There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.
Robert W. Service, The Men That Don’t Fit In
I lie on the couch where I’m squatting with a friend in Dar Es Salaam while I wait for an Ethiopian business visa that will never come. Translucent ribbons of rolled up dead flesh peel off my itchy post-sunburn back, resembling the site of an apocalyptic thermonuclear explosion. The mysterious oblong wound on my leg festers, its pustules staring at me like some alien insect, seeping gooey tears of tawny discharge almost as fast as I can mop them up, aided by my sweat glands, which I can actually feel working like a wartime factory, producing their hot saline solution that only works as a coolant if it evaporates. But that doesn’t happen since the power is out and the air stagnates because the fan just hangs there motionless, pointless, impotent, like a journalist without a work permit. Like me.
In a tropical climate everything feels like it’s on steroids – the sun, the rain, the bugs, even the barking of the dogs. There must be over a dozen of them within earshot right now, all howling at once. No one tells them to stop because they’re not pets, but weapons, alarm systems, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to. I can’t put in my earplugs for fear of not hearing the malarial mosquitos, which I’m defenseless against without a mosquito net, having run out of Malarone, and with bug spray dripping off the sweaty, deteriorating skin covering my skeletal body.
Africa shoved me back to my grade school weight, bringing back all the old insecurities, and now I don’t even have my youth or hair. If I ever had a boyish cuteness it’s all rotted away now. “You look like an Ethiopian” they used to say, and so I moved to Ethiopia. Well, not exactly, but it would have made a beautifully absurd story. The Ethiopians didn’t care how skinny I was, and I almost forgot about it, but I’m living with Westerners again, products of an appearance-worshiping mass culture, and suddenly it comes up daily. But I don’t look like an “Ethiopian” anymore. No, that would be far too politically incorrect today; now I resemble “the Machinist.” Well, that’s not so bad. It’s a great movie, the Westerners are nice, and I have a beautiful girlfriend.
So here I sit – a weary thirty year-old balding skeletal insomniac in the sweltering darkness; sweating, peeling, itching, oozing pus, on guard against mosquitoes; a chorus of curs yapping all around; feeling guilty for overstaying my welcome; my baldness progressing faster than my career; fearing my dream of being a journalist abroad is as impossible as it seems; my youthful ambition (did I ever have that?) all but depleted; my melancholy Demon working its way back in, making himself comfortable – and I contemplate my life.
What a life it is, desultory, dragging behind me like a cavalcade, full of knots I’m still unravelling, peopled by grinning, glaring, and weeping faces. Is it a masterpiece or a failure? I peer at the tangle of threads and see five countries (six now?), three degrees, plenty of good friends, and too many broken hearts, received and given.
During my peregrinations I’ve gawked at the skyscrapers of New York and London, admired the old American cars of Havana, puffed shisha while overlooking the Bosphorus in Istanbul, walked through the corridors of Dracula’s castle in Transylvania, meandered through the Bavarian countryside in Germany, marvelled at the Acropolis in Athens, sipped vodka in cozy Moscow kitchens during the desolate twilight of Russian winter, drank borscht while exploring my family’s roots in Ukraine, sweated buckets in the oppressive Qatari heat in Doha, pondered the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide in a mass grave in Kigali, been charged by a black rhino and swam with a whale shark in Tanzania, and had coffee and injera in Ethiopia, the birthplace of humanity. I’ve read great philosophy and literature, been schooled in how to debate and be a critical thinker, learned the noble craft of journalism, and become a decent photographer, writer, and journalist.
But with all of my experiences and opportunities, it has been an impractical life. Still I repine. Still happiness eludes me. Still my identity is a work in progress. I’m thirty and only at the cusp of beginning my career. I’ve earned almost no money, never been paid for a single story I’ve written or photo I’ve taken, and am utterly dependent upon a guilt-inducing inheritance I didn’t earn. Few people actually see my photos or read my writing. I barely know my niece and have yet to meet my nephew. I’ve cantered through life without a plan, become an inveterate traveller, and feel like a youth who suddenly woke up as an adult.
I’ll have lots of stories to tell when I’m old, lots of “character” from my sundry travels and studies, but will I have a pension? Will I have left my mark, experienced approbation in my time, or even been known at all? Will I have a family, or just books and photographs and memories?
* * *
Lately I’ve been daydreaming about an imaginary Eden where all of the Good Things are, made of memories and fantasy. It’s in Istanbul of course, my real-life dream city, but all of my scattered friends are with me, and the beloved places of my childhood have been magically implanted nearby. It’s where my youthful dreams and adult life live side by side.
