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I am a 60 something Californian, former world traveler of the back packing variety, a Buddhist, a writer, photographer, and teacher.

Monday, August 19, 2013

from The Overlander Project: Two Monks and a Lady

            I had been gone from home almost a year in 1973 before I met a robed Buddhist monk. It is likely a good thing that the second encounter came less than a month later, or I probably would have been turned aside from the spiritual path that has come to mean so much to me in this life, for two such opposite men could hardly be imagined. Nor could I have predicted the unique woman who brought me into contact with them both. 

I met the first monk when I was traveling on a train in Thailand, wending my way northward towards Bangkok with this woman, a friend I had just encountered for the second time on the “traveler’s road, the route across Asia from Australia to Europe that thousands of western backpackers traversed in the seventies and eighties.  She was a merry girl of 22 or so named Patsy, a plump blonde nurse from Australia “on walkabout” from her job in Perth with the odd and single-minded goal of deflowering as many Asian men as opportunity allowed.  I first encountered Patsy traveling deck class on a freighter from Denpasar to Singapore, enduring together plates of rice and fish heads, crowds of Indonesians and Malays, daily thunderstorms, and the blast of Muslim prayers on the loud speaker above our heads at 5am each morning.

I had been feeling quite lost on the day I first met her.  I was newly broken up with an American boyfriend who had been my traveling companion across Australia and Indonesia for four months, and I was feeling very much alone and unsure of myself as I passed over my ticket and mounted the gangplank into the rough and alien surroundings on the freighter. There seemed nowhere to sit that wasn’t already occupied with Indonesian families on blankets, the frontiers of their territories stapled down with boxes of live chickens, reeking pyramids of durian fruit, crawling children and piles of other belongings.  And then in the confusion, there was Patsy, beckoning. She sat in a protected outdoor corner on her blanket in the midst of her parcels and radiated welcome like human sunshine, throwing back her bright head to laugh with sheer delight at meeting me. She did this, I soon learned with any new person who happened by, offering those who sat with her a piece of ripe papaya or a spoon full of the precious peanut butter she had brought all the way from Perth. She also offered flashes of hirsute privates to stunned passersby as she shifted position in her short summer dress, for she routinely dispensed with such niceties as underwear. When, after an hour getting to know each other, I delicately pointed out this social gaff, thinking she must be unaware of it, she laughed some more. In fact, she said, she found it fun to watch the reaction. 

At first, I was taken aback by this, since I have always lived by a more conservative code, most especially while traveling. But the more we talked, the more I came to appreciate this singular woman. I had never met anyone so casually good-humored about sex. As she explained her happy goal of deflowering Asia’s young manhood, neither propriety nor the potential for male aggression seemed to concern her a jot. Nor did any worry of heavenly wrath cross her smooth tan brow. She was as blonde and generously voluptuous as a character in a Felini movie. She loved sex. She loved men. And she was on holiday. What was more natural than to combine all she loved in this cheerful project? The gratitude of the young men deflowered so far had made her feel she was doing something useful with her life. And indeed, as I ran into her in other places, she seemed to be carrying out her program enthusiastically – and always with the greatest affection towards one dizzy young man at a time. When it was time to leave, she said good-bye with tenderness, and I am sure changed many a fellow for life with her ardent “yes!” to what is so often a “no” in Asian cultures, especially Muslim ones.  It was a good thing, in fact, that she was a traveler, and never long in one place. Her devotees would surely have lined up round the block if she had stayed more than those few days.

Patsy on the freighter from Denpassar
She was kind to women too, kind to me. She went out of her way to cheer me (still smarting from my recent breakup, even though it had been my own doing). She made me laugh with funny stories. She guided me into the cavernous bowels of the freighter, where several hundred higher paying passengers had laid out their blanket worlds under shelter, to a hidden corner where a cheerful muslim in a turban served kopi susu, wonderful rich coffee layered with condensed milk in artistic lines of white and dark. She lent me all the strength of sisterhood; in fact, her helpfulness later in my journey may have saved my life. But I am getting ahead again in this already chronologically challenged story.

In Singapore, the ocean journey behind us, we hugged good-bye on the gangplank, each going our separate way. It was several weeks before I ran into her that second time. This was on Penang Island in Malaysia. I cannot now remember many details of how it came about, only the timing. It was still early morning, the tropical air  fresh and filled with bird song when the police released me from Penang Prison, with eighty other westerners they had arrested in the seaside village of Batu Ferengi the night before. We had had an eventful twelve hours, rousted out of bed in the dark by soldiers holding rifles, our gear searched, our passports confiscated, and our persons herded into open trucks with wooden slats.  In these we were transported under a full moon through the jungle to the prison in Georgetown. “Why are you doing this?” the more daring among us demanded. But in fact we all knew. We had been warned when we entered Malaysia not to go to this place, long a favorite way station on the “traveler’s” trail across Asia. It was an idyllic fisherman’s village on the eastern coast, with a café that had a pet monkey and the tropical sea lapping on the beach only yards from cozy seaside huts that rented for only fifty cents a night. Its forbidden status doubtless came from the fact that it would very soon present serious competition to a Hilton Hotel that an American cartel was building with Indonesian co-sponsorship only half a mile up the road. Future tourists would be confused. Billionaires might lose money. The situation could not be allowed to continue. And so it wasn’t.

