My Argentine experience

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Nate Peligeiro

After an initial weekend enjoying a guest room in a San Isidro mansion, boat excursions on the river near Tigre, and Indian summer sun, I found myself broke in San Telmo holed up in a room with a crumbling ceiling, dripping water, and ‘abajo las cucarachas’ scribbled large over my mattress as a reminder I’d better find work soon or I’d be joining the urchins panhandling monedas on Buenos Aires’ subte lines.

Buenos Aires and Indian summer turned to nasty winds and harsh reality. I found work teaching English at a notable language institute mostly based on the director’s and my mutual appreciation of the Jesus Lizard and Motörhead. Martin was British, married to an Argentine gal he’d met back home, and had been living in Buenos Aires nearly a decade when I met up with him. He once worked for Southern Lord Records promoting bands on Dischord, Ipecac, and Touch and Go before foreseeing changes that would revolutionize the music industry and probably leave him with only his manhood in hand. He then got out while the gettin’ hadn’t yet hit the fan.

Martin soon found me more hours at a sister institute working for his friend Charles, a biblio and filmophile with no calves and no flag. Born in Argentina to an Argentine mother and a Russian father, he moved to the U.S. at the age of one where he lived for ten years until his father’s communist sympathies had the family seeking a more sympathetic environment in Caracas. After graduating from one of Caracas’ universities, Charles went back to the States where I believe he tried to make it as an actor. After giving that endeavour a go, he returned to his birthplace and has been in Buenos Aires ever since.

Having found work, I then needed a place. The roach hotel was producing substantial poetry but giving my liver a break and finding a little sunshine coming through any sort of window topped my list of necessities.

I found a place not too far away. It had roaches too and a crumbling ceiling but the room that was to be mine boasted a patio overlooking a courtyard with a tree, and that was enough for me.

Charles liked the place because it was a block away from Walrus Books, a cool new and used bookstore run by a fellow American expat. It became a little inconvenient for me though as Charles began requesting I pick up books for him every other day. I don’t know where he was getting the money from but he had books and dvds stacked floor to ceiling in the apartment he rented but didn’t live in. He stayed with his girlfriend, Stella, and only went back to his apartment for clean clothes and to exchange books and movies.

It took me a few weeks to warm to Buenos Aires. Winter and poverty had something to do with it, but I was a scorned lover. Brazil had shown me the door (always the visa), and I had a bit of a time adjusting. Buenos Aires was anything but cheap, though some of the Malbec might have been and helped it all go down as pleasantly as possible.

Some people I’d later meet wouldn’t be surprised I lived in San Telmo, a bohemian neighborhood popular with the tourists. It was never planned and I ended up where the wind blew. It definitely had poetry. Tango wasn’t far away and the bars and restaurants were spilling history. Gibraltar was right around the corner from both Walrus Books and my apartment. It was pub style, had good ales, and a James Michener quote I’d read religiously every time I found myself at the bar ordering the night’s first pint. I’d raise my glass and read, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.”

I tried to share the creed in subtle ways with two of my roommates, but they never bought into it. Vivian and Oswaldo were a couple from Cartagena. Both were doctors, both only spoke when spoken to, and both were clockwork. I knew the exact hour they’d wake, shower, eat, work, watch ‘Bailando Por Un Sueño’ and sleep. We got on nicely and slowly developed a relationship but slow was the keyword. Juan was much more my speed. Also Colombian, but from Bogota, we discussed film, books, and perused night spots. He was a film student and we toyed with the idea of a future collaboration. I have a film trilogy in mind, but it’s quite a bit farther down the road.

My Spanish is definitely more Mexican than anything though slang I change out pretty easily. Conversing quite a bit with the Colombians (well Juan anyway) my Spanish continued as a foreign flavour to the disdain of many Porteños who are a bit French when it comes to linguistic snobbery. I was constantly reminded that they spoke Castellano while the rest of Latin America spoke Spanish. They were correct that they spoke Castellano, but so does most of Latin America as any of us familiar with Spanish and American history would know. Eventually what left my mouth morphed into something more Porteño and my Italian influenced gesticulations were heavy. Lunfardo is an Argentine slang heavily influenced by Italian with elements of Guaraní, Mapuche, and Quechua. Aside from the new vocabulary I had to learn, getting up to speed was a challenge. After having lived in Buenos Aires for seven months, I still maintain that it’s the most difficult breed of Castilian out there. It’s quite aggressive, rapid fire, and people seem to talk over each other while quite stingy when it comes to conversational pauses. I can’t judge Martin too harshly for still struggling with the dialect.

