Of el padre and paranoia

Two really spectacular things have happened over the course of the last 24 hours. The first: the arrival of my father for a visit. The second: the delivery of a sheet of warnings for wealthy travelers to my father upon his check-in at the over-the-top Hyatt hotel where he’ll be staying during his visit.

Let me directly quote two of the best helpful hints on this special sheet:

Bullet point number five: “Do not accept help from strangers when potential ‘stains’ on clothing, etc…”

I have no idea what this means but I find it truly engaging. I myself have never excepted anything from anyone “when potential ‘stains.'” As far as ‘etc.’ goes, maybe. But I’m certainly not going recount those moments here.

Bullet point number eight: “If an inconvenience occurs, do not resist. Try to remember details for the police report.”

Um. Yes. I, luckily, am never resistant to inconvenience. And when an inconvenience occurs, I always remember the details. Though I can’t say that I do so in order to report such details to the police.

I realize the bizarre nature of this little leaflet is due entirely to translation issues, but I love it. I love it even more because rich porteños seem generally and exaggeratedly afraid of their own city. It’s true. Buenos Aires has a high level of crime, though not particularly violent crime. But the lengths the well-off go to and the amount they complain seem somewhat ridiculous to me–particularly in the central neighborhoods where, if one pays decent attention, one is usually quite safe at any hour.

People will try to pick your pocket, sure. They’ll steal your cell phone right out of your hand in some neighborhoods.* One particular favorite of the local robber is to pull a purse or back-pack off of a pedestrian as they speed by on a motorcycle. (This is detailed in bullet point number 6 of the warning list).

I particularly enjoyed my father’s reaction to the hotel-provided precautions. Every time we walked by a motorcycle today he’d walk over and hold out his wrist–offering his watch to the cycle itself, usually unoccupied. He saw a pizza delivery fellow on a bike and jumped back a good foot and (jokingly) shook in his boots.

It’s a city. A big city. A poor city. And frankly, if I were a thief, I’d be lining up outside my father’s ridiculous hotel just waiting for the chetos to walk out with their $1000 purses and smug, if slightly terrified, expressions.


*Very luckily, the only run-in I’ve had during my stay with the criminal element was when I was walking to catch a cab in the center one morning around 4 or 5 a.m. A kid walked up to me and demanded that I give him my phone. I said no. He tried to grab it. Failed. Then ran away.

Play of the day

In Buenos Aires, as in many mega-metropoleis*, you can get pretty much anything in the world delivered. Liters of beer, cigarettes, groceries, pizza, gelato, even a single cup of hot coffee and a medialuna can be yours in forty-five minutes or less if you’ve got a phone and an address. It’s incredible.

The other fantastic thing about delivery here is that it’s called ‘delivery.’ They do not use a Spanish word for this fine commercial service. Plain ol’ English suffices–almost. The word must be pronounced as it would be in the local tongue. You ask for ‘deh-lee-behr-ee.”

I, dearest readers, finally worked up the courage to order my own delivery the other day. A courageous act, it was, because talking on the phone in Spanish is considerably more difficult than having an exchange face-to-face. When you don’t hear well or don’t understand, it can be a challenge to recover without the aid of facial expressions or emphatic gestures, pointing and the like. (And oh how the porteños love their gestures.)

I gulped. I called. I asked for a ‘deh-lee-behr-ee’ and forty minutes later two liters of beer and a bottle of Malbec arrived. Huzzah! That’s urban magic.

I didn’t actually require these items to be delivered (they were for a dinner party I hosted the following evening and I could have just as easily purchased the booze at the store next door), but hey. Sometimes minor adventures have to be chosen.

So. There you have it. A well played play of the day. Next time I think I’ll order a kilo of mint-chip along with a café con leche. Let’s hope I don’t get used to it. We wouldn’t want to have to change the title of this little blog to ‘Agoraphobic Me’.


*I realize this is the alternative plural. I chose it because it is awesome. That is all.

Of pirate radio, building nodes, squatting and maté

Oh, my dearest of readers. This, dare I say it, was a productive week. Much of which I spent in ‘the field,’ as it were. My fields this week, as foretold in the previous post, consisted of the Once Libre rooftop and a house in one of the city’s villas. That house, as it turns out, doubles as a pirate radio station. What you see in the image above is Vampi trying to fix a computer rescued from the garbage heap by the pirate station. That very lovely lady in the background is one of the station’s co-founders. They’re planning on building a node in the autonomous network, the previously mentioned Buenos Aires Libre, along with some stronger antennas to broadcast the station beyond its current radius. At this point they’ve only got coverage for about a ten blocks.

