Елена Вахненко

The N City

N is a special place to live... its inhabitants know how to enjoy life, and they never rush anywhere. What is their secret? Read their stories to find out!

Russian version of the story  

 

Meet N City!

N is a beautiful city. Really beautiful, different from any other I've ever seen. Believe me, I am the one to know! After all, it is now that I live such a boring life: I walk along the same streets, visit the same cafes... And in the past, I adored traveling and dreamed of seeing the whole world, even its most distant areas... I worked as a guide and wandered around Europe with pleasure, and hotels and tourist buses almost became my home. My days were intense and busy (in a good way), full of emotions and impressions.

Now everything has changed. I still work as a guide, though today I accompany the groups only in their walks around the outskirts of the N city. An unexpected quirk of fate!

Sometimes I wonder why I gave up my own habits and settled in N… Age affects me, perhaps?

Well, yes, I'm not a young girl, I'm, alas, over forty. I have an adult son in my homeland... I was married twice! Probably, I'm just tired of constant change... and I also fell in love. Yes, yes, I fell in love, hopelessly and forever, and it happened 5 years ago. Do you think the object of my feelings is a certain man? Not at all. This is the N city. I was passing through here... and stayed to live.

But the main thing is that the City loves me back. It's being really kind to me, I feel very comfortable over here.

So, let me introduce the N city. Please, welcome!

* * *

It's wonderful in N, believe me. Winters are mild, without burning frosts and sudden temperature jumps, and in summer, there is no numbing heat and stuffiness. The city is great and worthy of love.

But maybe "city" is a too strong word? After all, N. is too cozy, it's rather a town, not a city... however, it doesn't really matter! I'll use both names. It deserves to be called the N. City.

Let's get back to my story.

The town is densely surrounded by mountains, and therefore the weather, with its constant moderation, is quite changeable. “Don't forget to take an umbrella!” - we say in the morning, even if the sun is shining outside the window. We're not joking - in N, clouds can thicken at any moment, and a real waterfall will dash down the ground. And half an hour later, the sky will become piercing blue again. There is a certain charm in such fickleness: we're never bored! The more especially as the local rains are very warm. No trouble at all!

However, it's enough talking about the weather. What fascinated me most of all in N was the local views and beautiful places. The ancient city is permeated with the spirit of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and the secluded streets impress with their elegance. With this, the town is very modernly equipped: there is a sewage system, the Internet, and other benefits of our civilization. It's difficult to drive here, there are only a few places where you can park freely, but instead of dull buildings or soulless American skyscrapers, you'll see exquisite colorful houses. Moreover, here and there, you're going to meet true architectural works of art. And why do you need to drive a car in the first place? N has a catching way of persuading us, people, to plan unhurried romantic walks!

All this splendor, as I’ve already mentioned, is surrounded by mountains whose peaks literally prop up the skies and seem to be drowning in the clouds. The N image is completed by numerous park areas with vivid flower gardens, refine fountains, marble benches, and shaded avenues - a true paradise for loving couples!

And the City has its Soul, It knows how to talk with us - in its own way, of course! And we, the locals, are fluent in its secret language using which the N city taught us the most important thing: the style of a leisurely life. Here, in N, we never fuss and live with taste. And therefore we don’t miss anything, not a single moment…

We understand that life is an amazingly beautiful jewel; alas, the jewel is fragile and can be broken by any careless touch. We catch every glow of its sharp edge and admire the radiance of the world through such a wondrous treasure... perhaps it's said too flowery, but essentially true. This is how we experience life…

* * *

Having moved to N, I first lived within the city itself, but soon settled in a small suburban village. Located on a hillside, it is very close to N, and living here is much cheaper than renting a city apartment.

Every morning I ride to N on a local bus and every evening I go back in the same manner. I am quite satisfied with this pace of life: in the hours free from excursions I sit in a cafe, go shopping, walk in the park, meet with friends… After 7 pm, the life of the city stops in any case: the shops and some cafes are closed, the indigenous people go home, and only bored tourists wander the streets. So, with a clear conscience, I'm returning to my one-story cottage.

By the by, I still consider myself a resident of N. In the end, most of the time I spend in the city, and most of my friends exist in the same way - it's more economical! Exceptions to the rule are only representatives of the elite or true romantics - such as baby Mia, a young artist who prefers to live in the city itself, asserting that "here is a very special atmosphere, it gives inspiration." When asked why it's impossible to settle in the village and visit N every day for another portion of inspiration, she proudly replies: “No, that won't work! The city, it's alive. It'll be offended... ” Maybe so... I've seen her pieces a couple of times: the pictures are vivid, even too vivid, in the style of impressionism; they're created in a talented manner, but not everyone would be fond of them. However, I'd hardly be the one to judge.

Speaking of Mia! The N city includes not only streets, houses, and mountains. It is also about people. And each of them is worthy of his (or her) own history. But one step at a time… let's not get ahead of ourselves.

 

In the bus

Amelia sat on a soft seat at the very end of a comfortable bus. She took her favorite place by the window to get a wonderful opportunity to observe other passengers without let or hindrance. Such observations weren't among the idle amusements and served as good food for the imagination: this is how Amelia was searching for images for future heroes of her own books.

Tall, toned, and pretty, Amelia looked much younger than her age (30+) and was considered a successful writer with promising perspectives. She had gray, starry eyes, long ashen hair, and a speaking face with spirited features. The graceful shapes of the young female figure were now accented by cream breeches and a slinky top, and a gas scarf of muted coral color was thrown over the shoulders.

“Amelia, what a surprise!” - a lengthy scrawny man with sparse blond hair and watery bulgy eyes exclaimed with sincere joy. - Can I sit next to you?

Usually, Amelia preferred to be alone, but Simon was a fairly innocent companion, and therefore she graciously allowed him to take a seat close to her. The writer knew from experience that he would immediately bury himself in his iPad and start working on his global historical book, to which he devoted all his free time.

Simon was a historian aged under 40. Several times a week he conducted city tours for tourists and sometimes wrote historical articles for newspapers and magazines. He was a typical “nerd” - both externally and internally, and such a role in no way weighed upon his mood.

Thin and clumsy, Simon was unattractive but charming. And it was precisely this charm that helped him win the heart of a young girl named Emily about 10 years ago. Ever since then, they happily lived together and reared little Sophie, a sweet little angel with flaxen curls.

“Surprised to see you, - Simon said absently, taking out his iPad. - You live in London as I recall…”

“I was visiting, it seemed a bit late to come back,” Amelia answered discreetly.

His surprise was quite justified: Amelia, unlike most of her friends and acquaintances, rented an apartment in the city itself - she had enough writer fees, and her wealthy husband Moritz earned a lot. The poorer people had to settle in a small cottage village near N. Every day they traveled to the city by bus to return home in the same way in the evening. However, such trips didn't irritate the local inhabitants, for they knew quite well how to enjoy everything around. Many of them took advantage of the wonderful chance to do nothing for half an hour: they were simply admiring the landscape behind the windows or, maybe, relaxedly reading the book while the music was playing in their headphones.

"I see..." - Simon muttered without much interest. He didn’t even bother to clarify who his interlocutor was visiting.

As Amelia supposed, their conversation ended there. The man went deep into his favorite work, his fingers briskly ran over the virtual keyboard of the iPad, and his eyes fixed on the screen. And the writer could easily study other passengers…

She knew them all very well, of course. But it is often the case that a person you know to the smallest detail (at least, you think you do) reveals a completely unexpected character feature, which means you need to be on the alert: what if fate today provides a chance to find a totally new approach to a thoroughly studied personality?

Amelia's eyes glided over the faces of the passengers and settled on a not very young, but still attractive woman with a delicate face and brown hair flowing down to rounded, stooped shoulders. It was Natalie, a sort of ’grand dame’ over the age of 40. Plump, but not swollen, with a very feminine body, she preferred chiffon and silk, satin and velvet, she wore long skirts and floor-length dresses and literally exuded spicy sensuality. However, her profession didn't correspond to such appearance: Natalie was a guide and, like Simon, accompanied tourists during their walks along the ancient streets of the city, telling about famous architectural buildings and people who once lived there. Out of curiosity, Amelia visited a few excursions and was really impressed. She even envied Natalie's grace who manage to flirt and maintain her dignity and a certain distance between herself and tourists at the same time. So male tourists limited themselves to caressing the tempting body of their pretty guide with very hot eyes, and that’s all they did... it wasn't very easy for them to stop there, for Natalie was gorgeous in her years, maturity suited her. One of the many proofs was the eloquent fact that Natalie was a constant companion to Felix, the impressive owner of several city restaurants, a solid and very well-off man. He could live in N (and he lived there!) and invited his charming ladylove to move in with him. But she, for whatever reason she had, chose to settle in the village cottage. Perhaps, she valued her own independence and freedom more than luxury and comfort?.

