Sunday, July 27, 2014

What Happened When We Got There

Saturday night and we’re walking around. Most people are eating so there’s not much traffic, which makes what traffic does pass us incredibly treacherous.


“Dammit! Why do they have to do that!?”

I just smile. Every time a car goes by driving that fast at night, I’m always just glad we’re not on our bikes. He must’ve been going 100 MPH down a residential street. It’s not that uncommon. When Gina looks to me for indignation (which I’m usually full of) I just shrug. I don’t feel like caring about bad driving right now. It’s a nice night and the streets are otherwise quiet. I manage to say something affirming like “yeah, what a dick,” and we keep walking down toward the wider avenues that cross the city.

The greatest thing about living in a city that’s not mapped out on a grid is that it’s difficult to explore. It takes longer to find things. All the major landmarks of the city, everything that’s in the guidebooks, we went to within our first two weeks here and then, subsequently, walked past, every day for the last six months. When well-meaning locals tell me that I should visit the cemetery, I have a difficult time not telling them that I’ve been there and like them, I pass it on the bus very frequently. It’s nothing special anymore. After six months in the same city, no one is a tourist. The difficulty is that many people still expect you to be. I occasionally consider just acting like I’m still holding my luggage with a bewildered look and plane ruffled hair, I think people would find me much more amiable that way.

I have seen a lot here, but there are still little winding streets I have not followed through to the end. Or, meaning to follow a street to the end, I have started down a tributary alley and ended up, half an hour later, far from my intended destination. The backstreets are the heart of this city in that they betray its jungle origins. When the dense tangles of phone wire and electric cable unspool and disappear into the umbrella-sized fronds of a palmetto, when the houses diminish and crumble into chalky red brick, where the trash piles up at the end of a vine-sewn cul-de-sac that is the real Asuncion. It is also the Asuncion that no one visits. It is the Asuncion of the parrots and the stray dogs, the arm-wide climbing vine and the guava tree.

These little alleys, curvas and callecitos don’t connect to each other. You have to survey the neighborhoods to find them. You have to follow every street until it ends, until you find the tiny gap between houses that is barely still paved. On the other side there is a parrot walking along a fence squawking at an empty river bed full of plastic bags: this is Asuncion and you have to look for it. Six months means nothing to this side of the city. It is hardly any time at all. Even while the famous buildings downtown have become commonplace and the your motivation to interact with society wanes, the curving threads of the backstreets are still there, waiting to offer up their secret stories of the city before it was a city.

I thought I had followed this street before, but no. I haven’t seen this before. A giant gas station with a café and a restaurant? “Yeah,” Gina tells me she’s passed it before. “It’s a nice place, I guess. People get dressed up to come and eat here.” There are three parts: The café with bow-tied waiters, the restaurant that looks like a nice, pay-by-kilo place and the gas station portion that’s got its soda coolers and shelves of snacks. We go into the latter. It’s got imported food, not much but a competitive selection: Jalapeno Pringles from the US, Toblerone chocolates and a water bottle that Gina picks up. “26,000!? For this plastic bottle?” “It must be imported.” I say, shrugging and going over to look at the soda flavors. “Maybe they’ve got that Brazilian maracuya-flavored Fanta.”

We take a right out of the gas station, vaguely in the direction of home. I don’t expect to find much in this quiet night more interesting than the fancy gas station we just saw. I’m kind of hungry anyway. We keep walking up the street. I know it but I don’t know this part of it. “Hey,” I say to Gina. “Look at that place. Richards’.” We laugh for a second at the Keith Richards caricature on the sign. Gina reminds me that something about Keith has always freaked her out a little. I’m reminded of how my mom always said that she imaged all pirates running around back in the 18th century must’ve looked like Keith or Keith looked like them. The place looks nice, dark and bar-like. In Cono Sur, bars don’t really exist, they’re mostly restaurants dubbed as bars. If they have an actual bar, it’s small and no one sits there. They are conglomerations of tables with too-bright lights and too-loud music. They are places to eat or to camp out for the night with a big group of friends. They aren’t places you just stop into to get a beer because you’re walking by.

Richards’ was exceptional in a way that no place in Paraguay has been. There was no electronic music playing. There was no dance floor and there was no cover. The lighting was dim and the bar was long. We lingered for a minute in the doorway and decided to go in a have a beer.

All bars have palpable atmospheres. There’s way too much happening in people’s heads in those places to not leave some kind of psychic miasma hanging up in the ceiling with all the smoke-damp dust bunnies. Bars, contrary to popular belief, can reflect all kinds of moods. Sure, some are surly, but others are tired, some are braggarts, some are cheap (even when the cheapest beer on the menu is 7 dollars) and others are like old couches. These latter have no concern for their appearance, but they are comfortable, homely places. Richards’ was such a place and I was happy we had found it. Even though I could tell Gina was thinking the same thing, I told her anyway.
“This place is cool. Hey look you can even smoke in here.” And with those last eight words, I was sold. I had a bar, and it wasn’t even that far from our house. We sipped our beers, looked around the room and talked a little. The music was quiet and the smoke from the other cigarettes in the bar was drifting lazily up, giving one the feeling of slowly being lowered down. There were only a few other patrons. A group of kids at a table, it looked like two couples both with their chairs as close together as they could go without being stacked on top of each other and a lone guy in a black jacket at the bar who had a wine glass slightly smaller than a goldfish bowl next to him. I guess maybe it was brandy. One of the kids gets up and orders a picture of sangria. The waitress pours in sugar from sugar packets and stirs it in the fruit, wine and ice with stabbing movements.

There’s a stage and a couple of those roaming colored lights drifting over the walls, chairs and particles of dust floating in the air. There are two men, middle-aged, that both look like my Irish landlord from San Francisco. Gina declares that they must be British and possible twins. She seems to like this idea and repeats it a few times. “British twins,” like she’s trying to remember something. I agree that maybe they are and while we’re talking about it one of them moves over to the soundboard. A band materializes from the kids who ordered the sangria. They come on stage and suddenly there’s someone taking pictures. The singer asks if we can hear him OK and the (possible) British twin at the soundboard says “que?” over and over like he can’t hear anything. Everyone laughs at this, including me. I laugh at a lot of what I hear in Spanish just to show that I’ve understood the joke, but the way the guy at the soundboard says ‘que’ is actually funny and I really laugh.

The music starts and we listen to the first few songs before we go back to quietly talking. “It’s nice there’s music. There wasn’t even a cover.” We say to each other. The first band only plays about four songs before getting down. We talk about them for a while and I light another cigarette, wishing I had brought enough money to get another beer. I count my money again just to be sure. Gina tells me that maybe they have something for 9,000 Gs. I tell her they don’t, that I checked already.

Another group comes on, a girl with very long hair and a violin, a guy with a cello and another guy, in the middle, by the mic with a guitar. There’s no drummer. The group plays some vaguely familiar sounding instrumental songs and then goes into covers. The girl with the long hair keeps self-consciously flipping it over her shoulder. They start with Dust in the Wind, which I hold up a lighter for. I think about the violin player in the Kansas video with the beard and the wavy hair and I think about the book Mikey gave me where someone keeps playing the song over and over. Dust in the Wind ends and the group does something like a Beatles medley. Then there’s Hotel California. I think about the Brown Jug where someone was always playing that song on the jukebox. I had played it up really big the last time I was there. “Ok, listen to the songs. Before we leave someone will play Hotel California.” But without Mikey it didn’t seem to work and I was almost sad to leave a few hours later without hearing it, even though I’ve always disliked that song.

When I get back from the bathroom the band was doing another Beatles song. Gina and I exchange glances and we wait out the song before climbing down off our chairs, mumbling “that was nice,” more to ourselves than each other. It’s late and we’re tired. We’re hardly ever out past midnight, but it’s nice to do every once in a while even if it does make us tired the next day.

Richards’ had been such a great find that I had been thinking about something I could say to the guy at the soundboard to thank him. While I had been at the bar, I tried to work out what I could say to the guy to explain to him how appreciative we were to have found such a comfortable bar and the first I had seen like it in Asuncion.

As we make our way to the door the band is talking, getting ready for their next song. I consider talking to the guy at the soundboard to thank him, but he looks like he’s doing something with his computer, the group’s about to start their next song and just to cram all my appreciation into one word, I decide to just call out ‘gracias’ as we walk out.

