The Train Diaries: Part Two
Packing up my backpack and returning my empty coffee cup to the counter, I had no clue what to expect. I was in a different city than I intended, staying with a person I had yet to meet. An adventure, right?
Ten minutes later, Eli called to let me know he was outside and told me to look out for the red car. It wasn’t tricky to find the shiny, red sports car that pulled up across the road. Not tricky at all. Eli hopped out of the car as I approached to shake my hand and help me get my backpack into the boot of his car. He seemed a little nervous, but still friendly, and while cautious, I felt comfortable slipping into the passenger seat.
Eli, announced that we’d be heading to Target before going back to his apartment, to get a few things he forgot to get yesterday. When we arrived at Target, after about a ten minute drive filled with easy-flowing conversation, we grabbed a trolley from the rack. Why are we here again Eli?, I asked. He explained that there were two specific things he wanted to pick up: an iron and some sleepy time tea for his great aunt. We rolled through the aisles, chatting about his day down in Southern California for work, about my failure to reach my cabin in the woods, and eventually came upon the irons. We spent about five minutes trying to decide on which iron to get - Eli is “mildly OCD about cleanliness” in his own words, and the selection of an iron appeared to be a big decision for him. Eventually, we settled on a middle of the range one, because of something related to its steam capabilities. I told Eli that this was my first ever iron purchase. He seemed pleased with this knowledge.
The next item was the sleepy time tea. Eli explained on the way that his eighty four year old grand-aunt from the Phillipines was staying with him at the moment. Eli and his sister had brought her over to the US a few months ago to try and make her more comfortable, but she missed home and was booked to fly back in a few weeks time. Like Eli, she sometimes had trouble sleeping, hence the necessity of the sleepy time tea purchase.
We picked up a few more things, and then to my surprise, we stopped at the baby section. I refrained from commenting, even when Eli put a giant box of baby wipes in the trolley. He addressed the elephant in the room. “You know about the babies, right?”. Taken aback, I replied “ah, no, you have babies at home?”. “Yup. Two of them. Though the paternity test hasn’t come back yet so we’ll see if they’re mine”. At this point I was getting increasingly concerned about what I’d gotten myself into. Eighty-four year old Filipino grand-aunts are one thing, but two babies that may or may not be his is another. Sensing my concern, he put me out of my misery. “Chris! I’m joking, man”. In that moment, I began to understand the kind of humour I was dealing with.
Awkwardly-timed baby jokes aside, the shopping trip was now complete, and we headed back out to the carpark and loaded up the boot.
The drive back to his apartment in downtown was short and conversation flowed easily. My guard was still up, but my comfort was also growing.
We pulled up outside a small apartment complex and he led me up three flights of stairs into a cosy space, with a small kitchen, living room, a few bedrooms, and a few bathrooms. I plonked my heavy backpack down by the bed and took a set at the small table in the kitchen.
At this point, Eli brought his great-aunt out to meet me. Understandably so, apparently eighty-four year old grandparents aren’t likely to be receptive to the idea of inviting a stranger into one’s home, so Eli tried to explain in his native language that we were “old friends”. He called this a white lie, for the sake of this Aunty. She walked into the kitchen and offered me her hand, which I shook. Eli laughed and then showed me the correct way to greet someone in the Phillipines, clasping their hand in two of yours, and touching it to your forehead. I did this, and Aunty (as I was told to call her), seemed very pleased.
As Aunty returned to her bedroom to go to sleep, I sat down with Eli at the table. He offered me some food, in the way that all Filipinos do, and I politely declined, having already had dinner. I accepted his offer of wine though, and to my surprise (Eli had told me about how into wine he is), he pulled out a bottle of ‘Pop Crush’ a sparkling wine which I have since learned, costs about $4 a bottle. He poured two glasses and the conversation began.
Over the next few hours, I was privileged to one of the most enjoyable conversations I’ve had in a long time. We spoke about his work, and how he’d gone through a complete direction change three years ago, from investigative human rights to a new job, which I still don’t understand. We spoke about his family, and his relationship with the Philippines. We spoke about his philosophy and literature degree from UCLA. The conversation flowed rapidly and organically, from literature, to film, to travel, to food, and then, to his seemingly favourite topic, wine.
Upon finishing the bottle of Pop Crush, Eli raced off to get another bottle, this time a quite different choice. He chose a red wine from an estate he’d been to recently, in wine country California. Instead of just pouring two glasses, as he did with the Pop Crush, he paused and set the bottle on the table. Eli, on the side, is a wine blogger. He has an Instagram account dedicated to wine, and a blog, also on the subject of wine. As he explained to me the origins of this specific bottle, (a combination of Mission grapes, oft frowned upon in the inner circles of wine tasting, with the more well-regarded Zinfandel grapes, a blend that works because of the balance of earthiness and sweetness), I began to appreciate just how much wine means to him. He poured two glasses, stemless, from a winery he visited recently. Enthralled by his expertise, I asked him to show me how to taste the wine correctly. He broke down the process masterfully, from the swirl, to the smell, to the taste, even showing me how to gargle without spitting wine out all over the tablecloth. Our single glass of that wine lasted well over an hour, as Eli explored the craft and the meaning of that particular bottle.
At one point in the evening, with the five books I brought spread out across the table, he made me get up and pour a glass for his Instagram photo. He’d take one, and then adjust the books slightly, or get me to tilt the glass a little more. The whole thing made me laugh.
At another point, he arranged five bottles of wine on the table in front of me in ascending price order and explained why each one had a higher price tag. He explained why the region mattered, why the year was important, why the grapes and the way they are treated is significant. He turned my experience, of enjoying a wine that tasted pretty damn good, into an appreciation of the craft of wine and a closer attention to the entire experience of drinking it.
Wine is more than a drink for Eli. Wine is a facilitator of meaningful experience, and a marker of memories. He likes to take photos of each bottle he shares with someone to capture the memory of that experience. When he looks at each photograph, he can picture the person sitting with him, the stories they shared, the food they indulged in, and the laughs that punctuated the night. For Eli, wine is a marker of experiences curated for connection. It’s a symbol of friendship. For me, it was a symbol of generosity.
As the clock wound it’s way towards 2am, and Eli was reminded of work in the morning, we wrapped up the conversation, and corked the bottle. Settling into a freshly made bed that night, I reflected on the day. No, I wasn’t in a cabin in the woods. Instead, I was offered a helping hand by someone I’d never met before. I was offered an evening of intellectual conversation, fine wine, and learning. But more than that, I was offered friendship.
Friendship in a bottle of wine.