Lucien Knoedler – Mr. Tan

Mr. Tan
by Lucien Knoedler

For Carl

Peace and serenity plunged in a quiet South Sea sweetness. These words crossed my mind when retracing two small watercolours from Fak-Fak, in the olive-green cabin trunk bearing my dad’s name in big white block letters. Each depicts a small wooden house on tree-trunks and a manned proa: one is set in hazy moonlight, the other at sunset or daybreak, but since the Arafura Sea reaches westward it should be the evening glow. These idylls were made by Mr. Tan. Fak-Fak is located in a territory of 323,000 km², which was Dutch New Guinea formerly. For 50 years it has been Indonesia’s easternmost part, since divided into West Papua and Papua. The small town, in West Papua now, was widely spread on the steep slopes of the Fak-Fak Mountains, and its rough and unpaved roads hardly allowed any motorized traffic, except for the military vehicles from the barracks at the top. I lived here from my third to ninth year, with a break of six months in Holland, in 1955.

Amongst the goods and chattels my dad left me, I found a variety of ethnographic objects from remote tribes in the southern areas called Mimika and Asmat, then still living in the Stone Age: amulets, a scary wicker mask, daggers made from the bones of wild boars and nose pieces’ skilfully carved from bones. I also pulled an axe out, a cut stone wrapped with bamboo cords onto a tree branch, a forked limb, to obtain the scarcely nourishing insides of the sago palms, as well as various-sized penis gourds. In between these mostly male-chauvinist edifying works and, sure enough, a woman’s petticoat-like skirt of straw, I discovered an oil by Mr. Tan. This represented a Papua property on dusty russet-coloured ground with a coconut tree and banana trees on both sides, each delicately painted, with, in the foreground, a skinny old woman with a naked torso. In the background, roughly depicted, the Arafura Sea and, in the distance, Pulu Panjang, many miles of a long, wooded island offshore ending at the bay of Fak-Fak. On the back of the painting, in elegant calligraphy, was a dedication to my mom. Signed K. T. Tan, 1955.

Though this oil doesn’t express any presumption, in spite of its refinements and excellent sense of colour, it still isn’t a product of an innocent pastime. Don’t we humans develop our conscience and empathy by inadvertently training the coordination between our hands, eyes and ears? While practicing on a musical instrument, through handwriting, drawing, painting, carving, creating sculptures anyhow or by just playing freely, we do, meanwhile, connect and liberate the others and ourselves simultaneously. Mr. Tan too enabled himself to relate to his surroundings, with taste and care; with mindful attention to addressing his imagination this way, he also gained the courage to endure the prospect of being hospitalized for years to come.

I sometimes think of my early childhood involuntary, when it starts raining after a hot summer’s day when the air is all at once filled with a spicy, hallucinatory aroma that almost makes me sneeze. The pores of all organisms open up, I have been told, to receive water from heaven with insatiable hedonism, completely scented. Aren’t taste and smell by far the oldest senses? All memory is stored therein, in order to survive. Quite functional, isn’t it? It’s pure magic in just that instant, to be vainly searched for on demand. Our memory is most limited, however, in contrast to what we usually pretend. Traveling in the past depends upon our innate resourcefulness to easily by-pass and bridge chasms and clefts, most of the time confusing dates and the order of events, and unscrupulously inserting inaccurate stories belonging to other people as well.

While leafing through my dad’s papers, I caught sight of a few letters Mr. Tan had sent my mom on typewritten aerograms. Amongst them was a handwritten card on which he reported he was definitely cured of leprosy as he travelled to Sorong by ship, 150 miles northward from where he had undergone a successful surgery on both his feet. Little by little, I was able to call Mr. Tan to mind. I was six years old when I first met him—I think it must have been in January 1958, during the dry season when temperatures regularly exceeded 40°C at midday.

It was in the afternoon when my mom said that she wanted to take me to Mr. Tan. She called me right after siesta, a deadly dull siesta for me that ended at four precisely. Impatient, I once set the clock in the living room half an hour forward, but just before I wanted to leave, my dad turned up from the bedroom noticing in surprise that time had flown. As he saw my fright right away, he didn’t give me a stern look in return, instead, pointing out that I should stay inside as a punishment just as the time when I had once climbed out of my bedroom window too early. On the contrary, he burst out laughing and let me go. I was so relieved I decided to never ever repeat this short cut either.

The leprosy hospital, my mom and I went to, stood under coconut-trees by the sea, just outside the shopping centre of Fak-Fak. This kota was just another unpaved, bumpy and stuffy road about a mile long, flanked by low houses of mostly stone along the cliff face at the left, and on the sea side, wooden houses of which the irregular back parts leaned on a forest of pales sticking into the beach. Among the stores was a large Chinese caboodle with a small department offering a lot of toys, mostly cheap and fragile ones made in Japan, but attractive since quite a few were battery-driven. There were big-sized trucks and cars, planes and a UFO too, tricked out with little colourful lights. Imagine my surprise once I recognized the face of the owner of this shop emerging from the broad stone staircase while I was celebrating my birthday with my friends on the lawn in front of our house. As he stood on the platform it appeared that he carried a lot of toys, the ones I had pointed to at his casual request a few months earlier. “Which do you like?” he asked. And I remember well my dad’s face then; at first he looked embarrassed, then he sighed resignedly. He very much disliked me to be involved with anyone because of his position, this shouldn’t have happened in front of my peers anyhow, as these toys could have been part of a contraband, he explained to me later. Wasn’t this a disguised request for a favour? This happened indeed more often later on.

Fak-Fak’s shopping street, onto which the leprosy hospital faced, ended in the wooden dock of the bay standing in turquoise seawater dotted with coral and tiny colourful fish. Over the water, some 500 yards farther, next to a huge rock wall lay Danawaria, a kampong hidden behind mango trees next to a huge multi-branched bayan, also called waringin, which according to indigenous belief, represented the tree of life. Wasn’t there in the distance on the white beach, next to the mangrove, a big American landing craft rotting since it had been left in the aftermath of the Second World War too, as several near Hollandia, the capital? In Fak-Fak, a similar vessel belonging to the navy was still in service.

My mom had visited the leper clinic since we’d arrived in Fak-Fak, back in mid 1954, and now she wanted to introduce me to Mr. Tan. He had asked for me, she’d explained on the way. A 15-minute walk down along a steep, irregular footpath next to rocky wasteland below our house at the left, the general hospital and the hard courts at another lower plateau on the other side, the lepers’ stay lay beyond, behind high bushes. Before we walked up the wooden stairs to the front door, three steps up, my mom told me that Mr. Tan had lived here for many years. I looked at his house: a large wooden shed of about 50 x 80 feet on pales put on the beach during the war, I learned, inside a lime-washed open space with on top, probably the original zinc roof turned weather-beaten, darkly, glowing in the burning sun. Under the shutterless high window frames covered with mosquito nets, about 20 beds stood equally split over both sides of the ward.

The leper village near Merauke, the town of about 2,000 inhabitants where we lived next—along the coast of what is called Papua nowadays, 750 miles south-eastward of Fak-Fak—was incomparably better equipped: a central clinic with private houses and rooms for singles and families. My mom officially opened this missionary-work, initiated village. After all, she was the wife of the resident commissioner, now the head of the second largest of the five provinces of the Dutch overseas territory of West New Guinea, as he formerly was of the smaller province of Fak-Fak. While my mom cut the tape in the burning sun observed by quite a crowd, my dad stood at her left side and on her right side, in a white cassock, Mgr. Tillemans, the Bishop of Berissa seated in Merauke—an ample man with restless eyes.

The two men, acquaintances since they had met in Melbourne and Brisbane during the war, were often involved in a fierce demarcation dispute. However, the prelate was fond of my mom, a vicar’s daughter, and this amended the antagonists’ conflicts, it seemed. What’s more, my father did acknowledge that missionaries, both Catholics and evangelicals of diverse nationalities, started developing aid projects in New Guinea long before the war. In contrast, the Dutch government actively appeared there after 1949, after it acknowledged Indonesia’s independence. This part of the former Dutch East Indies was assumed would become a nation by itself in due course (adjacent to Papua New Guinea, no longer belonging to Australia, but an independent state since 1975). However from above, this was done in a stepmotherly way, also disparaging the experienced and dedicated officers on the spot, meanwhile equipping them marginally and paying them very badly for their demanding work, even though life was very expensive due to the long supply routes. As a matter of fact, to the Bible-driven pioneers and to the usually highly-educated government officers later on, living wasn’t without risk, if not downright dangerous, deep in this vast and sparsely populated territory of largely impenetrable rainforests, crisscrossed by huge, meandering rivers and an extremely rough mountain chain, the centre peak of which, Puncak Jaya, is one of the world’s seven highest summits. Even though my dad respected Mgr. Tillemans’ authority and anthropological insights, the prelate’s efforts to interfere with government affairs made his eyes sputter with fire. He found he had little in common with the Catholic authorities. After all, as an 11-year-old, a priest had told him his Madura-born mom didn’t deserve a place heaven because she was a Muslim. His Catholic baptized dad—a Javanese whose grandfather, originating from Southern Germany, cohabitated with a native Muslim woman soon after his arrival as just a 19-year-old—of course did. My great-great-great-grandparents’ 13 daughters and four sons were all upstanding baptized Catholics, as they got German first names as well—onto the fourth generation. Born on the Indonesian island of Madura, my dad wasn’t baptized, though. (His father didn’t care about it and only acknowledged his only child at the town hall). As he didn’t adhere to any creed and considered all religions equal, this may explain Mgr. Tillemans’ quiet dismissive attitude towards him, too. Anyhow, in my dad’s cabin trunk I found a shoebox containing all kinds of snapshots and a stack of handmade invitations for Christmas and Happy New Year from Merauke’s leper village, each entirely Catholic inspired.

Back to Mr. Tan. He was of Chinese-Indonesian origin and used to be a school teacher, then, I guess, in his late 40s, more than 10 years my mom’s senior. I still see him before me: both feet contorted, thin as a rake, with a grimace around his mouth. My mom hinted at him with her chin, accompanied by a wide-eyed and stern expression that I knew too well when I had to keep low right away. An unnecessary warning, as usual. Without pointing, she referred to the row of beds on the left side. Returning her look with the same expression, I indicated that I had noticed him already. Come on, he was the only patient in the room! Lying at the centre, he had turned to the entrance, huddled, on a bed covered with a white sheet. He stared ahead, musing, it seemed to me, his coal-black eyes wide open.

At this time of day, about five o’clock, the residents preferred to stay outside, below the barracks where chickens and a rooster scratched. Except, Mr. Tan did not. Did he expect us? At the back of the ward, the double doors were wide open and through them I saw the island of Pulu Panjang. Next to the doors, two nurses whispered in each other’s ears. They had—if I remember correctly—pale grey suits on, high fitting to just below the knee, with long sleeves and a white apron over it, their bare feet in solid brown shoes. From a small cap on their heads, an equally tinted headscarf hung halfway down the back, the front trimmed with a white, starched edge. Both missionaries waited at the entrance when my mom and I entered, their hands folded above their waists while nodding with a smile, bowing their heads graciously. They stood next to a much younger doctor, a relaxed leper specialist with soft brown eyes in a narrow and pale face under black straight hair. He wore a long white jacket with short sleeves; around his neck, a stethoscope.

My mother waited at the foot of Mr. Tan’s bed. As soon as he noticed us, his face brightened; he clambered and then sat up, delighted as children in a classroom awaiting their turns, it seemed to me. His frail body in an open pyjama top looked so fragile. With a soft, yet warm and clear voice he spoke, as now and then he crowed with pleasure, his almost toothless mouth wide open.

In the blazing heat, the salty breeze barely offered cooling. In an hour, night would fall and the mercury would drop rapidly to about 30°C. Farther on, the breakers continuously pounded on the reef, and since it was high tide, the seawater slid on the sand under the hospital floor, slowly sighing. I wondered what might happen during the monsoon when the fronts of sky-high, pitch-black clouds arrived over the turbulent Arafura Sea and, once over land, gushed their huge loads with thundering violence on this building. These downpours often caused banjirs also flooding the deep, cemented gutters along the covered porches around our hilltop house. A deafening pandemonium it must be under this hospital’s zinc roof time and time again. Could it withstand so much rain?

In their conversations my mom called him Mr. Tan, as he addressed her with “madame.” She also encouraged him with crayons, oil and canvases she ordered from Holland. No wonder, I later heard my father explain, since she attended art school, as did her grandfather. I can’t draw at all, he would continue, but she does. Did I ever see her doing so? Hardly. In a rash moment, perhaps. The materials for Mr. Tan arrived with the Kaluku, the Karossa or the Kasimbar. With an interval of a few months one after the other, these Singapore-loaded, 2,000 BRT cargos with passenger accommodation from the Dutch Royal Shipping Company lay at anchor in the lee of Pulu Panjang, near the bay of Fak-Fak. From the view from the lawn in front of our house, I could see the boat lying in the distance. Big chests, piles of boxes and bags of rice and other victuals were loaded into barges and transported to the jetty in the bay. As all letters came by Beaver, a single-engine water plane with which we had arrived and would leave again, a parcel by sea always contained a gift to me from my grandma: a dinky-toy or coloured pencils or a meccano kit.

Mr. Tan’s resilience amazed me, as if the increasingly mutilating leprosy didn’t bother him. Once drawing he was in his element, forgetting everything around him. Now and then he asked my mom for advice while seemingly covering his drawing pad from me—which I found strange, because he was sitting high on his bed, so I couldn’t see what he was depicting, or was he just fond of teasing me?—meanwhile keeping a couple of pencils in his battered fists and a pair clamped between his lips. I was not allowed to touch those pencils anymore, my mother had warned me at the front door. In the meantime, Mr. Tan sized me up swiftly, and I noticed, while he was looking at my mom, he seemed to nodding approvingly. He could smile too, or did I imagine this? In her presence, he felt senang, happy, and that pleased me.

Mr. Tan didn’t return to Fak-Fak. After he was cured, he had found a job in Sorong involving missionary work and leprosy control. We lost contact after the sudden death of my mom ten years after I met him. From his letters emerged a person of remarkable determination and accuracy, as well as of elegance. What’s more, he was very well able to handle the typewriter, despite his handicapped hands that were missing quite a few fingers. In any case, his writing shows hardly any error, his command of the Dutch language was exemplary—as certainly was his Ambonese and Cantonese as well, I suspect.

After first writing to express his gratitude for the letter my mom had written him on December 20, 1965 and for the goods that had reached him unopened, he continued his reply of January 18, 1966. Starting with a description about the weather in Sorong, just south of the equator, he imagined winter in Holland would be much too cold for him. In the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the daily temperature in Sorong didn’t drop below 25°C, he explained. The date of this epistle showed that two years and nine months had passed since the government of the western part of the island of New Guinea had been transferred to Indonesia. In the next passages, he commented on the worsening living conditions since the Dutch had left. Food shortages occurred regularly, while even remote luxury goods were either unavailable or stolen right away. It obviously lacked a general authority, he underlined, as anyone showing the courage to complain to the police of any crime, was likely to disappear in jail himself. Shipments by post had proved unreliable, since parcels were often opened before delivery or simply disposed. Any goods from Holland should be packed and sent separately, he stressed, also recommending safer alternatives, such as sending goods in the luggage of missionaries traveling to Irian Barat (as the western part of the island of New Guinea was first called after 1 May 1963). He painstakingly put down both their names and congregations.

A considerable part of his letters contained extensive lists of the equipment he needed, such as a tape recorder—a Philips EL 3585—as well as 1 Adaptor AG 7022, 1 Adaptor cable EL 3768/06, 1 Connecting cable EL 3768/00 and 1 Connecting lead EL 3768/02. All this was to be financed by his benefactresses, among whom was my mom. He also emphasized not to confuse apparently similar equipment, explaining how to avoid this, as the tape recorder would be used to spread the Gospel in remote territories of New Guinea. It’s quite amusing to see how carefully detailed Mr. Tan expressed himself; he must have been a strict but fair teacher, keeping everything under control, now eagerly liaising close contact with people far and wide.

Finally, I found a black & white photo he sent to my mom, taken in Sorong after his foot surgery. He appears sideways, a man of small stature wearing a dark jacket over a tieless white shirt and probably khaki trousers. He wears glasses in a light frame and holds a tiny, rolled, tobacco cigarette in his left hand. It appears that he has gained quite some weight. He signed the oil dedicated to my mom with the initials K.T., his letters closed with Ch.T. Tan—Christiaan Tan now apparently—as he wrote in a small, but self-confident signature.

Juliet K. R. Cutler – Morogoro Market

Morogoro Market
by Juliet K. R. Cutler

Hesitant about leaving the relative safety of the Land Rover, I sat for several minutes studying the open-air market as if witnessing it before entering it would make me feel more at ease. I recited a few basic Swahili phrases to myself with the stifling knowledge that I didn’t know nearly enough, and I briefly closed my eyes and took a deep breath. As much as I wanted to be in Tanzania, the truth was, right then, I wanted to hide.

An overhead patchwork of thatched roofing, plastic tarps, and burlap sacks shaded the improvised market from the intense mid-afternoon sun. Piles of tomatoes, avocadoes, oranges, mangoes, and papayas were neatly stacked in small groups on makeshift tables and in brightly colored buckets of every size and hue. Women, young and old, shared the day’s news as they tended to their fruits and vegetables—washing, sorting, and selling—while small children played together underfoot.

At the edge of the market, a sinewy old woman sat on the ground, her legs extended in front of her, a flat round basket in her lap. She sorted rocks from rice.

Several sun-wrinkled men leaned on their walking sticks in the shade of a nearby mango tree—their silhouettes bent together in quiet, leisurely discussion. They watched as women came and went with easy, careful grace—a basket, a bucket, or a huge tier of bananas balanced upon their heads.

Watching them, I felt foolish in my fear, yet fearful nonetheless. As a mzungu, or white person, I knew as soon as I left the Land Rover, I would instantly become the center of attention, something I commonly sought to avoid even in familiar settings. But here, there was no place for me to hide. To them, I was colorless, brilliant white in a sea of bold color incarnate. As I reluctantly slid out of the Land Rover, I tried to shrink, to become invisible, to blend in, but it was impossible. Every head was turned. Every eye was upon me.

I moved through the market haphazardly, looking for nothing in particular, and playing my part as the unwilling spectacle. I avoided eye contact. I didn’t speak. The smaller children stared wide-eyed, clinging to their mothers a little tighter. The older children whispered to one another and pointed. A woman stretched toward me, “Sister, sister, I give you good price.” Dust and human toil, sunlight and stench, flies amid delight—I was overwhelmed.

It wasn’t long before I realized I was being followed. A group of three boys trailed several paces behind me. I glanced at them out of the corner of my eye as I pulled my backpack off my back and held it close to my chest. The youngest looked to be four or five and the oldest maybe eight or nine. They were dressed in dirty, overly roomy blue shorts and ragged colored t-shirts, and they weren’t wearing shoes.

I didn’t want to look directly at them. I didn’t know what to say if they asked me for money. I composed my Swahili phrase in my mind, ‘Hamna shillingi kwa wewe. There isn’t any money for you.’ A message, I supposed, they received in many ways.

I intuitively avoided the market’s interior as I began to make erratic turns here and there in an effort to lose the boys. I kept a close watch on the Land Rover that had brought me from the language school where I was studying to the marketplace to “practice my Swahili in an authentic environment.” I nervously browsed the fruits and vegetables, and I vacantly nodded in response to any use of Swahili. The small parade of boys persisted.

I counted the minutes until my real-life language lesson was over and I could return to the safety of my small, spare room at the language school. Just before the appointed departure time, I stood within dashing distance of the Land Rover and turned to face the three boys, prepared with my Swahili phrase.

The smallest boy reached out to me with a wide, juicy smile and quietly offered me half of his peeled orange. He was eating the other half.

I blinked back hot tears as I knelt down to the boy’s eye level and smiled back at him. We remained like this for a long moment, as the market’s cacophony receded into the background. He’d caught me unprepared, but it didn’t matter. We didn’t need words, Swahili or otherwise, for this exchange.