What I intended to say to the guy at the soundboard, ended up as a thanks to the whole bar. I called out ‘gracias’ so loud that I thanked both bands for playing. I thanked the waitresses for the beers and I thanked the black jacket guy with the small globe of brandy. It felt good to let everyone know how I felt. My hand was on the door and I was almost out when I heard the voice in the mic say ‘que maleducacion!’ As he said it, the guy at the sound booth turned around and looked at me with a squint. Everyone in the bar looked at me and all their expressions repeated the expression. ‘que maleducacion!’ ‘How rude!’

Sometimes it takes a while for things to translate, but this was one of the instances when it happened right away. I hadn’t even finished walking out the door. “No,” I want to call out. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I just wanted to thank you. You see, I’ve never found a bar like this and I wanted to express my gratitude. Sorry to leave before your set is over, but you can see, we waited until you were between songs. I hope there aren’t any hard feelings.” But I can’t get any of that out. I just stand in the doorway for a moment longer, trying to find anything to say, but nothing occurs to me and after a few awkward seconds, I turn and let the door swing closed.

Outside the bar, I tell Gina what happened. I tell her how I’m upset because it had been such a good night. I tell her how I hate how being in a foreign context amplifies casual comments like that and how now that ‘que maleducacion’ is going to hang over the rest of the night.

We walk down the street until it becomes familiar again. I stop into a few stores to look for cigarettes and everyone seems to mock me. I see ‘que maleducacion!’ on everyone’s face and I just want to tell them all to go to hell.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Wild Honey

We had come down from the mountains where there had been cacti and apples of horse dung on the trail coated with dust. The day had been quiet—almost entirely spoken in the sound of our feet on the gritty trail. Now and then someone’s boot had called out with a raspy slip, when coming down a steep part of the trail, but the others paid no attention. Once, someone said something at a river crossing. Something to acknowledge the beauty of the scene, but the superfluous remark fell under the sound of the rushing water. We reached the trail’s summit around 2 pm. There was snow lying in the shadows of some of the larger trees. It glowed and seemed to give off the buzzing of a florescent light.

We took a different trail back and came to a suspension bridge. Without discussing it, we walked across the bridge one by one, each person waiting their turn, like children waiting to go down a slide. On the other side of the bridge, there was a black mud that was mostly packed and felt like clay to walk on. Each footprint left a vivid imprint of its rubber zigzags, square bumps and raised heel. I stepped off the trail for a moment to leave a footprint where no one would likely tred over it. Maybe it will fossilize.
We came off the mountain around five. The light was blurry and golden. The white insects in the air were singing. The trail ended at the top of a new neighborhood. Everything was walled, but there were vines growing over the walls and the transition from the mountains to the city was gradual. The first street we came to was quiet with large yellow speedbumps and boxy carabiniero vans parked near most intersections. The carabinieros standing outside the vans were friendly, they nodded and said hello to us. Their dark green collars creaked when they nodded, sounding like the insects. We kept in a line as we walked. The sidewalk was narrow and would permit nothing else.

At the bottom of the hill, where the city began, the bus stop was crowded. Those waiting frequently leaned over the curb to see what was coming. Many of them had set their shopping bags on the ground. Two boys sat on a low wall and talked, but everyone else was silent except for the occasional sharp exhalation of impatience.
From a long line of traffic, the bus roared up in its while and orange plastic austerity. The card reader beeped with each passenger’s fare. The back of the bus was slightly raised and we went back there to be out of the way. The seats were all taken. There was an open area at the edge of the raised portion like a dais and we stood in this area, all of us leaning a little to take the strain off our legs. On the turns, the bus swayed violently. It was hard to brace against effectively, especially with some of the mountain’s black mud still on the soles of our shoes. When the bus turned a corner, we swung in tight arcs between our grips on the high railings and our feet planted on the floor.

After two residential stops, a young couple got on and settled in the place beneath where we were standing. The couple was at the early stage in their relationship when they noticed nothing else but each other. When they came on to the bus, they didn’t glance around at the other passengers, as almost everyone who gets on a bus does. They looked straight ahead and when they came to an open area, they stopped and looked relieved when they could face each other again. They looked very warm and clean: the boy in a cotton sweatshirt and the girl in the earth tones of a heavy cable sweater and a thick macramé scarf. They spoke quietly to each other, their faces only a few inches apart. They didn’t tilt their heads and speak into each other’s ears over the roar of the bus, but looked directly into each other’s eyes. The boy did most of the talking. The girl seemed to respond to everything he said with the same sad expression. Not overtly sad, there was no actual pain in it. It was a look that was made to communicate tenderness, but had a wide-eyed, lapine sorrow. It was impossible to tell whether the girl was aware of this. Most of her expression was concentrated in the eyes and the lower lip. The eyebrows, where they nearly met over the bridge of the nose had rounded Q-tip ends; they tapered over the eyes until they were no more than a few feathered hairs pointing to her temples. The way the dark ends bunched together over the nose resembled the eyebrows of a homesick child who is sitting alone somewhere imagining he will never see his family again.

