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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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
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
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.
Buenos Aires, November 2
My uncle used to quote free-spenders during World War II. They would shrug their shoulders and say: “What good is the money if we don’t win the war?”
Thursday, I talked to a woman that is a professional photographer based out of New York. She is a native of Argentina and, like everyone else, we were discussing the truly menacing state of the economy.
Ever since I have arrived in Argentina, “la Crisis” has been the top story, along with the American elections. I asked her how, in a time of such financial stress, are the streets of Buenos Aires filled with people, the restaurants doing business, and people enjoying time out with friends?
She replied that the economy has been in trouble in Argentina for so long that people try to ignore it. She said: “It is good in bad times to be conservative, but it is also good, in bad times, to live your life.”
--Gustave Flaubert, DICTIONARY OF RECEIVED IDEAS
Buenos Aires, November 1
Last evening, I received an e-mail from my friend Sarah Hazlegrove, who took the photos in my page Burning My Bridges. She is a photographer who spends about half her time in the U. S. and half her time in France. She spoke of the disconnect one feels when one visits a new culture, or returns to a familiar one after having been away.
She wrote that at first: ”I always have at least two weeks of the major ex-pat blues: Why am I here? Where do I belong?” It was strange timing. The e-mail came just as I was having the same thoughts.
This reminded me of a note I wrote last week about the serious traveler:
–The traveler ventured out to find a new home, feeling out of sync with his old one. Now he was a stranger twice. Estranged from his home and a stranger in his destination.
This is the ex-pat’s paradox, never feeling completely at home in either culture, at least at first.
Sarah wrote: “There are people who feel very comfortable living their lives in one place, I can’t imagine that…Welcome to the ever widening circle of part-time ex-pats.”
Indeed, it seems larger all the time. When you are attending a for-profit language school, you meet students, gap-year travelers, dilettantes, retirees, and mission volunteers. For example, Bill is a tall, gregarious 49-year old from California. He stopped practicing law, was a commercial mortgage broker for five years, and then last year “got off the ship before it went over the edge.” Since then he has traveled through Eastern Europe and is now taking a sabattical South America. He plans to return to law practice.
One reason I embarked on this journey is to inquire as to how difficult it is to learn new things at 50. Bill says he finds it no harder to learn Spanish than it was for him in high school, but that “now it’s more enjoyable.”
There are also those who wish to be ex-pats for reasons romantic or financial. The administrator at our school, Milagros, and I had a long conversation the other day about the difficulties of learning language and adapting to a new culture. She spoke about her good friend John, a New Yorker who spent a year in Buenos Aires learning Spanish. He is very confident and articulate at home, but here he complained that for a long time he felt stupid. Milagros (her name means “miracles” in Spanish) speaks flawless English and she is going to visit New York at the end of the year.
It will be her first time. She is practicing Romanian because she wants to speak the language with her boyfriend. He is a Romanian and is currently living in New York. One day, she would like to move there to be with him, but it is complicated because she has a three-year old daughter.
See also: Colonia, Uruguay
Buenos Aires, October 31
This afternoon, I spend two hours trying to communicate with my instructor Juan, a very intelligent man, who tries to piece together the threads of my broken Spanish with the aid of gentle correction, pantomiming, and writing words down, so that perhaps I can see the cognate. We try to correct a translation I made of my post El Dîa de Máma and I can see that the contrast between my mother and the lost mother in the piece has him interested. He particularly likes the quote in the piece from my mother: “How can you be a Man of Mystery when you tell everyone everything?” He laughs quietly, and my mother’s wry observation keeps him amused for quite a while. Speaking in Spanish, he tells me that the quote is very funny translated into Spanish. He says that some of my other writing is difficult to understand in Spanish, but he likes the concept of The Midlife Protection Plan and is very amused that I have Le Béret as an author on the blog.
Juan is a therapist at a local hospital as well. You can see his gentle eyes light up as we review the blog and he realizes how truly screwed up I am. He enjoys the thought of me having a double right there and another double to spare. It is a doppelgänger-banger.
