Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Take My Waking Slow

I wake up, have coffee with my girlfriend and walk down a flight of stairs out to the cacophonous street below, Sarmiento, a street that crosses a great deal of the city, spanning office buildings, a music shop district, a jewelry district, a large section of the once neighborhood, that is written in Spanish the way that once is written in English, a neighborhood tenanted by immense crowds looking for wholesale cheap shoes, the homeless picking up cardboard boxes in great heaping bags, a few synagogues, Peruvian-looking ladies selling rice and boiled chicken on the street in plastic containers and buses moodily cutting through traffic both auto and pedestrian as if the drivers were conditioned to believe that the streets of the city were built specifically for buses, the way a racetrack is built specifically for formula-one cars. After flashing through this neighborhood that wakes up every morning to its own avalanche, Sarmiento pulls out into a quieter district just up from the Abasto shopping center, somewhere before hitting centennial park there is an intersection with a flower shop on every corner. You can smell it about a block away.
I didn’t stay on Sarmiento for very long before crossing a few streets to go over into the fabric district to look for screen or some kind of gauze to put over the window that would keep the mosquitos out at night but let the sunlight in as the day dawned. I made the decision to buy this fabric after waking up for nearly a week straight around 10:30. I hate waking up that late, especially after going to bed around midnight, but with the blinds closed and the dreams of my girlfriend and I literally steeping and growing in potency in the shuttered morning light, I often find it difficult to regain consciousness. I will lie there almost waking, like a man almost breathing who still finds himself underwater after a long struggle toward the surface. I take a breath of what I think to be the air of my apartment, wood grains, stale refrigerator gasps, unwashed coffee cups, bike tire rubber and the flat coca cola smell of unlit incense, only to find a miasma of dreams coalescing and bubbling like mid-western storm clouds right above my head. I take a breath and a score of mysteries and the effluvia of waking considerations flood my mind. The light goes purplish grey again and I’m asleep trying to scrape laminate of a floor in a hospital for some reason.
Somewhere on Lavalle I solved my phantasmal morning problems by buying a large swatch of gossamer-looking fabric. I haven’t actually tried it out yet, but the way it drifts and curtsies in the light wind is comforting and seems to promise a more timely end to my night’s repose and the ridiculous dreams that parade through it.
Yesterday, we did a photo shoot for the acting company I work for. I somehow managed to wake up and make it to the neighborhood of Vicente Lopez by nine am to stand around in a solid white room having my picture taken wearing a Shakespearian outfit. If I hadn’t had too much coffee, I think the unreality of the whole experience would have been skipping through my dreams for months. While I dressed and waited for directions someone put on a compilation of modeling music. I really don’t know what else to call it. I’m sure that genre of incessant and innocuous dance music has a name, but since all I could hear in it were the staccato sounds of high heels on a runway and the frou frou of cold silk I can think of nothing else to call it.
The music began to make me feel disembodied, mainly because I no longer had my beard for ballast. I felt as if I had a small air conditioner strapped to my chin. My cheeks felt exposed and my eyes felt watery, ready to spill all over my rubbery face. The music pitched around the room and I pulled up my pantaloons around someone else’s white socks for the shoot. I had another cup of coffee.
The directions came thick and fast. Move that arm. Take a step back. Look more, uh, stern. No, not stern, playful, but aloof. All the while the camera snapped off beat to the music that was now continually climbing up to the ceiling and then tumbling back down again. Between photos, I didn’t seem to know what to say to anyone. I adjusted someone else’s socks and flipped through the Italian fashion magazines on the table. Everyone told jokes. At some point I stepped out for a smoke with another actor I just met who told me how the scars on his face were the remnants of beating he took one night walking through Palermo. I hate hearing stories like that, especially at photoshoots.
The time went by quickly enough and eventually I found myself back in my own socks, walking back the direction I had come and contemplating getting on a bus. My face felt even more naked in the glare of the afternoon sun, but oddly enough it only felt hot in certain areas, while other still felt like the concrete of a wall that never faces the sun. I began to feel as though I must’ve looked like a shaved leopard with hat and cold blotches on my face.
The pneumatic breaks of the bus gave me a slight headache. They screech so sharply and at such a high pitch, I don’t know everyone can stand them, especially as every time you hear them it either means you’re going to be pitched forward or backward. The physical motion of the bus seemed to ape the situation in the book I’m reading, the second disappointing one I’ve read in the past couple of weeks. I usually enjoy Steinbeck, but the garrulous goons of In Dubious Battle are like the chaff that was separated from the wheat of his better stories of proletariat California.
Later on that evening my girlfriend and I took our regular evening walk. All the streets are beginning to look the same, even the faces of the crowd are just like those on stamps and money, just static, unblinking faces. We didn’t say much to each other, probably through fear that we would say something that the other would find depressing, as we had already erred in that direction a number of times on similar walks.
It was on the way that we noticed the crescent moon, pointing its diadems to the left, like the Islamic motif. Upon seeing this I could almost hear the call to prayer tintinambulating through the cloistered streets and I began to tell the story, for the third time this year, about the week I spent sleeping on a balcony in Baku, waking to the melodious incantations of dawn, lying awake and listening to them, until I fell back asleep and slept through the morning once again.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Triple Exile

I came to Argentina partially because of the Armenian community. People ask me why I chose to live in Argentina and I tend to leave this reason out, mainly because it raises too many questions that I usually don’t feel like answering, questions I usually end up answering anyway. Armenia is still such a large part of my life that anyone who meets me more than once will probably end up hearing something about it. And whether or not I’m asked any questions; I’ll end up answering the standard ones regardless.
When I lived in Armenia, I used to think a lot about moving back to a country that used a Latinate language. Years ago, I lived briefly in Italy, after going through a bout of Italophilia, which I think is common to most Americans of Italian descent whom, in no way, look Italian. I had studied the language as an undergraduate for a few years prior to my arrival there, but as it was my first attempt at speaking another language, I was rather inept. In fact, I was so determined to fit in that I decided, after a few clumsy attempts, that it was better not to speak at all, than to betray any lack of Italian-ness. Now, not only did I not look Italian, I didn’t sound it either. Besides, once in a while when a fellow foreigner would ask me directions in broken Italian I didn’t want to give away that fact that I was as unsophisticated as he. In these situations, I found it best to break things off, with due European flair, of simply ignoring the poor bastard, while he stumbled off into the hinterlands of some place he probably shouldn’t have been like Monte Testacio.
Despite the fact that I didn’t speak much in Italy, I tried to ingest all the Italian language I could. I knew what kind of an opportunity I had, and I didn’t want to squander it hanging around the Coliseum eating gelato. I bought Italian newspapers and tried to read them. I watched the abysmal programming of Italian television. I listened to Italian pop music because the words were easy to understand and, of course I walked around with a dictionary, trying to decipher the graffiti, most of which turned out to be really disappointing once I learned that AS Roma was just a soccer team. Although, I may have not have amassed a very good active vocabulary, that it one you can actually use when talking, I did store up a number of words that I had chanced upon in my dictionary and decided to be the very essence of euphony. Zenzer: ginger; Fuochid’artificio: fireworks or cianfrusaglie: bits and pieces, where some of my favorite words. I began to repeat them to myself like a mantra. After a while I realized that just knowing a few obscure words like these was often enough to convince other poor speakers of a language that you spoke it immensely well. I recall how it seemed like opportunities were always arising for me to put my linguistic prowess on display, for example, I’d be in a grocery store with an American friend and she’d ask just openly ask, how do you say fennel and, somehow I’d be ready with an answer. After a few trips to the grocery store my American friends would often think I had the language mastered without ever hearing me speak to an actual Italian.
When I returned to the states, my Italian was a little more exercised and I could speak at a basic level, which was much better then where I’d started before I’d moved there and for a while I continued speaking, or trying to speak the language. I moved to San Francisco and got a job in North Beach (San Fran’s Little Italy) working in a cafĂ© where one heard more Pietmontese than English. For a while I considered going to grad. school for comparative literature in Italian and even took entrance exams at SFSU, until one day when I dropped the whole thing and decided to go to grad. school up north in Humboldt County and study something a little more practical. It didn’t take long before I began to forget the most important parts of the language, most of them verb conjugations, but, somehow I never forgot those odd words that sounded like music to me and impressed my friends so much.
My program combined courses with a stint in the Peace Corps, which was most of the reason I had blown off the comparative literature thing. I had decided that it would be better to learn about some other cultures rather than focus on one that I could never convince people had a relevant place in my life. So I soon found myself going to a place from which I had no genealogical link, unless you believe the Armenians when they say that everyone is probably a little Armenian since they’ve been around for so long.
One of the Peace Corps volunteers’ favorite anecdotes describes the day they receive their letter of invitation that lists a country where they’re to spend the next two years. When volunteers are telling you about the day they got the letter they invariably tell you the next thing they had to do was to look at a map to see where the hell the place was. I can’t really relate to this anecdote, but I do remember asking my mom, who had received the letter instead of me, if she was sure it didn’t say Albania. I don’t mean to say that I’m some kind of worldly guy, but rather that I have a common condition known as mapgazing, the sole symptom of which is the inability to turn away from any map of any part of the world without examining it to the point where you note the confluence of unimportant rivers, the names of the villages along them and then proceed to wonder what those villages look like on a partially cloudy November evening. I’ve met a few other people that suffer from this malady, but I’ve never met anyone whose had it as bad as me. For this reason, I already knew where Armenia was on the map, but I have to admit, other than the image of lowing cattle, a tired shepherd and a rising pale moon above the mountains, I didn’t know much about it.
After three months in Armenia I knew a lot about it. After nine months I knew nothing about it. After a year and a half I began to grasp its meaning and after 26 months it had become a permanent part of my life. The last three months or so that I was there, I remember feeling afraid to leave, well, to be honest extremely excited but still afraid. I had gotten so accustomed to the way that things worked there that when I began to consider the possibility that I was no longer going to be very comfortable in America when I returned to it. The most common thing that returned Peace Corps volunteers talk about when they discuss readapting to life in the states is the discourteous nature of the people. In their host countries that had gotten used to meeting someone they didn’t know on the street, talking with them for 20 minutes and eventually going back home with them for a meal, no matter how meager, that was shared with selflessness and warmth. Although I knew I was going to struggle with the sudden absence of such friendliness and hospitality I knew that above all I was going to have to bust my ass to get back to the speed of life in America. In Armenia, I had gotten accustomed to the idea that people, rather than time, were the most important part of life. Sure, there are people who would profess the same thing in the states, but none of them really mean it. It’s not their fault, they’re not bad people, they’re just so inundated with entertainment options that people, unless they are marvelous orators or comedians, cannot hold their attention for more than ten minutes at a time. In Armenia, and in the rest of the developing world, other people are still the most interesting things around and so one tends to spend the majority of one’s time in the company of other people, rarely ever in a hurry to be anywhere else, for anywhere where your with, well, anyone, is the most exciting place to be. After about 500 nights sitting in my unheated apartment, watching the stars hang silent in the sky and listening to the hum of my soviet refrigerator, I had come not just to accept their creed, but to believe, indubitably, in its truth.
While I was in Armenia, I also began, as mapgazers do, to contemplate the ways of life in other parts of the world. I planned trips and went off to places as far away as Sarajevo, Aleppo and Tashkent, but through all of my journeys through Tartary, I had begun to think of something a little closer to home, not so much in terms of distance, but in terms of culture. The seeds planted in my mind by the assonance of phrases such as siettecolleor alleundiecibegan to germinate, rising forth unbidden in such a foreign place. I wanted to hear the cognates to words like appellation and sagacity in a romantic language. Romanian interested me, but, I couldn’t help but to think that knowing once incredibly esoteric language like Armenian was enough, so, despite the immense beauty of Lisbon, that notion eventually ruled out Portuguese as well, after Italian, which I still remembered well enough, leaving only one option.
When I returned to the states to complete my Master’s thesis, I found that my time in Armenia had increased my aptitude for language. It was not so much that I’d become more adept at learning languages, but rather that I didn’t worry at all about making mistakes. Living in a village in a country where very few people spoke English helps to make one much more resourceful, besides it’s hard to worry about looking cool when everyone already knows you’re a foreigner just by looking at you. Armenia had taught me that language wasn’t verb conjugations and vocabulary lists, but people. You learn language from interacting with people, from listening to their stories and trying to tell your own. When I enrolled in an introductory Spanish course at the university, I didn’t waste too much time trying to memorize anything, I just went every day and tried to talk as much as possible.
I didn’t really have a destination picked out, but I knew, from the day that I got back to America, that I was going to leave again, and within a year. For a while I thought about everything south of the boarder, once even applying to a one-year Peace Corps program in Mexico. I spent a lot of time looking into language schools in Ecuador and Peru, but in the end it was Buenos Aires that attracted the most of my attention, not so much because it has always been a sort of expat hub, or because its beginnings and therefore culture is so similar to America’s but because it looked good in my imagination on a partially cloudy November evening, it also did not escape my notice that there was a large Armenian community down there as well.
