Thursday, January 29, 2009

Smile, dammit.

This is a follow-up to my earlier post entitled "Eye contact," in which I lamented the tendency of certain strangers (always male) to tell me to "smile" when passing me on the street. Apparently (and not surprisingly) I am not the only young female who is ordered to smile by people I don't know. I was reading my favorite advice column, Dear Prudence on, when I came across this letter:

Dear Prudence,
I have recently become a recipient of commands from strangers to "smile!" The most recent occurrence was in my town's only mall, when a man in a group I was passing actually stepped out of the group, stood in front of me, and all but shouted, "Smile!" My usual response is to look through the person as though they were not there at all and continue as I was, inwardly saying something inappropriate. I come from one of the largest cities in the United States, and I moved to this town for a job. I did occasionally get accosted this way in the city, but it happened only about once a year. Now I feel as though I'm getting similar reactions at least once a week. I don't think anyone has a right to command me to emote. Is there a better way to react? I know better than to say aloud the things I think about the person, but I wonder if there is a way to convey how little I appreciate their words.

—Not on Candid Camera

Dear Not On,
I used to frequently get the same exhortation from male strangers. Let me assure you, even if you never change your default facial expression, this problem will eventually take care of itself because men say this only to unsmiling young women. Strangers don't care enough to see happiness suffuse the face of a crabby-looking middle-aged woman. Of course you're right, your facial expression is nobody's business, and there is a large element of sexism in this—I promise you these men are not encouraging young, brooding males to lighten up. You are free to keep walking and ignore them. I, too, used to just deepen my scowl when I got similar advice. Then, in response to, "Hey, it can't be that bad" from a stranger, I smiled, and he smiled back—and it was nice. I realized maybe these strangers had a point. So consider that your expression, while adaptively off-putting for the big city, may be unnecessarily severe for the smaller, friendlier town where you now live.

I am not sure if I totally buy Prudie's advice here, although I get the distinction she is making between people who say "smile" in a hostile, aggressive manner and those who say it in a more gentle, authentic way. Like, if a kindly old man with a cane said, "Hey, it can't be that bad," I'd probably smile at him. But he'd have to be old. AND kindly. AND have a cane. In general, I view almost all exhortations by strange men to get me to smile as lame pick-up attempts and scoff at them appropriately, and will continue to do so. I'll smile when I want to, dang it.

Alright, that's all for now. Have a wonderful day. Smile!

Monday, January 19, 2009

En fin

Hey everyone. Sad news: I am no longer in Argentina. Instead, I am sitting in JFK Airport with $20 worth of magazines and a copy of Brideshead Revisted, which hopefully will get me through the almost five-hour layover I have here. Luckily, I picked an interesting gate to sit at; there is a girl having some sort of emotional breakdown here and I am listening/watching out of the corner of my eye while pretending to blog. It's getting juicy. Anyway, I wasn't supposed to have this long of a stopover in NYC, but the Delta people in Buenos Aires decided to change my flight to two hours earlier than it was supposed to take off without telling anyone, but didn't feel it necessary to also change my connection time. Nice. Thank God I got to the airport three hours early, because if not, I'd be sleeping on the floor of Ezeiza Airport tonight. Yay Latin American travel!

I feel bad about not updating my blog for the past week, but it was hard because I was having too much fun with Al, and our days were pretty packed with sleeping and eating ice cream, so I didn't want to overtax myself. I actually had quite a few clever blog title posts ready to go, including "Eye-mergency" (describing my trip to the emergency clinic to get a piece of trash out of my eye), and "Angertina," to describe the SECOND run-in I had with an underage street urchin in Buenos Aires, but alas, those titles are going to have to go to waste.

Instead, this post will be written in a style that should be quite familiar to devotees of my blog: lazy bullet points! In no particular order, here are some things I did in BsAs over the past week:

- Went to a dinner/tango show with Al, which turned out to be really entertaining. Tango shows are like bowling: it never sounds that fun till you get there and put on the shoes. Except with the tango show, you just wear normal shoes. But you know what I mean.

