Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Your first Buenos Aires days

You wonder whether anything prepares you. You know that the suburbs can’t—not the sprawl of bargain hardware stores, or the parking lots, or the rain-streaked condos or the parks. The skyline can’t, because it’s every other city skyline you’ve ever seen, just a smattering of tall buildings in the distance, sulking beneath the cloudy sky. Even this widening road can’t help you now, this road that’s taken you so many places already: into Guatemala, Nicaragua, Quito and Lima, La Paz. It’s the same road, you know, that brought you for the first time to New York City, through Chappaqua, White Plains, Mount Vernon and Queens. It can drop hints, this pavement, but it’s never going to talk.

The people in this bus start to shift in their seats and to whisper. They crane their necks and watch how the lives outside these windows grow tighter and tighter, more and more closely packed. This, I think—the quickening of breath—is how you best can tell. Our hearts beat faster; we’re thinking, this is it, in all the many languages we speak. It looks cold out there and suddenly I’m afraid. This can’t be it; these suburbs like anywhere else, and always the gloomy sky. I send my mind back, back to Rosario, which I loved. It’s where the heat of the sun lasted all night long, and the water from the fountain smacked the cobblestones. The cab driver there leaned over and rolled down my window for me to let the humid wind off the river rush inside. He swore good-naturedly at the car in front of him, and he joked that my mochila in the front seat beside him was big enough to be another person. Mi compañera, he’d laughed, punching the horn.

This may be the right road in, but I discover that this city won’t emerge around this bus, swallowing us the way Manhattan does, the moment you cross that bridge. Nor is it like the desert highway towards La Paz, where the red roofs swell the valley that you look down into. It’s not like the rumbling flatness of those Central American cities I rushed in and out of, crushed by honking horns and markets riddled with thieves, sleazy hotels and always, always, the warnings, whispered in shaking voices—Be careful, don’t stay here, be careful, get out. No, it isn’t like that here, for today there’s just the rain on the windshield and the wet roadside grass. The roads curve over and under each other, and along the shoulders of this highway trucks are parked. There’s a Latin Best Buy, an Argentinean Target, and beside me now is a massive supermercado, abandoned carts rattling over the lot like noisy, lost children. I could be entering Syracuse, or Kissimmee, or San Loredo or Albuquerque, because here is this sprawl, this familiar and horrible face of all that’s urban.


You always think it’ll come to you so slow, because, after all, these are the moments you’ve been holding your breath for. But don’t they always happen in real-time, just like every other moment in your life? And so by now you figure you should have learned your lesson, and you try not to be surprised. This arrival turns out not to be patched with meaning the way you thought for sure it would be; it isn’t weighted with the knowing smiles of strangers, or a telling, lily-scented gust of wind, or golden shafts of surprise sunlight that pour onto you, all of a sudden, through the clouds that before looked so thick.

No, it won’t be that way at all. The bus pulls through the slums that ring this city and then slowly, slowly grinds to a stop, and everyone climbs off without looking your way. This is where we are! You want to tell the woman beside you, but she is packing up her bag and running her fingers through her hair with someone else, someone waiting, on her mind. You feel like this moment should merit a laugh, or tears, but neither comes; you collect your bag and comb your own hands through your hair. God, how tired you suddenly feel, with no one outside this bus waiting for you. You expected to feel so much, after all, but now, with this press of gray sky, and this sharp and biting wind, all that’s inside you is a dull little stab. Maybe it’s fear, you think, though you’re hoping it’s just the weather.


The man in the taxi doesn’t speak to you. He has a hard time understanding you, he says, and that is that. How cold it is, you tell him, he smiles a false smile and doesn’t answer. You drive on wide, clean roads past the slums, then the parks, then the skyscrapers of Palermo. White statues, cut grass, and even white lines on the road—They were right, you think. This could be anywhere. You see, as you watch the buildings pass you by, silent through the sealed windows of this car, a hundred places you have been already. These are the cold, remarkable parks that every wealthy city boasts. You wish, suddenly, for a scrap of paper to blow across the windshield, or for a man to stop the car so he can wash it, or for an old woman with a baby in one arm to stumble forward with candies and magazines for sale. All these cars, these planes above you, but there’s not a single sign of life. You’ll take anything, you think: can’t the rain just come? Can’t the sun break lose? Why can’t you see, for just a blessed second, one glimpse of the daytime moon? But this city gives you nothing, and so you ride through it, unspeaking, trying to blink these lonesome tears away.

