It’s been five months and fifteen days since I boarded a transatlantic flight. Open your palm and grab a handful of time, that’s how long it feels like it’s been. I am sitting on a couch in the living room of a hostel I have called home for the past three weeks; Cat, the confoundingly altruistic owner, is gone for a few days and asked me to watch the desk. Since my people are on other adventures, I have been spending the evenings watching Gone With the Wind, listening to Nick Drake and Copeland and Fleetwood Mac and Ella Fitzgerald, sewing the holes in my pants, and drinking hot chocolate.
I’ve been wishing that I had something definitive and profound to tell you in these last weeks, but I have to admit that my brain’s been somewhat muddled lately. Between gobs of work in France, next to no alone time, the drug of Balkanism, and the impending doom of the end of this trip, I am, embarrassingly, a mortar and pestle mash of thought.
It’s weird thinking about France after having left, after this time of living in Bosnia. Sarajevo is like a warm bath for sinking into with slowness, compliance and rapture; it is comfortable and you often think with regret of the moment in the future when you’ll have to get out. The warm steam of life wafting up around this city makes it hard to look out at past or future. I digress.
France was a home, France was a dream, France was the blink of an eye. It was a world and a life so wholly unto itself; my memory of it is encased in a see-through bubble, some dreamlike snow globe. And because even up there, perched on the hillside in the Alps, each moment was new and unpredictable and strange. Constancy is such a rare commodity when you’re on the road, even when you get off it for six weeks.
Looking back on it is a lucid and quiet slide show. I see and feel the upward slope of the wooden floorboards in the kitchen, the particular smell of the neighbor’s house that sometimes still teases me from mugs of tea or old clothes, the eternal awe of high peaks, the exultation and indulgence of eating elaborate meals after working to the bone. Mostly I see shafts of yellow sunlight streaming through the kitchen window and coming to rest on the wood of the kitchen table; here, there is a blue glass of spoons, half-eaten circles of cheese, the absent-minded spray of loose tobacco. I think: boxed wine, music upon music, hands stained orange from fruit juice, black fleece, sea salted butter, burred puppy fur, floor mattresses.
The vast majority of our time was spent working, and working rigorously. But oddly enough, that’s not what’s left over when memory is sifted through the strainer of time. It’s certainly not as though it didn’t happen; I have the thighs to prove my time of carrying crates of fruit twenty kilos strong up an incline, the biceps to prove lifting and dumping them into a crusher. We were tired, but we were happy. Our satisfaction came instead from the magnetism between kindred spirits and the knowledge that our presence was a blessing. From the start, we fit in; from the start, we were enchanted.
Aurélie owns a juicing business. Her particular plot of Alps was rife with fruit: apples, pears, grapes so native and so old that no one knows the strain, the elusive quince. She is a shrewd, quixotic, and absolute human being, unlike anyone I’ve so far met. Her respect first, and then her friendship, was gratification of the highest order. Even then I remember feeling the jealous privilege of understanding who she was, and the bitter regret that she would change the moment I left and I would again know nothing. She is a volatile spinning universe attached to nothing; she is gravity and change incarnate.
Our days off were spent in bed, or hiking, respectively. We delighted in food and cooked incessantly, filling the kitchen with fresh picked tomatoes, a thousand types of cheese, chocolate and peanut butter, pasta and shrimp and pie and curry and ham. Every morning we woke up to a loaf of bread on the windowsill, left in the early hours by the baker in town. We put butter on everything. We never stopped drinking wine.
Life there is a tangled web. There are people in and out, always, and they are the type of people as unexpected as a midnight doorbell. You get used to things changing on a dime. We had barbecues with the neighbors, we drove for miles through the mountains, we stuttered our way through French. There were marijuana plants taller than me in the gardens, there were affairs and triangles, there was family love and family fight. Our nails stained dark brown on the first day, and stayed that way until the last. In the basement we found wine barrels carved with dates from 1647. During pressing hours we dunked glasses into whole barrels of fresh juice; our clothes were so sticky that the bees followed us around in reminiscence of plague days. We never dreamed from fatigue, but we stayed up late watching movies under the blankets.
I am pleased that I got to share time there with Caroline and Sean. Looking back, I think I would say that it was a thing that needed to be shared, that certain truths were meant to be unearthed together. I’ve grown and solidified and become newly self-aware during my time in Europe and my time alone, but it doesn’t make the challenge and gift of friendship during such intensive experiences any less worthwhile. I am humbled by and grateful for the unfolding of growth in front of me by my friends, and of their input into my life.
When I think about who I am and where I stand, I feel level and at peace. This is remarkable and brings me to my metaphorical knees in thanks and awe. At first, I wondered if such a thing would last. These days, I wonder where it will take me. When I think about the end of six months, I feel a grief that stems only from the joy of having lived, and lived well. In such cases, you can’t use the definition of regret or hunger; it is simply a deep and thorough acknowledgment. When I think about the future, about Peru, I feel only a calm and almost uncurious readiness, which I ascribe to a profound faith in certain things that stretch across realm and reason.
In my right hand I grasp nostalgia and gratitude, the gift of a season; my left holds up the hope and riddle of the future. The rest of me is submerged and dispersed in the sea of the present, a pretty place indeed.