The rest of her face was unremarkable, with the exception of her lower lip that wasn’t quite pushed out, but also couldn’t have naturally sat above her chin so prominently. It was like a roseate pillow on which one would set a ring to be taken to an altar. There was nothing maudlin about her lip. On its own, it probably wouldn’t have been remarkable, but with the eyebrows, it gave her face a look of someone suffering from a fear that had given way to vague but consistent sadness.

It was difficult not to watch the wordless actions of this sad but enamored girl. There was something like spring about her, just after the snows have melted and the smells of the leaves and the grass seeds are tempered by the cold air that conducts them. The boy spoke and the girl returned these sad smiles in reply. She remained perfectly still even when the bus took a turn quickly and the boy had to make a little hop to keep from losing his balance. Neither of them looked away from the other. There was no challenge in looking at them because they gave none of the quick accusatory looks that strangers under observation usually give.

The bus slowed just after we had made our third stop. It was being waved over to the curb. There was another boxy van parked on the sidewalk and at least three carabinieros in their dark green uniforms with their golden and red decorations. The bus came to a stop. The carabinieros came up to the plastic windows of the bus, but they made no motion to board. The noise of the engine stopped and no one spoke. There was a quiet sound of someone’s quick breathing, the sound of someone who can’t get enough breath—they keep trying each breath, finding it to be insufficient for their needs, discarding it and quickly trying another: a lonely and terrifying sound. It was coming from the girl with the sad look. Nothing had changed in her expression, only her eyes were reddening around the edges and becoming glassy. Her eyebrows may have been knit together a little more tightly, but it was impossible to tell. Her expression had already been so profound it only required the slightest adjustment to make it convey terror. The girl was not moving with her hyperventilation the way some people do. She stayed perfectly still, only her eyebrows, already seemingly at their apex, crept up her brow as the green carabinieros formed a line outside the bus; their rifles swaying as they walked. A fare inspector in a bright yellow jacket and dark sunglasses, carrying something that looked like a large calculator, came from around the van and the line of carabinieros and approached the bus.

The girl’s face took on a waxier hue and a tear struggled for moment on her eyelash. It filled up like a balloon and then fell straight to the dusty bus floor. Thpp. It was followed by another. She said nothing and made no movement toward the boy. They remained standing, still facing each other. The boy put his hand on her shoulder. More tears fell, but her expression did not change. The fare inspector was coming down the aisle. He didn’t say anything, just turned to the passengers so that his whole body was in front of them, so that all they could see was the expanse of his yellow jacket. They handed their fare cards to him without saying a word. The bus was preternaturally quiet. The girl was now quietly sobbing. She exhaled in a small and scared ahuh-ahuh-ahuh rhythm. Everyone was watching her. The dark glasses of the fare inspector made it impossible to tell where he was looking or if he had seen her. He continued moving down the bus checking the fare cards in complete indifference.

The boy had given up any further attempts to comfort the girl and stood there just looking at her with his head slightly bowed. As the fare inspector approached, the boy raised his face which was empty of emotion. His mouth was a perfect straight line. The girl looked up too, looking as if she’d taken all the fear and panic off the boy’s face and added it to her own. Her nostrils flared and her lips were raised in a strange half-smile. The corners of her eyes were crumbled and shown with tears. The couple stood awkwardly together, like they’d had an argument and one of them said something too cutting to be taken back. Outside the bus, a carabiniero pressed his dark, thumbprint of a face to the window and then, stepping back from the frosted glass, seemed to disappear into a fog.

