GPS Moment

 

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I like maps. They give me a sense of control, a bird’s-eye view of my options in which I ultimately get to decide which way I’ll go, as well as Plan B and C, just in case. It’s a spatial thing, really. I just don’t like being lost, and feel disoriented if I don’t have a broad aerial sense of things.

I remember my enthusiasm way back when my kids were in fourth grade and had to map out our neighborhood. Such a simple task, I imagined the light-bulb coming on as they saw their surroundings organized for the first time on a map of their own making, a sudden sense of order to the sidewalks, intersections, parks, neighboring buildings and shops. One of the first steps on the path to independence in a big city.

The GPS on my phone has conveniently replaced the old map of Buenos Aires that I used to constantly stop to unfold, always getting tangled up in its tattered, scotch-taped sections. This new technology naturally suits me. I use the GPS much like a paper map, planning my route before I leave, but with the added ease of being able to check my location if I lose my way, no willy-nilly unfolding required. However, there is one function that I hate: the voice option. Suddenly, my trusty map morphs into someone else telling me where to go. It makes me crazy.

Case in point: L. has recently gotten his driver’s license, so he asks to drive often. F. and a friend needed to make an early Saturday morning pick-up, so he volunteered, meaning I would have to go along for the ride since he’s still not driving alone. I was groggy and hadn’t had my coffee, so didn’t think to check the map before leaving. I knew we were going somewhere in Devoto, so thought: Avenida San Martin, and the kids will have the exact address. The following scene ensued.

“Does anybody have the address?”

“I’m turning my GPS on,” says F. from the back seat.

“OK, but give me the address so I can map it. Turn right at the next light onto San Martin,” I say.

Right at that moment, a different voice with a California-neutral accent issues from the back seat, “Continue straight, on &*%^&Y.”

“Mom, the GPS said to keep straight. Why did we turn?”

“Because this is the way to Devoto.”

“Turn left, onto $^%&D$,” the GPS says as we continue up San Martin, now fully into Metrobus construction chaos.

“Don’t turn left. What the hell is she saying? Why do you have it set to English? She can’t pronounce the street names right! I have no idea what she’s saying, just give me the address now.”

“Turn left – Gire a su izquierda y vuelve,” now the GPS was a Spaniard.

F. gives me the address. “Oh no, my phone is dead. Give me yours so I can see. I need a visual! Watch out for the cars on the right! And don’t turn left!” Full-blown PMS joined forces with GPS lady at that point.

The two girls are frantically texting in the back. As the española continues to bark out orders to turn left at every intersection, Fiona says, “Why don’t you just do what the GPS says, Mom?”

“Because you can’t turn left on two-way avenues in the city of Buenos Aires! She obviously doesn’t know that. You have to turn right to go left.”

“Stop calling it a she. It’s not a real person,” F. finally hands me the phone.

“Gire a su izquierda—“

“Shut up, gallega de mierda!” I bark at the GPS woman. To L. I say,:”Do not turn left, whatever you do. You have to turn right and then come back across.”

He says, “Calm down, Mom. The GPS is updated, so I think we should follow it. You have to trust the technology.”

“NEVER when there’s construction or on two-way streets. She can’t possibly know!”

“Not a person, Mom…” he says as he tries out the accelerator on the bridge.

“Slow down!” I yell, while grabbing the armrest on one side, my other hand pressed hard on the ceiling of the car. “Why didn’t I just check the map before we left? You have to have a plan before driving into unknown territory. I know this. Turn right!”

We finally get across San Martin Ave. and are presumably somewhere in Devoto. We come to a railroad crossing and I say, “Turn here.” He turns left. It’s a two-way street. Luckily the oncoming traffic isn’t closer. I go completely berserk.

“You see! You see what happens? I meant turn right, but she has burned it into your brain to turn left! There is a universal law according to which you can never, EVER turn left on avenues in Buenos Aires without a turn arrow.”

