2nd of July
Robert woke up in the morning, moaning about a terrible stomachache. He barely dragged his feet to the kitchen where Florence, who was just brewing one of her peculiar teas, looked at him shaking her head.
“Oh la la!” she shouted out, still shaking her head. “Don’t you worry, I have a cure for you.”
Julia and I suggested that we could stay in and take care of our friend but she was stubborn and threatened to kick us out if we refused to take a walk around Strasbourg since she knew better how to make Robert recover. She promised us that if we came back in the afternoon, everything would be fine. I was considering it for a while but Julia’s gentle pinch made me realize we didn’t have any other choice. So we said goodbye, opened the squeaky door, and followed the steep stairs down to get out into the street.
It was a brisk morning, the sun was climbing higher and higher on the clear sky. We were heading for the center of the city.
“Don’t you think it’s funny that we’ve just eaten a small-dinner or that you need to multiply and add to say ninety in French?” Julia shot out of the blue, walking ahead with long steps and a lifted head.
“Oh, it’s the language of poets,” I answered.
“Do you think that poets like to multiply?”
“I have no idea. Where are we going?”
“Is it important?” Julia answered with a childlike joy. “Let’s go anywhere!”
Half an hour later, we stopped in front of the cathedral – it was gigantic and monumental, like one of those solitary mountains that stand in the middle of nowhere, enveloped in a mist of mystery since the beginning. We were surrounded by the moving crowds. At Maison Kammerzel, there was a man in a funny hat pulled over his eyes who was trying to synchronize the sound of his saxophone with the ringing of the cathedral’s bell. I looked around at the buildings, taking notice of a characteristic Alsatian architecture and charmingly colorful window shutters, then I swept my eyes over a string of restaurants located along the street and suggested to Julia that we could have some choucroute in one of them. She just finished taking pictures with her smartphone and told me she didn’t feel like eating meat or anything at all so we ended up with a cup of espresso.
“Actually, I’ll have a pint. Some local brewery. You can pick one for me,” she said to the waiter, and I raised my eyebrows upon realizing the fact how quickly she could change her mind, and then I asked for the same.
Several minutes later, I leant over the table.
“Listen… what about… you know, your problems? Has anything changed?” I asked cautiously, willing to help her if she ever needed support.
“Let’s not talk about it,” she cut off.
“We’re traveling, Charles. Let’s not talk about it.”
I fell silent. We kept drinking the coffee in silence for a while, and then I noticed three men with profuse beards wearing loose shirts and torn pants who had just appeared in the square. Their heads were covered with small hats. One of them carried a guitar and the other one held a tambourine in his hand. The third one, who was the skinniest, instantly started to sing
L. Cohen’s “Passing Thru” a capella with his expressive voice. His friends joined him in the chorus. Before they reached the third verse, they attracted quite a crowd around them. Julia’s face brightened.
“Hey, let’s go there! Don’t be a bore and dance with me to their music!” She pulled my arm so vigorously that I barely managed to pay the bill brought by a surprised waiter and not a minute later I was already in the square in front of the cathedral. Julia still clenched my arm.
“Ask them to play some waltz,” I whispered into her ear, and she approached them once they finished their previous song.
“Pourriez-vous jouer un peu de rock’n’roll?” She flipped a coin to them. I perfectly understood her words and a second later I was swirling with her in an even bigger enjoyment. People who gathered around us were singing, clapping their hands, and some of them even decided to join us.
After the song was over, we bowed and returned to our table. The waiter came to us.
“Please, get me a room in an asylum,” he said to us, putting empty glasses onto a tray.
Julia laughed and answered him but I didn’t catch what she said. We remained in the restaurant for a short while but when I heard the bell striking noon, I thought it would be a good idea to take a walk, particularly for the fact that my head was becoming more and more occupied with silly things to say.
We thanked the waiter and set off in the direction of the sun-flooded cathedral.
In front of the main gate, there was a man with a black beard and a creased Alsatian hat on his head. His brown eyes never stopped moving.
“I’m starting a trip in a few minutes. You can join us if you want to,” he spoke to me in English, pointing at the banner saying “Free Guided Visits” fixed on a stick he was holding in his right hand.
Julia, in her desire to remain independent, was just about to walk away but I held her hand.
