BEAUTIFUL STRANGERS

Personal Project

Stories from a road trip and the people along the way.
Munich * Salzburg * Vienna * Budapest * Stuttgart * Poprad * Prague

Holidays have a particular effect on me. Instead of putting me in a relaxing state of mind, they ignite my imagination. That's what happened last summer during a one-month road trip I did through Europe. To make things even more interesting, I thought it would be cool to stay and be hosted by people from the places I'd visit. So, I searched on couchsurfing.com where I found several strangers willing to kindly open the doors of their homes. They were so different from each other and the experiences so enriching that I decided to make something out of that. I then began to write short stories based on their personalities. I took the interactions with them as the starting point and invented the rest. Word by word, I would write the stories on my phone during empty moments: before going to bed, during breakfast, while waiting for the bus... By the end of the trip, I had written seven stories.
To illustrate the stories, I did outline portraits of their faces and when it came to coloring them, I looked for strangers, once again, to play their part. First, I contacted them introducing myself, explaining the project and proposing them to be part of it. To those who accepted, I sent them a story and an outlined portrait to be colored (the way they wanted) based on whatever the story would evoke in them. The coloring of the different portraits is the result of their participation for which I'm very thankful. 
Enjoy the read!
RÓBER
Munich, Germany
Munich hadn't met Róber's expectations. Since he moved a year ago, he had been urging Jorge to pay him a visit. Now that he had finally come, Róber wanted to make the most of his friend's stay so that he could consider coming back.
Róber kept staring at Mr. Ferraris. 1847 - 1897 read a sign bellow the bust. A lifetime devoted to science, he thought. Róber calculated he only had fifteen years left to match Galileo's accomplishments at his age. He didn't fancy being exposed in a museum but knew that was one of the highest recognitions a scientist could aim for. His father had always stated he would do big things and, as time passed by, those words were getting a heavier sense for Róber.
Heels slapping in her sandals, a ten-year-old girl entered the room and strode towards Róber. "Are you an inventor?" She asked. Róber doubted for a second and turned the question back to her: "Are you?" "Yes," she announced proudly. "Look. I invented this." She opened her backpack and took out what some may say was just a box with cables stuffed inside. "With this machine you can dream of whatever you want! Say you wanna dream of squirrels. First you scan a picture of a squirrel here. The machine will then make a strawberry juice you have to drink before you go to sleep and squirrels will be all over your dreams!" "Why strawberry?" Róber asked as if that was the only strange thing in the explanation. "Strawberry is my favorite flavor, that's why! ... But in an advanced version I will add buttons so that people can have different flavors to choose from." "You have thought it all the way through, haven't you?" replied Róber, but the girl carried on: "I call it 'The juice maker of the sweetest dreams', but it's just a temporary name. My mother says I have to think of a shorter name if I want to sell it, something catchy people will remember. This is just a prototype. Now I need someone to make it." Before finishing the sentence, she realized her father was out of sight and suddenly disappeared before Róber could even say goodbye.
The museum was closing when Jorge and Róber finished their tour. While heading to an English-styled cafeteria nearby, Róber remained quiet as he listened to Jorge's effusive compliments on the exhibition: "I'd love to come back. One day". Róber smiled. As soon as they sat at the terrace, the waiter came and took their order: a large beer and a strawberry juice for Róber.
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UWE
Salzburg, Austria
At 7:53 am, precisely, an alarm went off in a charming little house in the outskirts of Salzburg. What seemed like a cute, cozy house from the outside was, in fact, a compound of small apartments once inside. Uwe was the owner of one of those apartments. That was all his father had left him before passing away. Uwe had lived there since he could remember; first with his mother, who had also died, and then on his own. He had redecorated the place with souvenirs from his rare holiday trips around Europe. However, not even the 4,000-euro plasma screen that filled the entire living room could disguise the smell his old mother had left.
Once again, Uwe was feeling sick that morning. He stretched from his bed to fetch a pack of yellow pills and took two. As every Sunday, Uwe would get out of bed at 8:00 sharp to clean up his already clean apartment and prepare some homemade snacks for his two friends who, every Sunday, would come over to spend the evening with him. They would exchange theories on how to solve worldwide issues and right afterward they'd passionately play cards for hours. Despite having them over every weekend, Uwe would stress out before their arrival; while running with his chubby legs throughout the apartment to make it look as perfect as it could possibly look.
