Living the Good Life

Tuesday, November 8, 2005


Written by Lauren Mead

As I stepped off the plane and entered the tiny, one-terminal airport with its' plain concrete walls and single, squeaking conveyor belt I immediately clutched my bag close to my body. "This is sketchy," I said to one of my traveling companions, Jeremy. It was, compared to Pearson airport. Since I have been living in Europe, I've discovered that I am really lucky.

I spent a whole week hiking down cobblestone streets and up thousands of stone staircases in Florence, rocking uneasily along deep and winding canals, getting lost among the cacophony of sights and sounds hidden in the labyrinth-like streets of Venice and for at least a month beforehand I couldn't stop complaining about being in England. That's right. You heard me. Up until one week ago, I had had enough bangers and mash for the rest of my life. I know what you're thinking. You're thinking: if you're so damn lucky, then why are you complaining about being in bloody Europe? Why is it that when our situation is a good one, suddenly we find ourselves questioning just how good a life we have? What exactly is "the good life?"

I'll tell you, but not just yet. Rome is a curious mix of cobblestones and neon lights. The Colosseum still looms in the distance, but if you turn the corner, you're sure to find the Roman equivalent of McDonalds'. My story begins at the end of my vacation, when I was about ready to tell Rome just where it could shove its' ancient columns. That is, until I had a true awakening experience one night in a very sketchy hostel.

It all started with Dave - tall, dark and Australian, leaving his ratty rucksack on my friend Emily's bed. We didn't think much of this mild faux pas, so we moved it onto the floor and went out for drinks. Nor did we think much of Dave after we had returned home in a slight drunken stupor, climbed into our beds and fallen asleep with the critters crawling all over us. And then Dave and his leggy brunette "mate" tried to crawl in with Emily. "No thank you…" she said sleepily and rolled over. "You're in my bed!" yelled Dave and by now the whole room was awake. The argument went on for a while, before Dave stormed out. I'd just managed to fall asleep when he was banging on the door and this time, he'd brought the owner of the hostel.

"You! You so stupid! Why would you do this?" yelled the man with the graying ponytail. His sharp eyes darted in my direction. "You-you are not in your right bed…and you are not in your right bed…none of you! Give me your tickets! Give me your passports!" Puffy-eyed and shaking, we all dug through our money belts for our tickets. There was no way in hell this guy was going to get our passports. Snapping up what we had given him, he thundered away, turning off the lights and slamming the door behind him. I felt like a child sitting in time-out with the darkness creeping up all around me. Here I was, sitting in a dark and dirty room shared by complete strangers with no lock on the door and no way of knowing when someone might demand my one piece of identity and not give it back. I was completely helpless and it wasn't a feeling that I liked. And you know what? In some places in the world, this is the life that people live-there are even some places in our world where people go to sleep afraid that they will wake up worse off than they were. Maybe it just takes one drunken Australian, some bad management and a sleepless night in a sleazy hostel to remember what "the good life" really is. And there it is: how can anyone know how the rest of the world lives if they never leave home? Maybe you never know just how good you have it until home is very far away.

I saw a gypsy woman on the street a day later, while standing in line for the Sistine Chapel. As she was moaning and pressing her nose to the pavement, I could see that a piece of her scalp was gone, leaving a raw pinkness where her gray curls scattered over her face. They say that gypsies lie and steal. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. I gave her all of my change and walked on. There was nothing else I could do, but give her a little piece of the good life and hope to God it might get her through the night.

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