This is the first in a series of "Histories of things" taken from a very tongue in cheek point of view.
The history of the Sweet Potato:
750 BC an unknown Peruvian digs up a root and starts gnawing on it. Sweet Potatoes become a big hit spawning massive population growth, a couple of ruthless rulers, a box with a diseased feather and some really unruly metal clad illegal immigrants who have very little respect for local customs of ownership but I'm getting ahead of myself.
A man from Italy wants to go boating but doesn't have the means to purchase one so he turns to begging which proves successful. He immediately gets lost in his new boat and about a month later runs it into a mound of dirt. Hungry he digs up a root and gnaws on it to much delight.
The local Taino people who were of course overjoyed to have been finally discovered told the Italian boater that the root was called batatas.
Not having heard of a batatas and having a slight hearing and/or comprehension problem he erroneously called it patata (you know from the rhyme potato, patata). Since the nice couple who loaned him their boat were Spanish this became the Spanish name for batatas.
Later the English not paying much attention to anything on the stranded side of the English Channel renamed it potato. Keep in mind there wasn't such a thing yet so you have to give them some credit for their originality.
One hundred years later another man (who due to his lack of accomplishments remains unknown) dug up another root in South Columbia (I mean America, don't get me started) drags another tuber back to Europe. It resembled the batatas but generally lacked flavor or any other discernible value so it was given to the Irish and also named potato.
Since people then named things by shape nobody noticed that the tasty batatas and the untasty potatoes were not in fact related nor did it matter - they were similar in shape so too should be similar in name.
One hundred years later some well meaning folks needed to get some shit done and since it was a bit early in the timeline to run by Home Depot for good hard working laborers they asked the Portuguese if they knew of anyone who might want a job where pay wasn't an object. They did and offered to provide the transportation.
The newly arrived people were famished and upon taking into their sight the aforementioned roots responded with the Wolof word "nyam" loosely translated as "If you don't give me something to eat I'm going to open up a can of Chris Rock on you". As a side note the same people used to say nyam back home followed by feverish gnawing on roots as well. Food is once again named by shape. Do not confuse nyam with Miami which although has a similar amount of dirt and clingy things attached to it differs in shape on the southern end.
Zoom forward another 100 years (thankfully history happens in nice round numbers) to the deep south when orange colored sweet potatoes were introduced. The folks there didn't want to confuse anyone by competing fairly so they decided to rename orange sweet potatoes to "If you don't give me something to eat I'm going to open a can of Chris Rock on you" but that was voted down in favor of Yam, an Anglicized version of the Wolof word nyam. Miami doesn't factor in here so we'll skip it for now.
Fast forward to another nice round number in history and you have the USDA whom with good intentions tries to rectify the naming situation and passes regulations to force everyone to put the name Sweet Potato on every box of Yams. They failed to define the size of the text thus a new industry was born for super small typesetters.
The night before we left out a few small things from our luggage. We packed the chocolate around the pottery to make sure it didn't get broken. Jade, Natalya and I are all on Pepto to make the flight better. Natalya has a flu, Jade ate ice cubes and I've subjected my stomach to all the strange and wonderful aspects of foreign cuisine that I could find and will continue to do so until we hit US soil! Our coats are packed away because outside of a short ride to the airport we'll be inside until we get home and only when we get to Washington will we need our coats. We're in Mexico - it's always warm here, right?
I asked for a taxi to pick us up at 4:00am because our flight for Guadalajara left at 6:30. I figured less than half an hour to the airport, an hour to get our boarding passes and get checked in and about 30 minutes to board the plane. That would leave us about 30 minutes extra for unforeseen circumstances and possibly finding breakfast.
There's one thing that I have to say about Seattle before going on. It might be 48 degrees in the middle of the winter during the day but it's still 43 degrees at night thanks to our cloud blanket. Mexico is more like eastern Washington in that it's 70 degrees during the day and a full 30 degrees colder at night and Puebla is no different. There we stood shaking in our summer clothes with our coats safely tucked away in our bags. Natalya decided that she was going to be comfortable on the plane so she wore her pajamas – which I'm not sure were made to safeguard her against 40 degree weather. Our taxi showed up on time and much to our surprise it was a ratty Nissan Sentra! Who would have thought that a taxi driver in Mexico would be driving a ratty Nissan Sentra? :-) Just kidding, so far they've all been ratty Nissan Sentras. Our driver who loaded our bags in the trunk was a fairly young Mexican man with a pencil thin mustache and only said one word the entire trip – aeropuerto? To which I said “si” as if there's anywhere else to go in the middle of the night. He presented himself as a man of strong convictions but very few words. Maybe convictions isn't the right word considering my very American audience and the preconceived notions of Mexico and Mexicans.. The first thing he did when getting into the car was reach over, grab his seat belt and click it into place. Crap I thought, we're about to buy the farm. You see this is the first time I've seen ANYONE in Mexico use their seatbelt including the police so obviously he's planning on using it. As if that wasn't enough he crossed himself before starting the car. Good God we're all going to die I thought! I'm not sure what our drivers name was but we need to call him something so I've named him Jose Emilio Sergio Ulises Santiago - Jesus for short. For you northerners that's pronounced “hey zeus” just to let you know.