Lucien Knoedler – Meneer Tan

Meneer Tan
Lucien Knoedler

Voor Carl

Pais en vree gedompeld in Stille Zuidzeezoetheid. Deze woorden vielen mij in zodra ik twee aquarellen uit Fak-Fak terugvond, verborgen in de olijfgroene hutkoffer waarop in grote witte blokletters mijn vaders naam stond. Op elk prijkt een rieten huisje en een bemande prauw: het ene tafereel in nevelige maneschijn, het andere bij zonsondergang of ochtendgloren, maar aangezien de Arafoerazee zich er ten westen uitstrekt moet het avondrood zijn. Deze idylles zijn gemaakt door meneer Tan. Fak-Fak is gesitueerd in een gebied van 323.000 km² dat voorheen Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea heette. Sinds 50 jaar is dit het meest oostelijke domein van Indonesië, inmiddels onderverdeeld in Papua en West-Papua. Het stadje, nu in West-Papua, lag toentertijd wijd verspreid over de steile hellingen van het Fak-Fakgebergte. Haar ruwe, onverharde wegen stonden gemotoriseerd verkeer nauwelijks toe, behalve dan voor de militaire voertuigen van de kazerne bovenaan de berg. Ik woonde hier van mijn derde tot mijn negende jaar, met in 1955 een onderbreking van zes maanden in Nederland.

Tussen de have en goederen die mijn vader mij naliet, vond ik allerlei etnografica afkomstig uit de zuidelijke gebieden die Mimika en Asmat heten. De mensen in deze contreien leefden destijds nog in het Stenen Tijdperk. Ik haalde amuletten tevoorschijn, een angstaanjagend rieten masker en dolken gemaakt uit de beenderen van wilde zwijnen, kunstig uit been geneden neusstukken. Verder een bijl, een gepolijste steen die met een koord van bamboe aan een gevorkte tak bevestigd is waarmee de nauwelijks voedzame meel uit de stam van sagopalm werd gewonnen, en peniskokers van diverse lengten. Tussen deze voorwerpen, merendeels ingegeven door mannelijk chauvinisme en, zowaar, een soort strooien petticoat van een vrouw, ontdekte ik een olieverfschilderij van meneer Tan. Het stelt een Papoea-erf voor. Op stoffige, roodbruine grond staat een kamponghuis, aan weerszijden daarvan een klapperboom en pisangbomen, elk subtiel gestalte gegeven, en vooraan een oude vrouw met ontbloot bovenlijf. Op de achtergrond is, ruwweg geschilderd, de Arafoerazee te zien en Poeloe Panjang, het kilometers lange beboste eiland voor de kust dat eindigt ter hoogte van de baai van Fak-Fak. Op de achterzijde van het doek staat in elegante kalligrafie geschreven dat het is opgedragen aan mijn moeder. Was getekend K.T. Tan, 1955.

Uit dit schilderij spreekt dan wel geen enkele pretentie, zelfs al is het nog zo verfijnd en geeft het blijk van een voortreffelijk gevoel voor kleur, toch is het niet de vrucht van onschuldig tijdverdrijf. Immers, ontlenen wij mensen ons bewustzijn en empathie niet onwillekeurig aan de training van de coördinatie tussen onze handen, ogen en oren? Terwijl we een muziekinstrument bespelen of schrijven, tekenen, schilderen, houtsnijden, allerlei sculpturen maken, door enkel vrijelijk te spelen, verbinden en verlossen wij de ander en onszelf gelijktijdig. Zo stelde ook meneer Tan zich in staat zich tot zijn omgeving te verhouden, met zorg en smaak, met aandachtige oplettendheid sprak hij zijn verbeelding aan om zo ook de moed te verzamelen in het vooruitzicht van een jarenlang verblijf in een ziekenhuis.

Onwillekeurig denk ik soms terug aan mijn vroege jeugd, juist als het op een hete zomerdag gaat regenen en de atmosfeer opeens vervuld is van een kruidig, hallucinerend aroma dat me haast doet niezen. De poriën van alle organismen open zich dan, heb ik me laten vertellen, om in onstilbare genotzucht het hemelwater te ontvangen. Zijn geurzin en smaak niet de veruit oudste zintuigen? Alle herinnering ligt erin opgetast, om te overleven. Heel functioneel, nietwaar?. Het is pure magie in een ogenblik die zich op afroep nooit laat wekken. Ons geheugen is immers zeer beperkt, in tegenstelling tot wat we doorgaans pretenderen. In het verleden reizen is afhankelijk van onze ingeboren vindingrijkheid kloven en kliffen gemakkelijk te overbruggen of te omzeilen, terwijl we meestal de data en de volgorde van gebeurtenissen verwarren en ondertussen zonder scrupules ook nog inaccurate verhalen van anderen invoegen

Terwijl ik door de paperassen van mijn vader bladerde, ontdekte ik brieven van meneer Tan aan mijn moeder, getypt op luchtpostpapier. Daartussen een handgeschreven briefkaart waarop hij meldt dat hij van lepra genezen is verklaard en per schip naar Sorong gereisd, 250 kilometer noordwaarts, waar hij met succes aan beide voeten was geopereerd. Allengs kon ik me meneer Tan weer voor de geest halen. Ik was zes jaar oud toen ik met hem kennis maakte—ik meen me te herinneren dat dit in januari 1958 was, in het droge seizoen wanneer het kwik ’s middags wel vaker boven de 40°C uit rees.

Het was op zo’n middag dat mijn moeder mij vertelde dat we naar meneer Tan zouden gaan. Zij riep me meteen na de altijd oersaaie siësta die om vier uur voorbij was. Ik heb uit ongeduld de klok in de zitkamer eens een half uur vooruit gezet, maar juist toen ik de deur uit wilde gaan, kwam mijn vader uit de slaapkamer tevoorschijn, verbaasd dat de tijd vloog. Zodra hij mij beteuterd zag kijken, wierp hij mij niet een strenge blik toe waarmee hij zeggen wilde dat ik voor straf binnen moest blijven zoals toen ik een keer te vroeg uit mijn slaapkamerraam geklommen was. Nee, hij schoot in de lach en liet me gaan. Ik was zo opgelucht en besloot ook deze truc niet nog eens uit te halen.

Het leprozenhospitaal waar mijn moeder en ik naartoe gingen stond onder klapperbomen aan zee, even buiten Fak-Fak, aan het einde van de winkelstraat. Deze kota lag langs een hobbelige en stoffige straat van zo’n anderhalve kilometer lang: lage, merendeels stenen gebouwen links langs de rotswand en aan de zeezijde houten huizen en ook winkels waarvan de uiteenlopende bijgebouwen aan de achterkant op een woud van palen in het lager gelegen strand steunden. Daartussen was een grote Chinese santenkraam waarin een schap met een boel speelgoed, goedkoop en gauw stuk, made in Japan, aanlokkelijk toch omdat de meeste door een batterij werden aangedreven: grote vrachtwagens en auto’s, vliegtuigen en ook een UFO opgesierd met kleine kleurige lichtjes. Wie schetst mijn verbazing toen ik het lachende gezicht van de eigenaar van deze winkel vooraan boven de brede stenen trap tevoorschijn zag komen, terwijl ik met mijn vriendjes mijn verjaardag op het gazon voor ons huis vierde. Eenmaal op het bordes staand bleken zijn armen vol van het speelgoed dat ik een paar maanden eerder op zijn terloopse verzoek had aangewezen. “Welke vind je mooi?” vroeg hij. En ik herinner me ook nog goed mijn vaders gezicht toen de man het speelgoed voor mij neerzette, op het gras; eerst toonde hij zich beschaamd, om vervolgens berustend te zuchten. Wilde hij perse niet dat ik op de ene of andere manier voorgetrokken werd om hem, en dit al helemaal niet in bijzijn van mijn leeftijdgenoten, dit speelgoed zou even goed bij smokkelwaar hebben kunnen zitten, legde hij aan mij later uit. En was dit niet een verkapt verzoek om een gunst? Dit gebeurde later inderdaad wel vaker.

De winkelstraat van Fak-Fak, waar het leprozenhospitaal op uitzag, liep uit op de steiger in de baai waar het turkoois zeewater bezaaid was met koraal en kleine kleurige visjes. Aan de overkant van de baaimonding, ruim 500 meter verderop, lag naast de enorme rotswand Danawaria, een kampong verscholen achter mangabomen naast een imposante, wijdvertakte waringin die naar inheems geloof de levensboom wordt genoemd. Lag daar op het witte strand in de verte bij mangrovebossen niet ook een Amerikaans landingsvaartuig al vanaf de Tweede Wereldoorlog weg te rotten, zoals meerdere bij de hoofdstad Hollandia? Eenzelfde schip deed in Fak-Fak nog steeds dienst, het maakte deel uit van de marine.

Mijn moeder bezocht de leprozerie sinds we medio 1954 in Fak-Fak kwamen wonen, en nu mocht ik meneer Tan ontmoeten. Hij had naar mij gevraagd, verklaarde zij onderweg. Vanaf ons huis een kwartier lopen over een steil en pokdalig pad langs het rotsachtige, braakliggend terrein beneden ons huis links en rechts voorbij het algemeen hospitaal en de tennisbanen op een lager plateau, lag verderop naar beneden het leprozenhospitaal, verborgen achter hoge struiken. Voor we de houten trap naar de voordeur betraden, drie treden omhoog, vertelde mijn moeder dat meneer Tan er al jaren woonde. Ik bekeek zijn huis: een barak, een soort loods op palen van zo’n dertig bij vijftien meter in de oorlog op het strand gezet, was me verteld, van binnen een witgekalkte open ruimte met vast nog hetzelfde dak van donkerbruin uitgeslagen zinken platen die onder de middagzon hevig gloeien. Aan weerszijden van de zaal, onder de luikloze, met muskietengaas bespannen kozijnen, stonden wel twintig bedden in twee gelijke rijen opgesteld.

