Archive for July, 2012

THE METRO, THOSE BUREAUCRATS, THAT BODY ODOR… Why I Love France

| July 28, 2012 | Comments (0)

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It was in the late summer of 1969 that I came to really love France. I had just returned  to  Paris from a two-week holiday in Corsica. Actually “boot camp” would be a more apt description  because  my stay in Bonifaccio in the south of the island was anything but a vacation in the traditional sense.

I had enrolled myself in a sailing course at the Centre Nautique de Voile des Glenans, a famous sailing school founded by members of the French Resistance. It was a no-frills, no-nonsense operation and I had already participated in one session at the mother school in Brittany. I had enjoyed my time on that storm-tossed, rocky  coast  even though I learned very little about sailing. The weather had been turbulent and the pace of instruction brisk. A slow learner, more often than not I found myself lagging behind my fellow sailors  who were quick to master the intricacies of knot-tying  and sail-folding while I sat with a pile of rope on my lap, green and  sea-sick, cluelessly fingering the hairy coils that never seemed to cooperate.  Nonetheless, I told myself,  it was an exhilarating  experience; perhaps the  greatest exhilaration being the moment the course ended !

A seeming glutton for punishment, when I learned another Glenans course was being offered in southern Corsica, I jumped at the chance to experience a part of France – Napoleon’s France ! – that I had never  been to before.  Surely the weather would be sunnier than  gale-prone Brittany and maybe, with the pace of life in the Mediterranean reputedly more laid-back than in the north, I would be able to learn my knots and keep up with the rest of the class.

The Centre had chosen a picture postcard location for the school, a  protected cove surrounded by limestone cliffs plunging into calm, turquoise blue water. If you climbed the falaise and walked a way, across the Straits of Bonifaccio, you could see Corsica’s wilder sister, Sardinia where bandits were reputed to linger in the untamed interior of the island. When the breeze stirred, fragrant whiffs of thyme, rosemary and lavender filled the air. The chalky landscape was stark and we were billeted in simple tents. As we settled in I fantasized I was a Foreign Legionnaire on bivouac. As for toilet facilities, when I asked where the restrooms were, the camp manager looked at me, barked “La-bas ! (over there !)” and gestured to clumps of high sage brush – “le maquis” – a hundred yards away. How appropriate, I thought! Almost like the “maquisards”  (resistance fighters) who had founded the school, we were told to “prendre le maquis” (take to the bush, go underground), but with a decidedly different mission from “les braves” who had, according to popular legend, liberated France.

Even more interesting were the options for performing our daily ablutions. There were no showers and very limited supplies of fresh water, the latter being rationed  strictly for drinking and cooking purposes. Even our dishes and eating utensils, as  I came to learn from the “special  kitchen assignment” that would be given me before too long, were to be washed in the sea with salt water. And most unusual, as it turned out, there were NO mirrors in the camp and nobody – whether by intent or accident – had brought a reflector with them, even the girls who constituted an important contingent in our group. Imagine spending two weeks without looking at one’s self !

The boats we were assigned to sail were the simplest of dinghies, stubborn little craft that seemed to have a will of their own. On our first day out, as my mates and I struggled to steer our boat into open sea, I felt the insistent tug of the hull of the dinghy pulling us back to shore which at that point consisted of jagged rocks and inhospitable cliffs. Try as we would, the boat would not follow our command. As the gentle breeze turned into a strong wind, I could see that we risked being dashed again the sharp rocks.

Seizing what I thought was a brilliant initiative, I suggested that two of the three of our  crew  jump overboard and, by means of the stout rope coiled at the bow, pull the boat out as they swam toward open water.  My suggestion having been accepted, the three of us stared at each other in silence wondering WHO was to jump over board and who was to remain on the boat. Before we could resolve this knotty question, a motor launch appeared, captained by the “Chef de Camp” and we were towed out beyond the rocky menace of the cliff.

Once out at sea, we received a smart tongue-lashing from Suzette, the Chef. Although diminutive and Vietnamese, she made up for her petite stature and supposed Asian femininity by shouting at us in a booming voice laced with four-letter words. It was obvious what we should have done as we were getting sucked towards shore, she said, every other word being “con” (stupid asshole), so WHY didn’t we follow sailing SOP (standard operating procedure)! Boats always had the tendency to move towards rocky cliffs, she told us; WHERE was our common sense  and why hadn’t we taken appropriate action ! Nobody had an answer although I speculated to myself that I  missed a crucial part of the blackboard chalk talk earlier that morning on the beach when my attention had wandered, puzzling over a knot I had been trying unsuccessfully to tie for the umpteenth time.

That evening after dinner around the campfire there was no roasting of marshmallows or singing of songs. Instead we were treated to a seminar of self-criticism that encompassed not only our sailing prowess,  but also  our inter-personal human relations skills – were we kind, reasonable, helpful, understanding ? Did we respect the group dynamic ? Led by the indominable  Suzette, I began to think a meeting of Maoist Red Guards was being re-created. I had read that such Maoist sessions always involved a villain or a scapegoat. That night I was the target.

Standing over me so the camp fire’s flames lit up her face, turning it into a witch’s mask of accusation, Suzette proceeded calmly and methodically in true court martial-style. She noted,  glancing dramatically at her over-sized diver’s wrist watch raising her arm in a dramatic sweep, that the school’s boats had departed for the day’s sail at 1030 AM after receiving detailed instruction about what would  encountered on the water that day. She pointedly reminded the group that the dangers of being pulled toward shore and how to avoid such a tug had been addressed during the beachside chalk talk and  that everybody had indicated they understood.

So WHY did Alouettte (our dinghy) find itself drifting towards shore and WHY was a rescue necessary ? Furthermore, she added menacingly, WHY had Sailor Sam (we were all adressed as “Sailor” followed by our given names) proposed a hair-brained action, telling his mates to jump overboard and tow the boat out to sea? Impossible ! Unacceptable ! When Suzette called on me to defend myself, I was speeechless. She concluded the session saying everything I did encapsulated the opposite of what Glenans was trying to teach its student sailors. Where was the cooperation, the respect for group dynamic, the attention to carefully explained instruction? On the verge of tears I was glad that the night’s darkness hid the shame on my face.

