From Chicken Soup for the Sister's Soul

Getting to Rome

Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there.

Amy Li

I left home that summer with a personal mandate to find my true self. My boyfriend of six years had just broken up with me and I was determined to prove to the world that I didn’t need him, or anybody else, to make me happy. Empowered and equipped with a backpack, a Eurail pass and a journal, I set out on my solo quest.

Two weeks into my trip, however, my desperate call home revealed the needy, dependent cries of the woman I was trying so hard not to be. I still cringe recalling that phone call to my family and its rare display of weakness and vulnerability. Between loud, dramatic sobs I confessed that I was lonely, I was broke and I missed home. So they sent reinforcement—in the form of my sister, Tawna, two years my junior.

I picked her up at the airport in Amsterdam and was so ridiculously grateful for the companionship that I let her decide where we would travel next. She wanted to go to Italy and she wanted to get there fast. I agreed, and made a mental note to consider the nineteen-hour train ride as a chance to reclaim my identity as Empowered Older Sister.

Tawna was still getting used to navigating with her heavy backpack as we boarded the train. Already adept at handling my load, I cringed as I watched her backpack take liberties with people’s heads as we made our way down the train’s narrow aisles. She was oblivious to the chaos she was stirring in her wake while I caught all the foreign looks of disapproval as we passed.

We were fortunate to find an empty car—six seats, three on each side, facing each other. We put our backpacks above our heads and giggled at the good fortune at having found such a private refuge for our trip. We stretched our feet out on our respective seats and lazily relaxed as the train pulled out of Amsterdam. A couple of stops and not even half an hour later, we had company.

Fortunately for us, he was good-looking Italian company. His name was Archangelo. I couldn’t stop staring. He was beautiful—brown wavy hair, big green eyes, gorgeous olive skin and a smile that could melt my mascara. Not that I was wearing any. I had given up my pride and my makeup a few countries into my trip. So I really had no business entertaining the notion that he could be my personal tour guide once we hit Italy. My hair was in a ponytail, my Levis hadn’t been washed in days and I was even sporting a few new pimples. And so, despite the fact that until this moment I had spoken to strangers only when I was hopelessly lost, I gave in to the shamelessness of it all and decided to use him to practice my Italian.

I got out “the book”—my trusty guide to Europe that my sister grew to hate—and tried to pronounce the Italian phrases the book thought one would need in Italy. Tawna squinted her eyes at me in obvious disapproval at each sentence I subjected him to. She was still wearing makeup at this point and did look cute, so she probably had a fair chance at Archangelo. And now it appeared that I was ruining it with my premature need for Italian conversation.

While at first he seemed confused—was he supposed to answer the questions I was throwing at him?—eventually he seemed to relax and letme domy thing. My sister shrugged her shoulders at him with an apologetic look as if to for man alliance with him against this “crazy” woman with whom she happened to be stuck traveling. She might as well have circled her finger around her ear a few times and pointed at me, so eager she was to prove me a strange bird.

Maybe it was too much for him, or maybe he was getting off anyhow, but we lost our Archangelo, our beautiful angel, after only a couple hours into our trip, perhaps in Germany. In his stead we were joined by a multilingual Dutch man with a shiny, bald head and a need for some deodorant. I was slowly beginning to lose my language inhibitions, and he had no problem practicing my Italian with me and would even humor me with responses between lecherous peeks at my sister’s breasts. I eventually grew bored of my Italian studies and retreated into a book, all the while keeping a vigilant, protective eye on the Dutch man keeping a vigilant eye on my sister.

I initially welcomed the intrusion of the German couple who soon joined us. I quickly learned to resent their presence, however, when I found myself sandwiched between Tawna and the German woman. The fraulein’s left thigh refused to contain itself to its own seat, forcing me to read my book with my arms extended straight out in front of me. There was only so much suppressing of giggles and nudging each other that we could do to entertain ourselves, and soon we grew antsy and bored.

Tawna looked out the window at the blackness of the nighttime scenery as if hoping that something, anything entertaining, would pop up out of the darkness. I tried to read but the stale, musty air in our car must have impaired my concentration; I read the same paragraph over and over. One by one the Dutch man and the old German couple fell asleep. I couldn’t take it anymore. I whispered to her that I was going to try to find someplace to write in my journal. I crept over bodies and luggage, and made my escape.

I floated aimlessly down the aisles of the train until I happened upon the dining car. I was greeted by a group of people who, using Spanish I couldn’t understand and gestures I could, insisted I join them for a drink. I put down my journal, and tried to summon what little Spanish I could recall from the few trips to Mexico I had taken. They were from Ecuador and countless hours later we were fast friends. I was carrying on what the wine had me convinced were long, intelligent conversations in Spanish. I told myself that being raised in California must have given me an edge.

When Tawna found me three hours later I had a new set of international friends and was laughing and speaking a language all my own. I tried to get her to join in on the fun but she just stood in the corner, annoyed. It then occurred to me that after she had traveled thousands of miles to cure my loneliness, I had repaid her by abandoning her in a car full of strangers. I bid farewell to my new friends and retreated back to our crowded, smelly car.

Back in our car, Tawna finally had something to look at out the window. I reached over and held her hand. The sun slowly rose as our train passed through the Swiss Alps. We sat silently as we looked out at snow-capped peaks tinged pink by the sun, and waterfalls, lakes and streams around every bend.

We had many adventures during those three weeks together in Europe. She’ll take any opportunity to tell the story of my callous abandonment of her during our train ride to Rome. She thinks it proves how strong I really am; that I really didn’t need her to “find myself” in Europe. But I know she’s got it backwards. I know that it wasn’t until I had my sister’s hand to hold that I felt truly empowered. There are many places I “find myself,” but I see myself most clearly in the reflection of my sister’s eyes.

Tasha Boucher

Tasha and Tawna in Europe.

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