Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Che, Me Mudaré

My time in South America has ended. Although I blogged little about my adventures in Buenos Aires, I composed a poem about ordinary yet meaningful reflections that defined my experience. Lo siguiente es un homenaje a la ciudad que ya extraño. The title means, "Hey, I'm Moving." Native Spanish speakers have told me that the poem is uniquely descriptive and lyrical. I fear an English translation would lose this musical rhythm, and consequently have not included one.

Che, Me Mudaré

Para los bonaerenses es su provincia.
Para los porteños es su ciudad.
Para los argentinos que restan es su capital.
Para mi, Buenos Aires no es un lugar, sino una mezcla de sentimientos, sonidos y sueños.

Un cruce de esquinas y momentos cuando mi destino chocó con un destino:
Peña y Uriburu, bajo un diluvio, cuando recebí las primeras llaves para abrir esta vida nueva.
Florida y Mitre, los jueves a las 18:30, sentado en el segundo piso tomando un café y conversando con mi pareja de intercambio.
Calle 5 y Calle 6 donde sentía el temor de meterme con la frontera de la villa 31.
Santa Fe y Riobamba donde observé un cacerolaso antes de juntarme con los demás. Marché a la Plaza, tapa y cuchara en mano. Los golpeé al ritmo de ser un argentino animado y armado con la pasión de protestar.

La pasión se convierte en la rivalidad, una especialidad de esta ciudad.
De Boca y River, Freddo y Volta, Nación y Clarín, bondis y tachos, centro y suburbio, soberbio y decente, lomo y bife, tinto y blanco, la movida y la aurora.

En Buenos Aires vivía días de dos horas.
Dos a la mañana en la sala de musculación, entrenando.
Dos a la tarde en un aula con mujeres listas, hablando una lengua viva.
Dos después en un café, leyendo obras de escritores en español.

Un día en que si no hoy, hay mañana, y si no mañana, pasado mañana está bien también.
Una ciudad de onda, con sedución y sin presión.
Servicio no punctual, sino relajado al lento paso de un tango.

Algunas veces los pasos aumentan. Los cartels me advierten:
Sólo en efectivo
Colabore con cambio
No hay monedas
No se vaya sin factura
Cierre la puerta
Descienda por atrás
Mantenga distancia

Está alerta por acá.
Mirá por donde pisás, no sólo por las veredas agrietadas.
Entre robos y paros, demonstraciones e inundaciones, hay un menú de los quilombos del día.
Sueldos fijos, precios subidos, monedas desaparecidas.
El coro de bocinas Microcentrinas, la sirena de SAME, el silbido del Subte.
El humo de un 60, la neblina del campo.
¡Pará!
A pesar de respirar días difíciles, el mal olor se transformaba en un buen amor.
Aires siempre eran Buenos.

Tal vez sea optimista con placeres sencillos:
El beso de encuentro y partida.
Una gota de Persico con coco y dulce de leche con brownie.
La aroma del maní garrapiñada flotando en el aire.
La sensación de verde en la Plaza San Martín, cubierta en las hojas y la mansarda.
Un paseo por el Palacio de Aguas Corrientes donde un suspiro siempre se me escapaba.
Una vista nocturna del Obelisco, el clave blanco anclado en el corazón de la capital.
La madera de la Línea A, cuyas carrozas viejas se desplazan bajo de la tierra.
La luz negra dentro del colectivo 109, viajando por Viamonte a la madrugada
Las calles empedradas con sus fachadas pintadas.
Los graffitis y el arte callejero que busqué a pie por Barracas y Constitución a San Telmo.
El código del lunfardo y las muletillas de “che” y “boludo.”
Los tiempos cuando una señora me llamó “joven” o un camerero me saludó “caballero.”
Los almuerzos ejecutivos con una copa de tinto y dos bochas al final.

