Irish Mike and I had planned my trip — the “Grand Tour,” we liked to call it — on the floor of a job site. While all the other painters and construction workers were busy with lunch and football arguments, we’d draw a map of Europe in the dust with our fingertips and make wavy lines across it for my route. Irish Mike had a rebellious shock of black hair that belied his age, the eyebrows of a wolfhound, and knees so scarred and misshapen that your own knees would weep to see them. He’d been born in a humble country cottage in County Leitrim in the mid-1940s and had come to the U.S. alone at the age of sixteen. His father had always worked in concrete and brick, so when a position had opened up with a crew of masons in the Hollywood Hills, Mike had followed his ancestral calling. The aches and pains of a life spent on his knees made it tough for him to bend down to our dusty map.
Here’s Venice. Mike drew a line with a finger. Head north through the Alps.
When lunch was over, Irish Mike went back to his bricks, and I returned to my painting. There would be grand stories on my return, I promised.
I grew up on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, where, no matter which direction I headed, I would eventually find a white-sand beach and a blue horizon waiting to be explored. Perhaps that explains my lifelong love affair with travel. I chose a livelihood — house-painting — that afforded me the means and the time to woo this demanding mistress. Over the years I forsook pensions, mortgages, and marriages to pursue her. When I wasn’t taking a train through Sudan or an endless parade of buses through South America to Patagonia, I worked, I read travel books, and I drew maps on sandy floors with Irish Mike.
But planning this trip felt different. The builder who’d been my employer for thirty-four years was retiring. Here I was, nearing retirement age myself, and for the first time I would be hanging out my own shingle, calling customers, hustling work. The years of laboring in the sun with tannins and oils and thinners were starting to take their toll. I’d fought bouts with nondeadly forms of skin cancer and been carved up quite a bit. All the poisons I had sanded and applied had filled my bloodstream with mercury and lead. My weakened immune system had left me vulnerable to an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, which I’d waltzed with for a year. And this little squirrel — who wasn’t such a young squirrel anymore — had put away nary an acorn for the long winter of retirement. I wasn’t sure I could keep chasing horizons much longer, so I wanted to make this trip one to remember.
I arrived in Venice in a drenching rain with five thousand dollars and three months to spend in Europe, and I went to bed that night in a high-ceilinged room of whitewashed walls that overlooked a narrow canal. Two days before, I had been a worker. Then I’d climbed down from a ladder, put away my paintbrushes, bid goodbye to Irish Mike, and deposited my last check at the bank. Now I was a traveler. I fell asleep to the murmurings of gondoliers and lovers and the slap of water on stone steps below.
The next morning, leaning from my window for a peek at San Marco, I noticed I still had paint on my elbows.
In the neighborhood of Dorsoduro I bought a postcard for a euro. It showed a fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, a renowned eighteenth-century painter: A workman is falling from a wood scaffolding. A dark, stocky man in a threadbare tunic and worn leggings, he plummets to his death, there is no doubt. It is not the moment at the beginning of a fall when you still have a chance, scratching at a gutter or windowsill; nor is it the type of fall that you can turn into a partial jump and thereby land on your feet. This is someone’s last descent. His red tunic alarms us; his muscular arms stretch into thin air. It is a fall of abandonment. The worker no longer fights but gives himself heavily to it. The sight makes the spectator want to cringe and duck.
But there! An angel appears on white, condor-sized wings. She swoops, smiling gently, and reaches under the falling man’s shoulder with one arm, her other arm reassuringly on his flank. She cradles the workman, saves him.
I have come to believe that we all have within us unrealized falls, like coiled springs, waiting.
I planned to walk for months. I had a light pack, a sun hat straight out of a Van Gogh self-portrait, and a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. I had a library of maps. I spent five lovely days and nights in Venice — and a fifth of my Grand Tour savings. I knew then that Western Europe would pick me up by the ankles and shake every last coin from my pocket. The plan drawn on the job-site floor was but a finger twirled in ash-gray dust. I needed to go somewhere cheaper, so I hopped a flight to Istanbul.
