How Love Ends: Scenes from a Refugee Hotel

Dina Nayeri on life and love in Hotel Barba, “a place where time had stopped and people waited without purpose, plan, or country.”

and if the City falls but a single man escapes
he will carry the City within himself on the roads of exile
he will be the City

— Zbigniew Herbert

For two seasons when I was nine, I lived in a refugee hostel outside Rome, a place where time had stopped and people waited without purpose, plan, or country. Arriving in government cars, we spotted Hotel Barba from far off roads or neighboring villages, the great house on the hill, dotting the landscape. In the late eighties, for just two years, the owner leased it to the government to house the likes of us, an eclectic circle, rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and scholarly, who came from Afghanistan, Iran, Romania, Poland, the Soviet Union, and wherever else turned out refugees in those days. Our lot included professors, surgeons, internationally known preachers, field workers, soldiers, activists. My mother, an outspoken Christian doctor, had fled Iran with my younger brother and me in 1987. We had already spent a year as refugees in Dubai.

Despite a charming exterior, Hotel Barba was a refugee camp and we were to stay put, having been granted no status in Italy. But, to its residents, many of whom had escaped death, the deafening quiet of Mentana village was a purgatory. All day we sat around and languished in the winter chill, praying that by summer we’d be gone from there — all except two, a young Romanian fleeing with his wife, and my mother, both of whom filled their days with work. I read English books and played hopscotch and became obsessed with having a home again, with ending the wander days, rooting, and with the mysteries of adulthood. Each day when the postman arrived, the crowds outside the mail cubbies swelled, jostling for a good view. We wanted to know, “Who got his letter today?” If someone had, the crowd hushed as he opened his envelope, fingers trembling, eyes scanning, then either cried quietly into his palm, muttering curses, or loudly on his knees, thanking his god. Everyone was frantic for a letter from America or England or Australia, roomy Anglophone countries. All we did was dream, a maddening state, and battle loneliness.

We fought boredom in increasingly desperate ways: an Afghan grandmother collected bricks from a nearby construction site and carried them back to her room under her chador. Her daughter read fortunes from the remnants in mugs of instant coffee. A 20-year-old Iranian soldier with his face half bleached from a wartime chemical burn taught the children soccer. Later, the same children snuck into a neighboring orchard to steal unripe peaches and plums, because our tongues itched for sour and had nothing else to soothe the craving. I offered an English class, attended by a handful of burly Russian men. I skipped around the yard in my pink skirt with the men following, taking notes as I pointed to things: tree, fence, chador, babushka (they indulged me). People grumbled. They complained. They fought.

One day, an unhappy wife fled into the arms of her young friend, the only other Romanian, aside from herself and her husband, then residing at Barba.

Probably the couple had befriended their compatriot, a student with a guitar and a spasm of curly brown hair, before their sentence at Hotel Barba began. Day after shapeless day, the three sat in that Italian courtyard, smoking and suffering quietly together, the only Romanian speakers in a house of political outcasts. I imagined that they spoke of home. Mostly they watched the children play.

She wasn’t beautiful. Her face was flat, her eyes sleepy — but she had a sly smile, the look of a secret always on her mouth. She was tall with dark hair, wide hips, and painted-on jeans. The couple had no children. In the evenings the husband returned from a hard day in the gardens, looking worn. He drank a beer on his balcony, too sated with work to engage in human theatre. But his wife pined and slinked about. She whispered with her lover behind the hotel.

Her husband was a clean-cut man with sad eyes and a kind smile. He worshipped her. A few days after their arrival, though he was college educated, he found a cash job as a gardener so he could buy dresses for her. “So she doesn’t feel like a refugee,” he said. Residents of Barba didn’t have jobs, though it wouldn’t have been unheard of to help the local builder lay some brick, or hold down a bleating lamb for the butcher, or deliver a few newspapers in the early morning. But this man labored with purpose, every day, and it seemed that he craved to diminish himself to show her his love. What then — the adults wondered aloud — did she want? One day in the sunny courtyard, with the husband just over there, the student looked at her with a hunger so intense that, as a child, I recoiled.

