In 1989 I dropped out of SF State and spent a few months backpacking around Europe by myself. I’d just arrived in Venice and checked into the convent where I was staying because it was the cheapest place in town, and was getting on a vaporetto with the cute Australian I’d met on the train from Rome. We started chatting with some other friendly and equally grimy tourists who asked where we were from. When I said San Francisco, they looked suddenly uneasy and mumbled “Oh, man, I’m sorry.” I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about. They said, “There was an earthquake. The Golden Gate Bridge fell into the ocean.” And then they immediately got off the boat.
I felt like I’d just been punched in the chest. I tore off to try to call someone at home. The only way to make calls then was at international phone centers, which were these unmarked fluorescent-lit smoky rooms lined with tiny cells with white phones on countertops scarred with graffiti carved into them. You had to wait in line, give the guy at the counter a handful of lira and a phone number, wait for the little light to come on, try your luck to get through, and when it didn’t work, start over again.
The poor cute Australian guy and I spent the next ten hours wandering around Venice, alternately trying to call my boyfriend Paul in San Francisco and getting drunk on red wine. I don’t know if the guy felt sorry for me and didn’t want to leave me alone or thought he was going to get lucky since I was so freaked out and needed comforting. Finally a call went through and Paul picked up the phone, obviously also drunk with a loud party going on in the background. He said, “Everything is closed except the liquor stores, so we’re having a party!” The only damage had been to the top of my turntable when some heavy sculpture fell on it.
Somehow even though I was unbelievably relieved, I was also pissed off that I’d spent the day so full of anxiety for no apparent reason. I said goodnight to the cute Australian and stumbled back to the convent. I’d forgotten all about their 9pm curfew. There was one tiny nun sitting up at a table by the door waiting for me, hunched over her rosary praying for my family. I didn’t have it in me to tell her that my boyfriend and friends were busy having an epic party and my family was safe at home in Michigan, just thanked her for her kindness and told her they were all safe under the protection of her prayers and went off to sleep in my bunk as the sun was rising.