Friday, April 19, 2013
In the fall of 1945 I got my second job in Caracas. It was at the construction site for a proposed new Military School. The business offices were small and I was hired as a temporary typist. This was the only skill I possessed, having next to no Spanish and no other secretarial skills. Slightly intimidated but determined I became part of a small, friendly and decidedly mixed group of men and women. There were Venezuelans, male and female, American males, a charming Basque girl about my age, also two young women around my age, one a mix of Trinidadian and Venezuelan and the other, Helene, who I thought was French. It took a few days to settle in, concentrate on my shaky typing skills and learn who was who. After a week or two of asking for translations of things I was gently told that I should start mastering Spanish. This stung a little but I began to work at listening and practicing. My only major gaffe was typing a long page of numbers and statistics only to find after I finished that what I had thought to be capital F's were number 7's, crossed the European and South American way. It was hell to do over.
Traveling to and from the office by bus and streetcar I discovered that both Jean (the Trinidadian-Venezuelan girl) and Helene lived near me, Helene actually just a block or two down on my own street. We began to go to work together on the same bus. Helene seemed very exotic to me. Decidedly European, dark brown eyes, reddish brown hair cut very fashionably, simple but becoming clothes and wonderfully clunky jewelry. She had a sense of humor, was very direct and was as intrigued knowing a naive Catholic American as I was in knowing a French sophisticate who had excellent English. She liked my record collection and introduced me to Charles Trenet and Django Reinhardt. I soon found out that she was not French at all. The family was Jewish, originally from Poland. They had managed to flee to France in the late 30's. When things became dangerous in France they got to Spain and finally to Venezuela. Her father was a big taciturn man who had a lumber business in which Helene's brother was employed. Her younger sister Sonia had bright red hair and wore a gold Star of David on a chain. Her mother, also a redhead (assisted a little by dye) was almost an ugly woman but very civil to me. Her English was non-existent and we communicated with my high school French, which is to say, very little.
Even their house was intriguing to me. On the front porch was a large cage with a pet monkey in it. I felt sorry for him but he was apparently taken for granted. There was also a large frightening Alsatian dog named Lucky who wandered at will. We cordially ignored one another.
One Friday afternoon at work Helene invited me to supper at her home. I was intrigued. This was to be a Sabbath meal and I knew nothing about the formalities of such a thing. Helene said not to worry, that she would guide me properly. There was no problem having meat on the menu as early on my mother and I had discovered that Catholics were not required to abstain from meat on Fridays. Many years back all Spanish countries had been exempted from this practice. I was delighted. One less rule to fuss with.
I arrived at Helene's and she took me to the dining room. I spoke to her parents and settled back to watch and listen. I don't remember the particulars of that Sabbath supper. I remember only the occasional things: Helene's father, for instance, wore a fedora rather than the traditional skull cap and instead of wine we had coca cola (which was fine with me). There was gefilte fish which I had never had but which I liked. We had some sort of chicken and vegetables
and fruit, I think. There had been a few short prayers in Yiddish (or was it Hebrew?)and there were candles lit. I was alert for Helene's occasional nudge and got through the meal without disgracing myself.
The Braun house always seemed to have people drifting in and out, mostly other European Jews. I remember one benighted young man in particular. Today he might be classified as a nerd, shy, slightly overweight, a puppy dog quality about him. He was referred to simply as Jacobo, the bobo (Idiot Jacob). Helene and Sonia giggled about him.
My job at the military school came to an abrupt end right before Christmas. There was budget tightening and a few layoffs, me included. After all I was not the prize employee. I heard the news and proceeded to get rather sloshed at the office Christmas party. I had to be dried out in the ladies room, including maudlin tears as well as alcohol. Feeling very sorry for myself but less woozy, I got myself home.
After that I found another job at a tiny office where the local stock exchange was read. I saw a lot less of Helene but we kept in touch. She came to a few parties with my British, American and Venezuelan friends but seemed a little removed. There was the occasional "Jew" comment which made me uncomfortable but about which I did nothing. Finally when summer came I was to return to the States and enroll in college. There were parties and farewell encounters everywhere. My last office (Phillips Petroleum) gave me a nice sendoff with earrings and a ring made with pearls from the local island of Margarita. My boyfriend, Manolo, gave me a necklace made from native red and black seeds strung on a chain of cochano gold and Helene gave me the very thoughtful gift of a book. It was a novel by Venezuelan author Teresa de la Parra which she had had bound for me. She was furious at the shoddy Venezuelan workmanship (so much better in Europe) but I treasured it. I left in mid July and went back to Washington and then to Pennsylvania to my aunt's house.
In September I entered Hood College and my Caracas days began to recede in importance. In November of that year I wrote a cowardly "dear John, or Juan" to boyfriend Manolo, who had gotten the mailbox key from his father and patrolled daily for mail. He had even sent me details of the local election. I felt ashamed about that but also secretly liberated. I was in no hurry to be tied down to anyone. Life was just beginning. So I was shocked to receive a letter from Helene saying that her father had been looking for a suitable husband for her. They were to come to New York and visit a marriage broker. My very American mind could not get it. There was smart, funny, attractive Helene at 20 being almost raffled off to someone she would not have met before so that they could live together forever! How could she allow that? Then I remembered her big authoritarian, Old World father. A later letter told me that the husband-to-be was an older man, a Corsican named Jacques Giuliani and they would be married and live in Caracas. We seemed now to be further apart, she with an arranged marriage and who-knew what terrors behind her, and I with bobby socks and study sessions in the smoker and bridge games with other giggly girls. I hope I wrote a polite encouraging note.