Uwe was interested in men rather than women. After three dead-on-arrival relationships, he had given up and would invest his energies in his limited social life.
His friends were simple people who had always admired Uwe for having a well-paid steady job in a law firm. There was nothing particularly exciting nor interesting in the job, but his friends' admiration would make Uwe feel important.
Marco and Bence arrived late, as expected. They all sat around the living room table and fifteen minutes later the game had begun. To spice things up, they used to play with money. Always small amounts but enough to turn the game into a matter of life and death.
Eight rounds later, Bence and Uwe were even and one round away from winning the "precious" lot. As for Marco, he hadn't won a single round.
Bence shuffled the deck of cards and began to distribute them. His hands trembled slightly. Uwe checked every card as it came: an ace, a king, another ace and a joker. He struggled to refrain his nervousness.
The game went on and one by one they started to show their cards. Luck wasn't on Marco's side this time either but considering the cards on the table, nothing could beat Uwe's. He patiently waited for the protocol to be followed before he could claim victory and right when he was about to do so, the doorbell rang ruffling the evening.
Marco and Bence looked at Uwe.
"Is there a fourth player?" Marco asked.
No one else was expected. While approaching through the hall, Uwe wondered who it could be.
He opened the door and found a woman in her forties, with a puffy face and big eyes. Her curly hair lay on her shoulders and her hands carried a box in a plastic bag.
"Very good morning to you my dear neighbor!" The woman proclaimed. She then waited three fruitless seconds for Uwe to express back his enthusiasm and carried on: "I hope this isn't a bad time. My name is Julia. I just moved in two days ago. I'm in the greenish house across the street." She said while pointing at the mentioned place. Julia kept a straight-ahead gaze till Uwe finally cracked and invited her to come inside.
"Boys, we have a visitor," announced Uwe at the presence of the unexpected guest. Julia took it from there and introduced herself with the same enthusiasm as the first time. Bence and Marco took heed of every single word Julia uttered. The perfectly balanced mix of self-confidence and raw beauty had made its effect on both men. One didn't have to look twice to notice Uwe's disappointment, still holding his useless winning cards.
Julia took the box out of the bag and said: "Here, I made a cake specially for you! It's a secret family recipe so don't ask me what it contains." She laughed and so did Marco and Bence. Against his will, Uwe put his snacks aside to make room for the cake.
Encouraged by questions, Julia explained she was a biologist (by vocation), who had divorced from a Mexican with whom she had lived five years and lots of other facts Uwe couldn't care less about.
He held his cards with one hand and used the other to eat a piece of cake. In order to avoid talking, he made sure to always have a piece of cake in his mouth. The more Julia talked the more Marco and Bence seemed hypnotized by the words and the more Uwe felt sick. Very sick. Small drops of sweat slid down his forehead till his eyesight went blurry and he fainted on the table.
It would be hard to say precisely what time it was when Uwe woke up, but it was certainly night. Marco and Bence were still there, lying on the floor unconscious. Uwe could hear their reassuring breaths. He raised his head and looked at the empty wall in front of him. The same wall on which his plasma screen used to hang. His eyes traversed the room finding nothing but emptiness. As was the case in the rest of the apartment. The entire place had been plundered. Strangely enough, the money from their game remained intact on the table. Silently, Uwe took his winnings, put it in his pockets and went back to sleep feeling, finally, like a winner.
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STEFAN
Vienna, Austria
No sooner had the door closed, he regretted having accepted the promotion. "Human Dispensable Decision-maker". That was what Stefan had just become. The fancy job had been created right after the Robotic Revolution of 3074. Far too many things had changed since then. Artificial intelligence was already a common reality on the edge of perfection - but, as a wise man had once said, "everything has a price and perfection charges double."
Stefan's parents were both "doers". The term was used to define those whose DNA quality wouldn't allow them to go to university. An ironic quirk of fate saw to it that Stefan's genetic material would make him not only eligible but exceptionally gifted for higher education. During his studies, he had read about artisan companies that put craft at the core of their business, about men working till their fifties and beyond. Those were then just myths of the past. But now, every employee would have an android assigned that would learn by observation from its mentor. In order to make their presence less awkward for the employees, in 3081 the government had decided to give them a human look. It would take the android no more than two years to match the skills of the employee (including those based on the essence of the human being). After such period, the android became autonomous and even more efficient than the employee himself. As a result, people became dispensable and were led to a forced retirement. The whole transition was wrapped up in a short yet effusive ceremony in which each employee would be congratulated for having achieved their so-called "life mission." A TV show had even been created to broadcast people finding out they'd been retired. The show had become nothing but a succession of surprise parties and happy faces. However, behind the scenes, for someone to be retired, a specialist had to make the call. That was Stefan's new task.
It was on a Monday that Mr. Sagmüller and his android had been convened by the Court of Retirement. Stefan was in charge of this, his first assignment. He already struggled to accept the mere idea of people being replaced by androids but holding the trigger was something else. Stefan entered the examination room arranged for such purpose. Inside, both Mr. Sagmüller and his android were already waiting. Unable to identify the android, Stefan was compelled to check the pictures in his records. After the corresponding presentations, Stefan proceeded: "... so now that we all know who we are and why we are here, let's begin with the examination. During the first round, I'm going to describe several situations. For each one of them, I want you to discuss out loud, for no more than three minutes, what you would do and give me one joint response that you both agree on. Ready?" They nodded. "Situation number 1: Before attending an important meeting, you receive a message from..."
The android took the floor first. As expected, he came up with the most efficient way to cope with the given situation always keeping productivity as the main objective. Despite Mr. Sagmüller's efforts to suggest an alternative behavior, the android went on defending his answers. Every single one of his arguments was flawless, both from a professional point of view, and from a moral one. No room for hesitation or irrational useless emotions. Mr. Sagmüller had no option but to agree. Every time. The humiliation lasted for as long as the exam and clearly stated the prevalence of robots over humans.
Stefan couldn't bare it anymore and breathed a sigh of relief when the exam reached the end. So did Mr. Sagmüller, dejected. The three of them knew what was next. Having proved the supremacy of the android, the protocol established that the examiner would then hand out a certificate to be signed by both human and android formalizing the replacement of the employee. Stefan felt reluctant to carry this out and wished he was somewhere else. He imagined himself far away, in a place where people and androids could coexist without competing with each other. The sullen eyes of Mr. Sagmüller brought him back to reality and it was then that Stefan realized he wouldn't do it. He simply couldn't. He stood up and suddenly got blinded by a very intense light. The room burst into laughs, but it wasn't till his eyes adapted to the brightness that he could see where they came from. In front of him stood a large group of people. Some holding balloons. Some throwing confetti. All happy. Two men recorded the entire scene pointing their heavy cameras at Stefan as if they were rifles. Among the crowd, he distinguished friends and family and right in front of him, his girlfriend holding a colorful sign that read: "Happy retirement Stefan!!"
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JEAN-CHARLES
Budapest, Hungary
I run whenever I have the time. At least twice a week, sometimes more. Running helps me concentrate. My breathing quickly takes over any external noise allowing me to hear my thoughts more clearly. I should definitely put all that concentration to good use. Most of the time my eyes just wander looking for something to ignite my brain. Nothing fancy. Just a thought to keep my head busy. It's kind of depressing having nothing to say to yourself. If this was a relationship, it would have been over a while ago. I shouldn't be so hard on myself though. I don't think other runners have such loquacious inner conversations anyway.
So running was what I was doing yesterday when I heard a cell-phone ring. It wasn't mine. I never take it with me when I run. My hand traced the sound to its source and stirred the grass along the paved shoulder of the road. What I found was an old Nokia still ringing whose screen displayed "unknown number". I saw no one around, hesitated for a second and finally picked it up. On the other side of the line, a forceful voice introduced himself as the presenter of a TV show whose name I couldn't remember even if I tried. He explained that the number he was calling on had just been selected to participate in their weekly quiz. If I answered one question correctly, I would win 54,200 euros. The question read: "Why do mosquitoes bite some people more than other?"