“Ok, Mom,” he says as we finally find the address and he handily parallel parks. “I think you need to get out and take a walk around the block.”

It is hard to describe the anxiety over having your kid behind the wheel of a car in a mega city; it’s a lethal mix of the instinct to protect your child and the knowledge that they’re on their way, surrounded by imminent danger but don’t need or want you telling them how to maneuver. You have no control. Despite my mounting hysteria, the construction, the traffic and contradictory orders from me and the GPS women, in addition to the fact that his girlfriend had witnessed my meltdown, he had driven carefully and skillfully and kept calm. How did we get to this point?

Although I would like to think we have provided them with the basic tools to find their way, I know that their coordinates are different from mine. Writing this today, their very last day of high school, I am reminded that there was no map to get us here, and yet… here we are, safe and sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bilingual kids: a few words from the finish line

“Look, la muna!” Three little words that encompass two worlds. This is the first complete sentence I remember, the first spoken record of our escapades as a bilingual family. It was a spring evening, so he would have been about 18 months old. He was on his father’s shoulders, walking home from the playground at dusk when he looked up at the night sky, pointed and made this colorful observation. We were still living in Virginia then, so it was natural that the imperative (“Look”) would have been more accessible to him in English, since commands are what kids learn first based on mere frequency (toddlers being particularly bombarded by the likes of ‘Look, a car! Look, an elephant! Look, the moon!) But then he instinctively switched to Spanish because he knew he was talking to his dad, getting the gender of the article right, and finally did that magical thing that shows he knew the next word in both languages by splicing ‘moon’ with ‘luna’ – a perfectly bilingual sentence that encompasses grammar, syntax and sociolinguistic acumen. And this is the way language nerds talk about their kids’ developing language skills.

I have often started to write about bilingual kids, but always abandoned the attempt because I feel like what I have to say is mostly pretty darn obvious. And there’s so much out there on the subject already, who could possibly need convincing that bilingualism is a good thing, even more so when it happens naturally? However, after recently hearing two stories from other parents in which their kids’ language skills were questioned, I’ve decided that it’s at least worth speaking up for the bilingual community here in Buenos Aires, since these two cases would indicate that there’s still just a whole mess of nonsense on the loose out there.

Case 1: Mother (US) of 4-yr-old twins is told by Argentine preschool teacher that their language skills are lacking and that she should stop speaking English to them, because clearly they are confused.

Seriously? The whole language confusion argument still? Rather than questioning their family dynamics, the teacher should be applauding the parents of those kids for giving them the gift of bilingualism; then she could have taken five minutes to google language acquisition in bilinguals, in twins, and twin language, to learn that all three of these factors may add up to some differentiation in terms of the language these two boys are producing at age 4 in comparison to their monolingual classmates. I say differentiation (not delay) because, after four years in a bilingual home, these kids’ amazing little brains have fully incorporated the complexities of English and Spanish by now. Therefore, while what they say may come out as a creative mix for a while still (particularly in the case of identical twins who also happen to be producing their own unique twin-language), this should be cause for fascination, not concern. And in the knowledge that within the next year or so, they will produce both languages appropriately based on context. Right now they are still immersed in a rich duality that is anything but confusing—it is a world twice as large. What young bilinguals do with language is double the fun. Period. Teachers who can’t appreciate this get a bad grade in my book.

Case 2: Parents (mother UK, father US) of a 12-year-old bilingual daughter, born and raised in Buenos Aires, are told by a tutoring institute that their daughter will likely not be fit to take the tough entrance exams for secondary school, since she comes from a home where neither parent is a native-Spanish speaker.

So the assessment here is that, even though this girl has spent her entire childhood in the Buenos Aires public school system, doing all classwork in Spanish, socializing with Argentine peers and immersed in entirely Spanish monolingual surroundings outside her home, and clearly speaks native Argentine Spanish, the fact that she speaks English with her parents and siblings is seen as somehow detrimental to her chances to pass the entrance exams. Interesting.

Similar to the case of the twins, the theory here is that the “other” language must surely get in the way of academic success. Ironically, schools prioritize English as a foreign language in a major way here, with most proudly waving the bilingual education flag. Personally, I think what happens is that second language skills are often seen wholly as an academic pursuit, at least for kids—something to work towards mastering when they get older. And to their credit, many schools do an excellent job of teaching English. The idea of acquiring both languages simultaneously at home, however, is apparently viewed by some educators with skepticism. I hate to lecture, but Linguistics 101, people: language learning (happens in school); language acquisition (happens at home or in natural language setting). The latter is available to us all in mono- or multilingual version, with window of opportunity lowering at around age 12. Those lucky enough to have access to the multilingual version are just, well, luckier!

Enough about the limitations of certain educators. When I was pregnant with my own twins (mine now competent bilinguals and therefore doubly exasperating teenagers), I spent a lot of time reading articles about raising bilingual children, much of it prescriptive. Honestly, of everything I read, only one story from a Greek-American family resonated and has stayed with me over the years. The approach was simple: “Language is always a topic of conversation in our family. We discuss it over meals, ponder why people say what they say, talk about books and how they’re written, make up words, splice grammar across languages, play word games, etc. In general, we just give the subject of language a ridiculous amount of air time, and otherwise try to keep a balance between both languages.”

As for all the other approaches—one language, one parent; half-day one language, half-day the other; meal times always in minority language; exclusive use of minority language in home—I just knew we wouldn’t be able to follow the rules. What I did know was the basic math of language: you get out what you put in. Children acquire language at the rate they are exposed to it, as long as it is has a meaningful place in their life. So in the early years in the US, we aimed for roughly equal use of both languages from the beginning in all possible contexts: we formed playgroups with other native-Spanish speakers, socialized ourselves among both language groups, made regular trips to Argentina and forged relationships between our kids and their Argentine cousins. We happily adhered to and upheld the ‘language as a topic of conversation’ principle, repeating stories of the silly things we’ve all said (my gender gaffes in Spanish: I once went on at length about my wedding veil, referring to it with the wrong gender (la vela). Meaning I was telling people I’d worn an antique candle on my head. Or how their dad once asked if it was ok to use the ‘wheelberry’ to cart the leaves…) And the ‘meaningful place’ was easy: it has always been in books, stories and music, these shifting languages (in the opposite direction) as we’ve shifted countries.

In our case anyway, I think this last point has been just as relevant as frequency of exposure to both languages. Even more so. It’s the meaningfulness that is key. This is what differentiates language in a natural setting from language-learning in a classroom. When our kids were toddlers, their father told them stories he’d make up (ongoing sagas) every night in Spanish. They’d lay there in the dark, completely immersed in the adventures of Max, el perro de rescate, in which they were always protagonists. Or Selena y Tiniebla, the warring queens of either side of the moon. Later, once we’d moved to Spain and then to Argentina, every time we were in the car for any length of time, we’d dissolve hours listening to audiobooks in English of stories by Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl (the H. Potter years I’ve already said more than enough about). And just loads of music in both languages. They knew all the María Elena Walsh songs; went around our house banging buckets and pretending to be orphans as they blasted the soundtrack from Annie; and at age 4 did a strange backyard performance of Don McLean’s American Pie while dressed in sequins and white gloves. Meaningful stuff.

Even though this sounds slightly like a circus house, it was actually a strategic plan. And not always easy. And not always balanced. When they started kindergarten in the US, they stopped speaking Spanish after the first week. Their dad was desperate. A few years after moving to Argentina, Spanish replaced English as the language they spoke to each other. In pre-adolescence, they’d get annoyed if I addressed them in English in public, insisting I only speak Spanish. When they started high school, they stopped speaking English to me at all for a brief period. It made me angry. Now they get exasperated if I speak to them in Spanish in public. If I do, they answer me in English. Go figure. They gossip, text, study and party all in Spanish. One writes songs lyrics only in English; one prefers reading in English. We have come full circle. It has been a worthwhile 18-year commitment.

