Nov 23 2009

Old School

He was aloof, my taxi driver. I’d negotiated with him before we left, ¿cuánto va a costar?? to go to an address that wasn’t exactly specific – someplace near the corner of two numbered streets, somewhere in the district called Marianao, the address that my mother had given me after writing to an old friend who would remember it, of her school when she was growing up in Cuba. He seemed bothered by my task: that I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, that I’d be needing him to wait.

I’d had so many nice cabbies – highly spirited drivers who gabbed away during the drive from our hotel to the city center, pointing out landmarks or making jokes about passing through a time machine to be in their country. But this guy was dour, humorless. Instead of making small talk, I stared out the window, scanning the rows of faded pastel houses and dusty buildings. I hoped we would be able to find the school, and wondered if it still was a school, if it even existed anymore.
We took another route. Not the high road, the habitual drive along the big avenue by the ocean and into the old quarter of the city that we so often followed, but the low road, plunging into the grid of streets of a part of the city most taxi drivers assumed we did not want to see. At the designated crossroads, I asked the driver to wait. He agreed by a grunt, and I got out to hunt for the hallowed building that might be a school. I aimed my camera at a small square stone on the corner of the crumbling sidewalk, registering the intersection where I stood, to use as a marker later when I would review the photographs.

A man on the street watched me, with curiosity, as I snapped pictures of the sidewalk. He wore a careful smile and a pressed plaid shirt. He didn’t look like he was on the make, so I took the risk, in my simple Spanish, to ask him if he knew where to find the Colegio Buenavista.

He surveyed the corner to get his bearings. He pointed his long brown finger up the street. He told me he knew where it was because his brother had gone to that school, long ago. I decided to tell him that it was also the escuela de mi madre. I made a waving hand motion to the side of my head – it might be the universal signal for “a long time ago” – a visual to reinforce that I was speaking of many decades in the past. I asked him to describe the school to my taxi driver, and hoped the transmission from one local to another would be more efficient. He agreed and followed me to the car, a beat-up squared vehicle that reeked of gasoline. I heard him describe the building, and its placement further up the street. My driver shrugged his shoulders, agreeing to take me there but with a complete absence of enthusiasm.
A few blocks later, the driver stopped the car and pointed. I stepped out of the cab before a grand edifice, colonial and ornate with a stately gate. The building looked like what an old school should look like, with a symmetrical stairway like dignified crossed arms in the front of the building, a grand gaping balcony on the second floor smiling down. The paint was fatigued and chipped, but at one time would have been a brilliant turquoise blue. It looked like a sad, old, aristocratic lady, dressed in her worn, out-of-fashion finery just to walk around the block, elegant in a faded, nostalgic way.

I climbed the staircase. At the landing on the second floor, and old couple sat in unmatched chairs. I meekly greeted them, not wanting to impose, but oh so curious to even peek inside. I explained my pilgrimage, and they responded in rapid-fire Spanish in what was clearly affirmative. “Despacio, slowly,” I begged. Yes, it was the school, though now it was divided into apartments. But it had been the Colegio Buenavista, along with the building just beside it, which remains a school to this day.
They opened a door, motioning for me to go in. I entered a wide school-like hallway with a vaulted ceiling, painted nearly the same blue as the building’s exterior. The colors of the tiled-floor were slightly dulled by time, but otherwise in perfect condition. Looking down a stairwell that was once filled with young students scrambling up the stairs, I saw someone’s laundry hanging in a ventilation passage. The faint smell of garlic taunted from the back of the building.

I pictured my mother standing in this hallway, holding her books, laughing with her classmates. I imagined the rushing about of young uniformed schoolgirls, and her among them. I thought about Short-pants and Buddy-roo, and how they disappear each day into the private mystery of their at-school lives, coming into their own, just as my mother made her way here, in this very place, years ago.

They suggested I visit the building next door. After lots of nodding and smiling and many muchas gracias, I made my way to the driver and motioned where I was going. There, a concierge of sorts listened to my explanation without compassion. The man I’d seen earlier – in the plaid shirt, the one who’d directed me here – appeared on the sidewalk behind me. No doubt his curiosity had kicked in, so he’d turned up to see what was unfolding. With his intervention, the woman cautiously opened the door for me. It was late afternoon and school had let out, but a few children remained and the women there – teachers, cleaners, administrators, helpers – gathered around me. Once they heard I had come from France, another woman appeared, a French teacher, and we were able to converse with full comprehension. Yes, classroomsthis had been the Colegio Buenavista. Now it operates under a different name and is a state-run school. Another woman appeared and offered to escort me around the school, a one-story building laid out like a motel, with a wide open courtyard between the long rows of doors and the covered walkway. Aqui, she pointed down an alley on the side, these were the main classrooms.

I lingered as long as I could, in broken Spanish and in better French conversing with them about the school and its students. Mindful of my waiting driver and also wanting my local visits to be discreet – for my own safety as well as theirs – I thanked them all and left, even though I wanted to stay. You can come back tomorrow, they told me, when school is in session. Yes, maybe I will, I’d said. I wanted to, really.