Since I feel a bit silly calling anyone Jesus I'll refer to him as Jose which of course is pronounced “Hoe Zay” or if you're from Canada - “Hose eh?”. Considering the very un-Mexicanlike act of buckling his seatbelt and the additional fact that the sun had not yet risen I felt uncharacteristically patriotic and had a very strong desire to sing the Star Spangled banner. Or at least the part that says “Jose can you see, by the dawn's early light...”. Jose apparently could see and with a twist of the key and a belch from the tailpipe the tin can fired to life. This I felt was a very special Nissan in that the sound burbling from the tailpipe was different than the other Nissan taxis we'd taken. In a normal Nissan Sentra taxi you have the aforementioned tin can painted in maroon and gold sporting a very anemic four cylinder to which the only thing to say is “it gets great mileage” as saying anything more would just be depressing. The little maroon and gold Nissans don't have a lot of power but once you get them wound up you can cover some serious ground. This Nissan however didn't sound like it had the capability to be wound up as it was very clearly ¾ engine, ¼ air pump. The engine part coughed and sputtered and the air pump portion just wheezed. Jose however, seemingly undeterred put the shifter in gear, revved the engine, slipped the clutch and off we went into the night.
At the first stoplight Jose pressed the brake pedal until we gently came to a complete stop. We stopped? At a stoplight? Are we still in Mexico? I was shocked and looked over the seat at Natalya to see if she was paying attention. We were sitting at a red light, at four o'clock in the morning, in a taxi, in Mexico and there was nobody coming. After being in Mexico for almost two weeks this act of sitting at a stoplight in the middle of the night with nobody coming seemed to be a very inefficient use of an empty roadway. For a moment out my passenger side window I thought I'd glanced a pig flying by (rotating on a tacos el pastor spit of course). Could it be the Spanish influence in Puebla? Maybe Puebla is leading the country into the modern age and its citizens obey the laws of the road. Just as I was about to conclude one thing or the other Jose hit the gas and off we went through the remaining one second of the red light. In looking at his side profile I saw there in the dark shadows of the car a slight resemblance to Montezuma II, or was it Quetzalcoatl? The thought that Quetzalcoatl had returned from the east to reclaim his kingdom on the backs of giant sea turtles only to settle on driving a taxi in Puebla brightened my thoughts. Humor - has a warming quality to it.
We encountered 4 more red lights all of which were handled in the same manner – sitting until the last second and then prodding the hamster until he heaved himself up on his feet and started moving. The old hamster was getting a work out which is fine enough considering he's probably got a spare tire or two and asthma anyway. I can imagine him hunched over his wheel, respirator in hand putting one foot in front of the other to get the taxi moving. I've heard that in the coastal cities they use lemmings in lieu of hamsters which makes a lot of sense. It would also explain why after a long day at the beach the taxi ride back to the hotel always costs you double – lemmings run faster toward water and slower away thus costing more.
As we were getting near the edge of town we pulled up to a stop light next to this hulking dump truck fully loaded with large chunks of concrete, re-bar and miscellaneous junk – all appearing to be massively heavy. The road merged ahead and it was very clear that the dump truck wanted in our lane. The tension rose as we waited for the last second of the red light and then Jose crossed himself, said a prayer and slammed his foot to the floor. The heaping metal dragon in the lane next to us clattered profusely and clouds of black soot bellowed out the sides. Jose jammed through the gears, slipping the clutch and revving the engine to within an rpm of it's life. Half mile or so later we'd gained a couple inches on the bellowing beast – enough so - that it's master ceded the victory to us and backed off. Meanwhile the other maroon and gold tin cans (with all of their cylinders working properly) continued to buzz around us disappearing down the road with their taillights burning brightly not unlike a bunch of fireflies. The momentary look of triumph in Jose's eyes was quickly replaced by seriousness and determination and he very clearly set his sights on the fireflies disappearing over the horizon.