It took a good hour to get to the house. A train out to the Liniers station, then two collectivos (buses, that is) to the neighborhood. A gloriously sunny day meant there were tons of stray dogs napping in the streets, kids playing on the sidewalks, folks milling about and greeting their passing neighbors with kisses on the cheek.

The house, like all those in the villa, is ramshackle–put together with found materials. Corrugated metal roofs serve as general protection but the elements easily pass through. Brick walls are cobbled together (and in this particular house, are covered with radical graffiti). Tarps and blankets separate space. Infrastructure exists, though it is not provided in any regular way by the city. The ceiling was hung with a mesh of plugs and wires, pulling power from some invisible source somewhere down the block. They get water, but I don’t know from where. It isn’t ‘running’ certainly. The house may be on the small side, and the modest side, but its residents were extremely welcoming.

Our hosts prepared a big feast for us–rice with vegetables and tuna, garbanzo beans, a salad, bread. We drank juice out of glasses made by cutting the tops off of beer bottles. The couple’s three kids ran in and out and were not particularly phased by our presence. Even mine–the obvious American with the weird accent.

We were given a tour of the station, which they built on the roof of the house–a kind of second-floor shack. The vast majority of their equipment is found, donated, or homemade. They built their transmitters, for example, themselves.

Needless to say I was very pleased with this little adventure.

Later in the week I helped the BAL folks post the antenna for the node at Once Libre. Pictures of that space will follow. I also learned that those running the place are essentially squatting. The collective occupies the third-floor of a city-owned property that had been vacant for some time prior to the Once Libre takeover. At any moment, though, this sweet subcultural meeting place could be found and destroyed by the municipality. Here’s to hoping that the notoriously slow bureaucracy in this city continues in its typical manner, ignoring, avoiding, or just not bothering with such spaces.

Both of these days of field work were closed by the standard afternoon maté ritual. I learned a few things. One: you can say ‘thank you’ when the maté cup is handed to you, but if you say it when you finish sipping and hand it back to whoever is refilling the hot water, you won’t get any more. Second: you have to make sure each person in the circle gets their maté in order. If you cut in line (colarse is the verb for this unholy act, and porteños really believe in lining up for things), you’re committing a grave offense.

Why, you ask, have I paired all these little field experiments in a single post? Well, if you’ll permit the radical in me to be a little cheesy, I’ll tell you. All of it–the pirate radio station, Once Libre’s squat space, the node-building and computer-recycling, even the maté–is about linking-in to the community around you and equitably sharing whatever it is you have. I know the cynics among you are rolling your eyes. Heck, I’m even rolling mine. I have lost a considerable amount of faith in the human race in recent epochs of my life. But still, it’s nice to know some people haven’t. Some people really do use their time, their skills, their general goodwill, to help whom they can. So, for a second, I’m just gonna settle in and like the idea. Maybe even believe in it.

The great thing about the true radical is that she doesn’t separate herself from others to be a leader or a solitary genius or a star. She just throws together whatever it is she has and offers that thing, or herself, or her maté, to her family, her friends, her lovers, her neighbors. And, best of all, she offers what she has to complete strangers. Even to tall, American strangers with funny accents.

Play of the day

I spent a very productive Saturday in a dilapidated building on Puyerredón in barrio Once. It’s a kind of awesome hipster hangout/artspace/greenspace/organization headquarters. Amazing folks, all–as far as I could tell.

I was there visiting a workshop for Buenos Aires Libre. They are a group of  technophiles and generally interested parties building their own autonomous network–apart from ye ole interwebs. All who care to participate can put up their own node in the network, or link in, or just generally support as they are able. Among the activities on Saturday was a little how-to demonstration on building your own directional antennae out of recycled materials, a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of an autonomous network in the urban environment, and the activation of a site specific node.

It was a glorious day for many reasons: One, I was mistaken for a journalist. Two, I showed-up the Canadian fellow who was there (and also writing a thesis) by speaking Spanish–said Canadian didn’t even try to understand or utter a word in the local language. Three, I was invited by a few senior members of the group to help put up a node in one of Buenos Aires’ villas this week. Villas are the porteño equivalent of favelas. They are extremely impoverished neighborhoods lacking in basic infrastructure and, if my experience in this city serves, are generally ignored or avoided by the better-off classes. Even the cab drivers will tell you they’re dangerous and not worth visiting. Without this organization or, at the very least, a local resident to guide me there is no way I could wander in and explore such neighborhoods. I am very much looking forward to this iteration of the BAL (and my own) project.

