Mi Casa Su Casa

We leave Turtle Beach, direction: Miami Boat Show 2013, right?

We get to South Beach February 13th around 7 p.m. and our old RV (Baba Ghanoush) stops in the middle of Michigan Avenue, not far from the Convention Center (where the boat show will start the next morning), coughs, gasps, and, without any particular reason, dies. We push her large lifeless body away from the middle of the street to the side, in front of a fire plug (the only free parking spot near by). We sleep there, with one eye open, waiting for the police or the parking enforcement guys to show up any minute. Plus, it is humid and hot as hell, it’s South Florida…

The next day, still no parking ticket, the manager of the near-by building complex passes by and we tell him about our misfortune. We tell him not more than a few confused hurried words, trying to explain that we don’t want to take the parking space in front of his buildings, but we are kind of stuck. And than the most surprising thing happens: the manager, Azael, who doesn’t know anything about us except that we have two kids with us, invites us to take shower, use the laundry and even sleep in one of the vacant apartments of the building, furnished, luxurious, with two big bedrooms. For the first time in almost four months we sleep in normal beds! For the first time in almost four months we take showers in a private bathroom, and not in the beach, marina, campground, or sailing school public showers! For the first time in almost four months we have a private clean toilet, and we don’t have to run to the park, Walmart, or any other public restroom! And running water, and electricity, and a laundry machine! All those things people usually don’t even think about, made us so happy. We stay there for three days.

After three days and a few unsuccessful attempts to fix the RV problem ourselves, Baba Ghanoush gets transported to a service center by a tow-truck for $350. It’s Saturday, the service center is closed on Sunday and we have to wait until Monday or maybe Tuesday before we will see her again, running. So we are homeless again.

We go back to the apartment for two more days, before our Baba Ghanoush is finally resuscitated, for a total of $1, 035.

Bad things are always sudden and unpredictable and tend to occur in the worst of moments. But thanks to our RV’s little fit, we got to meet Azael, his beautiful wife Sonia, and their three kids, Shaun, Jasmine, and Kevin, who thought us a lesson of kindness and humanity.

And the boat show?

Well, that’s another story.

Azael and Sonya

Azael and Sonia

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Wally

“I’d rather hop freights around the country and cook my food out of tin cans over wood fires, than be rich and have a home or work.”

-Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

When we first came in the park near Turtle Beach, we noticed a dark mysterious lump  folded in upon itself in a brown sleeping bag lifelessly lying on one of the pick-nick tables. Only two legs, as dark and devastated as ancient totems, protruding from the cover. For a couple of days, the lump did not change its position nor shape. But when a cold front arrived and the temperatures dropped a bit, an old mysterious tortoise-like being emerged beneath its blanket and lugged its massive shell towards a roofed shelter at the other end of the park. I brought him a bowl of hot soup I have just made and cautiously started a conversation. A month later, the conversation still goes on.

Wally in the Night Park

His name is Wilhelm Gilbert von Wahlenmaier the Third, the mayor of the park.  But everyone knows him simply as Wally, the Mayor. And when I say everyone, I mean EVERYONE! Wally has a plethora of friends, a number in the thousands. People just cannot resist his charisma  and every day friends stop to converse with him for hours. He graciously granted us a permission to stay in the park as his ephemeral guests, and so here we are.

A very special relationship grew between us, and is still growing. One of friendship and trust. We learned so much from Wally, not only about his life, but also about many other things. Wally is an educated and well-versed fellow, graduate from Denison University, Granville, Ohio, with a bachelor degree in Business Administration and Marketing. He had a successful real estate career, a big beautiful house, and hundreds of lovers. Until one day…

On November 20 in 2000, Wally closed the last door of his last house behind him and realised to himself, Oh my God, I’m homeless… He rode his bicycle to the nearest park and the park became his new temporary home. It has been for the past twelve years and still is. He knows everything that goes on here, and here, possessed by the craving to recount his younger happier days, he tells us stories of love and betrayal, of war and horror, of glory and dismay. He is also writing a book on The Homeless Situation in Sarasota, Florida, an account of his own experiences, as well as those of countless homeless women and men he met. You see, we don’t event think about it, but often we only perceive the present condition of a person we meet, ignorant of their past, their reasons, their circumstances. A grey pile of forsaken ruins consumed by the devastating effects of time, is in fact the Colosseum once trembling with violent glory and rage. But, Oh boy, Wally was a gladiator, a Titus, a Colosseum.

