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The Woman in White Marble

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Lionel Ntasano


I was born in the third smallest country in Africa, also, one of the most unknown countries in the world - Burundi. However, my life and work have taken me through Zambia, the U.S.A., Kenya, France and Switzerland, among others. I have now returned home, and run a small beach resort. I am musician at heart, culinary chef by profession, but, Georges Orwell tapped into my unconscious mind liberating a part of me through literature. I have made it my lifetime goal to share this liberating abstract ideology by writing. My first attempt was by publishing a novel, Greener On The Other Side. Writing this first novel has helped me reconnect to family and friends after a turbulent life of glamour, travel and tragedy.

You can visit my personal website: https://lionelntasano.wordpress.com/

Monday
Dec212015

Recipe for an Escape

The day begins like any other summer day for Seki as the radio turns on automatically waking him from his deep sleep. A jazzy Herbie Hancock tune plays as the deejay mentions that the legendary musician will be performing live at the Montreux Jazz Festival later in the week. Seki takes a mental note not to forget to grab himself some tickets; the festival is happening fifteen minutes away from his large apartment. He gets out of bed as the aroma of coffee from the timer-operated percolator lures him toward the kitchen. Curls of steam rise from the bowl of instant oatmeal; the microwave had produced predictably perfect results in perfect cadence with his thirty-five minute wake-up schedule. After wolfing down his power breakfast, he enters the bathroom, splashes some cold water on his face, and glances at himself in the mirror. His tired and sluggish look turns into a determined one. He unhooks a pair of sweat pants from the bathroom door as he wears them one leg at a time. He then unhooks a grey H&M sweater and wears it over his white t-shirt. He then buckles his digital Casio watch – it reads 5:19. It is early. The sun is about to rise and Seki is going sailing on his private boat on Lake Geneva.

Getting away from shore, Seki felt a link to those ancient mariners who set off for undiscovered lands. He was harnessing the same forces of nature that powered the early explorers.

“Sailing is harnessing the power of Mother Nature,” Seki would always answer whenever he was asked why he loved sailing so much. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, worth doing as much as simply messing about in a boat. Any kind of boat was exhilarating. The escape of the stress and anxieties of everyday life, conveyed on a craft powered solely by the force of nature was enlivening. Perhaps the most enlightening part was the instance his imagination emanated his mind to places he had never been, promising experiences yet untold. President Kennedy pointed it out best when he said that all of us have in our veins, in our blood, in our tears, in our sweat the exact same percentage of salt that exists in the ocean. We are tied to the ocean, and when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from where we came.

***

Seki’s day officially begins after his habitual two hours of summer sailing. It is now about eight in the morning. Apart from the night porter and the kitchen brigade, no one else is awake at Seki’s popular restaurant Domaine-de-la-Bastide. The kitchen is ubiquitously calm in the morning: the stainless vinegar induced glimmers of the chef pass, steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations. Columns of polished milky china run on shelves beneath the shiny tabletops. The floors are mopped and dry. Most of the equipment is switched off, most significantly the intake hoods. Without the insistently loud clamor of the hoods, serenity engulfs the place. The only sounds are the purr of proofing boxes, the occasional burble of a thermal immersion circulator and the hum of refrigeration. The garbage cans are empty. It smells of nothing. The place might even seem abandoned if it weren’t for the prep lists dangling from the ticked racks above each station.

Seki is Chef-Patron of this fine dining establishment. Graced with a natural poised nature, a large smile, clean hands, a well groomed beard, and a calm voice with a sincere tone to it - Seki is star. He is humble enough to get behind the wheel of the delivery van, and hit the road to the Montreux Riviera Market for the local, fresh produce - artisan oil, cheese, jam, honey, liqueur or local wine. He loves talking to people and farmers at the market; he is sort of a local celebrity with his tamed African accent when he speaks French. He regales them with stories from his gastronomic world of fine ingredients, excellent recipes and valued guests. People love his common-sense approach to life, his charm, good nature, and seemingly unselfconscious ability to have fun no matter the circumstance. Feeling good, having a moment to think less about the daily stress, and sharing a moment of joy with one’s neighbor are simple pleasures that he does not take for granted. He could fool the most astute psychologist or detective because Seki hails from one of the grittiest slums of Bujumbura, Buyenzi. He grew up in a neighborhood where most homes are modest mud-wall structure shacks, rusting corrugated tin roofs, rocks and dirt floors. Buyenzi is typically crowded with displaced relatives from other parts of the country, barefooted kids careening at full speed between food stalls, chickens and many dogs.

***

It is now nine o’clock and the deliveries have begun to arrive at Seki’s restaurant. American Linden crates of produce lie in heaps in front of the back kitchen doorway: Turkish pistachios, Manni extra virgin oil, balsamic vinegar, Brinata cheese and top-drawer saffron. These are the samples Seki had requested from the dry goods purveyor. He takes hold of the box, tiptoes past the rest of the deliveries, and heads to the office. He places the box on top of the compact refrigerator designated for chef use only. It holds safe the chefs’ supply of expensive perishables: white truffles, rare cheese like Bitto Storico, Strottarga Bianco caviar, and fine wine like 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Suddenly, the phone rings and Seki answers quickly.

“Cuisine – Domaine de la Bastide ! ” Seki answers.

“Yes. Hello? May I speak to Seki?” A familiar man’s voice answers back. Seki is rather surprised to hear French with a Burundian accent.

“Who am I speaking to? This is Chef Seki on the line.” He replies feeling tense for no reason.

“This is Kagenza! Seki, how are you?” In spite of the lightness of his words, Seki detects worry in his interlocutor’s voice. Rather quickly Kagenza adds, “What are you doing? Do you have a minute? I would like to speak with you!”

Seki sits down in his revolving chair to brace himself. This is his oldest brother probably calling from home. They had barely spoken since he moved to Switzerland twenty years earlier. Understanding family is always complicated.

“How are you doing Kagenza? How did you get this number?” Seki asks trying to diffuse the rough air.

Kagenza answers, “It was actually easy finding you now that you are a big time chef. I have something to tell you though.”

Already, Seki feels alarmed. He tenses up because he feels how hard Kagenza is working to normalize the conversation. Seki then speaks from inside a numb fog, “I’m listening!”

Into the silence, Kagenza says, “There was an accident. Dad has passed away.” Flashes of lightening go off behind Seki’s eyes. His breathing speeds up, yet he is suffocating. Immediately he asks, “When?”

Kagenza answers, “Yesterday morning.”

“How did it happen?”

“He fell in the bathtub.” It painfully got silent. It seemed as if the problems Seki worried himself sick about never materialized; it was the ones he never saw coming that usually knocked him off sideways.

“Does Ciza know?” Seki asks about their other brother.

“He has already booked a flight.” Kagenza answers calmly.

“How was Dad doing these last years?” Seki asks with no emotions.

“Well you know how quiet he became once Mother passed.” Kagenza answers candidly.

“How are you feeling?” Seki asks trying to keep his cool now that Kagenza has mentioned their mother.

“For some reason, I always thought he would always be around, you know?” Kagenza answers sounding disappointed and hurt.

“Yeah, umm, Kagenza!”

“Yeah!”

“I will have to call you back, I need to process this.”

“Yeah, okay! Take your time.”

Click!

Now, alone in his office, in shock, adrenalin rushing through his body, numb on the outside, Seki tumbles slowly through blank space. “Please, God, no,” he hears himself moaning deeply from his gut. Vincent, Seki’s sous-chef comes into the office with the day’s guest list and notices Seki’s face fraught with agony. Vincent asks if he is feeling well. A flash of commiseration and guilt crosses Seki’s face as he shares the news with Vincent. His sous-chef remains silent, for one seldom knows what to say in these kinds of situations. Seki stands up aggressively, irritated and lost as he opens one of the fine wines, pouring himself and Vincent a glass. Seki gulps down his glass of wine as if it was a dose of medicine. It gives him the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The burning in his belly dies down and the world begins to look more cheerful. Seki pours himself another glass and gazes out the window. The world outside begins to dissolve, melting into images from another time, another place. His eyes stare blanking out his immediate surroundings, blinded by his memories as he begins to hark back to his time in the slums. A broad, affectionate smile of reminiscence lights up his bearded visage as he savors the memory of himself at age seventeen.

Seki had already quit school when his mother knowing he could use spending money of his own, got him a job washing dishes in Bujumbura’s most popular restaurant at the time. Last born child of a family of three boys, Seki spent a lot of time at home with his mother. Kagenza, the oldest was more like a caring and dependable uncle than a brother. Ten years older, Kagenza worked closely with their father maintaining their small business repairing cars and trucks. Ciza, the middle child, lived in perpetual motion and the youthful air of a guy who had managed to escape the normal adult responsibilities and emotions. Graced with natural athletic talent, Ciza played professional soccer for a second division league team.

