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.

No comments: