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Friday, November 14, 2014

fish

The winding Old Road back to Caracas from La Guaira, the Carretera Vieja that my dad would choose to use when he'd had a few on those week-ends that he took us to Arrecife (that would be most week-ends for about nine months of the year) and drop us at that one ugly fishing village in the Caribbean, in between two power stations while he went out fishing in his little outboard engine boat. I enjoyed those days at the beach, at least to a large extent, left on my own with a child's snorkel mask and flippers to peer into the water at whatever little wild-life lived in that small artificial bay while my sister and my mum stayed near the water line. There was always the drone, the pink noise from one of the power stations and often a film of oil on the water. My dad would come back and disappear in the bar for a couple of hours more, come back even a little more drunk than before and then there usually would be a horrible argument between him and my mum or between him and us, we would get in the very hot car and he would drive off while remonstrating us because we didn't have any feelings, threatening to drive out of the road into the precipice. There was a part of the road where there was a weird sort of monument, a crashed car on a plinth, Supposedly you could see the wrecks of quite a few cars down the bottom of the ravine, I don't remember this and I think I never dared look. Once home, we would be looking forward to having to scale and gut all that fish, while being remonstrated some more about not having feelings. Poor dad, he was trapped in a life that'd gone wrong. Although it'd gone wrong way long before we appeared in the scene; he used to remind us often that he'd been 'taken away to fight a war at age sixteen', 'for seven years and three months' (I never could compute that last statement. If he was drafted on '39 and got back in '45. I hated fish. One of these days, though, I'll have to try his old recipe which I so hated: a couple of groupers on a baking tray, with cuts along the side in which he would put parsley (I hated parsley as a child) and garlic (I hated garlic) , put a few potatoes on the side, smother the whole thing in olive oil (I hated olive oil most of all). It sounds so yummy now and I so hated it then... Flashback of little me at dinner, gingerly picking into the fish. 'Eat the eyes, they're good for you'. Yuk. Poke into the eye sockets of the thing, even more gingerly. 'Eat it!' I poke a little harder, the white ball of the eye jumps out of the plate. I cannot possibly eat this. 'Eat it...'

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

an old letter

I can’t remember when I discovered that old, crumbling letter from many, many years before, perhaps a third of a century before or more, in which some family member was warning my granddad about the impending visit of somebody in the family that, according to the letter, ‘wasn’t wholly a man’ and who was to be helped to find his footing in Caracas. When I saw that all I felt was much pity for someone who I never knew but could imagine the situation of living in an extremely conservative, reactionary even, environment where being gay would have been just short of a death sentence and certainly would mean being a freak with everybody and anybody having the right to abuse you. My granddad, that old man with a felt hat, who walked with a slight limp, who had a mole on his nose that would eventually become a skin cancer, was one of those extremely conservative people that would probably have regarded a person like that as something unclean and unnatural and not wholly human; I am sure nonetheless that he tried to help. They were taciturn mountain people, my family on my mum’s side, very serious and a bit solemn people who didn’t speak much and seemed able to keep grudges for a lifetime.. My dad, an Italian, was mercurial and volatile, typical Italian perhaps -given to express disagreements very loudly and shaking the fist and voicing terrible threats that, now I know, he had no intention of ever carrying out. My granddad was almost the opposite. He didn’t utter threats but he was very capable of killing you of you offended him. On at least one occasion we had to jump on him to disarm him when he would come downstairs with a machete while my dad would rain insults and threats on him. As for the person referred to in the letter and what my granddad did about that -I seem to remember he was supposed to offer him lodging while in Caracas- I never knew the first thing; never learnt who it was, when all this happened or what my granddad did. Just one of many little puzzles about the environment in which I grew up. They came from La Grita, a place that by that time was a small town or a large village in the middle of the Venezuelan Andes near the border with Colombia. There ware all sorts of legends in the family about them but we don’t know anything about any of them before the generation immediately preceding my grandfather’s. I was told at some point that we had bumpkin cousins in that part of the world who at that point (the late nineteen-sixties) still possessed no shoes. My granddad and my mum would take us to visit some relatives who lived in parts of Caracas as modest as the one where we lived. We would all be sitting down very straight in living rooms, dressed in our Sunday best, sipping weak sweet coffee out of small china cups, they would be catching up on events back home and of the family. There were those mysterious places they mentioned, the ‘Páramo del Guamal’ or ‘Páramo de la Negra’ (a ‘páramo’ is a bleak kind of desert on top of a mountain). Slivers of stories of times of hardship, of old feuds unforgotten, of trivial everyday family things of a family far away in a setting of fog, majestic mountains, bad roads and deeply conservative outlooks.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