Natalie felt the writer's attention and smiled at her. Amelia answered the woman in the same manner, hastily looked away, and cast a furtive glance at a guide's neighbor, a very young and very pretty girl, with hair tied into a small red tail and a pale face without any makeup. It was Mia, a beginning artist who was spending most of her money to have a chance to live in the city; and she didn't mind starving for that purpose.

“Probably also spent the night with friends,” Amelia thought absently. She felt sincere sympathy for the young artist and considered her a soulmate. In the end, they were both creative people!

After Mia, the object of her observations was a  sweet couple, Julia and Daniel: a sultry black-eyed brunette with a curvy body and a tall thin guy of 25 years old. Having occupied adjacent chairs, they constantly whispered to each other, and their hands often touched… they looked like a real loving couple, although this wasn't true - at least, as they indignantly assured everyone around. Both worked as waiters at nearby coffee houses (owned by Natalie's supporter, the unforgettable Felix) and played fiery rivalries; for example, they liked to argue about whose establishment is better: the refined restaurant of Julia, saturated with aristocratic spirit, or Daniel's small, simple café.

Amelia's lips were touched by a reflective smile, the writer suppressed a sigh and forced herself to turn away from the “unloving couple”. Watching them was fun, but... embarrassing, or what? As if you are overseeing the forbidden steamy scene through the keyhole…

Then she shifted her gaze towards Niko and Paul, the sellers of all sorts of beautiful trinkets in the souvenir shops... Working in the neighborhood, they fiercely competed, and, unlike Daniel and Julia, acted with sincere fervor and excitement. In particular, they adored arguing over who would sell more amusing bagatelles to tourists: the loser should have performed a pre-specified errand or a ridiculous task.

Niko and Paul were real antipodes. The first was an ugly, middle-aged, with a somewhat monkey appearance, the second was a stalwart, athletic brunet who had barely stepped over a 30-year-old point and who managed to make a mash on every girl around. And if Niko was hopelessly devoted to his souvenir business,  Paul treated his work with mocking indulgence. Amelia slightly despised this "pretty boy" for his arrogant indulgence and sheer narcissism and considered his looks too sugary. She liked men like Moritz much more…

Thinking of her husband, the writer relaxed back in her chair and closed her eyes tightly. The amazing thing, they hadn't seen each other only for a couple of days, and she already missed him!

“Okay… - Amelia thought, smiling. - I will continue to observe another time...”

At the moment, she just wanted to doze off and dream... she wasn't the original resident of N, but the years she had spent here taught her the delicious leisure of the local everyday life... taught her how to be happy. And this was a lot.

 

Your morning coffee

It was a sunny spring morning, around 9 a.m. For the young artist Mia, it was an early hour, since she worked according to her own individual schedule, in other words, how, where, when she wanted and, most importantly, IF she wanted! Though, is it possible to call artistic creativity a real job?... given that this creativity isn't even bringing much profit…

Mia, however, wasn't discouraged. Where have you seen artists glorified in their lifetime? True glory comes years later... for now, it remains to paint pictures without sparing yourself! And she did so with great pleasure.

Mia started her next day, as expected, with a cup of the most fragrant drink in the world - coffee. She was too lazy to make it at home, so the girl changed into a simple light-colored dress and went to her favorite coffee-shop nearby.

Light as a feather, fair-skinned, with dark-red, gold-flowing hair and a  shiny face, Mia attracted the glances of rare morning passers - mostly male ones. She was young, pretty, and aware of her tender freshness and enchanting charm.

Life is wonderful... the main thing is to start your day correctly, without beefing! Mia was sure this was the secret of her inornate happiness.

* * *

It was good here: a strong coffee aroma dancing, an unobtrusive melody sounding, people smiling... Mia comfortably settled herself at a table by the window, opened the menu, and got in the mood for a pleasant pastime.

Choosing morning coffee was an important ritual for her. The beginning of the day sets the tone for the whole day... but only a few people understand how important this is: the right morning with the right coffee!

Well, for example, if you order a black Mocca, it means your mood is so-so, you don't expect anything interesting but you're not waiting for any unpleasant surprises either. This coffee is stronger than americano and weaker than espresso, and Mia could drink it only with some delicious dessert, otherwise, Mocca would seem too depressing. A boring drink, uninteresting, without inspiration - and she, as a young artist, always needed a lot of inspiration!

Or Doppelter, Austrian double espresso. Well, this coffee is the best choice for early morning - say, in those cases when you didn't get enough sleep or just hope to cheer yourself up before a difficult day. Last time Mia ordered Doppelter a month ago, after a sleepless night of excruciating, truly creative torments over her new painting. Toward dawn, the girl finally had a hunch and, having given up her dream to take a little nap, refueled herself with a double dose of caffeine. Then she tried to bring her fresh-born idea to life, or rather, to an oil-painted picture... and she had brought it quite well, by the way... managed to sell her piece quite profitably!

If the mood is peaceful, complacent without agiotage, you can order Einspanner, a sort of black cappuccino. Mia loved to start her day with this drink… it helped her draw better, without strain and with pleasure.

When Mia wanted something special, she asked for Fiaker, black coffee with brandy, or Pharisaer, a strong mocha served with a glass of rum. These drinks topped with a thick cap of whipped cream aroused not only the mind but also inspiration. However, Mia was afraid to misuse them. Rum and brandy early in the morning, even in small quantities and with coffee, seemed to be quite a dubious path…

Weakish Verlangerter, the Austrian version of Americano, was ordered by people without imagination. Mia didn't consider herself to be such and therefore preferred to choose something more elaborate. Verlangerter is too simple, no invention. And she is an artist, after all!

As for Kaiser-Melange, Mia was used to drinking it when she wanted to spunk up and get a boost of energy at the same time. This black coffee with beaten egg yolk excellently dulled the hunger and allowed to postpone breakfast or to do without it at all. And in moments of the creative impulse, the young artist wanted to get rid of her early affairs as soon as possible to start her favorite work without delay. However, to abandon the morning portion of coffee would be blasphemous even in this case!

Mia had a very special attitude to coffee mocha named Maria Theresia. Blended with orange liqueur and whipped cream, the drink was named after the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa who just adored it. Legend has it that the royal woman in question preferred this very recipe for making coffee. And Mia, choosing Maria Theresia, felt almost a queen.

Today she ordered the Viennese classics - traditional Melange. Сoffee with milk, sugar, and whipped cream visually resembled cappuccino and was decorated with sweet chocolate flakes. Melange was loved by admirers of eternal values, and although Mia didn't consider herself a traditionalist, sometimes she felt nostalgic about the classics. There was something exquisitely refined, truly feminine in Melange... corresponding to her present mood.

The girl scooped up a cap of whipped cream with a teaspoon, carefully licked a delicate white mass, and even closed her eyes, enjoying. Such simple, tasty minutes sometimes brought more sweet emotions than significant events. Mia understood and appreciated it very well - and, of course, she used it with might and main. Maybe that's why her pictures were bright, expressive, juicy... some people critically noticed that her pieces were made with rough strokes, but everyone admitted the sunny joy that the paintings of the young artist were always full of. And joy, it’s actually all around! Just relax and scoop it with spoons in the literal and figurative sense, soak up with every particle of your soul!

Mia did just that and started with morning coffee. Sometimes, like today, she went to a cafe, and on other days, when it clicked with her mood, she conjured over a fragrant drink at home. The girl didn't consider herself a gifted cook but she learned to make excellent coffee. Even the ritual of “coffee-making” reminded her of a certain sacrament and gave almost aesthetic pleasure.

Most often, she made classic Viennese coffee with chocolate, milk, cream, powdered sugar, and raw coffee beans. The girl acted strictly according to the rules: she warmed the milk on a slow fire, melted chocolate, added cream... then she roasted coffee beans to achieve a dark chocolate-brown shade accompanied by a heady coffee aroma. It remained to grind the roasted beans and pour boiling water over the formed powder. While the drink was steeping, Mia was doing the most delicate work: she carefully, in the thinnest trickle, filled it up with melted chocolate, whipped in thick foam. After that, she covered her coffee with the creamy froth and decorated it with powdered sugar or cinnamon.

