Local Knowledge - Peter Fraser

I was feeling strenuously polite.
“Do you have a map?”
“Ah. Is. Speaking. Too. Fast.”

“A map. You got one?”
“Am thinking not.”
“Why not? Don’t people ask you for one? Like all the time. How are you expected to find your way around this place?”
She looked blank, with a practical incomprehension. “Is many words. Too many.”
OK. She can’t understand me. I hesitate, uncertain about the way forward. I smile clumsily. I’m not sure why.
“Well do you have a map in another language? You know. Not in English.”
“Is no map. Being here.”
Right. Understand.
“So does one exist? I’m sure it does. I mean it’d have to.”
“Is. Tourisimo. Office. Is. Have. Might. One.”
OK. Now that’s better.
“Where’s the office?”
“Is door. Left. Turning. Cannot. Be missing it.”
Although all those famous explorers had no maps and they were even prepared to fall off the edge of the world. Then they returned so there could be statues of them everywhere.
Just outside is the main square, it’s generic, like all of them in these towns. Kids lounging, kids skating, pigeons, people at rest, the homeless, idle tourists, the elderly, gypsies and a few beggars.  I isolate a group.
“Could. You please. Tell me. Where. The. Nearest. Supermarket. Is?”
I enunciate slowly hoping they might understand.
As a collection they look at me as if I might be mad, dangerous or a drug dealer. There is a small silence of cognition before they conclude I am harmless, probably just eccentric. Or more likely a tourist. The voice for this random selection of young people answers.
“Yeah. Sure. On your left, then straight down the street.”
He stood up and indicated the direction with the authority of a police sergeant. He knew my language and was most proficient at it. I wonder where he comes from? I might ask.
“Past Mont Blanc. Past Jaeger-LeCoultre. Then you’ll see Vadim’s, then Chanel, then Cartier. And it’s right there.”
He seemed to find me humorous. There was a hint of satire in his voice.
“Ah. Thanks.”
“Where you from? Russia?”
I returned an insipid grin. He was too fast for me.
“You speak really well.”
The clever fucker.
“But conversation is what it’s all about. All you need is practise. There’s no point knowing all the right pronunciation and then not being able to string a few sentences together. That’s not what communication is about.”
I bet there is a university here. Full of uppity kids.
“Yeah thanks for the advice.”
They all smiled wholesomely. I moved away. Young people are so difficult.
I walked into an old open air market, full on with small traders selling just about everything you could imagine. It was packed with customers. I bought some expensive but tasty confectionary. Then tried to find the supermarket that the kids had directed me towards, but it doesn’t seem to be there. I wanted to buy some wine and cheese and olives and pastries, but instead kept walking. I think their directions were bogus and I was a victim.
There is always a shop. If you have the cash you can buy whatever you want. A tricked up entrance, an alluring name, clever lettering, bright or even stolid colours.
There was no tourist office or supermarket. I think that was expected. So I went in and browsed an antiques shop. I needed to get off the street and conceive a plan. Feel occupied while surrounded by product.
“Just looking.”
I volunteered, too quickly, too defensively, touching something I was unsure of. She was observing me already, shop keepers are always alert.
“They are French Art Deco Sconces, say 1920, or what about the rococo gilded bronze ones here.”
She was a business woman and felt positive a sale could be achieved.  I suspect she thought I was a customer   familiar with sconces.  But did I look like a person who needed a sconce and would then proceed to buy a one?
“Look at these Louis XVI candlesticks, or what about the Ormolu bronze and then the French Empire ones just there. Or the D’ore candlesticks, with the cherubs. You like cherubs?”
I felt more secure with candlesticks. And I mean I didn’t dislike cherubs. They’ve never really entered my life and I can’t say I have ever thought much about them at all.
“Yeah these ones are quite good. The design is really, um, most interesting.”
Did I say that? And now I’m offering opinions. Why the hell did I have to say that?
“Are you English?”
“No. No. Not at all. I just speak English.”
They all think that. Just because I speak the language they assume it is my nationality.
“That’s a stylish coat you’ve got. Where’d you get it?”
What? Do you really comment on your potential customers clothing? And then enquire where they bought it?
“Milan. Lotta smart clothes there. It used to be one of my favourite cities, although last time I was there we didn’t part on good terms. But yeah, I’ve been there recently.”
“You like this?  Duck egg blue. A beautiful colour for enamelware.”
“Yes. Yes. So how come you speak English?”
“It’s called education. Know what I mean? I can speak five languages. Why? Where do you come from? You don’t wanna tell me? Is it a secret? How come?”
“No. It’s not a secret.”
I do appear evasive. And it’s not a secret. I’d never thought about other languages, although lately I do wonder why people speak them.
“You running away? You don’t want to tell me? It’s Ok. At least you don’t appear to be a criminal. But if I’m wrong please don’t confess to anything. I wouldn’t know what to do.”
I don’t look criminal. That is comforting.
“Do you like pewter? It’s so undervalued. And I’ve got some excellent examples here. Look at these. Go on pick them up. Touch them.”
I was feeling as if I would like to touch her. She dressed professionally, stylish and unprovocative, like she was some female city suit, not a shop keeper at all. In fact everything she did was pitched at a most qualified standard. Yet she seemed content to just talk.
“This is Scandinavian. You wouldn’t think so to look at, I brought it back from a holiday. These carpets are three hundred years old, they’re out of an old chateau at Saint Emilion and I walk on them. It is just so indulgent, from an auction in Paris, only ten years ago. That chair is Venetian, I guess you can tell by the design, but over two hundred years old, another holiday. Now that painting is American, deceased estate, Gibraltar, only two years ago. That painting is Dutch, bought from a dealer in Barcelona. 1820’s, I’m sure of that. This cabinet is from Madrid, early 1700’s. I can go on. Absolutely everything has a story. But I just can’t bear to sell a lot of these things. I could not imagine my life without all my possessions. You think that is ridiculous?”
“No. It’s cool, I can understand.”
I had once been assured that memory equalled identity, for her memory and possessions equalled identity. I had a suitcase full of clothing and a computer that held my memories and thought. Even worse, I discarded things instead of carrying them with me. Perhaps they were only books and used clothing, but at one stage, I had paid money to own them. I had felt I needed to possess them and willingly paid out to secure title.
“So how do I know which bits are for sale?”
I should have kept quiet, do not engage. Everyone knows that. I need to abandon all this loitering. I have a full day in front of me. You’d think I had an infinity of time.
And now even infinity has lost its meaning. There is an end, even though we are still discovering new worlds. I’ve read our universe will collapse and disappear into a black hole, sixty-one billion years in the future. Space and time abolished, the expanding universe cancelled.
This is not the time for speculation and idleness.I say thank you, still strenuously polite. I need to escape. I should be looking for food and wine.

Peter Fraser lives in Australia and enjoys travel and writing.