I was stuck in a limbo between work and wandering. When you first begin to travel, the mind still hungers for the structure of the job: There is a set of French windows to be painted. You climb the scaffolding, dust the sills, scrape and sand. You prime before glazing, prime again. I like to run a slim, tight line of caulking between the wood and the glass to keep the window watertight; then add a full primer coat, and two coats of high-gloss oil finish. With each move the craftsman inches toward the ideal.
The traveler arms himself with maps and books. It takes days, if not weeks, to feel comfortable on the move. In the meantime I clutched at small moments: blood oranges and yogurt for breakfast in the nook of my Istanbul hotel lobby; the quiet of the Archaeological Museum as I peered at scraps of poetry by Sappho and a silver plate Abraham was said to have eaten from; a minted-lamb dish served by a mustached Sufi waiter with a penchant for feeding stray dogs; the Blue Mosque lit at night by a thousand candles. I’d grab each quick joy, let it go, then toss and turn through sleepless nights with maps open on my pillows. A demolition crew was tearing down a building next door, banging and buzzing all day. Concrete blocks and timbers fell by night under floodlights. I couldn’t settle, so I fled again.
I bought a one-way plane ticket to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, in the former Yugoslavia. After I’d arrived, I hailed a cab. The cabbie who drove me downtown asked why I had come. I had no answer.
The city reminded me of the Old West — swinging doors on bars, men playing cards at sidewalk tables. In my hotel room, above a bar raucous with feuding Macedonian truckers and Russian mafiosi, I searched for inspiration in Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. Over my bed smiled an icon of the Blessed Mother in a gilded frame; before me, somewhere in the darkness, lay the rest of my Grand Tour.
Stevenson is a great travel writer, but he gave me no guidance. I hadn’t found my path or my donkey, hadn’t tugged myself loose from work’s web. I thought instead of something my friend Jim had told me years earlier:
Jim was the foreman of the plastering company that I worked in tandem with on new construction jobs. He was tall and pole thin, all elbows and cheekbones. In his midsixties, I would guess, Jim was a fourth-generation plasterer. A white worm of a scar — gift of a wayward scaffold plank — crossed his right eyebrow. As a young man Jim had worked jobs with his father and his grandfather and could never keep up with either of them. His grandfather had told him, There are three rules, son: Keep the work in front of you. Be tough. Be patient.
I woke the next morning and began walking the spine of Montenegro, down a blacktop road through hillsides covered with Aleppo pines, the blue Adriatic on my left. If I couldn’t be sure yet whether I was a worker or a traveler, at the very least I could be tough.
It took me a week to walk to Dubrovnik, Croatia. I dodged trucks and drunks, ate fresh bread and summer tomatoes, and slept in roadside grottoes. I arrived sunburned, dirty, and exhausted but soon located a pension. The proprietor met me at the door in his underwear.
Lovorko and his wife, Andja, lived on the sea just north of the old walled city. There were two one-room guesthouses on their terraced property, and they let them both out. Lovorko, I would discover, had a habit of answering the bell in his sleeveless white undershirt, blue silk shorts, and black kneesocks. Andja could only roll her eyes and go back to cooking in her kitchen just off the front door.
I was filthy from a week on the road, but Lovorko was much too genteel to comment on my looks and just nodded in response to my question about a room. He was plump and pink. He delicately cleaned his oval glasses to have a look at my passport — Oh, yes, an American! — then led me up winding stone stairs and through a small garden — My beautiful lettuce, Mr. Philip — to a patio with many flowerpots, laundry hung on lines, and the entry to my cozy room. It had a bed, a desk, and a window looking out on the sea. On a bookshelf lay Homer’s Odyssey.
Lovorko and I became fast friends. I had planned to stay for just a day or two, but he couldn’t get enough of my news from the States, and I didn’t tire of his tales of growing up in an occupied country during World War II, and then of life under the cruel Yugoslav dictator Tito.