I thought back to the moment of our arrival in Bonifaccio and the “welcome” we were given by Suzette. Ordering us to stand in a line for inspection, I knew from the get-go as she eye-balled me that I was on her shit list. Perhaps it was because she knew I was American and, being Vietnamese, she had taken a dislike to a citizen from the nation that was attempting to obliterate Vietnam; after all it was 1969, the height of the American War in her country.

The self-criticism having been completed, I waited for the verdict and the punishment. Rhetorically asking the circle around the campfire “And what should Sailor Sam do to help him realize his mistakes ?”, she answered her own question before anyone spoke by saying, ” While we cannot send him to the fields as perhaps he best deserves, we can put him in the kitchen where, while he cooks our meals, he can reflect on his faults and bad attitude !”

And so it was that I became the Glenans cook for what seemed like an eternity although, in fact, the corvee lasted only two days and I quite enjoyed the stint. As I teared up chopping  dozens of raw onions I found myself glad that there were no hated knots to tie. I had bragged earlier to several fellow sailors that I was a master at cooking pasta dishes. Now I had the chance to put my money where my mouth was and the result of my slaving over the camp stove was a roaring success. Even the cruel Suzette pronounced my spaghetti “Une triomphe !” Without trying, I had become the most popular person in the camp !

Before I knew it  we had “graduated” and I emerged none the worse, perhaps a bit sadder and wiser from my brush with Maoist self-criticism. And best of all, it was agreed, we were bursting with energy; we felt “renewed.” I thought it must have been the result of washing our bodies for two weeks with only salt water. We felt tan, buffed and tingling, glowing  with the aroma of healthy body odor. Like a school of salted fish.

When I returned to Paris, I found a stack of mail under my apartment door. On top of the pile was an official-looking letter from the French Ministry of Finance. Wondering what it could be about, I tore open the envelope to find a letter enclosing a check for 300 francs. Six weeks earlier I had had a run-in with the police in the subway, the Metro. I had walked through an open gate onto the subway platform without using my Metro ticket. The “portillon” or barrier  had been open with a sign saying “Due to repairs underway, gate open and no ticket necessary.” By utter chance and as bad luck would have it, at the other end of the line when I exited the train, a uniformed guard asked to see my ticket and proof that it had been used. I explained what had happened, but apparently I was not convincing.  My choice, the policewoman said, was pay a fine of 300 francs on the spot IN CASH or go to jail. I saw several other passengers – hapless African street vendors -being roughly  dragged away for alleged fare evasion  and I decided that paying was the better part of valor.

The following day I penned a letter to the METRO office, the RATP, (Regie Autonome des Transports Parisiens)  explaining what had happened. I retraced my steps to the open gate that had caused me the trouble and took a Polaroid picture which I enclosed  as an attachment. Luckily the gate was still open when I returned. Thinking about what might have happened if the incident had occurred in the United States, I never expected to hear back from the RATP. In the States, if I were lucky I might have received a “Dear Rider”  form letter saying my communication was very important, thanking me for “choosing” the subway, assuring me that my “feedback” was appreciated. Nothing more.

What I held in my hands was personal letter from a REAL person apologizing for the regrettable inconvenience I had experienced. It was composed with elegance and understanding. The word “bureaucrat” so often used in a pejorative sense, suddenly became synonymous with “hero.”  Somehow the check,  welcome as it was, seemed unimportant. I felt that France had recognized my existence, that she was taking care of me, that I belonged. That she loved me.

It’s funny how we come to love things and places. With me and France it was all about body odor on a Corsican beach, cock-ups in the Metro and a letter from a faceless functionary.

 

 

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BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE…Difficult Decisions and a Bloody Ending for Philippe

| July 24, 2012 | Comments (0)

Weeks melted into months and months dissolved into years as my Burmese assignment came to an end. After nearly five years in this “golden land” I was ready to move on and the prospect of being posted to Indonesia was  exciting for me. Philippe had also been told  his Burmese pipe dream was over and that  he was to be re-assigned to Afghanistan, a hardship post by any standard, but an appropriate place for “James Bond”, I thought.

What Burma possessed in generous amounts, Soviet-controlled Afghanistan had in spades – intrigue, drugs, a culture of pedophilia, the possibility of trafficking in priceless carpets and other exotic items. The possibilities were endless. Philippe would be in his element.  Although we parted on speaking terms, having more or less patched up several squabbles, and promised to keep in touch, I concluded that Philippe was the most devious, dishonest, amoral  person I had ever met. One final incident sealed his fate in my book.

Shortly before  our respective departures from Burma, I was put in charge of the office, the Chief of Mission and the Deputy Chief  being out of country on official trips. As Number Three in the pecking order I had control of the operation for a week. Included in my responsbilities was safeguarding  the keys to the boss’s office. These keys were under my personal control since the office contained so-called sensitive files that included confidential dossiers on all foreign staff assigned to the country.

One evening I was working late. Just as I was about to close up shop Philippe entered my office and in a matter-of-fact way asked if he could borrow the keys to the boss’s office since he had left his jacket there the day before. Thinking there was no problem with this simple request, I gave him the keys telling him to bring them back as soon as possible as I was about to leave.

What would to me have been a matter of retrieving a jacket requiring no more than a minute turned into  an eternity. I waited and waited; looking at my watch I realized half an hour had passed since I had given Philippe the keys. About to leave and search for  him, I glanced out my office window and saw Philippe loaded with an armful of files headed for his car. Rushing down to the parking lot, I confronted him and asked what he was doing and why he had taken these files from the Chief’s Office. He stared at me in stoney silence clutching several dozen dossiers. I noticed their labels contained the names of senior expat staff including my  own !

I ordered him to return the files to the boss’s office telling him that what he was doing was irregular and unauthorized. These files were to be read only on a “need to know” basis  – what reason did HE have for looking at them anyway – and under no circumstances were to be removed from the Chief’s office. Ignoring my request, he drove off with both the keys and the files.

The following morning when I arrived at the office, I noticed an envelope on my desk. In it were the keys to the boss’s inner sanctum and a note saying “Sorry for the “misunderstanding.” I hope there will be no hard feelings. See you for lunch at my house at 1 PM? ”

When I arrived at Philippe’s house he was all charm and contrition. He said he knew he was wrong. He begged my forgiveness. He appealed to my also being a gay person saying that we  homosexuals had to stick together in this cruel homophobic world. Finally he said he thought somebody in the office was out to “get him” and he thought that perusing these files would shed light on the  malefactors who were cooking up this “plot.”

