On quiet Berlin and the gifts and prohibitions of public space

I loved Berlin. I loved the S-bahn and U-bahn systems (as poorly mapped as they are by the city). I loved German beer and German wine, German food markets. I loved the Berlin hipsters and German typographical design. I could live, I think, forever in Berlin.

I am not sure if the city itself and its particular histories offers this experience to all who travel there, or if it was my own thinking, but it seemed a city devoted to the prohibitions and affordances of urban (and otherwise) space. There is, of course, ‘the wall’ and all it did and did not do, all its remaining traces in the city. These are visible. Where it once stood is marked on and off again throughout the city in various forms. Sometimes a piece of it still stands. Sometimes its former position is noted as would be the division between traffic lanes–a line below you that you cross with or without noticing.

There is also a relationship Berlin seems to have with space, with architecture and with urban planning, that is unusual in the travel I have done elsewhere. Such diverse building styles, so much space devoted to the public, so many ways to navigate…

The first full day I spent in the city I went to the Hamburger Bahnhof where, in addition to an incredible exhibit of the relationship between fine art and architecture (Architektonika 2) there was a large room devoted to Anthony McCall’s work, Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture. I have no interest in describing the pieces (because I could not do them justice) except to stay that you feel what they are doing to you and to the space around you in a way unlike any other sculptural works I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing.

Later in the week I also spent some time wandering in the Tiergarten–a park which beats Central Park in New York City and Griffith Park in Los Angeles by epic strides.

I visited the Bauhaus Archive, a Gropius-designed building, constructed posthumously and in a space he did not intend but which none-the-less houses one of the nicest special collections I’ve come across. Klee, Maholy-Nagy, Mies Van der Rohe, Breuer–all are present in the archive as artists in process more than they are as authors, monoliths.

Finally, the biergarten. Germans, despite what must be very cold winters, know how to drink outdoors. And they know how to do it with delicious sausages. I could spend every summer afternoon in a biergarten if the company was right. We went to this one: Schleusen Krug. Next to the Zoo. We saw some idle donkeys on the way in.

All of these travels through the city, and many more I took in the five days I spent in there, were made more potent by the fact that Berlin seemed always to be functioning in a hush. Even in crowds and on main drags it felt quiet, warm.

Let me close by saying (it really has to be said): Ich bin ein Berliner!*

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*I’ve been told that this most globally known of quotations is inaccurate. JFK apparently accidentally said “I am a doughnut.” But that would work, for the purposes of this blog, too. Berliners love their doughnuts. They are, in my experience, delicious.


Play of the day

I struggle with my writerly voice, dear readers. This fact, I am sure, will surprise none of you but it is an important piece of context for the play of the day.

I sent an evite today for an anti-Valentine’s day party I am throwing. This is a somewhat trite sort of soiree, I’m aware, but a good excuse for cocktails among friends should never be wasted. The play after which this post is titled is as follows: I think there are two genres I’ve mastered, the corporate memo (I was famous for them at my pre-graduate school job in journalism. All very tongue in cheek without pissing off management*) and the evite. The ‘message from host’ section of my invitation for this February gathering may be my best work yet.

If you desire the actual copy on this and are not among those in Los Angeles invited, you’ll have to e-mail me directly. It’s morbidly funny and mildly profane and thus I hesitate to post it herein. Let it be known that it involved three footnotes, a Sartre reference, and the phrase ‘heart you.’ God bless the beautiful disaster that our socio-linguistic ecology has offered us all.

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*Such memos included corporate jargon of my own invention and, at least in one case, bear trainers at the then-visiting circus.


Of the parlance of Isla Vista

I apologize, oh comrades of mine, for the long lapse since my last post. I have been busy gathering the material for what follows, however, and hope that you will find it both edifying and thrilling.

I am currently teaching a course on what I like to call “techno-dystopias” in the literature of the Americas. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this course and you might thoroughly enjoy taking it (or at least reading the material) but the added bonus of this little endeavor has to do with a very tiny but powerful part of this particular portion of the northerly Americas, a kind of techno-dystopia all its own: Isla Vista.

Isla Vista, or ‘I.V.’ as those in the know like to call it,  is the home to some ungodly number of undergraduate students attending the University of California, Santa Barbara. This is where, as you might know, I happen to be teaching. Isla Vista is known primarily for its proximity to the beach and its bacchanalian excess (Halloween has become so fantastically debaucherous that the town is cut off by the police from traffic traveling in or out–it becomes an island of co-ed cavorting during this special holiday). It is less known, unfortunately, as the hotbed of creative linguistic production and creativity that it certainly is.

I try very hard to learn the parlance of my students and to employ their sometimes fantastic language in my discussions with them. I like to think of myself as the layman’s linguistic anthropologist. I doubt weather I command anything like ‘insider’ status in this ethnographic study of mine, but I do what I can. And just this very week a new term was brought into my ever expanding I.V. vocabulary: ‘creepin’.

