Saturday, March 26, 2011

Impromptu Celebration

Last Sunday, Marisa and I met up with a friend to explore the San Telmo Market. Stretching over many blocks, including a park, vendors converge on the area to pedal everything from fresh squeezed orange juice to hand crafted daggers. A stroll down Defensa, the main drag of the market, tickles the senses. The smell of fresh baked dough and onions wafts from trays of golden brown empanadas. Antique Swarovski crystal chandeliers glitter above dusty pink dresses and crinkled leathers shoes. A band of nine musicians (a singer, a piano player, a bass player, two violinists, and four bandoneón--folk accordions used in tango) melds the sounds of each instrument into a gasping melody. For a few pesos you can dance the tango with a seasoned milonguero. Dressed in a brown pinstripe suit and smart brimmed hat, he confidently glides his partner across a sheet of plywood.
The market sets the stage for an impromptu celebration of life. As I waited for a puppeteer to begin his show, my attention was drawn to the beat of drums moving up the street. What I saw was a group of long-haired, linen clad young men pounding out rhythms and stepping to the sounds they created. Suddenly, out of the crowd stepped an older woman. She wore a fuchsia sundress and a leopard print sweater. Though her face showed her to be a woman of about 60, she danced with a zeal and confidence that defied age. She led with one hip and then the other, using every part of her body, down to her hands, to express the beat. And she did not stop. She took the lead and headed up the street. We crossed paths again as the group headed back down and the woman was still there unabashedly dancing. 
The music and dancing, the pretty things, the fresh food, these made all the difference. I came home from the market feeling happy. The celebratory spirit of the impromptu dancer has stayed with me. Though the last weeks have brought scares, sadnesses, and tragedies (both personally and globally), life has also presented plenty of reasons to celebrate. 
Yesterday was Marisa’s 29th birthday. Even though we are far from family and friends, we made it special. I bought her flowers and truffles. She treated herself to two pairs of very tall, strappy, black tango shoes. We lit candles, went out for sushi, strolled through the Japanese Garden, and drank wine. In addition to Marisa’s birthday, I, personally, have had reason to celebrate. The University of Missouri accepted me to their Journalism MA program and offered me a full scholarship. This means that I will be able able to attend next fall without accumulating debt.
There are so many reasons to celebrate--a birthday, an unexpected gift, the sunny sky, a good rhythm. I am happy to recognize good things and to take time to enjoy them. Cheers.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Restoring Power

Life got real this week. It started with a burglary. Marisa and I had our bags snatched. The contents of my bag included a water bottle, a used handkerchief, 2 maps, the keys to our apartment, money, and my journal. The journal was my greatest personal loss. It included writing and sketches from the last two years as well as sentimental notes, love letters, and an assortment of fortune cookie fortunes. It has taken several days of self-imposed house arrest to recover from this shock. 
A thought from my new journal
It was also unfortunate that the keys to our apartment were taken, not because I fear being robbed again--the bags contained no information as to our local address, but because after the robbery it was difficult to actually get back into the apartment. We had an extra set of keys but they were inside the apartment and the only other set that existed were with the cleaning lady. 
This propelled us to involve our building's custodian who phoned our landlady. She asked the cleaning lady to send the key over to us with a driver and the custodian lent us money so we could pay the driver for his service. We promptly repaid the custodian and Marisa also gave him a generous tip for all his help.
Though the worst was over, we had more challenges ahead. A few days later, I bumped into the custodian as I came home from the grocery store. He was more affable than usual. As I went toward the elevator, he followed and opened the door, even pressing the button to my floor. I thought it odd, but went up and began preparing dinner. 
The buzzer went off and it was the custodian signaling me to pick up the phone. He said he needed to speak to me and that I should go to his apartment. With misgivings, I went. He explained that he had been robbed and that he needed me to lend him 100 pesos (US$25) until next Monday. I truthfully told him that I didn’t have that much. I hadn’t been to the bank since the robbery.
I hoped that he would not repeat his request. However, the next morning he buzzed me again and asked if I now had the money to lend him. I told him no. I felt conflicted because he had lent us 60 pesos for about 15 minutes between the time we had received the key from the driver and gone to to our apartment to retrieve the money. We had no other option. But, he is from Buenos Aires. Shouldn’t he have other people he could borrow money from? 
In the meantime, our electricity went out. I thought it was a temporary outage, so I stayed in the apartment until Marisa got home from class. When she found out that the custodian had asked me for money a second time, she said that we needed to talk to him straight away. She looked up the Spanish translation for what she wanted to say and marched down to his apartment. I nervously followed. She explained to him clearly that she was very sorry but we would not be giving him anymore money. Then we added that our power was out. 
Despite an awkward silence, he came to our apartment to see what was wrong with the electricity. He fiddled around with a light switch and then asked if we had contacted our landlady and went away. I called her and told her the whole situation and explained that the custodian had been up in the apartment but there seemed to be nothing he could do.
She said I should go ask an electrician to come take a look, so off I went in search of one. After explaining the problem to a friendly man at the hardware store, he said that he could come but this was a problem for the custodian to fix. I called the landlady back and informed her of what I had learned. She said she would take care of everything.
By the evening, we still had not heard anything from her and there was still no electricity--no light, no AC, no hot water, no internet, no TV. We ate empanadas from the corner bakery by candlelight and went to bed early. 
The next morning I marched back to the electrician and asked him to please come by and fix the electricity. He said that he could come that afternoon, but I would need to contact the custodian to let him into the basement. So back home, I again contacted the custodian. He asked me to come to his apartment and then asked why we were angry with him. I explained that I had no problem with him whatsoever. He said that we didn’t need an electrician and that he could fix the problem. Besides, he would not be in the building at the time the electrician said he could come by. He had wanted me to call the landlady the day before to work out the payment for his restoring the power. I explained that I was not angry and that when he had asked if we had called our landlady and then left, I had assumed he could not fix the problem.
So again, I called the landlady and asked her to work out the payment. Less than ten minutes later there was a knock on the door and the custodian was there with his tools and a can-do look. He unscrewed the fuse box, readjusted some wires and presto, power was restored. I called the landlady and informed her of the repairs. Before hanging up I put her on the phone with the custodian so they could work out the payment directly.
Yesterday, Marisa and I made a new copy of our key to replace the one that had been stolen. It took two trips to get the key cut correctly, but we persisted. We then made a visit to the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires. We were in need of something beautiful and it did not disappoint. Our favorite was a series of photomontages by Grete Stern titled “The Dreams.” Her work depicted women up against difficult situations--big waves, locked doors, desolate wilderness. The women appear calm, strong, and undaunted. 
I returned home feeling restored. The anxiety of the week was mitigated. I felt like cooking. I chopped vegetables and boiled them into a rich soup. I ate until I was full and then fell into a deep sleep.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