My point here is that, for any of you out there with little bilingual people in the making, if you run into so-called educators who question what you’re doing with language in your house, please feel free to ignore them entirely. You are doing important work.

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UBA or USA: Coming to terms with the competition

I have a confession to make: We have not put money away for college savings for our kids. We have squandered it on international travel. When we should have been staying home and saving thousands to finance two university educations, we spent it instead on plane tickets to London, Lima and Rio. Now that high school graduation is nearly upon us, how do I feel about this? Pretty fine, really. Like they’ve gotten the most for the money. Like we have not allowed their childhoods and our family life to be shaped by the insane cost of college in the US.

How do I feel about them not even applying to US schools? That’s a different matter. Confession No. 2: I am envious of all my friends’ kids after the barrage of acceptance announcements I’ve received in the last few months. Georgetown, Barnard, UVA… All these kids I’ve known for the past 18 years have made the grades, high test scores, done their volunteer work, been awarded scholarships to top institutions of higher learning and will soon be leaving home for their respective dorms. Their parents glow with pride. I can’t help it, there’s nothing to be done about my competitive streak. I feel cheated. I have no announcement to make. L&F took the SAT, they got high scores. But in the end, the decision to apply for scholarships to US schools has been tabled. They will be starting at the University of Buenos Aires next year; they didn’t have to ‘get in’, take entrance exams, apply for scholarships or write fantastic essays, nor did we have to save money. It’s a free system, open to all. And they’ll be living at home.

27944I am a rubber-band ball of contradictions, I admit, but bear with me while I work this out. One wonders, if I really wanted them to follow the standard path of US college applications, why did we not prioritize the money for starters, knowing that it would be essential? I could play the Argentine husband card here, but in all honesty, I personally have an issue with the cost/quality equation when it comes to US higher education, so being married to someone who grew up in a country where it’s free and who, by all counts is a perfectly well-educated and successful adult—well, that just adds to my conviction. So this pretty much leaves me with my own competitive tendency, which, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, is at least partly a product of my own glory years of imbibing US education culture. Despite my keen awareness of this, it has nevertheless reared its head and roared in the present circumstances and left me feeling cowed and small. Therefore, in an effort to put things right and relative, I submit the following questions to myself and anyone else in a position to choose:

  1. Do you believe a US undergraduate education to be the best in the world? In general, no. Most of the people I admire and respect were educated elsewhere in the world. Many have US graduate degrees, though.
  2. Do you think paid education is inherently superior to free, public education? No, I have seen the output of both, and know just as many successful people who attended free universities.
  3. Do you think leaving home to go to university is essential to one’s independence? No, not right away. I think 17/18-year-olds are often still in need of some guidance and may well achieve adult-like independence more organically with a couple more years at home.
  4. Do you think the social aspect of university life is as important as the academic, or should school only be about an academic education? I agree that the social aspect of university is an essential part of a broader education, however I don’t think the all-inclusive ‘campus’ is the only way to get that. School can easily be just about academics, especially in an urban setting, making the fees people often pay for the campus experience a bit crazy.
  5. Do you think not attending a US university is in any way an obstacle to getting a job in that country later in life if one has comparable qualifications from elsewhere? The statistics say not at all.

So this is where I’m supposed to finally embrace UBA, break out my swagger and tell you how it’s one of the top universities in Latin America, that students from other countries in the region flock here, and that it’s free, free, free. And that we happen to live in the city that is the destination of loads of US students, who come to do their studies abroad here. But it’s not gonna come to that, because I just don’t feel it. And the reason I don’t feel it is the same reason L&F don’t feel the urge to compete to get into US schools. Because it’s just not in the atmosphere around us. Transitioning from high school to public university in Argentina is really just a matter of registration, so there’s no hype attached to it, no bragging rights. It is much the same with the kids I know in different countries in Europe. The world is wide and there is never just one way. I am happy about all the amazing teenagers I know in the US who are going to off to fine universities, and I share their parents’ pride. But I am also finally coming around to the fact that the choice we have here feels like the right choice for us, at least for starters, and an equally enviable one at that.

Other Side of the Fence makes it to TEDxTalk

After first saying no because ‘what could I possibly talk about’; then after some cajoling by veteran presenters and gung-ho family members and deciding that perhaps I am just too chicken shit and should make it a personal goal; then after writing over 3000 words in Spanish, amounting to a rambling 26 minutes, which I then had to edit down to 1200 words; after wandering the streets of Buenos Aires listening to 6 different versions of my recorded self on my headphones, forcing friends and family to listen and give me feedback way too many times; after worrying that I would surely have an allergy attack on the day of the event, or trip or bungle the Spanish… I finally got on stage and did a TEDxTalk. Now it’s out there. With English subtitles.

Road Signs

DSCN2076I believe we largely make our own destinies. And even though I carelessly used the word ‘providence’ in an interview once in reference to an uncanny alignment of events, I don’t believe in fate or god or any of that. I am, however, a faithful disciple of Dr. Seuss and his vast wisdom of the universe—the forks in the road, road signs, speed bumps to be heeded. Anything traffic-related really. Because these are behind the choices we make. And sometimes the signs are billboard-sized and all in neon.

One example of this would be how my family and I ended up living in the house of Hugo Midón. I could play connect-the-dots on that one back any number of years, but I’ll just limit the connections to one: a public school in Seville, Spain –> our current residence in a PH in the noisy barrio of Caballito in Buenos Aires. Short version goes like this: Frustrated by the lack of arts activities in our children’s elementary school in Seville—a school where “art” class consisted of a color-coded text book and our naturally musical kids would come home crying about how mean the music teacher was—my husband turned a volunteer storytelling activity into a makeshift drama club, which quickly mushroomed into a major theater project. Then our friend Marina from Buenos Aires gave us a CD of music from Midón’s musicals. Then we decided it would be cool to incorporate some of those songs and build our own script around them. And everyone went a little gaga over the music, and there were suddenly people making weird percussion instruments, giant pinwheels and I was running a tie-die operation off my balcony. Contagion city.

Then in the midst of that circus I made a solo trip to Buenos Aires because we were thinking maaaybe about moving. But all those crazy theater people wanted was more music from Midón’s plays, so in addition to real estate sleuthing, the music thing was also on my shopping list. And one day as I was wandering the (then still hipster-free) streets of Palermo Viejo, I found myself accidentally in front of Rio Plateado, Hugo Midón’s theater school. Two-bird moment, I rang the buzzer thinking I’d avoid Musimundo and score a few CDs of his musicals right then and there. And because my short version is turning long: I ended up sitting in Midón’s office, sipping tea with the man himself and he happened to mention his house was for sale. That was one of those signs you heed.

Six months later we were living in his former house. The music happening in that house, mostly thanks to my kids, has never ceased for a moment. And we also have a resident writer. Call it a muse, creative spirit, providence, whatever—but it really comes down to the choices we made.

Following some similar signage, I made a trip to San Francisco, CA last year. This was after a moment of personal crisis and a conversation with a friend about what the hell to be when I grow up (in the second half of my life). She asked, “If you could wipe out all factors limiting your field of options—responsibilities, family, geography, etc.—what would you do?” In a very random moment, I said, “I’d go to San Francisco, visit the Pirate Supply Store, maybe buy an eye-patch, and hope to meet Dave Eggers.” She said, “Why don’t you? You could open your own pirate operation here.”

