Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tea in the Sahara, Coffee in Queens

And it may sound strange
As if our minds are deranged
Please don't ask us why
Beneath the sheltering sky
We have this strange obsession
You have the means in your possession
from "Tea in the Sahara" ©1983 Police from Paul Bowles

Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Enclosed in forever behind a glass frame,
In an old photograph all torn battered and stained,
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.
from "Green Fields of France" ©1978 Eric Bogle

Dreamlike: Our mother, circa WWII
My desire to live as an expat dates from my early twenties. I was fascinated with the writings of Paul Bowles and Albert Camus, and imagined a life in North Africa - Algiers or Morocco, drinking mint tea with other expats under the bright African sun.

Of course I didn't take the dream seriously, never thinking I could attain it. In any case, in the dream my fellow expats were all British to the tea, and for some reason the dreamed men all wore pith helmets. The dreamed women on the other hand wore floral shirt-maker frocks and rode bicycles with wicker baskets on the handlebars. Very World War II. Images I must have gleaned from old French movies, and perhaps from the photograph albums of my parents.

None of us dream people had jobs. We all woke late and after a leisurely breakfast on a hotel patio, we'd make our way to a cobble-stoned city square and drink our mint tea.

As absurd as Camus' embracing of absurdity, although the connection did not occur to me at the time.

I did eventually get to Morocco and Algeria, about a hundred years ago. Unfortunately I have no photographs to help me remember my travels in those places. The closest is this one, truly "an old photograph torn battered and stained" ... It was taken in Afghanistan in peace time. And yes that's me standing there in Kabul.

Back then I was a traveler, not an expat. I traveled extensively for several years and for the most part my experiences were good. Until I got to north Africa, the place I'd dreamed of.

I didn't get to drink much mint tea in Tangiers and met not one Englishman, let alone any wearing pith helmets. WWII women riding bicycles with baskets on the handlebars were also conspicuously absent. We went to Fez, Marrakech, and Safi where we ate salted fish and watched young Berber boys playing at being men playing soccer on the beach. Then we headed east.

Disaster struck at Relizane in Algieria when we met the Algerian equivalent of the notorious Charles Sobhraj, the French serial killer who preyed on Western tourists throughout Southeast Asia during the 1970s.

All thought of spending afternoons with cucumber sandwich-eating poms were instantly eliminated. We were lucky to escape, which we did with the aid of a delightful Algerian with the unlikely name of Medici Amour. With Medici's help we hot-footed it east to Algiers, then on to Tunisia where we crossed the sea to that haven of civilization - Sicily.

But a part of my dream of expat life did come true - I did indeed become an expat, though not in Paul Bowles' Morocco - instead in his childhood home of New York.

I've been away from my home in Australia for over fifteen years now, and belong as much here as anywhere I lived in Australia. I belong in both - or neither - country, and I find such lack of belonging liberating, though others may well see it as driftless.

And nowadays I even work not far from that part of New York where Bowles was raised, and from where he left to become an expat in Tangiers - in Jamaica, Queens.

And there's something comforting in in that.


Anonymous said...

I used to day-dream of returning to America when I was in my late teens. Shuffling down a dirt footpath in Gunnedah, I imagined I was in California, the state I was born in and which we left in 1938 when I was four years old. I treasured the envelope (which I still have) on which my Mother's open loop handwriting says, "Bill's Birth certificate". When I presented it to the U.S. Consulate on George Street they looked at me like an outerspace alien and said, "We'll issue you a passport, when you show us a ticket."
I got the ticket and the passport three years later.

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed that Kate. Yes our youth was exciting and full of travel eyes wide open...trusting in all and lavishing in anything new and exciting. Great writing kate.

Anonymous said...

Åååå You travelling lady. Smile and give You a kiss and hugs from Stockholm.


C. Peter G said...

I, too, live in Queens, although a litle further north than Jamaica. I live in Flushing, with my wife, who was born in Germany to Russian parents, was brought up and went to school in Morocco. We bought our house there in 1982, and I am a dual citizen of Australia and the US. I, too, was a traveller and like to say that I retired before I went to work. I went around the world one and a half times before I settled down. Of course, I worked everywhere I went, havint been atheatre techie, I could get a job virtually anywhere, even though some of them were not related to theatre. In Holland I was a foreman in a wire-drawing company! Go figure! Anyway I am very happily ensconced in my lovely house in Flushing North/Broadway, and consider myself an expat as well

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