It was my favorite jacket. Handmade by Bedouin tribesman from somewhere deep in the Sahara desert. I’d traded some old Reeboks for it in Morocco, and traveled the world with it.
That jacket had history and a special origin. But more importantly, I needed a jacket if I was going to go snowboarding in the Alps for Christmas.
And that’s why I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving.
Let me back up a minute.
Turkey For Thanksgiving
It was autumn, 2003, and I was fresh off the plane in Rome. I’d come back to Italy to visit some friends and look for work. A little effort, and I found a dream job, right next to the train station. The agreement was I’d run a local hostel throughout the winter, give tours, and have a place to stay in one of the rooms.
A few weeks (and many stories) later, the owners of the hostel got cold feet and told me the job was canceled.
I’d already spent a bunch of money getting setup, and now I had to start all over again.
Frustrated, I grabbed my backpack and headed east, into Greece, and began looking for new adventures instead. Although I hated to leave Italy behind, my bag was lighter by the motion of travel.
But I’d need a boat.
Apparently, there was a local fisherman who was willing to take passengers on his small fishing boat to the next port town across the Aegean. We waited until dark.
For a few extra dollars I was on my way across the sea, and into the cradle of civilization.
The wind was cold, and the boat was small against the waves. I still remember the crash of the ocean and the cool night air. And as the water sprayed against my face, I could feel the last days of summer were long gone. It was getting cold.
I arrived, cold and wet. The salty Turkish fisherman lead me through the gates of a small port town, when I soon discovered I needed to pay off the locals for safe passage.
As I watched an otherwise ghostly city, I noticed peculiar activity. It took me a moment before I realized what was happening. I’d arrived in the middle of Ramazan (Ramadan), the holy month in which Muslims refrain from most earthly enjoyments. And I was witnessing a small rebellion.
Local Turkish men were sneaking behind the wharf to share an alcoholic drink where no one else would see them.
Freedom is an impossible impulse to subdue.
But time passes slow in Turkey in late November at 5 am. An hour later, the wind and cold air was getting to me.
Time to bring out the lucky jacket.
I reached in my bag for my burlap savior. But there was no jacket. No winter clothes. I’d thought my bag had been lighter, but I had not heeded the warning. Until it all became apparent:
I’d left all my winter clothes unpacked in a drawer in that hostel in Rome. Once I thought I’d landed the job, it seems I’d tucked away my lucky jacket, and all my warm clothes for the winter.
And I’d forgot all about them in my frustration to leave.
It was going to be a long, cold winter indeed.
I was on my way to Istanbul. It was thanksgiving. And I felt like a turkey.
A few adventures later, and it was December. I had made my way through Turkey, and through the Balkans, and after many bribe attempts, stolen video cameras, and other assorted stories later, I was in northern Italy: the Dolomites.
The cold, snowy mountains just on the edge of the majestic Italian Alps.
Without a jacket.
I’d supposed, I guess, that I deserved it. If I couldn’t keep up with my things, then I guess I’d just have to deal with the consequences of a winter in the mountains with whatever clothes I’d managed to keep. And I had got such a good deal on that burlap jacket, traded for a pair of Reeboks, I guess I just couldn’t bring myself to purchase a new one with actual money.
No winter clothes, and in the middle of northern Italy in the dead of winter. I was staying with an especially generous Italian family, and just trying to beat the isolation of being alone in a foreign land during the holidays.
Well, imagine my surprise when I was given a second gift by this family. Dagmar, who had invited me in, presented me with a winter jacket as a Christmas gift.
Not quite the lucky burlap jacket. No, it became something else.
I was truly welcomed in the homes of strangers, and their generosity I will never forget. I met kids my age, stayed on their sofas and snowboarded with them at reduced prices and with borrowed gear. And a winter jacket. Those memories stay with me.
That jacket kept me warm through two more winters, until it was burned while working on the set of Alien vs Predator in Prague. Even then, I continued to wear it.
I will wear a gift even if it is burnt, I guess.
I finally retired the gift after too many people made fun of me. They didn’t see the same significance, and how could they?
When I finally got a new jacket, it was a 300 dollar beauty that was stolen two weeks after I’d received it.
And the next day the thief tried to sell it back to me. But that’s another story.
In any case, jackets can be lost or stolen.
But they can also be given when you really need it.
I’ve written before about my Budapest Blues, but I didn’t tell you everything.
