During my undergraduate studies, I earned a degree in creative writing and French. For my Senior Seminar project, I composed a short collection of memoirs recounting my travels through Europe in 2002-2003 as a 21-year-old student. To the older version of Me, these tales read a bit dramatic and self-congratulatory, but they are a good-faith accounting of how it felt to be me in that precise moment, and sometimes unintentionally hilarious, so I still argue for their value and credibility. Enjoy.
Here’s the short version: on August 10th 2002, I got on a plane to Paris. Six months later, I returned to the United States. Stepping off the plane and into my old world, I was greeted by a sea of family and friends, faces full of intense curiosity, grown fuller and older in my absence. How was it? Everyone wanted to know. What did you see?
A thousand stories would swarm through my brain and yet I found myself inexplicably muted in response to their questions. There was simply too much to say, and it left me speechless. I’d shrug and mumble something about Greece or Spain, then watch their faces turn down or away in a vague disappointment, dissatisfaction. It led me to the question: what had I done all those months? I’d traveled, sure. On my own, making my eager bumbling way across twelve countries, backtracking three or four times through favorite spots. I’d perfected my French, brushed up on my German, even picked up a bit of survival Spanish. I slept on benches and in parks, survived for weeks at a time on little more than baguettes and apples, marveled at the artistic and architectural wonders of the Western world. And yet, I found the experience impossible to verbalize.
This disappointed me to say the least. Everyone had always said that travel would change me forever, and I suspected it had. But why, then, couldn’t I explain myself to others? As time passed, however, I settled into my memories and started to think about it differently. It seemed that it was the attempt at summary that caught me, leaving me to the monumental task of trying to explain moments in isolation, to separate event from context and history. What I’d unwittingly eliminated through this attempt was the human element, rendering the equation inarticulate and empty. The true value of my time in Europe could be defined, I realized, only through the people I had met there. I was stunned by the Sistine Chapel, sobered by the Berlin Wall, shocked by Belfast, but when seeking a deeper interpretation of the things I’d seen and how they’d changed me, I always came back to faces, names: Matt from Minnesota. Maria from Venezuela. Fiona from Ireland. For me, these faces and the rich, complex people residing behind them opened up for me the true joy of travel. I was there to experience Europe, of course, and I did. But in the end, it was always about the connections made along the way, in crowded train compartments or the dim ambience yet another hostel lobby.
It is sometimes said that we leave home to find home. If this is true, then it is perhaps equally true that the people we meet along the way become a family of sorts. What follows is a small sampling of the different family I made on my trip, a family at once loving and spiteful, kind and quarrelsome, complex and unique, like families anywhere. Without them, my story is incomplete, half-true, even boring.
I traveled alone, yes, but I was never by myself for long.
The Long Road to Rome
The letter came, as so many of the best things do, unexpectedly. Me, sitting beat and dirty in front of a ten-year-old computer in the reception of a hostel in Amsterdam. Sorting tiredly through electronic correspondences from the people way back home, feeling lost and disoriented and entirely unsure of the next step. The contents of my inbox were, for the most part, rather mundane; worry-tinged notes from both parents inquiring about my movements and entreating me to “please be careful”, a friend’s update on life in Oregon, several formulaic wishes for a Happy New Year. And there, at the bottom of the pixilated pile, an e-mail from Andy Murray.
Why don’t you bag Scotland and travel around Italy with me? I reckon Rome sounds very romantic…
I’d met Andy less than a week before, when he passed through Amsterdam on his way to London. He charmed me with his Australian accent and impish eyes and we spent two days together, staggering through the city and soaking up the hedonism of the local culture. When he kissed me goodbye and left to catch a plane to the UK, I figured that was it for us. But there in that hostel lobby, his e-mail felt like waking up. Andy’s words opened up in me a new sense of excitement, loaded as they were with the promise of a certain soul-searing adventure that I’d found to be increasingly elusive in my travels.
I couldn’t help but feel that it had been fated somehow. Plans for my trip up to the cold wet highlands of wintertime Scotland were falling through as fast as I could make them, and I sensed instinctively that if I stayed in Amsterdam much longer I might not be able to leave. Ever. I’d run out of friends to visit and countries to see and the dizzying grid of my giant map of Europe spread out in front of me a few hours before had filled me with an inexplicable sense of boredom. I was ready for something. And then Andy’s letter came.
So it was decided. Less than 24 hours later, I found myself at a dusty platform in Centraal Station, waiting to catch a night train to Zurich. It was the first in a series of trains intended to take me in the direction of southern Italy and proved to be the only simple part of the journey. I boarded my car, then settled into the small, hard bed and slept peacefully as the train moved across the Netherlands, then down through Germany and into Switzerland.
I awoke around eight the next morning to the booming baritone cry of the Swiss train conductor, announcing my stop. Groggy and empty-bellied, I hauled myself and my two backpacks off of the car at Zurich station, blinking in the bright morning sunlight and struggling to clear my head. I had less than half an hour to board my connecting train, scheduled to set me down in Milan by late afternoon, and so I headed to the departures board, looking for the platform number.
It is at this point that things started to go wrong. Much to my surprise, Milan wasn’t listed among the twenty-something cities on the high, gray board. I checked and rechecked the itinerary mapped out for me by the man at the train station in Amsterdam a day earlier. I was right on schedule. To make things worse, the destinations for each train were written in Swiss-German, not English. Thus, the familiar names of major cities became cryptic and misspelled. Was it Mulino? After about ten minutes, mild panic set in. I stopped a train attendant and explained the problem in my pathetic high-school German. The man flipped through a small book of train schedules, then looked up at me and started to laugh, exposing a set of yellow, crooked teeth. You not goin’ to Milan today, honey. All the Italian trains on strike.
My soaring spirits plummeted. I’d arranged to meet Andy at Roma Termini at five that night and had no way to contact him. My head filled with visions of him standing alone as the trains came and went without me, worrying, wondering. I felt close to tears and must have looked it, because the attendant softened a bit and pointed to the last platform before the exit, saying, You catch that train to the border and wait there. If you lucky, maybe you get to Milan later. Smacking his lips in sympathy he walked away, leaving me to my own, sorry devices.
I’d heard stories from fellow backpackers about the nightmare of the infamous European train strikes and the massive hassles they inevitably cause. They don’t happen often, but when they do it is without warning and at the least convenient moments, namely, busy weekends when all the lines are overbooked anyway. There’s nothing a person can do, really, but wait. And I didn’t want to.
Nevertheless, I found the platform the attendant had pointed out. The sign said “Chiasso” and I flipped to the map of Europe in my guidebook, searching for the name. Finally, I picked it out; a tiny, nearly invisible speck nestled at the border of Switzerland and Italy. Even on the scaled-down map, it looked light years from Rome. I sighed and boarded, wandering through the train until I came upon a totally empty car. I was in no mood for conversation. I set my backpacks on the luggage rack, plopped down in the seat, and sulked. All I could think of was lost time and missed opportunities, Andy waiting at the train station. My mood lifted slightly as the train picked up momentum and the view faded from city to rolling, green country. Soon, we were flying across the rails high in the cold, milky Alps of Switzerland. Every once in a while, someone or other would pass through the car; an elderly conductor, checking my Eurail pass and scolding me to take my feet off the seat, then a snack car vendor, selling me a breakfast of bubbly water and two dry, pre-packaged croissants. The hours passed, and I considered my situation. I put on headphones and listened to music from way back home, waiting for Chiasso, feeling trapped.
At around one, the train began to slow. The view outside the window looked like the travel-brochure for some Alpine Chalet; high, white mountains speckled with clear blue lakes, tiny towns painted entirely the color of raw stucco, walking paths winding up into the forest and ski lifts disappearing into some low-hanging stretch of cloud or other. We arrived in Chiasso about fifteen minutes later, and I gathered my things, newly determined to make the best. A blast of winter air seeped through the layers of my ski coat, settling in my bones the moment I stepped off the train. Shivering and sleepy, I went into the train station, a desolate place, long and narrow and very nearly empty. Everywhere, signs had been hung, hastily printed apologies in four languages: Trains to Italy on strike until Seven. Sorry for your inconvenience.
Because I didn’t know what else to do, I joined the small queue of stalled travelers lined up at the guichet. A grumpy Swiss woman behind the counter barked a series of dismissive responses to my questions, often before I’d even finished asking them. She informed me that she had no idea when the next train to Milan was coming, if there was an alternate way to get to Rome, if there was Internet access anywhere in the town or what the best course of action was. She didn’t seem very sorry for my inconvenience.
I left her to her line of angry customers and wandered towards the double doors, disheartened again. At the edge of the station, I found a small convenience store and decided to comfort myself with an American newspaper and an ice cream bar, but the sharp-jawed mutti at the register frowned at the clutch of change in my extended hand. Sorry. She said, frowning deeper, until her eyes disappeared into crinkled slits. No Euro. She pointed back to the guichet, saying, You get Francs. I didn’t have the energy to face the barking woman again, so I exited the station, hungry and in desperate need of a cigarette.
I lit up and started down the street, looking for some sort of distraction. A sandwich, maybe, or another delayed backpacker to commiserate with. About fifty feet away from the station doors, I found an unusual looking shop, its windows painted with marijuana leaves and Rastafarian flags. Because I was fresh off the train from Amsterdam, the familiarity and promise of its decoration beckoned me. A coffee shop!! Fractals of possible futures spun through my head; me spending the day stoned and happy inside the warm ambiance of the place. Smoking joints and conversing with the locals. Boarding the train to Milan blurry-eyed and content. Elated, I pulled on the door handle. It stuck fast. Peering through the glass, I could make out only darkness. Closed.
I continued down the street, finding several other coffee shops and a couple of promising cafés, all equally dark and deserted. What was going on? The ringing of distant church bells brought the situation into sharp and dismaying focus; it was a Sunday. I’d had the unhappy luck of being marooned in Chiasso on the one day of the week when every small town in Europe shuts down completely. It took ten more minutes and three more streets to cement my suspicion that absolutely everything was closed. A ghost town.