As a resigned member of the mere 20% of people who mosquitoes are highly attracted to, I have taken the time to find out about what makes me so eligible for such group. Because of that, my summers as a kid are full of bittersweet memories. Merciless mosquitoes would feed on me every day and night. I still recall how my swollen legs and arms would unconsciously look for rough surfaces to rub themselves against to alleviate the itch. I particularly remember a hot August. I was 16 and my older brother was doing an Erasmus year in Budapest. School was over and my parents thought it would be good for us to spend some time together. It was way too hot to stay in the city so my brother had organized a trip with some of his friends to Lake Balaton situated two hours away by car. An acute pain woke me up the morning after camping. Due to mosquito bites, I could feel my face deformed and my limbs as well. My brother's eyes when he saw me made me realize how serious it was. That put an end to my holidays.
Back in France, a doctor explained to me what I gave yesterday to the presenter as my answer to the question: Mosquitoes find their victims based on the amounts of carbon dioxide we produce. The more we release, the more attractive we become for them. As far as I know, the gas contains the menu of all delicious ingredients our blood carries. Sweat, genetics, exercise and metabolism can also make you climb a few positions up in the ranking.
After such a detailed answer, the presenter had no alternative but to proclaim me the winner of the week and therefore of the 54,200 euros. I would be lying if I said I didn't get excited because I did - very, but something inside kept telling me it was too good to be true. The sound of another runner approaching towards me confirmed this. The man wasn't only a runner but also the owner of the cellphone. As if he had been waiting for me to finish the explanation, he took the call from where I left it to claim the undeserved reward. The money virtually flew away from my pocket to his as fast as it had come. Displeased, I carried on with my running having, for once, something to think about.
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ZUZANA
Poprad, Slovakia
Apparently, the guest was already sleeping when we arrived. Dad had brought us home. He knocked on the door twice before Mom opened. They faked they still cared for each other and we faked to believe it. Dad left. Led by Mom, my sister and I walked quietly along the hall. As we passed by the already-closed door of the guests' room, I wondered who would be on the other side this time. I hate when Mom invites people over without giving advance notice. In fact, I simply hate when Mom invites people over. They are often travelers who spend the night and carry on with their journey the day after. Like Lucien, who dared to open the cereal box and take what I considered 'my' stickers. Or Pavol who left half of his hair capital on the shower tub. Or, last but not least, Laco, so thin and pale that I wouldn't have been surprised if he had suddenly died. "At least ask for something in return!" I used to tell Mom. But she is more concerned about teaching us values of compassion and caring. Whatever.
Janka is eleven and only five minutes younger than me. When we were born she almost got strangled with the umbilical cord, which the doctor had to cut before taking her out. Ever since she's kept this five-minute delay making people wait around her; as an unconscious way to take revenge. I was already in bed when Mom entered and put her to bed. "Who's the guest this time?" I asked. "An old man", Mom said. "With a white beard?" asked Janka. Mom nodded. "Can we see him?!" I urged. "Tomorrow you will if he happens to be awake before you two go to school." Those were Mom's last words before kissing us goodnight and drifting away through the corridor.
I could barely move. Having the sheets tightly tucked in, I had to shake arms and legs back and forth to finally free myself. Janka, deep in sleep as she was, didn't hear me leave the room. My feet thoughtfully chose the wooden strips that covered the floor as I walked, in order to avoid any crunch that could potentially wake Mom up. In the dark, my hand made its way to the doorknob of the guests' room, turned it and pushed. No signs of the old man with the white beard as Mom had described. What I found was the dead body of a thirty-something woman hanging from the ceiling. I could not refrain from shouting. It is always a shock finding out your own mother lied to you.
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ELYAS
Prague, Czech Republic
Elyas spent his entire life mastering the art of cooking dumplings (knedlíky). An existence committed entirely to seeking perfection, so to speak.
During his infancy, he would stain himself with flour, yeast and milk while instinctively mixing them together in surprisingly precise amounts.
Passion came during his childhood when he learned through play to appreciate the whimsical ways in which ingredients interact.
While honing his craft, he acquired a taste for dough and fell in love with kneading a few years later, during his adolescence.
Softness and plush had got a whole new meaning by the time he reached adulthood. Skillful as he was in shaping the dough in equally long rolls, he then honed his skills in dosing the heat suitably.
Although it wasn't until old age that he became patient enough to wait for the dumplings to be tender and ready when boiling them in water.
So, how do you like them?, Elyas asked.
They taste like you tried too hard, she answered.
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JAN
Stuttgart, Germany
No matter who you asked, they'd all tell you the same thing: Jan and his fiancée Laurent loved each other very much. For over four years they had been devoted to one another in the most committed form of love. As two puzzle pieces, they were simply made for each other. Barely two months after meeting, they had already moved in together, proving wrong those who thought it was too early.
