travelers-talesBy Matthew Félix

Grand Prize Silver Winner in the Thirteenth Annual Solas Awards

I’ve traveled extensively.  But you’d never know it from the looks of my apartment.  Between an almost obsessive insistence on traveling light—never carrying more than one backpack, which fits into any overhead bin—and a general aversion to accumulating things, I hardly ever bring back mementos from the road.

That’s what made my attraction to the pomegranates all the more peculiar.

There were several of them, in three different sizes, each in an irresistible flaming red that called to mind the poppy’s licentious crimson.  They caught my eye no sooner than I had entered my favorite shop on Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian street that serves as Istanbul’s commercial spinal cord. As I knew from my year-long stay two decades earlier, in addition to baubles like the pomegranates, the store featured an intriguing variety of select books, fascinating old maps, and all manner of objects harkening back to the city’s rich Ottoman past.

The pomegranates, however, were the work of a contemporary artist and, even as I perused the rest of the store, again and again my gaze was drawn back to them.  Perhaps it was that striking color, catching my eye like a torero’s cape commanding the unwavering attention of a bull.  Maybe the recollection of the pomegranate’s divinely sweet nectar had set my taste buds aflame.  Or, it might have been the way the shiny enamel brought to life a fruit with such a glorious history, one reaching all the way back to antiquity. When the Greek goddess Persephone was tricked into consuming six pomegranate seeds, she was condemned to spend half of each year in the underworld.  For the Egyptians, the fruit was a potent symbol of prosperity.

Whatever it was, I wanted one.

But what was I going to do with it?

I was only two months into a six-month trip that would take me to more than a dozen countries.  How could I justify carrying around an object that was not only relatively heavy but even somewhat fragile, one that in the absence of a pile of papers to weigh down served no other purpose than to look pretty? Despite the unmistakable insistence I felt coming from somewhere deep inside, I just couldn’t convince myself it made any sense.

I left the store empty-handed.

~ ~ ~

A couple of weeks later it occurred to me that a book I’d seen in the shop on Istiklal Caddesi would make a perfect gift for one of my Turkish friends.

I headed to the store, happy for a pretext to return. The book, after all, was only half the reason I was excited, a convenient excuse to go back.  What I was even more interested in were the pomegranates.  Already, before I’d set foot in the store, they were calling to me again.  Once there, I made a beeline for them, their allure this time even stronger than the last.

Taking into my hands the impeccable rendering of the illustrious fruit, I savored the feel of its cool surface, my fingertips gliding over the smooth enamel.  I admired the lifelike form as I cradled it in my palm, enamored of its incomparable color.

As though contemplating a potential lover I couldn’t risk letting get away a second time, everything in my being—except reason—resolutely opened up to it, as if taking a cue from the blossom that crowned it.
I didn’t merely want to buy the pomegranate.

I was supposed to.

So I did.

~ ~ ~

After an inspiring, productive month, I boarded a plane for the other end of the Mediterranean, sorry to leave Istanbul behind.  I’d spent time with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. I’d relived fond memories from a distant past.  I’d made unforgettable new ones I’d carry with me far into the future.  Still, I was looking forward to finding myself in Barcelona for the start of summer.

Little could I have known that, although the beach was in plain sight of the tiny studio I’d rented atop a tower in the Barri Gòtic, I would scarcely sink my toes into the sand.  Day after day, night after night—often not finishing until four or five in the morning—I was consumed by a creative drive the likes of which I’d never experienced.  I had come to Europe with the intention of finishing the final draft of my first novel, and that proved to be my sole obsession for the entire month.  I didn’t go to the beach.  I didn’t go out.  I didn’t return to the Sagrada Familia or the Picasso museum, just a few doors down.  My refuge in the sky had 360-degree views of the city, mountains, and sea, ensuring I had all the inspiration I needed to stay glued to my desk and focused on the task at hand.

When the time came to say goodbye to the Ciutat Comtal and turn my sights towards a land of volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls, I was struck by a sense of missed opportunity. I had just spent a month in the heart of a neighborhood full of unique, independently-owned shops and boutiques. Even for someone with little interest in buying things, it seemed a shame not to have stepped inside a single one.  Fortunately, I still had an entire afternoon to do just that.

