The Paumanok Review

VALENCIA

I stood on a corner waiting for a bus. A few hours earlier, I had found a room and eaten lunch. I was returning to the train station to retrieve my luggage. The afternoon had grown hot, nearly seventy degrees. I considered going to the beach later. A middle-aged woman in a light green overcoat stood five meters away. I thought about removing my white sweater as I was perspiring with a long sleeve shirt underneath.

I didn’t like Valencia’s prospects. What was I doing there? Arrived from Barcelona at nine in the morning on an overnight train. I was killing time. I decided I would take a boat to the Canary Islands. Perfectly economical. A six day trip, each day on the first four days the boat stopped at coastal cities, like Alicante and Malaga, before making a two-day transit to the Canaries. The entire passage cost less than sixty dollars. I could have boarded the ship in Barcelona. I didn’t have to be in Valencia waiting for a bus.

I would leave the next day.

Minutes passed. No bus. 

BELGRADE

I was running. I couldn’t have left Greece any faster. Straight from Athens to Trieste. Two nights on a train. Great savings and physical discomfort. I hadn’t taken a decent, untroubled crap since I had left that mess in the hotel bed on the island of Paros.

Athens to Belgrade I had shared a compartment with a Tunisian and an Algerian student, as well as a young woman from California. An hour before we would enter Belgrade, a Yugoslav man and his wife sat in our compartment and within minutes were passing around bread, salami, wine, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs. They didn’t speak English, but no matter. Somehow I learned that the Yugoslavs were headed to Trieste. Ten minutes later, the conductor entered and informed us that we must switch cars but offered no specific directions. In Belgrade, the North African students boarded a car marked “Paris.” I didn’t see where the California woman went. The Yugoslav couple insisted that I tag along with them.

It was ten in the evening, the weather was bitter, a crusty, sordid snow covered the ground around the station. The platform was crowded and I feared we wouldn’t find the train car in time to get good seats. The couple joined five others, two couples and a teenage daughter, who had been seated in another compartment. One of the men offered to carry my suitcase. We walked up and down looking for Trieste-marked train cars.

Finally, my Yugoslav friends dispatched Miroslav, the leader of the group, to find a compartment. I shivered from the cold and felt a nervous hollowness from the fact that I could be stranded in a Communist country. Not that I could perceive anything Communist around me, this was a station like all the others in major European cities, but a communist country was where the unexpected, in terms of bad things happening, was expected. Here the government was only responsible to its continued maintenance of power. The presence of Miroslav, his wife and daughter, and their friends insulated me from total fear.

Miroslav returned and herded us to a train car standing alone. Where was he taking us? It looked ridiculous only the eight of us boarding the car. Moments later dozens of people followed. Yet, no station officials yelled our way or tried to stop anyone. Nobody seemed worried. Not that I could understand a word they were saying. After fifteen long minutes, we felt a slight nudge from the forward section, which told us we had been coupled to the train. Now I only had to be worried we had been coupled to the right train! A moment later, another nudge from the back end. And soon we were off into the dismal night.

ATHENS

“Carter is a very good president,” said Todd, a New Zealander.

We had met on the ferry from Paros. He had heard about a pension run by a guy from Chicago, Gus, and we found the place in central Athens. Several rooms were available. And it was true: Gus, an old guy with silvery hair, had moved here from Chicago ten years ago. Todd, Gus, myself, and two other Americans were seated in the dark lobby around a large table.

“Carter has maintained his principles on human rights,” Gus started to say, but was distracted by the entrance of an attractive woman in her forties, who began talking immediately and didn’t stop for ten minutes. Gus and one of the Americans helped her carry into the lobby three tan suitcases.

“I don’t know how I got up those stairs,” she said and turned to Gus. “I took a taxi from the docks, I think the driver overcharged me.”

She a detectable but elusive accent. German, French, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Swedish, Rumanian? She wore jewelry on every finger, around her wrists and neck, and from her ears. Heavy mascara accentuated her deep blue eyes. She sat in Gus’s chair. She wore a tight white dress which, when she crossed her legs, exposed three-quarters of her tanned thighs. She wore no stockings.