subjunctive

One day my dad announced I would be going to a secondary school run by Catholic priests.  I didn't know a thing about how those things were run or what any of it implied but for some reason I fought against this and eventually he relented and put me instead in a State secondary school, a 'liceo' as they're called over there.  I now wonder why I was so steadfastly opposed to something about which I knew nothing. Who knows. The school I ended up going to wasn't that much of a better choice for me, it was a large secondary with vastly oversubscribed classes of sometimes 50 or so -perhaps more, given that with a surname in the middle of the alphabet I was number 31 in the register one year.  I was vastly unhappy there, didn't make well at all the transition from a small school where you knew everybody to a large concern with perhaps fifteen hundred pupils or more. Of course you cannot ever know what life would have been like, had I gone to that Catholic school. No point in wondering. I would not be here and I would be such a different person with such a different life that their cones of light in the shift space of all the possible outcomes would not reach each other  at all. Sometimes, though, I have dreams in which I stayed in Caracas and ended up living in a low rise 'banco obrero' block of apartments  (like council flats here) in Casalta or thereabouts, with pots of plants in the hallway getting knocked over by the local vandals, eking out a life teaching music (perhaps) or, if I did manage to complete a career in something else other than music, enslaved to a civil service job, trying to survive the roller-coaster of booms and busts of the Venezuelan economy in the last thirty years,  living unhappily ever after. I may be applying subjective optimisation there (oh, new term filched from a psychology book) but I do believe that would have been worse. There are parts of me that I would so like to change, that fill me with frustration and don't know how to deal with, but overall thus far life here is better than it would have been, had I stayed in Vz and particularly if some of those crucial early choices had been different. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

early snapshots

Earliest memories: a bath, my mother pouring bucketfuls of ice cold water on me and on herself (buckets? why?). A pretty big leaf in the garden with white or yellow veins or spots -looked pretty and tasty, I had to eat that (some post memory of being ill and severely told not to eat the leaves in the garden. However, I don’t actually remember any of the latter, just the shiny leaf. How can I call the latter part a memory? Do I remember it, in any sense? Did I make it up long afterwards, or conflate it from separate early events? The refrigerated counter at a local shop, my mum being handed some Gerber toddler food. I liked the apple ‘compota’. Still do, if I think about it -I ‘remember’ the taste so clearly. Can you remember taste? A dark room, view of the fridge in the room outside, with the big 1940’s style radio set on it. Impossibly high. There is somebody else in the room. My sisters, I reckon (but again, this may be reconstruction ‘a posteriori’). Mix this with long lost photographs, recovered many many years later, in which a toddler-size flavio is playing in a tiny cemented inner patio or back yard, while father looks sternly over the scene. Odd that my father figures so little in my early memories, which are so full of my mother. Or perhaps it is natural, he would have been out working most of the day and, if later life gives the right pattern, hitting the local bars in the evening. The moon hanging above, my dad is carrying me over the open terrace to my room, I must have been asleep and wake up as he was carrying me. For some reason this memory is entangled with the vague memory (more an idea than a memory) of a parmesan cheese, of all things. It would have been difficult to get hold of real parmesan cheese, let alone a whole one, in Venezuela in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. No idea about the story behind it. I hated it, the smell and the taste. But I ‘know’ this, not ‘remember’ it in visual terms. What, then, is a memory?

