A summer in your city
La Ciudad // The City
The city of Buenos Aires should have been familiar. It was a familial city after all. Mi madre had grown up there, mi padre too had lived there for a time, before I was born. Yet, driving down la autopista, I knew nothing about the city. Not where I was going. Not los edificios I was passing. Not el barrio I was heading to. The Argentine friend who met us at Ezieza Aeropuerto greeted us in English with, ‘Welcome to my city.’ My city. Mine. Not yours. It reminded me of the expression ‘Not for you’ I’d often hear when I was living in Hong Kong. ‘Not for you’ was when the local shopkeepers didn’t want to sell you something—maybe it wasn’t the right size or shape; maybe it was the lack of language, or maybe, just maybe, they didn’t want to deal with the foreign you. They’d wave their hands and repeat mǎo a, mǎo a, (冇啊) and turn away. There was no explanation except those words accompanied by that gesture―no, it was not for you. I felt I should have corrected the Argentine friend en el aeropuerto. I should have explained I was more connected to this ciudad than what she could ever know. I could hear el castellano I grew up speaking as a chica being spoken everywhere on the streets. I could understand every little cosita y dicho. I could respond without thinking. ‘Che, lo hablás bien,’ the shopkeepers would say. ‘Pero con un acento’ or ‘Es un poco extraño’. Here, you are kinda strange. Kinda funny. But at least here, you can laugh.
Las Tortugas// The Turtles
We’re all standing by the water fountain en el Jardín Japonés, filling our bottles up and pouring water over our heads. People watch us. My sister’s face is too red―a shade that’s beyond normal. I think it’s my cousin H who snaps first, ‘Che, you wanted to see the city. ¡Vámonos!’ No one speaks. Everyone is thinking: I’m not going back into the midday sun. Into the full-on calor de Buenos Aires. ¿Tenés calor? ¡Tocá el tambor! That would require us to walk. Heat and anger. Anger directed at H. After a while, the water fountain begins to taunt us, reminds us that we are all wearing zapatillas. My feet are swollen. Blistered. Hot. If I take off my sneakers, skin will come off too. H says many things that day, as we endure the intense summer heat. We don’t laugh. We don’t move. We learn to ignore H. Hate him poquito a poquito. Finally, he suggests helado. You scream. I scream. We no longer care about las rosas or el Jardín Japonés or los colibríes we came to see. Joggers pass us and we ridicule them. We thirst for la sombra. We all scream for ice-cream! We band together, walking to the tune of that Fonsi song playing over and over on Radio Disney. Des-pa-cito. We become las tortugas, the nickname H gives us because we all move sooo slooowwwlllyyy. Our only wish is to retreat. We’re turtles cooking in our own shells. With each slow step towards our destination heladería with the four-inch bullet proof glass, we too become tougher. Thick-skinned and thirsty.
On the airplane to Buenos Aires, my sister sits next to a man from Uruguay. He tells her that he works on those huge container ships. He tells her, esos botes sail all over el mundo for months on end, delivering and picking up cargo. He says, the crew are all men. Hombres. ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ she asks. The man from Uruguay doesn’t miss a beat as he answers slapping the back of his hands together. Pan con pan, no tiene sentido.
We arrive at el apartamento en Balvanera. The Argentine friend carries our bags and explains things before leaving us to settle in. El nuevo subte is in the next street, on la Avenida Pueyrredón. Turn right, down the other way, there’s the Abasto shopping centre, near that, there’s el Coto supermercado. It’s about a diez minutos walk. If you need anything, go to the stop across the street. Ese negocio es como una vecina (amante); no es bonita, pero es cerca. The in-out convenience store ain’t pretty, but it’s close.
We arrive in Buenos Aires in the middle of summer, in the middle of a heat wave. El aire acondicionado though new, only drip-drip-drips. On the first days alone, we open the wooden persianas and stand on the little balcón looking out at the view. The buildings, the mould, the air cons, the cityscape, la humedad y el calor reminds us of Hong Kong. I spy a white cat peeking at us from the first floor terraza. It gazes up por un buen rato before retreating inside. I copycat. Hace demasiado calor.
We go to el Gran Café Tortoni for my birthday breakfast. I order un café con leche y media lunas. My sister orders una pizzeta con muzarella, tomate, y aceitunas. The pizzeta is blanketed in soft yellow cheese. ‘You gotta try it,’ she says. ‘It tastes like mum’s.’ While we eat, a thin twitchy old man is directed to his usual table by the mirrored glass. Arturo, the old-school waiter, takes the old man’s order without looking up from his iPhone. El viejo charla con mi hermana. ‘Soy una rata de la ciudad,’ he says. ‘I could never live anywhere else,’ le confiesa el viejo hablando con la boca llena.
The downstairs neighbour came up to our apartmento to complain about el aire acondicionado drip-drip-dripping on his awning. You tried to explain you’re not from here that you don’t actually live here. ‘No te quiero hacer problema,’ he interrupted in a voice so loud that la vecina quietly confronted you the next day in the stairwell. She said she had a bucket to spare and could lend it sin problema, before ese viejo te embrome. ‘Gracias,’ you replied. You rig a hose from aircon to bucket. You know you don’t want that man ever coming back.
La Señora y la noche // The woman and the night
After a long day, we retreat into a quiet café on a street parallel to la Avenida Pueyrredón. Inside, la Señora is chatting to a young waiter. On hearing us she asks, ‘¿De dónde son?’ My sister tells her. While they talk, we order ravioles con salsa calabrese and a glass of Malbec each. ‘I have a story,’ la Señora’s blue eyes shine as she puts a thin hand to her corazón. ‘My father was from París; my mother was from Manchester. I grew up speaking English, but never practice it. I’m alone now … Once, I used to live on the other side de la ciudad. Then en los 1980s, a bomb went off in the neighbouring building … We sold that place and found somewhere on this side. I left the place I grew up in, where all my friends lived … I’d lived there all my life … I was suddenly, here …’ La Señora pauses, her lips tremble. ‘In the 2000s, los bancos collapsed here. El gobierno took everyone’s guita. People did bad things here, you know.’
You know, H’s grandma, your dad’s sister, your tía, got held up and was shot. You know, your abuela had her earrings ripped from her earlobes.
Yet, you don’t really know. You’ve never lived here. So, you listen.
‘Mis padres had me when they were old. They’ve died already. Many of my old barrio friends have died, gone into casas de geriátricos, have forgotten their memories. Ah … I’m all alone now.’ After un momento, she collects herself and her bags. The young waiter helps her. Gracias. That’s why I came here today, because I hadn’t spoken to anyone all day. ‘It’s strange, when you haven’t used your voice, how it is in your head. When you speak, you need to find your words again, ¿sabes?’ My sister nods. I sip my wine. The waiter opens the door. ‘Glad to meet you,’ la Señora says. ‘Un placer,’ my sister says quietly. I nod. La Señora smiles before leaving the café and stepping out into the night.
Walking back down la Avenida Pueyrredón one night my sister trips on a broken paving and rips her sandalia. En la oscuridad, we help each other navigate the potholes covered in pieces of old wooden crates. Ahead, someone is lying in the middle of la vereda, in front of a farmacia. Una señora with two dogs walks around. Others pass, then look back. Cómo ser, I overhear a man say. ‘What does that mean?’ I ask my sister. ‘Maybe,’ she says, ‘he means how could it come to this.’ Maybe, I say turning on the aircon when we’re inside el apartamento, he meant ¿Cómo puede ser? When do you just give up?
After much emailing, we finally meet C in a café, round the corner off Avenida Córdoba.
Over warm juice, I pass her the books a friend sent; she gives me a blessed card in return.
‘It’s of el Papa Francisco,’ she says, ‘light it with a candle. It’s for the friend’s father who is dying.’ C asks us what we plan to do. I mention I was seven years old when I was first and last here. Una chica. ‘I’d like to see the city, meet familia, maybe find mi abuela. My mother’s mother,’ I tell her. ‘You must find her,’ C urges. Es muy importante. Later, I email Tía. Do you know about abuela … ? Days pass. Hola … mamá está en una residencia … She emails recent photos. And an address.
Our other cousins ask us to visit them at the coast. Mar Del Plata. Come. Vení. We go to the bus terminal en Retiro, next to la Estación. Geez, look at this place. It’s scary. Watch yourself. We locate the booth on an upper floor. Half the booths are either shut or empty. Even though it’s daytime, we buy our Flecha tickets in the dark. The bus passenger terminal looks even more rundown in daylight. Our bus driver is a friendly viejo with unnaturally dyed and straightened black hair. His bowl cut reminds me of el cómico Carlitos Bala. ‘Aquí llego Bala (Bala Bala) el show va a comenzar (ya llego, ya llego)’. As we drive off, I realise the bus terminal backs onto the slums. The sea that is La Villa Miseria.
Mar Del Plata. The big pato. The barrio dogs. The potholes. The crowded beaches. The developed shoreline. The fish processing fábrica. The stink clouds that waft over the houses. The Argentine vessels on the docks. La Base Naval. ¿Un submarino? Decommissioned. Used in Las Malvinas/The Falklands War: 750/255 soldados/dead. Dirty politics. A strategic British colonial outpost. Like Hong Kong until the 1997 handover. Like high school. Brisbane 1982. Hey! a single finger pointed in your direction. Isn’t your mum from Argentina? My sister and I getting cornered at high school by that blonde-haired blue-eyed Australian girl and her gang of Anglos. The Fuckland Islands! Every time I see an Argentinian on TV, I give them the finger! Their hatred of us. The secret police visiting my mother at home to ask her, ‘Are the Argentines planning a march or protest?’
Try it, the cousin says, stopping at un café. Un submarino is a chocolate bar served in hot milk. The chocolate melts into the milk. We also try facturas y sandwiches de miga (white bread sandwiches without the crusts). We visit F at his lifesaving outpost on the beach. His post is made out of slabs of concrete, pieces of salvaged wood and bits of corrugated iron. ‘We made this ourselves,’ he says. ‘People would keep breaking in; they’d steal everything.’ We take pictures. On the wild windy sunny silvery grey gritty shoreline, we pose with our new found family and feral dogs. It’s like Mad Max at the beach.
We are drinking mate. Walking along the shore on a not-so-crowded part of the beach in Mar del Plata, el chico selling hot churros sings, Chuuuurrrrooosss calientes, llenos de dulce de leche, chuuuurrrrooosss. So cool. Check out his white outfit, I want to take his picture. ‘Better ask,’ I say. ‘¿Me vas a sacar una foto?’ The churro seller is so flattered, he poses a grin from oreja a oreja. ‘¿De dónde son?‘ he asks us. Australia. ‘¡Oh! ¡Qué lindo país! ¡Sí! Sí, lo es.’ The churro seller walks off smiling and a-singing his churro seaside song.
We cook ravioles on our last day in Buenos Aires to thank the Argentine friend for letting us stay at this place. It’s so hot en el apartamento, it’s too uncomfortable but we eat anyway. I’m explaining how during the war Germans in Australia were rounded up and put into camps. There were camps in Victoria in case the people were sympathisers. That’s good, the Argentine friend says, wiping sweat away. They could’ve been spies. Passing information. Is the aire acondicionado on? Good? Yes, it’s good, it means the country is watching out for its safety. Imagine you are living in Australia, war breaks out. ‘You’d be happy to be taken to a prison camp?’ I ask. No. No es lo mismo. ‘How?’ You’re an enemy now. But I’ve nothing to do with it. I’ve done nothing … ‘Exactamente.’ Though isn’t Argentina known for harbouring and hiding Nazi war criminals and Australia for detaining refugees and putting them in camps? ¡Pero cómo! ¡El acondicionador es nuevo! the Argentine friend complains about the faulty aircon.
At New Zealand airport, I say goodbye to my sister. Before she goes through security, we have a coffee and take some last-minute photos. ‘Have a safe trip home,’ I say. ‘You too.’ We wave as she boards her flight. See you soon, sis.
When I arrive back in Melbourne, I light a candle in my homemade ofrenda with the image of el Papa Francisco. I text the photo to my friend. ‘He’s just passed away,’ she responds. ‘I couldn’t get back home in time.’
I think of my abuela. She was 96 años when my sister and I visited her at la residencia. The nurse told us that her bags were always packed. Abuela couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t let her go home. Mi casa is just around the corner, she’d insist.
Did it feel like the motherland? Did you get all the answers?
It’s like this:
Ni sí, ni no, ni blanco, ni negro. Not yes or no, nor black or white. Así es.
Suzanne Hermanoczki is a writer and teacher of creative writing. Her critical and creative works on death narratives and photography, trauma and the immigrant journey, gringos, magic realism, code-switching and bi/multi-cultural identity, have been published in both local and international publications. She first began studying Creative Writing at The University of Hong Kong while living and working in Hong Kong. She holds a PhD and Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne.
By Suzanne Hermanoczki
Issue 1 | Autumn 2022
Onions, psychologist of the poor | Natalia Figueroa Barroso
El mal adquirido monopolio | María Elena Lorenzin