“Yeah, why not,” I answered. I found it to be a great idea. And I thought we were lucky.
A family from Australia joined us before we set off. We greeted them and then started to walk down the picturesque streets of Strasbourg, visiting numerous squares and cafés. Our guide walked like a wanderer, pushing off with his banner on a stick. Every now and then, he came to a halt to tell us a few words about the place where we just stopped.
“Seems a bit German, doesn’t it?” he said to us in one of the squares, pointing his finger at the buildings that surrounded the square. He perfectly selected the words he used; it was a great spectacle that he must have performed many times before. “At the same time, it’s French. Strasbourg was frequently passed from French to German hands, and vice versa. Did you know that my great-great-great-grandfather was born in this town and despite the fact he never moved out of it, he changed his nationality four times?”
Julia said she didn’t have an idea at which he nodded his head contentedly and continued to walk. He already exercised power over us, having tied us with an invisible thread which he held in a closed hand. We followed him anywhere he took us. We couldn’t see another way. We were afraid of getting lost since the city was completely unfamiliar to us.
We didn’t separate from the organized trip until we reached Place de la Republique. The Aussie family sat down comfortably on the mellow green grass whereas we expressed our gratitude and headed for the canal, walking in the direction he showed us. Rays of sunshine warmed our faces and we kept wandering carefree from one bridge to another, sitting down on benches from time to time, closing our eyes and breathing in the blissful scent of flowers, summer and freedom.
We ran into the guide once again somewhere in the vicinity of La Petite France where he was giving another tour. He waved to us and shouted that we could join in but we shook our heads in a gesture of refusal. I was getting hungry and so was Julia. We were about to get back to Florence’s but I found the situation awkward when we encountered the guide for a third time near the cathedral, in the exact same stop where we had met him initially. We stopped and he approached us.
“What a coincidence,” he smiled, covering his eyes from the bright sun. I wondered what he would say. “Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?”
I looked at him astonished and then transferred my attention to Julia. Her facial expression said “I’m indifferent” and she began to innocently look around.
“Sure,” I answered the guide. “Which café do you suggest?”
He introduced himself as Pierre and suggested to simply get immersed in the streets of Strasbourg and pick one of those little-known places, the one which attracts the most of our attention. It was an old and certified strategy of his.
It was already around two in the afternoon. The heat was merciless. We walked into one of the quiet side streets where we stopped in front of a café’s window that was embellished with flowers. There were no customers except an old man in a white linen shirt who was sitting in the corner, reading the morning paper. On his table, there was an empty cup of coffee, probably the only one he had ordered since morning. Our entrance couldn’t remain unnoticed thanks to a small bell hanging over the door. A middle-aged, quite corpulent woman, who owned the place, greeted us with a smile. Pierre ordered three cappuccinos, and she said she would bring the coffee right away and asked us to take a seat. We picked the table by the window.
The place smelled like a florist shop. On the wooden walls, there was a huge reproduction of the “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich, and the nearby display cabinet proudly presented a collection of banknotes from the European countries as well as the USA.
I felt a bit uncomfortable. Not because of the décor but rather Pierre, the guide I knew nothing about and thus I didn’t know what I could talk to him about. I hoped this feeling would fly away itself.
“You two make up an interesting couple, you know,” began Pierre but I interrupted him impetuously.
“Actually, we’re not together. We just…”
“Oh, it’s alright. Good. You must be wondering why I invited you for coffee but I think it’s quite obvious. Who would want to drink coffee on his own?” He smiled but it seemed as if he smiled to himself in front of a mirror. “I wanted to… I felt that I should tell you something. And… can I tell you now?”
“Sure, tell us,” Julia said, resting her chin on an open hand. She didn’t resemble herself, rather a metaphor of something else.
He started scratching the table top with his nail. After a while, he continued in a slightly muted voice, without raising his eyes.
“Have you heard about Suzanne Greenwood? You haven’t? That’s a pity. She’s a painter… and, how to put it… my story is similar to hers. The difference is…”
“What do you do?”
“I sing. Here and there. Anywhere I can. Apart from that, I work as a guide. Maybe… you’d like to come to my concert this evening? Concert… that’s a bit overstated… I will start after seven in front of the cathedral. You can come and listen if you’d like to.” He lifted up his head, and I could notice fatigue in his eyes as well as some faintly burning fire, which would have been definitely long gone in the body of anyone else.