- Ate tons of delicious food at some incredible restaurants. Two of our favorites were Lola, where I had an incredible ojo de bife steak with eggplant, mushroom, and onion (OMG) and Almacén Secreto, a "secret" restaurant that specializes in regional cuisine from Salta, like locro. Mmmm, looocrroooo.

- Went out a lot, including to the infamous Club 69, which has a tranny show on Thursday nights. Trannies are always fun, of course, but the real highlight was the amazing break-dancing performance they had. Seeing break-dancers in Argentina is a little like seeing a cat wearing a top-hat, you know? It's not natural, but boy, is it fun to watch.

- Walked around the city, including to the Rosedal (rose garden) in Palermo Park, which was beautiful.

- Watched a fair bit of Law & Order UVE (Unidad de Victimas Especiales)

- Ate semi-weird Argentine pizza topped with palm hearts and salsa golf (like Thousand Island dressing except syrupy-sweet)

- Got my hair cut and learned the Spanish word for "bangs" (flequillo)

- Hung out with friends, including my long-lost friend Karen and her boyfriend Adam, yay!

- Met several groups of chatty Brazilians when we went out; shamelessly spoke Portuguese with them.

- Went to two different gyms, both of which looked "fancy" from the outside and turned out to be spectacularly crappy on the inside. But at least I managed to successfully wriggle my way out of having to be "trained" by the mulleted trainers at each gym. Close call!

That's about it, I guess. Overall, it was a wonderful trip and I was sad to leave. I don't know when I'll be back in Argentina but I'm glad I left it with a good taste in my mouth.* Hasta luego, Argentina.

*Mostly meat.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eye contact

Given that I have had this blog for three and a half years and have spent large portions of that time in Latin American countries, I can't believe I haven't already written an obvious, semi-played out, culture-shock-themed post about eye contact! I mean, this post was begging to be carelessly dashed out years ago! But since I am getting tired of reporting on my daily doings in Buenos Aires (went to panaderia, bought a baguette, ate a sandwich, walked around, did laundry, ate another sandwich, got dripped on by dirty water, etc.), I am going to make some wry and incisive cultural observations.

Here's the thing about eye contact in Latin America -- it can be a dangerous thing. The first time I ever spent significant time in Latin America was when I studied abroad in Chile my junior year of college. During our orientation, the program director sat us wide-eyed Stanford kids down for a chat about how to function day-to-day in Santiago without getting our asses kicked. One of the first things she told us was that we should avoid making unnecessary eye contact with strangers, and we should especially avoid smiling at people. Turns out, if you're a friendly American twenty-one year old female and you go around smiling at every dude with a rat-tail on the bus, you're going to have yourself a bus full of would-be pololos (boyfriends)by the time you get off at your stop. Not good.

This is a difficult thing for Americans to get used to, I think. With some notable regional exceptions, Americans tend to be a pretty friendly bunch, and we like to acknowledge strangers with a smile, or at least a cursory head bob. Where I grew up in Michigan, for example, when you passed someone on the street, you'd smile, or at the very least least nod at them. I mean, Detroit's not the South, so you're not going to invite every stranger in for a glass of iced tea or anything, but you'll at least acknowledge someone's presence. Similarly, when you're running, you smile and wave at other runners. When you see a policeman, you say hi. Of course, a lot of these rules don't apply in a certain region of the United States, which will go unnamed, but rhymes with "the Schmorth Schmeast," but in great swaths of the U.S., it's completely normal and expected to smile at strangers.

But just as I learned pretty quickly in Chile that you probably don't want to be smiling at that guy in the denim jacket and stonewashed jeans on the subte, I figured out pretty quickly in Brazil that you don't want to be smiling at that policeman with the bat, gun and helmet. It's just not a good idea. Today, when I was out on my daily walk in Buenos Aires, I realized that eye contact is a hard thing to avoid, especially for me. First of all, as I mentioned, I'm from the Midwest. Second, I'm a starer. It's true, I'll freely admit it: I like to stare at people. Not in a creepy way, of course, but I do like looking at people/judging them by their clothes, so it's hard for me to avoid.

