Huge chunks of my adolescence are missing from my memory, but I think it’s because I did a whole lot of nothing. Those years, I think, highlight ‘the wild years’ for most people; they were the time when you could experiment – you were allowed to be stupid! This is probably for the best, as you learn from being stupid. I had an odd moment this-morning when I crashed my bicycle. Ever since I’ve gotten my bike, I’ve been thinking ‘sooner or later… It’s going to happen. I’m going to make some mistake, and crash’.
I approached a curve at a bad angle. The wheel didn’t make it over and the bike toppled over. And all I remember thinking while I was falling was, ‘Phew! Finally! Now I’ve done it so I can stop worrying about it eventually happening’.
So now my jeans are kind of ripped and I’m walking with a bit of a limp, but I’m fully convinced that my blunder was a good thing. I’m through the stupid mistake, it won’t happen again.
(In theory you can avoid all this by deciding from the start that you will not make a blunder, but such mode of thinking would require wisdom.)
However. My teenage years were not my stupid years.
While my entire age-group collectively learned about mild drugs and alcohol, I stared at a lot of walls. I assure you, my wall-staring talent is now second to none. Most of my deepest conclusions in life and philosophy have at least originated from staring at walls in my youth.
The oldest of my wall-discoveries are carried around always within my psyche, and I often view the world with them in mind… Err, I should say, these aren’t actual ‘discoveries’, they’re just modes of thinking or decisions that I’ve made on certain subjects. Recent happenings have reminded me of one particular wall-…belief.
In my youth, I decided that counter-culture is a natural mode of any person. Those words don’t mean much on their own, so let me explain what they meant to me.
If you tell baby-John ‘sitting is good’, then inevitably, adult John would be an athlete. Everything is counter-culture. Everything is reverse-psychology. Generations are in a constant back-and-forth between various binaries. Strict parents breed free parents breed strict parents. Similar note on religion; you get Catholicism, then atheism, then new-age-spiritualism or whatever.
I still think there’s some merit to this thought. But in general, I was wrong. One particular family thought me the full extent of this. It was a family of four, and I swear: only one of them existed. The man of the house gave each other their (completely absurd) fundamental belief-system.
There is a beast among us all. A thing that starts all wars, dries every river, and has murdered every family. He is the father.
Which is an irrelevant fact.
Generally I think more along the lines that one believes what they’re told, but there’s a certain kind of person who… Not exactly responds negatively to what they’re told, but they… Don’t listen?
I spend all moments of my life searching for these people. I call them ‘slateless’.
And in Lille, I think I found one.
Sophie is from the French countryside. Her grandparents moved from Italy, but the whole family speaks exclusively French.
Sophie herself doesn’t know a whole lot about politics… Her sister’s better for that. She is the quiet sort, but enjoys social drinks with her friends… All makes sense so far. Nothing exceptional.
Sophie has spent most of her adult life staring death in the eyes.
At 25, she packed up her things, and – she left the country. She’d saved money from work, and went to the Middle East. Alone.
Why the Middle East?
Because that’s exactly where you are not supposed to go.
Like I said, she doesn’t have a particularly political mind. Yet, while she watched the national news, her reaction was one of curiosity. I don’t think it was a simple wanderlust, but rather… She listened daily to, ‘that part of the world is dangerous’, ‘it’s full of extremists’, ‘their beliefs are evil’, so on… And seemed to ask. ‘Really?’
Not a bold statement. Not a stand against oppressors. Just a, ‘really?’ Frankly, that’s how I think it was with Sophie. She was just curious.
I met her through the website Couchsurfing, and somewhere in her profile she mentioned she’d travelled before.
Now, I’m a curious person, and not a fine conversationalist. So my meetings and conversations usually consist of me asking extremely blunt questions and prodding for reactions (people tend not to like me… I wonder why?). This is exactly what I did with Sophie, but harder than ever. I pushed her, pried her for answers – information. Anything about her travels. She was so silent on the subject that I began to doubt what she’d said in the first place was real. But, later I found her collection of diaries from her travels. An entire shelf of books she’d sent by post to France as she went; each page had a daily update.
The more information others gave Sophie, the more she’d push her curiosity. ‘Iraq is dangerous’, so she went, ‘Don’t go to Palestine’, so she went. Most astonishing to me was: ‘Don’t enter Iran’s desert in the summer’, they said. And she was very directly told: ‘Or you will die’.
So she went.
Early on the desert trek, she lost her footware. Took a step forward, and whatever she was wearing just sank through the sand. Panicked, she lay down and stuck her arm as deep in as she could, but it was well out of reach.
So from then on, the only time she could travel was, she told me, 5 a.m. The rest of the day, she sat in the shade reading The Little Prince.
Reading a fucking book, in the scorching desert. I cannot think of circumstances more bleak. I know she must have feared. I’m not sure I would have handled fear well enough to read a fucking book.
And I think that was why she was silent on the subject of her travels. From what I could tell, the Iranian desert was at something like the half-way point of her five year journey. Yet, she continued on.
Even though I was meeting her in Lille, she made it clear that her plan was to earn money quickly to afford a similar journey through Latin America. She hadn’t stopped her journey yet.
She continued on. Nothing was good about it. In few ways could one welcome more danger. But Sophie? I think. Was curious.
I’ve been cycling through France, and it’s been cold – wet – gloomy, the ups and downs are endless. But it makes me feel… Experienced! Knowledgeable! Extreme!
If I come close to death? You will surely hear. It’ll be my casual introduction: ‘Hi, I’m Nate, I survived a train wreck’. And yet, I sit here thinking myself wise.
Sophie, who doesn’t speak… Sophie, I’m sure.
I’m sure she knows everything.