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Recalling Happy Squalor

Art by Peter BennettMARK WAS A FORMER STUDENT OF my former college roommate. He was visiting Europe, I was living there. I was to hitchhike with him, introduce him to the world of happy squalor.

We hooked up in Palermo. I had waited there two tedious days, walking around for hours on end, eating rice balls from street stands and daydreaming about getting laid while not, in fact, even so much as striking up a conversation. The youth hostel was dreary and smelled of feet. As soon as he arrived we embarked on the night boat, and the following midmorning we got our first glimpse of Africa: a thin brown line on the horizon below a huge and cloudless sky.

An Egyptian man with a Peugeot befriended us on the boat and offered us a ride southward. He thought we should go all the way to Alexandria with him, but we didn't have the visas. We stopped for couscous at El Djem, where the startling black hulk of a Roman coliseum crouched like an ominous destiny amid the lone and level sands. When we passed street markets in little villages, Mark went into raptures over glimpsed baskets of henna, thinking that they were hemp and that he had at last come into the earthly paradise where old ladies sold marijuana by the bushel in the street.

These days I travel for a magazine whose target audience is the overcompensated. My task is to blaze trails for sybarites, assess the lumbar supports and passing acceleration of expensive cars, recline in steaming bathrooms that survey the atria of ancient empires. I find chocolates on my pillow instead of the imprints of squashed bugs. It is not unpleasant work.

But what really draw me are not luxury and comfort but dark and twisting cobbled streets, dejected old churches, mossy, unfrequented ruins under a light rain -- in short, the paraphernalia, hackneyed I admit, of a Byronic fantasy. I know this is silly, and that I'm a sucker for the merely picturesque. But at the same time I swear there's something there, some ghostly presence that I must catch before it ebbs away. What is it? The last scattered troops of What-Used-To-Be, fleeing from the army of What-Is? My own childhood fantasies stewed up from bits of Stevenson or Scott or Poe, or from old movies that my grandmother and I would see at the La Reina? A Superior Reality?

I go to medieval towns. But someone has been there ahead of me, the advance man for the Re-created Past. The dangerously sagging lintel has been replaced; the craftsman was skilled in the aging of beams. Specialist masons have seamlessly restored the rotted walls. The scum is daily scrubbed from the pavers. Discreet signs announce atmospheric restaurants and shops of artisanat. Is it the clop of hooves and the twittering of birds that I hear, or is it the gay chatter of a hidden cash register? Are these stones even stones? Everywhere I find this Santa Fe­ification, this replacement of the thing-in-itself by the body-snatching theme park. I'm not talking about the Old Towns of this world, those outdoor malls frankly parasitizing a few traces of quaintness. I'm talking about places that pretend to be Places, and really aren't -- places where I'm being short-roped up the mountains of my imagination by cheerful Sherpas who are really shopkeepers in disguise.

MARK AND I REACHED MEDENINE, IN THE bight of Tunisia's eastern shore, at evening, and boarded a small wooden ferry for Djerba. The other passengers were djellabaed Berbers and a few goats. Tired, we stood swaying, or crouched against the gunwales. Night fell. The sky filled with stars. Down below decks a single bulb swung, and rays of its light strayed now and then across a hooded figure on the deck. There were murmured words of Arabic, the rhythmic throbbing of the engine, the lap and slither of water at the bow, and beyond them the black eternal silence of an uncontrived reality.

That was 30 years ago. Mark is dead; he was a live-fast-die-young kind of person, and I wasn't, and that may account for the fact that by the end of our month together we loathed one another. My memory of those travels is half-eroded now, like water-worn rock that holds, here and there, the fossilized impression of a leaf. The night on the Djerba ferry is one of those imprints, as unequivocal as an acid trip, lit by Rembrandt and served up by kindly Fates. I travel to Places, because they are on the map and I can get to them; but what I always hope to find -- and seldom do -- is another such Moment.