By Jacques Tocatlian.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
Our bus was caught in total traffic anarchy. Unperturbed, the Guide continued to talk with ardor, holding the microphone with one hand and gesticulating with the other.
“The ground of the city is gelatinous,” he said, “it is a mixture of ashes and water. A sort of sponge. At the slightest earthquake, the buildings collapse. They say that one must be crazy to live in Mexico City!” He added with a mischievous smile, “One must be crazy to come to visit it!” Some tourists on the bus smiled; others ignored the comment.
Françoise, who had been fascinated by earthquakes since her early childhood listened with interest and some apprehension. Brigitte looked uneasy. Aunt Lily was watching the surrounding traffic jam and making all sorts of flippant comments.
“Look on your left at the Latino-American Tower,” said the Guide. “It is the first skyscraper built in Mexico City, in 1948. We have a hell of a time keeping it straight. When the ground becomes too dry, we turn on a special underground system that injects large quantities of water under the foundations. The building is a technological miracle!”
He then proceeded to explain that on one summer morning, way back in 1325, the Aztec discovered, on a small island on lake Texcoco, a Royal Eagle eating a snake. They interpreted that as a heavenly omen and decided to settle right there. They built their capital, Tenochtitlan, on that island, interlaced, like Venice, with hundreds of canals. Mexico City was later built over it.
“Now,” he said “Mexico City floats on muddy ground, with its twenty million inhabitants, its four million cars, its crowded avenues, its statues and museums, its baroque churches and palaces, its slums, its thieves, its 30,000 factories, its large department stores and numerous cemeteries.”
“Did you say ‘thieves’?” asked Aunt Lily.
“Yes, madam!” said the Guide. “And you better be careful, because they are very skillful. Mexico City is dangerous, insecure and polluted, but it is a wonderful and fascinating place!”
Our unconventional Guide, who seemed to enjoy shocking his audience, went on saying, “The permanent gray cloud over your head is made of small particles of ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide – a fiendish cocktail that will give you bronchitis if you dare breathe it in. In Mexico City, even our walls have emphysema! Ha.Ha.”
Brigitte began to cough, while Aunt Lily wrapped a silk scarf around her face.
“The city is impregnated by history and memories of our heroes,” said the Guide. “In our songs we always remember Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. Mexico City is a modern city that does not forget its past and traditions. You should visit the bar La Opera on cinque de Mayo street. There, you will see in the ceiling the bullet fired by Zapata when he entered the bar on his horse. Speaking of traditions, you should also try to go to the restaurant Don Chon, on Regina street, where you can taste several Iguana dishes, as well as insects cooked in the traditional Indian way.”
I looked at my three ladies. Françoise was smiling, as though the whole thing was a joke. Brigitte and Aunt Lily had decided not to listen any more to the Guide and watched the city streets as the bus progressed.
“Are you happy to be visiting Mexico?” I asked Françoise.
“Oh, yes Papa! Very much so!” she said.
On the occasion of Françoise’s twenty-first birthday, I had offered her to accompany me on mission and visit a little of Mexico with Brigitte and Aunt Lily, while I attended a Latin American regional meeting. Since I was approaching retirement age, this was probably the last occasion for the three ladies to accompany me on mission. Aunt Lily’s husband, Albert, was too busy to join us. He hated traveling by plane and always found a good excuse to stay behind. Aunt Lily had told him, “Since you cannot come you’ll take care of the canaries. Otherwise, we would have had to take them along with us to Mexico.” That was all I needed: to go on mission with my sister-in-law’s canaries!
We had just finished visiting the exclusive quarters of Las Lomas, where the millionaires built their Beverly Hill-style houses. The Guide was telling us about Mexico’s history, but we were only half- listening, when a funny story caught our attention. It concerned General Santa Anna who had organized national funerals for one of his legs, lost during a battle. “He is also remembered,” said the Guide with sarcasm, “for having sold in 1848 to the United States: Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas!”
He then spoke about the two Mexican passions: The Holy Virgin of Guadalupe and Football. The sun was setting and we were now approaching our hotel in the Zona Rosa. The ozone in the air tinted the sky in gold.
The following days, my three Parisian ladies went on their own to discover different aspects of the Aztec and Maya cultures. They left in the morning looking as fit as a fiddle and returned in the evening completely washed out. They would tell me of their various pursuits of the day but refused to go out again at night. They were tired because of the long distances they had to travel and of the air and sound pollutions. Brigitte thought that walking through the crowds was very interesting, but wearisome. Aunt Lily said that the pandemonium that went on from sunrise to sunset proved that the megalopolis, such as Mexico City, Calcutta or Cairo, were fast becoming inhuman and inhospitable.
On the fourth evening, when I returned to the hotel I went to the bar – our usual meeting place – but did not find my three ladies there. While waiting, Alfonso, the barman, prepared a Tequila for me. He explained that it was the distilled liquor made from the juices of the roasted stems of the tequila plant. He showed me how to swing it off after licking lemon and salt. I had tried it before and had not liked it. I tried it again and still did not care for it.
Seeing me pull a wry face, Alfonso insisted to serve me a different drink. Did I want a Santa Cruz Rum Fix? An Angel kiss? A Hot Locomotive? He knew how to fix an Applejack Punch. He even knew how to prepare an English old-timer called Huckle-My-Butt that is famed in both the fact and fiction of the Crusades. Since I was French, he thought I would appreciate a ‘Pousse … l’Amour.’
I had to laugh, because, when it came to the art of mixing drinks – and make no mistake, it is an art -, Alfonso spoke with maestria and passion. He explained his drinks with minute details, underlining his speech with elegant gestures. A little Maraschino here; a little Curacao there; a pint of Brandy here; a twist of lemon peel there; a whole egg; a dash of orange bitters; a tablespoon of sugar: stir, fill, add, shake. Alfonso was not a barman. He was a juggler.
I had to yield and try some of his mouth-watering mixtures. So grand in their blending of delicious tastes and so powerful in their hidden might!
More than an hour had gone by and Brigitte, Françoise and Aunt Lily were not back. But Alfonso would not let me worry. He would serve and talk. He explained that the art of mixing drinks was specific to the twentieth century. History tells us that our ancestors did throw together some concoctions of various spirits in days long gone by. But such drinks of the past were few, compared with the large selection of palate-teasing mixtures of to day.
Alfonso served me another cocktail in a frosty goblet saying that an English Diplomat, after tasting it had called it ‘an ecstatic liquid delight.’ I touched my lips to its tantalizing rim with a feeling of reverence. At that point, I could no longer ask my palate to make subtle distinctions between drinks. There was no end to their names and no limit to the variety of the ingredients. Alfonso said, “They are as numerous as the sands of the desert.” I said, “Alfonso, I cannot cross the whole desert in one night, I have drunk my fill!”
I looked at my watch. I had been drinking and talking drinks for well over two hours. Where were my three ladies? I suddenly remembered our last evening in Leningrad and shivered. My God! Not again!
I waited and waited. I took the Receptionist into my confidence and exposed my fears. I talked to the Hotel manager and to Alfonso. I called my friend, Dr. Pablo Gomez-Portilla, chairman of the Regional Meeting. No one had anything to offer, except for Alfonso who suggested another drink.
At around midnight, Brigitte, Françoise and Aunt Lilly entered the hotel, lurid and haggard. I ran towards them with a thousand questions. They looked at me with glassy eyes and barely reacted. The lump in my chest had grown very big and I showered them with a torrent of emotional reprimands and scoldings. They walked to the elevator like three robots. Their gait was ghostlike. Mine was staggering, thanks to Alfonso’s generosity. I tried hard to keep calm and invited Françoise and Aunt Lily, who shared the same room, to come to ours so that we could talk.
I did all the talking; they did not utter a word. As I began to show my irritation at their silence, Brigitte and Françoise burst into tears and Aunt Lily said, “Listen, Jacques. We fully understand that you were concerned. We are sorry for that. But, please, do not ask what happened. We do not want to talk about it now. We’ll tell you later.”
“Why later? I need to know, now!” I said.
Lily replied, “If we have to relate in detail what we went through to day, we would go into total hysterics. We need to forget. It was just awful.”
“Please, Lily, I do not need details now, but for heaven’s sake tell me in a few words what happened.”
“In summary,” she said “someone stole Françoise’s purse on the street, as we came out of the Museum, and when we went to the Police to report our loss we were treated like criminals. We were shouted at in Spanish and kept all afternoon and evening with thieves, gangsters, prostitutes and racketeers. It was hideous. It was horrifying. We had to pay our way out. When we eventually left the Police station, Brigitte and I realized that we no longer had our purses. Of course, we did not go back. We do not want to talk about it now. Please. We do not want to alert anyone. Who could you alert… we already went to the Police!”
