It was my second night in this luxury hotel and my first stay in this provincial town. As usual, I had trouble finding sleep. I decided to have a drink at the bar. It was close to one a.m, and I didn’t expect to find a crowd there. As a matter of fact, except for the barman, there was just this one man, about 35 years old, who shivered as I walked in and locked his eyes on me, with a hopeful and awkward gaze that made me perplex. In any case, it was hard to interpret this insistant and interrogative look differently. It was all the more so weird that I didn’t know anybody in the area and couldn’t relate to this man’s expectations.
I walked to the club armchair at the back of the room, after ordering a well-packed whisky. From where I was, I could see the counter he was leaning against. I noticed several glances in my direction and then, as if acted by a sudden impulsive momentum, he grabbed his glass and made his way to me.
“Good evening sir, do you mind if I sit down with you for a moment ?”, he asked with courtesy.
“Why not at all, please, have a seat, be my guest. A little company in this dull business trip would be more than welcomed”
We exchanged platitudes with a few silences. It was clear my interlocutor wanted to raise a specific conversation subject but was still beating around the bush.
I decided to help him. After all, if my intuition were wrong and all he wanted was an innocent chat to kill boredom, he would steer back the talk to generalities. I decided to opt for a direct approach.
“Do you live in this town?
I was born here. There isn’t much to do right? But I suppose you don’t really mind if you’re just passing by.
Sure. And true I don’t have much time to meander on business trips, but the city seems lovely.
The climate is actually lovely, and may be a few areas, that’s about it.”
Again, as the talking got sparser I looked for ways to renew it again when the man abruptly asked:
“Are you sure you didn’t come here a few years back?
No, it is the first time. May I ask why you’re asking me this?
It feels to me our paths crossed right here, seven or eight years ago.
I am afraid I have to stop you right now. Back then, I was residing in another country. Another continent actually… You know, physical likeness in people is not only more frequent than expected, but reliant on other factors as well. Most likely I remind you of someone.
Sure… ” and upon quickly checking his watch, he stood up and left as suddenly as he started walking in my direction half an hour before.
Surprised, I watched him get out of the bar and leave. The barman, keeping an eye on me, threw with a laugh:
“He told you he met you before right ?!
He always says that to travellers with a similar appearance as you.
As far as I know, he is looking for a guy he met exactly here years ago, who curved his life trajectory.
If you are still in town tomorrow, drop by here again. He’ll be delighted to tell you his story. You’ll see, it’s quite unlikely, if true at all.”
The morrow, after a full working day, I went back there around 11 pm. This time it was full. Businessmen, like me, a few locals, but no trace of my strange new friend. I was a bit disappointed. The barman, who noticed my meandering eyes, reassured me:
“You can expect him generally around midnight, when people start moving on. It shouldn’t be too long now.”
Half an hour later, he walked in. This time, he went straight to me, as if I were an old acquaintance of his.
“I am sorry for yesterday, I always have to be home before 2 am, otherwise my mother gets worried.
There’s no harm” I said, a little surprised to learn that this grown up was still living with his mother. Decidedly, my curiosity was fully awakened.
“I asked you yesterday if we met, and you unfortunately assured me of the contrary. Would you like to know why I asked you this question? It might take a little time…
Dear sir, I have all the time in the world and I would like to know. Please carry on, but before that, allow me to be my guest as we enjoy this excellent whisky.”
Comfortably nestled in a discrete corner of the lounge, with our glasses packed, here is the strange story that this stranger man told me:
“ As I was suggesting yesterday, I was born here, where I studied. Good studies as a matter of fact, that would allow me to live comfortably. I didn’t have any trouble finding an excellent job right after graduation, here where I had my family and my best friends. The “Royal Path” as proud parents like to publicise their child’s success.
I liked my job. It was varied and interesting. I had plenty of opportunities to travel and discover the world, which I enjoyed a lot. I had decent work colleagues, and a group of close friends. A privileged life with few problems. So comfortable I’d say, that after 6 years, I was fed up with it.