Het leprozendorp bij Merauke, de stad van zo’n 2000 inwoners waar wij nadien woonden – aan de kust van Papua nu, zo’n 1200 km ten zuidoosten van Fak-Fak – was onvergelijkelijk beter voorzien. Bij een centrale kliniek waren privéhuizen en kamers voor families en alleenstaanden neergezet. Mijn moeder verrichtte de officiële opening van dit door de Missie geïnitieerde dorp. Zij was immers de echtgenote van de resident van de op een na grootste provincie van Nederlands Nieuw-Guinea, zoals hij dit voorheen van de kleinere provincie Fak-Fak was. Terwijl mijn moeder, in de brandende zon gadegeslagen door een menigte, het lint doorknipte, stond mijn vader aan haar linkerzijde en rechts naast haar in een wit habijt Mgr. Tillemans, de Bisschop van Berissa gezeteld in Merauke – een zwaarlijvig heerschap met rusteloze blik.
De twee mannen, sinds hun ontmoetingen tijdens de oorlog in Melbourne en Brisbane bekenden van elkaar, waren niet zelden verwikkeld in een soms scherpe competentiestrijd. De prelaat bleek evenwel gesteld op mijn moeder, een domineesdochter, en dat scheen veel goed te maken. Er kwam bij dat mijn vader terdege besefte dat missionarissen en zendelingen van diverse nationaliteit al lang vóór de oorlog begonnen waren met ontwikkelingswerk in Nieuw-Guinea. De Nederlandse overheid vertoonde zich er pas daadwerkelijk na 1949, sinds de erkenning van de onafhankelijkheid van Indonesië. Dit deel van het voormalige Nederlands-Indië moest mettertijd zelf een natie worden (grenzend aan Papua New Guinea dat nu niet meer Australisch is want sinds 1975 een onafhankelijke staat). Maar van boven af gebeurde dit op stiefmoederlijke wijze waarbij de ervaren en toegewijde bestuursambtenaren ter plaatse werden geringschat, marginaal van middelen voorzien en uitermate slecht betaald voor hun veeleisende werk. Het leven van de van godsvrucht vervulde pioniers en later ook de doorgaans hoogopgeleide bestuursambtenaren was niet zonder risico, zo niet ronduit gevaarlijk, diep in dit uitgestrekte, dunbevolkte gebied van grotendeels ontoegankelijke, door grote, meanderende rivieren doorsneden regenwouden en een extreem en ruig centraal bergland waarvan de piek, de Puncak Jaya, een van ’s werelds zeven hoogste toppen is. Erkende mijn vader Tillemans’ autoriteit en antropologisch inzicht, diens onversneden inmenging in bestuurszaken deed zijn ogen dikwijls vuur spuwen. Hier kwam bij dat hij met katholieke gezagsdragers weinig op had. Niet zonder reden: nog pas 11 jaar oud trof hij een priester die verkondigde dat zijn Madoerese moeder geen plaats in de hemel verdiende omdat zij een moslim was. Wèl zijn katholiek gedoopte vader, een Javaan wiens grootvader uit Zuid-Duitsland immigreerde en spoedig na aankomst, maar net 19 jaar oud, met een inlandse, islamitische vrouw ging samenleven. Mijn betbetovergrootouders’ 13 dochters en vier zoons werden niettemin allemaal keurig katholiek gedoopt en elk kreeg ook een Duitse voornaam – tot in de vierde generatie. Mijn vader is evenwel nooit gedoopt (dit interesseerde zijn vader niet, om zijn enige kind wel officieel te erkennen). Hij hing geen enkel geloof aan, beschouwde alle religies als gelijkwaardig, en ook dit zou wel eens een verklaring kunnen zijn voor Mgr. Tillemans’ afwijzende houding jegens hem. Hoe dit zij, in mijn vaders hutkoffer vond ik in een schoenendoos waarin bij allerlei kiekjes een stapeltje handgemaakte uitnodigingen voor Heilige Kerstvieringen en Zalig Nieuwjaarwensen uit het leprozendorp bij Merauke.

Terug naar meneer Tan. Hij was van Chinees-Indonesische afkomst en bleek onderwijzer te zijn geweest, eind veertig destijds, schat ik, ruim tien jaar ouder dan mijn moeder. Ik zie hem nog voor me: de voeten verkrampt, broodmager en een grimas om de mond. Mijn moeder hintte met haar kin, een gebaar dat ik bij de grote, gebiedende ogen die zij dan opzette kende. Het was een teken dat ik me meteen gedeisd moest houden. Een overbodige waarschuwing, als zo vaak. Zonder een vingerwijzing duidde ze mij op de rij bedden ter linker zijde. Ik had meneer Tan al opgemerkt, beantwoordde ik haar blik met mijn ogen. Kom nou, hij is toch de enige patiënt in de zaal! Ter hoogte van het midden lag hij naar de ingang gekeerd, op een met een wit laken overtrokken bed, ineengedoken. Hij staarde voor zich uit, mijmerde, scheen me toe, de gitzwarte ogen wijd open.

Op dit tijdstip van de dag, tegen vijven, zaten de bewoners liever buiten, onder de barak waar kippen en een haan scharrelden. Niet meneer Tan. Verwachtte hij ons? Aan de overzijde van de zaal stonden de dubbele deuren wijd open en erlangs heen zag ik het eiland Poeloe Panjang liggen. Terzijde daarvan fluisterden twee verpleegsters in elkaars oor. Ze droegen – als ik het mij goed herinner – lichtgrijze gewaden tot net over de knie, met lange mouwen. Daaroverheen een wit schort, hun blote voeten in stevige bruine schoenen gestoken. Op het hoofd stond een kapje waaruit een eveneens lichtgrijze hoofddoek tot halverwege de rug hing. Die sluier was aan de voorzijde afgezet met een witte, gesteven rand. Deze missiezusters stonden ons bij de ingang op te wachten; de handen ineen geslagen boven hun middel knikten zij glimlachend en bogen minzaam het hoofd. Ze werden geflankeerd door een jonge leprozenarts, een ontspannen man met zachte, bruine ogen in een smal en bleek gezicht onder zwart sluikhaar. Hij droeg een lange witte jas met korte mouwen, om zijn hals hing een stethoscoop.

Bij het voeteneind van meneer Tans bed wachtte mijn moeder af. Zodra hij ons opmerkte, lichtte zijn blik op, krabbelde hij overeind en ging rechtop zitten, alsof hij, als kinderen in een schoolklas, verheugd op zijn beurt wachtte. In deze houding leek zijn tengere lijf in het open hangend pyjamajasje nog breekbaarder. Hij sprak met een zachte en toch heldere stem, en nu en dan kraaide hij van plezier, de haast tandenloze mond wijd open.

In de laaiende hitte bood de zilte bries nauwelijks verkoeling. Over een uur zou de avond vallen en dan pas daalde het kwik snel, tot zo’n 30°C. Verderop bulderde de branding op het koraalrif. Nu het vloed was schoof onder de vloer over het zand de zee traag zuchtend af en aan. Ik stelde mij voor hoe het er toeging als de fronten van hoge, pikzwarte wolken die in de moessontijd over de roerige Arafoerazee aandrijven, met donderend geraas hun vrachten ook op dit gebouw zouden uitstorten. Deze zware buien veroorzaken dikwijls banjirs die uiteraard ook de diepe, gecementeerde goten langs de overkapte veranda’s rondom ons hoog gelegen huis deden overstromen en vervaarlijk kolken. Een oorverdovend kabaal moest het er onder het zinken dak van dit hospitaal zijn, keer op keer. Was het wel tegen zoveel regen bestand?

Meneer Tan, zo sprak mijn moeder hem steeds aan, kon goed tekenen en schilderen. En “mevrouw”, zo noemde hij haar, stimuleerde hem daarin ook met de potloden, verf en het canvas die zij uit Holland liet sturen. Geen wonder dat zij dit deed, hoorde ik mijn vader vertellen, zij had net als haar grootvader de tekenacademie gevolgd. Ik kan helemaal niet tekenen, vervolgde hij als gewoonlijk, zij wel. Maar heb ik haar ooit zien tekenen? Nauwelijks. In een onbewaakt ogenblik misschien. De materialen voor meneer Tan kwamen met de Kaloekoe, de Karossa of de Kasimbar. Deze in Singapore beladen vrachtschepen van 2000 bruto ton met passagiersaccommodatie van de Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij lagen met een tussenpoos een paar maanden na elkaar voor anker, in de luwte van Poeloe Panjang ter hoogte van de baai. Vanaf het gazon voor ons huis kon je in de verte van het wijde uitzicht de boot zien liggen. Grote kisten, stapels dozen, zakken rijst en andere etenswaren werden in sloepen geladen en naar de steiger vervoerd. Kwamen de brieven met de Beaver, een eenmotorig watervliegtuig waarmee wij aangekomen waren en weer zouden vertrekken, bij de pakketpost per schip zat altijd wel een cadeautje voor mij van mijn oma: een dinky-toy, of kleurpotloden, een meccanodoos.

Meneer Tans veerkracht verwonderde me, alsof de verminkende lepra hem niet deerde. Tekende hij eenmaal, dan was hij in zijn element en scheen hij alles om zich heen vergeten. Soms vroeg hij mijn moeder om advies en dan leek hij zijn blok tekenpapier voor mij af te schermen – wat ik raar vond, omdat hij hoog op zijn bed zat en ik echt niet zien kon wat hij maakte –, terwijl hij potloden in zijn gehavende knuisten klemde en een paar tussen de lippen. Ik mocht die potloden niet meer aanraken, had mijn moeder mij nog bij de voordeur bezworen. Intussen monsterde meneer Tan mij schielijk en keek vervolgens naar mijn moeder. Het leek of hij goedkeurend knikte. Hij kon glimlachen, of verbeeldde ik me dat maar? Bij haar voelde hij zich senang en dat stemde me tevreden.

Meneer Tan is naar Fak-Fak niet teruggekeerd. Genezen verklaard immers, vond hij werk in Sorong, bij de Missie en was hij er betrokken bij de leprabestrijding. Ons contact ging verloren bij de plotselinge dood van mijn moeder, tien jaar na mijn ontmoeting met hem. Uit zijn brieven rijst een man op van opmerkelijke vastberadenheid en nauwkeurigheid, als ook verfijndheid. Bovendien kon hij goed met een schrijfmachine overweg, zelfs al was hij gehandicapt, miste hij aan beide handen meerdere vingers. Zijn brieven vertonen nauwelijks verschrijvingen, en zijn beheersing van het Nederlands was uitstekend – zoals ook van het Ambonees en Cantonees, vermoed ik.

