Padua, Vicenze, and Alex

I’ve been procrastinating on writing this entry. At one point I started writing, but I found myself avoiding the very topic that I intended to write about. Actually, I could write a lot about the experiences I’ve had in Padua and Vicenze—about almost getting mugged when I came into Padua, about meeting a group of girls and joining their private graduation party, about a med student who tried to convince me to start a business developing new drugs by appending methyl groups to known hallucinogens, about learning how to ride a bike (yes, I couldn’t ride a bike) in the middle of the night in the streets of Padua, about listening to chanting in the Basilica de Saint Antonio, about attending an outdoor jazz concert and hanging out with a group of wandering musicians, about befriending a group of Nigerians and going out to Vicenze to party with them, about learning that I only look like I can dance when I’m around white guys, about helping my Nigerian friend who put me up for a night run his kebab shop, and about how I flipped a coin on my last day in Vicenze and decided to turn around and head back east towards Slovenia. If I wanted to pussy out, there’s plenty of interesting adventures I’ve been on that I could write about. But the fact is, again and again I shy away from writing about Alex. When I open up a blank page and say I’m going to write about him, nothing comes.

I need to write about Alex.

Alex is the first man I’ve met in a long time to whom I felt I had nothing to offer. The feeling came over me that he was not only a greater man than I, but possessed a greater soul than mine. I had for the first time in a long time met a man who I wanted to be like. And to this man, my complexity and my accomplishments were of no interest and made no impression. He at once at staggered, and fiercely intrigued me.

[video]

I first met Alex in Prague. The moment of our meeting was ordinary in most senses. But he made an impression on me from the very beginning. Alex had a great presence. That itself is not altogether a rarity among men. But it was not just in his size or his posture—he was a large and tall man, with slightly browned skin, chiseled European features and a faintly graying head of hair. Though he stood erect and took up space, as good posture should—he had an enclosed, almost subdued presence. Often he would have his hands in his pockets. But there was a feeling when you spoke and interacted with the man that he could command a room from where he stood. That the strongest hands in the room were the ones buried in his pockets. When he walked, he strolled. As though upon conquered land. His smile was gentle and frequent. His eyes were dark. He knew how to use his eyes.

When I first spoke to him, his confidence annoyed me. I think I have an unfortunate habit of seeing most other men’s confidence as unearned until I learn otherwise. I remember asking him, “So where are you from man?”

He smiled at me. “Where do you think I’m from?”

“I have no idea,” I told him. “Well, take a guess,” he said.

I met his eyes, unimpressed. Someone else spoke up and asked “Are you Israeli?” He grinned, “Oh, Israeli! I have many Israeli friends, they are fantastic people. I wish I were Israeli!”

I watched him still. Someone else asked “Are you African?” “Oh, African! The Africans are a wonderful race, I would be lucky to be African. But I’m afraid I am not.”

“So what are you?” I asked.

He noticed my impatience, and smiled. “I’m actually German.”

“Hm.”

That was how I met Alex. It took me some time to get any straight answers out of him about himself. But the more I spoke to him, the more I felt the immensity of this man. His intelligence, the breadth of his experience, and his tremendous strength of character. When I first spoke to him, he scarcely told me anything about himself. When I would ask him personal questions, he would often answer “oh, that’s a long story. Too long for this night.” Despite his guardedness, I could sense a tremendous humility from this man.

He asked me why I was traveling. What the purpose was of my journey. I started with a simple answer—“well, it’s a long story, but basically I walked away from my former career. And now I’m just traveling, trying to figure some shit out in my life.” Alex didn’t let me off that easily. He asked me, “well, what is it you’re looking for? And how are you going to know when you’ve found it?”

I ended up telling Alex a lot about my life, my history, my fears and about the chaos in my mind. He listened. Truth be told, the first couple of hours that we spoke I basically poured out my heart and mind to this man. He accepted it, nodding, gazing at me, asking questions now and again.

I could go all day about the conversation we had. But one subject that he spoke of that sticks with me is religion. He asked me if I was religious, and I told him that I wasn’t. He inquired about my family and my upbringing—he knew a lot about Pakistani culture. He told me that he had spent a great deal of his life studying and exploring various religious traditions. “I don’t know what it is you’re looking for or if this is an answer, but maybe you will find something in the culture that you left behind. I can’t claim that this will solve your problems or make you whole, but if you’re searching, then this is a good a place as any to start.”

He told me he knew many people like me; cultural transplants who no longer believed in the religion of their ancestors. “I don’t know too much about this, but everybody I know who has gone here has returned different. When they came back, they found meaning in their lives. You say religion does not mean anything to you, but one thing I have learned in life is that religion can be an enormous source of strength.”

He paused for a moment. “Have you ever faced death?”

I looked at him. “No.”

“Well, if you ever face death—I mean, in those few minutes that you’re convinced are going to be your last, you learn a lot about a man. And suddenly all of these philosophical armchair questions become so immediate, you can feel the question pulsing through your veins: what happens next? It becomes all you can think about, all that matters. For that moment that you know you’re going to die, you really learn what you believe deep down. If you believe there is nothing, or if there is something more. From my time in the military, when I met men who faced the verge of death, you learn a lot about the power of religion. You learned also who are the true believers, and who in their last moments realized that their religion was all just an act. In those last moments, some become weak, and some become strong.”

