Friday, November 15, 2019

The Wonder of America

Alas. But the Bohemian Cafe (Czech Us Out) in Omaha closed a couple of years ago as well. Americans grow up and do their own thing, which often (as in my case, my father's, my grandfather's, my great-grandfather's...) isn't continuing a family business. At the same time, I rue the loss of ethnic totems such as Amish Acres. A few years ago I designed a couple of restaurants for a Chinese immigrant about my age. He came to America and did his own thing, and it went well for him. He said that he'd sell at retirement, as none of his kids wanted to be in the restaurant business, which they had been raised in. America is fertile soil for fulfilling your dreams; but the same goes for your kids.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

La Huelga

For about 9 days now Cuenca's been cut off except by air from the rest of the country due to the political unrest. Following is a train of bits starting with oldest first, I'll add as makes sense: 

********Today I was gonna get some passport copies notarized and drop them off at the lawyer's office in Centro. But it was raining. Then there was rioting off and on, tear gas, etc. due to heartburn over eliminating subsidies for gasoline and diesel. Gas prices going from 1.85 to 2.40 and diesel from 1.03 to 2.30, roughly, as far as I can tell from what I read. Taxis blocking roads. People biking & walking to work. Roads blocked with burning trash barrels. People driving on sidewalks to get around blockages. Crazy. Tempers are flaring. Weather cleared up nicely but I figured the chances of both the lawyer and notary being in were nil. Stayed home. Curfew tonight.

********Everything is still closed today, and quiet. Our neighborhood park is full of idle taxistas with cabs parked around the perimeter, but not blocking the streets. Ojalá I can get our permanent visa stuff done on Monday.

********Now that the transport strike blockades are supposedly over, we went to the store. It was just like hurricanes and snowstorms- no milk, no bread, no toilet paper. Dribs and drabs of fresh meat and produce.

********At 4pm Cuenca received a C-130's worth of vittles. 45k lbs in a 400k metropolis doesn't mean much, but I expect it's more about making a point than a difference.

********Had stuff I needed to tend to today regardless of politics.

Enroute to the electrical repair shop where I had left a non-working quartz heater, I saw that the little army post a few blocks from my house was hosting on its ballfield the helicopter that's been hanging around Centro the last couple of days.

As I drew near the shop I saw the two guys outside talking. They gave me a big smile and handshake, said the heater was ready, $10. I said I'd come back tomorrow as I had to buy food today, all good.

Stopped at the sculptor's studio to check on our pedestals. he makes statues of saints, stays real busy. We ordered a couple of pedestals for our old Jesus'n'Mary statues. He's not in, just his helper.

Headed on into town to pay utility bills at Western Union. Ran into a police-army barricade a full block north of Parque Calderon. Only folks with business were getting past. Turns out all eight blocks surrounding Calderon were barricaded, but I eventually got to the WU office. The line was too long for my taste, so I proceeded to the Notaria's office to get copies of our passports notarized for our permanent visa applications. It's the 11th notary office in town. As they say in Spanish, Decima Primera, the Tenth First.

The Notaria isn't busy, I go to the desk with 3 passports and 6 copies, as the visa process requires two copies of each passport. The senora says, you want two copies notarized, right? Then you need to get a third set of copies for our records. I go around the corner to a copy place, get three copies. The owner is missing a temple on her glasses. I show her the jury rig on my broken Ray-Bans, say I've had these for about 40 years, I won't replace them. She says she's too busy to mess with getting hers done.

Back at the Notaria I'm now first in line for the Notario to sign all my stamped copies. He's got someone with him, they talk & talk. In the meantime the line grows from one to over a dozen. A staffer comes over, says give me your documents, and gets the Notario to sign while he talks. Thanks!

I head toward the lawyers office. Lawyer is Abogado in Spanish- Advocate. Not so hard. I draw near to an older man, tatty but elegant, seems kind of Italian. He looks at me, says are you Italian? No, are you Italian? He says yes! We start talking in Italian, he's from Rome. I say we're going to Rome in December. So how's your life in Cuenca? Well not so good: I'm retired, my wife died a few years ago, no family, I'm unwell...he pulls up a trouser leg to show bad circulation in his calf and ankle. If I could maybe give him a dollar it'd really help, he doesn't get much pension. Sure, here you go. I plan for a certain amount of charity each time I'm in Centro, so I have change.

