THE EUROPEAN TREK PART LAU (Basque for "four")
FAMILY AFFAIRS IN FRANCE AND THE BASQUES
(Originally sent to Friends Tue, 24 Sep 1996)
We were now at the halfway point and had run the gamut of ways and places--from rental cars and hotels, trains and seaside cottages, subways and youth hostels, and now families in the countryside with their own cars. It would require the least physical effort on our journey. But the emotional kaleidoscope, due to inserting ourselves for days into people's homes, would balance it out, while giving us instructive glimpses into different slices of life.
ANGERS, FRANCE--THE BEST PART OF OUR JOURNEY
It started off well. We arrived at the train station and a tall man with Steve-Martinesque hair was standing there trying to recognize us. Yves, a fellow scientist of dad's with an unforgettably charming last name, had trouble finding me. We'd first met when I was a junior highschooler, and hadn't met since 1987, which meant he'd never seen my family, let alone seen my prodigous beard. But like a scientist he was soon reductive. Somebody was arriving in Angers with an Asian wife and two children, and nobody else but us fit the description. So after a few double-takes he shook our hands. He then spent a number of minutes laughing at the sheer volume of luggage on our backs, wondering how he was going to get it all into his smallish Renault.
Yves is, in direct contrast to his Anglo counterparts across the Channel, the product of a society which gave us the word "hospitality". I have always gone out of my way to see his family on every solo European tour because they are just such nice hosts. This time around Yves was true to form, timing impeccable from the start. No sooner had we pulled into the driveway of his pleasant suburban house did he say, "Let's leave the luggage in the car and gave a beer." Or a few. The Heinekens were tiny, but he insisted I keep drawing anew from the refrigerator, as he put it, another "fresh one". And a fresh bottle of wine. Or two.
I got an education in how to savor my wine. This was the Loire region of France--wineries galore, and Yves, a botanist in a family of grape growers, had a brother with a chateau in Bordeaux. Almost every single wine we sampled was a family wine--a vintage I'd even stumbled across in a discount store in Sapporo! He knew his stuff. This wine goes well with fish, this with meat. This is a young wine, this an old, this one after "breathing" a bit. And have some bread--the glorious French bread--to keep the mouth awake.
Then wive Monique would come home and things would get cooking. Yves' wife was the personification of the word petite, matching Aya's height (152 cms) exactly, and bearing a wonderful nose borrowed from Napoleon. Oh, but the meals she would create, everyone sitting outside, watching the shadows lengthen, decompressing after Paris! Four days of langoustines, raw oysters in the shell (which, for all the seafood eaten in Japan, I've never had), smoked ham, broiled chicken with Yves' special sauce, and combinations of chemicals which made any salad more than just rabbit food.
"Sorry, no rabbit this time," Yves kept saying, and we remembered stories long forgotten. About the time they'd given me rodent for dinner but didn't tell me until afterwards. About the time he dropped me off in the large park in Angers one fine Sunday morn ten years ago, not knowing that Sunday morning was prime time for the gays in the area to cruise; he had to rescue me from a fellow who wouldn't stop following me. About the time in Geneva, 1977, when they were sabbatical in my hometown, son Fabien would fish huge boogers out of his nose when I was babysitting, showing them off proudly to the disgust of big brother Olivier.
"I've changed a little since then," said Fabien, now nineteen and a slim, fine example of a young man with an educated and active mind. He sat next to me and, in masterful English rarely seen in Japan, engaged me in conversations about French history, international travel, and Japanese society long into the night, every night. Meanwhile his brother, now in his early twenties, was paying his dues to DeGaulle and the Republique--undergoing basic training for a year in the military. Last seen as near-toddlers, these lads had completely grown up in my absence!
But now Aya and I were seeing things as parents with toddlers of our own, and in tall Yves and petite Monique we saw ourselves in futures we wouldn't mind. Comfortably settled in a safe neighborhood, having raised and kept amicable relationships with their children-now-adults, they had their vocations, used leisure time for interests and to stave off boredom, and awaited a comfortable retirement.
