Friday, February 20, 2009

The Earth is Heating

I am still, but still, my breath fights the asphyxiating heat, and I wheeze as though I have a white plastic bag tied around my head and the air inside is preparing to flee. I am melting, suffocating, but I am calm, calm and still on my stoop in Palermo, watching the tired feet in their strappy leather encasements as they beat the concrete.

A man and a woman pass. I am invisible to them as I blend into the almond hue of the tiles beneath my bent knees and bare silent witness as the man slips his left arm around the woman’s back, sliding his greedy hand inside her tank top. He cups her pointed, triangular breast because I am not there, because Porteño is synonymous with Public Displays of Affection, because the telo was full.

The earth is heating, my host mother explains, spreading her fingers wide and motioning upwards, bending from the wrists— a gesture that relinquishes any human blame and slaps it on something from above.

The earth is heating, and we are heating with it.

The rents may be high but the sidewalk in front of my stoop is cracked, and I imagine that a boulder once fell from the sky onto my square of cement. Or perhaps a little boy took a hammer and whacked, whacked, whacked in hopes of reaching China. And maybe this little boy is still inside the crack, asking if there is a colectivo that will take him to Beijing.

A VW bus, rust red and ancient, is parked on the curb across the street. He is human, with headlight eyes and a cool bumper of a smirk and I imagine he addresses me, testing out his English, overemphasizing the 'h' in hhhhhello good morning. He pulls out a white, hand rolled cigarette and implores me for a light. Sorry, no fumo, I reply. The VW frowns, sputters, and clunks away, our conversation unfinished, revealing a kiosko in his wake.

No cafés on my block, yet I’m certain I smell empanadas. In fact I always smell empanadas in Buenos Aires-- something to do with an overabundance of cow, ready to be slaughtered, sliced, rolled and baked, and an under-abundance of calorie-consuming women. The empanadas walk the streets, thrusting their doey hips out to the side provocatively like the hookers on Ave Libertador I saw last Saturday night. Eat me, they beseech.

Periodically the sun slinks behind a cloud and I find some respite in a lingering shadow. The air cools and without warning I’m in a postcard, squinting my eyes against the returning sun. Palermo shimmers.
It hurts to look.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I think i've found my bookstore here in BA (photo below). The "Libreria Ateneo Gran Splendid" was once the first movie theater in the city. In place of the screen there is now a petite cafe where you can have your espresso and tiny cookies while leafing through the most erudite of argentine literature. Or, as in my case, Time Out: Buenos Aires edition. It's dreamy.
At dinner tonight I asked my host dad if he has ever been there, to which he casually replied that well you see his grandfather owned it, along with all the other movie theaters in the city. Host-great-grandfather was also the pioneer of TVs in Argentina.

So I guess he's been to the bookstore.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Nearly a week in Buenos Aires: Unas Cositas

Deposited at the bottom of the world six days ago, I've begun to subsist on a constant stream of rich, aromatic coffee and pure adrenaline. My fingers tremble slightly as I type this-- a signal that perhaps I should slow down. I've consumed more meat (which one can slice easily with a butter knife) since arriving than I have in the past two years combined. The food in Buenos Aires is as succulent and fresh as I anticipated. And, as evident above, its possible to sum up the culinary experience in four sentences or less.

As for the rest of Buenos Aires, I have tried and failed repeatedly to assemble my thoughts into a coherent blog post that could capture this peculiar city. And still, after nearly week, I'm stumped. I am incapable of succinctly describing my new home.

Consequently, I'm forced to borrow the apt words of the tour guide who showed us around on our second day in Buenos Aires. As she explained, the defining characteristic of this Argentine metroplis is its eclecticism. Its people, its language, its architecture, all extractions of an older tradition from somewhere north, for any further south and one falls off the map.
And surely this guide, a german-looking, castellano-speaking, elegantly dressed young woman with a beehive of blonde dreadlocks was the definition of 'eclectic.' As she moved around us, gesturing wildly, thrilled to offer up her home to us blockhead americans, I realized that four months will not be nearly enough to time to wrap my thumping, buzzing, over caffeinated mind around the anomalous Buenos Aires. So if you will, bare with me as I attempt understand how this cosmopolitan creature was born of the third world.

