May 22, 2013
May 19, 2013
May 18, 2013
Unearthed these when I was compiling photos for The Jolly. I thought they warranted a separate post. That's Marianna making dreadlocks for The Meeeeeeeeess! (Mads, it's hard not to call you that, the way Luca always did, and then all of us after him.)
May 17, 2013
[Sydney, a few months ago...]
The bus I took from Melbourne arrived in Sydney just after dawn on a Sunday. I walked from the bus station to my hostel. It was a long enough distance to warrant a ride on the subway, but I like to see as much of a place as possible when I arrive.
Forty five minutes later I arrived in Kings Cross, the decidedly unluxurious neighborhood where I had booked a hostel. A couple of clubs were still open, with lingering crowds of Saturday night party-goers finishing out their "night" and spilling out onto the streets. A handful of people were having a last beer before breakfast on the terrace of one bar that looked out onto the street. I passed by the McDonald's and looked in: a few homeless guys, several people clearly in want of another dose of one drug or another, one or two prostitutes (I was more certain about one than about the other), and a large crowd of drunk twentysomething women and men in clubbing outfits. It's always a party in Kings Cross.
I think the only clean-looking thing you can find in Kings Cross is the huge white cat that resides in the building adjacent to the hostel where I was staying. The cat, easily twice the size of any normal house cat and blindingly white, prowled around mostly at night, swaying slowly at it stalked. But I didn't see it on the first day, so Kings Cross presented itself as 100% filth as I arrived.
When I think back on my arrival, it's difficult for me to comprehend how I came to feel so much at home there. And yet there is no other place where I spent more time during these past many months of travel. No other place where I had so many unforgettable conversations or so much laughter.
It was the free WiFi that brought us all there. Or rather, the shameless lie that was the false promise of free WiFi. I saw the same scene unfold at the reception desk almost every day:
"OK, here's your key, here are your sheets, and this is your code for one hour of free WiFi."
"What did you say? One hour?"
On the website, it just says "Free WiFi". It says the same thing in big letters outside the hostel. But really you only get one hour free. After that, if I recall correctly you have to pay something like $1000 per minute, all to get speeds of of 0.0001 KB/s, when it's working at all, which is one day out of five approximately. Bitterness might have altered my memories of the exact details.
Fittingly for Kings Cross, the hostel wasn't really that clean, despite the valiant efforts of the cleaning staff (largely composed of travelers working for free accommodation). The carpet in all the rooms had acquired an unremovable stench, a mélange of feet, sweat and evaporated alcoholic beverage, with a hint of old vomit. I say all the rooms because I feel like I damn near stayed in all 50-odd rooms (again my memory is imperfect; don't trust too many of the numbers in this piece). Every few days, when I would decide that I simply could not bring myself to leave this place yet, I would go to the reception to extend my reservation. There was always availability... but usually in another room, due to an oddly rigid reservation system. I wasn't the only one with this problem. So you saw some version of this scene play out several times a week too:
A traveler has his bags all packed and is waiting in the common room around 9 am, the torturous checkout time. Another traveler passes by:
"No, I'm staying a few more days."
"Ahh... room switch? What is that, your fourth?"
The rooms I didn't stay in, I visited. After a week the whole hostel felt like home anyway, with a friend or two in many of the dorms. I liked the rooms with the balconies, so it was important to know friends who were staying in them. It took me a long time to understand why I never landed in those rooms: they were the female-only dorms. I would be lying if I said it didn't add to the appeal of those rooms.
On one occasion, I got assigned to a room that was so dismally lit, so tiny, so dirty, it became the subject of the first conversation I had with one of the roommates there, a long bitching riff that lasted easily half-an-hour.
"Wow, this room is a real piece of shit!" I said to Andrew, a British lad who had been there for what looked like several eternities, judging from the explosion of clothes surrounding his bed.
"Yea mate, It's a prison cell. I'm doing a 3-month stretch here. This here's my cellmate," he answered as he pointed to Shayne's empty bed.
"Wow. I hope to get out soon. My offenses are minor."
