Packets and packets of envelopes bursting with photographs, held together with elastic bands lined up in rows filled the suitcase. An old camera rested on top, the neck strap faded and battered, fraying in places.
The old lady pulled a packet free and snapped the band from around the bulging contents. In faded blue scrawl across the back, a date and an almost illegible place.
“Berlin, ‘88” she said, pulling a few photos at random and showing me. A woman in her fifties/early sixties beamed at the camera – pointing off to the side at the half demolished soviet wall, drinking a beer in a town square, smiling in the sunshine outside an old brick building.
“You were in Berlin for the wall being torn down?”
She nodded. Returned the photographs to the paper tomb, and pulled another from the case. Sun damaged, color leached photographs, clearly from the seventies if the fashion was anything to go by. A middle-aged woman in front of a bunch of south-east Asian temples, eating in a street market, riding an elephant.
“Thailand” she said, handing me the envelope. I pulled out more of the photo’s while she skimmed her soft wrinkled hands across the tops of the envelopes, selecting one at random.
“Zimbabwe” she said, barely flicking through the pictures before pulling the band taut against the envelope and putting it beside my pajama clad leg as I sat on the bed.
“Galapogoes Islands…Italy…Oklahoma…these ones are all from America, my first trip.” She said, pulling more envelopes and laying them on the bed. She squinted at faded spidery writing, pursed her lips and finally pronounced…
She kept pulling envelopes and piling them on the mattress until there were more than a dozen, the bands holding them closed straining, some broke in my hands when I tried to remove them. In all the photographs the same woman, presumably the old woman from across the street, stood smiling at the camera. I looked at the photographs, the vibrant life that spilled out of each one and then raised my eyes to the tiny, dingy bedsit. The old woman leaned back against the wall her bed was pushed up against. She watched me through her half slanted eyes as tried to comprehend the photographs in contrast to the bleak existence.
“You’ve…travelled so much” I said at last, not quite sure what else there was to say.
The old woman from across the street inclined her head.
“Yes.” She scooped up some of the envelopes.
“I’ve never been one for standing still. I decided early on that I’d live every day. That I would see things. Go places. I left home at thirteen. You could in those days. Since that day I’ve been on the move. I’ve been to 86 countries.”
She watched my reaction, I was absorbed. She went on…
“You see an old woman in a small room with few possessions. But I have more valuables than just these soft paper copies.”
She lifted a shaky hand and brushed a finger against her temple.
“If you could unscrew this head and tip it upside down, the memories, the experiences that would tumble out…well you’d need more than a battered old leather suitcase.”
There was so much I wanted to ask her, about family, finances, logistics. She was at once the ghost of my future, with my own drive to keep moving, my commitment phobia, my intense longing to see things and “Go Places.” She was as fascinating as I hoped to be as an old craggily woman. And yet her existence terrified me. The dingy room. The squeaky impersonal bed. Her total loneliness. Her suitcase filled with photographs and her mind full of memories. The only things to show for a lifetime.
I let myself out of the building, and sprinted across the street to my own, safe, airy, light filled apartment with my young roommates, our cheap bottles of sweet wine, and my laptop with the mindless sitcoms. I breathed easier being back in my own space.
I still see the old woman across the road on the days I come home straight from work. She still smokes her smelly, maybe Turkish cigarettes and they still smell like they are laced with marijuana. We wave now. We’re on waving terms. She’s just a face I recognize in my street, there are more and more every week.
I still think about her suitcase of memories tucked under the uncomfortable bed in the dingy little apartment.
And yet… I’m still planning my next escape…