“But here, absolutely everything conspires to keep me staring into the dark.”
–Frances Mayes, Under the Tuscan Sun
This was my feeling when I first arrived—learning the subtle movements and navigations of Buenos Aires I needed to see me through. Not only did I need to learn the literal language, I needed to learn the other language—the preferences and inclinations of the people.
Do you believe that residents of different countries have different walks? Someone told me this. I imagined myself delicately posing behind complete strangers on the sidewalk, trying to follow their lead and walk in step. A little faster? A little to the right, the left? This is madness, I said to myself. How can I learn another countrymen’s gait?
I’m beginning to believe that once a foreigner, always a foreigner. I have always been a tourist, but never a resident. Here I am neither resident nor tourist. According to Argentines, I am an “extranjero”—a foreigner. Another derivative of this word is the word for “extraño” for strange. I am strange—I feel extranjero leeching into my cells here, my blood, mi sangre, a cool disorientation.
I met an Argentine named V. She sells fruits, frutas, and vegetables, verduras, at our barrio stand. She is our favorite vendor. Her shop is the size of two closets, located a block away from our apartment. The moment I met her, I knew that she was an angel—otherworldly. She is sweet and genuine in an otherwise hard city.
When I told her my name, she greeted my entrance every day, ¡“MON-deeee!” ¿“Que tal MON-deeeeeeee?” I grinned from ear to ear. I chose my fruits and vegetables, coveting all of the bright purples, greens, reds, and oranges of her stall. So many choices of peppers, eggplant, leeks, oranges, grapes, bananas, and apples. A vegetarian’s dream. I turned around—free range eggs! Life cannot get any better. Last week, before I left with my arms laden with frutas y verduras, I exclaimed haltingly, “Would you like to go for a walk or take coffee after work?” She looked worried. “I work from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. every day of the week,” she said, “Let me ask my mother. I will get back to you.” All of my smiles tumbled to the tile of the shop.
I learned that V’s mother is the proprietress of the business. She and two of her brothers help her mother run the shop. Saturday, V. invited E. and me to share a drink called mate with her on Sunday morning. Mate is “yerba mate.” It’s a substance similar to tea. Argentines and other South American countries drink maté like coffee or tea. The only difference is that maté is shared in a container (usually a dried-out gourd) and a straw called a “bombilla” that blocks and sifts the mate from going up into the straw when one drinks.
We talked with V. for four hours this morning and watched as different clients came in for their daily cooking list. It was a great opportunity to learn the language. V. and I will share mate again when E. travels next week. I hope that I can become a little less extraño.