As I write this, I am in Amiens.
And this is the second time, this month,
that I have seen:
The first occasion was in the town square of Lille. He was sputtering about some unknown words. Really: just jibberish, in English. He does not speak French. He would approach some people in the square, ask them for something, and when they didn’t respond or understand, he would instantly walk away.
He dresses with garish colours, and carries only a small pink back-pack, with a goofy-looking smiley face printed on its front. His clothes are worn and the colours, faded.
In Lille, the man was loud. I picked up only some of what he was calling; something about how nobody listens to him, or understands them. He was practically screaming these things, but in such a manner that it was hard to distinguish between the words. They were not slurred; I’m certain he was not drunk. But, I think from his speech, he just did not want to be understood.
Today I am in Amiens. I’ve cycled here – it took me days worth of travel. Sleeping in a tent, buying from Lidl, rationing my food and taking as much as I could in my hefty backpack.
This guy? I’m certain he has no money. And I’m even more certain no one would ever pick him up for hitch-hiking.
And yet, here he is in Amiens – I saw him today.
He was walking through one of the main streets, still talking – as if he hadn’t stopped since Lille. This time, however, he was mumbling only to himself. I recall noticing his accent in Lille, which is when I decided he must be American. Here, I almost doubted my estimation, since I walked up close behind him and still couldn’t understand him.
He was stopping at every bin and searching inside for food – but no luck, so he headed into a McDonald’s. I followed him in, and didn’t catch his words – but the barista at McCafé was in the middle of replying in English: ‘I can’t… But I can give you coffee, maybe…’, she said hesitantly. But he turned without a word and left, catching my eye briefly as he passed me.
I knew him. ‘The American’. But in Lille, I’d seen him from my favourite place – a patch of grass behind some low bushes; I was hard to notice. This, just now, was his first time seeing me. He said nothing and kept walking. I stayed inside and set up my computer at the restaurant.
The man, to me, is incomprehensible. What on Earth is he doing in Northern France? Speaking exclusively English? I can tell he has been outside for a long time. I can tell, from where I’ve seen him, he must be a traveller. I feel safe declaring him as mad, but I’m not truly sure of that. Has he always muttered and begged like that? Did he live that way before travelling?
I called out to him, ‘American!’ when I first saw him here, but he didn’t hear me – which was probably for the best. When I got up close and heard his mumbling, and spotted him begging, I figured it was best for now if I kept quiet. I almost regret it; maybe he just wants a conversation? I felt sure at the time he would only ask me for money.
Seeing him for the second time is bizarre, the chances of a second encounter seem almost non-existent. I expect to be in Amiens for one more day, then I’ll cycle on towards Paris, where I expect to remain for a few weeks.
Another encounter with him might as well be impossible. Therefore, if chance does bring me to him again, I vow that we will speak. Yet I know with good certainty now that this will never happen. No, I think we will never meet again, and he will always remain an enigma.
The American. A broke, and broken, traveller. A small bag, friendly clothes and not so friendly a tongue. Reliant on English and, not generosity – but guilt. Goodbye, American. I hope I will never again see you on the street. I hope, even more, I will never see you, in the mirror.