The concierge at the Paris hostel threw him out the very day he arrived. He was now on a lurching train from Paris to Avignon, folded inside a hangover, the last drop of wine finally wrenched from his stomach. His blistered tongue tasted of bile and humiliation. He was rethinking his decision to visit Europe. Maybe he wasn't the type of person who leaves school to see the world? Maybe he was the type of person who dreams about leaving school to see the world but never leaves?
He never planned on visiting Avignon, though many tourists considered it a vacation destination. A week earlier, before landing at Charles de Gaulle, he had ripped apart his stiff and glossy Lonely Planet to lighten his backpack and kept only those pages dealing with the cities on his itinerary; his diligently outlined enemy to wanderlust. He didn't know about the Palace of the Popes, the Musée Calvet, or the St. Bénezet Bridge, but even if he did, he wasn't up to visiting any sites.
Matters would have ended differently, maybe even amicably, he believed, if he could have communicated with the concierge in French. He was a monolingual person who believed great power came with speaking another language. In high school he studied French without success. The trip to Paris was in part an experiment in immersion, a quest for lost knowledge. He was a different person now, and believed he'd engage with the language differently.
During his first week in Paris, the French people who understood his caveman French spoke English, too. They didn't furrow their brows when he slipped English words with a French accent into conversation, allowing him incremental liberties until he was speaking gleefully in English.
The concierge didn't understand any English.
The previous day began with a frustrating argument over change for postcards with a street vender on Boulevard St-Germain. His French/English dictionary proved futile. Unexpected relief came from two Mormons walking by. These affable and polite young men had been in Africa doing missionary work and were spending the summer in Europe before returning home to Idaho. They spoke French effortlessly, the way they wore their backpacks and the crew-neck sweaters knotted casually around their waists.
He insisted on buying the two Mormons beer or a café au lait. They refused. No alcohol. No caffeine. Instead, they took him to an ice cream shop on Ile Saint-Louis, where the line stretched into the cobble-stoned street. The tiny, velvety rich scoops loved his mouth profoundly. It tasted so good he wanted to cry.
Until that moment he'd been considering calling short the month-long trip and returning home. He'd had enough museums and cathedrals. He was overdosing on omelets and jambon fromage, cheap meals with French names easily remembered. He wrote voluminously in his journal; impressions of sites like the Louvre—Grand Central Station with art—and the flamboyant and vulnerable Pompidou with its guts on the outside. He wrote about failing at fun. If he wasn't having fun, he should be back home in school, where not having fun had a greater purpose.
The Mormons were on their way to a hostel they knew about. They learned he was traveling by himself, asked if he wanted to split the price of a room. They took charge and checked in. The three of them dumped their backpacks in a room with two bunk beds, washed up and went for breakfast. He lavished in their company, felt emboldened by their fluency and knowledge of the city of lights. He felt less like a reticent, awkward tourist and more like a traveler in search of adventure. By late afternoon, however, he tired of their endless tales of daring and sacrifice, and wondered if they considered him someone in need of saving.
Professing the need for a bathroom, he darted into a café and threw back an espresso. He drank too fast and burned his tongue. He chugged a cold beer to numb the painful blister and rejoined them on the sidewalk. They removed their sunglasses. He sensed their disappointment. He didn't consider himself someone the Mormon people should be disappointed with. Needing to break away from their judgment, he lied about a prior dinner engagement that evening. He didn't think he was the type of person who spoke of "dinner engagements." Plans were made for breakfast the next morning. They parted with indifferent handshakes.
He ate standing beside an outdoor crepe vendor, blissfully alone. A stocky guy wearing a stars and stripes bandanna on his head ordered a "crape." A wine bottle poked out the top of his backpack. Wine made them fast buddies. His new buddy showed him how to smack the base of a wine bottle to pop the cork without a corkscrew. Two bottles later he was brave enough to try it and nearly broke his hand. The buddy, wheezing with laughter, checked his watch and froze. "Shit. I'm late for my train. Let's go."
"Amsterdam. Let's take this party on the road."
Was he the type of person who suddenly leaves Paris for Amsterdam, a city not on his itinerary, with someone he'd just met, who might be part of a vicious band of thieves? Could he coldly walk out on the Mormons? His newfound buddy kept pointing to his watch, his face bright and lively, eyebrows arched like opening gates.
Yes, he was the type of person who leaves Paris for Amsterdam at night, the type of person who sneaks out on kind people who befriended him. Strangely, this unseemly side of himself felt great. He wasn't thinking about what he should do. The spirit of companionship, if not real friendship, and the wine-induced courage made him feel substantial and rooted in the moment.
They ran to his hostel to pick up his backpack. His buddy paced the sidewalk while he bounded upstairs to his room. The door was locked. He didn't have a key. He found the concierge in her apartment downstairs. She refused to open his door. The Mormons had secured the room earlier in their perfect French. She didn't recognize him, never saw him enter or leave. His slurred scraps of French words couldn't make his crazy begging comprehensible. Nobody was around to translate. He stumbled backward when she slammed the door.