Our ratty tin can gained speed at a nearly imperceptible pace and let's be thankful that we weren't trying to stay ahead of any glaciers. The increase in speed was so slow that I had to use the frequency of the heavy vibration coming from passenger side front tire to gauge our speed. The road widened as we headed out of town. At that moment I realized that I hadn't shown Jose the name of the airport. What if Puebla had TWO airports and we were going to the wrong one? In a reversal of roles I asked “aeropuerto?” and he said “si” - so much for clarification. Normally airports in Latin American are dropped dead center into the middle of the cities. We were very clearly heading out of town and if the passing signs were accurate – toward Mexico City. Mexico City was only two hours away which got the old noggin wondering even more. Finally I saw a sign pass with “aeropuerto” on it. Then another sign with saying aeropuerto whizzed by followed by a third. The fact that anything can whizz by tells you that we'd built up a little speed and the tire immediately in front of me was bouncing more than rotating. Maybe his brakes no longer worked which is why we weren't turning off at any of the exits labeled aeropuerto. What do I know, I'm just a gringo that can't speak Spanish. Looming on the horizon are a horde of tiny red lights – the fireflies – and Jose had them in his sights!
The vibrations increased both in frequency and intensity until the front end was shaking and we were slowly gaining on other cars! Had the turnoff came up I think Jose would have just kept his foot planted because it would be bad to spoil the hard work and determination needed to get us up to this speed... One by one we passed motorhomes, dump trucks and estate sedans full of families. In Mexico you flash to pass - meaning you put your emergency lights on to let the driver in front of you know that you're passing. If that doesn't work you also flash your brights at him. So there we go haphazardly flying down the road in our maroon and gold tin can, engine about to explode, streamers on the antennae, tires vibrating like a pogo stick and lit up like a Christmas tree in the passing lane the whole way because that's just what you do in Mexico. Knuckles white from strangling the door handle I was relieved when we start to slow and proceed to exit the freeway onto a small two lane road and everyone else starts breathing again. It's very dark and our maroon and gold tin can makes it's way down the paved road that looks way too small to be headed to an airport which makes one wonder about ones destiny especially when one is in Mexico. The fears are calmed as we turn into a parking lot in front of what appears to be the illegitimate child of a warehouse father and a shopping mall mother – it's the dreaded ware-mall.
Being that Mexican Pesos are worthless at home we crafted a plan to get rid of them before we left the country. I guessed that the taxi ride would cost about 50 pesos which up until now has been the standard. I did not however, dream that the airport would be in the middle of Timbuktu so I asked the driver “cuanto cuesta?” to which he said “ciento treinta pesos” - $130 which was more than I'd reserved. I left the kids and bags and went looking for an ATM which was just inside the door where I took out enough to pay the taxi driver. This also left us with even more pesos than we had before the ride. Starving I figured we'd get rid of them inside at a nice traditional Mexican eatery. It's still only 5:30 and there's no restaurants open so the signal my stomach is so impatiently forwarding to my brain has to be ignored for a little while longer.
The airport “arrivals” area had enough room for a couple of ticket counters, 4 or 5 benches and a box of matches. Apparently there are only 3 airlines that fly to Puebla and nobody was at the Mexicana booth. Knowing not to assume anything I went to the Aeromexico booth and showed him my ticket to which he raised his shoulders, turned the palms of his hands up and said “diez minutos?”. He was saying he had no idea and I should just do the Mexican thing – just sit back and see what happens. Being a seasoned traveler the question I was really asking was “Am I in the right place to catch a flight by this airline?” which he unknowingly confirmed. No more than 10 minutes later a very attractive Mexican woman wearing her coat (I'll get back to that in a minute) showed up at the Mexicana gate along with baggage people. All bags were being hand searched and tagged. We find out later that our plane is too small for carry-on bags – an image of a reconditioned crop duster works it's way into my mind – with chickens – and old women carrying bags of onions. The very attractive (did I mention that yet?) ticket lady asked for our passports, gave us baggage claim forms, boarding passes and stapled our customs forms together for when we leave the country. The whole time she was wearing a heavy winter coat. So was the baggage search crew and the guy putting bags on the conveyor belt and the people waiting in line – as was everyone in the building because it was positively FREEZING! There we stood with our knees knocking, teeth chattering and hands regrettably reaching out toward our bags holding our coats as they wound their way down the conveyor belt and out of sight. Figuring it was only cold on the side of the airport with the door wide open we decided to go through security post-haste to the warm side where as we also found everyone wearing their winter coats. I then realized that the entire airport may not even have heating facilities considering it's the dead of winter and daytime temps are about 70 degrees.
