They're not smokers in the traditional sense; these ones hold invisible cigarettes. Each exasperated exhale reveals an icy "smoke" disappearing as quickly as it arrived, an afterthought hungrily consumed by the crisp morning air. They don't speak, their narrowed, shifty eyes constantly stealing my gaze but refusing to hold it. I feel naked as they look at me: despite their intense curiosity, they always divert their stare just as I catch it. They don shades of black and grey; I wear my red pullover.
Our bus arrives and we board. My journey has begun.
It's been five months since I returned from Asia, where I learned something I've always felt about myself but could never validate: I'm a nomad. The thrill of boarding a plane to a foreign land; the exhaustion of enduring a multi-day bus trip; the knowledge of heading into unknown territory; the anticipation of what's to come. It's always been there. And now it's here.
But those first four months were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Between the stories I've shared of racing motorcycles across Vietnam and solo-tripping through inner China, many more lay untold. One day I'll share moments like paying off a police officer out of fear for my life, or waking up in the ocean with nothing more than my bathing suit and waterlogged passport.
Yet those days are not today. They will come.
Until then, join me on this next excursion. The stakes are higher, the antics bigger, and the rules completely rewritten. These are original stories. And I think you're going to like them.
From my toes all the way up to my hips, that's all I feel as I navigate the cobblestone streets of inner Milano. I had walked the reverse route two hours prior, that time with the sun's first rays warming the back of my neck as we returned home from the happenings of the evening before. Our motley crew had stumbled upon a disco and stayed until the music waned; a German swimsuit model and I had taken a fancy to each other. Neither helped to end the night any sooner.
The bus window is my portable television. Sparsely distributed houses sit wedged between the soaring rock and the plunging lakes. Despite their vibrant walls and random placement, they display a single inherent quality: austerity. Nothing seems out of place; rather, it almost screams of its necessity in this wonderfully simple lifestyle. Between them, fair-skinned cows graze upon bright green grasses.
All is well.
The road, which twists and turns above and below the neighbouring railway track like a deliberate double helix, shows no fear in hurtling through the Alps to reach the lakeside city of Zurich. Another two hours and I'll arrive at the small Swiss town I will call home tonight.
Expectations are at zero: I met my host for a total of five minutes one month ago, yet here I am, relying on her for my sustenance for the next two nights.
I'm vulnerable. And I love it.