I used to keep travel diaries but I lost some and destroyed the others. This is an encounter I had in an airport, with an awesome woman named Dotty. I don’t remember much beyond feeling impressed, it’s hard to transcribe here and it was so long ago, but I wanted to talk about her anyway, write whatever I do remember before I forget it all.
Charles de Gaulle Airport, August 2008, we were both killing time at the boarding gate. I had the messy hair and chipped nail polish of travelers in transit. I liked that you had pearls pinned in your white hair, like a child playing dress-up or an ironic twist on the respectability old age supposedly bestows. Boring pearl necklaces are not for the likes of you. Dotty you were once more hot than beautiful, and now you’re an elegant old lady; that’s not an easy transition but you aced it.
Yes you looked like a springtime New Year’s Eve. Not the nice motherly type (you didn’t even offer me one of those madeleines you were eating, straight from the bag bought at the Duty Free Fauchon), no you’re just a hot adventurer who doesn’t mind that she’s now a little bit older than yesterday.
I didn’t notice you at first; I was lost in my travel plans and excitement over crossing the Atlantic for the very first time (San Francisco!!!). I always daydream in airports (I daydream everywhere) but you came and talked to me and I know it’s because my face says “hey, stranger, come tell me your story, please fill my head with your wonderfulness” so you did just that.
You sat next to me, and asked me where I was from, the one-word answer would be my only contribution to the conversation.
“Oh, yes. Lebanon, I had a Palestinian neighbor once, isn’t that close? She was Palestinian but they celebrated Christmas. Are you Muslim or Christian? You also have Jews right? Oh no wait I think my neighbor was Iraki, same skin-tone as yours though”.
Dotty dear, I loved that you actually didn’t give a shit if your neighbor and I were Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraki or Martian. I cannot stress how deliciously refreshing I found your political incorrectness.
You simply wanted to tell your story and I happened to be there. So you told me about that Christmas of 59, when you were alone with 2 kids in a rat-infested apartment. How you almost fell apart, but you chose not to, and that nice neighbor who often invited you and your kids for lunch.
I do appreciate a good story but Dotty, you’re such an inconsiderate narrator! You started here, stopped, and remembered something else; picked up another storyline and forgot. You assumed I understood obscure historic facts, then went on explaining the obvious. Did you enhance any of it? It was exhausting but so fascinating! Unfortunately, 5 years later, I forgot all the fascinating parts. I just remember your resilience.
Her real name was Marguerite, but Dotty was easier to pronounce for the American family that “took her” to Boston when she was just 17. She was a jeune fille au pair and it was her first time away from her village near Nice. Because the East Coast was more fun than the village, she decided to meet a man and stay. He was Polish and together they had 4 kids. 2 of them were already born when Dotty realized he wasn’t making enough money. She thought of leaving him but he was a good man and they had kids so she suggested a move to California “where there was well-paid work for Polish men on construction sites”. He refused but she packed her bags and the kids and just went without him. She was broke, survived by giving French lessons, and against all odds, got her happy ending when a few months later her husband finally showed up.
Dotty you don’t choke on life do you? Did you always have it figured out? Were there moments of doubts? You move forward anyway.
Stubborn Dotty, as stubborn as her own mom. Actually when we met at the airport, Dotty was on her way back from her mother’s who was at the hospital with a broken hip following a car accident. The 90 year-old lady refused to stop driving but kept crashing the car and this time her hip crashed as well! Dotty was very annoyed because the trip made her miss her grandson’s birthday.
Your mother Dotty?!?! All I could think of was how amazing it was that her mother was still alive while she looked so old herself! In my family, grandparents consider themselves lucky to live long enough to see their grand-kids. This is because we’re confused people who over-think values, question life, and let ourselves be savagely consumed by worries. We only reluctantly bring children into the world, like an afterthought we’re afraid to regret later.
Marguerite, Dotty, you never lost you way, or did you? I’m really glad you were the first person I met on my trip. You’ll forever be my California, my San Francisco, my Golden Gate. If you had seen what I saw, you’d understand.
What I saw was damn ugly! Hordes of tourists roaming around Haight-Ashbury, looking for bits and piece of the Summer of Love in a Jimi Hemdrix t-shirt and a Janis Joplin poster. My friend took a picture of me in front of the City Lights bookstore (because, at the time, I still had hopes to write a novel of my own someday) and by doing so, we just added a coat of slime to the legend.
Then again, what else was I supposed to be doing in San Francisco? I was a tourist too, just another onlooker watching old hippies waiting to die without healthcare. The smartest of them had joined the commercialization of San Francisco’s interesting past; they kept their hair long and clothes colourful to attract more customers into their cool bookshops, thrift stores and eccentric cafés. There were also so many homeless old people, like children who suddenly grew old and didn’t understand why the music stopped. Tourists took pictures of them too and then gave them a dollar. It was obscene.
Oh there were young people too, I went dancing with them in San Jose where everyone is a computer scientist and much smarter than me. Back then, the revenge of the nerds was in full swing and these whizz kids were milking it for all its worth. But it was a Thursday night and the Silicon Valley is just another factory town so at 1AM the music stopped mid-song, the lights were brutally turned on and everyone formed an orderly line towards the exit as the staff started cleaning up the club. To this day, it remains one of the biggest cultural shocks of my life.
The next day I woke up in random suburbia, I forgot the name but there were Starbucks cups and Louis Vuitton bags everywhere, the ugly monogrammed bags that everybody owned at the time. It was weird and sad like old fluorescent plastic.
Anyway, what I want to say, Dotty, is that I’m glad we met before I boarded that plane. California disappointed me but you didn’t. Dotty I’ve been typing away for almost one hour to explain what I mean, but it doesn’t work, I keep deleting everything. Cole Porter is more accurate and more eloquent: