Letters to an imaginary friend
Writing has always been a vital part of my life, even though it has presented its challenges. I was born without a right hand and with deformed fingers on my left hand, so even learning how to put pen to paper was not easy.
In a quiet suburb of Rotterdam in the sixties, the Catholic primary school I attended taught us how to write with an old-fashioned dip pen. Since I wrote with my left hand, which would have been strictly forbidden if I had had a right one, during the quick pace of dictation, my words always came out smudged. I could not stop and let them dry; Miss Blok briskly continued, enunciating the words in a shrill voice that gave me goose bumps. By the end of dictation both my notebook and hand were smeared with black ink.
Even at that young age I sensed that the teacher was unsure of how to deal with me. Did I cause such a mess because of my handicap or was I not making enough of an effort?
She never said anything about it and that not-saying left me more uncomfortable. Even if it wasn’t my fault, I would have much preferred for the teacher to scold me like she did my classmates.
My mother noticed the ink on my hand and understood that the cause was the dip pen. So she bought me a gleaming red fountain pen that could be filled with cartridges, hoping that would make it easier for me. The following day she accompanied me to school to ask the teacher for permission to use the fountain pen rather than the dip pen. Again an exception was made.
There was no more dipping in the ink bottle, which did help somewhat, but I’d still smear the word I had just written when going on to the next. I never told my mother; I didn’t want to disappoint her. Before going home I’d rush to the toilet and wash my hand until the black stain faded.
I was around twelve when I started a diary by accident. A girl in my class, Connie, had a poetry album that she would take to family and friends who would write a poem in it and decorate that with colourful stickers and glitters. I asked if I too could write a poem in her album but she told me that poems were only for girls. I thought that was just an excuse and that she didn’t consider me a friend.
I went home and told my mother that I wanted a poetry album; she bought me one that very afternoon. When I unwrapped the paper and saw the heart shaped pink album I wondered if Connie had been right that poetry albums were not for boys. But I started to write in the pink album anyway. Not poetry, but letters to an imaginary friend. I would tell that friend about the shadows of the blinds on the wall of my bedroom, the dark red of the tapestry in our hallway, the colors that talked to me.
I wrote about the game I played out on the street, where I pretended that I could enter into the heads of passers-by to see what they thought about, to find out how they lived.
I wrote about my desire to go to faraway places where people would walk on wide boulevards with palm trees, as I had seen in the magazines my father read. I wrote about the paintings I had admired at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, which I visited on our free Wednesday afternoons when the other boys would go off to play soccer.
And I wrote about how lonely I felt, how desperately I wanted to be with others.
Much of what I dreamed of as a child—learning how others see the world, travelling to faraway places—is no longer a fantasy. I can see the world through the eyes of the emerging video artists that my foundation supports world-wide. I travel to art institutions in Seoul, Quito, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and other cities to see the videos we produce with our artists.
When I now go to the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, I can admire art from my own collection that is there on loan as a promised gift.
I am no longer lonely. The last forty-two years, I have shared my life with the kindest man on earth, my husband Felipe. We’ve lived in Mexico, the United States, and now Barcelona.
I’ve written books and articles, texts for the catalogues of the artists we work with, and more. I’ve kept a journal all my life and always carry a notebook with me. Before the internet, I’d write long letters from wherever I was living, and for many years I’d send vignettes of my life to far-away friends.
These initiatives helped me to connect with the outer world. But in hopes of forging new connections, I’ve decided to start this blog.
I’d like to take the reader for a stroll as it were, chatting along the way. I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation, even if it is a bit one-sided, and I’d be very pleased if what I have to say sparks a flash of recognition every so often.
I’ve learned that when you share, you are not alone, even if you don’t know the person you’re sharing with. Thanks for joining me on the journey.
The smell of tequila is my madeleine
As a boy growing up in a quiet suburb of Rotterdam in the sixties and early seventies, I had what Germans call “fernweh”: an intense longing for places I had never been. The depth of that longing was equal to my desire to escape from an environment in which I felt ill at ease and lonely. Fernweh is the opposite of homesick, which I never was.