Cecyl the Abogada is standing outside her office talking to her assistant and a woman I don't know. We chat a bit about the Paro (stoppage), seems like things are getting back to normal. I give her the passport copies.

I stop by an artstore, ArkiArte, just to see what stuff they have. Very nice brushes and drafting pens, lots of paint colors, yes they have acrylics, a pleasant visit with the owner and adult daughter. They give me a little complementary metric scale.

Now I'm off to the Mercado, Janet has given me a list of stuff. She's angsty about the food situation, yesterday the pickin's were slim-to-none. For dinner we had popcorn, I thought that was fine. A friend of ours had rice and animal crackers. But the Mercado is as slap-full of edibles as ever. I get kilos of taters, onions, beets, red & green peppers, carrots. I suppose even if the indigenous folks are blocking access to Cuenca, they at least let trucks in so the indigenous foodsellers can make a living. Other folks are getting pissed, yesterday someone ran over a road-blocker. Then other blockers wouldn't let an ambulance through. By the time the doc walked to the injured person, he was dead.

A good day for me though, and I beat the rain home.

*********Our Ecuador phone has been getting PSAs from Cruz Roja (Red Cross) reminding everyone that they are neutral in the current unrest, and to please allow the free passage of their vehicles.

********Grocery store is slap empty, but mercados have food when they are open. In other news, Cuenca is now at US Dept of State Level 4 Do Not Travel. You know, like Iran. On the bright side, we had trash pickup for the first time in over a week.

********Just saw a C-130 go around our house (typical landing pattern) on the way to landing. First one we've seen. A few minutes ago a bigger helicopter flew near, Blackhawk-sized. Since the strike began, we've see a Kiowa-size copter around, which is based at a nearby soccer field. So the Blackhawk is interesting.

********Today is Saturday, October 12. Took a fast shower today, first one since Sunday. Walked downtown to pay bills around 11am, which is before the demonstrations start, but the barriers are still up around the 9-block area centered on Parque Calderon. Paid bills, and ran into a Cuencano I know about my age, talked a bit about la huelga (the strike), and getting food. Cops were in a good mood. I noticed assorted young non-indigenous men kitted out in all-black with neckerchiefs which would soon become facemasks. Heading home, I watched a peaceful indigenous march go by- lotsa red flags and happy, well-mannered folks shouting slogans. Noticed assorted places where vandals had busted up curbs & sidewalks to make throwing stones. So sad in such a lovely city. Also went over to Santo Domingo to teach my first catechism class in 3 years. Turns out the class for adult catechists was canceled due to the situation. Had a good visit with the DRE though, gave him a good idea of what I can do. 

Popcorn for lunch.

********  Sunday 13 Oct. Quiet day. After Mass, breakfast at an underpatronized cafe, then off to the grocery store. About 5% of typical fresh produce. No fresh meat. No bread. No juice. Milk! Toilet paper! Canned tuna! Whiskey and Amaretto! Frozen Turkey! We will survive. Still not as bad as a hurricane. We have used up one of our 4 LP gas tanks, which are about twice the size of ones you can swap out at Home Depot.

******* Tuesday Oct 15. Armistice. Still no gas trucks, but life is 90% normal. Went to the airport on visa business, saw a couple hundred soldiers waiting to fly out out of Cuenca. They seemed tired.

*******  Tuesday night, Oct 22 The unrest in Ecuador began on October 3, and was officially over on the 14th. Supply of everything but LP gas was virtually normal by the 16th. The gas company was about 100,000 tankfulls short when the blockade ended, but can only fill about 14k per day. So Cuenca is still way behind on a normal supply of filled tanks. During the first days after the unrest, the normal $3 tanks went for $20, but now are back to normal if you are ready to wait in line for a few hours to maybe get one tank. We were careful with our 4 tanques, and between the 3rd and yesterday had used up two of them, with two still partly full. In normal times, small flatbed trucks roam the neighborhoods, playing a jingle, and swapping empty tanks for full. Some neighbors & friends simply call for deliveries, but we never did. I'd put a red ribbon on our gate, and they'd stop and ring the bell. Anyway, the trucks haven't been out for weeks, so the daughter got a number from a neighbor.

