We spoke often about faith, and healing; about health and nutrition; about traditions and cultural differences; about what is beautiful in Honduras, and beautiful in the United States; and about the ugliness of politics, and the sadness of poverty. In the end you realize the more curiosity you have about a person, the more curiousity she will develop about you, and you end up with a really satisfying kind of conversation. The kind of conversation that makes you notice all the details of the person in front of you, the particularities of her face, voice, scent. In the end you realize, how different yet similar she is to you. You realize, this is the answer to so much misunderstanding and grief. It happens during a quiet night when the lights have gone out from a distant storm and so you sit at a kitchen table, lit by a few candles, and you listen and talk and share what you have in your head. In that moment, you become a part of peace and your curiosity grows.
The Parks of Buenos Aires
Babies as baits, bums
take benches, got a light? The
As most Seductive Banter readers already know, Uj and I called Buenos Aires home for a short but precious time. And while we have both moved onto new destinations and projects, I was recently reminded of a little project we did during those months yesterday when I was introduced to Artist Trading Cards. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artist_trading_cards)
In Buenos Aires, we filled our days with small and easily accomplished tasks (e.g., write a haiku, look at student artwork, drink mate in a park, buy a 2007 malbec, get vegetarian take-out, find a café positioned perfectly in the last rays of sunlight, eat gelato…) Needless to say, life was simplified and we were pleased with how well we achieved our goals.
In the city, one tends to travel by foot, bus or metro. In that last mode of transportation, one must purchase a card to enter and ride. However, once you’ve boarded the train, that little 1 peso card looses all function. Logically, most people would just toss the card to the floor, the trash, or let it be lost forever in their bags or pockets.
We decided to hold onto them, and to collect them.
We had collected a fair amount of cards when their second purpose came to us: metro card collage! These metro cards would be our canvas! We would…(finally)…paint!
Perhaps it was all those student art exhibits, or being surrounded by vast quantities of street art, that sparked our inner artists. Either way, our creative souls were itching for an outlet, and per backpacker usual, the cheaper the better.
We bought five tubes of acrylics and two petite paintbrushes. Then the next Saturday morning we sprawled ourselves out on the floor of our apartment, laid all the metro cards face down, hooked up Uj’s ipod to our borrowed computer speakers, and let our imaginations tranquilly run wild.
The result was some mini paintings that we imagined would one day be arranged into a much larger and more elaborate collage…
In the end, the cards remained separate entities, serving as fun little greeting cards to give to friends as a humble gift of recycled artistic intent.
But this Artist Trading Card thing got me thinking…why not do the same thing, but just use the metro cards? (Or any card that no longer serves its original purpose?) They are basically the same size, sturdy, and as we have already proven, serve as perfect little canvases.
So mes amis, don’t be surprised if the next time you open your mailbox there’s a 2 ½ x 3 ½ inch card inside with a little artistic flair…and while it may seem relatively insignificant in comparison with the big complicated tasks of our day—it is, what I consider, a proof of how much joy can come from a simple act of reuse.
I’ve never thought of myself as appearing ethnically ambiguous until I saw how confidently South Americans assumed I spoke Spanish. Frankly, South Americans were more confident addressing me in Spanish than North Americans are addressing me in English. It was like I’d returned to my motherland. If a Caucasian friend of mine asked a question in Spanish (fluently), nine times out of ten the response would end up directed at me, and I’d act obnoxiously smug about it.
You might think this helped me master the Spanish language. But apart from quickly forgetting most of my English (which I’m told is the first, vital step), I never really progressed. It was easier to just lie about how long I’d been living on the continent.
Linguistics has to be one of the most universally intriguing fields, and reading up on its rudiments lately prompted me to critically examine (read: shamelessly justify) this mental block. Don’t get me wrong – I wish I had learned Spanish, and I doubtlessly missed out on more cultural richness than I can possibly grasp. But considering that I mostly travelled by myself, on the lowest of budgets, in places where people rarely spoke a word of English, how could my ignorance of the language be so persistent? What the hell did I do?
Wittgenstein examined the uses of language through a construct termed “language games,” which show how people are trained to react in certain ways to the words of others. For example, in a simple language game, a leader on a building site says the word “beam” and the worker knows to go and get the beam. The word “beam” does not just label the object; it makes something happen.
This seems obvious but it makes a fine point – it shifts the focus of “language” from labeling and vocabulary to communication and utility. Likewise, in the acquisition of language by infants, as informally described by David Carkeet, they must first learn to communicate without vocabulary before learning to communicate with it.
Vocabulary, it turns out, plays an entirely inferior role. Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child” closely follows the true story of the French Dr. Itard’s frustrating attempt to socialize a young boy, Victor, who has grown up in solitude in a forest, unable to speak or understand any language. Nothing makes Victor happier than drinking milk, and at one point in the film Dr. Itard refuses to pour him some till he asks for it by name, eventually bellowing, “Lait!! LAIT!!!” at the cowering child. But Victor remains silent. Defeated, the doctor hands him a glass of milk. In the tense quiet afterwards, Victor drinks from the glass and feebly utters “Lait.” (more…)
One of the most engaging aspects of collaborating with Rachel on this blog, as well as in life, is that, creatively, I find Rachel way new school, whereas I am way old school. I don’t know if she agrees with these designations, but I’ll parse it out a bit, because “old school” and “new school” can be tricky tags to apply.
To start, I don’t mean that my aesthetic favors that which is necessarily older; perhaps I simply mean that I have Neoclassical and Romantic leanings. Compare our poetry, for example: Rachel prefers “modern” (often synonymous with “Japanese” and having nothing whatsoever to do with age) styles like haikus, or more flexible forms. I, on the other hand, think of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as my muse.
