Monday, July 4, 2011

I went to Argentina this summer

There are many, many translations of “miss” in Spanish (and here I’m referring to “miss” as the verb and not as in “senorita”). While we’d use the same word for “I missed the bus” or “he missed the goal” or “I’m sad that you’re leaving; I’ll miss you,” there is no single way to express each of these in Español. For the first, you might switch the direction of agency around and say, “El colectivo se fue” (“The bus left”). For the second, I’ve heard futbol announcers use “perder,” as in “se lo perdió” (“He missed it”, though I may have the in/direct objects wrong).

But for the third way to say “miss,” there are two very lovely Spanish terms. One is “echar de menos” and the other, esp common in Latin America, is “extrañar.” I think you know where I’m going with this, Broad Readership, for it’s the eve of my departure from Argentina, and I’m feeling that distinctive mix of happiness to be returning home (and at no point am I ever more acutely aware that the USA is my home than when in a foreign country for a long stretch) and threshold nostalgia for the place I’m about to leave.

Pictured above: View south from my depto balcony. Intersection of Vicente Lopez y Azcuenaga in the foreground; Recoleta cemetery on the left; residential hi-rises of Bs As stretching into the distance.

Let’s not confuse aforementioned incipient nostalgia with unequivocal regret at the end of an undifferentiatedly good time, as when you’re a kid and you’re heartbroken that your day at Disneyland is over. Arg has been enormously enjoyable, and I’m absolutely happy to have spent this time here. But this is not at all inconsistent with the ups and downs that accompany a given travel experience. My time here was much more in the nature of travel (quasi-residency, really) than vacation, hence my bristling when people said things like “enjoy your vacation” or whatnot.

Vacations are meant to be escapist and unreflectively enjoyable. Carnival cruises. Trips to Magic Mountain. Tropical “luxury” resorts. And whatnot. The goal of these experiences varies, but the idea is that at every moment you’re relaxing and enjoying yourself, at least ideally if not in practice. You come home with various smiling pix and think about how carefree you were (or, by contrast, how much of a total bust the experience was given that you had a crappy time despite expecting to have an exhilarating and/or escapist experience). No essay better captures the aim of vacationing better than DFW’s inolvidable “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Travel, by contrast, is not meant to be hedonically enjoyable in the same moment-to-moment sense, but instead aims at being on-balance and long-term broadening and enriching, so that you come back from traveling a wiser and more textured person (again, ideally—you might just come back tired and diseased and pissed off). Hence travel can often suck, and there were moments here in Argentina that were far from great.

I’ve blogged mostly about trips to glorious Iguazu and zany madcap hijinks at kosher sushi joints, but there were also a number of downs to these ups. Getting on the wrong colectivo and finding myself lost as hell (more than once). Wandering around freezing trying to find a decent place to eat and finding that somehow each of the five places I’d short-listed were full or closed. Trying to speak Spanish only to commit some awful error or just failing completely to understand what someone is saying, and in either case feeling like a total idiot. Suffering through a hideously ass-kicking flu/cold that lasted a week and took a major chunk out of my time here.

And I would not have had it any other way. The nature of travel, and the reason that I prefer it infinitely to vacationing, is that it has authenticity in several senses. First, it is authentic in the sense that it is a simulacrum of real life, which (obv.) has ups and downs galore, rather than a false and escapist experience in which one is sheltered from life itself and made to feel “pampered” or “luxurious” or some such. Second, the ups of travel feel much more authentic because of the downs. The suckinesses are necessary to get to a point where you realize and appreciate the great parts. Making a fool out of myself in Spanish was a necessary step toward getting to a place of conversational ease. Getting hopelessly lost on colectivos was a necessary step toward understanding how to use them to navigate across the city. &c.

Third, and probably most importantly, the unplanned and inherently jagged nature of the travel experience enables the kind of spontaneous, and sometimes miraculous-seeming, moments of enjoyment, and possibly of joy itself, that aren’t really available in the escapist, heavily-architected setting of a vacation. For this, I’ll not explain long-windedly, though I’m clearly not averse to that, but instead illustrate by way of the best thing that happened to me when I was in Buenos Aires.

It was only just last weekend, and I was pleased with myself for getting to la Boca via colectivo, and I was also pleased at the collection at the Museo Benito Quinquela Martin, and I was wandering around the museum’s third floor, which is redone to replicate the residence of BQM himself, including an antique piano set in a small room lit by the fading afternoon sun. During my third-floor wander, and seemingly out of nowhere, a woman dramatically and darkly beautiful in an Elvira-ish way sat down at the piano and started playing songs that my untrained and unsophisticated ears could not place but still found enchanting and haunting and gorgeous.

I eventually had the presence of mind to produce my iPad and record her playing. Each song seemed to go on for a long time while it was happening (esp as I was trying to hold the iPad perfectly still, which was harder than it may sound), but in reality they were only a couple of minutes each. I remember thinking at one point, “How long is this going to last,” and then, just like that, the lovely pianista stopped playing, and the music ended, as must all good things, verdad?

That was my summer in Argentina. Chau, Broad Readership! Hasta la próxima.