The train station teems with chaotic life. Their language, suddenly surrounding me, sounds guttural but melodic. They switch to my own to offer me services, but the words seem unfamiliar on their tongues, alienating and untrustworthy. Clutching my bags, I refuse taxis, black market currency and rooms for the night.
In the office inside the station, my small pile of crisp clean money is turned in for an enormous pile of creased and greasy bills. My pockets swell ostentatiously.
After an interminable pause on the edge of the station square, I find the courage to drag my bags through the pandemonium. Cars and trucks barely avoid me, so close I can smell their smoke, grease, the unwashed sweat of their operators.
Why so many bags, so much cash? It's because I plan to stay. Two weeks is the longest suggested by my budget guide, but I'm figuring on years. There's no reason to dwell on what I've left behind. A marriage long collapsed, a scandal of sorts at work, less money brought in than I'd made it seem. Suicide seemed trite and unnecessary when other lives lurked in other places, when reincarnation was possible someplace obscure and far away.
First our words then theirs in my yellow phrasebook; my eyes move from one to the other, trying to fix them in memory. There are too many consonants in odd places, too many unusual combinations of vowels. I cannot even guess at pronunciation.
The writers don't seem to be familiar with the grilled meats, smoked fishes and pungent libations on the handwritten menu of the dark restaurant I find. A hound-faced waiter, his black and white clothes stained and sour smelling, shows me to a table in a far-off comer. Something on the menu resembles the word for pork but he pays little attention when I point to it. A little later though, a chipped pitcher of local wine arrives accompanied by a plate of stringy, burnt meat and salty, watery vegetables. My only appetite is for companionship, preferably female and from my side of the world, with whom I can laugh at their anachronistic ways. Though too sweet and strangely thick, the wine is pleasantly dulling. It's a lot for one man to consume, but no doubt that's their custom. By about halfway through it, I can better entertain myself.
Their women are wider than ours, I'd point out to a companion if I had one, fewer teeth but bigger bosoms.
Such sullen smoking men, I'd go on, such terse dribbles of conversation between their swallows and inhalations.
Men with men, women with women, as if she can't see for herself, no mixing of sexes as befits their culture.
The dancing has begun. Men saunter down to the women's side of the table, grab their hands and bring them to the area in front where the establishment has neglected to put tables. On the slightly raised platform, a younger man plays some sort of electric guitar while an older one plays an odder instrument, guitar-shaped but wider so it sounds hollow and deep. A brass instrument, blown lethargically by the last musician, is not quite a trumpet. Their scratchy, lumbering music skirts vaguely into polka territory, incomprehensibly danceable. My feet stomp up and down with it as I grab the elbow of a passing waiter and point to my empty pitcher of wine.
The band should seek my approval, as their next song is from my native land. I mouth the mispronounced chorus with patriotic fervor.
Unselfconscious, I explain to my companion, still a novice to this culture, easy people. Progress has taken it away from us. Our long journey has brought us someplace simpler, better.
Something in the local wine has my head pounding terribly the following morning. I stagger out of the pension in search of coffee. After a couple of silent, empty blocks, I hear the craggy consonants of their language from a bar shaped like an enormous horseshoe. Waiters dash around in dirty black and white as everyone fights for the limited space. Coffee, my book tells me, is the same in both of our languages, just spelled differently. But when I finally find a space on the enormous counter, catch someone's eye and attempt to pronounce it, the rumpled fat man looks puzzled and points distractedly to a long line where customers wait in front of an ancient register.
The register lady can make no better sense of my pronunciation though I come up with variation after variation. It's probably just a logical guess that encourages her to finally punch the register and gesture for money. I can see how my days will be spent: small things made inordinately complicated.
Bread, though, is easily located at a bakery further down the same street. It's empty, save for its proprietor and legions of appetizing loaves. Some are large, intended for family dinners, but others are small, perfect breakfast material. Without a word from my lips, the smiling bakery girl hands me a breakfast loaf, takes my coin and gives me several back. She's not exactly what I find attractive, but would an attractive bakery girl look twice at the likes of me, a not quite handsome fortyish foreigner with little more than currency to offer? The hot oven makes her skin glow pleasantly pinkish, while a quite endearing streak of dirty blond hair peeks out from her cap. Her cheeks are reassuringly round, her body too, but not so much as to qualify as fat, or at least not so fat as to drown my blossoming interest.
