Discovering Argentina

What we did on our fall vacation:

Immersed ourselves in spring.

Each day balmier than the one before, with occasional chilly rain. Crescent moon from another point of view, an unfamiliar family of constellations in the night sky.

In Lelé de Troya’s green room (there are also red, yellow, and blue rooms), Malbec by candlelight, the Beatles, two couples celebrating 25th wedding anniversaries reminiscing about disco dancing in NYC, leisure suits, and long-ago first jobs. Finishing dessert at midnight while the rest of Buenos Aires just gets started.

Talking with many a taxi driver (Claudio, Lila, Juan, and a few more whose names I don’t recall) thanks to one of our foursome’s exuberant Spanish. (Buenas noches! Cómo estás? Yo hablo español pero no comprendo nada. Háblenos de Buenos Aires.) Our drivers are warm, friendly, opinionated, proud of their city but wanting things to be better, eager to speak with us. Trying to follow their rapid-fire Spanish, wishing we understood more.

Japanese Gardens

Jardin Japonés, Buenos Aires

Spanish haiku in the Japanese Gardens, a circle of Spanish-speaking Japanese women deep in conversation under a silk floss tree.

Reading in bed Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, disliking his essay on Argentina in which he contends people here strive for the wealth and sophistication of Europe, but are only pale imitations of it. True for some, perhaps, but I see down-to-earth, hard-working Argentinians and a genuine, vibrant culture that is what it is.

Watching amazing tango dancers, learning the tango was partly invented by Italians who emigrated to La Boca, a working class section of Buenos Aires. Never before realizing the inventiveness and variation possible within the structure of tango.

More reading in bed after a long day walking the city, Lawrence Thornton’s novel, Imagining Argentina. Letting myself imagine, for a moment, what it would be like to have one’s teen-age daughter stolen away to the pampas in the night, never to be seen again. Recalling the crosses and banners of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo we’d seen.

Iguazu evenings, drinking Caipirinhas in the secret garden of our bed and breakfast run by a photographer from Calcutta who has spent forty years in Argentina. John cares deeply about local flora and fauna and plans to offer walk-about tours to teach people about the region’s ecology. Meeting Natalie (British), Christina (from Mexico, now British) Helen and Andre (British and South African, respectively, now living in Austria). And some Argentinians from Buenos Aires who say the middle class here is disappearing. Does that sound familiar?

In Iguazu National Park, hundreds, thousands of butterflies: deep purple on brown, art deco, Italian modern. They hitch a ride on our hats, sleeves, shoulders. Clusters of mint green and yellow-winged moths delicate as parchment, scattering like confetti in the wind. Monkeys, coatis, lizards, turtles, toucans.

Garganta del Diablo

Garganta del Diablo

Ending our trip viewing some of the 300 waterfalls in Iguazu. People from all over the world come to this remote place where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay meet. Standing before the immense, overwhelming Garganta del Diablo (the Devil’s Throat), welcoming the cool spray after our subtropical hike. Like Andre said one evening after he and Helen braved a boat that takes you as close as you can get to one of the biggest waterfalls, every particle of your body awakens.

You feel totally alive.

Waterfalls at Iguazu

If you’ve been to Argentina or can suggest good books about this beautiful country, please tell us in the comments below.

Zen in Nature

I was interested to read “Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature” in the New York Times today. David Haskell’s new book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature sounds wonderful. Plan to add it to my reading list.

Book shopping in Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires

[El Carrusel] nos permite viajar como viaja un niño. Dando vueltas y más vueltas y otra vez a casa…a un lugar en el gue sabemos que nos quieren.   Don Draper, “Mad Men”

The Carousel allows us to travel as a child travels. Going round and round and home again … to a place where we know we are loved. Don Draper, “Mad Men”

We visited Prometeo Libros, an excellent bookstore on Avenida Honduras in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

Guia de Madmen cover

I bought Madmen: Reyes de la Avenida Madison, by Jesús G. Requena and Concepción Cascajosa, figuring if I’m familiar with the subject matter it will be easier for me to understand the Spanish. I like the quote especially because I produced slide shows for the Carousel when I worked for Kodak.

Also a collection of poems by Jorge Luis Borges, El oro de los tigres/La rosa profunda. Short bits of poetry are easier to understand than long prose passages.

children's books

Children’s books at Prometeo Libros

Cupcakes, shoes and many other fine things in the shop windows of Palermo Soho.

ShoesCupcakes

Quote from: MadMen: Reyes de la Avenida Madison, Jesús G. Requena and Concepción Cascajosa, Capitán Swing Libros, Madrid: 2010.

Reading Junot Diaz

This Is How You Lose Her book coverYou ask yourself why you’re reading This Is How You Lose Her, the short story collection by Junot Diaz. How could you possibly relate to Yunior, the irreverent, hard-drinking Dominican-born narrator and serial cheater of the most extreme sort?

You write this post in second person point of view, as Diaz does in his short story, “A Cheater’s Guide to Love,” just to try it on for size.

You read that Yunior cheated on the love of his life with no less than 50 women over six years. And then she found out.

Diaz writes, “You claim you’re a sex addict and start attending meetings. You blame your father. You blame your mother. You blame the patriarchy. You blame Santo Domingo. You find a therapist. You cancel your Facebook. You give her the passwords to all your e-mail accounts. You start taking salsa classes like you always swore you would so that the two of you could dance together.”

Yunior’s ex-fiancee assembles all the damning evidence (emails, photos, etc.) in an album (the Doomsday Book) and sends it to Yunior with a note: For your next book.

You think: This is one funny writer.

The writing is so musical and overflowing with Spanish, maybe you can brush up on the language: blanquita, moreno, salcedeña, sucio, cuero. Then you realize some of the words are made up, and others are words you’re not likely to use any time soon.

Yunior’s suffering seems to know no bounds, as if he’s channeling all the deprivation of his poor, difficult, immigrant life  (which the other stories in this collection portray) into mourning his lost love.

Yunior becomes a professor of fiction in Boston. Having grown up in Santo Domingo and New York City, he has a hard time in New England: “White people pull up at traffic lights and scream at you with a hideous rage, like you nearly ran over their mothers….Security follows you in stores and every time you step on Harvard property you’re asked for ID.”

Yunior visits the Dominican Republic with his friend, Eric, to see Eric’s presumed love child; the child and mother live in the Nadalands, where Yunior’s father was born and where his ex-fiancee is from. Mud, shanties, no running water or electricity, raw sewage.

You remember the volunteer work your family did in Nicaragua – you’ve only seen that kind of poverty once and, after a few days, you could return to your comfortable home in America.

You know Diaz’s  fiction is partly autobiographical and you wonder which parts are true, which are made up. You find the second person point of view can be confusing: Does the “you” refer to Yunior, or to the author himself? Sometimes you think the “you” refers to you, the reader, because by now you’ve become so invested in Yunior you find yourself beginning to understand and identify with him.

There is that moment of self-reckoning when Yunior has to face what he has done. You agree with Yunior’s assessment of the half-life of love.

You think: this blurring of boundaries between author, narrator, reader – maybe that’s the point.

If you’ve read this book, please comment!

Quotes from This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, Riverhead Books, New York: 2012.

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