Hello Everyone. I was happy and excited to get kudos from The Blissful Adventure for 2012. Just Tango On is a blog that has not been updated lately and a new blog is in the works in connection with my website samkrisch.com.
Hope all survive the end of the Mayan calendar this week and prosper and enjoy the upcoming holidays.
“Kodachrome… it gives us those nice bright colors
Gives us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah!
I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph
So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away”
Roanoke, July 18th
Once upon a time, my cameras were just toys. Then I got serious and they became tools, also known as expensive toys.
I remember my Kodak Instamatic camera and the plastic body and lens, the film cartridges in the back and the 4 square flash bulbs on top. I remember the sweet crayon smell of the film emulsion and the yellow Kodak box and the foil package inside that held the cartridge.
Color film was reserved for the adults. Kids playing with cameras had to stick to black and white. I got two or three rolls to use during my time at summer camp.
Too many pictures and Dad would complain or simply refuse to take it to the drugstore for processing. In the pictures I’d cut people’s heads off or there wouldn’t be enough light. Sometimes I would open the back of the camera before the roll was done and ruin the film.
When I was a little older I got a rangefinder Yashica and shot higher speed Tri-X Pan and sometimes the indoor shots without flash would still turn out. I wouldn’t know until I finished the roll and could use my allowance to get the pictures developed.
With the money from my first summer job I bought a Canon single lens reflex, at the time an affordable amateur SLR. Then came hours and hours of pouring over photo magazines, reading about great photographers, setting up a darkroom in my basement. I burned lots of time and ruined a lot of pictures. I then bought a Nikon, a professional camera!!!!, and had a series of them. The tech was even more fun than the photos. As a Serious Photographer I was absorbed in f-stops and shutter speeds and film grain and could quote the price and features of every Nikon camera and Nikkor lens. By the way, I’m still not sure what f-stop really means. I know it is a measure of aperture or the amount of the lens opening, but why there is an f and why it has to be stopped is beyond me.
Ultimately, I was the school yearbook photographer and the photographer for the school newspaper. I wasn’t big enough to play football or tall enough to shoot hoops, but I could take pictures. I even won a contest.
Then one day I stopped taking many pictures. My aesthetics had outrun my skills and I had become more interested in writing.
With respect to Paul Simon’s song: Kodachrome’s gone and I don’t like Nikon cameras now that they’ve gone digital. Kodak stopped manufacturing Kodachrome on June 22, 2009 because of the dwindling demand for color slide film in a digital world. My uncle, who used to work for Kodak, told me that Kodachrome was difficult to process because the color was added in the processing, not in the film. It gave the pictures a special color, sharpness and quality that may never be duplicated (except of course with the right Photoshop plug-in, but for the Luddites it still isn’t 100%.)
So many people my age got into photography because it was (along with hi-fi stereo) the cool technology of the time. Now there are a lot of substitute obsessions for geeks. Computers, Gaming, Digital Imaging, and Smart Phones appeal to dweebs like me.
I go to a lot of photography workshops and meet lots of other photographers, some pros and a lot of amateurs. At some point, the discussion turns to gear and the boys have to compare the size of their lenses. Full frame is better than half frame is better than point and shoot. RAW is better than JPEG. The wide open lens gives great bokeh, and other stuff that only a few people care about.
At one workshop, several people were using their iPhone for photography. I couldn’t understand it. I had used the camera on my iPhone and found it quite lacking. One of my fellow participants, Harry Sandler, was using an iPhone on top of his wildly expensive medium format camera and producing images that were quite spectacular. (For a preview of Harry’s newly published Blurb book iPhone Antics click here.) My friend John Paul Caponigro has started blogging for the Huffington Post about the iPhone.
But the iPhone only has 3 megapixels. It doesn’t shoot RAW. It looks like a toy when you use it. How can it be any good?
I found out the difference is in the apps. Harry and John Paul were adept at using apps such as Perfect Photo, Real HDR, Photoforge, Old Booth, iRetouch, Comic Twist, Old Photo, Joiner, Panorama and Brushes. These apps not only gave special features to the camera, they served as an in camera post-processing wonder taking many of the processes of Lightroom, Photoshop and the traditional darkroom and allowing the user to take the picture, post-process it, upload it to Flickr or Facebook or e-mail it within a matter of minutes.
Well, gee whiz, you might say, ain’t that great for you photo geeks? Lots of new toys.
You have a point.
However, recreating the feeling of playing with toys has significantly impacted my creative life. I rediscovered it when using the application Hipstamatic with my iPhone and it has changed the way I see the world.
First and foremost, taking pictures has become fun. Again.
Secondly, no one particularly cares if you take their picture, as they do when you take pictures with a pro-quality DSLR.
Thirdly, the limitations of the frame (it’s square), and the post-processing time (very slow) force you to think about what types of images to shoot. Sometimes, having fewer choices makes you more creative.
Most importantly for serious photographers, it ends the most inane observation ever and that is when someone sees a good image by you and says “You must have a really good camera.” Now they say: “You took this on a phone?“
With Hipstamatic I find it best to shoot images that have simple compositions and will have a classic look to them. In my post entitled “Remembering the Present” I write about how I like to take the present and find classic elements.
The iPhone and Hipstamatic has freed me to look more closely and to sometimes take pictures for their sheer ironic snapshot authenticity. I’m not consciously chasing fine art and all that implies. This makes me giddy sometimes with delight when I see the results.
These photos appeal to me because they make a consistent and visually interesting aesthetic out of snapshots, bringing a look to the images of moments in time in a past that never existed. As is the case with photography in general, these pictures are both memory and creation, a moment captured that is a subjective choice of what the imagist’s eye sees and yet doesn’t. The iPhone captures it in the blink of a digital eye and the Hipstamatic post-process is the coda, a final flourish that elevates the simple snapshot into a mood and moment that expresses an exquisite sensibility.
I shot these Venetian masks this morning by available light with my iPhone 4. Again, as in Hipstamatic, I get successful iPhone images by using simple compositions and distinct graphic elements.
Here’s one with the iPhone 3G that uses the same elements.
While I haven’t tried the HD video on the iPhone4, I had a lot of fun with having an available an unobtrusive video camera in Lucerne and took this video of some street musicians. While it is not even close to professional quality, it allows the viewer to experience some of the fun of the afternoon.
“It seems the longer you live in New York,the more you love a city that has vanished, For those of us well versed in the art of loving what is lost, it is an easy leap to missing something that was never really there.”
– Jeremiah Moss, “Nighthawks State of Mind,” NEW YORK TIMES, July 3, 2010
Venice, June 2010
I have seen the future and it is the past.
The more I explore my creative life, the more I realize that I consciously and unconsciously try to connect my work with a wistful and sometimes dark recreation of the past. Old films, old photographs, the work of the Dutch painters, dreams and nightmares all inspire my images and my writing.
The trips to Buenos Aires explored a dance and a culture that seemed old world and yet contemporaneous at the same time. While marking my fiftieth birthday, I both celebrated the future while recreating a past.
The very nature of what I am doing is a recreation of the past. Photography’s nature is to freeze a moment in time. For many decades we have looked at photography as a record of the present, an objective “snapshot” in time. The shutter clicks and we freeze a fraction of second in a tableau. It is accurate as far as what is captured, but completely influenced by what the photographer has seen.
Whether it is the Kodak Instamatic pictures of our childhood or Neil Armstrong standing next to the flag on the moon, the very presence of the camera gives the occasion authenticity. I might argue that the only thing authentic is the image itself in its own context, not as a complete document of its subject.
The aesthetics and the reality of the shot are greatly influenced by photographer’s eye, the angle and lens choice, the aperture and shutter speed, the quality of light, the rearrangement or posing of subjects, and often sheer happy luck.
These all have been with us practically from the beginning of photography. Many of the processes in Photoshop such as masking, burning, dodging, alteration of exposure, contrast, cropping are a direct reflection of the processes used in the wet darkroom.
Now that digital imaging has entered the world, we have the ability to alter images at will: combine, composite, recolor, create a pastiche or a distortion. As with the artist’s palette and canvas, the limits of digital imaging capabilities are only limited by the digital artist’s imagination and skill.
This creates ethical dilemmas for photojournalists. How much can the image be altered until it is not a record but fiction?
For those of us who are not tremendously skilled in Photoshop but who are either good or lucky at capturing the image (or “taking the picture” in the old nomenclature) become frustrated because viewers now assume the image is put together in post-process. This takes some of the joy out of showing unique moments. Part of the joy that film photographers felt when they were able to capture what Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” was anticipating their audience’s wonder of their timing, skill and vision.
These images are from a workshop I have just attended that was run by VSP Workshops. During the workshop we recreated some of the scenes and feel of the Carnival in Venice during the summer away from the crowds and at times to catch the models in the most beneficial light.
Venice itself is a magnificent anachronism and the images we produced revel in their anachronism. In some of the images, I enhance the effect by adding sepia in post-processing. They portray an imagined past that never existed and a reflection of my mood during the period: contemplative, wistful interpretive and respectful of the past while firmly rooted in the moment.They are at once the expression of the present and of the past.
To paraphrase George Santayana, those who do not rememember the present are condemned to omit it.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
–Elizabeth Bishop “One Art”
MONHEGAN ISLAND, MAINE (June 2009)
Sometimes falling down a cliff is the best thing that can happen to you.
I am at a photography workshop in Maine for four days. We’ve just traveled to Monhegan Island by ferry. It is a bright and humid day, a bit buggy and windy, fairly typical for Maine in mid-June. I have finished showing my Buenos Aires pictures to John Paul Caponigro the digital artist who is leading the workshop, and then I venture out to get some pictures.
I think I am walking south towards town. Instead I am walking north through the woods. There is no sight that interests me. The woods are too much like the woods in Virginia to be of much interest.
The map shows that the coast is near and I look forward to getting down to the shoreline and taking some pictures of the gulls and the surf. I emerge from the woods and overlook a part of the shore that is named “Pebble Beach.”
The “Pebbles” are rocks the size of hippopotami, probably named by a Mainer with a Down East sense of ironic humor. My shoes are not built for this kind of aggravation and as I attempt to make it to the coast to take some photos of seagulls I continue to slip and fall. Moss and mist have made these rocks into oil slicks. I hiccup from anxiety as I slither back to the path. A little shaken and a little stirred, I continue to inch my way along the path, expecting to circle the island and head to the town side. Instead the path ends. I keep trying other directions only to have the new paths end as well. The only way back is to retrace my walk like Hansel and Gretel.
I am aware of the allegorical irony of the false paths and retracing my steps. I continue to look for pictures, still finding nothing of interest.
I have come to Maine to participate in John Paul Caponigro’s workshop entitled “Along The Waterline.” (Now I understand it is called “Islands“) Before the seminar started, I was a nervous wreck. I had a fight with a friend on the drive up. I had a seriously bad experience at a Photoshop seminar in New York. I had upgraded cameras and this was my first week with the new purchase. I was feeling inadequate and intimidated because Photoshop skills were required and I had no Photoshop skills. My editing was done in iPhoto, a laughable program for serious photographers.
To me, Photoshop is an onion. Lots of layers and it forces tears.
During the introductions I learn that two of the workshop participants are photography and digital imaging professors at a major university. Another is the camera and computer editor for a national publication. Another has written a book on Adobe Lightroom, the application for photographers. In this company, I feel like a novice. In the past months, I was beginning to realize through my blog reader comments that photography was probably a direction I should explore. Many people said they liked the pictures on my blog and stayed silent on the writing. It hurt my feelings a bit but I can take a hint.
The first morning it is pouring and rather than venture out immediately, we sit in John Paul’s comfortable living room and show our favorite images. Before now I thought they were just called photos or pictures. I have never encountered the slightly reverent word “image.” I receive warm comments on mine and I feel better. As the days go forward, I feel supported and more and more a part of the group, even surviving the 1:30 am wake-up call to go up to the top of Cadillac Mountain for the 4:30 am sunrise.
As I retrace my steps on the path that ends (metaphor included at no extra charge) I am having a bit of trouble with my footing. The path itself is rocky and the grass that has grown between the rocks is wet. I was angry that I hadn’t thought to bring hiking boots.
The path ends again, but this time because I slip on the rocks and fall 10 feet or so down a steep incline. I have fallen into a briar bush. I had bent my glasses and broken one of my cameras. I am scratched up but the bush and my backpack have broken my fall, probably saving my neck (this time no metaphor.)
I am at a competition diver’s angle, similar to what it looks like right before the diver enters the water at the end of a backward pike.
There is no one around. There is no cell signal.
The only way to get myself back to the hiking path is to find something to grab to pull myself up. There is only one thing and that is the briar bush. I wince as the thorns pierce my skin and I start to pull myself up. Both the angle and the thorns make this quite painful. I make a bit of progress toward the trail but the rocks are slick and I slide back down. This time I fall even farther into the bush. Gravity wins again.
This means I am going to have to grab the branches again. I start to sweat profusely. I can feel my heart race.
I grab hold of the branch and start to lift myself.
Once again I fall, deep, deep into the bush, scratching myself all over.
Finally I come up with the solution. I pull myself up a little at a time and rather than use my feet I use my glutes to grip and almost walk my way up the slope until I can put my knees over the edge and pull up the rest of my body with my attractive muscular quads.
That’s right, folks, I pulled it out of my ass.
I emerge on the trail and have to lie there for a minute to catch my breath and regain a modicum of composure.
I never fully regain that composure. I stumble back to town to meet my group for lunch. People I don’t know offer commiseration and ask if I need medical assistance with my wounds. There is general amusement and shock at the way I look.
The anxiety from the trip, my intimidation with the other participants’ credentials, the gray mist in Maine all lead to an excess of neurotic energy. My sense of humor becomes darker, my reputation as a nut grows. Well read John Paul (“J.P.”) calls me “Kafka.” Those who prefer films call me “Hitchcock.”
I assure them this is not method acting. I really am a nervous wreck. I crack up J. P. when I say “I’m afraid that you’ll think I’m paranoid.”
The difference this time is that I use the anxiety and the neurosis to climb a rung up in the creative path. My images from the week are strong enough to earn me some respect.
John Paul Caponigro leads a workshop that gets me to look at myself in a completely different way. I used to think of myself as a writer with a photography hobby and I start to think of myself as a photographer with a writing hobby. In four days I start to consider that word artist. It seems a jacket too precious for me to try on but I look at it in the store window hoping one day to acquire it.
SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA, Tuscany
It is the second afternoon of a very challenging workshop in Tuscany. I am having trouble communicating with the models and think it would suit me well to find out more about them.
One of the models has said that she had been dancing Tango for a couple of years. I play “El Choclo” thinking that maybe I can make the atmosphere lighten up a bit. She begins dancing a Tango on her own.
It has been six months since the last time I had danced, but I join her for a bit. I am nervous as I hold her. I can’t lead her to a cross. Is she really a Tango dancer or am I that bad?
She critiques my style in Spanish, telling me to be “mas fuerte con tu brazo.” That old demon shyness again.
It is still a couple of days before we start communicating well during the workshop and we don’t click until the last two shoots.
We don’t dance again which is probably best for both of us.
“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler
SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA, TUSCANY
I’m back. Months of clearing my throat. Trying to clear my mind. Frustrated and guilty over my lack of progress. Absorbed to the point of obsession with trying to develop my talents in photography and understand digital imaging.
I’m wondering what happened. Maybe it was winter and the inactivity and sadness. There has been memory and loss and regret. Too much for me to write about now.
Certainly it was being at home too much. For a wandering Jew like me, home is where not only the heart is, it’s where the writer’s block is. What the meaning of “is” is the the key to it.
I am writing from a small town in Tuscany. I know… I am lucky. I’ve come here for one of my serial photography and creativity workshops. “Serial” means a continuing habit, a series. It does not mean I studying to be a serial killer.
Now there is so much to write about the block becomes one of procrastination, not of the lack of ideas. Not enough focus and a bit of dread over where to start. I think the focus of this blog will start to shift. Personal growth and challenge, yes, less about Buenos Aires and Tango. The visual arts and photography. Travel.
