian said I was sun tanned. In the evening, I looked in the mirror and saw I was watermelon flesh.
On Saturday, it was carnival and the Californian assistant was performing in a percussion group she is part of in Sartène. I met her in the car park beforehand. I hugged her. From behind a giant effigy of Donald Trump was approaching.
“Look” I said, pointing behind her.
She turned around. “Oh no, I can’t believe… oh” she said.
When the percussion group passed I took photos for her, before cycling to the sea edge to catch the setting sun with a bottle of Desperados. She texted me saying she had finished so I cycled back to town to meet her again. When I arrived, her percussion group were performing again. I tried to get her attention but was slowed down by students from the college shouting “Wohbear” and pointing at me. Midway through the percussion group’s performance, the giant Donald Trump effigy behind them was set alight. The swathe of yellow hair was masked first by orange flames, then black smoke which dispersed leaving the nights sky.
Yesterday, it was Sunday. Sometimes like yesterday I feel sad. I lie down on the unmade white double bed in the middle of my bedroom. I reach for my phone and scroll through Facebook or Instagram, making up imaginary stories of other peoples’ lives. I ask myself, will my life ever be like that? Did my life ever resemble that? To have friends in walking distance. To know love. To know life. The simple fact is I am alive here but not living. After I realise that again, I feel better. Tears may dampen the skin around my eyes and I look to the side and see my broken bike resting on the wall next to me. In trying to remove the wheel to fix a puncture, I broke the chain. I will have to take it to intersport tomorrow. That means walking for an hour and a half with it down an extremely large hill. That’s my life, I think and grin. On Friday a student told me I was the mascot for the section Européen. “I like that” I said and laughed. “I really like that.”