Imagine that you are 28 years old and that your life is already fully drawn. Day after day, it’s gonna keep happening with the same monotonous succession of little joys and little worries. It made me dizzy. There was no way a guy like me would slowly get ensnared in such a dull rhythm.
Without consulting my parents who were in any case tolerant and respectful of other people’s freedom and agency, I gave my boss my resignation. He couldn’t bring himself to understand and tried many times to reason me with much smoother and wiser solutions.
“Wait another year and you can take a sabbatical fully backed by the system: you qualify by law. Or, if you want to get more excited, let’s send you to an exotic branch to exercise your talents.”
I appreciated the concern, but once I decide, there’s no coming back and my desire to move on was increasing. As a matter of fact, this idea seemingly impulsive and crazy, had taken root inside and was carefully prepared. Two years before, I had started entertaining such a life move and accumulating resources to be able to comfortably live for at least 3 years as I figured things out. By nature, I am a minimalist person who’s content with little.
“And then what ?! What will you do ?! How will you live ?! Where will you be ?! “ eventually asked my parents, shocked when I finally decided to share my plans.
“We will see. Please, don’t worry for me. I have to do this, or I will be sad all my life.”
From one day to the next, my parents learned that I had left my job to travel around the world. I had my plane ticket, I had ressources. Things were looking good. I was happy. All I asked for, as a figure of speech, was my parents’ blessing to fly those uncertain skies. They gave it to me with all the love and generosity they could but, with annoyance, I could see glimmers of anxiety in their eyes, totally off topic.
The first few months were magical. I started with Cambodia since, as a child, I had a fascination for Angkor Vat. Upon landing, I quickly found a bed in Siam Reap, in the house of an adorable old woman who spoke french to perfection. Her whole family had been slaughtered in the death camps, and she owed her life to a guardian who took her as a domestic slave. My rent was a ridiculous 5 euros a month. At this rate, I was on infinite hold, all the more so as moving or eating was also in the same range of prices.
I loved Asia so much that in spite of my enjoyment of Cambodia, I decided to keep on moving. After all, I left to see the World. My next step was Laos, as delicious. It was a poor country with an atmosphere of joy and a form of existential wisdom that gave everyone the grace to accept their fate.
Then Vietnam, Myanmar and at last Thailand. Everywhere I went, people were welcoming to me. I have to say one thing that tends to set me apart from other travellers is that I adopt upon arrival the local lifestyle, the way to dress and eat, and especially, I make a special effort to learn the rudiments of the langage.
As far as the encounters we make in such trips, they are all worth a whole book in themselves. There are many more people than one thinks who tend to live this type of experience. It is easy to create strong links and a form of solidarity or tips trade between those modern day pilgrims, who often meet from stopover to stopover. Of course, it is also easy to cross the path of much shadier characters, but thank God, somehow I never got in trouble.
It was now over 18 months that I was gone. Not a single moment had I regretted my decision to take off and discover the world. I was in good health, had plenty of savings, my parents had regular news and seemed, if not reassured, at least content with waiting for my ‘coming back’ without any undue worry.
I was living minimally, like the locals, and would take any local job on offer. For 3 months, I did all kind of jobs: waiter, receptionist, life guard, caddy… I could live comfortably without dipping in my savings too much.
After 2 years, in spite of the tremendous interest to meet face on life under its many guises, I had to recognise that this wasn’t going anywhere and I had to find the solution that would allow me to live the rest of my life the way I wanted. I decided to go back home where my parents made me a feast, all too happy to recover their son in one piece.
The period immediately after my return was intense. I was showered with affection and friendship. I was also very happy to reconnect with my hometown that I would walk right and left and up and down, and at each corner, happy memories of the good old days would resurface. Moreover, an exceptionally beautiful weather day in and day out would sustain this euphoria that I would feel from sunrise. Then, I had plenty of colourful adventures, and people would line up to listen with enthusiasm and interest.