However, Tango has been everywhere. While at Harvard a couple of weeks ago I walked the bridge across the Charles River. I wanted to shoot the clouds at dusk. There was a circle of people dancing and a small dark and attractive woman handing out flyers: a Boston Tango festival. I told her that I had tried to learn Tango in Buenos Aires for a year but found I didn’t have a natural talent. I did not tell her about my public milonga debut. I haven’t written about that yet, either.
She said that she took beginners. I could feel the blood rush to my face, but I gave her a tight smile and walked away saying I didn’t live in Boston.
There isn’t a Tango club within a two-hour drive so during the winter I let it slip.
Saturday I had lunch at a communal table at a wonderful restaurant in Florence where the locals go. The couple sitting with me lived in Florence and met through dancing Tango. The man has a Facebook group and organizes events in Florence. Monday there will be an outdoor milonga. I’ll miss being there. He says they dance Tango better in Italy than in Buenos Aires. I’m not going to get in the middle of that argument.
This weekend two of my Tango photographs were published in a Brazlian magazine: DEFESA LATINA. The editor had seen the images on this blog and wanted to use them.
These little Tango tweaks that happen when I travel keep reminding me that I have to work on my next step and keep this blog updated.
I’ve continued my Spanish classes via Skype with Gisela Giunti, my tutor in Buenos Aires. She has been very patient with my eccentric patterns of learning and my need to sometimes work by chat and sometimes by voice. My style of learning is visual and there are days I simply do not process the conversation aurally. She’s been good. I recommend her highly if you are in Buenos Aires or if you want to start your learning from elsewhere in the world.
In the coming days I’ll be talking about my various journeys to photography workshops, about learning to see, about the turning of the page on Tango, a break but I hope not the last chapter. Sometimes there will just be an image. We will see. I hope I will say things worth reading as well.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,
trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
CÓRDOBA, November 14
It’s 7 A. M. Sunday morning. I’m up early because I am going on a “trekking” exposition to Villa Alpina in the Sierras near Córdoba. Every other city I’ve been to is dead this time on Sunday morning. Here the streets are still crowded from Saturday night.
My room overlooks one of the busiest squares in this provincial capital and the crowds of young people have been yelling, singing, clapping, laughing and blowing car horns all night. There is a dog who stands guard at the intersection and barks constantly. He runs off of the traffic island and attacks car tires. Somehow he is never killed. He never seems to eat. I see him there every day and since Argentine dogs don’t like me as much as American ones, I avoid him.
I am more than a little sleepy. I was up late watching bad movies. English with Spanish subtitles. Or truly stupid shit that just looks funny dubbed in Spanish. Stallone. Some Western. It doesn’t matter. I have memorized the jingles and the commercials’ theme songs. I know the theme song for the overproduced Smirnoff commercial. I note that the man singing schmaltz in the credit card commercial has on a wig and sports a porn-star mustache. I remember the annoying boy that keeps asking his mother “¿Por qué?” when she tells him that her detergent gets the clothes brighter. “¿Por qué?” I know the commercial for the alfajores Blahn-co Blahn-co BLAHN-co Nay-gro Nay-gro NAAAY-gro. Channel surfing I keep encountering the same movies. “¿Por qué?” One week it’s NOTTING HILL with English subtitles. The next week it’s NOTTING HILL with dubbed Spanish, the voice actors sounding nothing like Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. They seemed to have left Hugh Grant’s patented uhhhhhmmmm in the Spanish version without dubbing. “¿Por qué?”
My tour is late picking me up, as usual, so I decide to walk out and get something to drink from the kiosko across the street. The kids look like it’s eleven o’clock Saturday night, the girls still made up and in black dresses and the boys with their arms around them. All around me, as usual, are couples making out. It is spring in Argentina.
I have come to Cordoba for a few days because Buenos Aires has been a bit flat this trip. I am having trouble taking good pictures. Both my writing and my photography seem stale, so last year. Contacts here from before are not answering e-mails. Potential friends fizzle out.
A constant novelty junkie, I seem to need new sights and stimulation to fire up my creativity.
Córdoba, the capital of the province by the same name, is not a collection of once-in-a-lifetime sights, but the people are very friendly and warm, and very good looking and affectionate with each other. People attempt to speak to me but I cannot understand them and I sure as hell clam up if I need to ask someone for something. I can’t seem to remember the words. Stage fright. I skip dinner because I am too shy and intimidated to go. I have snacks instead.
When I left Buenos Aires this past April, the overwhelming anxiety from my language-learning block was too strong I couldn’t confidently return immediately. I got back to the States and all of a sudden, I realized that I had become so visual that I was almost post-verbal. My photography was soaring, my writing was atrophying. I had spoken with one of my instructors in Buenos Aires and he suggested that the issue was that I was going back and forth from the U. S. to Argentina and that every time I did my language would suffer. When I returned the downgrade in my language frustrated and confused me. He suggested that I do lessons by Skype when in the U. S.
I started Skype lessons when I returned home with Gisela Giunti, a private instructor who is in Buenos Aires. Skype was a good tool, because I had become so intimidated by speaking that I couldn’t understand audio files or engage in conversation. Skype gave me the opportunity to work more slowly and to chat via text on those days when I couldn’t understand the sounds of words.
So many people learn by listening that it is frustrating when you are a visual learner. The usual methods of listening to tapes and repeating things really doesn’t work for me and simply increases my frustration.
This dance troupe performed a modern piece with crutches and a wheelchair. I would assume they are part of the Universidad Nacíonal de Córdoba
Here in Córdoba, my intimidation extends to the local bus station. I haven’t been able to ask for a ticket to one of the neighboring towns, so I break down and do the most uncool thing a traveler can do. I sign up for a tour. I’m now truly a turista. The horror! The shame!
I have visions of five minute stops at overlooks and souvenir shops. Kitsch and monuments. I am going “trekking” today, and touring small Bavarian-themed alpine villages tomorrow.
At 7:45, the guide comes into the lobby of the hotel and asks for “Som-WELL.” People have a hard time pronouncing Sam (too nasal), so Samuel is the default name I give them. He apologizes in Spanish for his lateness–“el transport”– and I say no hay problema, or no problem, choking on the original phrase that came to mind “hay no problema.”
I get on the bus and I realize that I shouldn’t worry about my disdain of the picture in front of monument this morning. My fellow day travelers are all people from Córdoba and they all chatter away happily in Spanish. For some reason when I signed up I thought I paid extra for an English speaking guide. I decide to roll with it.
The group is having a fine time, joking, teasing each other and gossiping. I don’t understand much of what they say, but when you don’t understand a language you become much more attuned to atmosphere. This is a happy group. The man who is seated next to me is so quiet I assume he doesn’t speak Spanish, either. As the day goes on, I realize that he simply does not wish to speak to anyone.
The ride gets longer and more uncomfortable. Shocks seem to be an option on these tour vans and we are currently bouncing on an unpaved road. Heavy fog obscures the view. A woman in the group develops carsickness. We have to stop, first for her to change to the front seat, then several times more so that she can get air or retch.
We arrive at the destination. Wrapped in fog and with a light rain, we decide to wait to see if we can ascend. I am happy to see fog. I like it for the pictures. No one else understands but I hop out of the van and start shooting pictures of some cows and horses in the fog.
About 30 minutes later we start out. By this time a man comes up to me and asks if I speak English. He worked on cruise ships and speaks really well. He is from Córdoba. I follow him down the hill and we help an older couple whose car has spun out in the mud. He apologizes for me for not being able to answer in Spanish. The older man smiles and says in English: “I do not speak English. I speak French.”
The hike begins and the group is energetic and the weather is hazy. We see sheep and little flowers. I opine that this will burn off and that we will be in sunshine soon.
On the way up the trail, several friendly people speak to me and I attempt to understand. Normal questions. Where am I from? What do I do? I stumble and stutter and ask “¿como?” more than a few times. The people communicate with me on a more basic level, though, and we all decide that we are muy amable…nice.
For a brief moment, I am right and the sun comes out just as we reach a vantage point. A condor begins circling over the valley and I take several dozen pictures, both in the clear sky and in the fog. I am in a foggy state now, my perception altered by my lack of understanding, and so the image I choose for this post of the condor reflects my mood.
When I signed up for this trip I assumed that “trekking” is a synonym for hiking. Instead this expedition turns into rock climbing. Very treacherous and very difficult for me. I pull myself up between car size boulders certain that I am going to fall off and break my camera or my back. I struggle and cling for dear life in a Spiderman pose. Manly code dictates that none of the other men offer me assistance as they do the chicas, manly code dictates that I not humiliate myself by asking for it. However, from the sideways glances and worried looks I know that the others think me in trouble. I am.
The issue with climbing up, of course, is that you have to come down. By this time you get tired and by this time you get sloppy. I am shaking on several of the rocks and slide down on the seat of my pants like a chica, but I make it down ok, with only a little slip into a creek to ruin my spotless record.
As you will see in my next post, I had a fall down a cliff in Maine in June, so I had every reason to be worried about the fucking rocks, the moisture, the fog and the lack of adult supervision.
When we get to the bottom, we sit a for a half-an-hour and sip maté. There are more questions I can’t understand or answer. but I feel a genuine feeling of warmth coming from the Cordobeses. We bounce quietly on the way home and people warmly say “chau” (proper spelling in Argentina) to me when they leave the van.
The next day I find myself in the middle of the kitsch and souvenir circuit I had feared. It is a boring day, but the bilingual guide does not have to speak English. I understand his commentary in Spanish well enough and quit paying attention to it about the same time I would have in English.
I still can’t speak, though.
I take pictures during the obligatory five-minute vista stop for photos. Turista.
On the flight home from Córdoba, I encounter a friendly older woman who won’t stop asking me questions. I am able to answer some of them, but only by translating English to Spanish and Spanish to English. All this talk about immersion, learning foreign languages in three months, speaking like a native, just doesn’t seem to apply to me. Despite hard work, frustration and the good efforts of my talented instructors, I am still at the beginning intermediate stage. I knew at the beginning this would be hard, but I had been lulled by writers like Tim Ferriss that I could hack my way into speaking a foreign language. Sorry, folks, but the short cuts just aren’t possible for me. I’ve learned that those of us who are really visual have a hard time with this stuff. After a year, I am struggling. It is a long road ahead.
On the flight home, I read a novel and chuckle as I think about the relevance of the following quote:
The majority of customers, they learn through vision, and most times their eyes are looking up–to the left if they’re remembering information, but they’ll look to the right if they’re lying. The next group learns by hearing and they’ll look side to side. The smallest group learns by moving or touching, and they’ll look down as the talk.
The visual people will say, “Look,” or “I see what you mean.” They’ll say, “I can’t picture that,” or “See you later…”
Your audio customers will say, “Listen,” or “That sounds good,” or “Talk to you soon…”
Your touch-based customers will tell you, “I can handle that.” They’ll say, “Got it,” or “Catch you later.”
–Chuck Pahluniak, RANT
Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time.
BUENOS AIRES–October 28
On this trip’s first day of Tango lessons I am surprised to find that despite the six-month gap I remember a bit of Tango: the basic step, the ocho cortado, the close embrace, the walk (more or less), the posture (more or less). The old flaws are still there as well. I still have trouble keeping in line–stepping too much on the diagonal when I step backwards– still have trouble keeping the beat of the music, and I still have trouble walking. That sounds ludicrous to those who don’t dance Tango, but that is one of the hardest things about the dance. To lead properly, you must walk in a straight line, you must close your feet to transfer your weight, you must step backwards in a straight line, you must keep good time with the music and you must hear and feel the changes in the music.
I got in a bit of trouble last April when I put up a video of my instructor Guadalupe and I dancing. I received both a private scolding and a public rant from another blogger because Guada and I danced a number of fancier steps, some including ganchos or kicking embellishments. I was not trying to pass for an expert and Guada was not cheating me (as the blogger claimed) but for the U. S. readers who expect DANCING WITH THE STARS tricks, a walking video wouldn’t have seemed like much at all.
So to the person who expressed such surprising vitriol, let me say that today I am in the third lesson of the week and in all three we have concentrated on breathing, walking, posture, timing and hearing the beats and phrasing of the music.
For a novice like me, I have to develop a tricky mix of bravado and humility. For a man to dance Tango, he needs to lead clearly and with confidence, yet it is also vital that as a novice I return to the beginning and to the basics.
Guada snaps her fingers to the music and we verbally accentuate the music with BUHs and BOMs on the beats. I step forward and backwards, practice changing weight from foot to foot in time with the music. My hips are sore, my quadraceps are burning because I am walking more correctly, rather than the duck waddle of my normal gait.
BUH…. Step forward.
BAH… Step forward
BUH BUH … Change weight from foot to foot
BOM… Step forward
BAH BAH BUH BUH BOM… Step forward in time and continue the walk.
Every day I get up and I realize that as the day begins anew, so must I. Thinking that I have expertise doesn’t help, not in my dancing, not in my Spanish, not in my photography and not in writing. I am learning to accept the necessity of being a beginner, not through false modesty or self-loathing or self-deprecation. Not arrogant “expertise,” but the mistakes of experience guide me and improve my skills. When I forget this or become smug, the universe reminds me to pay attention. I trip down stairs, I lose things, I dent a fender, I unconsciously hurt a friend.
Being human requires me to get the start right. I succeed when I keep my attention on the most basic details. I fail when I look past them. Not only am I beginning to learn, I am learning to begin.
I wrote this piece for my first photography exhibit which opened last night, October 17, at 202 Market in Roanoke, Virginia…
On October 16, 2008 I stepped off of a plane in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a city that I had never visited and in which I knew no one, to try to learn two things for which I have no talent: Tango and Spanish. I was attempting a life experiment to see what would happen if I took myself completely out of my comfort zone at mid-age and lived the adventure while others watched. I wrote a blog about my mishaps and adventures: JUST TANGO ON: A Midlife Solution Not A Midlife Crisis. I began to develop an audience and I started to live a crazy and wistful life in a city I didn’t quite understand .
I have been taking photographs since the age of 14. I was a camera geek, developing my own prints and studying photography magazines and books. When I got to college, I never thought about pursuing photography as a profession. Instead, I wanted to be a screenwriter. For more than twenty years I studied screenwriting and films and wrote (or started to write) loads of movie ideas and scripts, only to be frustrated by the very difficult task of writing and marketing a successful screenplay. However, all those years of thinking visually and writing “word pictures” developed my sense of the visual world.
I named my first post from Buenos Aires “The Astonishing Quality of Light.” I wandered around the streets with my little digital camera and I saw a spectrum and intensity in the city’s light I had never before encountered. I was entranced by the visual dramas that unfolded in front of me. I only understood the body language between people, not the words. Everything was upside down. Spring started in October, time moved forward for Daylight Savings Time and Mother’s Day was observed that month. The only way I could participate was by observing and I felt that I was in the middle of a constantly unfolding movie in which as I walked through the streets, an invisible director yelled “ACTION.” I was simultaneously a part of the scene and apart from the scene.
My Spanish was abysmal and I was scared to speak. I stuttered in English because of my anxiety surrounding language. I watched, I pointed, I grunted and I got by. I had become bi-inarticulate.
I received feedback about my blog from home. Many people liked the writing and they loved the pictures. I didn’t understand. I was spending all this time writing and all people wanted to talk about were the pictures? One commenter tried to reassure me about my language difficulties. She wrote: “You speak Spanish fluently with your eyes.”
When I came home in late December I took the files and had them printed. I started to realize that the photos had a certain style and in the new larger format I started to look at them differently. I went back to Buenos Aires twice more. I had a group of pictures of Tango, another group of pictures of cityscapes, and a group of pictures of people that captured in single frames a sense of story, a feeling of mood and motion, and that extraordinary Argentinian light.
This past summer I spent time in Maine attending a workshop that placed me in a group of accomplished peers led by the digital image artist and instructor, John Paul Caponigro. In Maine, I discovered that I could capture a sense of nature’s mystery and mood in my images. I became more open to other subjects and dug deeper into my creativity. I began to use anxiety and worry to enhance my work. In the past these emotions had blocked me creatively. Recently I traveled to Barcelona and Mallorca. There I took many of the cinematic and colorful elements from my Buenos Aires work and mixed them with the darkness and perspective shifting that I had explored in Maine.
In tonight’s exhibition I am showing representative images from my emerging body of work. This year I have made the transition from working as a writer illustrating his work with photographs to working as a photographer augmenting his images with words.
Tonight marks not only an inaugural exhibition, it also marks the first anniversary of this quixotic project, one that shows that sometimes the sanest thing you can do is to try something a little crazy. The adventure continues in Buenos Aires next week. Tango on!
Here are the pictures from the exhibit. To view a picture in a larger format, click on the thumbnail.
As you know, the Jewish New Year starts at sundown this evening and I have been thinking a lot during the past days about why I am becoming more successful at making life changes.
It is relatively easy, but powerful. I have started to look at New Year’s Eve as the destination rather than as the start of my goal setting and resolutions.
There is something powerful that has happened to me the last three summers. Perhaps because the summer is the time of growth and autumn is the time of harvest, I have initiated very big changes in July and August.
In the summer of 2007, because of weight and health concerns, I abstained from alcohol on July 1 and continued until after New Year’s. I became slimmer and much clearer and less moody. It was the beginning of a much healthier period for me.
Last August, I conceived and put together my big writing/ photography project “Just Tango On.” I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 16th and proceeded to create a lot of content and gain an audience. By New Year’s, I had been featured by the Virginia affiliate of NPR, realized that my photography skills were reaching the point where they were beginning to match my writing skills and once again became even slimmer and healthier.
This July I made plans to go to Spain. A hiking and yoga group with whom I have been associated was having a program in Mallorca and I decided to go a couple of weeks in advance to do a photo shoot in Barcelona and Mallorca. I found some great images and I was so active and disciplined in Spain I lost 15 of the 25 pounds I plan to lose by New Year’s Day 2010.
While I was in Spain I received a message from my rep that she was organizing a photography exhibit for me October 17th. I have delayed my next trip to Buenos Aires by a week and have been working hard ever since my return. Things are looking quite positive for the show. Coincidently, I first met my rep on New Year’s Day 2009.
So, make your resolution now and when 1/1/2010 comes you can look back with pride at what you accomplish rather than look forward with dread to what you have to deny yourself. Winter is depressing enough without beating yourself up over the past year’s excesses.
There are few things in life that will shake you out of your daydreams more abruptly than seeing a 70-year old naked man riding a bicycle on a busy city street.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning and I had just come out of the Barcelona Metro. I was walking down Diagonal, one of Barcelona’s most majestic boulevards. I was on my way to tour Casa Milá a.k.a. La Pedrera, a residential masterwork by the architect Gaudi and my mind was wandering as my mind is wont to do. A completely naked cyclist (except for a pair of aviator sunglasses) barreled up the broad sidewalk, acting as if this was accepted practice. He was smooth and hairless from head to toe. He was uncircumcised. I made a 180° turn to make sure that I hadn’t suffered a brain hemorrhage and I saw his bare bony ass cheeks wrapped around the bike’s saddle. I shuddered as I thought about chafing or potholes.
No one else seemed to notice or care. I had worried about security on the Metro, so I had my camera tucked away and wasn’t ready for a shot. I doubt it would have mattered. I wouldn’t have seen it until it was too late to take a decent picture.
It was the second time in 24 hours that I had seen some unrequested disrobing. In the hot afternoon the day before, I had attempted to sunbathe and read out on the claustrophobic sundeck located on the roof of my hotel. The seating was quite limited. Lying on the one sun lounge was a fortyish woman, quite fit and bronzed. She was topless in the European style, which despite her nicely shaped breasts did not cause any particular longings in me. I think this was because of her unfortunate face, a square-jawed squinty affair that had the warmth of a drill Sargent and the softness of a tombstone. I perceived the reason for the ancients’ sculptures of headless torsos. Her short-severe haircut had collected into bunches on her crown that resembled the tufts of a toothbrush. She tightened her face and peered through Coke bottle glasses at a book.
Other than an arm chair that was directly to the side of the Sargent, the only other space available for sunning was a dining-room table-sized deck where two men lay closely, side by side like toy soldiers in a cigar box. The heat of the sun began to fog my reading glasses. I was reading a tale of a man frozen by a marital and spiritual crisis. He had a proclivity for rumination, lying on the floor staring under his chair. This was annoying me and while I ruminated about my annoyance I became self-conscious and suffered slightly from dejá vù. The men were getting warm and they removed their cargo shorts and began sunbathing in high-cut striped briefs. They kissed on the lips and whispered before one went to have a cigarette. The Sargent turned over on her stomach to achieve an even tan, her breasts pressing toward her open book. If all this had been happening at a normal-sized pool I would have watched with detached amusement. Here my personal space seemed to have been invaded, even with all of Barcelona eleven stories below me. I was hot, my chair was uncomfortable, and there was too much unattractive sexual display. I left and gratefully breathed in the air conditioning in my room.
Yet I had come to Barcelona, in part, because of sexually-charged visual stimulation. Last year I had seen Woody Allen’s VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA. The city looked spectacular as did the actresses. Scarlett Johansson’s character Christina discovers her passion for photography and she begins to make her snapshots into art. I watched greedily, thinking how good it would be to once again seriously practice my photography. The fact that I have a crush on Scarlett didn’t hurt. The additional fact that her mentor and model was played by the fiery Penelope Cruz didn’t disappoint me either. When they kissed in the darkroom, surrounded by wonderful images, I imagined the smells of darkroom chemicals (I can still remember the acetic acid which is a stronger form of vinegar.) I was sold. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be Penelope Cruz kissing Scarlett Johansson or Scarlett Johansson kissing Penelope Cruz. Since I couldn’t decide, I thought I wanted to both kissing both.
While in Barcelona, I didn’t have the opportunity to choose between Scarlett and Penelope. Instead I spent long solitary days making images. True, I am lucky to do what I do, and it sounds like a boondoggle, but I was rising early to catch the good light, walking in the hot streets all day, dealing with my frustration with my bad Spanish, and maniacally editing pictures until one or two o’clock in the morning. I was exhausted and grumpy. I washed my clothes in the sink. I stopped shaving. For lunch, I ate fruit standing up at the market and for dinner had a scoop of ice cream.
Barcelona has a reputation for pickpockets and so I was constantly afraid of getting mugged. At night, I held my monopod out in front of me and waved it like a baton. I was letting the thugs know “I have a camera, I am a tourist, but if you fuck with me I am armed and dangerous.” Walking back to my hotel about 11 one night, I became aware of a man behind me slowly pedaling a bicycle, so slowly that he could hardly keep it in balance. I paused, extended the sections of the monopod, and lifted it like a knight’s lance, ready for battle. Sic Semper Tyrannus! The man pedaled faster and caught up with another man about twenty-five feet ahead. They started talking. I think they were a team and unprepared for the trouble a sleep-deprived well-muscled gentleman brandishing his weapon of choice on a moonless night might give them. I rounded the corner, still vigilant, went into my room and blasted the AC. I washed the sweat, the dirt and the worry out of my damp hair in the shower.
El Sombrero Rojo
(The Red Hat)
A little story by Sam Krisch
One afternoon, three men sat in a café. One man wore a red hat. He told a story to his friends:
When my grandfather was young, he fell in love with a woman five years older. She was married to a much older man, a doctor. After he finished his medical studies, he was a colonel in the army. He ran his house like the army and did not permit his wife to leave the house without his permission.
My grandfather, a gardener, began an affair with the married woman. The lovers would meet in the afternoons when the housekeeper went to the market and on Sundays when the doctor visited his patients.
One Sunday, the doctor came home early. The lovers heard him, and my grandfather dressed quickly and went out the window. He was able to escape without being noticed. In his haste, he left behind a red hat. The doctor discovered it. His wife told a fanciful story and while it was logical, the doctor knew that the hat belonged to the gardener.
The doctor, because of his grief and shame, became very sick and died. The woman married the gardener and they had a son. My father was that son and he gave me this red hat.
His friend, a man who had much humor, raised his glass. He said: “Let us drink to the Red Hat, symbol of great love. Also, let us drink to my brother who last year sold it to you for ten pesos.”
“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.
BUENOS AIRES, April 12
It’s another week of loss and regret in Buenos Aires.
It’s Sunday afternoon and I’m sitting at the Café Victoria across from the Recoleta cemetery and I have just resolved a drama. I noticed before I left my apartment that I didn’t have my U. S. cellphone. I tried calling it with my Argentine cell phone, but it wasn’t in the apartment. I knew what had happened. Disorganized and spacey, my mode this entire visit, I had left my phone in the coffee shop across the street. I went there and tried to call the phone again. There was no sound. I couldn’t recall the Spanish words for “Did you find my cellphone?” The shop owner thought I wanted to use a cellphone and tried to hand me his. An American man was sitting there and his Argentine girlfriend decoded the situation. The owner shrugged his shoulders. The American started singing the song from THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a song so cloying it always sets my teeth on edge, “So long, farewell…”
I went home and dialed the cell again. This time a woman answered it, “Hola.” “Hola,” I said. “Hola?” I didn’t even try Spanish “¿Hablas inglés?” She put a man on the phone and he asked me my name. We both laughed when he identified himself as Osmany, my Cuban friend who works at the café. Of all the people who would find the phone in Buenos Aires, he is the one who would be most likely to save it and return it to me without ransom or reward.
Osmany and I have grown close. Against all advice from my language advisors, we chat amiably in English each morning about a variety of subjects. He is a new father and he is married to an Argentine. He has some difficulties with the change in culture. “I want you to know my people,” he says. “We help each other. If you need something, anyone will help you because they know you will help them. It is not like here where people look at me only as a waiter and they treat me like I am…a piece of paper to be thrown aside, or something.” He misses home. “Our freedom is not the freedom just to take a trip. Our freedom is to be yourself.” Pointing to his head he says, “Our freedom is here.”
Cuba has always fascinated me. The music, the atmosphere, the food, and I have to admit it, the cigars. I want to visit. I met an American here in Buenos Aires who said he had been to Cuba some thirty times. No one gives him any trouble and the Cubans stamp a landing card, not his passport. When I mentioned this to Osmany he looked troubled and I decided to instead be one of the first wave of American tourists once the embargo is lifted. I have visions of smoking a big cigar, eating black beans and rice, taking beautiful pictures of an aging city, dancing to the rhythms of Cuban music.
We talk about the embargo and the first signs that the U. S. is considering normalizing trade. “Ojála, Ojála,” he says. “Cuba is in the perfect place to trade with both the United States and with South America.” We make plans to meet in Cuba one day where he will introduce me to his family and his people. He will show me the happiness.
I have brought my camera to the café in Recoleta. I thought I could get someone to take my picture looking writerly for this post. (see above) Three girls, probably in their early twenties, are at the table next to me and they are speaking English but in a non-American accent. I ask them to take my picture and find out they are from Australia. They have been traveling all over South America. It is their second time in Buenos Aires and they say they are “not loving it.” This surprises me since this is such a young city and from what I can see people of their age seem to make friends very easily. Their favorite city so far has been Rio de Janiero, a city that I have been reluctant to visit because of the crime, but I do not tell them the reason. “It is so beautiful. The mountains jut up from the sea and the Christ standing over the water is magnificent. The best views are from the poorest areas” I speculate that since they are from Australia that perhaps it is because Rio fronts the water. “We were very interested in the crime,” one of the girls say. “We were at a football game and we were right in the middle of a riot. You know, it was great. Australia is so bloody safe.”
I explain that perhaps the reason they don’t like Buenos Aires is because it has a bit of a sad quality. Tango music is all about loss and regret and unfulfilled love. The dance is romantic and passionate and many of the lyrics are about separation. The girls blink at me and are interested as I talk about my project, but they can’t imagine going anywhere without knowing someone or having a companion. “Don’t you get lonely?” “Of course, but that is part of the experience.” Again, interest but incomprehension. I try to explain why unfulfilled passion is the most romantic love of all, but they are from a sunny culture and aren’t old enough to understand music in a minor key. It would be difficult to explain to them why ROMEO AND JULIET is more romantic than CINDERELLA because they still think of true love always leading to happy endings.
The other night I watched the fantastically self-aware SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, in part to read the Spanish subtitles, but also because I am a sucker for the story. In one of the final scenes, Lord Wessex, Shakespeare’s rival for Gwynneth Paltrow’s Viola asks Queen Elizabeth: “How is this to end?” The Queen responds, “As stories must when love’s denied: with tears and a journey.”
As the girls leave the café to go see a football game (perhaps hoping to find another riot), I think about how strange my conversation must have seemed to them, but I have had thirty more years to love and lose and to see others experience the same process.
Somehow, the sad stories can make you feel happier. Also, as the theatre manager says to his investor in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, “Strangely enough, it all turns out well.” “How?” “I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”
A old woman shuffles by my table and spies the leavings on my plate and asks if she can have them. “Please!” I reply. She takes the rest of my hamburger bun, fries and the bacon I have rejected and scoops them into a plastic bag. As she walks off with the bag, I feel both pleased and ashamed of myself, sitting fat and happy on a Sunday afternoon, lecturing girls about life and love and loss as if I know something special, and somehow believing it will all turn out okay because I gave the rest of my high-priced lunch to someone who is hungry.
In the beginner’s mind there are endless possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
If you can’t say something good about someone sit right here by me.
–Alice Roosevelt Longworth
I have a rule when I write this blog. I do not write things that I think will hurt other people and I try not to relate any stories that may betray a confidence. After all, I can never be sure who is reading.
I have been astonished at the vitriol of some of the comments posted on this blog. Recently there was a comment that is rude and hurtful to myself and to one of my subjects. I elected not to approve it because even if the writer is correct, the tone is extremely angry and arrogant. The person who made this comment also decided to denigrate me in another forum.
This person didn’t know that many of the complaints were unfounded because I elected to report on the part of the story that I felt my audience would find entertaining and not the part of the story that might have made this person happier, if it is possible to make this person happier.
In one post I wrote about a gathering at a close friend’s house and I mentioned his first name. The gathering couldn’t have been more innocuous and the reference couldn’t have been less controversial, still my friend was quite upset because mutual friends mentioned it to him and he didn’t like seeing his first name on the internet.
I was taken aback because I didn’t understand his issue. It was a small part of a large post that was about something else entirely. I had only used his first name. I couldn’t see the harm.
I removed the few sentences that named him and strangely enough I felt that it improved the content. It is now tighter and clearer. His section was only a benign digression and he acted as an unwitting editor.
This made me think of the larger implications of writing this blog. I have attempted to craft an online persona very close to my own. Yet, writing about one’s self and one’s experiences is by nature an incomplete view of what has happened since I only have a first person perspective. I have occasionally tried to change my perspective by writing in the second or third person as I did in the posts “Chapter Two” and “Failure to Communicate.”
A year ago I became interested in people who tried to change identities completely, creating new names and identities, and then disappearing. I ordered several books from Amazon about how one goes about changing identities. Soon after I had started researching this topic, I found myself in a bit of an uncomfortable situation with security officers at the airport and wondered if my research into this topic had caused me to be placed on a government watch list. If I had been, I placed my official self in jeopardy by wondering what it would be like to invent a shadow personality, a doppelgänger who may or may not have a separate name but who might be free to act in a different or perhaps more reckless way than my “real” self. I wrote about this before I came to Argentina in “The Midlife Protection Plan”
This story has been about the improvement in my outlook by remaking myself, so I am a different person than when I started, both because of the journey and because of reporting it. The subject of this blog is the beginner’s journey and about the many errors one makes in that process. Sometimes the desires of the audience or even the knowledge that there is an audience has changed both my perspective and my writing.
There are others who left pseudonymous comments or sent mysterious e-mails. Their comments sometimes intrigue me and I wonder about their intent. Often the writer’s attempt to remain anonymous worries me. It is as if some people have created avatars, or characters that exist only in an artificial world like Second Life, and imagined a connection with my online persona. I am always happy to engage in conversation with friends and readers and often these mysterious people serve as true inspiration, but I am not an avatar. While this journey is imaginative and fanciful, it takes place in real time and is written by a real person.
I didn’t expect my gentle little journey to be so controversial. Perhaps my friend was right to be upset that he was included. Sometimes I’m upset that I am included as well and so there will be a time later this year when this blog will end.
I never put on a pair of shoes until I’ve worn them at least five years.
Buenos Aires, April 1
Someone has to be playing an April Fool’s prank. I look in my messenger case, the one I take all over town and the one in which I keep my Tango shoes. There is only one shoe.
These are very good shoes, purchased here in Buenos Aires and rebuilt in Virginia so that they hug my heel and push my toe to the front of the shoe. Before I bought the shoes, I was having trouble walking in time to the music and leading properly. I don’t want to mislead anyone, in both senses of the word, but I still have trouble walking in time to the music and leading properly. Yesterday my entire lesson consisted of walking with my instructor in proper time to the beat and then adding a quicker step as a double beat.
It is one of the hardest things I do. It is harder than the steps we practiced in the last post because here I have to really feel the music. Here I have to time my steps. There is nothing but my rhythm and my intention and my confidence to guide me. It is very basic and very difficult and even extremely accomplished dancers must practice this all the time.
I search my apartment in a sweat, hoping that maybe I was just rearranging things in the bag. There is only one shoe. Perhaps I opened my bag on the Subte and it fell out? I lost a pair of nice sunglasses last week. I was having neck pain and shifted the bag’s strap to my other shoulder. The glasses were propped on my head and I may have knocked them off. I think I would know if a shoe dropped out. I doubt very seriously that there was a thief who was looking for a single right shoe. The only other explanation is that I emptied out my messenger bag at the studio yesterday to get my wallet and left one of the shoes in the dark entrance foyer.
On my way to the lesson, I think of alternate scenarios. I could buy I new pair, but without the heel reconstruction the foot wouldn’t be far enough forward for me to really feel the floor. Maybe I can learn to dance a One-Legged Tango. Perhaps Riverdancing is in my future. I readjust my bag again, hoping the other shoe won’t drop.
I sheepishly walk into the foyer of the dance studio. Guadalupe is a few minutes earlier and I tell her what happened. She at first expresses concern, then mirrors my self-mocking amusement, and then she tells me that when someone is an idiot people her parents age say “¡Que Zapato!” to indicate the person’s foolishness. Also Guada tells me that in a dance hall it is common to call someone who can’t dance un zapato, as in “How was it [the dance]?” The answer: “Not good, bailando con un zapato.”
That idiot! Dancing with one shoe! Both use the singular form of los zapatos: shoes.
There is a different attendant behind the desk and she has no idea if a shoe was left yesterday. She looks under the counter and starts laughing. She pulls out my other shoe.
Now I can start the lesson properly and learn to walk all over again.
How to Forget Anything (Without Drugs or Alcohol)
–by Le Béret, Guest Contributor
DO go to high school and college reunions. You’ve forgotten everyone anyway and together you can manufacture a new history, when everyone was happy, sexy, could stay up for days, engage in brilliant debate, and have the choice of any career or spouse in the world. Regret earns you bonus miles.
DO only eat eggs. No one remembers eggs.
DO hold grudges. Don’t forgive anyone and soon you’ll have no one left to remember, or to remember you.
DO go back to a city in which you once lived. Walk the streets and see how shops have closed, restaurants have changed hands, condo projects built. Mourn either the seedy decay or the cute gentrification. Go to places where dead or relocated relatives lived. Rinse and repeat.
DO NOT delete important computer files. Keep working and the files will do that on their own. Just like your brain.
DO NOT bother to pay your income taxes or keep any receipts. That’s why they employ the good people at the I.R.S.: to help remember things for you.
DO hang around much younger people. They won’t give a damn about what you remember and laugh at you for thinking they do.
DO listen to the elderly. They are skilled at losing important recent memories and fictionalizing your shared distant past. The elderly should be sought for their wise counsel and you should heed their advice. By doing so, you will choose a safe future, one in which you try nothing and don’t go anywhere. This helps keep you from creating new memories.
“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.”
–Notes from Fred Astaire’s First Screen Test
BUENOS AIRES, March 28
At least I’m not balding.
I know Fred Astaire. I’ve seen him dance. Sir, I am no Fred Astaire.
Forgive me, my children. My writing may be as clumsy as my dance steps. Certainly, there is much in this post that some of my Tango internet friends who have been following me will criticize. One looked at the video that is in this post and said “I’m not going to say anything unless you ask me.” So I didn’t ask her.
People who become involved in Tango are very passionate people and they hold passionate opinions. While in Virginia, I attempted to keep in practice by attending an afternoon lesson and milonga (dance) in Richmond. My partner had never danced Tango before and I am not past the advanced beginner level so I didn’t lead her well. I was telling my partner that as people advance they ultimately move from an open embrace to a closed one and that the dancers lean against one another, become a single unit, and that the communication between the dancers becomes the dance.
An older woman heard my talk, which had been discussed in several dozen lessons and started scolding me: “Don’t ever use the word lean. You don’t lean. That’s not the way.”
I don’t like confrontations and I simply told her that “lean” was the word my Tango teacher in Buenos Aires used and that perhaps it was a language difference. A quick Google search turns up an entire thesis on leaning in Tango as a style called “apilado.” The partners form a triangle and balance their weight against each other using their torsos. Sometimes the best way to win an argument is to walk away. This infuriates some people even more, but I am not particularly clever with the cutting comeback and so I have stopped trying.
The video that I have included was taken on the same small camera I use for all my still shots. That is why the video quality is not up to the standards I like, but it will do for this post. Guada and I are practicing each one of the steps that we learned in February. We set the camera on a tripod and then I edited the clips so that you didn’t see all the walking back and forth to start and stop the camera. Spielberg has nothing to fear.
The steps that we are practicing are the basic 8- count step in which woman does a cruzado, a cross, in step five. We practice the ocho cortado in which we begin the basic step and rather than continue to the cross we step backwards and can do a couple of variations. Either I can lead her to a cross and then we finish the step or I lead her to a gancho, or hook. This is the showy step that observers believe will cause the man to be in danger of losing his manhood. The position of the thigh permits the woman to kick the back of the man’s upper thigh, so this is not as dangerous as it looks. I also perform the giro in which I create a spinning motion for myself doing sacadas or stepping between my partners feet while leading her in ochos or figure eights. Another sacada ends with a lapiz, a half-circle that blocks my partner’s forward movement and allows her to make an embellishment called a parada in which she gently kicks my leg and then steps over it to complete the step.
My instructor tells me that “people think of Tango as something rigid, but it is much more like elastic.” There are moments when the partners are close, moments when there is space for the various steps. It is not a rigid pattern of steps, but a communication between the partners that is mutual and understood through the energy between them.
All this takes a lot of time to learn and even more to master. It is the man’s responsibility to lead the dance and because of this I have yet to go to a milonga (dance club) and ruin someone’s evening by showing my incompetence. My first lesson upon my return was three days ago and I was confused and clumsy at first but some of it came back to me towards the end of the lesson. As Guadalupe said, “the man invites the woman but then must give her direction.” A central dictum in Tango is that if something goes wrong it is the man’s fault. That, of course, only increases the tension for slightly shy guys like me.
What we got here is… failure to communicate
–Spoken by Strother Martin in COOL HAND LUKE
March 27, 2009
Dear Buenos Aires,
We are writing in order to try and work out some misunderstandings.
First of all, Sam left his ethernet connector cord for his MacBook Air at home and had to spend most of his first day here searching for a replacement. It was stupid of him, but no one had it and no one had a decent and affordable wireless solution.
He was able to finally jury-rig a solution. At least then he could phone home.
He also needed to get a prepaid cell phone. The largest company’s agent claimed he didn’t have one, the next company’s agent sold him a nice one. The interaction was all in Spanish and Sam didn’t even know which was the word for his first name (nombre) and for his last name (apellido.) Additionally, for a week the phone would make calls and receive calls and receive texts but not send texts.
This situation was solved last night by an engineer who used to work for the largest cellphone provider. After many tests and many calls to customer service, and not caring that his dinner was getting cold, he discovered that there was an issue between networks and that Sam would have to change the prefixes on all of the cell numbers stored in the phone. Why this isn’t necessary on cell numbers on Sam’s own network is a mystery. Additionally, the customer service agent informed Sam’s engineer friend that “just five minutes ago” the company became aware of a lag in sending texts between carriers. All of Sam’s friends communicate by text and very little by phone, so this was an issue when trying to contact them.
Sam’s Spanish is significantly worse than when he left and this frustrates everyone. For him to tell the portero at his apartment that he needed towels created a pantomime that was a combination of Marcel Marceau and Chubby Checkers. As of this time, he has not received the towels.
Yesterday, Sam was feeling a bit lost and decided to leave early from his apartment and walk to his Spanish lesson, a little over a mile away. A friend called him from the US (damn those roaming rates) and talked to him about interesting things. Sam ended up getting truly lost, sweaty, confused and anxious. He had to take a cab to make it to his class, but even so he was about 7 minutes late. He mentally rehearsed the words in Spanish for “sorry” and “I got lost walking.” He rang and rang the profesora’s bell but there was no answer. He decided to text her to find out if he had made a mistake. He sent the text and then realized that she would never receive it.
This is no comment on his upbringing, but we found that he had no class.
He looked in his notebook and saw that he had written viernes. He then remembered that viernes means Friday and not Thursday.
Sam is once again a stranger. He shyly points to things and seeks out places where he doesn’t have to speak. He is a child looking in a store window and thinking about how nice it would be to understand how to buy something.
Sam’s friends are busy with their own lives and he sees them little by little. Sam now lives part time in two places, and when he parachutes in by helicopter it can be hard to arrange social occasions. This is true in the US as well. The people here simply assume that Sam is never coming back when he leaves. The people in the US assume he is never coming back either. Like the Tom Hanks character in THE TERMINAL, he seems to live at the duty-free shop, just past passport control, but not yet on board.
Department of Communication
“There is no accident, just as there is no beginning and no end.”
Buenos Aires, March 21
When I was 16 years old, I wrote a short story. It was about a popular sitcom in which every character in the show was spun off into his or her own series. Ultimately, no actors were left on the set. The cameras continued to film the empty set and people watched faithfully each week. The narrator of the story, a television producer, ends the story by saying “I don’t know what they are watching, but it’s a hit.”
Hollywood, do NOT steal this idea. It is MINE.
The last month I have been back in the States and my story has been an empty set and yet people continue to read this blog. This surprises and delights me.
I am so less productive when I am home. My ADD kicks in and I can’t write at all. I don’t read very much. I am left working with my photographs, working out, playing Scrabble, watching silly comedy shows and pacing my apartment, putting papers and bills in piles and spending all day on line reading the news, looking for jokes, monitoring my two e-mail accounts and checking Facebook.
I am living in context, comfortable and nothing creative comes of it.
Now that I am back in Buenos Aires, I seem to have the ability to write again. I can once again mix the alien energies into a new synergy.
I am interested in how all creatives take disparate elements and whip them into an artistic souffle. It is a mysterious process in writing, but it happens all the time, and when the souffle comes out of the oven and doesn’t fall flat it just seems as if it was meant to be.
Something similar happens in photography. I take a photo and people and objects that I was not aware of come out when I crop and edit the photo.
I have a belief that creativity springs from happy accidents.
I am interested in the numerous dog walkers that dominate the daytime streets in Palermo. Here’s a picture I took in January of a dog walker near my apartment:
It has many elements that I like in photography: morning light, shadows, composition that includes several people in their candid moment. However, it is unsatisfying because the dogs are caught from behind.
Here is a photograph that I took yesterday:
I was interested in the pack of dogs and the unselfconscious concentration of the walker/texter. Since I took the picture from across the street and since I could not see the small screen on the camera, I had no idea that the three dogs nearest the walker were looking at me and that the underdog was smiling. They are arranged as a canine totem pole. A happy accident.
Here is a photo I took in San Telmo of one of the many feather duster salesman you see on the street:
I was following him and trying to snap photos. I had no conscious idea that he would have an arrangement of feather dusters that would remind people of a tribal dance and I certainly had no conscious idea that his dusters would so beautifully frame three women. This created three additional moments in the story.
The photo caught the notice of two artists friends, both named Susan. One is a painter and the other is a photographer. They pointed out elements in this photograph that I had never thought of before. For example, the pattern in the street pavers. The touch of turquoise. The cookies.
This is the joy of street photography. You see an interesting tableau and it becomes more interesting later.
When I go out, I feel that I am walking into a film and the scene unfolds around me. I often feel as if I am on a movie set. I walk around a market, marveling at the light and start taking pictures when I hear The Director calling “action.“
My photographer friend Susan has a very different style. Often she takes photographs and combines disparate elements into a new and very successful image. I asked her about how she creates her work and she responded:
My own creative process seems to be a contained found one. Like Burroughs who would cut out words and shake them up in a paper sack and shake them out and then make something of them, I take a lot of pictures then identify a theme I’m currently interested in, start with a file of pictures and then randomly access my data base of picture files and then deliberately make use of the random picture that I found. That is how the train and the dancers ended up incorporated into the moody night pics file. I shot that brick window wall…the other night. And a customer from the gallery said he was looking for jazz pictures so the theme emerged…Very little planning, creative use of what is.
For a creative, the random isn’t random at all. It is allowing the happy accident to stimulate creativity and create directions that have, on some level, been intended all along. Whether you shake words out of a sack, or you throw yourself onto an alien continent and try to learn things for which you have no special talent, taking yourself out of context is often the best way to have a fresh look.
An old joke:
An accountant was blindfolded and taken into a field.
When his blindfold was removed, the accountant saw a cow.
When asked what color the cow was, he answered:
“Brown…on one side.”
When I take the blindfold off, I see the color on the other side, too. How now, brown cow?
Buenos Aires, February 8
Beneath the surface of the water lies an ever-expanding reservoir of self-doubt. I wistfully picture a life boat, a floatation vest, a flotilla of rescue ships, a Coast Guard helicopter hovering above with a friendly officer in a wet suit who offers me a strong hand that I grab gratefully. With remarkably white teeth that reflect the moonlight, he flashes me a rakish smile. He pulls me into an airship where I am wrapped in blankets and given hot strong coffee.
However, there is no rescue. There are two choices: ride the storm or abandon ship.
To abandon ship is too embarrassing. Like Odysseus, I tie myself to the mast, ignoring the siren song of quick abandonment.
I must find a way to rise out of the deep, to pull myself from the depths and move toward the light, break the surface, shake the water off like a Collie and breathe again.
Two weeks ago I hid in my apartment, afraid to go and interact with anyone. Countless times during my childhood I started a new discipline, whether learning the guitar or piano, playing tennis, or joining Cub Scouts. It wouldn’t take too long for me to give it up, teased out of it or talked out it by people who many times just were bored and claimed to only wish to “be honest.” I was easily discouraged and the guitar and the tennis racket or just about anything that caused me frustration or embarrassment would stay in the closet.
I had reached that point with studying Spanish. I didn’t have that smug self-congratulatory feeling I had felt when I had learned something easily in school. I was procrastinating and I didn’t want to do my homework. This was the second time I had arranged my change on the counter and the fourth time in the last fifteen minutes I had checked my e-mail. I wasn’t reading anything because I was guilty about reading in English when I should be studying my Spanish. I had four Tango lessons a week, but the thought of going into a milonga and actually asking a woman to dance seemed impossible.
My coach Bradley believed that I had been trying so hard to publish posts that I was keeping myself from experiencing the very things that would make the posts, and more importantly my life, interesting. We talked about going out and meeting people and trying to speak. I could feel the beginnings of shame and embarrassment travel up my neck and my cheeks were starting to burn. I was ready to last out the rest of my stay taking a few hours of lessons a day, silently handing cash to the clerk in the supermarket, and dining each night alone. That seemed so much easier.
I traced it back, as all neurotic psuedo-intellectuals do, to my childhood. I always thought about what Dr. Freud would say when he delved into my unconscious. I was the youngest of six cousins in a close extended family. At weekly family gatherings, it was a sport to trap me in small mistakes. This would lead to affectionate laughter. Some of it was cruel, some of it was okay, but it was all much less shameful than I perceived.
I lived in fear of misbehaving because I didn’t want to face my father’s and uncles’ stern faces and sharp lectures. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing. Yet my constant diet of Mad Magazine, the Flintstones and Looney Tunes made me want to get the laughs that I had solicited. Sometimes my jokes worked, sometimes they led to more lecturing, and sometimes the only sound after a joke was crickets.