Being the kind soul that he was, Lovorko charged me less and less each day for my little room off the garden. I’d leave early each morning to explore the cobbled streets of the Old City, take a swim, and drink coffee under striped umbrellas stuck into the sand. Then I’d return in the evening to help Lovorko pick the vegetables for our dinner that night. We’d wander the terraces — I in my bathing suit and Lovorko in his silk underwear — sipping wine and pulling yellow squashes. Mr. Philip, yes, that one, and a radish while you’re there, and did I tell you of the trial Tito had just for me? Imagine, the supreme dictator in court against me!
And we’d sit in the evening at the garden table — Andja, would there be more wine? — and Lovorko would tell how he’d been arrested for having stolen a chicken for his mother. (The neighbors had turned him in.) He’d been tried in a Kafkaesque setting and sentenced to work for a year on the poultry farm of the Generalissimo.
Mr. Philip, I gave away a chicken each day for a year! Under his nose! I was eighteen. Knew nothing of the world.
Later I’d help with the dishes and then watch the snowy, black-and-white TV in their kitchen. At exactly 9 PM Lovorko would excuse himself to go to the bedroom, and he’d soon reappear in pressed charcoal-gray slacks, a brilliant white shirt with ruffles, and patent-leather loafers.
With a nod to Andja, we would be off to stroll Dubrovnik’s streets. We’d buy a gelato, chat with the neighbors sitting on benches, and take in the sea. Lovorko would cradle my elbow in his hand and lead me as if I were a visiting ambassador. He’d lean his smooth pink head toward me and tell me one of his stories as if it were the most exquisite of secrets.
I was so sad to finally leave. But I was rested now, and reading the Odyssey at night had given me wings.
Lovorko recommended I take a ferry to Mljet, said by some to be the island where Odysseus had lived for a time with the nymph Calypso.
Three hours away, no more.
I wish I could say that I didn’t fall, that the workman in Tiepolo’s painting wasn’t me. I wish I could say that I spent three sublime days on the isle of Mljet; that I stayed in a stone cottage that had been in the same family for six generations; that I ate fresh fish every night; that yellow butterflies followed me everywhere. I wish it had been three days of curious beauty on that island, but it was only two. The third day was a nightmare.
A pain in my side had kept me awake the night before, like a slim dagger nestled there. The skin was red and blistered. Perhaps, without realizing it, I’d had a run-in with a jellyfish in the ocean. At the restaurant bar of the Hotel Odysseus, I approached a group of local dive instructors; surely they would know about jellyfish stings.
Used to tourists — bored by them, in fact — they listened absently to my English, then said, Yah, yah. Jellyfish bad. Yah. I thanked them and bowed my way back to my table, where I nursed my mocha and my side. I had my answer. Yah, jellyfish.
By that afternoon I was undone. The pain now searing, I had to see a doctor. I asked Grace, the owner of the house where I stayed, if there was a physician on the island. Grace was wiry and eighty, her still-red hair gathered in a blue bandanna, her face as lined as her stone cottage. No doctor, she said, but a nurse lived on the other side. Her grandson, Alexy, would take me there.
It was evening now. Alexy was twenty and friendly, with an Elvis pompadour and a white dress shirt. It was the wedding day of one of the islanders, and Alexy graciously gave up attending the party to help the ailing American. I could tell it was sort of a feather in his fine, coiffed hair.
I climbed ever so slowly into an Italian vehicle the size and shape of an accordion, and we sped away.
Did I say “sped”? A half mile down the tarmac road, Alexy spotted a table laden with pastries and glasses of wine. Men and women dressed their best sat around it. It was another island wedding. We stopped, and Alexy leaped out: kisses for all, glasses of wine pushed into our hands. Here, I have an American!
Down the road a bit farther, another table. More cake, more wine — My American — and people dancing. (Please don’t touch my side.)