Na eerst zijn dankbaarheid te uiten voor de brief die mijn moeder hem op 20 december 1965 schreef en te melden dat de goederen hem ongeschonden bereikten, weidt hij in zijn antwoord van 18 januari 1966 uit over het weer in Sorong, om daarna te zeggen dat de Hollandse winter hem veel te koud leek. Hartje winter op het zuidelijk halfrond geeft in Sorong een dagtemperatuur die niet onder de 25°C komt, verklaart hij. Uit de datum van zijn epistel blijkt dat twee jaar en negen maanden eerder het bewind over dit gedeelte van Nieuw-Guinea aan Indonesië overgedragen was. In de volgende passages beschrijft hij de almaar slechter wordende levensomstandigheden na het vertrek van de Nederlanders. Regelmatig is er voedseltekort en zelfs goederen die niet eens een luxe kunnen worden genoemd blijken niet voorhanden of bij aankomst direct gestolen. Het ontbreekt aan gezag, stelt hij, en wie de moed opbrengt zich bij de politie te beklagen over welk vergrijp dan ook, loopt grote kans zelf in het gevang te verdwijnen. Postzendingen waren onbetrouwbaar gebleken, aangezien pakketten vóór aflevering werden geopend of gewoon leeggehaald. Goederen uit Nederland van welke aard dan ook dienen afzonderlijk verpakt en verstuurd te worden, onderstreept hij, waarbij hij veiliger alternatieven aanraadt, zoals in de bagage van missionarissen die naar Irian Barat reizen (zo werd het westelijk deel van Nieuw-Guinea vanaf 1 mei 1963 eerst genoemd). In zijn ijver laat hij niet na hun namen en congregaties te noteren.

Een aanzienlijke deel van zijn brieven bevat uitvoerige lijsten van de apparatuur die hij nodig heeft, zoals een bandrecorder—een Philips EL 3585—als ook een verloopstekker van het type AG 7022, een tussenkabel EL 3768/00 een hulpstuk EL 3768/02. Deze zaken werden alle gefinancierd door zijn weldoensters, onder wie mijn moeder. Hij wijst erop op het oog gelijk materiaal niet te verwarren met het juiste en hoe dit te vermijden, en dat de bandrecorder voor de verbreiding van het evangelie in afgelegen gebieden in Nieuw-Guinea zal worden gebruikt. Het is vermakelijk om te zien hoe meneer Tan nauwgezet details vermeldt. Hij moet een strikte, rechtvaardige schoolmeester zijn geweest die graag alles onder controle wilde houden. Daarnaast leek hij er nu op gebrand nauw contact te onderhouden met mensen van heinde en verre.

Tenslotte vond ik een zwart-wit foto die meneer Tan mijn moeder stuurde. Deze is genomen in Sorong na de operatie aan zijn voeten. Daarop staat, van zijn linkerzijde genomen, een man van klein postuur gestoken in een donker colbert over een overhemd met open kraag en kennelijk een kaki broek. Hij draagt een bril met een licht montuur, in zijn linker hand houdt hij een gedraaide sigaret. Zo te zien is hij behoorlijk dik geworden. Gebruikte hij op de achterzijde van het schilderij dat hij aan mijn moeder opdroeg de voorletters K.T., zijn brieven ondertekende hij met Ch.T. Tan—nu kennelijk Christiaan Tan—in een klein maar zelfbewust handschrift.

On Forgetting or Why I Can’t Remember Interviewing Allen Ginsberg by Bryan Monte

On Forgetting or Why I Can’t Remember Interviewing Allen Ginsberg
by Bryan Monte

Whilst moving house two years ago, I unexpectedly came across some old photographs from the late 1980s/early 1990s taken by San Francisco photographer, Rink. They were in a box I had packed and sealed in 1993 before moving from San Francisco to the Netherlands and hadn’t opened at my next three addresses. The photographs were of people I had worked with and/or interviewed when I was a radio reporter and a writing instructor. This was the time of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco, when many support organizations, such as the AIDS Foundation, Shanti, and Project Open Hand, were in their early days and still working out of old warehouses and donated shops.

Sorting through these pictures of writers, painters, comics, politicians, and other public personalities from this time, I came across a photo of Allen Ginsberg surrounded by three men. Ginsberg, with his trademark, rumpled suit, bald head, and salt-and-pepper beard, was easily recognizable. From the camera angle, however, I could only see the back of the heads of the three people surrounding him. One head, with a whorl of hair right at the crown, however, struck me as a bit familiar, but I still couldn’t identify the person.

Thankfully, the photo was the first of series of what are referred to as contact sheets—positive photos in strips the size of negatives. As the photographer circled around the group of men, the face of the man with the whorl of hair who held a notepad and who was asking Ginsberg a question came into view—and it was me! But how could that be? How could I have forgot such an important meeting with the then pope of leftist gay, American poetry? And more importantly, why had I forgot just this meeting?

It wasn’t the first time I’d met Ginsberg. That was in mid-1980s when I was a graduate student at Brown University. That evening, Ginsberg sat alone on Sayles Hall’s wooden stage, reciting his poetry for hundreds of enraptured students, including sections from Howl, as he accompanied himself on a zither. Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk to him and to give him a copy of my gay magazine, No Apologies. Ginsberg was gracious and genuine and he took his time to talk with everyone unlike the dozen or so other well-known American or British celebrity poets I’d met previously. Soon thereafter, I received a review copy of his Collected Poems, 1945-1980 from his publisher. All these details from an even earlier meeting I remembered, but not the second time four years later in San Francisco that had been completely and inexplicably wiped from my memory. How could this be?

I’ve since researched the causes of long-term memory loss especially since I feared it might be due to my multiple sclerosis. I found plenty of articles on short-term memory loss, (Where are my keys? Oh, we had an appointment!, etc.), but nothing really conclusive about long-term memory loss related to MS. In fact, the causes of this type of “forgetting” were usually due to head injuries for those in their 20s and 30s (due to vehicular accidents, combat—including post-traumatic stress—and injuries from domestic violence), strokes for those in their 40s and 50s (due to high blood pressure, overwhelming jobs and/or debts, raising children or divorce), and dementia for those in their golden years.

I don’t remember suffering any blunt trauma before, during or after this period. In addition, I don’t think my MS related injuries or medications are the cause. In general, MS is tracked in the brain as well as in the spinal cord through lesions that are created when the body’s immune system starts attacking the nerve endings’ myelin coatings. Most of this damage, reportedly, only affects short-term and not long-term memory. (Although it seems logical that if a lesion short circuits part of my brain affecting how my legs and hands work, then it might also have some effect on locating, storing or transferring information in the scarred area).

No, according to popular wisdom, MS and physical trauma are not likely the causes of this missing memory. Considering the time period and location involved, ground zero in the AIDS pandemic, however, I think it’s more likely it’s due to post-traumatic stress syndrome. You see, unlike Tony Kushner’s Angels in America where only one really bad guy, Roy Cohn, dies on screen and one drag queen gets a fabulous, send-off complete with professional Sicilian mourners and an Afro-American gospel choir, my experience with AIDS in San Francisco was a lot less colourful and the dying were everywhere—literally hundreds of them. These included at least two dozen friends and acquaintances I knew from grammar school, high school, and college, men from work, church, writing groups, support groups, bars and political clubs—and two ex-partners.

Before combination therapy became common in the mid-90s, men I knew sero-converted, fell ill or died every month. According to the official statistics, the mortality rate was 50 per cent. If it wasn’t you, it was the man next to you—an epidemic of rapturous proportions. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, the other left; two women grinding at the mill; one will be taken, the other left. (Matthew 24:20) In my building, however, the mortality rate was even higher—two out of every three or 67 per cent.

The weekly gay newspapers were filled with pages and pages of obituaries of men in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. Living at ground zero, it was almost impossible to go to work, buy groceries, get my hair cut, buy clothes, or rent a video without seeing at least one, slow, emaciated man, too young to be leaning on a Zimmer frame or a cane, carrying a big bag of prescriptions from the corner drugstore or supermarket pharmacy. Even out at Ocean Beach, where I lived miles from the Castro, there wasn’t a week when I jogged along the breakwall that I didn’t see a man sitting in his car with an IV hanging from a sun visor, watching the sunset between the Farallon Islands, forty miles out in the Pacific Ocean.

Other images that still remain in my brain were the visits by out-of-town relatives who were conspicuous by their accents or dress. I remember a mother talking in a Southern drawl walking down Market Street, her son wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, his face aswarm with purple, Kaposi Sarcoma lesions. Or a farmer father with a sun-burned, red neck and a John Deere green and yellow baseball cap, sitting in Just Desserts on Market Street, his pre-teenage son enjoying his cheesecake seemingly unaware of the tired, pained look on his father’s face. I also remember stories of dying lovers giving their possessions away before their out-of-state families, many of whom they hadn’t heard from for years, arrived just days before they died. Immediately after the funerals some relatives then emptied their sons’ shared apartments and bank accounts as if they had been living alone. One man, whose partner died of AIDS, came home one day from work to discover his apartment plundered by his dead partner’s family. They took all furniture—even a sofa he had purchased on credit and was still paying for.

And those who died came from different walks of life. Ken worked in my insurance company’s purchasing department. He came back from his experimental cowpox treatments mooing in good spirits even though he knew he’d be feverish and barely able to work the next day. Jerome (whom I knew in first grade as Jerry), was the mistress of Wednesday night, jockstrap jello wrestling at Club Chaos. He painted miniature, nail polish portraits until he went blind from CMV. Mike designed the cover of the magazine I gave to Ginsberg at Brown. Two years later walking through Golden Gate Park, I thought I saw him and called his name, but he kept going. A few days later I asked someone who knew Mike if he’d seen him lately. The man paused for a minute, then told me that after a long, difficult illness, Mike had passed away a year ago.

One soon learned not to enquire about the missing. When the Falsettos, the gay a capella group, returned after a six month absence from the radio show, I made that mistake. “What happened to X?” I asked. My question was met with stares and stony silence. Anyone who was out of sight for more than a month or two was considered ill or dying, so many died so suddenly or went back home to spend their last days. (In fact, even thirty years later, I’m still being recontacted by friends afraid they would discover, via an Internet search, that I was dead).

In the late 80s/early 90s, multiple medications, hospitalisations, disappearances and funerals became normal. One attended a funeral (now euphemistically referred to as a memorial service) every other month or changed plans so someone else could. Funerals became so frequent that it became common to compare services and wakes for music, attendance and refreshments. And undertakers (now referred to as bereavement councillors) placed their advertisements in the gay papers next to the pages of obituaries.