Every night the three shared dinner. At mealtimes we sat with our own tribe, slipped into our native tongue, complained in our own way. As a single community, the residents of Barba had only a handful of rituals: gatherings around the mail cubbies, displays of affection for the boy who ladled the soup course with a singsong “Zuppa!”, morning stampedes for the strawberry jam and collective contempt for the grape which seemed to multiply and became a symbol of our many deprivations. And, of course, we gossiped. The women whispered about the Romanian wife, “She’s so foolish, so cruel.” Once, when my mother was trying to teach me about reputation, wisdom, and gravitas, she said, “Do you know how many strangers from all over the world got to know her only as that stupid woman?”

At mealtimes we sat with our own tribe, slipped into our native tongue, complained in our own way.

Like my mother, I believed she was stupid. Soon, her husband was spending most daylight hours away from Hotel Barba, sweating outdoors despite the winter chill, to make extra money for her. He would return after dark and give her small gifts and kiss her and they would smoke together. But she spent her days flirting with her friend, and talking to a Polish woman who became a repository for her breathless confessions. Later my mother told me that in Hotel Barba, no one knew anyone else’s situation. Was the shabby old man at the breakfast table a brilliant professor? Was the red-clad woman humming in the yard an heiress or a housemaid or a doctor with nimble fingers? Had she fled political or religious persecution? We couldn’t know. All we knew was that everyone was bored, watching each other, and why would you want to become their jester only to find out later that the squinting eyes fixed upon you belonged to a president or a poet or a judge?

The former Hotel Barba, viewed from nearby hill.

As far as love triangles go, I’ve only seen two others as intense as that one. Like our Romanian neighbor, my mother and I each experienced one in our early thirties. My mother left my father and our life in Iran because she found love elsewhere, inside a competing story. Her pursuit of Jesus, her Christian faith, and the promise of freedom and spiritual purpose drove her with no less passion than the young wife’s lust and ennui drove her. For that love, she left family, home, and a beloved country, carving a permanent hole in her heart. Two decades later I too fled from a marriage (and a home and country; I lived in Amsterdam) under a similar spell — a young lover who felt like a connection to Iran, a home I badly missed. He too had a guitar and a reckless streak. Though, unlike my mother (who still loves Jesus) and the Romanian wife (with her high hopes from her lover), I lived under no delusions that this man was anything more than a long arm reaching out from the shore. He would hold on until I could breathe again and then he would go.

What interests me now is this: why do such stories share so many details, no matter their setting? The unhappy wife of a good man — it happens so often.

In 2011, just before our separation, my husband, Philip, and I decided to look for Hotel Barba. At the time, it had seemed important to make this pilgrimage. Maybe we sensed an end coming. maybe this chapter of my history held answers for our troubled marriage. We made phone calls but no one in Mentana remembered the hotel. We rented a scooter and drove there anyway. Long before we arrived, I spotted the house on a hill from the road toward town. I didn’t need confirmation. I knew that hill, that manor on the horizon surrounded by valley.

It had been renamed Hotel Belvedere, a place for businesspeople to rest and to eat forgettable meals on their way to conferences. It was a hot summer day and we roared up to the dirt path, our cheeks were flushed and windblown. For the second time in my life, I felt the elation of pulling up that steep, meandering road to Hotel Barba, watching it appear — that jolt of the heart. Each time I was overcome by a sensation of perfect rescue, the feeling that I was plucked by some unseen hand from an awful fate.

Barba had been more than a house to us, the exiles it sheltered. Some places travel on with you.

The refugees were gone, the building renovated, the courtyard converted to a parking lot and the canteen turned into a restaurant and espresso bar. Something about the building conjured transition for me. It felt like change and homelessness, like stripping off a costume and setting off anew. Barba had been more than a house to us, the exiles it sheltered. Some places travel on with you. They grow up with you, at the same pace. As I jumped off the scooter and ran the rest of the way, I could see that Barba and I had grown in strange parallel, scaling up our exteriors, like sisters reuniting in adulthood, all done up for each other.

I requested to see our old room. I didn’t know the number, only the balcony overlooking the courtyard (now parking lot). The concierge took me from room to room in search of the correct view. It was a slow day. He promised to introduce me to the owner afterward. For whatever reason, standing on that balcony preparing to have my photo taken, I blurted, “A Romanian man used to climb our balcony to get to the one a few doors down. He was in love with the wife.” I had forgotten that detail, the student climbing. Then another lost detail returned. “Oh god,” I said, looking into the yard. “They ran away together. How could I forget that part?”

Russian and Persian tea, Hotel Barba.