Aunt Lily and Françoise went to their room in tears and Brigitte cried herself to sleep in my arms.
The next day they begged me not to tell anyone about what had happened. “How can I tell anyone,” I said, “I know practically nothing about what happened.”
After a pause I said, “Tell me everything in detail, slowly, chronologically, calmly.”
It was obvious that they had decided not to share the full story with me. Every time I asked a question I had the feeling that they were hiding certain facts from me. Once in a while, a new detail would emerge and contradict part of the story they had told me. Versions kept changing all the time. An obvious effort was made to keep me in the dark. At what time was Françoise’s purse stolen? They did not remember. What Police Station did they go to? They did not know. What time did they get to the Police? It was one o’clock or, perhaps, two. It might even have been three. What was in the purses? Everything. How did they get back to the hotel without money? They somehow managed.
The inquisition lasted a couple of hours, during which I showed nervousness and irritation, I flared up several times and, eventually, gave up and left the hotel to go to the meeting.
During the following days they made several telephone calls concerning their credit cards, passports and travelers’ checks. Every time I tried to talk about the issue, Aunt Lily would say, “Don’t be melodramatic, Jacques, it was just a small incident.”
“If it was so small an incident, why were you all in tears?” I asked.
“Don’t exaggerate! We were a little tired, that’s all!” answered Aunt Lily, dismissing the topic with a gesture of disdain and walking away appearing as detached and nonchalant as possible.
I did not push the issue any longer, figuring that they must have had good reasons to keep me out of it. To this day I do not know what exactly happened and why they would not tell me. Even when we later got back to Paris, I asked each one of them separately, but failed to get a satisfactory answer.
Towards the end of our trip, the four of us went to dinner one evening at Dr. Pablo Gomez-Portilla’s. On the way, Brigitte and Aunt Lily reiterated their wish that the subject of the theft and the visit to the Police station would not be brought up. They insisted. I promised.
The dinner party was delightful and lively. It never sank into a single moment of dullness. Everyone was joyful, imaginative and in a good mood. We had a memorable time! The atmosphere was friendly and warm, thanks to the urbane attitude of Dr. Pablo Gomez-Portilla. He greeted us at the door by saying, “Aqui està su casa.” (This is your house), adding in a whisper, “La che yo pago.” (The one I pay for.)
Dr. Pablo Gomez-Portilla was a slender, tanned man with bright teeth flashing through a dense black mustache. He was witty, articulate and elegant. He could make the everyday look exceptional.
One of the liveliest guests at the party was Carlos Leon-Robledo, a jolly Mexican diplomat I had known for years. Carlos was not quite short, not quite fat, broad across the chest and stomach, thick-necked and dashingly mustachioed. He had been for many years with the Mexican Embassy in Paris and seemed to know the French inside-out. Whenever we met, he found great delight in teasing me. He needed to take his revenge over the French who probably made him suffer during his stay in France. That night he was in heaven, with such a wide French audience to tease. There did not seem to be any strict rules of conversation; all subjects were welcome: polemical, critical, political, sexual or controversial. Caramba!
“I love the French. They are smart people, but do not smile very easily,” he said, looking at my three ladies. “I understand that François Mitterrand won two presidential elections without ever smiling!”
“He had a good reason not to,” said Brigitte, giggling. “He could not afford to show his bad teeth. Had he smiled, he would have lost the elections.”
“Besides,” added Aunt Lily, looking festive and resplendent, “smiling at strangers is not part of French culture. We usually do not smile without a reason.” And assuming a Prima Donna pose added, “Please give us some good reason to smile.”
Becoming more provocative, Carlos said, “France is a very old country with many treasures, such as the Louvre and EuroDisney. It is a country that made valuable contributions to western civilization: Champagne, Camembert, Chanel number 5 and the Guillotine.”
Aunt Lily, with a big smile – to prove that the French can smile – cited in one breath all the great French scientists, writers, artists and musicians she could remember. At the end of the litany, Carlos added, “And many more: Louis XIV, Joan of Arc, Gérard Depardieu and Charles de Gaulle, who was a President for many years and is now an airport.”
Brigitte burst out laughing and said, “Many of your revolutionary Generals are now Avenues!”
With a bright smile, Françoise spoke of the French cuisine, citing many cooks, famous restaurants and dishes known the world over. “Let’s face it,” said Carlos, “no matter how much garlic you put on it, a snail is just a slug with a shell on its back!”
At that point our Argentinean guest, Ricardo Villambrosa, came to the defense of France, attracting the admiration of our French ladies. Ricardo radiated neatness from his neck to his shiny shoes. Like most Argentineans, he was a person of refined taste and exquisite manners. A tiny bit snobbish with something of a superiority complex.
“Of course an Argentinean would come to the rescue of a European!” said Carlos. “The Argentineans, as opposed to the other Latino-Americans, think that they have no Indian blood in them. They do not spring from the Incas, the Aztec, or the Maya. They like to think that they spring from no one, descending directly from the Lord God Almighty. Ha.Ha.”
To which Ricardo replied, “Well, the problem with a Mexican – if our good host, Pablo, would allow me to say – is that he carries deep in his soul two irreconcilable ancestors: an Indian and a Spaniard. They both live in him with a repressed mixture of love and hate. The great Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, said that a Mexican wants to be neither Indian nor Spanish. He asserts himself, not as a Metis, but as an Abstraction. He starts within himself. In your city tour, Jacques, you must have seen that strange fountain called ‘Monumento a la raza’ – a tribute to the new race: the new man of the new world.”
Our Mexican friend, Carlos, did not let Ricardo drag the conversation onto philosophy. He wanted to keep the exchange light and funny. He said, “In Argentina, everything goes through a sort of ‘hypernationalistic grinder’ and comes out 100% Argentinean. A simple ‘Dry Martini’ has been rebaptized ‘San Martin.'”
“In Mexico,” retorted Ricardo, “You are still looking for your ‘grinder.’ Every other week you have a coup, a so-called ‘pronunciamento.’ Every other year you have a revolution!”
Françoise, Brigitte and Aunt Lily obviously enjoyed the general friendly atmosphere and, in particular, the Argentino-Mexican duel. The guests were exchanging comments in good humor, when our host introduced a couple of Mariachi he had hired to entertain us for a while. They sang and instantaneously electrified the atmosphere. I could tell that Françoise was in heaven. The general conversation stopped while the Mariachi were singing. Smaller groups spoke in Spanish and food was served. A sumptuous succession of colorful and spicy dishes were displayed on the buffet. It seemed that we were on the brink of gastronomic ecstasy. Even the women ignored their diet.
A guest with an elongated silhouette and nervous gait arrived and was introduced as Miguel Moustique. Brigitte and her sister, who had had a number of drinks, looked at each other with an ironic smile and tittered – ‘moustique’ meaning mosquito in French. Miguel Moustique looked at Aunt Lily with the appraising eye of a prospective conqueror and sat next to her. He was tall and slim with an angular face and a long nose. He was dressed in gray and black, as though he had done his best to look sinister. He proudly explained to Lily and Brigitte that he was originally French. His ancestor, Achille Moustique, had come to Mexico with the French troops that Napoleon III had sent in 1864 to put Maximilian of Habsburg on the throne. The French troops left in 1867, but Achille Moustique, who had fallen in love in the meantime, stayed behind and married a local girl. L’amour. Toujours l’amour!
While listening to this story, Aunt Lily began to chuckle to herself. She probably visualized Miguel Moustique as a mosquito going ‘bzz-bzz-bzz.’ Then suddenly Brigitte was overcome by an uncontrollable laughter. At that point, losing all control, Aunt Lily burst out laughing in Moustique’s face. They obviously had had too much to drink.
Miguel Moustique looked puzzled and asked what was the laughing matter. Aunt Lily, purple in the face, apologized, explaining that the song the Mariachi were singing reminded them of something very funny that had happed years ago in Paris. It is amazing how fast she could come up with a good lie! Brigitte stood up and walked towards the bathroom, with a handkerchief over her mouth, while Miguel Moustique continued his story.
When the Mariachi were gone, Françoise who knew some Spanish said that she was intrigued by the differences in accent among the guests. Alberto Almeida from Chili explained that obvious differences existed not only in accents but also in vocabularies. Words often had different meanings in different parts of the continent. In Central America a hat is a ‘cachucha.’ In Peru the same word refers to a part of the masculine body which is not publicly discussed in refined circles. If a Peruvian lady sits on the hat of a gentleman from San Salvador, he should not tell her, “Madam you are sitting on my ‘cachucha’!”
Our gracious host, Pablo Gomez-Portilla, in trying to bring the conversation back onto safer ground, told us that the Chilians are known for their colorful language, their black humor and especially for their metaphors. For example, to announce that a neighbor, say by the name of Rafael, died, a Chilean would say “Rafael forgot to breathe!” or “Poor Rafael will no longer take the train!” or “Rafael will no longer shop at Gath y Chaves Department Store.”
“True,” said Alberto, “We love metaphors in Chile, but we are not the only ones. In Brazil, they call ‘Camisa de Venus’ (Venus’ shirt), those objects men ask for in a low voice at the pharmacy.
I looked towards my three women to see how they reacted to this lewd talk. Brigitte had moved to the other side of the room away from Moustique. The latter had moved closer to Lily and was talking to her with fervor. She seemed tickled and was obviously glamorizing. She asked many questions but did not seem to pay much attention to the answers.
“What I find amusing in Brazil” said our host, “is the fact that every profession has its precious stone. By looking at a man’s ring you can tell that he is a physician if he wears an emerald; a lawyer if he wears a ruby; or an engineer if he displays a sapphire.”
“What do wives of Unesco directors wear?” asked Brigitte, making a funny face. I gave her a reproachful look and discretely signaled that she should put down her glass.
And so the conversation, like a butterfly, flitted lightly from subject to subject, sprinkled with giggles and laughter. All that was asked of anyone was to be amusing and amused.
Françoise said that she liked very much the sense of humor that seemed to prevail in Latin America and the relaxed and warm relationships that existed among people. A few exchanges on the topic of humor followed. Our Mexican friend, Carlos Leon-Robledo, said, “If, while in Mexico City something is stolen from you – which is not unlikely – you should have enough humor to appreciate the astuteness of your thief. Mexican thieves are very foxy and sometimes one has to admire their ingenuity, with humor.”
That remark cast a chill among my three ladies who looked at one another in silence. I did not utter a word, but Aunt Lily abandoned Moustique and sat close to Carlos, with an obvious wish to enlarge on the subject. Unfortunately, I had a brief exchange with Alberto Almeida on the other side and could not follow the conversation between Aunt Lily and Carlos. When I was able to lend an ear, I overheard Carlos saying, with his usual satirical expression, “The consular services of the French Embassy are intended in reality for the promotion of the interests of French business, such as wine, perfume, guided missiles, cheese, grenade launchers, champagne and high-caliber weaponry. If you, as an individual citizen in trouble, need their services, you are told to report between one and two on Tuesdays and Fridays. If you choose to call, an answering machine will give you all sorts of useless information, such as a list of qualified dentists.”
Aunt Lily did not seem amused. Carlos’ sarcasm did not meet her expectations this time. She strode back to Moustique with an airy elegance. Carlos turned to me and said, “You know, amigo Jacques, I finally found what Mexicans and French people have in common: they love revolutions. You have had your major one in 1789 and we have our smaller ones every now and then. We love to pull everything down and start from scratch. Every time I see France on the TV news, people are rioting or marching down the street, protesting against the latest government decision.”
“Yes,” I said “we have our Zapatas too!”
“Who is Zapata?” asked Françoise
Carlos explained that Emiliano Zapata, considered by some as a terrorist and trouble-maker, was in fact an idealist who fought for the poor, for justice and for land reform. “He was a rebel leader and fought during his life time against three presidents: Diaz, Madero, and Huerta.”
“When did he die?” asked Françoise.
“He was killed in 1919,” said Carlos.
At that instant, the elderly lady who had sat silently in a corner all evening spoke up for the first time. Our host had introduced her as his mother. Since she had not joined in the general conversation so far, we had assumed that she spoke only Spanish. We were mistaken, for Mrs. Gomez-Portilla spoke beautiful English.
She said, “Yes I remember Emiliano Zapata was ambushed and killed, on April 10th, 1919 by Jesus Guajardo!”
The astonishment was general. Everyone thought and said that Mrs. Gomez-Portilla looked much too young to have been around in 1919.
“Oh. No. I am older than any of you.” she kept saying. And as some of us insisted that she could not have been around at the time of Zapata, she stood up, as we clustered like flies around her and, with an incredible verve, declaimed, “I was born before television, before penicillin, before air-conditioners. I existed before credit cards and Nylon stockings. I grew up without Barbie dolls and without electric typewriters. At the time of my birth, MacDonald’s was unknown. I was born before Time magazine and before washing-machines. In my days ‘time-sharing’ only meant togetherness, a ‘chip’ was a piece of wood, and ‘hardware’ meant nuts and bolts. Cigarette smoking was fashionable, ‘grass’ was mown, ‘coke’ was kept in the coal room, a ‘joint’ was a piece of meat, and ‘pot’ was something you cooked in. A gay person was then the life and soul of the party – and nothing more. Believe me I was around when Emiliano Zapata was killed!”
We all gave her a true standing ovation.
After a little silence, I looked at my watch and realized that it was past one o’clock and hinted that it was time to go. I was a little concerned that the two French sisters might be getting out of hand. My remark raised a general protest. It was late for neither Mexicans nor Argentineans. Neither was it late for Chileans, for Peruvians, or for Colombians! Visitors seemed set to stay for ever.
A discussion on the notion of time followed. Aunt Lily did not miss the opportunity to remark that time was a very flexible notion in Mexico and in southern countries in general.
Dr. Pablo Gomez-Portilla, regaining for a moment his professorial composure, explained that, according to Edward T. Hall, there are mainly two time systems: monochronic and polychronic. Monochronic people pay attention at one thing at a time; polychronic ones are involved with many things at once. In monochronic cultures, time is used in a linear way, planned, segmented, compartmentalized and scheduled. That is why a schedule, an agenda, a program, a plan or an appointment is so sacred among monochronic people, such as Europeans and North Americans. Polychronic cultures, on the other hand, such as those prevailing in Africa, Latin America and the Arab World, are characterized by the simultaneous occurrence of many things at once and by a great involvement with people. They consider a time commitment only as an objective. It is more important to finish a transaction with a person than to keep an appointment.
I remembered my mission in Morocco. I recalled the problem in Cairo between monochronic Van der Meer, who wanted to stick to an agenda and concentrate exclusively on it, and polychronic Abdel-Rahman who answered phone calls, greeted friends and signed papers during the meeting. I had met during my international work many such examples, when the notion of time became a major source of misunderstanding. I was thinking of the problem I had encountered in Japan between monochronic Earl Ray Clarck and polychronic Mitsuo Harada, when Carlos Leon-Robledo said “Amigo Jacques, even though the French, according to this theory, are monochronic, they are often late. Even the French TV programs are late,” He added, laughing heartedly, “The French are always on time for lunch and dinner though!”
After a few more drinks and more laughter it was past two. I persuaded Brigitte and Aunt Lily that it was time to leave. We had eaten well, laughed a lot and drunk just enough to reach that stage where life becomes just great! We began our round of hugs, thanks and shake-hands. The house looked like a battlefield; we had contributed to the housework by leaving empty glasses and dishes all over the place. As we were passing the main door, Miguel Moustique kissed Aunt Lily’s hand saying, “Tomorrow, ten o’clock.” Brigitte giggled and asked, “Monochronic or Polychronic ten?”
There we were, at last, in the limousine our kind host had put at our disposal, with a bright chauffeur who knew his way around. The limousine was filled with all the indispensable status symbols you can dream of : a television, a bar, an ice box, a telephone and a fax-machine. “No washing-machine, though!” remarked Brigitte, as the two sisters became the prey to another fit of laughter.
“Françoise,” I said, “You are the most reasonable and the best behaved of my three women!”
The following morning I was free, while the meeting report was being typed. The meeting was to resume at four in the afternoon to approve the report. So, I decided to join the shopping expedition which was to be led by Miguel Moustique.
At ten o’clock sharp we saw Moustique’s silhouette coming through the hotel door. He looked impeccable but sinister, dressed all in black, which prompted Brigitte to tell her sister, “Brigitte, your enamored suitor looks like an undertaker’s assistant.” The two sisters started giggling again while Françoise remarked that she had never seen her mother and aunt having so much fun before. Just like two teenagers.
Moustique grinned from ear to ear. Lily was glowing and in high spirits. Her admirer looked at her amorously and offered her a pink rose. “Oh!” I said “I had better cable your husband, Lily, to come immediately with his sword!”