I was sketching out a plan of retreat. The plane left in three weeks. I could write a piece or two about an entertainer on the Subte or a waiter that brought me cookies when I asked for a salad or whatever and no one would be the wiser. I could whine some more about how hard this is and how I am a wreck. Bradley was having none of it. He was challenging me to get out of the comfortable apartment on the shaded street and just do something. I felt that Bradley had some nerve and it was making me increasingly nervous.
Bradley and I started looking at Craigslist Buenos Aires (skipping my usual furtive peek into the personal and erotic services listings) and searched for some clubs for conversation. It seemed that most were for English practice for porteños and only one, “Spanglish,” had a Spanish component. It was no matter, though. I needed to make contact with the world. It was not unreasonable to think that if I met a porteño that wanted to improve his or her English that perhaps he or she would help me with my Spanish.
I went to the English Group of Buenos Aires. It was a pleasant evening in a cavernous and distracting venue. Although only English was spoken, I couldn’t hear or understand what anyone said. Yet, it was good to be out among people who were interested in me and friendly.
I started a friendship with Osmany, a Cubano who works in a nearby cafe. He is a friendly guy and he heard me struggling to talk in Spanish. He asked me where I was from, because he is learning French and English. We talked a bit in English and about his time in Buenos Aires. We also talked quite a bit about society and politics in Cuba. Now, I go back several times a week to get coffee and conversation.
The group Spanglish is an interesting structure for intercambio (language exchange) and it is set in a trendy bar in San Telmo, an old and charming part of the city. The fee is 15 pesos (about $4) and includes a beer. You wear a name tag and sit at a numbered table. The leaders instruct the participants to speak for 5 minutes in Spanish and 5 minutes in English. Then after the ten minute conversation, the speakers at each table change. By the end of the event, you’ve had about 7 or 8 Spanish and English conversations.
I was starting to realize that the best way for me to become more comfortable in Spanish was by making enough friends who would like to learn from my English. Each day in my afternoon Spanish classes, each Tango lesson, each Spanglish night I would speak a bit more and get a little more used to confronting my fears. I realize that I am not the best language student in the world, but it is also important to be of this world, rather than trapped in an apartment, marking the days off the calendar like a convict in San Quentin.
I also joined a service called Conversation Exchange, that matches people who want to practice their target language with a native speaker. In Buenos Aires, there are many people who place their names on the listings for this service.
Through Conversation Exchange, I had arranged a meeting with Laura, a 30-year old porteña, who arrived a bit late. Both by her appearance and by her accent she seems French but she is a native of Buenos Aires. She proceeded to tell me of her years in Paris and Vancouver. She is quite fluent in both French and English and I struggled through a bit of Spanish. I told her about my project and how it was about discovering new things at fifty. She said that when she had seen my contact, she felt it was fine to meet because she would talk to anyone from 20 to 80. After that comment I felt much closer to the latter than to the former.
Laura had been late and she invited me to go with her to meet her next conversation partner, Douglas.
We met Douglas, a Canadian of Thai descent also in his thirties, who moved his family to Buenos Aires 8 months ago. Once in the company of a native English speaker, I relaxed and talked more in Spanish. Of course, Douglas was more fluent, but I followed everything everyone was saying and added a bit of my own. I felt happy and relaxed.
Douglas is a lawyer and an investment manager whose ambition is to open a restaurant in Buenos Aires. A foodie through and through, he wrote down the name of an interesting Armenian restaurant and of its best dish.
Laura works for the Ministry of Culture and there was a concert in el Centro to which she invited Douglas and I to accompany her and a friend to see. Douglas demurred because it was family time. I decided to follow along.
We went to Laura’s friend Maca’s apartment and spent a little time talking before the concert. Maca, an actress, is a school friend of Laura’s from Paris and until we walked into the apartment, Laura had no idea Maca could speak English. 5 hours, two liters of cerveza, and a skipped concert later, the three of us had entertained ourselves with one of the best late-night bull sessions I have had since college. Maca and Laura said the only reason they talked to me for so long was that they planned to steal my money and my passport. Alas, their ambitions were thwarted.
I blearily slid into a cab and headed back to mi casa in Palermo at the end of an unplanned, over-extended, and very happy day. I had opened myself to the world and allowed myself to experience new people and new things with no plan. The pool of language that had seemed so overwhelming to me just two weeks before now appeared smaller. Even though I still needed water wings, I didn’t think I would drown.
About poker: If you look around the table and you can’t tell who the sucker is, it’s you.
–Spoken by Paul Scofield in QUIZ SHOW
BUENOS AIRES, JANUARY 23-27
The water is cold. Too cold for swimming. I dangle my feet to keep cool in the heat.
I am sitting on the edge of a pool at my friend Joaquin’s apartment building. There are lots of families enjoying the sultry Saturday afternoon. Joaquin and I are busy talking about the difference between Argentine politics and American politics. Corruption versus Incompetence, or maybe both.
There are two young boys swimming in front of us. One is chubby, the other wiry. I find out later that they are brothers and that the chubby one is six years old. They have heard me speaking Spanish. The six-year year old swims near me and says, “Hel-low.” I say hello back. He swims over to his brother and they have a short conference. He swims back and says deliberately, “My name is Facundo. What is yours?” “My name is Sam.” He swims back to his brother and they have another conference. “What do you do?” “I swim,” I say making a motion like a breaststroke. He dives back under the water and goes back to his brother. They have another conference and Joaquin tells me Facundo is telling his brother that it is his turn. Negotiations ensue, but the brother is the author, Facundo the messenger. Facundo swims back and says, “I play football. What do you play?” “I play tennis.” “I am six years old.” “I am fifty years old.” Finally, the other brother runs out of questions to write for Facundo and they say “chau” and swim away.
It has been a difficult week. I realize that my Spanish is bad and has become worse since I spent the month back home. When I attempt to use it, no one understands me and I don’t understand anyone. I go into a pastry shop and attempt to buy some medialunas mantecas, the delicious little croissants that form the basis of my diet here, but the counter girl doesn’t understand my gringo accent and I have to say ME-DI-A-LU-NAS. I order tres and she gives me seis. More negotiations ensue.
I don’t understand the simple word “cincuenta” for a 50-centavo piece. I walk down the street rehearsing what I will say in Spanish for “I don’t speak well. I am a student. It is good that we speak Spanish.” I go to school and there are two young Brazilians in my class and they chatter on rapidly and confidently since Castellano Spanish is so close to Portuguese. The review sections of the unit I understand–the grammar is clear—but the conversation between the pretty profesora and the two Brazilians swoops past me like a boomerang and occasionally the boomerang circles and hits me on the back of my head.
My friends that have learned other languages tell me that I should immerse myself. Practice. Practice. Practice.
I write no posts for a few days. I watch television, both English with Spanish subtitles, which helps me review a bit, and news and cartoons in Spanish, which frustrates me, because as in my eavesdropping on the street and in the Subte, I can only make out words, not meaning.
I try to talk, but aphasia sets in. I remember the right verb conjugation three minutes after the encounter. I have to say “como?” to everyone who speaks to me.
My distraction becomes the butt of jokes for the brasileros. They believe it is the result of my obvious attraction to most of the pretty girls who work at the school or study there. I must be broadcasting lust, an antenna beaming out phallic waves, the beeping of Morse Code punctuating my loss of concentration.
On Friday, we have to work longer because one of our instructors was out sick Thursday and we have to make up a class. In the final hour, I completely lose my comprehension. I can’t understand any of the illustrations or definitions of the grammar points. The brasileros rattle on about the financial crisis, about travel, about their families. My male instructor tries to engage me in conversation; the others are talking very loudly; there is construction noise on both sides of me; the sunlight is streaming into the atrium outside the classroom; the visual scene attracts my attention. A very pretty girl paces back and forth, swishing in and out of the sunshine. She has a summer dress cut about a foot above her knee. Each time she walks into the sunshine the light shines through her dress and highlights the entire length of her long legs. Other students join her on their break. One girl has on a pretty white skirt with translucent material and she talks to her friends with her back to me. The light plays a similar trick, but with the longer length of her skirt and the white fabric’s gauzy haze, the visual pleasure is even greater.
The male student notices notices my attention deficit and asks me if he should close the curtains to keep down my distractions. The instructor notes that this is a “problema masculino.” I say it is the noise. No one buys it. The Spanish words run together in a blur, and outside the girls and their friends chat very loudly. A crew drills on one side of the classroom, bringing memories of the dentist. On the other side is hammering, the thumping enhancing the throbbing in my head.
The lesson moves quickly and the instructor sees I am not following along. He sniffs the air and asks if the problem is “la perfuma de las mujeres.” I blush and squirm. I am replicating the dreamy distractions of classrooms of long ago.
I am relieved to leave the class, but I am now intimidated and afraid. There must be another method to learn. I go to the newsstand to buy some magazines, taking some of Tim Ferriss’s language-learning advice. One of the titles is Psicología Positiva, an autoayuda (self-help) publication. One of the articles is 20 maneras de renovar tu vida. (20 ways to improve your life.) One of the points says:
Afrontá un miedo por día. “No ha aprendido la lección de la vida aquel que no vence un temor cada dia.—Ralph Emerson.
(Face one fear a day. “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson)
I’m facing big fears every day. I have always been intimidated by new social situations and feel self-conscious meeting new people. I have no special aptitude for learning language. I am afraid of making mistakes and looking stupid. My ego doesn’t allow me to function when I am the slow kid in the class.
I shudder as I write this.
When I talk with my coach about the problem, he speculates that I am not a particularly verbal person and that I learn visually. I’m confused. My friends would laugh because of my incessant punning and sometimes exhaustingly long stories (perhaps like this one?) I ask how I can be a writer if I am not verbal.
My coach says, “you write in pictures.” I take pictures, too.
Tuesday, I have a Tango lesson in a new studio. I confidently mark it on the map and set off in the Subte, get off and walk the ten minutes to the location. I am early. I walk to the address and it is a parking lot. I recheck my notebook and it is the address that my instructor Guadalupe wrote down. I look at my map and I have a different street name written down. I wait a few minutes and I still do not see Guadalupe. I worry that maybe I misinterpreted the computer map and I start walking through the neighborhood looking for that other street. It does not exist.
I have forgotten my cell phone, so there is no way I can check with Guadalupe and no way she can check with me.
On top of the slight depression and discouragement I felt earlier in the day, I now start to feel extremely anxious. I know that Guadalupe has written down the wrong number, but I feel slightly culpable because I left the cell at home.
This is a Jewish neighborhood. Gentlemen with wide-brimmed hats and long black coats file by. Very young women dressed in headscarves push carriages with young babies. There are boys that run by me playing that universal chasing game that all children play, their peyos (curled sideburns) swishing back and forth. They hold their yarmulkes in their hands so they do not lose them as they speed up. The Casher (Kosher) butcher shop is fragrant with the smell of meat and blood.
I know how to get back to my apartment and yet I am lost. I don’t know how to ask anyone for help. I don’t know how to call Guadalupe. I am increasingly anxious and I regret missing the lesson. I worry that she will have to pay the studio rent and will miss out on the income from the lesson. The street signs are missing on some of the corners. I check again the name of the street she wrote down and the address doesn’t exist.
I am in a dream. Time slows down. The people dressed in clothes from the old country silently float by. These are the people of my people, the Jews, yet we are foreign to each other. They are so much more religiously observant that they look at me as one of the goyim. I am your lansman (fellow Jew), I say to myself, but it is pointless.
Even though I try to rehearse questions, the Spanish words will not rise to the surface. I have jumped headfirst into an ever-deepening pool of language. Occasionally, I tread water on the surface but then I fall under again, ever deeper. I swim back to the surface, fighting for air. Another wave of words crashes down on me and I sink again.
The water is cold.
BUENOS AIRES, January 22
As I waited in the bank line, I mused that buried deep in this country’s character is a resistance to change…or at least a resistance to giving it out.
In the busy shopping streets you hear a rapid patter from men dressed in nice clothes:
Cambio Cambio… Casa de Cambio… Cambio Cambio Cambio… Casa de Cambio…
These are the independent foreign exchange (Cambio) brokers. Most of the time, the Cambio windows at the banks or the ubiquitous Cambio agencies will exchange at a better rate. This process can be quite time-consuming and usually the Cambio agencies exchange using the largest bills possible.
$100 US will currently buy $340 Argentine Pesos. After a lot of paperwork and double-checking passport stamps, the agent will hand you three $100 peso notes and two $20 peso notes. If you attempt to make an ATM withdrawal, your only choice is to withdraw $100 peso notes.
However, no one wants to accept $100 peso notes. If you have one, the response will usually be “tienes algo más chica?” (Do you have something smaller?) If you have large notes you start to strategically spend them at supermercados and nicer restaurants and gather your smaller bills and coins.
My project this week has been to save the right coins to do my laundry. I needed two one-peso coins and two 25 centavo coins for each load. I went from kiosco to kiosco shopping for the right sodas that would yield the 25 centavo coins and strategically handing out five peso notes for four peso items so that I could get one peso coins. Occasionally I would get disappointed and get back two 50 centavo coins instead of a one peso coin. I probably spent 40 pesos before I was able to save the right combination of coins.
I thought maybe this was a problem with my poor Spanish or my foreign passport, but when I paid my Tango instructor Guadalupe part of her fee in coins, she thanked me profusely. She told me that one night she went to 15 kioscos looking to buy something so that she could get enough change to ride the bus.
I went into a bank today determined to change four $100 peso notes to unas billetes mas chicas. I waited in line and the grumpy man in front of me cursed under his breath at the chatty young woman who couldn’t quite complete her transaction with the stern teller.
After Señor Grumpy deposited his check, I proudly placed my bills on the tray and correctly pronounced the right words in Spanish. I rocked back and forth on my heels, congratulating myself on my financial and linguistic acumen.
In Spanish, my banker said “change for one note only.” I did not dare to question him because I was grateful to accept whatever change he would give me.
Le Béret, Guest Contributor
–My editor told me I should use a semi-colon, but first I have to consult my gastroenterologist.
–I tried to buy a monocle shop, but I couldn’t handle the fine print.
–FOR SALE: One slightly dented unicycle. Neck brace included.
EN ROUTE FROM ROANOKE, U. S. A., JANUARY 16
You wake up in the United States on Friday and it is 6°F (-14°C). You know that when you arrive in Buenos Aires the forecast high is 98°F (36°C). You worry that what you almost froze off this morning you will nearly sweat off tomorrow.
You pack twice, determined to get everything in one bag and to have it be under the 50 pound limit. The new rolling case doesn’t work, so it is back to the smaller one and decisions have to be made. The béret stays behind. Once again you delay buying a cape. It is summertime in Buenos Aires.
You get sick of the packing and then there are the papers to be examined, the final e-mails to be sent, the milk to be thrown out. You start the dishwasher and hope it stops before you leave. You have an irrational fear that you will leave the bathtub running and the entire building will be swamped with water, the wooden floors buckling, and the charming lofts below losing their priceless family heirlooms, ruined due to your ineptitude and failure to check your to-do list. Perhaps you will leave the freezer open and the stench will grow so powerful that the Special Investigations Unit will smash your walls and tear up your floors to look for a dead body. Sometimes you go in and out of your apartment twice when leaving to make doubly sure and then have several panic attacks during your trip.
You have arranged a luncheon date and a ride to the airport and you finish your tasks with about 45 minutes to spare. You shower and dress in your customary black, wishing to appear anonymous and obvious at the same time. Also, the fashion choice is slimming and this appeals to you.
The luncheon date calls and has a family conflict and unfortunately can not attend. Your sister is on her way to Maine, so she is not available. You call one of your best friends and he does not answer. (Later you find out he left his phone at home.) Then you call another best friend and he is hiking in the mountains. Your mother isn’t feeling well and you do not ask her. Another friend calls you and you think you are rescued, but she is on her way to a planned luncheon and you do not even bring it up. You call 411 and there is no listing for either Airport Limousine or Yellow Taxi. You figure it out on line and call the Limo. The line is busy.
Finally you get a taxi and get to the airport. You are sure you have forgotten your glasses, your meds, your passport, your wallet, the cash you need to give the landlord in Buenos Aires, clean underwear, the new Tango shoes. Maybe you probably left your laptop at security. Oh my God, oh my God…here it is in the briefcase. Relax.
You muse that when traveling alone, there is a certain charm to the difficult trip. You chuckle in Atlanta as the flight is delayed and then a new airplane is readied. This plane has six more first-class seats and this screws up coach. Everyone has to get a new boarding pass. The lines snake out into the concourse and the harried gate agents look as if this has never happened before. You always book your seat well in advance because you insist on an aisle seat in the front of coach. You are now assigned a window seat in the back.
Fortunately, the man sitting next to you is slim, he is an Argentino, and for a change you have things in common. You bond over a silly name mentioned over the P. A. system. You think it is spelled “Kacoochee,” he thinks it is spelled “Kokusci.” You find that “coochie coochie coo” tickles babies in both cultures. You muse that “kacoochee.com” would be a cool name for a web site. He is a web designer and agrees. He says that Google likes double-o’s for its searches. You exchange business cards, discuss photography and life in general and in the specific. You haven’t spoken to anyone next to you on a plane in years and yet you may have made a friend.
BUENOS AIRES, January 17
You arrive in Buenos Aires a couple of hours late, but no matter. The apartment agent is cooperative, you find a price-fixed taxi so that you save $30.
You arrive at the apartment. You are impressed with the layout, the quiet street where your neighbor is the Austrian Embassy, and the view from the balcony. You are amazed when you test the modem speed and find that your modem is ten times faster than at the old location. You will actually be able to operate normally this time.
You chuckle at the notion that when you rented the apartment you thought it had a pool, a gym and a laundry. You can find none of them and you chalk it up to one more slightly incorrect notion you have when you travel. Later you climb an extra staircase to the roof and see an amazing view, a gym and a small pool. You find a laundry on the first floor. Maid service is included on Wednesdays. You are living the posh life for the same price you paid before to live in a worn-out noisy building on the busiest street with daily construction, demonstrations, and a phalanx of pimps and hookers every time you walked in the neighborhood.
Now you see leafy trees, seafood stores, vegetable stands, babies in strollers, and groups of dogs out with their walkers. You are a block away from one of the major parks, a few blocks away from others, and in the middle of coffee shops, restaurants, nice stores and two blocks away from a subway that will take you to your Spanish school in ten minutes.
You shake your head when you think of the gullibility that trapped you in the last apartment. You realize that since you had to pay extra for maid service last time, that this wonderful address works out to be cheaper.
You know your way around now. You understand the money. You aren’t intimidated by the subway. You worry that you will get soft. Gain weight. Never write again. Lose the creative spark.
However, you were a different person when you went home for the holidays. While away, you had missed all of autumn, Halloween, a 2000 point drop on the Dow, an historic election, college football, Thanksgiving, Scrabble with your mother, and celebrating your fiftieth birthday in your home country, as well as having dinner with someone most nights. You had replaced these with the Argentine spring, learning to blog and starting to like your writing, reawakening your visual senses and finding your photographic skills, struggling with Spanish and Tango, and experiencing an entirely new and sometimes opaque culture.
You left chubby, nervous, preoccupied and unproductive. You came back svelte, calm, newly productive, and projecting a new confidence that people noticed. Perhaps you had been replaced by a double, your own Midlife Protection Plan.
You planned to spend the month home working on your Spanish and continuing to write. Neither happened. You spent a lot of time editing and printing your photographs and it gratified you to see the work in real space and large format. You piddled away a lot of time, too.
You did a radio interview that got you new readers and the reporter helped you realize things about yourself and the project you hadn’t thought about.
The first weekend in Buenos Aires you realize that it wasn’t a one-shot deal. You have missed the feeling of this city and the opportunity for growth. You still belong at home, but you are starting to belong here, too. You decide that this is the second of many trips to live a project that is important to you and seems to speak to others as well. You won’t permamently leave Roanoke, the city of your birth, and you will not permamently relocate to Buenos Aires, the city of your rebirth. You will lead a double life and decide that the greatest lesson of this journey is that you shouldn’t put off living your dream or apologizing for having one.
You’re just not the same anymore. Good.
SEE ALSO: CHAPTER ONE
BUENOS AIRES, JANUARY 20
There isn’t a day that goes by in Buenos Aires when I don’t see at least one person with an arm in a sling or cast. Today, during my walk to and from the supermercado, I saw failures of arms control each way. The first case was a chica in a cast wearing a dashing blue sling. The second one was a fiftyish gentleman who had a cast that connected to a wrist brace that featured a tightly-engineered cage around his hand.
I started noticing this trend last November and there wasn’t a day that went by where at least one of the injured–old and young, fit and fat, rich and poor–wasn’t favoring an arm in plaster. Most days I counted two or three.
I am lucky if I see a one person a month stateside wearing a cast. What makes for so many arm injuries? I’ve only been here in spring and summer, so I can’t assign the blame to icy sidewalks or to skiing. I thought at first that maybe it was from skateboarding, but the demographics are wrong.
Last November I saw three of the walking wounded during the same afternoon stroll. After the third person, I passed a kiosk. In front, a small white poodle sat watching the foot traffic. I noticed that the dog had a blue cast on the top part of his right front leg.
In Buenos Aires, it must be dangerous to carry arms.
* * * * *
As has been true every other day, today I saw someone with a broken arm in a cast. It was a young boy and he was walking with his mother.
Yesterday, I saw four people with broken arms. It was a nice mixture. An old lady, a neighbor I suppose, rang my bell and started asking me questions and I had no idea what she was saying. She wore a sling.
A boy was walking down the street and had a cast on over his elbow. He had very interesting pieces of foam between his fingers.
A middle-aged man wore a cast and a younger woman also had her arm in a sling.
Yesterday had a new theme: eye bandage day. I saw an older woman with a bandage over her right eye walking using the arm of her younger companion.
Soon after, I saw a young man with long hair and a black t-shirt walking with a bandage also over his right eye.
In Palermo Soho, a thin, balding man had a bandaged eye and squinted in the late afternoon sunshine. He seemed blinded by the light and walked with a pained expression.
I hope that this trouble doesn’t follow me. Yes, I have seen trouble loiter on dark street corners while smoking a cigarette and pretending to read a newspaper. I’ve seen it slither down the street behind me and when I turn around it has ducked into a coffee shop. It leaves me deceptively friendly voice messages and occasionally brings me flowers.
Men of Mystery must learn to know when trouble is following and how to avoid it.
“One should always keep a diary in order to have something scandalous to read in the train.”
BUENOS AIRES, January 18
I am walking through the Sunday street fair in San Telmo and enjoying the feel of being back in Buenos Aires. Despite yesterday’s summer swelter, today is cool and there are people out in the street wearing jackets. I have just finished my usual Sunday brunch at Brasserie Petanque, a very good French restaurant, and I had a little Lomo (tenderloin) a la Bearnaise. I try to speak Spanish when ordering, but no one is interested in playing along. The owner says “thank you” and “merci” when I leave. This slightly humiliates me.
I snap pictures and I feel a bit rusty. My hands are shaking. I know I need people in my pictures, but I also don’t wish to invade people’s privacy. It becomes a moot point when my hands shake too much to keep the camera steady. I walk on and try to recompose the compositions and to regain my composure.
One part of Defensa is completely torn up and there are narrow sidewalk passages. To pass you have to turn shoulders when people approach you. An attractive and tall blonde woman is making her way toward me behind her friend, a small dark-haired man wearing glasses. “It was SO good,” she proclaims loudly in Scandanavian-accented English, “that I would think about getting a second boyfriend.”
She pumps her fist in the air and I do not stare directly, but I hustle through the construction so that I can write down her comment. It is the perfect overheard comment, at once scandalous and a non sequitur. Many options race through my head as to what it means, and all are deliciously filthy. Probably all are wrong, but the episode sums up the voyeuristic activity in which I engage.
Street photography is my genre and, according to the entry in Wikipedia:
“Shyness and street photography seem to be mutually exclusive. However, most successful street photographers have started as shy photographers.”
My shyness certainly presents itself in the shake and in the reticence to put myself directly in the middle of the scene. Yet I realize that I have to overcome the shyness in order to take the photographs I see. Occasionally, I am very successful; often, I end up with a poorly composed or blurry picture of interesting people.
What a job I’ve made for myself, a shy man. I have assigned myself a project that requires me to be a street photographer, Tango dancer, and Spanish speaker. They are all a struggle. The photography is the easiest because I am able to use the camera as a shield and composing the photograph creates something of a distance from my subject. Tango and Spanish do not offer any shield. Passively listening to a sexually suggestive comment by a tall Scandanavian is the best job of all, just like listening to the amorous couple in the next apartment as I did in “Again at 3 A.M..”
Before you judge my task of listening and watching, remember I am reporting all this back to you. You read this for the same reason I listen and watch. Some of my friends have asked me to publish salacious details from my life and I have no intent to become that transparent. Men of Mystery must keep a bit of obscurity about them, otherwise their notoriety prevents them from achieving the proper anonymity to photograph and report street scenes. Also, we may prohibit ourselves from executing dangerous clandestine international missions.
In the Subte train on the way back to my apartment, a woman of about 60 is seated across from me. She stares at me in a way that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable, as if I am being judged. Her dozing husband is not interested.
She takes her cellphone out of her purse, opens it, studies it and pushes a button. She does it several times and stares into the phone.
A sudden insight brings a smile to my face. I turn my back to her and pretend to look out of the window at the dark walls rocketing past.
She has been taking my picture.
BUENOS AIRES, DECEMBER 6
Saturday night there was a grand celebration of Tango on the Av. de Mayo, the beautiful boulevard that connects the Plaza de Mayo and Congreso. There were stage performances by Tango show artists and performances by Tango orchestras and singers on three stages.
It was a valuable occasion for me to see the language of Tango interpreted by the acrobatic Tango show artists and, more importantly, witness the best of the milongueros. A Chicago transplant to Buenos Aires who has been active in the milongas for ten years told me that a significant part of my Tango education is living with the music and feeling the soul of the dance by watching. She said:
“Get to know the music and your tango will come out of you. You can’t think steps and improvise in the moment at the same time. Tango is a feeling which is danced.” –Jantango
I have a great deal to learn and I was inspired by the rhythms and emotion in the night air and seeing the best dancers that frequent the milongas. The show dancers are always amazing, but to see people interpret the more authentic Tango in combination with the music inspires me.
It is intimidating to think of the long road ahead for me to begin to feel comfortable with Tango and with Spanish. At this event, people of all ages watched performances by Tango artists young and old. The younger musicians and singers bring new energy to the art, while respecting the tradition and guidance from the golden age. People of all ages watched the music, the couples dancing in the street, and the milongueros on the stages in front of the orchestras.
What I hadn’t fully grasped before I came to Buenos Aires is that Tango is not just a dance, it is music, it is emotion, it is a whole culture of its own, deeply woven into the history of this city. I purposely conceived and planned this journey without very much research because I wanted to be surprised and to have to adapt. Like Spanish, Tango has me intimidated and I have been shy to practice my baby steps in public.
Saturday morning I had a lesson with Guadalupe. At first we tried some close embrace walking and then a couple of ocho cortados. I had problems leading her. We determined that not only it is my inherent shyness, but that I also have a posture problem. We spent about twenty minutes discussing the proper way for me to align my posture and to take the tension out of my shoulders. I was pushing my head forward and my hips back. I had to work on using my lower abs to realign my hips and to feel an invisible string pull the top of my head upwards.
Guadalupe explained: “This is important not just for your dance but also for your life.” My neck has been a disaster for years and part of learning to dance is for me to learn to hold my head up. My sister, who was a sales manager for an assisted living community, had seen the deterioration of the aging exacerbated from years of poor posture. She watched me walk down the street and told me to “stand up straight.” As a younger brother who felt a lot of pain every day I resented the martial quality of her instruction, but part of my irritation was that I knew she was right. With the scar tissue of neck surgery and severe arthritis, it was particularly difficult on that winter day to raise myself up. However, I have to stand up straight, not because someone tells me or because it is proper for dance. I have to stand up for myself.
Tango, like anything worth doing, is a difficult code for the casual practitioner to unlock and I am still at the beginning of my journey.
Some milongueros complain that the milongas are not what they used to be. They are filled with showy youths who do not understand the traditions, and tourists who do not understand the etiquette or have the dancing skills. Perhaps this is true, but I was also inspired that evening by the younger musical artists’ energy and respect for tradition.
That evening, I marveled at Buenos Aires, nocturnal city of music and dance, overflowing with the crowd’s energy and the music’s passions. I strolled up the broad Avenida 9 de Julio and smiled at the giant anachronistic white illuminated Christmas tree that had appeared in the last day. I was filled with instant nostalgia caused by my imminent departure and the often sad and lonely longings of the music itself.
“I was a free man in Paris, I felt unfetterred and alive, no one calling me up for favors, and no one’s future to decide.”
–Joni Mitchell, “Free Man in Paris”
Buenos Aires, December 3
Today is my fiftieth birthday. It is a good feeling to be here and a very good time to look back at what I have accomplished during the past four months.
I have broken my writer’s block. I have become the main character in my own non-fiction novel. Some of the posts have written themselves. Living in the moment, each day becomes a new short story or a new piece of ironic humor.
As an outsider who couldn’t communicate verbally, I have found a whole new connection with the visual aspects of life and this has changed my writing and photography. (I believe for the better.)
I have developed a new respect for the value of taking risks. Not only was this project conceived quickly, it is set in a place I’ve never been, where I know no one, and I don’t speak the language. In some ways I am disappointed that I couldn’t learn to speak better and that I didn’t make more local friends during this trip. However, it took bold action to sweep away the heavy blocks that have kept me from my authentic self. I conceived and worked out the logistics for this entire project in about a month. I had no idea whether I would be able to do it or be able to write about it. With the severe downturn in the economy, I didn’t know if I should move forward at all.
Seeing the project through on this first leg has been the greatest lesson. I have been tangled up more times that I can count and I have just just tangoed on. Despite overwhelming doubts, occasional loneliness, almost daily confusion, frustrations, and mistakes, I continue to look forward. I haven’t had the encouragement or the will to do enough of this in my life, and I am happy that I have been able to break not only my writer’s block, but also my hesitancy about taking risks and trying new things.
I have also found through interaction with my readers and lots of thinking about identity, that I am living a number of interconnected lives:
1.) The life of my imagination.
2.) The life people imagine I have.
3.) The life I actually lead.
4.) The life I would like to lead.
5.) The life I report.
I celebrated my birthday by giving myself two-months of self-improvement, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-knowledge. I have been very gratified that I have had smart and perceptive readers who understand what I am doing and who have enjoyed the ride so far.
From 5,000 miles away, the struggles that seemed to dominate my life at home now have their proper place. I have been out of the country for Halloween, Election Day, Thanksgiving and my birthday. One friend wrote that “I’ve noticed a shift in the way you view the world. It seems much bigger and brighter with less cause for negativity.”
I will return to Buenos Aires early next year and I will continue my study of Tango and Spanish. I hope to use some of the lessons I’ve learned to make my next journey better.
I am taking a pause from blogging. I hope to spend a bit more time looking around Buenos Aires, and then I will go home where friends and family await. When I get home, I will determine what my next step will be. I have a couple of other creative projects I am going to work on and I will begin to plan my next journey back to Buenos Aires. In January, I will redesign this web page and redirect it to its own “justtangoon.com” address.
Chapter Two will begin soon, both for the second half of my life as well as the second part of this story.
What a privilege it has been to take the events of the day, fold in a couple of jokes, mix well and create a soufflé that sometimes does not fall flat.
To Buenos Aires, I say CHAU and GRACIAS.
To you, I say TANGO ON and THANKS.
Oh, and I wish myself a Happy Birthday.
Buenos Aires, November 30
It is a Saturday morning and my third private Tango lesson of the week. My instructor Guadalupe has been working with me on a different style of Tango, a “close embrace” rather than the “open embrace” that people learn in group lessons. She says, “It would not be possible to teach close embrace in group class. There is too much for me to watch. This is the dance for the milongas.”
She shows me how to introduce myself to my dancing partner by standing with straight posture and holding up my left arm for my partner to clasp my hand “like you are shaking hands, not too hard, not too soft.” She then shows me how to place my arm behind my partner, drawing her closer by sliding my right arm across my partner’s shoulder blade and eventually to her far left side.