I spent the afternoon wandering the town’s eerily lifeless square half-mile, chain-smoking and struggling under the weight of my backpacks. I sought out the sanctuary of some park or tree-lined town square, but found nothing. A single bar was open, but I quickly dismissed this option when I looked at the prices on the menu. Eight dollars for a Bud Light? Eventually, I plopped down against a building near the station and pulled out my tattered copy of On The Road. Reading about the adventures of other disillusioned voyagers was usually sufficient to bring me out of any travel-induced funk, but the gnawing pit of my empty stomach and a general sense of malaise made the words blur all together. After a few minutes, two drunken Swissmen ambled past. One stopped on the drainage grate beside me, hiccupping. In a rattly, tar-stained voice, he cried, Mademoiselle, c’est beau le soleil! The sun is beautiful. Feeling tight and defensive, I wouldn’t look up, and in the awkward, hardening silence, he and his friend turned and continued walking. I wasn’t in the mood for chitchat, and, though the sun was indeed shining, the icy air had long since turned my fingers purple. (I’d lost my gloves in Berlin.) Nothing seemed very beautiful.
After about half-an hour and several more unwanted advances, I resigned myself to returning to the cold, horrible train station and all its unhappy inhabitants. Back there, I used the toilet, lay out on a bench, tried again to read. The minutes ticked by, slower and slower. Restless and achy, I went back out into the town. I turned right out of the double-doors this time, bent on finding something, anything. I’d gotten fifty-feet down the road when I ran smack into a series of gray buildings and backed up roads and electric fences. The ubiquitous border. The irony of the situation at that moment almost knocked me down; there was Italy, literally five feet from where I stood, containing Andy and all the ease and promise of a decided place. Unreachable. I lit another cigarette and decided to walk to the other end of town.
Doing so took less than five minutes. Upon reaching the vague end, I found myself at the door of a very fancy hotel. Low clouds had moved over the weakening sun, and I was so cold. Steam on the lobby windows and a row of plush, soft couches in front of a big, stone fireplace called to me, tempting me. Come on Erin, you know you want to. Just come in and sit down for a minute. And so, too tired to resist or care, I did. Me, with my nappy dreadlocks and dirty gray bandana and big, yellow backpack. Me, who had been mistaken for a homeless girl in a McDonald’s bathroom in Prague just two weeks before. I wandered through the warm, ornate lobby, ignoring the surprised stares of rich European tourists. I wanted something nice, for a few minutes. Just to be near people whose lives were easier, whose vacations were moving happily along, unfettered by strikes and unhelpful railway employees. I sank into one of the big couches and fell instantly asleep.
I awoke almost two hours later, refreshed. The woman behind the check-in counter was staring at me, horrified. I felt ready to brave the train station again, so I put my backpacks on and exited back out into the freeze. It was twilight, the blessed end to a long, hard day. I changed ten Euros back at the guichet and had a cheese sandwich and a cigarette.
Later on, I made this entry in my journal:
Still stuck in Chiasso train station. Shivering, but I think I’ve found the only working heater and I’ve curled up next to its feeble warmth to write. You’d think a train station nestled at the butt-end of the Swiss Alps would be heated, but… I slept awhile, but kept starting awake, panicky and disoriented, so I’ve decided to sit the last hours out. It’s grown dark and mean-looking on the empty streets outside the station doors, and people are getting restless. Will this day ever end?
About an hour later, as I dozed against the heater, a voice crackled through the loud speakers, announcing something in Swiss-German, then Italian. I waited patiently for the English translation. It never came and I felt a wave of irrational anger at the woman in the guichet wash over me. I scanned my severely limited Italian vocabulary desperately as the announcement was repeated, and made out the words Milano and Eight. Horrified at the thought of missing the night’s only train out of Chiasso, I jumped up and ran back to the lobby. After a few minutes, I managed to locate a man who spoke English. He informed me that my train had arrived an hour early and was leaving its platform in five minutes.
With the last stores of my energy, I staggered to the train and managed to procure one of the remaining empty seats. The air inside was charged with boredom and impatience, abuzz with impatient intonations, carried out in Dutch and Italian and French. Struggling to get comfortable in the tiny cramped space next to a large, bleached-blonde Italian woman, I burned my arm on an over-heated vent next to my seat. I sulked some more.
Two hours later we arrived at Milan station, where another minor disaster struck. I was filled with a nauseating sense of déjà vu when, after fifteen minutes of searching, I couldn’t find the train to Rome anywhere. I stopped a man who could have been the twin of the attendant from the station in Zurich, and asked him where it was. Again, I was greeted with cryptic laughter.
Missy, you’re in wrong station. The train to Rome goes from other train station, across town. You got to go there.
Almost delirious with exhaustion and my own magnificently bad luck, I left the station and flagged down a taxi. I made the mistake of telling the driver I was in a hurry and he peeled out of the station parking lot, screeching his tires and leaving a smoldering cloud burning rubber in our wake. We roared across town, stopping inexplicably at one point to pick up another passenger, an Italian woman (I’m pretty sure I ended up paying her fare), nearly killing a roller-blader and skimming the paint off one side of a parked car. I paid the ten-dollar fare and found myself in yet another train station.
The place was like a circus, huge and busy and wild. Crowds of homeless kids gathered near the escalators, bugging tourists for change and rolling cigarettes. Nowhere to sit, save the ashy, concrete floor. Everyone in a hurry, lines for the toilet, the tobacco stand, the sandwich shop. A man with a Raider’s jacket and a lazy eye followed me for a few minutes before growing bored and wandering off. I was too tired to care. I’d arrived just in time to catch the night’s last train to Rome, and sank down to the ground on the platform. The end of my long journey was finally in sight, but even the act of feeling happy seemed to require too much exertion. I sat and watched the crowd gather around me.
When the train arrived, they set upon it like starving vultures; the strike had bottlenecked the movement of thousands of travelers, which meant than an entire day’s passengers to Rome were crammed on a single train. Thanks to an uncharacteristic strike of good fortune, I managed to claw my way to the front of the line and found a compartment with an open space. Squeezing past the other passengers, I threw my cursedly heavy backpack above the seat and plopped down, sweating and beyond fatigue, the set of my eyes daring anyone to mess with me.
You look like you need a cigarette, a voice to my left announced in perfect English. I turned in surprise to the smiling, maternal eyes of a German woman, and accepted the thin stick of tobacco in her outstretched hand. Before I had the cigarette to my lips, an Italian boy to my left had struck a match and held it patiently before me. As the nicotine’s mildly sedative effect set in, I glanced at the rest of the passengers around me. Besides the German woman and the Italian boy, there were two Swiss Grandmothers and one Japanese businessman, all glancing at me with curious eyes. At the questioning of the German woman, the story of the past twenty-four hours poured out. And magically, as I talked, everything that had gone wrong started to take on a comic quality, until even I was laughing. My compartment mates listened closely, clucking their tongues in sympathy and sharing their own stories of rail strikes. I felt vindicated.
And somehow, the rest of the night on that train felt like coming home. Although I didn’t get five minutes of sleep and the train ride ended up taking twelve hours instead of the anticipated eight, everything started to feel all right again. My ideas about my particular brand of luck shifted a bit as I watched throngs of delayed travelers search in vain for an open seat. Dozens of them ended up crammed into the aisle outside our compartment, forced to spend the night balanced atop suitcases or simply sitting on the floor. As I chatted happily with my compartment mates, I began to remember why I loved traveling, in spite of the occasional hassle it entails. We sat up the whole night talking in English, our common language. We chain-smoked, bought each other crackers and juice from the snack cart. When an unexpected bump catapulted the dozing Japanese businessman onto the floor, everyone (including him) laughed hysterically. Around four, the Italian boy invited me to share a joint in the train bathroom. Finally, finally, we arrived in Rome at seven the next morning. I said goodbye to my new friends, then stumbled off the train and up the street towards the hostel where I was to meet Andy.
Out on the street, the city was coming drowsily to life. Street vendors shivering under layered wool sweaters worked to assemble their stands, laying out fruit and scarves and Italian flags. The clank of metal gates rolling up to reveal tiny pizzerias and gellateries brought me back to life. A flock of pigeons lifted into a synchronized and spontaneous cloud of gray from some high up roost. Yes. I was finally here. With aching shoulders, I arrived at the building that housed our hostel and pushed the intercom button. It rang. And rang.
Dismay is an inadequate word to describe my reaction when I realized that it was still closed for the night. I came very close to losing it for the first real time in the hellish space of the past two days. I shrieked and yanked at the building door, which was, thankfully, open. I limped up three flights to the locked hostel entrance and spent the next hour slumped on the cracking marble steps, staring at that hated door. It was massive and thick, a final infuriating barrier between myself and everything I was moving towards. I lit a cigarette and cried, just a little. I blame the exhaustion.
At eight thirty, the sounds of movement behind the door woke me from a disheartened doze. I rose and pounded on the wood, praying, please please please. The click of the opening latch sounded like church bells. Minutes later, I found Andy snoring softly on the bottom bunk of a small, dark room. I collapsed into his open arms before he even woke.
You made it, sweet, he whispered into my ear. I curled myself against him and fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
So I got my soul-searing adventure, in spite of everything; Andy and I spent entire days in bed, smoking the last of my French cigarettes, reading novels and making love. We danced, drunken, down the slick shiny streets of midnight Rome in a rainstorm, we wandered about the old city and stood, struck twin dumb by the dry gray beauty of Michelangelo’s David in Florence. In the end, in spite of everything, I’d go through it all over again. Because it wasn’t what I’d expected. It wasn’t the perfect, hitchless ride to Rome I’d hoped and planned for. In fact, it was a disaster. But in travel, as in life, it seems that so many of the best experiences demand we scale a few mountains first. And that letter, like everything that followed, came so unexpectedly.
Friendship on the Cliffs
They don’t see.
We are four days into a weeklong backpacker’s tour of Ireland and all anyone can talk about is the rain. It seems pretty normal to me, considering that it is January in a country famed for its sogginess, but I don’t dare say it to anyone. I’m the only American among the amalgamation of Australians, Hungarians and South Africans touring the country, a thing that has left me feeling strange and foreign enough. Risking the collective irritation of ten young adults bent on misery doesn’t seem like the most beneficial move, and so I keep largely to myself, mingling with the locals when we stop into pubs and considering my relative position in the world through the lens of a satisfying and self-imposed solitude.
