Monday, September 18, 2017

“I Married the Waiter” Vacation Romances

Podcast:  I Married the Waiter

I just finished watching one of the most heart-rending documentaries I’ve ever seen, although I am sure it was not the producer’s intention. It was an hour-long exploration of “vacation romances” entitled “I Married the Waiter,” which is, in my opinion, an absolutely inspired title.  What a cautionary tale, I thought, and I expected the hour to be filled with lonely or over-stressed English women swept off their feet by men who were the antitheses of the familiar, rather pedestrian and predictable English men of their own experiences.

I was not disappointed.  Only one literally married the waiter, and she was one of the few who had a happy ending. Her Turkish husband teamed up with her in a town in northern England and they set up a mini-bazaar. They had true team spirit, and it seemed like a true partnership with mutual regard. The other relationships seemed forged by lightning bolts into Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory that ignited long dead (and pretty much forgotten) flesh and fleshly libido, while shattering the glass ceilings of ambitious men who wanted to get somewhere in their lives.

The stories were painful, and I, for one, was filled with a “there but for the grace of God go I” feeling of relief.  It was the relief you feel when you what you thought was a shark swimming beneath you in the ocean turns out to be your own shadow.  In my own life, other cultures and other languages have held me in their thrall. I easily plunge into a state of fascination and heightened reality that feels like an awakening, and one in which I’m breathing pure oxygen while everything seems fresh, pure, transcendent.

My first experience with this experience happened when I was 16 and visited the Yucatan Peninsula with the Spanish club.  I was not actually studying Spanish, except on my own.  I was taking Latin and working ahead, but I liked the language, and most especially liked the book I had been reading, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan and Chiapas, by the 19th century U.S. government official and surveyor, John Lloyd Stephens, who was also a talented artist whose pen and ink drawings showed how tree-covered “hills” were in reality Mayan pyramids, long abandoned and forgotten by the indigenous peoples. I loved everything about that voyage of discovery.

I had also read every biography I could get my hands on that had to do with people traveling to Mexico. This particular fascination was fueled by Wednesday night Girls Ambassadors church services at Bethel Baptist Church in Norman, Oklahoma. We studied cultures and countries, met with missionaries and missionaries’ children.  

One particular daughter of missionaries had attended West Mid-High School with me during our 10th grade year.  I, who fetishized thinness, was astonished by her ability become absolutely skeletal. Looking back, I realize she was dangerously anorexic. I felt there was something terrible about her life in Guatemala, where her parents were missionaries.  Perhaps she was simply angry about being there.  That was what I thought at the time.  Later, I wonder if she had been subjected to some sort of violence. She was taciturn and dour, not at all friendly. I was shy and not likely to befriend her. So, I never quite knew what the backstory was.

I remember speaking with the tour guide who led us up the pyramid of Uxmal. He gave me his card and I started corresponding with him. I remember receiving letters from him. My heart would pound and I would attempt to read them. It was extremely motivating, and I started to buy the college textbooks for Spanish and teaching myself.  I never met him again, and I do not really remember his name. But, the letters ignited something within me that flowed when I played Scarlatti and imagined myself to travel in time back to the time of the Spanish court, where Domenico Scarlatti composed sonatas for his prodigy, the Princesa Maria Barbara.

The next year, my Spanish had dramatically improved, and my parents generously paid for a second Spring Break trip to Mexico with the Spanish Club.  I do not think they realized how almost criminally negligent our chaperones were. In fact, I do not even remember having chaperones.  While my classmates were binge-drinking and hanging together in packs, I was scurrying off on my own, engaging in conversations wherever I could. I gave my guardian angel a good case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and came back home happy and without sunstroke, although I did suffer from the Montezuma’s revenge that no one ever hears about any more.

I did not marry anyone, nor did I have any physical relationships. But, I did write to a young chemical engineer I met.  I fantasized about what might happen in the future, and I continued to study Spanish and found myself increasingly drawn to the literature and the culture. I often wonder why I never did live or study in Latin America. But, my life definitely intruded, with marriage, divorce, education, jobs – and a rather turtle-like attitude.

The women in the documentary were definitely not turtles. When they finally poked their heads outside of cold, cloudy England and looked into the sun-kissed beaches and ancient souks of Morocco, Turkey, or the clear waters of the Aegean, they threw their shells into the breach and married, sometimes within a matter of weeks. They were brave, these women, all of whom were at a kind of breaking point when they went on their vacations. A few of the romances actually turned out well.  Most did not.

One woman, who was 71 when she married a 22-year-old young man from a small desert town in Morocco pretty much stated that she did it because she could not believe she was able to have a physical relationship that gave her so much magic. Well. Magic is not reality.  It did not work (not surprisingly). But, that’s what everyone would say. The magic is that it happened at all. I wonder if it was really worth it, though. She said, by her own account, that she has cried “buckets” of tears.  This makes me aware that there’s probably nothing more painful than a March – December romance when the woman is so much older. I was surprised that the rural family was so accepting of the relationship, but, well, there had to be some hopes for material improvement in their own lives. So – we all rise together, right? And, well, we must not forget that the traditional Muslim community is a collectivist society, and she probably did not realize that there would be other wives. She would simply be the first, who would potentially provide for the others.

I remember talking to an Uzbek engineer in Tashkent who was part of an infrastructure project funded partially by USAID.  He had two wives, and it was perfectly legal and acceptable in his world.  He said it was complicated because they maintained separate households, and it was expensive. I suppose he was not lucky enough to catch one with a big dowry.  

I often wonder what kind of personality Barack Obama’s mother had as a young woman. I always think of her as a young women who dodged a bullet.  Obama’s mother could have been like the young American woman, Lori Berenson, who fell in love with a radical in the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, and was convicted of trying to overthrow the Peruvian government. She served 15 years. I remember watching documentaries when she was in prison. Her parents were tireless in trying to free her, and finally their efforts paid off.  I imagine there are any number of young, idealistic, love-stricken Americans who were not so lucky.

It is easy to seduce both men and women into revolutionary causes. It’s not just for young men, such as Simon Bolivar, who absorbed the concepts of the French philosophes (Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Montesquieu), and then went back to Venezuela as a firebrand and liberator. It also intrigued the Beats, with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Mario Vargas Llosa’s semi-autobiographical novel, Travesuras de la nina mala, weaves in and out of the narrative of a young woman who found upward mobility through her revolutionary ideas. Jane Fonda seemed that way as well, and then one realizes she was not the tough woman she seemed to be, but instead brainwashed in a kind of psychological Stockholm syndrome. But, at the core, is passion. I think that’s the ultimate appeal. It’s Byronesque and it sells well.

But, back to the documentary. It’s hard to generalize, but many of the younger women were at a turning point in their lives. They had graduated from college. They had gone through a painful breakup. They had very stressful jobs. They wanted a life with more connections and flow of human warmth, and they saw the Greek, Turkish, and North African lives as warmer and more connected. The older women were made to feel beautiful and desirable, and of course they fell, and they fell hard.

What that says about women’s fundamental basis of self-worth is pretty tragic, if you ask me, but there it is.

No comments: