Two people step into a crowded mansion hidden deep in the forests of Central Europe. Think “Dracula’s Den” or “The Gingerbread House”; it certainly qualifies with its dark, earthen shades of wood paneling, its lopsided distribution of chimney stacks and its high gable with requisite gargoyles. Add to that the mansion’s enormous size and how it hunches under the ancient oaks. On a stormy night, the windowless cathedral-like look of the place wards off passersby.
Its ominous architectural quality, down to a wrought iron fence of a forbidding height, is easily assuaged by banners streaming along the façade and a sign on the gate announcing:
All visitors are welcome!
Vous-êtes bienvenue chez nous!
Sie sind Allen wilkommen!
– Frankfurter Woods Lodge
Courtesy of the Transit CompanyTM
The road they had taken – all the way from Berlin – stretches out before the mansion like an enormous wire fading to a ribbon to which the horizon dangles between the trees. More of a highway than a forest trail, it is well maintained, often used and constructed specifically to service the mansion in its function as a traveler’s lodge.
It seems perfectly normal that the actual drive-way – the one that starts at the gate – is lined with vehicles representing a diverse pick of models that come with license plates of different nationalities. A Fiat with Polish initials stands side by side with a French rental (a battered Citroën) and an old Volkswagen minivan sends its regards from the sixties. The next few days promise to immerse the two new arrivals in a smorgasbord of cultures.
Stacey and Mars linger at the top of the illuminated front steps and scan the buzzing lobby, recognising and being recognised by fellow travelers. The welcoming of old-timers of the modern walkabout is like estranged family members reconnecting after years of forced separation. Turning a corner in a lodge can sink you into new or old worlds with acquaintances and old memories.
Mars loves the expectancy that came upon arrival, the little frisson granted by a primitive fear of the unknown: friends lost sight of are rediscovered and new friendships spring up in the most startling encounters.
Lately, however, the number of revisiting travelers has dropped and the welcoming committee Mars and Stacey have gotten used to has disappeared along with it. The crop of curious, young wayfarers is ever renewing itself and the turnaround seemed remarkably steep.
‘Mars, Stace!’ A thirty-something black man in full camper outfit comes towards them from the check-in screen, an army-green duffel bag slung over his right shoulder. His leisurely pace affords him time to shift the bag to his left hand; right hand outstretched, he meets Mars and Stacey with a smile on his face, glittering like diamonds in fertile soil.
‘Bowie, man. It’s been ages!’ Mars enthuses while they shake hands. ‘I thought you only stayed in warmer climes?’
‘Yeah, now I’m definitely looking forward to seeing your ‘fro get wet,’ Stacey jumps in and hugs Bowie.
‘Stace,’ he greeted her short and sweet. “Egypt, the whole Middle East was getting too hot underfoot. For me at least.’
Mars nods. Travelers all around the world were anxiously keeping tabs on the riots in Cairo, because the revolution started on the same web-based channels with which they kept in touch, met up or planned travel routes. ‘Are you checking in or out? We could get a room together. Like old times?’ Mars offers.
‘Nah, but thanks, man, I’m checking out. My hand is up and I’m heading to Bologna. Ever been?’
‘I keep saying we should hit Italy and Spain, but Mars…. You know.’
‘You’ll get round to it, I can tell. He plans the trips and you mutter when things get stale,’ Bowie chuckles.
‘Speaking of working together, is Thalia around as well?’ Mars asks convivially.
Bowie’s eyes shift to the wooden rafters while he takes a breath. The tall man looks less of a jungle stalker and more like a safari tourist trapped in quicksand. ‘I lost her. In Baghdad. Almost three years ago now.’
Stacey reaches for Bowie’s hand, locking it in her tiny white hands. ‘Bowie… I… How did it-?’ She inclines her head subtly to Mars and shoots him an accusatory look. This is so typical. He launches people into distraught apoplexies and Stacey gets to clean up the emotional mess. So much for the first night in Germany.
‘I don’t know what happened. I looked around for over a month. All I’m sure of is I lost her, you know? Baghdad’s a pretty big place too… Hey, I got to get back in line; the next bus out runs on a tight schedule.’ His sentences sound clipped and rehearsed. He obviously got tired of explaining Thalia’s absence over the years.
‘Hah, Germans and their rigorous deadlines, right?’ Mars quips half-heartedly.
‘Yeah… See you guys next time, okay?’ They exchange embraces and Bowie rejoins the queue at the desk. A young, white man, a stranger to Mars and Stacey, saved Bowie a spot and the two resume a despondent argument.
‘You had to ask?’ Stacey berates Mars in a dark voice that sounds like a glacier dam, the sound of creaking ice crescendoing.
‘If I hadn’t, you would have.’
‘Doesn’t matter. You did.’
