Aha, said the shuttle driver, Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, Tito
On a recent trip to Paris, I met a young woman from Japan. But this is not a story about a sudden love affair, which one might expect in Paris. I met her on the last day of my short stay there. It was her last day too, and we both took the early shuttle to Charles de Gaulle Airport. She sat down next to me, introduced herself and said that she worked for the advertising department of a television station in Tokyo. I said that I was a writer and that I liked some of Haruki Murakami’s books. She knew the name but had not read any of his work. She knew, however, that a movie based on one of his books was being shot somewhere in Japan. The name of the movie, she said, had something to do with Norway.
Norwegian Wood, I said.
She looked at me and asked, How did you know? Are you from Norway?
No, I said, but I know the song. It is by the Beatles.
I know the Beatles, said the young woman, but they are from England. And where are you from?
I hesitated for a moment before I said, Calgary, Canada. I decided not to mention the war in the former Yugoslavia, my homeland—it would only puzzle her. (It still puzzles me, although I lived there for many years.)
Canada is a nice country, she said.
Maybe you can tell me, I said, why so many Japanese people go to Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.
Canadian Rockies are beautiful, she said. We learn about them in our school.
It’s great, I went on, that so many people from Japan visit Banff, but it’s a pity most of them never go to Calgary.
What is in Calgary? she wanted to know. What do you have?
We have Stampede, I replied, and when she gave me a blank look, I asked her whether she knew anything about cowboys. She said that she loved cowboys. She especially liked John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. They are from America, she added, and then she asked, Do they have Stampede in America?
Now, how do you explain what Stampede is? Stampede, I finally said, is a word that describes a sudden run of a large number of horses or any other animals. She nodded, so I went on and told her that there are many things to see and do during the ten days of the Calgary Stampede.
She looked at me with her eyes wide open and said, And all this time the animals are running?
At first I did not know what she meant, because I could not follow her perfect reasoning. What do you mean? I asked.
Stampede is running, she answered. Stampede is running all the time, no? There was a sly smile on her face as if she had just attained a satori and understood the meaning of it all. She turned around. In Calgary, she said to the passengers sitting behind us, Stampede is running all the time. She pointed at me and said, He is from Calgary.
Good for him, said a man who was from Salt Lake City. The couple sitting next to him said that they were from Hungary. Then the shuttle stopped in front of a small hotel to pick up two women with enormous bags. The driver, who was from India, helped them put their bags into the shuttle and asked them what terminal they were going to. They did not know, so he asked them what city and country they were flying to. Zagreb, said the younger one. Croatia, said the older one. But the driver still did not know which terminal. The younger woman said to the older woman, in Croatian, The whole world knows about Zagreb except for this lunatic. The older woman told her to shut up and explained to the driver, in English: Zagreb, in Croatia. Croatia, you know—in Yugoslavia.
Aha, said the driver. Croatia, Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, Tito. It is Terminal 2.
What an absurd paradox, I thought. You fight in a bloody civil war because there are people who do not like what Yugoslavia stands for and want to get rid of that name forever, and yet you are recognized only when you mention the name that should have been forgotten. History really likes to play games sometimes.
Then we were finally on our way to Charles de Gaulle Airport. It was early in the day and the streets were empty, so Paris looked a bit ghostly but still beautiful. The early morning light somehow made everything sharp like a precise architectural drawing. Travelling through that unpopulated, almost two-dimensional world made me think of writing a story about our group. In this harsh city landscape, it should be a science fiction story in which we are the last survivors of a terrible epidemic in Paris. We are on our way to board the last plane, left unattended on a runway, and we are lucky because one of us knows how to fly a plane—the man sitting behind me, who says, in my unwritten story, I am from Salt Lake City and if you want to live there, you’ve got to know something about planes.
I didn’t know whether that was true—I’ve never been to Salt Lake City—but I hoped that we would not end up like the survivors depicted on The Raft of the Medusa. I did not want to write a story with cannibals in it. Our plane, I thought, would take us safely all the way to Calgary, where the Stampede would be in full swing. We would be given white cowboy hats, and the young Japanese woman would be so happy to wear her hat and to dance with some real cowboys. Perhaps it should be a love story after all?