So, at the time of writing, I have been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for about six months. The big city way of life and the excessive western tendencies have made it harder, rather than easier for me to adapt to it. I came here seeking to tie up all the connections to the other places I have known and loved. I came to a city built by Italian immigration, looking for something to rival the Roman Forum. I came here looking for an Armenian community that would show me the hospitality that their relatives so graciously welcomed me with in a country so far from here that it might as well be on a different planet, and I came here looking to maintain a few of the conveniences of the country of my birth, such as the occasional concert or dinner at a nice restaurant. In a way all of these things are here, but they are all to be found in Argentine forms, making them all different than expected. I would have been a total fool to expect the situation to have been otherwise, but, when I walk through the Armenian neighborhood, I miss the spectacle of old men playing nardion a rickety table, the slap of the pieces on the board and the shouts of their wives upbraiding them for spending so much time away. When I pass restaurants that have Italian names I except to smell the dusty, sour smell of vino a tavolathat has not been completely washed away from where it spilled. When I go to a bar that looks like a dive, I am annoyed to find myself spending much more than I would in the states on a beer that’s every bit as cheap as PBR, and somehow it annoys me even more when the bartender tells me my total in English as if numbers in Spanish were too difficult to grasp.
All these things combine to make Argentina what it is. There is much more to be found, I know that from experience, but with the ghosts of so many other countries following me around, there are times when I feel the emptiness and longing of the exile, not once, or twice, but three times over. The sights, sounds, smells and textures of my past are all here, they are beautiful, but when they are manifold they can be just as painful as a memory of a loved one who has passed on, or of a place that has since been bulldozed and made into food court. Because any day, depending on what I encounter, I can feel like an exile three times over, it is important for me to remember that life is just a montage of different experiences and what is important is not time and place, but people. I know that after I meet more of them here, perhaps one day I will find myself looking at a piece of Argentina in Calcutta and remembering it fondly.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Forgetting Where

A good litmus for mediocrity seems to be cigarettes. I’m not saying that as a general bromide; I’ve just found it to be somewhat personally true. When I’m feeling mediocre, I tend to smoke a lot. It’s almost like it relieves the burden of non-exceptionalism. I encounter this urge most often on the days when I have very little to do. I try to occupy myself with incidental things but, somehow, the feeling of being incapable seems to pervade all aspects of my life and I even feel as if I am sweeping the floor in a rather half-assed way. So I smoke a cigarette and stand by the window a while, trying to focus on past accomplishments. Only, it doesn’t rejuvenate me, but rather further hinders me. When I return to the floor sweeping the task often seems more hopeless than ever.
Sometimes, I’ll venture out into the city. Usually, to ride my bike or go skateboarding, as the pure physical exertion sometimes encourages confidence. When it doesn’t, I find myself, standing at the flat-bottom of the half-pipe on Plaza Italia smoking cigarettes and contemplating returning home to read the book I left on the bed-side table, next to the ashtray.
It’s mostly the business of acting that’s got me feeling this way. Acting requires a lot of focus and stamina that I often feel a dearth of these days. When I first brought in my monologue, I felt enough nervous energy to bring me through the lines, even if they kept getting jumbled in my head, and later when I had to come with a song, I didn’t even worry about the possibility of mediocrity; it’s hard to worry about breaking even when you know that you’re just plain bad at something. Somehow, perhaps between the two attempts, I managed to get an acting job that promises to take me around Latin America, and perhaps even more of the world that I haven’t seen, but there is the matter of rehearsals first, which, are becoming repetitive. When I show up for my two hours of work a day, I’m always trying to push myself into more spontaneous acting, knowing that I only have a few chances a week to work on my part, but as the lines become so rote it’s hard to keep them fresh. Perhaps, it’s just something to which I’ve got to get more accustomed. There are still two other plays in the troupe’s schedule.
I know that it’s not just my job, however. Eventually, we will need to do a lot more work per day, and I’m hoping to pick up a few more English tutoring jobs on the side so I’ll have more to do in the afternoons. I’m not worried about eventually having enough to do. After living in other countries, I know that it takes at least six months before one really finds a place, or anything like a schedule in the world that seems to be functioning around you so much quicker because you have more time to observe it. I know that there’s more happening right now that feels unremarkable because its sheen is starting to wear off. When one moves to a new country the first few months are always exciting enough, even when they feel mundane, and after everything has become second nature things become easier and automatized so that they don’t accumulate to such a stressful degree. Between these stages of acculturation, however, is the adventurer’s winter, a period when all previous desires seem sated or dormant, before the language becomes an automatic response, but longer feels like it should be as bewildering as it still is a times, when everything starts to sound like noise and everything starts to look dulled, voices sound mocking and when the wind blows too strongly or the rain falls too abruptly it has done so solely to castigate you.
