No pictures; no video
As we explore Paris, the South of France, and Rome, my sister keeps me in stitches with her deadpan sense of humour. We are walking along the streets of Aix when a little old car typical of France passes us at a clip. “Woah, buddy,” my sister says calmly. “The last thing I want is to get obliterated by such a dumb looking car.”
Rome is beautiful despite the torrential rain that soaks us over the course of the entire weekend. I can’t believe that, every day, these people grocery shop and walk and chat among buildings that date back two thousand years or more. My sister and I see the Villa Borghese, the Vatican, Colosseum (for which there was only one exit; we and a few other tourists feared that we were trapped forever), the Roman Forum, the Pantheon, Circus Maximus, and the Sistine Chapel. We stare up at Michelangelo’s ceiling and take secret photos even though it is not allowed.
My sister imitates the Italian security guards under her breath: “Silence! Silencio. No peec-tures and no vee-dio.”
We walk up and down the street staring at Google Maps until a man with a cigarette hanging from his lips motions us over.
“You are looking for the hostel?”
My sister and I look at each other in the way we do when things are getting absurd. This man is standing in front of a laundromat.
“Yes,” I say.
“Follow me,” he says.
We soon learn that the hostel is a moderate scam. The public laundromat serves as its makeshift lobby and every one of the employees looks questionable. Despite its 9.0 rating, I quickly realise that every one of the hostel’s reviews was probably written by Laundromat Man with Cigarette.
We drink terrible, complimentary red wine with a British teenager we just met who is trying to travel Western Europe but has “washed” his money. I am not from Britain but assume this means he is broke. Watering down the wine with 7up, my sister and I complain about the German PhD student with whom we share our hostel room—every day he gets into the shower and uses it as an opportunity to hack and cough and clear his nasal passages, waking us up.
Later, my sister and I are sitting at opposite sides of the hostel room. A photo appears on my phone. It is my sister’s face at a strange angle. She has just taken it and is Airdropping it to me from across the room, for no reason in particular. If you have a younger sister you may be familiar with this particular brand of nonsense. I try to click exit but it keeps popping back up.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I ask. “It won’t let me exit.”
“Click accept,” my sister says, half-smiling. “Just accept it…”
We attempt to buy some souvenirs for our parents from a stall on the street. It quickly becomes clear that the vendor does not know any English.
“Man?” I say in Italian, pointing at a shirt.
“No,” he says. “Bambini.” A child’s T-shirt.
“Ah,” I say, in the way I have heard Italians and Frenchpeople and other Latin language speakers express assent. I turn to another shirt. “Small?”
“Sì,” he says. I sling this shirt over my shoulder for my father.
“Woman,” I say, pointing at another shirt. “Medium?” I just heard him use a word which I think means medium so I decide to try it out.
At the end we have 3 items, a sweatshirt and two T-shirts. “Twenty,” I offer, attempting to barter.
“Non possibile,” he says.
“Twenty-two,” I say, inventing the number because I do not actually know the word in
Italian. It turns out to be right.
“Ventidue,” he agrees. We pay the man and leave.
“Congratulations,” my sister says, rolling her eyes. “You’ve saved exactly 2 euros.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange?” I ask, ignoring her sarcasm. “Two Jamaican-Canadians wandering the streets of Rome, speaking semi-coherent Italian. Don’t you think that’s random?” In Toronto we are already far from home, and all the way over here, in Rome, doubly so.
My sister shrugs, and we step back out into the rain.
When I get back to the South of France, I wonder how it is for people that are actually from here, who look around at the Cypress trees and the cobblestones and feel that familiar twinge that reminds them they’re home. A sigh is coaxed from their lungs and their heart is pinched, maybe.
Das ist gut
At 4 or so in the morning, I put my sister in a cab and tell the driver in French where she needs to be and what time she needs to be there by. “Take care,” I say, sadly, hugging myself against the early morning chill.
With my sister on a plane to Toronto, it’s back to business as usual. As I am walking toward the laundromat to wash some clothes, a German friend peeks her head out of the window of her apartment just as I pass. I love Aix-en-Provence for this, the smallness of the place. How you are constantly bumping into friends everywhere you go. Sometimes you may be texting a friend, or walking into town meet them, or merely thinking about them, and you will see them—something that is virtually impossible where I’m from.
“Hey!” I call out in English, involuntarily.
“Salut !” she responds in French. Hi.
“Ça va?” I ask in French. All good?
“Ja!” she responds in German. Yeah!
In true exchange student style, I switch to German too. “Haha, Das ist gut!” That’s good.
In the laundry room I load my clothes into the washer, laughing and shaking my head at this bizarre, multilingual conversation.