Saturday, November 13, 2010

Almost with you, so far away

I’m on the bus from Cordoba to Iguazu, reflecting on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. Its linguistic and cultural insecurities, its disturbance of assumptions, its loneliness. One lacks assurance, sure-footedness, like someone walking on ground that might at any moment give way beneath his feet. But there are gifts in this alienation from ‘normality’ too, beyond an increased empathy for our immigrants. It’s a chance to stand outside of one’s world, to see its artificial boundaries, its totality, like astronauts seeing the world from a distance for the first time, its wholeness and its lack of borders.

Earlier I was bugged by the woman in the seat behind me listening to music on her headphones so loudly you could hear every distorted word throughout the whole bus. So I plugged in my own headphones and squeezed the switch for some music of my own. What came on was The Church, circa 1983, “I’m Almost With You”. Those famously “jangly” guitars (that was always the word used to describe it) and Steve Kilbey’s drawled Australian voice, a voice that out here, crossing the vast farmlands of northern Argentina, seemed steeped in its culture and its time, spoke of smoky pubs and nightclubs at 2am, of the time when guys wore paisley and eyeliner, a time in which a curiously affected effeminacy was the mode. You can hear it in Kilbey’s style: a lazy Aussie cowboy drawl mixed with a precious intellectual inflection. Sitting here it seems the affectation of a culture and time unsure of itself, straining for something, without knowing what it was. But the pretension of it doesn’t matter from this distance. It’s just the shape of the thing now, as beyond judgement as any expression of pattern in nature. And the song is still good. Goddamn, it’s a good song and it always will be. That’s another thing made clear by enough distance. Always is.

As the song goes on, I’m looking out the window over a stretch of river that is a mix of the picturesque and the ugly. Beside the river there are horses, and a man gallops bareback away from the water, graceful and thrilling. Another man holds a fishing line, bare to the waist in a wooden canoe. But the bank is littered with rubbish, power lines are draped over the river between pylons. As I look at this scene, The Church’s incongruous tones in my ears, I’m struck by two simultaneous feelings. The song is home. It’s those days back in the eighties when I was turning from boy to man. It’s the layers of a thousand memories that that song plays in. It’s assurance. It’s identity. And at the same time I feel I’m looking from a great distance of time and space into that strange place that was Australia, Melbourne, my homeland, back then when I was still forming. Heimat, the Germans call it. It’s in my heart and at the same time it’s distant from me, fading, already lost. I watch the cirrus clouds painted on a sky darkening from turquoise to lapis, and I feel a painful happiness. A sad joy.

Algedonic. I'm a one-man champion of this word. Look it up, or use your ancient Greek.

That’s what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. It’s the sharpening by relief, and the erosion of who you are. Or am I just saying I’m homesick right now? Not really, not exactly. My mouth waters when I think of some of the things I cook at home, and, sure, I miss the important people. But more than that I just feel the hugeness of the world, I’m aware that even at home, buffered by the familiar, we are spinning through this vastness and ephemeral.

Oh damn! I promised to spare you such melancholy bus-spawned philosophizings. Should I tell you that paragliding over the badlands near Cordoba was an absolute blast?

OK, I’ve arrived. What a night. I had just been patting myself on the back for my uncharacteristic foresight and organisation when it comes to travel decisions, and then… the fall that pride precedes. I failed to pack a jumper into my overnight bag, on the assumption that this bus line would provide a blanket like the other one I travelled with. First rule for the stranger-in-a-strange-land: make no assumptions. I could see the impending problem as the temperature dropped steadily with nightfall, so when we stopped for dinner (at half past midnight! What is it with Argentinian dinner times? Do they still eat at midnight after they have kids?) I spoke to the driver: esta bastante frio… It’s quite cold. I’d meant to go on with the rest of my prepared statement about please getting something from my baggage, but the driver came back at me with the yippity, from which I picked up the word calefaccione. Now isn’t it good that I bothered to learn so much obscure English vocab? I knew it’d come in handy one day. Calefacient means “heat producing” in English. Aha! So the heater’s coming on! No need for the struggle to extract understanding and my backpack then…

Well, yes, I was right. Some kind of tepid air did briefly raise the temperature above freezing, then seemed to lose interest in continuing its insipid efforts. So there’s me in my linen shirt with nothing under it, curled in as much of a foetal ball as a bus seat will allow (I have to admit, they were comfy seats, but still…), trying to collect as much warmth as possible in the spaces I manage to enclose between body and seat. There’s about a teacup of the delicious stuff. A leaky teacup. If I’m on right side, my left side is horribly envious. I flip over when I’ve had enough of its complaints (more like a hermit crab reorienting in its shell), and then my right side starts up its moaning. Tormenting image of someone who gives a damn throwing a blanket over me… I swallow three sleeping tablets. Take that, cold!

Oh I’m miserable.

Oh I’m miserable.

Oh I’m miser… what are those funny trees? And why can’t I quite fly over the top of them?

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