Monday, March 18, 2013

A bright sunshine spring morning in London on a train. For some reason I get flashbacks of other spring mornings in the '80s waiting for trains in London, or the Isle of Wight, or in some suburb north of London where I used to live. Reading about the guitar world and reading about computers and how they would change our lives. And the instruction manual for Windows 2 or the 'Second Manual for the Atari ST', all those magazines and books promising to open the gates of the future in the comfort of your own home. We had moved from St James' Road, from Pete's brother's house, to that little house in Benskin Road. I had the front room, sunshine streaking down as I read about all the wonderful things you could get to do with a computer. You could even make music with it, fancy that. I could write that novel that had been buzzing around my head forever but never seemed to take shape. All the possibilities. I had more or less decided on an Atari ST rather than the other possibilities -the PCs of the time, the 'IBM compatible; PCs as they were still called, were primitive and expensive, Amigas had better graphics and lots of games but I wasn't going to play games, Ataris had MIDI ports built in so you could plug in an electronic music instrument. They also had a superb mono monitor which was 'better than the Apple Mac display'. And what I really wanted and couldn't afford was an Apple Mac, that was what my friend Oswaldo had back in Caracas and the first time I had thought that I could get to do stuff with a computer, you didn't have to type in arcane commands to get it to do things. So the Atari was second best choice. I never did write that novel, my machine music making efforts have been perhaps less than stellar, I never did learn to program properly and eventually decided also that that was not what I wanted a computer for anyway, but it was a good thing, I still think, that I learnt some basics (err....) about this and how the machine worked.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

ASCII Mona Lisa

My dad's desk was almost as untidy as my own is today. Perhaps more, in fact. One evening he came back clutching some piece of continuous sheet paper, the kind with perforations on the sides that would many, many years later be popular with users of dot matrix printers. He wanted to show me this thing -a print-out of the Mona Lisa done in what in much later times I would have called ASCII art, every trace of the drawing done with letters and punctuation signs. It's a glimpse into the future, he said. Soon we will have reached the moon, he said, and computers will help people realise amazing things, he said. I shrugged. So long ago, I don't know now whether I wasn't interested (this was not dinosaurs, or superman) or I just didn't get what he was going on about at the time. We ("we"?) did make it to the moon but never went back.p Computers are here, omnipresent in ways he couldn't possibly have imagined -but people use them mostly to gossip on facebook, to gawk at porn or play games. The future came and ... well, it was different. But then I suppose it had to be. There are always far more variables at play than we could possibly imagine.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

a brief farewell to superheroes

I gave away all those Mexican editions of DC comics when I was in second year secondary school. Hundreds upon hundreds of them, all weekly editions of Superman and Batman, the Wonder Woman (or, in her translated Spanish name, 'Marvila'), and the rest, bought every week for years and years from a succession of local newsagents, with money that I would have kept from shopping small change or pinched when I saw coins mislaid at home. I cannot fathom what exactly was going through my head at the time, why I gave all those comics away. Maybe I decided I was too old to read such childish literature, or perhaps the regular rants from my father about my reading tastes hit a nerve at some point. In any case, one day I turned up at school with a bag with sixty or so comics. There was a small mini riot and I ended up thrown down to the floor in the mêlée. I still did it again until I'd got rid of most of my collection.

At the same time I still drew my own comics, with the same characters from DC and Marvel, on every available piece of paper or margin that's could find. Can't recall now what the stories were, or what they were like and there is no documentary evidence extant. Vaguely remember incongruous, sketchy childish plots -but then I was a child, after all. A thief stealing the Eiffel tower, or an alien bent on destroying the world, that sort of thing, clearly taken from the original comics' stories. The real dangers of the world, away from super villains and alien invaders, I was blissfully unaware of.