“I just arrived from Crete,” she stated, before giving anyone time to ask where she had been. “The seas were terrible. You boys know. But I love to travel. It’s endless. I always feel so free when I travel.”

I gazed at her thighs and wondered why she was traveling alone. Maybe she never shut up. Gus brought us some glasses of ouzo. She made a fuss, kissed Gus on the lips, and exclaimed how she loved the company of men.

“I don’t get along with women. I’d rather be surrounded by men. Like this. Crowds of men. To tell you the truth, women don’t like me. Because I get along so well with men. They think I’m always trying to steal their men. I never married. That’s why I love men so much. Ha-ha. I don’t like my men to be so serious. Marriage is too serious. I have had many lovers. Lovers in all parts of the world. Young and old men. I love all men. Each one of these rings (she fanned her hands) represents a lover I have had.”

A story for each ring. I contemplated my own chances of being one of those rings. Be her lover for a few weeks. Tag along wherever she went. I didn’t care into what country I had to follow her. Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary. I would do anything to forget Paros, the bed, the shame. She mentioned that she had to find the train office to purchase a ticket. I volunteered to take her. She must have been used to such offers and did not say yes or no. Managing to keep me interested without committing herself.

A half-hour passed. Gus refreshed our glasses. The woman sipped theatrically and said:

“I bet not one of you can guess where I’m from.”

“What’s your name?” asked Todd.

“I won’t tell you until one of you guess my nationality.” She paused. “Very few people have ever been able to guess. Never immediately.”

“Latvia,” I guessed first.

She was silent for a moment.

“How did you know? Yes, I’m from Latvia. No one ever guesses.”

BARCELONA

On the run. Athens to Trieste. Trieste to Verona. Verona to Nice. Then overnight from Nice to Barcelona. It had taken a week to recover from an uncertain stomach. Recuperation while traversing the length of the Mediterranean coast.

In Barcelona, before I could place my bags in a locker, a teenage boy approached and asked in broken English whether I was looking for a room. Irritated, tired, I dismissed him. Leave me alone. I didn’t trust him. He persisted. A full pension hotel. All meals. Three hundred pesetas—less than ten dollars. Okay, I would have a look. The hotel was a block from the station. The boy carried my suitcase. I would like it very much, he said. Very much.

The hotel owner assumed I was taking a room merely by entering the lobby. He gave the teenager a ten peseta coin and dismissed him. I had anticipated inspecting the room before agreeing to take it. Who was I kidding? Bargain, negotiate! That wasn’t my style. Besides, I was exhausted. I gave the man my passport and said I would be here five days. He led me to the room, which had a door so narrow that I had to enter sideways. Maybe I should have looked first before paying! The only window was located ten feet above the floor. I repeated to myself: it’s less than ten dollars.

The next morning, at breakfast, I noticed a couple in the hallway. They were about to check out. I got up from the table and called to them:

“Preston, Penny! Remember, we met …”

“On the boat from Thira,” said Penny. “How are you doing?”

We shook hands and I asked how long had they been in Barcelona.

“Two days,” said Preston, with a drawl. They were from South Carolina. “We’re going to the Canary Islands.”

“From Barcelona?”

He outlined the itinerary, the prices, and the dates ships departed.

“I wanted to go to Valencia,” I said.

“You can pick up a ship there. No problem. We’re thinking of staying in Tenerife for a couple weeks.”

“I’ll try to meet you there.”

 

VALENCIA

A grubby man with dirty pants, a threadbare jacket, wrinkled white shirt, carried a small case and ambled across the street. He caught me eyeing him and walked directly toward me. As he neared, he brought the small blue case forward and unbuckled it.

Senor,” he said and bowed his head. He then presented the open case which contained a kit of miniature tools. He started speaking quickly in Spanish, presumably giving me a sales pitch. Because I didn’t respond immediately, that is, by hesitating to tell him I didn’t speak Spanish, he assumed I wanted to hear more about the tools.

