YHA Wellington, November 2015
“What were you showing our young American friend?” my Kiwi hostel roommate Linda asks my Dutch bunkmate Marian in a scathing tone with a sideways glance. She’s trying to change the subject and reinsert herself in this accidental trio, a fellowship of traveling artists of varied disciplines. Linda sips from her latest mug of wine while Marian and I silently negotiate how to work together as allies. We sense that she hasn’t sufficiently finished with her share of the conversation.
I’d seen Linda alone in our four-bed dorm a few times throughout the past five days, perched with her back to the room and her feet up against the window, a mug within reach on the sill. She’d laugh obnoxiously at her favorite YouTube videos or other loud phone-sourced entertainments. I’d quickly learned that she warms to attention and screeches at disdain.
Linda appears irritated that we’ve momentarily excluded her to revisit and wrap-up our private conversation, which had been interrupted moments earlier by Linda’s own grand entrance and announcement that she’d just walked out on a longtime friendship: “I’ve had a falling out with my Asian friend from Singapore!” It ended over an argument at dinner regarding whether Paris had changed. Linda said she “wasn’t trying to win,” per se.
Before Linda dramatically entered with a swath of wool cape and champagne hiccups, Marian had shown me a printed catalogue of her textile paintings. I’d connected with Marian almost immediately, after an initial day of gauging her distant niceties which she later admitted to, explaining that it takes her a couple days to truly converse with hostel roommates because they’re just strangers she might never see again. Per Marian’s prescription, our fourth roommate was often absent or silently buried opposite me in her upper bunk; it was a frigid week and I suspect she was nursing a cold.
This evening, it’s just us three in the room, duking it out in an intense conversation about the state of the world. The intensity is facilitated, of course, by Linda. A quick sample of Linda’s gem one-liners: Giving thanks is what it’s all about. . . Argentine Tango is the only one. … What’s your inner passion? Your inner journey? … Far out! … We had the chance for self-sustainability, and we sold ourselves to China. … I wouldn’t dare ask for a refund. … America should fucking well mind their own business. France should — do you believe Bush blew up the twin towers?
To answer Linda’s present question, Marian politely offers her the catalogue, and she refuses it with a back-handed wave: “What would I do with it.” Marian asks Linda why her newly-broken friendship affects her so much, if Linda is in fact not sorry that she’s called it off forever. When Linda thinks, she turns her head over her right shoulder. “…Love, peace and joy,” she finally declares with her hands clasped.
Linda is a self-proclaimed “researcher of the heart.” “When you go into the heart,” she waxes, “it gets bigger and bigger. You see the city skyline, but that’s not reality. And you think, far out, how much more space can my heart…? When you go within, you want to burst in tears because there’s something you need to express.” I think I follow. She’s a heavily-buzzed, far more eccentric septuagenarian version of myself.
While Marian and I pack for our next day of travel, Linda goes on for her captive audience, reading passages from her Santiago guide book as if it’s beatnik poetry. Her head falls back, eyes wide, jaw open: “Far out!” She practices her posture for tango, arms clumsily swinging around for balance. She tips into the bars of the bunk bed. This woman, who’s researching the heart and her capacity to feel and “take-in the enormity of the world,” haughtily and unapologetically blames “the Arabs” who “cheated her of 10 Euros” because “they’re Muslim.” And this is the woman who thinks Gone with the Wind is an accurate account of how “slaves must’ve been treated well.” She enjoys talking in stream of consciousness, particularly about herself, and immediately forgets what she said a mere moment ago.
Exeunt. Out she goes. Marian and I take a breath. I have a chance to jot down a few more diamonds from the rough: I was so tired after ten kilometers, so I sat at a cafe and a voice said, “Have faith.” Faith is the answer. … Mustard seeds and mountains — I’m still trying to figure that out. … I have one fault, and it’s drinking too much wine.
The truth is, I agree with Linda on several subjects and levels of thought. There’s something about her manner and privilege, though, that turns me off. I see her through a gated fence, one that occasionally opens for tender moments, and quickly closes again when my lip curls in disgust at her blatant prejudice and lush qualities. Linda is deceptively poised and proper despite her display of wine-drunk contradictions and flamboyant gestures of attempted grace. She’s certainly a curious spectacle to behold. I have an empathetic taste for the dysfunctional family she briefly mentions: “I’m the one who flew. I’m the black sheep.” I feel sorry for her, too, and I’m in awe of her choice to exclusively travel and live in youth hostels for three (or more) years. That’s a long time to function as a socialite out of a suitcase, especially when one is quick to put people off the moment one opens her mouth.
Linda returns with a clean blue mug. Never mind the stack of collected red mugs on the desk, sticky with rings of dried wine. I field more of her blunt, abrasive questions about America, consistently followed by more ignorant assumptions based on her one-time reading of Gone with the Wind. It’s shocking to remember what little is taught to other countries’ schoolchildren about US history (and that’s true for the other way around), in addition to the humbling reminder that accurate and multi-perspective US history is scarcely taught even to US schoolchildren (based on the prevalence of biased books and lesson plans). I try not to voice my disgust in reaction to Linda’s poorly-informed opinions. She goes to the bottle again to top-up the petite mug.
The hostel’s fire alarm takes a turn to interrupt. Without a word, Linda instantly disappears. After about thirty minutes outside, while everyone huddles in the wind-tunnel of a driveway, I finally spot her darting to and fro among the college kids. When we three reconvene in our room, Linda explains, “I survived the earthquakes in Christchurch. You learn to take the essentials. Warm clothes and GO. I felt guilty for bolting and leaving you to be trapped in the elevator.” Marian and I exchange a subtle head tilt.
Marian embodies an admirable level of grace and compassion, particularly when Linda refocuses these vino-fueled eccentricities toward her. (Linda eventually tired of my lack of satisfactory participation). I detect Marian’s growing annoyance when Linda refills again and carries on for another forty-five minutes at least. By the time she’s reached the end of the bottle, Marian and I are clearly tucked in and ready to fall asleep. I catch a couple of Marian’s glances up to me as if to say “Is she real?” during Linda’s inexhaustible laps from the window (city lights) to the desk (last drops).
Linda is “overwhelmed by the world” and “the size of her heart,” yet she “doesn’t let the world into her heart.” NOW she’s speaking to me, the innermost me…except for that last bit about not allowing the world into her heart. I don’t know what she means by that. Then she asserts: “I’m not religious. Sickening.” I try not to spit-take my water at that surprising delivery. She exalts, “Even I go in a cathedral and stand agog.” I get a top-row view of her pageant-esque reenactment of cartoonish reverence between the bunk beds (transformed into miniature flying buttresses of Notre Dame). Linda deliberately turns to each of our four walls, one by one, to repeat a ritualistic display of encompassing arms and gaping mouth. She’s pleased with her performance and concludes, “Humans forget to look up.”
Before the resonance of her pithy observation fades into silence, Linda snaps off the light.
Cheers to you, Linda and Marian, wherever you are today. Cheers to a new year of wonder and compassion, connection and patience, inspiration and purpose. To more chance meetings. To new perspectives. What will you see?