Ahora estoy en un café cualquiera.
Me siento solo, pero acompañado con un tostado mixto y licuado de banana – siempre con leche.
Escribo estos pensamientos sobre el volante de “Mi Matute,” mi pizzeria preferida donde pedía en persona una criolla para evitar equivocarme por teléfono.

Escribo como el periodista que no voy a ser,
Como el poeta que no sabía que era.
Palabras, lágrimas y recuerdos llenan la página, fundidos como el jamón y queso en el plato.
Esta es la ciudad que yo veía, donde yo vivía, porteño, por un poco.

El fin de la travesía se acerca.
De Buenos Aires me voy, dejando buenos tiempos y la vida tranquila.
Espera el próximo capítulo.
Extingo este fuego lento que creció.
El humo reaparece.
Pero esta vez huele bien.
Bien dulce.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Kawagoe


Less than an hour from Tokyo, "Little Edo" (小江戸) is a throwback to what bigger Edo might have looked like. A beloved bell tower, the city's symbol, presides over a well-preserved block of distinctive black kurazukuri (fireproof merchant houses). Nearby, dozens of confectionery shops do brisk business from passing sweet tooths. Cherry blossom season is an especially rewarding time to explore Kawagoe´s landscaped temples.

Click here for more pictures of Kawagoe (川越).

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Away Game

During my first year in Japan, I went to a professional baseball game with two students. A year later, I returned to the bleachers, but this time to watch my students take the field. High school baseball in Japan is like college basketball in America: fiercely local and competitive, and more followed than the professionals. Koshien, a national high school tournament, is like March Madness twice a year.

Shin Gakko has a reputation for sporting excellence. For example, women’s handball is one of the top programs in the nation, and a source of talent for the Japanese national team. The SG baseball machine is also a force on the field. Whereas some Tokyoites I met didn’t recognize the city ward (borough) in which I worked my first year, the name Shin Gakko in the suburbs rang a bell because of their success at Koshien. The potential for my students of today to become the professional stars of tomorrow wasn’t a trite exaggeration. This baseball squad was better trained than some national armies. Year-round practice, sometimes twice daily, cultivated a fighting spirit unleashed on a diamond battlefield.

Loaded bats rested on young shoulders. If the well-stocked trophy cases outside of the principal’s office were anything to go by, sports was the pride of the school, its reputation staked to athletic success. A strong Koshien performance counted for more than the exam scores of the other 2,000 students. Some teachers bowed to these crew-cut stars in spite of less than stellar academics, but I didn’t have to force favorites – their receptive attitude towards English made me an instant fan.

At the beginning of the school year, my enthusiasm still bubbly, I imagined myself being that loyal teacher in the bleachers. Visible and vocal, I’d earn a reputation of supporting students outside of the classroom while gaining respect inside it.

Language and logistical barriers, however, sidelined that lofty ideal. Just pinpointing ever-changing game locations proved a challenge. In space-starved Japan, the school’s only field was a fenced-in dirt patch where handball, soccer, track and tennis teams practiced, often simultaneously. As a result, baseball games were held off-site. Those on the weekend were both hours from home and sometimes beyond the reach of public transportation. And reporting to work every other Saturday only increased my desire for distance from school-related activities. Instead of becoming the regular I aspired, I barely made a cameo.

I wouldn’t have even managed one game without active recruitment from Kijo. The second baseman and I had been talking about the upcoming game against Bunryo H.S. for weeks, at a clip of one sentence per day. A morning update from Kijo was part of my routine. I’d punch in at 8:11 a.m. and change into “indoor” shoes that carried me across the concrete courtyard to an 8:15 meeting. Two stories above the courtyard, the 12th grader leaned out of a window to inspect the flood of uniformed foot traffic clomping towards classrooms. I stood out for my size.

“Gooood morning!” Kijo saluted from above. I signaled a silent response. He then cupped his outstretched hand skyward to detect any drops.

“The weather is fine today,” he concluded with a smile worthy of a toothpaste commercial.