Mia had other favorite recipes either: for example, Viennese coffee with orange zest or chicory, as well as “Viennese melange” with a generous portion of milk.

“Do you want anything else?” - came the polite waiter's voice.

Mia discovered, not without surprise, that she had managed to drink her Melange. She really went wool-gathering...

“No, thanks, - she smiled at him. - - Bring me the bill, please”

In the end, as they say, too much water drowned the miller! One cup of coffee is just enough. Now it's time to pay attention to other nice moments.

Mia sighed sweetly, anticipating a delightful day predicted to be warm and sunny. In this weather, it's good to walk in the park, sit by the river, stroll through the streets...

Life is a pleasure. The main thing is to start the day properly…

 

D&J

Julia deftly jumped off the steps of the bus onto the hot asphalt, deliberately ignoring Daniel’s graciously outstretched hand, and closed her eyes sweetly, exposing her pretty little face to the merciless summer sun. She adored this time of year and felt excellent even in the most unmerciful heat. Well, Julia was a “hot” girl… in every sense of the word. And her appearance matched such a stormy, southern temperament: dark skin, feminine body with expressive, very appealing curves, moist black eyes, sensual mouth, shiny raven locks... other female persons usually contemptuously advised Julia to lose some weight, but men rarely shared their opinion (obviously based on sheer jealousy) and considered the sultry beauty just perfect. She had everything a true woman needed.

“See you!” - the girl said haughtily to Daniel. Straightening a dark plum narrow skirt tight-fitting imposing hips, Julia briskly walked along a well-known street which she managed to examine through the length and breadth.

“I'm on your way as you remember, - Daniel recalled in an unctuous tone, hiding a mocking smile. - So allow me, my darling, to keep you company”.

Daniel, unlike his companion, didn't make a strong impression. He was tall, thin, fair-haired, with an unremarkable face and cheerful brown eyes. But the gaze of these eyes fascinated and captivated: piercing and gamine at the same time, it testified to the sharp mind of his owner.

“I'm not your "darling"! - Julia arrogantly objected, funny wrinkling. - Use these awful callings when addressing the girls in your low-profile establishment…”

Not at all offended by these not-so-kind words (reciprocal taunts were natural to them), Daniel made a company to the girl, against the will of the latter. So, they went together, exchanging acrid remark and, it seemed, getting a strange pleasure from such a conversation…

Having reached the refined building with the Defreggerstube restaurant on the first floor, Julia stopped.

“So I came, - she uttered with a shadow of regret and added portraying mock indulgence: - And you keep going... your audience doesn't come here, right?”

“Well, there's no way we fit in!” - Daniel agreed sarcastically and departed with a slight bow.

Outside listeners could get the impression that these two were owners of some restaurants, while in fact Julia and Daniel were just waiters… which didn’t prevent them from excitedly defending the honor of “their” coffee houses.

Julia worked in the exquisite restaurant occupied the corner of the first floor of the elite hotel complex. And although most of the customers were local guests, the place was also accessible to all mortal beings who could get in it directly from the street.

The hotel building of a pleasant coffee color towered several floors above the city, and there was the long string of mountains stretched behind it as a spectacular background. The contrast of architectural art and wildlife creation, being really impressive and grandeur, stuck to the memory for long.

Julia entered the establishment through the black entrance intended for the servants; a couple of minutes later she was hastily changing into a special uniform dress (which, from her point of view, was unnecessarily strict). The coquettish white headdress crowned girl's black curls, and graceful stiletto sandals were replaced by more comfortable shoes. The dress code was an inevitable evil with which Julia resigned at the beginning of her work activity - especially when she noticed that such an outfit didn't prevent men from passionately devouring with eyes her sexy figure.

“Quite good!” - she thought without false modesty, having critically examined her reflection in the mirror. From its glassy depths, a sweet tanned girl with very seductive curves of a gorgeous body looked at her sprightly. Of course, Julia would prefer a dress shorter and brighter, but she stood out among the other waitresses anyway. And the thing was, of course, not only in girl's stunning appearance but also in the fire felt in each of her gestures, in the flame that shone in her eyes and sounded in a creamy voice... the men reacted to this fen fire and rushed to it like moths.

The day, as always, promised to be eventful. And in the evening, when she, Julia, goes out, Daniel is likely to be waiting for her... “We’re going one way, let's keep each other's company, it's more fun together!” - he will say casually, and she will condescendingly smile back. And they will go, and their hands will sometimes touch - as if by chance... at the thought of such an almost romantic boardwalk the girl's heart warmed - although she would never admit it to anybody… even (or especially) herself.

* * *

When Julia left the restaurant, it was already quite dark. Daniel, as she had anticipated, was waiting for her nearby, sitting next to one of the street lamps. In such ghostly illumination, he no longer seemed like an ordinary middle-good-looking young man. A circle of silver lantern light traced out the guy's silhouette and provided his slim figure with some mystery. The girl involuntarily admired her friend who now made a particularly strong impression. Night throws a veil of secrecy on everything and gives the world a languid charm… and that evening was no exception to the rule.

“Why have I never noticed how handsome he is? - Julia thought in surprise. Recovering herself, she mentally added - not without gloomy irony: - Nonsense! This is Daniel, just Dan! ”

Daniel couldn't be mysterious handsome - he just couldn't, and that's all! And Julia, frustrated with her own spiritual weakness, imitated a sugary smile and said with exaggerated cheerfulness:

“Hello, hello! Not frozen yet?”

According to the unwritten scenario, Daniel was supposed to laugh it off in his usual manner; however, against expectations, he remained serious, almost solemn.

“It’s not cold to me, - he responded quietly and took a sliding step towards the girl. - But you will probably be cold…”

Now he was very close to her, Julia felt the warmth emanating from him and caught the captivating tart smell of a strong male body.

“Here you go… - added Daniel, throwing his jacket over her shoulders. When his hands touched her body, a weak shiver passed over the girl’s skin, and her breathing was lost. - You're not dressed for this weather.”

“Thank you,” Julia muttered tightly. She felt uneasy, this new Daniel was completely unfamiliar to her… and he scared her! Their traditional pattern of communication was different: they usually made fun of each other and behaved playfully, but, perhaps, in a friendly way, without a touch of true passion. And now something very sensual has appeared in Daniel… in all his actions.

“Let's go? - as if not noticing her doubts or interpreting them in his own way, he slightly hugged her shoulders. - We'll miss the last bus”

It spurred her on. The girl least of all wanted to spend the night on a park bench in the company of this new Daniel!

* * *

They had been walking to the bus stop for about a quarter of an hour, and perhaps it was the weirdest 15 minutes in Julia's whole life… of course, she always liked Daniel, but they seemed to have concluded unspoken rules of conduct between themselves. And the girl considered it redundant and unacceptable to violate them just like this, without preliminary hints and warning signals.

“And why, in fact, unacceptable? - Julia asked herself, feeling Dan’s hand slip from her shoulder and wind around the waist; fingers got under her blouse and began to stroke her soft belly, slowly and gently.  - If he decided that something more could happen between us... why not?”

“But this is absurd! - a desperate thought rang out. - At least in such a form!”

And the girl resolutely writhed herself free from the companion's tight embrace.

“Sorry, I can’t breathe,” she cooed, trying to soften her act, although her voice sounded not as flirtatious as she wanted, and a nervous note slipped in intonation.

But Daniel, apparently, wasn’t going to give up. Stopping under another lantern, the guy caught her hand and gently squeezed her thin fingers.

“Are you afraid of me?” - he asked earnestly, peering into her face, lined with shadows.

Julia swallowed and caught her breath. Yes, she was afraid… perhaps, not of him, but of herself.

“No, I'm just tired,” - after a pause, the girl mumbled, thinking hard about the inevitable 40 minutes of a joint bus trip. Usually, they sat next to each other...

“You ARE afraid, - he retorted with certainty and domineeringly drew her to him. His face was too close, and this closeness beckoned and frightened at the same time.  - No need to be afraid…” - he whispered right to her lips, and the hot whisper turned into a kiss: first gentle, then persistent, passionate, and greedy… and Julia kissed Daniel back with no less fervor. She was literally melting upon his touches, the warmth of his body, his hot breath. Everything had been forgotten, everything became irrelevant...

Julia first came to her senses.

"Stop it! - she hissed in a snake-like way, pushing the guy away and trying to incinerate him with a fierce look. Her chest heaved with convulsive breathing. - It was... was..." - the girl couldn't find suitable epithets.

But Daniel managed to find them.

“...perfect? - he prompted. - After all, it was really great!”