The sounds now emerging from her mouth seem familiar, forming something like a word I've studied in my phrasebook. She doesn't give up on me when I don't respond, choosing to repeat it more slowly instead.
I try to sound out the words that explain where I'm from. By the second try, my bakery girl has understood.
Chewing my bread as I walk, I head towards the castle at the top of the town, the first step in the itinerary suggested by a brochure awkwardly translated into my language. After the castle, I'll go to the largest house of worship and the Kennedy-era government building of which they are so proud, abutting the largest of the many squares. It's not tourist's pleasures I seek, a historical interest, a city 'done'. Rather I wish to recreate a native's weary knowledge of the sights of his town: the castle that looms dullingly over the horizon, the traffic circle behind the square where one can wait endlessly for late buses back to one's house in the far suburbs, the domed temple where a distant cousin from the wealthier side of the family was married.
Later, when I'm asked if I've seen this sight or that, I can look drearily back at my interrogator as if I'd been there long ago in some distant other life.
There are seven yellow dots on my map, ostensibly a full day's exploration, but I'm almost done by lunchtime. I'm near the oldest remaining piece of medieval wall, a few feet wide and not much taller than I. Nearby, tables lurk inside what almost looks like a cave. A big sign in their language stands below a smaller one in mine: 'Old Wall Restaurant'.
Inside, I find a damp chair at a huge table. It will no doubt be terribly long if I simply wait for service. If 'old', 'wall' and 'restaurant' are known, will 'excuse me' be understood, 'is anyone here'?
My best rendition of 'hello' in their language echoes hollowly through the restaurant. Moments later, I try again in my own tongue. Putting down my bag and tourist map to claim my table in case a flurry of lunchers arrives, I venture past larger and larger tables towards where I imagine the kitchen might be. There are lights in the darkness, at least I think so, and distant sounds, a radio or voice. Sudden footsteps come my way, so I scurry back.
I'm seated by the time the black-aproned matron emerges with a bowl of what appears to be soup and an enormous bottle of beer.
She doesn't look at me as she puts it down and walks away. The dark beer is warm, rather acrid, but I drink it anyway. The soup - gristly meat and what seem to be reconstituted vegetables, is unappetizingly heavy. What little I can manage sinks to the bottom of my bloated stomach. How can I stay in this country without moving my bowels?
A hunk of damp smelling currency has gained me rights to my little room for at least a month. After that, I'll know the city well enough to consider renting an apartment or furnished room with a native family. Perhaps I'll travel to one of the smaller towns away from the capitol.
Coffee becomes relatively accessible once I master the system. Afterwards, my bakery girl gives me bread. Each morning, she smiles more warmly, her face more flushed, her laughter more generous. I'm preferable as a conversationalist, despite my few words, to the dour, bony-faced men of this country who have no particular money and clearly must beat even the sweetest of their wives.
Despite the increasingly blustery weather, typical of autumn here I'm told, I usually go after breakfast to the park in the middle of town to read from my dwindling supply of paperbacks. Lunches are spent in one of the empty restaurants near the tourist spots: the Castle Cafe, the Temple Bistro and that old chestnut, the Old Wall Restaurant. The heavy meat soup and large beer, which remain my only lunch options, make my complicated new world sink sleepily away. Sometimes, I hail one of the old, black, American-style sedans that pass for taxis back to my room for my nap.
When I stagger out of bed in the late afternoon, the day's worst thunderstorm is inevitably raging. No coffee can be purchased at this hour, as it isn't what they do here. So I mix tepid water from my rusty sink with pungent instant coffee I purchased at the large empty supermarket on the far edge of town. A lot of sugar is needed to get it down.
Once the storm has passed, I go to the coffeeless Coffee Palace under the castle, order mineral water or perhaps a small beer and attend to my phrasebook, preparing for the next conversation with the bakery girl.
