The Corona Survival Girl
I don’t go to the movies anymore. It must be several years ago, accompanied by my then 15 or 16-year-old son we went to see the last installment of the Transformers series. At the top floor of the Emporium theater. A long film and late when it was over, we were guided through some backstairs out into a back alley as the shopping centers surface had already closed.
As a young man I was a big movie fan. Any movie. English, German, French, American, whatever. Americans of my generation will no doubt fondly remember Marylyn Monroe or Jane Mansfield for suggestive or slightly raunchy scenes. Looking very tame and domesticated by today’s standards. French movies in the 60s were already much more risqué. Sexually explicit scenes, if not the norm, were easily accepted if not expected in some movies. But then, the French had the advantage of featuring films with the world’s most sensual or sexy female. Brigitte Bardot. When Bardot first hit the silver screen in a movie called “And god created woman” it became an instant hit. Later in another movie coupled with acclaimed French actor Jean Gabin, “In case of adversity” her fame became global. Both films and others featuring Bardot were shown overseas also. Although very heavily censored and often rejected by the then still puritanical America it became a big success, nevertheless.
Jean Gabin was a respected and well-known actor in continental Europe. When I saw his name on the billing of the movie poster our Saturday evening group of youngsters, we decided to forgo the nights “danse du village” and go to the movies. Thus, we were all introduced for the first time to Brigitte Bardot. Living in the German speaking part of the country the movie was dubbed in German and titled “Mit den Waffen einer Frau”. Literal translation.
—With the weapons of a woman—
Enrico came to settle in Thailand about 12 years ago having taken early retirement. He was familiar with Pattaya, Chiangmai, Phuket and Bangkok from many holiday visits over the previous years. He did not want to settle in any of these places. I suggested Hua-Hin. On a short recognition tour, he liked the small town and its environs. He rented a small apartment in town and is still living there today.
Enrico was never married but had a longtime relationship for an over 15 years period that around the same time succumbed to what we commonly call in French l’usure du temps (the wear of time). The breakup became final when he announced his leaving for Thailand on a permanent basis.
In Hua-Hin Enrico settled quickly. He made local friends, had a few beers by sundown in some of the bars in those charming little streets behind the Hilton Hotel not far from the sea that he loved. But most of all he savored his new acquired libertá!
Not surprisingly the freedom time ended abruptly when he made the acquaintance of Rungnapa (Naa) working in one of the local hotels and later as a caddy on a nearby golf course. Naa had two children. A boy of about 8 and a girl of 11 or 12 years old. They were taken care of by a family member of Naa’s living nearby. Their local presence in fact was the main reason Naa had come to Hua-Hin. In her heart she would have preferred to go to Bangkok she told me later.
She’s for me, she’s perfect, Enrico exclaimed when he told me about his new love interest. Not the most beautiful girl in town, he said, but she’s young, only 30 or maybe a bit more, has a good body and loves sex. Even more important he said, she can cook and not only Thai. Of Italian descent, he loved his homely Italian “gastronomia.” Often, I happily listened to his extended exposés of plates of polenta, greasy pasta on pesto sauce or homemade, savory Gnocchi. In no time Naa learned to cook his favorite dishes for him.
So, what about the children? I asked him in one of our irregular Skype dialogues. No problem, Enrico’s answer. The girls name is Pueng. She’s is a sweet and lovely kid. I buy little presents for her whenever there at my home. Sometimes I almost feel like being a real dad. She is too old to sit on my knees, but a real bond developed between the two of us. The boy wasn’t mentioned on that occasion but later it became apparent that Enrico did not care much for him.
A year passed. In one of my rare trips by car from down south to Bangkok, I stopped over in Hua-Hin to meet for an evening with was almost a family now. Enrico, already a big guy, had put on another 10kg in weight. He seemed happy, healthy and content. Another several months passed by, and then, as it happens sometimes in life, and almost overnight, everything changed.
Sitting next to Enrico, Naa had tears in her eyes. What’s wrong Naa? And where is Pueng? She go back to Chumpon with brother. A long silence followed. Then, almost in a whisper; On Monday I fly to Canada. Now Enrico was flabbergasted. Please say it again and what’s this all about? Little by little, in bits and pieces, as is often the case when Thais must own up to something unpleasant, the truth came out.
She’d known this Canadian man for several years. He helped with money, sending some to her Kasikornbank account every month. He promised marriage. He helped to make her passport. And now the necessary 3-month engagement-visitor visa from the embassy was approved and stamped in her passport. But why Naa, I thought we were happy? A full flow of tears was Naa’s only answer. Enrico in his mid-50s by now, instinctively knew he was presented with a done deal. His head in both hands he murmured to himself in Italian; fatto, fatto, fatto….
After Naa had left, Enrico resumed his bachelor days, returned meeting with friends in the bars. His beer drinking increased dramatically. Instead of losing the overweight as he had intended to, he probably put on another 5 kg. Though this time not thanks to tasty food by the woman he loved but by innumerable bottles of Chang or Leo he indulged in during the long days and evenings. Talking to him on Skype more regularly now I urged him to control his drinking, and take more care of his health.
He didn’t hear from Naa and over time realized that he didn’t really miss her as much as Pueng. He decided he would go and see the girl in Chumpon, after all only 3 hours’ drive from Hua-Hin. It turned out not that easy. As most Thais do, they only indicate the largest agglomeration closed to their village which turned out to be a long way out of Chumpon and took him another 1½ hours to locate.
They were both overjoyed to finally meet again. Almost two years had passed. Pueng had grown a lot. A beautiful teenager now and no doubt on the way to turn into an equally beautiful young woman. Enrico was proud of his daughter! Spontaneously he decided to stay a few days. He drove back to the town and checked in the Garden Hotel. The next day Enrico wanted to know more about Pueng’s life and how Naa was doing in Canada. Pueng had little information to share. Naa had married her Canadian lover and seemed to be doing OK. It’s what Naa always said on occasional telephone calls when asked.
For a time Naa’s husband continued to send some money to Pueng’s grandparent to contribute to the cost of their upbringing. But the amounts got smaller and smaller and eventually stopped. Enrico wanted to speak to her and ask why she would not care about the two kids. But Pueng did not come forward with the telephone number so he let it be.
Italy has some similarities with Thailand. A rich historical past, beautiful beaches and scenery. The Catholic Church and its many cathedrals is to Italy what temples and Buddhism is to Thailand. But there is also an often-ineffective governance, corrupt officialdom and Mafia style gangs. Cheating on the yearly income tax declaration is looked upon as a kind of sport or at worst a gentleman’s delict in Italy. But Italians have a superior family spirit. Bambinis in the country are doted on like nowhere else.
When Enrico, a proud Italian at heart, learned how difficult life had become for the remaining family of the ageing grandparents with two growing up kids his heart went out to them. It wasn’t too much of a sacrifice for him to scrap off a small part of his monthly pension, turn it over to the older grandparent that allowed them to at least eat every day and the kids to finish the schooling.
More years passed. Enrico had now turned 60 but he continued to be in fine spirits and an always generous man. Looking healthier too, having shed the best part of his overhanging beer-belly. He continued to meet up with Pueng every now and then for the time she remained in Chumpon.
Then, after her 18th birthday she moved up to Bangkok. Enrico asked Pueng about her job. But she never came right out to say what exactly it was. Her much improved English skills was also intriguing as she had never shown much interest in learning the language before, leaning on Enrico’s unpolished Thai to converse. Late last year, just days before Christmas they met in Bangkok and spent an evening together. She wanted to be called Bee now. Enrico laughed but happily embraced her. (It’s the English translation of Pueng)
A pleasant evening out, Pueng accompanied by her boyfriend Chai. Downtown to the JW Marriott. Enrico was served one of his beloved rib-eye steaks in the New-York Steakhouse, Pueng / Bee and Chai some spicy rice dish. Applying subtle make-up for the occasion, Enrico could see now the beautiful young woman she had turned into.
After, drinking his obligatory after meal Expresso coffee and Amaretto liqueur, Pueng called her mother in Canada on the smartphone. This time Enrico did not let her put him off speaking to her. He simply grabbed the device and said hello. She still looked good but Enrico, by this time had no feelings left for her. After an insipid but polite how are you, answered by an equally flat and noncommittal OK he went on the attack. How could you do what you did? Abandon your children, not care about their education, their wellbeing, their future. Naa’s English now nearly perfect or at least as good as Enrico’s. She tried to justify herself by the large expenses. Getting her passport, visa, airfare plus the year-long transfers to her in Hua-Hin and later to her parents. My husband is not a rich man, you know, and everything is so expensive here. He has no more money than to live day by day. Disgusted, Enrico ended the call. Pueng put her eyes down, looking at her feet but said nothing.
