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The International Writers Magazine
Dreamscapes in South America

Life in Buenos Aires
William Starr Moake

On my Social Security checks I could live like a king and dance my last tango in life...

A mysterious 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
Now 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.

I have 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 suffer.

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 accent.
"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 time.
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 bewitching Leslie.

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 years.

I 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.

Married 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 the Antipodes.
© William Starr Moake - Honolulu

House of the Sun
by W Moake

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