A woman answered Francesca's call, said she'd have to see if her local gas dealer still had any tanks, would call back. Within the hour she did- she could get 2 tanks, $10 each, delivered to us before it got late. Maybe an hour or so later she came by. It's a young wife, husband, and toddler in a crossover, with the gas tanks on blankets in the back seat. My guess is she lives near a distributor's bodega, takes orders and waits in line there. Or goes in the back and pays a bit more not to wait. Whatever. I could have done the same a few blocks from our house, but even after waiting, I'd have two very heavy tanks (or one, or none) that cabbies aren't fond of toting. I have a handtruck good for one tank at a time, but there's elevation change...I just don't want to hump them home. $10 each- wotta deal!

So we are all taking showers and washing clothes today. Life is good.


nice neighborhood

Paid a visit to a friend's house on one of the oldest streets in Cuenca. Typical Centro house, two stories built right against the sidewalk. Ground floor front is commercial. Planted interior courtyard with surrounding balcony. Older back part of house wattle-and-daub construction, newer front made of brick. Second floor rooms with skylights have glassblock floors to let light into rooms below. Lovely plaster ceilings 11' or 12' high. Electric lights added later. Elegant, cool, tranquil. Heavy walls kill almost all of the noise of the street. At 90 minutes, my longest Spanish-only conversation. Way down the street on the left is our parish, Santo Domingo.

We also recently had a Venezuelan over for dinner on Saturday. His father had been a colonel in the pre-Chavez era. The family spent a couple of years at Ft. Benning while Dad liaiased. Son learned very good English, teaches it here at a school a couple blocks away from our house. Quite the story from the heady days of pricey oil to the current debacle.

What else...n
ear Parque Calderon a nicely-accoutered gringa asked me if I could help her pay her hostel bill. I said, "You've told me this story before." She said, "I thought you looked familiar," and scooted. Not 10 feet from us were little Venezuelan kids selling lollipops and worthless 500-Bolivar notes so they could eat.
Today I swapped a dollar for 600 Bolivars, also known as toilet paper. The Venezuelan kids got an excellent deal as the rate today at the Colombia border is 12,625. I have a nice collection of worthless Bolivars.

Needed rubber bands awhile back. There are little tiendas called papelerias, paper shops, they'd probably have some. Walking to Centro yesterday I stopped at the first one- nope, no rubberbands. The one across the street had them, a penny apiece, the owner counted out the 20 I needed, done. Had a nice little visit. Google translate had said 'cinta de goma' and 'banda elástica' for rubber band, but he said no, we call them ligas (ligaments). Nice.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Caught in Celluloid

Image result for the spy who came in from the cold movie

I was born in 1957. When my parents went to the movies they almost always took me. Of course, none of the films were aimed at little kids. Regardless, many of the ideas made very vivid lasting impressions on my young mind. I still remember them with that little boy's worldview, which makes them all the more compelling. Some I've re-seen as an adult, but the original imprints remain.
These I can recall off the top of my head. Not every movie I remember by any means, but the ones that still matter:
Lord Jim
The Subject Was Roses
Mutiny on the Bounty
The Quiller Memorandum
A Man for All Seasons
Taras Bulba
Pillow Talk
Dr. Zhivago
Fistful of Dollars
Spy Who Came in from the Cold
The Sandpiper
Dr. Strangelove
Fail Safe
Zorba the Greek
Lilies of the Field
Lawrence of Arabia
To Kill a Mockingbird
The Miracle Worker
Breakfast at Tiffany's
The Train
The Sand Pebbles
Fahrenheit 451
A Man and a Woman

"There's no hiding in my memory/ each thought and gesture are caught in celluloid"
The Carpet Crawlers, Genesis, 1974.

