Aix – Portrait 2 – Catarina

When I initially saw Catarina, she was talking and laughing in spanish with a group of three other latinas as they smoked together. It is true that one never finds a single latina. One finds a group of them. What caught my attention was the richness and sensuality of the Spanish R. It was pure effervescence. And the life with which these women spoke. There was an undeniable passion about them that came from deep within. In the blood, we might say. I imagine their blood to be the red of flamenco. Surging in a never ending sea of red waves.

Catarina’s gaze is disarming. Vulnerable and guileless as a child’s embrace, I melted into them helplessly. Her soft voice, tumbling locks, petite frame and devastatingly lovely heart-shaped face moved me, and I remember, when I decided to join into the conversation, how unfazed the group was. They continued the conversation as if I had never interrupted, making me feel instantaneously welcome. This barrier-less hospitality is something exclusive to the south americans. There was no hostility, no reserve.

They all were experiencing a series of administrative issues. We were all independent candidates to the university programme, so we all had dealt with our visa procedures, medical appointments, and everything ourselves. I will forever be thankful to this community, for if it be not for them, I would probably have never completed my visa validation, and wound up getting evicted from France. Neurotically thorough as I tried to be, I missed out that detail amongst the mountain of information that I read in the french official documents.

It was then that I also realised how differently the french administration treated citizens from various countries. Being Singaporean, my passport was a breeze to admit; I sent documents over once, to my bank, to the prefecture, to the medical insurance, and managed to settle my affairs within two weeks of being there. The mexicans and colombians, however, had to resend their documents twice, thrice, four times even, including translations of their birth certificates (never demanded from me). Basically, it was a nightmare for all of them.

My heart went out to them, especially Catarina, who seemed utterly lost and frustrated. I offered my help with the process, and that was when our friendship begun.

I saw the contradiction of Catarina. Guileless as she seemed, she certainly was not. She has an amazing history of social work in various NGOs. This woman is fearless. When she sees an issue, she dives in straight for it. Even if it meant displacing herself permanently and living in difficult conditions to do it, she would conquer the odds to do it. I saw a strength in her that I admired to the core of my soul. A generosity of spirit and genuine kindness and compassion for the unheard and trodden in society, that is so rare to find.

Her persistence ticks some people off as she asks questions about everything she was unclear about, questions that certain might not dare to ask, alway in her soft, but firm voice. In her quiet way, she was bold, beautiful and charismatic. I fell under her star qualities, and during the first semester, we were impossibly close, going out for drinks together, having picnics together, cook-outs together at Aby’s or my house.. a true latina, she was hilarious when drunk, and she knew how to rev up a house party.

I love how she is tone-deaf, yet sings her heart out when her favourite tunes come on. I love how self-deprecating, and bitingly honest she can be. I love her tiny hands and her guileless gaze, and I adore, above all, the goodness of her heart.

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Aix – Portrait 1 – Crystal

Dark, enormous eyes. Framed with impossibly long lashes. You don’t miss eyes like these. They stare at you, and wonder why you lie, or put up walls. They also assure you that you don’t have to.

When I first saw Crystal, I wondered about those enormous eyes. I would steal glances at her across the classroom, where often, she would sit directly opposite from where I sat, in the funny, U-shaped desk formation which my professor preferred. She liked headbands; she used them a lot. And they looked very becoming on her.

One day, our professor asked us to answer a questionnaire, a mini for-fun personality quiz, on the type of traveller we were. One of the questions asked if we preferred going to the beach, hiking, or shopping. Hiking. A handful of hands shot up, hers and mine being two of them. My portrait of her sharpened a smidge. I saw, in one clear moment, strength and stamina, radiating around her. That strong, thick frame that can only spring from the earth. I’d found an earth beauty. Those broad shoulders. Those eyes. Other questions confirmed us both as adventurous travellers, preferring nature and physical activity. I told myself, I had to talk to this girl. And I did.

A mexican-american, at the young, tender age of 21. She gets up at 5 am every morning to run. 5 am? Yes, 5 am. Sheepish smile. I stared silently at her for a moment, instantly drawn. Without hesitation, I offered to run together, if she was keen. By that, I was extending my friendship. I don’t think she realised that. Large eyes grew larger, profuse nodding which signaled a sure eagerness. Straightforward. This girl has the word ‘uncomplicated’ written all over her face. I loved it. I also wished she talked more. She rarely spoke in class.

We didn’t do our first run till a good couple of months later. We never questioned why, but just went on with our own lives, and our own routines. When we finally organized our first run together, it was surprisingly comfortable. She spoke a lot more, and it was magic. From the moment that she made me laugh with her self-deprecating humour, I knew that I wanted more. More of this, more of her. Talks about cooking and having breakfast together surfaced.

The space that she had created for herself in the apartment (essentially a single open space attic divided into two levels in which her roommate took the second) was something of a gossamer dream. She was a romantic, true and true. Another layer peeled. She made a necklace board with a corkboard, and lined her cupboards with soft strings of precious photographs. Friends, family. She loved purple, and squirrels. She brought her two plushies, Brownie and Skippy, and she had the fluffiest blankets.

It was impossible not to smile. Nor fall in love with her whimsical soul.

She made me burnt, butter-less pancakes. Which had the rather unfortunate shape of lips. Burnt lips, then. I dumped a dollop of toppings on top of them and declared them delicious. She groaned. Next time, we agreed, I would play host. I had butter. They would turn out better.

It’s difficult to detail the snowballing effect that our friendship had. It’s a little like spring. One moment, you’re still bundled up in three layers of coats and shuffling down the streets, burying your nose into your thickest wool scarf. The next moment, a plethora of colours, scents, and chirping. It was beautiful, all the more because none of us had any conscient part to play in the whole thing. We were more swept up in the vortex of ridiculous happiness that was each other’s company, where we each had no choice but to go along with it.

I love the impossible way she scribbles with her left hand, and how she loves delicate, shiny semi-precious jewels and aromatic scents. I love her generosity, her consideration for others and how I see in her the beginnings of self-possession that is so rare in someone so young. I love how excited and enthusiastic she gets, and how she always struggles (mostly in vain) to be on time. I love her impossible baggage size and her incessant desire to capture every moment in a beautiful scrapbook, including her disquieting preoccupation with receipts and business cards (she got upset when I threw half of them out whilst helping her pack). I love that she writes hand-written letters to all her friends on haphazardly folded papers and how her attempt at a British accent sounds Jamaican. I love how she comes at midnight asking for crepes, wine and chocolate, and how she made sleepovers such joy. I love her cooking, and how she never measures when she bakes. I love how hard she makes me laugh.

I pray that she will never change.

As I said goodbye to her, the void that was her presence filled everything. I have her, us, and everything unsaid woven in between the divine silk scarves that we bought together. Luminous, beloved, and bloody fabulous.