Actually, the sky was a miserable grey, but in Kijo’s world the sun was always shining. He had a class president’s persona – affable and outgoing among friends while respectful and studious for teachers. During a year when I struggled to cultivate classroom interest in English, Kijo was a refreshing exception. He initiated conversation in English, and used proper grammar without perversions. From this window we forged a friendship.

If only he had been my student. Those of my own had no appetite for English. Only running the mile seemed to draw longer faces. Yet among the bright spots of talent, lights few and far between, were those with mitts packed among their textbooks.

“Baseball game against Bunryo is in two weeks,” Kijo reminded with a wave before shifting his attention to a teammate below.

He did more than just remind me. He created a color-coded map labeled in English. It highlighted the way from school to the game with times and transfers for a series of trains unfamiliar to me. Yet my confidence in the cartographer faltered at rural Asaka station, the last stop on my map. A distinction between east and west exits was not labeled among the landmarks. Before I bet on one direction, I saw something familiar, but not from the map.

It was a short navy skirt with gray socks pulled up to the knees. Uniforms were required when attending school-related events, even on weekends, a protocol I suddenly praised. I was relieved to run into Manami at the station. Actually, it was more like I ran after her. I followed her familiar uniform from a distance, hoping she would show me the way.

At first I thought she sensed the stalker in me, leading me in circles through the station. It turned out she was just as lost, so I blew my cover to combine our resources – my illustrated map with her native tongue. Although in Kijo’s grade, she didn’t share his fluency. After six years of study she couldn’t string together two words in English.

After walking for 15-minutes in silence, a stadium came into sight. Manami and I entered side-by-side, dropping the jaws of the student ticket takers and drawing stares from parents handing out programs. I smirked off the attention as Manami led the way to our seats.

Inside, school supports took sides. Each section fired up its team with a repertoire of chants, honking trombones and pails of water sloshed on supporters after a run scored. I recognized Shin Gakko students and their band along the third base line. Not sure if off-duty teachers were welcome in the cheering corral, I tagged along behind Manami to the general seating and parent area behind home plate where two of her friends were waiting. The bands blared fight songs to introduce what would be a battle of a game.

Emerging from the dugout in uniforms crisp and white, these teenagers looked like minor leaguers taking the field. A scoreboard flickered to life, and a female announcer introduced the first batter to one-sided applause. Speedy centerfielder Shintaro Nishida stepped to the plate. The hardened looks on players’ faces spread to the spectators. Lines were drawn; everyone dug in.

Shin Gakko knocked in four runs that first inning, but I didn’t recognize any of the batters. Although I taught a number of students on the team, most were sophomores who went through the same punishing drills during daily practice, but watched their elders compete until age privileged them to perform. Kijo, although a senior, seemed not to be in the lineup, but I spotted his white smile around the dugout high-fiving teammates who had scored.

During the 7th inning stretch, players raked the dirt infield. In the stands, mothers busied themselves dispensing paper cups of tea to thirsty supports resting their voices that had quieted since the first inning outburst; we were now down by a run. An offensive reawakening in the 8th inning, however, prompted me to write this column for a newspaper designed for non-native English speakers.

After the game I sought out Kijo to congratulate him on the victory. Before I could get to the throng of players, I bumped into
Principal Ouchy who, in his standard suit and tie, at first didn’t recognize me in a backwards baseball hat and jeans. Elation from the late-inning heroics masked any grumble of disapproval. After all, his school’s reputation was safe for another week.



After recording the final out, Shin Gakko's team (in white, left) rushes to the batter's box where both teams will bow to each other.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Snow Gleaming



A year ago I called in sick to work while boarding a plane to Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. I was bound for frosty Sapporo, the site of an international snow sculpture festival and the hope of the eponymous beer. During my week up north, I detoured to the fishing port of Otaru, which was holding its own wintry festival that I recently wrote up below.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Year When...