We try to illustrate the difference between irony, sarcasm and cynicism, and the difference between each in Argentina and the U. S. He chuckles as he observes that some of the humor is hard to translate from inglés a español. The sesson ends with a laugh as I observe that some people find my humor difficult to translate from inglés a inglés.
Buenos Aires, October 28
Tonight you write from the relative comfort of the cot you call your bed. As you had foreseen, learning new things at fifty would be challenging on several levels. There is the embarrassment and hesitancy you feel when trying to speak a foreign language, particularly “immersed” in said language in a foreign land. You walk into a coffee shop and you can’t remember the word for “sugar.” The woman behind the counter speaks a little English and she asks you “what would you like in your coffee?” She helps you and says the word “sugar” in English. This upsets you because you really did want to order in Spanish. Then the word “azucar” rises out of the back of your head and you blush. You buy a bottle of water at a newsstand and simply hold out a five-peso note since you usually can’t understand what the person says when he asks for the money. You get the change and you slink away.
In a restaurant, even before you sit down, the waiter hands you a menu in English, which you politely put to the side as you read the menu in Spanish. Then you furtively peek at the English version and order in broken Spanish and he answers you in English. You sigh.
In class, you SPEAK…LIKE…WILLIAM!…SHATNER!. Short bursts of fluency, followed by hesitancy, followed by puzzling loss of memory, followed by a P-P-Porky th-th-the Pig stutter. Words that you can easily say on your own are giant moutains of tongue-tying torture when you read them aloud before others.
On a Monday, you show up in class, a little tired and you find that the instructor and everyone in class is different than last week’s class. Three of the students are Brazilian so they have a little familiarity with Spanish. They speak with a Portuguese accent, your other classmate speaks with a French Swiss accent, and your intense young instructor delivers Castellano Spanish in a rapid manner. (It’s a special accent here–another story) You understand about a third of what he says. You feel that you have never seen a word in Spanish before, even though you passed the first level with flying colors.
Then you spend two hours pantomiming and searching for cognates with an intellectual and friendly instructor and you talk in some detail about American politics, world economics, the films of los Hermanos Coen, the plotting of Hamlet, and the difference between Argentine and American senses of irony, tragedy, and humor. With all the scribbling out of words and the como se dices and so forth and a couple of lapses into English you manage to hold a conversation for a couple of hours.
Afterwards you drag yourself to your Tango lesson. It is the same professora but a different crowd of students. You have a new partner who is a head taller than you and either you cannot lead her or she cannot follow. You are polite and say to the professora that YOU must be doing the wrong thing, because you do not wish to be a Tangorrista. The entire class shuts down and you learn to just walk to the music again. Everything you have learned goes out the window. Now you are a Tango doofus. Holding your arms higher to accommodate the taller partner and struggling to find the right way to lead her inflames the arthritis in your neck and the accumulated tension from the day cramps every muscle between your shoulder blades, across your shoulders, and up your neck to your jaw. You resist the impulse to buy a bottle of whiskey at the store since you do not want to get in the habit of drinking on your own in a foreign country.
You buy your groceries and you tentatively hand out a 100 Peso note and a 50 Peso note to the cashier and you gratefully accept the change, a wordless transaction. You drag the bags up the broad avenue and it is a very long six blocks and you don’t even know if you have the energy to shift the bags so that you can get your keys. You regain your belief in the Creator when you see that the security guard has the door open for some fresh air and that all you have to deal with is pulling the heavy cage door open and pushing it shut on the ancient elevator.
You have a sandwich. You lie down in bed and you write a post, the laptop propped against a pillow on your stomach. This sucks and it is all your fault, but you are in deep. You must Just Tango On.
You know what the funniest thing about Europe is? It’s the little differences.