On Being a Porteño

Walking is always my preferred mode of getting from point A to B. This is never more true than when I am in cities. For me, the many people are individual expressions of a place. A popular billboard displayed around Buenos Aires reads, “Cada Persona es un Mundo,” which translates to “Every Person is a World.” This phrase rings true as I watch a little boy sit next to me in the park and roll his car up and down the planks on our bench, or the vegetable vendor laying out his tomatoes with such care that I look back to be sure that he isn’t actually handling eggs. In our motives, our daily tasks, and our personalities, we are incredibly complex and distinct. 
But, in observing people, there are also similar patterns and repeated behaviors that stand out. The common ways people dress, walk, talk, or behave leaves a cultural impression. It takes time, and lots of observation, to really know a culture through the people. And just as I have spent many hours watching them, I too have been observed. 
Often, I have been asked where I am from before I even open my mouth. However, today I had a break through while standing at a corner waiting for the light to change. A man stopped and asked me if I knew where the train station was. I looked up the street, pointed to it, and answered in Spanish. He thanked me and headed for the entrance. Not more than 20 seconds later, an older woman approached and asked if I knew where the Librería was. I told her I didn’t know. 
Then she asked, “De donde eres?” 
I told I was from the United States and she laughed and gave my forearm a squeeze.
“Ah, Soorry,” she said.
I answered that it was no problem. Had there been time, I would have jubilantly explained, “You actually made my day. You thought I was one of you.” 

The Puerto Madero
which is why residents are known as Porteños
Instead I looked down at my arms. Yes, they have been browned by the summer sun. Also, Marisa has grown quite adept at navigating our route around the city by memory. We are no longer searching each corner for a street sign and squinting over our laminated map. At least at a glance, we are passing as porteños (the name given to people living in Buenos Aires). 

But perhaps it is not just the tan and our familiarity with the streets. It may be that I, myself, am no longer such a wide-eyed observer. Just as they are coming to know me, I am learning to recognize them.  Though the city is made up of almost 3 million individuals, here is what I have inferred of their common culture.
  1. Walking is a leisurely activity. The sidewalks of Buenos Aires are generally crowded and sometimes very narrow. Still, people of all ages walk slowly taking time to chat with friends coming the opposite direction. If you can’t get around to the front of the crowd at the street light, fall into line and take it in slow stride.
  2. Remember to suck your soda. Coca Cola is the beverage of choice. You see adults and children drinking it in the park, on the street, or even at the cafes. However, they don’t just swig from the bottle. They sip it through a straw.
  3. Don’t baby the baby. There are lots of babies all over the city (and many pregnant mamas too). However, I have not spotted a single baby carrier (the kind that doubles as a car seat) and only a handful of Baby Bjorns (the front-loading baby backpack). Most babies, even the really tiny ones, are simply carried in arm through the busy and often dirty streets.
  4. Watch out for the rise and fall. There is a very distinctive rise to the women’s pants in in Buenos Aires. They tend to be on both extremes of a spectrum--the too-short rise that  leaves no part of the female anatomy to the imagination and the ultra-long rise that looks like a penguin.
  5. Fútbol is the Argentinian basketball. After work many of the young men go to the soccer fields to play. There is rivalry and camaraderie--what you might expect to see on a basketball court in the U.S. And the game is not just for the players. Pack a picnic dinner and watch the game unfold field-side. 
  6. Why hug when we can kiss? The Argentinians are very demonstrative with their affections. There is the beso that you give upon meeting a friend, and then there are the besos between couples that can be spotted in almost any park and on many street corners. Though the smooching is sometimes a bit much, for the most part it's nice to see how free people feel to express their love, or lust. In the unlikely event that a couple should desire a little more privacy, they can be quite resourceful. Hiding beneath a picnic tablecloth is one method. But my favorite kiss, so far, took place in plain sight. Here's how it unfolded. Woman waits on corner. Light changes and man crosses the street, making a beeline for her. Before even saying hello, man takes woman's face and plants passionate kiss on her lips. Oh, to be kissed like that.