It was an hour’s drive over the hills and through the meadows to the nurse’s house. It took us three. Alexy drove the accordion like a Formula One driver, bless his soul — until we braked for a stop, a table, a dance. I was drunk with pain and wine. Alexy and I talked football and family. He pointed out each house, each wall, each cow to me, even in the darkness. I leaned against my window and wondered whether this pain would ever end. If it didn’t, I feared sadly that my journey, my Grand Tour, had changed directions, and I was traveling — quite drunk, in an accordion — home.
I think now of the red-shirted workman falling from Tiepolo’s ceiling: fingers spread wide in alarm, arms flailing, head turned toward the sky. He is between worlds, in a place of danger, certainly, but also of change. He is jettisoning everything: sandals, tools, compatriots — all left behind. He is in the air, part of the sky.
There is no saving angel but the tumble.
Dobermans guarded the nurse’s gate, leaping against the metal bars, teeth like scimitars glowing in the night.
She was on her way to a party (of course), but she checked her watch and invited me in. The Dobermans eyed me hungrily.
After a quick examination in her office the nurse pulled a book from a shelf, plopped it on the desk, and flipped to some photos of sorrowful humans showing horrendous red eruptions on their torsos.
This is you. You say “shingles,” I think. Go home. Put yeast on. In one week no pain. I must go now.
I followed her out, shimmied past the vigilant Dobermans, and climbed back into the accordion with Alexy.
The yeast didn’t do much. I wanted to see a doctor. So the next morning I hobbled to the dock to catch a ferry, the yellow butterflies now more of a distraction than a joy. The wait for the boat was endless. I’d sip a beer, then rise to pace about, for sitting was impossible, only to return to my seat and the beer because walking was impossible, too.
When I finally climbed aboard the boat for the three-hour trip to Dubrovnik, I stood in the back by the luggage, so as not to bump into anyone, and gazed longingly at the white foam churned up by the coughing engines. Just a slip off the stern; no one would see.
It was the first time in my life I’d had such a thought.
Lovorko greeted me at the door in his underwear. I explained my predicament, and he motioned me to the hospital at the top of the hill. Two more miles.
I thanked him, so glad to see him, but I was in such pain. He stopped me before I went, touching my elbow lightly.
Mr. Philip, your room will be ready when you return. He pointed again to the gray building on a distant horizon. And, Mr. Philip, you smell like yeast.
Many hours later the doctor agreed it was shingles — a viral infection of the nerve roots — and that it might last seven to ten days. He pushed a pain prescription into my hand and sent me to find a pharmacy that he said was beside a church. Another long walk. It was nearing midnight.
I found the church in a square down by the waterfront that was deserted but for the full moon and some cats: the moon casting her shadows on lampposts and a statue of Saint Francis with a bird perched on his outstretched hand; the cats licking one another under stone church benches. Across the road the clank of ships’ rigging broke the silence. A cat tiptoed along a bowsprit like a velvet-booted pirate. There was no pharmacy that I could see.
I must be lost, I thought.
The church bell pealed once. Sister churches elsewhere in Dubrovnik answered: One o’clock.
Opposite the church stood a nondescript, two-story stone building: no neon sign, no beakers or pestles. But there was an old-fashioned ringer at the metal door. I gave it a hopeful buzz. Nothing. I stepped back into the church square, into the moonlight. I was lost.
Then a light in an upstairs window, curtains pulled back, the click and slide of a shade, a window sash pushed up. A woman clutched a robe at her throat and leaned out.
I fished for the piece of paper in my pocket and waved it over my head. Are you the pharmacy? I have a prescription. I have pain.
Lights flickered on in the building. A speakeasy-style peephole in the door slid open. All I could see in the opening were the woman’s wire-rimmed glasses.
Prescription, yes? she said.
I fed it through the slot, which closed. I waited silently with the moon and the cats. Then the hole opened again and a small white bag was passed out. Inside I heard footsteps retreating up a stairway. Thank you, I said to the door. (The drugs were free, and the whole hospital visit cost twelve dollars.)