Yes, exactly so... but Julia was too stubborn to admit that he was right.

“Disgusting!” - she cut off with her voice ringing for anger. She seemed to be going to explode with rage.

Daniel's face twisted. The guy frowned and stepped back. The girl's words clearly touched him, and not in a good way.

“I didn’t get the impression it was so unpleasant to you!” - he said hoarsely after a pause, trying to smile.

“So, I'm a great actress!” - answered Julia boldly. The girl had mixed and conflicting feelings at the moment: perhaps, she had just personally destroyed her own chance of happiness?

Daniel seemed to hold the same opinion. Straightening his clothes, he shrugged and let fall a word:

“Well, it's your business... let's go, or we’re really late for the last bus.”

They made the rest of the way in deathly silence and then chose to seat at different ends of the bus cabin.

“Have you quarreled? - a younglike woman named Natalie asked with surprise - Julia settled down next to her today. - Usually, you are always together...”

These words hurt Julia. She angrily shrugged her shoulders and turned away to the window, without giving the interlocutor the answer.

* * *

That night Julia couldn’t sleep. She had been tossing in her bed for several hours; closer to dawn, tired of counting sheep and meditating, the girl angrily threw away the blanket, wrapped herself in a shawl, and went out onto the terrace.

The night, warm as usually in summer, was full of rich spicy aromas and otherworldly rustles. In each breath of wind, some kind of mystery sounded, and every fragrant note gliding in the air spoke of an unknown uninterrupted life that doesn't stop with the sun-down… And here, in the arms of deep gloom, Julia was finally able to relax and unleash her emotions. She cried softly, knowing that the darkness would hide her tears and her pain from prying eyes so that she could keep her pride. In the morning, Julia will be smiling and playing carelessness again…

Julia didn't quite understand the reasons for her unwillingness to cultivate a relationship with Daniel. In the end, they like each other... so why not try dating? Why not give in to passion? She didn't have such wariness before! So why now?

“Because it’s something real, - whispered an inner voice. “- For the first time... for the first time! And I'm afraid to destroy everything... and get hurt”

But is it right to fear pain and therefore lose the chance for happiness? And what if all goes well?

“It never happens that everything is always good...” - the same soft-spoken voice insidiously remarked.

"Well and good! - retorted Julia obstinately. - Even a minute of true, genuine happiness is worth it!”

The decision was clear and sensible. It was so simple that the girl wondered how she could have doubted and hesitated earlier.

Julia threw back her shawl, straightened, and smiled at the darkness. Well, once the decision is made, it's time to form up a “plan of attack”! Daniel has no chance to remain immune to the temptation...

* * *

But she proved wrong: he did remain immune to the guile of her sex. Moreover, from the first moments, Julia realized that her charms were powerless in this case. However, she didn't immediately abandon attempts to seduce him.

Daniel wasn’t cold in manner, nothing of the sort. He habitually smiled, joked, and met any attempt of his pretty companion to show tenderness in his usual humorous style. He seemed to have returned to the rules of their game - rules that he himself had violated!

“Apparently, it was not only you who has spent a sleepless night, weighing all the pros and cons, - the nasty internal adviser pointedly noted. - Surely he was thinking the same thing… and his decision is different from yours!”

And Julia finally gave up: she smiled stiffly, gave playfulness to her voice... tried to recall her forgotten role. It was difficult, but by the time of parting with Daniel at the threshold of the restaurant, the girl had already calmed down, and her smile seemed quite natural. And yet, at the last moment, she, unable to resist, stretched out her hand and touched the guy's shoulder with uncharacteristic tenderness.

“Goodbye, Dan,” - she said softly, peering into his face.

“You mean - see you in the evening?” - he was surprised.

“Yes... in the evening,” - Julia agreed, without explaining that she wasn't saying goodbye to her friend... It was goodbye to a possible beloved sweetheart. Goodbye forever.

* * *

“An interesting couple,” - remarked a middle-aged and average-looking man, watching with curiosity a pretty brunette and a smiling guy saying goodbye to each other at the door of the restaurant.

The busty brown-haired woman in a dark blue dress with a striking neckline slid over the girl and the young man with an indifferent look and coolly replied:

“They're not a couple... officially.”

“What a funny definition! - the interlocutor smirked, turning to her. - What does it mean - officially? Like, not married?”

“No, like, not a loving couple, - the woman answered in the same style. Guide by profession, she was doing her job at the moment. - Their names are Julia and Daniel, and we call them D&J. They are clearly close to each other… emotionally, I mean. But they’ve been flirting for many months by now without admitting their real feelings”.

“But why?” - the man became interested.

The guide gave a shrug of her beautiful rounded shoulders:

“I don’t know... we didn’t question them. Besides, you asked me to conduct an individual city tour for you, right? So let's return to our local sights!"

Natalie started talking about castles and ancient streets again, and the tourist fascinated by her story (and her chic appearance) followed his gorgeous companion... and he didn’t see Julia saying goodbye to her romantic dreams... and coming back to reality.

 

Beautiful memories

“Hey, Niko! - a well-known voice sounded behind him. - Good morning, buddy!”

Reluctantly, Niko turned to a tall young man with slightly curly dark hair and a beautiful, expressive face. Handsome and taut, he seemed to be the living embodiment of Apollo and was clearly aware of how excellent he looked.

“Morning, Paul, - Niko grumbled - however, in quite a good-natured manner. - Good luck to you…”

“Really? - Paul ironically grinned and smiled broadly, showing healthy whitish teeth. - I don't think you're sincere, mate!”

Niko was significantly older than his interlocutor, but he wasn't offended by such a condescending tone. That was the nature of their communication, and age didn't matter.

“Anyway, I'll beat you!” - Niko promised peevishly.

“Let's bet?” -  the guy squinted.

“Why not?”

“And what's the bet, then? - Paul didn't let go. - Maybe the loser would help to advertise a competitor's product the very next day?”

“Well, it will do, - Niko agreed and added, stepping over the threshold of his shop: - Then get ready to help me sell my souvenirs tomorrow!”

He was followed by Paul's mocking laughter.

* * *

Once being in the holy of holies, namely, in the depths of his own souvenir shop, Niko looked around with satisfaction. The tiny room was thickly crammed with souvenirs and memorable things, somehow connected with the N city: they were dazzling on the shelves along the walls, shimmering with mother-of-pearl lights on the tables, winking to passers-by through the glassy showcase.

Taking a view of his premises, Niko was smiling. He loved his work, loved to sell interesting things to tourists, loved to bargain and argue with customers… he could tell a curious, though not always truthful, story about every souvenir, explain what a certain trifle symbolized, what secret meaning bore. Tourists listened to the amusing salesman with gaping mouths: the storyteller’s black, bug-resembling eyes glowed feverishly, and his speech was filled with all sorts of epithets. And no wonder that guests rarely left the store without buying. So Niko’s business was quite viable and brought good (but not fantastic) income... It was quite enough for a decent life, and not without pleasant excesses. And how much did he, a childless bachelor, really need?

Nico's gaze slid around the room and turned to a high mirror intended mainly for female shoppers who adored admiring themselves - of course, as if by chance. Niko preferred to ignore his own reflection, and if he did notice it, he frowned with displeasure. And now, too, he looked gloomily at a tall, bony man with a little monkey appearance, whose dark and gray hair slightly curled; his shoulders were rather broad but disfigured by an obvious stoop and excessive thinness, almost exhaustion. Niko felt like spitting in his mirror twin but limited himself to a scornful chuckle.

“Okay, - he muttered to himself, turning away from the mirror. - It's time to get down to business!”

It was 8 a.m., early tourists started appearing on the sunlit streets... which meant soon the first admirers of memorable souvenirs would loom at the door of his shop. And if he wasn't going to lose to this pompous loggerhead Paul, he should have been ready to welcome them as affably and amiably as possible!

* * *

Oksana looked at the strapping, handsome seller with ill-concealed admiration. Tall, broad-shouldered, and dark-skinned, he struck the imagination with the perfection of body lines and facial features. The girl had never suspected that such masculine individuals could be found beyond the range of Hollywood - and especially she wasn't ready to meet one of them standing behind the counter of the souvenir shop! Certainly, this delightful athlete was out of place here... he had to advertise a male deodorant or shaving gel... or even better: he should have shone in the leading roles in popular blockbusters!

“It's a pity, I speak English so badly,” thought Oksana with belated repentance. And why did she spend so little time learning foreign languages? How could she talk to such a gorgeous guy now?

