Last week, I found myself mumbling a litany of thanks to my high school French teacher, my college Italian professors, and Dora the Explorer. It was either very late Sunday night or very early Monday morning, and I was listening to (and understanding!) conversations in about 6 different languages. Cynthia, Liz, and I were at a party at a backpacker hostel with our friend Carrie-Anne, who seems to know every single international volunteer in Kolkata. The hotel, if you could call it that, is called the Modern Lodge. My American accent makes the name sound like “Maaahdern Laadge”, but the place sounds ten times hipper if you imagine somebody telling you about it with a British or Irish accent. “Mohdehn Lohdge.” Much better.
I already mentioned how we didn’t encounter many other Americans in Kolkata. The Modern Lodge is an inexpensive long-term residence located off Sudder Street, a shady avenue that is perpetually jammed with taxi drivers on break and twenty-something Westerners wearing Ali Baba pants. Carrie-Anne wanted us to come to the party to bid farewell to Michael, an Irish guy she’d been working with at Howrah Station. We gamely trooped up to the roof of the Modern Lodge, and as we emerged from the stairwell, we were met with a raucous, “Carrie-Anne! Heeeeyyyyy!”
The party on the roof did not look like any Notre Dame dorm party that I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. About 25 people were sitting around on overturned buckets and beat-up folding chairs, encircling a few tables scattered with empty bottles, carry-out containers, and lighters. Everyone was happily conversing, and everyone was wearing those god-awful Ali Baba pants. I immediately felt too clean, too put together in my Wal-Mart cargo pants and crew neck tshirt. That’s saying something. At least I had a scarf around my head.
I decided that rather than sitting alone and feeling out-of-place, the better option would be to jump in and meet some people. I’m glad I did. The night at the Modern Lodge turned out to be one of my favorite nights in Kolkata—I have never encountered so many fascinating people in one place! John from England had been in Kolkata for 6 weeks teaching English, and he was moving on to Mongolia in ten days. Bennett from Germany is part of the German equivalent to the Peace Corps; he had been working in a village about 5 hours from the city but wanted a change, so he moved to Kolkata to finish the last 4 months of his 12 month commitment. Laurena from Mexico met Coral (pronounced like “chorale” but with a rolled “r”) from Spain at work—they’re both recent high school grads volunteering at Mother Teresa House and will be traveling around India together after they finish their volunteer work. Coral’s new boyfriend, Giuseppe from Italy, helped me practice my Italian and recommended some places to visit while I’m living in Roma. “I live now in Firenze but I was born in Palermo. You must visit Sicilia. The people in Roma are…how you say…freddo…but the people in Sicilia—the best.” A dreadlocked Australian couple (whose names escape me) sat with me and spoke about the documentary they are making that will feature John from Ireland, the guest of honor. I later found out that this Australian couple had a pirate-themed wedding in Perth and picked up and moved to China the day after they were married. An older Swiss man went off to bed shortly after we arrived, but not before introducing me to Julie (that’s zjhu-LEE, for all you non-Francophiles), who embodied just about every stereotype of the gorgeous, skinny, cigarette-smoking French girl. She works with Carrie-Anne at Howrah. Actually, aside from Julie, the other French people basically just sat by themselves smoking, jabbering away en francais, and being beautiful. One of the French guys was a DEAD RINGER for Robert Pattinson. The resemblance was uncanny.
The best part about meeting all of these people was that I could actually understand them. Everyone introduced themselves in English, but when they returned to their conversations in their native tongues, I was shocked that I was able to keep up. Sometimes the conversations weren’t even in the same language—Giuseppe spoke Italian to Laurena and Coral, who replied in Spanish. Nevertheless, everyone managed to understand each other, myself included. Four years of high school French and 3 semesters of college Italian actually came in handy. Thanks to the common bond of Romance languages, I even picked up some of the Spanish. I understood a lot more than I could speak, but I was able to clumsily contribute to the conversations.
About 45 minutes after we arrived, John from England grabbed a guitar. A Spanish girl found a pair of spoons, and a young French monk named Brother Teo brought out his lap-sized keyboard. Carrie-Anne explained to me (with the authority that only a girl from Dublin can have) that any successful night must include a sing-a-long. And so it began. I found the assortment of songs requested and played absolutely fascinating. Everyone knows The Beatles, but I didn’t expect everyone to know “Surfin’ USA”. Some of the other crowd-pleasers included “Hit the Road Jack” and “American Pie”, much to my surprise.
All of the people were about my age—some a little younger (but not much), most a little older (but not much). Everybody had come to Kolkata to do such good work, such interesting work. I’m still not quite sure how everyone finds out about all of these volunteer opportunities. What draws someone to come to India for 3 months and care for the dying? The fact that that sort of work calls people is so admirable. The Modern Lodge completely destroyed all of my preconceived notions about backpackers and the other foreigners we encountered in India. I had unwittingly stereotyped them as self-righteous, grimy, Lonely Planet tourists, and I could not have been more mistaken.