The next morning, Sila was up early, translating a local article into Slovene, only this time he didn’t care enough to tell her the results.
Sliding off the top bunk, Joanna exited the room in kung food fighting t-shirt and OB knickers and brushed her teeth in the bathroom one door down, half-listening in on the two blonde women speaking Polish next to her.
She didn’t know for sure it was Polish, it was more of a guess, based on its tonal similarity to one of the guys she’d taken up to the top of the hill in Ljubljana. He was Polish, or so he claimed. With a masters in Life, Literature & Thought. And an ex-girlfriend from Turkey.
It was strange, why did she remember all that?
Maybe cos he was the only one who tried to fuck her on the path leading up to the hill?
As she brushed her teeth she said cha ah a few times then cha yune, then zau la as she left the hostel and walked to the train station timetable to see if anything was running that day.
The board was light-less and full of CANCELLATO, so she steered left and asked the man behind the glass.
‘No train, 2 days.’
‘No train, 2 days, nothing. Come back 2 days after and train.’
Joanna looked at the woman reading a book behind the next counter and asked her just to confirm.
‘No train, 2 days,’ she replied, not looking up.
‘Really? There is no train today, not one?’
‘No train, 2 days, nothing. Come back 2 days and train.’
There were still a few asylum seekers in the station, harrowed, hollow, bored, though most of them had relocated outside. She saw the man from the night before, Patrice, and asked him if there were any buses going to Slovenia.
‘Don’t know. I never see.’
Joanna looked down the road and saw a line of black on white stripe buses sitting dormant in a car park.
Patrice followed her look and said, ‘ah, you say bus. Yes, they are there.’
She walked over to the buses without thanking him and asked an Italian man with a thin cigarette if any of the buses were going to Slovenia.
He said, ‘what?’ a few times then repeated Slovenia in Italian, which didn’t really sound any different to her ears.
‘International bus is only at morning. Today bus is already go, tomorrow bus, it is same time.’
‘I don’t know. Is early.’
Another local guy with the Fonda cut from Klute overheard them speaking and walked over, asking Joanna in very broken Mandarin what she was looking for.
Luckily her Mandarin was almost as good as her Cantonese, so she told him she was looking for the bus to Ljubljana and this guy had told her it was not until the next morning, but she was hoping there might be one leaving today.
The Klute man nodded and continued in his own version of Mandarin, with several off tones but still just about decipherable, ‘I think, yes, there is bus today.’
‘Is it going to Slovenia?’
‘What time, I don’t know.’
‘Okay, but does the bus go to Slovenia?’
‘I don’t know. You look at that. It has what time is it.’ He was pointing to a sign so she walked over to it, followed by the man, who continued to speak weird Mandarin at her even when she stopped saying anything back.
‘You are China?’
The sign was all in Italian but again she knew what the word for Ljubljana looked like and it wasn’t on there.
‘You are China person?’
She thanked him and said she would come back the next day.
‘I don’t know,’ said the Klute man. ‘But…I show you this.’ He pointed at the buildings across the road, presumably not knowing the word for city. ‘You like it?’
Joanna said in English that she was with her boyfriend but thanks for the offer.
‘Boyfriend…I do not see. He is no here so…’ It was a mix of English and Mandarin now. ‘Come, I show you, very old buildings. You must like it.’
She stopped speaking and started walking, the Klute man following her back to the train station entrance.
‘Where you go, I show you this. It is good choice.’
She stopped next to Patrice, who was sitting on a bench outside, throwing a coin up and down, and asked if he wanted to go for lunch with her.
He looked up, confused, dropping the coin.
‘What, this is your boyfriend?’ the Klute man said, almost jabbing Patrice in the chest.
‘I’m hungry,’ she continued, positioning her back to block out the Italian. ‘Let’s go eat lunch.’
‘I don’t have money for this,’ Patrice said, bending down to pick up the coin.
‘No, I don’t want to take from you, it is no good.’
‘This?’ the Italian said louder.
‘You took ten euros from me last night.’
‘Ten euro…no, I give it to you. I say thank you for coffee and the muffeen.’
‘I know, but you didn’t give the other ten back straight away.’
‘Other ten? I don’t-…I give it to you.’
‘This cannot be your boyfriend.’ The Klute man was looking around for spectators, but no other Italians were interested. ‘Cannot. Impossible.’
‘Okay. How about this? I buy you lunch, you teach me French.’
‘You speak French, don’t you?’
‘Oui. I speak French. How you know?’
‘You told me last night.’
