Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moor´s Last Jive

I´ve got one of those computer screens that juts out at you; tilted back at a slight angle the TV-sized monitor seems to be thrusting its chest out at me, arms akimbo in a display of crude, but effective force. It´s seven am back in Argentina, but since we crossed the border into Paraguay yesterday afternoon it´s only six am here. Giving me an extra hour for breakfast before we´ve got to get back to the theater and roll out the same three productions we´ve been doing for what seems like eons now. After the trials and tribulations of three weeks on the road with (in all probability) two more to go, I have a new respect for touring bands. The bands, of course, are getting to play their own music and are free to chose different courses of expression in different places, but I wonder, how limited we all are by the accepted format defined by the venues we visit. If a band simply decided to talk to the audience or recite lines from Harold Pinter plays for two hours obviously the crowd would not feel their 25 dollars had not been spent wisely and would, as a result probably not be too receptive. It seems that we´re all limited by what sort of entertainment we are promising our audience and it is hard to know if there is an entertainment that could remain entertaining to the actors that perform it ad nauseum. We started leaving Buenos Aires for Cordoba on a late Sunday morning. It was a churchy time, grey and chilly, like March in Michigan or January in northern California. It was the first time that we´d be doing a national (Argentina) tour so it was the first time that we used the van for more than a drive to the airport. I was not looking forward to the prospect of having so little personal space for up to 14 hours at a time, but so far this has proved unexpectedly accommodating. I think on the road one begins to greedily search for something of which to make an approximation of home, whether it´s a car or the same motel chain room. I think, to some degree, we all take solice in being in the van. There´s still a part of the day we left Buenos Aires in there. All we have to do is sit back and remember it and Jujuy or where ever the hell we are doesn´t feel so far away. Of course, it´s not always so easy to feel that the van is your link to the world you´ve left behind after you´ve been in it for over 8 hours; at that point it starts to feel like something you need to escape from, something that has not been peacefully transporting you all the way from Buenos Aires, but rather some sinister thing that has been hounding you. You briefly escape into motel rooms, schools and theaters only to find it waiting for you again. The drive to Cordoba is Iowa-flat. There are a few clusters of trees on the horizon but very little to see otherwise. All day long the sun shines in the cold, bleary quality particular to Sunday. The light is tiring without being relaxing. Every time we stop for gas or to go to the bathroom, I find myself smoking again. We stop at a parilla on the highway about halfway. The scene inside is a perfect reproduction of the Thanksgiving holiday. Initially, there is no one inside the warm and lamp-lit restaurant. The smell of cooking meat and the cold sunshine mingle as the door repeatedly opens. The sounds of mirth increase as more people come in from the cold to join the meal. You can smell the cigarette smoke in their sweaters, the cold leather of their belts, the sweet heavy smell of over-applied makeup and lipstick. Gum and corduroy, the click of untied formal shoe laces and the scraping of folding chairs. The restaurant is suddenly full of people, talking, laughing and eating in what looks like the middle of nowhere. We are the first to leave from this phantasmal holiday scene, but even as we continue down the road the smells and sounds of it´s jubulence still cling to me. Arriving that evening into Còrdoba, I am confronted with a city, or what is regarded as a city, that is quiet and rarely over three or four stories. In Buenos Aires, the buildings are forever glowering over you, creating rifts in the streets that seperate them and agoraphobic squares and plazzas. By comparison, Còrdoba was something like a boutique city. It had its pedestrian mall, its churches and its Avenida Corrientes, but it was in a miniature. An observation that seems to actually encompass most of what we´re seen so far, but an observation that may result solely from too much time spend continuously in Buenos Aires so that everything should resemble it. The Còrdoba that started this tour was weeks ago, so there was a little more impatience to my wanderings after the shows at night. I hadn´t yet adapted to the road. I walked around at night trying to find a decent meal to substitute what I would´ve been eating at home. After eating supermarket food, I would grow restless sitting in the hotel room and would walk back out into the night with no particular destination, simply trying to cross over as much of the city as possible, to make the most of the experience, but actually doing very little. The last night I was in Còrdoba, I had a strange encounter. I had read in the Lonely Planet that there was a Middle Eastern restaurant not too far from the hotel and longing for a warm falafel sandwich I had decided to check the place out. I walked into the small restaurant of four or five tables immediately feeling embarrassed; there are some places that permit you to dine alone and others that render the lone diner pathetic and even contemptible by dint of the otherwise festive nature of the place. A few weeks ago a friend of mine asked me what I missed about the states. My immediate answer was the notion of pedestrian right-of-way since this doesn´t seem to exist anywhere else in the world and, to me, seems both fair and good. But now that I think about the question further, I should have liked to have added ´general acceptance of solitary activities´to this list as well. It is indeed wonderful that other cultures are so unified and would never enjoy the pleasures of the opera or of a restaurant alone, but I cannot help the morbidly independent environment I was raised in, nor can I alter its effects on me. In the states you could eat alone at probably 90 % of restaurants and no one would pay you any attention. In most other countries the waitresses tend to at least look at you askance. In Armenia, I remember constantly being asked where my friends were, when trying to read in the cafe alone. The waitress´s manner always seemed so much more pleasant when I was in company, as if I were using the place for its proper purpose when in company, rather than souring it with my solitary coffee and quiet, bookreading ways. As I walked into the restaurant in Còrdoba, I had to resist the desire to flee out the door after I had seen the friendly intimacy of the place and the owner´s scowl, almost more like a wince, when he noticed I was alone. He knew he was against me when he offered me a chair at a table in the middle of the room. Nobody ever wants to sit in the middle of a room, but particular among them are those that are dining alone. What? Was this to draw attention to the fact that I was an anomaly? Was there something to see in me eating my food and trying not to catch anyone´s eye? Or was he simply trying to hide me between the otherwise sated, wine-flushed and jocose diners? I sheepishly pointed to a small corner table beginning to feel the anxiety so common to the misunderstood diner. Once at my table, I made it clear that I was not waiting for anyone by taking out my book. I didn´t begin to read it, however, for to do so would be to risk isolation. I have noticed that in many restaurant outside the US, the waiters will often think that a book is some sort of personal affront. As if you had gone to the restaurant to see them personally and now that you had taken out this book you were acting very rude by not paying them enough attention. After looking at the two-page menu that had no falafel, I bekoned the owner back over. Luckily, I had an ace up my sleeve, I know a few words in Arabic, I´ve been a few places in the middle east and, of course if he told me that rather than being Arab he was actually Iranian, Kurdish or Armenian (as it sometimes turns out) I, of course, would´ve been delighted. ¨As salamu aleykum,¨ I greet him as he comes over, still with that sour look on his face. I should´ve waited or his response, but I was too hungry and the atmosphere had made me feel too awkward. ¨¿Tienes falafel?¨ I am dismayed that he begins speaking English to me right away. ¨You want falafel?¨ He replies with a scowl. I can´t tell how good his English is so I continue in my lousy Spanish. ¨Si, pero no lo vi en el menù.¨ ¨We don´t have¨ he counters, in a tone that I´ve heard before in cowboy movies when someone is implying that the other should leave before bullets start flying. I should´ve left, too, but by then I was too hungry and I had my heart set on something warm. I think I could get maybe some nice warm bread with hummus and khaviar, which is the Russian name for that roasted eggplant spread, the arabic, I have no idea. I order this bizarre a´ la cart combination. The owner shrugs and walks off with the menu. When the food comes I see that it´s not going to be enough. I´m too hungry just for an appetizer and since I´m already in the restaurant, I decide to try to get a meal out of it. ¨¿Tienes arroz?¨ I ask when he comes back. For what it´s worth, I´ve never been able to pronounce ´arroz´ very well, but instead of asking for clarification the ownder just walks away. About five minutes later he is back with the biggest table plate of tabule I have ever seen. Shit. I don´t mind tabule in small amount, but a huge bowl of it. It´s almost like he was mocking me giving me such minuscule portions of hummus, which I wanted, and such a saladbowl of tabule, which I didn´t. Whatever, it was food, and, if nothing else, it was healthy food, all that parsley was sure to boost my immunity a little while on the road. After about five or six bites of the stuff, the admixture of sea salt and lemon juice that it was saturated with began to tug the wrong way on my esophagus. I began to mix it with what little hummus I had left, to no result; the supreme bitter-salty-sour combination of the dish permeated everything. About halfway through the bowl, I began to feel the gag reflex that I remember so well as a kid on on occasion when I had eaten a whole pellet of rock salt, from a bag meant to de-ice the driveway. When I finally finished, I stood up almost immediately. I didn´t want to wait for him to come back over. I was dreading the bill, as I always do when dining alone and ordering strange combinations of things that aren´t on the menu. As I expected he came back with the astronomical sum of 60 pesos. The place offered a set menu dinner that was only forty pesos, essentially this is what I had gotten, excepting the three meat dishes that went with it. So, while I had gotten less, I was somehow being charged more. I argued, asking to see the bill. By some absurd legerdemain, he produced a bill that, in reality, was 80 pesos. I looked at all the happy diners, eating together, probably on their third or fourth time in this ¨charming little place¨that they wanted to show of to their friends. I told him, resolutely I would pay him forty since that´s what the menu had said and not a peso more. I walked out having paid him fifty, with a little pride intact. The next night, at the end of four days of shows. We began our break for the weekend. After a long day in La Rioja. The last show had gone well and we were all in high spirits. After a few beers at the local kioscos with my castmates, I came upon a little middle eastern place, hesitating at first, least the situation from the previous night repeat itself, I went in. Maybe it´s because La Rioja is smaller, but this time my ´as salamu aleykum´ was greeted with a happy ´wa alayk salam´ and the Syrian owner and I had a great conversation about his native country, which I found to be one of the friendliest I´ve ever visited. In the end I bought some of the roasted eggplant spread to go. It was only 15 pesos. Allahu akbar.

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