Encore – Chapter Eight – A State of Secession


Leo Melikian, a smart but naïve 25-year old stuck in a lowly white-collar job in the South of France, finds himself living each day twice. Having won the lottery, he starts travelling first-class around Europe on Day As. Next stop: Italy and Spain, where he discovers trouble is brewing…

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Chapter 8: A State of Secession

 

After the drab and dreary weather of London, I decided to opt for warmer climes. I turned my attention south, to Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Each had perfect blue skies with just a few fluffy white clouds, warm and white sandy beaches, and, I had heard, some of the most beautiful architecture in the world.

In Rome, the quantity of monuments was so staggeringly high that the non-stop walking led to blisters on my feet by day’s end. I stopped by the Colosseum, where I tried to picture the staged naval battles that took place under Julius Caesar, when the arena was filled with water and gladiators on boats. In the Sistine Chapel, I was surprised to discover that Michelangelo’s iconic painting of God touching fingers with Adam, which I had expected to be grandiose and daunting, was but a tiny piece in a ceiling showing over 340 different figures. In St. Peter’s Basilica, I stood before the black bronze statue of St. Peter himself, and laid my hand on his right foot, turned gold from centuries upon centuries of pilgrims touching it to pray.

But just like in London, I ended up focusing on the people of Rome. I was struck by the contrast I saw. On one hand, Rome was cosmopolitan and vibrant, with women dressed glamorously, in tailored tight dresses of flamboyant colors, while the men were slim and elegant, almost feminine in fitted pants and jackets. In St. Peter’s square however, outside the Vatican, I waded through a sea of demurely dressed Christians, crossing themselves and looking skywards while murmuring prayers in Italian.

As I looked for a place to eat, and just as I had in London, I loaded up the latest news articles on Rome. Rome had apparently never been so devout. Attendance to the Vatican’s mass had skyrocketed, while religious pilgrimages to the city from all over Italy were off the charts. The country was reacting to its economic woes by turning to religion for hope.

I stopped at a small restaurant with straw-thatched chairs right behind the beautiful Trevi fountain, on a little street with century-old buildings of red stone. It was clearly a tourist trap, but I was hungry and didn’t mind spending 15 euros on a decent panini. That was, until I realized that unlike France, a panini in Italian didn’t mean a grilled sandwich. It just meant a sandwich. 15 euros for a cold meal I could have picked up in the supermarket, I thought, it’s a wonder their economy is struggling.

When night fell I jumped into a cab and asked to be brought to a local bar. I had had so much fun in London that I wondered if I could repeat the experience. I looked around the small venue. It was a tight space, with low arching ceilings and brick walls covered in wine bottle racks. The tables were made of elongated wooden barrels, surrounded by high metal chairs. In a corner, I spotted two men in their forties having a glass of red.

It was completely out of character for me to approach them, but I forced myself to. Hanaa had been right: I should be more forward. My hands shook ever so slightly as I approached. This bar was much calmer than the rowdy Scottish joint, and I was afraid they would look me up and down and ask me to leave them alone.

I walked up to them, explained I was French, visiting, and offered to buy them a drink if they would answer a few questions I had about Rome and Italy. To my utter surprise, they readily agreed, and before I knew it I was caught listening to them argue about who was more to blame for the destruction of the Italian democracy and economy: the European Union or Northern Italy. I would pop in with small questions, such as asking what the Lega Nord they kept referring to was, but otherwise kept silent. It turned out to mean the ‘Northern League’, a political party in Italy advocating for a secession of the North from the South that had been rapidly gaining political control in every northern region.

As I listened to them, I realized something fascinating. I wasn’t doing any of the talking, but that somehow made them like me all the more. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t an active part of the conversation, as long as I asked questions that launched them into debates. Incredibly, the more I stayed silent and let them talk, the more they took a liking to me. They started to pour me wine from their own bottle. “Made in Veneto, the best in Italy” they boasted, and repeatedly slapped me on the back while laughing at their own jokes like I was a long-time friend they hadn’t seen in years.