‘Oh come off it, Stace. They could have split up, she could have gone to the loo.’ The two of them trade glances and sigh, pick up their bags and shuffle into line behind a dozen other travelers.
After a good half hour of waiting they get assigned a room “in the east wing”, at which they both frown before moving to the enormous double staircase at the middle of the lobby.
‘You know, this place is fancy, but would it have killed them to install an elevator,’ Stacey moans while they search for their room.
‘You could do with the exercise,’ Mars jokes as he steps into number 404 and gets thrown a sleeping bag at his head.
‘I’ll gladly incorporate that into my regime, Mars.’
Stacey moves to the room’s balcony, completely disregarding its state of disrepair. Stacey was overweight, let’s not kid ourselves here. She doesn’t possess a bubbly personality or great hair to make up for it, but when it comes to traveling, she is a perfect partner. She never complains about the food or the beds. She never asks if you have a clue where you are going; she doesn’t even look askance at you for puzzling over the map. Most of all, she doesn’t mind falling asleep in a pasture under open sky or in a busy railway station. She has a loud, slightly raspy voice that accompanies a face consisting for ninety percent of puffed up cheeks. The other ten is taken up by a lot of lip and provocative little eyes.
Leaning perilously over the side of the metal railing, she gazes on the anterior of the lodge’s grounds. The tennis, football and volleyball fields are air pockets in a dense, green sea, beset at every side by branches and levies of fallen leaves. The small garden annex reminds her of home with its clean, boxed lay-out and trimmed lawns.
Britain is a destination both Mars and her like to avoid, but the nostalgic pangs never really die out. They know they are welcome back home. Their parents routinely beg for photos and other signs of life and well-being. Stacey fears her parents might lock the door once she’s in, even though they have always encouraged her to follow her own path, to explore.
She is mortified to think of how she would react to their outpouring of love at her homecoming. A good, long soak and one of Mum’s vanilla custards would be the delicious chains of domesticity, but a hard knot forms in her stomach every time she thinks about not traveling. Traveling around the world she has learned not to trust the dangerous yearning for the safety of home.
There is a safety and a nurturing sense of community among the cohorts of bright-eyed travelers across the globe, in their vision of a world where distance between individuals is relative only to the efforts you make to reach out to one another.
There is a like-minded lack of purpose in the need to travel together, to see and experience the world first-hand. The style of transportation or the duration of the trip is always more important to travelers than the destination. Turning on the Discovery Channel is like flipping through holiday shots for travelers: been to that jungle; seen that gazelle; had that kangaroo bull chase me.
The nostalgic look that at times drops like a curtain over Stacey’s face is not born of a desire to go home, but from a struggle with herself to stay away for as long as possible. In a lifetime of eschewing the virtue of moderation and a profound hatred of physical exertion for reasons of entertainment and fitness, this was the only challenge she ever set herself. One day she will go home and stay there indefinitely. Not today though. After all, Stacey still senses the mental umbilical cord between herself and the house she grew up in. That is home, the final destination. The rooms you crash in for the night are never “home”, after all.
Mars had seen that nostalgic shadow drop down like a hatchet on a chicken’s neck and decided to change the subject. ‘Oh no, Stace, we’ve got dog people,’ Mars moans from inside the room.
‘What?’ An incredulous wash of annoyance shakes her from her reverie. ‘But we said no pets!’ She marches inside and presides with Mars over the evidence.
‘It’s a dog basket, Stace,’ he points severely at a grungy terror of woven willow branches covered by a quilt of coarse fabrics.
‘I’m putting my money on “Patches”, how about you?’
‘I’m thinking “Roadkill”, Mars. How high up do you think we are?’
‘Aww, don’t be that way. This dog’ll love you. Every dog loves you,’ Mars teases as he unrolls his sleeping bag.
‘I’d love for every dog not to wake me at six a.m. or think my leg looks like a playmate.’
‘Tell you what: we’ll march all the way back to the front desk and demand another room. So, saddle up!’ Angling for a vexed outburst, Mars hikes up his sleeping bag to his shoulder and makes for the door.
‘Stop, you monster,’ Stacey smiles and lets herself sag onto the nearest empty bed, ‘I’ll endure.’
With a mischievous smile and sympathetic eyes, Mars moves to sit next to her and pats her shoulder. ‘You always do.’
The high-ceilinged room they are in looks sterile. Six beds are made with crisp white linens and under-stuffed pillows. The mattress they sit on feels lumpy in places. On four of the beds stand unopened suitcases. Most are covered with used traveling vouchers; barricading one of the two ceiling-high closets is an enormous specimen, which means a prissy beauty queen just couldn’t do without an extra pair of shoes; obviously she would have a tag-along burly jock with her.