The first time I saw Barba, from a black car in 1988, it must have been chilly and dark because I recall arriving after dinnertime in winter. My mother, brother, and I were bundled in the backseat, grubby from our international flight. Inside, we sat on our one bed and wondered what we would eat, where we would get money, if we would find friends among our neighbors. Would we meet Farsi speakers? How long would we stay? Which country would accept our asylum petition? Before long, someone knocked on our door. A punkish hotel employee, no older than twenty, told us we had missed dinner. That night, I saw the glass room for the first time, empty, dark. We ate leftover pasta and thanked God that meals were provided here.

My mother didn’t succumb to boredom or partake in the human drama of the place — she wasn’t interested. When it became obvious that we would be at Hotel Barba for a while, she made it her job to continue our education. She refused to languish in the hotel like the other exiles. “It won’t happen faster if we sit and wait. People pay a fortune to visit this country.” So she stuffed our backpacks and we rode buses to Pisa, Venice, and Rome. My mother was thirty-two, my age when I returned to Hotel Barba the second time on Philip’s scooter. I can’t imagine the kind of adventurous drive that would motivate her to brave Italian public transport alone, in summertime, with no money, no language skills, and two whiny children.

In a remote village with no car, our options for school were limited. Some Barba children had enrolled in local Italian schools, but my mother insisted on English. She found a group of American homeschoolers at a church in Rome, over an hour away by bus. She devised a plan so we could attend school during the day but still receive the three daily meals that Hotel Barba offered. She enlisted the help of the punkish staffer and the brick-gathering Afghan grandmother. Each day at lunch, the employee would entrust our meals to the Afghan grandmother, who would wrap them up and save them for us. At night when we returned, we would eat those lunches, saving our fresher dinners for lunch the next day. No matter what was served, my mother would transform the components into sandwiches (hard, crusty rosetta rolls came with every meal) and hang them in plastic bags in our balcony where they might cool and survive the morning bus ride to Rome. I still remember the strangely satisfying texture of a sandwich made with pot roast and a layer of green peas, the rosetta finally soft enough, after a night spent soaking in gravy.

Memories of the old Afghan woman — scurrying behind the hotel with a brick under her skirts, saving our bag of food, kissing my cheeks — brings a fleeting smile to my lips. Now I wouldn’t recognize her in a lineup of grandmothers; funny the daily nothings by which an entire person becomes known. My mother wants me to learn this as I grow older — How many strangers know her only as that stupid woman?

Because we had joined the school halfway through the year, they didn’t have workbooks for us. My mother spent her days erasing hundreds of pages of used ones, making sure she removed every marking so we could do our work without temptation of old answers peeking through. When the weather got warm, we would sit in the courtyard all afternoon, my mother erasing her fingers raw, my brother and I writing. It cut the tedium, and soon our boredom died down.

Over the months my fascination with the Romanians grew. I wasn’t sure why they had left home, just that it was a Communist country then. As with all Barba guests, something frightening had happened and they had fled. Their rooms were on the same hallway as ours. An agile person could climb from balcony to balcony. Once I climbed to the couple’s room and knocked on the window, and the husband gave me a sip of his drink. It was my first taste of beer, and I hated it.

The second or third time I noticed the affection between the young wife and her friend, I had wandered into the empty dining room. I found them alone, their heads almost touching. She looked up abruptly and offered me milk and sugar with a few drops of coffee, a concoction I hated (foreign drinks became a problem for me over the years: I hated sodas, coffee, beer, skim milk, frozen slushies, tonic. I was an Iranian girl — I liked yogurt soda, still water, and sweet tea). Later, I saw her in the courtyard with her husband. He held her hand and they watched me in that amused, longing way lonely couples look at other people’s children. I wasn’t confused by what I had seen. I thought, “She loves both men, but she’s already married so it’s too late.” I didn’t attach any possible emotion to the too-lateness of it.

Iranians and Afghanis at Hotel Barba.