Realizing I was dealing with a crazed situation I said nothing and dismissed the incident telling Philippe not to worry about it. My own craven reaction was based on self-preservation. Were I to report him to the boss, I would end up being chastised, and perhaps more, for what could have  been regarded as a dereliction of duty; it was obvious that I should have accompanied Philippe to the boss’s office instead of trusting him to go there alone.

Six months later I was happily settled in Jakarta in what promised to be one of the best assignments of my career. And if interesting work and a fascinating country were not enough, the biggest prize of all was meeting the person who would become my life partner. I felt truly blessed.

Things were not going so well for Philippe in Kabul. His antique peddling partner, Bill, arrived in Jakarta unfolding a tale that was straight out of … James Bond. Philippe had indeed settled into Kabul and wasted no time immersing himself in sex, drugs and antiques. The corrupt, wheeler-dealer society he found himself in suited Philippe to a T. The only problem was, a new player emerged as part of the game; that player was the KGB. It turned out that the  drugs he was taking, the sex he was having and the antiques he was trading were all supplied by Soviet agents. After he had dug himself deeply into a pit of no exit, he was confronted by the  KGB honcho in Kabul who made Philippe an offer he couldn’t refuse: work for us as our agent, the Soviets  demanded, or be exposed and reported to the UN.

For better or worse, Philippe refused the kind Soviet offer and reported himself to the UN chief, hoping to pre-empt  the KGB’s damning him and have the case dismissed; not an easy task, given the photos Philippe had  been shown that documented his activities in living color. His tactic did not work. The UN Chief was a cautious, idiosyncratic Austrian, Count Stefan von und zu Himmelberg-Schaffen Taxis who had more pressing work. It seemed that  Count Taxis’s main concern in heading up the Kabul office in this war-torn capital was to personally design custom-tailored uniforms for the local staff, the  Afghan drivers and messengers. The sartorial result of his creative efforts was a strange blend of Central Asia and Third Reich Wehrmacht with a splash of SS thrown in for good measure..  In spite of his penchant  for military uniforms, Taxis was a  martinet coward at heart and hadn’t the guts to have a face-down with the KGB and give Philippe a fair hearing. The good Count caved to the KGB threat and threw Philippe to the wolves.  After months of deliberation, the wheels of the UN bureaucracy churned to a halt and Philippe was expelled from the United Nations. Suddenly his life’s career was up in smoke.

Landing in Bangkok, that sybaritic last resort of the bad and the beautiful, Philippe proved that his warranty had not run out, that his nine lives still had mileage. Well-practiced through his wheeling-dealing in Burma and Afghanistan, Philippe had developed new navigating  skills of dissimulation and charm, and wasted no time talking his way into a high-level job with Catholic Relief Services, a prestigious non-governmental organization that was helping the poor in Thailand and neighboring countries.

Things happen in three’s, they say. First Burma, then Afghanistan, now Thailand. The pattern was carved in stone. Once again Philippe had established himself, this time  in the easy luxury of Bangkok, playing the best of both worlds against each other. By day Philippe was the earnest humanitarian giving fund-raising speeches at luncheons for well-heeled matrons, tugging at their heart strings, projecting  pictures on the screen of starving children huddled in slums looking out to the be-jeweled audience with begging eyes. By night Philippe plied the sois (lanes) of Patpong looking for rough trade and drugs. Before long his handsome visage became a familiar sight in the Thai underworld. “Here comes James Bond, the guy who likes to be tied up”, the male prostitutes would whisper.

Philippe’s antique business was also  thriving as never before. In Burma the artifacts had been the real thing, not fakes. Now in Thailand skillfully made imitations were peddled to rich foreigners who were convinced of their authenticity after seeing “certificates” of provenance provided by the National Museum attesting to their ancient pedigrees. Ofcourse, the certificates were fakes, printed in a factory in Chinatown that specialized in high quality forgeries.The possibilities were now limitless and business boomed. Whereas previously the high -priced antique trade had been limited in quantity due to the small supply of authentic statues, now volume sales were possible with near-perfect counterfeits.  When Philippe traveled he no longer flew economy or even business class. Joking to a friend he said, “It only costs a little bit more to go first-class !” When he discovered  Air France Concorde service, Philippe avowed that “the Concorde was the ONLY way to fly !”

One afternoon in my office in Jakarta, I heard the thud of a package hitting my desk and looked down to see a letter from the diplomatic pouch  from Bangkok addressed to me. It was from my old UN  colleague with whom I had served years before in Thailand. I opened the envelope and before me was a clipping from a tabloid Thai newspaper. The Thai tabloids were the most lurid, over-the-top publications in the world. Several months earlier a Bangkok tabloid had reported the revenge of an enraged Thai wife who had caught her husband in bed with another woman. The newspaper detailed how, planning her next move carefully, the cuckolded wife fed her husband a delicious meal and laced his whiskey with sleeping pills. When the good man was snoring his disgruntled spouse seized the sharpest knife in the kitchen, sliced off his penis and threw it out the window. By chance, just by chance, mind you, a duck happened to be in the backyard when the severed organ was flung to the four winds. Next day all the tabloids featured front page photos of a happy duck holding the  severed penis in his beak ! In the end, it was reported that the offending organ was sewed back on,  restoring the philanderer’s manhood !

I gazed at the front page photo in the tabloid on my desk and recognized the bloody face of Philippe. His body was nude and his wrists and ankles were bound with thick chords. Trembling, I read the account in the article which said that Mr. Philippe Lauzin, a french-canadian who “favored the company of men”, had been found dead in his apartment, bound and bloody. Next to him was a bloodied Buddha statue. Forensic investigations indicated that the fatal abrasions to his head were caused by repeated blows from the Buddha statue. The loss of blood had been remarkable. His next-door neighbor, an hysterical English woman, recounted what she saw as the body was lifted and taken away : “There were pools of blood everywhere ! That stain on the poor man’s carpet… why it was the SIZE of Brazil !”

I had warned Philippe years before about disrespect for the Buddha and he had ridiculed me.