In the taxi I turned and watched out the rear window as the two buildings shrunk from view. I didn’t expect it to be emotional, making this little side trip to visit my mother’s old school. I saw it as a quick errand, just going to visit an old building so I could surprise her with a few photos of her past. Not until I was standing in these buildings did I feel the sense of a history – not just a general history of a place from another era, but a specific touch point in the history of someone so near to me. I didn’t expect to be so moved. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed. I didn’t expect my eyes to fill up with such wet, heavy tears.

“Hotel?” the taxi driver asked. His dark eyes in the rear view mirror softened when he saw that I was crying. By now my mouth was surely a grimace, the one that accompanies tears we try to withhold. He turned to look at me directly. He smiled, and then, in his broken English, “Where you want to go?”

Home is what I wanted to say. Home, now and fast to my mother and to her arms and her stories. Home to her to hear everything I possibly can hear while she’s still here to tell it. Home to appreciate who she was and who she became. That’s what I wanted to say. Instead I said, “, to my hotel.”

Nov 12 2009

Cuba Libre

Buddy-roo turned to me and reached up with her hands. I bent over to accept what I thought was an offered hug. “No mama,” she said, “You have my back-pack.” I’d carried it all the way to school because she’d ridden her little bike, I didn’t even realize I still had it on my shoulder. I handed over her pink Barbie bag; she grabbed it from me without looking up and ran toward the big doors of the school courtyard. For someone who never wants to go to school, once she gets there she’s too excited to even say goodbye. I called out to her. “I’ll see you in two weeks!” She turned and blew me a kiss, and ducked through the doors, disappearing into the mob of screaming children.

Last night I lay in bed next to Short-pants, having one of our bed-time talks.
I reminded her that I was leaving today to go away for a long trip, to Cuba. “But I’ll miss you,” she said. She always says that, with the sweetest-sad song in her voice, when she sees me preparing my suitcase for a trip. And then, after thinking about it, she asked, “Why are you going there?”

I explained that I’m going to work with some colleagues to help run a meeting, but that the really coolest thing about going to Cuba is that I’m going to visit the city where my mother grew up. Though she was born in New Orleans, mi madre spent her formative years in Havana. Of course this was another era – before Che and Fidel – which I suspect I will only be able to imagine when I find myself in standing on the dusty streets of her old hometown.

“Will you go see her house, where she grew up? Will you see her school?”
I thought about the detailed and yet vague email my mother sent me, describing the location of her house in Miramar, with its numbered streets and the placement of her childhood house on the such-and-such corner. She remembers exactly where the house was, though she says it’s no longer there. She remembers how she used to watch the Las Comparsas, the Mardi Gras parade, from the balcony of the American Club, which is also no longer there. Her memory is better than mine will ever be. Or maybe it’s just easier to remember things that you know are gone for good.

As for the school, I hadn’t thought about going to find the one she attended, but now I just might try, if there’s time, so I can take a picture and bring it back to show my daughters, to show them something about their grandmother’s early life that they can relate to. Would I see my mother when I’m there? Short-pants wanted to know. Oh, but if this were true! My mother has made only one trip to Havana since she left at age of 18. She would love to meet me there.

But no, I’m going solo on this trip. No De-facto, no kids. Just me, traveling on my own, a bit like the old days. “Have a big adventure,” De-facto said to me, after he carried my suitcase down the stairs this morning. Who knows? Maybe I will.

Nov 8 2009

A Little Longing

There was a pre-toddler in my house all last week, a baby boy, blindingly blond with thoughtful round blue eyes. A drunken sailor staggering around our living room. He took instantly to Short-pants and Buddy-roo, who are closer to his size and less threatening. De-facto had spent time with him before, so they rediscovered their kinship rather swiftly. But I was a tall stranger. Even though I’m family – I’m his aunt – he’d never laid eyes on me
blond_hugbefore in his one-year long life. So I waited and watched from the side, actually almost lurking, because I wanted him to know that I was interested in his affection, if he ever cared to offer it. But I kept my distance from the little man, which is – for real – what my sister-in-love and her De-facto call their baby boy. Little man.

I remember when I was little, visiting my grandmother. She lived in a condominium complex with a long swimming pool and a shuffleboard court, which I thought was terribly exotic. She had a friend, an older, ugly man with bad breath who always wanted to hug me. I don’t believe he ever wanted to do more than that, but still, I didn’t want even the casual nice-to-see-you-oh-you’re-so-grown-up embrace from him. It was a real treat to visit Grammy – she cooked corn-fritters from scratch and made thick, icy, piña coladas – but I dreaded running into her creepy friend. A big oath by a small child can be a powerful thing: I promised myself that when I grew up I’d never force my hugs upon an unwilling little person.

Instead I crouched down across from the little man, day-by-day, hoping to become more familiar, to become someone he might trust. Each day, a little closer. A short conversation, from a distance. A smile, a song. Then it came, the moment, several days in, when, without any coaxing he actually stumbled into my arms and allowed me, without squirming, to pick him up and carry him around.

