Every morning, the hotel’s guests gathered for breakfast on the terrace beneath a palisade of horseshoe arches, the blue of the sea and sky luminous in the background. I watched them for clues, hoping that they had something to hide. Perhaps that Englishman and that German over there had met before, one night in Kabul…
Unfortunately, they all seemed like nice, boring people, feeding the sparrows bread crumbs and getting sunburns – with the exception of one gentleman, who worked on his laptop all day, every day, while his wife lounged in the sun, smoking one cigarette after another. The question of what he was working on haunted us: was he a shady market broker, or an industrial spy? I tried to fabricate a story, but I couldn’t come up with anything satisfyingly sensationalist that might explain his presence in this small hotel in a part of the EU where factories are nesting areas for storks and the mule-and-buggy a form of transportation.
I wondered if he was a writer; maybe he was working on a historical novel about the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, or the horrors of the major slave trade port that Lagos had once been. Whenever we passed him that week (once we were out of ear shot) we’d comment on what a workaholic he is, how sad that is, his poor wife, etc., but secretly, I was jealous.
I wasn’t sitting in front of my computer, writing. I was spending my days in the sun in spite of the incessant, goose-bump inducing wind, like any sane person on vacation would. The wind was so strong that my beach towel threatened to fly away whenever I changed position on the recliner, and it kept ripping the pages of my book out from under my fingers. The wind blowing through the palm trees was so loud that I couldn’t hear the Atlantic waves crashing, although I could watch them coming in to shore, one after the other.
While my boyfriend showered, I opened the window and sat down on the bed, spreading the map of Portugal from our travel guide out in front of me. I like looking at maps, am comforted by the rare clarity they provide. For a moment, things are as easy as getting from A to B; there’s a clear goal, I can figure out how to get there, and I know where I currently stand.
Studying the southern coast for the best route back to the airport, I was surprised to discover the Ruta de Washington Irving, its bright blue dots tip-toeing around little symbols for golf clubs, gas stations, and windmills, along beaches, past the airport, across Portugal’s border into to Spain, and over the map’s edge. It was like the night I bumped into someone from back home on a street corner in Hong Kong; I had just re-read “Rip Van Winkle” in the 600 page “The Oxford Collection of American Short Stories” that I’d brought with me.
Seventeen years he lived in Europe. He wrote “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in England, learned Spanish in Paris, and was then invited to work in Spain as an attaché to the American embassy. While there, he lived in and wrote about the Alhambra, Christopher Columbus, and the prophet Mohammed.
Later, in one of the few biographies I could find, I read that many contemporaries questioned Irving’s validity as an American writer. His life certainly doesn’t marry happily with the image of an American patriot, traipsing off to Europe for years on end like that, showing interest in foreign cultures, languages, and religions; he didn’t even particularly believe in democracy. Perhaps his story is too messy to be good biography material, his life too full of detours.
Stories, like maps, provide a structure and an order missing in real life. No pointless seeming detours. No coincidences: the scimitars hang on the lobby wall for a reason. There’s a coherent plot. Meaning. But the best stories do instill a sense of real-life chaos, of complexity and uncertainty, of mystery, leaving questions unanswered, making you think. Where do we come from (point A) and where are we going (point B)? Like Adam Johnson’s “Cliff Gods of Acapulco”, for example, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies”, or Jennifer Egan’s “The Goon Squad”. Those are the questions and the stories that make me want to write.
I got up and closed the window; it was getting chilly. Then I spent too much time trying to fold the unwieldy map back together again, and called it a day. It was my turn to shower, anyway, and I was hungry. And I knew exactly where I wanted to go for dinner.