Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Honorable Mention — Where The Heart Is

By Jennifer Stahl

A weary traveler struggles to find a sense of belonging. A foreign friend helps her understand a fuller meaning and significance of connection.

I woke to scratching and squawking outside my window. Fumbling to grasp the corner of my pillow, I wanted nothing more than to throw it at the magpie who so presumptuously assigned himself the duty of my alarm clock. Instead, I muffled my ears and began the ever-reluctant process of accepting another morning. A cool, spring breeze blew through my window, slightly rustling the metal blinds; I still hadn’t invested in curtains. Curtains, I thought, maybe curtains will do the trick; a personal touch to make it feel like home! Looking around my room, I recognized the humor of this thought. Two suitcases and a backpack lay deflated and disheveled on the floor strewn with clothing, makeup, assorted adapters, and a few pieces of jewelry spilling out of a pink container with the etched expression, “Distance makes the heart grow fonder.” My neighbour had given the container to me as a welcome gift without any understanding of the English words or how they would constantly pick away at my mental health. I should have simply put the well-meant item straightaway into the bin, but there was a deep sense of gratitude also attached to it. I almost felt guilty about the distance I imagined between those curtains I was planning to purchase and myself.

Throwing aside my duvet and stepping onto the wooden floor, a melodramatic sigh escaped my lungs, perhaps in effort to exhale the last sixteen months of movement. As far back as I can remember, I had an insatiable appetite to see the world; growing up, Mexico, the West Indies, most of the States, and a good portion of Europe filled my summer holidays. Most recently, I’d set out to explore the Balkans, but something kept pulling me north, nearer and nearer to the center, the very heart of Europe. With months of travel under my feet, I decided at the end of winter it was time to settle and rest for a while. I found a studio flat in a valley village, just a short train ride away from Prague. I never was a city girl, but the routine of an ordinary life and an occasional itch for the bustle was wearing on me; maybe moreso, that pink container.

I carelessly selected a shirt and trousers from the piles at my feet. I think they’re clean. I brushed back my hair into a low ponytail and wondered why all of this required so much effort. It didn’t make sense. I loved this place; I loved the view out my bedroom window. I loved the savory smell of garlic and marjoram that filled the hallways everyday at precisely eleven o’ clock. I loved walking to the corner coffee shop, listening to church bells toll the hours, and purchasing my groceries from the farmer who drove to the edge of the village every Friday morning. Why couldn’t that pink container say something about home being wherever my heart is? Now that would have made a nice welcome gift!

Home. The word felt less like velvet and more like sandpaper. Perhaps my curtains should be made of velvet. A garbage collector now joined the outdoor chorus of magpie squawks, and I was reaching for my keys, when there was a knock at the door. I froze and quickly calculated the date. I’d already paid my rent for the month, had no maintenance scheduled, and I had kept this one day free for myself this week. It must be a neighbour. But, I only had elderly neighbours who didn’t speak a single ounce of my language. I had been practicing the Czech basics, and I’d been building confidence while ordering my coffee or going through the checkout lines at the supermarket; but I was nowhere close to understanding the quick pace of jaunty syllables that came from the elder generations, especially from the one woman who had given me the pink container. It was too late to pretend I wasn’t home or hadn’t heard the knock. Squeaky floorboards had for sure given me away. The knock came again. I quickly shoved the mess of my belongings behind the door with my feet. I tried to swallow, but my mouth had gone dry. I mustered any bit of courage I could find and opened the door.

It was Pink Container Neighbour, Míla. I’d interacted with Míla one or two other times beyond the gift endowment. Those exchanges, I imagined, were kindly words of endearment, similar to how my grandmother would have often greeted me at family gatherings. Míla was very affectionate and embraced me from our first encounter. I had never noticed any visitors at her flat; it was always only her and her grey cat, Šmudla, from what I’d observed.