I’m not sure quite what it was I’d expected when I signed on. Restless and unsure of the next step, I’d come across a pamphlet for the tour in a hostel in London. Paddywagon Tours, it read in bubbled lettering. Ireland’s No. 1 backpacker tour, to be sure, to be sure! The brochure was shiny and bright and filled with glossy photos of young, adventurous-looking kids crowded around some shellacked bar or a green, garishly painted minibus. All laughing and jostling each other like friends since forever ago. Yes, I’d thought to myself. This looks like something I’d enjoy.
And so I’d made my reservation, flying into Belfast and then catching a fast train to Dublin where we all met up last Monday morning. It has been like this most of the way since then: complaints and curses all the way through Tralee, then on the ferry to cross the river Shannon, then over County Clare and up, up, around to the scissored, fog-caught cliffs of Moher. After five minutes out on the broken edges of the cliffs, half of the tour group has condemned this wet, windy edge of the world and returned to wait inside the bus, complaining of damp socks and tangled hair. The rest huddle in a group near the parking lot, chain-smoking and exchanging gossip. I have to get away.
And so I move towards the edge, unnoticed as usual. I climb a “No Trespassing” fence, hop a wall of stones, and slip my way down a hill of mud to stand at the sudden jagged point where it all drops off into nothing. Far below, the ocean is crashing against the shale and sandstone rock face. Windy and wet, I stand and snap photos with my little camera, feeling so small. At peace. I even kneel in the mud to get the perfect shot of a decayed, receding wire fence, disappearing somewhere in the foggy distance.
Behind me, shouts. I turn and a boy comes running down the mud hill, a half-emptied 2-liter bottle in one hand. He skids and sways wildly, and 2 friends call out to him from the safety of the pathway high above. Laughing, screaming, Don’t do it, lad, a cry that even a Yankee like myself recognizes as sick reference to the ancient and poetic draw of suicide off this abrupt stopping of land. Ireland is home to the one of the highest suicide rates in Europe. Her victims are usually men, relatively young and inevitably out of hope. They often come here.
But this boy is all rosy-cheeks and smiles as he runs towards me, sanguine and caked with wet dirt, and so I don’t worry. He arrives to stand at my side, gazes down to where the rock face drops away. Turns. Ye reckon ye could make it past the undertow if ye had a running start? I’m not sure, but he is all nods, confident in the face of my own doubt. I’d say ye’ve got 200 meters of freefall before ye even hit the water. He hands me the bottle.
What is it?
Not sure. Someone passed it to me in the car.
I tilt the bottle up towards my mouth and drink long, hard. A pink-purple liquid, sharp and sugary. I pick out the bitter hints of bottom shelf vodka and rum. The red-faced Irish boy introduces himself as Ryan Sullivan, and we shake cold, clammy hands. I tell him I’m here with a tour group and he lights up, digging into his arsenal of Irish knowledge and spitting out facts and figures proudly. Did ye know these cliffs here run for near eight kilometers? And those dots out there? They’re the Aran Islands, Lass… As he chatters drunkenly away, I congratulate myself on the simultaneous embodiment of so many Irish clichés at once; me, standing atop green, mossy, fog shrouded hills in saturated, wintertime air, drinking alcohol before noon with a boy named Ryan Sullivan. Me. I tell him this.
I’ve been drinking since ten Ryan brags. His voice is loud and crackling and lovely, and we both stand a while, looking out at the place where the foamy white of ocean meets the dirty white of the hung over sky. I want to say something.
I’m Irish, you know, I tell him proudly. His face alights and he turns to inspect me.
Are ye now?
Yup. Twenty-five percent.
And Ryan Sullivan starts to laugh, amused and bemused, says nothing and hands me the bottle again. I drink more and smile at myself. I suppose, at second-hand think, that it is a pretty silly thing to claim, especially to this boy. After all, he lives here in Ireland. Full-blood and whiskey-hearted, Irish in a way that a rootless American clinging at straws of a diluted family lineage could never understand. But still I think of it, the vague and silvery thread that joined us nevertheless, generations back, before the fork. Perhaps, even, our great grandfathers drank thick, wheaty pints of ale together, or broke their backs side by side during the Great Potato Famine, building the crumbling stretches of stone wall that still span the countryside. I suppose then that the thing that separates us is so minor, and so essential– he can list off names. I cannot.
Once, months back, calling myself Irish very nearly got me into a bar brawl with a boy in Florence. I was five hours and about fifteen drinks into an all-night pub crawl, and busy enjoying a rowdy conversation with a group of Germans. I don’t remember quite who I said it to, although I know it wasn’t the small, impish boy who turned angrily around upon hearing me: I’m Irish. Two words, spoken in unmistakably American intonations, probably quite loudly; alcohol makes me noisy and gregarious and prone to declaratory statements. The boy’s eyes narrowed and he moved closer, surveying me with small angry eyes. I was in trouble.
Ye think yer Irish, do ye, he hissed, with a breath that stank of vodka and stale peanuts. I’m so sick of ye fackin Americans sayin that. Yer not Irish, lass.
Drinking also makes me aggressive, and so I prepared myself for the fight, even though I was female, and fifty pounds his inferior. How dare he dismiss my heritage? I turned to him in blind anger, clenching my fists, adrenaline surging. Then I stopped, and really looked at him. He so resembled a leprechaun with his small arms and red goatee as he jumped about and spat in my face that I succumbed instead to laughter. The wild, raving, drunken brand. He was mythical, and angry, and yes, much more Irish that I would ever be. Thinking back on it, the whole thing seems so silly now, here.
Ryan Sullivan reaches into his trouser pocket and pulls out a pack of Irish cigarettes. He puts one to my lips, then his own, and we struggle a few minutes to light them against the bitter, whipping trade winds, moving in quick and fast from the west. I stare out into the wind, thinking of home. It is out there in that general direction, somewhere, past the place where the earth curves and the water drops away into cloud.
Caught in a moment of wide, friendly silence, we turn our faces from the boiling salt water to his friends, who are picking their way down the hill after him, then galloping towards us, equal parts boyish recklessness and subtle discretion. They know this place, its wild beauty and its danger, although they pretend not to. I think they do it for me. The two new arrivals look a few years younger than Ryan Sullivan, and me for that matter. One is speckled with classic Irish coloring and peers out at me from under a mop of brilliant red hair. The other is tall and white skinned, with eyes the black of polished lava rock. Red Hair grins into my eyes, and the tall one inserts himself into the companionable space between me and Ryan Sullivan, draping his arm over my shoulder.
We pass the bottle amongst ourselves a while, watching the pinkness that sloshes against its sides grow less. There is a mouthful, then half a mouthful, then a sip. Ryan Sullivan offers it to me. It tastes watery and flavorless, like saliva. I don’t mind.
It’s time to go, the tall one announces, and in a single movement, he has slung me over his shoulder and begun to work his way back up towards the cement paths. The brown soggy cliffs fall skyward and I stare at an ocean of whitish gray clouds. With each step, the vision bounces and shakes, me hanging upside down. Blood pools in my head as he hauls me up the mud hill, slipping and coming near enough to falling to make me cry out in hysterical laughter. The back of my tongue tastes sticky and sickly sweet.
At the top of the mud hill, the tall boy sets me down gently and the 4 of us make our way up the winding path to the parking lot, arm in arm, singing the words to an Irish drinking song that even I know well:
And she rides her wheelbarrow
Through the streets broad and narrow
Singing ‘Cockles and mussels
Alive, alive ho’
They teach me a short jig and we practice in synch as we walk, bruising each other’s shins and laughing again. Right foot, left foot, right foot, kick. When we reach the graveled parking lot, the three of them walk me to the waiting tour bus. The horn honks, the engine idles, and I invite them onboard. Inside the bus, the windows have fogged. I’m greeted by ten scowling faces. Finally, someone in the back mutters. I don’t care.
Meet my new friends, I am shouting, cause the alcohol has made me glad for everything, and nothing in particular. The boys poke their heads in the opened door of the bus, grinning. No one really seems to notice them. Before they go, each one stops to plant a wet wide kiss on the cold, rosy circle of my left cheek.
Goodbye, Erin! Ryan Sullivan calls, then they run off to their own waiting car, waving and shouting still.
And then we are moving again, a bus, a wet winding road, miles of Ireland yet to see. The driver switches on his microphone and tells a dirty joke. Laughter sidles past me, but it is little more than a distant buzzing. Me, I am still back there at the edge of the cliffs, watching the ocean and staring in the general direction of way back home. I am thinking hard of those three, wondering what separates us, really. The only true thing, I am supposing, is the will of my Great-Grandparents to leave this place for something better. In a very short span during the nineteenth century, over 1.6 million Irishmen did the same, tired of famine and desperation. Perhaps I could have been a Sullivan, I could have spoken with a thick rising lilt and shouted out the words to Molly Malone by the age of five. But no. America is my home, not Ireland, connected distantly as I am to this dirt, these skies.
Sometimes I feel rootless, a diluted mix of nothing much. People ask, What are you? And I can’t seem to respond. Maybe German, or was it Scottish? A little bit of English, some Swedish, I think my dad told me once. And I’m trying and trying until my Yankee heart grows dull and heavy at the thought of it. But then I think of Ryan Sullivan, and the truth rises up to the top of me, like sea-salted fog or thick, heady beer foam: Yes. I am Irish.
The Tunisian Lawyer
It is a sunny winter afternoon in Amsterdam, and the Tunisian Lawyer is about to die. I see it happening in a slow series of single movements; the sun glinting against the leather of his expensive shoes, him adjusting his sunglasses and angling his head against the traffic as he steps down into the street and starts to cross, just in front of me. The clank and holler of a fast moving tram, headed straight for him from the other way. I yelp and grab a handful of his Armani suit coat, yanking him backwards hard. He stumbles over the broken edge of the curb, landing flat on his ass. He is stunned, but still alive when, seconds later, the tram charges past a foot away.