The absence of a response didn’t matter to him. I must have seemed to have been listening intently; whereas I listened intently to pick up a few words to find my cue to say “no, gracias.” My silent smile became for him a desire to hear the virtues of miniature (less than the size of a hand or finger) hammers, Phillips screwdrivers, pliers, wire cutters, wrenches, and nails.

If only the bus would come!

The woman nearby rolled her eyes. Better me than her, she seemed to signal. Had he approached her, she could have told this grubby man to piss off.

How ridiculous! Trapped. Another punishment for traveling in a land where I didn’t understand the language.

I would also have liked to remove my sweater.

BELGRADE TO TRIESTE

Miroslav’s loquacity both mystified and relieved me. He addressed me in Croatian. I sat quietly. He would not relent. After saying something, he turned to the others and make them laugh. A burly man sitting by the window asked “Sprechen Sie Deutsche?

Parlez-vous francais?” I replied. I could have put together a few rickety sentences.

He shook his head.

The women offered me pepperoni, salami, and ham; the men, swigs from a vodka bottle. I carried an apple and orange. The apple had too many soft spots, so I skinned the orange. Conversations erupted regularly over the next several hours. Miroslav didn’t sleep. He continued talking to me, overzealous to insure that I would not feel left out. He pulled out his wallet and handed me his identification card, which had a photo and indicated he worked for the railroad. Now I understood how we found the empty car so easily. The man who spoke German presented a similar identification. I noted that Miroslav was only two years older than I. He still held his card out. I realized he was showing it to me less to tell me about himself than to find out about me, specifically, my occupation. Maybe I had a similar card?

How could I tell him what I was? He probably assumed I was a student, thus it would have been easiest to produce my old Columbia University ID. I preferred to tell him how I earned the money for this trip, for this seven months not working. I took a piece of paper and drew a skillet over a fire cooking a fish. I passed it around. Finally, the German speaker exclaimed “Chef!” Stupid of me not to think of the word, not that it didn’t strictly define what I did. I cooked food, a lot of food, at a quality restaurant, but I had nothing to do with the food’s preparation nor was inclined to create from scratch.

Then another constricted line of communication opened briefly on the subject of women. Miroslav pointed to his wedding band. I pulled out two photos from my wallet and passed them around. The men grinned, the women nodded, approving the ambiguous if tenuous relationships I had with the two women before leaving the States. Did Miroslav and friends believe I was the one on the hook or were these two hooked on me? It didn’t matter. The rules of these fractured conversations became ever clearer. I was reduced to gestures, drawings, and photographs. They understood what they were as far as they presumed what I meant.

BARCELONA

If nature permitted Spanish and Italian men to have children, these children would be bocci balls. Often walking around cities like Florence, Rome, and Barcelona, I stopped and watched bocci matches sometimes for more than an hour. The players all had their personal balls and treated them better than they ever would their wives, although most of the balls looked the same despite the individualized treatment. Some were shinier but the relative splendor of the balls rarely corresponded to one team or another (three players per team). They knew their own bocci ball as mother penguins knew their pups on crowded Antarctic beaches. I watched these matches despite never knowing which side was winning. By the time I figured out who belonged to which ball, the match was over and the sides changed.

The match. Each player clicked his ball nervously anticipating the next shot. Click, click! Click, click! Soft, graceful underhanded tosses. The players swaddled balls taken from the ground with cloths to remove sand and dirt particles. As in horseshoes, one must come close to the target. In bocci, a pea-like ball was used instead of stake and tossed prior to the round by the winner of the previous round. During a round, the pea-ball target’s position could be altered if struck by one of the balls. This was bocci’s interesting point. Suddenly, what had been an excellent toss could end up hopelessly out of position. This made the game uncertain and unsettling, whence the aim or object of a round could be drastically altered.