In order to let his mom rest, Seki would do the shopping of groceries, cleaning up, washing and cooking. Occasionally, he would also do the stitching and sewing. This type of work didn’t scare him. Their mother, a stay home matriarch was the kind of cook who would heap up a plate with such food as sweet potatoes, plantain bananas, red kidney beans, finger-licking Mukeke fish and cassava. The more you put away the better she felt. They could only afford to eat meat only a few times a month, but she always spoiled them with snacks such as groundnuts, sugar cane and fruits. She passed this love and ability to cook and care to Seki, and he intuitively respected food and cooking, especially the power it possesses in bringing people together. Seki worked out at her kitchen table like there was no tomorrow. Inevitably, all this annoyed their father down to his core. This brought so much grief and despair to Seki’s father because deep down, he knew Seki was different from all other boys. Seki could see the disappointment in his father’s eyes when he looked at him. His father would always comment on Kagenza’s diligence, and Ciza’s dexterity, but there were no words of love, no words of pride when it came to Seki. Maybe it was his father’s way of acting out of love, maybe it was his beliefs, but, if you notice closely, reality often possess its own kind of power. Seki’s way of being was a challenge to the integrity and moral fabric of his family and Burundian society - Men have their roles and women theirs. Regardless, Seki’s way of being should have been respected. His way of being was not the totality of his identity; it surely didn’t make Seki a bad person. However, this reality kept his father awake at night, and sadly, it influenced all of his reactions toward his last born son over the years. He even went to seek advice from religious leaders, and they told him that homosexuality is a grave sin. He had difficulty loving his son.

Seki found refuge in his job and new found trade thanks to his mother. Chef Marc, Seki’s boss was an all round fair Belgian man. It was fire working there; laboring impossible hours for next to no pay, but learning a thousand tricks of the trade. It was a fabulous experience for Seki, it opened his mind. He had the luck to see every aspect of the business. The restaurant was called Hotel Restaurant Tanganyika. Located by the shores of the lake it bares its name from, it got flooded from 1963 to 1967 and abandoned until the early 70’s. Chef Marc’s family, remnants of colonial Belgians, purchased the place in 1972 and restored it as it became the most popular place in the city of Bujumbura. Marc, the heir of the family, took over in 1982 after winning culinary prizes at his hospitality school in Liege in Belgium. Not only was he a visionary, he was a clear-eyed businessman who knew how to count. He was a master saucier in the art of French cuisine and the restaurant was known for their delicious fish from Lake Tanganyika. Soon word went round the foodie grapevine of Burundi’s expats, politicians and wealthy individuals that extraordinary things were happening at Hotel Restaurant Tanganyika.

Seki had spent almost seven years working there; it was like an apprenticeship of life. He spent his youthful hours doing the dishes, and then got promoted on prepping everything for the chefs – salt, oil, vinegar, all the basic stuff, and then he began cutting the herbs: chives, tarragon, garlic and the rest and dicing shallots for the rib steaks, then prep the beurre Cancalais.

“Whip the butter, salt and pepper it, and add lemon and tarragon. It’s still the best sauce there is for seafood,” Seki would say. It went on the grilled lobster just before it got sent out into the dining room. It was quite evident that Seki was made for this work. He had the physique for it, he was very agile with his hands, he had the ambition and he wanted to be recognized.

They would serve exquisite dishes which were a la mode at the time – dishes like thrush pâté. Chef Marc would finely ground the bird meat into the robot mixer, mixed with chicken livers, juniper berries, and goose fat, and slowly cooked it in the pâtissier’s oven, reposing in the gentle luxury of a bain marie. When it had softened to the texture of a thick puree, he passed it through a fine sieve to free it of the last bits of bone and beak or any other hard matter likely to distract a client’s attention from its enjoyment.

At the end of day, before going back home, Seki would usually cross the narrow street separating the restaurant from the lake to share a drink with some of the other cooks and dishwashers. Common Burundians hung out there - drinking, dancing to music and experimenting with various drugs. They basically indulged in activities that soothed their feelings of inferiority and sadness. One night, during their habitual after work drink by the lakeside, Seki and his colleagues stumbled upon a half-naked woman holding a large beer bottle, drunk out of her mind, venting her frustration about how she lost her husband to two fishermen who usually fished with him. She lamented on how one fateful day the three of them went on a fishing trip together as they always did. At the end of that day, only two of them came back. Her husband was missing. At that particular time, there was a shortage of fish, and fishermen did not manage to reach their normal quotas; anxiety was rampant as their catch basically meant their livelihood. She accused them of having thrown him into the lake. She explained how they did so as a form of sacrifice to whatever creature or mermaid God ruled the deep waters in order to appease it so that it could release the flow of fish. It sounded absurd, and Seki could not believe what he was hearing. She further explained how she had never been the same since. She searched, and went to the police, but all to no avail. She went to see pastors, gurus and witch doctors to get justice, but nothing worked. Frustrated, she started drinking to alleviate her trauma. It destroyed her. It annihilated her energy. It confused her, making her hallucinate.

