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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.