We stare at each other a moment, speechless. Then he is thanking me as I help him up, brushing the dust off his jacket, and we both laugh, because everything is still all right. Thank you for everything, Erin, he says. Good luck and goodbye. Then he shakes my hand and turns again to cross the street, wary this time. I wait to see that he has made it safely to the other side, then wave goodbye and turn in the direction of the hostel, half-smiling because I can’t believe that I just saved his life, because this is how it has been from the moment I met the Tunisian Lawyer four hours earlier, in the smoking compartment of a train headed from Paris to Amsterdam: we save each other.
I must admit I was less than thrilled to meet him initially. It was too early on a Friday morning, and I felt ill and exhausted and entirely unsure just why I was on a train to the Netherlands instead of asleep in a bed somewhere. And there he was, a stocky, well-dressed man in his thirties who entered the train car and made a beeline for the seat directly across from me. A bead of irritation formed immediately in the pit of my stomach and I put on my headphones, something I’d discovered was a pretty universal “Do Not Disturb” sign. I’d been living in Europe for three months at that point, and had grown hard and slow to friendship on account of the constant and entirely unwelcome attention middle aged European men seem to enjoy lavishing on young, foreign females.
The bead grew to a knot as the dark eyed man smiled across the table at me. I frowned and pulled out my journal. He lit a Marlboro Red and the knot became a grapefruit, sour and acidic. I’d quit cigarettes three days earlier on account of a deep, wheezing cough, too late to change my reservation to the non-smoking section. I struggled to breath and cursed my misfortune.
I could feel his curious eyes on me as the train roared to life and began its rhythmic chug along the metal tracks. I kept my head down and checked my watch. Three hours and fifty-five minutes left until we pulled into Centraal Station, Amsterdam. Jesus. As the decaying, outer edges of Paris’ urban landscape rushed past and away outside our shared window, I thought about my situation. I’d been away from home long enough to make a few bad mistakes, and so I’d taken to planning and accounting for every possible outcome of any given situation, to think ten moves ahead. I risked a glance up and saw that he was reading Le Point, a French magazine. At least he was educated. He caught my gaze and smiled again. Shit! Why did I look up? I guess I can pretend I don’t speak English. If he tries to sit by me I’ll open my mouth and cough in his face. If he tries to touch me, I’ll slap him and scream…
As the minutes dragged their dusty heels, I felt the beginnings of a slight pressure in my lower abdomen. I tried to ignore what it meant and focused instead on the words I was scribbling furiously into my journal. Scratchy complaints about the state of my health, the smelly train car, the unjust sense of vulnerability being a woman alone in Europe entails. Ten minutes later, the pressure got worse, and there was no question or alternative; I had to pee. Now. Resigned to my fate, I moved quickly, pulling off my headphones, lurching out of my seat and towards the door in a single movement, before he had a chance to say anything.
Washing my hands in the bathroom sink shortly afterwards, I thought about how to avoid him when I returned to my seat. I considered faking deafness, but that trick never seemed to work very well. I also thought about pretending that I couldn’t speak English, but the train conductor would be by soon, demanding my passport. He’d recognize the blue veneer, no doubt, and then where would I be? I twisted my face into a loose scowl and skulked back to the car. I could see the threads of smoke curling up from where he sat.
I sat down quickly and reached for my headphones, pulling them towards my ears. But I wasn’t fast enough. He saw his chance and jumped for it. What is your name? He asked quickly, his words peppered with the slightest tinge of an accent. Damnit.
I’m Erin, I responded distractedly, trying to place the lilt. Algeria?
Where do you come from, Erin? Morocco? And excuse my manners, would you like a cigarette?
After you travel alone for long enough, you start to develop a certain internal barometer when dealing with strangers. I’d found that if someone was going to do or say something questionable, it usually happened quick, say in the space of about five to ten minutes. It’s like the man you’ll meet in Rome or Berlin or Athens or London, the one who wears a long black trench coat lined on the inside with all sorts of fake watches– Rolex, Swatch, Gucci. He moves up against you and quickly opens up the coat, flashing his fake gold. Most people, I’ve learned, are like him: they want to show you who they are, what they are offering, and quickly. So I watched this man carefully, measuring his words and searching for the words or suggestions that might be hiding behind them. The questions he asked seemed innocent enough. Why was I going to Amsterdam? Had I been there before? Did I like living in Paris?
When the ten minute mark had passed without incident, I started to relax. He seemed nice. Fatherly, even. And so I let my tensed shoulders unbunch and accepted a cigarette, cough be damned. One little conversation couldn’t hurt. I started to describe my life in France, and back home in Oregon. I learned he was from Tunisia, and a lawyer, hence the name I’ve bound to him in my memory of that day. He handed me a business card. Avocat, it said. Lawyer in French. Tunisia is very beautiful, many Americans come to visit, he bragged. If you ever want to come, you call that number. I’ll pay for everything.
I laughed, trying to imagine it. Me, marooned in Tunisia, drinking cocktails and eating cold roasted lamb on some yacht.
Do you know where Tunisia is? I shook my head no, and he pulled out a small map of the world, pointing to a tiny speck at the Northern tip of Africa. I turned the map towards me and pointed to my own tiny speck all the way across the blue inked inches of Atlantic Ocean, a distant home that I knew seemed equally foreign and strange to him.
After a while, he said, Si nous parlons en Français? Would you like to speak in French? I nodded, nervous, but eager to show off my developing skill. So we conversed, me with a halting, imperfect command, him expertly. He corrected small mistakes and told me I was smart, then pulled a piece of scratch paper out of his snakeskin briefcase and made up a miniature French grammar quiz for me, just to help me practice. Conjugation of easy verbs: I go, you go, he goes, we are, they are, she is. I got a hundred percent and he praised my diligence, my proof-reading. I started to feel good again, better than I’d felt in so long. Too long.
Within an hour, we were chain-smoking and laughing like friends from way back. He told me about a recently botched love affair with a nice Swiss girl, showed me pictures of his BMW and the Jaguar he planned to buy next month, flashed his Armani cufflinks. I pulled out my own prized possessions; a photo album of faces from home and a small stuffed mouse my cousins had given me before I left. He examined the pictures of my house and my car, me with friends and grandparents, and asked curious questions about America. He’d been twice, to New York and Chicago.
I learned that the Tunisian Lawyer was headed to Amsterdam for a day-long business meeting. That evening, he would catch a plane home from Schipoll airport. I, on the other hand, was headed there solely for pleasure, a hedonistic three-day break from the stifling reality of my studies. He made concerned inquiries about my cough and insisted on buying me tea, orange juice, and then salad from the snack cart. I smoked half his pack of cigarettes. He didn’t mind.
Hours later, we stepped off the train in Amsterdam together. He slung his imported leather briefcase over one shoulder and straightened his cufflinks while I struggled with the straps of my big, yellow backpack, then pulled my bandana down over a messy head of hair. As we wound our way through the crowds of visitors, I noticed that people were staring. We certainly made a strange pair.
Because I’d visited before, the Tunisian Lawyer informed me that I was officially “in charge” of getting us to our respective destinations and so I led him out to the front of Centraal Station. The city loomed before us like a mirage, filthy and crooked and perfect. You’re in charge, he reminded me, smiling. And so I pointed to the waiting queue of taxis and he waved one down.
As the taxi lurched out of the queue, dodging bicyclists and trams, my dull sense of worry returned momentarily. Somewhere in the back of my mind, possible outcomes nudged at me. What if he knows the taxi driver? What if they’ve been in cahoots the whole time and are going to kidnap me? What if it’s all a setup? I glanced nervously at him. He was leaning back against the cracking pleather seat, flicking his Zippo open, lighting another red. He sensed my gaze and smiled back in a paternal way, holding out the opened pack to me. I relaxed again.
After about ten minutes, I realized that the taxi driver was taking us in a vague circle. When Centraal Station passed on my right for the third time, I called for him to let us off. He shrugged blamelessly and after the Tunisian Lawyer paid the ten Euro fare, we stepped out of the cab. As luck would have it, the hostel where I’d reserved a room was right in front of us, and less than a two minute walk from the train station. He realized our folly and started to chide me. You’re supposed to be in charge, here. I’m counting on you to help me out.
I shrugged back. I’m doing my best, man. You’re on your own in this world, you know? And we shared a smile at that moment, because what I’d said was normally true, and because, temporarily, it wasn’t. For a single morning, we were partners of some indefinable sort, a team. Soon, it would end, and we’d each be on our own once more.
I found him a hotel just across the street from my hostel, a small, expensive place where he could shower and rest until his meeting later on in the afternoon. Together, we checked out the room, the bathroom, making sure the bed was made and everything worked properly. Afterwards, he escorted me back across the street to my own, shabby hostel, where he insisted on paying for my weekend lodgings, a one hundred Euro tab. I knew by then that it was only out of kindness, and I simply thanked him.
Then, when we’d said our goodbyes, he stepped out in front of that tram. Saving him was instinctual, sure. Visceral, and automatic. And yet I like to think it indicated something deeper between us. Friendship, perhaps. Camaraderie, certainly. A connection, momentary, but still very real.
As I unlock the rusting, metal fire door that leads to the decaying innards of the hostel, I smile again.
Looking back, the Tunisian Lawyer was a chance I probably shouldn’t have taken. With him, I threw out every rule of traveling alone: never accept food from a stranger, never get into a cab with a stranger, never let a stranger pay for anything. Even now, it makes me think of being five, of the time I nodded yes to a piece of chewing gum from a stranger while my mother’s back was turned. Her fright and frustration when she saw the minty wad bulging against my teeth and cheek. You can’t trust people: it’s a lesson we all learn early on, and for good reason. But life gets lonely out on the road, and sometimes unlikely friends are the only ones you find. So I still carry his business card in my wallet, and whenever I start to feel hard or jaded, I pull it out and look at it. Nardine Roumar, it says. His name. Thinking of the moment when the tram almost killed him, it occurs inevitably to me that he had placed his life in my hands just as much as I had mine in his. It’s a tough world, no doubt. Danger abounds, and maliciousness and evil take on many guises. But so do kindness, friendship, and this is what the Tunisian Lawyer taught me. There is bad, but also, sometimes, good, and one has just as surprising a propensity as the other to show up in the most unexpected of places.