Strolling into a store housed in one of the area’s countless medieval buildings, cavernous edifices with thick stone walls and few, if any, windows other than those in front, I meandered over to a rack of T-shirts.  Lackadaisically flipping through one, then another, almost having to force myself to make the effort, an unexpected surge of delight shot from my hand to my head, as though I’d stuck my finger into a socket.

I loved it right away.

As iconic as baguettes and berets.  Simple yet practical.  Depending on the country, commonly referred to as two horses, ugly duckling, or flying dustbin.  Like the Fiat 500 in Italy, emblematic of not only France, but all of Europe. Indeed, if a movie took place in France in the 70s or 80s, a Citroën 2CV was guaranteed to make a cameo, if not have a starring role.

I had to have that shirt.

Fortunately, unlike my struggle with the pomegranate, this time around there was no need for debate.
It was functional. It was inexpensive. It was easy to pack.

It was mine.

~ ~ ~

Strange that after the excitement of our initial meeting, my new favorite shirt would end up forgotten in the depths of my backpack for the better part of a month.  By the time it reemerged, I had left Björk singing to the whales on her own, touched down in Paris just in time for a transit strike, and beheld the sun rising through the window of a train traversing the Alps. I had lost myself in the engineering and architectural marvel that is Venice (and had the mosquito bites to prove it), and endured a disappointing ferry ride in which all the sensory pleasures of yesteryear—the salty wind in my face, the blistering sun on my skin, the raucous cries of gulls overhead—had been sacrificed in the name of speed.  The ferry was more plane than boat, its fuselage lacking a single outdoor space for passengers to make any sort of contact with the sea.

Eventually, somehow I had also ended up on Hvar.

I hadn’t planned on it.  But neither had I planned on the challenges I faced in Rovinj. For a solid week three children pounded on the uncarpeted hardwood floors above me.  An indignant elderly woman followed who woke me up at 6:30 AM every day of her two-week stay. Meanwhile, an unannounced construction project got underway just outside my door, resulting in endless hours of shouting, banging, and drilling. This was no place to write. Or sleep. Or even think. When a critical miscalculation caused the laborers to bust a hole in my ceiling, showering the living room with plaster, I packed my bags and headed south.

Hvar was an unspoilt paradise of olive, fig, and pine trees, of roads lined with fennel and fields perfumed by lavender, of stunning limestone cliffs, quaint mountain villages, and a deep blue sea out of which other islands rose in all directions.

I rented a little stone cottage from a retired Croatian couple who lived in a home catty-corner to mine.  Our houses shared a charming courtyard that not only had an old, functioning well at its center, but was covered with containers of flowers and opened onto breathtaking vistas of the surrounding countryside.

It was perfect.  All of it.  And I was suddenly very grateful to have been forced to leave Rovinj.

~ ~ ~

One day as I walked out my front door, my host looked down at my Citroën T-shirt and reacted with even more enthusiasm than I had the day I found it.

“That was my first car!” he exclaimed, prematurely exhaling the drag he’d taken just before I stepped outside.  A quarter century my senior, he had a small but spry frame, a thick beard with specks of grey like ash from the cigarette inevitably dangling from his lips, and an optimistic twinkle in his eye.

With a mixture of pride and nostalgia, he proceeded to reminisce about the car and its eccentricities, which went well beyond the peculiar design of its exterior.  Vaguely resembling a Volkswagen beetle à la française but boxier, it had the comical distinction of headlamps that popped up in front, making it look even more like a bug than its German contemporary.

I was glad my T-shirt had made such an impression. For me growing up, the Citroën was a novel, quirky symbol of a far-off world I hoped one day to explore. For my host, it was part of a past he had lived firsthand and held very close to his heart.

~ ~ ~

After a couple of weeks in “the Mediterranean as it once was,” I again found myself packing my bags.  As I did, I was troubled for reasons that went well beyond my reluctance to leave.

During the entirety of my stay, my hosts had gone above and beyond the call of duty, making me feel much more like a friend of the family than a paying guest.  An unexpected bowl of fresh figs appeared at my door.  A delicious spaghetti dinner landed on my table. I was invited to take as much zucchini as I could eat from the garden, and I was given even more in the way of invaluable information and helpful recommendations about the island.

We had also laughed our asses off.

Given their incomparable hospitality, I wanted to give each of my new friends a token of my appreciation. But I was stumped.

He was easy. Although I would be sad to part with it so soon, clearly the T-shirt was meant to be his.
The problem was that I didn’t have anything for her. I couldn’t think of a single thing on the tiny island whose entire economy was oriented to tourists that wouldn’t be horribly cliché to give to a local.

My final night in the cottage, having spent days brainstorming but coming up empty-handed, I was finally forced to face the truth: if I didn’t have anything for her, I couldn’t give anything to him.  Not even the shirt, despite how much he had loved it.  My expression of thanks would have to be limited to words.
Then came a knock at the door.

I opened it to discover my host standing in the darkness, holding a plate of three crepes.  I may not have had a parting gift for his wife, but she had one for me.

“What kind are they?” I asked, after expressing how grateful I was for yet another thoughtful gesture.
“I’m not sure how to say it in English,” he said, stroking his beard and wracking his brain.

“It’s a big red fruit…”

The wheels in my own head began to turn.

“And it has lots of little…”

“Pomegranate!”  I exclaimed.  “Is it a pomegranate?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure,” he smiled, unfamiliar with the word. “But it grows on a tree over there.”

I had already noticed the huge pomegranate tree on the edge of the property, so I had no doubt we were talking about the same fruit.

I was stunned.

Not only had my hosts given me what would prove to be the best crepes I’d ever had in my life, they had also just handed me the last-minute answer to my conundrum.  Evidently I’d been premature in declaring it a lost cause.

The pomegranate from Istanbul. Buried even deeper in my backpack than the T-shirt had been, I’d forgotten all about it.  An object I had worked so hard to resist, but eventually had to concede feeling unquestionably compelled to buy. Now I knew why. Just like the only other souvenir I’d acquired on my travels, it wasn’t for me.

~ ~ ~

The next morning when my host removed the newspaper in which I’d wrapped memories of his first car, his face lit up as though he were reliving them all over again.  Before his wife opened her gift, I asked him to tell her, “Remember last night.”

“Remember last night?” she repeated in Croatian, looking up at me inquisitively, having no clue what my cryptic comment might mean.

No sooner had she ripped her present from the headlines than she let out a joyful cry.  Multiple waves of laughter followed, as she looked at me incredulously, like someone doubting how a magician has just pulled a rabbit from his hat.

Her disbelief—though great—was nothing compared to my own.

How was it even possible?  Each link in the peculiar chain of events was not only improbable in and of itself, but ostensibly unrelated to the others, isolated occurrences months apart in countries scattered from one end of the Mediterranean to the other.  I rarely make purchases.  Of all things, why the pomegranate, when I had already decided against it? Why had I been compelled to spend my last hours in Barcelona exploring shops I’d ignored for a month, only to immediately find a T-shirt I had to have?  What were the chances of a hole being busted in my ceiling, never mind that it would catapult me to an island 350 miles away I had no plans to visit?  There were more than 1,000 in Croatia.  Why that one?  And how had my host decided what to make, when for some reason she was drawn into her kitchen late the last night of my visit?

Most importantly of all, how could I explain the mind-boggling twist of fate in the final moments of my stay that had brought everything together on a plate of crepes?

The answer was simple.

I couldn’t.

Matthew Félix is an author, traveler, and host of the Matthew Félix On Air video podcast. His debut novel, A Voice Beyond Reason, is the story of a young Spaniard’s awakening to his intuition. His With Open Arms: Short Stories of Misadventures in Morocco has topped the Amazon Africa category, as well as the Morocco one three times.

Stories from Matthew’s new book, Porcelain Travels, won three 2019 Solas Awards, as well as Gold for Humor in the 2018 Solas Awards. Publishers Weekly noted that, “Felix returns with an offbeat yet funny collection…united by a common theme.” Porcelain Travels recounts Matthew’s unforgettable experiences in, on, and around toilets, tubs, and showers encountered on his travels.