Míla was especially animated this morning. “Jani!” she exclaimed as she grabbed my hand, pulling me across the hallway toward the direction of her flat. Her brown eyes were twinkling with mischief, and she was rambling on with a clear tone of urgency. Šmudla was now also expectantly waiting for me at the threshold. Submitting to the regret of leaving behind my phone for translation help, I followed my neighbour friend. Šmudla purred and rubbed against my ankles as I put on the slippers I was given. The door closed behind me, and I recognized the necessity of embracing my situation.

Míla placed me at her dining table next to a large window with lace curtains and set to work mixing a cup of instant coffee. Her hands shook as she stirred the granules. I noticed for the first time this morning that it was drizzling outside; no wonder the breeze had been so cool. A clattering of cup against saucer reminded me I needed to rally a few Czech words. Míla proudly set the coffee in front of me, spilling a little onto a needlework doily ornamenting the center of her table. I smiled and timidly whispered a Czech, “Thank you.” I was awkwardly quiet, glancing around the kitchen at the dusty photos tacked onto the walls. Míla noticed my curiosity and jumped from photo to photo, identifying her daughters and grandchildren. For every one photo of a family member, Míla would retrieve a whole album of at least twenty more photos of birthdays, school events, and holidays.  She didn’t bother making a cup of coffee for herself. I nodded my head, smiled, and expressed innumerable ooh’s and aah’s in attempt to match the level of enthusiasm Míla exerted. And when the last sip of my coffee neared, relief of release was on my mind. I pushed back my chair, ready to announce my departure.

Míla took my hand again. “Jani,” she began. The inflection in her voice changed. She was no longer the animated, fiery woman of celebration I had just spent the last hour with. I knew the empty cup of coffee would not be enough to set me free now. The drizzling outside had softened to a scarce pit-pat against the window. Something shifted in me as well as I heard the tender notes of sadness in Míla’s words. I wondered what she would show me next.

Off the side of her kitchen was a small room with a bulky black stereo system on a single shelf. Šmudla had curled into the corner of the sofa that was seemingly strategically positioned for ease of listening. Míla’s clumsy hands placed a disc into the stereo, and all the nostalgia of champagne music flooded her entire home. Her eyes closed; her hips swayed back and forth, and she waltzed her way to a framed picture on a corner desk. Her waltzing stopped as she picked up that picture, transfixed by memories and love. I’m sure time itself also held its breath for her.  A jazzy saxophone was mid solo when Míla opened up her arms to me. I understood, “My husband. My dear husband.” Grief spilled from Míla’s eyes as she firmly placed her late husband’s portrait in my hands. Whatever she said next, though I could not decipher any clear vocabulary, I knew everything she meant. Míla felt small as I held her, and I felt even smaller. Perhaps her heart really was made fuller inside the distance she experienced; her true home was found in absence. I saw Míla as brave in that moment, and I didn’t know that a pink container could humble me in such a way.

We stood in silence for a minute and looked into each other; my heart whispered a Czech, “Thank you.” Míla dried her eyes, and her smiled returned. The rain had stopped altogether, and sun was piercing through the eyelets of lace across the kitchen window. Míla scurried ahead of me, pulled back the curtains, and once more excitedly squealed my name, “Jani!” Again I followed her as she ran through her living room and opened the door to her balcony.

Míla had the best view in our whole village, I’m certain. Her balcony was one of the highest, and it was almost exactly in the center. Houses, hills, fields, and life buzzed below and all around her. With the clouds parted and the sun pouring down from blue skies, songbirds had replaced the screeching magpies, and a warm sunbeam prickled my bare arms. I caught a glimpse of what had triggered Míla’s elation, and something happened. Now this was what Míla had to show me! The heart of Europe was no longer a location; maps, suitcases, pink containers, and curtains all seemed to disappear from the realms of importance. A vivid rainbow, larger than any I had ever seen before, stretched the full breadth of our village; and I could see it all there with Míla. This was it; a way of living, sharing and outstretched arms, the welcome gifts of hearts and hands - and I was home.

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