My dinners start early, last long and are always monotonous. They get to know me at my regular restaurant. They show me to my table and provide my food and wine, charging a different sum each night according to their whim. Sometimes, if they're feeling generous, they'll slip me an after-dinner glass of sweet and potent berry liquor. "For digestation," says a younger waiter who speaks some of my language, but being drunker serves only to make the following morning harder to bear. When there's music and dancing, I stay longer. Twice now, I've gone to the Chinese place on the other side of town where soy sauce, chilies and monosodium glutamate spice up the native cuisine.
I'll be forever a traveler, of course, until I can look like them, speak like them, work like them. But I don't wish to return every day like they do from factories far away, tired, dirty and prematurely old. I'm in my forties already, but two of their years equal one of mine. My solitude is all that must be mended. She can interpret for me, feed me (as I'm tiring of restaurants), wash my clothes, be my lover too. The way I'll treat her will appear generous here.
It's hard to imagine it will be difficult. Just a little of my currency is worth more than any of their jobs or local husbands.
Immigrants to my country often sacrifice the most dearly held kinship patterns in order to marry natives and acquire all that such unions can afford them. Of course, I am the stranger here but I can still provide some of those advantages. There's no need, of course, to make it explicitly clear that I cannot return to the riches of home with them in tow.
The day I have planned, rainy and unpleasant, will not work. If it continues to storm, a new strategy will have to be formed, new phrases memorized.
But the next day is sunny, so after the bakery girl has handed me bread and accepted my coins, I make my suggestion.
"It's lovely today, miss." I must gamble on her correct moniker. "Perhaps we will walk in the park near the castle."
My bakery girl has always found my accent penetrable, my guesses about the sounds of words close enough, but now they seem lost on her.
I repeat myself more slowly.
"Park?" she finally says. "Walk?"
"When?" I demand to know. "This afternoon after work?"
Something in her incomprehensible response suggests busyness, fatigue, another appointment. The language ability of foreign men, so it's said in my country, declines precipitously when women reject their offers of tea and bed.
"I'll be by at the end of your work," I announce, evading her eyes as I leave. The hours of the establishment are posted outside, the correct time to return and find if she's cut out early to avoid me.
Meanwhile, I can't allow myself my usual pleasures. Lunchtime beer will cloud my already limited language skills. Lunchtime soup will make me burpy, farty, malodorous. My nap must be staved off as it occurs just when I'm due at the bakery. All I can do is sit in my room, feverishly going over my lines.
Rather than pause at the precipice of the bakery, I stroll in to find her scrubbing counters with a large orange sponge that's seen better days. In the afternoons her face is even redder, delicate drops of not unseemly sweat collect on the edges of her sideburns, a long strand of hair, loose from her cap, swivels sideways across her forehead.
Unsure what to do when she sees me, she pretends she hasn't, hands flying abstractedly across the counter, a little bit of sponge slipping down to the floor.
"Miss," I begin in her language before stage fright takes the rest of my lines. I stand blankly before her until she has no choice but to look up. I grab her arm with my hand, lightly though.
This is not, as I see it, rape-like, against her will. Her reticence is natural, the way any village girl now in the capitol should behave upon receiving her first male attention, foreign at that. She can hardly give in easily.
She takes off her apron, agreeing, apparently, to come with me. What scene will I make if she refuses, she may wonder? How can she convince me otherwise when I speak so little of her language? Before we leave the bakery, she points to her watch to indicate how little time she has for our shenanigans. She must be back upon the hour.
Will there be time for our walk to the park, our walk in the park, our tea in the cafe I'd discovered that seemed so perfect for an afternoon out?
I've learned no phrases for the dull walk to the gardens. Perhaps a cab should be hailed to avoid so long a silence. But in the dank atmosphere of its back seat, with its nosy, probably-sodden driver, we'd feel ever more stymied, ever more self-conscious. We dash forward, instead, through the empty streets of this hot fall day, having to wait for what seems like hours to cross the heavily trafficked central square where the huge glass temple shines its ugly insult to the Byzantine one which was torn down during a distant upheaval.