As Autumn was closing in, things started to change. First, the start of the school year and the resumption of everybody’s activities. The summer parenthesis was closing and everybody was sliding back into day to day mode. Though my immediate circle was expecting me to do something, I didn’t. Would I look for a new job or take off for novel destinations again? Nobody would dare to ask, knowing my impulsive mood swings. On my end, I was slowly sinking into a cozy, ordinary daily routine under my parents roof, and I acquired pretty quickly those little habits that idleness is fond of.
For example, I wouldn’t leave my bed before reading every line of my favourite paper, while drinking my two cups of coffee without which I could not start my day. Then a jogging to stay active, before shaving and shower, all of this in an ummovable chronological order etc, etc… Harmless habits that I personally found very quaint.
I still had plenty of money and wasn’t spending any since I was living at home. I had plenty of free time and appreciated more than anything to have no accounts to render anybody. No superior, no hierarchical bind, just an incredible freedom that was more precious than anything else to me.
Most of the time, I was alone, since everybody else was working. I could spend full afternoons talking with my mother. I loved it but I could feel she was worried about me. Yet, she would never utter one word or one question too many. In the evening, I would hang out with my non married friends, and when I would listen to their groundhog day stories, I was glad I somehow was out. But I was feeling more and more disconnected when they would talk about their job or their responsibilities in their company, to the extent that I would space our meetings.
This situation lasted over 8 months, and I would sink more each day into a lethargic coziness that would smother any inclination to act. I was lucid and honest enough to know that if this state of being lasted more, I would soon be incapable to lead a sustained professional activity. This realisation did not help, since I had no idea what impulsion to give to keep on living. One day, I wanted to be a journalist, the next day photographer, then writer, and when a day was particularly long and boring, I would see myself reintegrate a regular company and resume an ordinary life.
One evening, for my mother’s sixtieth birthday, my father brought us to this hotel, where you and I currently are. The restaurant above is a Michelin star gastronomical den, if you want to have a special experience for your next trip.
There was a lovely spring feel and the tables were all dressed in front of the sea. The conversation was flowing gently as happens with people accustomed to each other’s company, when the direction of talk followed the ideas in an article that my mother had read recently and that resonated with her. It was, as far as I can remember, pitting against each other the set of people who considered a non harming contemplative life versus the set of people who place action and making a difference in humanity’s story before everything. My mother and I were animating the ring, boxing away at each other. Then my father, an extremely quiet and discrete gentleman, got fired up.
According to him, each and every one of us must add a stone to the building and nothing is more exciting than actively participating to the making of history. “There’s no waiting on the sidelines, only action has the capacity to ennoble man” would he warble on and on. Surprised by this unexpected and practical discourse, I concluded that it was a not so indirect message to me. The legendary non invasiveness and discretion of my father was preventing him to give me either advice or counsel, and he was using the opportunity of the conversation to steer me out of indecisiveness.
To show him I understood, I patted his hand with affection and he stopped, confused, as brutally as he started. Curiously, faced with so much delicacy and concern, I felt I somehow had to both justify my orientations and reassure my parents. It was the first time I would speak eye to eye with them, and i can guarantee you they were drinking my words:
“ Dear parents, I know that you are carrying many worries regarding me. There is no reason to hang on to them. I recognise myself that I am in an unnamed quest which I hardly understand myself, but from a material point of view I am fine, especially since you are kind enough to allow me to live with you. The last thing I want is to reach that stage where I won’t have a choice but go back to work again. In any case, nobody will hire me after 3 years of what they call ‘inactivity’. I loved travelling and here as well, I have to reach the conclusion that unless you make it a lifestyle for good, which I don’t want, this is a phase as well. So, what to do? Ideally, I’d like to find a job where I can discover incessantly new horizons. Does it exist ?”
Etc., etc. For more than an hour, I had exposed my parents to my doubts and uncertainties and they had listened, powerless and full of sollicitude. Then, at the end of the dinner, as we were getting ready to go back home, I told them that I would get one last drink and head back home a little later.
After they left, I heard a slight cough behind me and a man about 35 years old asked me if he and his friend could sit with me because they wanted to speak with me. They were surely passing by, since I had never seen them before.
