In Another Country’s Other Country
by Henry Alan Paper
“No matter how well you know a country,
there is another country within it you cannot apprehend.” — Marco Polo
I was in a country that, much like its neighbors, displayed its character in a cold, constant drizzle. Caught between a history known largely to itself and a world that had passed it by — cloaking some superannuated glory in dark, glistening, nondescript streets — this country seemed inured to the endless procession of one grey day following upon another. It preserved so low-key an old-world atmosphere that it attracted no outside interest. The perpetual rain drew a curtain that neither side was inclined to disturb.
I had been traveling by train through this region of large, huddled nations, as through the shadow of a permanent eclipse and, after a day, had simply avoided disembarking altogether. By now living on crackers and Camembert, I watched endlessly out the windows at murky marshes, sluggish rivers, and desiccated fields while drifting into dark fitful dreams — lumberous trains and slumberous rains — while swaying through the countryside.
Until I would awaken each morning beneath the black exoskeleton of some terminal. And then, without my disembarking, the train would continue on.
Of course, I could not blame it all on this poor region. I was, by this time, a vagabond for whom the luster of vagabonding had begun to tarnish. No longer did I see in the far distance the shimmering veil of the exotic waiting to be parted, nor hope for a place so foreign I would simply disappear upon crossing the border. Rather than neutralizing my quest with a higher wisdom, I had suspended its operation and now spent my time idling in the void. I had settled into a trough of routine that became train tracks.
Although not old in age or appearance, in weariness I felt well along, as though time, ignored for so long, was at last working its vengeance on a slowing prey, one that on some days found itself willing to turn and succumb. Certainly in this country it would be an appropriate end. The low dark sky would become my tomb, the rain my shroud. For travel had become simply transportation, and no terminal awaited to fulfill its promise.
Tonight, however, after the first week, the rain had stopped, and I decided to break my routine. I left my bag at the station and, with my last money, walked the streets, searching for a meal too long deferred. Once, I had borne everything in the name of the exotic; now I was merely hungry and cold.
But all the streets seemed the same, devoid of prospect, until I found myself at an opaque glass door in a solitary building beside a brooding stone bridge. On the wall of the building were torn posters; on the door, beneath a red neon sign that glowed “Cafe,” was a handwritten menu, peeling and stained. I leaned closer. I could not understand the language, but something about the handwritten scrawl suggested the dishes would be bountiful and satisfying.
I turned. The boulevard stretched between mist-enshrouded infinities; above I could make out the muted clatter of dishes and the faint exclamations of voices.
I opened the door and ascended into an atmosphere that was warm and noisy and quickened by indefinable food smells that had me tending headlong up the stairs until, arriving on the first landing, the sounds broke free around, me and I stared into a huge room filled with clatter and smoke and scurrying waitresses.
Some sounds carried behind me and I turned to see several patrons descending from an above landing, their faces flushed and relaxed, their pale hands buttoning thick coats over newly expanded bellies.
I turned back to the room and put my own hands in my shabby raincoat pockets. Before me, everything shimmered with sensuality; everything was imbued with the shine of smoke and steam: ladies holding pocketbooks on laps, unshaven men with large colorful handkerchiefs drooping from wide lapels boisterously toasting one another, families relieving themselves of cloying outer garments while studying large menus while others basked in the steam of huge descending platters that generously suffused their eager expressions.
Waitresses scurried about with heavily loaded trays held high while all were immersed in the ongoing ambience of satiation. Ceiling fans turned, while all along the length of the room layers of overcoats hung with abundant warmth.
My heart raced, my stomach ached to join so vibrant and fleshy a crowd. I scanned the room, yet could find no empty seat. In frustration, I recalled those gray afternoons of a similar hunger and abandonment where in dark museum spaces I would gaze for long periods upon rich paintings of feasters oblivious to the beholder.
My stomach pulled toward an imaginary seat. Instead, I turned and ascended another flight of stairs.
Here, too, I found myself before another room whose brimming activity seemed to overflow the threshold, and I understood for the first time the audacity of a doorless room. Again the noise continued up from above. Again I prompted my body up another flight of stairs. In all, there were four landings, each offering a bursting room whose self-indulgence allowed no room for my own, rooms into which — bent slightly over my aching breathless stomach — I could only gaze forlornly, and out of which sailed no smiling maître-d brandishing menus.
How strange, I thought, that only I waited, while all these others, so comfortably ensconced at their tables, had so easily gravitated toward their appointed places. Was it my ignorance of the subtleties of this country, an exuberant native confidence I lacked, or was it simply bad timing?