Life, Corfu Style
The guy working at the reception desk had warned me about renting a moped when I checked into the hostel. Just don’t do it he’d said. I can’t tell you how many people I see end up in the hospital every year, sliding into rock walls and stuff.
He’d warned us, sure, but when Matt and I met for breakfast that Wednesday, the idea seemed too perfect to pass up, in spite of or perhaps because of the risk it entailed. An October morning on Corfu, the second largest and best known of the Ionian Islands. The tail end of the Grecian summer, the sun burning hot and low in a sky so clear it looked white. A breeze moving across the mountains, soft, from the western edges of Europe. The feel of something dangerous in the air.
And so, after eggs and potatoes in the tiny beach kitchen, hung over and grinning, we make our way up the hill to the hand painted “Mopeds For Hire” sign. We find the rental office tucked back from the main road, a small, garish building. Painted pink, like everything else here. Inside the cramped and poorly lit office, a tan, moustached man is sitting behind the room’s single piece of furniture, a plywood desk. He is drinking what appears to be Nescafé (A Greek favorite, inexplicably) and smoking an extra long cigarette. Teetering shelves of helmets surround him. Yes? He asks.
Um, Matt says, We wanted to rent out a moped. For the day. The Greek man grinds out his cigarette in a seashell-turned-ashtray and stands, groaning with the effort. He is barefoot.
You know how to drive one? I shake my head but Matt nods yes. Satisfied, the man walks to a nearby shelf and chooses two helmets, offering them to us. Matt takes the good one, leaving me with a cracked black shell that does not buckle and slides down over my eyes when I try it on. It smells like sweat and saltwater and I realize immediately that if we crash today, it will do no good. I will probably die.
I voice my sudden doubts to Matt as the Greek leads us back outside and to a garage full of sad, rusted mopeds. Don’t worry, I’ve driven motorcycles a bunch of times before, Matt promises me, half-listening. It’s almost exactly the same thing. I do not yet know that he is a pathological liar, and so I smile, relieved, as he considers our choices. Eventually, he picks a dark, heavy moped with Typhoon emblazoned across one side in a peeling, white paint.
Eh, you no drive this one today, huh? The Greek is warning me as Matt wheels the bike out into the sunlight. He is shaking a finger several inches from my nose. He know how, he drive, ok? I nod. He grunts, satisfied, and saunters back in the direction of the rental shop. Matt disengages the stand and swings a long, tan leg over the hump, seating himself and placing his hands on the grips, testing the brakes. I climb on behind him.
Ready? Matt calls over his shoulder. I nod, then feel ridiculous for doing so because I realize he cannot see the movement. Never the less, he shoves his foot down hard on the starter and the engine begins a puttering mumble, slowly crawling to a roar. I place my hands gingerly on either side of Matt’s waist, still shy because we are virtually strangers, because I do not even know his last name. With a jerk, we start up the steep, lurching hill away from the Pink Palace Hostel. My helmet is already slipping out of place.
Within minutes, we’ve climbed 400 feet above sea level and are cruising along a winding, broken road. Five feet to our left, the land drops sharply away to beach and then miles of glittering sea: the Adriatic, where I swam naked just hours before. I glance over Matt’s shoulder at the speedometer and find the needle quivering between 0 and 5 kilometers an hour. Broken. The mileage counter seems to have given up at 200,000, and so I assume that the gas gauge is also worthless. But the wind feels cold and good, and the sun is soft and hot against back, so I rest my chin on Matt’s shoulder and quickly forget all the chances I am taking. He smells of metabolized alcohol, a scent rising out of his pores and mixing with something softer, and interminably sweet. Patchouli?
We stop at the northern edge of Agios Gordos to buy gas. While Matt struggles with the pump, I enter the tiny store to pick up provisions for the day: cigarettes, a lighter, some bottled water. Behind the counter, two men are arguing loudly in Greek. They look like brothers. I grab the water and a lighter curved into the shape of a nude woman, then move to stand before them. There is no cash register. Instead, coins and crumpled bills are spread out over the cracking Formica in messy, patternless piles. The men ignore me and continue their argument for several more minutes. Outside, I see that Matt has finished topping off the tank and is waiting beside our moped. I shrug my shoulders helplessly at him, and he nods encouragement. Excuse me, I say.
The older of the two men turns to me. What?
A pack of Gauloise cigarettes, please. Lights. I hand him a ten-Euro note and shove the cigarettes into my pocket. He stares down a moment at the piles of money, then reaches into his back pocket, producing an impressive wad of bills. He picks out my change, drops it down on the counter, and resumes his argument. A million tourists visit Corfu and its surrounding islands every year, but, I am realizing, they certainly don’t come for the service.
I hop back on the moped, struggle with my helmet, and then we are moving again, up through the tangled Ropa Valley and north towards Paleokastritsa. Olive groves blur to stretches of green and black, pressing into my retinas and then tumbling clean away as we fly past. It is harvest season, and the vegetation of the island dots the rushing hills and valleys with sparks of color; fat, purple clusters of fig and fiery bright oranges, smears of grape ripe and bending on the vine. The air is sweet and heady, making me feel drunk. Matt presses down on the gas and as we go, faster and faster, the speedometer quivers, falling to zero mark.
We make our way up around the winding, northeastern edges of the island. In Greece, road signs are often labeled both in Greek and English, but this is not always the case, and we start to get lost, or at least as lost as one could possibly get on an island so tiny. Every once in a while, we pull to the gravel sidling the near-empty roads to consult our map. We are moving in a vaguely Northward direction, destinationless.
After a while, Matt angles right, and pulls into the massive and empty lot of a water park closed for the off-season, then cuts the engine and yanks off his helmet. We need to find a beach, he says, where we can sit and smoke a cigarette. But first you need to try driving.
The idea is frightening, but Matt looks so eager, and I want to impress him, so I decide I don’t care. I climb off and he scoots backwards, making room for me at the front of the bike. I sit down in his former place. The seat is warm. I press forward with my right hand and the bike surges forward with a jerk. I move out onto the empty road and we pick up speed.
We pass through several more towns, all deserted. Massive resort complexes stand dark and empty, beach umbrellas stretch along the sand for miles, looking sad and forgotten. We wander among these ghost towns, staring into the windows of dark shops and forgotten cabana clubs. The thing that seems the strangest, however, is the dogs. Stray dogs, packs of them everywhere, starving and pacing, snarling at each other over a scrap of meat or a dead fish washed to shore, their lonely howls echoing down the empty streets. I think perhaps they are wondering where all the people have gone.
We plot out the course to a tiny beach at the Northern tip of our map, then follow rusting, nearly indecipherable signs in a relative direction. As we move towards the beach we pass rows of small, sand-colored houses. Kids playing nearby stand and watch us roar past, shirtless and bronzed. Dirty and wide-eyed, like children anywhere. Their yards are full of junk, old car parts and half-built porches, sometimes a goat tied to a fence post or chickens cackling in tiny pens. We take three wrong turns, but find ourselves eventually at the top of a steep, steep incline. I am tired of driving, and Matt takes over.
Then, we are careening down a narrow trail laid a foot deep with rocks. Not pebbles, not stones. Rocks. I am waiting every second for the hiss of air escaping a popped tire, for the first indications of an uncontrollable skid, but somehow we make it to the bottom of the path. We park next to a scattering of motorcycles and dismount. Matt’s arms are shaky and limp from the strenuous effort of guiding the bike down the incline, the veins bulging out everywhere like over-inflated balloons. He laughs and we both turn to look at the beach. I am startled by the raw beauty of what I see; a half-mile long stretch of shoreline that ends on either side with great burnt orange outcroppings of rock, two-hundred feet high and swaying like a mirage as waves of heat rise off the stone. Fifty feet of white, flawless sand and, in front of us, massive and ephemeral, the bluish noonday glare of sun against the Adriatic Sea. Matt and I are so stunned by the perfection of this place that it takes us a full two minutes to realize we are at a nude beach.
Off to our left, a group of elderly Greek men have congregated, engaged in what appears to be a very serious discussion. They are sprawled across the sand, legs and arms thrown carelessly, totally nude and jaw-droppingly hairy. Scattered about the half-mile stretch are other groups in various stages and poses of nudity. Most are over fifty, and tanned to a leathery, Indian brown. They seem comfortable in a way that suggests that they come here often, that they have been coming here often all of their lives.
Matt and I sit down, conspicuous and odd in our Capri pants and summer shirts. I smile, realizing that I feel awkward because I am not naked. And because I wish I were, because I am too shy to suggest it to this near stranger sitting next to me.
Matt and I met two nights before at the hostel bar, me trashed and too eager to please, pouring beer all over myself because I knew he would think it was funny. But sitting here on this beach, stone-sober and suddenly very shy, I begin to realize how little we actually know about each other. I watch Matt playing with a piece of fishing line he found in the sand, burying it beneath the miniscule white pebbles and then slowing pulling it out, so the twists and tangles of the string create deep, intricate patterns. Tell me something about yourself, I say, feeling trite but curious. He drops the wire, brushing a piece of curly black hair out of his eyes and looking up at me.
Ummmmm… He looks down at his hands in blank silence, then quickly back up. I gave myself three tattoos, he says, and holds an arm out for me to inspect. On his middle finger, a simple blue dot. On his knuckle, two more blue dots. And on the inside of his forearm, a blurry, crooked design, some sort of half circle extending into an arrow.
What do they mean? I ask him. But he can’t tell me.
I was sixteen, and I wanted to piss my parents off, so now I have these stupid tattoos. I don’t know. He shrugs and presses his upper lip down against his lower one, a movement that I do not yet recognize as habit. Everything is still new, unknown, his words and sounds and gestures all pieces to a puzzle I can’t quite solve. We haven’t even kissed yet.
After an hour or so, we clutch our empty-bellies and decided to find some food. The trip back up the rock hill is long and spine-jarring, but soon we are back out on the smooth black of the main roads, cutting right and half-following the signs to a nearby town. We stop for lunch at the only restaurant/hostel in the tiny, one street town, all but deserted. We park the bike and seat ourselves at a table on the wide front porch, the only table, it appears. After five minutes, an aging Greek woman emerges from the darkness of the building, letting the screen door slam behind her as she greets us with a toothless smile. We get one menu to share, and spend a few minutes looking at the choices.
I order bottled water and a falafel sandwich.
No, sorry, we don have that.
I scan the menu again, looking for something. A cheese sandwich?
No, we’re outta bread.
Frustrated, I give up. What do you have?
Pizza. You like cheese? Ham?
We each order a small cheese pizza, and while we’re waiting, we talk about our lives back in America. I learn that Matt is from Minnesota, and has two sisters, and wants to be a sociologist. I ask him about growing up in the Midwest and he shrugs again, swirling his soda around in its cracking, plastic cup. I don’t know. I was a problem child. And then there is silence, the awkward kind. I light a Gauloise and say a silent thank you when the Greek woman bursts through the screen with two steaming plates.
Not a single car passes through the town in the hour we spend at the tiny restaurant, and by the time the bill arrives, the sun has sunken down below the mountains that fortress the inner island, leaving us chilled and eager to get home.
Without the warmth of the sun, the air grows unbelievably cold, and the two of us shiver violently as we speed along the winding roads, back in the direction of the Pink Palace. Home, or what temporarily passes for it. I wrap my arms around him tight and he adjusts the angle of the tiny rearview mirror so he can smile into my eyes all the way to our hostel. It seems so sweet, but it is the end, or at least the place where the end starts.
In twenty-four hour’s time, Matt will tell me goodbye and catch a ferry to Brindisi, Italy, the beginning a general movement back in the direction of England, where he is studying. In eight hour’s time, there will be drunkenness and a half-hearted attempt at sex in my hostel room. He will tell me I’m beautiful. In one week’s time, we will meet up in London, in two week’s time, in Amsterdam. Later on, there will be confusion and irritation and a terrible, angry fight on a rainy street. I will learn that Matthew’s last name is Grunewald, that he is prey to alternating bouts of depression and verbal abuse, and sometimes false bravado or idiotic, self-aggrandizing speeches when he’s had too much to drink. I will learn that he reads books with long and scholarly titles simply to say he has read them, that he misuses large words in a misguided effort to sound smarter than he is. Later on, there will be an angry goodbye and two tears dripped down onto the concrete in some nameless city of wintertime Europe. But not yet. Not yet.
Here, it is all still perfect. Because I took a chance I should not have taken, because I survived anyway, because I’d been warned, and did not care. Because I am flying across Island roads stained the deep, blotchy black of overripe olives, smashed flat and slippery against the sweating concrete, the ocean sparking far below in a dying afternoon sunlight. Because I have my arms wrapped tight around a boy I do not know well. Because I am young and possible naïve, and reckless, and free. Because I’d been warned, and did not care.
« L’amour, c’est comme un jour/ Ça s’en va, ça s’en va »
(Love is like a day/ That goes away, that goes away)
His name was Timothée. He was twenty years old, and French. He didn’t speak a word of English. I was young, and shy and very foreign, the most recent in a long line of American students who would come to live a semester with his family, the Comtes. Their home was big and old, a graying brownstone nestled next to a metro station just outside of Paris. For four months, he and I shared an apartment behind the family house.
The Comtes were kind and formal, welcoming me with a vase of flowers and a box of French chocolates the sunny September afternoon I arrived with my suitcase. Monsieur Comte showed me how to work the thermostat and the shower, Madame Comte baked me cookies and helped me unpack. Timothée was the eldest of the three sons still living at home, followed closely by shy Augustin and ten-year-old Jean-Raphaél.
I loved them right away, but realized quickly that something was off. Dinner times, the air hung thick with a sad, charged silence, so heavy it wilted the green leaves of the nightly salade course, made the soupe des tomates feel like lead on my spoon. And Timothée, well, he was always too loud, or too quiet. Telling jokes and jumping up every three seconds to pour me another glass of wine or just sulking at his seat in the corner, running his fingers along the thread of his monogrammed napkin. Timothée, it said. Of course.
Though I didn’t see much of him in the beginning, I felt myself growing close to Timothée by sheer proximity, the daily ebb and flow of his routine rubbing up against my own in so many ways. I noted his razor perched at the edge of the sink, his wet towel hanging next to my own. The muffled sounds of him busy with a life that didn’t yet include me; the alarm sounding at eight, him rising and showering. Polite conversation during meals and the occasional hello as we passed each other on our way elsewhere. At first, I was content to let him remain a mystery. He felt too foreign and distant from my own expatriate life of university classes and touristed excursions into the city. I didn’t know where to begin. But who we were to become to one another was composed of more than that shiny, dentless surface, was deeper and decided, it sometimes felt, long, long before I dropped into his life and, later, back out. It had to be, cause you can’t direct fate. Not really.
And so this is how it really starts: one night at dinner when Madame Comte rose to pull a quiche from the oven, Timothée leaned over and whispered something into my ear; Erin, tu fumais hier soir. You were smoking last night. I blushed involuntarily, found out. But Timothée was grinning. Smoking. A quintessentially French vice that I’d picked up and ran with days after my arrival in Paris, feeling stressed and muted. That secret cigarette on the front stoop was my nightly reprieve from the velocity of a new life that felt too quick, a never-ending rush of crowded metro rides, dour faces, homework I couldn’t do. Do you have a cigarette for me, he wanted to know.
I nodded yes, and just before his mother returned to the table with a steaming casserole dish, he told me to meet him in his room at eight. I did. He was waiting with a bottle of whiskey and his own pack of smokes, smiling that same knowing smile, and that is how it began. Soon, we were spending every evening together.
And so we grew close over time, though it remained a secret between us two. In front of the family, we were politely formal, distant even. And then, every night after the evening meal was finished, I’d tell his mother merci and go back to the solitude of my small, empty room to wait. The cue would come in fifteen minutes, or an hour. The turn of his key in the door beyond mine, his footsteps on the plywood steps that led to his own, upstairs bedroom. The attic. The sound of him changing, throwing his shoes at the wall, putting on his music. Always, his music. And then I’d go, move noiselessly up the steps after him, knocking once on his open door. Est-ce que je te dérange? Am I bothering you ? I can still see him as he looked back then, hunched over at his desk, paints spilling over his clothing and arms. Turning to me and smiling softly. “Not at all,” he always said. Pas de tout.
Most nights, we stayed up till two or three, chain smoking and drinking crap whiskey from his rusting flask. We talked a lot. At first, the conversations were simple, mundane, even, me practicing my halting French. As the weeks passed, I gained confidence, and then vocabulary. Our discussions took on a deeper tone; religion, philosophy, our own secret lives, the past, possible futures. Sometimes, we didn’t talk at all. He’d turn the lights down low and play dark, haunted music, blowing smoke rings that rose up and out through the opened skylight. Slowly, he began to reveal himself and the secret of his family’s sadness to me.
I never got the full story, only the fragments of its shadow self. I think it was too painful to tell except in pieces, over passing time. What emerged ultimately was this: a sister, Cécile, who fell ill with cancer when Timothée was six, then died one dark April night in a hospital room. He couldn’t cry. Later on, when he was ten, he had a nervous breakdown, turned to drugs and the wrong kind of friends. He spent the bulk of his teenage years in boarding schools. When we met, he was in his second year of art school. His paintings were dark and sad, done always in blacks or midnight blues, hungry ghosts and tortured faces all opening up in the same grimace of wild pain. He loved to read Camus and Hugo, Mozart moved him. He wanted to be a filmmaker, or a painter, or an actor, or maybe a musician. He hadn’t decided yet.
Always, though, Timothée thought of himself as an artiste. The tortured kind. A lot of nights, he didn’t sleep at all. Long after I’d tell him bonsoir and take the crooked stairs down to my own bedroom, dulled and dry-mouthed from the whiskey, I’d hear him pacing up there. Anxious, muffled footsteps wearing tracks up and down the carpet of a place that he left, it seemed, less and less. He played his music, painted, brooded. It got worse as winter descended over Paris, making the gray city bleaker, turning the sky to dirty laundry and the indistinguishable buildings to concreted cages. He took to wearing all black, and it started to pull me down, a certain desperation shining in his eyes that made his unhappiness more contagious, harder to take.
I spent a lot of time during those months trying to sort it all out, looking for a way to label his unhappiness. Manic-depression. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Schizophrenia. All cold, medical terms that seemed too far removed from the warm, sticky truth of his pain. And so I stopped, sick of finding nothing but different versions of a singular sadness, versions that explained and offered nothing.
Sometimes, if it was really late at night and he’d had too much to drink, he’d ask me if I feared going crazy. As-tu peur du fou?I had to tell him no, because even at my darkest moments, insanity had never occurred to me. I sensed strongly that this disappointed him somehow, and sometimes I’d wish that I was afraid, like him. It seemed it was what he wanted—for me suffer, to fall into Hell with him. Back then, I resented it. Why, I’d ask myself, does he want me to be so sad? I thought he was selfish. It’s taken a long, long time, but I think I understand it differently, now. He didn’t want me to be sad so much as he didn’t want to be sad alone. So many nights, I’d stand to go at three or four, bleary eyed and thinking of nothing but my eight’ o’clock class. And he’d jump up, looking reckless and desperate. Don’t go, he’d say. Stay just one more hour. And I would. Sometimes I’d stay till he fell asleep, just so he wouldn’t have to be alone.
Timothée wanted to protect me, too. He’d give me little presents; things he said would shield me from danger and evil, from bad people. The night before I left for a weeklong tour of Greece, he gave me a cast metal peace sign on a thin black string. It was rusted and old, something ancient. I started wearing it every day.
What we had wasn’t love, or at least I didn’t let myself think of it that way. Not for a long, long time. Not till it was almost over. You see, were never lovers. We didn’t even kiss in all those months, although we shared a bed once on a dark, rainy night in December. It was the night he told me he loved me. Me, already halfway packed to leave in two weeks, when school was finished, a painful fact that we avoided discussing completely. He said it nonchalantly, not even looking up from the painting he was working on; a slate, lifeless landscape full of deformed birds.I am afraid, Erin. Do you know why?
I shook my head no and he told me it was because he had fallen in love with me. Did I love him, he wanted to know. I couldn’t respond. Over and over, for hours and hours, he kept asking me. Est-ce que tu m’aimes?Do you love me? Do you love me? It was something I hadn’t allowed myself to think about, except in the most abstract terms. Something I wasn’t ready to consider, something that meant considering too many hard things. And of course, there were other boys I’d met in my travels, one in particular who had been on my mind in the days leading up to our conversation. Timothée knew about them, though he pretended not to. So much of whom we were to each other, it seems, was about pretending.
But that night, he made the mistake of confessing himself. He touched my face, told me that I was beautiful, that he thought of me all the time. He played me old American love songs and tried to kiss me. He ruined everything.
I never answered his question. I couldn’t, somehow, because I knew it would change us permanently, would keep me from the illusions I had about who he was, who I was, who we were together. All the same, when he turned out the lights at four, I followed him to his bed and slept there. I swear, we never even kissed. When I woke up, he’d already dressed and left.
And this is where it starts to fall apart, to end. Over the next days, I realized quickly that something irreparable had occurred. Timothée would stay in the house till late at night, then go upstairs and lock his door.
He wouldn’t make eye contact with me when we passed in the hallway. He answered my questions with grunts and shrugs. When I tried to make conversation at dinner, he’d mock my pronunciation and ridicule my ideas. We’d get into little arguments, making the whole family shift uncomfortably in their seats. I could tell from the sharp, careful look in her eye that Madame Comte knew something was up, although she never said a word. At least not to me. More than once, I left the table crying, not understanding why. What had I done wrong? I supposed it was everything, and nothing in particular.
After a week, I couldn’t take his silence anymore and so I did something that I still try very hard not to regret. I wrote him a letter and left it on his desk, next to the paints and pencils. Timothée spelled carefully on the blank, folded edge, so there could be no mistake. Later on that night, wondering what I’d done, I heard him and his cousins enter the apartment, then clamber upstairs to his attic. Soon, there were loud bursts of laughter. I knew it was at me. Him mocking me to prove he’d never loved me. As if it mattered by then. I listened to their muffled shouts and felt ashamed of the letter, of its imperfections. I’d spent an hour huddled over a French dictionary, wanting to make it perfect, and kind. Writing three drafts. I’d told him I was proud of him, that I would never forget him, that I thought maybe I loved him back. But the tilt of his forced laughter made me hate it all, hate the way it made me feel weak, and stupid for failing to see that it was already too late.
Later on that night when his guests had left, he came to my room and told me we’d had a misunderstanding. That’s what he called it. A misunderstanding. Je ne t’aime pas, Erin, he cried. I don’t love you. I never loved you, I was just drunk. He was lying and we both knew it, but I pretended to believe and life went on, him continuing to ignore me, just like before. The days slipped past, reducing themselves to zero. The night before I left, I went up to his room one last time.
We started fighting almost immediately. It was loud, and long and ugly, hours and hours we spent drifting between tears and shouts, almost kissing, then screaming obscenities at each other. Almost kissing again. He told me he loved me, and that I was naïve and presumptuous, that I’d never known him. I told him his friendship had saved me, that he was selfish and cruel, and in love with nothing but his own misery. I’d been living in Paris for months by then, and even in my distress, I couldn’t help noticing how easily the words came, so quick that I seemed to spit them out fully formed. So quick, that they could almost keep up with my sadness, my rage. At the end of it all, when we were both emptied and exhausted, I stood up to go. NON, he cried, and I saw the fear of so many other nights there in his eyes. Don’t go!! He looked so small and terrified in that moment, standing at the edge of too many things. But I was tired of trying to save him. Tired of his sorrow. So tired that the distance from my chair to his door felt like a million miles. At the doorway, I stopped.
The end can’t always be happy, I said. His eyes fell to his feet and he blinked hard, staring down into the nothingness of his life, cowering at the edge. I knew he was thinking of his sister, of the sharpness of one more bitter end. The ghost of her hovered between us, like a web.
Tu as raison, Erin, he whispered. You’re right. I thought of my own words and tried with all my might to believe them, leaving him there and sinking down the plywood steps for the very last time.
I let him fall.
It doesn’t end happily. The next afternoon, I hugged him goodbye and got on a train to Prague. The rest of the story goes like this: I moved forward with my life, I met new people, I started to let go of the hope that any of it could have been different for us. One day months later, walking alone through a park in Amsterdam, I pulled the peace medallion from around my neck and tossed it quickly into a fast-moving canal. It had become unbearably heavy; sometimes I’d even dream it was strangling me. I watched it sink straight down, as if it were weighted.
Even now, sometimes, when the sky is low and dark, I am tempted by the call of a sadness like his. Inevitably, though, I turn back, knowing it is not mine. It is a temptation borne of nostalgia, the visceral memory of what it was to know him, and nothing more. I will never contact him, and he will never try to find me. I know this, and so I’ve made my relative peace with the past, and all its disappointments. I’ve had to, cause Timothée showed me what can happen if you don’t.
Dutch For Christmas
It is the muffled yet unmistakable sound of someone vacuuming stairs that first wakes me. Whirrrr. Thump. Whirrrr. Thump. I stir, struggling to gain bearing, orientation. It comes, after a moment: I am in my bunk at the Flying Pig Hostel in Amsterdam. It is Christmas Day. My mouth is dry and sticky and my head is throbbing softly. A weak sunlight moves through the curtains next to my bed. Christmas. I roll the idea around my head, trying to make it real. Today is Christmas.
As I lie still, fractals of other Christmases start to spin through my head, shining in blurred relief against my closed eyelids: being five surfaces first. Five, and huddling next to my sister against the door of our bedroom before the sun had risen, waiting together for the clock to say Seven Oh Oh. Her toes curling out from under the hem of a Strawberry Shortcake nightgown, the sounds of my baby sister whimpering in her crib down the hall. Then ten, the year the electricity went out during a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and my dad kept an all night vigil by the fireplace, stoking the embers, keeping us warm. (The cold killed the caged zebra finch waiting for me in my parent’s closet, although I didn’t know for years after.) Then fifteen, the strange sparseness of that first sad Christmas after my dad had left, when there was no money even for a tree. Then being older, coming home from college for the three-week winter break, wanting only grocery money and a filled up gas tank. I map the coordinate of this strange, hung-over day in the graph of my Christmas memories, open my eyes, and reach for the bottle of ibuprofen. I swallow three.
Eric and several of the other roommates are still sleeping in their bunks when I rise, and so I pull on a sweatshirt and leave the room. Half-dressed and half-asleep, I stumble down the stairs to the communal areas of the hostel. Breakfast is long over, the kitchen is closed for cleaning and the bar hangs empty, so I join the small group of backpackers gathered in the lounge, really just a large flat area covered in pillows and rugs. Everyone is either hung over or already on the way to being drunk, and the air is filled with a tired, happy camaraderie. I sit down near the heating grate and fumble in my bag for a cigarette. Two of the hostel employees are seated at the stump-turned coffee table, playing chess. One, Carlos, is from Italy, then New York, then Colombia before that. He is jumpy and burnt out and still speaks with a heavy Spanish accent. The other, Ben, is from Australia. He is small and effeminate, and one of the first friends I’ve made since I arrived here five days ago. Merry Christmas, I say, and they both smile.
As I smoke my cigarette, I ponder their faces, looking for something. History, perhaps. Everyone thinks of home, or what resembles it, on a day like Christmas, and so I scan my brain for context, considering what little I know of each of them. Strange scenes flash through my head: I imagine Carlos, small and wide-eyed, running through a poppy field, the air warm and tropical. Sitting in the lap of a dark-skinned Santa Claus in shorts and sandals. I think of Ben hugging a stuffed kangaroo doll, surrounded by family. Everyone calling each other “mate” in beautiful, lilting accents. The images are and constructed from easy stereotypes, but they comfort me, somehow, remind me that everyone comes from somewhere, and will return one day. Even me.
After about half-an-hour, Eric saunters into the lounge, looking how I feel: tired, gutted, ready for adventure. Both of us messy-haired and bleary-eyed. He sits down next to me and lights a cigarette of his own. Through a mouthful of smoke, he asks, How’d you sleep?
Eric is from Chicago. Tall, blonde, and very good-looking, but we are just friends. Somewhere during the course of the time we met in our hostel room four days previous and now, we decided between us, silently, that it was better this way. We are traveling companions, without expectations or chance of disappointment, inseparable since the morning we first set out into the city together. Everyone here thinks we’re boyfriend and girlfriend. We don’t correct them. Tomorrow morning, he will catch a plane back Oxford, where he works. I will stay, indefinitely. We are both twenty-one, and far from home.
It’s Christmas, Eric says. We should really celebrate. And so he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a sack of weed and rolling papers and hands them to me. Would you? Eric’s inability to roll joints fast became a running joke between us two. Every time he tries, we end up with a hard stub of paper, an inch long and a half an inch thick, which falls promptly apart when it is lit. As I break the chunks of marijuana up, we discuss plans for the day.
The weed we smoke near-constantly makes us forgetful and lazy and unproductive, so we’ve taken, each morning, to writing out little lists of things we want to do during the day. Goals, we sometimes call them. They aren’t much to look at, really just curt words scratched out in Eric’s messy script on the backside of an extra wide rolling paper. Still, they serve as coordinates for our tired, muddy brains, and then later, records of our movements about the city. A way to map ourselves, to remember the things we shouldn’t be forgetting in the first place. On Christmas Day, the list goes like this: buy socks, call home, good food, coffeeshop, rolling papers, phone card, Internet, ATM.
Carlos and Ben have finished their game by the time we complete the list and so the four of us smoke the joint together and talk lightly; gossip about other guests in the hostel, a debate over the best way to get to a certain coffee shop, shared recollections of other holidays here. It is one in the afternoon before Eric and I dress, then stumble out the hostel door, blinking in the brightness of an overcast day.
