Friday, May 30, 2008


i twisted my knee in a soccer game last friday night, my first game of the season. it was a perfect night for soccer: calm, clear skies, not too warm, no wind. the ground was soft after a few days of rain. the pitch had give. i was wearing new cleats, adidas' latest magic with a weighted last and supple calf leather. "i'm overcompensating," i joked to my teammates before the game, "letting technology make up for the fact that i haven't played much lately." not a lot of soccer, but i've been working with a personal trainer and i felt fit.

the game was humming along, a good match. i was making a play, not a particularly spectacular play, just one of those moves you make from the midfield wing, when the injury happened. thinking back, i believe i was changing direction, but it was such an unmemorable moment in the overall flow that i can't really recall the details. had i already kicked the ball? was i going after it? had the play moved infield? my left cleat was planted, my body moved right, the knee complained. just one of those things. i jogged a little, tested it. it seemed fine: tweaked, but okay. at half-time i stretched. the knee kept swelling until finally, with ten minutes left in the game and another slated for sunday, i came off the pitch. no point overdoing it.

by the time i got home it was really swollen. saturday i couldn't bend it at all. couldn't walk, couldn't really drive. but that's the way with knees: once they swell, they're hard to bend, and it's hard to tell what's going on. i did what we all do, an internet diagnosis. collateral ligament strain? maybe something where the hamstring attaches -- that left hamstring has been iffy of late. could be a tear in the meniscus. i was pretty sure it wasn't ACL. i contracted my quadriceps again just to be sure.

what with aunty jo, it's been a busy enough week that only yesterday did i make time for a physio appointment, and even then it was just so that i could give my team an answer about tonight's game. by yesterday, the knee wasn't that painful. still swollen, but only with these comical little goose eggs. sure, it buckled occasionally, and it was awkward to get in and out of the car. the pain keeps shifting, but it isn't serious -- nothing a little naprosyn and ice can't handle. i was smart enough not to try running, but i went to pilates monday, yoga wednesday, and tuesday night did a long bike ride through the river valley. sure, everything made the knee swell more, and there were certain poses i couldn't do, but it was a positive relief to have an alibi against one-legged planks, to have an excuse for not getting up the hills faster, not holding my lunges longer.

for all these reasons, i was totally unprepared to hear the physio say the fatal three-letter word. "i just don't feel an end point," she said apologetically, after manipulating my knee this way and that. "how does it feel to you?" "weird," i said, "hollow, empty." and then i burst into tears.

see, i've been down this road once before. i tore my right ACL in january 2002. i know something about the wait for surgery and the two-year rehab, not to mention the catastrophic personal consequences. i just don't know that i can do it again. i know, i know, it's too early to make such a call -- i've barely absorbed this news, and still feel dismayed. but none of the options look good to me.

on the one hand, there's the surgery. which is amazing, from a purely scientific point of view, and, for most people, from a personal physical point of view. the surgery is arthroscopic. the surgeon makes four small holes in your leg, grabs a little hamstring tendon with a crochet hook, folds it over a few times and strings it through your knee, thereby building a new anterior cruxiate ligament to connect your upper leg to your lower leg. over time, your body accepts the makeshift ligament as the real thing, and builds blood vessels and neural pathways along the new ligament. it's an incredible process, when you think about it. it's also a long and painful one. for me, the knee was strong and stable within a year, but the hamstring has never fully recovered. when i'm doing a hamstring curl, you can still see the gap where the tendon used to be. when i think about the surgery, i remember lying face-down on my bed trying to straighten my leg, crying and crying in agony. it took four months? five? to straighten my leg after i had surgery. post-surgery rehab was a lot of work -- and i was six years younger then.

on the other hand, there's no surgery. what that means long-term is still opaque, but some things are certain: no soccer. no downhill skiing. no surfing. longterm knee instability leading to higher potential for other knee injuries. it means wearing an ugly brace at least some of the time. what about running through the river valley in a perfect summer morning? what about my goal of running from canmore to banff this summer? what about swimming? how will an unreconstructed knee age; what will it be like when i'm aunty jo's age? nikki the physiotherapist said, "don't worry, you'll be active again." what does that mean: when, and how? and in what ways?

i feel numb, dumb, not even angry or upset anymore. just a gloomy sense of should-have-known inevitability. a formal feeling.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008


i'm in the elevator at my new hangout, knox metropolitan seniors' building, when an older lady gets on. her face brightens when she sees me. "hello!," she says eagerly. "that's a big suitcase." "oh, i guess it is," i laugh, "but it's the easiest way to carry the laundry around." "you're here to do the laundry?" she asks. "yes," i say, "well, i'm just doing a bit for my aunt." "your aunt!" says my fellow traveler, "how nice. now, which one is your aunt?" "mrs vale," i say, "joyce? she's on the fourth floor." "oh!" says the other lady, "yes. i see. mm-hmm." and with that, a metal door clangs shut our conversation.

clearly jo has not been making friends at knox met.

i've made it sound like i'm in this aunty jo conundrum all by my lonesome, but of course that isn't the case. far from it. mo and bobbee have been great sounding boards and cheering squads from their respective distances, and my mom's been terrific too. when we were in argentina, she wandered the entire fifth floor of the grey nuns hospital carrying a little teacup of fresh flowers, asking for jo by the wrong name and thereby only narrowly avoiding getting thrown into the geriatric ward herself. not just family, but friends come through in these circumstances, too. kate and beau took me out to dinner last night. jennifer is threatening to come over and weed the garden whether i'm here or not. (no egging this time, though, right?) renee said, "if we can't ask our friends to help with smelly mattresses, then the entire basis of the friendship is in question."

i don't know what living would be like without these people, this paint splotch of connections i call, too generically, my community, this chiliagon (that's for you, donna) of complex connections. i couldn't recognize my life as my own without my friends, and it's never occurred to me that i might have to. but over the last couple weeks i've had occasion to reflect -- for the first time, really -- on what life might actually be like when i'm old. i always used to think it would be pretty much the same as it is now, only with more yelling. and slower, i suppose, though i try not to think about that part.

now i question this rosy little picture. think of the last time you took a plane somewhere -- say, an edmonton-toronto flight. now imagine that you end up living in a seniors' building with everybody else in the "hospitality" section: people of roughly the same social class, with different itineraries, yet all on the same well-trod route.