The fare inspector stepped over to the couple. He raised his fare inspecting device, prompting them to hand over their fare cards. The boy started his story with a shrug as if to say “well, here we are.” He presented his fare card, and, trying to use it to explain the situation, passed it back and forth between his hands, occasionally pointing to it. On the second or third pass the fare inspector reached out and grabbed the card from the boy’s hand and ran it through his machine. The swiping motion caused his head to turn slightly and his dark sunglasses to glint green. The girl lowered her head. The other passengers watched. The back of the bus was mute spectatorship. Their faces were like decorative plates on a wall, expressing nothing as a result of their desire to see a spectacle mixing with their sympathy.

Cars passed outside with commonplace sounds, engines accelerated and radios faded away. People walked by the detoured bus, they seemed curious to see what it was doing on the sidewalk, but when they saw the carabinieros and their boxy green van, they didn’t linger. The late afternoon sun came through the bus windows and put white coins, opals and medallions on the floor. There was a pearl choker of light draped over one of the seats. The boy had finished his story. His expressive hands had fallen and hung at his sides. The inspector wasn’t looking anywhere. He was still standing in front of the boy, but he didn’t seem to be there. The girl’s crying had stopped. She took a glance at the inspector through the curtain of hair that had fallen over her face. He nodded and his glasses gleamed. His mouth opened and closed, but not enough times to have said anything more than a syllable. He took the dais step that led into the back of the bus and left the young couple where they were.

The girl was still crying, but the boy had awkwardly moved closer to her, trying to comfort her. The wet rivets of her tears on the grey bus floor were scattered around her feet. The fare inspector moved into the knot of people at the back of the bus. There was a complaint, someone tried to protest the fare reader hadn’t worked. Couldn’t he see that? He didn’t respond. The back door opened. The protestor was quickly taken off the bus and surrounded by the carabinieros in their moss green uniforms. The other passengers chose not to notice and went on watching the crying girl and her awkward boyfriend.

The door closed and the bus engine turned over beneath our feet. A carabiniero moved the orange cones that he had placed around the bus. We moved into traffic. The bus was totally quiet. The girl cried and smiled alternately, but it was hard to tell the difference between the two expressions. The boy put his arm around her, but his expression remained conflicted.

At the station, when everyone got out, we silently filed off the bus one at a time. It had gotten dark, but there was a bright white corona of light hanging low in the sky at the entrance to the metro and high above it, the grey top of a mountain, floating there in the dark. The light buzzed and the passengers of the bus walked into it and disappeared. The bus drove off. A chime sounded. Another bus drove up. Another silent group of passengers got off and walked into the blur of light. Many of them shielding their eyes.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why No One Agrees on the Definition of "Liberty"

“Bring your passport,” I tell Gina at the door. “These Embassy things; you never know.” She nods and goes to the bedroom to get her proof of American citizenship.

It’s warm but overcast outside. The sky has that heavy feeling, like every time you look away the roiling grey clouds come down a few more feet. My shirt is still clinging to my back from my walk home earlier. Sweat is peppered under my eyes. Isolated trees stir in a haunted way. A lapacho between two mango trees is shaking and dropping amoxicillin-colored flowers onto a sidewalk already dark with their crushed petals. The mangos are strangely still. Dogs bark, looking down from rooftops, loosing their hanging slaver down onto passersby below. Other barks float up from a frantic place behind walls ten feet high. Plastic and Mylar bags skitter down the sidewalk and collect in drifts around the gutters. When it rains they will dam up the drains and the streets will flood quickly.

The Embassy looks like an exclusive park, a health spa maybe. The Embassy in Buenos Aires, just a formidable building with Americana on the exterior walls to belie its severity, in Yerevan, it was a compound, a neighborhood, a place diplomats were probably loathe to leave. In Almaty, the Embassy was just another office building, three stern Kazakh guards at the door. Today the Asuncion Embassy is open, exclusively open to the invitees of the Fourth of July celebration. An invitation, received the day before, is folded in my pocket.

We come to the side entrance where, for the first time, the doors are open and the buildings of the Embassy are exposed to the row of parked cars on Kubitschek. It’s an informal airport security line: women with their hair pulled back so tightly it shines with stress, metal detector portals with their little red carpets draped across the bottom, like lolling tongues. I hand my invitation to the tight-haired woman, hoping I’m not going to have to argue the plus guest line. She scans its barcode and hands it back, her face cordial, welcoming. Our status has been conferred so easily. Never before have I been invited to something so exclusive. I do not know the protocol; it seems there is nothing to know, however. You walk in, listen to a speech or two, eat some hors d’oeuvres, grin at some people, pocket a few mints and leave.