One afternoon in a Barcelona park, I watched a match for an hour. Several times the pea-ball was moved mid-round, which seemed to excite the players’ passions. Finally, a man in his thirties hurled his ball extremely hard to hit two of his opponents’ balls six inches from the pea-ball. Instead, he hit the pea-ball and knocked it into the air, over a hedge and across the road, ending up nearly fifty yards away in another bocci match! Men, women, children all over the park stopped and marveled as if the Virgin Mary had suddenly manifested Herself. The men playing the game were stunned silent. They looked around in disbelief. The effect on the other people in the park broke their tension, and they began a wave of backslapping. They suspended the round and retrieved the pea-ball. People, especially the children, wanted to talk to the man who had made the miraculous shot.

THESSALONIKI TO BELGRADE

Ahmad, the Tunisian student, wanted to learn a few English words.

“It won’t be easy,” I said, shaking my head.

He was traveling with Bella, an Algerian. They attended the Sorbonne and were ending a vacation and traveling back to Paris. Bella ignored us. He knew English and had been acting as the spokesman for the two. Now he was unhappy because Helena, the California student, had repeatedly rebuffed his advances. The previous night, as the four of us lay every which way trying to sleep, Bella repeatedly snuggled up to Helena, who pushed him away. Did he expect to have sex with her? He had confided to me that American women were promiscuous. It amused me to see Bella portray himself according to stereotype: a horny Arab male. All day he continued his pursuit of her until she finally told him off. Bella’s actions embarrassed Ahmad. Bella sulked by the window, occasionally cursing the specter of American womanhood. For all I knew, he was cursing me for being an American. Helena had gone to the refreshment car.

“Please, Bob,” Ahmad insisted.

I took his pen and wrote into a notebook to too two then pronounced the words. Ahmad exclaimed the Tunisian equivalent for “carrumba.” Were there many more like this?

“Too many to do in an hour,” I replied. “Why don’t we try numbers?”

He agreed and wrote them in phonetic French as I spoke them:oin tu thre for fiv cicks cev - en ait nin ten.

We never got any further. At this juncture Miroslav and his wife entered the compartment and passed around their food.

 

VALENCIA

If only the bus would get here.

The guy selling miniature tools continued for three, four, five minutes. Then I happened to look down.

Looked down past his tool kit.

His fly was open.

Tremendously wide open.

So open I saw no sign of a zipper.

Maybe this was why the woman standing nearby had rolled her eyes!

BELGRADE TO TRIESTE

Another time, Miroslav repeated some words and expected me to recognize them. It was his turn to feel linguistically impotent, for you would have thought I had said something he couldn’t understand. He drew his body backward and contemplated. I wondered what was next. Was he asking the name of my home town? He brightened and leaned forward, speaking in as clear an English from his Croatian tongue as the sun could break through a clouded sky, and said a name.

“Ed Nelson!”

It struck a chord. An actor. I had seen him in dozens of television roles. But he was famous for one role. I replied in kind, understanding Miroslav’s drift.

“Ryan O’Neal!”

Another actor. More famous than Ed Nelson. The father of precocious daughter. Miroslav’s eyes glistened. The entire compartment stirred from its middle-of-the-night torpor. I kept the ball rolling.

“Mia Farrow!”

Fired out like blank from a pistol. Silence. Who?

“Mia Farrow,” I repeated less assuredly.

I couldn’t believe they had remembered Ed Nelson but not Mia. Mia! The first name was enough. I thought hard until I came out with another name.

“Allyson Cunningham!”

Heads bobbed harmoniously. Miroslav added with a flourish: “Mia, Mia!”

I could only guess why he mentioned Peyton Place at all. Maybe the television soap opera was their only uncensored glimpse of life in the United States. Or the best dramatic product to which they had been exposed. The excitement abated fast and Miroslav tried one more name.

“Old man Peyton.”

I nodded but the topic passed like a village behind an express train.

LAWRENCE STERNE

“I am well aware, at the same time, as both my travels and observations will altogether be of a different cast from my fore-runners; that I might have insisted upon a whole nitch entirely to myself—but I should break in upon the confines of the Vain Traveller, in wishing to draw attention towards me, till I have some better grounds for it, that the mere Novelty of my Vehicle.”

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

VALENCIA

Despite having noticed my discovery, he continued the sales pitch undaunted. He had surely meant to impress me at some level, but there was no satisfying the incongruity between the impression he wanted and being unzipped. Yet, he seemed proud that he could be oblivious to his appearance. When he eventually tried to adjust the zipper, he only managed to bring it up a half-inch. Then his voice intensified and the zeal to sell the miniature tool kit heightened to another level.

What did this pride mean?

Pride! No, he simply couldn’t accept responsibility for his open fly.

But here’s the ridiculous part of it. His impropriety transmigrated to my conscience. The Spaniard panhandler ignored his childishness and hoped that I would assume it. Was I strong enough to refuse responsibility for his lack of shame? Strong enough, yes, but not from strength. I was too worried at the moment he would discover I didn’t speak Spanish. Then he might assault me physically.

TRIESTE

We passed the Italian border and within minutes were slowing into the Trieste terminal. Bottles and garbage were being flung onto the tracks. Day was breaking but it was cloudy and damp. My eyes stung from lack of sleep. My stomach was vilely uptight from either constipation or another diarrhea onslaught. Gathering our luggage, we lined to disembark. Stench from the toilets drifted down the corridor of the traincar and became more powerful as we neared the door. Outside I shook hands all around, shook even the embarrassed outreach of the teenage daughter. Then I faced Miroslav, whose exuberance never flagged. We embraced. What could I say? Miroslav chatted on. 

VALENCIA

I continued to nod as he spoke. “No, no, no” nods. I didn’t want what he was peddling. He never stopped smiling.

Finally, though, he gave up. Shook his head and walked away. Still smiling. The kit was closed and at his side. On the prowl for a new victim. He didn’t bother to zip up when he had turned away.

I looked at the woman. She gestured toward him as if to indicate: “What an oddball!” I shook my head in agreement. She had probably noticed the open hatch in his pants and was privately scandalized. She was indicating to me how shocked and disgusted she had been by the tool kit salesman’s open zipper spectacle. Indeed, she continued to speak, assuming I understood Spanish. Why not! She had seen me listening to the panhandler for the last ten minutes.

It grew hotter.

I continued to nod as the woman spoke. I wondered whether the bus would ever arrive.

I should have removed my sweater.

WITOLD GOMBROWICZ

“I claim, on the contrary, that the more inept and petty criticism is, the more constricting it is, like a tight shoe. Oh! Those human opinions, the abyss of lies and criticisms of your intelligence. Your heart, every detail of your being, which opens up in front of you when you have incautiously clothed your thoughts in words, put them on paper and spread them among men! Oh! paper! paper! Words, words!”

Ferdydurke

PALMA (conversational leftovers)

I never caught up with Preston and Penny in the Canary Islands. I went to book passage in Valencia for Tenerife but the ship was full. Unless I wanted a room. It would have doubled the price. I wanted to go to one of the Spanish islands and bought a ticket for Mallorca. A quiet, lonely overnight voyage. On Palma’s docks, several men touted pensions and, as I had in Barcelona, I accompanied one of them to a pension on the city’s outskirts. All meals for twelve dollars. I did not see any other guests the first several evenings when I ate dinner with the family who owned the place. On my third day, I decided that I would eat dinner at a restaurant in town and informed the clerk in the morning, in order not to be charged for one of the meals.

I customarily brought a book to a restaurant when I dined alone, both at home and when I traveled in western Europe. I once thought this would attract women, especially intellectual types.

I walked a mile to the restaurant, which I had passed during the day and thought its menu looked promising. Started with a pasta dish containing a half-dozen mussels with a marinara sauce. Then I had three scallops of veal sautéed in white wine, butter, and garlic. Asparagus on the side. A half liter of red wine. A small ice cream for dessert.