The airport had all of three gates and it looks like the nearly new building has room for about two more which were walled off because what airport could possibly need more than three gates? I don't however think they walled the rest off because they didn't want to heat the whole thing! There were no restaurants to be found but after about 30 minutes of us mimicking a bunch of epileptics in a timeout huddle a man opened a coffee stand which got stampeded immediately. I didn't want any coffee but we wanted to get some bottled water for the plane so I jumped in line behind about 8 other people none of which wanted a plain old coffee – they all wanted fancy coffee – cappuccinos and such. I thought that a bit odd since we're in Mexico until I noticed they were speaking English – Americans! In Puebla? We creeped one cappuccino at a time forward until I only had one American lady in front of me which of course ordered a couple cappuccinos, frappachinos, crappachinos, mochachinos and other random chinos. I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and asking her in my best Brooklyn accent “Yo lady, don't ferget to order a freakin' Al Pacino, it's not like nobody in this buildin's waitin' for a freakin' airplane or anything” . Some people only enforce the stereotype. As I stand in line waiting for Al Pacino to show up for the American broad I see Natalya stand up and move toward the gate which means I need to go.
The very same attractive Mexican lady (I did mention that didn't I?) that took our bags and printed our tickets was also our gate agent. When they announced the flight to Guadalajara only four people walked to the gate – us. How big is this plane anyway if only four people are riding on it? Maybe we filled it up! Images of a cropduster once again formed in the thought bubble over my head. When the door opened for us to walk down the gangway to the airplane we realized we weren't looking down on the tarmac as we do at most airport gates but we were directly ON the tarmac! It was so dark outside that when looking at the terminal glass we only saw a bunch of Mexicans stuffed into winter coats, four shivering Americans plus one more holding 23 cups of foaming coffee waiting for Al Pacino.
The very attractive (I'm sure I mentioned it by now) Mexican lady led the four of us out onto the tarmac and down a painted “sidewalk” thankfully past a couple of crop duster sized airplanes and then turned toward an business sized jet that held maybe 50 people. A small plane but huge for four people I thought. Once on the plane we realized that it already had people on it. I'm not sure where it could have come from that early in the morning but Puebla was not it's origins. It was warm though, that part I knew.
We soaked up the warm air blowing from the vents as our plane lifted off and rose in the sky. The sun came up and bathed the ancient Mexican landscape in a glow of warm rays as it's been doing for millions of years. Mexico is a lot like life – there are difficulties and struggles, trials and tribulations, exciting human connections and depth all of which are dotted with memories of very warm people and a huge dose of humor. As the plane glided through the early morning sky I felt relieved in knowing the rest of the trip would be hassle free as I was going home and yet sad as I always am when leaving a foreign land. Sad because I've been touched deeply by this place and it's people. That effected portion of my being may remain dormant for years before I get back and get re-acquainted. One thing is certain - those are cherished memories that will be wrapped tightly and keep in a safe place so I can take them out whenever I want – whenever I need a smile and a laugh. Mexico - you're something else.
This is your story, I am only the writer putting it to words just as Homer was to the Illiad. Imagine it as if you were there and you will be.
You know Paris, the city where lovers stroll and unknown couples edge along Pont Neuf to get a better view of the passing barges only to look up and find each other's eyes. Paris is the city where there's a violinist on every corner and all flowers are shades of red. It's a city of beautiful women who dress like fashion models and are accompanied by white poodles with pink bows in their ears while the men wear berets, ride bicycles and nearly always have a baguette tucked beneath their arm. Postcard perfect little girls in frilly flowered dresses peek out from under their mothers skirts with gorgeous brown eyes and long curly locks. You've seen this Paris on greeting cards, in commercials and of course movies. Writers wax poetic and fashion designers yearn to live there. This Paris is real, I knew it and couldn't wait to arrive.