We wander up through Leidseplein and make our winding way to the city center, chain smoking and loitering along the canals, or gratchen, watching the flocks of pigeons tear at scraps of bread and garbage. Our eventual destination is Baba coffeeshop, near Centraal Station, one of over 350 coffeeshops in Amsterdam. Almost none of these establishments sell any type of hot drink, caffeinated or otherwise. The menus, instead, are divided into three sections: weed, hash, and spacefood: an assortment of pastries and muffins magically infused with hash or marijuana based butter. At Baba, we pick up four pot brownies and some more rolling papers, then sit down in a dark corner to roll another joint. Bad European techno is blasting from an impressive arsenal of speakers, the result of which is that, although we are sitting inches apart, we must scream at each other in order to be heard. We smoke more, bob our heads in time to the terrible drum and bass rhythm, then wander back outside. It is sprinkling lightly and the streets are surprisingly full. Mostly Dutch families out for holiday strolls, holding hands and walking in long, jovial rows. And, as always, small clusters of the homeless, the drug-addicted, smoking fat, smelly joints and rattling change cups, calling out for charity in voices as raw and poisonous as battery acid. Amsterdam is widely known and praised for its liberal policies towards drugs and addiction, but the casualties of such tolerance are many. It’s always hard to see, but even harder on a day like Christmas. I dig into my ski jacket and pull out a fat handful of change, dropping it into the nearest cup.
We walk straight until we find ourselves at the edge of a deserted park. Eric and I find a bench and sit, shivering, as we eat our pot brownies. It is eerily quiet, save the distant shouts of a small group of schoolboys kicking around a soccer ball. Their words sound like gibberish to my foggy brain. Eric and I practice our Dutch accents and wipe chocolate crumbs from each other’s faces. We talk about our lives back home, other Christmases. Eric tells me about the year he got sick while singing in the church choir at Christmas mass, projectile vomiting all over the nativity scene. I describe smoking a cigar with an asthmatic great-grandmother out on my Dad’s porch one Christmas not too long ago. We lean back against the bench and wait for the brownies to kick in, dozing and lighting cigarettes for each other.
In the afternoon, we follow our map to an outdoor market that Ben recommended we visit. It stretches blocks wide at the northwestern edge of the city proper, rows and rows of collapsible, white-tarped booths, selling everything from silverware to secondhand leather riding pants. We stop at a booth where a man and woman are carving out wooden shoes and each try on a pair, clip-clopping back in forth in front of a full-length mirror, getting our socks wet and giggling. We purchase identical pairs, plain and solid.
Further up the row, a man is selling what are obviously stolen CD’s. Hot CD’s, Eric calls them. The collections are still assembled in their different cases, and they seem to look so much the same as when they belonged to someone rightful, before they were snatched from unlocked cars and God knows where else. I feel a vague guilt wash through me as I hand the man three Euros for a Pixies album, but it is Christmas, after all, and having no presents to open makes me even greedier, somehow. I see the same lust in Eric’s eyes when he tries on a fleece jacket. He buys it immediately, pulling off his old jacket and stuffing it into a nearby trashcan. I think of the ragged people blocks back, shivering and wet, and hope they find it, although hoping is as far as it goes.
We are examining several rows of stone pipes and chillums when the rain starts. The soft pattering of the water against the city of tarps graduates quickly to a roar, water pouring down and off the sides, soaking us where we stand, moving quickly through the layers of our coats and thermal t-shirts.
We run through the market to a nearby bar and duck inside to wait out the storm. We each order a pint of Heineken, and then another. We vow to drink beer until the rain lets up, and soon find ourselves intoxicated. After an hour, I light a cigarette, and, to keep my mind off of my wet socks and chilly bones, I remind myself again that it is Christmas, turning the thought over in my head. The street outside the fogging windows of the bar is strung with blinking white lights and faux greenery, but it doesn’t seem believable, an afterthought. Eric, I say, chug your beer and we’ll go call our parents.
And so, when the rain has diminished to a light, trailing mist, we venture back outside, watching the streetlights blink on, one by one, walking until we find a set of payphones at a deserted corner. Half of them are broken and mangled. After ten minutes of struggle, we each find a functioning phone and begin to make our calls. First, I call my little sister’s cell phone, because I know she will be among our family, bored and wondering about me. She picks up at the second ring and screams in surprise at the sound of my voice. It makes me feel warm. We talk for a minute and then I am passed around to my older sister, then my parents, then aunts and cousins. As I chatter on about my day, I feel a part of me drifting away, further and further until I can see myself as if from some distant place in the future. The way I look standing there at a phone booth in Amsterdam late at night on Christmas. Twenty-one years old, far from home, speaking my hellos into a cracked, black receiver, watching them materialize and then float off on a thin puff of white, cold breath. It makes me feel small and far away, like the moment was a memory even before it happened. The voices of my family sound tinny and artificial, like the recorded voices of people who lived two hundred years ago and live on, somehow, frozen inside a pressed reel. I think for a moment that I am bringing them to life, and it seems almost unbelievable that they are gathered around a dining room table somewhere in Oregon, brewing coffee and marking the passing of another year, that their lives will move forward without me as soon as I hang up the phone.
Mom’s worried about you, my older sister tells me. Say something to make her feel better.
Hi mom, I sing into the phone when she is on the line, trying to make my voice sound rosy and high. I’m doing fine. I don’t tell her that I’ve developed a nasty case of bronchitis, that I’ve lost ten pounds, that I’ve given myself dreadlocks. The fact of me standing there, alive, seems proof enough that I’m doing ok. Surviving. I finish my conversation first and smoke a cigarette while Eric talks with his dad. At the phone booth next to me, a British woman and her daughter are struggling with their phone card. I try, unsuccessfully, to help them out.
When Eric is done talking, we compare notes, and then spend a minute wistfully imagining our families cutting into steaming piles of stuffing and turkey and mashed potatoes (our shared favorite). We both fall quiet a moment, and I kick a pile of loose gravel into the gutter. Eric touches my shoulder, smiles. Let’s go get some food, ok? It’s well after dark and we’ve yet to fill our bellies with anything besides pot cookies and beer. We walk quickly, retracing our steps back down Rokin, across the Singel canal and down Leidsestraat, burrowing down into our jackets against the dropping temperature. When we are close to the hostel, we stop in front of a garish red storefront painted with Chinese characters, then peer in through the fogged windows at the rows of empty tables. Yes.
Inside, it is warm and well-lit. The smells of cooking are rising around us, settling into our hair and clothing: oil, frying noodles, sweet and sour sauce. I order tofu and rice and Eric gets stir fry. Because it is a holiday, and because we are alone, together, we also order egg roll appetizers and imported draft beers. Dinner is quiet. Somewhere in the back of the restaurant, a radio is playing Christmas carols. Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole, wishing us the best from half a century back. It makes me think of home. Again.
While we wait for our food, Eric pulls out the list we scratched out before leaving the hostel. Let’s see how productive our Christmas was. We didn’t get me any socks or go to the Internet café, but we did call home, smoke weed in several coffeeshops and buy more rolling papers. In my head, I retrace the jumbled events of the day. He grins, rows of straight white teeth flashing wit and affluence at me. I’d say we did pretty good.
Then the food arrives. By this time, the marijuana brownies have been digested, turned into sugars that course through my bloodstream, making everything brighter and better. My stomach has shrunk so much that I can barely finish a third of the meal, but I am happy. It’s the first hot meal I’ve had in weeks.
After dinner, we return to the hostel. Ben and Carlos haven’t moved from their spot in the lounge, and an impromptu Christmas celebration is underway in the bar. Ben tells me that the hostel is at full capacity, and Eric and I spend a while milling about place, chatting with other backpackers and smoking what’s left of our cigarettes. I meet a Buddhist from Tasmania and an anarchist from New York. Drinks are half price at the bar. In the kitchen, there is hot buttered rum and a tableful of sugar cookies cut into the shapes of stockings and snowmen and marijuana leaves. Everyone is so young and eager and far from home that it makes me want to hug them all, to pull them into me and call them family. It is finally starting to feel like a holiday. Later on, at about the time I calculate my family back home to be pulling a roast turkey dinner out of the oven, Eric and I eat two more pot muffins each and start in on our six-pack of beer. It seems so odd.
We spend what remains of Christmas chatting with three German wrestlers we meet in the lounge. They’ve eaten an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms between them and lay prone in a corner of the stage, slobbering and giggling at us, drinking Heineken. We drink the rest of our own Heinekens and watch their eyes cross as they grab at scraps of air. One tells us a German Christmas story, something about two frogs named Sancho and Pancho. The story is ridiculous, and stops somewhere near the apparent middle when the tripping German who is talking notices with mild horror that he has started to sink into the floor.
Sometime around two, I begin to doze, my head dropping onto Eric’s shoulder. Things start to fall away, to spin slowly, but it is a happy spinning. Exhaustion, and satisfaction. It makes me think of falling asleep under the Christmas tree when I was little, surrounded by torn-up wrapping paper and unglued bows, grasping some new toy close against me. Finally, through the haze of a half-dream, I hear Eric whispering, Time for bed. We half-carry each other up the three flights of stairs to our hostel room and fall into our respective beds.
At six the next morning, I wake to the sound of Eric gathering his things. I sit up in bed and whisper his name. He comes to sit beside me in the pre-dawn stillness and I feel a sudden sinking, realizing that it is the last time he will ever do this. The day after Christmas is never easy. The rushing, visible tide of revelry and celebration receding, pulling itself back into the watery mass of the everyday. It seems to take a day or two, always, for me to catch up with its movement and of course this year is no different.
See you later, Erin, Eric says, because, I know, he doesn’t believe in saying goodbye. When you’ve been on the road a while, you start to accept the fact that most everyone you meet is lost to you the moment they walk out the hostel door. It’s just the way it is. All the same, I think of the promise in his words and imagine us together again one day, companions, in some different place and time. The thought comforts me as I watch the landscape of his face change and distort in the shadows. He seems sad, but he smiles. I think he does it for me.
When the clock reads 6:25, he stands to go. I crawl out from under my covers and walk him the seven feet to the door. We hug each other, awkward but hard, and share one last smile. He pulls on his neon green backpack and moves out into the hall, whispering a last farewell. I close the door softly behind him so as not to wake the others in the room, and fall back into the shapeless, dirty mattress where I lie unmoving again. The room is warm and full with the sounds of sleep, and I trace the outlines of the six strangers curled up in bunks around me. Their presence so near, feels, somehow, like being held. I close my eyes, warmed by it, and the memory of Eric’s smile, still hovering in the air somewhere quite close.