Thinking all the time about this country’s situation puts me in a blue funk. Here is a story to cheer me and you up. It’s one of my best.
I reached that mid-size Bolivian city in the lower Andes, on a research trip, the day before Bastille Day. I was an old undergraduate at Stanford at the time and still a French citizen. I reported my presence to the French consul, as required by law, as technically a member of the French Navy reserve. The consul was a Bolivian doctor who had studied in France and subsequently married, and then, divorced, a French woman. Bolivia being a landlocked country (bitterly so), the consul was not overwhelmed with naval business. He was glad to see me nevertheless and very cordial. He pressed me to attend the party he would give the next day on the occasion of the French national day.
It was a pleasant but schizoid event, starting with good French Champagne and ending with chicha, the soupy, local artisan corn beer. (Bolivians say that the fermentation of really good chicha starts with the spit of virgins. Just to make sure, they ask tiny girls to spit in the brew.) There was the usual mix of French expatriates and of Francophiles, most of the latter, probably silly unconditional Francophiles, plus some smart freeloaders.
The French expatriates often land in a particular town of a particular country at a particular time for no particular reason. They may have been heading somewhere else and gotten stuck along the way. They always include wives and former wives of natives who may have divorced them, or died. Coming from different epochs (such as before and after WWII), they form historical strata, each remembering a different France, and they entertain disparate and often incompatible visions of the fatherland. They have developed new habits in the country where they live and, without knowing it, they have drifted far from their culture of origin. That culture of origin, meanwhile, is itself changing, but in a different direction. Many expatriates disseminate more or less innocently patently false notions about the country where they were raised. Their French self is forever a young person, or even a child. Their own children are simply natives of their land of residence with a smattering of the French language and no real curiosity, forever strangers to their parents.
The Francophiles are yet another story. No part of the world is free of their plague. Many but by no means all, are also francophone to some extent. Some gain standing in their own mind via their real or imagined mastery of what they have decided is a superior national culture. They are usually very parochial, doubly so because they are fixated on France and on their own country, to the exclusion of knowledge of any other part of the world. Others are teachers of French who feel professionally obligated to revere that which they teach and, by extension, everything French. Often, they don’t even know the language very well, limited as they are by the cramped discourse of textbooks, without awareness of the vigor, the colorfulness, and the frequent crudeness of the real French language of both literature and everyday life. (“cul-de-sac” is a French word. It means, “the ass of a bag.”)
In Bolivia, on that Bastille Day, I observed that the two groups, expatriates and native Francophiles, mixed well. They shared the rudimentary popular imagery of the 1789 French revolution, which beheaded a king for the sake of “public salvation,” and his pretty, frivolous young queen, just in case. (That was after storming a prison-fortress, the Bastille, that was largely undefended.) The abundance of alcohol, generously supplied by the good doctor, the consul, also helped establish harmony at the reception.
A small band was playing, some Bolivian tunes, but mostly American oldies-but-goodies. Stranger danced freely with stranger. A striking young woman caught my eye, and everybody’s eye as well. She was a tall blonde with the perfect hourglass figure, long legs, a narrow waist, and a big, firm bust. She had large, very pale blue eyes, and golden hair down to the middle of her back. (I realize “golden” is a cliché, but it’s the perfect word in this case.) Above all she had flawless, milky-white skin, so fine that you could detect the blue veins on the top of her round bosom. All the men were vying for her attention, including her Bolivian husband. She danced graciously and with much animation. Since I was already a man-bitch then, I carefully averted my eyes and ignored her pointedly. Shortly, she invited me to dance.
Soon, I began experiencing a sense of discordance. Her shoes were a bit clunky. Her stiff dress belonged to another age, in another place, perhaps a small French village’s annual parish ball ten years earlier. There was a single row of pearls around her alabaster neck, appropriate for a much older woman. Once you got past her glowing natural beauty, she seemed a little dowdy next to the criollas, the surprisingly chic young Bolivian city women. (They drove to the airport in their daddies’ cars to collect the latest fashion magazines from Argentina, itself a modish outpost of Milan and Rome.) The beautiful blonde danced close enough that I started to detect an acrid smell coming up from her armpits. She told me her story unbidden.