After stashing my things in the Hotel de la Place du Louvre I ventured out onto Rue de Rivoli only to find automobiles buzzing everywhere - lots of them. Strange looking Citroen's, Peugeot and Renaults careening with reckless abandon with horns honking and tires screeching. Every potential open space was filled with delivery vans, tiny runabouts, scooters and more. Not what I had expected Paris to be and definitely not what I had dreamt of but nonetheless I ignored the sounds and smells and ventured on in search of the Paris I knew to exist. I seemingly walked forever in an attempt to get a glimpse of a man in a beret or a woman in red stilettos. I would have even settled for the little girl with the deep brown eyes in the flowery dress. I went down avenues, up stairs, around churches and through parks in search of this magical city I'd heard so much about. My vision of the dreamy Parisian city was slowly chipped away by the reality of a buzzing metropolis filled with millions of busy people just getting by. I expected to see a French waiter dressed in white apron with towel in hand gesturing a smartly dressed couple toward their white linen draped table. The table of course outfitted with a candlestick thin vase holding a solitary red rose. Instead I got Muslim Arabs hawking kebabs in street stalls or selling corn cobs roasted in grocery carts surrounded by beggars and other riff raff. When I looked for picturesque French architecture I got exhaust stained stucco covered concrete block buildings. Who replaced the beautiful fountains of Greek mythological lore with dry glorified urinaries covered in graffiti? The grand boulevards that look so uniform and graceful in pictures were jam packed with cars, motorcycles and buses - strewn with loose trash - it was hard to notice anything else.
As I walked along a dirty side street I started to feel betrayed as if I'd married perfection only to wake up next to a wretched mess. The entire day I spent looking for Paris had taken it's toll, I was positiviely famished. I asked a man on the street for his gastronomic recommendations but he just shrugged and motioned to the burger joint on the corner. Disheartened I marched on but desperation now filled my heart in place of wonderment and anticipation. The midday sun was hot and unforgiving, tormenting me with it's rays. My feet hurt and I wreaked of perspiration. In the distance I saw a hill rising up over Paris holding the most beautiful domed church glistening in the sun and I thought finally I'd found the Paris of postcard fame. Depleted of energy I gave into a kabob seller and devoured it on the way. The classiest parts of a city always seem to be at the crest of a hill and this one no doubt cradled the Paris I knew so I attacked it with renewed vigor. Stairs led to more stairs and I started to glimpse cobblestone streets and gardens. My pulse quickened as did my pace. Readying myself to be overwhelmed I reached a plateau and as I turned the corner my heart hit the pavement smashing into a thousand pieces. There in front of me was a sex shop selling all kinds of vulgar and despicable things used for God knows what. Across the street was an adult video store next to a 7-11. Not giving up I continued to climb only to be harassed by an infestation of mimes and incapable artists offering to cut my side profile from a piece of paper worth only a fraction of what they asked. The mimes gave way to caricaturists and tourist shops selling trinkets and Eiffel tower key chains.
I could take no more. I was devastated, my heart felt like it had been run over by a truck and my spirit crushed. I'd been walking all day, my dogs were barking and my knees hurt. I started the long decent from this mound of despair and disappointment. I felt like someone had pricked me with a thousand needles and let out my life force. I felt lied to and betrayed, I felt used and then I felt angry. For the next 20 minutes while I descended the hill called Montmartre the anger in me boiled. How could so many people get Paris wrong? Where did the writers and painters get the inspiration for the Paris I'd heard so much about? Exhausted I decided to descend into the dreaded subway system and take the first train going anywhere but here. Since I had arrived I had avoided the Metro in an attempt to spend every waking moment in awe wandering the streets of Paris. Now exhausted, I no longer cared. I figured what I saw in the subway was going to be no worse than what was on the street. The train clacked from station to station to a destination I'd never heard of. I had no idea where Chatillion-Montrouge was nor did I care. In my daze of disbelief a disturbing thought penetrated my mind. What if this train is taking me to the housing projects where the recent riots took place? Visions of overturned cars and street fires impregnated my thoughts. The Paris riots were real to me now as I could imagine THAT Paris. In a flash the walls of the subway car seemed to cave in on me and I couldn't breath. The train stopped at a station and I frantically scrambled toward the door shoving my way through the crowd of people and nearly fell to the ground. Gasping for air I clambered up the stairs to the surface. What have I done coming here?