The Public Affairs sector is at the door, the first to welcome everyone. My job is vaguely linked to the Embassy and I know these people. They are the ones that were here waiting for me when I got off the plane and the ones who rented my apartment and found me a bed. They are good people and I trust them. The reception is through a door. Most of the attendees cannot be seen. There are a few stragglers among us waiting to go in. I notice that all the men are in suits. Public Affairs are wearing suits, everyone is in a black or navy blue jacket with a tie. Hair is brilliantined, cologne bottle necks have been pressed into fishy white palms so recently the imprints are practically still there. The men around me look like they have all just stepped out of the shower from somewhere inside the Embassy and then unwrapped a suit fresh from the cleaners’. I’m wearing jeans and a button-up shirt which is still sweatily clinging to my back.

“Was I supposed to wear a suit?” I ask Public Affairs. “Don’t worry about it.” They tell me, and for a moment I don’t. Then we go inside. There’s a red carpet, gold braid on military jackets, hands to shake, potted plants, the trickle of an unseen fountain and then a fluttering, tented room; white tablecloths; white gloved waiters; chafer dishes with their fuel and garlic smell; a bandstand and a veritable sea of handsomely dressed people: the women in wraps, sarongs, pearl chokers, sequins and the men, damn, the men are all wearing suits!

“It’s all suits!” I whisper to Gina.

“Don’t worry; no one’s going to notice.”

“Notice, hell! I’m wearing jeans! You know how people are at these things: they look you over.” I say trying to communicate the urgency of the situation to her in a way she can appreciate. I know Gina does not like to be looked over. “I’m going to say ‘hi, nice to meet you’ and they’re going to say ‘hmmph!’”

“Relax. No one cares.”

“How will they not care? I’m spoiling the mood. I’m that jerk at the Hallowe’en party just wearing his regular clothes, spoiling the illusion for everyone.” I look around and see that not only is everyone in a suit and tie but that they’ve all got hatpins, stickpins, cufflinks and all that kind of crap. “We’re at the level of dress attire here that’s like just beneath like a top hat and tails!” I whisper fiercely in Gina’s ear.

She tries to pacify me, telling me that she’s not dressed up enough either. I tell her no one can never tell with women. They seem to just wear whatever they want; as long as you’re not wearing a t-shirt you’re OK. She doesn’t seem to appreciate my inability to identify and concludes her supportive speech by telling me we don’t have to stay. I think wildly about leaving for a second, but then I decide that I’m already here, the damage done. If I were to leave, it would probably just look worse. Besides, it looks like those chafer trays are holding quite a few different dining options. It’s possible that there might be a vegetarian item or two among them.

“No,” I tell Gina. “We’re already here. Let’s at least stay and see what kind of food they’re going to have.”

A few speeches are given. The Paraguayan national anthem is sung which everyone takes up heartily. The Star Spangled Banner follows and I feel like I should sing along or put my hand over my heart and bellow out the words because very few people are singing it. I settle for kind of sotto voce singing like my mom used to do in church, a kind of singing that shows that you agree with the general idea of what’s being sung but that perhaps you’d prefer to express your emotion a different way. My singing drops off entirely when the woman’s singing spirals up into the showy “land uh of the uh fre-eeeeeeEEEEeee and the hoooome ovtHe braaaaaaaave” portion.

At the end of the Ambassador’s speech everyone is set loose. The room resembles a model of molecules that are slowly being heated: a few people break away for the bathrooms or the buffet tables, but most stay within their orbit and try to gradually shift the others in their party in the direction they would like to go. When the chafer trays are opened there is very suddenly a strong smell that so closely resembles decay, I unconsciously shift my breathing to my mouth. Gina and I make rounds of the buffet tables. There are at least four large food tables and three dessert tables. One of the tables is dedicated to American Fourth of July Fodder. There are little bags of Lays, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, baked beans and two pyramids of White Castle-sized burgers. Looking at our national food that most of the attendees seem to be avoiding, I realize that the problem with many traditional American dishes is that you only want to eat them if your mother made them. Anyone else’s baked beans or macaroni and cheese looks suspicious to me. For some reason there’s white rice on the table. I pile a plate with the stuff and dump barbecue sauce all over it and then I take three of the little bags of chips and Gina and I go find a place to sit down at the edge of the party as is usually our wont.