At a white marble fountain in the square I swallowed two of the pain pills, the same kind I take to this day, five years later. Then I crossed the road to look at the sleeping yachts and the moored ferry that had brought me to the city earlier that evening. The moon slipped behind milk-colored clouds. Cats slept curled into one another. I walked the empty stone streets back to Lovorko’s pension.
I went on taking the pills, but the pain inched back. Finally I had to leave Dubrovnik, limping my way home by bus and train through Europe, hoping each day that I would get better and could continue what I had started.
Slovenia and Germany disappeared behind me. In Amsterdam, on a busy street alongside the Vondelpark, I came across a travel bookstore: two levels of books, maps, and globes; ladders that slid across dark wooden floors, helping you climb to Guyana, to Lithuania. There was a cafe at the back that served mugs of hot coffee and cheese sandwiches. I ate and read John Millington Synge’s In Wicklow and West Kerry, which tells of his walking south from Dublin. I turned the pages in pain and tears. Sitting at the table and reading of Synge’s travels, I knew that mine for the moment were over.
I left my maps at a bus station for someone else to use. I left Travels with a Donkey in a London hotel room the size of a postage stamp. I came home to doctors. I came home to work.
The shingles didn’t go away in a week, or even a month. There were complications. The pain became chronic. I went to the Stanford Pain Institute for treatment. I saw three different neurologists. One used me as a guinea pig, taping a plaster of capsaicin to my torso for three hours. When it was all over, I wanted my old pain back.
The battle seemed to embolden other health issues that had been waiting for my back to be turned: More skin cancers bloomed. An eye surgery went wrong, and mysterious infections left me watching movies in a hospital oxygen tent. After a routine blood test I was rushed into surgery for prostate cancer.
The cocktail of drugs for the pain required vigilance and, at times, refinement. For a year or so, after work, I would take my daily walk on the beach, and sometimes I would stand on the shore and think about walking into the sea. These weren’t dramatic feelings, just moments of all-pervasive ennui. My neurologist called them “blue Mondays,” a side effect of the drugs he’d prescribed for my shingles.
So I cut my dosage in half. I would rather live with chronic pain than with world-weariness. At least the pain assured me I was alive.
And I wasn’t without help.
My sister concocted a witches’ brew she had read about on the Internet. I puked and had black stools for five days. We still laugh about it.
Childhood friends from Hawaii cared for me for two months, feeding me poi and raw fish till I began wearing a lava-lava — a Polynesian skirt — around their house. They wouldn’t let me leave till I promised I was better. I had to lie. I had houses to paint.
Another dear friend, who knew I needed money for doctors’ bills, placed a two-hundred-dollar bet for me on the Baltimore Ravens to win the 2012 Super Bowl. It paid off 20 to 1.
Where would a falling man be without his angels?
Lovorko and I still exchange Christmas cards. His are written in an elegant and whimsical script I can’t decipher, except for Greetings, Mr. Philip, my son!
I am in the midst of painting Irish Mike’s house. The siding is mostly brick — a little from this job, a little from that — but his eaves need to be freshened. He steadies my ladder as I move around.
Irish Mike’s wife, Mary — her skin as fair and smooth as Mike’s is scarred, a Pleiades of freckles on her face — is from Ireland, too. She tells the story of a cousin of hers from west County Cork who had a neighbor, an older farmer by the name of Danny who lived in the countryside on the edge of the sea. The closest town was Skibbereen. There was a train station there, and once every month or so Danny would walk the eight miles to Skibbereen and take the train to the city of Cork: a hundred-mile round-trip. He would return late in the day and walk home in the dark with the wind from the Atlantic blowing in his face.
No one knew why he made the journey.
One day the local men were all gathered around the creamery after having brought in the morning’s milk. And how was your trip to Cork? a neighbor asked Danny.
Danny searched the sky and replied, Pity the man who doesn’t travel.
Tonight I have brought a map of Greece with me to Mike’s house. After dinner, over drinks, we spread it on the kitchen table. Though I’m so broke my piggy bank squeals, I tell Irish Mike I think I could make the walk from Athens to Ithaca in a month or so.
With great hope, we trace our fingers over the map.