The great, the good, the average and the below average, the messy and the fastidious, the courageous and the cowardly, the promiscuous and the monogamous in time were all taken by an illness from which there was no escape and no cure due to powers corporeal or incorporeal. The rich, though, still tried to cheat death by checking into private clinics in Switzerland to have their blood exchanged. The religious made pilgrimages to Loudres, Rome or Israel. All they bought in the end, however from what I could see, were a few more months of suffering. One summer, twenty-five years later, one of my eighty-year-old church friends complained to me that she’d attended five funerals in eight months. “You wouldn’t know what that was like!” she snapped. I just stared at her. She immediately apologised.

And if the rising body count (and strangely enough, apartment rents) weren’t traumatic enough, then the jobs in San Francisco began to disappear. My company went through five reorganizations in five years before moving its headquarters to a “cheaper labour market” in Chicago. And with the rounds of corporate restructurings and reorganizations, came the suicides. That’s when the redundancy compensation packets jumped from two weeks to two months to six months to prevent lawsuits.

I made it through the first three restructurings, though I started looking for other work during the second. At this time I also held three, minor, evening jobs working as a technical writing instructor, an English as a Second Language tutor and a writing workshop leader. In addition, I occasionally sat in on focus groups for Silicon Valley software firms, so I thought I might have some chance to find something else. But in three years, the closest I ever came to finding a new job in San Francisco was an e-mail promise of an interview for a six-month, no health benefits, supervisor’s position at a pharmaceutical firm’s call centre an hour’s drive down the road in Palo Alto. And I was informed by Human Resources at my insurance company that my unemployment compensation from the state would be only half my monthly salary.

I remember one cattle-call interview for a now prominent, world-wide, Internet company (which made the ADSL box I now use at home) that took place in Silicon Valley, for which I had to take a half day off work at my own expense. Applicants were made to stand in queues of 10 to 15 people in a large hall until they were pulled out at what seemed like random (I still don’t know what their criteria was). If selected, you were brought over to a table and still standing, asked to explain who you were and what you could offer the company. I stood in the queue for more than an hour until my lower-back pain flared up. I knew from experience that if I didn’t sit down immediately, I wouldn’t be able to work the next day. I left without being interviewed. At home that evening, lying in a warm bath that sometimes, but not always, eased my pain, I saw my future and realized I wasn’t going to find another job in San Francisco—even though I still kept trying.

At any rate, due to my present amnesia concerning the late 80s/early 90s, my journals are becoming increasingly interesting—as if they’ve been written by someone else as time fades, distorts, or even buries some facts. Reading them three decades later, I no longer feel guilty about not getting back together with one attractive, intelligent former boyfriend (he’d slept with five men that week) or with another (who’d had someone on the side during our “relationship”) once I moved back to San Francisco after graduate school in 1987. My journals from that time help me remember things correctly and put my doubts to rest.

In fact, when I first returned to San Francisco in 1987, a gay politician warned me: “Assume every one is (HIV) positive until you know otherwise.” It was good advice and I acted accordingly. Maybe that and distributing some of the first AIDS information pamphlets in 1982, (years before the government would print or distribute any) at the Gay Freedom Day Parade saved me. Four out of the five people who passed out that information are still alive today. Or maybe it was my overactive immune system, which causes my MS, my white blood cells attacking my nerves thinking they’re enemy invaders. At any rate according to the extensive blood tests I had the last time I was hospitalized, I’m still HIV negative.

Even more interesting about my journals from this period are the gaps of days, weeks or sometimes months between entries when I was too busy working or looking for work, out on my beat looking for a story, writing my news scripts, or preparing and correcting students’ lessons or papers when I should have been sitting down collecting my thoughts and putting my poems and stories on paper. I wonder what I could have written then if I had held a steady job and found an emotionally and financially stable partner in San Francisco in my 30s. Instead, I spent that decade and most of my early 40s trying to survive physically and financially, making a new life in a new country, trying to outrun AIDS, and get as much living in as possible before it caught up with me. (With so many dead friends, I just assumed, I wouldn’t make it).

Ironically I was blind-sided by another unexplainable and incurable disease: MS. Now disabled and out of work but finally with time to write, I wonder whether I will be able to finally write my stories through my daily fog of forgetfulness, fatigue, clumsiness and pain caused by my illness and medications, and how many other important events in my life, like interviewing Ginsberg, I’ve also forgot.

Joan Z. Shore – Stay Home! A Tirade Against Tourism

Stay Home! A Tirade Against Tourism
by Joan Z. Shore

The world’s population is exploding; the world itself is shrinking; and travel is becoming a nerve-wracking, back-breaking, soul-crushing ordeal.

So why is everyone on the road? Or in the air?

Why, when television, computers, iPhones and iPads are bringing the world into your living room, are you still booking flights to Paris and cruises to Cancun?

Why are you struggling to find the lowest fares, the chic-est hotels, the newest restaurants, the sunniest beaches when in the end you’re going to return home disappointed, exhausted and ready for another vacation?

Stop right there! You are never going to find the perfect vacation. Perfect vacations are a thing of the past: the Grand Tour of Europe, the Cooks Tour, the Roman Holiday…they have gone the way of the elegant French Line, when “getting there was half the fun.”

These days, unless you can pay your way or pry your way out of an Economy Class flight, you will be trundled into a kindergarten-size seat along with several hundred strangers, served a trayful of inedible muck and alternately chilled and roasted by the plane’s erratic ventilating system.

Or, on a ship as big as the Vatican, you will be lost among three thousand strangers who pass away the nautical hours eating, drinking and gambling. You might as well be home alone with a pizza, a bottle of Chianti and a deck of cards.

So far, I have been exploding the perennial myths about travel in light of present-day realities. Now, let me present the other side of the problem: the natives whose homeland is invaded by foreigners.

I am such a self-proclaimed native. Having lived in Paris for three decades, I consider it my rightful residence, my city, my home. Imagine, then, my utter despair when a caravan of tourist buses (half of them empty) navigates down a neighbourhood street. Inevitably, these mastodons end up at the Eiffel Tower, park there for a while, and then continue on their implacable rounds.

But of course at some point they disgorge their passengers, and these hapless creatures wander around the streets, map in one hand and camera in the other. Sometimes they have the temerity to ask someone for directions—and what a relief if I am the English-speaking native they happen to ask! I have helped Russians, Hungarians, Japanese, Finns and countless others whose English is just adequate enough to say, “Excuse me, please…?” and the finger points to a spot on the map.

There are other tourists, of course, who return regularly to Paris and who are more savvy: the fashion crowd, for example, who come for the Collections. They book the best restaurants for dinner, hire private limousines and take over the town like imperial warlords. I resent their presence, too, because they are appropriating my city and turning it into their private playground!

Listen, folks, Paris is not a playground. Nor is it a quaint leftover from your history books. It is a place where you can write, paint, philosophize, dream, stroll, eat, drink or simply lose yourself. If you wake up early, it’s sunrise on the Seine; if you get lucky, it’s love in the afternoon. I’m sorry, but your presence here in droves distracts me, distresses me, drives me fou.

And I remind you—you had a rotten trip over here, your hotel is a dump, the prices are outrageous, and you couldn’t get through the crowds at the Louvre.

Stay home! You can see the Mona Lisa on the Internet.

Marcus Slease – Karaman

by Marcus Slease

I am drinking Seftali Nektari and walking up a steep hill. White stones are glowing at the old gates. It has rained and the red clay sticks to my soles. The houses are built on top of each other and the hill is devouring them. They are colourful but crumbling. Like an old sadness.

An old, yellow dolmuş picks us up each morning and we drive by the mules and the wedding drums and the mopeds with negotiations on the fly. The city is under construction. The newly planted trees provide no shade. Students pack every morning into the dolmuş with peasants and workers. In the centre new buildings go up and look old before they are finished. Nothing matches.

When we first arrived, we found a small restaurant and drank some Turkish tea. The teas gave the glass cups a reddish tint. A gypsy girl kept calling us sir and madam from the road. I couldn’t explain to her that I am not a rich Westerner. There are plenty of people in this city with more money than I have. We ate our cheese gözleme as the dust blew around us and a man with a hose sprayed down the footpath. Women were collecting water near the mosque. The sign said it was built in 1292.

When we left the restaurant, the sun was scorching so we grabbed some ayrans. The crowds rushed by us cracking sunflower seeds in their mouths and spitting the empty shells on the street. There was music everywhere and ice cream. Turkish ice cream.

There are no pubs or alcohol in these parts. This is a dusty town. Men slick their hair and wear tight jeans. The women are mostly covered and there are a lot of old men with sticks. The few non-covered girls are modern with bright red lipstick and bleached blonde hair.

A lot of shopkeepers tried to speak German with me. You told me it’s because Turkish girls return to their hometown with Germans. They buy up cartons and cartons of cigarettes and purchase mobilya to ship back to Germany.

Today is our last day. We are watching the World Cup. Teenagers are in the corner drinking Coca-Cola through a straw. A former ship captain is feeding us popcorn, green melon with honey and white cheese.