A few months into our stay news spread that the young woman had abandoned her husband and fled with the young friend to the Swiss border on foot, hoping to cross over illegally. She was tired of waiting for asylum, tired of the boredom, tired of her husband. She was withering in our shared purgatory. The rumors flared up again. The lovers were hitchhiking to Switzerland. They had vacated Hotel Barba, becoming fugitives in Italy. I’m not sure if we were allowed simply to leave Hotel Barba. Yes, we left every day for school, but could a person just pick up their bags and move out? We were, after all, carrying flimsy documentation and were largely unemployable, un-house-able, and without options. We were social cripples and Barba was our temporary guardian. What would they do alone in the inhospitable bowels of a foreign country with nothing but their passion and his guitar? “They’re just bored,” the older women would mutter. “The days are so long here.” I’m sure that such words were whispered in Barba’s many languages, though my gossipmonger of choice was the Afghan grandmother.

The pair had disappeared in a delirium of spring fever and, for some days afterward (my memory tells me two weeks, but was likely much less), I had my first opportunity to witness heartbreak up close. The husband grew pale. He sat alone in the courtyard or in his room drinking dark beers, his head in his hand, probably thinking he could have bought her more things. Some days he sat in his balcony, frothy mug in hand, looking out at the winding gravel driveway. He stopped working. What were they doing, alone in the open world? Did the student hold her hand as they walked? Did she lose her fingers in his curls? Did they pretend to be Italian and rent a room and share a bed? I imagine he strummed guitar for her on Italian roadsides, spending their meager lire (too few for train tickets) on pizza and Coke to share with her as he flagged kind motorists, shivered in his thin jacket, and slowly noticed her flaws. Back then, I pretended they were visiting Pisa and Venice as we had done — I pictured him kissing her on the cheek and I blushed at the idea. At nine, I was curious and opinionated and I judged her. Her husband was the more handsome one anyway, I decided, and look how he suffered for her sake. I hated her and hoped God would punish her with permanent asylum to Canada.

The pair had disappeared in a delirium of spring fever and, for some days afterward…I had my first opportunity to witness heartbreak up close.

In time, the runaways returned. They were caught at the border and sent back to the camp with their heads hanging. My memory puts regret on their faces. Only a few months more and they might have been welcomed into a new country, able to leave Hotel Barba with respect and warm goodbyes. Now here they were again, back in their old rooms, forced apart from each other and enduring the silences of the man they had betrayed. Probably their recklessness delayed all three of their visas.

They had no choice but to reconcile with the husband, to eat with him silently every night, to make chitchat about books, to smoke in the courtyard. It was a spectacle and everyone watched in awe and secret fascination. What gall! Where would she sleep? Of course, she returned to her husband’s room, since she was assigned to it. After that, the student spent his days in his single room — as in real life, it was his moment to disappear, his memories of youthful adventure bringing him satisfaction and nostalgia but no heartache, leaving the couple to suffer alone. But at meals, they were still the whole of Romania, and so they shared a table. Maybe a new exile would soon arrive and relieve them of the burden of three, but such trios aren’t free from each other even in the wider world.

Sometime in that turbulent season, when the weather was warming and the restless residents of Hotel Barba were overcome by renewed desire for a country, we discovered why the Afghan grandmother was collecting bricks. In mid afternoon a crowd was forming around the mail cubbies again. The Iranian soldier with the white-blotched face was trembling, thanking Jesus. “I’m going to California!” he shouted. It saddened me; I would miss him, and our ball games. Having left my own father in Iran, I was attached to him. As it turned out, a few days later, we would receive our letter too and would be on the same flight as my soldier friend. As the crowd dispersed, someone saw the Afghan woman scurry up the stairs with a brick under her arm. The punkish staff member or Zuppa man or somebody followed her and insisted on seeing her room. Soon news spread around Hotel Barba that she had built a shower seat and was spending hours a day sitting happily under the stream, wasting the hotel’s water. They dismantled her seat. She threw an epic tantrum. The tedium had reached new heights of toxicity. We were drinking it now, mad with it.

A year or two later, we visited that Afghan grandmother and her daughter in California. It turned out they were from a wealthy, important family, a fact we could easily see when we met them in their own house. “Do you remember that Romanian woman who ran away with the younger man?” the daughter asked my mother as she poured skim milk over my cereal — my first taste of the vile blue water. That detail was all they remembered of a woman who had shared their home for months.

Thinking back on this story, I wonder if my mother knew that I was watching, if she saw all that I committed to memory under her nose, as she was rubbing out answers to math problems. I missed my father, my aunts and uncles. I wanted to know why people leave each other. Maybe my mother too was thinking about love in those days, alone as she was after a decade, with no companion, no consolation but her unwavering belief in Jesus. And weren’t we all obsessed with love? Despite the daily burdens of refugee life — unfamiliar food, hot buses, lack of school, the possibility of being sent back to face imprisonment and death — I believe that everyone there continued to function on that register. Even when first order needs were in question, love was all, the only thing more basic than home or country.

