Learning to be a Porteña Print

01.11.10 Studying Spanish is a tremendous joy for me. I am quite shy about it, but simultaneously enthralled. Putting together a sentence in another language, real-time, with a waiting, finger-tapping stranger raising their eyes in bored anticipation is a tremendous thrill. I am flushed and blushing and flooded with adrenalin, invigorated when I successfully say something as simple as "I'd like some coffee with cream, please."

Yesterday Chris and I walked around a craft fair market and had a picnic in the park. All the while, I'm clutching the dictionary like an "Oh Shit" handle and practicing a few important, rudimentary phrases. "The dogs run." "The cat swims." "I am hot," or "I am cold." Thank God they teach you how to regulate your body temperature right from the get go. This is imperative. Forget about asking where I can buy a sedative to calm myself down. I don't know those words.

Two nights ago our new roommate, Adrien, came home long after we'd gone to bed (we called it quits at 2 am!) with six Colombians in tow. They hollered and drank and generally made themselves merry on the terrace outside our bedroom window. I layed awake in a mixed state of infuriation for the inconsideration and, I must confess, some sort of envy. I jotted down a few lyric ideas in my journal as the light fully disrobed itself in front of the window, and the Spanish-speaking voices continued to gain volume and momentum with the beginning of the day.

I haven't had a wild night in quite some time,
where we drink til the dawn, propose a toast to the sunrise,
Oh I suppose that's really not the mode where I've been living.
And if you're up on the rooftop seeing stars,
not of gas and fire, but the kind you bought at the bar,
forgive me if I'm more accustomed to judging than joining in.

It's true that the Argentines are on a very late schedule. Around ten o'clock most of the businesses have rolled down their cortinas, metal curtains resembling garage doors, over the store fronts. The shops sleep with iron eyelids. There are significantly fewer lights and neon signs, so you don't have the 24 hour honeybee hive buzz of New York, at least not in our neighborhood. At the same time that the stores close, the restaurants open for dinner and several hours after that, the tangos begin.

At midnight last night we went to listen to a concert that featured a dear friend of mine, Tomas, an Argentine drummer. The club was called "Jazz y Pop" and Tomas whispers to me upon our arrival that "Chick Corea has played here!". The downbeat wasn't scheduled to fall until midnight, and by the time they actually started, it was nearly one am. A flock of open umbrellas swung from the ceiling and low hanging lights illuminated the stage. We ordered a bottle of wine while the band banged a brand of adrenalin-induced jazz and the wide-eyed audience members collided their hands in applause.


A new friend of mine, Lian, joined us at the table with her roommate, Branden. Both American, but indefinitely living in Buenos Aires, they have offered to trade Spanish lessons for guitar lessons. Lian is petite and brunette with focused eyes and an easy smile. She has one brown freckle on the tip of her nose that I adore. She is instantly comfortable to be around, and extremely excited to be living. Branden might be in love with her, and in my quick judgments they appear a perfect pair, but she is a bit coy and happily afloat in this new country. They call each other "B" and "Lee."

After the concert they invited us to share a cup of coffee in their nearby apartment. Not knowing what to expect, we accepted, and were led through a maze of stairs to their bizarre abode. Let me explain that the place is actually an office. Branden moved here four years ago to start up a grant funded company that gives loans to cooperatively run factories in and around Buenos Aires. When the economy collapsed here in 2001, many of these factories couldn't afford to continue operating, and the head honchos would declare bankruptcy and board up. In some cases, the workers returned in the following weeks, tearing down the boards and firing up the machines, beginning a new trend in worker-owned production facilities.Where Branden steps in is this: helping these co-op operations create long-term management goals, and offering available funds to achieve them. He and his colleagues, maybe six of them, operate out of his apartment and also travel to each location to offer their council. If the projects fail, the loans need not be returned. In this way, everybody has incentive to make it work.

We sat in the pool of yellow kitchen light and laughed for hours. To begin with, the combination of coffee and water is a dangerous one. I had to pee within minutes of arriving, and Branden gestured in the general direction of the restroom. Stepping over naked piles of mattresses and wandering into the dark abyss of an unknown apartment, I located the restroom using mostly my hands. Once I successfully illuminated the space I noticed an extra funny looking toilet next to the regular version. I chose the one I recognized, sans the funny spout which threatens to impale a person, and went about my business. When I was finished I examined the toilet in an increasingly frantic and confused state, seeking a way to flush it. Finding nothing resembling a handle, I thought, "perhaps these toilets share a flushing button?," and bending over, staring into the porcelain, pressed the button on what I deduced, a bit too late, to be a bidet. A volcanic eruption of incredible force sprayed me in my confused face, and stepping back in awe, I watched the high spray reach every corner of the restroom. I walked back out to the kitchen like an ashamed soaked cat. I'd heard of these contraptions, bidets, but I can assure you, they are no longer a mystery to me. I know exactly what they can do. Powerful creatures, they are. At the right pressure, I'm quite certain they could be a cheap alternative to a colonic. I have to pay homage to the bidet gods, however, for giving me my second wind and finally keeping me up until the sunrise.

At seven we walked out onto the balcony and, hands on our hips, watched the empty streets start to stir. Looking down, a buttoned up businessman stops in the center of an intersection to scratch his shins, a young woman with long hair quietly lets herself into an apartment, a taxi driver lazily patrols the block. Looking up into the rooftops, as if from the deck of a giant ship, the cell towers rise like masts, and tangled electrical wires are strung from building to building like thick ropes. The humidity seeps in from the sea, and I feel myself to be a porteña