“Break year, you must be kidding, Nikolas, tell me you are kidding!”
“Mom, no, I’m not kidding, I want to take a break year, lots of kids….”
“Not until you finish twelfth grade, and not until you finish your university degree, then you take a break if you need one. Right now you need to study for your finals! Now go to your room and get to work!”
“No, Mom, I won’t. I am eighteen, I can do what I want and you can’t stop me!”
That was how it started. What followed was a week of angry conversations, recriminations, and threats. Finally, unable to make any headway with his parents, Nikolas left school one day and headed out into the world to go walking. This was BIG walking, as in the walking across England sense, or the 500 miles of Camino de Santiago sense. He set out with a rucksack and a sleeping bag, and a young heart. He was abandoning formal education; he was leaving in the middle of the twelfth grade at THE school, as his parents had put it. THE school that would launch him toward the correct university that would launch him into the right social circles that would launch him into the proper life his parents envisioned for him. Only he wouldn’t be launched, at least not at THE school, not by that headmaster and those teachers. Nikolas just couldn’t stand anything about THE school, THOSE well intended teachers, THAT place. So, upon reaching the age of majority, he decided to go walking—right out the door, out the gate, and into what he imagined to be the real world. As he left, the Headmaster’s voice echoed back from the stone gates that guarded the grass and tree adorned campus: “You will be sorry, Nikolas. In this life there are no second chances for the wayward or the quitters! You WILL be sorry!” That was it. No second chances for the wayward, indeed. Phooey! He would show the Headmaster, he would show his parents, he would show the world. He would walk, he would find his own fortune, he would seek his own way, thank you very much.
On the first day he walked fifteen miles along a trail through fields and forest. That night he camped and discovered the freedom of being alone, in the woods, by a brook. Since he was lucky enough to turn eighteen in the Springtime, it was reasonably warm. He started a small fire, put up his tarp, laid out his bag, opened a can of beans with his Swiss Army knife, the one with sixty-one and a half blades. One can down, seven cans left; he had commandeered the beans from THE school. Smoke made his eyes sting. The sun set behind him. He heated the beans on the fire, ate, and went to sleep smiling. He was on his way at last.
That night he dreamed of himself as a soaring bird, high above the forest, trail, and towns, looking down on the whole world below. He felt the wind on his face as he flew, then rain, and then the feeling of a chill spreading over his body as he woke to the cold. The ground was hard. He pulled his sleeping bag under the tarp as the rain pelted down on his camp and hissed out what was left of his fire. He slept fitfully for the rest of the night.
Life on the walking path was an almost magically changing tableau. It was sunny, it rained, there was mud, there was dust, he was hungry, he ate berries, and from time to time, he met other travelers. What surprised him the most was how generous these travelers were. They gave him more food, if they had any extra, they talked to him about the road, the trail, the towns ahead and behind, and they told him about their own walking adventures.
Needless to say, Nikolas was growing up fast, and after a month on the trail he was beginning to wonder when he would find his fortune—something inside told him that walking was good but wandering forever wasn’t.
The most useful conversation he’d had so far on his journey was with a robin that invaded his camp one evening. Red breasted, yellow beaked, hopping around pulling worms from the ground, Nikolas and the robin chatted:
“Well Robin,” Nikolas said, “where do you come from?”
The robin nodded its head and pulled a worm into its beak.
“Okay,” said Nikolas “I guess that means you’re not from around here, Robin. Have you traveled far?”
The robin turned in a circle and faced Nikolas again, then hopped once.
“Of course,” said Nikolas, “you must be from one of those towns, up in the great back country valley. You know, Robin, I met a traveler on the road last week and she told me about one of them, let me see… it was the town of the arts, a town full of artists, that’s it. Is that the town you are from?”
The robin hopped three times, flew to a nearby branch landed and faced him again.
“So you think I should go there, then? I can draw, I can paint, and I can sing, I ought to be able to get along there, at least for a while, don’t you think?
The robin bobbed its head.
“Okay! That settles it, the Village del’Arte it is, friend Robin! Why don’t you join me?”
The robin flew up into the light purple sky.
Village del’Arte was a village, yes, with houses and buildings painted every color, all colors it seemed, a riot of color. Being Village del’Arte, there was no pattern to the color at all, which Nikolas imagined was in itself a pattern, a certain type of art. The air was filled with incense and other strange smells, there were sculptures in neighborhood squares, and the villagers all were busy painting, writing, sculpting, or arguing about aesthetics, designing garden patches that were pretty but not so practical. Yet the place felt welcoming, in a loud free-wheeling sort of way. Nikolas had a sense that he could fit right in. And so he did: he drew portraits of children for a coin, painted pictures of pets for three coins, and helped cast a great bronze sculpture of a fifteen foot paint brush in a paint pot that would, when it was finally completed, adorn the village common. Nikolas came to understand this place. He felt at home here, and as long as he could keep earning a few coins from his drawing, painting, and casting, he had all he needed.
And yet after three months Nikolas began to feel restless. This surprised him because he was often tired at night with all the hustling for coins. But for all his effort, he never seemed to earn quite enough money to take a day off. He noticed this was how almost everybody lived in Village del’Arte, and although it was free-spirited, energetic, colorful and lively, there never seemed to be a way to get ahead, and this is what made him restless. So he reassembled his rucksack and sleeping bag and headed back out on the road.
He left the warm valley, heading toward the great mountains to the north. While living in the Village del’Arte, he’d heard stories about a place called Village del’Oro, the great center of money and banking. He’d thought to himself: if he could get some money, get a little ahead, he could come back to the Village del’ArteVillage del’Arte and continue his life as an artist.
So off he went, up into the high mountains thinking and dreaming about money The Village del’Oro was many days walk, mostly up hill as it was high in the snow covered mountains. He imagined a place where money was kept, and dreamed of a job where he could work for a day and make thirty or forty coins at a time (because of course in the place of money, there was plenty to go around). After two weeks of difficult hiking and freezing cold nights, he climbed the last mountain pass and entered a high valley whose snowy hillsides were scattered with mud huts. Between the huts were paths dug out of the snow so the people living on the hillside could get from tiny one-room hut to tiny one-room hut. He continued down this valley, and the number of huts increased, until as he rounded a bend in the road he stopped in front of a shining edifice, two huge golden gates blocking the road entirely. In front of the gates were forty guards, marching back and forth. They wore high bearskin caps and green baize uniforms with gold buttons. Silently, they marched back and forth and back and forth, holding rifles.
Nikolas went to the guardhouse and said “hello, my name is Nikolas and I am from the South. I am an artist seeking my fortune. I want to enter the city to get a good job and make some money.” The guard took his passport, examined it carefully, and said, “You will have to leave this rucksack in a locker, take a shower and have your cloths washed and pressed before I can let you through the gates.”
“But I can’t leave my rucksack out here, I need it. All of my belongings are in it!” The stone-faced guard said, “No problem. As an outsider you are permitted to work in the city, but you will never be allowed to live in the city. Each night at midnight all guest workers are required to leave. The gates are closed and locked from midnight to first light. Any guest worker remaining in city after midnight will be prosecuted, punished, and then permanently deported. That’s the law!“
“Where will I live?”
“In the Guest Workers’ huts, of course,” growled the guard.
And so it was that Nikolas began his life in the Village del’Oro, working within its gates, but living in a one-room hut outside the city. After all, the people with money, the bankers and money holders who lived in the city, needed their lawns mowed, needed someone to carry parcels while shopping, someone to help them move all that money from one safe place to another, load and unload trucks, wait on tables in their restaurants, sweep the streets, wash and polish floors and dispense shots of cappuccino. Like clockwork, each night, all of the Guest Workers were counted and expelled from the village. At five minutes to midnight, a rotating red light atop each of the golden pillars that supported the golden gates began turning, penetrating the night with a red flashing warning: “The Gates Are Locked, Do Not Enter.” Five minutes later a loud CLANK could be heard in the valley of little huts and the streets of Village del’Oro, and the rotating beacons would stop and go dark. Thus the bankers and moneyed people could sleep peacefully at night, knowing that people without money were on one side of the wall and people with money were on the other.
Nikolas worked in Village del’Oro for eight months, a very long time in the life of an eighteen year old. He was befriended by a family of bankers, and eventually he worked exclusively for them as an all-around dogsbody, bat man, jack of all trades and sometime babysitter. They were very kind to him, and during the day treated him almost like a son, even giving him food to take with him at night with advice like “Nikolas, you should get your education,” or “Nikolas, you should do more traveling and become a travel agent in one of the villages with a warmer climate.” This was how they treated him during the day, but as night fell, he, like all the other Guest Workers, would be put out of the village like, well you get the picture. Needless to say, Nikolas did not make a lot of money. Nikolas made a little more money than in Village del’Arte, but not much more. The people with money had money because they didn’t give it away, so the pay was low and the hours long. Nonetheless, Nikolas learned a lot about work and money, not the least of which was the notion that having money was different from not having money. He decided he did want to have some money, only he wasn’t going to make his fortune in Village del’Oro.
Now we must leave Nikolas for a couple of weeks as this is a blog not a novel. But before we do, lets take stock:
First we have young Nikolas, out in the world seeking his fortune. So far, he has accumulated many useful things for those seeking good fortune. He has the adventurer’s heart, enthusiasm, and courage. He has a predisposition to action. He has learned about art and the ways of making something out of very little, he has mastered his Swiss Army knife (all sixty-two and a half blades), he is self-dependent (just), he talks to himself, to animals, and to other people. He seems to be able to get along, and, finally, he has learned something about money. Nikolas is well on his way.
Next time, we will find out where this journey takes him, and we will see what seeking one’s fortune really looks like for Nikolas, you, me and others like us. Did Nikolas make a mistake leaving his school before graduating as his mother had urged? Was his old Headmaster right that Nikolas would be sorry, that there are no second chances in life? Setting out on the next leg of his journey, Nikolas does not think so; in fact, Nikolas is well on his way to… well, that’s for next time isn’t it?