A tiny sink with modern curves straddles the corner farthest from the door on the interior wall. On the opposite side of the room are two glass sliding doors to the balcony, which runs end to end around the building’s corners, outcroppings and buttresses.
None of the sliding doors connected by the balcony are locked, nor are the interior doors. There must be a set of keys somewhere, but only the more permanent staff would know where to find it. It is a standard lodge policy that Stacey and Mars have gotten used to.
Lodges are a temporary home to all who arrive, which translates to free access and a visible lack of rule-making. Except for documentation outlining the ground and evacuation plan, there are no warnings, posters, disclaimers or admonishments tacked to the walls inside the lodge. Rules are tacit among family, after all.
Stacey’s only regret about most lodges – despite this freedom – is the lack of personalisation, a result of the transient nature of the traveling community. Lately there has been a call for hobbyist painters to do murals, but the time required to finish one often exceeds the five-day limit of lodge residency, the “rule of hand”.
Some propose that the murals – like most things in the lodge – might be a team effort, a cadavre exquis. In effect, Stacey judges these attempts as little more than common splurges of graffiti; they hold little cohesion and are context-poor.
Petitions abound questioning whether painters could be exempt from the residency limit, allowing for individual wall paintings. Stacey has signed in favor at over twenty lodges, but so far without result.
Luckily the wallpaper in this room is pleasant and pristine – a red vertical stripe on dark beige –, but hardly modern. She has slept in more artfully decorated and less Spartan rooms, but the low-key setting for room 404 – and possibly all other rooms in the building – is typical of West-European lodges. Functionality typically prevails, in evidence by the light-bulbs positioned over every headrest, bolted to the side panel of the bed in a simplistic metal frame.
‘This room is so depressing, Mars. Let’s see what’s brewing downstairs.’ Without acknowledging his answer, she hoists herself up and, turning off the light, leaves the room.
He looks around the airport terminal with a shifty, bleary look; his over-drugged system still lapsing back into a chemical stupor now and again. The violent cocktail of scopolamine and antihistamines keeps his nausea at bay in the air, but serves it back ten times as a potent post-flight sucker-punch.
Airplane cabins stop spinning around, cars stop gyrating back and forth, and boats stop rocking him fitfully from one bout of vomiting to another. But these small blessings are bought with increasing strain and paralysing side-effects afterwards.
Aged five, his mother got so tired of her son’s uncontrollable car behavior that she knocked him out with aspirin and sleeping pills. Somehow he survived this maternal benefaction – multiple times – and grew up strong and healthy to revisit her in kind long before she could succumb to sickness, but not before she got him started on his motion sickness medicine bonanza.
He spends hours in a half-catatonic stupor – able to move, but severely discouraged by the central nervous system – in airport lobbies to overcome the side-effects that include an overpowering urge to gut and flay the motherfuckers who design airports with bright TL-lighting, drawn out corridors with conveyor belts that move asynchronously with the handholds, and puke-colored plastic seats that smell of urine and sweat – in addition to remolding your skeleton to the chair’s parameters.
In the succor of this often-rehearsed litany of curses, the man un-gently finds his balance and pulls himself upright on a fluke-orange chair that reeks of vomit – maybe his, he’s not sure – and which is located in the Berlin Schönehof Airport.
The baggage carrousel offers a vision of sickening motion like an oversized sushi bar. He checks his watch: 7:42, and then the monitor a few metres off to his right: 13:42. A bleak burst of sunshine affirms, through the dirty skylights, the digital time-keeping. It is noon in Central Europe, but morning to his body.
While a German voice blares over the intercom, the man stands up, stretches, stamps his chilled feet in the tattered mousy-grey Reeboks. The tails of an expensive overcoat drape around genuinely faded jeans and a blue T-shirt that says “Because!” A sallow and grouchy face peaks out from the coat’s upturned collar; short – but powerful – arms flap vaingloriously at the interminable draft to dispel the chill of inaction, to force the body to generate heat. There are probably ten thousand airports in the world, and all of them operate at 15° Celsius.
The man’s thoughts roam along the chrome and aluminium walls, his eyes deciphering German signs which may or may not promise expedient removal off the premises. He spots the correct sign, grabs a pristine Kipling bag from the seat and manoeuvres drunkenly towards the exit.
One ritual down, two to go. First the drugs, then the drink. A four hour flight equals a four-hour binge in a dive of your choice. What did they drink in Germany again? Beer, good, and schnapps. Well, forget about the schnapps.
The airport security, two slightly older men with impeccable uniforms and shined shoes, debate whether to hold a stumbling vagabond for questioning or not as he drags his feet and bumps into real and imaginary obstacles.
‘If you think about it, we’re going to kick him out of here anyway, right?’
The second man nods and sips coffee with a straw from a plastic cup. ‘Bloody travelers,’ the man mutters when he comes up for air from his caffeine.