By the time we smell the flowery trees of the public gardens, my bakery girl, exhausted by her long day, can take no more.
She grabs my arm to slow down our pace. They're a more physical people, I have to remind myself; we cannot over-read their touch.
We're slowly making our way into the park when she collapses on the first available bench. Wiping her hair out of her eyes, she glances all too obviously at her watch to see how much of her sentence remains.
A wide bush with red circular flowers is near enough by. Hence the first of my prepared questions: "Tell me the name of the beautiful tree that we lack in my country."
She's too exhausted at first to reply, or maybe botany is beyond her. We can remain silent while she catches her breath and reflects upon her circumstances, not so awful as all that, a lovely garden, a not entirely unpleasant older man.
Is the strangulated word that finally comes from her mouth the name of the tree? She says something else, too, before closing her eyes. I think, but cannot be sure, that she's praising my improving language skills. There's a different understanding here of waking and sleeping. This is not the terrible slight it appears to be.
She wakes up frantic, ten or fifteen minutes later, desperate to know the time. Fortunately, some prepared text flies marvelously from my mouth before she can get up and walk away.
"A better time," is what I hope I'm asking, "when is a better time?"
Exasperated, she looks at me. It would be so much easier to ignore the question, but she must realize I'm not such a bad sort. The price I loyally pay for each morning's bread - this must surely please her employer - must be at least somewhat exaggerated. There are too many competing bakeries for her to ignore me now.
Her next words are unfamiliar but in my satchel there's a pen with which to write it down phonetically after she's left. Later that evening, I search through the pocket dictionary. Monday, I think she said, Monday.
As today's Tuesday, I must wait almost a full week to walk with her again, though I'll see her in the mornings for my bread. On Wednesday, terrifyingly enough, she's replaced by a surly older man. Thursday she's back, though, giving me a chance to remind her of her appointment while handing over my coins.
When I arrive that Monday afternoon, she's acquiescent if not exactly enthusiastic. She'll be more so once she learns where she's being taken.
In a side street near the bakery, I'd come across a shocking anomaly in this gloomy city. The teashop's curtains are rose-colored and clean, tables neatly set with silver and napkins. Rather than cabbage and beer, we smell pastries and potpourri. The name, set in gothic letters outside the window, translates as "England Tea Place." It's alarmingly expensive, several weeks of their typical salaries for an afternoon out, but my bakery girl does indeed seem pleased.
"No," she says at first, "too much."
I dismiss her anxieties with a groan, and my bakery girl agrees to being taken, smiling quite gap-toothily.
Inside are natives rather than the English expatriates with whom I'd expected to easily communicate. Was this land ever part of their empire, I wonder, trying to remember what I've read?
As is so often the case, despite the menu outside, no choice is offered. Pots of steaming, already sweetened tea are served with tiny, delicate pastries and unusual jams.
Conversation and its potential for tensions are replaced by chewing. And chew we do, through the carefully constructed castle of cakes. Once we're done, the bakery girl looks at her watch, and this time apologetically, yes, perhaps even regretfully, shakes her head and grabs her dour black handbag.
Every Monday, she's ready when I arrive. The British prices are eating more quickly away at my currency than I'd like, but I have plenty left.
After tea she's willing to pause before fleeing, to indulge in a little conversation, the questions and phrases I've dutifully prepared. One Monday, I grill her about her early days: school, childhood. When, the following week, she asks me questions, I try to stretch my vocabulary into tempting tales of life back home.
I've gained a certain victory, established new ground. But the plateau is long, apparently endless. How can I get her from the teahouse into my pension room for fucks, cuddles and nuptials? I wouldn't mind their native ceremony, however long and dull: luminous wedding flowers, priests in black robes, guests in polyester.
It would be okay, I could reassure her, if anything like the subject ever came up, for a maid to do the heavy cleaning. No more bakery hours. The better life that a better currency can provide, a step far ahead of her contemporaries. The journey from teahouse to marriage seems complicated to navigate, but perhaps the two don't lie so far apart. What does it mean in a conservative country such as this for an unmarried woman to eat weekly with a single man, a foreigner no less? An implied engagement? Has she told her family? Is she merely waiting for me to bring up the word? My best chance, it seems, is to brave bluntly forward.