Their work in life was nearly done. Ours was reallly just starting. But if our next twenty years were as rewarding as theirs seemed to have been, things looked pretty pleasant indeed.
In retrospect, the stay in Angers was the most comfortable part of our journey. We toured little, preferring just to sit around and read (Bram Stoker's DRACULA is a dreadfully-written work). We had ample space to recline in and little worry about what the children were going to mess up, since Yves and Monique let children be children. Monique took to Anna (the daughter she never had, perhaps?) and Fabien, to my surpise, took to Amy. "You looked after me when I was a child," he said, "so I'll look after yours. It's fair." A generational thing--James Michener couldn't have illustrated it better.
If only we all could have all been so fluent: Monique remembered what English she could in order to communicate with Aya, and I tried repeatedly to jump-start my French (only to have Japanese interfere). Amy, whose first language is Japanese, had been exposed to Anglo-ish, Danish, German, French (and later Spanish and Italian), so by now was speaking a melange that only she would undertand--fluent gibberish. And Anna, who needed no language, could make friends and say plenty with just a glance and a smile.
We parted happily on a Sunday morning, far from any parks, our packs loaded with fresh croissants and other breads that Amy and Anna kept munching. After a picture of the packs for posterity, Angers was behind us.
Not only had we feasted well at Yves', we'd even got food for the soul.
LA HAIE FOUASSIERE, NEAR NANTES; THE SECOND MONIQUE
Then we entered a vastly different world. That of an old ladyfriend, with the most charming French accent one has ever heard--a world I never imagined Aya would consent to see. Tall Monique, David's Famous French Girlfriend. We'd met at a Tangerine Dream concert in London in 1986, when I was in Bristol studying for a year and English girls would not get to know an American with a beard. Following inchoate urges, I shaved the fuzz off, to no avail. Now here I was back a decade later, bearded again, kissing her side-to-side like the French do so delightfully.
"I don't like your beard," she said without hesitation. Same old Monique.
Aya doesn't understand what I ever saw in Monique, and now that my tastes in women are irretrievably Asian, nor do I. She had dyed her hair blonde (I refrained from comment), was much taller and broader-hipped than I remembered (I was used to shorter Japanese), and now wore summer outfits that would grace Emmanuelle (I didn't mind that). We still had the old interests in Tangerine Dream and other synthesizer instrumentalists, and it was fun to compare albums. But she had little time or money for frivolties anymore. She had a son, three years old, who gawked at us as we tried to squeeze our luggage into her tiny Renault. Little Claude was the product of a liaison with a man Monique didn't marry.
We sat down and talked about that. "After my jobs as au pair in England and Germany, with my language abilities I tried to get work in hotels as a receptionist. Henri was a cook at one of them and we started living together. We would work one place for a few months, decide we didn't like the boss or wanted to live near mountains or the sea, and just move wherever we wanted. It was a lifestyle with no plans and no worries about the future. Then we heard of a position in a saladerie (a salad-restaurant) for Henri in Bretagne, and we took it. I decided that I wanted a child then, and Henri said okay. And three years ago, we had Claude."
But why didn't you marry? "What was the point? It made little difference. Under French law, married or unmarried, if you break up and have a child, the man must still pay child support. And either way he has legal rights to the child--Claude's last name is his father's, not mine. Being married would have been inconvenient taxwise as well, and getting a divorce would have been more complicated. There was no advantage to being married, and now I'm pleased we didn't. It would have been harder to leave him."
I didn't exactly follow the logic, but I didn't press her. So what happened?
"Henri started drinking heavily and I wasn't really aware of it. When I was busy with Claude, he was spending all the saladerie's profits on his friends and himself behind my back. When I found out, he got violent and began beating me. I left him, but he'd keep calling my parents to tell them what bad things I'd done. They believed him until he punched my father too. Then there was no turning back."
