"You have to be invited to a baptism or go to a funeral to really feel you belong."
Words of my first husband when we lived in countries other than ours. And of course, he was right. Living in a foreign country is getting to know different cultures, different food and maybe different languages and clothing but also the same people with the same emotions as ours. Once we get passed our veneers and the outer look of a new place, we are met with the same humans: our great family of Earthlings.
Going to live in Mexico City for the first time I was dazzled by the culture. The beauty of multiple handmade things that sold in stores of "Artesanias" and the many villages with an astounding array and specialty of food, great dances, special hand-embroidered dresses and twists of the language caught me totally wide-eyed and receptive to it all. I loved the songs, the romance of the mariachis at midnight on plaza Garibaldi, the markets, the flower vendors everywhere even at night and the restaurants filled with huge tables where three generations of people got together united by the need to visit and eat together as a family. A real treat that made me remember with nostalgia my own family, hours and hours away in my Caribbean island. I also loved the fields at the foot of the volcano where we picnicked with flowers all around us while the smoke in our our grill smelled of fresh tortillas and new found food.
I was in awe at all of what the country offered that seemed so different, and delighted me so much. The play of vibrant colors, the accents, the play of words used everyday and the music had me marveling each morning. As I got to know the friendly people, I felt a great empathy, as they corrected my budding Spanish and laughed at my mistakes as I translated too literally from the French, I carried a dictionary everywhere. But more importantly, later, I felt like I belonged when we were invited to share family dinners or asked to weddings and when friends took me to their favorite markets and later taught me how to cook their specialty food.
Sometimes my husband would drive us to some villages around the country whose specialty was one item only; like the one that produced so many guitars and where so many open little factories lined the main street. I delighted in the lavish sensual curves of the wood, the shine induced by the rubbing of assiduous hands and when I heard people sing and play the instruments, it was as if their souls opened up to cry their love or sorrow. It brought me close to the silent pain in my heart that life sometimes creates and about the nostalgia that resonated within me through the cords of their guitars. I was entranced.
Living in Peru was an exercise in endurance because of the frequent earthquakes and the fluctuation of food and restrictions of the use of our cars. It was the time of the generals and things weren't easy. A recent agrarian reform made all food scarce and our German pilot friends brought us steaks from outside the country. But there was the discovery of strong woman: worldly and open-hearted that I learned to love and the resurgence of my own voice as a person and an artist. My children were bigger and I could lead a group of creative people with their art, show it and sell it.
I thrived, I felt like I was back to my roots. I learned to make jewelry with Mary Traver in the Miraflores center. I learned to conquer metal and silver and also let it speak its voice and met many life time friends friends like Therese or Guillermina dear to me forever. Between carrying the duty of a welcoming hostess present at parties and fiestas that we gave, I learned to embrace the family of people that I met and that nurtured my soul. Making an international phone call was a true adventure. You screamed, they did not hear you, they screamed and you still did not understand. My ex husband used to say " If I scream some more I will not need a phone!"
After a particular strong earthquake in the middle of the night, my mother who was visiting helped me carry the children fast asleep as usual to the middle of our garden while the maid yelled "Salvase Senora" save yourself! but she ventured all the way inside the house, courage on her side and we retreated running into the darkness of the garden. When it was over, we made tea for and illusion of strength, or so we hoped. My mother, silent until then, finally told me in French "Micheline what are you doing in this hole?" My husband was away on a trip so all of us woman returned to our bedrooms, but I never slept. I thought of her comment but realized it was indeed a very interesting hole and mostly-- a beautiful one. I was far away from my country, but in many ways, I was home.
The high country was my favorite with the smell of the Spanish Broom filling the valley with their scent and the yellow flower floating on the air on their slender stem. Huancayo was one village that pulled on my heart, a village with a huge market that I would walk and explore with the children and that my husband would photograph beautifully. I would sit and sketch, attracting a group of kids marveling at what I considered mere traces of my pencil. The handmade things varied incredibly and never ceased to fascinate and tempt me. I went from the unique pottery or silver filigree jewelry (light as a dream) to an incredible family of multicolored potatoes so incredibly varied and fun. I made many friends that later died or got dementia or simply disappeared later from my life but live forever in my memory.
Eating out was a delightful adventure and a surprise, like when my husband ordered oysters and they started to move when he put lemon on it ... I guess freshness was of utmost importance as was the huge size of all the sea food and vegetables there.
I was peacefully at home when my husband walked in one day to tell me "Pack your bag we are going to Bogota Colombia." I was in mourning. My friends came to tell me how sorry they were. I was going to live in Bogota, a dreadful, dangerous place and they were so sorry for me. I had just moved to a new house and our things were still in boxes. The high Jasmin climber was transplanted by our much loved gardener and was starting to reach the balcony of this new house smelling delicious on the wind. Moving? I was distressed but packed I did and was on a plane with the family, sad and fast as I could pack.
But what a surprise! Bogota was a large handsome city, women held important roles in the government, artists became my friends; and even though we had a Wakenhut guard in front of the house, I started to love the food, the gold museum, the haunting song on the guitar and the particulars of this land where people spoke a most beautiful Spanish and received us late at night for dinner. Pretty soon I was exhibiting my work, having my paintings praised, participating in the art field and having a blast. The butcher was my friend and sent us his best cuts of meat by a delivery boy on bicycle. We had a baby deer for a few months that our friends found on their Finca and that ate the whole garden but was my joy and pride until much bigger when we gave him back to our friends to release to nature.
I had a studio and worked with the Inner Peace Movement, traveled, had lectures in my home and did many counselings.
I learned a lot. I realized that each country carries its own flavor and look but that it was up to me to belong. They were born there, it was their land and they were used to its idiosyncrasies, its joy and its music, its language and charm. It was up to me to make myself at home and get others to respect my presence. Up to me to keep a wondrous eye and show an open heart. To try all the food, to dance the rythm of the day, to be the person who would be invited to funerals and celebrate the baptism of the new baby.
People all over have the same aspirations as mine and seem different only at first sight. Once having shared a cup of tea or or the drink of the land, people are astonishingly the same and that make us a huge Earthling family; a set of souls sharing the same thoughts, the same worries the same hopes and the same sadness or joy as ours. The Spanish spoken there was very different from my native French but it brought a new language to me that still delights my ears and that I miss.
Living in other countries and in South America has made me more receptive and more open, more accepting, more flexible and understanding, more myself. It brought me a beautiful memory of so much that lives in my heart and sometimes creeps into my dreams. The eternal gift given by many lands.
Copyright 2011 Micheline Brierre