Joanna moved closer to Patrice, shifting her feet again to block out the guy behind. ‘Look, can you wake up, this guy is ho ma fan. Do you want lunch or not?’
‘You really fuck black?’ asked the Klute man, jabbing the air in front of Patrice again. ‘You have sick in your head? Think he is famous footballer, like this?’
‘Can we just start walking?’ she asked, refusing to look at the Italian guy.
Patrice stared at the Klute man’s finger hovering near his cheek, how easy it would be to bite off, then said, ‘oui, go for lunch,’ and followed after her.
They walked back onto the main street leading to the beautiful renaissance buildings of downtown Vicenza, ignoring the Klute man, who trailed after them for twenty metres or so before giving up and calling her a troubled fucking dog in wonky Mandarin.
‘What does he say?’ asked Patrice, putting the hood of his jacket over his head.
‘He thinks you’re a dog.’
‘Both of us. But mostly you.’
Patrice nodded, noticing an elderly Italian woman coming the other way, giving him a funny look. He put his hood back down and smiled at her.
The crone swerved left and quickly crossed the road, not checking either direction for cars.
The French lesson was pretty straightforward. Painfully straightforward actually, so much so that after saying her name and age and how are you thirteen times, Joanna put her coffee down and asked how to say, ‘it is illegal for asylum seekers to work, but there are ways around it.’
Patrice didn’t understand the second part, but said, actually, he wasn’t an asylum seeker, he was a skilled worker.
‘You know asylum seeker?’ Joanna asked, starting in on her third tiny cup of coffee.
‘Oui, I know this. I know this in Italian too. Most of the other men, at the station, they are asylum seeker.’
‘And you’re a skilled worker?’
‘I don’t know how to say. Ingénieur en structure. I build…but not build. It is different.’
‘I don’t know. I know this word in Italian, but it is no good. The company tells me to come here, to Italy. Usually, I will not come, but my friend, he recommend this to me. Maybe not a friend, but I know him a little and I speak Italian a little, so I come here, come to Vicenza, but no company, only some men. They say wait two weeks, job is coming, so I go to hotel, wait two weeks. Nothing happen. Then two weeks after, the men come again, they-…pardon, you really want to hear?’
Joanna came back from the Tenebre poster on the wall next to her. ‘If you want.’
‘It is not French.’
‘You do not want this lesson or…’ said Patrice, turning and looking at the rest of the cafe to see what she kept drifting off to. Nothing apparently. Just Italians and posters of old horror films. He turned back, taking the tiniest sip of his coffee. ‘We can change if you like?’
‘What did the men do?’ Joanna asked, eyes back on him.
‘The job men?’
‘They took your money?’
‘No, the men, they do not take money, they take my passport. My phone too. They say it is the guarantee I do not go back home. Then they say do work, but it is for nothing, six months, so I say no. They say, okay, live on street, they do not care. If I have money, new passport, of course, I will go back home, but…’
‘To your wife?’
‘Oui, but first I need money. No money in my pocket, no chance to go to my bank, cannot get new passport, so…’
‘What about your embassy?’
‘I know you say this.’
‘They can get you a new passport, two weeks. It happened to my friend in Thailand, he lost his passport, two weeks, he could get out.’
‘No, I try this, no embassy in Vicenza.’
‘Roma. But cannot, need money for train.’
‘You can’t go to the bank, take out cash?’
‘They don’t have your bank here?’
‘Here? No, they have the connection, can use, but I have no card. They take it from me, when they take the money. I try to get a new card, but…it is a big story.’
Joanna nodded, pulling her chair in so the toddler from the next table wouldn’t bump into it. ‘You can’t get enough money to go to Roma?’
‘Not even close?’
‘Je comprends pas.’
‘Do you nearly have enough money for the train?’
‘No, not near.’
Joanna finished off her coffee, trying to remember from the station sign how much the train tickets were.
‘You do not need to think about it, I can do this problem. Do not worry.’ Patrice glanced at the Profondo Rosso poster just past Joanna’s head and immediately came right back. ‘We should speak more French, no?’
‘How do you make money?’
‘Ici? N’est facile pas.‘
‘Ha, tu te souviens de quoi…’
‘You remember how to say what. It is good.’
‘It’s one word.’
‘I know. I try to…comment dit-tu…make you feel good about your French speaking.’
‘Merci. How do you make money here?’
‘You want in English?’
‘If you want this to be a conversation.’
Patrice smiled, shifting his leg as the toddler ran past again. ‘Ah, make money here. It is not easy.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘It’s not easy, that’s your full answer?’
‘Je comprends pas.’
‘What is true?’
