BY JONATHAN ARLAN
Gabriel was not the first traveler I’d shared a meal with, but he’s the one I think of most often—the one my mind drifts back to whenever I find myself thinking of wandering away again.
I met him in Belgrade, the most charmingly moody city in the world. My friend Saša had seen him loitering around the train station festooned in the functional gear of backpacker’s everywhere—sturdy boots, rumpled pants, layered sweaters, a bulging pack about to burst. He looked cold and lost, she said, the way backpackers in the Balkan winter always looked. So she invited him, and then me, to lunch, telling me on the phone that I’d like him. “He is a traveler,” she said, “like you.” I’d like to say that my first instinct was not to roll my eyes just a little. But picturing a kid who had veered slightly off course on a tour of the big European cities, I bristled at the comparison almost as much as the description of myself as a “traveler.”
“He might need a place to stay and he can’t stay with me,” she added before hanging up.
The way I remember it, my first glimpse of Gabriel is from a distance: he’s pitched forward slightly, balancing the weight of his pack with a small forward hinge in his waist, his hands clutching the shoulder straps. Standing under the gloomy statue of Prince Mihailo, and hemmed in on all sides by Belgrade’s blend of dirt-brown soviet architecture and gently dilapidating Austro-Hungarian edifices, he doesn’t look lost—he looks like a child.
“This is Jon,” my friend said, introducing us. “He’s a traveler, too.”
“Gabriel,” he said, extending a hand. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too. I’m not a traveler. I just like to travel.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I’m not sure. It sounds silly to call myself a traveler,” I said. “I just got on a plane and flew to Belgrade. Well, I took a train, actually. But you get what I mean.”
“But it’s what you do?”
“It’s what I’m doing at the moment. And I’m writing a book.”
“So, you are a traveler and a writer,” he said, and I couldn’t help but smile at the simplicity of this pronouncement. You are what you do.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
On the way to a cevapi spot not far from my apartment, Gabriel gave me the broad strokes of what he was doing in Belgrade. This is what he said, very calmly, as if he were telling me his plans for a long weekend: he was traveling around the world. He had no contacts, no destination, no plan, no end-date, and no money. It was obvious he’d repeated the same few sentences many, many times already and was tired of doing so. But I was genuinely curious—even if I thought the idea of asking for money was slightly problematic. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t annoyed that I hadn’t thought of it myself. There was no denying it: this sounded like a real adventure.
So, over cheap cevapi and beer (my treat, of course) I asked him to start at the beginning.
It was simple, he said. He was traveling from his home in Paris, around the world, and back. He brought no money with him and would not spend any of his own money along the way. He carried a backpack with some clothes and that was it. He would rely entirely on the kindness of strangers along the way to feed, shelter, and transport him. He wasn’t concerned with how long it would take. “It will take as long as it takes,” he said. “I’m in no hurry.”
Paris to Belgrade—a two-hour flight—had taken two weeks, four border-crossings and at least two bewildering conversations with local police. Along the way he’d slept outside—on park benches, in railway stations, in the open country—for roughly half of the nights. The other half, he’d been taken in by people who were either sympathetic, curious, supportive, or some combination of all three. “It is changing my life already,” he said, though when I asked him how, he couldn’t quite find the words. “It’s difficult to explain at this point. But might we order more cevapi? And some fries?” he asked.
Back in Paris, Gabriel had just finished law school. He was sure he wanted to be a lawyer, but he wanted to do this first. To do what, exactly? To travel. To see places. To meet people. To open himself up to the world. To give something back in return. To give what? To move very, very slowly. I wondered aloud if he was he worried. Worried about what? Was his family worried? Probably, but maybe not. Where was he going? To Turkey, first, and after that, wherever the world takes him: Iran, India, China, Hong Kong, Australia. What about money? Do you really not have any? And what’s the point? Presumably, you’ll be using someone else’s money, eating someone else’s food. Why not just use your own money? I had a thousand questions, but I could tell he was running out of steam. And beyond basic logistics, he didn’t have many answers to give anyway.
“I know that many people do not understand,” he said, putting a wad of cevapi down. “But what is incredible is that, so far, so many people do. Like your friend. She does not require a long explanation. She doesn’t ask me questions. Some people simply understand, almost by instinct, and are happy to be a part of my journey. In this way, my journey becomes not only about me, but about all the different people I will meet. About connecting them. I love this idea. When I thought of it, I knew I would do it. It was one of those moments. Like, ah-ha.”
“When did you think of it?” I asked.
“Three weeks ago.”
I waited for Gabriel to ask if he could stay with me. I imagine he waited for me to offer. But I didn’t, and I’m still not sure why. Instead, I paid for the food and, when we went outside, I handed him all the cash I had in my wallet, a wad of Serbian money that could not have amounted to more than five dollars. Before I could consider what to do next, he shook my hand, said goodbye, and took off down the street back toward the city center, where the statue of Prince Mihailo pointed solemnly toward Istanbul. My friend and I watched him until he turned a corner and disappeared.
I’ve thought of Gabriel every so often for the last three years, sometimes fondly, other times with something like regret for not having been more generous, and still other times irritated at the thorny idea of having other people foot the bill for his adventure. At odd moments, though—while I’m driving in my car, or dreaming of other places, or just as I’m falling asleep—I’ve tried to guess where he might be, if he’s still traveling, who he is with, who he’s met along the way, what he’s seen, and if he’d be able now to tell me how his life has changed. But mostly, I return again and again to what he might have said if I’d asked him one more question: Could I come, too?
Jonathan Arlan is the author of Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps, which the New York Times kindly called a “disarmingly engaging memoir by a millennial Kansan.” His writing has appeared in The Millions, Perceptive Travel, Adventure.com, and elsewhere. He is based in Kansas City and often on the road.
Jonathan Arlan 是 《Mountain Lines: A Journey through the French Alps》一書的作者，紐約時報雜誌贊許地稱其為 “一位千禧年堪薩斯人坦率的回憶錄。” 他的寫作曾刊載於 《The Millions》，《Perceptive Travel》，Adventure.com 以及 《elsewhere》。他住在堪薩斯城，但總是在路上。