‘Why does no one smile?’ Cherry asked, her question echoed around the room. Stephen had been exploring streets, sites and sights and talking to people for several weeks now, throughout various patches of what is sometimes called ‘Eastern Europe’. The term is outdated*, but still continues as it is apparently useful for people to categorise. ‘You’re the ones that were once in Yugoslavia’ for instance, ‘you were the ones who were once in Ukraine’, and ‘you were the ones who don’t smile,’ apparently.
He had met Cherry at his current hostel and was occupying a nearby space in the shared dining area when she began talking about her travels. There were several people in the room, all sitting apart from each other, as was standard practice, except for a couple that was canoodling in one corner near the wifi router that blinked in protest through a carpet of dust. The smell of someone’s spicy cooking had seeped into the farthest reaches of the shared space.
Someone had mentioned how tea was an English drink and Cherry had, without an invitation, begun to recite all the places in the world, that she had evidently been and was now therefore the authority on, that also enjoy tea as a national drink. Stephen noted that these facts didn’t seem to contradict the first, as surely many countries can have the same national drink. Also, in a room full of travellers, rattling on about your own travels seems kind of like talking about your favourite meat pie in a pie shop. Yet Cherry was delivering her list with the enthusiasm of a rebuttal. Her braggart style wore thin and heads turned away with disinterest. Stephen was studying his watch as it projected a list of things to do in the city. It was then that Cherry, apparently unaware of the alienation of herself that had just occurred, espoused the accusation, framed as a question.
‘What do you mean?’ some bored soul offered, as one might to a colleague in a lunch room who was rambling bigoted nonsense. Or perhaps one who might stick their fingers into the orifice of a potentially violent organism.
‘Ever since I’ve been here, I’ve never had a single person smile when they serve me, it’s nothing like home.’
Stephen wanted to point out that a people who had been repressed for hundreds of years and who had only experienced a few decades of freedom at the turn of the century, only to have it taken away again, weren’t likely to bow and scrape to the whims of a backpacker spending a few dollars a day. It was either indifference or cowardice that kept him from speaking, but when no response was forthcoming, she finally ceased her protests.
The crowd was suddenly distracted by the screech of a large winged animal as it flew past the second story window. The teeth shone through in a kind of inhuman smirk.
‘Why is smiling so important?’ Stephen thought. ‘Someone who smiles can be a horrible person, yet a gentle positive person may stay their face muscles.’ He stood up and left to begin exploring his latest city, and made a special point of smiling to everyone on the way out.
*More and more areas are referred to as ‘Western Russia’