The Memory of Laughter by Paulina Shur

The Memory of Laughter

Paulina Shur

Scientists’ conferences often take place in beautiful, even exotic locations. That particular year was no exception: Sardinia, south of Cagliari, in a hotel close to the beach. No wonder lots of spouses come along.

We, five wives—Nina, Lucy, Nadia, Jenny, and I—met years ago at one of these conferences and became fast friends. We were happy to see each other in Sardinia.

It was a pleasantly hot day, so after breakfast we went to the beach. We talked, wading, swam, talking, and finally settled ourselves in the shade, continuing to talk. Suddenly, a tall man stopped before us with a rack of clothes. Pointing at it, he said something we didn’t understand, but it was obvious he wanted us to buy the clothes.

We tried light, mostly white dresses, blouses, and pants on over our swimsuits, and since there was no mirror to look at, we trusted each other’s judgment. The clothes were flying from person to person and back to the rack, accompanied by our laughs and loud voices:

“Yes, yes, perfect, buy it!”

“No, it doesn’t look good on her.”

“I don’t agree, she looks ten years younger!”

“What do you think about this suit?”

“It’s lovely!”

“I’m going to get one for myself and one for my daughter-in-law!”

Finally, our choices made, it was time to pay. The clothes were expensive—each item on the rack had a tag: 60 Euros—but we knew that on the beach, unlike in the stores, we could bargain.

Jenny addressed the man in Spanish, I in French, to no avail. English failed as well, and since none of us spoke Italian (including the man, who didn’t address us in Italian), we decided to use the “fingers” language. Nadia took the dress she liked and cast three, then six fingers. To make sure the man understood her, she said “thirty-six” in English. The man shook his head and, using his fingers, cast five, then six fingers. To make sure we understood him, he said “fifty-six” in his language—or so we thought, judging by the words’ shortness. What a relief to have found a common language! Now we could start bargaining, and so Nadia cast three, then nine fingers. Upon seeing her new offering, the man launched into a long and animated monologue. What was he saying? Maybe that he’d brought these clothes from the top-notch stores, they were beautiful and chic, and he was selling them at a bargain price. Maybe that we didn’t have to go to town at the hottest time of the day, conveniently shopping on the beach instead. Or, most likely, nothing of the kind, for, having finished his monologue, he dropped the price, casting five, then three fingers.

In response, Nadia offered forty-two Euros, which produced an even more animated monologue, followed once again by a reduction in price. If someone had looked at us from a distance, he’d be convinced that we indeed spoke the same language, so quick and smooth, almost as if on cue, were our verbal and finger exchanges. Yet our negotiations came to a dead-end: we couldn’t afford to pay more, while the man, sensing how much we liked the clothes, refused to sell for less. We stood still, thinking about the next move, when Lucy suddenly said, “Girls, step aside. I’ll do the haggling myself. I’m experienced. I’m from Odessa.”

Odessa, the legendary city on the Black Sea, from which, drenched in the sun, sea, and sea salt, came songs permeated with prison slang; witty, vulgar, or coarse jokes and anecdotes; and, best of all, comic or tragic-comic fictional stories; Odessa, the city of abundant, noisy farmers and flea markets where disputes, haggles, and quarrels were a normal way of buying and selling. Yes, Lucy was up to the task.

With the gesture of a magician, Lucy took Nadia’s dress and, using her forefinger, drew 26 in the sand. We were first stunned by and then proud of her audacity.

“You should always start with the lowest price possible because, I’m sure, he started with the highest price possible.” Lucy sounded as if she had made a living as a bargaining consultant, not the pharmacist that she was.

The man threw his arms up in the sky and, as if he were addressing someone high above, uttered what could only be interpreted as, “Look what they are doing to me!” Then he turned to Lucy and said, “Lady, you must be out of your mind!” At least, that’s what his gestures and tone of voice expressed. He erased Lucy’s number, drew 50 and, adding hand gestures to his facial expression, said—in his language, of course, “That’s it. Not a penny less.”

Unperturbed, Lucy stepped on his number and said to him in plain English, “You think you can fool me? You think I don’t know how much these dresses really cost?” There was no mistaking what she meant. The man turned his head away, apparently in distress. Encouraged by this sign of weakness, Lucy erased his number and drew her own: 30. The man jumped on it, shuffled his feet to erase it, drew 46, and said the word that could only mean “Basta.”

“Basta,” Lucy said. She turned to us, saying, “Let’s leave. I’m sure he’ll stop us.”

We turned to leave. The man yelled, “Where are you going? Stop!” and blocked our way. Then he ran to the rack, threw us the clothes we had chosen, and beating himself in the chest said with a touch of tears in his voice, “Shame on you, robbing the poor man!

We gave him thirty Euros for each item of clothing, and when he left we hugged and thanked Lucy for saving us so much money.

“It was a piece of cake for someone from Odessa,” she responded casually.

It was almost lunchtime. We went to the hotel, changed into our new dresses, and came to the dining room, getting compliments from the conference participants. Laughing, we described to them the man’s vain attempt to defeat Lucy.