Seki walked away after hearing enough as he perched under a palm tree, slowly sipping on the local brew and started thinking about happiness. He wondered what made it so fleeting; he did not even know what it meant. Was it love? Was it the ability to love? Was it the sensation of being loved unconditionally? Could it be security? Peace? What about the stillness of the mind? These philosophical thoughts got interrupted by an old bum playing beautiful music on a dingy homemade guitar. The music was hypnotizing and soothing, but let out feelings of despair, hurt and disappointment. The small waves smashing on the reef mixed with the complex guitar riffs made it sound like a symphony of life - a life of sadness counterbalanced with a consoling promise of hope.

After the drinks, Seki would have to go back to the slums. Conditions were more crowded than elsewhere; people with all kinds of different psychologies were constantly in your face. People would verbally say that they were not into politics, but rather into prayers and business. Nevertheless, any power one had depended on their ability to know everything that was going on around, but mostly, to be sensitive to changes. Unequivocally, there was no time or room to escape to some inner dreamland. This intuitive sense of urgency to stay connected to the environment and the people around was somewhat imperative for survival. If you acted like a child in the slums, you were not going to last long. Seki had to quickly understand his world - a nation that lived in social ghettos. The insecure generally congregated around other power hungry individuals, and the religious and spiritual lot were ecclesiastically cloistered in their worlds because people like to associate with those of their kind. Even though the very air was so disturbed by a myriad of tongues blabbing about ethnic relations, Seki had resolved to stay still and worked harder. He had the opportunity to live in between these narrow worlds; he had the privilege to be an observer of another way of life.

In 1994, Burundi was standing on the brink of genocide. Seki, aged twenty-four, would never forget the day he heard the story of how the Zaire-based guerrillas attacked the King Khaled hospital as they tried to overthrow the government. Windows in the hospital maternity ward had been shattered by rifle butts. On the floor in one room was dried blood where a patient had been shot by the guerrillas. In the courtyard was a charred area where another patient had been set on fire on her mattress. Many Burundians were fleeing the country, running away from danger, escaping their reality.

Seki decided to flee Burundi in order to survive, and also, perhaps, find a kind of love that was forbidden. He had to get to a country that was safe, accepting, and understanding. He then fled to the closest safe country, Tanzania. He walked a lot and caught numerous buses. Plagued with worry, distracted by nostalgic memories of home and busy with the red tape involved with migration organizations, he failed to notice time pass by as he spent two years in a refugee camp. Life was reduced to basic needs and physical protection. The talented oral folklorists present in the camp blissfully created passing but powerful illusions that life had remained the same. It was accepted that, in conditions of exile, nostalgic feelings were nourished by altered memories of past life. All forms of divisions were discarded, while peaceful everyday life was praised and venerated. This was quite ironic as the history of their nation made it difficult to romanticize past life. The devolution of culture can be traced directly to broken men. Nonetheless, through the solidarity of certain upright individuals, Seki found himself boarding a plane destined for Geneva in Switzerland. He was granted asylum on a humanitarian visa.

Here he was, in Europe, feeling like a hayseed, and he rather looked like one as he fumbled and wandered around Geneva metro system in his shiny new shoes, smelling of misery and trying to locate a restaurant called Brasserie du Grand Chêne. Seki had nothing except a pair of knives and thick skin – he was used to being treated like he was piece of dung on someone’s shoe. Reaching at the entrance of the restaurant, a skinny, businesslike man of fifty or so approached, wearing a cook’s apron and a sardonic smile. His face bore the characteristic flush of the wine-drinking bon vivant as he welcomed Seki in letting the immigrant know that he would start work the next day. All Seki wanted was a chance, a promise of recognition – respect. All he wanted was to prove to his father that he was worthy.

***

It is now ten o’clock. The restaurant is two hours away from opening its doors to its guests. Seki is inebriated after having finished a whole bottle of wine with his sous-chef, Vincent. Looking back at everything he had gone through in his journey up to this day, Seki had never shed a single tear. For some unknown reason, he lets out tears like never before. Things have come full circle because all roads lead to the past.

Copyright © 2105 Lionel Ntasano