“You should think about it.” He pulled out a piece of paper and started scribbling on it. “There is is a place in the north of Pakistan called the Raiwind. There you will find a group of Islamic missionaries who meet every year. If you go there and they will put you to work. And if you go there as you are now, you will hate it. You will get sick and you will suffer and you will want to go home and you will hate your life. But when you come back, you will be different. I’m not saying that this is right for you or that you’ll find an answer here.”

“But think about it.” He handed me a slip of paper with the name of the town written in Arabic. I took it. “Can I ask you something?” I said to him. He nodded. “You say you’ve studied all of these religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, atheism. But for your own part…what religion do you believe in now?”

He smiled at me.

“I wear my religion on my heart, not on my tongue.”

It is very rare that I take it seriously when somebody suggests to me religion as the answer to my problems. I took Alex very seriously. I still have that piece of paper.

Alex lived a crazy life, as I came to learn. I don’t want to go into too much detail—and the whole of his story is so fantastic that were I to recite what he told me, you’d think me crazy for believing it. Out of respect for him, I won’t write everything he told me. But among the episodes in his life—he was born into a family of 9 children and worked in construction as a child since the age of 7. He joined the German military once he turned 18 where he received training equivalent to that of a Navy SEAL, traveled all through the middle East, experiencing such atrocities and depravity that he said changed his understanding of humanity forever. After his military service he returned to get his education (over his life he acquired several degrees), spent a year homeless so he could afford to stay in school and complete his education, worked as a bouncer in the ghettos of London, learned to speak numerous languages, traveled through the jungle by himself for several months, studied in a Buddhist monastery, and eventually worked prestigious jobs under several different governments. I can’t go into too much detail as to what he does—partially because I don’t fully understand it myself—but the adventures and experiences that this man has been through astound me still. He is only 35.

In comparison, I feel small; incomplete.

Alex showed me what it means to be a strong man. Not just in his physicality, but in the resolve of his character. He is self-contained, prepared for anything. If you dropped him onto any point on this planet he would be able to thrive. According to him: his ideal of a man was “the Victorian gentleman.” The Victorian gentleman was a lover, a fighter, a poet, a philosopher, a dancer, an adventurer, and an intellectual. He told me what drove him in his life and guided his evolution was his desire to become this sort of man he always idolized.

What to me does it mean to be a man? I told him—perhaps what I’m searching for is my own definition of manhood. To find all of my disparate parts and tie them all together. To marry myself to an ideal that I truly see as worth living towards. It occurs to me that I’ve never had an idol. An ideal. It’s almost as though I don’t know myself well enough to know who I want to be, or what my evolution would look like.

Alex always projected an openness. Like I could say anything to him. I want to be more like Alex in that way. I ask myself—what specific quality in him do I want to emulate? His humility. His invitingness. To be kind to all—no, that is not quite right. To be gentle to all. To be gentle. It occurs to me how apt the word “gentleman” is, and I wonder how this meaning eluded me for so long.

But what sticks with me most is Alex’s sadness. He lived a very difficult and lonely life. And despite his tremendous charisma and command over both men and women, I could tell that he had a great sadness that he carried with him. That he shared with no one. I saw a small glimpse of it, perhaps because I know the species so well from what I carry with myself. But despite his strength, his fortitude, his knowledge, his charm—he had not found his happiness. And he told me he wasn’t sure he ever would.

Alex’s road will not lead me to happiness. But it will lead me to strength. But when I think about it, I realize is the only road that I can see. My choice is not between happiness and unhappiness, but between strength and weakness. There is no road that is before me that leads to happiness, no streetlights illuminate that path. So when it comes down to it, I must choose strength. I must take the road that strengthens me, and whatever else will be will be. To suffer, and to be at peace with suffering, for pain only makes one stronger. To value strength above all else – strength of body, of mind, of spirit—this is, to me, the path to being a man. This is what I want to take from Alex.

Before we parted ways, I took it upon myself to let him know that I had great respect for him. That I had never met anyone like him before, and that he was an amazing man. He was flattered, but I think not particularly impressed. In the end we were together for hours upon hours, and it wasn’t until 6am the next morning that I last saw him as I accompanied him to the tram station in the center of Prague. I think he could tell that I wanted to stay in touch with him, that I was afraid I would never speak to him again. He offered me his e-mail address, and told me to write him whenever I felt like it.

I wrote him a rather long-email a few weeks ago. He never replied. That’s okay, I don’t expect him to (and perhaps wouldn’t myself if the situations were reversed). My task and challenge now is to learn the lesson that he had to teach me. To not let our meeting be lost on me.

I musn’t let myself forget. I still remember his voice. His confident, yet careful tone. His large, dark eyes. His hands.

Padua + Vicenze Album

(Edit: Just wanted to clarify, I am not considering going to the Raiwind to become an Islamic missionary. But I respect Alex for making the suggestion to me, and understand where it came from. However I am now possibly considering traveling to Pakistan at the end of my journey. I have not been there in several years and have never faced it as an adult. There may be something for me to learn there. Were it not for Alex, I don’t think I would have considered it.)

Haseeb
October 04 2011
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Effective Altruist. Software engineer. @Airbnb alum. Instructor @Outco. Writer. Blockchain Believer. Former poker pro.
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