Kiwipedia: a walking Wikipedia in the person of… who else? Kiwi-san.
Sometimes I consult Wikipedia, but most times I consult Kiwipedia as the easiest way to obtain information. And just occasionally I get more than the information I required. For instance, the other day when –sitting in the Café gently sipping the morning coffee- I inquired about the term “pétainiste” that was used to qualify Nicolas Sarkozy.
“It refers to Pétain,” he replied turning a page of the newspaper.
“What is that?” I countered wondering how he could be so daft as to imagine that I might know this thing.
“A name. Everyone knows who Pétain is!” His look suggested that I might have severe brain damage without knowing it.
“Never heard of him.” I felt my cheeks pinking.
“Not possible. You must know who Pétain is! Didn’t they teach you history in school?” The look on his face portrayed actual disbelief; he was certain I was brain dead.
By this time I’d flushed bright red. “Not French history. Mexican history, United States history, but not French history.” ‘I’ll ask him if he has heard of Lázaro Cárdenas or Porfirio Díaz or Álvaro Obregón, that’ll show him,’ I pondered venomously.
“But surely you must have studied the Second World War!”
Now not only was I feeling stupid, but also crushed under the weight of the whole miserable American education system as seen through European eyes. I searched the sprawling mess of my agonizing brain for information. Surely something had to be there!
“Yeah: Hitler’s invasion of Europe, Pearl Harbor, D-day, the Allied Victory, Hiroshima and Nagasaki…more or less: American involvement, not much more.” How was I to explain that what I knew of the German occupation of Austria came from watching the VonTrapp family run for their lives to the Sound of Music. Kiwi-san must have begun to understand finally how deeply I was wallowing in my crass ignorance, because he began consolingly filling up the gaps in my education.
I learned that Henri Philippe Benoni Omer Joseph Pétain, more commonly known as Maréchal Pétain, was an outstanding military leader in WWI and considered a national hero until he headed the Régime de Vichy (the authoritarian French government that collaborated with the Axis powers from 1940 to 1944). Because of his cooperation with the Germans, Pétain was later convicted of treason and sentenced to death, a punishment that was commuted to life imprisonment by his former protégé, Charles de Gaulle. Today “pétainiste” is considered a derogatory term for certain reactionary policies.
Nonetheless, I left the Café ears down (and red), tail between legs and dragging my feet. If humility is learned by being one-upped time and again, then Kiwi-san is in my life to teach me humility. Blessed be one’s teachers.
On the way home I pondered the fact that men seem especially wired to retain historical facts, a trait that I have admired (beginning with my father) but have never been able to emulate. I have never been good at history. I seldom can remember a date (the one that stuck when I was little was 1492 because the first grade history teacher used to tell our class to not answer 1942 when asked for the year that Columbus discovered America, 1942 being the birth year of my colleagues and I, and thus a memorable date for us); I have always been grateful that the Mexican Independence and the Mexican Revolution took place exactly 100 years apart so the dates of their beginnings are easy to recall (1810 and 1910); I have respected my mother for choosing to have her cesarean sections on the first of my brother’s and my respective birth months so she could be sure to remember our birthdays, and I made sure to memorize the month and day –though perhaps not the year- of my parent’s births so as to keep in their good graces by bearing gifts accordingly.
Yet, even though historical dates have never stuck in my mind, other numbers have: telephone numbers for example back in the days before automatic dialing. I had but to dial a number once to remember it forever. I was a walking directory; my head was full of six-cipher numbers. This was useless but inevitable. To this day I can remember the phone number of my house when I was nine: 48-20-94, and that was sixty years ago. Now, with automatic dialing and automatic memory on mobile phones, my mind has been freed up for other things, but it still balks at history.
Neither has it been for lack of opportunity that I have not learned history. My library has always contained numerous historical books. In Mexico I had more than one history of Mexico; upon moving to Spain I acquired volumes on the history of Spain and the Spanish Civil War. Even today, in the radically diminished collection of books I finally brought to France, there is a four-volume set of The History of Women, and two other tomes titled: A History of Their Own all of which have sat untouched for years. My interest in women and feminism drew me to buy them but not to read them, although I have passionately read several books on anthropology from a feminist point of view, not to even mention the psychology of women, and famed women psychologists. So, if it is not the density of the material then what is it about history that turns me off?
As I walked, or rather slumped, back from the Café that morning, I pondered that specific question and before I reached home the answer came to me. When I think ‘history’, I think Conquest, Invasion, War, and Power. What is it I remember when I think of the Mexican History I studied? Discovery, conquest, domination, independence, revolution. I think of a long line of men, of a struggle for power and notoriety, of men who fought and died, who triumphed and died, who failed and died. History doesn’t tell me if they were faithful to their wives, if they loved their children, if they felt guilty about leaving their elderly parents. It skips over their resentments, their hang-ups, their fundamental human preoccupations. It turns them from human beings into human-doings. History deals with countries and societies, with the rise and fall of empires or dictators, and I understand that all this is undoubtedly important, and yet… I can’t seem to get interested. Why in the world, then, would I be interested in Pétain. Now I know who he was (thanks to Kiwi-san and Wikipedia) and the most outstanding or notorious doings of his life, just as I know who Pinochet was and some of the dastardly deeds attributed to him, so I am a tiny bit less ignorant of history. And I have to admit that none of what I know of either character has any importance for me or enriches my life in any way that I can see.
So, as I reached my door that day, I settled thankfully into a new understanding: it was obvious I was not made to be an historian, or to leave my mark on history in any eventful way. Thank goodness for all the men who can do and are doing this so much better than I ever could, for they free me to read psychology, spirituality, anthropology and… poetry to my heart’s content.