The International Writers Magazine Dreamscapes in South America
OF THE SOUTH
Life in Buenos Aires
William Starr Moake
my Social Security checks I could live like a king and dance my
last tango in life...
thread ran through my life to Argentina, like a murky path I followed
unwittingly in the fog of time. The path began with Leslie, a young
American woman I once loved. Her fondest wish was to visit Tierra del
Fuego, the land of fire at the southern tip of Argentina. She called
it the ends of the earth and we broke up before she was able to bewitch
me into taking her there. I didn't want to go to the ends of the earth
because I feared there might be no way back for me if she chose to stay.
Several years after Leslie and I parted company I became a close friend
of two Argentine families who had immigrated to my hometown in the U.S.
Though it seemed quite accidental at the time, I realize now it was
part of the continuing thread that would eventually lead me to Argentina.
The family members talked mostly of Buenos Aires -- fairly raved about
how cosmopolitan and beautiful it was. With an architecture and lifestyle
patterned after Paris 'BsAs' had the widest boulevard in the world,
sidewalk cafes on every street corner, tango nightclubs, museums, theaters
and lavish parks in a huge city that never slept. I listened politely
to their enthusiastic recollections, never suspecting that they were
describing my future home.
The two Argentine families eventually scattered to the four winds and
I lost track of all but one member. After I turned sixty, I began to
dream about retiring in Buenos Aires where I could get much more bang
for my Yankee buck. The Argentine economy had virtually collapsed and
prices dropped to one-third of their previous level. A fully-furnished
apartment in Recoleta, the swankiest neighborhood in the city, could
be rented for as little as $300 per month including air conditioning,
cable TV and maid service. A sumptuous meal with wine at a sidewalk
cafe cost less than $3. On my Social Security checks I could live like
a king and dance my last tango in life as a Porteno, as residents of
Buenos Aires call themselves.
Like many writers, I had always wanted to emulate Hemingway's life in
the Paris of the 1920s. It was a bohemian city, to be sure, but Hemingway
moved there largely because it was much cheaper to live than America.
Although Paris had become more expensive than the U.S., I could at least
live in a bohemian city known as the Paris of South America. (Old dreams
must be adapted to current economic and social realities.) As I made
plans for the move, I never suspected that I was nearing the end of
a long thread stretching back to my youth. Our lives are often governed
by invisible influences that scarcely touch our conscious minds.
Homes in BA
that I actually reside in BsAs, my existence here retains a certain
dreamlike quality that confounds me at times. I live like a fictional
character in an old adventure tale about the fabled Antipodes where
everything is reversed. July is cold and January hot. The tropics
are north while an icy climate lies far to the south. Even the water
spins counter-clockwise when I flush the commode. I am Gulliver's
opposite. I stroll the streets feeling six inches tall in a land
of giants and expect daily to be captured in a huge cigar box for
examination by curious locals. Thirteen million people live in this
teeming city, but I have gotten to know only a handful of them mainly
due to my bad Spanish. I speak baby talk Spanish which sounds hilarious
to Portenos, judging from their smiles.
a studio apartment with a balcony overlooking a park five storeys below.
I eat the majority of my meals in small cafes within walking distance.
If I cook at home too often, Elena (the maid) complains about having
to wash dishes and threatens to ask for a raise. Although Elena is twenty
years younger than I am, she is very much like a mother to me. She scolds
me for staying home too much, urging me to go out on the town and meet
a good woman to marry. I tell her I am not interested in marriage and
she looks at me as if I came from another planet. We have a strange
relationship, to say the least. I have never had a maid before and I
feel somewhat uncomfortable about it, yet I am too distracted and lazy
to clean the apartment myself. In a city where nearly everyone with
money is in psychotherapy I suppose I could say that Elena and I are
co-dependent. She enables me to be lazy with a bad conscience while
I enable her to support her husband, who is unemployed through no fault
of his own.
I have lived here long enough to think a meal of 95% beef and 5% vegetables
is normal; and to leave my apartment at the time of an appointment,
realizing that I will be expected to arrive late like everyone else.
Punctuality is a North American compulsion from which Portenos rarely
The local cigarettes taste like they are made from cow dung, yet nearly
everyone smokes constantly in elevators, offices, restaurants, virtually
everywhere. No surgeon general here to warn of the dangers of lung cancer
or emphysema. It would be useless in any event since the ubiquitous
black smoke from diesel buses is worse than cigarettes.
A sizeable American population exists in BsAs and I used to eagerly
introduce myself to any stranger who spoke English, but now I generally
avoid my countrymen. They lean on each other to escape culture shock
and homesickness, but the whole group is leaning on an illusions for
support. One illusion is that BsAs would feel more like home if only
they could eat maple syrup and pancakes for breakfast rather than empenadas
with dulce de leche, a local syrup made from boiled milk, sugar and
vanilla. As if that would change the essence of this starkly different
place. It is laughable, but I grew tired of laughing.
However, I enjoy watching certain young American women on the streets.
When a Porteno man makes a lewd suggestion, as invariably happens sooner
or later, the more liberated of these females replies with a phrase
that roughly translates as "In your dreams, asshole!" One
such exchange is enough to make my whole day. It is my only revenge
for the grocery clerk who grins every time I apologize for my bad Spanish
"Pobrecito," he says mockingly. "You have no accent.