It was an interesting conclusion, but a pretty natural one. Everyone had the same favorite subject of conversation: themselves. Even though I had barely said anything, I was certain that they had left that night convinced that I was a truly interesting person. They would have been hard-pressed to explain why, but it didn’t matter.

Just two days later, on the following Day A, I saw the same thing happen in a small cafe in Naples, as I shared shots of grappa, the 60° Italian grape liquor, with two sexagenarians. It was getting easier and easier to approach people. I was discovering that everyone loved to talk, and when it came to Italians, they especially loved to talk about politics.

“So is the Mafia a big problem here?” I asked, unsure of whether or not this would be deemed offensive.

“Ha!” said Tommaso, slapping a hand on his knee, “Mafia is more of a problem for you these days! All our capos retire in the South of France!”

“Really?” I had never heard of this before.

“The real problem is the North. And the EU! What else can explain a 25% unemployment rate? They’re driving our banks to failure!” shouted Tommaso in a thick Italian accent that sounded as if he was singing out each phrase.

“Thank God our government bailed them out. We could have lost our pensions!” added Matteo, his balding friend with a heavy white mustache.

I sat in silence and nodded. I didn’t know if I agreed. As I saw it, if the Italian government, who was the one paying out Italian pensions, was spending billions of euros bailing out banks, that wasn’t exactly making Italian pensions any safer. But I kept my mouth shut and tried to move as little as possible. I was afraid I was going to throw up. The combination of the grape liquor and a day spent in the sun was making my head feel like the inside of a washing machine.

When I had landed in Naples that morning, I had discovered that the city sprawled out from a crystal-blue sea onto steep hills in a rainbow of bright, pastel-colored buildings. Sky-blue houses sat nestled between golden churches and rosy-pink hotels. Although the blisters from my trip to Rome had disappeared as soon as I woke up the next day, the searing pain was not something I cared to experience again. I immediately knew that if I had to walk up and down the narrow streets all day, my feet would be bloody and sore before I even settled down for lunch.

In a moment of sheer brilliance, I figured out the perfect plan. I stopped at an ATM, withdrew 10,000 euros in orange and green notes of 50 and 100, and waited by a small café. In only took two minutes before a man in a leather jacket with wavy black hair and a neatly trimmed beard parked his battered black Vespa right next to me. I had noticed that all the locals seemed to get around on the cute little things. Despite his shaky English, he quickly understood that I was offering triple what his Vespa was worth. He pumped my hand eagerly as he shook it, took the money, showed me how to start it, and handed me the keys.

I got on, and realized that he hadn’t given me a helmet. I looked around for him, and saw him already sitting at the café’s outdoor terrace, gesturing wildly with a giant smile on his face to the other regulars. He clearly couldn’t believe his luck in meeting the stupidest tourist alive. Not that I cared: the money would be back in my bank account on Day B. It was the luckiest day that he would never remember. I waved to him and pointed towards my head. He laughed and threw up his hand in the universal sign that it didn’t matter. When in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do, I had thought with a smile, Or were they called Napolis?

The ride that afternoon, careening down tight alleys before losing myself in the beautiful countryside roads of Naples with the wind blowing the hair from my face and tears from my eyes, had been just as thrilling and slightly more dangerous than the ride in the Ferrari had been. Were I to crash the Vespa, nothing would have protected me from the cobblestones but my flimsy cotton t-shirt. Thankfully this was a Day A, and if I did hurt myself really badly, it would disappear by the next morning.

I wondered though. What would happen if I hurt myself so badly that I died? Would I wake up the next morning in Day B, like when I had been knocked out in that club? Or was death in Day A just as sure and definite as in Day B? I was curious, but not so much so that I’d intentionally drive my Vespa into a wall to find out.

The question stuck with me however. Two days later, on a flight towards Barcelona, I started to think about it again. If the airplane I was on suddenly crashed and I died, would I wake up the following day or fall into the endless slumber of death? It was frustrating not to know, but I concluded it wasn’t worth the risk to find out.