–John Travolta in PULP FICTION
Buenos Aires, October 27
It is a very odd sensation walking back into the Tango studio today after writing about it Friday. I feel very ironic and bemused. Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) kiss each other when they meet, brushing their cheeks and kissing the air. I became aware of this when I first arrived at the airport. Behind the car service counter, a stout man in his forties said goodbye to his co-workers. He kissed each one, two men and a woman, as he said “chau.”
Today, I bump cheeks and air-kiss Guadalupe and shake hands with and air-kiss her partner Emiliano. A doctor from Winston-Salem greets them the same way, looks at me and rubs his cheek as he indicates Emiliano with a tilt of the head. ”Pelo,” he says (Spanish for “hair”).
Friday, I danced with Emiliano, a thin man who stands in perfect balance, as he showed me the proper form on one of the steps. He was the woman, in case you’re interested, and dancing is all I do on the first date.
My Swedish friend who was having trouble with her balance last week finishes her last lesson today. She moves much better, although she is still quite a handful. I find out that her Tango shoes had been too small for her and that today she has a new pair of shoes that keep her on a more even keel. Even so, when we do the more complicated steps, such as the forward ocho (a turn step for the woman, like a figure eight), or the gancho (translated as “hook”), a move when the woman kicks her leg in a hooked fashion between her partners legs, I use so much effort to handle her that my eyes fill with perspiration and I lose count of the step.
Tonight Emiliano and Guadalupe begin their performances at the Tango show. I find out that show folk in Argentina say “mucha mierda” or “lots of shit” to wish each other luck. Emiliano says it is from the days when people used horses to go to the theatre. “Mucha mierda” meant there were a lot of fans.
A postscript: Friday, I originally titled the article Fighting the Tangorrista: “Fighting the Tangonista.”Later that evening I was worried that perhaps I had unconsciously used the name of a gang or political party. I Googled it and found that “Tangonistas” was already taken by both a musical group and by a Herpes-positive support group. I changed the name to the more original and better sounding “Tangorrista.” I will still dedicate my life to the cause of protecting our freedoms from Tangorristas everywhere and from those who would harbor them.
“I am, uh, shy, but I am, uh…willing.”
–Pepé Le Pew
Buenos Aires, October 24
It has been a week of Tango lessons. We meet at six in a small studio for an hour lesson. It is about a thirty minute walk from my Spanish school. It is good to take the walk because it clears my head after struggling through a one-on-one Spanish lesson for two hours.
We have a cute and small young profesora, Guadalupe, who teaches the class with great confidence. Coincidently, she will be performing in the same tango show I described in my recent post “Watching The Tango”. There is a lot to learn and a lot to remember, the basic seven-step box–or is it eight?– the backwards and forwards Ocho, the “sandwich,” the “rebound”, and there is simply walking.
“You must walk with confidence and lead the woman with a soft, yet firm EM-brace,” Guadalupe says, putting the emphasis on the first syllable, and when I dance with her it seems much easier. There is a woman from Winston-Salem who is on an extended holiday with her husband, and I find it quite easy and natural to do the steps with her as well. There is a young woman from Sweden who is quite nice but she is very large and clumsy in her high-heeled Tango shoes, and either I don’t lead well or she has trouble following me, because she often gets a little off balance and because she is on the big side, begins to topple over. There is a tall young woman from Aspen who obviously hates having me as a partner (we switch every song) and then there is Francie, a tall woman, a little bit on the big side, dressed in black with rose tattoos crawling up her legs. She has ice blue eyes and she particularly hates dancing with me. There is an Swiss man named Emilio who is at her level and she expects to dance with him and him alone.
On my second day of my lessons, she announced “Emilio better come today, because I am not doing box steps all day.” She could see that I was taken aback and she focused on me and said: “Well, I paid for this after all.” I do not usually come back with a quick retort, as in “you didn’t pay for a private lesson,” and I wasn’t clever at that moment, either.
I avoided her the entire lesson and danced with Winston-Salem, Sweden, and Guadalupe that day. From then on, I dubbed her “Tangorrista:” n.f.: a woman who only dances the angry Tango. I am thankful that she has now taken her last class.