In 2009, I spent a lot of time getting prepared for my move to Hungary, and meanwhile, my best friend had a connection and was getting set up quicker and easier. We had a plan. I’d help her with money, and she’d help me land a job and I’d crash with her until my job came through.
It didn’t work out so well.
I ended up kicked out on the street in a foreign land, not knowing anyone, and not knowing where to turn. With money quickly hemorrhaging to stay in a hotel, I had to do something fast.
I’d been a turkey in Istanbul, now I was homeless in Hungary.
With a little research, I found a website that helped travelers. A kind of community of generous, kind hearted people who offered up their couch or extra room to others. If you wanted a place to stay, they’d give you a couch. The trade off was simple: You had to be nice, tell your story, and share with them.
Eva and her sister, Edua, answered my call. I told them my situation, and I asked for help. Two beautiful Hungarians welcomed me into their home and put me up in their extra room while I continued to get settled while looking for a job. In fact, Eva even helped me with interviews.
It was the generosity of strangers that saved me where my best friend had kicked me out.
And when I later moved from Budapest back to Prague, I also met strangers who put me up and helped out. But, as I like to say, that is another story.
This story is about a jacket.
It’s about being kicked out.
And it’s about a station in Hungary.
It’s about a passage from Greece to Turkey.
When I saw the images of the refugee children who perished in the capsized boat last week, I was moved, like all of us, with emotion.
I also thought of that passage from Lesvos to Turkey. I’d made it on a fishing boat. The same passage. And I remember the cold water splashing upon my face as the waves just narrowly stayed below the hull of our small fishing boat, as it rocked violently in the angry ocean. Mine was a trip of adventure. Theirs was a trip for survival.
And as I look at those images, I see only loss. The loss of something special. Something with it’s own origin, it’s own history, it’s own personal significance.
And when I look further, and I see the images of the refugee families who had made it out of Greece, into Hungary, I am also moved with emotion. I recognize the very train stations they are camped out in, and I remember my own journey under it’s arches.
They crowd together, kicked out of their homes by their best friend – their own country.
Fearful, I am sure, of being at the mercy of others.
It’s times like these, when the world shows it’s humanity. When the policies and dogmas give way to deeper instinct. And the impulse to freedom is impossible to subdue.
This can lead us to be afraid of the stranger. To be afraid for our own scarcity, our resources. To steal the 300 dollar jacket and try and sell it back. To kick out the best friend because you’ve got a war to fight.
Or it can cause us to reach out and give a stranger a jacket, and a trip down the mountain they will never forget. To invite them in and give them a place to sleep in exchange for their story.
The world shows it’s humanity in many ways. We may fight the war and kick our best friend out of our home, or we may welcome the stranger into our own.
And what becomes of the stranger? They are no longer strange, the world is no longer cold, and memories of abundant generosity are created through your simple acts.
I owe the memories of my most beautiful experiences to strangers. The very Europeans who are now asked in another way to see the kid without the jacket.
The same winter I spent in the Alps ended in Prague, where I finally established myself and eventually got my own apartment.
I went to a local bar and hostel where they screened films on Sundays.
As I sat there, watching Kustarica’s “Black Cat, White Cat,” I looked across the table and saw a familiar face. It was one of the Bulgarians who worked at the hostel in Rome where I’d left my beloved burlap jacket.
There, in some tiny little hostel in Prague, was serendipity.
Here to teach me something, I am sure.
I spoke to him, and he remembered me. It seems he had traveled up for a weekend tour and was now sitting across from me in a cold dark hostel that smelled of raspberry tea and grog.
I never mentioned my favorite burlap jacket, nor did I ask if they could mail it to me in Prague.
Instead, I zipped up the one Dagmar had given me, and I walked out the door. I didn’t need a relic from the past.
I was sad at the loss of that jacket, a jacket that had shared the road with me through so many adventures. But now, I smile because I know the lesson of the jackets.
Somewhere, I am sure, a young traveler went rummaging through his room, in a hostel in Rome, and found the coolest, luckiest travel jacket in the world. It was a stylish jacket, handmade my a Bedoin traveler deep in the Sahara desert.
But that’s not what made it warm.
I’ve met the hostility of friends, and I’ve met the hospitality of strangers. And what I know now is hospitality makes one not a stranger, and hostility makes one not a friend.
No, the jacket is warm from something else.
I hope the next traveler wears it well.
The Journey Continues
Tyler Gooden is the director of TheFCStartMovie.com, inspired by the incredible true story of FC Start.