It took me months to overcome this feeling in Armenia. Before I did, I took refuge in mediocrity and plenty of cigarettes.
The woman who lives downstairs is talking on the phone and her voice is carrying perfectly from her patio below to my window. Just on the other side of the wall that divides this patio from a communal garden area, which unfortunately we can’t access, rats scurry back and forth, as they do every evening, often much to our diversion. The construction on the building next door has stopped for the day and the high walls around this place, its courtyards and its structures, dampen most of the sound from the traffic outside.
I’m writing tonight simply because I haven’t in a long time. I’m out of practice and I don’t have anything very interesting to relate. I’ve been reading a lot lately (finally getting to Atlas Shrugged, a book I’ve put off reading for almost a decade, much to the annoyance and chagrin to my well-read friends). I’ve also been taking a lot of rambling walks through the city, riding my bike a fair amount and watching downloaded episodes of The X-Files in the evening because it’s the only show I’m willing to commit myself to, given that its run has long since passed—all I really want is a good episode with some one-shot monster or persona non grata anyway.
On the weekends we go to the park and read, walking one, or both ways, and talking about whatever comes to mind. We make elaborate meals, often with a dessert course included to appease my insatiable desire for sugary carbohydrates. Over the weekdays, we drink a lot of coffee and wait for the one or two engagements we might have during the day, a Spanish lesson, an English tutoring class or an hour or two at the theater in my case.
I haven’t met many expats, but I know they’re here, I see evidence of them in California-style burrito franchises (which, by the way, I refuse to patronize, for having items that look exclusively as if they came out of a can, besides, here where avocados are plentiful, and there are a few places around that sell good tortillas, why would you need to spend 7 $ US on a plastic-looking burrito, unless you were a totally inept cook?)I also hear stentorian American voices, rising above the current of rushing Spanish vowels every so often and there are rumors of things happening in San Telmo every few days that sound like they are the brainchildren of foreigners. In Armenia, outside of the capital one almost never saw foreigners. When I heard another language, I often stared hard right alongside all the Armenians. Even in the capital, foreigners were rare, a few rich America-hay drinking and taking in a few bars along with the Peace Corps volunteers and the Marines, but that was really only in the summer.
The thing is I can’t really say much about Argentina yet, it’s too similar, at least superficially, to the US. Many people here would try to argue that, but compared to the oriental, much of the occidental world looks the same, especially in the big cities. It’s funny, people often ask me what I notice about Argentine culture first, that is, what’s different. They ask the question with an eagerness that betrays their desire to be seen as different, which to me is already a sign of western conceit. I feel embarrassed to explain that I haven’t seen much to strikes me as being incredibly different, because I know that for most people this simply means that I haven’t been looking very hard, what’s often not understood is that these differences aren’t to be found in some exotic, out-of-the-way place but in the most mundane activities. I think about the post offices, the schools and the stores in Armenia, how all these things reflected the differences in culture. In Argentina, all these places almost look the same to me as they did in the US, there are no chaotic groups of people, there is no closet where the charwomen are sitting around a little table making their 8th cup of coffee of the day together, there is no maintenance man who flicks his neck with his finger to invite me to have a 10 am shot of vodka with him, there are no curious old women who bless you over and over for the sake of conversation, there are no little kids who stare at you in rapt attention. There are people playing with stray cats, sitting on the ground and young people making out with each other, three things that would cause anyone from the oriental world to gasp in astonishment, but are totally commonplace to both the people here and those from the US.
I don’t mean to imply that everything is the same, or course some things are bound to be different. And it might be unfair that I compare Buenos Aires to the villages of a country that most people in the US can’t find on a map, but I have to compare it to something. Most likely because there’s a small tsavd tanem¬-sized section of my heart missing and I’ve got to fill it with something. So, I’m still looking for the differences, of I guess I should say trying to become receptive to them, but it’s hard when I go down to Retiro station and see the proprietors of the market stalls spraying water out of old plastic bottles to keep the dust down, or when I see sheet metal used to patch crumbling walls and all I can think of is the east, or when I see McDonald’s or a Ford drive by and all I can think of is the west. My world is polarized, but not by north and south.