I know, Enrico conceded after a long silence, she’s still your mum.
On the last day of February Pueng returned to her grandma’s in Chumpon. At first it was meant to be a short say hello visit for a week or two, then return to BKK. Only days in to her stay with the occurrence of Corona-19 getting more and more serious and attracting more media coverage, Grandma implored Pueng to stay home. She did. Enrico on his regular telephone calls was also uneasy about the situation and approved the good advice. His modest contribution to the family would continue and not to worry, he said.
He had intended to take a drive southward for a few days visit but then the curfew prevented him from leaving the Hua-Hin district and the Prachuap Khiri Khan province. Or so he thought. But Pueng laughed it off. Just put on your facemask, get in the car and drive. If you get stopped by police just tell them you’re on your way to an important meeting, or a dental appointment or whatever. There will be no problem. As previously, on arrival he checked-in the little Garden Hotel. Later he went on to the simple house where Pueng and her brother stayed with the grandparents.
Honesty and gratitude have low ranking on Thai’s moral compass. It’s my firm belief, and I must have mentioned it to Enrico. It’s possibly the reason why by what now follows, Enrico was totally unprepared for and seriously taken aback. It seems that at least in this one case I see myself corrected on the gratitude issue even though in a somewhat unconventional and bizarre form.
In Enrico’s words:
During the stay with the family Pueng had a long talk with her mother in Canada on one of the social network free calls. Pueng wanted to pass on the telephone to me but I declined. Returning to my little hotel early evening Pueng sat in the passenger seat saying she wanted to go with me. OK, I said. We went to the little restaurant opposite the Hotel for a simple Thai meal. Later, in my room the conversation turned to more intimate details. Yes, she had a Thai boyfriend for some time already. Yes, she liked him, and they were sometimes intimate. Not a binding relationship presently and no plans, marriage, family or children had been discussed. Uncomfortable after a while, I suggested Pueng take the last songtaeo back to her home or failing that one of the newly introduced taxis.
Her mother on the phone earlier had given advice to Pueng. Now the time had come, she said, to pay back Enrico for all the help he had given to her during all those years and even now during the difficult weeks over corona virus.
Smiling Pueng put her arm around my neck, then suggestively took hold of one of my hands putting it on her upper thigh, looking deep into my eyes. Not the least bit shy Pueng was perfectly aware with the biological process of arousal and what it did to me. My profound rooted Italian family values kicked in. Gently I tried to disengage from the embrace. Pueng, I said in a gentle and soothing voice, you’re my daughter and I love you as such. Pueng said nothing but shook her head vigorously. She didn’t have the words to express her feelings, but she was obviously headstrong like her mother. Her mind was made up. I succumbed.
By now, Enrico is possibly back in Hua-Hin, perhaps he is still on the way or has stayed on in Chumpon for another day or two. Coming from another source I would have likely dismissed this narrativeas a kind of wishful fabulation. But I’ve known Enrico for more than 20 years and have no doubts on the authenticity of his account.
In all my years I’ve never come across a hot-blooded Italian or even heard of one refusing the advances of a pretty 20-year-old, family or not. It’s what I told Enrico when he called the next day. Look at it as revenge to the sickening way Naa disposed of you and worse, her own children, all those years back when she saw a better opportunity for her own future in Canada. Today she must surely have some remorse.
In the end, I now realize, this account has little to do with the corona virus but more so perhaps with the clash of cultures. Our western values differ in so many ways with the Orient. To me, in my many years in Thailand it also adds another piece of knowledge to the already heavy baggage of Thai experiences. But it’s never the last one…..
To this effect I would ask you to listen to this song by Jean Gabin. I mentioned him earlier on. Gabin was not a singer per se but a respected movie actor. He died many years ago. Toward the end of his career he recorded a song. It’s in French but don’t worry, easy to understand even if your French is poor or nonexistent. The gist of the song “Je sais” is: A young man he was sure to know everything. As the years past and he got old he realized and admits that now at the autumn of his years that in all honesty all he really knows for sure is that he knows nothing! Much like Johnny Cash did, he spoke much more than sang his words. Interpreted in his melodious baritone voice the song is a real eyeopener that I would love to pass on to all the I know peoples I’ve known in my life. A Masterpiece.
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