With my head dragging I walked up the broad expanse of concrete paralleling the street in search of a place to rest. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small table outside a cafe. As I sat down a man wearing a white apron approached me and asked me something in French. I barely glanced up and just responded with un café, s'il vous plait and he vanished into the shop only to return in a few quick moments with the cutest little cup of coffee. I sat there head drooping over my cup contemplating the agony in my feet when I noticed the bistro table I was sitting at rocked a bit. I looked down at the ground only have cobblestones staring back at me. My eyes followed the dainty wrought iron table leg up to the tiny round table surface which was covered in a starch white linen cloth. Another sip of coffee brought warmth to my skin and a sparkle to my eye. As I sat there silently cup in hand my eyes lifted and I started to take in my surroundings. The silence was broken by an orderly column of children dressed in their best school uniforms marching down the opposite side of the lazy boulevard. They came to a stop near two large double doors - wood with dark green paint on the verge of peeling. It appeared to be an automobile entrance to an inner courtyard or was it? Maybe it was a secret garden filled with cherry blossoms and a swing hanging from a tree. With that thought I could feel the corner of my mouth rise just a tad. The school teacher leading the group opened a smaller inset door and each child stepped high over the pronounced door sill like a bunch of ducks waddling onto shore. For a second I glimpsed through the door another world unknown to me until then. I saw a clothes line weighed down by fresh laundry dancing in a beam of sunlight over the cobblestone entryway like a living Picasso. Next to the entryway was a window barely holding in the rhythmic succession of tones identifiable as Edith Piaf singing Le Vie en Rose. The melody eeked and squirmed it's way out the window, through the blowing sheets and narrowly escaped the attention of the children only to land softly on the ears of a total stranger across the street drinking an innocent cup of coffee -Quand il me prend dans ses bras Il me parle tout bas, Je vois la vie en rose. The muscles in my neck, tense a minute ago relaxed and the rest of my body followed. The sounds of kids shuffling their feet across the 2nd story parquet covered floor vanished abruptly when the teacher closed the window. With my attention now drawn to the balcony surrounding the window my eyes followed every swirl of the ironwork railing, Art Nouveau I thought to myself. Above it was another balcony with the same beautiful ironwork and above that another. My eyes quickly raced from one building to the next only to find more of the same. It appeared all buildings on this boulevard had similar balconies - short one that is. That building, a lonely brown edifice a couple steps into the distance was devoid of any ironwork but in it's stead had a grand stone entrance with two nymphs bearing the cornice on their shoulders. They looked as if it were the heavens they were suspending and maybe it was. My eyes wandered upward to the third story terrace which cradled two large double glass doors. These were made from the type of glass had that dark contrasty look to them that's not present in modern panes which in turn made the heavy crimson drapes hiding behind them all the more vibrant. Why had I not noticed this before I silently asked myself and why had it remained hidden until now?
My attention was abruptly interrupted when a man riding by on an old single speed cruiser style bicycle rang his bell while swerving around an older couple crossing the street. He was dressed in what appeared to be very lightweight gauzy pants and shirt, white in color and looked extremely comfortable in the summer heat. A man definitely couldn't get away with dressing like that in the states. He did not have a baguette under his arm nor did he wear a beret but his basket was filled with his daily produce consisting of a head of lettuce and other miscellaneous vegetables in the company of a carton of milk. The man no doubt on his way home after a long day at work lazily pedaled his bicycle down the street ringing his bell when needed.
Something unexpected began to happen right about then. The school children, the bicyclist, the ironwork balconies, the nymphs, the little unstable bistro table and the waiter in his white apron. I looked into my tiny cup of cafe only to see in the reflection a face barely holding back tears and no sooner could I wipe them a woman walking by, turned and approached me. Excusez-moi. I raised my head to see who was addressing me. Are you OK?, she asked recognizing me as a tourist and thoughtfully using the English phrase. I focused on the voice only to find a woman in her mid thirties wearing a loose fitting dress crafted from a flower printed fabric. I nodded my head and pushed out a timid oui. With a relieved look on her face she replied with "OK, au revoir". Unbeknownst to me her daughter of about 4 was hiding behind her skirt the entire time. As she turned on her red stiletto heels to walk away the little girl looked back at me with the most beautiful deep brown eyes I'd ever seen only partially covered by her curly locks. I about melted as I realized that the Paris I'd been searching so hard for had in fact... found me. The warmth I'd felt earlier returned with renewed vigor as I raised my cup to my lips I saw yet another shape in the reflection. A shape that seemed oddly familiar. I looked up only to see the Cafe's glass windows looking back at me. I once again looked into my cup and as predictable as the sunrise there it was, the strange and yet familiar shape. A shape so elegant and feminine and positively beautiful. Determined, I again peered into the cafe windows to ascertain the origins of the object and realized that the reflection was not actually of an object but rather another reflection. The reflection was in fact a reflection of a reflection on an object that appeared to be directly behind me.
I turned my head slowly like a lover meeting a secret admirer for the first time at the beckoning of an anonymous note. As I my eyes lifted my heart skipped a beat - there she stood, the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, feet spread apart with her lacy skirt stretched tight between her knees. Her left arm was so very elegantly raised toward the sky topped with a dazzling light. She was fabulously gorgeous with her tall slender lines and graceful stance. Ms. Eiffel looked down upon me from her 1000 foot perch and I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye. I imagine others saw it as well but a part of me wants to think it was only for me, even if for a second. Something sprang forth from my heart just then, a combination of things really. It's as if throughout my entire life I'd placed certain special emotions in a safe place to be brought out all together for that one moment that defines my very being. It's as if the purpose of every second of my life was only to lead up to this very moment. That instant I took those special emotions out and with the utmost care unwrapped them. Joy, happiness and serenity all substantial in their own right promptly melded into something greater - love, yes LOVE. I felt as I'd been separated from my one true love and now after a lifetime of searching, rejoined. With that feeling everything else started to make sense, the anguish, fear, uncertainty, happiness and sadness. The tumblers in happiness's locked door rotated and solidly clicked into place. Life started to make sense and the things I'd forever hated gained favor. Without night there would be no day, winter no summer? Without jealousy would love have it's place? Without fear would we yearn for safety? Would we be thankful if we had no pain?
The waiter returned with another cup of coffee and smiled warmly at my tear dotted notebook that I'd been clutching then quickly disappeared back into the darkened doorway. He knew as did the rest of them. What a way to spend your time, watching people repeatedly fall in love. With that I got out my pen and I started to write. I wrote about the man selling kebabs and the sex shops. I wrote about my aching feet and my disappointment. But most of all I wrote about what happened to me. I wrote about Love - Paris Je'taime - Paris I love.
Water. It's what's to drink. Water is used to replenish the body, to bathe in and to clean with. It's also something to wash your car with or splash about on a hot day. Water does what water does, it's the liquid that defines the term but on a much simpler level it's just a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen and even though tremendously useful is nothing more. Water is inanimate, not living, just a substance - or so I believed before that day – the day I went to sea.
The day in reference was the day I went to sea, the day that would change forever my views of our most abundant resource. Before that day my vision of water was that of a relatively insignificant element of our environment that occupied rivers and lakes and could always be sized up in a single glance. Even almighty Lake Michigan felt like as if it had an opposite shore even if it wasn't always visible. I was warned by those more experienced than I to take motion sickness a day before leaving the security of land. I of course viewed this as an overreaction because I was one of those people who could read a book in the back of a car on a winding hilly road with forest shadows splattering my page without incident. I figured that either way my breakfast was going to stay where I put it so there was no harm lost. Either because of this action or in spite of it I did well that day.
We met the boat before the sun peaked it's head from under the proverbial sheets of darkness. The boat pulled away from the pier and the water was a bit rough but overall my impression was that the voraciousness of the sea was overrated. Just as that thought had passed from my mind we rounded the breakers and the ocean's snarling face appeared! The hull or our 45 feet boat reared in the air and then crashed down upon the first of many waves. The ocean pushed us about like a raging river. Undeterred the captain headed directly into the waves hopefully aware of what he was doing and accompanying each wave rudely invading the deck was a 20 foot spray of water.
The prospective fishermen, myself included were huddled in the stern of the boat in view of our past but uncertain of our future. Following in our wake were some smaller cabin cruisers of about 30 ft. They were the kind you see "well to do" folks taking pleasure cruises on lakes with - the sort that sleep three or four comfortably below deck with little room left to squirm. Even inside our wake they were struggling to keep up and one by one they were unable to fight the opposing forces and turned back toward land until finally we were alone.
Land itself shrunk to the point where we could only see it when cresting a swell and then it too was no longer visible leaving us surrounded by an unfathomable expanse of water. Alone at sea I thought, how disturbing. The swells were 30 foot hills that we had to climb and once we got to the top the boat raced down the other side only for the diesel motor to spew a dark cloud of smoke into the air as the vessel strained to climb the next. Not completely alone, there were other boats, how many I don't know because they were impossible to count as you couldn't actually see any more than a few at a time. The swells were large enough that when at the bottom you could only see water beneath and next you. Even the early morning sun would disappear but as the boat would clamor to the top of a swell your vision would open up to miles of water and anything in it would appear before you. It seemed you could see the whole world but in fact only the other boats that had risen to the top as well were visible. Countless others were making their way down the swells or climbing out and for all practical purposes didn't exist, at least for a few moments at a time. The old adage about a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it came to mind. If you're in the sea and nobody knows do you really exist?