“ Apologies for such a brutal introduction, but my friend and I were sitting close to your table, and we couldn’t help overhear your conversation. Well… It is actually the reason why I am now reaching out. Would you let me be more specific?”
The man had a pleasant face and was staring directly in my eyes. It was already a good sign, as my many travels had taught me. His friend, though very quiet, was also pleasing in attitude but appeared less confident.
In a nutshell, both friends wanted to make a bet, meaningful to them, and they were looking for the person who would play the required role in their set-up so that a winner could emerge. The idea was to set-up a consenting individual in a random location in the world, making sure the person would have access to almost no clues as far as the location was concerned. The person would be fully accommodated with more than decent comfort and full care of domestic tasks. There would be no telephone, no phone, but still access to the internet with communications disabled. The point of contact would be the maid, with strict instructions not to communicate any clues regarding the location. The experience would last a month.
The idea was to find out whether the person could guess where they were in the described set-up. My interlocutor was convinced it was impossible, his friend thought otherwise. Would I agree to be the guinea pig to this experiment ? As they heard me suggest to my parents that I didn’t really know what the next step was, they decide to close in and present the opportunity.
Whatever the outcome, a hefty amount would be transferred to my account on month end, to be doubled by the loser in case I found out where I was. For reassurance, we reconvened everything with a notary of my choice. There was nothing to worry about, they were neither crazy nor scoundrels, simply professional gamblers hooked to betting, and thanks to their well endowed parents, they could bet and bet to their heart’s content.
The rapidity of my decision to accept showed me in a way the level of saturation I had reached and how happy I was with this ‘ready to go’ solution as I was slowly sliding into doubt and idleness.
No need to dwell on the details of the contract, which was scrupulously dissected by a family lawyer. Everything, including the slightest comma, was redacted to protect me from the slightest embezzlement. Likewise, a sealed envelope was deposited at my notary, indicating my location, to be opened in case of extraordinary circumstance. Through the same notary, my parents could stay informed as much as they liked, yet without being able to talk to me. Still. Both my parents were far from being serene. This new tangent was filling them with distraught. I’d even say they were seriously worried this time.
Once all those practicalities accomplished, I moved on to step one of this agreement, which stipulated that I had to spend the first night with both gamblers and drink barbiturates, in order to be fully unconscious during transportation the next day.
I’d lie if I said the next day was relaxed. I woke up in an unknown room bathing in sunlight. It was pleasantly decorated with luxury furniture with an impersonal feel to them.
I stood up to get in the bathroom. There were plenty of toiletries in anonymous jars. I took a long shower that gradually allowed me to get back to my senses.
Then, I started exploring the places where I had to live for one month. It was a kind of bungalow composed of a room, a living area and a nice kitchen. Everything was to the endorsement, plush, pleasant and neutral. I caught sight of a dinner prepared for me. There was cheese, delicatessen, warm and fresh drinks and bread. It was really copious, and as I was very hungry, I was devouring everything on the table. I was absolutely alone, and started thinking whether I was mad to accept such a predicament.
In spite of me, an anxiety was building up. Yet, there was no objective reason to feel it. Everything around me was non threatening. To the contrary, everything was available to guarantee a delicious stay. I headed to wards a terrace that circled the house, and to my surprise, I noticed I was close to a lake or the sea, in a safe creek. The sun was high in the sky. I deducted that it was around 12 or 13. From afar, the vegetation did not seem particularly cueing. I decided to go for a stroll.
Let’s go, since I accepted this set-up, I might as well follow the rules and try to guess where I am.
The first four days, my mood oscillated between many states. In the morning, I was excited to face the day. I would take all the time in the world to go for a swim. It seemed obvious I was staying in a private villa on a lonely footpath, since i never heard neither a car or a human. On the other hand, I often saw planes cross the sky but of course, they were too high to be able to distinguish the company’s logo. And still, what help would have that been? Then I would head back to the bungalow where my ‘guardiuan’ was expecting me, as I will now soon describe. Then the hardest was to fill my long evenings. Sure, I had plenty of books and DVDs left especially for me, but I had soon seen them all. It was the hardest time of the day, where I felt the most alone and where my experience felt crazy and endless.