Wally

Born in Columbus, Ohio, in July, 1943, he was a tiny baby paralysed with polio. He overcame it. He overcame everything: his mother’s death when he was 14; thirty three months of hell in North Vietnam when he was only 17; even three marriages, one of which to a terrible Mennonite princess.

But life was always good, and still is for Wally. He never complains, he greets everyone, he enjoys every minute of it. If you pass by in the morning you will here him cheer, Good morning, how are you? I’m fine, how are you, you will respond without stopping. I am marvellous! If I was any better i’d be a twin! And if you stop for a chat, he will tell you one of a thousand around-the-world stories.

In Africa: a hot-air balloon, over the Serengeti, infinite plains stretching before him, the water beasts like ants beneath him, he drifts: a weightless dandelion carried away by the wind, crystal champaign and caviare at sunset, a beautiful lady he loves. (Back on land, he almost gets killed by an irritated Masai warrior for snapping his picture.)

In Greece: an endless table covered with all fruits and fishes of heaven and Earth, a thousand intoxicated guests, a chain of five thousand Sirtaki dancers by the sea, a roasted goat. At the head of the table, he is the guest of honour. Reaching out with a fork, he plucks the roasted goat’s eyeball out and eats it.

In Saint Petersburg, Florida: at the opening of the new Museum of Art, he meets Salvador Dali.

In the Caribbean: he sails on his 27-foot Catalina sailboat for 5 years and almost marries a gorgeous doctor in Barbados. She is still waiting for him. Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaah….

In Egypt: down the Valley of the Kings, he meets so many marvellous people.

In New York: 1983, at the Metropolitan Opera, Pavarotti sing for him and Dorothy, his sugar mama, almost twenty years older than him, an artist and an intellectual, he learned so many things from her. They loved each other dearly.

People sometimes listen to Wally’s stories and tell him, You are not real. But you gotta remember, it’s all true. It’s ALL true, he says.

Such is Wally: full of memories and legendary adventures; a  landmark here in the park, and a form of hallucination.

We respect him very much and this last month we shared many stories and many precious moments. One day, when it is time to move on, we will miss him, and surely enough, he will miss us.

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Communitas. Genesis

The strangest thing. A small and almost unstructured community has come into existence right here, in the park.

A spontaneous and fragile birth of a tiny fruit-fly nymph: Dolania Ephemeroptera.

First, a family from Switzerland in an RV tentatively joins us for a few unforgettable days. Next, a young couple from  Germany travelling around North America by car decide to stay and stick with us for an undetermined period of time, hopefully longer. And recently, a woman with a dog currently living in a car, are often to be seen around. An intense and unfamiliar spirit of solidarity can be detected here, early in the morning, at noon, and late at night. As well as in between-time. It is defined, I believe, by the uncertainty of future outcomes. In other words, we are all staying here until they kick us out, or until we choose to leave, whichever comes first. But Wally says they wont because it’s up to him, and every time this sounds reassuring. Wally is the mayor (here in the park). He is not really a person, but a place. An icon and a legend, Wally is our nucleus. I will write more about him, as well as each and everyone of them in my next posts.

The Family from Switzerland

After two days and nights of undisturbed squatting in the park’s parking near Turtle Beach in Florida, a small rental RV joins us. Michele, un italiano vero, Claudia, his beautiful better half, and their kids, the six-years-old twins Laura, and Fabio, decide to move on the other side of the campground’s fence next to our Baba Ghanoush, where the grass is greener, the sky is bluer, there is no fees, no structure, no order (no showers, no electricity, no full hook-up).

Laura, Claudia, Michele, and Fabio at Turtle Beach, Florida

Laura, Claudia, Michele, and Fabio at Turtle Beach, Florida

They are on vacation from Switzerland, travelling all over Florida. We quickly become friends. Together, we are driven by the irresistible impulse to have fun. At the beach or (when the Red Tide is raging there) somewhere else. We play volleyball, we play football (the Americans wrongly call it soccer  but we are all with European roots); in the evening, in our park, we have BBQ and lots of vino. The kids, like innocent shamans, are playing with burning sticks near the lake. Fabio and Laura, who only speak Italian and some Swiss-German dialect which to me sounds as beautiful as butterflies, are teaching Viktor and Maya a song which they now only remember in their dreams. How is it possible that kids of different languages always find a way to communicate? Isn’t it magical?

Their feet covered with grey dirt,  fingers sticky, eyes heavy with sleep, the kids are transported into their beds in the campers. Tomorrow they will continue the game.