I dreamt of visiting faraway cities such as Karachi, Beirut, or Montevideo.
I had no image in my mind of what they looked like but was intrigued by their unfamiliar sounding names when I saw them i
During the confinement Felipe and I got into the habit of having a drink on our balcony before lunch. Felipe has his tequila; I don’t drink but I sniff his glass in order to take in the aroma.
Just as a madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea triggered memories of his youth for Proust, the sweet and woody smell of tequila carries me back to our life in Mexico City more than thirty years ago.
On weekend afternoons we’d sip tequila on our balcony there too; at the time I still drank regularly. Instead of looking out at the inner patio of the Ensanche district in Barcelona where we now live, we had a view of the tree-lined pathway that divides the two lanes of Avenida Mazatlan, a wide street with houses and apartment buildings from the twenties and thirties in the Condesa neighbourhood.
Artists, writers, actors, and musicians live there, and we’d frequent its movie houses, small theatres, galleries, and restaurants with sidewalk terraces. There was the Jewish delicatessen, the German store with great potato salad, and the Roxy ice cream parlour in front of our apartment, serving ice cream in exotic fruit flavors like mamey, chico zapote, and guanabana.
Indigenous women with toddlers on their backs wrapped in a “rebozo”, the traditional shawl, would sell avocados they carried in a wicker basket on the pathway. The local shoe shiner told me he’d lived in California where people called him Charles Bronson because of his resemblance to the movie star, albeit he was a Charles Bronson with a couple of front teeth missing. An elderly man would come by with a cart from which he sold sweet potatoes. He’d announce his presence by blowing a whistle, a high-pitched almost imploring sound.
There was no internet, no mobile phones, nor even fax yet. Phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the mail service was sketchy and it was nearly impossible to get foreign press.
Travelling abroad was costly and we spent most of our time with Felipe’s family who had adopted me as one of their own; “hermanito Juan” they called me, little brother Juan.
I worked as a correspondent for the Dutch radio, while Felipe had a job at an advertising agency. The future stretched out endlessly before us.
That carefree life came to an abrupt halt in November 1987 when I learned I have HIV. Because there was no adequate medical care in Mexico, we eventually left for the United States and I had to give up my work as a journalist.
After all these years that apartment in Mexico City still feels like home.
While sitting here on our balcony in Barcelona I see the old tree in front of our building on Avenida Mazatlan with its roots protruding from the soil. I hear the imploring whistle of the sweet potato seller.
Time feels like an illusion, the past is just as real as this very moment.
Particularly after several sniffs of tequila.
n the KLM timetable booklet I studied so assiduously that I knew many routes by heart, particularly the long distance ones. I saw myself strolling over wide boulevards with stately buildings and visiting countries where I could hear the call to prayer from the minarets.
Whatever I fantasized, there had to be palm trees, because a palm tree was for me the ultimate symbol of far-off lands.
Its elegance was the antithesis of the gnarled oak in our back garden. What’s more, palm trees only grow in warm climates and warmth was what I longed for most.
The fantasies I had as a young boy became reality when, the day after I finished high school, I left the Netherlands to take a summer course in Nice.
Seeing the Promenade des Anglais with its white buildings and graceful palm trees gave me a jolt of recognition even though I’d never been there. I was overwhelmed by the expanse of the Mediterranean Sea and its blue was of an intensity I had never seen before. The sky was more radiant than in my daydreams and the sun sparkled like a brilliant gem on the waves.
At that moment I decided that I was not going back home. Ever.
Over the last forty-six years I’ve lived in France, the United States, and Mexico, and now for many years in Spain. I keep on fantasizing about places I haven’t visited. I’d like to see the Imam Mosque in Isfahan and the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. I want to go to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, because of all the a’s in its name and because I know so little about it.
