It’s hard not to complain, sometimes. I look at certain aspects of culture here in Buenos Aires and see them as corollaries to aspects of culture that annoyed me when I returned to the US form the East. I didn’t comment on them so much then, as when I came back to the US, I had anticipated many of them in advance. I considered the impersonal, and often self-righteous way that people act in the states as being an inevitable consequence of life there since I had grown up around it as such and knew that it wouldn’t have changed over the few years that I had been away. Of course, that’s not to say I don’t also love the country for all the beauty I have seen it demonstrate and even at times, nearly erupt in. That is to say before I returned to the states I already had many things in mind that I both abhorred and adored about life there. In short, I knew what to expect.
I have often written about the map of the US I had on my wall while I was living in the mid-eastern country of Armenia. I have related how I used to spend large amounts of time staring at this wonderful monument to culture and civilization. It appeared to me as such when, living so far away, I could contemplate the memories I had of certain places. The map appeared to me as a loose conglomeration of stories and pictures. Memphis: a near-hypothermic night camping in a closed state park and the look of the cold Mississippi the next morning when I crossed it for the first time. San Francisco: The sun setting west of the Richmond, watching the last copper rays burnish the Muni train tracks that undulated past quiet, pastel homes. Nebraska: corn flower blue skies. Cour d’Alene, Idaho: a rictus of rock and snow that, even when still, had the air of something crashing about it. Philadelphia: Ben Franklin’s grave covered with pennies in the moon light. Missoula, Montana: Pine trees lining wide streets that give way to old freight yards fogged in yellow arc lights. Marquette, Michigan: at once a book and a town that the book gave rise to; stories the town told and the town the stories promised. Grand Central Station, New York: a whited sepulcher with timetables.
When I returned, I was able to cross the country again, and fill in the gaps on the map that I had so expertly studied. Biloxi, Mississippi, a highway overpass that curls out over a man-made beach where seagulls and men drinking malt liquor congregate. Nacogdoches, Texas: a desert-brick town in the heart of well-forested east Texas. West Texas: the most beautiful emptiness I have ever seen and, I think, the only 80 mph speed limit in the country. Tucson, Arizona: a pedestrian overpass that was designed to look like a giant rattle snake. When I looked at the map on my wall in Armenia, I would see these things and imagine the ones I hadn’t yet seen. The feeling of America, though restless and vague, is to be found all the across the country, as it was the first feeling I knew I cannot begrudge it even when it pushes me, belittles me, raises the rent on me, breaks up with me, ignores me or doesn’t give me back the right change.
The same sort of feeling occurs now when I am reminded of Armenia. Yes, when I first arrived there was the typical period of immense disquiet. When Americans admire the East they are often looking only at the mysticism they are only able to superficially admire from afar. Even if they are to visit, they often to do not stay long enough to discover that which would be difficult for them to accept such as that the idea of dressing in what we call casual attire is not considered proper for adults. The people of the east make an effort to look nice all the time, usually they do not wear tennis shoes at all except in the house. The convention of companion animals hardly exists outside the large westernized capital cities. If dogs are kept they are left in deplorable conditions. Women and men occupy their traditional roles in society. Public affection between different sexes is frowned upon. In general conformity is seen as a good thing, many people see conformity as the keeper of the cultural traditions so valued by the people of the west that, conversely, are always expounding on the inborn values of diversity and creativity.
I’m sure other westerners that have spent a significant amount of time in the east could find an example to contest any of these points from their own travels, but for me they are general, not specific truths, behaviors that can be observed in the behavior of people from Syria to Kazakhstan. I too came to understand these behaviors. In a way, I incorporated them into my own world view to a point where I was skeptical to return to an America where they were not normal, and were often hotly contested. But I could not abandon them given the great benefits I had seen them to bestow on the people that lived by them, specifically, how they had very little need for police and how trusting and hospitable they were even with strangers.
But my own country of eucalyptus, ghostly birch, long prairie highways, deer, pelicans, drive-through liquor stores, dinners, gas station coffee, peanut butter, PG & E, recycling centers, ‘zines, Hollywood stars, MP3s, Detroit Greek Coney Islands, bookstores with couches, Mexican restaurants, vinyl, 11 o’ clock news, jazz, Native American names and parking lots was waiting for me. In it I could apply the things I had come to know, and form a more exact picture of the world, its people and their behaviors. When I first came back to the states, I was reticent, catching up and trying not to make an ass of myself by saying too much at once, even to the people I loved for fear that they would not be able to understand me, not having been where I’d been, not having learned what I had learned. Eventually, I did begin to talk, and I began to tell stories, ardent stories of friends, guns, Iranian truck drivers, tufa stone, soviet trains, twilight Caucasian mountains, homemade vodka and all the things I was begged to take by people with very few posessions but still in a position to give great wealth. I told the stories with the love with which they had been created, my fondness for the people that cared for me while I was in their country showing through. I could not moralize or try to make cautionary tales out of what I had learned. I told the lessons of the east as stories, much as they were meant to be told, rather than pedantic grumblings.
Now, I am in America, but in a different part of it. In Argentina there is every where the same decadent way of living and the sense of fear and distrust that arises from it. It does not differ from the US as the East does, although it must differ in its own way. The problem is that the difference is subtle. After living in such a different part of the world, I am unaccustomed to seeing the minutiae that makes western countries different from each other. I get tired and long for two different ideas of home. The eastern that was peaceful in its obvious logic and the America that is beautiful because it is so ad hoc.
I originally meant to write today about the differences in Buenos Aires, but I cannot do that yet, because they are not interesting to me, therefore I can’t make them interesting to read about. But every culture has something valuable to offer; I know that every trip produces something in the traveler, even if the result is nothing but disappointment at least one comes to understand why there was disappointment. I write for myself that I should become more perceptive by recalling the past and what I have seen in all the places of the world that result in such incredible wonder that I must seek out all its different permutations.