This page is like a notebook, the place where I tuck in random pieces of writing that don’t seem to belong in the blog.
FACING BULLIES, HERE AND THERE.
(This is a true story. It happened in November 1997, the very first time I went to Haiti with a group of volunteers. Recently, the Huffington Post published a blog (here) by a Dutch writer describing his horrendous experience when trying to cross the border from Canada to the US. It caused quite an uproar and reminded me of my own more modest problems with the US immigration, years back. This was before 9/11, and I wrote this essay sometime in 2002.)
I rush past the passengers, heading briskly for the immigration line, and follow the circuit snaking toward the row of official booths until I fall behind two large-hipped ladies wearing elaborate hats. At the end of the hall, a door opens onto JFK’s infamous Room A. Instantly, as if triggered by some Pavlovian reaction, my right hand becomes clammy around my passport.
I’m a French citizen temporarily living in New York City on a tourist visa, and the journey through U.S. immigration has turned into my worst nightmare. I never broke the law, nor did I overstay my welcome in the land of Uncle Sam. Ever. But one careless oversight by some bored immigration officer at the Canadian border at a time I knew nothing nor worried about immigration, and a red flag now flashes ominously on my file in the US immigration computer maze.
The line inches forward, and I study the officials’ faces in the booths, searching their features for traces of softness, trying to determine the most sympathetic officer, someone who’d prove less rigid than his or her colleagues. Futile exercise, of course. They all do their job the way they’ve been trained to; any file bearing a red flag must be sent in for further investigation.
The two ladies in front of me chat animatedly in Creole, and the cadence of their speech lurches me back to sun-drenched Haiti.
I just spent three weeks in the first black independent republic in the world, and my ears still ring from the noise and chaos of the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Twenty-one days that had me whisking and spinning like a whirligig.
I wear old cargo pants, a faded T-shirt, and my trusted Converse shoes: same as on the way there. Only my orange bandana is missing. I look the same as when I took off from New York, three weeks back – only slightly tanned. But I’m not the same person.
Not that I already know it…
Images flash through my mind: the tap-tap ride from Cap-Haïtien to the village of Moustique, everyone piling on top of each other, the good-humored conversations bouncing back and forth; the afternoon on a black sand beach in Jacmel; the smile of Lovely, the little girl at the orphanage where I volunteered some time, the feel of her small, dry hand in mine; the walks through the busy market in Pétionville, merchants selling limes and mangoes arranged in careful piles on the sidewalk…
I adored Haiti. I loved its people, felt humbled by their pride and dignity, by their spirit, gaiety, and resilience in the face of poverty and violence. The taste of Lambi served with clove-scented rice and beans still sings in my mouth. If I close my eyes, I hear the rhythms of Compa, and feel my hips swaying.
Yes, I loved Haiti.
And yet, I could have died there.
The line moves. I lift my backpack off the floor, take a few steps forward, and return to Haiti…
I cross the busy avenue in Delmas, and walk down the dusty alley leading to the guesthouse, leaving the bustle of traffic behind me. It’s dark and quiet, here. Another black-out.
I don’t mind. Finally, I completed my work. Too bad if it means ignoring my friends’ advice not to walk the streets of the city alone after dark. I just spent the afternoon by the pool of one of the luxurious hotels in town, my laptop fed by their generator-powered electricity, and as the sun set, I decided to finish translating the last pages of the novel already due on my editor’s desk. I didn’t want to have to come back. I feel so much lighter now. Tomorrow, I’ll go to the Fedex office and send the disk off to France.
Suddenly, a motorcycle roars and stops next to me. The young man seating behind jumps off, and with one hand, tries to grab my laptop bag while the other shoves a large, silver gun in my face.
My fingers lock instinctively around the handle of my bag even as I’m trying to make sense of what is happening.
He’s pointing a GUN at me. But I cannot let go. My translation is in there. I cannot let go.
Suddenly, I hear my father’s voice: “I can never understand people who die to protect their possessions. If I’m mugged, I’ll give everything they want. My life is worth much more than a watch.”
My assailant keeps tugging at the laptop bag. His friend, seeing how I desperately hang on to it, shouts: “tire, tire!”
The mouth of the gun looms so close to my face I almost squint. SHOOT? The word crashes wildly with the thoughts bouncing around in my mind.
Give them the bag!
But I’ll lose two month’s worth of work! Probably even my job!
That prospect unlocks a rush of words stuck in my throat. “Are you out of your mind?” I scream at them, in French.
I still hang onto the computer with a deathly grip, unable to let go, when suddenly the guy swings his leg over the motorcycle seat, the engine roars again, and they disappear into the night. Just like that. How long did it all last? A few seconds? One, two minutes?
I shake so violently I’m not sure my legs can support me. My heart bounds all over my chest as if searching a way out of my body. My mind is in total chaos. Somehow, I do reach the guesthouse and bang loudly on the iron door to be let in…
Back at JFK, a suited officer points out a booth. Three people stand in front of me, careful not to step on the white line painted on the floor. The immigration officer is a woman, not that it makes a difference. The familiar wave of anxiety washes over me, and I breathe in deeply: why the worry? I’m guilty of nothing. Besides, didn’t I just survive not one, but two encounters with shiny cold looking guns?
Yes, two – as in life is way crazier than fiction. Because it happened again, six days later…!
This time, I’m in my room at the guesthouse, sleeping the deep slumber of someone who’s spent a long day in the heat, dust, and noise of Port-au-Prince, when a glaring light tears me awake. The bunk bed above me is empty except for the few items I scattered there: mini-recorder, batteries, a few hundred Haitian Gourdes, and my favorite orange bandana bought in Mexico. I left my door open for the breeze to circulate. The heat is horrendous, and there is no air-conditioning: electricity at the guest-house is sun-powered, and works only two hours a day. No showers either; we bath with cold water scooped in small buckets. After two weeks, the guesthouse feels like home, anyway, the members of the household like family.
I barely distinguish a face half hidden by a bandana beyond the glare of the flashlight. And still, I don’t understand.
“Get up,” says a male voice.
Only then, do I notice the gun pointed at me. Again? I think, incredulously.
“Where is John’s room?” asks the man with a thick Haitian accent. “Quick! We no joke. We Jamaican.”
Being Jamaican is obviously meant to be threatening. So why don’t I feel threatened? My mind seems to simply reject the notion that this is happening again, a mere few days after the first aggression. Or maybe it’s the ludicrous Jamaican cover: I don’t take this guy seriously. He’s fake. He doesn’t scare me.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, sitting up.
“Where is John’s room?” he asks again.
John is the guesthouse owner. An American. Jamaica man hopes to find money in his quarters, no doubt.
I look above the flashlight blinding me, and make out the silhouette of the missionary lady staying in the room next to mine. She’s standing very erect, arms down, hands crossed in front of her. Another guy with a bandana on his face stands next to her, holding another gun.
“I don’t know,” I say, shrugging. “I’ve never been to his room.”
“Yes, you know. We kill you. We Jamaicans. Where is John’s room?”
We carry this senseless conversation for a few minutes while he checks the bunk bed above my head. I have no intention of telling them where to find John. This is never a dilemma. I’m not saying, period. I see him grab my mini-recorder and push it into his jeans’ pocket. Asshole! I bought it for this trip. He takes the money as well. And my favorite bandana! I’m furious; still not scared; just seething mad.
“Get up,” he orders. His friend hasn’t uttered one sound. He probably doesn’t speak any English at all.
Suddenly, a furious bark resonates throughout the guesthouse. The dog! Where the hell was he all this time? The two men exchange panicked looks and bolt out of the room. Shouting bounces off the walls of the hall, followed by the sounds of fighting. I scramble out of bed, just as something clatters on the tiled floor outside – a gun? Heavy steps, running…, then nothing. Total silence.
We wait a few seconds and take a peek outside the room into the hall. Empty. Young voices shout again, in Creole: “su toi la!” Our robbers have run up to the roof, apparently.
I rush to the stairs leading down to John’s room just as he comes out, sleepy-eyed and barefoot.
“Two guys were inside with guns,” I shout bending over the banister. “They were looking for you.”
John barrels to the neighbor’s house to use their phone. But it’s too late. The “Jamaican” gang escaped via the open rooftop of the guesthouse.
Everyone afterward said that while these thieves were amateurs trying to pass for dangerous Jamaican gangsters, something could have gone wrong – one bullet was found on the floor in the hall. Maybe. I never felt I faced any great danger. In retrospect, that second episode remains comic and infuriating, more than anything else.
It is my turn to walk to the immigration officer. She swipes my passport in the machine and looks at her computer screen. After a few seconds, she slides my passport inside an empty file, and I sigh, knowing what’s coming: “Go to that room, over there,” she says.
I walk dejectedly to the large room flooded with artificial lighting and hand the file to one of the three immigration officers sitting behind an elevated counter. As I take a seat, I count eight other people facing the same predicament. It is 2.40 PM on the wall clock. I wonder how long it will take this time, and decide to return to my adventures in Haiti.
The police showed up at the guesthouse, hours later, but what could they do? Law doesn’t rule, in Haiti. Lawlessness does. All of a sudden, the contrast between the situation of the Haitian people and mine strikes me in a new way. Today, I flew out of the island, leaving the noise and dust and violence behind me. I may be held by U.S. immigration at this moment, but I have options, maybe more than I ever realized until now. Most Haitians have no choice but to continue surviving any which way they can.