Finally I got up. The Germans, Israelis, Bolivians and Argentines were already on their feet, glasses held high with anticipation. We gathered around folding tables littered with cow bones and side dishes reduced to lettuce shreds and tomato seeds at Hostel Exxes’ year-end barbecue.

Grillmaster Juan Pablo and younger brother Fernando stood armed and ready with shaken bottles of champagne aimed at the group. Paula, one of the Bolivian girls who later dragged me out to Club 21, leaned over to say she couldn’t wait to bid despedida al año 2007.

On TV, a man wearing a funny hat was also excited. Jumbo purple numbers ticked down over his face. 10…9…8…I wished for an action movie ending. The kind where the cord is cut, the code is cracked. In this intervention of mine, time doesn’t expire; it rewinds. Sand defies gravity and refills the empty hourglass of 2007.

Someday, after many more inversions of the yearly hourglass, after double knee replacement surgery, and after white hairs have rooted in my ears, I will wish upon time to transport me back to the year just passed.

A year when I operated cell phones in three different languages.

A year when I spent more time abroad than most people do in a lifetime, but managed to reconnect with friends and family at home.

A year when I took almost 12,000 photographs of global subjects as diverse as a sign of democracy in a repressive regime
to the world’s leading icon of liberty.

A year when I switched countries like TV channels.

A year when I had a full-time job for just three months,
but never worked harder in my life.

A year when English was often my second language.

A year when not only did I follow dreams, but lived them in vivid colors. In vivid cultures. In vivid company.

A year when, if only for a day, I considered life as a single father.

A year when every calendar page was torn off in a different city,
a different county.

A year that began on the quiet Indonesian beaches of Gili Air and ended at a festive Argentine asado in the city of Salta.

A year that was 2007.



My Hollywood ending never materialized. Now in 2008, I’ve surrendered to the measured march of time, but remembrance remains forever mine. Crisp photos. Fresh flashbacks. Lessons of life indelibly etched in my memory.

I have many people to thank for inspiring me during journeys far and wide, but gratitude shouldn't be expressed as a laundry list. Some can’t read English. Others can’t reach a computer. To you who do, I post this at the risk of coming across as maudlin, even arrogant. To the contrary. Had you viewed the year through my lens, you too would wish 2007 eternal.

JANUARI: GILI ISLANDS ❖ INDONESIAN PARADISE


2月: JAPAN ❖ SAPPORO SNOW FESTIVAL


3月: 東京教師のたいしょく ❖ EARLY RETIREMENT


TAGU: MYANMAR ❖ PROFOUND SIMPLICITY


พฤษภาคม: THAILAND ❖ BANGKOK & BEACHES


JUNE: NEW HAMPSHIRE ❖ COLLEGE REUNION


7月: 東京最終ツアー ❖ TOKYO FINAL TOUR



ÁGÚST: ICELAND ❖ RAW BEAUTY


SEPTEMBER: NY ❖ HOME AT LAST


OCTUBRE: ARGENTINA ❖ ADVENTURE ANEW


NOVIEMBRE: BUENOS AIRES ❖ DíAS BUENOS


DICIEMBRE: SALTA & JUJUY PROVINCES ❖ DREAMSCAPES


Feliz Año Nuevo a todos.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Phi Phi Paradise

To coincide with the three year anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami,
I wrote an article
about my visit to Thailand's Phi Phi islands to evaluate how well Ko Phi Phi Don has gotten back on its feet following unspeakable loss.

For more photos of a paradise rebuilt, click here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

La Mucama Esmeralda

Mucama is the Argentine word for a female servant, but I like ama de llaves, literally woman of the keys. Whatever keeper of the house lingo you prefer, I am of course talking about my criada, the maid. Esmeralda comes Tuesdays at 10, a time I mark on my calendar as a reminder to leave extra early for Spanish class to avoid the awkward encounter between servant and master. At a hotel would you enjoy room service with your feet up and television on while the morning maids put your room in order? Since I’ve never met my empleada dómestica, I actually don’t know her name, but imagine that Esmeralda fits just fine.