that's knox met. if the globe & mail can be believed, it's not easy breaking into the cliques at the old folks' home. and why would it be? have you ever been anywhere that had more stringent social codes than an airplane? ever tried to "be yourself" in economy?: "actually, i don't care for chicken or beef. what i really like to eat for supper is cereal." can you imagine? on most flights, cranberry juice is tantamount to an alternative lifestyle! and it's not just the flight wardens that ensure conformity. admit it: you've watched someone try to get to the bathroom around the drinks cart, and you've clucked in disbelief, too.

lately i've been privy to many opinions about old people, and nearly everyone -- the 30-something clerk at the incontinence supply store, the filipina cleaning lady, rick the middle-aged steam-cleaner, social workers, nurses, doctors -- everyone agrees that old folks are stuck in their ways. this can be good or bad. the woman who cleaned jo's apartment thought it was good: "old people are very tidy," she observed. the steam cleaner was less enamored. "i'm trying to do this lady's dandelions, right? and not for any pay, mind you. i'm doing this for free, as a favour. and she doesn't want me taking care of her dandelions because of her cats. i've explained this to her over and over again, but it just doesn't matter to her. no means no." i'm a bit lost, but rick presses on. "now, same thing with your aunty. you see the wear on the back of this chair? old people grab their furniture in the same way every day, year after year after year." health care people are carefully neutral; the word of choice at grey nuns is "determined," as in "your aunt is a very determined lady!" (oh, i think, so that's what they're calling it now.)

what age do people choose to remain? for jo, i think, it's the 40s -- not her 40s, but the 1940s. she would have been in her twenties then, beautiful, and subject to lots of satisfying attention from men. attention from men is her crack. if only home care hired more handsome young men, we'd have her agree to a bath assist in no time. other women in her building, i think, settle in their 50s: kids raised, husband trained, house paid for. churchy women don't stick to an age so much as a protocol. (raise your chair back during mealtimes if you find yourself neighbours to a church lady!) you'd think holding onto a professional identity would be the way to go, but i wonder what life is really like for the smartly dressed english woman i run into in the lobby. is it harder for her to eat meals on wheels?

will our dotage will be any different? i try to imagine my sister's youngest, everett, who's not yet two years old, opining on his aged aunt. "she's impossible. everything has to be design design design. what does she need with a fancy designer diaper bag? oh, and the food! it has to be organic this, probiotic that. you'd think she'd be happy to be fed at all." i wonder what Activities they'll have at my old folks' home. no one i know plays cribbage or bridge, so you've got to imagine even old folks' homes will change with the times. but change to what: vintage CSI rerun nights? retro wii challenges? no, worse, i can see it now: scrapbooking.

quick: somebody build me a queer retirement home, where at least i can continue to exercise the prejudices i already hold.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Old folks

thanks to margrit for this link to a multi-part series on seniors' homes. i'll cut to the depressing chase: it's just like high school all over again.

jesus. no wonder aunty jo doesn't eat in the dining room.

Rant: where is the love?

the question is to the universe: universe, where is the love?

i'm getting an awful lot of karmic payback for ... for what? i know things always feel more stressful when mo's away: suddenly, i have to do my own laundry (heaven forfend), as well as feeding myself and the cats, watering the plants, taking out the trash and so on. add to that what it's like when you come back from a vacation, all those little tasks you put aside "for later." compound that with the change-of-seasons stuff: because of the april snow, we still have gloves and mittens at the back door, while our summer shoes are -- well, actually, i don't really know where they are, not having got to that task yet. remember the roof? well, it still leaks when it rains, so there's always the buckets to be thinking of. plus there are water stains down the dining room wall and the inside of our kitchen cupboards.

all of that is still just the regular stuff, the property and personal management tasks that are the humdrum necessities of life. i've already written about aunty jo, so i'm sure you can imagine that schlepping to grey nuns, doing her laundry, dropping off her dry cleaning, organizing meals on wheels, talking to doctors, social workers, nurses and home care, and educating myself on the latest incontinence technologies -- all tasks i take on willingly -- suck a certain amount of time, a dose or two of energy.

so i felt pretty justified thinking of my hands as full. i don't need the extras: the dead birds, for instance. yeah, for some reason (and it ain't cleanliness), we have birds knocking themselves out on our windows. for that matter, the live birds are a bit much right now. i don't know exactly what is going on between the magpies and the robins, and i don't think i want to. it's nature "red in tooth and red in claw" right here in the elm tree. meanwhile, out front, and in freaky keeping with the "bird" theme, someone has egged our house. to be sure, the grass is so long i'm sure the culprits thought the house was abandoned (add to list: we need a lawnmower!), but still. also: there are big, sleepy bees crawling into our laundry room. we haven't got a newspaper in ages. i haven't been to the bank since we got home from argentina -- i'm still working on the five dollar bill i had before we left. and it would be nice to get screens back in the windows so we could enjoy fresh air.

then, on friday night, i twisted my knee playing soccer. how do you ice and elevate your knee when the cats' pooperie needs to be cleaned? when you have cupcakes to deliver to a twelve-year-old's birthday party, and a mattress to install in an 84-year-old's apartment? grit and crutches, that's how.

i can tell i'm on the brink of losing it, so i consult chapter one of The Little Book of Stress Relief, which says "do something nice for yourself." a pedicure, i think: some nice heather time on monday, after getting those fillings done. what can i tell you, i'm a protestant. work first, pleasure later. a trip to the dentist earns you the pedi.

i'm not what you'd call a fan of dental work, but i don't think of myself as a fraidy cat. well, i didn't. why, oh why, in the name of all things holy and unholy, do they have to use that huge, honkin' steel needle? the dentist -- a lovely man, he did not deserve me -- started freezing, and i started to panic. i put my hand to my forehead. "are you okay?," asked dr weebe, holding his mediaeval instrument so i could just see it at the corner of my eye. i was scared he'd stop and scared he'd continue, so i lied with a nod. i wasn't really okay. i felt nauseated. my heart was pounding. then the cold sweats started. i raised my hand to my forehead again, but he was all over it. "okay," he said, "okay, you're not okay." the word 'okay' was starting to resonate weirdly. out popped the needle. "we're just going to --" WHOOSH "-- lower your head a little here." now the nausea is getting worse. i can feel my ironic lunch, a cup of 'zen' tea, slooshing dangerously up my gullet. dr weebe addresses his aide, briefly, and suddenly i have a pulse monitor on my index finger.