This country exasperated me, with its open thresholds and native heartiness, its impervious eaters dressed in antiquated woolens. I began to feel faint, as though the air were being sucked from me by the very power of their ongoing satiation.
Finally, I could stand it no longer and turned, and began the long climb down. Down and down, weaving in a kind of stupor from landing to landing — past each room bursting at its threshold until, once again on the first landing, I looked down at the glass door and the street beyond and thought how, in the cold and grey and empty air, I, myself, would become food to the elements: how my stomach would seek nourishment first from my imagination, and then would turn to feed on itself, until I would die starved and delirious in the indifferent streets of another country.
But first I would take one final look. I turned and, with a hopelessness that renewed my delirium, I saw food and its furtive eaters. And which was consuming which, I could not tell.
And then — a miracle! Tucked into a side partition were several empty and waiting seats!
With an irrepressible glee that nearly made me swoon, I began to move forward, and then stopped, as a certain strangeness in what I beheld took hold of me. Among the patrons in that partition was — how can I put it? — a somewhat peculiar air. Those who were eating seemed to be doing so with a heightened concentration, bringing the food slowly, carefully to their mouths yet without looking at it; while those who conversed did so with an extra animation, a kind of wild distractedness that seemed, oddly, to add to their self-possession.
Those who were neither eating nor talking sat staring straight ahead, absolutely motionless, or slightly swaying their heads, as though attuned to some private melancholy. In all, heads and bodies were posed in strange attitudes, tilted at slightly exaggerated angles. Yet over this group was a sense of calmness, of everything being — within this hurricane of a restaurant — supremely in its place.
My understanding of the peculiar spirit that bound this group, while it eluded me, nonetheless underscored the logic of the partition. Was it a strange mystical sect that divined and prayed as it ate? An organization of psychics idling on some telepathic frequency? A group of war veterans suffering a rare nerve disease?
I sensed a presence at my elbow, and turned. The maître-dame stood beside me, menus pressed against her chest. I took a delirious step forward, and she stopped me with a touch on the arm. Pointing to a sign on the wall — which, of course, I could not understand — she opened her arms wide, brandishing the menus — one of which I longed to see — and gestured toward the partition. Still I did not understand. She pointed to her eyes, again to the partition and — a strange sensation sweeping over me — I realized they were all blind!
Oh, too close was I to my own delirium to see the obvious. But then amazement gave way to anticipation. Indeed, to sit with the blind! How fortuitous! For here I would present no visible offense, knowing how offsetting my appearance must be; and by further grace, should any of these gentlemen happen to speak my language — for I can be engaging when given half a chance — my voice alone might elicit a more egalitarian response. To have privacy and conversation with my meal was more than I had hoped, and as my hunger swelled, so did my enthusiasm for this underrated country.
But the maître-dame was not finished. Pointing to the partition, patting her pocket with her free hand, and the rows of overcoats, then shaking her head decisively, she made me understand — as well as I could understand it — that these people were to be left alone, lest others steal their belongings.
So remote was this from my intention, however, that I found myself moving through the throng, and in a moment was inside the partition at their table. I lightly touched the back of the nearest person and heard myself say, “Well, gentlemen, I trust—”
Everyone turned immediately and approximately in my direction and, without any warning, the gentleman I had touched flailed out at me with a florid but decisive gesture. The prongs of his fork went deep into my hand. I reeled back against the partition, which shuddered, and I rebounded against a gentleman on my right who jabbed out at me with his butter knife.
Other forks and knives and even a serving spoon flashed out, casting me forward onto the table, as others in the group rose to the attack. Food and dinner plates and utensils scattered everywhere. The scraping and tumbling of chairs mingled with shouts and the fiery blurs of silverware. I rolled every which way, trying to escape their haphazard albeit encompassing assault until, at last, like a berserk fireworks finale, everything spun off into a mercifully obliterating darkness.
For days, it seemed, I lingered on the twilit border of a strange country, under a sky vaulted with shooting stars and a distant, hysterical roaring. At one moment I saw myself as blind: stabbing out at things I could not see or understand. At another I was hurtling down an ever-deepening tunnel on clattering tracks toward an ever-receding light.
I awoke in a white room with a doctor, a nurse, and a gentleman who turned out to be from my own country’s embassy. The nurse was patting my head; the doctor pronounced that, with rest and care against infection, I would be fine. The gentleman said that free passage back to my own country had been arranged for me.
I entertained taking advantage of that. And then, it dawned on me: I was no longer hungry. I looked down: an intravenous tube was carrying an opaque liquid into my arm.
Everything was unreal; but I could not deny the array of utensil wounds dotting my body. When I was well enough, I went home. I have never traveled since.
Copyright © 2021 by Henry Alan Paper