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.
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, November 30
It is a Saturday morning and my third private Tango lesson of the week. My instructor Guadalupe has been working with me on a different style of Tango, a “close embrace” rather than the “open embrace” that people learn in group lessons. She says, “It would not be possible to teach close embrace in group class. There is too much for me to watch. This is the dance for the milongas.”
She shows me how to introduce myself to my dancing partner by standing with straight posture and holding up my left arm for my partner to clasp my hand “like you are shaking hands, not too hard, not too soft.” She then shows me how to place my arm behind my partner, drawing her closer by sliding my right arm across my partner’s shoulder blade and eventually to her far left side.
At first I am a bit cautious, I lean back. She shows me how vital it is for the man to lead with confidence and how I must hold my head erect (in some cases so I can watch milonga traffic) and also to lean in with my chest to balance the weight my partner is placing against me.
“You are one with the woman and you must lean against her and she you.” She shows me how the dancers are joined at the woman’s left breast and how in an open embrace you exaggerate the leading to communicate to your partner, while in close embrace the pecho (chest) communicates the dance.
She smiles as she pushes my arm back out to the side. “You are shy. In time, Tango shows you how you are.” She is right, of course. Guadalupe, Tango Analyst.
After some practice, it becomes apparent that this is a very graceful dance. It is very fluid and the communication is exquisite. We learn a new step, the cross step, that is usually used in the milongas, unlike the box step that is taught to the beginning classes.
When I hold her correctly or when my leading is more assured she rewards me with “eso” (as in “that’s right”). She is easy to lead and she helps me gain more and more confidence as I continue.
An earlier lesson in the week was conducted entirely in Spanish. Dance lessons in Spanish are easier for me to follow than other things in Spanish because I already spend so much of my time miming and reading body language.
Today we need some English so that we can discuss the complicated etiquette in the milongas. “The man looks at the woman and he makes the eye contact,” Guadalupe says. “If the woman gives a nod, he walks over. One time I was in a milonga and I made eye contact with someone. When he walked over I stood up and two girls behind me also stood up. He danced with one and came back later and danced with me. He said that he had meant to ask me, but the woman behind me thought he had asked her, so he was polite.”
The last dance of the lesson was longer. We did a number of steps that we had learned that week. When the music stopped, we stopped dancing and Guadalupe was happy at how much I had learned. “I danced with my eyes closed.” She meant that I was able to communicate everything through my movements rather than through counting or words and she had been able to trust me. I took it as a perfect compliment.
Earlier in the morning, Guadalupe had become self-conscious about her English, worrying that she had said “don’t” when she should have said “doesn’t.” I told her it didn’t matter. “But you are a writer and I worry.” I reminded her what I had written in my post “Pingback:” “Guadalupe speaks two languages that I cannot: Spanish and Tango.” She said that she remembered that and she added: “but now you speak Tango.”
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 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 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
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 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.
“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.
“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?
FRANCE, JULY 2004:
It had been a good trip. My daughter Peggy was attending a summer program in Paris and I had the pleasant responsibility of escorting her to her school. We had spent four cold and rainy days in Paris, but we had friends who showed us everything. I had never spent much time in Paris and I was excited for Peggy.
I had always wanted to see the south of France and I stayed a few extra days to see a bit of the Côte d’Azur. I thought that perhaps the scenery would be nice and the weather sunny. I flew to Nice, rented a car, and drove to Cannes. When I unpacked at the hotel, I found that I had lost my passport and I paced all night in the hotel room until I could go back to the airport the next day to search for it. In the morning, I ended up driving the wrong way up a one-way street, couldn’t get the car in reverse, and caused a minor tie-up in rush hour. People were yelling at me or offering me well-intentioned and indecipherable suggestions in French. Luckily, the owner of the same model car showed me how to get the car in gear. At the airport, the lost and found was attended by a beautiful young Frenchwoman, who told me, yes they had my passport, and no, she couldn’t retrieve it. I would have to wait for another person who came in at twelve and whose signature must have carried the State’s official imprimatur.
That episode done, I headed back to Cannes, where I observed the much desired scenery.
The next night I was strolling up the seaside promenade called “La Croisette,” smoking a good Cuban cigar, and I saw a mime in front of Le Grand Hotel. His face and hands were painted gold, he was wearing a gold top hat, shirt, tie and a gold formal tails suit. He was pretending to film people with an all-gold prop “camera” that had a hand crank and a gold tripod. Mimes annoy me and I walked on, trying my best to hide my displeasure.
I walked to the end of the boulevard and turned back towards my hotel. I passed the mime’s location again. I’m not sure exactly what happened since there were several people shouting in French, but all of a sudden the mime was being wrestled to the ground and beaten by an angry man. I thought it was an act, a clever piece of street theatre at first, but there were real blows exchanged. There were cries from the observers to obtain the police.
The mime was winning, getting in twice the punches, and silently taking over the fight.
A woman, whom I guessed to be the angry man’s mother, started scolding me in French. My schoolboy French did not help me a bit. I’m not sure whether she was angry that I had not tried to break up the fight or whether she was angry that I was taking in the improvised drama, but in any case I moved on and observed from a distance. A couple of moments later I saw the woman forcefully take the angry young man away from the scene with him complaining loudly to her.
I seem to have a talent for getting yelled at in France, yet strangely enough most of the people I met in France (despite the American stereotype) were friendly, polite and seemed to like me.
I just never thought I’d see a mime that was ready to rumble.