i ask you, what kind of loser needs a heart monitor at the dentist?

dr weebe's mask looms overhead again. "you don't like this, do you?" i try to joke. "does anybody?" the aide chirps in. "yes," she says, "some people do. do you know who likes this?" i haven't the foggiest. "the people who come in with a raging toothache, that's who!" i drool in reply. the freezing is coming on in my upper lip. the aide leaves. the dentist returns. he asks if i want to come back another day and start all over again. i shake my head, vigorously.

somehow the lower freezing doesn't really take, but we're so far in i say let's finish the job. how bad can it be, getting a filling without freezing?

turns out, pretty bad.

i survive, though, and dr weebe walks me back out to the front of the office. i'm still shaking, but not palsied. the worst is over. i remind myself of the pedicure, which calms me down. we're going through the usual routine: the receptionist runs the charges through my insurance first, then i hand over my VISA for the $39 balance. i'm reflecting on what a strange world it is, that i should pay people for such an experience, when the receptionist interrupts my dentistry-free reverie by saying, "i'm sorry, that card's been declined."

now, i know i'm not good with money. i know i spend too much. since argentina, i have been considering the ole freeze-your-credit-card-in-a-block-of-ice trick. but you know how it is, jo needs things, and we need things, and anyway, if god doesn't want me to carry a balance, he should stop pre-approving me for such great interest rates.

still, if this card is maxed out, that means i've blown through twelve thousand dollars in the last week. is that possible? i feel a wave of cold dread. i really haven't been paying sufficient attention lately. oh god, oh god, oh god, what if i've really got myself into trouble this time?

no. wait a second. twelve thousand dollars?? even i can't blow twelve thousand dollars at the brick discount centre and the incontinence supply store. when i say to the receptionist, "that can't be possible," i discover that the freezing is coming on in my bottom lip now, strongly. "thu cubee poshibub," i say. she looks at me pityingly. "the message here says to phone them. shall we give them a call?" "shu." she dials all the numbers, 1 for english, the 16-digit card number, 5 to speak to an operator. i'm on. "hello, heather," monique-the-VISA-clerk says amiably. "how are you today?" well, monique, i want to say, i'm limping and drooling. i've just had a panic attack in my dentist's chair and my incontinent aunt is in the midst of a health crisis. my partner's away, someone is egging our house, there's a leak in the roof, i haven't done a lick of work in over a week and my VISA's just been declined -- but the right answer is "just fine!," so i give it. "we have a few security questions for you." i stumble through the answers, sounding like a drunk. can she tell? "okay, and one last question for you. where are you right now?" is this a trick question? i've told her already i'm standing in my dentist's office. i say, "uh...." she says, "are you in edmonton?" "yesh..." "so you're not buying gas in quebec?"

turns out someone has pilfered my VISA card number. ultimately there's no particular harm to me, but as always it's a little creepy. "did you destroy your old card?," she asks. "yes!," i said. mo is on a security kick, so the new practice is to cut up the card, shred the statements and put them in the bottom of a bag into which we put the used kitty litter. (which reminds me, dammit, the pooperie!) i spare monique those details, though she doesn't quite act in kind, and i have to stay on the phone while she explains all the ways in which VISA will protect me and my purchases. fair enough, i suppose. it's their dime.

i make it to the pedicurist just in time.

but guess what? it's a cash only joint.

so here i am blogging instead.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Aunty Joyce

i've neglected my blog for the last week not only because the charms of twenty-first-century edmonton struggle to match those of nineteenth-century buenos aires, but also, and primarily, because i've been overwhelmed by quotidian demands with unexpectedly big emotional impacts, most of which revolve around aunty jo.

in case you haven't met mo's mother's sister, jo is 84, deaf, and frail. she is, in almost equal measure, sweet, conniving, slow, opinionated, aggravating, grateful, selfish, sly, proud, scared, affectionate and feeble. she's a total dear and very fond of mo and me. "you're more the sporty type," she says to mo, "and heather's more the lady type." she smiles a little, pleased to have cracked the butch/femme code.

jo has been in the hospital for a month now, but they're sending her home on wednesday. which hospital, you ask? could it be the university hospital, conveniently located to work and home? the royal alex, within walking distance? the misericordia? the general? no: they've taken her to grey nuns, which is a day trip away from here. and now you're wondering, is "home" the right place for jo to be? shouldn't she be somewhere with a little more care? indeed. if i have learned one thing over the last month, it's that nothing is as important as a pension indexed to inflation. it's more important than good health -- it is good health. it buys community. it will ensure that you can find a spot in a dementia wing, where monthly rent starts at $3500.

when jo was hospitalized a few years back, geriatric medical personnel set out to test her cognition -- not a bad idea, given that she suffered brain damage in a car accident twenty years ago. she passed their tests, but only barely, mostly because she thought the tests themselves were stupid. she has a point. same tests this time around, only (in case her deafness had spread to her eyes, causing blindness?) they wrote the questions down for her to read. TAKE A PIECE OF PAPER AND FOLD IT IN HALF. THEN PICK IT UP IN YOUR LEFT HAND AND THROW IT ON THE FLOOR. jo reads the instructions and looks at me. "why do i have to do that?" "they just want to be sure you still understand instructions." skepticism. "it's so that if you're at home and have to use the stove or something, they know you'll be safe." the OT is standing patiently by, beaming encouragement. jo snorts. "you don't need to fold a piece of paper to use the stove!" "well, true....," i say, "but just show them you can do it. it will make them happy." jo rolls her eyes. the OT's smile is starting to strain. i can see the word "difficult," as in "difficult patient," taking shape in the thought bubble over her head. jo reads the instructions again, her lips moving around the words. she looks at me; i look stern. she looks at the OT, who looks meaningfully at the instructions. outnumbered, jo decides to do the task. but with her left arm in a splint, she can't really throw the paper on the floor properly. the OT hesitates, then yells, "ARE YOU FINISHED, MRS VALE?" "yes," says jo politely, automatically, "no, just a minute." she reads the instructions again, heaves a sigh of exasperation and throws the folded paper onto the floor with her splinted left arm. then she giggles.

