Friday, October 10, 2014

I Bet They All Think It's Dumb

Villa Hayes

We were having some people over for dinner. I was pissed because I had ruined a batch of falafel by trying to fit too many into the frying pan. The first batch had turned out all right, so there was enough food, but the boiling oil and sudden falafel crumb mess in the pan was depressing me. “Ahh, why do I always have to add a little more?” I asked the boiling mess. “Don’t worry about it,” Gina said from the sink where she stood chopping vegetables. “It’s no big deal; we’ve got plenty of falafel.” I knew it, but Gina knew that wasn’t why I was upset. It was the wasted food. Seeming to sense this, she said “I can make veggie burgers out of that” and gestured vaguely to the boiling pan that was no beginning to stink of overheated oil. I went out onto the balcony to smoke and get away from the mess for a moment. Inside I heard Gina’s phone ring. “I’ll be right down,” she said. Our guests had arrived.

The nicest thing about our building, which otherwise is sterile and cold—trying to look modern by emulating the utilitarian structure of a spaceship or a soviet-era kitchen—is the terrace. The terrace, like the rest of the building is white on white. Apparently white is the color of modernity here. I can tell you from experience it’s also the hardest color to clean.  The only things that aren’t white are the strips of chrome trim here and there marking boundaries such as doorways and cabinet edges. If it wasn’t for the chrome, I’d probably never be able to find anything; the white door would be lost against the white wall and I’d have to run my hand over the wall looking for it like I was hunting for a trap door or something.

The terrace is different because it’s entirely open under the sky. In the morning, the sun turns the white paint reddish orange and in the evening it is frequently haunted by a jagged opal-colored quarter moon. In Romanian mythology, you weren’t supposed to spin thread in the evening because Vampires would climb up it. They used the thread to climb to the heavens so they could eat the celestial bodies. They gnawed on everything up there, but their most harassed victim was the moon. It was said that the vampires would eat away at the moon, spilling her blood and thereby making her turn red. From our terrace, I have seen this vampire-eaten moon. If I hadn’t grown up with all this nonsense about lunar cycles, gravity etc., I would be inclined to believe that Nosferatu himself had gotten up there and had been chomping away on fair Diane.

We spend a lot of time on the terrace, eating on Sunday afternoons or reading or lying in the sun for a while. I’ve begun visiting the terrace every morning to watch the sun come up now that the time has changed and the hour is much more congenial. I close my eyes and wait to feel the sun on my eyelids as it comes over the terrace wall. I try not to think about anything and listen to the birds. All these things conspire to make me happy, sometimes in spite of myself.

We took our dinner guests up to the terrace. There’s a large table up there that seldom seems to be used, at least not at the incredibly non-Paraguayan hour that we eat. Despite the falafel disaster, we had a good spread. Gina has perfected her homemade bread recipe. There was no tahini, but we’d blended chickpeas, garlic and olive oil which, in my mind, is good enough for hummus. The two bowls of olives, which are becoming staples of our table—like salt and pepper elsewhere— were there, as was a bowl of tabbouleh, homemade crackers with rosemary, salad and flat bread.

The guests and Gina had wine and I had my Fernet and Coke which lately, I’ve begun to get a little tired of. We discussed disconnected topics, mostly relating to our time and foreign perspectives on Paraguay. While someone was making an observation about life in Paraguay, I thought of the countless times I have been asked how I like it here. I realized there was no way to answer that question. A society is not a whole, as much as people may want to believe it is. It is made up of widely disparate elements. Some are quite easy to be fond of while others are almost unbearable. It’s possible to speak in averages, I suppose, but rather than ‘do you like it here?’ the question should be ‘are you having more good experiences than bad experiences?’ This question makes one appreciate the absurdity of what they are asking. Usually, when the question is asked, it’s more in the way of a host asking a guest if they are comfortable. It’s a suggestion of hospitality, a slightly more specific ‘how’s it going?’

I finished my Fernet and went down to get a beer. A Peroni one of the guests had brought. I poured it into a glass and tasted, strangely, the exact flavor of my dad’s beer when I was a kid on a summer afternoon. On Saturdays and Sundays, if my dad wasn’t at work, he did various chores around the house. While he did things like cut the grass or drag bundles of branches from one place to another, he usually had a beer.

It’s a Sunday afternoon 25 years ago in Jackson, Michigan. Warm, but cooling, like end-of-August weather. My sister is upstairs playing Madonna records. The tinny warbling of Lucky Star is drifting out over the lawn, where I’m running around with a Batman figure in my hand. The green smell of cut grass is strong, but the lawn is only half cut. My dad, in ripped jeans and an old t-shirt is in the driveway hunched over the over-turned lawnmower. I run over to him to see what he’s doing. The smell of grass and oil is strong near him, like a potent summer cocktail. He’s got lawnmower grease all over his hands. “Hey,” he calls as I run by. “Hand me that crescent wrench.” I pick up one of the tools lying next to him on the driveway, hoping that I’ve chosen the right one. His grass-greasy hand closes over it and it disappears into the undercarriage of the lawnmower—the wrench tinkling against the metal of the lawnmower rather strangely like champagne glass toasting. Next to him is a green glass bottle of beer so beaded in condensation the label is becoming slightly puckered. He reaches over for the bottle and takes a drink. “You want a sip?” He asks. I reach for the bottle.  

I hated it, but the shock of entirely unexpected taste preserved the moment so well. Metallic, herbal and sunny. I tasted the Peroni again. It was the same taste. I held the beer in my mouth awhile, like wine, and dropped from the conversation, remembering.