I look around the room at the people filling the plastic chairs, people from all countries and races, all trying not to let their faces betray their anxiety. Behind the counter, one officer opens my file. He slowly turns the pages of my passport, and types something on his keyboard. He reads something on his screen and calls my name. I walk to the counter.
“What is the purpose of your visit?” he asks, his eyes on the computer screen. I hate that, hate how they feel they can ask me any question without having to make eye contact with me.
“I’m back from Haiti, and here to resume my research for a book I’m writing. I never overstayed,” I continue, repeating the tune I sing every time I go through this. “The officer at the Canadian border did not take my visitor’s card when I crossed the border, in 1994, so the US immigration didn’t know I had left the country. The stamps show that I entered the US again several weeks later, though, after I toured Quebec.”
“Why do you spend so much time in the US?” comes the second question – always the same.
I swallow a sigh: “I’m a translator and a writer. I am doing research and support myself with my translating work. I can pretty much work anywhere I want.”
The guy arches his eyebrows and looks at me this time. “Really? Well, we’ll see about that, won’t we? Take a seat.”
Wrong choice of words, I think to myself, as a line of sweat snakes down my back. When the guy calls me again, a few minutes later, he hands me my passport. “I’m giving you two weeks. Then you’re out.”
My heart stops beating and I stare at him, in shock. Two weeks? That’s impossible. I have plans, and my plans just don’t include leaving the US in two weeks. I cannot leave in two weeks. I remain frozen, passport in hand.
The officer has already dismissed me. He’s looking at someone else’s file. What do I do? Can I even do anything?
“Sure you can!” thunders a voice deep within me.
I take a deep breath. I stand taller. Words come out of my mouth, and even as I hear these words I cannot believe I spoke them. Neither can the officer, obviously. He looks at me, this time, and laughs incredulously. “You want to see my supervisor?”
“Yes, please,” I answer, heart roaring in my ears.
What happened to me? These guys terrify me. I’m astonished at my nerve, but I also feel… exhilarated. I can do this! Why allow them to bully me all the time? I did nothing wrong. They’re just doing their work, are they? I’ll just defend my case.
The officer walks away. After a while, a man wearing civilian clothes walks up to me.
“You asked to see me?”
I explain to him, politely, that I don’t see why I should only be allowed to stay two weeks when my passport carries a visa granted by the American Consulate allowing me to stay for six months at a time. I work as a translator for a French publishing company and am in no way trying to get work in the US. The supervisor listens to me while turning the pages of my passport, and finally, nods and asks his officer to give me six months.
The immigration officer complies, and returns my passport with a dirty look.
I have never felt so powerful in my entire life.
I can stand up to anyone.
I faced gun-toting muggers and didn’t relinquish my laptop; I was threatened by fake Jamaicans and didn’t give them the information they wanted. I don’t have to take any shit from anyone, not even US immigration officers, whether they’re just doing their job or not. My own job is to live my life, and for the time being, my life is in the US.
I practically dance out of the room. Even the lighting doesn’t seem so garish anymore. I smile all the way through customs and coming out of the airport, I look around at the lines of yellow cabs. I’m back in New York City, and I feel like shouting to the world: “I’m strong!”
FRIENDS OF 34 YEARS, AND COUNTING…
(I wrote this after this blog (here) where I committed to being a little more careful and present for my friends, something not so easily done in our displaced life. Maybe turning 50 is making me go all sentimental. Unless it’s the opposite: as I somewhat sense and better understand the flimsy and fickle nature of things, in life, I better realize how important it is to let people who really matter know how they’re appreciated.)
After I heard about my friend’s mother passing, I spent the night turning and tossing, unable to sleep. This is how I process most things: I brood, usually writing imaginary letters to the people occupying my thoughts, or drafting posts for my blog, some of which I end up publishing, a lot never to escape the draft box or even my scattered brain. That night, I ambled down Memory Lane all the way to the late 1970s and the time I first met my friend and her family. I’ll call her Celia, which was the “nom de scène” she’d chosen for herself when we were in high school. Four of us had made up American sounding “noms d’artiste.” To our French ears, they were so much more glamorous than our real, boring ones (even if Katia is not exactly your usual Gallic name).
The year I turned sixteen, my father received news of his posting to another city during the summer holidays. He made last minute arrangements to have my sister and I enrolled in a private boarding school in Nantes, and left my mother and my young brother in Paris. This allowed him to take over his new post while searching for a house, a school for my brother, organizing the move, etc. We heard the news upon our return from summer camp at the end of August. Bam! From one day to the other, I went from being an average teenager who each day walked nine minutes to her public, heavily Jewish (it was one of the rare schools in Paris to offer Hebrew as a language) co-educational high school, to this slightly shell-shocked, displaced Parisian dropped into a girls-only Roman Catholic private school catering mainly to the bourgeoisie and old nobility of Brittany, a region known for its royalist sympathies (the city of Nantes itself having prospered as the slave trade capital of France). These people were so different from my world, they might as well have come from another planet.
Which is precisely the way they felt about me. I’ll never forget the day the nun in charge of our class explained to me, a kind and patient look on her chubby, bespectacled face, that my black pants were just a little bit too tight, and so, I would need to replace them with something more appropriate. Or another day when she asked me to move to the first row, in class, away from the only girl who’d shown me some kindness, because she thought I was helping her with her Spanish test (which wasn’t even true). It was the straw that broke the camel’s back: I flatly refused. The silence in the classroom was as spectacular as the color that blossomed on the Sister’s face. No one had ever dared speak to her in such manner, she gasped.
At recess, a girl I had barely exchanged a few words with walked up to me, her very long hair cutting a black silky path down the back of her blue smock, and berated me for disrespecting the Sister. Did I think that being a Parisian gave me the right to be insolent?
I was dumbfounded. And I couldn’t even run to my room to have a good cry: having been accepted at the very last minute, my sister and I had been given the only two beds left in the school, in the infirmary, and we were not allowed to enter it during the day.
A week or so later, I was practicing my piano after class when the door opened suddenly. The same girl stood there, glaring at me. “You’re the one playing this Chopin piece?” she asked, sounding accusatory and astonished at the same time. I shrugged. I was alone in the room. Did she think a little genie hid inside the upright piano? “You play well,” she added and left, banging the door shut. I didn’t know it, but I’d just made a friend.
Celia later explained to me, laughing, that her harsh words had been motivated by the fear that I would replace her as the official troublemaker in the class. She had always attended that school (as had her three sisters and her mother before her) and getting the nuns all riled-up was her undisputed prerogative; she’d had no intention of sharing it with anyone else, and certainly not a Parisian. But if I could play Chopin so well, well, maybe I deserved a second chance. We still laugh about that.
Piano and a knack for impertinence were not the only things we had in common. We shared a passion for reading, theater, and cinema, and spent hours commenting on movies, storylines, plays, and novels we watched and read at the same time, when not together, and of course, fantasizing about actors. I introduced her to opera, and she introduced me to the visual arts and, years later, white river rafting.
It wasn’t long before I met Celia’s family. Her father was a surgeon who, in his spare time, created beautiful, abstract, and often tormented paintings. He also grew bonsais and has actually become a bit of a celebrity in that domain. Her mother was a tempestuous character straight out of a Tennessee Willams play, a chain smoker with a raspy laugh who only drove BMWs and drank a lot of whiskey. She was a voracious reader and an aspiring playwright. They had traveled to exotic places like Malaysia, Ceylan and Morocco, and lived in a low concrete bunker-style house with a huge garden dotted with modern art statues. I found them awesome, the epitome of sophistication.
Over the years, my friend and I shared many things : clothes, rooms and apartments and the only bed in them, sometimes for months at a time, like when I crashed into her eight-square meter “chambre de bonne” in Paris, with the toilet on the landing. We even shared a couple ofboyfriendss. We discovered Japanese food together, and she rolled her eyes when I almost spat out a piece of pickled ginger, the tangy taste too strong for my taste buds – I have since grown to absolutely adore pickled ginger, by the way.
Celia is one of the most genuine persons I know. Generous to a fault, she lives in a world where contemporary art and river sports have found a way to coexist. She is an Art Historian, able to lift a huge man out of a raging river with one hand while steering the raft he fell from with the other (I’ve seen it with my own eyes). While traveling in Australia, she climbed Ayers Rock, and hid from the guards at the end of the day so she could sleep there and see the sunrise the following morning. All alone.
Sharing her time between the museum that employs her and the mountains she loves so much that she painted them on the walls of her room in the last apartment she occupied in Paris, she was also drawn to all things spiritual long before I was ready to. I can still see us sitting in the metro in Paris, late at night, talking about Castaneda, or exchanging comments after seeing Peter Brook’s Mahabharata at the movies. Not even in our wilder dreams could we have imagined that I’d end up spending six years of my life in India. The day we were waiting for our Baccalaureat (the final High School graduation exams) results, we decided to go and see the movie Airport. I knew I would laugh myself silly and forget my anxiety over passing the exam or not, and she knew she would laugh as much from watching the movie as from seeing me cry of laughter. And to this day, she reminds me that coming out of the movies, I would always drag her down the rue Crebillon so we could look at shoes in shops’ windows.
She lives in a little house in the mountains outside of her city, proud of the fact that they never lock their front door. She is a true free spirit, the way I could never totally be, and I admire her for that. I’m not brave enough, a little too materialistic. I like beautiful things that only money can buy a little too much. But in spite of our very different life styles, we have remained close friends ever since that fall of 1979, and I’m so very grateful for that.