ten or fifteen years ago, jo might have seemed mentally slow, but her demographic has caught up with her (caught down with her?), so now she reads like an 84-year-old whiz kid. "that's a nice blouse," she'll say to me. "you wore it last time you visited, too." busted. or, "i like those pants. i wonder what they'd look like ironed." when my mom visited during our buenos aires trip, jo complained that she wanted to get out of the hospital. casually, a bit later in the conversation, she inquired, "do you drive?" this is not someone suffering cognitive impairment.

what she does suffer from? a chronic acute case of vanity. in fact, we all suffer from her vanity. her first concern, always, is her hair. "oh!," she says, "you're here!" then her hands go immediately, reflexively, to her hair. "i look awful," she apologizes, "i need to get my hair done." then, usually, there is a short tirade against whoever's done it last, a detailed account of how they did or didn't use curlers, or made it too straight, or over-permed it, or pinned it up wrong. she's a piece of work, is aunty jo. she takes offence when servers apply the seniors' discount at restaurants. "how does he know how old i am?!" she wouldn't be caught dead using a walker -- "that's for old people." she doesn't socialize with anyone in her building: "they're all old." we cajole in all the typical ways. mo: "i'd love to have a walker! you could sit down a have a little rest whenever you felt like it!" jo looks levelly at us. we change topics, but not tactics. "boy, i'd love meals on wheels," i enthuse. "just think: dinners delivered hot to your door at mealtime!" no comment.

jo has outlived two husbands, her twin sister, her older brother and her best friend. her two great pleasures in life are "who wants to be a millionaire" and eating dinner at boston pizza. she'll order lasagna or chicken fingers, and the staff refill her coffee cup all night long. this winter, she started finding the half-block walk to BP a bit too long. it breaks my heart to see her enfeebled. she's so frail that when she falls (and it's now "when" she falls, not "if"), it takes her hours to get up again. that's if she's conscious, if her arm's not broken, if she's dressed and indoors, warm. she lies to everybody about her frailty, of course. "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU FALLEN THIS YEAR, MRS VALE?," asks the doctor. ("wasilenko: that's my doctor's name. what a name!") "oh, two or three," says jo, breezily. yvonne, the building manager, tells a different story. "i know i'm not supposed to help her up, i know i'm supposed to call the ambulance, but ...." she spreads her hands, helpless before her good heart. it's only through talking to one another that we piece together horrifying images of joyce lying behind a car in a snowy parking lot at 2 AM. "i tripped," she'll tell us, when we ask, "i think there was something on the sidewalk."


that's jo as a character in my narrative. everything in this post so far could have been written at any point over the last five years. what's different about this time is that i see clearly, perhaps for the first time, jo more as a person than as a character, jo as a failing human being who needs my help.

i'm not sure exactly what's brought about this new perspective, but it has something to do with mo being away; jo being alarmingly accommodating and open to suggestion; and the acrid smell of urine and all that it represents about our base, human existence. jo's been somewhat incontinent but it's got worse lately. when i went over to tidy her apartment last week, i find it unbearable. when did it get so bad? wondering this, i look more closely at her as i've seen her over the last year or so. the picture comes into focus and i realize: her clothes are dirty, she doesn't bathe herself properly, and she's anorexically thin. i snoop through the kitchen. she has a collection of napkins and some sugar packets from boston pizza. in the fridge, two jars of jam and a half litre of now-sour milk. is this what the future looks like, a cold, white, humming emptiness?

i feel quite disoriented to be in this entirely new and different relation to jo. in cleaning her place, i am finding things i'd rather not know, but also, and worse, finding things that by rights we should have known, being her only companions in the world. our willful blindness is shocking. i'm shocked, morally shocked, by how cavalier we have been. as my good friend renee put it the other night, mo and i have not taken seriously, have not internalized, jo's need for care. but now, i get it, and to mo and bobbee's chagrin, i'm sure, i am in full-on, over-compensating, bossy-big-sister mode. (poor jo.)

in a profound way, this is the first time i've been called on to be unselfish. many times in my life i have been generous; in fact, i like to cultivate generosity as a way of being. however, generosity is always self-serving. when i'm generous, i get to set the terms. this is different, and hateful. it's what i turned my back on when i walked away from church. it's why i don't have children. and yet: here is a woman who has outlived everyone in her life, who has an accidental connection to me, and who needs things i can provide. and so: there can be no question. i don't like it -- i prefer my old relationship with her, the one where i wear a pretty dress to make her happy, and she compliments me, and then we leave, telling ourselves she's okay on her own.

what blithe lives we lead. what luck.


this is a guest post by my most recent overnight guest, the incomparable ms laura, queen of the ten-year-olds (l'il man):

i'm writing this post about what me and heather -- sorry, heather and i -- ate for breakfast. we ate a very nutritious smoothie. well, aunty heather had her smoothie and coffee. coming up next, we will be eating burritos. and, if we're still thirsty, we will finish up the smoothie. ingredients for our delicious, nutritious smoothie:

one banana
six strawberries
about one cup of yogurt
and a half cup of cranberry juice.

now, try this at home, kids!

Sunday, May 18, 2008


how do you move back into a space?

some people, the pure, sink their hands in the earth and garden. the conscientious read their mail and balance their chequebooks. empaths play with their pets. intellectuals read and write their way back in. a true wild child needs no transition: life keeps unfolding around her, packed or unpacked, home or away, no matter the circumstances.

me, i work. the best thing after a trip is to clean the house. i like to dust and vacuum and wash the fridge shelves. i definitely have to rearrange the cupboards. sure, part of this is OCD, but most of it is good common sense. who would put half the mugs right side up when the pattern is clearly to arrange them upside down? soup goes on this shelf, with other canned goods, not with the cooking oil and vinegar. don't you want your towels folded symmetrically? and sweet jesus above, did you even look at the tupperware drawer before you threw things in higgledy piggledy?