After Juan moved in with his girlfriend, we inherited Lidia from our landlord, Luciano, who didn’t know what to do with her. She was twenty, loud, and like the San Isidro trustafarians (Martin’s term), living off some family money. She wasn’t from San Isidro but came from one of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s elite families. She had a questionable job selling tattooing and piercing equipment along with other merchandise (more illicit in nature), worked no set hours, and slept 36 hours a week all at once of course. She and Vivian really clashed and couldn’t have come from more different worlds. With chemical assistance, she and I got along nicely though her habit of letting vagrants crash our pad for days at a time had me giving her big brother talks and leaving nothing comestible in the refrigerator. The shoe found its way to the other foot for once.

First Vivian and Oswaldo returned to Colombia for the holidays and an extended stay then Lidia went to visit relatives in Bahia Blanca and sublet her room to another Juan, Juan Xiet, my first Porteño roommate. She introduced us to each other as both being writers. A momentary stand off dissolved in a literal puff of smoke, beer, and other elements. We discussed poetry, prose, rock’n ‘roll, secrets of the owl, and much more Bukowski than Borges. Chess was another of Juan’s passions, and he convinced me to give it another go. He wouldn’t be happy to know that the last game I played was with him. I was starting to get into it a bit too and even bested him on I think two occasions. Two out of quite a few…but then he might remember differently.

Easily recognized among the vanguard, Juan has both hands and feet in Buenos Aires’ literary scene. He turned a panic attack and personal crisis into a trilogy of books, heads a writer’s workshop, and is a vocalist and collaborator with various bands most notably El Increible Funk. He is also events coordinator and co-founder of El Emergente Bar that to me will always be referred to as 333 Gallo.

When I contacted Juan for a little biographical blurb, I was relieved to find he wasn’t still pissed about the night I continually tried to steal his date. Every time he left the room, he’d come back to find me with my arm around his girl. He maintains that it was more funny than offensive, but I wonder…

But that night was all rock’n roll and after I incited a riot right around the corner from 333 Gallo, my friend, Doober, and I found some guy sharing the getaway cab with us. It turns out Wilhem Gabriel Castro was yet another writer who Juan and I would allow a seat at the round table.

Whereas Juan was strait up BA proper, knowledgeable and adept at traversing dark streets and alleys, Wilhem was from the province and used to trees, rivers and open spaces. Whereas Juan’s writing is high octane, slick with grease, and when it really gets going smokes and throws sparks, Wilhem admits to a lacerated nostalgia that comes through in images of the sea, country landscapes, winks at Greek and Nordic mythology, and his youth.

Wilhem once competed quite extensively in amateur boxing and motorcycle racing. He admits to having written much more by way of poetry and music but is slowly letting a novel find its way to the page. Wilhem has a disdain for most modern literature and poetry. He sites influences like Huxley, Borges, Hemingway, London, Hesse, Kerouac, Poe, Byron, Wordsworth, the Beat Poets, and Nordic and Greek mythology as his main influences.

Through two of my biggest influences, life and experience, I came to appreciate Buenos Aires quite a bit. Not enjoying the best times economically, the cost of living in Buenos Aires was high and salary low. I wouldn’t get to know many of the restaurants except by way of fogged up windows as I stood with mouth and nose pressed against. But I didn’t go hungry, and was invited into many homes, walked through the streets passing bottles, and got that always satisfying slice of life where I could.

There were Rocio and Sabrina and office romance and hurt feelings and luckily for me, forgiveness. There were Ernestina, Gloria, Clara, the Ruiz brothers (Max and Franco), fellow Minnesotan- Kevin and Club Dubai. There was Rosario and the occasional invite to San Isidro and a sample of how the other half lived. There was always beer with Martin and Charles and Charles suffering for his poor taste in music. “But they’re Canadian,” was his only defense to Martin’s and my disbelief at his liking Nickelback.

Seven months passed rather quickly and while I continue to court Brazil, Argentina will always be a very sexy and ‘see ya when I see ya’ mistress. I keep in touch with my friends there, but as Cristina continues to bust balls and crack skulls, I’m glad I got out when I did. The day I left, the subte fare was doubled as well as the salary of most of BA’s politicians.

I am, however, due for a visit. Charles has a growing reading list that I’m falling far behind on. Martin’s rooftop patio needs my help with its on-going inauguration. Juan probably needs my help making messes over at 333 Gallo. Wilhem owes me a good asado at the family residence somewhere out in the province. I’m told Dubai just isn’t the same…

Nate Peligeiro is the author of Behind the Wheel, a tale of being had, Mexico, drinking, fifth graders, dreams turning into nightmares, drug cartels, downward spirals, redemption and upward spirals. BtW is set for a January 18, 2013 release through Musa Publishing. Peligeiro’s second Musa offering will be a poetry collection.