I can’t say it didn’t help to be a particularly anti-capitalist, American woman in the exchanges I had on Saturday. Nor would I say that they weren’t pleased with my (only mildly successful) attempts to use the local dialect. But hey, in field work, one takes the advantages one has access to.

Hopefully all of you, dear readers, will benefit from these newly made connections. The longest-standing member of the organization, who goes by ‘Vampi’ and very much looks the part, advised me to bring, albeit discreetly, a camera to the visit.

So: onward goes the exploration. Wish me luck. Pictures soon if all goes well.

Of the aspirated 's,' yeísmo and 'che, boludo'

One of the things that makes the porteño brand of castellano so lovely to listen to and so hard to understand is the aspirated ‘s.’ When an ‘s’ or a ‘z’ in a word falls between a vowel and a consonant it is barely pronounced. In its place comes a little puff of air, either from the back of the throat or the front of the mouth, depending on the sounds of the following letters.

Here are some examples: ‘Pascua’ (Easter) comes out sounding like ‘pahqua,’ kiosko’ (kiosk or corner store) becomes ‘kiohco,’ and ‘busco’ (I look for) becomes ‘booh-ko.’ It’s fantastic, really, but when a local is speaking to me quickly, it means I sometimes miss a words entirely. That ‘s’ is a dangerous little guy.

Between two vowels, the ‘s’ is pronounced, as in ‘asi’ (so) or ‘eso’ (that). If the ‘s’ ends the word, as in ‘es’ (is), it’s also pronounced. Though in some parts of the country if the following word begins with a vowel, the sound vanishes. I’m told that in the northern regions of Argentina ‘los ojos’ (eyes) would be pronounced “lo-ojo,” with only the slightest sound, a kind of very short whisper, to mark where the ‘s’s would be.

Another little linguistic trick porteños use is referred to as ‘yeísmo.’ This is the habit in the local dialect (and many others in the Spanish-speaking world) of pronouncing the ‘ll’ as a ‘y’. But more than a ‘y’ it’s usually accompanied by a ‘shh’ sound in these parts. This means ‘calle’ (street) is pronounced ‘cashay,’ ‘castellano’ pronounced ‘casteshahno.’ Oh, how these fine folks sing. I tell you. If you want a taste of either the aspirated ‘s’ or yeísmo, listen to some Argentine tango or, for those with a more indie musical inclination, the local up-and-coming band Onda Vaga.

This is among the most remarkable linguistic habits of the porteño. But if you come down here to visit you’d probably notice something else first. Pretty much anywhere you’re wandering in the city you are likely to hear someone playfully turn to a friend to say “Che! Boludo!” This could roughly translate as the lunfardo equivalent of “dude, balls!” And yes, ‘balls’ as in ‘testicles.’ The word ‘boludo’ has incredible dynamism in this city. It can be a particularly strong insult if used in the wrong context, but among friends it is a very common, almost endearing–‘che’ and ‘boludo’ are nearly interchangeable among close company. Both words can easily translate between genders. Young girls and women very often refer to each other as ‘che’ or ‘boluda.’ The word ‘boludo’ can also become a verb. If I want to say I spent the day screwing around instead of working, I’d say “pasé el dia boludeando.” People, things, situations, actions, all can be referred to using some form of  the word ‘boludo.’ A ‘boludez’ is a stupid thing or event, for example.

If you will permit me to make a very broad generalization, I’d say the ability of Spanish language speakers to make nouns into verbs, verbs into substantives and back again really gives them a linguistic edge–so much can be played with, re-appropriated, mixed.  Any word can be made one’s own. Just one final example: one porteño way to indicate the verb “e-mail” is “mailear.” If that’s not just fantastic, well, I don’t know what is.

I’ll leave you with an only partially related anecdote. I’ve been befriended by one of the kioskeros (the guys who work at the little corner stores) whose post is just a block from my house. The other day we were talking and he asked if I was on Facebook. It took him a good three sentences of explanation to get me to realize that ‘Facebook’ is here pronounced “fayeboohk.’ I don’t know what you call that in linguistic terms, but I like it anyway.

