A Lazy Day and an Immigrant’s Dream
New York By César Chelala
Tired of the hectic pace of Manhattan, I had accepted my wife’s invitation to accompany her to a work meeting at an isolated hotel in New York State. After an almost 6-hours trip I was ready for a good lunch while my wife joined her colleagues.
I asked at the hotel for a good restaurant nearby and was disappointed when I learned that the only place to have lunch was a coffee house from a national chain. There, I found out, they could only offer coffee and some pastries, not my idea of a good lunch. I continued asking and learned that there was another place a little farther away, a restaurant still within walking distance from the hotel.
It was a charming, old fashioned restaurant with several family photographs on the walls, just the kind of place I enjoy discovering. When I came in there were already several tables already occupied. I was offered a table for two, in front of a window facing a garden.
There were two photographs on the sides of the window. One of them was that of an elderly couple, probably the original owners of the restaurant. On the other side there was a photograph of a beautiful young woman smartly dressed, probably taken at the time of her prom.
I was particularly attracted to the photo of the old couple. I could almost imagine their history. They looked European, Greek, Italian? They both looked like simple people, without the sophistication of those living in big cities.
They probably came to the U.S. in the 1940s, when big waves of immigration came to both North and South America, escaping the horrors of the war and trying to find a better future for them and their children.
They opened this restaurant, probably smaller at the time, and had progressed enough to enlarge it, make a small fortune and be able to send their daughter to college and provide a more fulfilling future for her.
In the photo, the young woman looks ravishing, a real beauty. I cannot imagine her not getting married and having several children. By now she probably is a grandmother with several grandchildren. By many criteria it was a classic immigrant story, a fulfillment of the American Dream.
None of the people working at the restaurant looked like the older couple, so I imagine that they sold the restaurant to new owners. The waitress comes and offers me their special house vegetable soup. I wasn’t mistaken. The soup has all the wonderful qualities of a good Mediterranean soup, probably from a recipe left by the original owners. It truly was a treat.
While eating my lunch I look again at the couple’s photo. Something in the old man’s aspect attracts me. He is slightly shorter than his wife, who looks even sterner than he does; he is holding a woolen beret in his right hand. They probably had a life of hardship in their native country and, arriving to the U.S., one of hard work and achievement.
An immigrant myself, I identify easily with their hardship, although I came to the United States in vastly better conditions. I could easily imagine how hard it was for them when I remember how hard it was for me when confronted with a new country, a new language, a new set of values and a totally new area of work (I started doing complex research in molecular genetics, for which I was badly prepared. I emigrated from Argentina, where very little of that kind of research was being done at the time.)
I finish my dessert in the slow luxury of free time. My only preoccupation both today and tomorrow is how to fill the time in this isolated place while my wife is at her meetings. I ask the waitress for the bill. When she comes I ask her, just to be sure, if she is related to the owners. She tells me that she is not. I ask her about the young woman in the photograph. “Is she the original owners’ daughter?” I ask her. “Yes,” she tells me. “She is now a grandmother and lives nearby.”
I smile. Pointing at the photo on the other side I ask her, “And her parents, what happened to them?” The waitress laughs. “Oh, no” she says, “they are not her parents. That old couple’s photo just came with the frame.”
Dr. César Chelala is the foreign correspondent for The Middle East Times International (Australia).