While we were eating, I realized my mistake. The invitation had requested traje de calle. I had just assumed this meant street clothes since I’ve never hear of the bizarre street suit the invitation seemed to request. Now it was clear that traje de calle meant something like a casual suit. Luckily, one other brave attendee had sufficiently lowered my anxiety by sporting an un-tucked shirt with a checker pattern, jeans and sun glasses. In a room of suits, only he and I were truly memorable, perhaps not in the best way, but I had accepted the fact that I was not appropriately attired.
No one seemed to be getting too upset about it anyway.

For the rest of the reception, Gina and I moved among the buffet tables sampling black olives, stale pretzels, mints, little rolls and commenting on the other suspicious-looking items. The decay smell remained. I think it was emanating from something that looked like a fresh cheese station where a man in a white hat stood at the ready with a knife in his hand and a block of something unidentifiable before him. There was a coffee machine at the edge of a table that was covered with Kahlua, Drambuie and whiskey bottles. The espresso that the machine dispensed was the best I’d had since coming here and I had three cups, returning to the man operating machine each time with renewed loquacity for a discussion on the merits of the coffee. When I met some people I knew, I gestured to my cup, sloshing around its contents, all but begging them to try it. They probably thought I was drunk.

We left after about an hour and a half, but it felt like it had been much longer. The Ambassador was near the exit, shaking hands and having his picture taken. I considered going over. “Go over and say ‘hi’ to him,” Gina nudged me in the direction of the Ambassador. “I probably shouldn’t,” I said backing away. “I’m not really dressed for it.”

When we got home, I changed out of my button-up shirt and went out skating. At the rush hour, it was hard to find an open parking lot anywhere. The streets were clogged with cars and I went tearing through them, like they were slaloms. I skated through a few gas station parking lots and bombed down a hill past a parade of red taillights.


Yesterday, I had a day off for the Fourth. I work in a bi-national center, so the Fourth of July is considered a holiday, as are Paraguayan holidays. It’s not quite as good as life at the Embassy where I think they consistently get both Paraguayan and American holidays off; we didn’t get Labor Day off and I don’t think we’ll get a break for Memorial Day either.

I went over to the Real Supermarket to buy barbecue sauce; it’s like some kind of expat tradition to go looking for this stuff on the Fourth of July, only to eat copious amounts of it that day, declare it delicious beyond all expectation and then forsake it with all the other half-used bottles of condiments in your refrigerator.
I went to Real because they have an American aisle. I don’t think they call it that, but that’s what I’ve heard it referred to as. What the American aisle amounts to is about two entire shelves crammed with marshmallows, crammed like the way a sleeping bag is crammed into its sack, almost an entire shelf of cardboard tubes of Pringles The Works! TM , a bunch of condiments that aren’t difficult to find anywhere else, such as Heinz Ketchup, that take up about 3/5ths of the aisle and finally, a shelf of IGA-brand canned goods. The canned goods, which were mostly vegetables, were the most American thing I had seen since flying out of Detroit Metro and that’s saying a lot. American stuff is not difficult to find here. Coca Cola is ubiquitous, there are McDonald’s on the main streets of most principle cities, Burger King and Pizza Hut, too. The Simpsons are everywhere, mostly advertising the Paraguayan equivalent of a liquor store and every so often, you see one of those HUGE pickup trucks here, the ones with some kind of corrugated plastic bed-lining and exhaust pipes draped along the thing like some kind of ridiculous trim, four wheels in the back: the types of trucks that usually have huge American flags billowing out behind them, like some kind of red, white and blue bridal veil, now unchastely thrown back and flapping in the wind. Even in the midst of all these reminders of home, the stark can of “Irish” potatoes was too much for me. Seeing it was like seeing an old friend, but then remembering that he owes you money. There’s a limit to the amount of Americanness you want to be able to access in a different country. It’s nice to leave some things behind and really let yourself miss them for a while.

I stood in the aisle for a while, a bottle of barbecue sauce in hand, artificial maple syrup in the other. There are countries, many of them, were either of these items would be impossible to come by. I have lived in one of them. While these countries may have a dearth of American products, they also have a dearth of Americans. Few people, even in the capital, have ever met an American. Every few days there is an old Jean Claude Van Damme movie on TV, dubbed in Russian; that’s all they know of America. As a result, these people are curious. They have heard reports, all conflicting, about America, they want to talk to you. They invite you in and you find the stage set for an ideal cultural exchange: a memory you will both retain for years to come.

