We sit at the opposite ends of the same table, a half-eaten pizza slowly disappearing in between us. She is savoring her wine; I am mourning the untimely end of the breadbasket. We are nearing the end of a day spent together in search of the perfect portrait. She is a gifted photographer, and I am in need of a magical snapshot.
It has not been an easy journey. We have spent the whole day together, she trying to get the perfect shot, me trying to let go of the panic attack. Shoot, this pic is too dark, my face is too dorky, shut my eyes again, whatever happened to my nose, just look at those teeth and watch all desire to kiss vanish.
My problem is that I hate to strike a pose that I am obviously posing in. It looks fake. And cameras refuse to fall in love with me no matter how I try. Thank God for her patience, and her smile. We started in Astoria, laid on the grass of Central Park, walked the very expensive mall at Colombus Circle, ended up at Academia di Vino, and she still did not abandon me.
On the plus side, we got a chance to talk. And we had the kind of conversation I love best, sporadic, flowing, with no apparent agenda or purpose, something that cleanses and helps without fanfare, just like chamomile tea.
See, we are derivatives of the two sides of our Albanian past. By all rights, we should be on the corners, shouting insults at each other, working up the fierce temper and sharp tongues our region is so famous for, or at least trying to convince each-other that our parents were right, and the other side is simply the evil seed one should have no dealings with.
Instead, we talk and find so many similarities. We are almost the same age (well I am a couple years older but that is almost, almost the same age), we judge life from almost the same angle, and we have the same background. Whenever she talks about the deprivations and labeling that her family had to take all her life, I remember that we went through almost the same exact things, except in our case, we had to go through them smiling, since “we had to give the first example”. While her family was banished, due to their “bad biography”, my family was “relocated” according to “the needs of the country”. And our country has always been a harsh master. Her sister was not allowed to attend University. I am sure I would have been one of the privileged, if the times did not change. But I did not get to choose either. I had to go where the party mandated and had need of me. My dad would not interfere, and my upbringing would not allow me to (please, please, please) ask for a different school from the allocated one. Some people might point out that it was their choice not to interfere on my behalf, when my friend’s family had no choice. True, but if they wanted college more than integrity, they would have found a choice.
My point is that whether self-imposed, or obligatory, we all went through deprivation and limitations.
I do not know why my family sailed through the past regime so “smoothly”, while my friend’s family had to pay a lot of consequences for a member they never even knew. I have tried to search for deep and mysterious soul sales to the red devil of communism, the one spoon of spoiled soup that could make them throw up now, and all I can find, are dedicated lives and honesty to a fault, and strangely, respect from the people who were supposed to resent my family members. Then, so can she.
We try to find answers for who to resent and who to blame. We are left with nothing. She could say: “It was communists like your father who hurt my family”. I could say: “They deserved it, because they were enemies of the people”. Except, they weren’t. And those communists were not like my father. Possibly they were not even communists, just eager career people, wanting a better cut of the cake for themselves. And how are they different from the politicians of today?
And so we talk and develop our friendship instead.
We are not ashamed of who we are, and where we come from. We are not ashamed of the way our families have led their lives. I think this is the true gift our families gave us, the real “good biography” that no regime could take away from them, no matter whether it used the stick or the carrot. Now, it allows us not to keep our head in the past, not to harbor resentment, and to have room enough for each other.
And to enjoy this coffee and chocolate mousse.