Marcus Slease – Meat Sweats

Meat Sweats
by Marcus Slease

Last January I slept with two pairs of socks. The snow really came down. There are always wild dogs howling in the nearby forest. I was attacked by six of them on my first day here. Two of them were Anatolian shepherds. Of the ancient clans used for hunting wolves. I was listening to a Zen lecture on my iPod when they attacked. I thought by remaining serene and calm they would leave me alone but that only seemed to egg them on. I turned my back on them and walked across the road. That’s when they attacked. One of them jumped up out of the blue and sunk its teeth into my thigh. My calmness during the attack did not stop the attack. It happened regardless. A policeman came by on his motorcycle. I am not sure what would have happened otherwise. I was taken to a clinic even though I insisted I had my class to teach. I think I was in shock, but I thought I was being stoic. The clinic didn’t have any rabies injections so I took a taxi to a public hospital. The public hospitals were swarming with people. Like lost bees. This was a different part of the city. The women were mostly covered and the men were mostly old. The signs were not in English and it was a real labyrinth inside. A few weeks later I got a Facebook message that my grandfather had died. I grew up with my grandfather. His father was a gardener and he was a gardener too. Tending the rich Anglo-Irish gardens. My grandfather clipped his hedges, grew roses, and kept budgies. When I visited him in Northern Ireland, he was always watching some gardening show or other. One night when my grandmother had retired to bed, he confessed to watching Baywatch and wanted to know if women in America really looked like that. I couldn’t make it to his funeral. After I got the news, I went into the small room. The one with the narrow bed and no clothes in the wardrobe. One of the perks of teaching at university was an almost-free, two-bedroom flat. Furnished to Western standards. Which meant that the smell was bearable, the plumbing mostly worked and we were walled off from the rest of the city on a hill. I sat in the room with only a bed and tried to listen to the silence. I thought I was being spiritual and brave. There was no use in causing a ruckus. Just take things as they come. I was getting severe sweats. I thought it might have been bad meat. Later someone told me it was the vegetables. One advised me to wash them in vinegar. Washing them in treated water wasn’t enough. The natives are born with some kind of bacteria in their intestines and are immune. The Western teachers were always having stomach problems. A few days later Bedia brought me a Turkish rug. It wasn’t an expensive one. It was the kind you see hanging on walls near the castle where you had to haggle. I didn’t care if it was expensive or not. It added a nice touch to the place. Bedia held my hand in the kitchen and showed me how to make Turkish tea. There is one big kettle and one small one. One sits on top of the other. The big one is filled with water. The little one is warmed by the big one and has the black tea. The big one boils the water and the boiling water is poured into the little one. You have to wait fifteen minutes or so for it to brew. We drank it in little glass cups without the sugar. Bedia also helps the man across the street with his street stall. They make toasties together. When REAL shopping is closed I grab sandwiches from the stall. I had to visit three hospitals in the city to find the one that gave rabies injections. Four doses over the course of a month. I have to take a bus into the city. There are no trains. Everyone takes a bus. The buses, or rather the coaches, are luxurious. Like a small aircraft. A man or woman walks up and down and gives you drinks and small packages of fıstık. There is a television screen in front of you, pinned to the back of the person’s chair in front. At the front of the buses they are usually streaming ads about marriages. The faces of eligible bachelors from all over Turkey blink on and off on the big screen.

Iclal Akcay – La Piscine à la Amsterdam

La Piscine à la Amsterdam
by Iclal Akcay

Watching a film in the open air in Amsterdam, especially on Java Island, is not an easy task. Despite the news about outrageous 40-degree weather in some Mediterranean countries, these wind-country residents only taste the “Southern climes” via a movie by Jacques Deray. I spent an extra ten minutes looking for a Cashmere sweater in my summer wardrobe before running to the open venue, located across from the artistically sober Lloyd Hotel, so I was late and missed the first part of the movie. The setting is fantastic. This art lovers’ hotel’s little square, which normally serves as a pier to its customers arriving by boat, is filled with wooden benches and framed by a magical white screen. Drinks offered from the hotel’s mobile bar contribute to the intimacy.

I’m there with two friends. It took us three phone calls to find each other in the dark. As soon as we sit down, we take the liberty of making comments about everything during the entire film. This apparently upsets the guy sitting in front of us, causing him to move to the other end of the row in a silent protest, leaving me a bit embarrassed and feeling aloof. Whatever! We’re in sunny Côte d’Azur now.

Deray’s people, oblivious to the rest of the world beyond their problem-free setting, seem to be extremely content with their superficial lives of fun, fun, fun. As the story goes, Marianne (Romy Schneider) and Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) face an unexpected distraction at their love-nest villa in fashionable Saint-Tropez by the couple’s friend and Marianne’s ex-lover Harry (Maurice Roney) and his beautiful adolescent daughter, Penelope (Jane Birkin), who come to visit them.

During those lazy summer days, Marianne (an older-looking Romy Schneider) walks around confidently with a stiff hairdo, overly chic dresses and thick make-up. Determined to improve the atmosphere, a rather flamboyant Harry brings back a herd of “party people” each time he hits town in his convertible sports car. As Marianne flirts shamelessly and erotically with Harry at these parties, a more distant Jean-Paul uncomfortably becomes attracted to his friend’s daughter in front of an oblivious crowd.

Clearly led by their baser instincts, the main characters’ daily lives are disrupted by the murder of Harry by Jean-Paul in a wild attack at night during an argument when his friend insults him. The death scene is interesting and oddly resembles the murder scene in Visconti’s Stranger, adapted from Camus’ giant literary piece, which could be presented as perfect material for studying murder as part of human psychology. Both scenes are far more intelligent than their contemporaries in their study of “the moment of murder,” and they depict the background of a murderer’s act. In Deray’s La Piscine, a drunk Jean-Paul perhaps does not intend to kill his even more drunk friend, Harry. He rather tries to push him away with a piece of wood, wanting to silence his disturbing voice, just to get rid of him.

The unraveling drama results in transforming Marianne from an older, rejected woman, whose significance had been diminished by the emergence of the adolescent Penelope, into a woman of determination through the unfortunate event. Armed with the knowledge that could destroy her lover—that he is a murderer—she becomes strangely empowered by the surprising unfolding of events. She does not miss the opportunity to save Jean-Paul simply by lying to the detective. Through this act, she is spiritually and emotionally reborn, as this mission gives her all she needs: a fulfilling existence! She now is a caring mother. Although not wanting to be with her lover any longer, when her powerful detachment relights the fire in Jean-Paul, her real transformation takes place back in his arms; she becomes a magnet, a love goddess.

My friends don’t both agree with my conclusion about the affair. Being a scientist, Sofia intuitively grabs the essence of the hollowness in the movie. She has spent the last three years in chemistry labs of two different countries suffering intensively from being far away from her ex-boyfriend, Nick, who stayed at his parents’ home in a lazy village in southern Britain, spending his time writing application letters to different research centres around Europe. Our other friend, also coincidentally named Nick, rises to suggest going inside the hotel to get warm drinks. Sofia agrees and I follow them. In a minute, we’ve forgotten about the movie and collectively investigate the possibility of a reunion between Sofia and Nick while finding comfort in complaining about the lousy weather. It’s everybody’s favourite subject here. The kind of summer we long for, a Mediterranean one that is, never arrives in our city. And if it ever does, we all agree that it happens when we all are on holiday in a distant, warm country.

Alice Kocourek – When in Rome ….

When in Rome….
by Alice Kocourek

An annoying buzz wakes me. I can’t make out where it’s coming from. Or is it inside my head? My mouth and throat feel like I’ve just blow-dried them, making it very hard to swallow the tart taste tripping over my tongue. Too much white wine last night. I pull the covers over my head. The buzzing remains. Or was it the Limoncello? Definitely too much Limoncello. The bitter tang lingering in my mouth is proof that I’ve had one too many of that poisonous lemon liquor. Make that two too many.

It had been a fun night out though, with the Italian Hewlett Packard crew. Silvia, one of the permanent British staff members, insisted I come out with her and our fellow Italian colleagues. “It’s about time,” she told me in her squeaky voice. “Three weeks you’ve been in Rome and you still haven’t been out? It’s a positive disgrace. You have to come out with us.” And so, feeling somewhat pressured, I reluctantly went out. We ate, we drank, we danced. Lots. Somewhere in the middle of it all I began having a good time. I relaxed and thought to myself, when in Rome….

It was almost dawn when I rolled out of the taxi and stumbled into my hotel. The city was still sound asleep.

What time is it now? I turn over onto my side and feel my stomach churn. It feels like the gluey Limoncello has also made it to my eyes and has pasted them shut.

Buzz, buzz, buzz …. There it is again. Or has it been there all the time? I don’t know but I suddenly realize what it is, that annoying drone. It’s my phone! I’d put it on silent last night when we went out. A hoarse “Hello?” is all I manage and I’m sure I sound like a man.

“Alice? Is that you?” a voice blasts through the other side. “Al, I’ve been trying to reach you for ages!”

“Huh, Nick … stop shouting at me love, I’ve got a stinking headache.”

“I’m not shouting. Are you ill? It’s ten o’clock already.”

“Ten? Really? Feels more like six … still.” By now I have finally managed to sit up and half open my eyes. My dark hotel room seems to be swaying from left to right. At least the little I can make out of it. The heavy curtains are closed and only a very pushy ray of sun seems to have made it into my room.

“Have you been out?” Nick’s loud voice continues. “You know I’ve been waiting for your morning call, my coffee has gone cold.”

“Sorry,” I groan into the phone, “Yeah, Silvia took me out for a few drinks. What you doing? Sitting outside?”

“Been out for a few drinks, eh? You know you sound like shit.”


“Anyway, it’s a beautiful day here. Been sitting out on the balcony with the cats.” His voice has gone softer now, or perhaps I’m more awake.

The cats. The balcony. Nick. I rub my temple. “Wish I were there with you. This hotel room stinks.” I’m sitting up straight now and looking around my small and shady room. The bed takes up most of the space, leaving only some room for a writing table pushed against the wall and a single chair. My clothes dropped on top look like a collapsed corpse. The art-deco wallpaper flowers look wilted. “I wish I were home. I miss our morning coffees out on the balcony. I miss the cats. I don’t want to be here anymore.”

“Well, it’s you who insisted on going to Rome for six weeks. I told you, you’d miss us.”

“Nick, not now. I don’t feel good.”

“You shouldn’t have drunk so much. Why did you have to go out in the first place, you don’t like going out?”

“Oh c’mon, not now …. We’ll talk later OK? I feel claustrophobic. I need to get out.”

“OK, go and have breakfast and call me when you’re feeling better.” There’s a long silence. “Love you.”

“I know.” A hysterical mosquito buzzing in front of me disrupts another long silence. I manage a strained “Love you too,” before I start wafting the insect off with my phone. “Don’t you dare touch me, creepy creature.”

After this sudden anti-bug outburst, my head hurts even more. I need some fresh air, some food and some sleep; I feel cold. Wretched air-con.

A gentle spring sun greets me as I walk out of the hotel onto the Piazza Bartolomeo Gastaldi. The pink cherry blossoms sway against the blue sky and the song of a thrush fills the air. It’s only about 20 metres walk to Antonio’s Alimentari, but when I walk through the colourful beads of the flycatcher hung above the door, I feel warmed-up and a sudden appetite takes over.

Antonio welcomes me with his usual bright smile and enthusiastic gestures; “Buongiorno signora Alice.”

Over the last three weeks I’ve come to like the way of the Romans, it’s not just what they say, beautifully lyrical to a cold Northern European as I am, but the way in which they say it, with their whole body and soul. Each mundane sentence sounds like an exquisite opera, each gesture an elegant dance.

