Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chapter 32: Face to Face, Intimately

Every story has to have a definite starting place, unless the story is a big fat circle, like a jelly filled donut or a pastelito de carne. In that case, you can start anywhere. 

I've lived a million other minutes, but one in particular overspilled its minute and lives with me often, reminding and retelling itself to delight and sometimes detain me. 

The room is small, it is old, it is square.  

Considering the heat outside it is cool in here. 

Considering the traffic and chatter of other places, it is silent here. 

I'm wearing ballet flats, a skirt-skort, and a brightly colored t-shirt. Reagan was the president. I was in high school.  This was quite fashion forward in an Olivia Newton-John "lets get physical"   way. 

I've gone ahead of my Godmother who took me here today.

That's when I find him there. 

He is alone, still and quiet, and it's me that walks over and stares. Love at first sight.

I can't believe he's here, I can't believe no one else is here, that there isn't a line of 10,000 people to admire and berate and otherwise be with him. 

I take a step forward, then another. 

He holds his ground and a fireball of something that felt like love, passion and devotion poured over me and through me in that moment of silence between two the two of us, me and him.

Even when I've memorized (or maybe remembered?) the geometry of his face, the angle of his nose, the tilt of his eyes, I can't look away from Napoleon Bonaparte's death mask.

 It seems to have a magnetism about it, a pulsating still alive piece of him and his charming witting powerful ways that changed the face of Europe and hurled a hurricane of immigrants and ideas and revolutionary ideas from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas. 

From there I became a history major, then a history professor, always finding a way to work Napoleon Bonaparte in my lectures as a starting point of for branches of the bigger story.  

So here, here we go. 

This is where the story of where we are and how we got here really starts. 

It's the early decades of the Nineteeth century. The US and France are both new republics, we are allies in a world of monarchies and Holy Roman Emperors.

We ask to buy New Orleans; Napoleon sells us all of the Louisiana Territory.  More reason for us to love him.  

 On the French prize sugar colony of Santo Domingo, slaves rise up and overthrow colonial rule and abolish slavery. The US recognizes Haiti, and somehow maintains good relations with France. Amazing.  

 Then Napoleon has trumps democracy and crowns himself Emperor.

He convinces Spain to help him invade Portugal; the Portuguese royal court loads up on boats and goes to Brazil for awhile.    Napoleon turns on Spain and tricks the Bourbon King and his prince to abdicate the throne. He gives the throne to his brother, and the people of Spain are not quite pleased.  

Ultimately Napoleon is defeated but lasting ripples of frustration, shortages, and whatever the opposite of patriotism is roils loudly through the people of Spain and radiates into the colonies in the Americas. 

Less than 5 years after Napoleon's defeat and also less than 5 years after the US successfully defended the prize port of New Orleans from the British, a vortex of concerns about a Haiti-style revolt leads Spain to officially encourage the movement of white people to her prize colony Cuba. 

There and then, with that call of opportunity in a world that was shaking with seismic changes, several men and women whose blood flows in my veins heed the call and  leave Philadelphia, Spain and New Orleans for the frontier sugar town of Cienfuegos, Cuba.  

In my four years of college in New Orleans, and I'm sure I walked by the Cabildo fifty times meandering between bookstores, shrimp po-boys, Beignets and Hurricanes but I never went back to see Napoleon again.  Face to face, once, that intimately, was enough.