You do not know how to speak Espanol."
The Portenos speak Spanish with an Italian accent because so many paisanos
immigrated to the country in the early 1900s. More of them have Italian
or German last names than Spanish last names. Germans settled here as
early as the Italians and during the 1930s Argentina's government was
patterned after Mussolini's fascist regime. After World War II, Nazi
party members flocked to Argentina to escape war crime trials in Europe.
Politically, Argentina is a schizophrenic country. Taxi drivers talk
openly about the difference between Marxism and communism a single generation
after a brutal "dirty war" in which the military government
murdered tens of thousands of its own citizens who had leftist leanings.
Even though some of the generals are in prison now, they have the respect
and gratitude of whole segments of the upper class. At the same time
many young people have posters of Che Guevara in their rooms. (Che grew
up as a member of the Argentine middle class.) Moderate views go begging
in a land of political extremes. The pendulum swings first one way and
then to the opposite direction. Some day the military will take over
again and everyone knows this in his heart, but it is too unpleasant
to think about when dreamy nights beckon with goblets of wine and tango
dancing until dawn.
I took me two months of scouring BsAs to find Eric Ricardo, one of the
Argentine family members I knew in the U.S. Eric was astonished that
I was living here and seemed glad to see me, but his excitement quickly
turned into sadness when I asked him about his family. His wife, Victoria,
left him a year ago to live with another man and she took their two
daughters with her. She had been unfaithful to him before and he had
forgiven her, but this time she had ended their marriage permanently.
Eric took me to his favorite bar and introduced me to his friends, a
collection of wild-eyed artists, writers and political activists. Although
we all got gloriously drunk, Eric seemed on the verge of tears the whole
Eric is an artist himself and works mainly in leather goods, which is
a big business in Argentina. He drops by my apartment from time to time,
always bringing a bottle of good wine, and we talk for hours about anything
and everything except Victoria and their children. Eric is lonely and
still in love with his wife. I wish there was something I could do to
help him get over it. He needs to fall in love with another woman, the
only cure for a broken romance, but I am in no position to hook him
up with a pretty senorita. I doubt if I could find one for myself if
I bothered to look. I'm too old for chasing women until they catch me.
At my age I am content to live alone and recall past loves like the
Tierro del Fuego lies yawning to the south, but I stubbornly refuse
to go there. I realize that Leslie has influenced the course of my life
to an uncanny degree and I don't want to give her this last victory.
She had a degree in anthropology, so I majored in anthropology when
I went to college. She hoped to become a writer and I did become a writer.
She yearned to see the ends of the earth and here I am only a Patagonia
away from it. Leslie has won our contest of wills in absentia, though
I was unaware until recently that the contest had continued all these
watch old American films on cable TV at home over and over again.
I have gotten into the habit of reading the Spanish subtitles rather
than watching the characters, hoping in vain that this will improve
my shaky comprehension of the language. I am beginning to watch
Argentine soap operas despite the fact that I understand precious
little of the dialogue. Something about the animated facial expressions
and body gestures is oddly fascinating to me.
Many nights I take long walks in parks or along the waterfront of
the Rio de la Plata. Buenos Aires is considered the safest big city
in South America and I seldom worry about muggers. The evening air
is filled with the perfume of flowers that bloom year-round. Although
I have become something of a night owl like most Portenos, I am
still not accustomed to eating supper at 10 or 11 p.m. However,
I derive an inexplicable enjoyment out of watching others dine very
late in sidewalk cafes as I make my way home.
couples bring their children and young couples in love hold hands and
kiss furtively. Sometimes I sit at a table hardly touching my glass
of wine, absorbing the night scenery in a kind of reverie.
I realize I have used the word home twice in the last two paragraphs.
This is difficult to fathom since Buenos Aires remains alien to me in
most respects. It is nothing like any other city where I have lived
and yet it is my home. I spent most of my life in dull middle-class
places, but I always longed to live a bohemian existence like Hemingway
in Paris. I have had to wait until I was an old man to find the right
place, but better late than never to realize a lifelong dream.
To me Buenos Aires is a phantasmagoria, always changing and never quite
real, like a Salvadore Dali painting set into motion. I don't feel the
crush of thirteen million Portenos as I move around the city as if I
am floating through a dreamscape. Each morning I expect to wake up and
find myself back on terra firma in the USA, but when I open my sleep-filled
eyes I am still here in the dream. A cat yowls in the hallway and I
am convinced it is not a real cat. It is a cat figment of the dream
with tongue lapping in a bowl of condensed milk.
As I kneel and stroke the feline illusion, I hear the faint echo of
Leslie laughing from somewhere far away -- perhaps the opposite ends
of the earth. It is strange laughter that reminds me of a Siren's wail.
I make a cup of strong Brazilian coffee and take it to the balcony to
sip at my leisure. At 6:45 the street below is already bustling with
traffic. I listen again for Leslie's laughter, but it fades away in
the morning sounds of the dream. I am haunted by this surreal city in
© William Starr Moake - Honolulu
House of the Sun by W Moake
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