on February 23, 2012
The time between my blog entries is growing. Some of the blame lies in the earlier entry when I reported falling into a pattern. Patterns are useful. They generate rhythm and predictability that eases one into the lives of others. I, for example, am a regular at the library now, exchanging looks with the other regular patrons. The thin scrape of chairs, the nod from the youth at university who takes several cigarette breaks, picks at his nose, answers emails and text messages while his page remains open to the same 6-transmembrane domain G-protein coupled receptor that I saw when I first entered. Except every afternoon as I leave, I notice a few more sentences have been highlighted. Perhaps by the time I leave the island, the whole page will be glowing neon yellow. Then there is the old gent who has an easel propped on his desk upon which he lays editions of the local newspaper “Acoriano Oriental” and studies them. I have looked at copies of this journal from 1968 when it used to be four pages long, printed a poem in every edition and carried among recipes and news, a regular column from an expat in California, but my old friend is looking through newer editions, probably only a few years old. It’s a library, so we see each other but don’t talk. Around noon, most of them scatter for lunch. The uni student leaves his bags and papers for me to inspect when he goes for his break. The afternoon crowd is more mixed. A mother drops her daughter in the table in front of me around noon. A gaggle of high schoolers bring the levity of youth to the reading room. And through all this, I try to write. To be sure I am not much better than the student studying membrane channels. For in the past three weeks I have managed to write only twenty pages worth of prose, though I count as work reading War and Peace, The Idiot and am now into A pair of Blue Eyes. But blogs are hardly made up of lists of what someone else is reading. At least not an interesting one, and this I hope explains the absence of a post till now.
I am not one for late nights. But patterns are made to be broken and having fallen into one on the islands, I decided to spring out of it by inviting my landlady and her husband to dinner last Tuesday. My landlady is sweet if eccentric. The universe communes with her, and some Indians in Central America, on meeting her, apparently told her that she was an ancient soul of their tribe. Such experiences energize her. The islands bore her because she has become too familiar with them. As she told me over dinner, “I know everyone. The man who stands in the doorway of the shop three doors down till his hair reaches just here (and she gestures to her ear) then the next day I know he’ll still be standing with a haircut. I can tell you how he’s going to look ten years from now.”
She brings with her, a friend named Joao, who has spent six years in India studying Yoga in Mysore. She thinks he will be interesting for a dinner with a writer. And he is, though he is about to leave for Syria to ask the father of his Arab girlfriend if they can marry. I like him because he is ready to recite the Shahada and become a Muslim for his wife. His plans to continue on to Yemen disturbs even me, who likes traveling the world. And I like the feeling of being surprised. The evening passes off well and Joao, my landlady’s husband, and I get into a spirited argument about whether mankind has progressed in the last three million years or if we are still the same beast. Nothing new is said. We cycle through the old European arguments, throw in some Yogic philosophy, and take a detour on the question of happiness. Wine is drunk, cigarettes smoked.
But Joao gives me his number and takes mine. On friday, he rings me up. Since he is leaving, a few friends are gathering for a dinner. Would I like to join. He wants to introduce me to people who live on the island so that I can get to know them better. I say yes, though the dinner is late for my taste, starting only at 10 pm. Joao being a vegetarian, we meet at Rotas de Ilha Verde, the only veggie/vegan place on all the islands. There I get to know Francesco, who owns an apartment building in town and has a farm on the north coast, and Alfredo, an engineer whose German is entirely composed of barks and sounds learned from watching actors play Nazis on television and film. Francesco speaks German well enough, having worked for ABB in Switzerland, and when we begin to talk amongst ourselves, it takes me a couple of minutes to realize that Alfredo has been speaking gibberish the entire time. The accent and tone are perfect, there is almost an appearance of syntax in his phrases, and the sing song manner of his talk and actions made me think first that he was speaking Swiss German, then that he must have a strong Portuguese accent. But the twinkle in his eyes as he waits for my response (which is a half-open mouth and a mind at a complete loss) gives him away. He’s at the dinner with his wife Sofia and their three-year-old daughter Mariana with whom we play games, and who scurries under the table to tug at our pant legs. Dinner lasts for several hours and it is almost one in the morning when Alfredo hoists his daughter on his shoulders, and the family goes home. American parents will probably throw up their hands at such parenting, but I am all in favor of Alfredo’s and Sofia’s style of living life with child not living life for child.
But Francesco is not done. He wants to get a drink, so we walk downhill to the bars dotting my street. The first one is too crowded for Joao, and we end up at a fancy Swedish-owned restaurant for a single round of drinks that costs me 11 euros. We discuss agriculture. Surprisingly, Francesco is for the way we Canadians only label organic food and not GM food. Joao and I join forces to try to convince him that given pollination and dispersal, organic crops are getting increasingly contaminated, but Francesco is the sort of man who loves to hold court and disburse his opinion (Sofia leaned across the dinner table and warned me of this after we attempted six times to have a conversation that Francesco interrupted so he might have his audience). It’s almost two by the time we leave, and Joao begs off so that he can still wake up and practice yoga at a decent hour. I would like to leave with him, but I tell myself that I must be open to new experiences. Francesco wants to go on and I agree.