Apartment rentals in Buenos Aires commonly include once-a-week cleaning. Although I keep neat on my own accord, I won’t pass up a free scrub of the scrum lining the toilet and sink. Ironically, if you want to find my apartment at its cleanest, knock at 9:45 on Tuesdays. I feel compelled to leave my place in good condition before hired help does the job for me.

I get Esmeralda off to a running start. Grocery bags full of trash are put out in the hall next to the garbage shoot. Boxes of crackers and granola bars are aligned. Apples are stacked. Dishes are cleaned and placed in the drying rack. Crumbs from tablecloth and hairs from bathmat are released into the morning air off the sixth-story balcony. Bathroom and bed-making duties, however, remain squarely in Esmeralda’s domain.

Spooked by tales of low-paid crooked maids, I lockdown the apartment before leaving. All electronic devices are stowed inside my suitcase, such as a MacBook Pro 2GHz laptop, Canon XTi DSLR camera and Oral B 7400 toothbrush. The last is done more out of concern that Esmeralda will knock the bristly vibrator off its perch on the mirror’s ledge, switching me to manual twice a day from here on out.

I vacate no later than 9:55, and walk 45 minutes downtown to my 11:00 class. When I return by 2 p.m., I can tell that Esmeralda has worked her magic. The balcony door is ajar; curtains billow in the breeze. But upon closer inspection – sink and toilet aside – the magic is an illusion. The bed smiles with hospital corners, but the floor is crunchy from whatever she kicked up underneath while making it.

Had Esmeralda bothered to sweep, she would have treated herself to the dollar’s worth of pesos I discovered when surveying the filth under the bed. Instead, I pocket the change as compensation, slipping golden coins into my bag to pay for tomorrow morning’s subway ride downtown.

Esmeralda has also failed other tests I devised following that first peek under the bed. The apartment has a mini moth problem – small in physical size and scope – not big enough to warrant redecorating with balls of naphthalene, but just annoying enough to make me give chase while clapping my hands.

For those unfortunate to have been caught up in my standing ovation, I use their powdery remains as checkpoints to evaluate Esmeralda’s thoroughness, or lack thereof. Yes, I deposit dead moths at strategic locations around the apartment: by the telephone, on top of the television, next to the nightstand lamp. Yet, there is no change come Tuesday afternoon. Just as moth remains lie undisturbed, so does Mel the (living, and usually sleeping) spider in his web-bed corner behind the bathroom door.

An army of Esmeraldas with buckets and brooms makes a small, hard-earned living cleaning up after foreigners able to afford to best of Buenos Aires by day and night. Where is the time or motivation to deep clean dozens of apartments in one day, all grander than hers somewhere out in Lomas de Zamora or Villa 31? The prism of cursory service casts a spectrum of valuations. For me, coming home and seeing sunshine strike the straightened comforter feels special that someone has been in while I’ve been out, no matter how helter-skelter the toiletries now are in the bathroom.

After hand-exterminating another moth fluttering around my closet (and laying it to rest on the stereo’s power button), I unlock electronics from my luggage and boot up the computer. I open the calendar and highlight the following Tuesday, marking it as Día de Esmeralda.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Asimilación


TOP 15 SIGNS I’M TURNING ARGENTINE

15. Making small talk with merchants about latest national football result.
14. Wishing I had a billfold of 20s instead of 100s for which nobody has change.
13. Listening to wistful tango tunes on Internet radio streams.
12. Navigating ankle-twisting sidewalks in stride, although not necessarily with grace.
11. Lingering in cafés over croissants and mint mocha lattes for three hours.
10. Showing up to parties two hours late, but still being two hours early.
9. Hailing the bus, and later, executing a moving dismount when it slows but doesn’t stop to disgorge passengers.
8. Kissing strangers hello/good-bye on the cheek.
7. Pronouncing double Ls like drawn-out Js.
6. Shaving four-day-old stubble in four more days.
5. Eating every edible part of a cow at some point during the week.
4. Doing day’s to-do list sometime this week…or next.
3. Getting home by 04:00 qualifies as an early night.
2. Caving into cravings for ½ lb. servings of ice cream at Freddo, Moretto, Persico, Un Altra Volta, that mom & pop shop on the corner.
1. Looking up at blue skies from palm-shaded streets lined with European-inspired facades. Absorbing uninterrupted sunshine. Pressing pause on the game of life to appreciate that I could have landed on a far worse level…and that it’s time for #2.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Celebration of Skin

People ask why I chose Buenos Aires, and not some other cosmopolitan Latin American capital where a strong dollar makes living light on the savings. One reason is that, well, Managua or La Paz aren’t home to an important Jewish Diaspora. Buenos Aires, on the other hand, has the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel. Although not observant by any stretch of the imagination, when starting from scratch (again) in another international city, I at least hoped to have religion as a common thread to tie me into local life should I feel too displaced. It turns out I didn’t have to go far to find it – religion found me.

Heading out for a midnight snack, I left my apartment wearing an Israeli Defense Forces t-shirt. I was just going down the block to Volta for a quarter kilogram (half a pound) of heavenly gelato flavors like dulce de leche con brownie, cream of almonds con caramelized almonds and tiramisu con real chunks of cake.

After crossing the street at my own risk at Junín and Peña (more on this later), a man on the corner with a black hat and bushy beard said something to me in what I guessed was Hebrew. Seeing the confusion in my eyes, he switched to Castilian (Spanish), but got the same look before making a connection with me in English.

After admitting I was Jewish, Rafael the rabbi asked me what I knew about Jabad Lubavitch. The blank looks resumed, so he tried making a connection to some famous rabbi in Brooklyn.

“Don’t you know Brooklyn!” he demanded, hoping I would say yes to something.

My ignorance prompted him to reconfirm my identity with questions like “Were you born in New York?” “Is your mother Jewish?” and “Did you have a bar mitzvah?” After I regained his confidence, he returned to the rabbi questions, digging into his wallet lined with large bills to find a creased black and white photo of a rabbi I still didn’t recognize.

“Without the beard and black hat, he sort of looks like the Pope,” I said sheepishly. Rafael inhaled a large breath of disappointment. But I wasn't totally a lost cause, just a work in progress. We exchanged numbers so that he could invite me over to temple sometime.

A week after the chance encounter my cell rang. I didn’t recognize the number or voice.

“Heyyyy Jeff man, what’s up?”

The hearty, American-sounding greeting caught me off guard. My first thought was a surprise call from a fraternity brother now in Zambia, but who didn’t have my number even if he found a working phone to dial South America.

Rabino Rafael wanted to see what I was doing the next night because there was some celebration at the synagogue. After greeting me in English, he had defaulted back to Spanish, a stronger tongue. I thought I understood him well enough, but sought confirmation of the odd, unexpected invitation.

“So, I can attend the event where they do the skin cutting of the dick?” I asked in suave Spanish, which turned heads on the express line at Disco, a supermarket chain I initially mistook for a record store.

“The boy’s father would love it if you attended,” the rabbi said as I stepped out of line to add to my basket, wondering what sort of gift would be most appropriate to mark the occasion – bottle of Malbec, jar of formaldehyde or Swiss Army knife.

Hanging up the phone, I felt strangely excited to attend my first bris (well, technically my second). Whereas growing up in New York I’d cook up any excuse to skip Wednesday night Hebrew school or marathon High Holiday services, here in Buenos Aires I couldn’t be too choosy with company, at least not at the outset. Having Tuesday night plans other than eating cold pizza in my apartment was comforting, even if I was only going down the street to temple to celebrate foreskin removal. There I could meet locals, practice Spanish and score points with Dios all at the same time.