When we got to our destination the boat appeared to stop. It's really impossible to know if you're moving on the ocean because the illusion of the current moving beneath you betrays your sense of motion. When the boat is not under power it appears as if it were still moving because the water under it is flowing by and in fact the vessel may be standing still or not - there's no real way to tell. I think that we were probably going with it toward the shore but at a slower pace. That's only a theory because I couldn't prove it if I had to. I also don't know for sure if the direction we were moving in really was toward the shore come to think of it. On the way out I tried to stay oriented as to the direction of land with the idea that it would calm my fears but after a few minutes things started to get turned around. Once you've lost your point of reference in the land you only have two things to keep you centered, the direction of the water and the position of the sun. After about 15 minutes the two of them no longer agreed and without a third witness I no longer knew the way to the safety of good old Terre Firma.
Things in the ocean are not measured on the same scale as things on land, a lesson I learned that day. The creatures themselves grow without the same physical limitations of space that restrict our familiar land animals. Blue whales dwarf anything existing on land including the largest dinosaurs from the prehistoric age. Even fish barely worthy of saving are fifty pounds. Coming from a place where a 10 inch trout was reason enough to go to town and boast at the local pub I didn't know what to think. The scale is so out of proportion that you lose your point of reference. Someone hauled in a giant King Salmon and the crew didn't even bat an eyelash. It was at that time the largest fish I'd ever seen but in comparison to a Blue Marlin or a Sturgeon it must have seemed like a minnow to the experienced fisherman.
After moving to several new locations for reasons only the captain knew since they were indiscernible to us we headed back toward land or or what we hoped was land and not toward being a statistic. Twenty fishermen lost at sea on a perfectly calm day was not what I wanted to see in the papers when I returned, if I returned. Perhaps being lost to a great battle with a giant sea monster that threatened peaceful life as we know it would have been more appropriate. But try as we might the sea monsters didn't come out to play.
The ride back was calmer and more serene. It was then that I realized something about the sea - it was alive. I'm not referencing the parasites that live off it like the crustaceans and fish or even the humans riding upon it's surface but the sea itself. In my little experience I had learned the sea could be angry at us and thrash us about when we came unto it uninvited, I saw it cross it's arms and sulk when we proceeded for hours with unwavering determination. I saw it happy, almost playful and accepting of us when it tossed us about as if we were a small toy. I swear I could hear giggles of audible glee emanate from it as it rocked us and watched the smiles come over our faces. Now on our return trip I saw something else in the sea, something I never knew was possible. The sea turned toward us and offered us it's hand. We'd gained it's respect and in turn it offered us safe passage home. I saw an animacy in the sea that day, I saw a living thing with personality. On the journey home the sea cuddled us like a small child, protecting us from the dangers that lie in wait. With each rolling wave we were gently carried over the crest and put down so very delicately to avoid harm. A close friend of the Sea from the beginning of time had appeared and was bathing us in it's warm rays of light - as if by association we'd gained another friend, the Sun. The ancients saw something in us that they admired but I'm not really certain what it was - in relation to them I felt like I barely existed - insignificant to the indescribable degree - barely more than nothing at all. How incredibly humbling..
As the sea carried us I stood on the bow and watched it rise up and heave us forward, powerfully carrying us on it's back like a mighty stead carrying a knight toward his destiny. Something had changed about it - it was no longer water, the stuff you drink, splash about in and satisfy your plants thirst with but rather one large entity, thick and powerful. It didn't seem thin and frail like water from the tap, it didn't splash or slosh but rather flowed slowly forward like it was heavier than liquid gold - it was massive and muscular to say the least and very much overwhelming. Although it's power on this earth is unequaled and with one crashing blow can wreak massive destruction it also has a tender side, a humane side. The sea is a very personal being with mood swings not unlike our own. During the first half of this journey I couldn't wait to return to the unmovable security of land but as it came into view it seemed, well, disappointing, so inanimate and lacking energy or feeling - in a word - lifeless. The place I'd always clung to was simply nothing but dirt and rock with little to give short of a place to stand - meaningless in comparison to the vibrant energy and power of the sea. As I stepped off the boat I turned to the sea and with regret and a tear in my eye I bid it farewell.
The following year I returned to the same location anxious to be reunited with my new friend but something was different. I came carrying arrogance and pride and neglected to take my medicine until the night before. The next day was spent either leaning over the side of the boat giving offerings to the sea or hiding in the galley. Myself and the sea I'd previously met never crossed paths and this time unlike the last I looked forward to land with great anticipation. I left the shore humbled and sad, saying nothing of my disappointment and have to this very day never returned. On occasion I wave from the security of land but the sea rightfully pays me no attention.