“Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” — Gene Fowler
SAN QUIRICO D’ORCIA, TUSCANY
I’m back. Months of clearing my throat. Trying to clear my mind. Frustrated and guilty over my lack of progress. Absorbed to the point of obsession with trying to develop my talents in photography and understand digital imaging.
I’m wondering what happened. Maybe it was winter and the inactivity and sadness. There has been memory and loss and regret. Too much for me to write about now.
Certainly it was being at home too much. For a wandering Jew like me, home is where not only the heart is, it’s where the writer’s block is. What the meaning of “is” is the the key to it.
I am writing from a small town in Tuscany. I know… I am lucky. I’ve come here for one of my serial photography and creativity workshops. “Serial” means a continuing habit, a series. It does not mean I studying to be a serial killer.
Now there is so much to write about the block becomes one of procrastination, not of the lack of ideas. Not enough focus and a bit of dread over where to start. I think the focus of this blog will start to shift. Personal growth and challenge, yes, less about Buenos Aires and Tango. The visual arts and photography. Travel.
However, Tango has been everywhere. While at Harvard a couple of weeks ago I walked the bridge across the Charles River. I wanted to shoot the clouds at dusk. There was a circle of people dancing and a small dark and attractive woman handing out flyers: a Boston Tango festival. I told her that I had tried to learn Tango in Buenos Aires for a year but found I didn’t have a natural talent. I did not tell her about my public milonga debut. I haven’t written about that yet, either.
She said that she took beginners. I could feel the blood rush to my face, but I gave her a tight smile and walked away saying I didn’t live in Boston.
There isn’t a Tango club within a two-hour drive so during the winter I let it slip.
Saturday I had lunch at a communal table at a wonderful restaurant in Florence where the locals go. The couple sitting with me lived in Florence and met through dancing Tango. The man has a Facebook group and organizes events in Florence. Monday there will be an outdoor milonga. I’ll miss being there. He says they dance Tango better in Italy than in Buenos Aires. I’m not going to get in the middle of that argument.
This weekend two of my Tango photographs were published in a Brazlian magazine: DEFESA LATINA. The editor had seen the images on this blog and wanted to use them.
These little Tango tweaks that happen when I travel keep reminding me that I have to work on my next step and keep this blog updated.
I’ve continued my Spanish classes via Skype with Gisela Giunti, my tutor in Buenos Aires. She has been very patient with my eccentric patterns of learning and my need to sometimes work by chat and sometimes by voice. My style of learning is visual and there are days I simply do not process the conversation aurally. She’s been good. I recommend her highly if you are in Buenos Aires or if you want to start your learning from elsewhere in the world.
In the coming days I’ll be talking about my various journeys to photography workshops, about learning to see, about the turning of the page on Tango, a break but I hope not the last chapter. Sometimes there will just be an image. We will see. I hope I will say things worth reading as well.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you,
trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our
players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
CÓRDOBA, November 14
It’s 7 A. M. Sunday morning. I’m up early because I am going on a “trekking” exposition to Villa Alpina in the Sierras near Córdoba. Every other city I’ve been to is dead this time on Sunday morning. Here the streets are still crowded from Saturday night.
My room overlooks one of the busiest squares in this provincial capital and the crowds of young people have been yelling, singing, clapping, laughing and blowing car horns all night. There is a dog who stands guard at the intersection and barks constantly. He runs off of the traffic island and attacks car tires. Somehow he is never killed. He never seems to eat. I see him there every day and since Argentine dogs don’t like me as much as American ones, I avoid him.
I am more than a little sleepy. I was up late watching bad movies. English with Spanish subtitles. Or truly stupid shit that just looks funny dubbed in Spanish. Stallone. Some Western. It doesn’t matter. I have memorized the jingles and the commercials’ theme songs. I know the theme song for the overproduced Smirnoff commercial. I note that the man singing schmaltz in the credit card commercial has on a wig and sports a porn-star mustache. I remember the annoying boy that keeps asking his mother “¿Por qué?” when she tells him that her detergent gets the clothes brighter. “¿Por qué?” I know the commercial for the alfajores Blahn-co Blahn-co BLAHN-co Nay-gro Nay-gro NAAAY-gro. Channel surfing I keep encountering the same movies. “¿Por qué?” One week it’s NOTTING HILL with English subtitles. The next week it’s NOTTING HILL with dubbed Spanish, the voice actors sounding nothing like Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. They seemed to have left Hugh Grant’s patented uhhhhhmmmm in the Spanish version without dubbing. “¿Por qué?”
My tour is late picking me up, as usual, so I decide to walk out and get something to drink from the kiosko across the street. The kids look like it’s eleven o’clock Saturday night, the girls still made up and in black dresses and the boys with their arms around them. All around me, as usual, are couples making out. It is spring in Argentina.
I have come to Cordoba for a few days because Buenos Aires has been a bit flat this trip. I am having trouble taking good pictures. Both my writing and my photography seem stale, so last year. Contacts here from before are not answering e-mails. Potential friends fizzle out.
A constant novelty junkie, I seem to need new sights and stimulation to fire up my creativity.
Córdoba, the capital of the province by the same name, is not a collection of once-in-a-lifetime sights, but the people are very friendly and warm, and very good looking and affectionate with each other. People attempt to speak to me but I cannot understand them and I sure as hell clam up if I need to ask someone for something. I can’t seem to remember the words. Stage fright. I skip dinner because I am too shy and intimidated to go. I have snacks instead.
When I left Buenos Aires this past April, the overwhelming anxiety from my language-learning block was too strong I couldn’t confidently return immediately. I got back to the States and all of a sudden, I realized that I had become so visual that I was almost post-verbal. My photography was soaring, my writing was atrophying. I had spoken with one of my instructors in Buenos Aires and he suggested that the issue was that I was going back and forth from the U. S. to Argentina and that every time I did my language would suffer. When I returned the downgrade in my language frustrated and confused me. He suggested that I do lessons by Skype when in the U. S.
I started Skype lessons when I returned home with Gisela Giunti, a private instructor who is in Buenos Aires. Skype was a good tool, because I had become so intimidated by speaking that I couldn’t understand audio files or engage in conversation. Skype gave me the opportunity to work more slowly and to chat via text on those days when I couldn’t understand the sounds of words.
So many people learn by listening that it is frustrating when you are a visual learner. The usual methods of listening to tapes and repeating things really doesn’t work for me and simply increases my frustration.
This dance troupe performed a modern piece with crutches and a wheelchair. I would assume they are part of the Universidad Nacíonal de Córdoba
Here in Córdoba, my intimidation extends to the local bus station. I haven’t been able to ask for a ticket to one of the neighboring towns, so I break down and do the most uncool thing a traveler can do. I sign up for a tour. I’m now truly a turista. The horror! The shame!
I have visions of five minute stops at overlooks and souvenir shops. Kitsch and monuments. I am going “trekking” today, and touring small Bavarian-themed alpine villages tomorrow.
At 7:45, the guide comes into the lobby of the hotel and asks for “Som-WELL.” People have a hard time pronouncing Sam (too nasal), so Samuel is the default name I give them. He apologizes in Spanish for his lateness–“el transport”– and I say no hay problema, or no problem, choking on the original phrase that came to mind “hay no problema.”
I get on the bus and I realize that I shouldn’t worry about my disdain of the picture in front of monument this morning. My fellow day travelers are all people from Córdoba and they all chatter away happily in Spanish. For some reason when I signed up I thought I paid extra for an English speaking guide. I decide to roll with it.
The group is having a fine time, joking, teasing each other and gossiping. I don’t understand much of what they say, but when you don’t understand a language you become much more attuned to atmosphere. This is a happy group. The man who is seated next to me is so quiet I assume he doesn’t speak Spanish, either. As the day goes on, I realize that he simply does not wish to speak to anyone.
The ride gets longer and more uncomfortable. Shocks seem to be an option on these tour vans and we are currently bouncing on an unpaved road. Heavy fog obscures the view. A woman in the group develops carsickness. We have to stop, first for her to change to the front seat, then several times more so that she can get air or retch.