She was the second of a large farm family from the Vendée in western France, a region where all families are large. The Vendée was, until recent times, a poverty-ridden and sickly part of the country. City people believed dark tales about it. They would say that when a woman died, in childbirth or from “the fevers” (malaria), the oldest daughter was expected to step into her shoes and into the father’s bed. They told darkly of women being their own stepmothers and of offspring who were half-brothers to their mother.
A young food engineer of exotic appearance showed up in her village out of nowhere, He was beginning a practical internship in a plant nearby that extracted cooking oil from various seeds. The man was better educated and had more polish than the local farm boys who would go to the dance more for a chance to hit one another on the head with beer bottles than to seduce girls. The foreign-looking engineer wooed the Vendéenne persistently for months, traveling on his motorcycle to every village dance where she might make an appearance. A girl with little education, no prospects, no future, and not even suitable suitors, she yielded to his insistent courting. She married him in France and followed him to Bolivia, a country she could not have located on any map, she confided, but one that sounded exotic, interesting.
As she was telling me her story, the husband, currently talking with the consul, kept an eye on us. He was thick and squat, shorter than she by a head. He had an irregular nose, thick lips and a low brow atop globular but intelligent eyes. His skin was dark brown but dull; his thick Indian hair lacked luster. I well understand how some ugly men are attractive to women, because their very cragginess projects maleness. He was not one of those; he was an ugly ugly man; he made you think of a toad.
The Vendéenne asked me casually where I was staying. In pensión so-and-so, I said. She told me it was a clean place whose food had a bad reputation. She, herself, lived ten miles outside the city, in a very small town, in the manager’s apartment of the cottonseed oil extraction plant of which her husband was in charge. I don’t remember saying good-bye. I ended the evening drunk on chicha, a treacherous beverage that creeps up on your brain although its alcohol content is low.
The next morning, around eleven, I was still in bed trying to convince myself that the hangover would not prevent my standing up. There was a brief knock at the door, which was unlocked. I answered to come in, hoping for a servant girl with a merciful cup of coffee. Instead, the blond Vendéenne appeared. She stood at the foot of my bed, her blue eyes sparkling with tears. Without a word, she slipped out of her dress, kicked off her shoes and joined me under the covers. She made love silently but intently, methodically, her eyes tightly shut close, with a hard manner that seemed almost to exclude me. The armpit smell was still there. Afterwards, I went downstairs to fetch some coffee (although my headache was completely gone!) Then, she told me the rest of her story.
Once in Bolivia, in that village where the plant was located, her husband immediately displayed intense jealousy and he began sequestering her. He confiscated her passport, read both her in-coming and out-going mail, and seldom allowed her outside the village, where a hundred pairs of eyes followed her constantly. Rarely, he would take her to the city with him and set her free for an hour, to shop or to meet with other women known of him and selected by him. He wanted a child and she said she hated his touch. (But all adulterous wives say that about their husbands.)
She wanted to flee, to go back home, but she had no money of her own and she was powerless. Of course, I did not know why she had thrown herself at me, and I will never know. On the one hand, I was a healthy, strong, probably appetizing young man, and I was carrying with me the emotional solace of culturally familiar territory. On the other hand, the lightening affair may well have been a calculated attempt to manipulate me into helping her. I wanted to believe the first motive dominated, of course, but I was not foolish enough to disregard the second. Perhaps it was a mixture of the two, born of some obscure millennial instinct of our race: A woman who uses a man one way thereby gains the ability to use him in many other ways as well. (That’s more or less the manner in which my wife tried to sell marriage to our daughter: “A husband is a good thing. He gives you safe sex pretty much on demand and he also pays the bills; moreover, he entertains you when you are bored.”)
