With all too much time to kill until my train in the morning, I left Rome’s Termini station to find some place to take a piss. Little did I know that when I would return I would be locked out for three hours. I should have taken the hint from all the people lined around the outer walls, with their make shift bedding of cardboard mattresses and filthy blankets, that the metal and marble comforts of the station would be under the scrutiny of lock and key overnight.
There was a wide variety of people outside the station. The settled people with all their belongings and luggage pilled neatly in a nook of the walled windows; the more vagabond types who may only just frequent this spot having ditched all their belongings long ago; the poor old gypsy women who are just missing a donkey to go with their overflowing pushcart filled with items deemed necessary for survival; and then the odd assortment of traveling types: young perroflauta hippies with their malnourished dogs and wooden wind instruments; the awkward looking Asian couple with their three pieces of matching wheeled luggage looking like they can’t decide whether they are coming or going; the older Italian couple who for some reason showed up hours before the first train of the morning departs, scared that time won’t wait for them; the manual labour guys with their sleeveless shirts and coolers; and me, the foreigner, the traveler with my housing strapped to my small, neat and erect backpack, sporting dirty hiking boots and a clean collared shirt.
All these people, all of us, are naturally inclined to different territories around the station. I was so inclined to the front entrance. There the local tenants grab all the ledges by the large windows, others who don’t plan on sleeping or necessarily traveling by train in the morning, stay out front huddled in groups shooting the shit, and the travelers go by the iron fence perpendicular to the entrance. Behind the three meter tall iron fence is an ancient Roman wall. I could easily climb the fence for greener pastures, but the irrigation system went off thoroughly soaking the grass. So I sit by the thirty meter tall flagpoles, for they are encircled by bright lights in the ground which shoot up towards the European Union and Italian flags fluttering high above.
I don’t choose the flagpoles for patriotic reasons, though I do enjoy the benefits both flags have born onto me, rather I need the light. I pull out Kapuscinski’s Imperium and begin reading to pass the night away. I read about Siberia’s awful wilderness which was made incomparably worse than similar environments in Canada or Patagonia due to dictatorship. I read about ancient Armenia’s rich civilization that goes back to Babylonian times which in recent millenniums was never able to re-expand to their former borders of their once great empire. Like other small countries of today, they are content with a rich history of how they once were. Their culture of copying and translating every book they could find, became more of a mandatory reading during the era when they were surrounded by the great empires of Persia, Byzantium and Ottoman.
Occasionally, I get interrupted by people wanting handouts of cigs. There are too many to say yes to so none of them hear it. They mostly reply with ultimo but I tell them I have to ration for the hours spent kicked out of the station. So I’m able to pick up Kapuscinski’s words again. Thanks to these flagpole lights, it is surprisingly luminous for the dead of night and my eyes don’t strain. He writes next about Azerbaijan. They have a similar story as Armenia, at least present day with more of them living outside their own borders, largely in Iran. Despite once having a dynasty at the peak of the Persian Empire, the Azerbaijanis were never able to centralize power in their homeland.
It was getting later, and the fence I sat at was becoming more filled. Two sets of elderly couples sat on each side of me. Apparently, a guy reading a book in the middle of this micro-city appears none threatening. I read next about Turkmenistan. Being largely covered in desert the few settlements are predicablely near the water and oases. But there is something special that Kapuscinski shares with me, the reader. The tribes that have lived around here prefer the nomadic lifestyle. A settled lifestyle means a restricted and dependent life, whereas to roam the desert not only means freedom, but it means that you still have the wealth in the form of herds that need to wander.
The desert, from where humans derived, to where we shall return. The desert is probably the harshest of climates; it is where the life giving sun takes it back. It causes people to fight, to go to war for access to the water wells. Kapuscinski sees it as much more honourable than the European wars for arbitrary and aesthetic reasons.
At this point one of the local settlers begins to stir. I think that he is from Northern Africa (I can’t be more specific than that, I know he isn’t Egyptian) because of how he speaks and the way he looks. He is topless because he is one of the many who can’t sleep with clothing. He seems upset with one of his neighbours;he grabs his large, red suitcase on wheels, and stammers off in my direction. The suitcase skips over the cobblestones, and by the sound it makes I can tell that it is empty. He walks with haste past me, startling and keeping on their toes the older couples around me.
In a short while he is back. He is back with a seemingly a vengeful spirit. By the handle of his suitcase he swings it with ease (I knew it was empty) at the neighbour he has issues with. A classic shirts vs skins scrimmage commences between these two young guys. Wild punches are being thrown, none are connecting. Others try to break them up, but just become new targets for the pushing match. Another throws a drop kick to split them up. That worked for a whole two seconds. A middle aged man, who doesn’t dare get his hands dirty by physically splitting them up but relies solely on his respect and authority, starts to yell at them. Many are trying to stop this before the police come, the same police that were ever so present and in abundance at the time of closing the station but are now nowhere to be seen.
By this point there has been enough yelling and commotion that the all the settlers are stirred from their sleep. The section of travelers watch with a mixture of curiosity, amusement, and bewilderment, much like their Roman ancestors watching Christians get mauled by lions, except not in the safety of a bleacher seat.
A tall and large African man in a white sports coat comes with a commanding force and seems to break it up with his presence alone. The two have now seized to be in one another’s face, and are now just blasting obscenities in Arabic and Italian as I hear a couple of vaffanculo. Satisfied, the African walks away. The second he does, the one with the shirt, bright red like blood but without any stains to match, appears to be retreating. But alas, he is only anting up the battle. He grabs a bottle, and goes after the other. He is careful in the way he is swinging it because it’s not empty. He lunges for the topless guy, misses, and drops the bottle. It bounces once, and breaks on the second. A putrid smell of urine fills the air, even at the forty meters distance I’m at.
The sound of glass breaking, more so then the smell of urine, I imagine, presses the settlers to bring an end to this conflict. They all seem to hold the red shirted guy responsible and forcefully encourage him to gather his stuff and leave. He does so, and from the other end of the station they continue to yell back and forth at each other until he turns the corner. I see my neighbours have a mixture of relief and disappointment; it’s over and they weren’t directly involved, but their entertainment for the night is finished and they didn’t even see one punch connect.
Then the doors, just at that moment of 4:30am, open up and people flood inside the station. The topless guy opens his empty, red suitcase and fills it with all his sleeping material. Only the true homeless carry on sleeping outside. I’m the last to leave the travelers’ section, and finally get back into the station I have long been awaiting to reconnect with. I feel eyes on me, but no one in particular is staring at me. Rather, it is the models from the apparently still relevant Calvin Klein advertisement, it is Nike’s prized athletes, and the futuristic, extra-terrestrial, photo-shopped, freak show that is the Armani models: this fake world taunting us to be like them, knowing there’s no chance, but still we should hope and try and buy their shit anyway.
I find a metal bench that is as cold as the concrete I was sitting on outside. I hope to take a little nap before I have to begin the day’s travels. Even though the bench is cold I’m grateful that I’m not outside anymore with that piss air. I lean my head back and close my eyes. My nostrils are pointed outwards so I smell him long before I can even see him; a true down and outer searching the empty garbage for some treat only he knows what. Without luck, he spots a free seat among the tired people trying to sleep next to me. If a private bench was what he was after, he got what he sought.