We arrive at the destination. Wrapped in fog and with a light rain, we decide to wait to see if we can ascend. I am happy to see fog. I like it for the pictures. No one else understands but I hop out of the van and start shooting pictures of some cows and horses in the fog.
About 30 minutes later we start out. By this time a man comes up to me and asks if I speak English. He worked on cruise ships and speaks really well. He is from Córdoba. I follow him down the hill and we help an older couple whose car has spun out in the mud. He apologizes for me for not being able to answer in Spanish. The older man smiles and says in English: “I do not speak English. I speak French.”
The hike begins and the group is energetic and the weather is hazy. We see sheep and little flowers. I opine that this will burn off and that we will be in sunshine soon.
On the way up the trail, several friendly people speak to me and I attempt to understand. Normal questions. Where am I from? What do I do? I stumble and stutter and ask “¿como?” more than a few times. The people communicate with me on a more basic level, though, and we all decide that we are muy amable…nice.
For a brief moment, I am right and the sun comes out just as we reach a vantage point. A condor begins circling over the valley and I take several dozen pictures, both in the clear sky and in the fog. I am in a foggy state now, my perception altered by my lack of understanding, and so the image I choose for this post of the condor reflects my mood.
When I signed up for this trip I assumed that “trekking” is a synonym for hiking. Instead this expedition turns into rock climbing. Very treacherous and very difficult for me. I pull myself up between car size boulders certain that I am going to fall off and break my camera or my back. I struggle and cling for dear life in a Spiderman pose. Manly code dictates that none of the other men offer me assistance as they do the chicas, manly code dictates that I not humiliate myself by asking for it. However, from the sideways glances and worried looks I know that the others think me in trouble. I am.
The issue with climbing up, of course, is that you have to come down. By this time you get tired and by this time you get sloppy. I am shaking on several of the rocks and slide down on the seat of my pants like a chica, but I make it down ok, with only a little slip into a creek to ruin my spotless record.
As you will see in my next post, I had a fall down a cliff in Maine in June, so I had every reason to be worried about the fucking rocks, the moisture, the fog and the lack of adult supervision.
When we get to the bottom, we sit a for a half-an-hour and sip maté. There are more questions I can’t understand or answer. but I feel a genuine feeling of warmth coming from the Cordobeses. We bounce quietly on the way home and people warmly say “chau” (proper spelling in Argentina) to me when they leave the van.
The next day I find myself in the middle of the kitsch and souvenir circuit I had feared. It is a boring day, but the bilingual guide does not have to speak English. I understand his commentary in Spanish well enough and quit paying attention to it about the same time I would have in English.
I still can’t speak, though.
I take pictures during the obligatory five-minute vista stop for photos. Turista.
On the flight home from Córdoba, I encounter a friendly older woman who won’t stop asking me questions. I am able to answer some of them, but only by translating English to Spanish and Spanish to English. All this talk about immersion, learning foreign languages in three months, speaking like a native, just doesn’t seem to apply to me. Despite hard work, frustration and the good efforts of my talented instructors, I am still at the beginning intermediate stage. I knew at the beginning this would be hard, but I had been lulled by writers like Tim Ferriss that I could hack my way into speaking a foreign language. Sorry, folks, but the short cuts just aren’t possible for me. I’ve learned that those of us who are really visual have a hard time with this stuff. After a year, I am struggling. It is a long road ahead.
On the flight home, I read a novel and chuckle as I think about the relevance of the following quote:
The majority of customers, they learn through vision, and most times their eyes are looking up–to the left if they’re remembering information, but they’ll look to the right if they’re lying. The next group learns by hearing and they’ll look side to side. The smallest group learns by moving or touching, and they’ll look down as the talk.
The visual people will say, “Look,” or “I see what you mean.” They’ll say, “I can’t picture that,” or “See you later…”
Your audio customers will say, “Listen,” or “That sounds good,” or “Talk to you soon…”
Your touch-based customers will tell you, “I can handle that.” They’ll say, “Got it,” or “Catch you later.”
–Chuck Pahluniak, RANT
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.
“I could dance with you until the cows come home. On second thought I’d rather dance with the cows until you come home.”