the joy in this, for me, is not order and cleanliness per se. or, okay, not solely about freaky neatness. in dusting and vacuuming, washing the spoon rest, i touch our things and, through them, the stories and relationships that shape our lives. i am a materialist, and not always in the honorable marxist sense. i love the objects we own. the things in our house have been chosen, and then arranged in a way that pleases the eye and soothes the spirit (my eye, anyway, my spirit). this is the dish mark and leslea gave us; this, the rug i bought on ebay; this, the photograph my father took. i made this table, commissioned this stained glass. ted wrote this book. i bought the spoon rest on a whim at a winners store in ottawa, desperate to finish christmas shopping for mo's mom, the day before we got that big snowfall. that was the year cameron was born, the christmas we took aunty jo to ottawa.

in this way i get reacquainted with the old, and i look at things in a new way, too, and make decisions. many are banal. do we really need this many everyday drinking glasses? i integrate. if i'm going to add the purple mate gourd (the one i bought with dianne in mind, before i found the better one, the one that caused me to try mate again, with sugar, and discover its pleasures -- in short, the purple mate gourd i learned to love), we need to move some objects along. but not the cups from my niece!

housework is also how i learn what's happened here while we've been gone. look at all that black hair next to the stuffed mouse: madge has a new lair. seems our housesitter has made use of my study: good, other people find it conducive to thoughtfulness. what city plans were drawn up here? outside, i can see it's been windy, but also, someone has been in the yard. why did they wrap the swing around the crossbar? and whose single shoe is next to the fence?

it's embarassing to be so territorial, such a taurus, so, well, girlish. i've spent a lot of my life wishing to be different. oh, to be whimsical not disciplined! i tried to be a flaneur who needs only the city, a feminist who disdains housework, a free spirit. but just look at me. i made a bad christian, but can you imagine what a disaster i'd be as a buddhist?

the black cat is sleeping beside me as i write this, one paw protectively on the keyboard. she's purring a little. the air smells clean and the grass is as green as the quilt on the front porch, the one my mother made. when i shift in my chair the wood floors creak (the floors that betray the original floorplan, the floors across which i've watched the sunlight move), and i think about senses, and things, and love, and home, and michael ondaatje: "all this beethoven and rain."

Home again, home again

it's 5:52 am and i am sitting in our living room in edmonton keying this post in the early morning quiet.

there are so many unusual things about that sentence i don't know where to start. perhaps with the quiet. i can't believe how beautifully quiet it is here. though i think of myself as a "city person," i find as i get older that i am less and less tolerant of city noise: the screech of subways, the ubiquity of car horns, buses, jackhammers, backhoes, garbage trucks, yelling. it's still exciting (nothing says new york like four trains screaming through a single stinky station), but i find the thrill wears off faster. bring on the electric car, i say.

it is also unusual to be a living room -- embarassingly, one of two living rooms i could be sitting in right now. after the compact apartment we've been renting, the house feels huge. you could lose a person here. also strange: it's detached on all four sides from its neighbours, perched on its own little patch of green. it feels isolated, not to mention wasteful and unnecessary, anti-social. then again, it has its very own patch of green, and yellow, and purple and orange and white, as the daffodils, dandelions and tulips are blooming. there's the promise of a bleeding heart, the tickseed and peonies are back, and the valiant little rhubarb is plugging along (ours being the only yard i know of not to foster rhubarb as a weed). it's may in edmonton, and everything is on the move.

but, edmonton.... edmonton, why aren't you better? why is it that when we want to go for lunch after our long and tiring travels, we end up at a chain restaurant in a shopping complex? why is your skyline so squat and repetitious? is it because you're built of houses? (but will the condos at railtown change that?) is it because you're so isolated that no one bothered colonizing you (no one til wal-mart and home depot, that is)? is it because we live in rec rooms all winter and patios all summer? (but why not better patios?) is it because we're space pigs? because we don't fund public art? don't have an architecture school? lack historical consciousness? tend to be lower class? worship the automobile? edmonton, edmonton ... i want you to be more enticing, more seductive, more beautiful. if you can't be pretty, be unusual, idiosyncratic. take me aback, make me marvel, strike me.

i'll be looking for something striking all the way to save-on foods.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Korean art's got it goin' on

that title is my attempt to look forward rather than backward. "last day in BA" sounds just too lugubrious. yet, last day it was, and i spent it walking the city with marcia and lee. i posted an album of photos at the usual place, along with captions that tell the story.

what i don't mention there is the coolest thing we stumbled upon: a show called "caramelo de menta / peppermint candy" at the museo nacional de bellas artes. i realize i haven't mentioned any of the art we've seen while here, mostly because i can't be very articulate about it. MALBA, museo de arte latinoamericano de buenos aires, was spectacular. it had all the familiar european twentieth-century art movements represented, but from underneath. abstract expressionism looks startlingly different in a cultural context with a rich vocabulary for colour. i had read about xul solar, the watercolourist, but -- shawna, don't tell robert! -- i thought, eh, what can you really do with watercolours. (okay, i know, robert lemay paints in oils. marvelously.) anyway, i was not at all prepared for watercolour cubism. take a moment and look at xul solar's stuff. and, if you want to see whether "todo es posible," cecilia szalkowicz, the photographer, will convince you.

anyway, back to yesterday: we stumbled upon "caramelo de menta" quite by accident, but what a show! it's been traveling, so the best capsules are not from the museo de bellas artes. if you want an overview, look here, here and here. new york, of course, was all over this stuff three or four years ago, but for those of you for whom, like me, this is brand new, some of the artists are:
  • do-ho suh. probably the most famous of the artists represented, having shown at the venice biennale nearly ten years ago. his uni-forme was installed in the main gallery, as well as some of his large-format acrylic paintings. there's a pbs documentary on him, but you can get a good sense of his other work from this blog.
  • yong-suk kang photographed what's left of a US bombing range
  • inhwan oh had an installation in incense
  • oksun kim showed evocative photos of intercultural couples (sorry, that's a lame link but it's the best i could find)
  • sang-gil kim, maybe my favorite, meditated on internet cultures: burberry tribe, anyone?
  • jung-ho oak was born in 1974. i'm having a hard time forgiving that. all these artists were really, really young.
  • kang young-suk, photographer
  • youngwhan bae projected a video image of green grass seen through a barred basement window
  • sanghee song offered a diptych representing the deaths of two teenagers on a korean beach; it's the bottom image here. i would have needed more context to really understand this one, but it is really something to see two girls in school uniforms shot through the heart with arrows.
  • june-bum park's puzzle is up on youtube!
  • sung-soo koo offered these large format, garish images of seoul street scenes. talk about a culture with a rich vocabulary for colour.
there were a few others -- a photo installation of 32 families living in 32 identical apartments in a single building, statues of giant police officers like you might see at west edmonton mall, a video of koreans singing the national anthems of other countries (picture it, a korean schoolgirl doing "god save the queen"). i came away feeling like i'd just eaten a peppermint candy: piqued, excited, whet.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Iguazu images

i'll save the stories for another post, but suffice it to say that iguazu falls was incredible. everything was so much softer than in BA: the air, the sounds, the red-dirted streets. i've loaded pictures here. i promise, i did pick and choose. just say the word and i can load 241 more images.

