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Sunday, November 30, 2008

the surf, again...

The purple, opaque water. Gentle waves, the purring of overboard boat engines in the distance, reverberating as you put the child-snorkel on and went under water. The waves of sand at the bottom, the few fish darting past, fleeting specs of silver. The view of the one ugly fishing village in the entire Caribbean, the iridiscent film of fuel-oil that often was in the water, its pungent smell. The hum of the power stations at each end of the place, which we couldn't hear until we went in the water, maybe only because we were used to it, spending every week-end in Arrecife, for nine months in the year.

I liked that bit, the gentle solitude of being there in the water, watching a very small tame world underneath carry its existence without caring for me but without bothering me either. I would mostly float, mesmerised in the contemplation of the few things that dwelt in that water, in that sand. I didn't like as much the moment to go home at the end of the afternoon, when my dad would come out of the bar after many, many beers and clap his hands, stumble to the car, look at me from over his shades -who knows what there was in that gaze, what he saw. Maybe enormous disappointment was all there was there. I wasn't him. I was certainly not the child he wanted. And yet I was as much he as I was my mother, no question about it. Nobody had swapped me at the hospital. But I was not the boy he would have wanted. He didn't have the wife he wanted either, my poor mum slowly shutting down her mind over years of suffering and decline.

The trip home was absolutely terrifying. Nearly always. Sometimes he would choose to go through the winding mountain road instead of the motorway, having drunk more than his share during the day while he played dominoes -yes, dominoes, that game which is a gentle thing for little old ladies here in Britain, turned as it had done in Venezuela into a macho game, with much shouting, slamming down the pieces against the table and aggressive display that made me think of apes in natural history movies.... oh, how I misunderstood the poor man. But then again, how he misunderstood me and reacted to and built me in ways that it took me many years to overcome.

There were a couple of occasions when he started threatening to drive off the road into the precipice, as he told us we weren't human and had no feelings and life was worthless. My mum would scream, my sister would whimper a bit, I would just sit there. I only ever spoke to him when spoken to. I lived in terror of him.

And yet he was just a man who had been dragged away as a child of sixteen to fight a meaningless war, after which he went back to his country to find it ruined and strange. So he went to Venezuela -where there wasn't a winter, or snow, and that was the reason he chose it- and married my mother, a couple in which each of them was possibly the most unsuitable person in the world for the other one. And as her mental and physical health declined towards an early senile dementia, he found himself more and more trapped -the same old story, the tale went wrong, very wrong and not at all as he had planned, marrying, having children that would be like him, only better. I don't know whether I was better or worse, but I most certainly was not like him...

We would arrive home and not shower, because the salt in the sea water was good for you and had to sleep itchy, scratchy , uncomfortable to get up at six in the morning the next day. It wasn't a bad life, I make it sound perhaps much worse than it felt like -for me, it was all normal up to a point -I knew far more dysfunctional families, but the frame of reference, the perfect families on television, did not resemble my family at all...

Saturday, November 29, 2008

for the birds

Most of my classmates at the Espelozin secondary school came back from summer holidays with stories of having been away for a length of time in the country, where they had relatives and where most of them seemed to originally come from. For me that was a strange idea. I don’t think I understood my own origin, peasant on both sides, Italian small-hold farmer on my father’s side and subsistence farming on my mother’s -although oddly you had to go a little further back, or sideways, in my mother’s line to find this -my grandad had been a truck driver, which itself is difficult to imagine, making a living driving a truck in what roads there could have been in the high Venezuelan Andes in the 1920’s.

Many of the kids came back with stories of how many birds they’d killed while out there in the country. I didn’t understand why they would want to do that -not that I was any less destructive, I suspect most children are, purely out of curiosity and instinct. There were campaigns in school trying to make them see how pernicious that activity was and how it was having an impact in wild life and the nature’s eco-systems of which the birds were part, although I don’t think they used the term, ‘ecosystem’ until I was in fifth year (that’s the last year of secondary, normally at 16-17). At the time I didn’t understand at all how we integrated in the world around us; I was beginning to have a sort of quasi-religious (although not really believing in God and yet being supremely superstitious) inner debate about why we were in the world and what purpose, if any, our existence could have. This was, however, completely divorced from issues like ecology or politics. I didn’t even know where most of the stuff we ate came from (apart from fish, whose origin I knew very well as my dad was a keen amateur fisherman) or the mechanisms by which it arrived on out plates. It probably would have been good for me at that age to do a newspaper round, for me to learn a little bit of how basic economy worked, but unfortunately there doesn’t (or didn’t, then) seem to be a custom of newspaper round delivery in Venezuela and my father would have probably not allowed me to -he was clearly trying to spare me from the privations he had had to endure as a child and it took me a very long time to make up for the missed experience on many things, because of this. Of good intentions, they say, the road to hell is paved...