I have to confess I suffer from a bit of starry-eyed giddiness when it comes to Eggers, which is mostly just about his writing. When I read his first book way back when he was all ‘stream of consciousness’ and I was all ‘holy crap, he is speaking directly to me in my special language,’ I decided he was the writer of my generation, that I had connected deeply on that. So over the years I’ve read all of his books, and he’s grown up, and so have I. And I’ve learned to respect him not only as a constantly evolving and multi-talented writer, but also for coming up with the brilliant idea behind 826 Valencia, an ingenious public initiative that has writers and volunteers doing free creative writing workshops with public school kids. It has mushroomed into numerous centers throughout the US and elsewhere in the world. After following the project for the past few years, forcing my family to watch his popular TEDTalk more than once, and just generally being way too much of a groupie, I learned about the 826 National seminars not long after aforementioned conversation with my friend. The national NGO runs seminars for people interested in starting their own 826 centers. Which gave me a much more concrete (ok, mature) reason to go the Pirate Store.

Dot-connecting: Went to 826 seminar in SF last July, spent two days learning about how to start a non-profit, raise funds, talked to volunteers, explored the store and writing center, met inspiring directors of other connected organizations, like Mimi Lok, executive director of Voice of Witness. It was all better than I’d imagined—just brimming with genuine commitment, quirkiness and the most incredible people. Luckiest of breaks, the organizers told me someone else had come from Buenos Aires earlier this year with similar intentions. They said they’d put me in touch. After months of mulling over how to start one of these centers in BA, a notebook full of lists of potential donors, venues, school-system contacts, other education NGOs, etc., I knew what I really needed was a partner, someone with the same mission. Someone like any of the amazing people I had met during the seminar. My wish was about to be granted. Soon after my return to Buenos Aires, I got an email with the contact info for this other person interested in starting an 826-inspired center here.

And sometimes we ignore the signs. The official version of this story is that I met Ignacio (not his real name), began to brainstorm and collaborate with him, helped raise volunteers, bring in writers to run workshops and handled the social media and communications aspects of a pilot program that he had arranged through the sponsorship of a local publisher. The program was incredibly successful and a joy to be a part of, mainly seeing the enthusiasm of the students and teachers from the five public schools that participated. And to see the need firsthand and know that a program like this, if done right, will address serious failings in the school system when it comes to writing skills and creative self-expression. The experience confirmed that following my long-term interest in this project and making it happen was right on target.

The backstory is a little different. There were billboards. And flashing lights. That I chose to ignore because I knew they would prevent me from being a part of the project. And because sometimes I overanalyze and make too many allowances for potential “cultural” differences. Sometimes those differences are really just about people being out for themselves no matter where they’re from… And this is the part where I have to delete a whole paragraph of ranting in an effort to stick to the high road and boil it down to: I had good reason to be pissed by the end.

Do I wish I had followed those signs from the beginning and saved myself from some humiliation and the feeling of being used? Actually, no. Because if I had, I would have missed being a part of the whole process of making it happen and now knowing that I am quite capable of doing it myself. With better people. And better ideas. And truer to the whole collaborative spirit of the thing, and not some convenient marketing scheme. Even though I ignored all the little lights and warning buzzers I saw early on in small acts of incompatibility, I can now see they were pointing to a much larger—huge, really—difference in our global understanding of the project and Egger’s vision.

I live in a house where at least three generations of artists, performers, musicians and writers have regularly come to dinner and worked their creative magic under its roof. It feels like the appropriate site for an 826-inspired program to come together. In an imaginary dinner conversation between Dave Eggers, Hugo Midón, and my family, I see lots of shared vision, like-mindedness and lively conversation. (Ignacio is not invited.)

Remember

I don’t remember what it felt like to sit in my mother’s lap or the sound of her voice reading to me. You won’t remember these things about me either. You won’t remember that our house had wallpaper on the ceilings, that we stood on ladders and used a machine to steam and peel it off, our arms aching from being held aloft, dirty water dripping on you as you crawled around below. You won’t remember that there was music playing always, or that we hired an opera student to babysit and sing you arias. You won’t remember that I painted whimsical fish and ocean sprites on your bedroom wall, or later the Mono Liso. Or how I held your flailing arms and legs and rocked you in a big blue chair, all because you wanted chocolate milk at 3am. You won’t remember me pushing the stroller through the snow, you all bundled in fleece, because it was the only way you’d go to sleep.