Mentana, circa 2011.

Decades later, I drank an espresso in the same dining room, our familiar canteen, while the grandfatherly owner patted my hand and offered me a wafer. I thought: years ago I drank milky coffee in this room, unable to imagine that one day I’d enjoy the taste. I thought of the Romanians. Why do stories repeat themselves in this way? How does love stop being love, and how can I tell if it’s happening to me?

“This room is exactly the same,” I said. “Those windows…”

“It’s much nicer,” the owner said; the concierge translated. “Big renovation.”

“It seems the same to me,” I said, looking out at the leafy landscape below the dining room. “It was nice then too.”

“Probably because your taste improved at the same rate as the renovation,” Philip joked. I recalled the bitterness of those first coffees and beers, the watery milk. Now, as an adult, I had brand new senses. The world had reset. Most people return to childhood sites and find them shabbier or smaller, though the places are unchanged. Barba seemed the same to me, maybe because we grew in step. Had my husband and I grown in step? Did our love keep up with our changing palates? Did we carry our years together, as one carries a city or familiar gravel road or a beloved house, and would we continue to carry them, even as we moved on from each other?

Most people return to childhood sites and find them shabbier or smaller, though the places are unchanged. Barba seemed the same to me, maybe because we grew in step.

Maybe this was just what happens to love — in a secluded refugee camp or in a yuppie apartment in a big city center. Over the decades, I’ve lived in a bustling Iranian village, a sleepy Oklahoma suburb, a chaotic Italian refugee camp, on a New York avenue, and an Amsterdam canal. I’ve learned: the same things happen. Now I travel only for details I can’t imagine or invent, not for broader understanding. We are hardly original. It seems to me that some human tribunal predating known cultures has drawn out every footpath and built high walls around it, just out of sight. Detours are tempting, like running off to the Swiss border with no paperwork, but inevitably temporary. The walls will soon appear. People will fall in love; they will live for a few years in ecstasy and delirium; then love will end. They will be lost for a while. They will crawl back toward the main road. Who decided this?

And yet, these patterns make stories pleasurable for me, their soothing echo insinuating some buried answer. Why does love end? When does a marriage stop being a marriage? I’m reminded of Alice Munro’s words: “It’s as if tendencies that seem most deeply rooted in our minds, most private and singular, have come in as spores on the prevailing wind, looking for any likely place to land, any welcome.”

The name Hotel Barba still fills me with dread and nostalgia: that first lick of a Cornetto, the crunch of unripe peaches stolen from the garden, the tinny taste that filled my mouth in embassies. After my second visit, it also conjures images of myself as the unhappy wife of a good man, in a green summer dress, trying to find the tree whose peaches I had stolen, the bench where I taught Russian men a few words of English, the sound of a Romanian student climbing over my balcony with his guitar. For years, the characters in Hotel Barba have appeared unbidden in my fiction. Young heroes arrive with milky scars whitewashing half their face. Menacing lovers carry guitars and have curly hair — fingers are lost in it. Grandmothers in chadors hide little indulgences under long skirts. Idle women with sleepy eyes make themselves silly with yearning. Back then, the worn-down paths seemed new to me. But I saw things and I began to learn the patterns: All Love ends. Without a country, a fire is quenched, another flares. Limbo is temptation itself — the itch to make life happen, faster and faster.

Thinking of the lovesick wife of Hotel Barba, another truth presents itself: only two people in that refugee camp loved enough to seek work, toiling to dull the sting of exile for someone else. Does love have to end? My mother and the Romanian husband struggled for it; for them, it didn’t come cheap. I want to try it for myself. I want to love enough to labor and slog, to diminish, to rub my fingers raw. And yet — I can’t curb this other, darker instinct; I try to imagine what it would have been like to be stuck with two lovers in a purgatory, and I crave the unnatural closeness, the spark of fear, the drive to create and destroy and create again. I long for the drama. Despite all that I’ve seen, the common endings I’ve come to know, I still manage to think, what a good story it would make, so original and new.

— A version of this essay originally appeared in Epoch.

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