I rounded the corner to the little eddy where the travel books lived at the very back of my favorite independent bookstore and came face to face with a nattily dressed old man in his late 70s. He wasn’t browsing amongst the titles; his hands were empty, and he clearly wasn’t on his way in or out of this little literary cul-de-sac stuffed with guides, maps and memoirs.
He was clearly waiting. But for whom? Me?
It was like that moment in The Silence of the Lambs when Clarice Starling first meets Hannibal Lecter as he stands at attention in the center of his cell, meeting her eyes from the first instant and smiling in anticipation. But there was nothing at all ominous about the kindly old gentleman before me.
His hands were folded together across the front of his suitcoat, and he looked like an old retired campaigner waiting for a bus. He wore an antique enameled pin with an illustration of a mountain on it on one lapel, and — and this is the truth — he had a carnation inserted in the buttonhole of the other. Who does that anymore?
He smiled warmly and greeted me as if he had been expecting me, but it had an old-fashioned formality to it, like a curtain speech delivered before the performance of a play, the gravity helped along by his crisp English accent.
I returned the greeting, and then, a bit off-balance, turned my attention to the travel books. But he kept his focus on me.
“Planning to do a bit of traveling, eh?”
Yes, I told him.
“Off to where, may I ask?”
Europe, I replied.
“Which part?” he wanted to know.
A bit of Italy, a bit of Hungary, a few days in Poland, I answered. And then he was off, recounting his own travels all over the world, sharing his most-loved moments from the places I’d named, and looking keenly back to me frequently to gauge my interest and understanding.
There are certain travelers who have a definite competitive streak, and they wield their passports like a cudgel to try to assert status over those they perceive as less traveled than they. When they ask you if you’ve been somewhere, and you have, they disappointedly fish for other destinations until they finally find one they’ve hit that you’ve not visited, at which point they assure you that this particular destination is the Best Travel Experience of their lives, the very culmination of their travel ambitions. They shake their heads piously that you’ve somehow missed this magical place. To such folk, travel is a game to be won, not a philosophy of openness and curiosity about the world. It’s their loss.
And at first, I thought this kindly old man was one of their number. But I was wrong. We agreed on the beauty of cartography and romance of following your progress along the arteries and veins of maps. He congratulated me on having been to this or that place, hungrily latched onto the tiny details that added to his own understanding of them, wanted to tell me things he’d found there himself. He was far more interested in communing with another true believer than asserting higher status.
As I listened to him basically tell the story of his life as a traveler, it dawned on me that he had indeed been waiting for me there in the tiny travel section of the independent bookstore. He’d dressed up that morning, in his immaculate but dated and time-worn suit, wanting to look his best, looking forward to his expedition to find and corner a kindred spirit. He’d staked out a spot, like a lion poised at a watering hole, at a place where his quarry would be most likely to appear, and pounced when I came into view.
No, that’s not quite right. He was an ecstatic, a devotee, a lover of the world and he’d gathered himself together today to go to this secular church and find his congregation.
When my wife came upon me and told me it was time to leave, I didn’t want to go, I was enjoying myself so much. His face fell when he saw that I had to go. For a moment, there was that odd little dance where both of us privately wondered if it would seem strange to exchange contact information, a moment of indecision as to whether what had bloomed between us was friendship or merely courtesy. I could tell he had so much more to say. And I wanted to hear it. But the moment passed, and so we awkwardly settled for shaking hands and saying goodbye.
On the walk back home, I told my wife about my encounter with the docent of the bookstore travel section.
“That’s you in thirty years,” she smiled.
I remember thinking, “That’s me now.”
Story and Photography ©Robert Bundy