“It's quite nice here, - frantically picking up the right words, the girl began to speak after a pause.  - Your store is... very good"

She peeked into the mirror window and hurriedly licked her lips, trying to make them look more chubby, and annoyed at the lack of a comb. It wouldn’t hurt to make up either... and why on Earth did she put on these jeans? Why didn’t she choose her favorite sundress or shorts?! Although who could have imagined that there were such spectacular souvenir sellers in the world…

“Thank you, dear lady, - said the object of her admiration in English with a heavy, but pleasant accent. - My name is Paul... I welcome you to my shop!”

“I am Oksana, - the girl hastily introduced herself and reluctantly nodded towards the ironically smiling friend who was obviously amused by these desperate attempts to flirt. - And this is... well, Nina, my acquaintance".

“Acquaintance Nina” grinned wickedly, not trying to "turn on her charm”. However, she hardly needed it: she was too pretty without extra efforts aimed at seducing and tempting. All she had to do was just stand in her glorifying beauty, allowing others to admire her natural grace.

Paul really admired, but quite indifferently, being rather bored. He saw that both girls were looking at him with great interest but felt only vague satisfaction — he was too used to the general female attention… Therefore, it wasn't difficult for him to convince two young beauties to purchase a couple of cute knick-knacks - as keepsakes of the N city... and, in fact, of a handsome salesman.

“There's nothing for Niko here, - Paul thought smugly, escorting his charming customers to the exit and giving them a radiant smile at parting. - Absolutely nothing...”

However, his smile faded when he noticed that Niko almost forcibly pushed Oksana and Nick into his shop, while actively gesticulating, briskly joking, and using the amusing mix of German and English.

“Who the hell does he think he is?!”, Paul resented and, glancing around, cautiously approached the neighboring shop. Trying not to lose sight of his own store either, he peered into the gap between the door and its pier.

He saw Niko speaking with taste and flavoring his own speech with energetic gestures. His face was still unattractive but expressive body language provided all the features with some sort of vividness.

“And this is just the beginning of the story, young ladies! - came Niko's cheerful voice.  - Oh, believe me, a lot of the most mysterious secrets and medieval legends are being kept in my shop...”

“A good shot at lying! - Paul couldn't refrain from admiring his rival. - Medieval legends, yeah?. A big story of a penny value...”

But the “young ladies” obviously believed the eloquent seller and looked at him with reverent trembling, as if unaware of his ugliness and deep wrinkles that had cut the old face. Or, maybe, these pesky little things, on the contrary, endowed the gifted narrator with a certain zest, made his story more believable, more convincing... after all, you don't expect philosophers and storytellers to be good-looking!

Ten minutes later, Oksana and Nina left the shop with thinner wallets and heavier bags, now filled with numerous souvenirs from Niko. And Paul, impressed by what he'd just seen, returned to his place with the firm intention of talking the next buyer's head off.

* * *

It turned out to be much more difficult than he expected.

Firstly, the buyers didn't care to listen to him! Women silently and admiringly looked at the handsome seller and almost licked their chops. As for men, they angrily squinted in his direction - especially those that came with the ladies. Previously, such behavior flattered Paul, but now it made him annoyed.

Secondly, he didn’t really know what to say. Nico acted in a very natural way and was silver-tongued, his story flowed like a honey river, bewitching, tempting, seducing... But Paul’s tirade wasn't convincing at all, the guy turned out to be awfully un-eloquent: he constantly lost his thoughts, mumbled, repeated the same thing. Additional difficulties were created by a language barrier. Although Niko easily avoided this obstacle and even used it as an advantage, coloring his butter speech with variegated, multilingual epithets.

Well, and thirdly, focusing on the conversations, Paul forgot to lavish the usual dose of charm and sparkle with white-toothed smiles. As a result, he sold practically nothing. Women disappointedly listened to his boring bikes, shrugged their shoulders, and left the shop; probably, these ladies were annoyed that they had failed to make a proper impression on the spectacular seller…

By the end of the day, Paul looked like a soaked horse. Counting revenue, he thought gloomily that he had never earned so little. But a bet's a bet, nothing could be done.

* * *

Niko was quite pleased with himself. Glancing at his face, shiny with joy, Paul gnashed his teeth with annoyance and felt a vague desire to throw something heavy into the rival friend.

“Okay, stop sulking, - Niko chuckled, correctly interpreting his opponent’s displeasure. - Let's have a drink, it'll be on me!”

A quarter of an hour later, they were already sipping their favorite drink at a nearby bar, and gloomy Paul insistently asked:

“How, how did you manage it? You... sorry, but you... mmm... not such a charming seller!”

Niko didn’t seem offended, he just grinned:

"Why do you think so?

"Well…” - Paul choked. The advice to look in the mirror would be rather impolite...

Nico, apparently, understood him without further ado:

“Beauty and charm are different concepts. And charm can be different too... as a hero-lover, you are definitely more charming than me... but as a seller, I win because selling requires a completely different kind of charm…”

"What kind?" - Paul asked with irritation and curiosity, looking askance at the interlocutor. The muted reddish twilight reigned in the bar, and Niko’s face, lined with purple shadows, made a frightening impression.

“You see, you're trying to charm customers with your appearance, - he snapped his fingers, explaining. - It can only affect women. And there are men either. And don't forget, sometimes ladies come with gentlemen. So your method is full of holes!"

“And yours is perfect?” - Paul grunted woundedly.

“Perfect methods, like immaculate things, don't exist, - Niko responded calmly. - But mine is at least effective. Why do people come to my shop? Why do they buy all these trifles?"

Paul shrugged, taking another sip of his drink.

"Well, why? To have something as a memento of our city. They are tourists!"

"That's it! - Niko said with satisfaction, raising his index finger. He looked utterly smug. - They come for beautiful memories... and with my stories, I make these souvenirs even more significant, and the memories of our city become more attractive, fascinating. I act as if implying that I'm the only one able to provide them with the most wonderful memories!"

Paul inclined his head, thinking.

"There is something in this... but admit, most of your stories... how should I put it? They seem totally cooked up! Am I wrong?"

Niko primed his lips, looking offended.

"Cooked up? Not at all! They're just a bit exaggerated".

“Well, of course! - Paul laughs sarcastically. - Do you want to convince me that each of your trinkets has its own legendary story?”

"No... but each symbolizes something. And if I sometimes get carried away a little bit... is it really so bad? I assure you, buyers are only happy to be deceived! This is a win-win game! And their memories of our city become more vivid and appealing. What's bad about it?"

“Nothing, - Paul admitted forcedly. Raising a glass, he cheerfully proclaimed: - Well, so let's drink to the beautiful memories!"

 

Lesson in drawing

Mia took a step away from the easel and, caught up in thoughts, absentmindedly straightened up her reddish hair with the hand stained with paint. However, in moments of the creativity thrill, the girl didn't care much about such trivia. Her whole world was narrowed to the size of the picture she was working on... but, probably, the word "narrowed" is the wrong one. The universe of fantasy can't be "narrowed", for it surpasses everyday reality in terms of color and scale... and Mia, the young artist, had an overactive imagination capable of the boldest and brightest fantasy.

“Not bad, not bad at all...” Mia muttered without false modesty. Bending her head to the side, she meticulously studied her own creation.

Although to be objective, not everyone would have given the young artist's piece a “not bad” mark. Some would have perceived the picture as ponderous, too bright, even oppressive... others, on the contrary, would have approved the force and energy emanating from the canvas.

The picture depicted one of the squares of the N city - the very city that served Mia not only as a haven but also as a source of her endless inspiration. Miniature, almost puppet, N was imbued with the solemn spirit of medieval romance. Wandering through the local streets, you could easily believe in the reality and tangibility of past centuries. You could almost see the ladies in crinolines, riding in carriages on these mosaic pavements, and dashing guys, prancing on horseback and wearing extravagant outfits...

Mia loved to wander around the city, making concise pencil sketches in her favorite notebook - the basis of future canvases. Her paintings were created in an energetic impressionist style and didn't perfectly reflect the surrounding reality — however, it was the way Mia felt the world around... she saw it like this.

The square immortalized by the artist in the picture was drawn without unnecessary details, depicted with heavy juicy strokes. Not every local resident would agree with such an unusual presentation of the cityscape - though, Mia was used to disputes and considered them quite normal. In the end, it is impossible to make everyone love you!

* * *

It was a moderately warm, sunny morning. Mia was walking slowly along a narrow street, clutching a shabby notepad in one hand and a pencil stub - in the other. Her gaze was sliding along the familiar outlines of houses and coffee shops and looking for new nuances in the long-studied architectural relief. Today, the girl was planning to just “find an object” and make a brief rough sketch, and in the following days, she was going to revive the drawing with colored pencils. As for canvases and paints, they should have been at the bottom of the priority.