As I was walking around the little lake in Palermo Park today, I kept accidentally making eye contact with sweaty, shirtless dudes with long hair, each of whom had apparently already been giving me smoldering, off-putting stares when I happened to glance at them. Ew. That's the danger of Argentine eye contact, I think. If you're a woman and you even happen to glance at a man, chances are he was already staring at you, and chances are even better that he'll then take your eye contact as an invitation to lick his lips, give you a come-hither look, or say something involving the words "amor," "mamí," or "lindeza." It's exhausting. And gross.

And that's just the porteño men. If you make eye contact with a woman, she'll most likely look you up and down as if you had a mild case of leprosy, and then sneer at you until you break eye contact or your self-esteem evaporates, whichever happens first.

I think I'm getting better at sullenly staring ahead and avoiding people's gazes, actually. The good thing about Argentina is that unlike in the U.S., there are no obnoxious strangers telling you to "smile" when you are walking along without an ear-to-ear grin on your face. You know what I'm talking about. It's always a guy, he's always unattractive, and he's always actually trying to pick you up, but only ever succeeds in enraging you. And by you, I mean me. ANYWAY, I like that Argentina is a country where you're free to stalk about, scowling and ignoring passersby, without anyone accosting you for not being cheery enough. Ideally, though, I'd like to find a happy medium in some country where it's okay to smile at policemen but not okay to order a stranger to smile. Canada, maybe? I'll keep searching.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Agua sucia

How is it possible that everywhere I walk in this city, no matter what street, neighborhood, whatever, there is always dirty water dripping on me from above? Seriously, you can't walk three feet in Buenos Aires without something wet and dirty dripping on your hair or down your back. What's up with that?

I guess it's not surprising, though, since this city is full of dirty water. FULL of it. Water runs down the streets in brown rivers. The city even has employees in jumpsuits who sweep the currents of water along down the street, herding trash and debris with their brooms as they go. There are also many large, murky puddles of what I refer to (fondly) as Tetanus Water lurking in the middle of sidewalks, even in fancy neighborhoods.

Perhaps the grossest experience I've had so far with Buenos Aires' dirty water happened the other day when I was running down calle República de la India, a street that borders the city zoo. I wasn't paying super close attention to my feet and suddenly, I splashed through a puddle of zoo water that had collected on the sidewalk. That's right, zoo water. South-American-zoo-tetanus water. All I have to say is, thank God I've had my rabies shots. And thank God you can't get rabies through puddles.... right? Just in case, I washed all the water, which was probably teeming with mange and giraffe feces, off my leg when I got home. Close call.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Livin' la vida loquísima

I had two near brushes with death/disaster today.* Pretty standard day in the life of Stephanie, really, but somehow the situations I get myself into south of the Equator end up being slightly more bizarre than my normal, North American misadventures. Let me explain.

The first thing that happened was that I got into an altercation with a street child. Now, before you go labeling me some sort of modern-day Dickensian villain who pushes around defenseless homeless kids**, let me explain the situation fully. I was walking around near Plaza Serrano, minding my own beeswax, probably staring off into space, when this girl, probably around 12 years old, came up to me and screamed into my face to scare me. It worked. Turns out that having someone yell in your face unexpectedly is rather alarming. This girl, by the way, looked kind of tough and scraggly, and I think she was out hustling/stealing from people. Maybe she's borrowing one of the tactics of those Gypsy kids in Italy who throw newspapers in tourists' faces and then steal their wallets. Or maybe she's just a little monster who screams in people's faces for no reason.

In my state of shock, I didn't have time to think of something to say in Spanish, so I just turned around, glared at her, and said, "You little brat!" and then I kept walking. She gave me a smug look. The nerve! So then, about an hour later, I was walking down a different street, and I saw the same girl and a boy of about the same age coming toward me. The bratty girl and I locked eyes and I knew instantly she was going to scream in my face again. I said (in English), "Don't you dare try that again, you little b*****," but yeah, she did, and so I pushed her. I didn't push her hard, but hard enough to knock whatever she was carrying out of her hand. She started laughing maniacally and called me "fea." Yeah, whatever, I'm fea, but you're a horrid little wretch that screams in people's faces, and one of these days, you're going to get your ass kicked. Possibly by me.

If you're wondering whether I feel guilty for pushing a child, the answer is no. Any child that goes around antagonizing strangers deserves to be pushed, and probably slapped. The end.

