Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Where am I from?

This whole process of moving 3,000 miles has been quite enlightening. People ask you things like: “Where are you from?”

I've never known quite how to answer that ubiquitous question: Where are you from? I guess I could say I'm from Newark, Delaware. That’s where I was born – but I didn't spend much time there as a kid because we traveled so much. Our first odyssey around Europe began when I was six. Dad moved the family to Europe for a year or so while he finished a novel.

He had a passion for travel, fueled, in some part, by his contempt for American culture. Both he and my mother were English literature professors. My parents had developed a weird arrogance for the way Americans educate children. I remember the glee they shared when yanking us out of school – and lying to the government – to cart us off for years at a time. I guess you could say we were educated at home, well before it was cool to be home-educated.

My father took slides. He loved that ancient Nikon camera, invariably heckling us into posing for carousal upon carousal of slides. The documentary of sorts began when I was six, southern Spain, the Costa Del Sol. Our family moved to a little fishing village called La Herradura (the horseshoe). I remember we arrived at our new home (a villa about to slide off a cliff) to find the cook, Encarna, had prepared American hamburgers. My older sister, Chris, and brother,Russ, and I were thrilled. My mother sat mortified. Dad boldly requested ketchup, fueling her unease.

We were told that we wouldn't be attending the local school because Dad had seen the girls in the village. They didn't wear shoes.

"The kids will turn into peasants," he told my mother.

I didn't even know what a peasant was. So as kids, we'd sit on the floor of the villa diagramming sentences and solving equations in yellowing workbooks. Until that day we realized our parents didn't check up on us anymore. The following morning Nick and I packed our knapsacks – stuffed full of workbooks – snagged a pack of cigarettes, a couple of Cokes, and sped up the cliff to an abandoned lighthouse. There we had the ceremonial burning. The workbooks went unmissed.

Russ and I ran wild, scampering around town placing paper bags full of dog poop on neighbor's stoops and setting them on fire. We constructed stone forts on the beach, hid Dad's slippers, tied up the cook when she refused to give us snacks. My poor sister. She was responsible for trying to control us. I'd often shout to her: "Get off the cross; we need the wood." Russ would crack up. The Loving Siblings. Despite our hideous behavior, Chris would dutifully read aloud from the Narnia Tales, C.S. Lewis, sometimes two to three hours a day – anything to get us to stay still.

Nothing worked.

In those ten years between six and seventeen, I lived in more than 60 villages, towns, cities, islands – different country, different language, different alphabet, different kids.

Right, the kids. My brother and I discovered that the local kids didn't like us much. We wore brand new Levi's and red converse hightops.

The rich Americans.

We were different. It became too painful for us to hang around and wait and see if the kids liked us or not. That's when we decided we would categorically hate them first. We made a pact, a bond: The Don't Fuck With Us Bond. That pact solidified in Corfu when some punk made fun of my brother's haircut and I chased him down the street, whipping the Greek kid's back with a rubber hose. I arrived home with a black eye and a broken pinkie. It was then that the nanny began calling us the Evil Twins. The moniker stuck. We'd become urchins, darkly-tanned hellions roaming the countryside with no chance of becoming civilized.

Until that day, just after my seventh birthday.

I met a grand man called Colonel Stevenson. My world changed in what seemed like a kaleidoscope. He taught me about the impressionists and revolution, abstract expressionists and alcoholism, politics and taxes, methadone and Mozart. We'd walk the steps up the big cliff on the south side of town to his villa and play piano for hours. Mrs. Stevenson – his wife, whom he adored – taught me to take tea. I learned about watercress and clotted cream. For Christmas that year, she gave me a blackwatch kilt. I remember her elegant laugh – as she looked me over in my brother's hand-me-down blue jeans, flannel patches on the knees. She and The Colonel took it upon themselves to make me a lady. Despite my decent pedigree, there became a Pygmalion aspect to it all. I suddenly no longer wanted to be a pirate, like my brother, but, instead, the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet.

It began one afternoon in July; it must have been 100 degrees out. My mother sent me to town to pick up a kilo of lemons. As I bargained furiously with a woman-in-mourning at the market, a friendly old man with a knobby cane stopped me and asked me why a little girl with such aristocratic cheekbones would speak such peasant Spanish. I stood still, absolutely stunned. Indignant.

He asked me if I was American.

I said yes.

He told me I was giving Americans a bad name.

I called him a plebeian, in English, by the way.

He insisted we share a lemon soda at the cafe, to hash it out. I told him he had aristocratic cheekbones, too. So, what was he doing in a peasant, fishing town? He explained that villages like La Herradura were havens for the Brit Dodgers – a term he graciously defined: over sixty-fivers who spent exactly six months and one day out of England in order to avoid what he explained to be the unforgivably cruel and unfair British tax structure. More importantly, he explained, the climate improved his arthritis.

We became fast friends.

Everyday at noon, I'd slip on my red-patent-leather clogs and clunk down the stone steps from our villa, onto the beach, and into town. The Colonel and I would meet at Cafe Pinata and sip expensive brandy. He taught me to play poker. And I was good.

At nine, I could whip his ass at five-card draw. We played for pesetas. He'd front me twenty, and rarely win them back.

The Colonel's wife would occasionally walk down the cliff and join us. I was told she was the best ballerina who ever lived. Sometimes The Colonel would ask her to prove it: she'd extend her arm straight out, horizontal to the floor, for more than ten minutes at a time. Stone still, not even a shudder, no shakes, at age 71. "She's still got the old touch," the Colonel would proudly pronounce. Once she brought me a photo of a bronze statue outside of the Ballet Conservatory in London. It looked like a bronzed Degas. The ballerina in the statue; it was her.

So the two of us – The Colonel and The Kid – everyday, like old comrades, would take over Cafe Pinata. The proprietor once commented that we looked like two soldiers, plotting to overthrow the government. We'd shout for more brandy and lemonades. We'd battle about cheating, and laugh until we got cramps.

I started washing my face and wearing dresses.

His arthritis slowly went away.

To be continued …

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