He never decided to charge upstairs, two steps two at a time, or to ram the door with his shoulder. He was surprised the lock snapped so easily from the jamb. He grabbed his backpack. His buddy choked with laughter in the doorway. He saw himself swell in his buddy's bloodshot eyes. Irresponsibility and vandalism were such easy achievements. He wanted to leave the Mormons a note. Searching for a spot where it wouldn't be missed, he realized the backpacks beside the beds weren't theirs.
The Mormons had left him. Two men who had devoted years to tribes in inner Africa abandoned him after half a day. He swallowed the hurt and with his new friend careened to the Metro and the Gare du Nord. The pang sharpened when they arrived to an empty platform, the train to Amsterdam long gone. "Fuck!" his buddy screamed. Using drunk logic, he reasoned that they should return to his hostel and set out for Amsterdam in the morning. Hadn't he already paid for a room?
The concierge confronted him immediately. She yelled, threatened him with a large wooden spoon. His buzz and his confidence evaporated. He confessed, disgusted by what he'd done. Aware again of his blistered tongue, he lisped how this was not him. He was not someone who gets drunk and breaks locks. An impishly grinning girl from Austin translated with a Texas accent. He could tell she thought this entire scene silly. He knew he'd be one of the many stories she'd tell after returning home. The concierge demanded that he pay for the lock and leave immediately. He shook his head. He'd pay for the lock only if she let him stay the night. The girl from Texas nodded, impressed. The concierge conceded.
He planned to sneak his buddy into the room, but the stranger had vanished. He couldn't remember his name, if he'd known it in the first place. Physical details blurred as he vomited through the night. He began questioning what had happened. Did it belong to memory, imagination, or was it part of a greater confusion?
The hangover felt like a skull vice with slowly tightening screws. He left the hostel while everyone was asleep. Wearing sunglasses, he trudged to the Metro toward the Gare de Lyon. He held a month-long train pass. He picked a city almost three hours away, long enough for a nap. That's how he came to be in Avignon, a medieval city on the Rhône River, on a blustery Sunday morning when many shops and banks were closed, the sky was a sheet of oppressive blue, and a nearby bank machine wouldn't accept his card.
He'd spent most of his cash on wine and the lock. There was enough left for a café au lait and a croissant. He sat at a small round outdoor table, under a large umbrella that shielded his eyes from knifing sunlight. He couldn't believe everything that had happened yesterday. He was embarrassed and impressed by behavior that was destructive and rebellious, and hoped that, like the hangover, it would disappear.
The first sip of coffee served as a reminder of his burnt tongue, but the taste filled him with promise. He stretched his body in the chair, took a grateful slurp before a gust of wind lifted the umbrella and brought the table, coffee cup and croissant crashing down. He surveyed the damage, too broken and sick of himself for anger. He considered the cobblestones at his feet: was he the type of person who eats food off stone harboring centuries of filth? Does the five second rule apply here? He wiped the croissant on his jeans and ate as he walked.
Regardless of how he adjusted his backpack, it felt awkward on his shoulders. He found a park with an empty bench. Shutting his eyes intensified the pounding in his head. Slowly, sleep began to lift him, when bird guano splattered his denim jacket. His eyes flew open. He'd never considered himself someone birds shit upon while he slept off a hangover. Hoisting his backpack he dragged himself back towards the train station. He wasn't religious, but thinking of this incident as divine punishment brought him a measure of solace.
He cleaned his jacket in a public restroom. The man shaving at the sink next to him pointed out gray globs in his hair. The man looked like a street person, or at the very least, someone down on his luck. Baggy slacks, suspenders off shoulders, oblivious to people waiting to use the sink.
He wondered about himself. Did he strike others as someone who might bathe at the sink of a busy public restroom? He splashed his face. Soon his head was angled under the faucet, his hands cupped to rinse the soap from his hair. It felt good, the cool water, the clean smell of shampoo, the fresh-scrubbed tingle. He didn't care that others waited, whispering. The comb slid through his slick hair; the screws in his skull loosened.
"Merci," he said, smiling, pushing his last euro through the soapy counter towards the other man, who gave a nod. No other words were spoken, and yet he believed they had understood one another completely.
A few hours later he was back on a rocking train. He was ready to leave France. Maybe he'd cross the channel into England. With language less of an obstacle, it might be easier to become the type of person he was capable of being if he would only stop thinking about it.
Or should he simply return home? He imagined himself at this exact moment as if he'd stayed in school. Hunched in a library carrel, wearily raising his head from a book, dreaming about what it would feel like to be free to see the world. Through a breath-fogged train window his eyes wandered over the countryside, fields of majestic geometry glowing in the late afternoon sun, and settled on a herd of grazing cows. He watched how they chewed, their idle contentment. Was he really envious of a bunch of cows? He closed his eyes, rubbed. Trying to erase these feelings, he glimpsed the type of person he really was: the type of person who yearns to be somewhere other than where he is.