I had not been particularly alarmed by the experience of being arrested. We were eighty strong after all, privileged young adults from a dozen western countries, most from well to do families. No government would dare to hold us hostage or seriously punish us for such a mild offense. No drugs were found in anyone’s luggage. No moral turpitude was revealed as passports were confiscated and ferociously scanned by military clerks that night . All co-habiting couples actually turned out to be married - to the military’s chagrin and our own general amazement. In the end, they simply cancelled our visas for not heeding the warning and gave us 24 hours to get out of Malaysia. “Westerners like you might streak,” was the odd official explanation. No attempt was made to expand on why we might streak only in Batu Ferengi. Indeed most of us had left home before the 1970’s mania to run naked at public gatherings had even begun. Several of us had to have the concept explained.

I was standing at a wharf in Georgetown the next morning, waiting to board the ferry to the mainland, when Patsy came into my life again. A small motorcycle driven by a mournful young Malay journalist pulled up. And there behind him, arms about his waist, was Patsy, with all her gear.  The adoring young man tried to be helpful as she unloaded, but he also kept up a steady stream of argument as to why she should stay on Penang Island forever and become his bride. At last he appealed to me to convince her to stay, but I could only smile in sympathy. We all knew that was not going to happen. Patsy and I waved from the ferry as we pulled away, and his forlorn shape grew smaller, and for once she looked rueful. This, after all, was the down side of deflowering virgins. You tended to break their hearts when you rushed out of their lives.

 It took the rest of the day and into the evening to reach the border with Thailand. With only twelve hours left on my visa, I had to make it at least that far before we stopped for a rest and Patsy was happy to oblige.  In Thailand now, we continued north on the train again the next day, passing through small towns and jungled hills, overnighting at last in Songkhla with its seaside cafes. On the third day we determined to head for Surat Thani and take the ferry to another favored traveler’s destination, Ko Samui Island, but it was here that fate had other ideas.  Across the aisle from us, as we jolted northward that morning, settled a most remarkable character. He was an orange-robed Buddhist monk in his early thirties, yet he entered the train car like a king. Or more accurately, he strode down the aisle like Yul Brenner in The King and I. I think he even walked with his toes curled upward, radiating imperial energies. Other monks had come to see him off, carrying a startling array of boxes and belongings for one ostensibly living a life of renunciation. They continued to treat him like departing royalty, salaaming backward out the door to the platform and bowing in a line over neatly prayerful hands as the train left the station.

I cannot now remember this man’s name, so I will call him Gan, a common Thai name. Gan spotted us across the aisle immediately, and unlike the normally shy reserve shown by other Buddhist monks in Thailand, who are constrained by strict vows to avoid even accepting an item from a woman’s hand, he instantly began an enthusiastic conversation in broken but serviceable English. He pronounced himself a famous Buddhist scholar, going home on a break from his Pali studies institute to his home village of Nakon Si Thammarat. He wanted to know our names, our nationalities, our purpose in visiting Thailand and our plans. And as the green miles rolled by, and he gazed into Patsy’s mischievous green eyes, he grew more and more animated. He would not always be a monk he volunteered, leaning closer. In fact, he said, he was storing all the many offerings made to him at the home of his sister against the day – not far away now - when he could disrobe and run for parliament.

Listening from behind Patsy’s turned shoulder , I found his torrent of conversation, liberally adorned with self-serving descriptions of his importance and prowess as a monk, to be off putting in spite of his charm. Was this what Buddhists were about? I had glimpsed them before of course, walking in solemn pairs or groups outside the train windows. I had heard that it was the custom for Thai men to take robes briefly as youths, often for only a few months, and then go back to lay life. It was accepted that this common toe dip into religion was more like an Asian boy scout experience than any real spiritual quest. But this man had made a true career of it, reeling in donations from awed villagers for what sounded like over a decade.  At last, as his station grew near, he made so bold as to invite us to get off with him at his village as his personal guests. Patsy threw a bright glance at me over her shoulder. “Okay?”

I was startled.  “Get off with this monk? Here? What about Ko Samui?”

“It will be such an adventure,” she urged.  “I’m definitely doing it. You have to come with me.” And so we disembarked from the train at Nakon Si Thammarat station and did indeed begin a remarkable three day visit.

 His sister’s family was there to welcome us as we stepped down from the train, and with them half the people from his village. And again we watched Gan relish the role of returning prodigy, accepting the bows of the people lining the roads to his sister’s house with a masterful raise of the eyebrows and a dismissive nod. He seemed suddenly swathed in holiness and dignity. Behind came his nephew and niece, sister and brother-in-law, a tall, massively fat man of Chinese descent, overseeing the many volunteers who leaped forward to shoulder his donated hoard.  As his venerable western visitors, we were kept close by his side. We tried vainly to look venerable, straightening our backs and nodding to the devotees, following his lead.

The house we finally reached was a modest but well made structure of light woods and bamboo, every piece of furniture with legs sitting atop boxes full of Gan’s treasures. Proudly he pointed out a picture of himself as the handsome star of his local high school, taken before he had gone off to become an important personage. We were startled to realize there were two people holding trophies in the picture, himself and his equally proud and lovely twin sister, for she, he acknowledged with a raised chin in her direction, had also received highest marks.  We turned in astonishment, really seeing for the first time the pretty woman who had helped escort us. She smiled shyly back, welcoming but pained somehow. The reasons for this became clear in the days that followed.

