Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Perception shifts

i'm fascinated by how we look.

the day we arrived, i can confess now, my heart sank. the neighbourhood did not appear to be the chic palermo hollywood of boutiques, lofts and design that the guide books described but, rather, a wanna-be (or, actually, a used-to-be) neighbourhood struggling to re/gain a certain social elevation. i couldn't see what there was to see. i wondered what happened to derail the gentrification i'd read so much about, and i wondered whether there were groceries within walking distance. i worried about where we'd get a cup of coffee in the morning.

partly it's a function of the construction, which is ubiquitous, small-scale and primitive. you see plenty of two-men teams working over a driveway using shovels and wheelbarrows. that is, they break up and shovel away the concrete or stone or clay-tiled sidewalks by hand. they hack out trees using hatchets and axes. they mix concrete in a 5-gallon bucket and spread it over a 15 x 15 foot area by hand, like they would if they were replacing part of your sidewalk. unfinished work is blocked off at the end of the day by arcing and then wedging a 1 x 4 board between the storefront and a still-standing tree. these small construction zones are taped off with simple plastic rope, and everybody is used to detouring into the street at least a few times every block.

there is some large-scale construction, some of it consuming entire blocks of the city. somehow, though, it's less obtrusive. i'm not sure whether that's because your eye just glides smoothly over the billboarded walls or because it's so tidy. i suspect the latter. which makes me realize how tidy edmonton (and, indeed, most cdn/US cities i'm familiar with) is.

add to the ubiquitous construction a fair bit of trash blowing around the streets. then mix in the size of the retail establishments: small. there's a terrific leather jacket store right around the corner from us that is the size of my study at home. gorgeous stuff, all in a place so small you could walk by it without noticing -- that is, a place so small i did walk by it without noticing, quite a few times. ditto the bakery on the other corner. and the fancy kids' clothing store, and the furniture shop. yeah, the furniture shop! just think about that: a shop selling furniture that could fit inside an ikea "storage solution."

well, i'm not saying anything new here: norteamericanos are space pigs. let me be the first to admit that in this respect, i am at one with my people.

what's really fascinating is how my perception has changed over the few days we've been here. i now find our neighbourhood so cool, so full of unexpected little treats of hipness and style, that it's hard to remember the dismay i felt on saturday, and impossible to relive it. now that i know what a mercado looks like, they are everywhere. now that i know how to navigate the sidewalks, they don't unnerve me. now that i have a feel for the traffic (it's beautiful, socialism in action, everybody driving with a sense of the greater good) it's not so bewildering. as for finding coffee: even though it's not particularly a coffee town, you couldn't stretch out your arms without slugging a barista.

the change has come over me so gradually that the new shock is how we are seen -- how we look to others. we don't even have to say "hola" before they're handing us the english menu. among latin american countries, argentina is one of the whitest (something about the "complex" legacy of WWII, ahem) -- so it's not that, at least not simply. it's a white enough country that i don't see myself as being different from them. to me, i'm white, portenos are white, we're all white: i don't really make fine distinctions within the category, since other things (e.g., straightness/queerness, accented/unaccented speech, gender relations between strangers, age differences, and individuals' style, always) interest me more.

but here's something to learn, again: how i see myself and how i am seen are remarkably different! you know that truism that gendering happens as soon as the viewer notes, subconsciously, three markers of femininity? it's like that. blue eyes + short hair + giant stature + glasses = inglesa. oh, the glasses?: both mo and i noticed around three days into the trip that no one in palermo wears glasses, unless you count the occasional gay american. (see? glasses + gay = american.)

is it a cultural thing? a regional thing? a physical thing? a straight thing? all of these? none? even if my spanish were better, i'm sure no one would violate the rules of etiquette and tell me. that, i'm pretty sure, is a cultural thing.

No comments: