Photo by Dipfan
So that makes strike two for the Leaping Thought Wednesday post which this week, once again, I have defaulted on. I have a good excuse for it though. Two days ago, I was flying out of Houston and into Washington D.C. These days, with a toddler in tow, it takes much effort to engineer a successful plane trip and a semi-organized arrival anywhere. I had so many things to do in the week leading up to our departure that something had to give, and something else had to be sacrificed. This blog fell into the second category. Anyway, no further excuses will pour forth from this keyboard and you now have carte blanche (for what it's worth) to what has been going on in my brain. This post is built entirely out of my DC inspired love.
I love Washington DC. My love affair with this town spans more than three decades and began almost from the first moment I laid eyes on it at age 6. This was my father's first diplomatic appointment and coming here that very first time in 1976, would change the course of my family's life forever. The night prior to our flight, I remember sleeping with my parents and my 2 year old sister on a mattress that had been placed on the floor of our emptied out apartment in Panamá City. Most of our furniture and belongings were already making their tiresomely long journey via cargo ship towards a port in Baltimore, Maryland, and all that was left of our most cherished and necessary possessions, my mother had carefully overseen the packing of into two small crates and six suitcases. Including ourselves, that which we boarded onto the plane, was a most basic paring down of the essence of our Panamanian existence and yet, it would be enough to nurture a successful transplant to this hybrid life my family built in the US.
Surprisingly, I was a Washingtonian at heart almost from the start. Accustomed as I was to the provincial relativeness of my birthplace, the marbled sophistication of this city held an awed fascination for me. Unhurried but determined, we learned our new home through visits to the national monuments, museum outings and social gatherings. DC was as green and magical then, as it is now. How could we not fall in love with lazy weekend picnics at Rock Creek Park, meandering antiquing drives into the West Virginia countryside and the palpably electric feel of interesting things taking place around the clock? The offerings were many and especially attractive for children. There were zoo trips, ballet performances and concerts to attend. We also played with kids our age whose parents, like ours, were imports to this town. Our recognized foreignness fostered a genuine camaraderie which grew initially out of our minority status.
In the beginning, we settled into a 3 bedroom apartment that we later traded in for a spacious house on a tree shaded street right off of Connecticut Avenue. That would be our Appleton Street home. In the back yard, my gardening-loving mother planted Habanero chili peppers amongst the rose bushes and my family was the only Latin family on the block. For the very first birthday I celebrated here, my mother ordered an imported piñata from Casa Lebrato. Lebrato was the only good Latin grocery in DC at that time. So determined was she to carve a place for her family within the neighborhood that she invited all the curious parents on the block with their equally curious children for a taste of a Panamanian style birthday celebration. We owe our instant popularity to the success of the piñata and the universal bloodthirstiness of children. I can still remember how they whacked the cardboard daylights out of its candy-filled innards.
That first assignment lasted 2 years for my father. During that time, I learned my accented English and grew a measure of the kind of confidence expatriate children must develop if, they are to survive the daily rigors of schooling in a non-native environment. Today I realize that when I returned to my country, I did so as a changed young girl. Somehow, though I was still a part of Panamá, the seeds of what would brand me as different to my own countrymen, were already germinating within me. I was neither of there nor of here. I was not even of a place in between. What I am, I still can't label precisely to this day but from the distance of my future I can now understand that even then, I was altered.
We came back to the States for my father's second posting in 1980. This was the time of General Omar Torrijos and the Torrijos-Carter Treaties. Enough references about the Panamá Canal had populated US news prior to our second arrival that even my new classmates at Washington's Annunciation School had some trickled down version of facts to voice in my presence. Where was Panamá? they asked me. Was it all a jungle? Did I swing like Tarzan from tree to tree? What about cars? the kids taunted me. Surely there were no cars in my country, they had to be banana mobiles. Were there even telephones in Panamá? Or did we holler ourselves hoarse speaking from tree house to tree house?
Their curiosity would sometimes translate into the kind of merciless quizzing that could torment. I was savvy enough to let most of their misconceptions and absurdities flow unanswered because the truth is that I had opted to lose this battle of geographic ignorance. My war was fought at the fronts of my mother's imposed trial: I was paraded into school everyday in a chauffeur-driven car with my nanny by my side. This little Lady Fauntleroy living style did not endear me to the 8 year-old hearts of my classmates. Tree houses and banana mobiles I could endure being teased about, I wasn't so successful at feigning nonchalance when taunts of my Richie Rich image would get to me.
What hurt me toughened me though, and I was better prepared for my return to Panamá in 1983. Back home, I suffered a case of reverse ostracism from my Panamanian classmates. I became the Gringa, the girl who spoke 'unaccented' English, the one who had lived abroad. This seesaw of prism-colored suppositions about my person was at times hard to bear but I learned a couple of important lessons from it. Who I was, I alone could define. What others saw, could be shaped depending on what I projected and finally, everyone was entitled to have an opinion of me but the opinion that mattered the most, was the one I held of myself.
When we left Washington that second time, the shadows of General Manuel Antonio Noriega's reign were already creeping into Panamanian life. Seven years of his dictatorship was what my family and I endured back in Panamá. We lived to see the US invasion of my country and the swearing in of democratically elect Guillermo Endara as President. It is President Endara whom we owe for our return to DC in 1990. I was then a young lady all set to go to a University in France when my father was named Director for my country at the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). The next six years, saw me staying here instead of going abroad as had been originally planned because of my exceptional act of youtful cowardice. At the last minute, I had decided I was not ready to move to Europe. I was also not as ready to separate from my family as I had originally thought. So in DC I stayed, studying for my Bachelors and later on for my Masters degree. After graduating, I found a job which kept me in the US and I have lived here ever since. At the end of my father's term as Director at the IADB, my parents left Washington once more in 1995 but they were back again in 2000 for yet another ambassadorial post. Never once did we imagine how intertwined our lives would become with this place after that first coming over. Hopefully, the story has not yet concluded.
As for myself, at current count, I have lived in Washington for more than half of my life. My time here has only been interrupted by my move to Houston to be with my husband. That was four years ago. In the interim, we have kept coming back at least twice a year. My husband's family remains here as does his sister. My own parents returned to Panamá in 2004 (the year I moved to Houston) and my sister moved to Colorado when she married in 2005. Like me, she is of Washington and of Panamá. Should you ask me WHERE I am from, I will always answer proudly that I'm from Panamá. Equally true though is that I am from of this city in which I was not born, but where my sense of self is also deeply rooted.
Besides the apartment in Madrid my husband and I dream of someday owning, I know deep down that DC will be our primary home upon retirement. We've kept our house here to that end.
Today you find me in town for my sister-in-law's wedding. She has chosen a spectacular time of the year in which to tie the knot. The odd cherry blossom has begun blooming and one can sense the crisp greenness of impending spring. Yesterday, driving by myself through my old haunts, I could almost connect to the girl in 1976 who formed her first impressions of this city based on its outward beauty. It is hard to not be bowled over by this town. It has everything necessary to rank it amongst those memorable city names people are wont to rattle off when mentioning places they hope to someday see. I love it here. I will always love it here. And because I am older and more experienced, because I no longer need to prove, defend or explain my Latin heritage, I can also fully say that I am of DC because saying so surely, explains a large part of what makes me, me.
Photo by Dipfan