Chapter 19 – It’s a Small World After All
It was the last night of my first trip abroad. After three weeks of draining our bank accounts as well as ourselves pounding all the wine and beer we could handle along coastal Spain and southern France, my buddy Clough and I had decided to take it easy and watch some TV in our Roman apartment which we’d rented for three nights at the cost of a hundred bucks a night. We’d been alternating between Jersey Shore with which the authentic Italians genuinely detested being associated, a music video station and some soft-core porn which had appeared to be on a basic cable channel during primetime hours. Since our apartment had only been about three blocks from the Vatican, I had to imagine that they had the same cable service provider over there and it made me wonder if the Bishop of Rome ever tuned in to this non-penetrational cunt-ramming and got the urge to grease up the old papal ferula on nights when he’d felt particularly enlivened by the holy spirit.
“Yo,” I said to Clough around ten p.m., “I’m gonna go grab some pizza from that place across the street. You interested?”
“Nah,” he replied without taking his eyes off the tan Mediterranean tits on the tele, “I’m good.”
“Okay, but, uh, how do you say ‘good evening’ again? I forgot already.”
“It’s ‘buona sera,’” he said while turning to look at me. “I remember it this way. When I was a kid growing up, I used to know a girl named Sara Buona. And I imagine her visiting Italy and some dude with a goofy mustache and a striped shirt greeting her as she steps into a gondola, ‘Buona sera, Sara Buona!’” he said in a stereotypical Mario Brothers accent. “Try it. You won’t forget it that way.”
He was right. Four years later and I still haven’t forgotten it.
After stumbling across Via Ottaviano in my flip flops and into the pizza shop where I found I’d been the only customer, I greeted the tall, hairy man behind the glass counter with a hearty, “Buona sera!”
“Buona sera,” he replied then followed that phrase up with some seemingly basic Italian that had exceeded my understanding of his language.
I shrugged like the touristy ignoramus I was and he laughed.
“Where you from?”
“I’m from Chicago.”
“Oh yeah? If you’re from Chicago, then I’m from Lake Forest.”
“You know,” he said, “Lake Forest, up on Chicago’s North Shore.”
“I know where Lake Forest is. I’m just confused as to how you know where Lake Forest is.”
He again laughed.
“I lived there for two years with some family when I was in my early twenties.”
He was probably in his mid-forties at the time we crossed paths.
“No shit, man. That’s wild. How’d you like it?”
“It was a great time. You know Excalibur night club?”
“Yeah, I know where it is. Never been there though.”
“Oh-ho-ho, you should go,” he said. “I was there every weekend when I lived in Chicago. That’s where all the beautiful young ladies like to hang out. Of course they probably like me better than you because I’m a romantic Italian guy, but hey, I’m sure you’d have a good time too.”
“Yeah, I can’t compete with you Casanova types.”
“That’s right, you can’t,” he joked. “So what can I get for you?”
“I’ll take that one,” I pointed to what looked like a pepperoni and sausage combo under the glass.
“You got it,” he replied before taking the square-shaped delicacy and throwing it in the oven behind him. “Why don’t you take a seat, it’s gonna be a few minutes.”
I did just that.
“So what part of Chicago you from?”
“I’m from the northwest side. A little neighborhood called Edison Park. You know it?”
“Yeah, I know it. You ever hear of Tony’s Deli?”
I was again caught off-guard.
“Yeahhhhhh. I live a block away from Tony’s Deli. How do you know it?”
“Viti,” he said, “the guy who owns it, he and I are from the same village. I ate there all the time when I was in Chicago.”
“Isn’t his name Vito?”
“Maybe in America, but in my village we call him Viti.”
“Wow man, that’s ridiculous.”
“Here,” he added, “take my business card. Next time you get a sandwich from Tony’s, bring this to Viti and show him that you met me. He’ll be surprised.”
I took his card, went to Tony’s when I got back to Chicago and showed it to Vito as was suggested. As he held it in his hands and squinted at it to read what it’d said, it brought a strange smile to the man’s face – one that I interpreted as home never being as far away as it sometimes seems. In fact, he was so glad to have received that card from me that he gave me a free sandwich, we had sex in the back of the shop and then went on a killing spree together. Nah, I’m just fuckin’ around. He said, “Thank you for showing this to me,” and we each went on with our days and our lives. But it was still a pretty cool connection and I was glad to have been part of it. Never again had I thought I’d experience anything like this.
In China, in October 2012, after all the wild partying at Sanlitun, I needed to get away from all the east coast big city madness and out to the country where I could clear my mind and sober the fuck up. So I left Beijing by train going through other major metropolises such as Xi’an and Chengdu on the way and then took a bus to a town called Kangding up in the hills of the Sichuan province which is used by many as a gateway into a Tibetan region known as Kham.
The roads in between Chengdu and Kangding ran along mountainsides and had been very narrow – so narrow that buses traveling in opposite directions could not pass each other at certain points. At one particularly skinny stretch, since we were on the inside part of the road and there’d been less risk of us teetering off the edge, the bus I was in as well as all the traffic behind us had to back up a quarter-mile so a bus in the opposite lane could pass us. It was an hour-long process that involved both drivers waving their arms and yelling at each other out the window until the two buses had finally been able to safely weasel past one another.
When the bus arrived in Kangding after an eight-hour ride, seeing that I hadn’t bothered to book anything in advance, I began walking around, looking for a place to stay. As I’d read and remembered some commentary on the internet in advance about a few good guesthouses being located in that general direction, from the bus station I wandered up a road that diverged from the main part of town which’d been situated at the bottom of a valley alongside a raging river. This winding pathway led me up, up and away from the city center, through a residential area. About fifteen minutes later – five of which I started thinking I should turn around and head back to town before it got dark out – I came across a place called Zhilam Hostel.
“Hi there,” said the white dude in his late thirties who sat behind the desk in a North American accent. “Did you make a reservation?”
“Hey, what’s up? Naw, I didn’t. Please don’t tell me you don’t got any open beds here tonight.”
“Nah, don’t worry, we got open beds,” he replied. “You need a private or a dorm?”
“Alright. Dorm’s actually pretty much like a private this time of year anyway.”
“Yeah? Business is slow?”
“Yeah. This is a pretty big trekking area and it always slows down when it starts to get cold and snow. Can I get your passport so I can check ya in?”
“Timothy. From Chicago,” he said, looking at my information page. “What part of Chicago are you from, Timothy?”
“Northwest side. An area called Edison Park.”
“Hmm. Is a place called Olympia Park anywhere near Edison Park?”
“Olympia Park? Like, the one with the playground, the three baseball fields and the basketball court – that Olympia Park?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Yeah, that’s in Edison Park. That’s less than half-a-mile away from my house.”
“Wow, no way. You know the street Isham, right off Devon Avenue?”
“I got some friends who live on that street. My wife, the kids and I visit them every so often when we’re back in America. They’re like my second family.”
“That’s crazy. If you walk out onto Devon from Isham and head east towards the railroad tracks – like, ya know, less than a block away – there’s a place there called O’Connor’s Market. My mom works in the deli there.”
“Okay. Wow man, small world. Ya know, you should sign the guest book that’s sitting on the table over there near the fireplace before you go. Maybe I’ll contact you next time we’re in the neighborhood and we could get some tea or something.”
“Yeah, sure man. I’ll sign the book.”
So, I signed the book and even though my plan had originally been to keep travelling until my money ran out, I decided to fly home for Christmas that December and spend the first two weeks of 2013 in Chicago before again flying off to Sri Lanka to meet my Chinese friend, Yun. On one of the first several mornings of the new year, I’d been sitting around my parents’ house without much to do when I received a phone call from my mother who’d been at work in the deli.
“This guy named Kris is here. He said he met you in Tibet and he gave me a Tibetan necklace and his two little kids are with him and he’s just the nicest man. He thought that you were still in Asia but I told him you came home for Christmas. He’s sitting here right now having a cup of tea, you should come in and see him.”
“Oh yeah? No shit. Alright, I’ll be right over.”
I went over to the deli and took a seat at the table across from the man I’d met on the other side of the planet almost three months beforehand. It was a strange feeling to encounter him in such drastically different social contexts. After we’d greeted each other, he asked me why I was home and mentioned that he thought I’d still be travelling.
“I needed a break,” I told him, “but I’m heading back to Asia in a week or so. You here visiting your friends?”
“Yeah, in America for the holidays. We left the hostel for the winter because it’s too cold and we don’t get any customers. I remember you said your mom worked here and I thought I’d stop by. Pretty nice place.”
“Yeah,” I bopped my head up and down.
“Where you heading next?”
“Sri Lanka. I’m gonna meet a Chinese girl there.”
“Sri Lanka, yeah? You’re not gonna believe this,” he grinned, “but I actually grew up in Sri Lanka.”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah, Sri Lanka when I was younger and northern India during high school. My parents did mission work there.”
“Shit. Ooh,” I put my hand over my mouth, “sorry, forgot about the kids.”
“It’s okay. They didn’t hear. But, um, you plannin’ to go to Kandy?”
“Okay. Well, I can write down the names and addresses of some people I know there who can show you around if you’re interested.”
“Oh, that’s uh…that’s uh…I’m sorry,” I gasped. “My mind is blown by the coincidence of all this. It’s strange enough seeing you here in the place that my mom works and then you tell me you grew up in the far-fetched destination I happen to be heading to in less than a week? It’s all too much, Kristopher.”
“That’s okay,” he laughed.
“Um, yeah, sure, I’d love for you to write that stuff down for me.”
Although I didn’t end up convening with Kris’s contacts because my Chinese friend and I had our own agenda that was mostly all about one-on-one time while together on that island in the Indian Ocean, I’m still blown away by the one-in-a-million odds of all that’d happened. And then only a couple months after that when I’d been sitting in the lobby of a Tehran hotel getting to know the seven or eight other members of the tour group that’d signed up to be taken around Iran by a British-owned company that operates out of China, I was amazed to find that one of the girls had grown up less than a mile away from where I had on Chicago’s northwest side. It’s a small world after all. It truly is.