My class and I were discussing Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ glorious novella, La Invención de Morel. (It is a beautiful book and I strongly recommend it.) I asked my students if they still employed the term ‘crush’ to describe amorous desires directed from afar at someone. They said that perhaps, yes, this term was still functional but that the novella’s protagonist could more accurately be described as ‘creepin” on the object of his misguided affections. ‘Creepin’,’ they explained, is when one (you guessed it) creepily behaves towards his beloved, but not quite as creepily as a stalker might. The term is used pejoratively, as far as I can tell, but offers a kind of nuance that ‘stalking’ and ‘crushing’ lack. One who ‘creeps’ is not likely engaged in any kind of criminal activity, but his or her behavior merits some critical attention. A commonly employed expression, according to my research, is ‘don’t go creepin’ on her/him/them.’

This may be my favorite of the terms I’ve picked up over the years in the presence of I.V. residents. A very close second would be ‘kick-back.’ I discovered this word two years ago when I asked my students at the time if ‘a keg-party’ was something that still went on among the co-ed set. Nope. One goes to a ‘kick-back,’ a party where people ‘hang-out’ and drink alcohol, usually but not always provided by the host. Another good one: ‘the business.’ This last term refers not to an actual organization devoted to the making of profit but rather to something good, broadly speaking. As in “that style is the business,” or “the UC regents’ decision to raise tuition while students are on summer break and thus less likely to protest is not the business.”*

I should point out of course that, as with all dynamic dialects, fluctuation is frequent. It is very hard to pinpoint the moments when expressions disappear to be replaced with newly developed terms. I wouldn’t recommend heading into Isla Vista this weekend and asking if you could ‘creep’ on a potential mate at a ‘kick-back’ somewhere. I have all too often been reminded of my age and peripheral social status when I have attempted to employ the terms of my audience.

Needless to say I have only just begun to penetrate the unimaginable linguistic depths of I.V. But I vow to continue in my labors, incomplete though they may be. You may expect future updates forthwith.

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*This, indeed, is both an example taken from my research and, very sadly, true. I was particularly pleased with the expression, however, because it seemed to point out both how horrible the state of public education is in California and because it indicated in a sort of punning way how wretched it is when what should be a state-funded public service becomes a would-be-corporation.


Of the mean streets of Santa Barbara, CA

Oh readers of mine, dearest followers of my long and lovely journeys, I shall now take you to the strange and vacuous land I’m currently calling home: Santa Barbara, California.

Jean Baudrillard once wrote of this odd place: “Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the U.S. is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other.”*

And here, in this mournful little slice of the paradise pie, I find myself.

I read somewhere that in Mexico City the streets, if you wander through them correctly, can lead you as readily through an impromptu poetry as they can through the city. In Santa Barbara, at least in the neighborhood I’m currently calling home, it’s poetry too, of the sadistic, mocking genre.

I assume it was white people who named the streets here, ignorant of the meanings of the Spanish names they chose. But it’s entirely possible that someone in the know wanted to mark some of the violent histories wrought by the makers of the American West. Either way, you have to wonder if you should heed the advice that is offered on Salsipuedes Street (in English, ‘get out if you can’). I’m also a big fan of Quarantina Steet (you guessed it, ‘quarantine’ in my native tongue). Perhaps they passed out the small-pox infested blankets on one of the now nearly deserted corners of this winding way. Then, of course, is Indio Muerto Steet. I’m not translating that one for you.

I myself live, appropriately, on the less morbidly but certainly melancholically named Soledad Street (‘solitude’ or ‘loneliness’ depending on its context).

Hard to say what any of this means but I’ve chosen to take it as the universe telling me I’d be happier in Mexico City. Or Buenos Aires. Or pretty much anywhere but here. But hey, sometimes you don’t choose your paradise. Sometimes it chooses you. And I’m happy in the knowledge that this particular utopia is on the beach, and in the knowledge that unlike a very large number of indios that once roamed in these parts, I might have a shot at escaping for weekends in L.A.

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*Baudrillard, Jean. America. London: Verso, 2010.


Of homecomings and such

Oh, readers of mine! Since my last post journeys were made, a despedida was held in my honor*, tears were shed, disasters were narrowly averted and, finally, I find myself in my native land.

It has been a trying homecoming. I managed to hit all three major venues of my past lives in a scant five days: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and now I am once more in the city from which I hail, Albuquerque.

I will not trouble you with the details of those various visits except to say that, despite all the existential disturbances caused by such acts of returning, I managed to get in some night swimming in the Pacific, fresh doughnuts in a beach town (coerced from the bakers at a closed shop North of Santa Barbara around three a.m.), a very Hollywood Independence Day bar-b-q as well as the consumption of long awaited (and surprisingly high volumes of) hot sauce.

I only now have come to a bit of a resting point in which to reflect on the sweeping transition I am now making. I miss Buenos Aires. I miss my studio departamento. I miss the keys. I even miss (or perhaps most miss, rather than ‘even’) having to move between languages, having to be always somewhat out of place. Though, worry not, I’ve spent plenty of the last handful of days out my comfort zone.