Some little things:

Tuesday it poured. Not a summer shower, but an end-of-the-world monsoon. The blue ceiling that on monday teased us norteamericanos with promises of bronzed skin and infinite afternoons of cortados and medialunas, fused into a solid mass, greenish and gurgling. By mid-afternoon the heavens (Argentina is a catholic country, at least officially) proceeded to dump buckets upon buckets over its congregation.

We took the school sponsored guided tour around the city despite the rain. From the comfort of our air-conditioned, cushy minibus, I feared for the lives of the tanned, blonde, small children who waded up to their knees to cross the flooded streets and for those unfortunate few who slipped into water-filled potholes, never to be seen again. Parked sedans—with paintjobs in colors that reveal that they, like myself, were born in the eighties— did nosedives, half submerged in liquid. The girl behind me asked if the rain was toxic.

Later, I split a taxi with a student who lives a few blocks from my home-stay. At 5 pesos, or $1.50, I think it’s okay that I get a mildly crippling sensation of terror when faced with the task of boarding the dilapidated buses with their peeling paint the color of brick and imperturbable drivers who demand to know why you don't have proper change. who insist you get off until you acquire proper change. who couln't care less that there is a national shortage of coins and small bills. no monedas, no ride. (More on that later). The subways meanwhile, (or subte as they are called) are pristine and put nyc's system to shame.

I arrive home to my host-family's apartment as the summer torrents ease and the pools drain and all is as before. Back to flawless skies and asphyxiating heat.

Wednesday, I learn a useful new word. It’s "berenjena." Or rather, I deduce its meeting only after my tongue begins to itch and swell and panic greedily bites into my brain like its a a luscious, argentine peach. Berenjena, or "eggplant," is in the quiche I have just consumed. It's the mystery ingredient I hadn’t thought to look up. I freak, quietly, internally, of course. No one wants to inform her new classmates that gee, i may or may not keel over in the next 20 minutes. Thankfully, the portions here are small and that purple fiend was no match for a benedryl. My allergy it seems, has grown mild.

The rest of the week was stuffed with activity, of dinners at 10:30 pm and BA's notoriously superb nightlife. Friday found us outside the city, lolling on the "beach" on a class trip to the mud stained rivers of the delta, Tigre, as its known. We spent the day lying in the sun, lying in the shade, dipping our feet in the pool, and chatting with the bartenders at the resort-like destination. Not a drop of academics, meant more for bonding I assume. I realize this post mostly contradicts my claim of not wanting this to be a 'dear diary' type blog. Ah well.

And finally, today was the culmination of a week adjustment, of bracing oneself for the culture shock that shall inevitably come, of struggling to remain lucid and coherent in spanish and english, of attempting to not be the lost gringa only to realize how eager the argentines are to help her. I awoke midday, chatted with my host family (an impossibly kind older couple with four grown children and several grandchildren who always seem to be milling about). I sat at a sidewalk cafe drinking cafe con leche and engaged in some highly fascinating people watching. Staring is encouraged, as is close-talking, hand gestures, and kisses on the right cheek. The 90 degree weather didn't even feel that stifling. I spent the afternoon with new friends in the air conditioned Museo de Bellas Artes. We crossed the Avenida Libertador to admire the astoundingly high quality leather goods at a street fair and later listened to an argentine rock band in the park. It was only upon spotting a singular cluster of pink, heart-shaped balloons, sponsored by KY Jelly that we noticed that today is February 14th, Dia de San Valentin. Perhaps I'm not that far south of the motherland.

I don't pretend i've discovered the wheel. I don't feel emboldened to write my own guidebook nor do I think i've uncovered a side to this city that no tourist or foreign student has ever laid eyes upon. Yet there is something thrilling about wandering through a new place without agenda or obligation and sampling whatever it is that one encounters.

I am wholly content to be lost in Buenos Aires.