From now on, I pledge to fight the Tangorristas here so that we never have to fight the Tangorristas back home.
Buenos Aires, October 24
It is hard to get used to the fact that it is spring and not autumn in Buenos Aires. When I arrived, Bs As was one hour ahead of Eastern U. S. time. Sunday, the country did its “spring forward” to Daylight time, so now we’re two hours ahead. When the U. S. “falls back” early next month, we’ll be three hours ahead.
Sunday, October 19th was also “El Diá de Mamá”– Mother’s Day. It was one more reminder of how I’ve inverted my world. I called my mother and wished her a “Feliz Diá de Mamá.” My mother’s an elegant and wise woman and a barricuda on the Scrabble board. Scrabble is a game we play nearly every day and it is one part of the day that is missing, and that I miss, in Bs As. I would write more about my mother, but as she said to me earlier in the week: “How can you be a Man of Mystery when you tell everyone everything?”
Yesterday afternoon, I was walking near my apartment and I noticed a very young woman, probably still a teenager, huddled in a doorway, holding what appeared to be a newborn infant wrapped in a blanket. The baby had a lot of black hair, as some newborns do.
Later in the evening, I passed a policeman standing on the sidewalk on the same block as the doorway. He was cradling what I thought to be the same baby in his arms. He held it tighter and kissed it on the head. I am not sure what happened to the baby’s mother.
BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 21
It’s two giant feet for Sam, and two flights of short stairs for Samkind.
For the second time in a month, I have fallen down the stairs. Last month it was while I was looking at a text message and today when I was looking at my notebook. I was looking at my note so that I could remember the dutifully translated phrase for “did you find my black sweater yesterday?” I recovered my lost sweater (thankfully) from the coffee shop in which I wrote yesterday’s post. I almost broke my finger last month when I fell down the stairs at Starbucks in Roanoke (there seems to be a coffee pattern here) and today I twisted my ankle, but not so badly that I won’t be able to take my first Tango lesson later.
It’s six hours of Spanish a day now, four hours in a group class in the morning and two hours with a one-on-one instructor in the afternoon. I am exhausted by all the vocabulary and the grammar thrown at me. I’m sure that it will get better as the weeks go on.
When I went to the shoe store today for some zapatos negros, the saleswoman frowned when I told her my size. She wasn’t sure if she had the Argentine equivalent of an American size 11. When I was a teenager, everyone was sure I would grow into my feet like a puppy, but it didn’t exactly happen.
I am too busy paying attention to the next step to watch the current one. This can be dangerous, but I am THAT MAN, the man of action who laughs–mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha–at danger.
I just hope that I don’t leave my right foot in the coffee shop. I’ll need it for my lesson.
CAFE HAVANNA, BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 20
A few observations jotted down last night:
–It is better when alone to take a long walk than a long dinner.
–It is impossible to find nut butters here. Either peanut butter is banned, or it is a controlled substance only available by prescription.
–Going to an open supermarket is the best way to feel a part of things. There are no frozen meals, though, and it doesn’t appear that vegetables are high on the shopping list. Dulce de Leche (caramel sauce) is available in about twenty-five brands. The checkout lines snake through the store and it seems that everyone already has someone in line to whom they deliver a forgotten item. The register lines are narrow and with the crowd pushing in, it would kill a claustrophobe.
–My friend Sharon told me that the ice cream was the best in the world, even better than Italy. I am not usually an ice cream man, but the Chocolate with Almonds with a scoop of Dulce de Leche helado (ice cream) is the best dessert ever. Helado is even better than Gelato. I make one meal a day of Helado. This seems to me to be the cornerstone of a nutritious diet.
“I like to watch.”
–Chance (Peter Sellers) in BEING THERE
Buenos Aires–October 18
When you are a writer or a photographer, you tend to remove yourself from the actual scene, even as you are in it. That is the way you gain enough perspective to record what is happening and the ability to see and relate details and impressions.
At least, that is what is true for me. I think I was drawn to these disciplines by my innate shyness and introversion. My introspection is useful at times, but sometimes also makes me feel alienated and not fully in the moment. I often have a sense of dèjá vu even as I am seeing something in real time.
My friend Ray, gregarious and extraverted, camps out in a cafe or bar wherever he goes in the world and finds it easy to make friends. I am shyer and more aloof and have never been good at this. I sit in the back and observe and I am intimidated. Since I am talkative with close friends, some may think this is hogwash, but I have always felt like a bit of an outsider. I can be in a gathering and step out of myself and observe in the third person.
One of the reasons this project is such a departure is that I am making myself work through my inhibitions. I will have to fully participate in Tango and try to get along in a foreign country with a foreign language. Mistakes will happen, but I must Tango On. It is the charm and anxiety of the naif, the greenhorn, the amateur that creates a bit of comedy, and I hope interest.
Since I often second-guess myself (another personality feature of the introvert), I wonder if the anticipation of what will be and the observation of the event itself will make it different, similar to the observer effect in physics, where the observation of a phenomenon subtly changes the phenomenon itself.
Last evening, I went to a show at a tango dinner club called “Piazzolla Tango.” It was my first live exposure to Tango and I had decided to go because it is within easy walking distance of my apartment and my guidebook highly recommended it.
I dressed in a suit and a black shirt and ventured out into the evening. Florida Street, generally jammed with tourists, was dark and deserted. A few vendors had mats with unsalable items spread out on the street and there were people huddled in doorways. The shops were closed and the security gates had been rolled down and locked.
I entered a well-lit and pleasant arcade and went to the theatre’s entrance. I had elected only to attend the show, not to have dinner, which made my ticket saleswoman frown. I may have been the only one in the hall of several hundred people who had not dined there, but I get tired of the looks one gets when one dines alone in a fancy place, and I just wanted to see the show.
Descending two flights of stairs and having given my name twice, the lobby was so quiet and empty that I was worried that I had come at the wrong time. I was escorted through a double door into a music hall, festooned with gold accents and covered throughout with late nineteenth-century dark red whorehouse velvet. Laughter and warm conversation bounced around the hall and was absorbed by the fabric, the well-dressed people, the plush carpet.
The lights dimmed, the curtain rose, and dancers twirled on stage, the men costumed in fedoras and suits, the women in tight dresses with frilled skirts and slits to show the legs as they moved. While the men led, the women seemed to show the most expression, kicking their legs high as they turned and snapping their heads back and forth in rhythm with the piano and accordians.
The couples stomped their feet as an accent, the men would twirl the women or catch them in a mock fall, the dance would end with the signature pose of the woman in a low backward crouch and with the man in a pose as if he were a sprinter preparing to start a race. The dancers teased and flirted over a rose, the man offering, the woman pretending not to show interest, and then accepting the rose and circling the stage with her partner in a tug of romance and seduction, rejection and acceptance.
A beautiful brunette singer, sparkling with costume jewelry and luminescent in a white dress, delivered an impassioned song. Between choruses, she gave the audience coquettish looks and swayed her hips, confident in her voice, her beauty, and her sexuality. The performance alternated between the female singer, single couple and multiple couple performances, and a talented and emotional dark-suited male singer. I was moved to give the performance a standing ovation, yet there were not many of us who were standing. Could this be an American habit, giving standing ovations for every performance and expecting the ovation to spread across the entire room like a fungus?
After the performance, I walked back to the apartment, passing a famous milonga (Tango hall), Confiteria Ideal. The hall has been featured in the films EVITA and THE TANGO LESSON. To watch a dance filmed last year at Confiteria Ideal clink on this link. I stopped in and looked at the board. The dances and classes were listed and I blanched a bit. There are dances tonight, which I will probably sit in the back and observe. Tomorrow afternoon, though, there is a class with instruction in both Italian and English. Will I throw myself into the moment, or will I continue to hold back, an observer but not a participant?