So where is he now? "I don't know. I think he's homeless, living with friends, an alcoholic. I've asked him for child suppport, but I don't think he can pay. So I do everything myself."
It was a sob story to be sure, but Monique is not a crier. Describing the past knowing that that is where it will remain, she tended to Claude, worked waitress jobs until she got fed up, and is now on unemployment waiting to take clerical training.
The future? Monique didn't know, but didn't seem uptight about it--she never has been, which is why ultimately she and I didn't continue a relationship. Compared to Aya, who never wanted to live with me without marriage, and never hesitated to admonish me when there was no Master Plan, Monique is the type of person who doesn't believe in something like, say, insurance. I could never deal with that lack of direction in a relationship.
So we spent a few days with Monique, living cheaply, eating salads, and doing things that both Amy and Claude liked--going to the beach, eating lots of ice cream, playing with Claude's toys. But something significant happened. During the inevitable squabbles between children over who gets what toy, Amy played the "let's be cruel nyah nyah" game like an expert. She'd always call me over and make me get on the swing with her--in full view of Claude.
Her point: no matter how many toys Claude had, Amy had a daddy and he didn't. It put me in an awkward position, and made me realize, in this age of making out, making do, then making off, just how important two parents are to a child.
We left Monique and Claude on good terms and with good lessons. Amy's first contact with a boy her age, the value of a strong family, and knowledge of a path not taken. I had made a good choice in my wife.
Our next stop would make me question my choice of a culture.
BILBAO, SPAIN--ALL CHANGE, PLEASE
We took a train as far south from Nantes as possible, discovering the hard way that in France the train network is centralized in Paris, and going along the rim instead of through the hub means hours of extra travel. All day on a train, with a three-hour layover in a nowhere town called Dax, we found ourselves nearly marooned in Irun, the first city in Spain after the French Pyranees, wondering what the hell was going on.
It was ennervating because everything was abruptly different. The ten days we'd spent in France had made me conversational in French again, but suddenly my trilinguality was useless in a Spanish town. The trains in Spain run mainly on a narrower gauge, so you must get on a Spanish train at Irun (a place not even listed on my Eurorail map) and hope you can get a train that will link to your destination.
Nope. That evening, when we arrived at 6pm, there was nothing left to Bilbao, a city about 150 kms due west down the Atlantic coast, that day.
That's the thing about Europe--ride for a few hours and everything, bloody everything, changes. Language, customs, even money. This is something relatively few Americans, living in a large country themselves, or Japanese, who share borders with no country, really anticipate fully.
We soon realized that we were in trouble. The curt stationmaster told me in French to get a bus, and Aya, brandishing an excellent Japanese tome on Europe as if it were her "Junior Woodchuck's Guidebook", reinforced that by reading, "By the way, in Spain busses, not trains, are the mode of transportation. Faster, cheaper, and cleaner. Those with Eurail passes are advised to reconsider."
Oh, great, so we take a bus. The problem was unlike trains, for us busses were not free. Moreover, we had no Spanish money--only the motley crew of currency you heard about in London (and we'd always used our Citibank card and gotten that country's currency). Looked around--no ATMs that would take our cash card, no bureau de cambio open to switch our Francs or travellers' checks, and the last bus to Clarksville, I mean Bilbao, was departing in 30 minutes.
We were fortunate. I had a 100 Franc note left over from snacks in Dax, and the bus window took Francs and gave Pesetas in change. We had just enough to purchase our bus seats and to make a phone call to our next host, Gracia.
Gracia, a single woman my age, met me in Sapporo ten years ago when she came over on one of her famous jaunts. Working on and off for Bilbao's international airport, she got cheap air tickets whenever she wanted, and would disappear for months at a time to places like South Africa, the Great Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and Sapporo. She lived in Sapporo for three years, adding Japanese and American English to her reservoir or languages, and enjoyed the very carefree life that only a jetsetter in her early twenties conscionably can. Brown hair as thick and bulletproof as an emu's, striking eyebrows as thick and dark as two shaved caterpillars, she was a person who always bowled me over with just how much of life she could drink in and never get dizzy or intimidated.
Back to Irun. I got Gracia on the line and told her to meet us at the bus station, not the train station, at 8:30 pm. We then took the front seats of the bus and let the children fall asleep. We drove along the mountains and coastal expressways of northern Spain, noticing how dry and mesa-like everything looked, compared to the green plains of France only a few Pyranees away. Passing through San Sebastian and seeing signs with Southern-Californian names, we watched the sun go down as the driver impatiently threw in cassette tapes, looking for the perfect sunset song. He found it: RIDERS ON THE STORM by The Doors, and this, like the time I heard The Beatles' A DAY IN THE LIFE in Srinigar, Kashmir, has indelibly linked another song of my childhood to a faraway place.
It was a moment of peace before the evening threw us into greater confusion.
THE BASQUES--DON'T CALL THEM SPAIN
We arrived in Bilbao later than usual because of a 9pm traffic jam, and found ourselves curbside on a nondescript street without Gracia waiting. There were people everywhere, and all three of the girls, shaken out of slumber, were as disoriented as I was. I pulled off my bedrolls from the backpack ("see, I told you I'd find a use for them!" I said to myself triumphantly), and sat the children down safe from the pedestrians and their cigarette butts. We stood there on the sidewalk in a bind. Amy was in a horrible mood, and the incredibly delicious smell of broiled chickens nearby kept our stomachs rumbling; yet still we had no Pesetas to sate ourselves. We were unable to move our luggage, or take our eyes from it for fear of thieves, and began wondering again what we were doing here. The young people around were looking at us, packs and kids and all, and probably wondering the same thing.
Fortunately again, Gracia turned up after only 15 minutes, saying nobody at the train station knew where the bus stop was today, and said we should make a move. "It's a madhouse. I had to park my car way out of town and take a cab, it's so crowded. This is a festival night in Bilbao, and there are some fireworks for Amy if she wants to see them." We asked Amy and she said yes. So we headed for the train station to stow our bags.
Then Gracia stopped. "Y'know, there might not be any lockers there." Why not? "Bombs. Terrorist bombs. This is Basque country, remember."
I remembered. The Basques are perhaps much like the Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. Split between France and Spain (where the Atlantic bends from south to west), they enjoy one of the oldest (non-Romance) languages and cultures in Europe, yet have no country of their own. After some brutal oppression by Franco, a Basque separatist movement gathered steam and planted bombs all over Spain. Under King Juan Carlos, however, the Basques have achieved a limited autonomy with their own assembly, not to mention a national flag and road signs (full of funny X's and Z's) in two languages. Still, like the Catalan region (which houses Barcelona), their calls for a separate country have gone largely unheeded by Madrid (and Paris, for that matter).
So I asked Gracia how she felt about all this. She actually turned resentful.
"I'm Spanish, and my relatives came up here to work the port of Bilbao. This place is Spain, has been for a long time, yet these separatists have so much influence. I had to learn Basque in school. I never saw the need for it. I still can't read the language even today. I don't really feel for this separatist group, and can never understand the need for violence. I'm glad it's dying down. This place can't be a separate country. It could never support itself. The port of Bilbao is in it's heyday and unemployment is very high. And part of the problem is that the terrorists have scared off many businessmen by killing or kidnapping them. We were one of the richest regions in Spain. Still are. But that's not because of the Basques. It is despite them."
We took a taxi to her car (another tiny Renault), stuffed it, and called it a night.
THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF JAPAN EXPOSURE
We sat around Gracia's huge family house, in the Basque hills nearly an hour from Bilbao, watching the semitropical flowers bloom and get eaten by peacocks she had wandering around. It felt like a rich hacienda one would have in feudal Mexico, and the view was lovely. Between Spanish omelettes, smoked ham (which Aya ate incessantly), and succulent pork chops fried in garlic, we talked about, of all things, Japan.
Gracia loved Japan. Visited Sapporo three times for long periods. Loved it well enough to live there despite the obstacles--being a woman in Asia, living with friends who only wanted her for her language skills, homestaying with a yakitori-restaurant family that didn't know what to do with her. Though thick and thin, she stayed on, collecting memories Japonesque.
I looked around her memory rooms. Crowding out her inherited standing Madonnas and other deeply Catholic figurines (of considerable age and value) were framed Japanese ukiyoe and woodblock prints, as well delicate incense holders, caligraphy brushes, and Japanese paper galore. And album after album of photographs, a record of her stays and faves, all labelled and dated.
I realized that Japan had enchanted Gracia far more than me. Japanese flower arrangement, artworks, origami, crafts, things like that held no fascination for me. Yet Gracia had taken classes, had the addresses of her old teachers, had immersed herself in Japanese esthetic as much as possible. In contrast, after my sobering experiences of working for inhuman Japanese companies, watching passionate love for a Japanese woman become a mature marriage, and feeling disillusioned after the sumo scandals, very few things, save the amusing language, the undefined potential of a bilingual foreigner, and the constant sociological barrage, keep me in thrall in Japan. Yet the ultimate irony is that it is I who live in Japan, love/hate relationship and all, whilst Gracia pines for it in, shall we say, a love/unrequited-love relationship.
The crucial difference is gender. I have an anchor in Japanese society by being married to it. On the other hand, Gracia would never want to marry a Japanese man, and even if she did, her position as a woman in Japanese society--traditionally "shut up and do as your in-laws say"--would involve incredible compromise of her character. To top it off, events in her life conspired to bring her home perhaps irretrievably. The sudden deaths of her sister, then her mother, gave Gracia's seafaring father a whole house to himself, and no woman to cook. So now after a decade of free-spiritedness, Gracia's responsibilities suddenly came calling. She realized she was stuck in Spain with a father she had never known, while father, who had always been too busy with tugboats to see his children, had to make do.
Moreover, something had flowered inside that Gracia she could never share with those around her. As is common with international travellers, they enter a different plane than the stay-at-homes in their hometown. Full of experiences but unable to explain them to indifferent friends, who dismissed her as a weirdo or a snob. It was like trying to explain the taste of a peach to person who has never eaten one, and didn't care. Her withdrawal was especially acute because of Spanish society--where small exclusive groupings of friends generally form in school and last a lifetime--and she had left them behind unmaintained when she travelled.
Furthermore, another common dilemma for travellers is that after they find something they like in another society, they face the terrible culture shock of not having it when they return home. They wind up unsatisfied wherever they were, always missing something about somewhere else.
I understood completely, especially since I never found I could return home to America again. I was the only one Gracia could talk to about Japan, since I had been a fellow foreigner facing the same fascinations and frustrations. This country called Japan--all that effort to study and appreciate a culture which is impossible to learn a little of. Unless you hate it, you can't escape it.
I was sad to see this. Gracia, someone I had admired for spunk, was showing me a very different development in her character--the cold, sober realism seen in people who reach thirty and can no longer put off facing the changes of life. The pressure to be social, marry, to take care of one's elderly, to create and honor investments. Now she was in a beautiful house, full of memories and times she knew were irretrievable, watching her friends get on with life and feeling left in stasis. She wanted to get back to Japan as soon as possible, yet felt unable to leave her commitments in small-town Spain.
It was this leg of the trip which was most reflective (as you can probably tell from the long-windedness of this missive). I realized that my marriage and decisiveness, switching cultures, even at the tender age of 24, had had it's soft landings. And that Japan, a country of such contrasts, had shown her a much kinder face than it had me. Yet inexplicably, I realized, I was the one who stayed on, spreading my roots, and was increasingly ready to deal with my second-class status in a society that didn't know what to do with people like me. The irony was palpable.
It was time to move on. Time to go from one trouble spot to the other. From the Basques to the Balkans. Belgrade, Serbia, former Yugoslavia, was our next stop.
It was to be an ill-fated journey.
(on to the next essay in the series)