Lessons Learned as an Aimless Traveler
It was my last day in Rome. I kicked off the morning by casually walking to the bathroom and throwing up. The bile that dripped through my teeth was rippling the toilet water and among the beer and various fluids, there was a pizza in there I don’t remember eating but I sure remember throwing up.
‘God I will never drink again.’ Or something in those lines. Nothing legally binding. Where things got out of hand the day before I could not tell; there’s this regrettable inability of Slovaks to draw the line where the walkable off intoxication ends and begins the phase. The one where you vomit kneeling in the bathroom whilst generously throwing around empty pledges of future lifelong abstinence.
In the afternoon a party was in preparation by the local foreigner community at the apartment of Emerson and Liza, two friends from my Italian class. Community is hardly the right word; it was a pack of randomly scattered strangers drawn to each other like misplaced magnets. People far from home and in want of company. Most of them left their homes in search of something meaningful yet found much the same than what they left behind: faceless crowds, their white noise, paved grey roads and reggaeton. Only in strange lands, when you are alone, deafening silence rings twice as loudly, and every new acquaintance becomes a lifeline to a life you so hastily left behind. Because in the end, who among us wants to be alone.
The party started in an hour, and in the broken state I found myself waking up to, I was sadly unpresentable. Yet I couldn’t refuse attendance, not under truthful excuses and not after all the tough talk I somehow managed to splash out in two weeks about how one should never, ever drink with a Slovak. Guys, seriously, like, don’t do it. They proved me wrong in a spectacular fashion, I do admit that. In private, to myself, in a low whisper. The chances of a public admission on the other hand were truly nonexistent.
Being on time for a party thrown by a girl from Brazil and a boy with Colombian and Spanish parentage is a singularly tricky thing. It roughly translates to: here’s a time we have chosen at random and we’re counting on you to come as late as humanly possible. Ruben from Malaga clearly didn’t get this subtle obscure message as he arrived at ten past two, only ten minutes late. An outrage, obviously. Yet he was somehow surprised that he was the first one to be there, before all the guests, and more importantly, before the hosts, who true to their roots didn’t bother showing up on time to their own party, at their own apartment. Another twenty minutes passed until Liza appeared with groceries in hand, amazed at the sight of the Spaniard who sat on the sidewalk confused and ashamed by this unintended faux pas to basic good manners. Liza despite all this forgave him and let him into the apartment displaying great strength of character.
Ruben was a student of architecture, specialising in the restoration of historical buildings. We met him only the day before as he tagged along sipping mineral water while we were getting batshit drunk. It was a classic case of strangers meeting strangers. Regarding his physical appearance, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the famed Spanish pornstar Jordi enp. Emerson assured me though that it can’t possibly be him, not least because he was trying way too hard to get female attention for someone who was paid to have sex for a living.
I arrived at the apartment at four, meeting Carla at the front door. There was clearly something amiss. The party was intended as a surprise thrown in her honor, as she turned 20 a few days back. Liza’s grand plan was to invite her for coffee and as Carla entered the apartment we’d all jump out from behind the couch in party hats with party blowers, throwing confetti as she wiped her tears aside from her sudden swell of joyous emotions. The idea itself was circled around after the third round of drinks and the preparation was executed after half of the attendees collectively couldn’t have counted to ten. The end result was mildly unsurprising.
I greeted her with a smile and a sentence I didn’t know how to finish.
‘Hey Carla! You are…’ Early. She was early. For the surprise party she didn’t know was happening. Carla was told to come at three so as to win us some time for party preparation. The miscalculation rested in the fact that she was Swiss and her humanly possible limit to be late anywhere was, to the second exactly, one hour. Carla was in Rome for almost a year, staying with her grandparents, and was the only one of us with a hint of a job, working part time in a kindergarten. She was young, foolish, inclined to creating random whatsapp groups for every occasion and refreshingly non serious.
We entered the apartment where the door was left ajar, hung our jackets, stood around, Shakira was playing from somewhere yet only walls echoed back our greeting shouts. I advanced to the living room and checked behind the couch, just to be sure. No one was there. The master plan of a hoard of drunkards sadly failed for inexplicable reasons. We found Liza in the kitchen washing the dishes with the calm of someone hitting a state of triple zen. She turned to Carla with a relaxed smile as if all was perfectly according to her plan.
‘Happy Birthday honey! I wish you all the happiness in the world.’
‘OMG, you remembered!’