–Alain de Botton, THE ART OF TRAVEL
BUENOS AIRES, OCTOBER 16:
I arrived this morning–at last!–and agreed with my brother-in-law that the trip to Argentina is relatively easy. Since there is almost no time change, and since there is enough time to sleep on the plane, in Buenos Aires you can function well the first day.
Plus, the seat next to mine was empty, so no fat guy and no elbows jockeying for control on the community armrest.
I arrived about an hour early and took a cab to the apartment building. I had been told I could store my bag until the apartment was ready. When I arrived, no one knew anything, no one spoke English, and I couldn’t get my cell phone to connect. I ended up rolling my bag through the streets for the next couple of hours and ended up back at the building where the security guard cheerfully sent me to the apartment, which of course was locked. I remembered enough Spanish from my Rosetta Stone course that I said: “Donde estan los llaves?” He shrugged his shoulders and made a call. I asked if I should “¿Espero aquí?” again astonished that the words had come.
After getting settled in the small apartment, I heard drum beats and chants outside. I left and took my camera and saw a massive demonstration and I have no idea what the crowd was demonstrating for or against. There were banners with pictures of Che Guevara. Young women had their faces painted as skeletons. It felt chaotic and indiscipherable and somehow more alive that way.
The demostration continued down Avenida Corrientes and I walked next to it, interested in taking a longer walk. In front of me an elegantly dressed older gentleman tripped on a curb and fell backwards taking a long slow-motion roll onto his back. Two men helped him up by grabbing him by the arms, but he kept his legs straight and it took extra effort to right him. He assured them “bien, bien” and started walking again.
I was focused on the parade and had slowed a bit. In front of me was a newsstand and the same man who had fallen was shaking another man by the shoulders and yelling in his face. Deep rage rose from the older man’s core and the dark, heavy bags under his eyes looked as if they were about to explode. The other man, finely dressed, middle-aged, and accompanied by a woman, was bemused and saddened and tried to calm him down by entreating “Señor, Señor…” Although, I couldn’t hear or understand him, I am sure that the man was trying to ask what had aggrieved the older man so much, but the older man would not calm down and his entire body shook visibly and violently.
I turned onto a main shopping arcade, Florida Street and the demonstration had rounded the corner and now met me head on, and jammed against the flow of people out shopping.
It stopped in front an official looking building where police had erected barricades and stood in a line, wearing helmets and riot gear. I was thrilled to be in the middle of it.
When I travel, I try not to be an obvious tourist. Often, when in other countries, people will stop and ask me directions. It happened to me a number of times in Germany and it happened today in Buenos Aires. I observe gentlemen’s shoes to make sure that mine do not make me look like a rube. I check to see how people dress. In this city, men wear darker colors and many wear jackets or suits. My shoes should be okay. I always dress in dark colors.
Each city has its own rules about pedestrian crossing. Some cities are strictly against jaywalking and cars have the right-of-way, as in Las Vegas and London. Some, like Boston, seem to have no rule about jaywalking or traffic lights. Everyone justs drifts along and expects the other guy to stop. It is a hybrid here. In general, people obey the crossing signs unless common sense tells them it is okay and then they cross. Unlike London, cars do not seem to speed up when they see a pedestrian.
Several years ago, I read an article in THE NEW YORK TIMES in which the writer gave his impressions of the famous O. J. Simpson White Bronco freeway chase. Unlike many viewers, he wasn’t emotional because he hadn’t known that O. J. wasn’t as good a man as his persona, but because the writer was from Southern California and missed the warm golden glow of the L. A. sunshine, a light he hadn’t been able to duplicate elsewhere.
The Argentine sunshine has that quality. Today’s sky was a cool blue, the light was golden. The warmth and the ice combine to create an effect that I had only seen before in L. A. Perhaps it is only that both cities are famous for smog, but the day seemed uniquely perfect and the city’s name “Good Airs” seemed to be correctly advertised, even if it is occasionally lampooned because of the often-polluted air.
Oh, and that thing about the Southern Hemisphere toilets flushing counter-clockwise?
At least in this apartment, it’s a myth.