I shut off my Kindle, where I had been going through the Barcelona Lonely Planet to figure out what I should visit, and rummaged through the black backpack that was my only luggage. Since I was only doing day trips, there was no use travelling with more than a carry-on, especially since I didn’t have to wait for any luggage on arrival. My pack held a bottle of water, a Quechua rain jacket in case it rained, a towel and swimming shorts for the beach, sunglasses, and a pack of French cookies called Barquettes de Lu that I had stolen from my mom’s pantry.

Feeling hungry, I opened the pack and took one out. The Barquettes were little canoe-shaped biscuits filled with sticky raspberry jam. I bit into one, and realized that this was the same Barquette I had eaten in London, Rome and Naples. I had never actually bought a new pack. Since I never ate them on Day Bs, they kept regenerating in my bag. I had essentially been eating the same biscuit over and over again. The thought was both fun and slightly weird.

The airhostess walked past me and asked if I needed anything. I smiled and politely declined. I had booked a business class seat for 3,208 euros on Iberia. The business class was clearly a rip-off. I was paying double for a slightly bigger seat and unlimited fizzy grape drink that they tried to brand as champagne, on a flight that only lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes. But it was a Day A, so it wasn’t as if I ever looked at the prices anyways. Especially when it allowed me to have priority boarding: I was first in and first out.

Given how much I was travelling, I couldn’t help but think it was a shame that I wasn’t able to accrue air miles. To reach Platinum level, the highest level on Air France and partners, all I needed were 60 qualifying flights. When you factored in that I was exclusively flying Business or First, that meant less than 30. If I kept up my current pace of travel, I would reach it in less than a month. Unfortunately, as far as Air France was concerned, whenever I reached their counter on a Day A, it was the first time they had ever seen me. I couldn’t accrue any miles because I was technically travelling only on days that never existed.

It was actually becoming a bit of a problem. I booked my tickets from the same person every morning, a rather portly Tunisian woman whose nametag read Fatima. She single-handedly manned the Nice Airport sales counter. She always looked surprised when I asked for a Business or First class ticket, mostly because I was dressed in travel gear that didn’t exactly scream that my bank account was loaded. Nike shoes for comfort, as the Rome trip had taught me to buy comfortable footwear, a geeky black backpack with extra-wide padded shoulder straps, comfortable jeans and a basic black cotton t-shirt. I always wanted to joke around with her, smile and say ‘It’s me again!’, but I knew that she wouldn’t recognize me. Every single time, looking at my passport, she would comment that her nephew had the same name as me. This morning, I had actually chosen to pre-empt her. She had taken my passport, opened her mouth to speak, but I had cut her off.

“Yup, just like your nephew!” I had said, “Same name.”

Mouth still open, she had looked at me with wide-open eyes while I smiled innocently.

“How did y-you k-know?” she had stammered.

“I guessed,” I had said, taking my passport and walking away towards the security area without turning back. Worth it, I had thought. Maybe I should try something new everyday, something along the lines of ‘Your nephew Leo… in twelve days time, don’t let him go to school. He is in grave danger.’ I had smiled at the thought.

Barcelona turned out to be even more magnificent than I had hoped. The whole city felt like it had been designed by an architect bent on breaking the laws of physics, which, as I learnt from the Lonely Planet, wasn’t actually too far from the truth. Antoni Gaudí, a Spanish Catalan, had created such incredibly twisted and beautiful works in Barcelona that he had been nicknamed ‘God’s architect’. The most impressive of which was of course Barcelona’s cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, that rose from the middle of the city in giant flutes twisting towards the heavens. Somehow, the cathedral seemed to be both growing from the ground and floating above it. As gigantic and imposing as it was, I was astounded to discover that it wasn’t even remotely close to finished. This was but the tip of the iceberg.

Unfortunately, my trip to Barcelona ended up coming to an abrupt halt. I had planned to visit much more of the city than I actually got to see. I wanted to go to the palm-tree shadowed square Placa Reial, the Gaudí-designed Park Güell, and Camp Nou, the stadium home to the world-famous Barcelona Football Club. But I never got farther than the Picasso Museum.

It wasn’t that Picasso fascinated me. On the contrary, Antibes, a seaside town fifteen minutes away from my parents’, also had a small museum dedicated to Picasso. I had always found it extremely hard to appreciate the beauty of his work. They looked messy, sometimes minimalistic. I never saw the value or the talent, but then again, I didn’t exactly know much about art besides my fascination for comic books.

So when I read in the Lonely Planet that Museu Picasso focused on Picasso’s younger years, when he followed a more traditional route, I was intrigued. By Picasso’s own admission: “…at age 15 I painted like Velazquez, and it took me 80 years to paint like a child.” Well, I wanted to see what Velazquez Picasso looked like, and after visiting la Sagrada Familia, I walked down Carrer de Sardenya, which although it appeared to be a giant avenue on Google Maps, was actually a narrow little street jam-packed with traffic. I took a right on Passeig de Pujades, walking in the shadow of the thirty meter plane trees bordering the Park of the Citadel, and engulfed myself into tiny and narrow pedestrian roads that seemed copy-pasted from the Old Nice.

The museum straddled a narrow street, an aerial bridge of stone arcs and columns that connected the tight gap between both rows of buildings. Like everything in Barcelona, it melded modern and ancient with ease. The old brick stone walls with four-leaf clover rings and little carved angels seamlessly blended into a four meter glass wall with automatic sliding doors. I paid 14 euros for my entry ticket, nodded to the rotund security guard sprawled out over his chair, keys dangling from his belt and beer belly erupting from his pants, and entered the museum.

I walked around glancing at the different paintings, haphazardly reading their descriptions, until I suddenly found myself in front of Picasso’s The First Communion. It stopped me in my tracks: Picasso hadn’t lied. I couldn’t believe this was one of his works. It felt taken straight from the Renaissance, shadows dancing across the frame, white and black clashing and fusing together. The painting showed Picasso’s younger sister, Lola, dressed all in white and reading from the Bible, kneeling in front of the altar as a priest in black and an altar boy looked on. The accompanying description said the painting had launched Picasso’s career as an artist.

Something about the painting fascinated me. I couldn’t explain it. I walked up as close as I could to the red velvet ropes surrounding it, trying to see each individual brush stroke. Maybe it was the violent dash of red of the altar boy’s robe, or how Lola’s face seemed to float out of the pure and ethereal veil of white surrounding her.

In French, there’s a feeling called ‘L’appel du vide’, the call of the void. It’s the feeling one gets when standing at the top of a cliff looking down, when a tiny but increasingly loud voice within screams to just jump. I didn’t know if it was the recurring thought I had been having of what death on Day A would lead to, or the fact that I was becoming used to the complete power I held, but I yielded to it.

I stepped over the barrier, cocked my fist back, and punched straight through the painting. Years of dried paint had made the canvas rigid, and it split along four jagged lines around my fist. I pulled out my hand, grabbed the edge of the piece on the bottom with Lola’s face, and tore it straight from the frame. I heard gasps and shouts from behind me as the other visitors started to process what was happening.

Piece in hand, I stepped back over the velvet ropes, and calmly walked out of the main room towards the museum’s entrance. My hands twitched from the rush of adrenaline coursing through my body, but my mind had never been clearer and calmer. I entered the main lobby, stood in front of the glass doors and waited for them to slide open. I glanced towards the piece I still held in my hand, at Lola’s perfect little round face, her head wreathed by white flowers, when my world suddenly erupted in a maelstrom of movement. Pain exploded in my right temple and shoulder.

This feels familiar, was my first thought as I realized that my face was now level with the floor. The security guard was straddling me and grasping for the piece in my hand. And I didn’t even try to steal his girl, I thought. With a speed uncharacteristic of his girth, he had apparently burst forth from his seat like a walrus jumping onto the ice and tackled me.

As I sat in the office of the director of the Museu, handcuffed and waiting for the Barcelona police to arrive, I tried to understand why I had acted the way I did. Was I going crazy? I certainly wouldn’t be able to continue visiting Barcelona now, as I would likely be spending the rest of my day in a cell. Although I had been going out of my way to get an insider’s perspective on the places I was visiting, even I had to admit that this was a bit too up close and personal.

In my hyperactive state, neurons firing, it didn’t take long for me to see clearer. I did it because I could. I did it because it didn’t matter. Tomorrow I would be back in bed, and the painting would be intact. I could do whatever I wanted with absolutely impunity. As long as I made sure that I was indeed in a Day A and not in a Day B, I had the ultimate ‘load saved game’ option. And somehow, tearing out the piece I liked from the painting was my way of proving myself that.

Reassured of my sanity, and still feeling the rush of adrenaline that was coursing through my veins, I smiled. It was exhilarating, a sensation of pure and utter freedom like I had never felt before. It was like jumping from a cliff into the ocean. Liberating.

Unfortunately, that feeling completely disappeared as soon as the Spanish policía showed up in black and yellow reflective uniforms with a horizontal checkered line crossing their chests. With one officer on each side of me, clutching my elbows with iron grips, I was paraded down the pedestrian streets like a common criminal to their police car, blue and red beacon rotating wildly. I was shoved into the back seat, and driven to the closest police station.

I was asked incredulously why I had done it, but when faced with my stony silence, pushed roughly into a holding cell with a small metal toilet devoid of a seat and two concrete benches jutting from the walls. I sat on the empty one and looked over at my cellmate.

He sat slouched over, elbows resting on his knees. His hair was long, stringy and dirty, and he wore a wild salt and pepper beard. His ragged red t-shirt read Pamu, but had a Puma logo. He was drunk. I could smell the alcohol from two meters away.

Scarily, he was also much bigger than me. He had muscular, tattooed arms and a wild look in his bloodshot eyes. My whole interior monologue on the utter freedom of action on Day As suddenly seemed a lot less relevant. I could keep telling myself that nothing mattered if it happened on Day As, but I was pretty sure that if my cellmate decided to beat the shit out of me, I was going to sing another tune. Or worse, maybe he would simply decide to rape me. Wasn’t that what happened in prison?

“¿Qué hiciste?” he asked in Spanish.

“What?” I answered in English.

“What you do?” he asked.

“Oh. I destroyed a painting.”

He laughed in a rough and throaty bark.

“That all you do? ” he asked.

“Yeah. But it was a Picasso. What about you?” I didn’t know where this was going, but I figured the safest option was to keep him talking.

“I do nothing!” he said loudly, getting agitated, “Government is one committing crime!” He got up, no longer talking to me, and walked to the bars at the entrance of the cell, yelling to the end of the hall where the policemen sat at their desks.

“We no have jobs! We no have hopes! You get rich on taxes we pay! We pay for Spain but Spain do not help us!”

They ignored him.

“Independentisme català!” he began to shout, his voice gaining in volume with each chant, “Independentisme català! Independentisme català! Independentisme català!”

He kept shouting louder and louder. I lay down on the bunk, facing the wall. I didn’t speak Catalan, but it was easy to understand what he was yelling. Independence for Catalan. I sighed. This again, I thought, I’m honestly growing sick and tired of it. Scotland, Italy, Cataluña… Everywhere I went, it seemed that people either wanted to split off from their own country or from the EU. It was growing incredibly repetitive.

I closed my eyes and tried to drift off to sleep. It was the middle of the afternoon but I hoped I’d manage to sleep long enough to pass the sweet spot where I would wake up back in my own bed. My cellmate’s voice slowly faded away. As my eyelids grew heavy, I decided that for my next trip, I was going to go to a place where I didn’t have to talk to people obsessed with secession. As far as I knew, Germany didn’t have this problem. Or maybe Ireland. One thing was sure: I wasn’t coming back to Barcelona any time soon.

~ End of Chapter 8 ~

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