and here are some short movies. the last one attempts to show the crazy swallow-stunting at devil's throat. oh, it goes without saying, i hope: don't watch these if you have to pee.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


i'm at the most agonizing part of a trip, the time when i am desperate to wring out every minute left, but dying, at the same time, to be home. among the things i miss:
  • our bed. i am not speaking metaphorically. i mean every coilless bit of the mattress itself. nights here are a dark punishment. i wake up unable to move, my shoulders out of kilter with my hips, my hips unattached to my legs, my neck shredded nerves. oh, and my pillow! i miss my pillow, too.
  • sky. to be down in san telmo's canyons is amazing, and libertador's twelve lanes of traffic are awe-inspiring. but i am albertan; i miss the big blue vistas.
  • TV. i would kill for a law & order rerun. in english. i want to tune out. i figure that at home i'm not paying attention something like 30% of the time, whether it's relying on rote exchanges, courtesies, or just absenting myself from the details of any given moment. last night mo and i went into a restaurant and the host asked .... something. i was so tired i just couldn't get it up to follow. assuming he'd asked whether we had a reservation, i said no. mo looked startled, but the host didn't miss a beat. he asked something else, something that included the verb "tocar" (to drink). again, i said no. then there was an uncomfortable silence while he wondered, if they aren't here for dinner and they don't want drinks, what do they want? at home in front of the TV, this wouldn't happen. and i wouldn't have to mind my manners quite so carefully, either. i'm tired of eating in public.
  • being right. every day here i am wrong about something. and while it's good to be reacquainted with humility, there's a significant line between humility and humiliation. lately i've been on the wrong side of that line too often. oh, sure, i see how fortunate i am to live a life without routine humiliation (i sound flippant though i actually find this a profound observation), but i would just like to know where things are, follow conversations, speak my mind -- and not be wrong yet again. on which score, remember when i said, early on, that this wasn't a coffee culture? totally wrong. the coffee here is great. i just hit a bad cafe.
  • clean clothes. yeah, sure, we've sent our stuff out to a lavadero, but it's not the same as when mo does the laundry.
  • vegetables: crisp, fresh crunch in all shades of green, and red, and yellow, and green, and green, and green...
  • routine. oh, i try to be a wild child of nature, but i'm not. in my soul, i am a routinized, disciplined fascist. sigh.
that's not a full list, but it's a start. however, i know what it will be like. within a day of getting home and hanging out with the cats (who are so obviously missed they don't need to be named here), i'll wonder what the hurry was. and then i'll miss everything from here:
  • beautiful buildings. the view off the balcony in the mornings, that jumble of high-rise and low-rise roofs, resilient and surprising trees, and feral cats.
  • life on a human scale. living at street level. walking.
  • cheap malbec.
  • the sense of excitement and possibility in not knowing things. the cosmopolitanism of living in another language. learning how the world is put together by learning the language.
  • BA design, style. not to mention shopping without consequences.
  • the party our neighbour invited us to. of course it would be absolutely excruciating to attempt to socialize in spanish. but how cool is it to have been invited to a block party, the kind of party you need a password ("trini, jose or mason," for anyone in the neighbourhood) to get into?
  • not working. to be at home means facing again everything i've put off while here. but enough of that. denial, be my friend yet another few days.
  • living without routine.
as usual, having a particle transponder would change everything. i could scoot home for a respite and then come back here, instantaneously, renewed. in that way, i could be permanently on vacation and rooted in my everyday life, without committing to either. perfect.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Weird BA scenes

we've decided to head up to iguazu falls tomorrow. we're going to travel like rich people do. i called up a travel agent and said, "please can you arrange us a two-day trip to see the falls?" so far i've found it rather unnerving. specifically, i'm discovering that the amount of worry stays the same; it just changes shape. instead of spending days poring over internet pictures of mid-range hotel rooms and scrounging around for the best deal, i'm worried about how much to tip a private driver to the airport. i worried whether we'd be able to print the e-tickets and vouchers; when sandra, our travel agent, laughed and said, "oh, i'll send them over to you in a taxi," i worried about whether we'd be home when the cab driver arrived. and so on. please, yes, i can see the obvious conclusion. my name is heather and i am a fretter.

anyway, since we're going to be away for a couple of days, i thought i'd leave you with some images to think about.

as i mentioned in "things portenos like," the dogs here are totally zen. the traffic, however, is not. whatever the polar opposite of zen is, that's how you'd describe the traffic here. drivers actually speed up to catch hapless pedestrians with the temerity to step off the curb.

this is a shop display of famous-people smurfs. you've got yer gandhi smurf, yer menem smurf, and yer bart simpson smurf, all cheek by jowl. oh, and, of course, freud smurf and lacan smurf. lacan is huge in argentina.

as well as being the lacanian centre of the world, argentina is widely known to be the globe's cosmetic surgery playground. the phrase you're looking at here is "estetica canina." no wonder they need therapy.

the "centro de elongacion valentinov" advertises on street poles all over palermo. i can see why they'd need to. i could go to their centro for a hundred years and i still wouldn't be able to do this.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Tortoni tango

marcia and lee have a standing babysitter on saturday nights, so the four of us decided to see what this tango business is all about.

we went back and forth on where to go. there are big vegas-style shows with all the bells and whistles, but none of us (well, none except mo) are vegas types, and we just don't feel great about spending a porteno's week's wages on a single night of flash entertainment designed and delivered for tourists. we're too good for tourism.

at the other end of the spectrum, we could have gone to a milonga, one of the social dances that are held every hour of every day and every night of every week here in buenos aires, but we're not quite that real.

likewise, we're too rich to line up for the free shows, too old to go to the ones that start at midnight, too snobbish for the ones in english, and so on.

solution: cafe tortoni, the venerable establishment on avenida de mayo. cafe tortoni is so beloved as to be a cliche of the traditional cafe, except that it really, really is that good. founded in the 1850s, the cafe has seen decade after decade after decade of buenos aires life. its walnut walls are dark with smoke and secrets, its floors empathed by the trails of a thousand servers, its walls thick with tributes to this place. in the back corner sit three statues: borges the writer, tango singer carlos gardel and the poet, feminist and suicide alfonsina storni, artists forever present in this gran cafe.

for tango, then, the tortoni. we lined up outside with everybody else until marcia had a chance to use the magic word "catorce": fourteen, our reservation number. at that, we were whisked inside, past all the diners just settling in, to the sala alfonsina, where we were shown to a table at the very front. around 8:25, three old men and one younger man came out. at 8:30 prompt, they started to play. and what music! piano, accordion, violin and bass playing the yearnings of single men waiting for women to become available; strains of homesickness and the vast expanse of the sea; helpless love for buenos aires; death in the yellow fever epidemic; wild desires, and losses, and desires anew; and, always, passion. the dancers were exquisite, tango being one of the few dances i know where the men's parts are as interesting as the women's -- the product, no doubt, of developing in brothels where men danced with men to while away the time (or so the story goes). the singer left it all on stage, so much so that we thought she overdid it, at least until we chatted with her on the sidewalk after the show. there, she told us that this evening's show had been harder than usual for her: "my mother died two days ago," she said, "and now i have no family left in the world." then she corrected herself, "no, i have my dog." she blinked a few times, rapidly. "i just love the tango music so much....," she trailed off. then, rallying: "but if you have enjoyed the show, i am content, i am happy in my heart." she crossed the street into a daschiell hammett-like fog, and was gone.

i know: this all sounds rather melodramatic and overdone. but before you roll your eyes and click off this post (you're too cool for passion, yes?) consider the following two comments on the tortoni experience. the first is from don juan carlos de boron, king of spain:

To the Tortoni Café, which has managed to preserve the flavour
of the old times, when all manner of Argentine intellectuals would gather here; of course the Spanish also gathered, like Federico García Lorca, and now, when they come from Spain, they come to visit their Café. With my kindest, most affectionate regards.
His Majesty, King of Spain
Don Juan Carlos de Borbón

the second comes from someone closer to home:

What a treat to visit a piece of history and enjoy both the ambience and the delicious meal! Thank you.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1997.

which of these do you think better captures the spirit of the tortoni?


Three chance encounters

what with the whole brouhaha over getting a taxi home last weekend, i forgot to mention our chance encounter on the ferry back from uruguay. to set the scene: it's the end of a long weekend, so the ferry is "chockers" (as our recent new-zealand acquaintances terry and paul might say). worse, the ferry's running late. everybody's keen to disembark, so polite queuing has been abandoned in favour of a full-on mill near the pedestrian doors. mo and i are holding our own, plus what we bought en route (in my defense, the grime of the city has been murder on my skin, and those cosmetics were duty free!) -- anyway, there we are, standing hot and tired with half of buenos aires, when all of a sudden someone says, "hola! hello! remember me? how was your trip to uruguay?" i look at mo and mo looks at me, our eyebrows rise collectively, and we turn to the source of the voice.

standing in the mob is one of my two favorite BA bloggers, the woman who owns the delightful shop atipica on the corner of el salvador and scalabrini ortiz. she is absolutely lovely in person, and enviably accomplished. to give you a sense of her accomplishments, her blog is quadrilingual. most days i can hardly manage english, and you've heard about my spanish (let's just say i've successfully mimed 'lighting a cigarette' and 'blowing my nose' on a recent trip to the mercado in order to buy a box of matches and some kleenex -- it was so bad people in line behind me were in on the game of charades); meanwhile, nancy-dalila is writing away in english, french, spanish and portuguese.

we visited her shop on our first full day in BA. atipica is full of artisanal treats and i highly recommend it; i'm especially fond of the jewelry. we mentioned we were going to spend the weekend in uruguay, which she was too. so -- synchronicity, serendipity, and a good memory for faces (on her side), and we have encounter number one.

encounter number two was also blogosphere-related. mo and i have reached that point in the trip where we are starting to feel sad about coming home. this, we know, is also the point at which we are least suited to each other. when i feel the end approaching, i want to speed up and pack in as much as possible. mo, on the other hand, pulls her energies in closer. solution? let's do something completely different, like take a side trip to iguazu falls.

while we could plan such a trip ourselves, time is feeling short, so i emailed my other favorite BA blogger, sandra gutrejde suarez, who runs the blog "my buenos aires travel guide." generously full of information, her site has been my go-to for tips on fun things to do while we're here. it's just an ethical thing for me, then, to put business her way first. imagine my surprise to get an email back from her saying, "i have to tell you, i know who you are." turns out she was curious about some of the traffic coming to her site from mine, so started reading my blog, and we have all sorts of things in common!

the third chance encounter was not so pleasant. mo and i spent the day at the famous san telmo street fair. around 4pm i saw again a woman i'd seen earlier at the cafe where we had lunch. i noticed her walking down the street rubbing her pregnant belly. she saw me looking, i looked away, she kept walking for a bit, then returned to sit at the next table. she was back to back with me, and really dug her chair back into mine sitting down, which was irritating because there were other free tables at the cafe. being stubborn and entirely unsentimental about pregnancy, i wasn't giving any ground. as the chair-grinding went on and seemingly on, i thought, geez, she's not that big, how much space does she need? mo could see my annoyance and worried i was going to get into it with her. she beat a retreat to the washroom, hoisting her shoulder bag onto the chair opposite me, where it would be safe.

within a couple minutes, our pregnant friend -- let's call her la embarazada -- got up and left, squeezing her way between the ice cream machine and the street. that's odd, i thought, she didn't even wait for a menu. wait a second: i looked down at the arm of my chair, where my purse was hanging. the zipper was gaping wide open. where my wallet had been, a hole.