BUENOS AIRES, April 19
The glorious light of Buenos Aires that taught me to really see is fading. The sun sets earlier each day and the hours are beginning to have a valedictory feel. The gloriously touristy San Telmo fería (market) that pops up each Sunday afternoon is different today. There is a blue shadow across Defensa and the street is torn up, a repair job that has a good part of San Telmo’s main street fenced in and strewn with rubble. A brisk wind whips down the street and the tourists, formerly loose and sleeveless, are now huddled beneath fleece jackets. Many of the locals have scarfs around their necks. After a much delayed start, it is autumn.
Walking down Independencia to the Subte (subway), I notice a cart with paint splattered equipment. It interests me, then its owner walks out of an apartment building. It is the dancing painter whose photo is in my post “Happy Accidents.” Seeing him away from his performance spot and in front of his apartment makes him more real and also makes him an anachronism.
I am woozy with nostalgia. I eat my French meal at the Brasserie Petanque and pretend to speak French to the owner. Smiles and knowing chuckles work in whatever language you don’t speak. Several times I have taken the elevator with a well-dressed woman of about eighty. She smells of light powder and wool and she speaks Spanish to me from the moment she gets on the elevator until the moment she gets off. I smile and chuckle and pretend to know what she means and she leaves happier than before. I guess I’m a good listener.
I am sad today because I am missing my home, but I am also sad because I am leaving Buenos Aires in a couple of days. Taking the Subte home, I see a singer in the car and a man handing out booklets to everyone hoping for a sale. I have never seen anyone buy one. The stations go by… Callao… Facultad de Medicina… Pueyrredón… Agüero… Bulnes… Scalabrini Ortiz. I have memorized the stops, know which ones board on the opposite side, know the short cut to cross the street by tunnel, know how much a Coca Light costs at the kiosko. I think of the walks from the Subte to the studio for the Tango lessons, the buskers on Florida in front of my school, the feel of the street in Palermo Soho at 2 A. M. on a Saturday night, the bars overflowing and groups of young people laughing and drinking and smoking their way down the street. I think of the beautiful parks and the famous Cemetery I finally toured yesterday. I think of chocolate con almendros helado, my favorite ice cream. I think of how I still haven’t quite cracked the code of living here. I know the map but not the way, the streets but not the people that walk up and down the sidewalks.
I am going back to Virginia for some family events, my son’s college graduation, to take care of some medical matters, and of course to plan my return. I have a return ticket the end of May.
I’ve made a couple of good friends–Osmany and Joaquin–and developed happy working relationships with my Tango instructor and my Spanish profesores. I have no love interests, no group to hang with, and most of the time no one with whom to share a meal. Still, I have learned to enjoy my own company and I have discovered that my talent for photography never really went away, it simply laid dormant for thirty years.
I have danced a bit of Tango and tonight, after so many lessons, I will attend my first milonga. I’m a bit nervous.
My Spanish remains the biggest mystery. A combination of anxiety, poor discipline, and probably a low aptitude has kept me from making progress with the language. I freeze when I try to speak it outside the classroom and this is something I am not sure how to solve. My profesora tells me that it isn’t a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of confidence and I believe she is right. I can’t change my personality overnight and I am having a lot of trouble getting out of my own way so that I can learn to speak. I have a deep fear of humiliation and my ego isn’t allowing me to fail enough to achieve some competence.
I think back to those first days of South American spring last October when everything was so new and intimidating. I was scared to take the Subte and so I walked everywhere and marveled at the cityscapes. The light painted the city and I walked through an ever-changing movie set. Scenes would unfold and I would capture them with my camera. Later, on my computer, images and stories I never saw at first would emerge and I would be astonished at the light and the people and the activity I had captured. Now with the light fading, I feel those first days of growth begin to pass and with them the knowledge that I have to find new ways to grow and to see things for the first time again.
I’m homesick. Homesick for the city of my birth: Roanoke. Homesick for the city of my rebirth: Buenos Aires. Homesick, as we all are, for past experiences that were so vivid that they shook you awake, rubbed the sleep from your eyes, and made you see the youthful light of a new day.
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
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.
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 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 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
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.
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, 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.