- Sun Jan 12, 2014 4:30 pm
It's the end of the summer of 1989.
You're at that peculiar age when one day you're thinking you could die tomorrow and the next day you're acting as though you're going to live forever.
And you've just quit your job.
You’ve nothing lined up - no plans whatsoever - and nearly everyone you know takes that as an invitation to offer unsolicited advice.
Advice that stems from experience.
And advice that's been marinated in regret.
“You should go back to school and get your MBA.”
“You should go back to school and study computer programming.”
“You should become a tax preparer.”
“You should go to law school.”
“You should find yourself a nice girl, get married, and have some kids.”
Those offering this advice - family, friends - genuinely care about your welfare, and so you nod your head thoughtfully in response to their suggestions, and politely thank each of them for kindly sharing their ideas with you, and in return they smile with satisfaction and go on their way, thinking that they've righted your rudder.
And after you've endured a week or so of such counseling, and contemplated where each of the paths suggested to you might lead, you renew your passport and buy a sixty day Eurail pass and clean out your savings account and book a one-way flight to Charles de Gaul airport. And after a long flight and a very expensive cab ride, you find yourself in Paris with little more than a small suitcase and a pocketful of cash.
You book a small room on the second floor of a small one star hotel in the Pigalle district. There's a bidet in the room, but the bath and toilet are at the end of the hall, and if you lean out the window and stretch a bit you can see the illuminated windmill of the Moulin Rouge.
Your French is rusty, but it starts to come back as you reacquaint yourself with the city and take in all the usual sights.
The Eiffel Tower.
The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile.
The Musée du Louvre.
The Musée d'Orsay.
Hours seep away as you wander aimlessly through the streets, but you never seem to drift too far from the Seine. You're constantly drawn to it, and more than once you find yourself standing on a bridge, staring into the river.
And then a few days after your arrival, you feel it again.
The Eurail pass allows you to board just about any train to just about any place in continental Europe, so you check the schedules and hop on a train heading north, and after stowing your bag you make yourself comfortable in one of the First Class smoking compartments, in a seat next to the window.
Your train crosses the border into Belgium, and you hop off at a little town about an hour outside of Brussels.
You sit down at a little table at the first open café you find, order a beer, and ask the waiter for directions to the local Catholic Church. As you're finishing your beer, it starts to rain, so you buy an umbrella and wend your way through the cobblestone streets.
A short while later you find the church. It's small and rather plain, and because of all the various wars that have been fought over this land during the last several hundred years, it’s been damaged and rebuilt so many times that its architecture no longer fits any one particular style.
To the right of the church is a small stone building, the face of which is scarred with electrical conduit and telephone wires. The roof is slate, and tarnished copper gutters transport the rain to a tarnished copper downspout that empties onto the street. There are a few unremarkable windows, and next to the door is a small sign that reads Presbytèrey.. Below the sign is a white plastic doorbell, stark and out of place, like a dollop of bird shit on a stone canvas.
You ring the bell, and an old woman who serves as both cook and housekeeper answers the door. You're looking for Father Peter, an old friend of yours who once served as a visiting priest at your childhood parish back in The States.
She tells you that he's out, but that he should be back in a few hours, no later than five.
"May I leave my suitcase here?"
With time to kill, you head back out and wander the streets. You find an open candy store and buy a small box of chocolates: something to snack on the next time you get on the train. A little further down the street you a pick up a newspaper and a pack of Dunhill's and then find another café, where you order a beer and a sandwich.
You while away the rest of the afternoon taking in the atmosphere of this little European village.
The bicycles leaning haphazardly against the lamp posts.
The tiny automobiles and motor scooters, engines sputtering and condensation dripping from their tailpipes like so many runny noses.
The old women, their bodies lumpy and draped in black; with worn expressions showing through the soft under-fur on their pale, makeup-free faces.
The old men, with their buttoned sweaters and ivy caps and small, untended gardens of coarse black ear-hair, sitting at a table smoking Gauloises and playing cards.
The sidewalks covered with dog shit.
You check your watch and then stop at a little liquor store and pick up a bottle of jenever before heading back to the rectory.
Again, the old woman answers the door and shows you into the sitting room, and you take a seat opposite a wall dominated by a large framed photograph of John Paul II.
A moment or two later Father Peter joins you, and though you've only been in Europe for a little less than a week, you're surprised at how comforting it is to see a familiar face.
You give him the bottle of jenever, and he asks the old woman to bring out two glasses, and then you sit and ask each other those questions that are commonly asked by people who no longer share the daily or weekly occurrences of each others lives.
“How are you?”
“How is your family?”
“What have you been up to?”
Father Peter looks the same, but it's been a long time since you've shared his company, and he seems more a stranger than an old friend, and so your responses are short, polite, and cursory.
"Everyone is fine."
He asks where you're staying, and you tell him that you were planning to catch the evening train to Brussels and just wanted to stop by and say hello.
He insists you stay at the rectory and have dinner with him tonight, and after a bit of back and forth you accept his offer.
You pick up your bag and follow the old woman across the threadbare carpet and down the hallway to one of the guest rooms. The accommodations are sparse, and the walls of the room are bare, save for a crucifix above the bed.