Donigan is kind, of course, his bright blue eyes smiling at you, receiving you into his fourth-floor flat, with the big, open living room, the elegant chairs and coffee tables, the flat-screen by the window and the gleaming, marbled kitchen. There’s the bed he offers you, with the yellow sheets and the matching blinds; this room, and the bathroom across the hall, smell just the way your grandmother’s old house did, and for that you are grateful. You realize, as you have so many times since leaving home, that you can hold your home inside of you. That, at least, is something, and how soft these carpeted floors feel on your bare feet. The warm water in the sink that you splash on your face, and the clean, white towels that sit waiting. He gives you food; he gives you wine. How long it’s been since you’ve heard this close the voice of a friend, the round and familiar sound of your very own accent. Still, when you look out the long front windows and see the buildings all around you, all taller than this one, and the clean streets below you, the even stream of traffic and the pedestrians all dressed in black, in boots, you feel the pang again. Something’s missing, you think; something’s lost on you here. Come to our city, you thought these buildings were saying, but now that you’re here you realize you weren’t hearing the voices of this town. The sirens came from inside you, and you were mistaken.


And so you eat, with Donigan, the fine meals that the wealthy Palermo neighborhood has to offer. You let the rich food, the rich conversation, fill you up as best it can. You walk beneath the eucalyptus that lines the wide, wide streets, and you gaze up at the balconies that spill over with rooftop gardens. Sleek coffee shops; tiny bars; little streets with dripping walls of ivy. These people don’t smile—This is a city, after all, Donigan says. This is New York. But you know that it isn’t, because New York’s streets, though wide like these, though shifting and crammed with the tiniest shops, do not have these smells, these same broken tiles, the same paintings that, late at night, the artists spray onto the walls. No, this isn’t New York, and it isn’t Berlin. Sometimes, you think that you see Montreal, but then you turn a corner and realize you couldn’t be farther from that city, either. And so you try not to look too hard for something you figure you won't find. You try to be grateful for the food, for the sweet wine in the evenings, for the companionship and the warm and quiet bed. Still, the city stretches before you and, deep down, you remain afraid, because this isn’t what you’d hoped for, and there is no one reaching out.


Until one evening you leave the apartment alone. You walk and walk through Palermo, through the old part, through the new part and through Soho. The light is turning as the rain fades, and in the distance you can see a pink line in the sky; this is the sun, slicing through the clouds like the knife you used on your breakfast bread. The puddles in the street are glowing now, and the leaves in the trees, because it is spring, are just starting to open over your head. The man who sells you a box of juice in the tiny kiosk on the corner gives you it for less than it’s worth when you scrounge around for change but can’t find it. How do you like my city? He asks you, and shakes your hand.

You stumble across an artisan market, where men in holey jeans and beards stand around with half-smoked cigarettes between their fingers, watching you watch them. Ladies knit, sitting beside the hats they’ve already crafted, the sweaters and vests and shawls. Someone’s weaving together a bracelet, a little girl pulls her mother’s hand, and dogs nose through. Incense floats over everything, and beyond that you can smell the faint and pungent tug of marijuana. Someone’s playing a guitar; a girl is singing. An old man with a kind face and light eyes looks up from where he sits behind his stall, a hundred different shells laid out before him on the velvet. He doesn’t say a word as you pore over them, running your fingers over their polished, spotted backs.

So this, you think, as you finally leave the market, is what it is. This softness in the air as the weekend ends; this strolling pace; the woman with the long, dark hair who walks ahead of you. The guy with ten dogs on ten leashes; the crumbling bricks of that building beside you, and the glasses of wine on the table in there. You have seen just a flicker, you know, and there is so much more where that came from: so many other markets, so many other lives, so many other streets that change shape and ramble on. So many years, and so many cracking coats of paint. The veins of this city run deeper than you could ever know, and so how could you have thought that those empty parks and sealed-up cars were everything? How stupid you were, for waiting for some gift like it would fall into your lap. Sometimes, you have to find the signs, and sometimes you must wait. The darkness comes and settles over you, and though you know you must go home, you just keep walking, for you are craving more than anything to be lost.


  1. just ... wow.

    i've been absent a while, ignoring my google reader and the internet in general, but I look forward to catching up backward, kate. :)