RIP Philippe aka James Bond. Being handsome and clever are not enough in life. Those blessed with too much often fall the hardest.

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DEATH BY BUDDHA – Murder of An Idealist…or a Scoundrel ?

| July 23, 2012 | Comments (0)

You’ve heard the expression – “too smart for his own good”? Someone who is too clever by half, brighter than the rest of the pack, the kid in the class who says he never studies, but makes you look like an idiot even though you stayed up all night doing your homework.

Substitute “handsome” for “smart” and you had Philippe Lauzin who was too handsome for his own good. Philippe was french-canadian and a James Bond look-alike, Sean Connery at his youthful best.

One day back in the 80’s in Rangoon, Burma, Philippe came into my office with a serious expression on his face. Settling into the chair in front of me, he leaned forward and lowered his voice, practically whispering as though state secrets were involved, and asked, “You speak Burmese and know the locals well. Tell me, what do these people mean when they shout ‘Bon Bon!” at me ? Are they asking for candy ? Do they want a bon-bon ? Are they insulting me with some vile slang reserved for round-eye foreigners ?”

Philippe’s English was shakey and his Burmese non-existent. How could I possibly know what was being said when  his francophone ears processed a Burmese word. It could mean anything under the sun, I told him. I suggested the best way to find out was for me to accompany him somewhere and hear for myself what this mysterious Bon-Bon was all about. I asked him where he had heard  the word and he said “Everywhere!” so the following day we went to the market together.

No sooner had we plunged into the rows of stalls than  “Bon-Bon” filled the air. Actually the sound was more like “Bond-Bond.” I stood and listened as assorted market vendors and customers  chanted, “Bond-Bond.” Not really sure what I was hearing, I asked a young fruit peddler what he was saying. He explained to me in Burmese that Philippe looked just like Sean Connery of James Bond fame and had therefore earned the nickname James Bond. Bond for short, or in the Burmese diminutive with their proclivity for word repetition, “Bond-Bond.” The mystery solved, I explained to Philippe, what it was all about. Almost predictably it seemed, he registered a self-satisfied, slightly bored half-smile, as if to say “It doesn’t really surprise me.” Being homely and plain myself, I realized for the first time that there was a whole other world out there, an exclusive club of beautiful, charming people who were constantly the target of honeyed slings and arrows. For these chosen people, being admired and oogled at was run-of-the-mill, even tiresome and perhaps  offensive, if Philippe’s reaction was any indication.

And so it was with Philippe. He was a “golden boy” who got everything he wanted without even asking. He was the toast of Rangoon, the darling of the expat international  “development set”, that collection of overpaid , “do-gooder” souls  who carry United Nations laissez-passers and U.S Embassy diplomatic passports,  the New Wave, the Non-Colonialists who had succeeded the imperial  presence, now long gone, but  remembered bitterly and fondly by those who had felt its hand.

Because I was one of the few franco-phones in the city, Philippe cultivated my company, but only in the daytime. We often lunched together at his house where he plied me with choice wines and excellent cuisine. His table was always set with fresh linen napkins and old silver, polished to perfection. Being a loose-tongued chatterbox who had never learned to keep a secret,  as I nattered on about everything under the sun during these long lunches, I came to realize that Philippe was pumping me ever so gently, but nonetheless persistently, for information; tidbits about our colleagues, their habits, what they did, where they went, who was sleeping with whom. Utterly uninterested in the foreign community and their carryings-on – I hated the Hash House Harriers, that supremely neo-colonial running club that drank heavily, made lots of noise and splashed through farmers’ fields destroying their tender, newly planted rice crops on their inane dashes to be first back at the club house to get soused – I had little to offer Philippe in  the way of juicy gossip.

Quite the contrary, I was intent on immersing myself in the local culture and language – after all, why spent one’s working life in exotic lands  if you didn’t  learn the local  language and  rub elbows with the  natives ? What was more exciting and rewarding, I would ask my culturally cautious  white colleagues, than learning a strange alphabet and suddenly having street signs and the lettering on shop windows come alive with meaning.  To me, it was like a blind man gaining sight. When it came down to it, wasn’t that the main reason one went to these far away places and risked malaria and constant intestinal disorder and  host of other maladies; to sample the strange and wonderful things that a night in the native quarter of Rangoon would offer ? To stroll the Mandalay  temple fairs in deliciously chill late October after the monsoon had left the land fresh and verdant,  thrilling to the throb of “sine wine” drums and  tinkling temple bells, the air scented with pagoda incense and spicey Burmese food ? Most Americans preferred to be closeted in the familiar confines of their American Club, insulating themselves from any local influences, glued to television watching American football and violent blockbuster films as they fed their faces with pepsi-cola and burgers.

As our marathon of two-hour lunches in Philippe’s villa became a weekly tradition, I sensed, in spite of his stack of invitations to every sought after event imaginable, that my handsome co-worker was bored and lonely. Eschewing female company and, like me,  only occasionally appearing at expatriate social events, he seemed to disappear in the evenings.

One night I had cause to drive to his house on urgent office business. The monsoon was at the height of its drenching fury and all phone lines were down; I couldn’t call him to say I was on my way over. Arriving in his driveway, I heard pulsating music coming from inside the house and dismissed my initial impulse to drive away and not bother him by ringing his bell. As I stood at his front door, my pathetic umbrella crushed by the downpour,  debating my course of action – why was I so hesitant to reveal my presence for an errand so excusable and urgent – I heard through the throbbing beat what I imagined to be moans of pain mixed with shouts of pleasure. After first ringing the  bell numerous times, then repeatedly pounding on his door to no avail, I concluded that what was going inside Philippe’s house was something that would not allow an interruption under any circumstances

As with most crises, the “emergency” in question solved itself in a  few hours and I berated myself  for having  risked bothering  him in the first place. When we saw each other in the office the following morning, without my saying anything about my unannounced noctural visit the night before, by his look it was clear that Philippe had tagged me as the culprit. We said nothing about the visit or the unaswered door and  I was struck by Philippe’s appearance. He looked terribly hung-over, but more than hung-over in the usual way; he appeared totally wasted and I noticed that his wrists were purplish and bruised.