Everyday, at irregular hours, I would cross the maid in charge of domestic tasks, a woman in her fifties whose features would not reveal any provenance. A true nobody. Where the hell did they find her, I said to myself, the first time I saw her. In any case, she wouldn’t be of any assistance because she was resolutely mute, pocketing the papers on which I would write answerless questions; If I asked for an object or a product, on the other hand, I’d get it the next day. Of course, any wrapping was meticulously replaced by a virgin one.
I concluded that the gamblers were not too far, or that my location was not that exotic. In any case, I wouldn’t remain idle and as much as I could, I tried to guess the country I was in.
To help me in my quest, the 2 friends, very fair-play, had put the lady in charge of my well-being also responsible forn driving me around, which she did scrupulously without a word. We would cross little villages deserted by their inhabitants probably working in the fields. As fars as shops were concerned, I’d see signs redacted in an alphabet unknown to me. I would copy the characters in a notebook, to get back to them later if I didn’t guess before. In have to say my results were fruitless at best.
I was seriously going around in circles, eager to see the end of this social experiment, when one day the sound of an unknown langage on the radio, impossible to identify, woke me up. Dumbfounded, since I was used to the legendary discretion of my keeper, I went to the living room and was struck with the jaw-dropping vision of a ravishing lady preparing breakfast.
As she heard me, she turned with a smile and clearly greeted me with a “hello” in the unknown langage. I returned the courtesy in french hypnotised by her eyes. Not only was she absolutely stunning, but in addition we were talking. Even if i didn’t understand a word from her, there was a budding communication channel.
With gestures and faces, by moving her hand successively from her forehead to her heart, she indicated that the other person was unwell and that she was replacing her. I couldn’t help feeling delighted by this unexpected happening that was bringing such a change to my groundhog days. Indicating herself, she then uttered “Mina” several times, and pointing in my direction with inquisitive eyes, I answered “Arthur”. We burst out laughing together.
How could I describe the following, most exciting 3 weeks? Mina had a happy nature, inventive and pretty wild. From the first day, she clearly indicated the attraction she felt for me, and in return, I clearly established the reciprocal as true. I would eagerly wait for her, and we would spend the day making love or swimming in the ravishing private creek of the property, before devouring the dishes she would prepare. Then we would jump on the scooter to keep exploring the whereabouts for identification, but to be honest I didn’t care much about my mission.
If we didn’t stroll together, we would teach each other our respective tongues, by naming an object, a food or a natural element to the other. I quickly integrated a vocabulary of about 30 usual words in a tongue that was totally foreign to me, where I would not find any European heritage.
Likewise, I would show Mina the glyphs I had scribbled in my notebook as we strolled around. She would read them obediently without a hint of a hint for me. There was nothing that I could recoup with the 3 langages I was fluent in, English, Spanish and of course French. I was convinced it was a Slavic langage, but how could I confirm it?
Similarly, I would repeat to Mina : “Moi Français, et toi?” by successively pointing at me and then her. She would explode laughing and answer something that didn’t mean anything to me.
Checking her clothes for telltale manufacturing signs, I would only see a “made in China”, highly improbable considering the blondness of the young woman, and their cut wouldn’t help me either. I would also try to listen to clues on her radio, but there as well, nothing.
As suggested, solving the riddle was becoming less and less urgent for me. My forced residency was not a source of anguish anymore. I was living a dream. I was just feeling a bit guilty at not putting in more effort to try and guess my location. All my attention was henceforth concentrated on Mina, whose sole presence would fill me with joy. Of course, I was not in love with her in a traditional sense, since it was very hard to really understand each other, but I would still present to the outside world all the symptoms of the amorous state.
Still, my evenings were dull since I was on my own. I didn’t even care, since the next day would fill me with little moments of pure happiness.
I only had two days left in my forced exile, and I was eager to enjoy them to my heart’s content. The aroma of hot coffee woke me up, and as usual, I would call with a soft voice: “Mina, Mina…”, already delighted by sharing breakfast and the rest.