My failing memory had blocked it out – until he was in my arms and it all came back – what it is to hold a big baby who’s so compact, solid and muscled. He’s a little peanut but he’s dense, the robust force of his all-boy energy like cutting open a vacuum-sealed bag. His miniature feet clamped at my waist. His fat index finger tested my nose. He smelled like milk.
And I thought, how could it be that my daughters were once this size and I could hold and hug them close to my chest? How could it be that once, only a few years ago, these long straws in a tall soda glass that stand before me now could have been little and round and nestled in my arms just like this?


Yesterday, after the long-faced trek down four flights of stairs with suitcases and the stroller and the this and the that which are required for long distance travel with a one-year old, De-facto reluctantly handed the little man back to his sister so she could buckle him in his car seat. Hugs goodbye with tears and promises not to wait so long for the next trans-Atlantic visit. We stood in the street waving as they drove away, until the taxi disappeared from sight.

Upstairs, the chaos left in the wake of the little man’s staggering-around play was waiting for us. We did not clear it away. We sat on the floor with the girls, laying out Brio track, piece by piece, building a seamless route to move trains around our living room, wishing – futilely – that our children could stay just as they are – small and huggable – forever.

Nov 4 2009

Are We There Yet?

Whoever said “it’s the journey and not the destination” wasn’t in the car with me yesterday.
We were slow out of the gate. The ritualized closing of the country house takes more time in the fall (heading into winter) than in the warmer months of summer. The refrigerator, as usual, is emptied, defrosted, wiped and left unplugged, open to the air. The floor is swept. The dishes and glassware are washed, stowed and covered. The water is not only turned off, but in anticipation of the cold it is siphoned from the toilets and the hot water tank, to avoid the catastrophe of frozen, bursting pipes. Electricity shut off. Doors and shudders latched. It’s a frenzy of cleansing and storing activity. Then finally, en route.

The back roads from our little village to the highway are bucolic and picturesque, but their meandering makes for uncomfortable stomachs. Buddy-roo lost her breakfast about fifteen minutes into the ride. I am smart enough to bring a few plastic bags – her car sickness is also a ritual event – but not smart enough to check those bags for holes before tucking them into the pocket of the car door. The little pink plastic sac I shoved under her precious, ashen face just before she puked had a teeny tiny hole in the bottom, which became big very quickly, dumping most of the contents of the bag into her lap. Who knew how fast I am out of the seat-belt? Or that I could be a contortionist, reaching around the front seat, wiping up the mess with the four paper towels left on the roll? Oh, happy drive.

De-facto had the idea to stop at a giant Decathalon store just before the on-ramp to the highway, for what was promoted as a quick errand. When I finally found him, he had set up house in roller blade aisle. Short-pants and Buddy-roo had each been fitted with a pair, and they were shuffling around, finding their legs like baby foals, while he examined roller-blades in his own size. Of course, each pair that he tried on required a test drive. He’d skate circles around the girls, their giggling filled the store despite the height of its hyper-sized ceiling. (He didn’t intend to buy them for the girls, by the way, he was just giving them a quick lesson, gearing up for the winter skating season, and keeping them occupied while he contemplated his selection.)

How hard is it to select a pair of roller-blades? Apparently not so easy when you’re deciding whether or not to splurge for the super-geared-up sexy pair or just go for the solid they’ll-work-anywhere ones. While he weighed his options, I explored the store and got sucked into the vortex of early Christmas shopping. Which meant the additional game of get-through-the-checkout-without-anyone-seeing-what’s-in-your-cart, which I managed to win, but without any help whatsoever from the very un-elf like cashier.

I should have known we were in trouble when De-facto whispered the forbidden word: “McDonalds.” It’s not at all in his nature, stopping to eat at a rest stop. He’s more of what-can-we-scrap-together-from-the-fridge-and-eat-in-the-car kind of road tripper. So while the peanut-butter-and-Nutella sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs and sliced cucumbers aged in another bag (no holes in this one) at the foot of the passenger’s seat of the car, he ordered up a few super-size-me meals and we even sat in the restaurant to eat our fries. (It is absolutely in my nature, to eat fries.)

Our little pause would have been an exotic change of pace if the rest of the drive had been business-as-usual. But it wasn’t. On three different stretches of the A20, we inched along in the cruelest of single-lane traffic, passing through miles of orange-coned construction zones without the sight of even a single hammer. That meant three distinct opportunities to spend 45 minutes traveling the distance that normally takes about five minutes. And
bouchonthen, when we were so close to home, with what should have been less than ½-hour to go, we found ourselves nose to tail-light with thousands of other idiots like us, stuck in rush-hour traffic during a (seasonal) train strike. The journey from our country house to Paris should have taken just over four hours. We were in the car for nearly eight hours.

The girls, it must be said, were marvelous. Napping. Reading. Coloring. Singing. The computer came out and movies were cued up. They are professional travelers. No whining, “Are we there yet?” Not a single complaint from the peanut gallery in the back of the car.

Just a few grumbles from yours truly in the front seat. Regretting that McChicken sandwich, or something like that.