ImageYou won’t remember that all we needed was a sofa to sit back and watch you perform, blissed out while you inhabited endless characters, costumes and worlds all for our viewing pleasure. Or how we banned technology for years just so the show would keep going on. Nor will you remember how your thumb was your best friend and you spoke so lovingly of it, to it. You won’t remember how I marveled—truly—at your tiny, intricate drawings. Or how, when you wanted to fly for real, we hitched you to a harness, strapped on your wings and let you soar from the oak tree. You won’t remember sippy cups or Maymont Park or learning the words to the Peter Pan song and singing it with abandon. You won’t remember tire swings or puddle-jumping or that time I rolled out brown craft paper and let you run around in different colored paint all over it, or how I cut out sections of it later to decorate the dining room wall. You won’t remember how we decided to just work from home because we couldn’t get enough of you, how we sometimes just stayed in our pajamas all day long and were silly.

You won’t remember how many times we read Chicken Soup with Rice, or that time we drove to France and couldn’t bother to get out of the car because we were so immersed in a story about a certain wizard. You won’t remember your skinny, knobby little legs running out of the ocean and throwing yourself down to roll around all wet in the hot sand, and then we’d call you milanesita. Nor will you remember the gleeful timber of your voice or how excellent you were at jumping rope, how intensely you danced. You won’t remember how long you believed in Santa Clause or how easily you accepted the Reyes Magos when they showed up, because your faith in our stories was abiding.

That’s ok. I still remember.

 

Daytrip

 

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Every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling like the kind of person I’d like to hang out with, or sometimes when I’m blue, I indulge in a quiet Saturday afternoon date with myself and go alone to the movies. On this particular Saturday in Buenos Aires, I choose to venture out to the Arteplex cinema in Belgrano, far on the other side of the city. Because it is quite a journey and looking a bit like rain, instead of biking I decide to do a combination of city transit, taking the 141 bus to Plaza Italia and then the Subte out to Congreso, the last stop on the D-line.

 

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Clown boards bus bearing beat-up guitar. His attire is accurate but filthy: high-waisted, green plaid pants sag from suspenders above exposed, flip-flopped feet. Gnarled, cracked, crusty dirt-brown feet—too brown to match hands on guitar. White face-paint grayish with traffic grime suggests several days of wear. Circle around clown features reveals outer regions of naked face: high forehead, steel-wool hair awry, pushed back with headband sprouting sad, plastic flower which may or may not squirt tears. He lays his pitch on us, monotone and sad, as if way more skeptical than his audience.

Damas y caballeros, and especially all you kids (there were none on the bus), I’ve come to brighten your day. Hope you’re all having fun. Pardon the bother, I’ll just sing a ditty or two. Brought my whole band along (shows us his harmonica as he anchors it around his neck). Yes, we’re a one-man band. Again, please pardon the intrusion, hope you enjoy the show, then I’ll be right on my way, chicos.”

I kick myself for not bringing my iPod. Then again, he does seem to be taking his whole act very seriously with all the preparations and is entirely consistent with the sadness concept, I’ll give him that. And I also have to admit that blasting my headphones to drown out all nuisances around me in recent months is taking its toll on my hearing. Perhaps it’s best to give the man a chance.

Guitar rings true, rockabilly sound, voice channeling Elvis, deep, wide like an unpolluted river of pure sound. Disconcerting, real concert. Sounds like English, but not quite. More like that video of What English Sounds Like to Non-English Speakers—the one where the only decipherable word is “squirrel”. The phonetics are all right, the intonation, pauses in the natural places, only the words are not quite words. They are a melodious approximation. Then the harmonica jumps in: in and out chuffing blues, Memphis on a bus in Buenos Aires.

“Thank you very much (no longer Elvis). That was one from the archives. Traveling across the ocean back to my origins, now we’ll visit Italy.”