Alas, in place of Mina, the preceding maid appeared in the doorway with a tray of food. I was so disappointed that I could not help shouting “But where is Mina ?! She has to come right now!!!”. Of course, I received no answer. She simply put her tray down before opening the shutters. A bit ashamed by my attitude, I eventually asked her: “Et vous OK, ça va?” which was met with a non reaction.
From then on, I dragged on aimlessly. It was clear to me that the improbable apparition of Mina had enchanted and perfumed each of my days, and her absence left a gaping hole. I would have loved to say goodbye, but this desire formulated in writing several times had remained unexecuted and without an answer. I would go back empty handed. In addition to not finding the key to where I was, I had lost every possible trace of a delightful partner. Sure, I could probably look for her once the experience was over and I would know where I had spent all this time, but for some strange reason, this all felt like a failure.
The last day, before going back home, I was drugged and woke up in my room at my parent’s house. They were sitting by the bed and would wait eagerly for my wake up. Against all expectation, I was deeply disappointed to find back a familiar place and had all the trouble in the world to regain my footing.
The afternoon of the same day, I had a meeting with my notary and the two gamblers to finalise our agreement. They were already there when I arrived.
“So” said my main interlocutor, “Did you appreciate your stay?”
“A lot” I answered spontaneously
“Did you discover where you were?”
“I am afraid not” I answered sheepishly
“This would mean I won against my friend”
“I guess. I am sorry for you sir” I replied turning to the other guy. “I tried all I could, but didn’t manage to find out”
I carried on explaining the various strategies I had put in place to solve the enigma, studying the surrounding fauna and flora, copying down the signs and alphabet of the shops to get some clues ont he langage spoken, same with the tens of words learned, all of that in vain.
“Too bad for me, but it is fair enough” answered the loser. “We will now compensate you, as well as sincerely thank you for your cooperation.”
Things would unfold, as you can hear, with the utmost courtesy. I pocketed my cheque, and when it was time to take leave, I said:
“So now you can tell me where I was.
I am afraid not, dear sir, this is out of question.
What do you mean? Why?
Let us see… You read the contract before you signed it I suppose. It is clearly written that if you didn’t find yourself your place of dwelling, you’d never know where you were. Look, it is written here”
I saw a codicil turned accordingly that I had signed without frowning. My nonchalance was about to cost me dearly, but I didn’t know it then.
Because since then I live in a kind of hell. I suppose the word is not too strong. I often ask myself if I haven’t dreamt all this. If I really lived this experience. Of course, the check I cashed in, my parents and the notary well aware of the gamble, act as signposts to bring me back to the veracity of my predicament. Still, not knowing where I have been causes an irrepressible anguish in me. A little bit like somebody who would come out of a coma or would recover from amnesia.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t miss Mina, there is no nostalgia left of those happy moments. No, what plumbs me is to be so ignorant of that place I was in. Since I came back, I am in a nameless quest. I try to remember the words learned with Mina, but they exited my head pretty quickly, like all temporary material. Likewise, I kept no trace of my written material.
I spend my days on the internet or in book stores, to gather information on eastern countries that feel linked to my mysterious dwelling, but I have few clues… The other day, on a TV channel dedicated to travelling, I almost recognized the property where I was lodged. I felt I was going mad. I went to Paris to meet the program director, so that he could tell me which country the show was shot in, but it turned out I had made a mistake. The property was not even close.
So here I am. Obsessed by this question, I can’t think or even carry on with my life, though it has been over 8 years ago.
I have to know where I have spent this stupid month. It feels like I won’t be able to move on with my life if I don’t find out. I tried to get back in touch with my gamblers friends, but they disappeared in nature. The signed contract was aliased and there is no way I can follow any thread.
This is why I regularly come in this hotel where I met them the first time, in the hope of meeting one or the other, and force him to divulge the place where I stayed.
“So” he resumed without much faith, “ You haven’t visited this place a few years back?”
I sadly shook my head in denial.
Camille Pourrière Turquieh
February 27th, 2009