Several days later, Philippe called me on the office inter-com and invited me for a drink after work. I was surprised that he was opening  his sancrosanct evening hours to me and I accepted his offer with eager curiousity.  I had learned through our working together and the limited socializing we had done, that Philippe never did anything without a reason. I was sure that his invite for sun-downers must have an agenda. I was not wrong.

After a couple of glasses of chilled white wine, Philippe produced a Burmese lacquer box, opened the lid and offered me a cigarette, smiling and saying, “Try one of these !” As I was an avid smoker at the time, I reached in the box and selected a cigarette which appeared to be hand-rolled; it had no label.    Quickly leaning towards me almost as though he were afraid I would change my mind, Philippe lit my cigarette with the massive silver lighter on his coffee table. After  I inhaled deeply, he smiled and asked, “How was it?” ” Nice enough, I replied…pas mal !” “It’s heroin,” he said.

I had always been curious about the infamous “Buddha Sticks” for which Burma and Thailand were reputed. The heroin from the Golden Triangle in the Shan State of Burma  was so pure that there was no need to inject or ingest it; smoking in the conventional fashion was sufficent for a good “hit.” Now that I had crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, I  found myself eager  to feel the effects of this forbidden form of getting high. I finished the joint, if that is what it was called, feeling really no different than I had been before partaking. Rather glad I had achieved this utterly taboo landmark in decadent sinfulness, I concluded that I preferred  my older habit, Marlboros. Better the Devil you know….I laughingly told myself.

I reflected on my “high tea” with Philippe later that night and concluded that his gambit was to get me hooked on this ultimate drug as he himself apparently was. Sinning loves company, I told myself. There’s safety in numbers, and all that. I noticed over the coming months that he arrived later and later in the office; sometime his car would not appear in the parking lot until nearly noon. His secretary, a crafty, homely local woman, covered skillfully for him. Luckily his type of work – he was assigned to the administrative side of the office – did not necessitate attendance at the interminable “Program” meetings that our “Projects” side of the operation required.

My curiousity peaked, I begin driving to his house in the evening on a regular basis and would  invariably  encounter the same scenario. Pulsating sounds emanating from a dimly lit house. Other times, the house was pitch dark at an early hour even though his car was in its garage.

Our lunches continued at Philippe’s house – I was never one to turn down good food and drink –  and I begin to notice many beautiful objects of art adorning his tables and shelves. Strangely, he made no mention to me of these rare-looking pieces. Pressing for a conversational opener that would shed light on this trove of Asian treasures – Buddha statues, antique silver, cloyless laquer objects, blue and white porcelain – a veritable museum of exotic ware – I commented admiringly on the display. Philippe responded quite openly telling me he had developed a little “side business” and was doing a brisk trade selling Burmese antiquities. Perhaps our recent “bonding” over smack had advanced our rapport to the point of intimacy, at least on his side. It went without saying that United Nations officials – and we were both career UN staff – were strictly forbidden from having other jobs  let ALONE engaging in commerce that involved trafficking in national treasures of the host country we were working in.

Having become a Buddhist, I found it sacri-religious and abhorrent to see Buddha statues serving as book-ends or positioned on the floor as door stops. I mentioned to Philippe after one of our luncheon tete-a-tetes that I thought it was unlucky to dis-respect the Buddha in such a way, selling Buddha statues for profit to be used inappropriately as interior decoration. These were sacred images. Nothing good could come of what he was doing. His flippant response shocked me. He said I was a superstitious old fuddy-duddy. Further, he stated that as a Roman Catholic he had no respect for graven, heathen carvings that were just meaningless idols; to make his point he planted  a kick on the head of  a stately Buddha statue on the floor that he had been using as a door jam.

While I was certainly not interested in joining Philippe in this illicit trade in what was supposed to be protected national patrimony, I had somehow come to the amoral conclusion that in the interest of self-protection ignoring what he was doing would be the best policy at least in terms of my own well-being. Should I report him, I asked myself, and if so, to whom ?  No, ratting on Philippe would not be wise, I decided. I had learned in my life thus far that the messenger who carries bad news is often  the one who gets shot, the one who is viewed as being just as guilty as the party he reports on. There was no point in my getting involved in a “he said-he said” scenario of accusation and denial. Besides, who knew what unsavory characters Philippe counted as his “friends” ? How had he procured the Buddha Sticks ? Certainly not from the Burmese Boy Scouts or  the local monastery ! On the one hand, I wanted to know nothing more about what Philippe was dabbling in; on the other hand, my curiosity was so great that I couldn’t help myself from becoming an amateur sleuth.

One afternoon I followed Philippe’s car as it drove through the maze of teeming side streets fronted by crumbling colonial-style buildings in the old section of Rangoon. One could still see the faded, collapsing glory of the stately old buildings with their noble facades and imposing columns. Now instead of  elegant lords and ladies of the realm  entering and exiting these portals I saw that a penniless goat herd had stationed himself under these soaring porticos, his tethered animals bleating while he cooked rice over a charcoal brazier on the sidewalk.  Pulling up to the back entrance of the Diplomatic Store where UN personnel had been given generous privileges to purchase tax-free items, especially wine and spirits, I watched from a  discrete distance as Philippe and a local helper loaded case upon case of Scotch and Brandy into the trunk of his car. From there his car drove to another part of town where he  off-loaded the cargo in exchange for several fat envelopes quickly handed to him by a suspicious-looking character.

When this transaction had been completed I drove back to the rear door of the tax-free shop and, by chance, ran into just  the person I was looking for; the helper who had assisted Philippe in loading  his car with the contraband. Trading on the sunny, talkative  innocence that is part of the Burmese disposition, I chatted with the young chap, inviting him for a cup of tea at a nearby stand on the street. As we squat-sat on tiny, low stools that barely cleared the pavement, I discretely probed  what was going on with Philippe and all those boxes of spirits. The young man was very open and confirmed what I had seen; that Philippe made regular purchases at the tax free shop, usually on a Saturday afternoon. Then he made a run to the black market thug I had seen give him the bulging envelopes that the young man said were full of greenbacks.