Uncertainty, however, undercut excitement. I already grit my teeth when trying to communicate with porteños, most frequently when I present a basket of goods to Disco’s mumbling clerks. Discomfort would double at an Argentine temple where, with a yarmulke on my head, it would be expected that I'd be versed in hymns and traditions when the sad truth is that I’m all but illiterate unless Wikipedia is a click away. Worst case scenarios swirled in my mind. What if Rafael asked me to lead a prayer? To bless the wine. Break the bread. Cut the skin. All I could muster would a blessing for Chanukah candles.

The next evening as I made my way to temple, I paused where Peña intersects Junín in free form. Although not even a blip on the city’s grid of poorly controlled streets, I take no comfort as drivers speed up to these crosswalks like a finish line in their race to beat traffic. Barreling down Junín, a convoy of buses belches black smoke while cars shoot across Peña without so much as a stop sign to regulate right of way. When the screeching of tires interrupts my dreams, my mind flashes to this intersection where a black and yellow taxicab (no doubt driving without headlights) has stopped on a peso to avoid driving through the side of bus #101.
video
An elderly man stood at the corner, looking dapper but apparently not seeing much. Sensing that someone was beside him, he spoke up. Before I could process the translation, he hooked his arm around mine and marched us across the street. I threw up my free arm in hopes of slowing a cab and Fiat running neck and neck to the finish line.

It turned out that the gentleman and I were headed to the same place. The bris, minus the baby’s robotic wails from a different dimension of pain, was a festive event followed by an appetizing spread of finger food and sweets. Rafael introduced me to the head rabbi, and we all did a shot of Smirnoff. For someone who can’t remember the last time he had been to temple, I look forward to making it twice in one week for Shabbat dinner.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

La Vida Nueva

The New Life.

Author’s note:
Three months after saying sayonara to Japan, I began a new chapter on another continent. Hurdles previously cleared were resurrected to adapt to a different language at an opposite latitude. Japan was truly a mystifying experience, through which writing helped me better understand. The urge to share vagaries of another life abroad – seemingly less foreign than before – has waned. So too has the conviction to chronicle. However, rather than remaining silent, I hope to occasionally write vignettes on universal themes. Think more along the lines of neighbors and universities instead of adventures of fishy dinners and naughty school children.

Fresh musings will be posted here on Tokyo Tanenhaus, but under the label of “Argentina.” I do not wish to uproot an identity cultivated in Asia to sow a distinct South American one. These feet will never forget the maze-like streets and subways of Tokyo, even if they learn to tango. As my virtual fingerprint, this blog charts growth like tree rings, each line detailing an adventure or achievement. There is no need to plant a new tree in Argentina; new will sprout from old. As tales from the Far East remain in the works, expect a mixed species.

For now I’ll begin with the soggy day when I touched down in Buenos Aires. Will la vida nueva become la vida Buena? I have six months to figure it out along with everything else that comes with unpacking in another end of the world.

EZE did not live up to its hassle-free-sounding airport code. Ezeiza’s terminal felt like a further step down from the illogically designed Miami International Airport where I had stopped en route from New York to Buenos Aires. Expecting a light dinner at American Airlines’ Admirals Club for which I had a free pass, I instead washed down dry carrot sticks and stale mini-pretzels with cold tap water. This spread was a far cry from the airline’s Narita lounge that served up smoked salmon sandwich squares, wrapped rice balls and self-serve draft beer and liquor free of charge. I hoped it wasn’t a metaphorical sign of the transition to come from life in Asia to that in South America.

A squat security guard blocked the staircase down to immigration where a crush of people were already corralled towards rubber stampers inside glass booths. The man held back a growing tide of sputtering passengers deplaning from two 777s. The other had arrived from Berlin, home to tongues that always sound sputtering to me. In line for the better part of an hour gave me time to dream of a hypothetical childhood as a soccer-loving youth in the squalor of Asunción. Carrying a Paraguayan passport at least would have qualified for the Mercosur speed line.