So I would sit in an overcrowded class where the teacher was unsuccessfully trying to make herself heard here at the back -and where I could see nothing of what was happening on the blackboard, short-sighted and astigmatic as I am-, listening to my class mates’ stories of petty ecological vandalism and wondering what it all was about, what the attraction of it was. Not contemplating the evil in taking life just for fun or the damage to the environment, just wondering what the point was. And my eyes fixed in the princess of the class, in her white fluffy cardigan, who never noticed me or acknowledged me once after that initial walk home on the first year of school, but why should she. I was a clumsy, shy boy with a lot of interior life and not a lot of outwardly life, embarrassingly and incomprehensibly infatuated with this girl I practically didn’t know, who was sitting every day seven or eight desks away from me. I didn’t see that as time went past she developed insecurities and acne. like the rest of us; I always saw her as she was on that first day, fresh and beautiful like nobody I’d ever seen. I was away with the fairies imagining scenarios in which I would conquer that ice queen and make her fall in love with me, while scribbling nonsense in my notebooks, completely absent to what the teacher was saying and only vaguely aware of my classmates’ rude jokes and tales of summer vacation exploits.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Viernes Santo (Good Friday)

Good Friday. I go out shopping to Marks and Spencer, potter about doing things at home and remember how different it used to be when I was a kid, back in Catia, in the west of Caracas...

Back home, most shops would be closed; those that opened only did for half the day. there would be Viernes Santo (Good Friday) processions. My old house in Catia was half-way down a hill -well,ok, a gentle slope, anyway, with a church at the cusp of the hill, presiding over the old neighbourhood's long, slow decline into slumness. At sunset (I think; my memory is a bit flaky about these things), you would see the crowd leave the church, carrying candles and the images of Jesus Christ carrying the cross and the Virgin Mary and so on, (all lit with portable generators that would be trailing behind the statues -why do I find this small fact somewhat incongruous), they would approach as they sang in lament, 'Perdona a tu pueblo, seƱor...', 'forgive your people, my Lord...', to the tune of a Popule Meus composed by some guy in the early 19th Century which was blasted from loudspeakers from the church. I mostly rememberm the noise of the generators as the images went by and seeing the people carrying the candles in paper cups, thinking those would not be sufficient to prevent the wax from dripping on your fingers and burning you.... I think I very early on stopped believing, but was nonetheless very superstitious and found the whole thing at the same time moving, tacky and spooky, the slow pass of the crowd with the candles in front of my house, the blinking electric lights on the images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, followed by the rattling noise of the generators, the brushing noise of the shuffling feet of the crowd as they walked past when they weren't singing. The certainty of it all, the knowing that there was a purpose to existence and that you could placate the capricious entity that governed it by showing repentance and faith for those invisible beings that governed our life from afar, from above.

The procession would then turn the corner on Calle Internacional by the bakery, slowly disappear until they were all gone for another year, while I was left wondering what it all meant and why it seemed to me at the same time vaguely preposterous and utterly terrifying.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

not enough coffee..

Thursday; January 24, 2008 7:31 AM

It's still dark outside. I have brushed my teeth, drunk my coffee (espresso, two cups). I look back at waking up in the middle of the night choking, I thought I was going to die. Took a few seconds to clear my air passages and breath. It seems I was about to vomit in my sleep. I suppose I _could_ have died. It does look improbable but it is possible. The thin, thin ice of existence which we so carelessly career upon.

The news are full of reminders of just how thin that ice is. The presenters of the Today programme play at being cynical, at asking all the sharp questions. Politicians play at being important and dodging all the answers, while the presenters still acquiesce at playing that the politicians are important. News of a Hollywood actor dead at 28 and the ripples, the strange outpour of grief and its counterpart, the sick bad jokes on the forums, on livejournal; so many people die every day who should not, every single one of them the loss of the unique way in which the forces the Universe met in that way, that one time only and never again, to paraphrase Hesse. Maybe the Princess Diana syndrome is just a way for people to concentrate their grief at our own fragility and transience. Or maybe it is just a media manipulation. Who knows. Probably a bit of both.

Outside it is getting lighter, that grey-blue light of dawn. I must go out, do my lesson. While I'm in the world, there's plenty to do, plenty plenty to do.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


A ghost was at the window. The contours of the face seemed to shimmer and fade as you tried to focus on them. I made myself very still in the bed, closed my eyes very tight and cautiously opened them again. I could still see the figure of my by then long dead grandmother at the window, looking in -but it was odd, she was.. diffused, had the sepia tone of an old photograph, seemed to be half-vanishing and looked at me with infinite sadness. She slowly started to fade. I closed my eyes tight once again.. when I opened them she wasn't there any longer. I tried to convince myself that I had been asleep and had dreamt the whole thing but I knew this wasn't so.

In the morning i had forgotten all about the nightly apparition. I had a hearty breakfast of three or four arepas with ham and cheese, milky coffee, a Dumbo Cola (I much preferred Grapette cola which was not as sweet and was .. less red.. but you couldn't find that there where we were in Duaca, Estado Lara, three hundred and fifty km from home...) I had of course no idea what the name of the soft drink meant and probably neither did the manufacturers of the beverage, the only connection being the name of the flying elephant in Disney films that I hadn't seen -but knew existed. After breakfast, I would head for the garden and lie on the hammock to read comic books, with the yellow sun rays breaking through the leaves of the two trees and making the perennial dust in the air dance and shimmer. I didn't seem much to care what the others did. Then I saw -or thought I saw- somebody briefly appear out of one of the rooms at the side of the house which we never went to.. in the broken sunlight under the trees in the garden, I thought I'd seen someone appear on the doorstep of the room and quickly disappear in again. Almost translucent, you could see the brown wall, its rough texture finish and the decrepit wooden door half open... there was no-one in there and yet. I would not have gone into the soft darkness of that room to check and find out for anything in the world...