The next weird/dangerous thing that I got myself into was on the way home from shopping, when I decided I wanted a pedicure, and impulsively walked into the first salon de belleza that I saw. Yeah, bad choice. As soon as I walked in, I regretted it: a hairdresser was slathering blue goop all over a woman's parched scalp, there was dust all over the floor, a TV was blaring somewhere, and the beauticians looked somewhat... rough around the edges. "I should leave," I thought. "I'd like a pedicure," I said. My brain was telling me to run, but my mouth was asking for prices and agreeing to sit down for a full pedicure, despite the fact that the pedicurista seemed less than 100% sure about what a pedicure was, and she had to wipe a layer of dirt/skin dust/hair off of the chair I was told to sit down in. "Oh my God," I thought, "I'm going to get foot and mouth disease here." I sat down. I watched the woman bustle around, retrieving her instruments from behind a curtain in the back. "Those aren't sterilized," I thought, looking at the instruments. "Is that blood crusted on that nail file?"

"You know what?" I said suddenly, standing up. The pedicurista looked at me, puzzled. "I really don't have time today. I am going to come back tomorrow." Everyone turned to look at me, including the woman with the blue goop on her head. "I'll come back tomorrow," I said, backing out of the door gingerly. I took off down the street muttering to myself stuff like, "What are you doing Stephanie? Do you want to contract some deadly Argentine fungal disease?" Close call, huh?

So, that's what I did today. Considering the circumstances, I escaped relatively unscathed, and only had to shove one child and offend one beautician in the process. Overall, not a bad day.

*"Death" here can be read as "weird foot disease."

**Probably named "Patches" and "Scrapes."

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Solita en la ciudad

I've been in Buenos Aires by myself for four days now, and I gotta tell you, it's been a roller-coaster ride of emotion. Well, mainly emotion, but also boredom and insomnia. I am very happy to report, however, that things have definitely taken a turn for the better. The mopey, sad Stephanie of the last three days has been replaced by the normal, chipper Stephanie! My boyfriend, who I have been crying to via webcam recently, rejoices. But let me walk you through my last few days to give you a sense of what I've been up to here in la ciudad porteña.

Monday was my first full day in Buenos Aires by myself. I woke up optimistic, determined to go out and catch the city by its tail and shove it in my pocket, or something. As the day passed, that unstoppable optimism turned out to be rather stoppable. The day was okay, I guess; I spent time working on my research project (sending out surveys, setting up interviews, etc.), going for a hot and sweaty run in the park (see picture below), buying groceries (olive oil, wheat pasta in a bag, cheese, etc.), wandering aimlessly around Recoleta and Palermo, and watching TV.

By the end of the night, however, I had begun to feel lonely and blue, and when I was still wide awake at 3:30 AM, the loneliness amplified into intense anxiety and tears. Not my best night. Thank God for skype -- I talked, or rather blubbered, to my cousin Catie and Al, and finally fell asleep at 5:30 AM. Definitely not my best night.

Tuesday, I decided to break out of my rut of wandering aimlessly by instead wandering aimfully to a designated location, el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. I walked there by going down Avenida Libertador, a long avenue lined with fancy apartments with thick wooden garage doors and marble entryways. As I walked, I noticed that clinging around the doorways of these beautiful apartments was a distinctive, light smell, which I recognized instantly as what I think of as the South-American-wealth smell. I first smelled it when I moved to Brazil and stayed at my boss's apartment in one of the chicest neighborhood of São Paulo, Vila Nova Conceição. It's this unmistakable smell that brings to mind potted palms, white marble floors, chandeliers, fruit yogurt, and cleaning solution. Funny how that smell only exists in South America, though. Rich people's apartments in the U.S. smell different, somehow.

Anyway, Bellas Artes is a nice museum with an impressive collection of art, and I knew as soon as I walked in that I would be bored with most of it, so I skipped directly to the stuff I like, Latin American art. I have learned after years of sporadic museum going that I get no cultural enrichment whatsoever from forcing myself to look at numerous oil portraits of pasty-faced children in ruff collars. It's sort of like my revelation as a middle schooler that I didn't actually need to read every single Sunday comic, especially the ones I hated, like Family Circus and For Better or For Worse. So now, when I get the Sunday paper, I only read the comics I like (Garfield, the Peanuts) and when I go to a museum, I only look at the art I find interesting.