I can see a suburban Canadian park with monkey trails, a heap of bikes lying on the grass, and neon slurpees covered in beads of condensation. Down this road there’s a 7-Eleven, and that one a Mac’s, where we ride our bikes every weekend. I take a side street and am transported even further into the past, reading comic books with Scott and playing Bubble Bobble with Joey. At night time I’m back in Fort Garry, where it’s always summertime except on Christmas. I take a solitary walk at 2:00 a.m., completely alone, completely safe.
We’re all following our dreams, working the jobs we always imagined we would. On Saturdays we go to Erik’s mom’s place to get drunk and high, have friendly screaming debates about Nietzsche, capital punishment, Middle Eastern politics, or something else that matters, putting the world to rights, playing chess and Risk. Then we plunge into the oddly warm pool, while the hip-hop, 80s, and trance music blares in the background. On Sundays we get together at Carlos and Murphy’s just around the corner for wings. I walk down Istiklal Avenue every morning to some fabulous, worthy job – senior correspondent, political risk analyst, writer, philosopher. A Renaissance Man. A Man of Letters.
The anxiety isn’t there yet, the walls closing in, the broken family, the world-wrecking gorgons, the great suffocating emptiness, the depression. Just my friends, our dreams, the summer, and an air of mischief. My friends, my heroes, my adopted family, real life celebrities who I worshipped, who I tried to become, and who I am nothing without.
Here’s Paul, bonding with the locals; here’s Aidan, dreaming of being rich. Over there are the Stefans, swapping travel stories, and of course all of my Winnipeg friends, the core of my life – Eric Wach’s telling one of his stories, a small enraptured audience chortling around him. Erik K is in his prime, lowball and cigar in hand, waxing outrageous, offending and charming all at once. Andrew and Corey are preparing a grand dinner party. Ian’s getting ready for the club, trance music screaming in the background, with that look in his eye that means business. Eric Cable’s building a fire for a barbeque in the park, happy as can be. Devin and Jill are cuddling on the couch, one of the happiest couples I know.
That’s all fantasy of course, perhaps an exaggerated form of what I once dreamed my life could be – working the perfect job, constantly surrounded by friends in a cobblestoned city of wonders, where people congregate in café patios playing jazz and bossa nova and talk about important things. I suppose most people’s lives don’t turn out the way they imagine when they’re young, though. To expect such a thing would be naïve, but it’s still sad. Life is mostly a kind of beautiful sadness, but there’s enough happiness too. Just enough.
* * *
Sometimes I feel like I’m just struggling to keep my head above water, still trying to figure out what I want, where I want to live, and of course who I want to be. I’m in a constant state of trying to become someone. Who, I’m not exactly sure, but I’ve encountered shades of him before, I’ve seen a part of him in friends, sometimes even in strangers. He’s always changing form according to my mood, my needs, and outside influences. At times he’s jocular and charming, at others he’s solitary and brooding. Sometimes he’s esoteric and aloof, sometimes a man of the people. He always seems just out of reach, like following someone whose face you can’t quite see.
Often I become one of my friends, stealing their powers for awhile. When I need to be social I’m Andrew, the perfect guest or host, a master conversationalist. When I need to relax, to be laid back, I’m Devin, who gets along with everyone. When I need to be wise, figure out a romantic situation, or be a better traveller it’s Eric Cable or Stefan Bachofen, the wisest people I know. When I need to be brilliant, to show a spark of greatness, I become Eric Wach, who’s capable of absolutely anything. When I need to be fun, playful, disarmingly charming, I am Ian, pure charisma. When I need to be ambitious, it’s Aidan, who always has a plan. When I need to be a leader, to take charge, it’s Paul, who should have been born a nineteenth century Russian general. And when I’m tired of all the bullshit, the condescension, the cheesiness, phoniness and political correctness of the world, when I feel the urge to spit in a happy person’s soup, that’s when I become Erik K – brilliant, absurd, and profane, constantly at war with the lame; a beautifully tragic figure, perhaps not made for this earth. Like Bhupesh, like Stefan Martens – too smart and aware to not be at least a little disappointed by this world.
I carry them with me constantly, but I miss them, not just living in the same city, but also sharing our lives more closely together, as young people can. At some point life gets in the way – families, careers, and travel, namely, which is as it must be, perhaps as it ought to be, but tragic nonetheless. I always felt an empty, girl-shaped hole during my youth, but at least I had my friends continually by my side.
Do they understand why I leave, why I must? There was always something missing in Canada, mostly a woman, but also something all for myself, outside of my friends. A passion, a career, something I couldn’t find in Winnipeg, or even Canada; something exclusively mine. Perhaps even an escape from their overwhelmingly strong personalities, a need to craft my own separate identity, a journey I had to take alone. A journey that is far from over.