The overwhelming scent of moth crystals and pine oil hangs heavy in the air, and like your hotel in Pigalle, the communal bathroom is at the end of the corridor.
You freshen up a bit and then join Father Peter in the small dining room. The old woman suspected you might be staying for dinner, and she's prepared a simple but delicious meal of coq-a-vin. A fresh baguette from the local bakery and a small bowl of sweet butter accompany the stew, and you wash it all down with a bottle of white wine. You finish up the meal with coffee and apple tart, and then the bottle of jenever once again makes an appearance, after which the old woman bids you goodnight and heads home.
The wine and the meal serve to loosen your tongue, and by the time the last plate is cleared what began as a stilted conversation has morphed into a haphazard retelling of your life story and a series of embarrassing confessions.
Father Peter is kind, nonjudgmental, and a very good listener, and he lets you ramble without offering any advice.
"So what are your plans?" he asks.
"Well, I've got a two month Eurail pass, and so far all I've seen is Paris and your little town here in Belgium, so for the next few weeks I'm just going to ride the rails and cover as much of Europe as I can."
"And after that?"
"Head back home I guess."
“Have you ever been to Africa?”
“No, but I've always wanted to see it.”
“I am flying back to Zaire at the end of this month. Once you have finished with Europe, you should come and visit me there.”
"Of course! I would love to show you my homeland."
Between the jenever and the wine and the beers you had earlier in the day, you're feeling pretty lit, so you readily accept his invitation and start peppering him with questions about Africa.
He starts to laugh and says, "I am happy that you have agreed to visit me in Zaire, but it is late. We will talk more of this tomorrow." Then he excuses himself and bids you goodnight.
You refill your glass and go outside and light a cigarette and stare into the cold, starless sky, and you realize that for the first time in a very long time, you are content.
And so you savor it.
You savor it.
Because you know it won't last.
The next morning you accompany Father Peter to morning mass.
Like the rectory, the interior of the church is exceedingly simple, with only a few stained glass windows and little to no artwork adorning the walls.
There is no organist, and so instead of a hymn, Father Peter approaches the altar to the echoes of someone coughing and the murmur of shuffling feet.
There is no altar boy, and so the Sanctus bell remains silent throughout the service, and he must fetch the water and wine on his own.
Only a handful of old people and the odd tourist occupy the pews.
The sermon is brief, and unsurprisingly well received: a short homily about the joys of the afterlife and its eternal rewards.
Most of the congregation gets up and takes communion.
You and the tourists remain seated.
After mass, you accompany Father Peter back to the rectory and pack your bag, then meet him in his office to go over your travel arrangements to Zaire. He explains that you'll need certain vaccines and a visa from the Zairian embassy in Brussels in order to get into the country. He also strongly recommends that you spring for some additional vaccines that are not required but prudent, as well as some malaria pills. He gives you two letters on church stationery and writes down the name of a friend of his who works at the embassy in Brussels.
“Make sure you ask for him, and make sure you show him this letter. Some of the others there may give you difficulty, but he is a good man.”
He says you should make a copy or two of the second letter and keep it in a safe place, and upon arriving in Zaire show it to any immigration or customs officials that try to impede your progress. He says that once you have the visa you can book your flight with any of the European airlines that fly into Kinshasa, and asks that you telephone him once everything is in place. He also gives you the name of the mission where he'll be staying in Zaire, but warns you that there is no telephone service, and mail delivery is erratic, and so it will be nearly impossible to contact him there.
He bids you farewell and then rushes out the door, explaining as he goes that one of his older parishioners is very ill, and her family has requested he give her last rites.
You give the old woman the small box of chocolates you purchased the day before and thank her for her hospitality, then make your way to the station and catch the next train to Brussels.
The rest of your day is spent getting your vaccines and then dealing with the embassy and then booking your flight, and that evening, your tasks completed, you call Father Peter at the Rectory. He is out, so you leave your flight information with the old woman and ask her to tell him that you'll see him in a little less than two months.
You spend the next several weeks zigzagging across Western Europe.
You hit most of the major cities in France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, but you never spend more than three or four days in any one place.
You roll through Austria, Luxemburg, Denmark, and The Netherlands, but you never make it to Spain or Portugal.
And after awhile, you start to notice that a church is a church, and a castle is a castle, and a painting is a painting, and a sculpture is a sculpture, and you find that when you're not on a train, you're spending most of your time standing on bridges, staring at rivers.
Sometimes you jump on a train with a specific destination in mind, but then change your mind en route and instead just stay on board until the train is taken out of service and you're asked to get off at some city or town you never intended to see.
Sometimes you walk into a station and board a train at random, without any idea of where it's going or where you'll end up.
And the more you travel, and the more ground you cover, and the more you see, the more you realize that sitting on a moving train is the only place you truly feel comfortable.
You seem to feed off the force and the power of the locomotive as it hurtles across the landscape.
Feed off the feeling of being on the move, of not being tied down to any one place for more than a second.
Feed off the feeling of both running away and of charging at high speed towards whatever lies ahead.
And it's not until the day before your flight to Zaire, while you're sitting on the train into Brussels, that you realize that the time you've spent riding the trains of Western Europe is the closest you've ever come to feeling free.
And so you savor it.
You savor it one last time.
Because you know that you might never feel this way again.
(To be continued…)