When I graduated from my school in Germany at the end of the 13th grade, I took some time off before I started a temp job at Bayer, the pharmaceutics manufacturer that ruined people’s health and the environment all over the area. (More on a villain there some other time.) Before I went to work, I spent two months in Paris. I didn’t have much money, so I stayed in a youth hostel just outside of the city limits and took buses and the metro to get around.
That youth hostel wasn’t your typical wholesome hiker, biker, live-simply-folks, and naturalist hangout. Far from it. It was more like a rock’n’roll stoner commune where the faint line between men’s and women’s quarters had long vanished. Some people arrived, took in the social scene for a few weeks, and never saw the Eiffel Tower or much of anything else. A couple of the scintillating, resourceful travelers I met there later visited me in Cologne.
However, I never saw Rasoul again. He was there before I came and left in the middle of the night, a couple of days before I took the train home. Rasoul was from Algeria, but I don’t know how long he had been away from there. He did not travel for fun the way the rest of us did, I’m sure of that. Maybe he was waiting for somebody or something. He was older than everybody else there and looked a little like Gabriel García Marquez in his early forties. Unlike Marquez, Rasoul did not write fiction. He wrote poems.
Rasoul’s poetry rhymed and sounded marvelous when he read it to us, his voice so low we guessed more than we heard the words. His poems were never longer than sixteen lines or so. His handwriting was ornamental, almost calligraphic. Sitting next to him, I could not read it. I don’t remember what the poems were about—a deity, an angel, a relationship, a forgotten magic. It was lovely to listen to him.
Rasoul also told stories about his travels and experiences. My French at the time wasn’t so great, and I did not understand all of it. But I enjoyed listening to him, watching his lively facial expressions, and catching the gist of an anecdote. I missed his company when he wasn’t around. He was very popular with the women in the place and spent more time with them than with his male friends. Sometimes he disappeared for a day or two, but always returned, until he didn’t.
One of Rasoul’s specialties was interpreting a person’s handwriting. He looked at the letters and gave way to his creativity and intuition. From time to time, I received a postcard from a friend at home. One was from a girlfriend who I was about to separate from. Rasoul’s interpretation of her character was a complete surprise and, I thought, very true. It almost made me feel in love with her again. But she and I were wrong for each other. I knew that.
At the time, I often wondered where Rasoul had come from and where he was headed. He just didn’t seem like an ordinary person, or at least he wasn’t like anybody I had met up to that point in my life. Nobody else had his serenity and poise. Back then, and remembering him now, I believe that something had happened to him—a tremendous insight, a transformation. I don’t know what the visible form of this event was or why it affected Rasoul the way it did. I wonder where life took him after he left the youth hostel, but I’ll never know.