Unlike my once jittery arrival at Tokyo Narita, there were no probing questions about my intentions or intended length of stay in Argentina. The agent actually asked if I wanted a tourist visa; maybe I should have inquired about the alternatives.

The untiled, unlit baggage claim felt like a flea market. People shouted from behind wheeled carts piled high. I salvaged two bags, one weighing 58 pounds, and queued again. Customs’ x-ray machines were the size and speed of dinosaurs, combing for contraband but eliciting only deep sighs from already harried passengers.

Transfer to a prearranged apartment downtown was smoother thanks to a prearranged taxi service. Francisco, an amiable porteño in his 60s, seemed eager to chat. He encouraged me, despite my rusted Spanish, to ask him any question about anything in the city. I was pretty good at Spanish in high school, but that was ten years ago in a classroom with a teacher paid to praise. Now in the real world, I started slowly by asking his favorite place in the city. He responded, “everywhere,” but singled out the botanical gardens for being particularly pleasant.

Airport cab rides slowed in traffic tend to kindle the usual 20 questions. Among my answers riddled with grammatical errors were a few blatant blunders, such as introducing myself as “a desk” instead of “a writer” and admitting that I looked forward to meeting “little girls” out in the city’s vibrant nightlife.

Francisco thought my Spanish was good enough for only learning it in school. He said that kids study English here, but can’t string together much of a conversation after exams. I told him I was acutely aware of this reality having taught English in Japan for two years.

We drove past a barricaded National Congress where the asphalt was sprayed white with political messages to Argentina’s elected leaders. As balconied facades assumed more European elegance, Francisco said that my address in Recoleta was in the nicest neighborhood of the city, which affirmed what every guidebook had said about this Parisian-inspired area with doormanned lobbies and shaded sidewalks smeared with poodle poop. Francisco pulled up to a door (sans a man) on Peña Street. We wrestled my luggage out of the boot and onto the sidewalk. He then bid me an enthusiastic farewell, tooting the horn while the taxi purred off in the pouring rain.

The lift to the sixth floor was a cage-like elevator with double manual doors. The apartment owner’s mother and agency representative greeted me for the ceremonial contract signing and rent payment. A brief tour of the one-bedroom apartment ensued. During a demonstration in the kitchen, flames roared out of the side of the gas oven. They’d have it fixed, I was told, but in the meantime I was to play it safe by using only the front burner. Another ominous sign was the sinister blue flame of the water heater continually burning through an exposure in the tank.

Not one to cook, I was far more concerned about the Internet connection, my lifeline to the world. Once I got that up and running, I sat down and pondered my fate in a city where I suddenly had nothing to do and nobody to do it with. I celebrated freedom by redecorating – small touches to make an already furnished home feel homier. For example, I programmed the microwave’s clock and converted an empty bidet into a bowlful of toiletries. After all, Americans are far too civilized to need to wash the dirtiest part of the body after use.

The reason behind bidet storage arrangement was that I dared not rest anything on the sink, which threatens to topple from the weight of anything more than a soap dish. The bathroom has proven more problematic than the kitchen. I blew out the light during a wet run of the toilet, and then snapped a plug inside a socket. Sturdier is the entrance door that has more deadbolts than a bank’s vault. And I thought this was the good neighborhood?

Now to some advice for anyone moving to an unfamiliar place: pack lots of chocolate. Like 58 pounds worth. It won’t spoil and gives needed much-needed energy and comfort when you can’t forage anything else to eat because you are too exhausted or disoriented to leave your kitchen.

Today chocolate is especially apropos. Unlike the tricks I engaged in last year, Halloween in Buenos Aires passed uncelebrated. Instead, I’ll deliver treats – images from one of the world’s coolest cemeteries, a necropolis just down my street, which has turned out to be the rotten road of Recoleta….

Entrance to my apartment building.