Scrawled onto the folded backs of two large white placemats from Cafe Thibon was the sum of my afternoon writing yesterday.Starting slowly yesterday, I walked along Ave de Santa Fe towards the Recoleta neighborhood to meet Vicky for lunch. We met, (she was late, but the whole country is late so…there’s that) and I quickly ignored her recommendation to stay away from the mondongo, and piled right in.
Mondongo is something in Argentina that could be passably described as “cow stomach curry.” It is a mix of vegetables, lentils, blood sausages and chorizo, stewed together in a base yellow sauce, with two inch chunks of stomach thrown in for the main meat.
When in Rome right?
It was actually very good so long as I didn’t look directly at the piece of stomach as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. The ridges and seemingly jelly-fish like frills of stomach lining were a bit less than appetizing, but after the first bite, it wasn’t going to kill me.
While I tried my best blue eyed poor me act to get Vicky to get a carafe of wine and skip the rest of the dwindling afternoon of work, I failed, and so was left to my own devices.
I was going to go to the cathedral, but I was sidetracked along the way by a set of faces that made me quickly question where I was. I stopped into Cafe Thibon, to recollect my thoughts and get a cup of coffee to put me over the mid-afternoon drop nods.
Cafe Thibon is part liquor store, part cafe. The green granite bar prominently displays two vintage sets of Malbec, while a taciturn and portly old man dropped clean silverware into a worn wooden box between the espresso makers. My seat had me looking out into the street, but the wooden boxes of wine were stacked so high that I could only see a sliver through the open door. The occasional biker would flit by, only staying in my sight for a second, while the seemingly endless supply of grand old men with their ringed fingers and sweater covered walrusy midsections wandered by the displays of wines and liquors.
Behind me to my right was one of these old men, looking like he could’ve been the Argentinian brother of Bloomberg’s Tom Keene. He had a regal mane of white on the sides but very little on top, so to compensate, he combed his hair back, those wiry white strands, so that they connected, much like an electrical circuit that would fail if connections were breached. His forearms pressed flat on the table next to his newspaper, his left hand would go up like clockwork every 4-5th breath, pressing those hairs back towards their more numerous counterparts.
As I started to doodle on a placemat, I looked over the names of the wines in the glass cases beside me. Alamos, Angelica Zapata, Los Arboles, and Catena were a few of the more prominent names. The crackling of AM Spanish language radio could be heard faintly, with the tunes of jingles rolling together with the music to my untrained ear.
Cafe Thibon roasted their own coffee which they kept in massive glass cylinders on the back counter. Their gold domed tops seemed to be lacking only a crescent moon from the mosque tops I’d seen throughout the Middle East. An old fashioned balance, worn black with the grease of hands and the decades of coffee, is used to determine the amount of coffee sold. The curmudgeonly old man would gently place the cylindrical weight on one side and a bag on the other before tapping out a few beans into the bag, frowning, and repeating the process again and again until symmetry was achieved.
As he finished one bag, he reached his sausage fingers into a large dish of stuffed olives, selecting three, then rolling them around in his palm with a move from his thick thumb. Examination done, he clutched down on two and ejected one into his open mouth, before putting those two with some others that he’d soon serve me.
I asked the waitress for a glass of Malbec. Sure it was 3:00 in the afternoon, but I was on holiday for Chrissake. As I sipped the delightful house offering, I started to visualize the rhythm of Buenos Aires in a way that I had not before. Just as some people can pick up the beat of a song from just a handful of notes, so too can one feel the cadence of a city. The way that old men shuffle down sidewalks and the rapidity that cabs take off from red lights, these are but a few small sample pulses from the beating heart of a city. The overheard intonation of a conversation and the movements of waitress, these too show la tiempo de vivre. In a place like Argentina, the home of one of the world’s most famous dances, the Tango, this rhythm takes on even more meaning. Plain as the smell of a place or the mountains and rivers that comprise its landscape, the rhythm is as real as the nose on your face once you have trained yourself to look.
Ever since I was a little boy, I loved to go wandering through the hustle and bustle of a city anonymously. My father used to drop me off in the Loop of Chicago with my cousin Brad, who usually still had a few hours of work left before going home. Brad would rip a sheet of stationary so that I had his address, and then tell me to go wander around until 5, and to ask for help if I got lost.
Nothing like free range cousin-ing right?
I always longed for the feeling of aimless anonymity walking past thousands of people where no one knows your name. This effect is only amplified when one does not understand the language as throngs of people are living lives truly parallel to my own, a graceful mystery save for a the few non-verbal cues that I can ascertain.
I find myself with odd sense of deja vu here in Buenos Aires. I’ve certainly never gone on a prolific enough bender to have gotten here and back in a timely fashion, so all of my experiences should be new ones. These senses are not that of interaction wtih place, but instead the briefest inclination that I have seen the face of one of my deceased loved ones.
Yesterday I was walking down a side street in Palermo, as an old man shuffled closer with his head down. As I got within arm’s length of him, he picked his cabbie hatted head up a little bit, and to my shock and surprise, the face of Uncle Bill Kay was smiling back at me. The crinkled skin around his very round eyes and the way his face was always reminiscent of a round faced white owl who had been turned into an eternally boyish old man, this was the face that peeked out from under that cap. For that briefest of seconds, I saw those blue eyes twinkle at me once more, just like they did for so many Christmases of my youth.
Just as quickly he was gone, like a warm blooded ghost who had disappeared into the wall. As I walked onward, this feeling of seeing someone I loved out of the corner of my eye only increased. As soon as I turned to look, they were always gone.
I started thinking about Buenos Aires as my heaven replacement. Maybe all of my loved ones are here, living lives that no longer diverge with my own, but still loving, living and breathing as they did when our lives intersected. Perhaps Uncle Bill gets up every morning about 9AM, dresses impeccably in his blazer, sweater vest and scarf, and heads over to Cafe Thibon for his morning coffee, where he banters with the waitress, and playfully argues with the similarly dressed man sitting next to him about tomorrow’s weather. Then he shuffles in his leather shoes over to the park, where he plays chess with the other old men and talks about the romantic conquests of his youth, before going home to the butcher and picking up a slice of meat to grill and eat with his evening wine.
I’ve read enough of the Bible to know, that the actual cardinal directions to “Heaven” were quite general. Who is to say that our loved ones don’t merely move on to this Paris of the Southern Hemisphere and continue living lives with hopes, fears, joys and pains? It seems equally comforting to me, that if I continue to travel the ends of the earth, that I might for the most instantaneous of seconds, get to see that loved one of mine in a moment that requires neither acknowledgement or discussion, only the feeling of a full heart and a sense of contentment that all is as it should be.
Even if it is just Uncle Bill’s doppelganger, I wouldn’t trade the brief blissful feeling of Resurrection for all the facts on Earth.
Some mysteries are better left in the ether.