The Complexity Of Pomp & CircumstanceThursday, June 07, 2012
I remember precisely that winter day in Buenos Aires. It was June 2, 1953. It was around noon because my mother called me to lunch. “¡Alex, lavate las manos y las rodillas, a comer!” I wore short pants so the lunch time routine not only meant I had to wash my hands but my knees, too. I remember also precisely what I answered as I hovered near our large upright radio in the living room. I said in English, “Not yet, I am listening to the coronation of my queen.”
Since that day when I seemed to know something about my nationality, my feeling of belonging somewhere and having allegiance to something or someone has somewhat thinned or at the very least it has become most complex.
I am jealous of my friend John Lekich who every once in a while will say, “I was born and raised in Vancouver and I have lived here all my life.” Of late he seems to have some small pangs of regret in this simplicity of belonging. He told me he felt a bit odd these days with how his city has changed.
I told him that I felt much the same and I wanted to use the word alienated but the word was somewhat stuck in my head and all I could remember was the Spanish for it, enajenado. I could have easily placed that feeling of enajenación on a wintry Buenos Aires evening in my 20s when a girl I was crazy about told me over the phone, “I don’t ever want to hear from you again. I am ashamed of your manners. I have fallen in love with an older violinist at the Teatro Colón orchestra.” Or it could have been over an espresso in the late 50s (my beatnik years) at the Rana Sabia (the Wise Frog Café) in Mexico City. I felt enajenado because that was the fashionable feeling to have at the time. I had no genuine reason to feel it.
This feeling of not belonging has been part of me most of my life.
To begin with consider this. My father was born in Buenos Aires but his father and mother were from Manchester. My mother was born in Manila but her mother in Spain and her father was Basque. A great grand aunt was Chinese. I had a Spanish ancestor General who surrendered to Admiral Dewey after the Battle of Manila Bay and my mother was denied entry into the United States (she had a Johns Hopkins scholarship) because she was listed as being Asian.
My friends in Buenos Aires called me el inglesito (the English boy) but when I was awaiting my orders at the Casa Rosada in Plaza de Mayo (I had been conscripted into the navy) I remember that a young man stared at my Botany Bay wool suit and asked me, “Tus pilchas son gringas. ¿Sos un gringo?” (that suit is a gringo suit. Are you a gringo?)
When I was around 10 I went to a game of the Harlem Globetrotters in Buenos Aires. I was picked up in a huge Lincoln by the minister of the Filipino Ministry (no embassy yet for that young country) and his son Fidel Ramos who one day became President of the Philippines. In fact at age 10 I routinely wore a barong tagalong to parties. This was the Filipino version (made of pineapple fibre) of the Cuban guayabera. I was a blond Filipino who could move the bamboos for the Tinikling with skill.
At age 10 I often hoped with my friends that there would be a revolution, or at least a coup so that we would have a long holiday from school. I was not supposed to feel any kind of sympathy for Perón or his wife Evita because we were not unwashed descamizados. The patrician elite (we were hangers on) had no time for Perón. We admired the order, even welcomed it, that the armed forces represented and felt comfort in the tradition and ritual of the Catholic Church. My father, who was not Catholic, kept his silence while my grandmother told me how the Jews had killed Christ. And yet my good friend Mario, el judío, did not seem to me to be an evil boy.
In Mexico in the mid 50s the country was living its richest history in film and song. Mexico had actresses like Dolores del Río and María Felix. I discovered Buñuel because of my infatuation with Sylvia Pinal and I may be one of the few besides the person I see reflected in my bathroom mirror who saw Viridiana, the Exterminating Angel and Simón del Desierto.
I felt nostalgia for Argentine, Argentine pizza, steaks, vegetables and fruit but I had no desire to listen to the tango, that music of the great unwashed. I preferred Miles Davis.
I was pretty Mexican except when it was convenient to parade Argentine superiority in futbol. This superiority was often thwarted by the Mexico City altitude and Argentine teams often lost.
Then I went to the United States and lived most of my teenage years in Texas. I did eat hamburgers in a car, a Corvair Monza that had been served by cute Texan girls in roller skates. I did pass my hand on the sharp edge of a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter. I felt American and I tried to downplay my Latin roots. But in the boarding school I attended the Latinos considered me too white to be part of them and the Anglos and Texans thought me strange because I spoke Spanish. I began to feel pangs of alienation.
Back in Argentina in 1965, while in the navy my Irish Argentine secretary, Edna Gahan (who typed my translations for the Senior US Naval Advisor, Captain USN Onofrio Salvia) hummed the new Beatles songs and my very Argentine cousin Wenceslao de Irureta Goyena tried to woo me in the direction of classical Argentine tango singers like Gardel. I wanted nothing to do with that music. I had discovered Piazzolla. Wency argued that Piazzolla was not tango since you could not dance to it. Years later, sometime in the beginning of this century, I proved him wrong by honing some sort of style in dancing to Piazzolla with a level of efficiency (and not more) that made me feel an Argentine nostalgia that had eluded me for years. I was suddenly drinking mate and looking for Argentines who lived in Vancouver. I had avoided Argentines for years saying to anybody who would listen that Argentines were only bearable in their own country.
It was in Argentina in 1966 that after I had sworn allegiance to my flag and constitution that I was dispatched with a contingent of navy troops allied to those of the army and airforce to surround the Casa Rosada. Our president went home in a cab and the next day we had a military junta in power. It was then that I began to understand the folly of extreme nationalism. The nationalism that I call "we nationalism". We defeated Brazil in futbol. We defeated the US in hockey. We have a better economy than they do.When the Canucks lose they lose. When they win, we won. Since then I have understood that feeling for a place is much more important than feeling for a flag that any day will become suit lining.
In 1983 Queen Elizabeth came to Vancouver with her consort to announce to the world that Expo 86 would happen. CTV broadcaster Alyn Edwards, a cameraman, two assistants and I were hired to cover the Queen’s part in the event at the new BC Place Stadium.
The two assistants were part of a then cutting edge system. The cameraman had a cordless TV camera (remember this was before digital) that was connected to a gun (and it looked like a gun). The assistant would point the gun up into the bleachers where the other assistant sat with a largish microwave dish that received the camera’s signal. We managed to pass through all kinds of security gates and we were but 6ft away from the Queen.
In 1986 (with a lingering feeling in me of dislike for the English and their queen, certainly not my queen because of the Malvinas conflict) I reluctantly went to get accreditation for the visit by Prince Charles and Lady Diana. I had been commanded, against my will, by Mac Parry, Editor of Vancouver Magazine. I went to the accreditation office and told them up front, “I know it is a bit late for me to get accreditation. And I really don’t want it if you deny it to me. After all I am one of those Argies and I have no love for the Royal Family. A woman looked at me and said, “Move there and look at the camera. It won’t take but a few minutes and you will be off.”
And so I was but a mere 6ft away from the royal couple at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Nobody checked my photo bag. I felt ill dressed next to the Brit photographers in their tuxes and” their “aluminium (not aluminum they told me) step ladders to get better shots.
On Tuesday night Rosemary and I watched the big concert held in London to celebrate the queen’s Diamond Jubilee. I saw it with fascination as all kinds of feelings traveled around my head and heart. She seemed, to be suddenly my queen again even if her son seemed to be a dolt not fit to be a king.
As it all ended with all that pomp and circumstance that the English are so good at I reflected that like the Pharisee in Saint Luke’s Gospel (18:10) I kind of felt sorry for the poor publican. I gave thanks to God for making me not feel I belonged anywhere but belonged everywhere. My poor friend John Lekich, the poor publican who was born and raised in Vancouver, can only feel nostalgia for a past, his past, a past of a rich Vancouver that seems to be fading towards more bike lanes and talk of the travails of walking in parks full of dog poop. I feel sorry for Lekich because I think I understand. I almost feel part of this city, even if I wasn’t born and raised here. You see it was here where I first had a close encounter with my queen.
And finally I must point out that I am a Canadian now and just like my birth it was recorded by a photographer. In this latter case by my friend Robert Blake. Unlike the lucky John Lekich who was born a Canadian I had to wait many years. I became one by swearing allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II while holding my father's King James Bible. El inglesito finally became one.