If you were staying for a long time and knew it in advance, you could block out a bed in a room so you wouldn't have to switch all the time. But for the life of me I couldn't figure out why Andrew chose that room to reserve for so long. He was paroled a coupled weeks after we shared a cell.
During the day, you'd almost always find a few of us in front of the hostel, sitting or leaning on a curved ledge that circles a small green(ish) patch facing the hostel -- bushes, shrubs, assorted rubbish.
The daily arrival of new travelers was always top entertainment. I liked to tease the French backpackers, who were usually spottable within two, often just one syllable after they began to speak. "Éllo!" they greeted us; it was like beaming out a rooster-shaped tri-color camembert-scented "Batman signal" with a Marseillaise soundtrack.
"Alors... tu es français?" I answered. Sometimes, there was a sad look of disappointment, the wounded pride of the as-of-yet not self-aware.
"It's that obvious?" or perhaps "Eet iz zat obvioos?" (I'm being cruel, I know.)
Occasionally, a tougher, more challenging Frenchie (perhaps identifiably non-native English speaker but harder to place than the average). Rarely, an almost undetectable one. Sofy the Ninja. Sofy from Washington D.C. if she wants. Sofy: 100% French, yet 100% Americanophile.
Even in her vices.
"Un p'tit MacDo?" I ask Sofy [Quick slang lesson: McDonald's is "MacDo" in French, with emphasis on the second syllable, pronounced like the Oh in Oh my God. In Australian it's Macca's.] It's so late. Sooo late. We've stayed up once again for hours chatting, philosophizing, bullshitting really. Fast food is the last thing I need. It's poison. I'll feel worse for it. So I need some social encouragement, which I know I can secure here.
"You know I won't say no," she replies, and my face lights up. It's our little ritual. Going to the Macca's with a slender, beautiful, stylish French woman: it's like an official permission to break the law. Plus Sofy has a balcony room. We were destined to be good friends.
Around the corner from the hostel, a surprisingly un-dodgy alley, for Kings Cross especially. As far as I'm concerned, it's mainly the path to good coffee, at the end, near the right, it's a blue sign, you can see it easily even when you're tired and your eyes aren't quite open yet and all you want is a coffee and you really can't handle much conversation now until there is coffee ahhhh here it is yes coffee Nia please my usual please. Thanks so much.
Gaz and Elias run into each other in the side alley late at night. I'm walking by at the same time, and I catch bits of their conversation.
"Yea, I don't do much Thai boxing. Their legs are massive, mate..." And the discussion goes on about different martial arts, different styles, different disciplines. As he speaks, Gaz, a member of the English contingent, shifts into the various stances under discussion, never static, footwork changing up as needed. Elias, a German mountain with legs, is every bit as impressive. The two of them would look terrifying, if they weren't so friendly. Agression. Elegance. And laughs.
"I wish I'd filmed this," I chime in... the only contribution I can make to a martial arts conversation. "That would have been a cool discussion to film. I'll write about it."
Gaz didn't teach me any boxing. But he and his fellow Swindon natives Luke, Leigh-Ann and Therese taught me English all over again, 17 years after first contact. If I'm not sharing what I learned it isn't because I didn't take any notes... It's just that I want to keep this site from failing search engine "clean" filtering algorithms.
Mateo -- Italian and Ecuadorian, living in Argentina -- speaks a mix of Ecuadorian and Argentine Spanish. Luca -- Italian by way of Cordoba in Argentina -- speaks "Spanish" as well.
Luca: *Nearly Incomprehensible Jumble of Colloquialisms*
Me: Mateo, puedes traducir? Was that even Spanish?
Mateo: No. He doesn't speak Spanish, he speaks barrio Cordobés.
Luca: Barrshio Cordobés.
When Luca and I exchange parting words, in my mind I hear Jeannette singing "Porque te vas" ("Because you're leaving"), and my face gets flush. I think of Cría Cuervos, the Franco-era Spanish film where I first heard it, and it reminds me of a Spanish friend, María. I remember our conversations in Ecuador about film, about science, about everything, and the Spanish Spanish lessons she gave me. I hear her repeat her "Vale, vale" that you hear so rarely in South America, if at all.
My own Spanish is bastard Spanish, borrowed Spanish. I speak with the tongues of the people I've met and loved, with a voice colored by the films and songs I know. And when I use those borrowed words, faces light up in my mind; smiles that shaped my days appear before me; lines from films resonate in my ears. I extend my relationships with those people and with those works every time I open my mouth to speak.
To the left of the hostel, a small park: a couple benches, ledges for sitting, or for setting down your beer or your box of Goon. At night, an occasional acoustic guitar session, some singing in unison. During the couple weeks when the Italian crowd made up a large enough portion of our hostel population to qualify as a proper mafia, we spent nearly every evening on those benches.
The white cat would prowl around regularly. Mateo wasn't pleased.
"I hate this cat. It's a shit."
"How can you hate that cat? It's so white, so big, so beautiful."
"Yes, it's so white, it's so big. It's a shit!"
There's no answer to that. For a long time, I teased Mateo for this answer. "Mateo, what a day today: so warm, so sunny. It's a shit!" "Mateo, look at this beach: so big, such nice water, such beautiful women. It's a shit!" And so on. One night a couple rats were scurrying in the bushes while Big White was prowling around. Aha, I thought, we're going to see some hunting. We did: the rats chased the cat out of the bushes and it leapt out and away. "What did I tell you?" Mateo said. "It's a shit, this cat!"
I never could convince Mateo or Luca that I didn't speak Italian. Occasionally I would laugh at jokes the Italians would tell. It's not so hard: a few Spanish-similar words, a few French-similar words, lots of swearing. Over weeks, I was bound to catch a few funny lines here and there. They would turn to me.
"Aha! you speak Italian, see?!" Mateo would tell me each time I had a look of even approximate comprehension as they spoke amongst each other. "No, no, it doesn't count. If half your words are sto cazzo, stronzo, etc, yea, then I speak that Italian."
So a certain legend grew, and I can't say I was too sad about it. Luca welcomed new arrivals with his trademark smile and a friendly, loving "New faaaaaace! What's your name, new face?" Then he would turn toward me and introduce me. "This is my friend the Ambasciatore. He's from Babylonia." Protestations on my part did nothing to set the record straight. Sometimes I would introduce myself to new people arriving at the Jolly Swagman only to have them reply "Ah, yes I heard about you. You're the guy who speaks eight languages." I tried again. "No, no, it's four. Not all of them perfectly." Sometimes a bit of pride would creep in. "No, not eight... not yet."
"Ambasciatore, how do you say debería in English?"
"Ambasciatore, what does 'get off' mean?"
"Hehehe... depends on context."
"Ambasciatore, how do you say XYZ in German?"
"I don't speak German."
"Yes you do."
No, I didn't, and still don't... but someone else there did. The Ambasciatrice, as she inevitably came to be called. Marianna, half Italian (should I say Napolitana?) and half German, covers four languages as well: German, Italian, English and Spanish... or is it more? When I hear her talk to Wakana, I hear a lot of Japanese, and not just from Waka. Too much to count as zero on her language count. What about when I hear her sing along to Portuguese songs? I'm pretty sure she knows exactly what she's singing.
Multilingualism is a wealth that no other wealth can replace. I inherited some of mine, and accumulated the rest over the past thirty one years. Like material wealth, it tends to generate more wealth: a self-expanding horizon of experience, of knowledge. You're different people in different languages, as you fill in previously unknown lexical gaps, as you express your thoughts in new shades and shapes. Over time though, you start to exist in between languages, in between worlds. Your thoughts become an amalgam of meaning that isn't expressible well in any single language. You start to think, to live and to feel in the in-between shades. And when you limit yourself to saying anything in just one language, you're never saying everything you mean. When you have to speak in just one tongue, you're no longer speaking with your own. There is no more native tongue for you. You're always speaking in translation. You're always translated. For a few weeks in Sydney, in the strangest and filthiest neighborhood I'd ever lived in, and surrounded by love and friendship, I came as close as I ever have to being in version originale.
"Vos sos un puto," Luca throws at me on one of my last days in Kings Cross. "You're an asshole," a non-literal, approximate translation.
"Porque te vas."