“How can you constantly draw the same streets? Isn't it boring?” - Mia suddenly remembered. This question was put to her by Natalie, the lady-guide, a mature woman, prominent and temperamental. She paid a courtesy visit to the young artist and, once again, studied her pieces - new and old ones.

“Do you see at least two similar pictures? - Mia defiantly retorted, she was used to repelling such attacks. - I'm quite capable of depicting the same thing in different ways...”

It was hard to argue with that. Mia's pieces were similar only in their brightness and saturation. Moreover, some spiteful critics claimed that such an abundance of color would inevitably cause a migraine.

“Or a constant good mood!” Mia disagreed with them. She was firmly convinced that the more color, the better, which means you should paint life with all shades of the rainbow where and when possible.

Now Mia, walking through the city, mentally painted it, and in her imagination, the streets were much brighter than they were in reality. Filled with the sun and dazzling with colors, they seemed to breathe and whisper... and the young artist, listening to their whisper, smiled thoughtfully.

She greeted the Houses. She smiled at the Squares... breathed in the sweet air... and she was immensely, infinitely happy. She probably didn't need anything else for happiness... well, except for the canvas and brushes!

 

Free-living

I have a special summer tradition. I rarely go to the sea, and even in the hottest days of July, the beach doesn't attract me: roasting in the boiling sun is too boring, and sitting in the water all the time is exhausting... but I really love new impressions, and therefore I prefer to travel to some European city every August, and I don't always choose the capital of the country I decided to visit.

I usually order several excursions, just to get acquainted with the main sights, and the rest of the time I enjoy life and imbue myself with local colour: I'm sitting in cafes, dining in beautiful restaurants, walking in parks, shopping in stores. And, of course, I keep taking pictures of what I see.

A couple of years ago it was Paris, before that, I had journeyed to London, Dresden, Prague... And this summer I visited N. Perhaps, it turned out to be the smallest - and the coziest! - town of all that I'd ever been to.

I stayed here for just a week - but this was enough to irrevocably fall in love with the exquisite architecture of the city and the very special mode of its life... And, of course, I fell in love with the extraordinary locals, with each of them at once.

* * *

The city met me with rain: warm, insinuating, summery... I don’t like rain very much, but now, after the stuffiness of my native metropolis and quite a tiresome trip, it came in handy. As I learned later, the rains were frequent here, and indeed, the weather changed literally every hour. And the sky shining with blueness could disappear behind the clouds in a matter of minutes, and the furious downpour could turn into a hot sun just as easily.

I sojourned in a beautiful three-story hotel; from the window of my cozy one-room suite, there was an amazing view of the mountains with peaks drowning in whitish clouds. In the mornings, I enjoyed admiring this marvelous landscape and dreaming about something, away with the fairies, as they say.

After a delicious breakfast served in a spacious light-beige dining room, in which, in addition to me, many other tourists were eating too, I used to go for a walk. And if on the first day I was just thoughtlessly wandering around the city, then on the second I met a certain girl named Julia... and this special acquaintance determined the nature of my journey... and taught me a lot.

I ran into her in the park (and I did so quite literally, I really collided with her!). It felt rather awkward, so I was profuse in apologies in my clumsy English.

“It's all right, - she chirped cheerfully, also in English. - It's my fault, I fell into a reverie"

With a shadow of jealousy, I studied this young, golden-skinned girl who had tar curls and huge black eyes. She looked like a gypsy, and I thought that all men of all ages probably paid attention to such a diva. In comparison with her, I clearly resembled a moth with my scanty, light brown ponytail and narrow pale face…

Sure thing, I was hardly eager to cultivate these regulations - our communication continued by itself, against my will! Well, probably, the vigorous life energy of a swarthy girl was able to overcome even more serious obstacles than my sluggish resistance... I had no chance to win, I guess.

As a result, half an hour later, we were peacefully drinking coffee in a nearby restaurant and discussing all manner of subjects, and poor knowledge of English didn't prevent us from understanding each other just perfectly.

“I like sitting in a cafe, - Julia confessed to me, ordering coffee with milk, sugar, and whipped cream. Decorated with sweet chocolate flakes, this drink looked very tasty. - My whole life is connected to a cafe..."

"Is that so?" - I muttered without much interest and with no idea of why I agreed to follow this charming young lady. Initially, I had completely different plans!

“Yep, - Julia confirmed and winked at me slyly. - I'm a waitress. Only not in this cafe... I'm working in another one, more expensive. And here one of my friends works…”

With these words, the girl looked for someone with her eyes, then she smiled and waved a hand invitingly. I followed her gaze with curiosity and saw a thin young guy; he was rather tall and generally handsome, though not particularly remarkable. He noticed us and frowned, but he was in no hurry to join our little company.

“He's sulking, - Julia, who was in no way upset, grinned. - I spoke very caustically about his institution in the morning... don't worry, by the evening he would be a dear again!"

“Is he your... um... close friend?” - I clarified in a casual tone.

She stared at me with a comical outrage.

“No, oh my goodness! That is, he is a friend, yes… but JUST a friend. Not a close one…”

I shook my head, without commenting on what I had seen. It was obvious to me that Julia really liked that young man... she liked him more than we do when it comes to "just friends".

That was how my acquaintance with a waitress named Julia began, and it was then that my true acquaintance with the N city started. I didn't even need additional excursions.

* * *

These were delightful days... I rediscovered the world for myself and learned to enjoy life - as mischievous Julia was teaching me... and the girl introduced me to the other inhabitants of her city - people who lived and thought the same way she did.

I was introduced to souvenir sellers, Paul and Niko. Each of them had its own souvenir shop full of a colorful variety of lovely trinkets, and the owners were drumming up potential customers. I had long been rummaging in the souvenir wealth of both stores and didn't leave empty-handed. And I took away not only the cute little things but also a lot of good memories - Niko and Paul smiled widely at me and were profuse in compliments. And while Niko didn't belong to those who're in the flower of beauty, Paul really impressed me... and I wouldn’t mind making advances to such a gorgeous man... just a little bit! Alas, my knowledge of English was too shallow, and, besides, I was being distracted by beautiful Julia looming behind my back.

I also visited the studio of a young artist named Mia and was impressed with her catchy, strong pieces. Gentle, charming, and pretty, Mia seemed to radiate light and love of life. I couldn't resist buying one of her paintings - and received, as a gift, my own portrait, made in the style of a pencil sketch (which looked quite good, I should say).

And one day I finally met Julia's platonic admirer Daniel. We all had dinner together, and it was a truly amazing evening, rich with jokes and sparkling humor. By nightfall, I was finally convinced that these two weren't indifferent to each other... but for some reason, they hid their feelings even from themselves.

I met other residents of the N city too. And although they were all very different, they had something in common: a sort of the thrill of living, I would call it. These people never hurried anywhere and did everything without haste, for their own pleasure; they were frankly enjoying every passing moment.

And their doll-like town surrounded by mountains, with colorful houses, cozy cafes, narrow streets, old architecture, beautiful parks, and gardens also created a special atmosphere… here, it was impossible to wallow in grief and anxiety for too long! Perhaps, this is partly why the local residents worked carelessly, drank coffee for hours in cafes scattered throughout the town, walked in parks in any weather…  Not that they had no problems at all - of course, they had them! It’s just that the inhabitants of N. didn't pay much attention to various cares, they attached more importance to the pleasure from the very process of living and the sense that you're breathing, feeling, existing… I could not but envy these people, for they were so carefree and sincere! I tried to adopt their lifestyle, although I understood deep down - I had to be born with this.

“Nothing of the sort, - Julia, with whom I shared my doubts, disagreed with me. - This can be learned, look at Natalie or Amelia! They were born in other countries".

Natalie was a spectacular woman guide of a youthful appearance who once gave me a tour of the city, and Amelia was a pretty writer of a little over thirty years. I managed to meet and talk with both ladies and could not help but admit: they also knew how to live in their pleasure!

“Well, I suppose you're right, - I said sadly. - But still, they live here for a long time... and I will soon be back".

Julia did not object to this.

And nevertheless, I took full advantage of the week in the city and spent that time imitating other locals: I was enjoying myself in cafes and parks, feeding swans in a pond, walking around the city... and most importantly, I didn’t worry about anything, I did my best to smile as often as I could. I was drinking my life unhurriedly and knew that these days would remain in my memory as a very bright, serene period... and that's just the way it happened.