My path through the museum took me from the semi-interesting to the fascinating. First I spent some time in a low-lit room peering at a bunch of Pre-Columbian vases used to smoke hallucinogenic plants. Then I went to the Argentine art collection and breezed through numerous portraits of sallow, bored looking people, as well as a bunch of landscapes of running horses and serious cowboys and angry Indians. The ush. Then, I checked out the Latin American masters exhibit, which included art from some of my favorites (Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Wifredo Lam). One painting that I really loved was "La Venus Criolla:"

But my absolute favorite was an untitled painting by Jorge Pirozzi:

Can I get a dress that looks like that painting? I'd wear it every day.

My last stop at Bellas Artes was the photography exhibit on the top floor, which featured historical moments caught on film, such as the death of Che, Menem's presidential victory, the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, etc. It was weird looking at pictures of Alfonsín and Menem, both of whom I met two summers ago, but not that weird, I guess, considering that I am in Argentina, after all.

On my walk back from the museum, while marveling at what a completely different city this is during the summer than during the winter, I took a different route home. I ended up walking down what I now believe is the coolest street in Buenos Aires, calle Lafinur. I don't know what it was about this street that moved me so, but I just loved everything about it: the trees, the balconies, the awninged cafés - I guess now that I'm describing it, it seems like any other street in Buenos Aires, but it felt unique somehow. I passed by a chic-looking boutique and looked up to see a skinny, weathered looking woman leaning out of the second-story window, cigarette dangling out of her mouth, massaging her temples. I bet she wouldn't have a headache if she knew that she works in a boutique on the coolest street in Buenos Aires. Oh, and did I mention the Evita museum is on calle Lafinur? I mean, what more do you want?

Today was my best day in Buenos Aires by far. I went for a nice run in the park again, which reminded me a bit of running in Parque Ibirapuera in São Paulo, except minus the Brazilian park mainstays of tandem bikes, corn on the cob, and an abudance of boob-popping sports bras. After my run, I headed out to do the first pair of interviews for my project. The interviews were exhilarating and a big confidence-booster, and how refreshing to have some sort of meaningful human contact for the first time in over four days! It's really strange being in a foreign city by yourself because it means that you go through the day without having any real, live conversations with anyone. Sure, you exchange pleasantries with the guy who weighs your vegetables at the grocery store (and who subsequently hits on you) or you ask the surly woman behind the glass to give you two subte tickets, please, but other than stuff like that, no real human connection happens. It's an odd feeling, floating through space without having anyone to talk to or share things with. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for long, self-reflective walks, but there's only so much self-reflection one can do before one just wants to go get dinner with someone else. Needless to say, I am amped for Karen to get back to the city and for Al to get here. But until then, I'll keep on keepin' on.

Hasta luego.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Argentina, round 4

Buenas tardes, mi gente. I am writing to you all from my lovely rented apartment in Buenos Aires. I got here today after a long and sleepless day-night-day of travel, including a ten-hour red-eye flight from JFK that had such rough turbulence, I really thought the plane was going to fall out right of the sky. It was one of those flights where if you look around the plane during the turbulent bits, you'll make eye contact with lots of other people gripping their seats with white knuckles and glancing around nervously to see if anyone else is freaking out. My policy in these situations is to look towards the flight attendants; as long as they seem calm, I'm okay. But you know stuff is bad when the flight attendants are looking around nervously and gripping their seats with white knuckles. It's like seeing your doctor get queasy when taking your blood.

Anyway, this is my fourth time in this city, and I am hoping it'll be the best. As you'll recall, I worked here in the summer (Argentine winter) of 2007 at a human rights NGO. That was the coldest summer of my life. Now I'm here in the dead of (American) winter and it's 87 degrees Fahrenheit -- more my speed.

All I've done today is get settled, take a long walk around Recoleta, get groceries, and hang out at home, pretending to do work. Since my dear friend Karen isn't back from her vacation yet, I am using this opportunity to stay in and rest up before the fun starts.

More to come! Chau chau.