At first I am a bit cautious, I lean back. She shows me how vital it is for the man to lead with confidence and how I must hold my head erect (in some cases so I can watch milonga traffic) and also to lean in with my chest to balance the weight my partner is placing against me.
“You are one with the woman and you must lean against her and she you.” She shows me how the dancers are joined at the woman’s left breast and how in an open embrace you exaggerate the leading to communicate to your partner, while in close embrace the pecho (chest) communicates the dance.
She smiles as she pushes my arm back out to the side. “You are shy. In time, Tango shows you how you are.” She is right, of course. Guadalupe, Tango Analyst.
After some practice, it becomes apparent that this is a very graceful dance. It is very fluid and the communication is exquisite. We learn a new step, the cross step, that is usually used in the milongas, unlike the box step that is taught to the beginning classes.
When I hold her correctly or when my leading is more assured she rewards me with “eso” (as in “that’s right”). She is easy to lead and she helps me gain more and more confidence as I continue.
An earlier lesson in the week was conducted entirely in Spanish. Dance lessons in Spanish are easier for me to follow than other things in Spanish because I already spend so much of my time miming and reading body language.
Today we need some English so that we can discuss the complicated etiquette in the milongas. “The man looks at the woman and he makes the eye contact,” Guadalupe says. “If the woman gives a nod, he walks over. One time I was in a milonga and I made eye contact with someone. When he walked over I stood up and two girls behind me also stood up. He danced with one and came back later and danced with me. He said that he had meant to ask me, but the woman behind me thought he had asked her, so he was polite.”
The last dance of the lesson was longer. We did a number of steps that we had learned that week. When the music stopped, we stopped dancing and Guadalupe was happy at how much I had learned. “I danced with my eyes closed.” She meant that I was able to communicate everything through my movements rather than through counting or words and she had been able to trust me. I took it as a perfect compliment.
Earlier in the morning, Guadalupe had become self-conscious about her English, worrying that she had said “don’t” when she should have said “doesn’t.” I told her it didn’t matter. “But you are a writer and I worry.” I reminded her what I had written in my post “Pingback:” “Guadalupe speaks two languages that I cannot: Spanish and Tango.” She said that she remembered that and she added: “but now you speak Tango.”
Buenos Aires, November 29
Today I dined outdoors at a café and watched a race, either a biathlon or a 10-K. The runners had on identical green shirts and all had water packs on their backs. A man with perfectly-styled hair that seemed impermeable to the elements floated past. People who were working the race were blocking intersections with motorcycles and the taxi drivers were sitting on their horns. Women were leaning out of their car windows and yelling indecipherable curses at the race organizers. After the race ended, some runners reversed course and ran with their friends, holding their race packets in their hands.
I envied their youthful fitness and wished my ankles could still take the pounding of a distance run, but now the race is slower and is only against myself.
I have lost about ten pounds. My cheeks have thinned out and I now have a waist.
My beauty secret? The Cereal and Salami Diet™. Most nights, it’s ten o’clock before I finally have time for dinner. The thought of going out and sitting at a restaurant seems to be too much effort and my apartment is not set up for cooking.
A bowl of Nestlé Fitness Cereal and some delicious salami eaten straight from the package gives me the energy I need to go to bed and can be done standing up for extra efficiency and calorie burn.
I plan to do a book tour promoting my diet soon. I will be the model for the “before” and “after” pictures.
In this city, a man of a certain age walking solo is the target market for cunning looks by certain entrepreneurs. These independent professionals work in a service industry in which gentlemen often wear sharp suits, and women wear tight tops that accentuate their surgically-augmented bosoms.
Leather tailors and parillas (grilled meat) restaurants hand out fliers to potential patrons as they walk past and so do the sex workers. When I first came here, I would simply take fliers from whomever was handing them out and put them in the nearest trash can. I stopped this practice when a prostitute or her representative handed me a card that was laminated and pulled me closer as I grabbed the card, attempting to sell me the service.
That chilled me a bit, so now I simply walk past and shake my head from side to side or subtly wave my right hand. The pimps always say the same thing: “maybelater.” One afternoon, I ignored one “healthy” looking woman on a main avenue and she started calling after me: “Whatza matter? Is no good for you? Is very ni-ice.”
I did not turn around because I was confident that it would not be very nice for either one of us.
Le Béret, Guest Contributor
–When I became a man I put away childish things, because I liked the Porsche better.
–In America, there are no encores (unless you clap really, really loud).
–Marco Polo explored more than swimming pools.
Buenos Aires, November 25
Saturday night, my neighborhood is very loud. I hear crowds outside, laughter, horns honking. I decide to go out for a walk to drink in the atmosphere. There are groups of people waiting outside the theatres smoking and loudly chatting. Every so often, a bus, sort of an open-air trolley, passes by with women dressed in costumes (the one I notice is dressed as a devil) cheering and ringing bells as the horns honk in solidarity. I walk down Florida, the crowded shopping street. On a Saturday night, few stores are open and there are people sitting on the street–which is a pedestrian mall– selling handmade goods, maté gourds, and crafts. There are poor people sitting in doorways with their young, holding out their hands and begging for change. I am walking down the street with Tango music on my iPod and I watch the film unfold in front of me. Families are walking together and eating ice cream. Young couples are out. Some are very much in love and walk with their arms around each other’s waist, stopping in doorways for a kiss. With another couple it is obvious that the girl has just about had enough. The boy walks behind her trying a close embrace, with his arms around her shoulders, and tries to hug and kiss her behind her neck as she resists his advances, looking exceptionally annoyed while he continues to cuddle against her will.
There are, as always, street performers. Some I simply cannot understand. About a hundred people are circled around a bare-footed man that is doing some sort of show with broken upright wine bottlenecks and crushed glass. He takes a long time to introduce his next feat in rapid-fire Spanish and I move on. A little farther down the street a man stands on a milk crate speaking loudly with long trills to his “rr”s. He is heavily made up with a pirate costume and the crowd finds him hysterical.
I continue down the street and I hear a loud drumbeat. A band has just set up. It is a five-piece band and the members’ hairstyles range from long poodle fuzz to shaved on the sides with rat tails. They begin playing and the brass section accents the bassist, the drummer, and the too-cool-for-school keyboardist. The music is like Sublime without the voice, a ska/punk fusion, but this has a touch of jam band, too. I find that a trombone played with a certain ironic fun is an humorous instrument. The trombone gets passed around to various members of the band who do their solos, stepping forward with mock aggression, extending the trombone slide into the street and making eye contact with the small group of people who are dancing to the beat. One of the idle brass players grabs a pair of brushes and helps the drummer play his snare.
Leaning against the wall in black clothes with a punk hairdo doing her best to look bored and she plays her part: La Chica With The Band.
I’m dressed in black, feeling cool and imagining for a brief moment that I am with the band, too.
Journeys are the midwives of thought…There is almost a quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views and new thoughts, new views.
–Alain de Botton, THE ART OF TRAVEL
Buenos Aires, November 23
In the early twentieth-century, probably during the time of Edith Wharton and Henry James, social circles of the great nations agreed on an international etiquette treaty that encouraged travelers to contact mutual friends in distant lands. It comes from the days of steamer ships and grand tours or summer seasons. One pictures a well-tailored gentleman presenting a letter of introduction to a butler who discreetly disappears behind a heavy door and reappears with the happy reply that the lady of the house will receive you or the regretful news that the gentleman of the house is terribly sorry but pressing business will prevent him from seeing you today.
The custom still exists. “Buenos Aires? You must contact my brother while you are there.” Or “I am going to get the contact info for my college roommate’s ex-girlfriend who is an Argentine and whom I am sure will be delighted to introduce you to people.” It is a great courtesy on all sides. The person who makes the introduction is helping the hapless traveler and will receive first-hand knowledge of the resident’s conditions. The traveler now “knows someone” in the distant and exotic city. The resident’s bland life is now flavored with the spice of visitors. Everyone wins.
Now, rather than disappear for the summer, we fly to Singapore for the long weekend. Rather than calling cards, e-mails are now exchanged. The courteous resident affirms that indeed that the person will be received with pleasure. The mutual friend forwards the response to the traveler and part of an agenda develops.
The other great courtesy is between the two travelers who happen to be in town at the same time. Distant cousins who never had much to say to each other at a family wedding now feel obliged to force conversation over a tikki masala or a goulash. Two residents of the same town who wouldn’t bother to say hello at a cocktail party make promises to call each other for brunch.
With the help of these mutual friends, distant relations, other people’s college buddies, city tours, concierge-booked theatrical productions, the dutiful trip to the museum, and the guidebook’s “must see” list, one can easily fill a week in another country and still have time to browse the shopping arcade or at least the duty-free shop.
Most of the time, promises are made and no one follows up. If the contact is made, somehow the local’s week is extremely busy with children, or with a event-planning deadline, and there is polite regret on all sides. No one is seriously put out if contact isn’t possible. Occasionally, people connect and a not unpleasant social occasion occurs.
I have been guilty of not following up on introductions and have experienced mild regret and occasional relief when the residents I have contacted have had other pressing business. This time, though, I made a date for Saturday lunch.
My visit was with my sister’s good friend who was in town for a few days. We arranged to meet at her hotel at one and select from a fine grouping of restaurants near the Recoleta Cemetery. I left my Saturday morning Tango lesson a few minutes late and elected to take a taxi rather than walk.
I had looked up the hotel on Google and knew the general location. I got into the taxi and fumbled the direction in Spanish. The driver attempted to make some conversation and then realized that it was futile. I did understand him say that there were several hotels in the area with “Plaza” in their names and just hopped out of the cab at the first one. Alvear is not a long street and Recoleta not a huge barrio and with ten minutes to spare I paid the driver and started walking down the street since the hotel did not share the same name of the hotel I had in mind.
The second hotel I went to was two blocks down the street and I asked the helpful doorman the directions. He was like the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ and first pointed one way and then the other. I was directed to walk two blocks up and four blocks to the right. I did this and realized that I was headed in the wrong direction. As I circled back to the original hotel under the shade of trees, a fine-feathered friend dropped a gift onto my head. I used Kleenex to wipe the bird waste out of my hair. I hustled into the hotel lobby and asked the concierge for directions. He directed me to the correct location, one block past the hotel with the well-informed doorman.
I was twenty minutes late and stumbled through the lobby door bathed in sweat and topped with poop. I apologized to the young woman for not shaking her hand, found a nearby baño and washed up. Then we walked to a nice outdoor restaurant.
We talked a bit about travel, about Buenos Aires, about our families, our jobs and public personal histories. I attempted to tell her about this blog, but realized that I had rattled on a little too long about my post “The Midlife Protection Program.” Her eyes were beginning to glaze over. I made it a point to listen and ask pertinent questions and we had a very pleasant conversation about her home and some travels of her childhood.
We talked about politics and about the financial crisis. My ADD wouldn’t let me completely focus, however. There was an accordion player made up like a clown who played competently, but I noticed that he repeated the two best-known Tango songs, “La Cumparsita” and “Por Una Cabeza,” in an endless loop. Behind my lunch partner, a group of good looking Argentines gestured and talked rapidly as they sat down. A woman took her hair, swept it over her left shoulder, and began twirling it with her hands. This is a tic that I had noticed many times since arriving in Buenos Aires. I began to think about washing my own hair.
I knew I had a stupid smirk on my face and I apologized. “I am simply smiling because I spend every day not understanding anything that is going on or anything anyone says.” I realized that I observe more and communicate mostly by gestures and grunts. I have had to become more visual. That could be the reason that for the first time in twenty years I am taking photographs that please me.
Sitting at an outdoor restaurant next to a cemetery with a clown playing an accordion and hair moussed with bird droppings, I realized that I had to come to a place where I didn’t understand anything and didn’t know anyone, to begin to understand and know myself.
See also: The Midlife Protection Program
Buenos Aires, November 20
By last Friday, the frustration with Spanish had built almost to the breaking point. After the first two hours of instruction, I was in pain. The Spanish words had become fuzzy, floated towards the heavens, morphed into razor-beaked ravens that swooped down in flock after flock pecking at my eyes and making enough noise where I couldn’t understand nada. “Nevermore.“ I was in serious shape. I had a terrible hangover, yet the strongest thing I had to drink that week was coffee. I felt as if I had been hit in the forehead by Javier Bardem’s cattle killing tool in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
Milagros, whom I call La Jefa (The Boss) was concerned about me. She suggested that I stop taking the group classes in the morning and just do the one-on-one classes in the afternoon. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about the ease with which the Portuguese learn and converse or the accents of the European students. I was ready to step back and take a deep breath and review, so I welcomed her suggestion.
Tuesday, Milagros asked me how the new arrangement was going. “Much better,” I said. “I think you really helped me. The problem was that I am used to being one of the top students in school and I kept falling farther and farther behind.”
La Jefa gave me a patient smile and said: “Now you are the top student in your class.”
Buenos Aires, November 17
It is 7 o’clock on a beautiful spring afternoon. The sun casts long shadows over the lavender-budded trees and commuters wait in long queues for buses. Shoppers crowd the avenues, gathering ingredients for their evening meals, and lovers kiss with varying degrees of passion.
I run through the crowds on my way to the park. I have loaded a Tango mix on my iPod so I have a soundtrack for the film unfolding in front of me. “La Cumparsita” plays its familiar beginning: Be BUH DA da da be buh Da da da da da da… My step quickens and I feel content.
The second song is a plaintive wail, a cry of loss and regret, sung by a woman with a voice colored by whiskey, cigarettes and life’s reversals. So many Tango songs were written and performed in the middle third of the twentieth century and the older sounds add to their romance and glamour. Somehow the sadness makes me feel good.
The next song is Novelle Vague’s cover of The Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to Fuck,” a New Wave classic, and I realize that I have forgotten to delete my old library from the Tango mix. I have to listen because the woman’s voice is too sexy to ignore. I think this is a perfect example of the conflicts of mid-age. Nouvelle Vague does Jazz and Bossa Nova covers of New Wave songs by my favorite nihilist bands from the 70s and 80s. The song makes me feel au courant by covering an old song in a style from my parents’ era. Nouvelle Vague references two past eras by performing an ironic arrangement of an even more ironic song. In Buenos Aires, I am learning an old dance that is practiced to music perfected before I was born. This is in my attempt to see if I can learn something that is best learned by someone younger. Yes, I am turning fifty.
I forward through all the music in English, with the exception of U2′s “Vertigo,” which I deem kosher because of Bono’s beginning count unos…dos…tres…quatorce. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” also makes the cut because of its Spanish title. I listen to additional sad and evocative Tangos (is it the accordion that makes them so sad?) and then the iPod shuffles to a new song, a melody from my past that awakens a powerful emotion and slows me to a walk. I walk through the happy, chattering crowds in the advancing twilight. The song evokes memories of romance and exquisite happiness that were followed by pain and loss. I feel the mixture of past ecstasy and eventual melancholy, an internal Tango that is mine alone.
Le Béret, Guest Contributor
–The common king that buys a shirt becomes a philosopher.
–Never smell the inside of a hat.
–Do not be too proud to buy a bargain, or steal a husband
You are going to Uruquay and I am going my way
–Groucho Marx, ANIMAL CRACKERS
Colonia, Uruguay, November 15
It has been a hot, muggy and smoggy week in Buenos Aires and I thought I would take an hour ferry ride to Colonia, an historic town on the Uruguayan side of the Rio de la Plata.
The hour ferry ride has proved to be quite complicated because of customs, immigration and crowds. The trip has taken three hours. No matter, it is part of my plan to try to cure my ferry-phobia and other than a mild anxiety attack it is not as bad as the freak-out in Washington state I wrote about in “An Uneasy Crossing.”
The street is empty, the weather has broken, and there is a 20-25 MPH wind stinging my eyes, it is cloudy and the temperature is about 60°F.
I go into a small and lively restaurant called the Merco Sur. It is warm and friendly. Large groups of women talk rapidly in cigarette-tinged voices and there are a few other tables with couples, solo men tapping on laptops, and a small family. On a wall-mounted flat-screen television, ESPN broadcasts a NBA game between Boston and Denver.