I have no idea what song he’s belting out in Italian, but at least he seems to be getting the language right on this one. It feels authentically 1950s Mediterranean, like something Marcelo sang to Sofia. On a Vespa. All pencil-thin pants, loafers no socks and cleavage. By the time I get to this image, I realize I’ve been hauled into the music, completely sold on it, but having a really hard time with the clown act. The 141 show takes a bow, passes his hat, I give him a fiver and almost tell him, “Lose the make-up, it’s distracting, have some self-respect. You are amazing.” Almost.

 

II

I exit the bus right after it turns off Scalabrini Ortiz and onto Santa Fe. I am at the gate of the Botanical Gardens, an abiding memory of the first time I ever came to Buenos Aires. I was a tourist then. I check my watch and decide I have time for a walk through. No longer a tourist, like people who live in cities with Eiffel towers or Empire State buildings, I have relegated these gardens to the category of places for visitors who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, gazing around with half-smiles and taking-it-all-in blank expressions on their faces. I have never understood the hands behind the back.

Like so many places in Buenos Aires, these gardens are a relic of the city’s glorious past, a lush piece of turn-of-the-20th-century landscaping and statuary—a reminder that this level of sophistication was once the norm. In a way it is a time capsule. But then again, I don’t come here often enough and perhaps things are not quite encapsulated. Today what I first see are fathers and little boys, enthusiastically pulling on hands to take them to see carnivorous plants. Couples on benches, legs stretched out, ankles crossed, intimately reading side by side. Venus rising out of a litter-free pond of lilies, so serene, I make a mental note to come back and sketch her. A path that pulls me along, leading me to ground-level vats teeming with strange, snaking aquatic plants. Down and around I come up behind the main building, see Saturnalia snapped in mid-action, preserved in bronze—a worthy welcome committee for visitors to the tiny, children’s green library on the back corner of the red-bricked Victorian visitor’s center. The library has a carpet of believable faux grass and I imagine the books on its shelves are filled with stories of plants, sustainable ways, garden fairies, forts made of fallen trees and discarded bits of this and that—a reason to come back another day, sit on the grassy rug reading children’s green lit and spend the whole afternoon exploring the silent wonder of these gardens. Today time is running short: I have a movie to catch.

 

III

I step out of these imaginings and onto the subway platform at Plaza Italia. Just as the doors are closing, a young man struggles to get on with a keyboard and speaker on a cart. Top right forearm riddled with scars on scars, not accidental—intentional, random, mean razorblade hatch-marks. My brain cannot conjure the horror of their origin, so I look at his face instead: protruding front teeth, freshly scarred upper lip, maybe from a punch, or maybe just a skateboard accident. The braces on his teeth are somehow in disharmony with all his broken parts; braces mean fixing, future, caring. Then too, he is clean and neatly dressed, so someone cares.

He removes the keyboard from the trolley and places it on the subway floor. It is a mirror of himself: cracked, patched, duct-taped. And amplified. He plugs in and flops down on the floor, not on his knees: butt on the floor, legs splayed at odd angles to one side like a kid about to play with his Legos. He fully occupies the space in front of the doors, making it impossible for anyone to enter or exit and further highlighting his blatant, genuine lack of shame. He starts to play and everything else fades to black in that moment. Bach, Beethoven, flawless Rachmaninoff flying over the keys. On the floor, on a beat-up plastic Yamaha, brandishing scars on the D-line to Congreso. This is Buenos Aires.

I have to get off even though I’d rather continue. I give him a much bigger tip than the clown, not because he deserved more—half of it was my guilt for not giving the clown more, for not having openly congratulated either of them for their talent, for not thanking them for the music. But mostly for presuming they’d be too loud, too predictable, too hard to drown out, too in my face. Perhaps someone will make a movie about the countless characters like these on public transit in Buenos Aires. Because sometimes you set off on a quiet solo trip to the cinema not wanting to be disturbed only to discover that what happens along the way is a story worth telling.