The difference with when I still lived in the Netherlands is that now I travel to new places out of curiosity, not because I have a deep yearning for a distant place that will give me a warm feeling. That warmth I have here at home in Barcelona with my husband Felipe, our dog Lucy, and our friends.
When I have an urge to see palm trees, I take a walk along the Passeig Marítim from the Barceloneta to the Villa Olimpica.
While ambling along that seaside promenade I can spot the planes taking off over the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t help wondering where they’re going.
A Measure of Meaning
This is not the first time a virus has disrupted my life. In 1987, at the age of thirty-three, I learned I had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Back then, this was basically a death sentence. From one minute to the other, the life I had envisioned in front of me shrank from a distant horizon to one I could practically touch.
The future had become a hard deadline.
In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to shake my long-term expectations; I felt like I was floating on an open sea with no land in sight. I played little tricks on myself; I decided that I had at least two more years to live, and with every test result showing that my defenses remained strong, the lease on life was renewed for another two years.
The aim of this exercise was not to determine my life expectancy; it was to put myself at ease. Gradually, I got used to thinking short-term: the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the month at most, but not much further than that. I got used to thinking in the present.
But over the years, the pull of a busy schedule crept back in. In the past decade, my work meant I was rarely home for longer than ten days in a row. The excitement of getting to know different cultures through the artists we work with, the constant changes in scenery, and even the jet lag became addictive.
I had wanted to write more, but that fell by the wayside. I tried to soothe my guilt about not writing by saying that I would do it later at a quieter moment—not that I truly had such time planned in my future.
And then suddenly, after all these years of non-stop movement, my schedule was clear. That unplanned moment had finally arrived.
When the strict lockdown here in Barcelona began in mid-March, I was firmly determined to make the best of it. With no traveling and a practically empty agenda, I would at last find the time to read, declutter closets, and file the thousands of photos on my phone. And best of all, I would start writing again. Confinement would be an opportunity to live in the present once more. So, why was I checking my watch every three minutes?
I haven’t finished any of the books I started in these last twelve weeks. After the first thirty pages, I would turn to another book. I wouldn’t finish that one either. No closet has been decluttered, and the photos on my phone are still where they were before the pandemic.
I started to write, though, despite remaining deeply uncertain about what I’d written, even about what I’m writing at this very moment.
According to the artist Francis Alÿs, when a situation stops making any sense, it sometimes takes the absurdity of the artistic act to re-introduce a measure of meaning. When I write about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, I feel I’m able to give some meaning to what has unsettled our lives in such a profound way. What’s more, when I write, I feel that I give meaning to my existence itself.
That thought heartens me, but at the same time, it’s daunting. If what I write is no good, does my life have meaning?
After so long away from my writing, the fear of having lost the knack is still there each morning when I sit at my desk.
The artists we work with often describe the same sensation. They are delighted with the opportunity to produce a new video and show it at renowned art institutions. At the same time, a pressure weighs upon them.
The fact that they made promising work in the past may be an assurance for us, those who selected them, but for the artists, it can be a burden—they have to compete against themselves.
The moment our artists finish producing their videos, their thoughts immediately turn to what to do next. And once again, with the urgency to create comes the fear that this time, they might not be able to do it.
I tell myself to sit at my desk anyway. The need to give a measure of meaning to life never eases off. It’s the motor that keeps us going even though it sputters again and again. So much of my work has been about forging connections—connecting of people through art, lending and donating the works from my collection to different museums, supporting of emerging artists, sharing my financial resources, organizing lunches and get-togethers with friends and collaborators. My writing is a part of that, too.
As we emerge from lockdown—for now at least—I’m reminded how much my life is the exact opposite of social distancing; it is a constant quest for closeness.
I will stick it out in these socially distant times as long as it takes. I will try to connect in whatever ways possible—through writing, through celebrating art. And after all this, I will be back to embrace the world. With a face mask, scrubs, and gloves if need be.