Play of the day

This play of the day is really a play of many days: my tattoo.

Porteños love my tattoo. Not a week passes without someone commenting on, asking about, or staring at it. Just today I caught a gringo on a bus eyeing my arm. This has meant I have had to learn to explain it in Spanish. I’m able to do this relatively well, although it is considerably easier to explain its history in my own tongue. My description here in Buenos Aires goes something like this: “Es un diagrama que viene de un texto de la lingüística por Ferdinand de Saussure. Indica la distancia entre lo que decimos o escribimos y lo que queremos decir.”

This usually works, though I’ve been asked to further explain, which I do, usually by giving an example. Like this: “Cuando decimos ‘perro,’ hay una distancia conceptual entre la palabra y el perro de que estamos hablando. La palabra y la cosa no son nunca la misma cosa.”

I can’t say that Saussure would be particularly pleased with my interpretation, but surely he would have understood the attempt. The point is this: the tattoo is the best conversation starter I’ve had throughout my stay here. It is the easiest way to meet a stranger, to talk to someone new. It also serves as a marker of who I am. The fishmonger down the block remembers me because of it, so does the jeweler at the closest ferria. Even the girl who works at the university coffee shop remembers me as “la chica con el tatuaje genial.” She goes straight for the espresso machine to make my café con leche.

This is made all the more satisfying because it is a tattoo about language, about the difficulty of saying what one means. Needless to say, I have trouble saying what I mean all the time, in any language.

Marking oneself in such a way gives your body a different sort of life. You become a text. The danger, of course, is that like all texts, you cannot control its readings, its life on the page or the arm or the screen. Your mark bears with it all kinds of meanings, many of which you might wish it did not. In the end, I suppose, this is true of all of the things we use to indicate who we are, tattoos or words or anything else. That glance from the other seems forever to read us in ways we do not read ourselves or do not wish to be read. This is a glorious thing, sometimes, and a wretched thing, sometimes.

Either way: here’s to the moments when at least the act of reading or speaking brings the word and the thing it is supposed to mean at least a little bit closer together–even if only for a moment and even if the gap between them, though mitigated, always looms. And to the moments when, if you’re lucky, you can communicate something, anything, about who you are to the people around you.

Of Fernet

Fernet is a digestif, bitter in flavor and dark in color. To me it tastes a little bit like wood with a very slight hint of black licorice. The stuff has a medicinal quality to it (and indeed it was once proscribed as a remedy for cholera). If you mix this liquor with Coca-cola and put it over ice, you get what amounts to the national drink of Argentina. One friend of mine recently told me that he didn’t believe in God but he believed in Fernet. He proceeded to pull from his wallet a small token bearing the visage of one of the founders of the most popular brand, pictured above, Fernet-Branca.

If you walk into the liquor stores of Buenos Aires you’ll find tons of this particular spirit. Fernet has its own aisle at my local CarreFore grocery store. While I don’t buy bottles for myself I will, on occasion at a party or bar, enjoy my own ‘Fernet Coca.”

I sometimes wonder if national alcoholic beverages say something about the culture of a place. Pisco Sours in Chile or Peru, Cuba Libres in Cuba, Aguardiente in Colombia or Ecuador, beer in the U.S. or Germany. If they do, I suppose Fernet-Coca could indicate a number of things about Argentina–the vast immigrant culture (Fernet was first an Italian beverage), the very long late nights of the social (Fernet is a drink best consumed post-dinner, a digestif after all), maybe even their willingness to appropriate and play with the customs and cultures of any who cross into the country (an Argentine-manufactured Italian liquor mixed with an American soft-drink). If I were feeling bold, I might suggest too that ‘bittersweet’ is a particularly good way to describe both the drink and the general phenomenological status of the porteño.

If nothing else the Fernet-Coca is one more idiosyncrasy of Argentina. It lets you know where you are when you’re here. And so, lift your glasses readers, filled with the drink of your own fine homelands. May I say ‘Salud!’ to a little cross-cultural imbibing.

Of la despedida

La despedida is a particularly porteño phenomenon. These are all-night bacchanalia of sorts, send offs for anyone departing the city. I attended a fine and merry despedida this Friday for one John “cara de pollo” Thompson. Normally I would change the name to protect his anonymity but he has, excluding the little known “chicken face” middle, so common a name as to make a pseudonym unnecessary.

