Gingerbread* House, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, January, 2019
It’s a sad fact that my sister and I don’t know anyone in Haiti anymore, have nothing left of our lives there but memories. There were familiar names we might have tracked down in Port-au-Prince, business acquaintances of our father’s or their descendents, former schoolmates, but searching for such people, many of whom are dead and with whom we’ve had almost no contact since we celebrated our parents’ Golden Wedding at the Hotel Oloffson in 1983, didn’t make sense. Our stay was too short. We got off on the wrong foot with the hotel manager, who dismissed us as fusspots (for expecting running water), who refused to understand his frustrations. We were maleve (mal élevée, in French), badly brought up, badly behaved. Certainly not Haitians. We became friendly with the young women who spent long boring hours manning the front desk with its crooked painting, the deserted bar, who waited on tables, presenting us daily with unchanging menus. But since we didn’t want to spend our days gabbing on the gallery, this made our driver Sammy the person we came to know best.
Sammy was in his 40s, married with children. About his wife he said little, but his boys and girls ranged widely in age, the youngest not yet in school, the oldest a late teenager who wanted to leave Haiti for America. Sammy was against this; he didn’t like what he heard about Trump. Sammy was a man at home, glad, he told us, his country was at peace, but beyond this he expected nothing from it. He trusted in God, belonging to no particular sect, an autodidact, his Bible beside him. I didn’t get a very close look, but the text I saw was no Bible, rather a set of commentaries, interpretations, and all day long Sammy listened to Christian talk radio in Creole, which I would try hard to understand for a few minutes before, frustrated, I drifted away unenlightened, finding nothing to grab hold of, no affiliation ever announced, in these mixed snatches of conversation, pontification.
It wasn’t just Sammy — evangelicals were everywhere announcing JESUS, thrusting Him forward in their purple, in their turquoise t-shirts, pointing the Way, the Truth, and the Life, singing and preaching. I found this disturbing,** but Sammy was an excellent chauffeur: discreet, punctual, appropriately dressed, though his vehicle was more truck than car with a high step up, somewhat uncomfortable. He took us wherever we wanted to go, not promoting sights or vendors where he would get a cut. He didn’t eat with us, but read his pamphlets in the car with the air-conditioning on. I thought he would run out of gas, but he never did. Most amazing was his navigation of almost constant traffic jams, which he managed by staying in close touch with his agency or with fellow drivers who ran us up hill and down dale like mountain goats, as our mother would have said, but kept us from getting stuck. What did we care for his religious beliefs? We told him a little of our past lives in Haiti in which he didn’t seem much interested, remarking politely, ”Vous avez vécues de bons moments.”
In a whole life, he seemed to say, no more than a few good moments could be expected. Or that to imagine these moments of ours was beyond him, required more energy than he was willing to expend. But what did Sammy dream of in his philosophy?
Muttering that he needed an address, Sammy drove us to our old house. En haut Turgeau. That was the address. Watched us as we wept and wailed and tore our hair. All wrong, all wrong, the driveway, its cobblestones displaced, quite simply wasn’t long enough, nor had we ever lived in this much smaller, sinking, listing ruin with what looked like squatters’ laundry hanging from the balcony, no side yard, the whole back lot blocked off, Édite with her bars of brown soap up to her knees in a shallow tub, our clothes draped on the bushes, combined clothesline and screen from the road, where pigs and chickens and once at Thanksgiving a turkey roamed awaiting slaughter, peas were shelled on back steps, pots had their bottoms poked through in the charcoal kitchen, music sounded from a radio and gossip and certainly complaints about Madame, who was formidable, whose children thought nothing of sending Dieudonné to the boutique for ingredients their fudge and cookies couldn’t do without. Too hasty, too careless to read the recipe ahead.
Yet, somehow, our bedroom windows, those hallowed empty rectangles, which had known only wooden shutters, not panes of glass, loomed above us; down below, the pool was empty, but there it was; the ravine, garbage-filled, a rushing river during the rainy season, had never in all these years cut in far enough to wash it away, and ambling along came a caretaker, having heard within seconds, as people do in Haiti, that we were there. Coicou, he said, M. Coicou, was his employer, a name we recognized immediately as that of the son-in-law of our landlord, Maître Baussan, a co- inventor of the Gingerbread style, designer and architect of our house.
Did we pull ourselves together then? Well, we had to, didn’t we, as our old way of life came rushing back? When Maître Baussan’s daughter and her family lived below us in a sunken yard in a house made of cement we were aware of, but rarely noticed, little thinking of the resentment this family might have felt at our position. In a world where these little contretemps, an automobile accident, for example, an illness, a death, wreckage and collapse, were happening to everyone all the time, nothing to cry about. Where we could have confidence that M. Coicou, wherever he was, would restore the house in this generation or another.
