Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, was my neighborhood during my first year in the United States. The family that hosted me for a few weeks before I moved into a house on South Linden Ave, welcomed me into their home with a warmth and generosity that made me love the country before I even knew it. Squirrel Hill is the place where I learned to speak American English, where I handed out my first Halloween candies, and where I marveled at the deliciousness of sweet potato casserole with marshmallows and pecans, and turkey with cornbread stuffing during my first Thanksgiving dinner. It’s where I developed a crush on Jim Morrison, smoked my first joint listening to Jefferson Airplane and to The Pretenders, and thought Jennifer Beals’ outfits in Flashdance were the height of fashion. Squirrel Hill Café was where my roommates taught me to drink beer with vodka chaser, and where I learned to accept that I’d never be good at playing darts. It’s where I first went contra-dancing and learned you could make music with two spoons. If it hadn’t been for Squirrel Hill, it wouldn’t have taken me thirty-three years to return to Europe. It lives on in a snow-globe deep inside my heart. At a time like this I take it out and shake it and watch the snowflakes settle on its brick houses and tree-lined avenues to reassure myself that in spite of everything, there still is magic in this world.
Little did the wolf know what he started when he suggested to the small girl with the red hood—such a plump little morsel—she should take the longer path through the forest and pick some flowers for her ailing grandmother. For a while the little girl did indeed think of her grandma as she picked one flower after the other, and tucked them into her basket between the cake and the bottle of wine. But before long she’d forgotten all about her. There were so many paths in the forest, so many sunlit clearings to explore. When she finally did make it to her grandmother’s house, she barely recognized it. Overgrown by gnarled and twisted branches, it looked much smaller than she remembered. The wolf was waiting up for her, and invited her in. The cake was long gone, of course, and the flowers wilted, but the bottle of wine had aged well, as good wine does. Red Riding Hood was no longer little nor did red suit her, but she knew how to drink a wolf under the table.
Today I woke up to rain singing in the wide gutter right outside my garret window. I lay suspended between past and future, listening to water, and remembered this song I wrote on another rainy day, miles away and years ago. “Je recommence,” I called it. “Starting over.” Like my younger self in the song, I got up, and made myself a cup of coffee, and opened the window to breathe in the cold morning air. Autumn. Finally.
Ce matin il pleut, et l’eau chante dans mon cœur,
de mon lit je vois le ciel bas vidé de couleur
j’écoute le bruit des voitures,
et je sens ma joie revenir,
et je sais qu’elle a disparu cette envie de mourir
Aujourd’hui je m’lève, je m’habille, je fais du café
je regarde l’eau bouillir dans le pot fêlé
et puis j’ouvre la fenêtre
et j’inspire de l’air glacé,
et je m’ dit alors, comme c’est bon, ce café au lait
La tristesse de hier s’envole, plus de drame, plus de romance,
je m’invente des paroles pour
pour une histoire qui recommence
Aujourd’hui je rebranche mon téléphone,
et je dit bonjour au voisin qui s’étonne
puis j’ouvre la porte de la maison
et je reste sous le seuil un moment
et mes pas sur la rue battent le rythme d’une vieille chanson.
At about the same time I was looking through the IKEA catalogue in an effort to recreate the home I left behind, nostalgically affixing feelings of belonging to a salad bowl, Alexander Gauland, leader of the German right wing party Alternative for Germany (AfD), blamed the ills of the homeland on the “Heimatlosigkeit”, the “homelandlessness” of the urban “elites”.
These “elites”, writes the university-educated lawyer and journalist, control the media and higher education, work for transnational companies and organizations like the UN, and set today's cultural and political trends. And, God forbid, since English is their lingua franca, they are all, at the very least, bilingual.
So how does one reclaim the lost homeland, according to the AfD platform? By closing the borders, arming so-called honest citizens, deporting all Germans who are Muslim, supporting the traditional family structure, and requiring mothers to be the sole caretakers of their children for the first three years of their lives. Home sweet home.
At times like these, I seek solace in the words of the philosopher Ernst Bloch who in Principle of Hope also wrestled with the concept of “Heimat." Exiled in the U.S. in 1938, he denounced the world of business that, “placed under the sign of swindle, … chokes any other human impulse” in its thirst for gain, degrading human beings and their home environment, both natural and urban. For Bloch, “Heimat” was a future concept, a place we strive for, not a return to some past imagined in the interest of ideology.
This new homeland that many of us are struggling to build, surely means loosing some of our local color. It also means being comfortable with not understanding everything that the person next to me in the check-out line at IKEA is saying to his son. He is probably discussing how to put together that IKEA table they are about to buy rather than plotting my displacement. After all, all of us are at IKEA searching for “Heimat”, for that perfect bowl around which to gather our friends and family.
Last night, in the process of making galettes, I reached for a bowl that wasn’t there. I paused, hand in mid-air, uncertain about the country under my feet, until I remembered that this particular bowl stayed behind, in my previous life. It was a perfect ceramic bowl, the color of pale cream with a sage-green stripe around the rim. It had the right heft for making bread dough, the right depth for whipping up batter, the perfect size for serving salad for three on a farmhouse table. An IKEA original, it looked Scandinavian and yet universal. I never thought I would peruse an IKEA online catalogue to try and fill the absence I keep reaching for. Unfortunately for me, they don’t carry that bowl anymore. IKEA moved on, and maybe it’s time for me to do the same.
L’inconnue de la Seine
During a recent first aid workshop, the trainer handed me a rubber mask and instructed me to affix it to a dummy called Resusci-Anne before CPR practice. Once I had the mask in place, I looked down at the female face with the peaceful half smile.
“She looks so friendly,” I said.
The trainer explained the mask was in fact fashioned after the original cast of the face of a drowning victim, a young woman pulled out of the Seine near the Quai de Louvre in 1880. “L’inconnue de la Seine,” the Unknown of the Seine, as she came to be known, so intrigued one of the pathologists he had a mould cast of her face. In the bohemian Paris of the early 1900s it became all the rage to have a copy of this mask on display, and, according to some researchers, later versions of the original mask erased all traces of death by drowning. For several decades, the face of this nameless woman was an icon of female perfection, silent and sightless. In the mid-fifties, Peter Safar, father of CPR, and toy maker Asmund S. Laerdal developed CPR-Annie using a copy of the original mask.
I lowered my mouth to hers, joining my breath to those of all the millions of trainees before me, and tried to make her open her eyes and speak.
I paint and write and live mostly in a country of my own making. I've shown my work at cafés and galleries in the US, Spain, France and Germany. Among my children's books are El Loro Tico Tango (The Parrot Tico Tango), El Fandango de Lola (Lola's Fandango), both published by Barefoot Books, and the stories for the Tikitiklip Precolombino series of children's videos (Producciones Ojitos, Santiago de Chile).