As I sit eating my bife milanese, the restaurant’s version of chicken-fried steak, I observe that many places maintain local culture solely to attract tourists. The music system plays a familiar tune and I hum along. I realize that the woman’s smooth alto is purring a smooth jazz cover of Radiohead’s song “Creep.“ She sings:
But I’m a creep.
I’m a weirdo.
What the hell am I doing here?
I don’t belong here.
I also think about this interesting relationship that you and I have. I write knowing you are reading in almost real time. That in some ways changes the writing and the experience. You read, in part because you enjoy the vicarious travel, or you get a voyeuristic thrill as you did during my experience of aural sex in“Again at 3 A.M.” This would not have been possible until fairly recently and it gives the rather solitary job of writing an immediacy and sociability that would not have been previously possible. This makes sitting alone in a restaurant in a distant country, where you can neither understand or be understood, a pleasure. I’m having a ball.
After lunch, I walk up the street and see a small crowd gathered in a plaza. Drums are beating and bagpipes are playing. The Union Jack is waving. Dozens of children are dressed in white shirts and plaid skirts and kilts. The Scots-Uruguayan school parades down the main street to the center of the historic part of town and the students give a stirring performance of Scottish reeling.
The headmistress introduces the dances in accented English. The parents applaud and take pictures. The sun has come out for a brief period and I smile as I realize that so many seem to be training to be somewhere else.
Also see: Found Illusions
Buenos Aires, November 15
It is dreadfully expensive to use your cell phone here. In Europe, it runs about $.40 a minute, not chump change, but at least you can call your mother or your parole officer for a few bucks. In Argentina, even with AT&T’s “World Traveler” discount, it is a little shy of $2.00 a minute.
I was sure that Skype was going to work for me, but when I call people using Skype the entire conversation is punctuated by “what?,” “you’re breaking up,” “there’s an echo,” and “you have that Darth Vader voice again.” Skype to Skype there’s a echo, too. So much for being clever.
Personally, I don’t care. I don’t like the phone and I am perfectly happy to communicate via e-mail and text. I’m like the hard-boiled editor of a newspaper in a black-and-white movie, sitting at a desk with my tie loosened, wearing a fedora, chewing on a cigar, and barking: “Send a cable to Johnson!”
Others can’t stand not hearing a live voice, so I thought I found a good thing, a “Virtual Prepaid Phone Card” from AT&T. Only $.06 a minute from Argentina! At last, I could afford to check in with my parole officer!
Carefully following the internet and e-mail information I would get the same response: “The pin number you have dialed is not a valid pin number. Please hang up and try again.” For two hours I dealt with that recording and approximately 15 customer “service” representative who kept asking me the same question: “What is the 800 number on top of your card?,” and my response that there was no 800 number because it was a virtual card. They would have three responses:
“This is not an AT&T prepaid phone card.”
Another: “Maybe there’s something wrong with the phone. Try saying the numbers when the prompt for a pin comes up.” When I tried this the automated voice would say: “Please hang up and try again.”
Occasionally: “I see a balance using this pin number, but without an 800 number on top of the card, I don’t know how to help you. You’ll have to get in touch with the e-commerce department.” The e-commerce department did not answer the phone when the operators rang me through. Several times I was connected with departments that had nothing to do with e-commerce. To date, the e-commerce department has not responded to my e-mail. I guess they are the Tinkerbell department and no one is clapping loud enough.
A supervisor suggested that I use a major credit card. I asked him how much that cost. He thought it was about the same cost, but he looked it up and said: “Oops. It costs $14.30 for the first minute and $2.10 a minute thereafter, the same as operator-assisted rates.”
“Reach Out and Touch Someone” was AT&T’s ad campaign back in the day and I wanted to Reach Out and Touch Someone–HARD.
You are probably asking: “Why doesn’t he just go out and buy a phone card in Argentina?” I’ve tried, but I can’t find where they sell them, and my Spanish is so bad I can’t seem to get someone to understand me when I ask for one.
Buenos Aires, November 12
You wake up again in the middle of the night. This time it’s quarter to three which makes you think of that song by Frank Sinatra. Almost every night you are awakened by the compulsive neighbors’ “special time.” Those nights that are quiet, you are like a new mother. You wake up with a start in the middle of the night listening for the absent noise.
The couple next door are making their symphony of love again. They start formally like Bach, move to Mozart-like exquisite timing and inventive harmonies, become dark and tragic like Mahler, and finally bring in the brass, the woodwinds, the entire percussion section, plus a giant chorus, and end the performance with a spectacular crescendo that almost matches Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” You are bothered by this aural spectacular on several levels, which you do not have to nor will spell out for the reader. You remember great music you have made yourself. When young, your performances were like punk rock anthems: loud, tragic and short. In more recent times, you think of performances that received great notices from your critics. You basked in adoration, enjoyed applause, ovations, calls for encores, whistles, bravos. Currently, the theatre is dark and the stage is empty because you do not care for solo performances.
It is morning and you are still hungover from the pill you needed to get back to sleep after the neighbors’ concert. You have homework to do. It isn’t easy and you can’t focus. You go to the café and get a café con leche and three medialunas (small croissants). You don’t understand the charismatic waiter or the matter-of-fact counter workers and you order using signals like a third base coach.
You attend class this week with a Swiss woman about ten years older than you and a Brazilian woman who is about 15 years younger. Brazilians have an easier time in Spanish because Portuguese is a similar language, and the Swiss are often multi-lingual. You struggle to understand the Swiss woman because of her German/Scandanavian accent and because she mumbles and puts her hand in front of her mouth when she speaks. The Brazilian woman, like all Brazilian students you have met, speaks with a soft accent and speaks rapidly and confidently. You have two excellent profesores in the morning. The first is a porteña who speaks rapidly and always has to repeat everything to you slowly. The second is a very soft spoken gentleman who speaks very slowly and who now writes out everything for the class since he finds that you can’t understand nada if he doesn’t. He is very supportive and always says “muy bien,” drawing out the first syllable so that it sounds like moyyyy bee-en.
French words drift in and out of your head, since you have also studied French and they are in the FOREIGN LANGUAGE category on your mind’s Jeopardy board.
You are exhausted and confused and the words go in and out of focus on the page and start to echo through your head: habla, hablaba, hablo, hablaste, hablabamos, hablaron, hablado. The room is off-balance, the instructor chats easily with the other students, and you can feel the winds of incomprehension whizzing over your head.
You go to the store across the street from the school to get a sandwich to take home for lunch. You can choose a ham and cheese on thin slices of crustless brown bread. In addition, you can select ham and cheese on thin slices of crustless white bread. For variety, you can opt for a ham and cheese on small croissants (medialunas) or ham and cheese on large croissants (medialunas grandes). If none of those choices interest you, you can purchase a ham and cheese on four small rolls. You buy a ham and cheese.
You stagger home and intend to use your break time for lunch and a nap. You take off your street clothes and get into bed and try to relax for a few minutes. Directly outside your window a construction worker stands on a scaffold and taps a hammer. He continues. You wonder if the Blue Man Group is performing. You sigh, get out of bed, eat your sandwich, and walk back to school.
You are tense about the tenses. You understand the concepts, but you can’t put them into use. During your afternoon one-on-one tutorial, you feel that you are that kid who needs “special” attention. Your instructor couldn’t be any more patient, but you have to start from the start almost every time. You confuse the “I” form with the “he or she” form. You become so confused you try every possible ending. You second guess yourself and the first thought is correct. The next time you go with your first instinct and IT is wrong. Your instructor is very kind and tells you (in Spanish) that it is a matter of practice and you’ve only been here three or four weeks. You aren’t used to things being this hard to learn. Now you see why you made a D+ in your Spanish 101 course your first semester of college. You thought it was just because you didn’t give a damn.
You finish your class and you walk home. You think about writing a post even though your instructors and your friends tell you that thinking in English is not a good idea. Your mind wanders and you find that some of the words that come to mind are in Spanish. Now you are getting the two languages confused in both directions. You are bi-inarticulate.
Tonight you will watch television. Fox plays two hours of LOS SIMPSON each evening and you can sort of follow along. There is a CNN EN ESPAÑOL channel and you watch that because you can sort of follow it. The announcer says “Este es SAY-ANY-ANY.”
You take a sleeping pill, decide to bag your homework until the morning, and you hope to get a good night’s sleep. However, you know you will be awake at three, listening for the music from the room next door, whether or not the orchestra is performing. To get back to sleep, you will count verb conjugations: habla, hablaba, hablo, hablaste, hablabamos, hablaron, hablado…
Also see: It’s 3 a.m.
Also see: Tangled Up and Tongue Tied
Le Béret, Guest Contributor
–I have two sides to my brain. I carry my circus and my analyst everywhere.
–Don’t think of your challenges as obstacles! Think of them as hopeless, life-ending tragedies.
–In the era of MP3s, no one wants to listen to a broken record.
A four-year-old child could understand that.
Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it.
–Groucho Marx, DUCK SOUP
Buenos Aires, November 11
I’m sure for good reason, almost every building you come to in Buenos Aires has a security guard. You usually have to speak into an intercom to be buzzed in through the door. To take my Tango lesson, I have to push a button and speak into the speaker. I say “Tango” or “Guadalupe,” and feel as if I am giving the password to receive secret weapons technology. I think I could say “Lee Harvey Oswald” or “Genghis Kahn” and still have no issue getting the door buzzed open. The intercom is always answered and I have yet to receive a second question. Perhaps it’s the obvious gringo in my voice.
This afternoon I return to my school. I go to the third floor of the office building, and push the button on the school’s intercom. When the intercom is answered I say, “Uhhhhh, Sam” as if I have forgotten my name, but I think I need a different handle, perhaps “George Bush” or “Zorro.”
As happens to me half the time, I do not pull the door properly and I have to push the intercom again. This afternoon, after three attempts I finally make it into the fortress of language studies.
Milagros, whom I call “la Jefa“–boss–has become a faithful reader of this blog. She laughs as I pass her desk and she observes that I can add opening doors to Spanish and Tango as skills that seem to be foreign to me.
My guess is that I may be able to gain proficiency in Spanish and competency in Tango, but opening doors will always remain a mystery.
Buenos Aires, November 6
When I was walking to my tango lesson, I passed a newsstand. At the door, a young woman took gum out of her mouth and threw it towards the street. The gum hit me in the chest and bounced off.
The woman gasped and was ashamed. She hid her face in her hands. I started laughing, walked over and patted her on the shoulder.
As I walked away, I looked down and felt proud of how the gum had richocheted off of my manly chest.
¡Soy un hombre misterioso: fuerte e impermeable!
As an experiment, I took the English part of the text above and used Google translator to translate it into Spanish. I then took the Spanish text and used the translator to translate it back into English. What follows is the translated text:
When I was walking to my tango lesson, I passed a newsstand. At the door, a young woman took the gum from his mouth and threw it to the street. The gum hit me in the chest and he would return.
Gaspar and the woman is ashamed. She hid her face in her hands. I started laughing, and walked over Patten on his shoulder.
As I walked away, I looked down and felt proud of the way the gum has Richochet out of my manly chest.
I awoke in the middle of the night to the loud and happy noises of the couple in the apartment next to me. 3 a.m. seems to be their “special” time, and as usual it was highly vocal and of a long duration. This made getting back to sleep very difficult.
This started me thinking about the past weeks and I fired off an e-mail to my coach Bradley Foster and after a bit of whining, I posed this question:
Any suggestions for the middle-aged, overworked insomniacs South of the Equator?
Sleepless in Buenos Aires
He answered my question with a question:
What you are doing is amazing. Let me ask you a question. How will you determine whether this excursion has been successful? How are you going to measure success?
One could already say the project is a success because I’m doing it and you’re reading about it. True, but I’d like your opinion. Tell me what you think a successful outcome would be for this project. The project can be bigger that it is, or of a longer duration. I can come back to Buenos Aires, or I could learn to play the harp. Who knows? The subtitle of the blog is “Midlife Solutions for the Slightly Nervous.” “Solutions” is plural on purpose. Talk amongst yourselves.
This was the week I had to confront the fact that the cape I wear is only one of mystery, not one that comes with superpowers. I struggled in both Tango and Spanish and now that it is the end of week three, I suppose a bit of sophomore slump has set in.
I started this project purposely making it as quixotic as possible and my visualization of the difficulties is proving accurate, but living it is quite a bit different. I have stumbled around like Mr. Magoo this week, a little disoriented, out of focus and wooly.
However, I decided I could do something about the wooliness. I could get a haircut. This takes enormous courage, you know. I am very vain and particular about my hair. I wore it in a layered Caesar cut for years and in the last year I’ve let my hair grow. The gray is coarser and there are curls that stick out. A rumor went around town that I had gotten a perm.
That said, Monday I took myself to the first hair salon I saw and went inside. A very nice young man volunteered to give me a corte de pelo and between pantomiming, como se dices, discussion of how I am a student, and a bit of vocabulary training from my barber, we got through the session just fine. I was proud that I actually had the courage to speak in Spanish, and to trust my hair to someone I had never met before. Spanish and a haircut. Two bits.
I am very grateful for the wonderful comments and e-mails you have sent. This has really helped me keep motivated and lifted my spirits. Thank you to all who read. Sam
Le Béret, Guest Contributor
–Many a man plants a seed and harvests a headache.
–Surprisingly few assignations cause assassinations.
–It appears that everyone is paired up now, but in spring a young woman’s fancy turns to thoughts of breaking up.
Buenos Aires, November 4
It’s a muggy Spring day and the town could use a good rain. Dust is in the streets and fumes are in the air. I am quite frustrated by my inability to follow along in Spanish class, to understand, and to speak as well as my classmates. This morning, the frustration showed on my face when the administrator came in to take roll. She knew immediately I was “trieste” (sad) and I demurred, saying only that I was confused.
I was delighted to finally find some vegetables here. I didn’t know until this morning that the Spanish school’s office building has a vegetarian cafeteria, and I pigged out on greens, rice, lentils, and some kind of mysterious but delicious fried tofu cutlet. I was beginning to believe that the only vegetable served in Buenos Aires is papas fritas (french fries).
It’s Election Day in the U. S., and I have left politics off of this blog, with the exception of the freethinking Le Béret, but everyone I have talked to so far is hoping for an Obama win. The United States is the big kid on the block and people I meet here are hoping that the U. S. starts to move forward to solve its problems.
I am stressed and I decide to go for a run. This is not a good running city, particularly on my street, Corrientes, which is sort of like living in Times Square. The other night I told someone where I lived and I was met with quickly averted eyes and the question: “Can’t you move?”
I go out the front door which is currently blocked by scaffolding, wave off the woman who sits on a stool in front handing out call girl ads, and I start down the street. Every few hundred feet there is a newsstand, which makes people naturally slow down. I try to avoid them, sometimes going around the newsstand on the street side and running in the parking lane. There are only cabs in the parking lane, but I always worry that someone is going to open a door into the street and hit me. A truck is parked ahead, so I step back onto a sidewalk where an old lady with a cane is gingerly holding on to her daughter’s arm. I slow down and push off on my right toe, turning my torso to fit neatly between them and a man handing out restaurant flyers. I step close to the curb and a businessman opens a cab door on the passenger side and grazes my hip, but I see him and I am not injured. I can see the concern in his eyes. I wave.
I cross a garage entrance and a car is turning into the drive. I jump to the right. He brakes.
I make my way down the street, slowing at times, dodging and weaving. There is a hill toward the end of Corrientes and I speed up on the way to the river. As I reach the corner, a gentleman in a suit with a briefcase clicks his heel and makes a dead stop. I twist my body and run across the avenue to the river landing, where a motorcyclist almost runs into me while she is talking on her cell phone and slowing to park on the sidewalk.
So much for Spanish and not blogging. The post comes to me in a flash as I approach the river.
There is a breeze, there is shade from the buildings, and the view of the modernist suspension bridge is lovely. I catch a view of Bice Restaurant, a wonderful Italian restaurant from Milan that has a location in New York. The New York location is an old friend and I smile as I think of going there and enjoying their handmade pasta.
Further down the path, I spy two more old acquaintances: TGIFridays and Hooter’s and I am vaguely annoyed. America IS the big kid on the block and I run a step faster as I think of making the world safe for Big Macs, Buffalo wings, and hot pants.