Here, and I would argue, all of Latin America, there is cultural proximity to America. The people are familiar with the blockbuster films and the fast food of America. In the malls, they sell our expensive clothing brands and people use American-created social media websites. The youth skateboard and in the clubs, they dance and fall in love to American music. Most people seem to accept this and while there might not be any hostility exhibited toward the United States of America, there is very little interest in it. Italy, its fashion, its Tower of Pisa, its similar, but seldom heard language is interesting, small glimpses of Chinese culture caught in the municipal market are interesting. Anyone interested in going to America wants to go for the cosmopolitan experiences of Disney World or NYC; when I start talking about Oregon and temperate rain forests, I can see, I’ve lost their attention. Most people feel that through the combined efforts of McDonald’s, Ice Age 2, Coca Cola and Nike they already know most of what there is to know about America.

I don’t blame them. The prominence of Mexican culture in many places in the US has done the same thing for me. I enjoy the food, music and celebrations of Mexico at home, so, although I like the culture, I’ve never really felt a burning desire to go there. There’s a feeling that it’s not going anywhere; that I’ll always be able to swing across the border. Likewise, I feel like I know the place, even though I’ve never been there. I hear about it in the news, I’ve worked with Mexicans and had discussions about the different places in the country. I recognize that I know nothing about Mexico; I’ve never been there, therefore I couldn’t really know much about it, however, it cannot have the same spell-binding effect that say, Mongolia or Ethiopia does. When I meet Mexicans, I enjoy talking to them, but I am certainly more loquacious when meeting Yemenis or Azerbaijanis; I am more eager to hear their stories.

It’s the same thing here, in fact sometimes due to the aggressive marketing campaigns of American companies. I think it might be a little worse. I have met quite a few people here that hear my accent and ask my where I’m from. When I tell them, I’ve seen any flicker of interest just fall right off their faces. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell, if many people are just naturally laconic or if they’re just being especially terse with you because you are American.

Before going to the Real Supermarket, I had stopped at the bank to cash my checks. I had to show my passport and I couldn’t help but to notice that the teller acted very curtly. I couldn’t tell if it was my nationality or just the way he was. When he gave me my money, I looked right into his eyes and thanked him; he said nothing but turned away and began to talk to another clerk, done with me and seemingly glad to be rid of me.

In the Real Supermarket, with my bottle of barbecue sauce, I looked around at the American products and wondered if in fact they were the source of the bank teller’s ire. It couldn’t have been me. I hadn’t said anything to him. I tried to imagine what I could’ve done differently to make him acknowledge my thanks instead of turning away.
After I paid for my purchases, I went over to the store’s bag check to pick up my backpack that I can’t bring into the store. The guy working at the bag check was a kid with Down’s Syndrome. Like most people I have met with Down’s, he was garrulous and friendly far beyond the ability of most people. He took the bags of the customers, wished them a good day and genuinely meant it.

When I approached, he was wrapping a gift for a tight-lipped woman perhaps in her early sixties. I waited for him to finish and watched his exchange with the woman. He wrapped her gift with care, but he was not a professional: the paper was a bit wrinkled and the tape on the ends, excessive. As he worked, he talked with the woman. He smiled when he talked, like he was happy for her company. She said nothing, only occasionally reaching out her hand to hold down the package so that he could tape it better. The look on her face was one of annoyance, one of a person that feels herself to be surrounded by dolts. In the middle of applying a piece of tape, the attendant was suddenly racked with a fit of coughing. He turned away to cough. When he had sufficiently cleared his throat, he turned back to the woman and explained that he had been ill lately and smiled. To this the woman said nothing. Her expression didn’t even register that someone had spoken to her. Her package was finished and she took it without another word. No ‘thanks,’ no ‘feel better,’ not even a ‘good bye.’ She just turned and walked out. Watching her go, I thought of all the things I could assume about her biases, perhaps she loathed people of menial employ, perhaps she was a germophobe and was terrified that the attendant would get her sick or perhaps she disliked disability or didn’t understand it. Getting my bag and walking out of the store I realized that she was probably just a jerk and that the teller at the bank that refused to look at me or acknowledge my thanks, had probably been a jerk, too; nationality, barbecue sauce and disability had nothing to do with it.