“We’ll come, you can count on us,” I said without even asking Julia. We both knew what to say. I couldn’t use any other words.
“That’s great. Really great.” I felt the conversation started to gain momentum. Pierre kept fretfully clasping and unclasping his hands. “Are you studying?”
“No, not yet. But we’re close.”
“There’s a lot of opportunities ahead of you.”
“So they say.”
“Do you know what are you going to do?”
“Not really,” Julia answered and tilted her chair. “Should we know that?” Pierre shrugged his shoulders.
“I guess it’s different for each of us,” I expressed my thoughts aloud.
“We have time for it. Life is so long…”
The owner of the café brought us three steaming cappuccinos, we thanked her and returned to our conversation. I was starting to puzzle out our friend Pierre.
“When I sing, I’m happy. When I don’t, well, there are ups and downs. Even when I do sing, I’m aware of the fact it won’t bring me much and that it’s probably no use at all but despite that, I feel happy for a moment. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, perfectly well,” Julia reflected for a second. “How long have you been doing it?”
“It’s hard to say. Since the moment I can remember. I guess I would have done better if it hadn’t been for the prison.”
“You and the prison?”
We continued the conversation, sipping hot cappuccino, slowly showing our cards, and predicting the future on the ground of the uttered words. I don’t know why we met Pierre.
I remained under the impression that I had known him for a long time. Maybe this encounter wasn’t a matter of chance.
However, our new friend asked us not to forward the story he had shared with us in the café to anyone. Nobody except us is authorized to know about it. We promised him that so I can’t write the story down in my notepad.
We bid farewell to each other a few moments later, promising we would meet again in the evening. It was already late so we set off in the direction of Florence’s apartment. We managed to get lost three times on the way and luckily enough, once we thought we just lost our way for the fourth time, we finally found the place.
We found Robert with a terrified face, standing over Florence who was lying on the sofa. She didn’t move a single muscle.
“Come here quickly, what should I do?” Robert shouted to us in a panic-ridden voice, waving his head vigorously. We moved aside when Julia took his place, leaning over her friend.
“She’s just unconscious,” she stated. “How did it happen?” She talked like a professional physician. I couldn’t recognize her.
“She just fainted. I don’t know why. Just like that.” Robert spread out his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
“And how do you feel?”
Out of a sudden, Florence regained consciousness after a couple of minutes and instantly got up from the couch.
“And? How did you like it?” she asked, directing the question at Julia and me.
Words got stuck up in my throat. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t voice what I wanted to express.
“Alright.” It was the only thing I could utter. Julia looked askance at me. “Alright? What do you mean by that?” she seemed to ask me.
We quickly forgot about that awkward situation and got down to the dinner. We prepared dumplings with apples and fromage blanc, claiming that Florence was simply obliged to taste a bit of the Polish cuisine. Actually, it was our own recipe that we had invented as
a “right-away” due to the lack of other ingredients, but we were eventually surprised by its tastiness ourselves.
After dinner, we took some rest. Robert was showing off to me his new ability to play chess mentally while Julia was relating our day to Florence. She arrived at the conclusion that we should return to Strasbourg together.
Florence supported the thesis that Strasbourg was the most beautiful at night so we came out in the evening in order to putter around among the streets that just became illuminated with the light spread by the street lamps. In the district of La Petite France, cafés were full to bursting, the hum of conversations was drifting in the air like smoke, and the fleeting laughter resounded, escaping irrevocably into the warm darkness of the night. We kept walking, making short stops on the bridges from time to time to take a look at the river flowing under the bridge as well as the lights, both those reflected in the water and the real ones. I remember that we walked to the square in front of the cathedral to attend Pierre’s concert. There was quite a crowd around him – people absorbed his music which rescued them from the closed doors and the lack of sleep at the starless night. Then, they left as everyone else does. We also had to say goodbye, wishing our friend good luck on the road he had taken. I couldn’t find better words to express it.
I remember that after the concert we went to a café. I can also remember the colorful pictures flickering in front of my eyes as well as someone shouting “Ne fais pas ca!” and a row of scooters flipping over like dominoes. The rest resembled the silence coming after the singing of a cicada – it was darkness, it was a dream.
To be continued
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