I had more than a blink moment when I realized what Philippe was doing. He was a drug-addicted, antique trafficking, black marketeer who was using his UN job in this developing country as a front for a variety of nefarious activities. He was also a sado-masochist who was  attracted to “rough trade.” Seeing his bruised wrists some months before had set me thinking. Then out of the blue,  his tongue loosened by too many Martinis, I heard from an antique dealer visiting Rangoon who was Philippe’s partner in trafficked Burmese artifacts, that on a recent trip to New York City where he had gone ostensibly to attend a UN conference on development, Philippe had been picked up by the police on the street in a seedy area in Manhattan. Bloody and  bludgeoned, he was found unconscious on the steps of a notorious S&M bar in Hell’s Kitchen, The Meat Rack, that catered to fetishists and fanciers of leather and bondage.

I reflected on what I had just learned and more broadly on the lives of expat “do-gooders” who worked  abroad for various international organizations, “saving” the world, the improverished, so-called Third World. Certainly we were not all twisted, black-marketing sadists, but WHAT were our motives and, more to the point, what were the tangible results realized by the developing world from all the “help” that was being given by us ? I wondered and wondered and found myself more confused the more I pondered.

One wise and learned friend who had spent most of his life in Southeast Asia, first in the development game, then after dis-illusionment had set in, moving to the private sector where he found great satisfaction and an acceptable level of profit, running a modest jungle retreat featuring tree-houses for back-packer tourists, opined that the whole development effort could be accomplished more effectively by dispensing with highly-paid international civil servants, aging Brit “experts” possessing out-dated technology, expensive, seldom-used equipment and useless study tours to “First World” cities (glorified shopping trips, he said !) and, instead,  just air-dropping over farmers’ fields the cash that would otherwise have been spent on these expensive  “interventions.”  Surely, we were doing some good, I told myself, but were we following the right path?

(To be continued.)

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CHARMING LOIRE VALLEY CHATEAU, GRAND CRU VINEYARDS, GRANITE SWIMMING POOL….Mother-in-Law Included

| July 20, 2012 | Comments (0)

It was the shining moment she had dreamed of  since girlhood – being swept off her feet and taken to a castle by a charming prince – but Judy’s moment of marital bliss was less than short-lived.

Minutes after a simple ceremony in the tiny medieval stone chapel adjoining the manor house,  she stood at the chateau’s grand entrance with Alain, her new husband and Alain’s formidable mother, Elise, Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg, greeting guests who had arrived from near and far for this story book wedding of  a lifetime.

From Paris there was President Pompidou’s Ministre de la Culture, the fabled Andre Malraux; from New York the Secretary-General had dispatched Lord Malcolm Crumley-Stumps, his trusted  Chef de Cabinet to represent the United Nations. Although the ceremony was a private affair, it was also a UN celebration since both the newly-weds as well as Alain’s mother were UN functionaries. Rather a mundane word, “functionary”, to describe the Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg whose Catherine DeNeuve beauty and brilliant intellect had taken her to the highest reaches of international diplomacy.

Like so many fire flies, camera flash bulbs  from the glitterati world of Paris Match, Life, Vanity Fair, Marie-Claire and Vogue blinked as A-List film-stars approached the chateau’s grand entrance to offer the young couple their best wishes, to “faire la bise trois fois”, planting three, not two, kisses on cheeks,  as was the current Paris fashion. There was Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg followed by Maurice Chevalier; then Christian Dior arm-in-arm with the fabled Coco Chanel. Elegant shoes and  shining black opera pumps crunched tastefully in the manicured gravel as bejeweled hands reached out to embrace the princeling and his new bride.  Almost everybody who counted was there that June day in 1968. Days earlier, Paris had been laid waste by  “les evenements” of the May student revolution and another war in Vietnam was taking its grim toll – this time it was the Americans and not the French who were spilling their blood and treasure – but who cared about all that grim news on this golden afternoon when glamour and elegance has seized the hour.

Choosing just the right moment for the signature photograph of the day, cameramen closed in as the Princesse introduced her new daughter-in-law to the Papal Ambassador to France.  Bowing slightly as his taffeta garments rustled, His Excellency Cardinal Cazzini brushed the young bride’s cheek with his own cherubic jowls and murmured a blessing as Princesse Elise , with a slight smile – or was it a smirk, you never knew with these high-born French people – said to the Cardinal, “Your Excellency, allow me to present to you my son Alain’s FIRST wife !”

Flashbulbs popping, Judy’s ears went red and her face flushed with disbelief as she choked back an alien sound, a cross between a sob and a gasp of shock. What was she hearing, she asked herself, trying her very best to smile happily for the vulturesque cameras that seemed now to be attacking her. “ALAIN’S FIRST WIFE!” Was this woman mad? Looking rapidly at Alain who appeared not to have heard his mother’s inexplicable words of introduction, she shot a desperate glance towards the waving crowd  shouting good wishes at the happy couple, seeking out her mother. Their eyes locked and the good Iowa farmer lady seemed just as confused as Judy, dis-oriented by  the inexplicable Gallic elegance of the international crowd and the incomprehensible languages swirling about her. Meanwhile, having delivering  the coup de grace to her daughter-in-law, the Princesse de Fausigny-Faubourg, statuesque and enveloped in the bewitching fragrance of Guerlain’s JICKY, an antique scent she favored, smiled  sweetly and wickedly at Judy, knowing that round-one was hers; that she would certainly win the battle to rid her son of this unfortunate little American hayseed.

Never were two people so different or so mis-matched, their friends all said. Alain, the descendant of French royalty, in this day and age they would be called Pretenders, was retiring and sensitive with long, delicate piano-player hands. At Eton where his mother had placed him, he was teased for being effeminate and had been taken away from school and put under the care of an  English tutor for private lessons at home in the chateau. Meandering through a maze of higher learning, Alain emerged from Oxford, the Sorbonne and Harvard with a variety of degrees which, at age 33, suited him perfectly for a post in the United Nations. And just what post that would be was assured by his Mamman, the Princesse who was, at the time, Chief of Mission of a United Nations Office in a large Asian country and well-connected to the powers-that-be,  including the  UN Secretary-General.