The morning was dedicated to shopping. Aunt Lily had already explained, the previous evening, all her problems and wishes to Miguel and he had prepared a plan. First we went to all the stores where she had already purchased a number of things that she now wished to return. Aunt Lily always changed her mind and invariably wanted to exchange or return her purchases. In Paris, she often ran into problems because many stores do not allow for that. In contrast, she loved shopping in London and New York because the rules of the game there made room for her chronic indecision.
It was fortunate that Miguel was now with us to help with the transactions. She had bought many things at a bargain price and no longer had the receipts which were in her stolen purse. A refund was impossible and the resulting haggling was endless. In many cases, all she was allowed to do was to exchange the returned good for something different. She had to make up her mind fast and ended up with more useless things she probably would want to return the following day.
After a quick lunch, Miguel Moustique took us to the Flea Market where Aunt Lily wanted to buy a nice gift for her Albert, whom she had ‘abandoned’ in Paris together with the canaries. Brigitte explained to Miguel that this sort of present was called a ‘remorse gift’ in France and that our own apartment, in Paris, was full of them. “After every one of Jacques’ missions,” she said, ” I deserve a ‘remorse gift.'”
When we entered the first Antique dealer , Aunt Lily went wild. In her eyes was a glint of the lust to acquire, she admired all the remains of domestic histories, culled from the attics of Mexico City. She was born with an incurable inclination towards expensive shopping. She asked for Miguel’s opinion, she commented with enthusiasm on every object and caressed it. The Antique dealer, recognizing a good prey, gave her his particular attention and showed her a variety of exceptional antiques. She was drawn to a sort of a flat vase, which the Antique Dealer called ‘an early sixteenth century chamber pot.’ He said, with a straight face, that it dated from the days Herman Cortés defeated Montezuma, around 1519.
The situation had suddenly become killingly funny. Françoise said in disbelief, “Aunt Lily, you are not taking a chamber pot to Uncle Albert!” Moustique expressed doubts that Cortés’ soldiers were so refined as to use such a sophisticated container to answer a call of nature. I asked Brigitte how on earth would Lily, who had her purse stolen, pay for the pot. Brigitte said, giggling, that perhaps Moustique would offer the pot to Lily so that she could put the pink rose in it. The situation became so ludicrous that we all laughed.
Aunt Lily was caressing the pot with admiration when her sister said, “Don’t do that, Lily, you never know how many have used it since 1519!”
At that point Françoise left the store laughing till she cried. I said to Lily, “With the price you are asked to pay you can have a whole bathroom installed!” To which the Dealer said “If you care for a less expensive chamber pot, we have a more recent one of the Zapata period.”
Aunt Lily was dead serious about making an exceptional bargain. She asked if a certificate could be delivered. The Antique dealer said that the only way to get out of the country such antique objects, which belonged to the national cultural heritage was to lie about their age. Brigitte immediately added, “My sister never lies about age. Ha. Ha.”
It was past three thirty, I ran out – leaving them around Cortés’ and Zapata’s chamber pots – jumped into a taxi and went to my meeting.
The next day, when we arrived at the airport, we found a delegation of smiling, friendly gentlemen who had come to bid us farewell: Pablo Gomez-Portilla, Carlos Leon-Robledo and, of course, Miguel Moustique. We had so much luggage that one could easily assume that we had spent at least six months in Mexico.
Carlos reminded us that it was July 13th and we would be landing in Paris on Bastille Day. “Since you are traveling on Air France,” he said, “you will be drinking a lot of champagne to celebrate the mass decapitation of the French aristocracy.”
Aunt Lily took Moustique aside and, with a friendly smile and sexy voice, asked him if he would be so kind as to return a couple of gifts she got at the store where they had exchanged things. “We were in such a rush,” she said, “that I could not make the right choice. When I packed this morning I found all these useless things!”
On the plane I asked Aunt Lily, Brigitte and Françoise which chamber pot had been bought, if any. They looked at each other and giggled, but would not tell me. I said, ” Well, I do not want to know any more what happed at the police station, but tell me at least about the chamber pot!” They did not and I said, “You are no different than three Mafia women, whose law of silence, l’omertà, is never broken.”
The next day, after a short nap, we went to dinner at Lily and Albert’s place. The latter had prepared a special Bastille Day meal with champagne and all the trimmings. In the middle of the table was Emiliano Zapata’s chamber pot, with a faded pink rose in it. Viva Zapata!
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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