June 27, 2012 (The dates on all these blogs are scrambled up. Actually they start on June 18th and go on from there, almost every day or every other day. I messed up on that.)
My friend Adria always says that one must have a sense of abundance. That if one is miserly, one does not obtain riches. On the other hand, if one has an attitude of abundance, she says, one will never lack for anything.
The first time she told me this, I had an uncanny feeling that for once, someone had understood me perfectly. For, I always act as if there is abundance in the world.
Yet, I grew up in a poor family in India. I was malnourished as a child, partly because my mother, even though a good cook, just did not relish feeding anyone, even her own children. She herself did not enjoy food; she only craved sweets. So it was impossible for her to imagine that her daughter might be hungry.
It was a different matter with my brother Prakash, however. Perhaps because he nearly died as a baby – of diphtheria – perhaps because he continued having illnesses like sunstrokes, or simply because he was a son, an only son, he got fed all the time. We always gave him the best of everything. I thought it was natural, I did not mind it.
But the overwhelming feeling I remember of my childhood is that of being hungry. I was very thin, and as I became an adolescent, anemic. Whenever there was anything in the house to eat, I raided the cupboards. My parents called me khadad – the greedy one. They paid no attention to the comments the school and college nurses wrote in my folder every year to the effect that I needed “improved nutrition.”
This is all by the way of explaining why I have always practiced the notion of abundance, not consciously practiced it, but intuitively, I have always understood that if one spends money, one gets money. If one thinks that there will be plenty, then there will be plenty. That there will be plenty of food in particular.
I know Americans – particularly some Americans who grew up rich – who are so miserly you wouldn’t believe it. Of course immigrants are miserly for a reason. Either way, people’s cheapness always bothers me. For, most of the time, their policies result in the old adage of penny wise and pound foolish.
In contrast with such people, what I have enjoyed throughout France is a natural attitude of abundance. In America, traveling for business to different cities like Chicago or Atlanta, I have had trouble finding any food in the center of the town, particularly fruit. American cities are like deserts, all you can find inside them is a CVS pharmacy, that is if you are lucky. CVS was where I used to buy milk for making tea in my hotel room in the morning on my business trips. The only thing American hotels have going for them is the coffeemaker which can be used for making tea.
So at first I missed the coffeemaker in France. I had access to a teapot in the B&B; in Amboise and so I kept thinking that I needed that everywhere. What I did not realize was that it was more fun to walk to a boulangerie, buy a croissant, then eat it with my tea, sitting at a café. It is not just the tourists who do this in France, but locals too. So one can watch people while eating breakfast.
What a civilized world this is.
At first, I was hoarding food during my travels in France. It is a lifelong habit of a person whose one fear is to go to bed hungry. So I carried with me on every train and to every hotel room cheese and bread and fruit and prepared foods, so much so that I had to throw some of it away. Until I realized that in France you could never go hungry anywhere, particularly in small towns where streets are full of produce and cheese and bread and chocolates and biscuits and pate and foie-gras and you name it. As if this were not enough, they have market days once or twice a week when food overtakes the village, when abundance acquires a new meaning. These markets are not for tourists, but locals, who get into living with abundance with such a flair, I don’t think I have seen anyone love food as much as the French do.
India has markets of course but the presence of poverty is never too far in India.
In France, I have yet to see poverty or even a hint of it.
I became conscious of this after I took the train to San Sebastian two days ago. I was actually looking forward to the visit. Ever since I went to Spain in the nineteen nineties and saw San Sebastian on the country’s map, I had wanted to go there. Partly because the town was named after my son; partly because I had this mental image of an exotic coastal Basque town.
So I took the SNCF train to Hendaye, a French border town, where Hitler apparently met Franco after the occupation of France. The idea was that Spain would join in with Hitler. But upon meeting Franco, Hitler thought of him as a buffoon and so the collaboration never took place, perhaps changing the course of history.
Everything was OK until Hendaye. But then I rode the so called Eusko train (no doubt a Basque name) across the border. I was exhausted and closed my eyes for a second – the Eusko Train runs like a milk train, one can literally hear the wheels grinding – and when I opened them I noticed that we were crossing over what looked like a sewer canal. The sight was so unfamiliar after over two weeks of not seeing any urban squalor that my stomach turned. Walls of buildings were marked with graffiti; facades of edifices had black moss growing on them. The countryside lacked charm. It was as if I was back in the third world. For a moment I thought I was in Latin America, even though at the back of my mind I knew that Ecuador or Peru would probably look a lot poorer, that if a Spanish person heard my thoughts he or she would be horrified. It was just that my eyes had gotten used to clean streets; I had begun taking the shiny paint on ancient buildings for granted; I had gotten accustomed to the utter lack of dirt or poverty here in France.
I felt a little sheepish. Here I had been longing to be across the border where I could speak Spanish; I had been waiting to be with a culture and people I feel more comfortable with. Just that morning, sitting in my favorite café in St. Jean de Luz, I had been moved by a melody streaming on to the sidewalk from the bar, a familiar song from the Buena Vista Social Club, of which I have a CD at home. The tune was what prompted me to make the journey to San Sebastian.
And yet I thought, “Spain is poor,” as I rode the Eusko Tren into the country.
And in that moment, the problems of the Eurozone became obvious to me.
Still, I hoped it was just the Border Town syndrome, like you feel when passing into Tijuana from San Diego.
But it was not. When I got off at San Sebastian, two American women from Los Gatos guided me into town. It had taken me a while to realize they were mother and daughter. The pavement was radiating heat, even though we were walking by a so-called river. It was a typical European river, its waters contained within a high embankment. It exuded no moisture, no cool breezes came off its surface, no trees shaded its banks. There were bridges across it of course, marked by golden pillars. In the distance was a glass monstrosity, and beyond it, the beach. Even though it was only a half a mile away, it was hard to imagine that anything as natural and vast as an ocean could reside anywhere in the vicinity of so much concrete and stone and metal.
Was it the quality of the light that made the place glare so? I hated the look of the place and was glad I had chosen to stay in the small town of St. Jean de Luz across the border.
The idea of abundance was gone in Spain too. I mean the center of the city and the old town were full of ice cream shops and restaurants but they seemed about as appetizing as an American hardware store. The foods exuded no particular aromas; the products just did not have the texture and look of actual food.
So sitting on a bench in the one hundred degree heat, I ate my apple.
This is one of the things that has always puzzled me about Latin America too. I have often wondered as to why given such beautiful weather, they do not eat more fruits and vegetables, why their diet seems rather sparse and monotonous, full of meat and potatoes.
In San Sebastian, there was the obligatory cathedral in the old town, and a Constitution Plaza.
But the place was noisy. I guess that is Spanish character for you, loud, vibrant, full of energy. The French, on the other hand, probably follow the English dictum of “children should be seen and not heard.” For, even in the most public of places you do not hear children shouting in France the way they do in San Sebastian.
All these thoughts made me feel as If I was betraying my adapted culture of Latin America. But the truth was, I couldn’t wait to get on the Eusko Tren and head back to France.
On the way back, I noticed that the graffiti stopped as soon as we crossed the border.
I thought of how, once upon a time, the Italians and the Spanish were the underdogs of Northern Europe, as depicted in numerous E.M. Forester novels. They were the third world for ordinary middle class Northern Europeans like the French and the British who happened not to have any colonials like Indians or Algerians around to beat up on. In John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers, made in the nineteen sixties, the Spanish servant was the comic equivalent of the Mexican illegal immigrant in the Hollywood of today.
Now with the Eurozone falling apart, perhaps they will go back to being that way again.
I am in a bubble in France; I can’t talk to anyone because the French refuse to acknowledge that other idioms exist in the world, even if it means dying with their dying language. But that has made me a better observer. In the Spanish speaking world, I fit among the people so I observe less and learn less.
So what am I to do? Learn to speak French?
Once back in St. Jean de Luz, I ate my leftover food from the market day in my room, then went for a long walk along the promenade. The sun was bright, the breeze cool and soothing. I waited for the Green Flash. It did not happen.
Green Flash or not, I was back with abundance. I am glad the French allowed me to experience something I had always longed for.