Or perhaps by “old school” I simply mean that I like things that have not been thought of as hip in a very long time. Consider this exchange between me and another friend:
Me: How can we get more people to look at our blog?
Liz: What’s it about?
Me: Well I was just comparing various interpretations of King Lear…
This is all a long and possibly needless prelude to my admission that, while many Americans find religions like Buddhism or Kabbalah “trendy” and go around extolling their philosophies, I happen to love (or fetishize?) Catholicism. Your Paul Coelho’s “The Alchemist” is my “New Testament,” so to speak.
Just as American love for Buddhism or Kabbalah is almost without exception purely superficial, so too are my feelings for Catholicism. However, because Catholic mania has a certain political ponderousness stateside, I’m going to be a bit careful here: I’m not condoning any particular morals or practices of the Catholic Church. My proclivity really only runs towards Catholic art, literature, music, architecture and other such ecclesiastical impedimenta.
South America is Catholic country, so my fixation became a running joke for the many travel companions I encountered along the way. I went on a road trip through the Andes with two European guys I met on a bus from San Pedro de Atecama to Salta, and after two days they knew to stop at every town square so I could photograph the requisite church in the center. I’ve visited the Recoleta Cemetery, that gothic fetishist’s Disneyland, countless times over multiple trips to Buenos Aires, and taken hundreds of photographs inside.
The one visit to the Cemetery that stands out most (more…)
Student artwork in Cordoba and Buenos Aires, Argentina
We use the category “Artes de la Calle,” but in all fairness we are sometimes referring to Student Art, not Street Art. For a while in Argentina, we made a point to visit student art galleries every day – it was part of our checklist, in between writing haikus and drinking mate in a different one of the infinite parks scattered throughout Buenos Aires. Rachel usually left these galleries inspired to keep up with her own projects; I usually left reminded of my own mediocrity (and that’s generous) as an artist, with new conviction to retain my day job (read: layabout)… But that wasn’t why we kept looking for student art – we weren’t searching for quality, and it mattered not if what we found was awe-inspiring or insipid. It was part of our perhaps overly romantic endeavor to discern the various pulses of the cities we travelled through, imagining that each had its own discrete language, and a different sort of currency.
Julio Cortazar and I travelled together through South America. “Hopscotch,” Cortazar’s masterpiece, is an account of a man’s escape (and subsequent return) from Buenos Aires to a free-wheeling, bohemian existence in Paris. How fitting that a friend of mine lent it to me as I escaped from New York to live in Buenos Aires and travel through the southern half of South America.
The romance of backpacking is the shaving off of the excess, because everything you need or will need you must literally carry with you on your person. Hostels are full of abandoned novels because books, even paperbacks, are too heavy to cart along unless they happen to be the one you are reading at the time. Because I wanted to return “Hopscotch” to my friend, I had to carry it with me everywhere. So I just kept reading it – over and over.
Cortazar provides two ways for the 131 chapters in “Hopscotch” to be read: the first is to read chapters 1 through 56 in a chronological fashion, and ignore the remainder of the book; the second is to begin at chapter 73 and follow a given sequence (73-1-2-116-3-84, etc…) I read the book both ways. Then I read it from back to front. Then I read it from front to back, and underlined my favorite passages. I used the book as a desk and a pillow. On a night bus from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, I was so cold I spread it across my lap for insulation (I woke up to find that the elderly gentleman next to me had unpacked an enormous white knit sweater and spread it across my shoulders as I slept, shivering. Ah, human kindness.) When the book eventually broke clean in three pieces, I read whatever piece happened to be in my shoulder bag at the time, and scribbled arguments with the author in the margins. I lost pages 271 through 274, and the leaf containing pages 269 and 270 turned upside down. In between the pages were ticket stubs, postcards and Chilean sand. I abandoned the plan of returning the book to my friend, and just carried it with me because Cortazar and I were now in it together.
When I was sixteen and collected “favorites,” for a while my “favorite book” was Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” And in terms of postmodern accounts of the expatriate bohemian life in 1960s Paris, if “Tropic of Cancer” speaks to my 16 year-old self, “Hopscotch” speaks to my 27 year-old self.
Miller and Cortazar declare their differences in the opening pages of their respective novels: In “Tropic of Cancer,” Miller’s narrator loves himself: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Cortazar’s narrator, on the other hand, is over himself:
I had refused to pretend like normal bohemians that the chaos of my affairs and finances was some sort of higher spiritual order or something else with an equally disgusting label…
But Cortazar is not over Miller, or else his narrator would not be in Paris. If anything, his narrator would be envious of Miller’s narrator, just as he is envious of La Maga, his mistress. He judges himself for struggling as a bohemian as much as he judges those who do not struggle. Then he becomes irritated with himself for his endless, circular judging, “because it was always easier to think than to be,” and so he is in Paris. And, for many of the same reasons, I was in Buenos Aires.
The novel is full of clever wordplay and bibliowit, but Cortazar isn’t a skate-boarder showing off his tricks; his narrator is psychically trapped by his own intellectual and metaphysical acrobatics. And perhaps it was because we spent so much time together, and perhaps it was because of what psychologists term the “misattribution of arousal,” but my first reading was overwhelmed by the empathy and concern I felt for the, in many ways, deeply unsympathetic narrator. I wasn’t sure I could trust Cortazar to get him, and thus me, out of it.
And does Cortazar get his narrator out of it? (more…)