Friday, November 5, 2010

Day two

I'm warming to this city. I sat today in the Plaza de Majo in the microcentro, the centre of town, and made a video postcard for my son Jude. There were marchers there - I was able to make out that they were protesting about and memorialising the killing of activist students by the previous government. I was shocked - and ashamed of my ignorance - that Argentina's history of repression was so recent. I could translate with a few guesses the headline of their leaflet: "When we asked for work they murdered us. When we demanded a life of dignity they imprisoned us."

The city looks much less third world here: impressive old European buildings, edifices on a grandiose scale, but decaying, graffiti-ridden, their pretensions to national slendour belied by the dirt and the squalor of the sprawling city all around. I wandered down the long avenue towards the city's famous obelisk, another vast monument to vaulting ambitions unrealised. Echoes of Albert Speer's Berlin, almost... Lots of shops for the wealthy here, ritzy opulence cheek-by-jowl with your typical third-world vendor: some guy in a three by three metre alcove flogging cheap soap, cigarettes, Pepsi.

I manage a conversation in part Spanish, part English with a hawker from Chile who is in Argetina studying architecture at university - so he tells me - but he looks like a near beggar. Education is free here, he explains. He's almost as new to Buenos Aires as me - it's his first week. He smiles wistfully about the differences between his little village and this mega-metropolis. The Spanish is different, he complains. Not "vos" for "you", but "tu". And the food. He looks sad. I take pity and buy one of his pendants, probably for way too much. I don't even haggle. That westerner-in-a-developing-country conflict:I'm a mug. No, it's the least I can do. I'm being generous. No, I'm a mug, but I don't care. Of course if any Argentinian heard me call it a developing country they'd probably flip. But this kid... it's India again. And the two beggars on the subway, a boy maybe ten chanting his cry for alms, a hoarse, cawing sound, and his sister or brother - hard to tell - probably three or four and filthy from head to foot. The boy holds her and talks to her because she's crying. I can make out the word word "baño". Bathroom. He's ten and he's the adult.

None of this is or should be shocking to me. But there's still the sadness. Maybe the difference from India is that I didn't have a child myself back then. It shocked me then because it was new and I was privileged and naive. It saddens me now because I look at that filthy, bare-footed kid and think, "that's Jude." Might as well be but for the accidents of fate.

May I say once again how it pains me to be so linguistically incompetent? I should perhaps add that I have some natural prowess with languages, and my Chilean friend was most impressed when I said I only started learning Spanish a month ago. (On the other hand, he asked me where I learned Spanish - "It's very funny". I laughed and said, "In Australia". I wasn't going into the iPhone thing again!) But quick learner or not, a month is a month. It's atrocious.

The daily minor humiliations kill me. Example:

Waiter comes to take my order. I want to say "I'm still deciding", but the grammatical complexities of that are beyond me in the moment. I can barely conjugate the two forms of "to be" on the spot. I come up with "I decide..." The waiter looks at me blankly, and finallyI get out the word "still". "Decido .... todavia." My expression (of pain? fear? insanity?) causes him to back away with raised palms as if I had produced a pistol instead of a dodgy Spanish utterance. "No problem, take your time," he says in perfect English. After he's gone I drag up some kind of grammatical insight. "Estoy decidiendo todavia". That would have worked quite well. The problem is when you put it all together properly, people talk actual Spanish to you, which is naturally hopeless.

Example two: I catch taxi, explain I want to go to "Estacion plaza Italia". He nods and off we go. Great. I relax. Then he starts up. Yippity blabbity blabbity blab. I trot out the usual line - my Spanish is very bad. I'm a beginner. He tries again. Yippity yoppity yappity yop. "Perdon, no entiendo". Sorry, I don't understand. No problemo: plaza Italia! Si, plaza Italia! (Phew). I get to said train station, hop out, run across to the subway entrance and ... it's locked up. Ah. So that's what yippity yappity blabbity blab means. Thank God he's left so I don't have to crawl back into the same taxi for the rest of the journey home. In the new taxi I make polite conversation about the size of Buenos Aires, the difficulties of learning Spanish etc. More yippity. Understand? he asks in English. "Si, entiendo" I say. I just can't bear to say no again, even though I in fact haven't a clue. I try to fool myself into believing I got away with it. I didn't.

The food tastes of Buenos Aires. I don't know how they do it. It looks just like an Australian vege lasagne, but it tastes like Buenos Aires. Not bad exactly. Just somehow Argentinian.

Slept like a flea-ridden dog last night. Body doesn't believe the relative position of earth and sun. Day of the zombie awaits...

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