Just Hair

We are usually not out and about when schoolkids have lunchtime. I don't play close attention to the schoolday schedules, but I think they get out from 1 to 2 or so. Many, if not most businesses, close between 1 and 3; so we have learned to run errands before and after.
On Friday we were headed home from erranding right when schools let out. My impression is that the schools physically close, so students either walk home to eat, or get food from street vendors who are ready and waiting right outside the gates. They are entirely at large until school restarts, a virtual antithesis to school in the US where kids are typically forbidden to leave campus.
So as we drew near one school, a torrent of teens began to spill out, overflowing the sidewalk, around parked cars, and into the street. Everyone is in dark navy blue uniforms with white shirts. And the hair- as we slip into and through the crowd, we're surrounded by dozens of long, thick, and glossy tresses of straight black hair played against the navy and white. Long feminine hair is a kind of wealth, a splendor; and the gleaming ebony opulence is on luxuriant display for the couple of minutes it takes us to pass through the crowd.
It's the same at Mass every Sunday, but not with such density, and not so uniformly long. The indigenous women all keep their hair long regardless of age. Mass is a great place to see the older women, usually with braids, but some with hair unbound. They're always so beautifully turned out.
So anyway, we're squeezing through the kids, and I was saying to Janet, "Look at all this awesome hair, it's so healthy and affirming. You see how good it looks? That's how good your long hair looks." When we got married, Janet's hair was long, i.e., between the shoulder blades. It was the best, I felt good about life just by looking at it. At some point she thought it was too long, and cut it short for at least 15 years. But it's been full and long again for the last 5 years or so, and I remind her daily how glorious it is and don't miss a chance to compare it favorably to all the competition.

Friday, May 17, 2019

La Serenissima

This is not a movie set
Met with our lawyer yesterday afternoon about wills, then had a pleasant happy hour at Goda Bar. Can't beat the glass wall for panoramic people-watching. May is Mary's month, so we had a pair of men come by: one in front playing his accordion; the follower holding a shadowbox Marian shrine. Three little uniformed girls out of school, at large and unsupervised. Dignified Cañari women in habitual dress. Sleek young folks all in black, the women with scarlet lips and teetering on spike heels. Janet stayed busy smiling and saying hello to folks examining The Blonde Gringa as they passed. I just sat there and let her make me look good.
Another serene day.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

All Roads Lead Away From Rome

Now it goes everywhere

I got married in 1988 to a woman whom I'd known for 11 years. She was a few years older than me, and had a son; both of which I thought made me look pretty cool, which they did, and still do. We got busy doing the Stability Thing right off, bought a 1930s Cape Cod before the wedding. We did most of the fixing-up ourselves after work, made a nice nest. That first summer the son was away for a week, would return Sunday. That Saturday I said to the wife, let's go for a drive in the Smokies. So having no destination, off we went: Flat Rock, Asheville, the Parkway, Boone. That afternoon I was vaguely headed southwest out of Johnson City, Tenn. on a rolling, traffic-free 2-lane that was perfect for my new 5-liter Mustang. Janet was sleeping with her bare feet stuck up on the dashboard, hair blowing out the rolled-down window. And for a fast and serene hour it was, as the song says, Just Like Heaven, we could have done anything, gone anywhere. When she woke up I said, hey you ever been to Gatlinburg? Me neither. Let's check it out.
Gatlinburg was quite a pleasant surprise: a good place to forget the car, stroll, have a relaxing, beguilingly unpretentious low-key evening. I didn't want to drive back to Greenville, so we stayed at the epically modest River Park Inn, long since torn down and replaced by something sleeker. Woke up Sunday to discover the room's balcony overhung the river, with its mist, whitewater, and ducks. Had breakfast, walked a bit more, got back home in time to retrieve Jacob at the airport.
And then we made two more children, adopted two more from Russia, bought a bigger house, and for the next thirty-plus years raised a family, and it was transcendent. But that hour snaking through the sticks of East Tennessee remained a touchstone: not of the family, but the marriage.
April 30th was our 31st anniversary. We dressed up and dined in one of Cuenca's toniest joints. At age 68, Janet more than ever is elegant and self-assured and desirable, and all the other things men dream of about women. I did so well to marry her. We talked a bit about visiting Italy later this year, and for the first time since 1988 I got that Tennessee 2-lane vibe again. For a while at least, we can go anywhere and do anything, just the two of us.
A few years ago I first heard the song 'Free,' by country singer Zac Brown. Until this week this song has been a little anthem of a future I hoped would come if I were patient. Now that future is here. 'Free' is still the same song, but now it's an anthem of the actual instead of the potential.
My life is just incredible beyond any reckoning.