MY COLOMBIAN HOWARDS END? AFTER SIX YEARS IT IS TIME TO MOVE HOUSE
Updated: Feb 16, 2019
As my strange relationship with an old house near Retiro, Antioquia, Colombia continues, E. M. Forster once again has proved to be my guru.
In 2011 I flew from Bogotá to Rionegro, where I was collected by a couple I had never met before. It was a strange experience given that at the time I spoke almost no Spanish and they spoke virtually zero English. As we drove away from the airport of José María Córdova in his pick-up truck, the man began to question me regarding my preference for city or country living.
"I've lived in central London all my adult life," I said. "I cannot imagine living anywhere else."
"That will have to fucking change," he replied. "Your London life is over. You hear me? It's dead. Fuck London. You'll see."
We pulled over besides Serenata Paisa, a fonda-style restaurant outside the entrance to the Antioquian village of Retiro, and there he began to ply me with aguardiente and small pieces of chicharron. There were men with white cowboy hats and carriels, and as I looked at them, I realized that they didn't seem alien to me, despite the newness in my perceiving them.
"It's because I don't eat pork," I said, when he began to look at me puzzled at my lack of impulse to snack on the picada.
"This is going to sound odd... I'm not Jewish. But I think I may have been in a previous life. A sephardite perhaps. As a child I cried when my mother cooked it."
"Sephardite ghost or not, that will have to fucking change as well," he grunted, grinning at my inflexibility. "Look: you're in Antioquia now. We eat chicharrón and we drink aguardiente. Ok? This is going to be home. So, start eating and shut up about this no pork nonsense."
This all seems so long ago now, and he was right. About everything. I only had one night to spend in Antioquia that time in 2011, and had no idea I would be back a few months later, and then for good a few months after that. My reason for going there was because the paisa father of my friend from Bogotá had once mentioned I would love a village called Retiro although the couple, as far as I knew, had no connection with this village. Looking up this place Retiro on a map, I began to dream of knowing it, and then one day I received a letter inviting me to Medellín, which didn't look too far away. This is back when I thought distance was something you measured in miles of meters - this is seems ridiculous after so many years in this part of the country.
At my host's house, as he cooked, I slept off my drunkeness, and upon waking, on the bed beside me was a lovely butterfly, predominately yellow, blue and red, exactly like the Colombian flag. After a hearty lunch of Mexican chicken soup cooked on a log fire out in the woods and watched over by the sculpture of an Atlantic bull, he drove me to a house somewhere between the village of Retiro (which translates as (the retreat) and another village nearby, La Ceja (translatable as the brow).
We listened to the soundtrack of Kill Bill on the journey. I still remember it. It's so funny how songs become intwined and inseparable from moments and memories. He favoured in particular the song 'The Lonely Shepherd', and played it on repeat at full volume, the windows down and the afternoon sun burning my left arm as I steadied myself in the absence of any accessible seatbelt.
After about half an hour, and a journey up a dirt track past brooks and grazing cattle, we arrived at a rustic but exquisitely beautiful country house. It had a pretty veranda with sugarcane roof, and traditional Colombian tiles polished so that little circles marked out the years they had been there. There was also a housekeeper who had lived their several decades apparently, although I never saw her as we pushed back the door covered with overgrown brambles and wild flowers.
I proceeded to walk the house on my own, tracing the wooden staircase with my fingers and gazing out of the bay window with an eery sense of belonging. When I descended back down the stairs, the housekeeper was there with a metal bowl full of freshly ground sweetcorn she was preparing for the making of arepa de choclo. She stared at me, her brown skin oddly pink cheeked and haunted by something:
"She's freaking out," said my host. "She thought you were my grandmother back from the dead."
"She says that you walk just like her. The house has been more or less empty for so long, and hearing your footsteps scared the crap out of her. It scared me too, but not as much."
As the taxi-hued arepas were baked in the clay oven, I rocked myself in an ancient swing overlooking La Ceja and her valley. When the arepas were ready from the fire, the housekeeper took the cheese she had made lovingly with her own hands, and laid it on the yellow cushions so that their crispiness took on a tender quality. This was a ritual that has passed through the generations, and now it was being handed to me, in this night which suddenly descended upon us all blue and black and with distant stars lighting the way.
Her son had invited me look out through his telescope, and the two of us had patiently waited to stare out at the sky initially occupying our eyes with globos floating their way towards Rionegro. It felt like I was being glued to this place by the light which came down from each of these stars, and it was quite a terrifying experience, albeit magic. When it was over, the housekeeper asked:
"When will you be back?"
"Me?" I answered.
"Yes. When will you be back? The house has been empty for a long time."
"I'm probably never coming back to Colombia," I answered, weeping.
"That's what you think!" she laughed, disappearing to clean the soot from some lanterns we were using the dark of the garden. "These foreigners have all these fancy certificates, but they can be so silly."
My telephone then rang. It was the father of my friend in Bogotá.
"Where are you?" he said.
"I don't quite know. I'll ask."
"They say I'm between Retiro and La Ceja. Do you know it?"
"I know it. My family lived there when I was a boy. I can't believe you are right there. Seeing the same view."
"It's green everywhere. And it smells of burning wood for miles. There is also a strange light. I can't explain it."
"I know." He cried, and we hung up the call.
When we arrived back my host's other house, the butterfly which had landed on my bed earlier in the day had died. I didn't move it however, and step besides it like some widows do in some cultural traditions to honour the importance of their a dead husband. When I left, my host mounted the butterfly for me in a special case, and I keep it with me always as a reminder of that first day in Antioquia. A friend in Bogotá had told me only a few days before in Anapoima that:
"Emma, the butterfly is your totem. If one comes to be with you, it will die in the place where you need to transform."
