In Defense of Being Alone (or, Christmas and the Case of the Karmic Meat)
- THE RUSSIAN JUST STOLE MY HAM – Full disclosure, this was actually Christmas Eve, the day that I arrived in Prague. After taking a quick nap, I left the hostel to find dinner in the Old Town Square, located very near where I was staying. Throughout Europe, Christmas Markets abound– Christmas Markets featuring traditional local pastries of varying types, often a warm alcoholic drink, handmade doodads, all sold in little temporary wooden stalls.
In the Old Town Square, by the huge Christmas tree, across from the castle, there was a bigger stall selling meat, dumplings, and mulled wine. That’s where I went, and that’s where I accidentally ordered a comically large hunk of ham. Like, if it were a cube, each side was maybe 5 inches tall. That’s a lot of meat. As I grappled with my slab of a Christmas Eve dinner, I spotted my evening’s entertainment. The Czech women standing at my table had been giggling as they listened to a very loud, very big, very drunk Russian fellow standing at the table behind us. He was alternately speaking enthusiastically into his phone (in Russian, of course), and then to strangers (also in Russian, less obviously) who either responded with bemusement, or with a discomfort that led them to relocate. I have no idea what he was saying, the only translations that the Czech women gave me had to do with the Russian fellow disliking Americans. Of course, he then lumbered over to our table and rambled. In Russian. Non-stop. Sometimes he asked questions, and in response to my shrugging and attempted explanation that I did not speak his language (one, two, three times), he would continue talking. Having established himself at our table, and, I must stress this, being quite inebriated, he then reached across the table and took, in his bare hands, my piece of ham. He stole my meat, and bit directly into it. In response to the (I’m sure) look of shock on my face, his eyebrows raised and he looked surprised, confused. Then, kindly and genuinely, he offered to give me a bite of the ham. As you can imagine, I demurred.
- A GOOD DEED – As inappropriate as it is to write this, I was feeling a little bummed out Christmas morning. I hadn’t gotten to talk to anyone in my hostel the previous night, and was having trouble feeling Prague’s pulse. Wandering the winding streets in search of a warm place and some breakfast, I decided on a place where I could get a pseudo-American traditional breakfast (I know, I know, tsk tsk but also this meal is the instance of “given meat” that makes the title make sense, so). As I finished my meal, feeling still a little bit grim, an old Czech fellow who had just finished his drink set out towards the exit. Passing my table, he dropped something on my table and, as he continued to make his way towards the door, said in his accented English “I have to do one good deed each day.” You think I’m kidding, but that is verbatim (I just checked the Whatsapp I sent my mom after it happened). And you know what he had left on my table? A note that said:
On the other side was a receipt. The fellow had paid for my breakfast, and left, wanting nothing in return, not even recognition.
- JUST CONVERSATION: This is less of a story, less of an epiphany, but it’s important. It’s about having been alone, and about the temporary but still very real unlikely companionship you happen upon. I had walked around, gone to a Warhol exhibit, walked around some more, saw some street performers (there are some really weird street performers out there– in Vienna, there was a fellow sitting on a park bench, playing accordion, and wearing a fake deer head) and come back to the warm hostel to defrost my toes. I had journaled, I had read, and then I’d gotten a message from a friend back home. Disconcerted by the message, and unsure of how to respond, I asked the perfect stranger who was also sleeping in that room. His name was A—-, he was from Peru, he was a PhD candidate in philosophy (I study philosophy too!) in Spain, and he was feeling loneliness unconstructively, and taking pills to dull his emotional reaction. I don’t know how to make this into a narrative, but we talked for hours– about family and home (always, and usually increasingly complex issues as we age), about philosophy, about the senior thesis I was beginning to plot out, about books, about whatever. The story isn’t so much something that can be retold; it’s an instance of the content being right at the right time. But I’m including it because that momentary friendship (he had left by the time I woke up the following morning) was what defined my Christmas. If you let yourself be available and open, you run into great ideas and cool, surprising, thoughtful people.