Just beyond the fortified walls and past a small cafe, the shopkeeper unlocked his door, pulled up the steel door protecting the glass, and took his customary seat on his favorite stool behind the counter.
He was born into this business and now at the age of eighty, looking back on his life lived mostly within those four walls, he couldn’t think of a single regret. Nothing he wished he’d done nor been. This was the only village he’d ever know and the shop his grandfather had opened over a century ago. It survived two wars and a long line of government promises leading to ultimate failures. But those were events that seemed to happen a world away anyway. They were printed in the newspapers and aired on the cafe televisions but only ever felt real in the context of shrinking or expanding wallets, already made meager by their distance from urban centers of commerce. This was where the collateral damage of world events was made manifest in daily diets. The ebb and flow of happiness was based on the plentitude of bread and if lucky a piece of meat or two.
The shopkeeper felt a certain pride that went with his lineage and attachment to this place and families he knew by name for generations, some long gone, and almost forgotten until wistful and nostalgic glasses of wine and conversation shared with friends shifted to a shared oral history. He was also content to be insulated from global events, left to focus on the slow trade of goods to sustain him.
A lot had changed since he took ownership of the stool behind the counter. A rite of passage he was eager to attain though it came with the diminishment of his father’s capacity to be the omnipotent manager of every detail of the shop. Back in his boyhood days the shop sold the basic tools and materials of what was a more simple local building trade – hammers, chisels, stone, masonry, that sort of thing. The tourists started coming when the shopkeeper formally took over the business and their myriad needs changed everything. He kept some of the hardware store standards, which he sold to the local families in a pinch and at prices he set based on his knowledge of what they could afford to pay. He mostly took a loss on those essentials, but more than made up for it with the tchotchkes he displayed in his window and throwaway electronics everyone seemed to need these days – headphones, chargers, universal plugs, cosmetic tools – conveniences for the modern traveler who needs to have everything all the time.
Housing all of those items presented a problem. The shop was in an old small house with no room for expansion. It was maybe 300 square feet per floor. The shop was on the ground floor and he lived above it on the top floor. With nowhere to expand in length and width the shopkeeper started to take advantage of his ample twelve foot ceilings. He stacked everything up the walls in cardboard boxes. He wrote cryptic notes on the outside of the boxes, a code known only to him. It required him to be in the store at all times, but he didn’t mind. It made him feel important, like his knowledge of the shop was essential to the rhythm of the town and the satisfaction tourists felt in their future recollections and reviews of the village.
On slow days he would watch the tourists stream by and guess their nationalities. Sometimes he’d go across the street to the local cafe and read a newspaper or have a pleasant conversation with the owner about the weather. He’d wonder why people thought speaking louder in their own language would somehow increase comprehension. He knew a good ten to fifteen words in six or seven languages, enough to basically understand what people wanted and get it to them without breaking his smile.
He was starting to think about closing for lunch when I came in looking for a US to EU plug adapter. I described the item to him rather poorly in three different languages, but somehow he knew exactly what I wanted after ten or so muddled words. He grabbed his ladder and pulled it down from a box on the top row. He put it there twelve years ago. I paid and left.
The shopkeeper flipped his sign to closed and went upstairs to eat leftovers from the night before. While he ate he looked out at the rolling hills just outside the village walls and felt at ease. He ate slowly, savoring the flavor of the food and local wine he always drank with lunch. The warm sun touched his face and he closed his eyes to listen to distant footsteps and a light wind blowing through the valley and his window.
Back at my hotel I plugged in my laptop and cellphone, eager to see if I’d missed anything in the hours without internet access. Maybe when I looked into the jovial and weathered eyes of the shopkeeper I saw a happy life of simplicity and isolation and it was an indictment of my own striving and complex life speeding by the mundane features that give it the texture that forms memories that bleed into nostalgia. It could have been a projection of a life I thought I would have liked to live but didn’t have the courage to pursue, and saw now in the flesh as a representation of what could have been.
One can never know.