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 grad.school 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.

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