The Princesse was superb in her work; “impeccable” was the description used by her french colleagues. She also marched to her own drummer and was thought to be more than a tad dictatorial. Cruel, some observers even said. There was that case of the Canadian junior officer that caused quite a stir and had tongues wagging.  An earnest young woman who had arrived for her assignment and had worked tirelessly for the Princess, dedicating herself without seeking recompense.  She had been especially devoted to duty prior to the arrival of  the UN Secretary-General who had come to the capital to inspect the UN’s projects. Day and night for weeks the young woman labored to make the visit perfect. A hour before the VIPs’ arrival, the young Canadian encountered Elise in the office corridor as she scurried to complete a final task. Breathlessly addressing the Princess, she said, ” If Madame agrees, I will take off half an hour to go home and freshen up for the reception.” To which the Princesse replied with a smile, “Mais Mademoiselle, vous n’etes PAS invitee !”

Judy had come to the UN by a starkly different route. The daughter of un-educated farmers from Iowa – strictly speaking not uneducated since they had attended school until they were 13 – her parents were simple folk whose small plot of land enabled them to eke out a living sufficient to send their daughter and only child on to the halls of higher learning. Judy was all Apple Pie and the Fourth of July and did things like cheer-lead and volunteer while she was getting her degree at the State University. Moderately attractive in a plain, straight-forward way,  charm was not her strong suit; Judy’s friends preferred to  describe her as a “supportive” person, somebody who was there for you  when you needed her.

As Junior Officers in a remote UN posting (Alain’s mother thought one hardship assignment would be the right garnishment on her son’s resume and so consented to, indeed personally selected, his first UN assignment), Judy and Alain, though birds of very different feathers, became soulmates in remote Phnom Penh. Neither being very sexual, the two young people spent long monsoon evenings in Alain’s  romantic riverside villa not making love, but playing scrabble and swapping stories of their childhoods, Alain, fascinated in the way only an excruciatingly elite frenchman could be with her “simple” roots, and Judy agog at the tales of Alain’s growing up in a chateau, riding to hounds, going to balls, being catered to by a staff of liveried retainers.

Getting wind of Alain’s inexplicable attraction to what she considered a boring American non-entity, Princesse Elise dismissed their friendship as the desperate measure of two lonely white people in an alien land of little yellow natives. After all, she herself had felt the same need decades before when she had traveled with Malraux in Cambodia, but the object of her affection had not been a man.

In the subdued, tasteful world of lipstick lesbians, those female homosexuals who retained their grace and femininity, Elise had become famous, indeed notorious. She was glamour incarnate. Seated behind the wheel of her olive green two- seater Morgan sports coupe, enveloped in a cloud of Jicky parfum, cigarette-holder clinched between her teeth as she sped through the teeming alleys of Bangkok, upsetting vendors’ carts, sending chickens flying, Elise was indeed a piece of work. The tales that swirled about her were not to be believed, true as they were. One of her exploits while working for the UN in Bangkok during the day involved her frequenting a certain hotel at night – the Hotel Nana – a “comfort den” patronized by rich Arabs looking for young Thai female company.

After completing her day job,  brilliantly directing crews on public works projects, designing bridges, for she WAS an engineer , Elise regularly repaired to the Hotel Nana to choose her female companion for the evening. One night tipsy on champagne – she had celebrated with the French Ambassador earlier that afternoon -Elise arrived at the Nana and was set upon by a wealthy Saudi who wanted to have HER. Accepting his proposition as a lark with approving shouts from her female admirers in the hotel lounge, she countered with her OWN proposal: If the Saudi would pay EVERY girl in the hotel $1,000 – and there were 50 of them ! – Elise agreed to mount the stairs with him.

Fulfilling his part of the agreeement, he fished into his djelaba, distributing a fistful of $100 bills to the hysterical bar girls; however, Elise mocklingly reneged on her promise telling the Arab, “Vas te faire foutre !” (Go fuck yourself !) A fight ensued with punches thrown, Elise triumphantly being carried out of the establishment on the shoulders of the comfort girls, her nose bloodied and both eyes swollen black and blue.

The following day in her office, clad impeccably in Chanel, Jicky wafting about her, Elise explained to the meeting she had convened that she had been in a traffic accident the night before. Her colleagues were awed when she told them that she had eschewed medical treatment and had not even considered going to hospital. More of a blow to her was the news she got later in the day that Alain planned to marry Judy,  his little American “non-event.”

A fortnight after their wedding, Alain and Judy returned to their Southeast Asian duty station. Clearing customs at the airport, they were surprised when a uniformed officer stopped Judy demanding to check her luggage. Judy had lost her United Nations  Laissez-Passer, the diplomatic passport that gave her immunity from such searches. It had disappeared mysteriously after the wedding. She and Alain had looked high and low, even enlisting the household staff at the Chateau, but it was not to be found. She had no recourse but to submit to the inquisitive probes that were being demanded.

Her personal effects having been rifled through with disturbing thoroughness, it appeared that nothing was amiss and Judy heaved a sigh of relief as the uniformed officer opened her last piece of luggage.  But digging through a layer of clothing, he produced a small Buddha statute, an exquisite Boddhisatva from the 10th century, a piece of rare museum quality. Alain’s jaw dropped when he saw the image. The very same statue that Andre Malraux had given his mother thirty years earlier after their trip to Angkor Wat. It was a well-known and controversial piece of recent French history that Malraux had “appropriated” certain ancient objects from the ruins of Bantay Srei and other  temples in the Angkor complex taking them back to France. Years later, when this theft had become known, most of the pieces were returned to Cambodia. One was not. The precious image that Malraux had given to Elise remained discretely in her possession under lock and key, secure in a Louis XVI cabinet in the Chateau library.

But how had it gotten into Judy’s luggage ? As Alain questioned her, Judy appeared confused, on the verge of tears. Alain wondered: was the expression on her face one of guilt ? As she was led away by customs officials and taken to an interrogation room for questioning,  Alain was speechless and  beside himself.

After several hours, Alain was informed that the Government had decided to hold Judy  for further questioning pending resolution of how she came to possess this stolen statue which had been declared a lost national treasure. She had to remain in custody at the police station overnight.

Later that evening, home alone, Alain telephoned France and spoke with his mother giving her the bad news. The voice on the other end of the line was soothing and motherly. Elise assured her beloved son that everything would work out, that there  really was nothing to worry about. Her calming words seemed to have an adverse effect as he broke into sobs saying their life was ruined. Putting the phone slowly on the table so his voice was more distant, Elise smiled, lit a cigarette placing it in its ivory holder and turned to her young Thai female companion saying, “Ju Ju, ma chere, it doesn’t always happen that things turn out exactly as one plans them to be. But tonight we must celebrate.”

