Do you ever want to fit in? To become lost in a crowd? To engender no interest in your fellow man? The other morning I was sitting in a vacant plaza in Frankfurt eating a croissant and drinking a cappuccino from a bakery that was not yet open – although it was already morning. All around me were the stacked chairs, folded umbrellas and discarded bottles and waste that served as a final witness to what must have been a May Day celebration in true German fashion.
Out of nowhere a huge white bus slid noisily to a stop on the road behind me, breaks sighing, and offloaded a gaggle of Chinese. A herd. A flock. Whatever: why do they always seem to travel thus?
As I was sitting there engrossed in my book – “Living to Tell the Tale” by Gabo (review forthcoming), one of the Chinese tourists stopped to snap a picture of me. Confusion. I certainly do not stand out – at least not here. A great joy of mine is to have Germans constantly addressing me in German – though I don’t speak a word. Another European descended man reading a book with a coffee on a chilly Frankfurt morning. Nothing to see here – but I suppose we are now the tourist attractions for the nouveau tourists. Not that I like it – I stand out too frequently to be flattered at the rupture of my anonymity in a place that should not see me.
Let me explain. I am the king of lost places. Nowhere-land. The triangular mud minarets of Sankore Mosque in Timbuktu, in front of that silent sandy plaza that used to host a university, back when life in Timbuktu had significance. A Catholic seminary converted into a hostel in the old Belgian administrative center called Lubero tucked in the highlands of eastern Congo – blue helmets and razor wire waiting to accept the genocidaire; monsters who had decided upon the extinguishing of another race. Eating escargot and drinking warm beer with the priests. The cement and zinc-roofed house of a witch in a village in northern Nicaragua, sitting in front of her on a rocking chair imploring her to release the sick under her spell so I could take them for hospital care.
I recently was wasting time filling out one of those little surveys on Facebook – “The Top 100 Places You’ve Been” – to see my ranking. Comparing myself to others in order to feel bad or superior – as if the breadth of other people’s wanderings somehow defines the measure of my own existence. Places you’ve all heard of: Paris, New York, Machu Picchu, Grand Canyon, Great Wall. Frankfurt where ambulant Chinese snap pictures of you. But there’s no Facebook pop-survey of lost places – of which I am king.
I find some comfort in that. The safe classes flitting from home to airport to hotel to their air conditioned busses, plastic wine glasses in hand to experience the frequently seen. To tell their neighbors they too have strolled the Champs Elise. They too have seen Hemingway’s park. Bubbles caught upon the winds taken only where everybody else is going.
We kings of lost places think that somewhat tedious. Although I love a castle as much as the next guy, we sort of prefer a village on a cliff in Spain where there’s a family that makes pottery – and have been doing it, passing the tradition from father to son since Jesus walked the earth. Except their kids don’t want to make pottery in poverty anymore. Tragedy… Or a 400 year-old church in a lost escarpment in the Andes just south of Bolivia where an aged monk with a foot-long iron key opens the creaking door into a sanctuary that was at the very edge of Spanish dominion – when they had dominion. To convert the unfaithful, ambassadors from a time when church and state were comingled.
It is these places that resonate with past – but not loudly, more in the form of a quiet hum – where we feel most found.