Buongiorno Antonio. How are you today?” Although I still feel lightheaded, I twirl around the fruit stand. “You’ve got some beautiful peaches again today,” I sing to him in English. We struck a deal two weeks ago. I would teach Antonio some English and he would return the favour in Italian. A win-win situation, as far as I’m concerned.

I pick one pink peach and walk over to the glass covered food display and choose two slices of pizza, one with extra sun-dried tomatoes and the other with mozzarella. As a little extra, to spoil myself, I also decide to take a slice of apricot cake.

Antonio carefully wraps them all in paper and hands them over. “Godere della bella giornata di sole, enjoy the sun, signora Alice.”

“Oh, I will, Antonio. I’m going to relax somewhere in the shade in the Villa Borghese, a domani. Ciao!”

Back out on the street, armed with all the delights, I continue my walk to the Villa Borghese, my favourite public park. It’s only about a ten-minute walk from my hotel and even when going into the city centre, I walk through the park and down the Spanish Steps, leading into the heart of Rome. Right now I want to avoid the crowds. All I want is to loosen myself of this morning’s sickly feeling and unwind on the soft moss, away from everyone.

Walking further down the Via Luigi Luciani, it strikes me how green Rome really is. It has majestic plane trees alongside the stately boulevards, charming cherry and apple blossoms in the smaller streets and the many umbrella pine trees looking as ancient and mysterious as the Roman ruins resting in their shade. On the balconies people are growing yuccas, olive trees, prickly cactuses and of course grannies geraniums in terracotta pots and colourful plastic containers in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Scooters zoom past as I carefully cross the wide Via Ulisse Aldrovandi. A guy shouts out at me: “Ciao, bella!” and disappears off hooting a taxi for being too slow.

Bella, bella,” I say it out loud and, feeling like a princess, I enter the Villa Borghese.

A gravel path leads me through a lush garden, landscaped in a classical 18th-century style where green slopes are set around a large artificial lake. It’s still quiet and only a few people are walking through the park, some hand-in-hand, a solitary jogger runs past and I see a few elderly people sitting on the iron benches reading.

On the grass in the shade, I spread out my blanket and sit down. I have a bit of a giggle looking at the beige blanket. It’s just so fantastically tacky: the city’s twin founders, Romulus and Remus, are embroidered on it while suckling their wolf mother. It’s so cheesy I just simply had to buy it.

Now that I’ve finally made myself comfortable, I have a bite to eat and try to nap. I close my eyes and I hear the soft zooming of a nearby insect, ducks scatter up from the lake, a pigeon coos; in the distant I can hear the monotonous buzz of the city. It doesn’t take long for me to doze off.

It’s not just an ant tickling my bare arm, but something I can’t quite put my finger on that wakes me. It’s almost as if I can feel someone’s breath, hear someone exhaling. Close to me. Too close.

I open my eyes. For the second time today I feel like everything around me is moving from left to right. Staring up to the sky, the leaves of the trees are actually swaying in the soft breeze. It’s not just my imagination. I press myself up and rest on my elbows. Instead of seeing the lake, I’m looking straight at a man. Sitting. Next to me. I look straight into his eyes.

In one fast move, I sit up and pull my feet towards me. My head hurts from moving too quickly and for a moment I’m too stunned to do anything. The man just sits there and smiles at me. He’s young. Has slender long arms and legs. Wearing jeans, white shirt, unbuttoned, and sandals. He’s got a slim face, large square glasses and pointy, pursed lips. He looks like a giant mosquito.

What the hell is he doing sitting so close to me? And how long has he been sitting there? I’m in no mood for a confrontation. With a big huff I get up and, with great force, I pull the blanket from the ground and walk away.

A little further I find a new spot. Lay out my blanket and lie down. Sure enough, I hear his heavy breathing again. I can’t believe it as I open my eyes. Once more the mosquito man is sitting next to me. Even closer now. I’ve had enough. I grab my sandal and start fastening the strap around my left foot. The man moves forward and, as if in slow motion, I watch him bend over and reach for my right foot. He grabs hold of it and with his pursed lips starts kissing it. Starts kissing my dirty bare foot!

From deep within me I unleash the Northern girl I am. “Oi, you wanker!” I shout at him and with my newly acquired Roman passion, start hitting him with my sandal. “Get the fuck off me, you creep!”

Scusi, scusi, sorree…” The man jumps up and starts running off.

Scusi?” I yell after him. My whole body and soul I pour into my words and gestures. “Fucking scuzi? You dirty bastard!” Around me people stop and start pointing at me. ‘Yeah, now suddenly you notice me?’ I can’t believe this. Ants are crawling over my blanket and I notice that they have crawled into my paper bag with my apricot tart. “Here you dirty bastard, this is what you get from me.” I crush the paper bag under my feet. The beige blanket has a big patch of crushed cake on it. Romulus and Remus are covered in apricot jam and black from the soil from my feet.

I’m sweating and my hands are sticky. I want to go home. Back to the hotel. The sunlight is hurting my eyes. My head. Briskly I walk down the gravel path. My feet are all black from kicking up dirt and sand.

At the busy and dangerous crossing of Via Ulisse Aldrovandi, I have to stop to wait for the green light. As I’m waiting, a sign stuck to the traffic light catches my eye. In bold red letters it says: ATTENZIONE, FERMARE LA ZANZARE TIGRE. STOP THE TIGER MOSQUITO. It shows a little drawing depicting potted plants with water saucers underneath that are crossed through with big red X’s.

I look up at the balconies, at all the pots and plants. If you all would listen for once, you wouldn’t have a tiger mosquito problem. People have died from their bites. From dengue fever for heaven’s sakes.

Scooters and taxis and old Fiats with their disgusting fumes steer past me, their noise loud and irritating. A guy on a Vespa shouts to a girl on the other side of the road, hardly able to take his eyes off of her and her short skirt. Tooooooot! He almost crashes into a taxi in front of him. The taxi driver starts yelling and the traffic comes to a chaotic halt. I shake my head as I cross the road. If only people in this country would keep their eyes off all that’s pretty and focus on what’s important. Official announcements. The road. National safety. Look deeper. Fix the damned holes in the road. I almost sprain my ankle as I step into one. Bah, no wonder this country is politically unstable.

As soon as I walk through the sliding doors at the hotel, the cool, air-conditioned air soothes me. I feel like I can breathe again. The cold marble floors are immaculately clean, the gentleman at the reception acknowledges me with a friendly nod. I’m home.

Back in my room, I fall onto my bed. My soft, comfortable bed. Since I’ve been gone, the cleaning lady has been and my whole room is neat and tidy. The sun is shyly coming through the partly drawn blinds. The art-deco wallpaper flowers seem to blossom in the soft light.

A warm bath, lathering soap smelling of lavender, cleans my dirty feet and washes away the mosquito man’s invisible stains. My clothes and the tacky Romulus and Remus blanket are in the trusted hands of the hotel’s dry-cleaning service, ready for use again in just a few days. I pick up my phone from my bag and notice that Nick has sent me a text: Sorry about this morning. I just miss you. Love you baby and enjoy being in Rome. Maybe ring Silvia for some company. XN

I hold the phone close to me and whisper a soft “I love you too.” I know Nick means well, but Silvia can wait till Monday. I might even go out with her again next weekend, but for now, I’ll just turn my phone off entirely. I really don’t want to be disrupted again.

Clean and content, I roll back into the bed and close my eyes. Can I hear anything? No, all is quiet. No zooming insects, no buzzing phones. Simply silence. I pull the covers tighter and reach over for the room service menu. I’m going to order myself a nice meal. Spaghetti carbonara and a bottle of Chianti. After all, when in Rome….

Joan Z. Shore – Hungry Women, Fat Men

Hungry Woman, Fat Men
by Joan Z. Shore

Nature simply doesn’t get it right, and neither does society, and neither do many of us who are caught in this crunch:

The golden years stretching ahead of us, sustainable health and income, grown-up independent children … and an empty bed.

The partner may have been lost through illness and death, or after a bitter, banal divorce. But the result is the same—a single person striving to re-build a life that has crumbled.

While divorce affects two people, it is usually the man who manages to find someone fast and start again. Or someone quickly finds him. Women, we know, take longer to do this, if ever they do. Perhaps, instinctively, they are just more cautious and discriminating.

In the case of widowhood, it is more often the woman who is left widowed, and who is faced with a dwindling pool of available males. So women scour the Internet, join singles clubs, and may even take up golf in desperation. A single man has only to sit for a while at Starbucks before he is joined by an enterprising young female.

It isn’t fair, and it challenges everything we were taught during the Women’s Movement. Self-acceptance, self-confidence, honesty, tolerance were the ways we could connect with ourselves and with other women and with men. But men never learned these things; there was never a Men’s Movement. (Okay, a few men tried—they went into the woods or practised crying). And as women underwent consciousness-raising and group therapy and psychoanalysis, men just sat at Starbucks.

Many women today have given up the feminist ideal and are reverting to the old female ploys: they go on diets, they have surgery, they get cosmetic makeovers, they buy new wardrobes. Women’s magazines and the advertising world reinforce this: a Prada handbag, a new face cream, some liposuction. Maybe some classes at the local gym to whittle her waist and firm up her thighs. The man is still sitting at Starbucks, and orders another double latte.

In the animal world, the males do the preening. And in the old days—I mean a century or so ago—human males also preened. They wore waistcoats and spats; they waxed their mustaches. They set forth to conquer the fair lady. Courtship was in the male domain; it was the male prerogative. Today, it is the woman who goes a-courting. How did this happen?

We may say it is Women’s Lib in extremis, or Women’s Lib gone sour. Women have picked up the gauntlet of independence and men have walked away. If women suddenly stopped taking the initiatives, I doubt anyone would go on a date. Our men have become lazy, negligent and fat. And badly spoiled.

Short of another sexual revolution (and that might not be such a bad idea), I suggest the following: to every skinny, hungry, Botoxed female out there—cease and desist! Drag out your old clothes. Skip your daily workouts and your weekly manicures. Dare to go out in daylight without mascara and gloss. Eat a huge lunch and order a rich dessert. Then, waddle over to the nearest Starbucks and order a double latte.

The love of your life, plump and passive, may be sitting right next to you.