The beautiful blonde did not have to ask; the deep instinct to help a damsel in distress took over. (I believe it’s not a cultural convention created by troubadours in the twelfth century, as some academics would have it, but a hard-wired impulse of normal young males of the species. Those who don’t have it are unfinished products, freaks of nature.) While she kissed me good-bye lightly, on the cheeks, as if relieved of a burden, she had mentioned that the next Sunday was fiesta day in her village. There would be interesting music, and especially dancing, in traditional outfits. She assured me I would enjoy it. In spite of understandable trepidation about her jealous but not stupid husband, I promised to attend. After the Vendéenne had left, I began cogitating on how to help her escape.
The rest of the week, while becoming used to Bolivia, I was plotting in my head how to implement her escape. I barely knew the consul but he seemed to have taken an instant liking to me. Surely, he had the power to issue a temporary travel document to a person he knew to be a French citizen. I thought I could persuade him anyway. Then, I would violate my fellowship contract and divert the remainder of the Foundation money that had brought me to Bolivia to help her flee in my company. We would use local transportation, open trucks that no one would think of checking. In short zigzag spurts, we would make it to the Chilean coast. In Valparaiso, we would find a freighter bound for Europe. (I only knew of Valparaiso through French sea-chantees, but that was more than nothing!) I probably did not have the money for two tickets but I was confident my naval service would allow me to work our way to Europe. I regretted the early ending to my Bolivian stay implicit in that move and the interruption of my studies at Stanford. Yet, I knew, in some vague, instinctive way, that I would probably not have many other opportunities to blend romantic adventure with righteous behavior bordering on heroism. My mind was made up but I had no way to communicate the plan to the beautiful Vendéenne. Yet, she had sounded so desperate, in my bed, that it never crossed my mind she might not like it.
On Sunday, I caught a ride to the fiesta. The party was well on its way when I arrived. It was held under plane trees, in the courtyard of the plant. There was a cattle- trough full of chicha but some of the men seemed to have already had something stronger, probably pisco, a grappa-like alcohol distilled from fermented grape juice. It was hard to tell because, I realized weeks later, Bolivian men chewed coca leaves incessantly, chewing just a little faster on big occasions. A band was drawing plaintive sounds I had never heard, from reed instruments I had never seen, all accompanied by a big drum.
There were several dining sets of massive silver on display, a hundred times more silver than I had seen in all my life, all prettily laid out on llillas, on the hoods of old American cars. Llillas are the square hand-woven cloths rural Bolivian women carried everywhere, to transport babies and burdens alike. They usually have a dark natural wool color background and a band running down the middle of intricate, multicolored motives of astounding sophistication. The women don’t treat these utilitarian objects casually but as proud testimonials to their skills as weavers. When you offer to buy one, they often act flattered but usually refuse to part with the fruits of their labor and of their womanly competence. (I believe men rarely or never weave.)
All the women and many of the men were attired in the same kind of home-woven but elaborately ornamented cloth with bands of bright colors, against black and brown backgrounds. The women wore the white, broad, straw top-hats of the region on their black, braided hair. Most of the men had on dark fedoras from another era. The ludicrous thought came to my mind that every one of their hand-made outfits would cost several thousand dollars in an elegant shop on the Champs-Elysées.
In the middle of the throng, sitting high on a sort of dais, was my blond Vendéenne. She was wearing a white-on-white embroidered version of the local costume. Her long pink legs showed under the pollera, the short, wide skirt of Bolivian women, ballooned up by seven petticoats. Big shiny silver earrings brushed her gold-stitched collar. A white top-hat perched elegantly above her bright blond tresses. Her deep-blue eyes radiated excitement. After every number, the musicians tipped their hats and bowed in her direction. She would beam back at them royally. She was surrounded by two dozen dark, squat young women who took turns gazing up at her with adoration painted on their faces. She was thoroughly the striking queen of her little domain. In an instant, I knew in my heart that she would never leave.
©Jacques Delacroix 2005, 2006, 2010
If you like this story, don’t be shy about circulating it. I am always looking for hard copy publishing outlets. I am also looking for an agent for my book.