The next day was so windy that instead of going to the beach, we walked along the steep streets of the town. On our walk, we saw a few men, “ours” amongst them, selling clothes. Curious about prices, we looked at the racks and gasped. “Our” dresses, blouses, and suits were being sold for fifteen Euros each, half of what we’d paid after our hard bargain. The sixty-Euro tags that had been attached to the clothes yesterday had vanished.

Suddenly, we felt stupid, gullible, naïve; we were embarrassed; we were even angry at ourselves and the man. He recognized us, noticed our looks, and laughed so loudly and crudely that his companions turned to him in surprise. He pointed at us and, it was obvious, started describing yesterday’s bargaining to them. His friends joined in his laugh, looking at us with unconcealed mockery. They talked and laughed, laughed and talked. What were they saying?

Silly women, whoever you are, English or Americans, living a comfortable, care-free life that has been handed to you on a silver platter since birth; staying in this posh hotel, taking hot or cold showers in marble bathtubs, being served three exquisite meals a day on a terrace overlooking the sea, surrounded by bushes with pink, red, purple, and orange flowers; having cold drinks, iced tea, or tall vanilla lattes with skim milk, and in between jogging, swimming, shopping, and playing tennis or badminton. We had it rough in our country, and when we came to this country nobody handed us money or prospects for a decent job. We sleep on the floor in a small hut, ten people in one room, drag heavy racks of clothes through the sand in the sun, sweat pouring onto our faces, and sit down to a meal only late at night. When a tourist season ends, we move somewhere else. When a tourist season ends, we move somewhere else. That’s our life, a life of struggle you know nothing about. And you, who bargain for fun, you thought you could defeat us? Ha-ha. Well, it was fun to play a bargaining game with you, and a piece of cake to win it.

Most likely, they weren’t saying anything like that at all; they simply enjoyed talking and laughing. Talking about us. Laughing at us.

Having received a well-deserved dose of their ridicule, we were ready to leave when Lucy started laughing. Her laughter was so gleeful that it was contagious, and without having the slightest idea why, we all joined in.

“Remember,” she said, choking with laughter, “how you thanked me for saving you so much money, and how I said it was a piece of cake?”

“Because you were from Odessa,” I added, and a new burst of laughter ensued.

“And how he would unwillingly drop the price, knowing all along the real cost of these clothes,” Jenny said, almost breathless from laughing.

“And how resignedly . . . he threw us our dresses . . . beating himself . . . in the chest.” Nina laughed so hard that she was unable to say the complete sentence without stopping.

As we continued recounting our shopping experience, our words were stifled by laughter; our bodies were swaying, our hands waving.

The men stopped talking and laughing. They looked at us, at each other, then at us again. They were dumbfounded. Of course, we looked crazy to them because they couldn’t possibly know why we were laughing. Only a few moments ago, we ourselves didn’t know. We knew now.

“Our” man turned out to be a genuine actor who skillfully used gags, body movements, facial expressions, and stage speech to play and win a game against us. He outplayed us, and we were laughing at ourselves. Unbeknownst to us, he used us as supporting characters in his play, and we were laughing at these characters’ comic traits—laughing at ourselves. And the best laugh was yet to come—the laughter of our other audience, the conference participants.

We anticipated how we would return to the hotel and replay this little “comedy of errors,” Scene I being the fools’ deception and Scene II the fools’ revelation; how we would impersonate here ourselves, here the man, and here his friends. We anticipated a delightful evening, filled with jokes and friendly laughter.

And then the conference would end. Its participants would take a thick volume of conference proceedings with them, while we would take beautiful Italian clothes. But there would be something else we’d take with us: our memories. The memory of our joy at trying on the clothes on the beach and trusting each other’s taste; the memory of our excitement at playing bargaining games with the man; and, most important, the memory of laughter, first ours, then the men’s, then ours again, in that order: the memory of us laughing at ourselves and the delightful realization of our ability to do so.

Yes, we would take with us the memory of something intangible, ephemeral, yet more treasured than all of the treasures of the beautiful island of Sardinia.

About the Author

Paulina Shur (Theatre and Video Director) holds a B.A. in Music from the St. Petersburg College of Music in Russia; M.A. and Ph.D. in Theatre and Film from the Institute of Theatre, Music, and Film in St. Petersburg, Russia, and an M.F.A. in Theatre Directing from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. She is an author of theatre and film articles in Russian and American theatre and film magazines as well as the book Albert Lamorisse, published by the St. Petersburg Art House. She was a founder and Artistic Director of the Magic Mirror Theatre in Charlottesville, Virginia where she directed, among others, works by Harold Pinter and Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and Moliere, Lanford Wilson and Chekhov. For the past 12 years she was on the faculty of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, where she taught theatre and film classes as well as wrote scripts and directed and produced short videos. She is a co-author of the book How to Succeed in Breastfeeding Without Really Trying, or Ten Steps to Laugh Your Way Through, published by the World Scientific in 2009.