 Gan’s enthusiasm for his new role as celebrity host was boundless. He took us shopping through the outdoor market when the two of us volunteered to make a spaghetti dinner for the family, not realizing that this could only be done in Thailand with egg noodles. Gan smilied regally as people stopped whatever they were doing and kowtowed. He took us to the local Buddhist monastery, where he sat ramrod straight and crosslegged for pictures, eyes closed, and did his best to look as contemplative as the statues of Buddha around him. As soon as the cameras stopped clicking in each location, he grinned and leaped to his feet.  He took us to a beach, splashing barefoot along the tide line with dozens of villagers following awestruck behind us as he gesticulated and pontificated, and also, quite openly, began courting Patsy. That he was able to do this full voice in public was due to the fact that no one in the village spoke English except us three.

I found myself uncomfortable witness to this strange conversation, as he offered every impassioned reason why she should sleep with him as soon as practically possible. Mortified for the devout villagers following this charming hypocrite, I did my best not to show my feelings on my face, and I saw Patsy did likewise, for once refusing carnal knowledge. “I draw the line at monks,” she confided later. “That’s just wrong.”  I was glad to hear it.

The photo "Gan" gave us to remember him by.
I think in all that village, only his sister understood what was going on, for she accompanied us everywhere. And I saw the dismay in her eyes as Gan freely flirted with Patsy back in the privacy of their home, stretching next to her on her bed and casually sharing, against his vows, family photos directly into her hand. Washing the dishes with her back to him, pretending not to notice, his sister said nothing, but I could see she frowned.

While Gan postured at the temple, I had also observed the genuine devotion this woman showed in the presence of the statues. It pained me, and increasingly, it angered Patsy that Gan seemed so heedless of her efforts to refuse him.  He seemed oblivious of his sister’s feelings, or more likely they simply did not matter to him. How much more did we begin to appreciate her as we watched, each day, as she served her family, for they were quite horrible, all of them. The giant husband was a lout, her two children, following his lead, rude and self-absorbed. Yet there she was, a radiant, intelligent, beautiful flower of a human being who had apparently been sold into marital slavery while her brother, once high school was done, had received every opportunity and honor. It became clearer, by the hour, that she was the one who truly deserved honor.  She met the pain of her unchosen life with quiet dignity, and meditated at a small home altar with true hearted radiance of spirit. And for all we must have seemed loose women to her, she treated us only with greatest kindness and respect and never openly criticized her brother.

We had, in the end, only one way to show our feelings in this matter. On the evening we left, leaning out the train window, we offered one token of our thanks to that family, and it was only for her: an exquisite and expensive silken woman’s sarong. Her eyes widened at the sight of it and she broke into tears as we placed it into her hands. She followed the train several yards as it began to move, thanking us, clutching the beautiful cloth with one hand, and reaching out with the other as if, with all her heart, she would have liked to come with us and leave that life behind.  The men behind her, Gan included, looked puzzled.  And so the tableau vanished behind us, becoming only another travelers’ dream as so many good-byes on our journey north had already done.

 But that village had not entirely finished with us yet. By the time we got on the ferry to Ko Samui, I had begun to run a fever. And on the long choppy voyage across the strait, sitting on the floor of the small ship with the other passengers in a low-ceilinged galley, it had begun to rise in earnest. By the time we got to the island, I was so weak Patsy had to carry the gear for both of us. It took all my strength and twenty minutes to walk the two blocks to the hotel and up the stairs to our room.

On the way to Ko Samui island, already feverish
Here I stayed, prisoner to my mystery illness, for the next three days, while Patsy explored the island by motor bike and no doubt continued her international neighborliness project, though she brought no one into the room. In it, I lay alone through violent chills and endless baking hours, taking aspirin eight a day to hold the chills at bay. This was perhaps not the wisest course, for my stomach began to hurt as well and day by day I grew weaker. It seemed to me I must surely be dying. But, oddly, this thought seemed not at all alarming, merely peaceful. I watched the leaves of a palm tree visible from my second story window shift and whisper in the tropical breeze, scattering light. I slept, and watched some more. When Patsy came back, she took one look with her seasoned nurse’s eye and announced we were going to the hospital in Bangkok, at once.

I protested. I did not remotely have the strength for such elaborate plans. I would stay here and she could go. But, bless her, she was having none of it. She rolled our few belongings into our backpacks with nursely precision and got two of her new admirers to carry it all to the ferry. I came behind, just managing to stand up and weave unsteadily to the departure wharf. Of the return ferry ride itself I have no memory. I do remember the fight over train tickets on the mainland. Patsy, it turned out, could be quite ferocious in a pickle. She demanded that I was to have two seats (I could no longer sit upright). She would pay for the extra one. No, she wasn’t interested in hearing how full the train was.

 As we waited for the train to arrive, she urged me to eat, and I remember looking at the food she offered. I could not have been less able to eat if she had handed me rocks. I could barely manage to swallow water. And it had been many days now since I had eaten. My knees threatened to buckle when I stood.

And so we boarded the train. I remember feeling guilty as I lay keeled over on my small hard double seat, but in truth, I no longer had any choice. Passengers forced to stand all along the aisle looked down disapprovingly, but Patsy glared right back and prevented all incursions. I had no opinions. Sideways, I studied a young American sitting opposite in the facing seats, an American soldier on R & R from the Vietnam War, still underway 400 miles to the east. I remember his handsome young head raised and twisted to take in the sight of the moon flashing by through the ranked palms. He barely spoke the whole way, as remote from us as a wild animal in a cage. He seemed to yearn outward at the beauty. I was too far gone to think about why.

He had disembarked before we reached Bangkok and found a taxi. Our travel across that enormous Asian city was a blur to my fevered mind. I have no memory of how it was accomplished. I was focused entirely on the pain in my midsection, steady and sharp and frightening within the roar of the fever. Patsy got me first to a hotel room she rented and then to the Bangkok Christian Hospital in a second taxi. There she left me in the examining room, promising to visit.

Those first hours are almost gone now. I remember wracked anxiety and a fumbling late night phone call to my mother in California, and an IV that somehow got placed below the level of my heart for a time. I gazed in uncomprehending wonder as my red blood started up the tube toward the bottle until a horrified nurse caught the error. A tray of food came the next morning, and on it was a neat little card typed “Died Card” above my name. I still could not eat, but I tried to sort out why they should wish to feed me if they thought I had died, until I realized it was just a spelling error. Diet Card. I lay and watched the ceiling fan go round, laughing weakly, and breathed the omnipresent scent of tiger balm.  The Thai women on the ward around me used it for nearly every ailment imaginable. The woman opposite was smearing her midsection against uterine cancer, and reached out brightly, offering some. I shook my head, but tried to thank her, before falling once more into a deep sleep.
I was in the hospital all together five days, a not unpleasant memory in all, because the Thai staff took good care of me and each day I grew better. My doctor swept in each midday with a coterie of students, a brisk, no nonsense man more interested in instructing his followers than saying much to his patients.  Still, he had them keep the antibiotic drip going until I began to surface. Gastritis was the diagnosis, from the fever or from the aspirin I had overused to treat it, the doctor could not say. But in either case, the fever began to subside and I could eat again. I tried tiger balm. I chatted with the British girl next to me, the petulant mistress of a Thai businessman whom she feared losing with her illness. Patsy came to see me, and one day even Gan appeared, an attendant in tow, and generously blessed all my hospital furniture before sweeping out again.  Patsy rolled her eyes. It seemed he had fallen so in love with her, he was still in determined pursuit.

She saw me home in the end, if home one can call it, a genteel old style Thai hotel with potted palms and geckos on the walls of spacious rooms with ceiling fans. These were mostly filled with western backpackers like us. There was even a swimming pool of sorts, and she introduced me to some of the friends she had made there and we sat in the shade and drank lime coolers with them. And then she left – headed onward to Burma, or perhaps just away from Gan. She left with that irrepressible smile and a green-eyed wink and I never saw her again, or heard what became of her. But I visualize her now as a joyful aging matron at the heart a large Australian family. May it be so.
 And so I floated alone back into the course of my own life. They were happy days in that little hotel. There were the new friends for company, and there is a kind of deep peace that comes after serious illness. Life is washed clean and starts new again. And in that frame of mind, I discovered one day a small card propped on the manager’s desk.  “Lectures in Buddhism in English” it read. Wat Baworn, Banglamphoon. The first lecture would be that very evening.

I don’t remember anyone going with me when I left that night, in sarong and Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, taking a small bimo van, to a bridge that looked down on the great lighted Buddhist temple in the grounds beyond. I remember the air as I walked toward it, soft as warm silk on my skin. I had a vivid awareness of beauty all around me, soft lights in the windows of the temple, the smell of frangiapani, the flowing curve of water below. And anticipation, of what I did not yet know. 

At the temple I was escorted to a small unadorned room where a handful of westerners sat awkwardly cross-legged, looking around curiously. There were also two Americans near the front, dressed like Thai monks, their heads shaved. The lecture that night, they informed us would be on  “Sila,” morality. And so it was.

A tall gaunt long faced Englishman entered at last and sat on a small dias in front.  He smiled at us, and began to talk. Phra Khantipalo was his name, he said, and he had become a monk eleven years before, following the rigid code of ordained morality in this temple, doing the intensive “rains retreats” each summer.  I remember only a little of the lecture he gave that night, though there was a brief meditation on loving kindness at the end. But I do remember the solemn, sure dignity of the man who gave it. He passed on the teachings 2400 years old with quiet authority and genuine kindness. Speaking as if each word, each idea mattered intensely to him, and should matter to us. And I remember their effect on me. How could I forget it? I felt, to paraphrase Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: I had never known I was a bell, until suddenly, that one day, I was lifted and stuck.

Phra Khantipalo, about the age I met him. 
The reverberations of his words lifted me weightless all the way home that night in a state of exaltation. It was as if I walked in heaven and not on the streets of Bangkok, now wet and shining with a soft summer rain. I clutched the book he had given me, and pondered the words the eager American monks had shared with us as we left. “Meditation is better than an acid trip,” one assured us.

“It stops bullets,” another claimed. He had become a Buddhist, he said, after watching this miracle on a battlefield in Vietnam.

But I had no need of miracle stories. It was the teaching itself that had set off the bell inside me. Perfecting a life of morality, practicing loving-kindness and the pursuit of wisdom with deliberation, focusing the mind in stillness. These were the first of many teachings that brought my whole life, and the lives around me into focus. They laid my path before me, and still do.

Many years later I was shown a picture of Phra Khantipalo standing next to my Tibetan teacher, Lama Yeshe, and I laughed out loud. Another example of the synchronicity I have come to expect around Buddhist teachers. Maybe they are all in cahoots.

It is hard to imagine two such opposite men as Gan and Khantipalo. Yet I am grateful for having met them both. I have encountered or read about many spiritual imposters since then. They are legion. Most, like Gan are not bad men, only opportunistic ones, with little real self awareness. They rarely grasp the harm they may do, the impoverishment of trust they can cause, on a matter so vitally important to human happiness. By now surely, if he lives, Gan is a portly and prosperous Thai government official, who, just maybe, keeps somewhere a picture of a mischievous green-eyed Australian girl who broke his heart long ago.

Phra Khantipalo, I am told, went on to become a well known scholar of Pali and a much beloved teacher to westerners in Australia and Europe, some of whom who also studied with Lama Yeshe  (hence the picture.) Eventually, like the majority of westerners who became ordained, he disrobed and married.  He himself began studying Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism in his old age. I will honor his memory all my life. It was this revelation - that  genuine spiritual guides do exist in the world - that was the gift of my 3 trips and 4 years of travel across Asia. But it was my encounters with Patsy and Gan in 1973 that lead,  after such unlikely beginnings, to meeting my first teacher.
A self portrait of Cesca taken in Bangkok 1973, the same week as the story

Monday, June 17, 2013

Excerpt From the Overlander Project - To Speak with Parisians

I remember well my first impulse to study French. I was 16, frowning at the formidable syllables of Les Miserables on the title page of the book propped on my bed, determined to say it aloud, but stopped dead by the possibilities. I tried them out one way, then another, and nothing sounded at all like the bits of French I had heard – all in an audial blur - in movies set in Paris. My mother claimed some fading expertise in French thanks to the long ago Miss Icks of Fresno, (pronounced, my mother insisted,  Meese Eeeks)  but her pronunciation sounded suspect to me, and this gorgeous long word just could not be ignored. 

And so, my junior year in Santa Monica High School, I signed up. French is not a particularly practical language in California. Spanish is the useful second language here, and indeed I plodded through five years of it. But German and French were still freely offered in those days, WWII being not so far behind us, and French just has that cachet. 

My teacher was a precise balding man of forty or so, a preening egotist where language was concerned – “Parisians tell me I speak completely without an accent!” he informed us at regular intervals. He was also a wistful homosexual who plainly fell in love with at least three of the better looking boys in our class over the course of the two years I was with him and only barely managed decorum in their presence, blushing like a girl if they stood too close.  I think, I hope, he was harmless on this score, for the boys seemed only to take it humorously, and the rest of us barely understood what was implied and found him only odd.  He was indeed a fine teacher though, beginning each lesson with a dialog to be memorized and laying out the entire corpus of grammar and basic vocabulary with authority. Even today, that first dialog plays in my head as reliably as a rock and roll song; 

  J’entre dans la salle de classe,  I enter the classroom
  Je regarde autour de moi, I look around me
  Je vois les eleves et le professeur, I see the students and the professor
  Je dis “bonjour” au professeur. I say good morning to the professor.
  Je prends ma place. I take my place. 

The one thing our teacher did not do, however, once we were in our places, was encourage us to speak to each other in French. Language pedagogy of the day held that real language study was a momentous affair of noun genders and pluperfect tenses and the correct placement of accent grave and accent elete. These I more or less mastered but, despite a last minute two week audit of a French conversation course at UCLA before I left for Europe at 23, I arrived in France almost completely without experience at actually using the language to communicate. Indeed, the first Frenchman to address me and my first attempt to answer made me blush to the roots of my hair. Surely this could not be real? It felt like pretending to actually speak with a stranger and have them answer in a foreign  language. That first day, it felt so close to farce, my face was rigid with the effort not to laugh out loud and offend anyone.  And I am sure my accent, in Paris or anywhere else, was far from perfect. 

This common American shortcoming, as everyone knows, does not sit well with the French. It became clear that I offended almost everyone I met, simply by opening my mouth. And they were never shy about letting me know it. I also found it impossible to understand incoming language spoken at normal speed, never mind the occasional bouts of apparent hysteria afflicting shop keepers and taxi cab drivers. When I was the one speaking I chose, of course, only words I knew. When French people spoke to me,  at post offices and train stations, in buses and in odd sandwich shops that required you to stand up hunched over a 4 foot high counter, they were less than considerate on this point. At least a third of their words zipped by me, unregistered, and sense foundered. I did at least manage to order lunch in cafes. There was one thing I knew how to order with confidence: sandwich de fromage s’il vous plait. (a cheese sandwich if you please). And the meaning of coca cola on the bottles lined on the shelves behind was wonderfully intelligible and they were always available.

Woman cannot live by cheese sandwich and coca cola alone however, and on the  third day I tried to enter a proper restaurant near my hotel, ready to splurge a little to sample what I had always heard was the best cuisine in the world. The restaurant was filled with happy diners. A seat and table sat invitingly empty. Shyly, I entered and started for it. Major mistake. When the maitre’d spotted me, she fluttered at me like a hen defending her nest from a fox. Oh non non madame. Nous ne sommes pas ouvrir.

Not open? The other diners watched me with unsympathetic eyes as she backed me out the door. The following day, when the same thing occurred again. I retreated to my hotel, tried to order a sandwich de fromage and a coca cola, but then gave up even that and went up to my room and wept instead, too perplexed and wounded not to ask What is wrong with  me? Clearly I was a person too deeply flawed to be allowed to eat French food. 

The next day, restored to grim calm,  I gave up on the French and went to the train station. I had a Eurail pass and no idea at all of where to go next. I turned in a complete circle, reading the information boards. I was determined to take the next train leaving France, no matter where it was going. Within minutes I found myself on my way to Amsterdam, and because of the people I met in Amsterdam and the events that followed, I was led at last to Israel, where I disembarked from a Turkish ferry in Haifa some months later. As I stood in the hot sun, listening to the first guttural muttering of Hebrew around me, I was completely relaxed. Clearly no one expected me to speak this exotic language. I was a tourist, and not even Jewish. And almost everyone I met obligingly struggled to communicate with me in English, some with the fluency of native speakers of it, which they often were since in 1971 Hebrew had only recently been retrieved from the dust bin of lost ancient languages.  Only sabras, native born Israelis,  had been raised with it. The majority of the country was not native born but had immigrated there after the war, so while Hebrew  was the official language of commerce and government, it was almost everyone’s second language. English was widespread.

All of this may have left you, dear reader, wondering how exactly this situation could have helped me onward in my ambitions to master French.  I will admit that was the last thing I expected to learn there when I arrived.  First I set out to explore this new country. I was moderately fearless in those days, and hitchhiked out of Haifa and up the Safat valley for openers, sleeping in an olive grove when it grew dark, I had begun to read The Source by Michener, and lying in my sleeping bag, looking up at the stars and reading by flashlight, I marveled that the characters in the book were actually traveling up the same valley at the beginning of the story. So I followed my characters to Safat itself, an ancient white walled city high on the side of the valley, which had remained Jewish even through the ages of the diaspora. I peeked into the central synagogue there as the sun splashed golden light down the lanes and the men within began to wail and rock, for, by good fortune,  it was the evening of Yom Kippur when I arrived. When full dark fell, I found the porch of an abandoned house and laid my sleeping bag there. Somewhere that evening - memory of the details fails me now – I had taken up with a bland young English boy, equally out of place, and equally in need of free lodging. So, strangers in a strange land, we began to travel together for convenience. 

I remember the rest of the great circle we made around the country only in snatches. I do recall I was not entirely pleased with my companion. From a small English town, with limited perspective and interests, his comments were often sweetly inane and his one interest in any place we went was to find and consume a popsicle. He was a helpful presence, however, as we went through the occupied territories. I remember the shock of being dropped off in Ramallah, still wearing shorts and a t-shirt – a standard garb for women in the Jewish areas -  and discovering that there were no women at all in sight on the streets and that every man at every outdoor café and through every shop window had turned to stare at me – with lust or stern disapproval. I darted into a restaurant bathroom and changed quickly into a long dress. And was indeed grateful to be traveling as one of an apparent couple. 

Another day, still in the occupied territories, we caught a ride with a craftsman heading toward the Dead Sea for supplies. David – my milk toast knight – was in the back seat next to me as the stocky, aggressive little man drove. He kept trying to catch my eye in the rear view mirror and abruptly, in the middle of nowhere, he stopped, and offered David the opportunity to drive. I tried to send hints to David that this might not be quite the offer it seemed and to please decline, but he missed them all, happily going to take over the driving. Lunging into his place in the back seat, the car’s owner at first leered and then took the liberty of grabbing the long necklace on my chest and pretending to examine it closely. When I snatched it out of his hands without ceremony he reacted in rage. Suddenly we were to stop again. This time, he ordered us both out and left us at the side of the road, next to an elderly man living in an abandoned rail car, and then turned the vehicle in a sharp rubber-burning u-turn, telling us to stay there. He would return. 

David blinked in mild surprise, but saw nothing untoward in this. Lacking a popsicle, he ambled over to where the old man was watching us, stone-faced, and begged a cigarette. I stared after him, thinking hard. To me it seemed a real possibility that the horny angry man who had offered us the ride had now gone back to bring reinforcements for a gang rape. David gazed at me in consternation as I explained this scenario, continuing to drag thoughtfully on his cigarette. “But what can we do?” he asked mildly. 

Sighing in exasperation, I went into the middle of the road and stood there. And the very next vehicle that came by, I forced to stop by refusing to move. Thankfully,  crowded as they were, they consented to give us a ride, and with relief I watched the dusty little arroyo with the strange expressionless old man fall behind. I later heard that a Canadian girl was raped and found murdered in that area. And I have wondered. 

Still no French in my story you have noted. I am digressing, I admit. But there is always that temptation to tell about life in the order it was lived, which almost never makes for the kind of coherent tale found in fiction. But I will summarize and hurry us back to the point. After further adventures, a ramble through Jerusalem, a warm desert night as the guest of an Israeli soldier in Beersheba who served us a cup of fresh mint tea so perfectly strong and pure I have never forgotten it, David and I hitchhiked our way back up the coast all the way to the kibbutz of Hanita on the northern border with Lebanon. 

And this is where my education in French resumed, for Hanita was founded by idealists wishing to bring together Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish communities in a social experiment. The Ashkenazis came from Switzerland. The Sephardics came from Algeria. They both spoke (ah you have guessed before I said it) French as their first language. Few spoke Hebrew with authority. 

There was a bit of Hebrew in my days there. Af Sakah! The overseer would yell in the orange grove when it was time for a break. And we would clamber down, peel a fresh ripe orange from out of the bag slung round our necks, and take our break. I learned to count to ten “Ah hat stein, shalosh…” and learned that the children were the yeladim. But for the rest, the instructions on making breakfast for 30 in half an hour, the daily schedule, the rules for we “volunteers’ who lived in a row of portable buildings at the rim of the kibbutz, all were conducted in French. 

So each day my French grew stronger.  I would listen for some word I lacked and seize it right out of context, like a herpetologist lassoing a passing butterfly, tucking it into memory. It was a matter of survival, for life moves fast and sometimes aggressively in Israel. In bus lines and cafeterias, you are expected to push back, answer strongly with a grin or a witticism, or people won’t like you. And there were fascinating conversations to be had as I rose up to it: a former Israeli general who was angrier at conservative religious Jews than he was at the Palestinians or Egyptians; a wonderful gentle artist, who had fallen in love with an American and wanted to know all about my country; a nearly silent old woman working in the dispensary who had lived through Germany’s horror and carried a black number on her wrist; a child who told me of his nightmares of falling bombs. Indeed there had been several that had fallen nearby in his short life, for we were so close to the border with Lebanon that I could have called out to the Lebanese shepherd on the hill on across from the kibbutz. Men from the settlement patrolled the perimeter each night, and jets from the nearby air base would race up the Haifa valley in the afternoons, so fast and so low, they could not be heard until they were almost directly above us, and several times almost startled me out of my orange tree. Approaching the low hills at the border they coiled upward in twin menacing arcs and raced back down again - roaring warning or reassurance and making all who heard them aware of their presence.  

It was 1971 and the vibration of wars behind and wars to come was everywhere and no one was allowed to forget this for long. There was talk of landmines planted in the dark, of katyusha rockets that might arc onto us at any time. Taking nature walks was discouraged. There were even spies found among my fellow volunteers. A Frenchman broke his leg in a trench creeping around after curfew one night and when his room was searched, notes and maps were found that he was preparing, they said, to give to the Palestinians. Two Irish girls, adorned with false eyelashes and full cake make up, were found to be a different kind of spy. They had come to learn about the Haganah’s successful stand against the British – for Hanita had a cave behind that had once been a favored hiding place – in order take the information home to help the cause of the IRA. 

But we were well treated for all that, and  each day I had opportunities to practice my French on every conceivable subject On the Sabbath, we were made as welcome as any kibbutz member. There were dances and feasts, one I remember especially was Moroccan style with everyone sitting cross-legged in two long lines rimmed in low tables and dancers and servers coming down the middle. The kibuttz even paid us $12 a month and drove us into town once a week to spend it. Here, I learned how to swear effectively when two men followed me down the beach in Najariya. They trudged after me five blocks in the sand in shiny pointy city shoes, and carefully perched on the other side of the breakwater I was seated on, hissing suggestively. This was an all too common, and to me completely offensive way of flirting with the opposite sex. Somehow, that lascivious hiss was the last straw on what had already been a much sexually harrassed day, I stood up, swore in my most ferocious French and drove them off, wide-eyed. I’m startled to remember that I was so mad, I continued to swear at every innocent inhabitant of Najariya  I passed, all the way back to the kibbutz shuttle.  No ambassador of goodwill I, not on that red day.  

But Christmas came at last, and with it a check with enough money to at last fly home. And I had the good sense to stop over for a week in Paris. You will be happy to learn, dear reader, that my position in French society had been transformed. Now I prattled confidently in every café and bookshop and art store and Parisians, amazed and friendly, prattled back. I went to French movies and understood them. I discovered the lunch time schedules of cafes (they close every afternoon) and had my first, and only, blissful taste of gourmet snails. 

Home again, I was reminded that there are few indeed who speak French in California. This confidence with the Gallic language began to pass, sadly, but it was a glorious week. And French words do still lurk in the dark somewhere in my brain, buried under the edifice of Spanish that was erected later in my career as an ESL teacher. It seems my brain, when asked to speak French, merely opens a “foreign language section” and rummages about for the closest word, and that is nearly always now Spanish first, and French much later. So, should I try to speak French today, the effort is sputtering and filled with gaps. Hand me a copy of Les Miserables, however,  and I will pronounce it for you, with elegance, even still. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

From the Overlander Project      

Deja Vu

         These memories are six decades behind me now, and there are not many. Yet those that remain are vivid, like post cards from another life. They say the young pay more attention, for everything is new, and there is truth in that, and it perhaps accounts for the vividness, yet so much has been forgotten. Where does your life go when it has been forgotten and no one living now remembers? The Tibetans will tell you that even waking life has the nature of a dream. Such gaps in my mental inventory make it easy to agree with them. Were there then other lives before that have been forgotten?

My parents and I lived beside the Strand in Hermosa Beach when I was very young, a sidewalk some ten feet wide, protected from blowing sand by a low wall that followed the curve of wide Pacific beaches for miles.  From the low concrete porch of my house, even at four, I always stopped to take in the bright changeable horizon of sea as I came out. My days were mostly about little girl things. Giggling with friends, tiny paper cups of grape juice, roller skates that tightened with a key, scabbed knees, the Little Swings set on the sand near my house, and the Tall Swings farther along. We pumped our short legs back and forth, back and forth, gaining altitude until the gold sky beckoned, and then leaned back all the way, upside down to savor the sensation of the earth tickling our sun bleached hair on the downward sweep.

One day a friend invited me to explore the attic of her small beach house next to mine. There were several adventuring children, a ladder, a hatch in the ceiling. I see still in memory the dimness of the small room, with a shaft of light coming from one window, and mysterious things stacked in boxes all around. And then there was the old hat she took out of a box, still redolent of a scent, some ancient perfume that left me stunned. For suddenly my child’s mind was filled with complex adult sadness and a profound sense of loss, as if another life echoed in the far chambers of mind, every detail forgotten except the sense that something or someone once treasured had gone away, was forever out of reach. 
  I don’t know if the sensation started that day, or if it was only triggered by the old perfume, but I woke with it searing my mind many days in childhood and far into my thirties. It was a sensation of something interrupted, something I must do or find, so strong it felt almost like physical pain. I t would last two minutes or so, until the present asserted itself. For, rack my brains as I would, I could think of nothing I could do to assuage it directly.

         There were other flashes of deja vu from time to time that left me straining after the feeling they evoked – the way the peninsula of Palos Verdes descended into the sea on a grey and windy day – a feeling of …what? Memories of battle? Of being on the sea? My Viking forebears? I watched the grim grey movie “Sink the Bismarck” as a young teen and found myself again overwhelmed by the same flavor of déjà vu. I have often thought the English language is missing a much needed word for this - mental flavor is the best I can manage. As if one has entered a door and found oneself in a world different from the world of 1950’s  and 60’s Los Angeles. The feeling never lasted - it had no name, no place to latch onto – yet leaving it was like waking from a dream with tears running down your cheeks while all the drama that held you within it vanishes like mist.  

There were other glimpses.  The brick face of a Victorian house, seen through trees on a walk, set by a stream, covered in ivy – attached to an emotional memory of strictness, cloistered living that gave me only an odd relief at having escaped. 

There was a memory of a place perhaps like southern India, glimpsed sometimes, a warm place with palm trees, white clouds, strong joy with a “mental flavor” all its own and absolutely beyond my power of description, except to say that everything seemed right there and when the sensation comes to mind, it leaves me yearning, for what, again, I cannot say. The pure white tops of thunder clouds can give the same feeling. And high mountains with snow, and a river below on a dusty plain. 

         I think it was in pursuit of such a memory, such a place, that I started out one night, at the age of five, on my first real journey. My parents did not take it personally when I made the announcement I was leaving home. They claimed to understand a person just has to go sometimes. They helped me pack my cookies and other essentials and followed discretely at a distance as I made my first happy exploration of the unknown (a bench a little further down the Strand than I had ever been before). There I sat and looked out at the moonlit Pacific Ocean and offered a cookie to a passing cat. Fifteen minutes later I started for home, journey complete. They welcomed me without comment and tucked me in with a kiss on the forehead. The seed of the desire to cross that ocean was present that night, however, strong enough that I remember it still.  And when I did arrive, many years later, at my first airport in Asia, I looked back east across the familiar Pacific that had always lain to my west. I remember walking outside where small flags whipped in a sea wind, and tried to compare it with the image I had that night. Is this the place? Does it feel the same? It did not. Not quite.

         I remember when the Dalai Lama made his escape in 1959, setting out at night, in the midst of a dust storm over Lhasa on his two week run for the Indian border. I was only ten but I heard about it somehow, and imagined him as a boy king and conceived a desire to see him. My father, generous-hearted as he was, decided about that time that I should be honored once a year on a day of my choosing. It was to be a day to mark, not my unearned birth, but my talents. I was to share all those childish drawings not only on the refrigerator door but with the world. So we went to Aunt Robbie’s apartment in Westwood for this special day I had announced, the day  forever after to be called “Cesca’s Day” though we never actually did it again.  I remember large crackling sheets of butcher paper stiff with water colors, several distracted youngsters who had no idea why they were there, adults dutifully admiring my scribbles, proud Hamp (my father) with the classical music on. And a Mr. Potato-head set that occupied us all for an hour. Though the occasion did not repeat, to this day, I always brighten a little when March 19 comes, even all these years later. And, as a Buddhist, I marvel at the synchronicity of choosing that particular day as my special day. For I know now that March 19 of that year was the very night His Holiness was leaving Tibet, after making his first steps into exile concealed in the uniform of a soldier, through the confusion of the crowd outside the Norbulingka, massed to protect him from a Chinese general who was demanding his presence and planned apparently to kidnap him. Was my choice a coincidence? Almost certainly, but it pleases me that that is the day I chose.

What does deju vu mean? Were these fragments of nostalgia and synchronicity meaningful? I wish I knew.  I feel quite sure I am no former Tibetan. Indeed I feel little affinity for Tibetan culture at all – however I may admire the teachings of her religious leaders. But I have heard many stories in this long life that have lead me to believe we may indeed reincarnate somehow.  Those childish feelings may really have been wisps of old memory, past lives as faded as this one already is in many aspects.  I cannot say. But I hope they were. Who I may have been before does not really matter. But it would be nice to think those remnants of memory are a sign that there may be more to come. I think it was Voltaire who said, when asked, that he did not find the idea of being born again any more implausible than having been born once.  And that had certainly occurred.