‘The thing I say. It is not easy to make money here. Make is not the good word for this, I think.’
Joanna looked at the dregs of foam in her empty cup. ‘How much do you need to go back?’
‘No, I don’t want. You give me too much before.’
‘I wasn’t offering, don’t worry. I’m not Lei Ka Sing.’
‘Quoi? Leeka sing?’
‘Twenty euros is okay, but that’s all. I need the rest of it for Ljubljana. I’ve been running quite low recently.’
‘The man I’m stuck with, he travels around a lot, and I’m already halfway through my pension so I don’t know how much longer I can keep up. And he still doesn’t tell me what happened in the cave. He just keeps me following him around Europe. I don’t know. I think it’s a waste of time. Actually, I thought that last night. That’s why I’m trying to go back to Ljubljana.’
‘Pardon, I do not understand. Why do you-…’
‘But now the trains are delayed and the buses are acting like it’s the middle of Mongolia. How can there be one bus a day to the country right next to you? How does this country even function?’
The toddler stopped by Joanna and said, ‘wah.’ Then grinned like a Djinn in a cul-de-sac and ran off.
‘Italy is not so good if you are not Italian person. You are black, no good. Chinese, also no good. If I am you, I will leave. But I am here and have no money so…’
‘I don’t like this place. Feels like I’m stuck in Fanling while everyone else is watching Chet Baker in Tsim Sha Tsui.’
‘Yes, I don’t like too.’ Patrice loosened his grip on the butter knife he didn’t realise he’d even been holding and looked at the clock next to the 6 Donne Per L’Assissino poster. ‘It is almost two hours. You want to speak more French?’
‘I’m gonna go back to the hostel.’
‘See if Mad Sila’s found any more cabinets to stab.’
‘Thank you for the French lesson.’
‘You stab cap nets? Stab is with a knife, you mean?
Joanna stood up and wrapped her jacket tight around her. It was snowing outside now, just like in Austria, and Germany, as if the whole cold front was chained to her ankle.
‘You go now?’
She nodded, giving him another ten euro note. ‘Take this, you can buy another coffee. Some dinner later too.’
‘Okay then, I’ll leave it here. Either you or the waitress can have it.’
She put the note on the table and walked out of the café and onto the old streets of Vicenza without looking back. If she had looked back, she would’ve seen two Italian men approaching Patrice at the table and imagined something bleak instead of what they actually said, which was, ‘we overhear what you talk with the girl and we want French lesson too.’
Patrice waited for the we’re joking, you fucking black, but it didn’t come.
‘How much for two hours, four times in one week?’
‘You want me teach French to you?’
‘Yes, how much?’
Patrice took a sip of coffee to give himself time to think. He had no idea what the market price was. He was a structural engineer, not a teacher. He didn’t even have a textbook, he didn’t know the technical words of language. There was noun, verb, adjective, he knew those, but what else?
‘We see she give you 10 euro. This is for one hour no?’
He thought about lying and saying, yeah, one, but then remembered that asshole back in Abidjan who’d sold him the cooling unit for four times its original price. Whatever he’d done since he’d been here, he wouldn’t be that guy.
‘It is two hours with the girl.’
‘Ten for two hours? Okay, there is two of us in one lesson so we give you 20, okay?’
Patrice conferred with the Profondo Rosso poster then nodded and said, ‘okay, we can start tomorrow.’
The two men wrote down their phone numbers on a tissue and handed it to Patrice, who said he’d meet them back in the same café the next day for the first lesson.
‘You don’t have house?’
‘Here is better.’
‘Why, where you live?’
He thought about lying, but didn’t wanna struggle if they asked him which hotel, which room, which street. He was no good at lying, never had been. ‘La gare. The train station.’
‘So…here is okay for the lesson?’
The two Italians, possibly students, thought Patrice, looked at each other. One of them shrugged and muttered, ‘I don’t care,’ in Italian. The other one turned back and said, ‘okay, here, tomorrow, this time.’
When he was alone again, Patrice borrowed a pen from the waitress and wrote down estimates on a new tissue: how long it would take him to save enough cash for a ticket and passport renewal, if he had enough now to buy a cheap phone from the market, and how many more nights he’d have to spend at the train station.
And an extra note at the end: is this a magical café or a cruel dream?
He looked at the two guys walking past the window outside, nodding at him then turned back to the faces in the café. They were either old or middle-aged and 51% of them were staring at him like he’d just kidnapped their children.
Ah, that’s what it was
a horrible fucking ocean of misery with a tiny, tiny boat called Amateur French Lessons anchored in the middle.