Casting Long Shadows
“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
BUENOS AIRES, April 19
The glorious light of Buenos Aires that taught me to really see is fading. The sun sets earlier each day and the hours are beginning to have a valedictory feel. The gloriously touristy San Telmo fería (market) that pops up each Sunday afternoon is different today. There is a blue shadow across Defensa and the street is torn up, a repair job that has a good part of San Telmo’s main street fenced in and strewn with rubble. A brisk wind whips down the street and the tourists, formerly loose and sleeveless, are now huddled beneath fleece jackets. Many of the locals have scarfs around their necks. After a much delayed start, it is autumn.
Walking down Independencia to the Subte (subway), I notice a cart with paint splattered equipment. It interests me, then its owner walks out of an apartment building. It is the dancing painter whose photo is in my post “Happy Accidents.” Seeing him away from his performance spot and in front of his apartment makes him more real and also makes him an anachronism.
I am woozy with nostalgia. I eat my French meal at the Brasserie Petanque and pretend to speak French to the owner. Smiles and knowing chuckles work in whatever language you don’t speak. Several times I have taken the elevator with a well-dressed woman of about eighty. She smells of light powder and wool and she speaks Spanish to me from the moment she gets on the elevator until the moment she gets off. I smile and chuckle and pretend to know what she means and she leaves happier than before. I guess I’m a good listener.
I am sad today because I am missing my home, but I am also sad because I am leaving Buenos Aires in a couple of days. Taking the Subte home, I see a singer in the car and a man handing out booklets to everyone hoping for a sale. I have never seen anyone buy one. The stations go by… Callao… Facultad de Medicina… Pueyrredón… Agüero… Bulnes… Scalabrini Ortiz. I have memorized the stops, know which ones board on the opposite side, know the short cut to cross the street by tunnel, know how much a Coca Light costs at the kiosko. I think of the walks from the Subte to the studio for the Tango lessons, the buskers on Florida in front of my school, the feel of the street in Palermo Soho at 2 A. M. on a Saturday night, the bars overflowing and groups of young people laughing and drinking and smoking their way down the street. I think of the beautiful parks and the famous Cemetery I finally toured yesterday. I think of chocolate con almendros helado, my favorite ice cream. I think of how I still haven’t quite cracked the code of living here. I know the map but not the way, the streets but not the people that walk up and down the sidewalks.
I am going back to Virginia for some family events, my son’s college graduation, to take care of some medical matters, and of course to plan my return. I have a return ticket the end of May.
I’ve made a couple of good friends–Osmany and Joaquin–and developed happy working relationships with my Tango instructor and my Spanish profesores. I have no love interests, no group to hang with, and most of the time no one with whom to share a meal. Still, I have learned to enjoy my own company and I have discovered that my talent for photography never really went away, it simply laid dormant for thirty years.
I have danced a bit of Tango and tonight, after so many lessons, I will attend my first milonga. I’m a bit nervous.
My Spanish remains the biggest mystery. A combination of anxiety, poor discipline, and probably a low aptitude has kept me from making progress with the language. I freeze when I try to speak it outside the classroom and this is something I am not sure how to solve. My profesora tells me that it isn’t a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of confidence and I believe she is right. I can’t change my personality overnight and I am having a lot of trouble getting out of my own way so that I can learn to speak. I have a deep fear of humiliation and my ego isn’t allowing me to fail enough to achieve some competence.
I think back to those first days of South American spring last October when everything was so new and intimidating. I was scared to take the Subte and so I walked everywhere and marveled at the cityscapes. The light painted the city and I walked through an ever-changing movie set. Scenes would unfold and I would capture them with my camera. Later, on my computer, images and stories I never saw at first would emerge and I would be astonished at the light and the people and the activity I had captured. Now with the light fading, I feel those first days of growth begin to pass and with them the knowledge that I have to find new ways to grow and to see things for the first time again.
I’m homesick. Homesick for the city of my birth: Roanoke. Homesick for the city of my rebirth: Buenos Aires. Homesick, as we all are, for past experiences that were so vivid that they shook you awake, rubbed the sleep from your eyes, and made you see the youthful light of a new day.