When I came back, we were discussing places around the city. Someone mentioned the tourist barrio. “Wait, tourist barrio? There’s a tourist barrio?” “Yeah,” came the reply. “It’s all painted like La Boca and there’s a lot of recycled stuff around, they have some classes; it’s pretty cool.” We went downstairs and looked the place up on the computer.

The neighborhood had a Facebook page. Barrio San Jeronimo. It looked vibrant, interesting, like the sort of place that you would see while traveling and think ‘I wish my neighborhood back home was like this.’ Because no one had ever mentioned the place to us, I couldn’t help but to assume that it was much more one-dimensional that what we were seeing on the computer. “It’s probably just one little street,” I told Gina after our guests had left and we were clearing the dishes. “But we might as well go down and take a look at it tomorrow. You never know.”

The next day was warm. Even early in the morning, the wind on the terrace was like a sirocco. Around 11, the apartment got too hot and we decided to get out of the house and find the Barrio Turistico.

All we had to do was go a little ways further down a street that we’d always turned off on previous occasions. “I guess it’s over this way,” I said, kicking my chin out in the direction we were going. “I’ve never been down this street, have you?” “No,” Gina responded, coming up alongside me on her bike. “I always assumed there was nothing down here.”

“Me, too,” I said. Wondering why I’d ever assumed this.

About a quarter mile down the street, we saw a chewed-looking street and a sign. The street was slightly narrow, the houses crowded in so closely as to make their boundaries indistinguishable. Children played in the streets and men sat on the Sunday corners, talking idly. The sign was brightly painted and declared the street to be the entrance of San Jeronimo, barrio turistico. We locked our bikes up to the sign, and walked down the pulverized street, slowly at first. It felt like walking into someone’s backyard for a party you’re not entirely sure you’ve been invited to.

High treble-karaoke music was booming over the otherwise quiet neighborhood. Along with the, breathy, slightly off-key singing of someone who has just been dancing, people could be heard talking, laughing and moving things around. All this was just on the other side of a wall somewhere. Nothing of the party could be seen but almost everything could be heard.

The houses that lined the streets had been vivaciously painted. A yellow and green balcony, a bright red house front and a set of reaching concrete stairs changed colors with each step as they wound past papaya trees and portraits of Bob Marley and Jesus. With the palms susurrating overhead and the rolling cumbia music on the karaoke system, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an ital shack selling tamarind drinks around the corner.

We settled for a guarana’-flavored Fanta instead. The stairs where we sat down to drink it were across from the barrio’s football field, also brightly painted. One poor kid caught a ball unintentionally with his head while talking with his friends. When he covered his face to cry, an older kid came over and rubbed his head and spoke in his ear. We were too far away to hear any of the conversation and after a while we turned our attention back to the vivacious streets.

“What a nice place!”

“Why did no one ever tell us about it?”

“I bet they all think it’s dumb.”

“Yeah, they probably do, huh? It’s intentional, so it probably seems fake to them.”

“I don’t care; I think it’s cool. All these little stores and the colors make you feel different.”

“Yeah. I like it, too. We’ll have to come back some day when some of this stuff is open.”

We wandered around barrio San Jeronimo for another half an hour. We went by the church and looked out over the rusty warehouse landscape below. We talked about how it would be nice to live in such a place and know all the neighbors. I thought about all the conversational gaps I could’ve filled with this place, all the times when I had talked with Couchsurfing guests, trying to think of one place in particular they could go see, something besides Mercado 4 and the Recoleta.

I thought about the impression I had of Asuncion. After all the walking and the traveling for classes, I thought I had the city mapped out. It seemed the corners I didn’t know could hardly contain anything so bright and beautiful as this, and yet, here is was. All those evenings I had looked out over downtown thinking, ‘I’ve seen most of what I’m interested in here.’ Somewhere underneath those grey walls and the light of the orange setting sun, Barrio San Jeronimo was quietly defying me, or perhaps loudly defying me, blasting its karaoke songs through the red, green and yellow streets.
After making two loops through the barrio, we decided to go. If there had been a cafĂ© to plop down in, I would’ve settled for instant coffee just for a chance to appreciate the ambiance a little more, but everything was closed on Sunday. We walked slowly, though, nodding and saying ‘adios’ to those we passed. A man painting barrels stopped, looked up and said ‘gracias por su visita.’

We came down from the multicolored stairs and the little medieval hill that the barrio sits on like a Caribbean castle and walked down the street we had come in. Everywhere were signs for little shops, all of which had their bright doors closed against the Sunday afternoon languor in the streets.

Three little boys were playing parking attendant, emulating their older brothers who go downtown and point out parking spaces, for a small tip, by waving bright rags around. One boy stood down at the end of the empty street madly signaling to the other two boys that there was a place to park where he was standing. The other boys, fighting over control of their toy car, were completely ignoring him. They could park anywhere they wanted, furthermore, when you’ve got a toy car, who wants to park it? Still, I knew how the boy felt. Standing at the end of the street, waving your hands around, it’s easy to convince yourself that your way is the most logical and that your companions playing with the car are the ones who don’t understand the game.

As we were walking by the scene I heard running and turned around to see, gratefully, that the parking attendant had given up his post.

By the barrio’s entrance, the karaoke music rose in volume. The voice singing into the microphone was all treble-blurred. It was a love song, an I’m-so-happy-I’m-kinda’-sad love song. The chorus was repetitive. Gina and I began to sing it to each other, quietly at first and then loudly, almost as loudly as the kids yelling down the street and the woman singing into the blurry microphone. We danced our way back to our bikes in our clumsy way, repeating the chorus, even after the chorus was finished.

To anyone who had seen our entrance into the barrio and our exit only about half an hour later, we would look to have been radically changed by the experience. If everyone who went in came out dancing, maybe I would’ve heard about the place before.

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