I find it off-putting that people in the U.S. chat with me as if I’ve always been here. They ask where I’m from and where I am going and I find myself somewhat stunned not to have anything but a complicated, circuitous answer: “Uh, well, I’m here for a bit, then I’ll be headed there, then maybe back again over there, then the world will be my oyster,”** etc. Usually after the second destination I list they stop listening. It’s understandable. Even I stop listening.

So, now that the Buenos Aires portion of this blog has, for a moment, come to a close, itinerant me will begin to write about the other cities in which she finds herself a temporary resident. If you require the whetting of your readerly appetite, know this: The chances of me exploring in detail the outstanding and glorious phenomenon of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos cheese puffs are extremely high.

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*Perhaps you will not be as excited as I am about this fact, but I assure you, it is awesome. At my despedida I was the only U.S. citizen and also the only English speaker. We went to my favorite bar, La Bella Gamba, and I spent the evening switching between political discussions with the handful of Argentines and crude and fabulous jokes with the handful of Colombians.

**My language, as it turns out, is somewhat stilted as I adjust to constant English. Sometimes, without conscious effort, I insert little words in castellano. The most common is ‘dale,’ essentially the Argentine version of ‘o.k.’. Weirder still, when this happens, I pronounce it with a thick American accent.


Of the Argentine empanada (and its semiotic system)

Ohhhh, the empanada. It is a culinary mainstay in this country and these little pockets of foodie fun can be found anywhere in the city. Ideally, the encasing is just crisp enough on the outside to offer some buttery resistance to your bite and, on the inside, just soft enough to begin to integrate with the cheesy or meaty or veggie center. Every once in a while they’re deep fried, but the common porteña empanada is baked, a kind of pocket calzone.

I enjoyed a veritable panoply of empanadas at a late Tuesday lunch. Jamon y queso, cebollo y queso, napolitano, roquefort, carne picante and an emanada de pollo were among the special little treats we ordered at a well-known Argentine joint near my apartment, El Sanjuanino.

Visitors to this country often sample empanadas all over the place, but few know of the signifying capacity of the doughy outsides. The way you fold an empanada indicates what lies within. I know of only a few indicators–ham and cheese empanadas are like little hearts, empanadas de carne have ruffled, twisted-rope edges like those pictured above, veggie empanadas have edges pressed down with a fork. Sometimes small marks are made in the center of the empanada as well. I’ve discovered this handy chart which will give you some idea of the complexity of the signifying system of the fold.

The point is this: even eating the local food requires a certain amount of semiotic acrobatics. Just one more reason why Buenos Aires is a little linguistic (and delicious) wonderland.


Of the glory that is Sarkis

Last evening, oh readers of mine, I went out for dinner to celebrate that little baby chil’ whose birth you read about in my previous post. (Worry not: no baby talk follows–even if I am an Aunt, I remain committed to dark humor, an extremely guarded optimism, and a deep appreciation for the futile).

The selected restaurant was Sarkis. It happens to be the first place I ate a meal in this country, lo those many months ago. Sarkis serves Mediterranean food in the posh Palermo neighborhood. There is always a line and those crowded around the entrance waiting are usually highly attractive porteños between the ages of 25 and 35–though a few of the jet-setting older crowd join in as well. As it happens, I very consistently arrive a bit before the folks I plan to dine with and thus have ample time to gaze, longingly, at the bearded hipster types* and their outrageously attractive girlfriends as they smoke and chat on the corner waiting for their names to be called.

It’s really a scene. The doorman is megalomaniacal. If you know him well enough to exchange kisses, you get bumped up on the list. Each time I’ve gone up to put my own name in I can see the joy of absolute power light up his eyes–especially when he notes the foreign accent.

But once you do get in, it is sooooo worth it. Some of the best food I’ve had in this city. Falafel, tabbouleh, hummus (although why they won’t use the fantastic olive oil this country produces is beyond me–even if whatever it is they are using is a cost-cutter). Last night we went with lamb kabobs, a Greek salad, and one of the greatest versions of vegetarian moussaka I’ve ever eaten. And oh did we eat. ALL of it. Plus dessert and Turkish coffee. Walking a few blocks after our dinner to catch a cab home one of my comrades and I were dangerously close to passing into a cuisine-induced coma.

Ahhh, Sarkis. How I adore thee. Tonight, for dinner, I’ve been invited to a friend’s house for Colombian cuisine. So, off I must go, in search of the avocados I’m charged with supplying. Happy eating, readers, wherever you are!

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*I’m no longer sure if this is an appropriate expression in English. Here, in Spanish, it is common to refer to a man (not necessarily a hipster, just any fellow) as “un tipo.” It functions as a very informal pronoun, though my sense is that it can, if inappropriately deployed, be derogatory. It is also quite common to refer to a man as “el man,” although this may be more common among the Colombian crowd.  “El man,” if mishandled, can also be derogatory.


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 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: ;-(