Solastalgia is a word I found in a February, 2020, NYT Sunday magazine article about contemporary novelist, Jenny Offill, coined originally by an environmental philosopher, Glenn Albrecht. It seems a word destined to make uncanny leaps in meaning. I appropriate it freely here for my own purposes, but quote the definition in the article where it combines: “solace, desolation, and nostalgia, the distress of seeing a familiar environment bitterly transformed… the disorienting homesickness we experience without leaving home, when home has altered beyond recognition.”
We had left San Francisco and Los Angeles, the good old USA, my husband’s grave and Elizabeth’s husband, our scattered children and grandchildren; how could it be that we had not left home? Because this was. Is. Haiti. And in particular this house which had not been destroyed by fire, flood, those tidal waves predicted during rainstorms long ago, the 2010 earthquake. We stood around, my sister and I with the two Haitian men, expressionless as I remember them. (I should also say that Elizabeth and I replay this scene to each other on the phone with different emphases, different meaning, especially as regards whether the caretaker appeared out of nowhere, as I see it, or came out of the house. I’m well aware that eye-witness accounts cannot be trusted, my own included.) When I couldn’t make my camera work, I persuaded Elizabeth to take a few pictures, which she nearly refused to do, has since sent to me, and which both of us apparently have lost, or at least cannot retrieve. There was nothing really. Nothing to say, nothing to do.
I’ve tried to trace it back, but can’t find whatever it was that led Sammy to discover we didn’t believe in God. Whether the heated proofs he offered had anything to do with our earlier display of emotion. Imagine you are unable to board an already overcrowded tap tap, which explodes a few kilometers down the road killing every one of its passengers. They were not to be minded. The doomed. The unchosen, the unelect. For us a stumbling block, poor lost souls, innocents, with whom my sister and I identified. We argued from our vacuum of nothingness. The random, the absurd world we were used to. We felt foolish; this argument was too deep for our Creole, constantly slipping in and out of French; we were even a little angry, at Sammy and at ourselves, for being drawn in, since we didn’t want to laugh in his face and thus appeared to concede.
It was our mistake to take Sammy for an ordinary man when, instead, he was like the old crazy guy we used to see marching around the Champs de Mars, keeping time, keeping step, his imaginary revolutionary rifle at the ready. Like so many Haitian men we have known, to whom social rules do not apply: red lights, catch you next time, parking tickets torn and scattered, speed limits, traffic lanes, duties of an hotelier, presidential terms… like a friend of mine whose neck was broken in a lousy collision of being too tall in the backseat of a Volkswagen bug with the cavernous potholes on the road to Cap. Shipped in a full body cast to a US hospital, operated on, he emerged, after months in a halo, unable to sleep, to turn his head, a figure of Resurrection, the Autobiography which would make his fortune always there in possibility, an inspiration to millions, never completed. Many stories about former President Jean- Bertrand Aristide suggest that he saw himself as the Messiah. Ti legliz, a movement in Haiti similar to the Liberation Theology practiced in El Salvador and other Latin American countries, was important to him as a poor parish priest, but his own rescues, being saved alive, continuing his sermon unimpeded while bullets felled his parishioners were more potent, propulsive forces. All of which can be cleverly summed up in a phrase often heard when we lived on the Rue Turgeau: Complexe Napoléon.
I know, Sammy said. I know why I am your chauffeur. We were leaving after all, our future lives and beliefs necessarily obscure. What counted was Sammy in his role as Divine Messenger, chosen by God to drive us home.
Desolation? Nostalgia? Easy. But where does solace come in? What consolation, what comfort could we find in seeing our old house, in this last trip to Haiti, which I thought of as making peace with a country we could hardly bring ourselves to look at? Fearful ruins all around. No friends, no one to dance with, the murals and sculptures in the Episcopal Cathedral Ste. Trinité as beyond repair as Humpty Dumpty. But wooden houses like ours refused to give way: tile floors, high ceilings, porches all around, doors flung wide, their essential Caribbean graciousness and fancy built in. It was Maître Baussan’s vision vindicated, and I am glad to have seen it.
And to breathe the sweat, urine, white wash, chalk and lime, charcoal, raw wood where coffins and beds are being made, lye and the perfume tree and bagasse from the sugar mill and rice and beans and peanuts and lambi and rhum, this compound of Haitian air.
*See Wikipedia, Gingerbread architecture in Haiti, for a full description, photographs, and history.
**I wish I were competent to describe religion in Haiti, much less to analyze, to explain in any comprehensive way, its many complications. Most obvious on this trip was a change in the numbers and types of Christians we used to call missionaries. I make very modest contributions to Haiti Partners, a faith-based organization in which I have confidence. I know that evangelists do essential work in Haiti, tragically left undone by both Haitian, U.S. and other foreign governments. And yet, I wish it were otherwise; I believe the price is too high. I plan to expand on this in later writing.