 

 

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PONCHO’S HAD HIS 15 MINUTES OF FAME …And It’s Carved In Stone

| July 14, 2012 | Comments (1)

Dresden Fama (2005).jpg

(Several months ago, when we last visited my young friend and neighbor, Poncho, he was living with his Baby Mama, their two year-old son, Poncho Jr., and a newborn second son, Angel. Poncho, at that point, was still following the “chill” life, not working, mostly staying in his room smoking weed, glued to the computer screen where he plays video games night and day. I ran into Poncho recently and he updated me on what was happening.)

Poncho visited me the other day. The news was he had been thrown out of the house by his Baby Mama for reasons that were unclear. When I asked why he had left her, Poncho mumbles, “She’s always puttin’ me down and just wants money”, a statement I couldn’t really comment on. My reaction, which I kept to myself, was: is it that unusual for the mother of two infants to expect their father to function in some way as a bread-winner, to “bring home the bacon”, as they used to say back where I come from ? I let his self-pitying tale continue and he informs me that he has moved back home with his Mom and his 16 year-old “Sis” who has just had a baby.

Both households – Baby Mama’s and Poncho’s Mom’s place – are located in  what is known as Section 8 housing, apartments provided free or almost without charge by New York City to low income families whose monthly resources are below what is labeled the poverty line. In addition to free lodging – and these accomodations are, from what I have seen, spacious and up to date with all the “mod cons” including air-conditioning, central heating, nice kitchens with marble countertops and state-of-the art microwave ovens – Poncho and his extended family are provided with food stamps in the form of a white plastic card, in appearance not unlike a credit card, allowing them to purchase consumables at the supermarket. Poncho complains that the food stamp allowance is not enough and that before the month is over and the food dole account is replenished, he and his family have no money to buy provisions. When I mention to him the advisability of budgeting the food stamp allowance and buying healthy staples like beans, brown rice and vegetables as I do, Poncho scoffs at me saying he prefers take-out Chinese food, roast chicken from the Dominican deli, pizza to go and MacDonald’s burgers because it’s what he likes and it’s easy – you don’t have to cook. I shake my head and wonder what kind of nutritional base his two infant children are getting on this kind of diet.

When he is not playing video games, Poncho  spends most of his time “chillin’ “, hangin’ out with friends listening to Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne and other angry rappers. To me, when I can manage to understand what the lyrics they are mouthing are all about, I hear messages of self-pity, hate and envy at the middle-class  working world and a general dis-interest in doing anything normal and mainstream with their lives. Their”songs” are full of blame and ghetto navel-gazing about being deprived;  the words are racist and anti-female;  women are just “stuff”; “bitches” and “ho’s” to be used and shown off,  like bling jewelry, Courvoisier Brandy and BMWs.

I still persist in trying to mentor Poncho, He has so much to offer if he would only get out of his attitude rut. He is one of the brightest, most charming people I’ve met. His movie star good looks turn heads when he enters a room, his technical aptitude is astounding; he can make the angriest computer or copy machine purr and cooperate like a tamed pet; he is a star basketball player whenever he chooses to get off his backside and join a pick-up game on the playground courts.

Failing to involve Poncho in the preparation of a resume for job search purposes, I undertake the task unilaterally and come up with a one-page CV that projects a positive image of smart, motivated 23 year-old who is computer savvy and eager to work. (The truth has to be embellished upon sometime, I tell myself.)  I give the resume to several possible employers. One of them is BRO UNITED, a South Bronx not-for-profit that gets contracts from the City for construction projects on public works. I am told by one of the BRO UNITED honchos that they have been selected for a job in the neighborhood, the building of a welcome pavilion  by the entrance to the local library.  Plaza Gratissima, as the space is being called, will be create an area for lounging and reading, beckoning passers-by to come into the library and improve their minds.

My honcho friend agrees to hire Poncho for the three-day project promising to pay him $15 an hour. More important, Poncho agrees to ACCEPT the job. I heave a sigh of relief when he agrees to work in the hot sun leaving the cool comfort of his a/c room and his video games. Maybe there IS hope yet for Poncho, I tell myself ! I pass by the project and discretely watch from a distance as Poncho and his co-workers saw, hammer and paint. He seems involved, animated and proud of what he is doing. Aaah ! the uplifting effect of honest effort and hard work!

Poncho posts a picture on Facebook of him and his friends working on the Plaza Gratissima project. He also tells his Facebook fans that there will be a plaque at the entrance of the Plaza and that HIS name will be included !

I hear no more from my young friend for some weeks. In the meantime I pass by the library. Indeed, a plaque has been installed at the entrance; a handsome rectangular  memorial stating that Plaza Gratissima has been made possible by the generous support of friends, benefactors and neighbors who have  contributed their time, resources and efforts to making this project come true. In the upper part of the plaque I see Poncho’s name in BIG letters, elegantly printed for all to see, as one of the people who made the dream a reality ! Nice recognition, I say to myself, for three days’ work. Usually high-profile mention on a plaque is reserved for big bucks donors, the Rockefellers and such, and assorted VIPs  and politicos who claim to have made such things possible. So much the better – Poncho’s being recognized will hopefully serve as a boost to his entry into the real world of work, effort and reward for a job well done. His fifteen minutes of fame in the sunlight of the working world has been carved in stone for all to see. He seems proud of the recognition he has been given.

Yesterday afternoon I see Poncho on the corner and invite him over for a coffee. He looks cadavaresque and pasty-faced. He tells me how much he liked working on the library project and how he regrets it was only for three days. He says he has another job now working as “security” at a club on West 39th Street in Manhattan. His hours are 8 PM to 4 AM. A vampire’s schedule ! He says the job is “fun” and meets lots of cool people. Like drug dealers and other low-lifes, I say to myself.

I hope I am being a nagging Cassandra whose dark predictions are unfounded and that Poncho will not descend into a drug-filled disco demi-monde of the un-dead. But his death warmed-over appearance was not re-asssuring.  I doubt that his fifteen minutes of fame at Plaza Gratissima will turn him around, but I could be wrong. Let’s hope that what’s carved in stone is forever.

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