We continue to a small cafe with several outside tables. Here Francesco offers me pot or a line of coke. Now I am not so pleased to be with him. I decline and we sit down to beers. I am boring him, and when Antonio joins our table, Francesco decamps. Antonio is in his forties, a heavyset man with several days growth on his face. He scrutinizes me carefully and asks, “What are you doing here?” There is something offensive about his tone. I try to be polite and tell him about my project. He listens and interrupts. “You are a writer? I tell you what. I have a book.” This is not unusual. Everyone has a book they want to talk about. “You pay for my drink,” Antonio tells me. I am ready to leave, but one cannot always be safe and learn something new. I beckon the waitress, knowing that he thinks I am a schlump. “I have a house in Rabo de Peixe,” he tells me referring to the poorest village in Europe and the most backward on the island. “What say you? For one week you come live with me. No money, I pay for everything. I feed you, house you and I will tell you my story. You write. Just write what I tell you. It will be amazing book. I no ask for nothing. Just write it for me. Then you can sell it if you like.” This too is not unusual. I smile and shake my head. “That’s not how it works.” He leans away in his chair and considers me for a moment, then waves his hands desultorily. “You no writer.”
A slim old woman with a long face and plastic rimmed glasses joins us. Antonio greets her and introduces her to me. Her name is Monica. She’s about sixty. Antonio tells her in Portuguese about me, and I can see from his face and hand movements that he’s declaring me a phony. Then he falls silent in his chair, like a puppet with relaxed strings. Monica smiles at me. She’s from Hamburg and has lived on the islands for 12 years. We begin to talk in German. She tells me how she came to Flores, opened a hotel with her then boyfriend. They operated it for seven years before the two fell apart. Then she managed to get ownership of the hotel and stayed longer before coming to Ponta Delgada. The waitress comes out to announce last call and we get another round. One for Antonio too. She closes the door to the cafe but the lights stay on, no one leaves. Monica and I keep talking. Antonio is from Corvo, the smallest island in the Azores, right next to Flores. He’s a child at heart, she tells me, and I believe her. There was the pique of childhood hurt when I refused to write his story under his conditions. I did think about it, wondering if I was ready to go so far as to put myself under the power of a man, who had such ideas for how his story should be told. But I am not ready to jump that far. It’s three am. A light rain begins to fall. The discotheque next door is still taking in people. They are mostly young, teenagers in high school or university. In the street behind us, two beer bottles crash against the cobblestones near a group of girls walking away. Words are exchanged.
A young boy maybe twelve years old wanders past our table, his brother even younger, scarcely eight or so, follows him. I look at my watch. Monica follows my movements. I am not pleased with children being out this late on their own. “Probably the father is in America,” she tells me. “The mother asleep. There’s a lot of drugs on the island.” She’s sick of Ponta Delgada. In Flores, she has fond memories of the whole village coming to her restaurant for dinner, dancing in the square and listening to Andrea Bocelli together. “There they are more curious about the world,” she tells me. “Here they could care less. In two years, that boy will be selling himself for a cigarette, then a beer before some man gives him a line of coke.” The bitterness in her voice is clear. She smokes cigarette after cigarette as she talks. I’ve switched to water but she’s still drinking. Antonio gets up from his chair and wanders off, making rude noises about our speaking German. I tell Monica about my project, and she invites me to her restaurant in the harbor. It’s a a meat and fish place, nothing for me to eat, she tells me, but perhaps I can come for a drink. We begin to talk about writers, and I realize that I am very tired. For when I try to tell her about Wolf Biermann, his name escapes me. He’s one of my favorite writers, and one whom I met and adored at BU last fall on the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Monica surprises me by naming him to my description. She’s met him, she tells me. Had breakfast with Willy Brandt in the sixties. I am awestruck. At three in the morning, in a small nondescript cafe in Ponta Delgada, an old woman who has made her life on the islands tells me that she was once a party worker for the SPD and close to Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and used to call Biermann “Wolfie”.
But how much of what she said is true and how much was the beer talking? She tells me the story of when she was still in Flores, a German national. The mayor was to be reelected and he came to her for a vote. She told him she could not vote in municipal elections as she was not a Portuguese citizen. “Vote for me,” he told her. “You live on the island, you are a citizen.” “I won’t.” “What will it take?” “My restaurant needs a new oven. You get me an oven and I’ll vote.” Monica got the oven. So politics is troubled the world over, and she’s a gritty woman, no doubt. I too have played my bit of the naive young writer that night. But it’s hard to reconcile the machinating restaurant owner with the bright-eyed SPD functionary she claims to be. What drove a woman to sell everything and cut all ties in Germany to make her home in an island of 800 people? People who flock to obscurity don’t always have tales they want to tell strangers. And as I finally walk home that morning (4 am and 8 euros later for the whole tab at the cafe), I wonder if the stories they want to tell me are smoke and mirrors to distract me from their real lives? I know this because even as I read over this blog entry, I can see that what I write is just a small fraction of what happens to me on the islands. And out of the context of the remainder, this blog narrative becomes a fiction. I am no more special the the man next door. So s/he too creates and shapes fictions out of experiences. The nature of storytelling demands that one dimension be plucked out and another suppressed. We all do it every day of our lives, and with successive retellings, a story can become a memory. Fiction takes the place of fact in our minds and our hearts. Memories can be learned and unlearned as the uni student in the library would tell you, if he ever finishes his book on neurobiology.