Around the fire, Michele continues to sing gently, and we all join in, the songs of Adriano Celentano, Toto Cutugno, and Al Bano and Romina Power. The night will never end.

A few days pass, and our new friends have to continue their journey. Departure is the saddest part of every friendship. We didn’t have enough of each other and yet it is time to say goodbye.

Who will sing to us Felicita now, Michele?

When will you play with Maya again, Laura?

Who am I going to photograph now, and how are we ever going to play football without you, Fabio?

When are we going to savour again the best spaghetti with tomato sauce, Claudia?

We miss you, guys…

Laura, Maya, and Fabio

Laura, Maya, and Fabio

The men washing the dishes at the beach showers.

The men washing the dishes at the beach showers.

The Unstoppable, Unbeatable, Football Legend: Fabio

The shy but ambitious Fabio. Before the game.

Fabio, a frail little guy, but feisty.

Claudia and Fabio playing football (soccer-am.)

Claudia trying without any chance of success to score a goal against Fabio

Two players: Maya and Laura, trying to outrun Fabio. Impossible.

Ivo is trying to take the ball. from Fabio. Ha-ha! Better luck next time, Ivo!

Ivo is trying to take the ball from Fabio. Ha-ha! Better luck next time, Ivo!

Gooooooooooooooooooooooal

All of us

All of us

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Morning. Routines. Our Life in the City Park. Part 3

Our Saint Petersburg mornings in the park are filled with little routines. They begin very early with other people’s little routines which wake us up. You see, we don’t sleep in a campground like any normal tourist family with a motor home, but in a city park next to a swimming pool, the only free place we found where overnight parking is not forbidden. Early swimmers come here around 5:30 and inevitably start splashing and cheering next to our sleeping Baba Ghanouche. She wakes up reluctantly, shakes the morning dew and the little yellow seeds brought by night birds off her back, and gracefully drifts through the quiet purple city towards her daytime spot at Demens Landing Park, about a mile away. This is all the distance she traverses back and forth in a day lately.

Lotus and Hibiscus(a fictional physically impossible morning exercise)

Lotus and Hibiscus
(a fictional physically impossible morning exercise)

There I make myself a coffee and watch another sun slowly emerging from the sea. Viktor and Maya are still sleeping or just about to wake up and ask for breakfast. Maya tells me the ending of her dream, she never remembers the beginnings.
A bird made a wish and Jackie turned into a bird. I ate one popcorn, only one, and blew on a dandelion. She became Jackie again. She was crying and she gave me a hug.
Jackie is a new friend but a truly good friend, especially to Maya. We will miss her one day when we leave…
Ivo is already near the piers exercising. Ringo the cat is keeping him company. Soon I join them as well. We believe that physical exercising in the morning is a good way to start the day.

Lotus and HibiscusReincarnated

Lotus and Hibiscus
Reincarnated

The January breeze caries smells and sounds of seas and palm leafs. The air is already hot but fresh. Back in Canada, it is snowing for sure…

One would think that besides the occasional jogger or an early dog walker, there is not a living soul in the park. But it isn’t so. Saint Petersburg is invaded by hyperactive skinny squirrels and they proliferate in high concentration here in Demens Landing. The last squirrel census for this park alone came up with a number in the thousands, but since then they have surely multiplied. Squirrels have babies 6 times a year! And with tender dedication they teach their young the same bad manners. Thus, the savage traditions of trash cans scavenging for leftover french fries, of stealing the peanut butter  and jelly sandwiches from absentminded picnickers, of fiercely chasing each other up and down the palm trees emitting peculiar heartbreaking cries, are inevitably passed down the generations.
After we finish jogging and exercising, I find a 20 dollar bill all wet from the night, stuck on the wooden pier. I enjoy finding it, although I am also sadly conscious of the fact that as soon as I find it, I start loosing it, cent by cent, the same way we loose everything else that we ever find, including friends.
Next, we go back to the motor home dodging hysterical squirrels on the way, and prepare for sailing.

Ringo arrives

Ringo arrives

RingoReads about catamarans and drinks coffee

Ringo
Reads about catamarans and drinks coffee

RingoPurring

Ringo
Purring

I can do two pull-ups! It is tough being tough

I can do two pull ups!                                                                                                                                                                                                   This is a good exercise for the arms, chest and back

This one is for the back and shoulders

Hanging with arms spread.                                                                                                                                                                             This one is a good exercise for the back and shoulders

A morning egret on the rocks near the pier in Demens Landing.

A morning egret on the rocks near the pier in Demens Landing.

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