FAST FORWARD EIGHT YEARS
January is often a time of profound change. There is something about a new year, having to write 2019 instead of 2018, for example, that often gives people the courage to take decisions they had perhaps only sat on before. That said, some of the surprises that came my way in January came as rather a shock. One of them, was when my landlady decided she would double the rent of the house I have lived in since I emigrated, giving me the impulse to vacate the property I had often deliberated leaving in a yearning to live closer to a village and to be part of that village.
But where would I go to? This was the question that caused me anxiety when I first learned of the situation. My current house is a small casa campesina; made of original reclaimed parts of old houses but not in itself much older than my stay inside of it. It had been red, until I painted it turquoise with my bare hands in memory of houses I had seen in Santander province. This task gave me a profound respect for the complexity of woodwork which frames traditional Colombian houses; their grates and eaves, their protective elements and even what can become a prison... The act of painting the house changed the way I relate to Colombian architecture, and the kind of house I now aspired to one day own and guard with my life.
It was then two days later that my former host offered me his house outside Retiro again. It had been more or less vacant since I had lived in Colombia, and in fact when I first emigrated, I had nearly ended up living in it back then. 'How strange!' I thought. In an odd way, this house had been the house that brought me to Antioquia, and in an even odder way, it had been a house lonely and silent ever since.
In the novel 'Howards End' by E. M. Forster, upper class character Margaret Schlegel has a similarly peculiar and paranormal relationship with an old country property. Intellectual Margaret, who is half German and half English, is considered 'foreign' by many of her English neighbours, and as somewhat of a radical. When her younger sister Helen Schlegel momentarily believes herself infatuated with the toffee-nosed younger son of the Wilcox family, a set of events unfolds whereby Margaret finds herself the confidant of aristocratic Mrs Wilcox, albeit for a brief time. As their friendship develops, Margaret confides in Mrs Wilcox that the house she lives in is about to be knocked down to make way for a block of apartments, and Mrs Wilcox is oddly preoccupied with sadness about these circumstances. Margaret has an attachment to her present home, but is certain she can find something else equally pleasing; Mrs Wilcox is distraught and pained by the thought of Margaret not having access to the home she was raised in.
Mrs Wilcox is the embodiment of Old England and English women pre-suffrage, both in her beliefs and general tastes, but also in her nostalgic aesthetic attitudes. As she lays dying, she scribbles on a note that she wishes Margaret to inherit her childhood home, Howards End, although Margaret is never made aware of this. The Wilcox family decide to ignore Mrs Wilcox's request, justifying their actions verbally in the belief that she was surely insane at her moment of writing it, whilst privately being motivated by their sheer greed and mistrust of any notion of fate. Her death therefore is a metaphor for the death of the landed gentry to come.
Now then, what happens to the house? Years later, Margaret marries Mrs Wilcox's widower, Mr Henry Wilcox, and continues to find herself oddly homeless despite the massive and grand property portfolio of her new groom Henry. As they move from one temporary palace to another castle in another part of the country, Margaret is never allowed to unpack her things, or properly feel at home. Meanwhile Howards End is either rented out to tenants with little love for the house or left vacant. Knowing that his dead wife had desired the house to be Margaret's, you have the sense that Henry feels the need to now keep Margaret away from the house to deny destiny. A banker, he is portrayed as caring only for a property in so far as it is (or is not) a financial asset, and not because of its aesthetic, or sentimental value.
At the end of the novel, Howards End is finally bequeathed by Henry to Margaret following a series of family tragedies. The younger sister of Margaret, eccentric and socially conscious Helen, has given birth to a baby boy following an illicit and sad one night expression of her love for a brilliant but disadvantaged man from a deprived sector of society, Leonard Bast. Leonard is a romantic intellectual despite his lack of access to formal education, and tragically killed on his way to visit Helen after finally summoning the courage to fight for their love nearly nine months later. He spent his days at his dull office job dreaming of poetry and the sublime quality of the nature and rustic charm which comprises the countryside, and dies at the mere touch of a sword from more than symbolic 'heart failure'. It is therefore never made clear whether he was murdered by the upper classes or dies of a broken heart.
They had not seen one another again since their night together, a consequence of his pride and embarrassment over his poverty, and her reluctance to burden him further with the news of her pregnancy. Their baby - representing the hope of new classless society is now born and raised in the house, breathing new life and hope into Howards End.
When I went to England few months ago, I bought a new copy of Howards End because my other version was damp from living in a forest. The story of Howards End has haunted me for many years. I am not really sure why. And in fact, it has haunted me more since leaving England, and coming to live in Colombia. It is a story so English in many ways, and yet, because of the death of the society it describes, it resonates with me more now, in class-bound and city-versus-the-countryside Colombia. Like Helen, I struggle to negotiate these worlds well, liking to think that I am fighting for a better society whilst constantly questioning if I am just utterly ignorant and would be better off saying nothing at all. Like Margaret, I try to tell myself from a rational perspective that a home can be any house, when in my heart, I believe no such thing.
What I truly believe, is what Mrs Wilcox espoused. A house has a destiny. A person has a destiny. They can try to avoid it, and people can put various obstacles in the way trying to assert control over a life that is ultimately decided by forces way beyond our comprehension, but in the end, fate will catch up with us.
♥ If you are interested in Colombian architecture, I try to take photographs of old properties I see in different states of repair. My Instagram account can be found here: https://www.instagram.com/conqueredbycolombia/