This was my second official despedida since my arrival here. It was held in Casa Pasco. Crowds of people hung around, laughing on the terrace, smoking cigarettes. They swapped stories around the coffee table or huddled by a kitchen counter-top and picked through bottles of fernet, coke, beer and malbec. Occasionally (this is a habit that seems typical to all peoples of the world when they drink in groups) they would break into song–either on their own or to accompany the music playing.

The guests do a lot of hugging and petting and kissing of the person in whose honor the party is held. Some tears are shed. Friday night’s gathering for our very much loved Johnny boy was no exception.

These tend to be wonderful parties, if my limited experience gives me any sort of expertise on the matter. And, lovelier still, they last all night.

I myself couldn’t manage to make it to the dawn on Friday. Around 3 a.m. I offered my own tearful farewell and headed home. (A small group of young men looking for a bar outside my apartment building commented that I must be getting old if I was off to bed at such an early hour.) The rest of the party, though, went from the house to a bar in another part of town. And on and on, I assume, went the singing, the smoking and chatting, the drinking and (a little) weeping. And now, dear readers, John is somewhere else, wandering away in the world and forward in his life.

You sort of wonder if these parties are more about the people who have to stay than the guests of honor. They mitigate for those who remain the truth that something is being lost. “Things fall apart,” after all. “The center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is unleashed upon the world.”

Yeats might have hated that I’m using his poem to talk about all-night send-off parties in Buenos Aires. But hey, what’s he gonna do about it? He’s dead. And while he may have been thinking about war and God when he wrote those lines, he must have too, at least a little bit, considered the often painful fact of the ephemerality of human communities, human connections.

Luck or geography or family or sheer coincidence brings us together, for a time, and then something else tears us apart. It may be the only true thing about us. Everything, always, changes. The order-less universe just works that way. When you wake up the day after la despedida the world is not the one you knew the night before. Sooner or later, your own despedida even arrives and poof, you’re off to someplace else entirely, you’re off to be someone else entirely.  The center, as it turns out, never really did hold.

I am not a woman who is unusually averse to change. I love a melancholic goodbye as much as the next gal. Maybe more. But I do think that la despedida is a fabulous phenomenon precisely because it asks the change to wait just a little bit longer, just until the dawn. It admits that history marches forward but none-the-less playfully resists this very fact. ‘Onward, time, if you must,’ it says, ‘but tonight you won’t yet scatter us. Tonight we drink and laugh and dance in the streets. Tonight we are friends, together in this city, and filled with an impossible love for each other. So there.’

We forget again, after the hangover fades, that more still will be lost (if also gained) as we move toward that big fat final despedida mandated for us all. It’s nice, though, that these small and futile ways to rebel are still allotted us foolish creatures. And that sooner or later we will again remember and make good use of them. Anarchy be damned.

Of the emoticon

Emoticon: oh ye most loathed textual concoction of the late 20th century! Long have I lived without stooping to use you. How strong my refusal to capitulate to your abhorrent utility, to cede my language to your ubiquity! But, alas, now amongst those whose language is not my own I have finally succumb, ashamed. Oh rue these saddest of days. I am now but a supplicant among the masses kneeling before your evil altar.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, dearest of readers, I have taken up the emoticon.

Why, you ask. Why, itinerant you, would you falter? Why would you stray from the path of righteousness?

Answer: Tone. Tone, my friends, is a big problem when you use something other than your native tongue with anything less than fluency. Particularly given a certain relative cultural distance between my own rhetorical strategies and those of the porteños among whom I live, I have often found it difficult when communicating by text or online chat to convey my tone. Irony, litotes, synecdoche, euphemism–all these and more require substantial linguistic agility, not to mention a considerably larger vocabulary than I have at my disposal. And remember, will you, that even when digitally engaging with an interlocutor who shares your language, meanings can get lost in that vast virtual void. The risk of this phenomenon is obviously amplified in cross-cultural, multi-lingual communication. And thus the trap was set and into it, headfirst, I fell.

I’m ’emoting’ all the hell over the place these days. Smiley faces, winking faces, sad faces. Weird little representations of grumpiness or irritation, happiness or confusion. All made using a combination of standard punctuation marks.

I, as should be more than clear, have long battled against the emoticon. But one must adapt to an ever-changing world with the tools to which one has access, I suppose. And so it is that I have surrendered. Defeated (but more or less getting my point across) I offer you this: ;-(