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.