They stayed in a warm embrace for quite some time as I shuffled my feet uncomfortably by the kitchen threshold at this display of profound intimacy. Ruben was shuffling his feet identically at the other side of the room. Emerson then finally emerged and ruined the moment. The five of us sat down to the table with filled wineglasses of which the sight alone made me feel ready to vomit, but which I lifted to my tightly pursed lips sporadically to feign thorough delight in its taste. The apartment was ridiculously spacious, in throwing distance from the Colosseum, for an adequately outrageous rent that apparently presented no problem at all.
Emerson and Liza, children of great wealth, boiling latino blood, walking through life without haste nor necessity. A wealth that was visible in no way by looking at them with a skim of the eyes, but was raising a wall of contrast between them and the rest once you pierced the first barrier of acquaintance. They didn’t care much about making money, nor carreer, status, and other earthly things that flawed human beings that we are, we live our lives in circles to attain.
‘You know, the happiest people in the world are the latinos and the Spanish.’
Emerson smiled in my face while rolling his joint, saying this in heavy Spanish accent somehow made sexy by the Iglesias family.
‘So I’ve heard.’
I’ve heard it from him, for the third time that week. This was his statistic. And I believed him, not as random bullshit from the You Wish category, but as objective truth, that he was living and that he was happy to be alive.
Liza, a native of Brazil, reminded me of a memorable scene from The Great Gatsby each time she spoke. The one where Gatsby enlightens Nick about the hidden source of Daisy’s charm, absently revealing to him that ‘her voice is full of money’. And Nick understood what at first he couldn’t quite grasp, that the magic of her personality stemmed from the luxurious and privileged life she enjoyed from early childhood. Liza was in no particular way attractive. She lacked alluring curves, her nose was slightly hooked, her eyes were deep set and puffy, and yet she wrapped us fully in the light of her charm which was hardly deniable. Her skin got bleached from the spotlight that clung to her person unceasingly.
The five of us were sitting at the table, squinting in the sunlight that seeped through the ridiculously tall windows. There was plenty to talk about because we all barely knew each other.
‘So Martin, do people in your country like reggeaton?’ started off Emerson.
He asked ‘your country’ because he had little idea what my home country was called, despite my best efforts. The last time he tried to wing it he went with Sivakia.
’No, not at all. Wait a sec.. is Despacito also reggeaton?’
‘Yes, yes exactly!’ He was really glad about this.
‘Oh. Then, no.’
The doorbell rang and another guest arrived. Natasha.
Natasha was an interesting addition to our group because her presence revealed most clearly the peculiar nature of our dynamic. We met her the day before when we shared a tour guide in Ostia. She came from Russia, was in her early thirties, she spoke little English and little Italian, and by little I mean we were mostly reduced to converse with smiles and awkward silence. She studied fashion design in Rome, but none of us dared to ask how she managed this remarkable feat without speaking any foreign language, at all. Fashion must truly be a universal language. We did talk of course, mostly due to my efforts speaking Slovak with a rich Russian accent, which meant me saying mundane things with the tone of someone threatning to cut open her throat in her sleep. The results were surprisingly impressive.
The six of us now sat at the table sipping wine and chatting merrily. The rest of the invited guests from last night’s drinking declined attendance on the flimsy excuse of alcohol poisoning. Given her non-speaker status Natasha’s presence put some things into perspective; in different circumstances we would’ve been, clearly, unlikely friends. In fact this was true for all of us. At home, we would have passed each other with a smile and lowered eyes, shuffling to the nearest exit. At home, where you don’t need anyone. At home, where warmed by family and friends, the dreads of solitary existance are dimmed enough for us to convince ourselves that they were never real. That every one, all the time, has a place to go home to where they’ll be tucked in with unconditional love, accepting all of their hidden neuroses. Natasha might have had a brute resilience to alcohol, a back tattoo of Putin grabbing two grizzly bears in a choke-hold and spent her kindergarten days burning western flags, yet it was understood, that, despite these differences, she was one of us. A stranger in a strange land. And as such we had to take care of each other. And so we did.
The night slowly fell just as I dreaded it would and pushing my plate and glass aside, it was time for me to say goodbye. Possibly forever. Years worth of trust and intimacy jammed into a few days, left floating down the river. And came the customary exchange of promisses, call us if you’re ever in Rome again, call me when you’re somewhere near Slovakia. I say this with light sadness because we all know well enough there’s not much chance of us ever meeting again. Life is a whirlpool where time and people fly out of sight faster than you’d hope. In my head I like to picture a scenario where in a few years time in uptown Tokyo we would unexpectedly lock eyes in a crowded restaurant and recall laughing all that we have shared in what would seem a past life. Then I remember that I am a hopeless sceptic and dismiss the idea. They say that it’s a small world, yet we never run into Beyoncé.