I’m back again in Buenos Aires after three weeks of relaxation and partying in Uruguay. How can I describe the feeling of aimlessness I felt there? Why did I feel out of place among the relaxed vacationers in the hostels where I stayed? I’m never sure of the reason I sometimes feel so isolated among otherwise excellent people. Am I just too introverted for life? Do other people ever feel like this? I could keep picking at those little loose edges of my social self-confidence until I go crazy. I think perhaps fretting over those feelings isn’t so productive, so I’ll just say that I met interesting people from all over the world; dug the chill vibe of sweet beautiful Uruguay; ate fantastic steak; and in the end I began to let go of some of the self-destructive anxiety that still lingered from the start of my trip. And if I passed some time feeling out of place – well, I also made new friends and had fantastically good times I won’t soon forget.
Buenos Aires has been a major part of my larger travel goal for a while. Early on I decided I would spend a month here to take Spanish lessons and dig the city. Passing through places quickly, unable to strike up genuine friendships with locals thanks to my limited Spanish – it’s made me feel superficial and alienated. This pit stop is a time to make real progress on communicating in Spanish and to spend time coming to know a place intimately – if not as well as a local, then at least less like a tourist.
I arrived in Monday. I had my travel day to myself to feel quiet and let my introverted mind recover itself. I felt a bit exhausted after the last days of Montevideo and wanted time to read, write, sleep, and slip through crowds unnoticed the way you can only when you’re alone. My first day in a new place, tired from travel, I seldom feel like talking, so I settled in a quiet corner of the hostel common room to read and catch up on conversations with friends in other places. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for doing this, but I need solitude. In hostels it’s too easy to become exhausted from the constant interaction.
When I was ready for human contact again I met a delightful French girl named Steph in the spacious and comfortable dorm room just the two of us shared. The hostel was overbooked so we were both upgraded to an ensuite – lovely after the full, messy dorm in Montevideo. I helped her change money on the blue market and we made lunch together. Classically beautiful, friendly, and self-assured, she is intent on speaking English and Spanish, not French, and she would sigh elegantly and look the other way when the other French guests in the hostel came near. Irritated by the presence of her countrymen, she went to the courtyard to smoke and try to disguise herself as a visitor from some other county – her cigarette held languidly next to her shoulder and her scarf draped over her classic camisole, sitting outside at a little cafe table and looking hopelessly French. I coached her on how to smoke like an American, telling her to smile constantly and try to look dumb, and lean forward with her cigarette in front of her instead of held elegantly off to the side. She uncrossed her legs and grinned and hid the scarf. It was going well until a loud comment from the other group elicited an exasperated “ohh la la” and our cover was blown – and a few minutes later I was surrounded by the whole group and smiling as the French conversation washed over me and reminded me of Paris.
To celebrate our first day in Buenos Aires and the abundance of $2 and $3 bottles of excellent wine, we started drinking around four, which really seemed like a good idea at the time, and eventually talked with a Spanish-speaking group near us having a party. I met a very friendly Peruvian guy who acted like everyone’s best friend, warm and so funny, always happy (he said), laughing loudly and drunkenly. Something about him was strange to me, but I chalked it up to the beer he’d been guzzling. After ten minutes or so of conversation he shyly brought out silver rings to show his friends and the little group of hostel guests who had joined them. They were sterling silver set with colored stones in a cloisonne technique that I know from my semesters in the jewelry studio isn’t easy. Good craftsmanship, too, and I had decided to buy one and was handing his displays back when he looked at me with a disappointed expression saying “oh… there’s one missing. But that’s fine. This is my life’s work, and it’s hard. But it’s fine, I don’t care that one is missing.” He couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d tried. I bought the ring I wanted (it was a good price for the quality of the work) and told him I was sorry he lost a ring. There was no point in making a scene, but I was furious at his attempt to manipulate me into giving him more money by accusing me of stealing, especially when I felt kinship with him as a jeweler and respect as a craftsman. The entire friendly conversation had been an act that evaporated when I refused to pretend I had actually stolen something. Eventually he left, still giving me sullen accusatory looks.
The night progressed with bottles of wine and more conversation in a mixture of French, Spanish, and English. I learned such useful phrases as “Tout le monde á poil” (“everybody get naked!”) and various swear words. The hostel courtyard was loud with languages and laughter until the early morning hours.
Now it’s late morning and people are sampling various hangover remedies and generally staying in the hostel. I’m tired too, but I can’t stay inside doing nothing. It’s spring and the air is fresh and delicate in the early hours and the city is buzzing beyond the hostel doors and I can’t stay inside. As soon as I close the door the world shifts and here are cars trundling by on the uneven pavement and taxis slow to pass me on the sidewalk, thinking that as I stand there in the wash of light and air and noise that I must be lost. I’m not lost. I’m on Chacabuco street and I have only a few blocks to walk down to Estados Unidos to a cafe I found yesterday. I’m making mental notes as I pass little market stands where I can buy fruit on my way back, and noticing beautiful old bars expertly painted in an art nouveau style. They look like they would be fantastic dark places to drink cocktails and meet interesting people late at night. More mental notes. I pass the parilla restaurant with the pretty 1930s style lettering and find my cafe. The coffee guy remembers me and remembers that I like my coffee cortado (“cut” with milk). I drink my cortado and look out the window and work on my slow translation of Paula, thinking that this isn’t such a bad way to start my month in Buenos Aires.