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You need to be aware of what your kids are reading when they’re fourteen or fifteen.

me but younger

Whenever I meet someone who’s convinced everything would be right in the world if we all just listened to Ayn Rand, I have a standard question for them: “You read Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged when you were about fourteen, didn’t you?” I’d say about 90% of the time they, in turn, ask me “How did you know?”

Just figures. That’s all.

That’s a very susceptible age — fourteen to fifteen. Beliefs picked up at that age are stored away in some deep cavern of the mind — subconsciously forming the remainders of our lives without ever being taken out and re-evaluated.

It’s about at that point I lose most of the Ayn Randians.

But I didn’t read Ayn Rand when I was fourteen. I read Hemingway — The Sun Also Risesto be exact. That’s the one where Jake — the damaged World War One vet — hangs out in Spain with other damaged expats and drinks a lot while disappointing various people. It was cool, I thought. At one point even before I finished the book, I decided I’d go to Spain someday — war injury or not — and drink a lot and disappoint various people. My youthful flirtation with Hemingway probably also explains certain things about me: Like my preferences in food, clothing, liquor, and punchy verb formations.

Sure enough, about eight years A.H. (after Hemingway),  near the end of my college semester of visiting just about every church of any architectural merit in Rome, I was at the Stazione Termini buying a ticket for a 24-hour train ride to Barcelona. I would be on my own — my girlfriend-apparent at the time deciding Greece with her besties was a better bet. I didn’t care: I had to get to Spain. I knew I’d be ok.

I had heard things about gypsies on trains. Sure enough, before the train even left, this balding guy with a waxed mustache came to the compartment, flashing a ticket stub in my face. He was smiling like a car salesman. He wasn’t speaking in any language I could understand, but I gathered from his hand motions that he was trying to claim the seat I had purchased. I looked at him closely. Something familiar struck me. Gitano! I had heard that word many times over three months, usually shouted at guys who looked just like him loitering around stores. I read the ticket stub. It was for a different day. “Capotreno!” I shouted. The guy got nervous and left in a hurry. I didn’t see him again.

The compartment filled and we soon got underway. There was a fat German businessman, a Spanish blue-collar worker in a Members Only jacket, two older Norwegian EurailPass-addicts, a very well-travelled former Disney employee named Fabrizio, and a couple I recall as Mauritzia and Paulo. They alone were worth the price of admission. Both wore Euro-trash glam-rock polyester. Mauritzia looked like the kind of girl who might ask you to buy her a drink in a bar somewhere near a wharf. Paulo looked like the kind of guy who’d knife you (supposedly) for doing so, then take your watch while he strolled off with her on his arm somewhere in the night. They were from Marseilles, but spoke Spanish. I talked with them a bit, but only until either Paulo or Mauritzia or maybe both got a little horny. They were sitting across from each other, eye-fucking. Next thing, Mauritzia had her hand down the front of her hot pink disco pants. Paulo was quite excited by the show. I was still trying to be a nice Catholic boy back then, so I quickly turned my attention to my copy of Don Quixote.

We reached the border town of Ventimiglia sometime in the late afternoon. This was before the Euro, and before the virtually borderless Europe we know today. Thus, there was a customs check. A French gendarme — skinny guy in little oval spectacles — came to the compartment. He pointed to a sealed cardboard box on the rack above Paulo’s head. “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” Paulo, suddenly looking even more shifty, answered “Solamente toallas y ropa.”  The bilingual conversation continued — the Frenchman wearing a look that screamed “You are full of shit, but because I’m French I’ll probably let you get away with it. By the way, your girlfriend has nice tits. Magnifique!” Eventually, everyone’s passport got stamped and we were off again — Paulo’s (and Mauritzia’s) box unperturbed.

While the night stole any chance I had of seeing that part of the French Riviera, I fell asleep. I woke up and looked out the window. I saw one of the most beautiful sights, ever. It was the train station at Nice. Our train had come to a stop. The station was vacant and entirely still but for the steam rising from under the train somewhere, and silent but for a low, distant murmur. It was bathed in a dim, golden light. I’ll have that image, complete with its silence and stillness, with me forever.

