Julien showed up at Florin on Sunday night unannounced and asked to share our booth. He had a book in one hand, cigarettes that smelled like open fields, wire-rim glasses and a traveller's beard. He spoke no English, and I was intrigued by his confident silence as he stared at Mike; the foolish, talkative New Yorker in front of him. Mike was waxing philosophical about Nietzche and feeling very drunk and very smart. I enjoyed my place in the corner, smirking at the fact that Julien had told Mike repeatedly that he only speaks Spanish and French (after growing up in Belgium and working for over two years in Peru, English hadn't yet become a necessity) but Mike insisted on continuing in his native tongue, dabbling in Spanglish when he could.
“Who’s winning?” I interrupted. I love a good argument when one person has no idea what he is talking about, and the other is letting him slowly dissolve in his own misguided chatter. Julien looked at me studiedly.
“He is, of course,” he said in Spanish, gesturing towards Mike without a smile. We made plans within an hour to meet up the next day.
Beginning with breakfast Monday morning at 8, Julien and I used los leones of the 25 de Mayo Plaza as our meeting place, often several times a day, as I dodged between the orphanage and teaching and studying. If I had a few minutes between classes, we would dash to a photography exhibit or reexamine the antique mirrors of Bolivian silver that I craved or have espresso dobles in every corner of the city. I quickly grew accustomed to seeing his long legs stretched in front of him as he waited peacefully for me to find him again. Often, he was chatting with a shoeshine boy. Child workers swarm Sucre, and Julien had a gentle way of dealing with them. After a particularly long conversation with a fourteen year old whose hands were black from polish and whose face showed a lot of wisdom, we agreed that letting children shine your shoes (or wipe your windshield, or in general prostrate themselves in front of you for a few bolivianos) was demeaning, no matter how much they needed the work, and while we may share some food or change with them, allowing them to work for you felt quite wrong.
“I don’t like the idea of someone getting on their knees,” Julien shivered. “It’s a position of superiority that I don’t want to take part in.” But besides the personal discomfort we felt at grownups propping a foot up so a child could clean it, we couldn’t decide how to mentally approach a place like Sucre, with the highest child-worker population on the continent. Not permitting a pre-teen to polish your boots might feel superior, but it does nothing to change the reality of his situation. It doesn’t change the system that requires extra income from young children for survival, nor does it alter the course of the kids who are coming after him within that system. Like most things that feel morally correct, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done.
At the massive cemetery, we wandered amidst rows of coffins and wondered what etiquette is on photographing other people’s grief. Someday I will have to become less shy when I see a photo I want, but for now I usually prefer to observe a moment and let the actors live it themselves, rather than forcing myself to be a part of it through the camera. We heard noise as we neared the entrance. He thought it was a traffic jam. I thought it was yet another pack of dogs. It turned out to be a thick clump of mourners trailing behind a hearse as it rolled into the cemetery and released a coffin. We sat on a bench watchfully; observing men in dark grey suits linger at the fringes while women in campesino garb did the hard work of vocal mourning. Julien’s dad died in a car accident when he was a year old, and he told me about when his mom had taken him once to visit his father’s grave. He didn’t feel a thing, and didn’t know what to do with himself. “After we stood at his grave for a while, we went and got cake and coffee. That was the only good part. There is a phrase in French that says, ‘A grave is to hold the body of the dead and the heart of the living,’ but I don’t see the point. It’s strange to me.”
After we left the cemetery, exiting under the big Latin sign that says “Today me, tomorrow you,” we found graffiti on the wall that proclaimed, “The walls will stop talking once the newspapers tell the truth.” We got lost. We bought ice cream and sat on a stoop laughing at how ridiculous travel is, how strange life can be when lived in five minute increments, and stopped by a bookstand to see the treasures. “We didn’t read enough together this week,” I told him regretfully. “We only had four days!” he reminded me with a laugh. With so much to do, reading, although a mutual passion, was the last thing to spend time on. We drank copious amounts of mate in Simon Bolivar park, and as I studied Spanish grammar he read novels to me in French. We talked about our wildly divergent views on religion, the fate of the world, on family and how to carry on relationships. We spent most of our moments together, and at 3 am on Sunday night he walked me home, kissed me goodbye, and walked away without turning around. I preferred it that way.
Today, for the first time this week, I walked through the plaza and there was no Julien waiting for me. Although I knew he was gone, I still scanned the benches for his dark beard, for his gangly legs, for his knowing grin. All gone; and I felt a sweet loneliness. It’s a quiet surprise when a few valuable days sneak up on you, change you, and whisk themselves away before you even know what they are or how to hold them in your hand. Travel is such a microcosm of life in that way: we cannot hold onto people, or make them into something they are not, but enjoy brevity and joy where we find it.