Leaving N. and saying goodbye to Julia at the bus stop, I could not hold back the tears, and her eyes glittered suspiciously too.

“Find me on Facebook! - she demanded, hugging me goodbye. - We’ll chat from time to time!”

I promised her, although I understood that virtual correspondence and even Skype video conferencing would hardly replace real communication. In any case, a couple of days later I'll become twitchy, restless, fussy again...  as I used to be before.

So I left, keeping in my heart the memory of a fairy tale... and this memory warmed me in the most intense moments of my life, reminding me of the land where people could just live without worrying about trivialities. Oddly enough, but it always comforted me...

 

The art of being bored tastefully

Philip had been watching the girl at the next table for at least 10 minutes. And actually, why not? He had nowhere to hurry and nothing to do... ahead of him was a boring day in the N city. Tomorrow their small tourist group would get under headway again, this time to Vienna, and for now, all he could do was enjoy the cozy romance of a puppet town.

Not knowing what to do with himself, Philip went to one of the local chamber cafes and ordered a cup of robust coffee (thank God, they somehow spoke English). He wanted to dig into his iPhone but noticed her, an elegant stranger in a green dress. Low, slim, with clean white skin and auburn hair gathered in a tight short tail, she was incredibly cute. Philip loved such women: charming without pretense, without the vulturous touch of “femme fatale”... although “woman” would be a strong word. She was a girl, just a girl... but really nice-looking!

He squinted, trying to figure out what she was drinking. A thick cream cap towered above her cup, a slice of cake lay on a plate… the beauty was idly playing with a teaspoon and looking out the window at people passing by, most of them tourists.

“Maybe I should introduce myself? Take a closer look at her, so to say?  - a sudden thought flashed in his head. - Just for fun?”

Philip hesitated... take a chance? Of course, a love affair wouldn't start in a day, he shouldn't even expect a hot night of love... but maybe he won't feel bored after all?

What the hell, why not?! And Philip resolutely headed for the stranger's table.

"May I sit with you for a minute?" - he asked politely in English a couple of seconds later.

The girl looked up. She had gray-green eyes with merry imps at the bottom of her pupils and a very guileless smile. Such a companion promises only pleasant impressions... she wouldn't whine or be capricious since she belongs to those rare people who know how to enjoy life and never complain.

“Yes, you may,” the pretty stranger replied after a pause which she needed to visually assess an unexpected interlocutor. Apparently, the assessment turned out to be favorable: a shadow of satisfaction flashed in the girl's eyes.

Sitting opposite the red-haired beauty, Philip peered at her fixedly. Well, being so close to him, she wasn’t a disappointment either. You wouldn't forget such a girl! Her marble-white skin seemed capable of glowing in the dark, though the very face with its muted colors and transparent, almost imperceptible eyebrows, was rather inexpressive. She didn't emphasize it even with make-up, except that her lips were slightly touched with a pink sheen. Though, all the features were distinguished by an amazing purity of lines and, perhaps, grace... There was something aristocratic and noble in this delicate, finely traced face.

“Do you like me?” - with funny irony, the stranger asked in English, breaking the silence. She spoke with a heavy German accent, but her voice was clear, with charming laughing intonations.

“You bet! - Philip was by no means embarrassed. - By the way, my name is Philip B. I am a French tourist”

“I am Mia, an artist, - the girl introduced herself. - I live here in N”.

“And isn’t it boring to live here?”

The question leaped out of his mouth involuntarily, Philip wasn't going to ask it. There was something tactless about this question…

Mia, however, didn’t seem offended, rather, she was surprised.

“Boring? - she repeated bewilderedly. - Well... I don't know what you mean by boredom.”

“Probably the cause of misunderstanding is the language barrier, - Philip suggested and tried to explain his thought more intelligibly: - Boredom is when there is nothing to do. Well, nothing at all!”

“And what's wrong with that? - Mia shrugged. - If you have nothing to do - that's great! You can just relax and live…”

"So, you mean - be bored tastefully?" - Philip grinned. It was impossible to resist Mia's soft charm.

"Exactly! - the pretty artist confirmed enthusiastically. - I can teach you!"

“I’m sure you need to be born with the ability to be bored tastefully... but I'll be glad to get a lesson!"

“Agreed!” - the girl laughed.

* * *

In the future, Philip often thought (and thought warmly) of the hours spent with Mia. The latter tried to explain to her companion basic truths: so obvious ones that no one took them seriously. But, alas, the obviousness didn’t imply feasibility... it would seem that everything is simple: just relax and live for yourself, rejoice in life's pleasures, be happy if there are no serious reasons to be sad... is it simple? Only in theory!

Philip listened to Mia's cheerful twitter, absent-mindedly smiled at her childish enthusiasm and spontaneity, nodded with a feignedly important look... but he understood how far the bright and radiant world of the young artist was from his own reality - reality that was dry and fine-tuned to the last dash.

Well, the more surprising was this day... sunny, warm, clear, it was remembered by Philip as a series of colorful paintings.

For example...

...They are eating ice cream in the park... the girl absorbs the cold vanilla treat with obvious pleasure, and this pleasure is infectious. For a moment, Philip also felt the forgotten childhood joy given to him by such sweets in those early years…

...And now they're feeding the swans with bread crumbs. Mia, with her refined grace and white skin, resembles an exquisite swan either. A female swan surrounded by bird swans... A charming sight!

...Another bright moment: they went to a cafe where Mia ordered Maria Theresia mocha coffee with orange liqueur and whipped cream, and Philip asked for a double espresso (Doppelter). For dessert, they chose the famous chocolate cake “Zacher” invented by the Austrian pastry chef Franz Sacher...

“The coffee I drink was once the favorite one of Empress Maria Theresia, - explained Mia to her companion, while she was enjoying her portion of sumptuous dessert. - That's why they called it that way”

“Is that why you prefer it?”

“It all depends on my mood, - the girl shrugged carelessly. Her clear eyes flashed with mischief. - When I feel empress, I prefer!” - and Mia teasingly laughed in his face, as if realizing that he no longer knew when she was joking and when she spoke seriously.

Then they walked along the bridge and looked at the impetuous river, at the majestically towering mountains, whose angular, cloud-topped peaks seemed to crash into the blue sky's canvas. They talked about everything and nothing. Mia had never once mentioned her true life: she was discussing only the paintings she drew, her past creative successes, her future designs. And no word about the really important things...

“But that’s what matters to me, - Mia calmly objected, when Philip delicately reproached her for her strange secrecy. - Do you understand? My pieces, my world... this is important".

“But I meant something different, - Philip insisted, trying to look into her face. This happened to be an unexpectedly difficult task: the girl leaned on the parapet, turned away to the river, glancing at its troubled waters; she had become unusually serious. - What do you do for your living? Whom do you live with - alone, with your husband, with your parents? And so on..."

“Ah, that’s what you think is important… - Mia muttered in disappointment. - All this is such prose...”

"Yes, prose... but you cannot live only poetry!"

“I wish I could, though...” she uttered and plunged into a prolonged silence.

A few of minutes later, Phillip decided that his curiosity would remain unsatisfied, but no, Mia had finally found her tongue:

"Well, listen... I'm renting a small apartment... or, rather, a closet... in an old house. I don’t have enough money for the best conditions. My relatives live in the nearby village, but I like it here more... I paint pictures and try to sell them..."

"Successfully?" - cautiously asked Philip while looking sideways at the red-haired interlocutor. Her accurate profile was very good, one could admire such a face from any angle…

The girl's soft lips were touched by a bitter smile.

“Do I sell successfully? Probably, by your standards, no. In my opinion, yes”.

“And how do you survive when bad times come? You always want to eat!”

He tried to say it without irony but apparently failed: she turned her head and shot him an angry look. The charming girl seemed to know how to rage! This amused him a little.

“How do I survive? she repeated with displeasure. - I borrow money, I accept handouts from relatives... I draw realistic portraits under the order. It's boring, but you have to! In the most difficult times, I’m going on an earning tour”.

"Sorry?" - Philip thought he had misheard.

"An earning tour, I call it. Usually, I'm heading to the capital or even another country. For a couple of months. I work as a nanny, a cleaning lady, a housemaid, a waitress, occasionally a dancer... I'm walking other people's dogs, shopping for wealthy gentlemen... and so on. I almost don't eat, I don't drink (only water). I put my money off”.

Her companion was shocked by what he heard. She doesn’t eat or drink anything, is it so? It didn't fit with the image of beautiful idleness and easy life, full of colorful emotions: the image Philip's imagination had already drawn.