The train departed and I feel asleep again. When I awoke, the train was still moving, but the compartment was empty. I thought someone had left a blanket on the opposite bench. Then, it moved. A man sat up, as if rising from the dead. He was about sixty and unshaven. But really, he smelled close to dead. He wore a crumpled brown suit and a hat that seemed to have doubled as a pillow at some point. He said “Bonjour”  while his neck snapped and his joints crackled. He somehow gathered that I didn’t speak French, so he switched to some other language I could speak. That should narrow it down, but to this day I don’t know if it was English or Spanish. He talked to me about his personal philosophy and living on trains, then he pulled his pipe from his pocket and lit it. He’d smoke it for a while, then, when he needed to talk with his hands to emphasize a point, he’d put it back in his pocket while still lit. Point made, he’d pull it back out. He was dismayed each time when he found the flame had died. This happened several times. Finally, he pulled down his beat-up guitar from the overhead rack and played and sang a little number in French. He got off at the next stop. I wish I still remembered his name. I might have it in a journal somewhere.

I looked out the windows and saw agave plants. It felt like home. I hadn’t seen those since Arizona. We rounded a bend and I had a great view of a lovely harbor full of yachts that lasted about 15 seconds. It was pretty spectacular. We made a stop there (it was probably Montpellier), but because I was a man on a nine-day mission with about a total of $350 to my name, I passed up the opportunity to go out and get treated like scum by people who wore $350 sunglasses and drove Bentleys.

On one side of me was the lovely Riviera, with the charming little towns full of colorful little villas and the Citröens and Peugeots and people walking around with baguettes sticking out of their shopping bags (they actually do that over there–it’s not just for TV). On the other side was the storied Mediterranean, where blood had spilled for centuries — blood I knew about because someone had the foresight to write about it at the time. There had been joys and redemptions and hedonistic noodlings all along as well, but we mainly still know about the blood. Because blood’s important. Blood gets ink.

The train pulled to a stop at the French/Spanish border. We needed to change hardware at that point because Spanish railroads are built on a different scale — a wider base. The Spanish had done this deliberately to isolate themselves from France at some point — probably when they feared another Napoleon would decide to throw some liberté, égalité, e fraternité their way and do it via rail. So we needed to change trains.  I don’t remember much about the stop other than that the French ticket agent was a boy of no more than fifteen or so, though he did have the snottiness of a much older person.

An hour or so later the Spanish train was arriving in Barcelona. Spain! I had made it! And as I staggered in a daze around the Catalonian capital with my new pal Fabrizio (whom I swear I didn’t realize was gay at the time), I realized I couldn’t have come to Spain at a better time. It was not only the festival of St. Jeordi (St. George the Dragon-slayer for those of you without the Catalán) but it was also Book-Fair Day, Flower Day, Women’s Day, and a few other -days, all being celebrated throughout the town on that April day in 1992, five-hundred years after Colombus’ voyage, and the year that Barcelona would host the Summer Olympics. The Spanish are an irrepressibly festive people. And I got a special taste of it after a very pretty girl chased me through the market to give me a flower and chat me up. It got to be kind-of irritating, really. Cheesy white guys like me were still a hot commodity in Spain back then, even among impossibly beautiful, dusky señoritas.  I was later to learn that many Spaniards were so racist that they seemingly even hated themselves for being olive-skinned. That was sad. I’d learn this among many other things on that trip.

But enough of the memoir. Memoirs don’t sell unless they have a lot of sex and violence in them, and sometimes not even then. My trip had many fascinating parts, but was decidedly lacking in anything besides near-misses when it came to sex and violence. Now, I have to get back to writing something about how to get thin, get rich, get laid, and live forever. I’ll leave my dreamy remembrances of Spain — and the trip back — for later.

In the meantime: Watch what you let your kids read when they’re 14 or 15. It tends to come true for them in some way. Always.