This morning I was woken by the sound of the sky being ripped apart in a violent struggle involving cosmic bazookas. I won’t say ‘thunder’ because it was more serious than that. Stumbling out of bed, I looked out of the window and noticed that there was a raging monsoon outside and that buckets and other untethered objects were flying off balconies, splashing onto the road below.
Yesterday, by contrast, was a Bangkok-worthy sauna–thirty degrees in the shade and eighty per cent humidity. Walk one block and sweat dripped off your forehead in great greasy globules. We were investigating the gold street of Libertad for an anniversary memento and as pleasant as that sounds, it was no easy feat. Finally, though, among the silver guitars and chunks of the meaty-looking rhodochrosite, we found a shard of lapis lazuli that looks like a piece of star-map. Relieved, we sought refuge from the heat in an old-fashioned lunch place called Bar Bidou, with white tablecloths and bowing waiters. The kind of place where cigar smoking and mafia dinners might have happened in days of yore. The food was not to my taste but the sparkling wine put me in an excellent mood. After lunch we ducked into the subway whose caverns are sweltering but whose cars are mercifully air-conditioned.
We’ve done a lot of walking in the last week and so far there have been no mishaps. We were primed by guidebooks for trouble all over the place—muggings, beatings, purse snatching, but there has not even been a hint of anything like that. In fact one kindly citizen noticed us ineptly reading a map, patiently asked us where we wanted to go and gave extremely specific directions.
Nevertheless, it seems Argentinians strongly mistrust each other and believe their neighbors would murder them given the slightest excuse. There is a porter on guard in the ground floor of nearly every apartment building and quite often there’s also a security guard. Some lobbies even have large screen facing the window that displays the face of an alert young man who (I suppose we are meant to imagine) is keenly inspecting thirteen security monitors. At the fire station there always a fireman standing guard outside the station, long gut-troubling knife in his belt.
Yesterday evening, when it got a bit cooler, I went for a walk in the plazas and parks near our apartment in effort to get acquainted with the host city. One thing that stands out is the abundance of statuary, much of it vaguely French. In Plaza Mitre there’s quite an impressive scene involving a bunch of grotesque divinities under some horseman. In Plaza Francia we have Luis Braille and in Plaza San Martín we have an allegory of Doubt.
The impression of faded grandeur is not limited to statues but appears in signs, tiles, architecture, details, the way the elderly people dress, the design of buses and lampposts. Somehow the natural features enhance the sense of tired mystery bordering on the surreal. Walking by the national library, I noticed that it looked like a gigantic spaceship from the Jetson age. It was surrounded by tall trees, including one with enormous waxy white blooms. Lovers caressed one another on one bench, a trio of scruffy guys huddled together discussing some illicit transaction and I peered confusedly at a series of posters that seem to refer to some famous-in-Argentina comic book.
Confusion is the theme so far. Buenos Aires is so different, and the trip here has been what I imagine interplanetary travel might feel like—as if you have been roughly dismantled and now you have to rely on a well-meaning chimpanzee to put you together again. Everything aches, the weather is strange and there are no laundromats.
After listening to Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths” this afternoon, I have decided that, like Dostoyevsky, the man was a mere journalist. What people have contributed to his inventiveness was merely the result of walking around Buenos Aires trying to make sense of it.