I noticed outside, before being served the veal, that a fog had descended, a fog so thick that I could not see across the street, and could barely see the headlights of the few automobiles that had passed. The fog had not let up by the time dessert was served.

With a fog so thick and barely familiar landmarks shrouded, I knew I would have trouble finding my way back to the pension. I ordered a cappuccino and exploited to the fullest the time one could sit in a Mediterranean country’s restaurant. No fear of being rushed and handed the check. And I had my book. Indeed, had read a chapter between the mussels and veal. A chapter from The Guinea Pigs by Ludvik Vaculik, a Czechoslovakian writer, his novel I had read several times.

Inside the slim orange Penguin paperback, I saw several handwritten passages and initially mistook them for notes I had written about the novel during my college years when I had first read it.

In fact, they were three quotations but not from the book. Apparently I had recorded bits of conversation while I was reading the book in another restaurant. But where?

I sipped the cappuccino and read the first snippet:

“They must get a lot of young people here,” said the woman.

“Why?” he replied.

“She only gave me two sugars. And there aren’t any sugars on the table.”

Summer. Ninety degrees. An elderly man and middle-aged woman had sat behind my booth in a restaurant at the seashore. The two were headed for Cape May. She wore an all-white casual outfit with a white hat; he, yellow pants and thin white shirt. His face was red from the heat while she appeared invigorated and twenty years younger. From the meager evidence of having no sugars on the table, this woman had condemned the under-thirty crowd as a bunch of kleptomaniacs. Although, she would have had trouble maintaining her hypothesis had she come to the place in the evening when sugar packets were in bowls! The bowls were empty in the afternoons precisely to prevent the geriatric crowd from stuffing Sweet n’ Lows into their pockets.

I had probably written their words because I instinctively knew she would utter something noteworthy soon. I finished my cappuccino and signaled the waiter. A glass of port, please. I waited and reflected on the second passage.

“What time is it?” the woman asked. “Have to keep on your schedule.”

“Twelve twenty-nine.”

We now have the exact time of the luncheon. Not “half-past noon.” Why? We’re in the DCE: Digital Clock Era. Exactness as progress.

What intrigued about the remark was the idea of keeping the man to his schedule. She was leading him around. Were they man-wife, brother-sister, father-daughter? He seemed helpless, his red face huffing and puffing between slurps of New England clam chowder. The woman, meanwhile, seemed authoritative in her role: she may not have worn a watch but she did the pants in that family.

The third bit of dialogue clarified their personal hierarchy:

“The meal was very good,” he said.

“It was good.” She hesitated. “But it wasn’t ‘very good’.”

She held veto power over his opinion. He ruled, she controlled. She also had laid the foundation (with the remark) for leaving an inadequate tip.

I wondered, then and now, just how “good” a lunch can be. Hamburgers, hot dogs, tuna melts, grilled cheeses, montecristos, reubens (an exception here perhaps), steak sandwiches, hoagies, club sandwiches. These foods rarely ascend to the “very good” or “excellent” plateau. Like certain books and movie genres. Good or lousy.

I had drunk three glasses of port before asking for la cuenta. The fog had not lifted. It would take an hour and a half to find my pension.

Robert Castle

Robert Castle teaches history and film criticism at a small academy outside Trenton, New Jersey.  “Lines of Communication” is part of a book, The End of Travel.  Other excerpts have been published by The Sun, A Summer’s Reading, Curriculum Vitae, and The Iconoclast. Recent stories and articles have appeared in Archipelago, Gadfly, Bright Lights Film Journal, Arbutus, Octavo, and The Sidewalk’s End.  He is the publisher of Film Ex, a zine dealing with movies.

The Paumanok Review Volume 4, Number 4, Issue 16 AUTUMN 2003

The Paumanok Review is a publication of Wind River Press. Copyright 1999-2003. All rights reserved. No content, including images and code, may be reproduced without the prior written consent of its creator.