Should I arrive for my marriage-proposal Monday bearing flowers in tow? A suit? As I haven't brought one, it would have to be local: stiff polyester and (as their bodies are bulkier than mine) inevitably ill-fitting. What was I doing, she'd wonder when I arrived at the bakery, going native? It was better to ambush her.
She's wondering, I'm sure, why I'm too anxious to consume my usual share of cakes.
"I have a question for you, an important one?"
As further introduction, I let her in on some of the accounts I'd managed to liquidate before leaving my country. I explain that I'm not "looking for a maid or cook."
"A wife only," I finally say.
Unsurprisingly, she appears surprised. Her nose wrinkles in confusion.
"A pleasant life," I urge, "an easy one."
When the word for marry emerges quizzically from her mouth, it is indeed followed by the word for 'you', but the most formal kind, the one my phrasebook claims is reserved for elders and strangers.
A common business strategy in my country is not to provide clients opportunity for unsatisfactory closure. The time they're forced to spend considering your offer can be used to further entangle them.
"Next Monday," I inform her, "you will give me your answer." Then I put down our tea-payment and stroll away.
Naturally, I must buy my morning bread at another bakery while I await her decision. A back-up bakery girl - it also occurs to me - might not be such a bad idea, so all my eggs, as they say in my country, are not in one basket. The other bakeries, though serving more or less the same genre of sweet breakfast loaf, hire girls who are either too young or too old. The only ones close to an appropriate age are either haggard and whorishly painted or swollen fat with mouths of rotten teeth.
So the stake of my bakery girl's decision seems even higher. I'll have to find a bar girl, a produce girl, perhaps even a fish girl if my proposal is not accepted.
On the night before the verdict, my bed is even harder; the damp cold pierces through my joints under the itchy blankets. I'm hopelessly awake long before morning. Of course, it would be pointless to find her until her duties are done, so the day looms endlessly ahead. Fortunately, though I have no appetite for my morning bread, the effect of an enormous beer from a neighboring concession brings me back to my room to try to sleep once more. So much time slips by, in fact, that I wake up only twenty minutes beforehand.
Once I've dressed, brushed my teeth (so as not to ruin my marriage prospects with foul breath) and managed the longish walk, I've barely enough time to feel anxious. My bakery girl is ready for me at the door. By the hand, surely a good sign, she pulls me silently in an unfamiliar direction. I am being taken to meet the in-laws.
To my querying glance, she does have something to say, but I cannot understand it even when she repeats it more slowly. The words 'not', then what sounds like 'necessary'. What wasn't necessary?
The buildings deteriorate as we walk, some abandoned, most missing roofs. In the air, we smell garbage, fetid cooking oil and stagnant water. My bakery girl lives in the slums.
"We are near your house?" I ask, tired of the walk and frankly nervous about what is to occur. Forced to sit on a moldy couch, eat germy, dubious food?
"No," she says, clearly offended. "Not near."
After a few more blocks, women start to appear. The tight uniforms of their trade, torn fishnet stockings, the high-heeled shoes upon which they stagger, are just too obvious. Lumpy behinds extend awkwardly from inevitable short skirts. Dark arms and legs clash with faces painted geisha white.
We slow. Soon we're at an inexplicable standstill.
"Okay? Okay?" After repeating it several times in both our languages, my bakery girl begins to turn as if she's about to leave, to abandon me here.
"No," my own language comes uselessly to my lips, "I don't want a whore."
"Not expensive." Her words are soft, sweet, intended to sound reassuring as she walks away. "Not expensive for you."
David Winner has two Pushcart nominations and an Associated Writing Programs Intro Contest nomination. His stories have appeared or will appear in Fiction, Confrontation, Stickman Review, Storyglossia, The Ledge and Thought Magazine. A prose poem of his was included in the liner notes of a David Byrne compilation for Warner Brother's Records. He is circulating a recently finished novel.
A Traveler's Tale originally appeared in The Ledge and won first prize in its 2003 short story competition announced in Poets and Writers magazine in February of this year.