The artist seemed to have read his thoughts; she laughed shortly and shook her red-haired head:

“Yes, sometimes you have to limit yourself. This, too, is part of the life pattern. I see such periods as a kind of adventure”.

Philip bowed his head to one side, reflecting. Her approach to life appealed to him somehow.

“I envy you, - he finally admitted aloud and gave a tense laugh. - I wish I could live according to such a scheme... but I can’t, I know in advance I can’t!”

“Because you're used to complicating things, - Mia shrugged and turned her back to the river. Her face took on a thoughtful expression. - And life is very simple in essence…”

It was funny to hear such philosophical reasoning from a very young and obviously inexperienced person, especially since Philip strongly disagreed with her point of view. The world, alas, isn't as simple as stubborn Mia would prefer it to be! However, the guy didn't start arguing. What for? Everyone has the right to think his (or her) own way. Over time, life will convincingly prove that it can be very, very complicated and even cruel. And this pretty red-haired artist will have to admit it, whether she likes it or not. And for now - let it be. Let the girl dream... while she still knows how.

“I’d like to see your paintings,” - he said after a moment of silence.

She looked at him without bothering to hide her surprise.

“You don’t remind me of a connoisseur of art!”

“I'm not a connoisseur. But I’m still curious to see your pieces".

Mia tilted her head to one side and gave him a critical look.

“Okay... - she finally nodded. - I'll show some of them".

* * *

The young artist’s apartment was very small, cozy, and consisted of a kitchenette, a sanitary unit, a miniature bedroom, and a larger room, clearly playing the role of a studio: everywhere there were the pieces of painting, tubes of paints, easels... It was a typical “creative chaos” - as Philip suspected, consciously formed. Say, I’m a creative person, I can’t dwell in the citadel of the Dead Order…

Philippe had rather liked Mia's paintings, they seemed nice, but nothing more. These pictures weren't something he would be willing to buy, let alone hang them at home. Created by wide expressive strokes, her pieces were full of life and sun; impressive in their own way, they didn't bring peace. Too bright and multi-colored... perhaps, in half an hour, they would cause a headache.

For the longest time, Philip stood in front of a wide painting in a heavy wooden frame. The work was a set of variegated colored spots and, judging by the inscription, depicted a deserted motley field under an equally colorful (and completely unrealistic) sky. Moreover, the dividing line between heaven and earth was difficult to immediately notice. The canvas was powerful and... weird. Philip couldn't find a better definition.

"You don't like it, do you?" - asked Mia with confidence.

Philip was silent for a moment. He didn't want to lie, but the thought of offending her didn't please him either... creative persons are incredibly vulnerable!

“I don’t know, - he finally admitted sincerely. - Impressive and a little incomprehensible. A picture with a mood”

Mia gave a short laugh.

"Come on, stop trying to be eloquent! I see you don’t like it. Tell me straight. I don't care"

Philip, however, had difficulty believing that she didn’t care. Therefore, he evasively explained:

“I don’t understand art. But I can say your paintings are bright, lively... they have a lot of color”

“I'm even glad you don't like it”

"Glad?" - he looked at her in amazement. And, in fact, Mia seemed strangely serene. Was she playing? Or was she really happy? But what could possibly one enjoy in such a situation?

“Yeah, - she nodded. - My paintings aren't for everyone. One needs to truly understand them... to feel them”

These words, uttered in all seriousness, ridiculed Philip, and he made some efforts to keep a straight face.

“Well, if so...” he said, squinting at the girl. He really wanted to hug her and, perhaps, to kiss, but the environment hardly favored such actions .. although, asking for a visit to Mia, he involuntarily hoped for something more than just “viewing the paintings”... alas, not on the cards!

Mia seemed to feel something was wrong - she looked at the companion with suspicion and even stepped back a little, though Philip did absolutely nothing seditious (and had no intention to do).

“Okay, I think we should go,” she said tensely, trying to smile.

“It's high time,” he agreed grimly.

* * *

Mia escorted him to the hotel and entered its luxuriously decorated lobby.

“That's all...” the girl said tiredly, and he didn't understand but rather felt the underlying meaning of her short phrase.

It really was “that's all”! It’s already evening, and tomorrow morning he’ll be back on the road. They’ll never meet again. Never... Only now Philip realized this, and such a thought didn’t please him.

“It was a wonderful day,” muttered Philip, annoyed at the eloquence lost (why at this very moment?). He wanted to say a lot but he had no idea how to voice his weird feelings.

Mia looked up, her bright eyes twinkling. She seemed to understand the companion without words, as, indeed, he did her.

“I, too, liked everything today,” the artist quietly admitted, peering painfully at his face and as if looking for echoes of some of her thoughts.

Kiss her, come on! - his heart howled, and this time the mind was in full solidarity with it. - She's waiting for you to kiss her, she wants it too!

Philip had almost succumbed to the impulse... but did nothing anyway... again! Subsequently, the guy himself couldn't understand the reasons for the sudden timidity. Usually, he was more assertive. What happened to him?!

“Well... goodbye, - Mia mumbled sadly, without a hope to live to see Philip taking any decisive action. - Maybe, we'll meet again… one day.”

“Unlikely,” Philip thought bitterly, watching her cross the hall and leave the hotel.

* * *

And yet, they had a chance to see each other again: the very next day, in the morning, when she came to say goodbye to him… the final one.

Mia found Philip at the hotel entrance, in a crowd of other tourists, and he was sleepy and angry.

"Hello!" - she called him, slipping out from behind people and their huge suitcases.

Philip flinched in surprise; then he recognized her and smiled, obviously rejoiced.

"Mia! - he exclaimed exultantly, like a boy. - What are you doing here?!"

“I want to say the last 'bon voyage'", - the girl answered with a faint smile, she was definitely flattered by his undisguised enthusiasm.

She, too, was very agitated and even flushed a little. And this light blush looked on her cheeks no less good than natural pallor did before. Anyway, the young artist was marvelously pretty today: she let her hair loose and curled, put on a narrow short dress emphasizing the grace of her figure, slightly tinted her eyes... No doubt, Mia tried to please him, and Philip appreciated her efforts.

“I'm glad to see you,” - he said simply, looking down at her with a smile.

“So do I, - Mia echoed. - We spent only 1 day together, just walked, but for some reason, it means a lot to me…”

“I feel the same way,” - Philippe admitted sincerely. And again, he was seized with a desire to hug and caress her... he wanted to feel the warmth of her flexible body, to enjoy her hot breath. However, the people around had already started looking askance at them... he seemed to have missed his only chance!

“But I didn’t miss the chance to tell her the most important thing!” Philip thought. Carefully squeezing her fragile wrists, he resolutely said:

“Mia, it probably will sound weird... and stupid... but I think I managed to fall in love with you.”

Mia didn't answer immediately. For at least a minute, she had been peering at him with a mixture of pain, satisfaction, and doubt, and Philip couldn't understand what this look meant. Finally, the girl took her hands back and shook her head.

“You don’t believe me?” - Philip was upset.

“You fell in love not with me, but with my world,” the artist said, still looking at her feet.

“Your world?” - he repeated confusedly.

“Yes. The world that I showed you yesterday. It was this world that charmed you…”

Philip shrugged silently. What difference did it make? Indeed, without her, without Mia, her world would fade, she carried it in her heart! So he loved the girl, not the world. It seemed obvious to him.

“Your bus has already arrived,” Mia said muffledly.

Tourists began to fuss, picking up their bags. Some managed to get into a huge blue and white bus.

“I'll miss you,” - Philippe uttered sadly.

"I hope, tastefully?" - she tried to laugh, but tears sounded in this laugh, and her eyes sparkled suspiciously.

"Is it possible to miss someone like you without taste?" - he joked ineptly.

He was already awaited for on the bus, and Philip hesitated as if the last few seconds could solve something.

“Goodbye Philip,” - Mia whispered, stood on tiptoe, and kissed his lips with unexpected ardor.

Philip froze for a moment, stunned, uncomprehending, but the confusion didn’t last long. The very next moment, he twined arms around her back, drew the girl close against his chest and hungrily kissed her mouth; and it was a passionate, even fierce kiss. The reality narrowed to the size of the bus platform, and the population was reduced to two of them. No one else existed.

However, reality soon reminded of itself.

“Mister! - someone called him out with sarcastic displeasure; a voice came from the bus. - Are you still going with us? Or staying?”

Neither Philip nor Mia responded. They needed to say goodbye properly... and tastefully.

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