Ever since, their time consisted of a succession of gentle provocations that would eventually lead to hugging and smooching each other passionately. When tired, she would cuddle up next to him on the couch in front of the TV while he would touch her back in soothing ways. They would then laugh at the same jokes till an acute slumber and the clock, around midnight, would invite them to call it a day.
Such a chemistry existed between the two that words had become redundant; nothing but a mere adornment to fill in the silence. Especially for Laurent who had literally stopped talking. Jan knew her well and over time had learned to decode the expression of her face. In this way, not only could he tell her different moods but much more; such as if she was thinking about her mother or if she had bought chocolate or even whether or not she found her meal too salty. Jan didn't seem to notice her absolute silence or if he did, it didn't bother him. He wasn't quite a smooth talker; however, he appreciated having an attentive listener to talk to.
Although they kept living their love as vividly as they used to, time highlighted the issue. No one really knew whether she had turned mute or didn't speak by choice. Not even Jan had dared to ask should the question upset her. The truth is Laurent hadn't said a word for such a long time because she never considered any of her thoughts worth being said. As calmed as she could look, Laurent's brain was constantly carrying out an intense analysis of her surrounding, leading to conclusions one after another in her own quest for clarity and ultimately an interesting thing to say. Nevertheless, nothing made it through the meticulous filter Laurent had set which would avert any given thought from coming out in actual words. Frustrated, that's how Laurent felt.
They were running late when they arrived at the sports club. A tennis court was already booked under their names. Jan had begun to play tennis to please Laurent about two years ago but had quickly acquired a taste for it. She, on the other hand, had taken classes since she was little, encouraged by her mother who had put aside a potentially successful professional career in favor of her family. Those years had had their effect on Laurent whose skills manifestly overcame Jan's. Not perceiving him as a rival of her stature, Laurent would seize the opportunity to let off steam.
If struck without too much strategy, Jan was capable of skillfully returning the ball. Laurent made sure to keep things this way. The ball went back and forth for a while keeping a constant rhythm. Every hit reverberated in the head of Laurent and finally, while swinging a backhand stroke, it clicked. Suddenly, everything fell into place and, as a result of so much thinking, there it was: the most interesting thought anyone ever had. Enduring a pseudo-electrical brain shock, Laurent would have shouted "eureka!" if her rusty vocal cords had responded.
Jan felt surprised yet relieved when she ran towards him pronouncing his name. Actual sounds, finally. She stood next to him and began to talk. As much as Laurent tried to explain her thought to Jan, it was virtually impossible for her to put her thinking into simple comprehensive words. And so it was for Jan to understand. The explanations continued on their way back home, over lunch, dinner as well as during the following day and the ones after that. Having attained the most interesting thought ever, Jan's comments felt suddenly mundane and, as a recurrent obsession, encouraged Laurent to insist on making Jan understand. Concerned about Laurent's insistence, Jan tried his very best but his efforts turned out useless. Funny how such a passionate love could suddenly become so intellectual, he thought.
Time didn't change anything. Obviously not far from breaking up, Jan confronted Laurent. He stood upright with a stiff neck, deeming himself worthy of neither word nor look and begged: "I've never been good at understanding women but you are the most amazing woman I have ever not understood and I don't want to lose you. Trust me if I tell you I would change my brain to match yours if I could. I love you. Please don't leave me." But this time it was Laurent who, despite her brilliance, couldn't understand.
THANK YOU, BEAUTIFUL STRANGERS,
hosts and illustrators, who helped me bring this project to live.

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RÓBER - Munich, Germany
Deda Darko
Leopoldo Alves
Max Pominenko
Jose Carcavilla
Carlota Santamaria
Ali Utku Kösoğlu

UWE - Salzburg, Austria
Ipek Konak
Boicut
Juliette Vivier
Berkay Dağlar
Antonio Komiyama
Rostislav Aksyonov

STEFAN - Vienna, Austria
Tom Latka
Gemma Román
Julie Alex
Borja Fernández
Robert Sammelin
Julia Shusterman

JEAN-CHARLES - Budapest, Hungary
Lea Vervoort
Inácio Eugênio
Nat Tattaglia
Alexsey Tatarskikh
Pixelbox
Ahmed Morshedi

ZUZANA - Poprad, Slovakia
Rocío Cañero
Spencer Epps
Studio Zwupp
Sophie Raynal
Delphine Robic
lilidesBellons

ELYAS - Prague, Czech Republic
Sedki Al Imam
Tom J Manning
Isabella Taliani
Alex Arizmendi
Nicole Xu
Lucas Borrás

JAN - Stuttgart, Germany
Sandra Garcia
Victoria Borges
Kaloian Toshev
Angga Tantama
Javier Martín de Frutos
Mateja Kovač