you always wonder what you'll do in such situations. well, i leapt up and chased her down, freebasing adrenalin. la embarazada was heading around the corner from chile onto balcarce when i caught up to her and said, "excuse me, but --"

-- at which point there was another man there yelling a whole lot of stuff including "policia, policia." la embarazada turned impassively to me and shrugged her shoulders, the international sign for 'i have no idea what you're talking about.' i'll give her this, she was a master of diffidence. her eyes didn't move and her color didn't change. but i was enraged. "oh," i said, "i think you do have an idea what i'm talking about. i think you have my wallet!" even while i'm acting like some sort of loca hothead paisan out here on balcarce, i'm acutely and uncomfortably aware that i've left mo's bag unattended at the cafe. is this woman working an angle with someone else? is this guy part of it? no, wait, probably not, because now he's spitting "fuck you, fuck you, fuck you" at her. i realize he's a fellow customer from the cafe. two on one, la embarazada gives up, opens her hand where, behind her black cell phone, is my black wallet. i grab it and say, "and my camera, too, please." i turn to the man and say, "she stole my camera as well." this startles her. "no," she says, in this tiny voice, "no...." the good samaritan speaks roughly to her in spanish. "no!," she says again, more urgently, adding what can only be, "i didn't take the camera." i'm still worried about getting back to mo's bag. i look again in my purse, realize the camera is in fact still there. i open my wallet and there is my cash and, more importantly, my visa card. what kind of amateur thief is she? or, wait: it's all been a bit too easy, hasn't it. i'm sure mo's bag has been picked up in the diversion.

i sprint back to the cafe. the bag is there. i'm post-adrenalin shaking. the servers and the other guests are all talking about it. mo comes out of the bathroom, quizzical. "hi!," i say, "you missed all the drama." "uh oh," she says, "did you and that woman get into it?"

the good samaritan comes back and tells the story from his perspective. he'd seen a couple of italian chicas get badly ripped off last week, passports and all, so he was nervous when he saw me hang my purse on the arm of my chair. (did you get that? the arm of my chair. not the back. talk about cojones!) anyway, he closed his eyes "to take the sun," as he put it, and when he opened them it was to see la embarazada making her way between ice cream cart and street. "i say to myself, 'why? why would she go that way?'" and then he figured it out, just about exactly the same time i wondered why she would leave the cafe without even getting a menu. unnoticed in my haste, the two of us accosted her independently, yet simultaneously. senor, i'm sure you are not reading this, but un otro vez muchas, muchas gracias.

afterward, my overwhelming sense was .... well, indignation. i fancy myself a savvy traveler. i always have more than one credit card, but never in the same bag. i don't walk about the streets with my passport or my backup credit card, i always keep some cash separate from my wallet, and i stay aware of my surroundings, especially at a street fair. how dare this woman mark me for a punk?

the entire restaurant was sympathetic and abuzz for a bit, but eventually you just move on. our sandwiches arrived, other tables' coffees were delivered, and we tried to put this bit of unpleasantness behind us. after all, nothing lost.

but when i ran into la embarazada back on avenida defensa later that afternoon, i was gob-smacked and angry all over again. "well, look who it is," i said. mo expected marcia or, i don't know, maybe the owner of atipica. but no, it was my arch-enemy, la embarazada. i marched right up to her and -- well, and acted like an idiot.

in retrospect, i can see there are several things i could have done to make my point. i could have taken her picture. i should certainly have alerted the omnipresent police officers to the fact that she was a pickpocket; two of them were standing ten feet away from us. however, as usual, my language skills weren't up to the moment. the only insulting thing i know how to say in spanish is "puta," which means whore. given the fact that she was pregnant, denouncing her loudly in the streets as a whore seemed somehow suspicious and unremarkable, at the same time. not to mention anti-feminist.

instead, i marched right up to her and said, "so, still wandering the streets hoping to rip someone off?" same impassive face, the eyes that don't move. "what, you don't remember me? oh, i think you do." etc. it was stupid and knee-jerk and not even all that satisfying. because in spite of how wronged i felt, i still have a big enough world view to compare her life to mine. having my wallet stolen would ruin my day, no doubt. canceling a credit card is always annoying, and i am not so rich that i wouldn't miss the three hundred pesos in cash. but at the end of the day, three hundred pesos means so much more to her than to me that overall the whole encounter just makes me feel sort of sad.

not even buying a new handbag really helps. though it is snazzy. and very, very secure.

BA Zoo

The buenos aires zoo is gorgeous, as you can see, but also unlike any i've been to before. not that i consider myself a zoo connoisseur, but i've never been to a zoo where you're actively encouraged to feed the animals. they sell animal food by the bag or the bucket, for four pesos or eight, and it's a one-type-suits-all situation: you throw your little green pellets or your big shredded wheat to carnivores, herbivores, amphibians and mammals alike.

it leads to weird scenes like this one: fish hoping for a handout.

at the end of the day, though, zoos are about the kids you take to them, and i'm pretty sure jake, rona and sami had a good time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dirt, metaphorical

men leer at women here. it's expected, according to some social contract nobody asked me to sign, and they deliver. but weirdly, it doesn't feel dirty. it doesn't really feel like much of anything. it's certainly not sexual; they don't seem to want anything from you, not even a reaction. one guy driving a delivery van the other day stuck his tongue out and wiggled it at me obscenely -- but he never stopped looking around at street signs the whole time. it was all very formulaic: "humboldt, fitz roy, woman -- right, do something nasty --bonpland..."

it's leering without lechery, men leering at women for the sake of other men, with whom their personal -- human -- interactions take place. women appear to be utterly beside the point. it's the purest objectification i've ever experienced, and i'm not really sure how i feel about it.

Dirt, literal

at home i get dirty in a mild kind of way. i shower after a soccer game, say, because i'm sweaty. occasionally a day of yard work will leave me with dirt lines around my socks. but for the most part, i shower as a mode of refreshment and because, well, it's just socially coded that you gotta bathe at least every few days.

here, you shower to get clean. and even if you've only been sitting around the apartment in your boxers (not that anyone we know does that), you will need it, because this city is DIRTY. the second step of clinique's three-step skin care, the toner, was invented for places like this. you wash your face with soap and water, carefully. still, when you go to "sweep away the dead cells," as the lady at the clinique counter clinically put it, the cotton ball comes away dark. my eyes are constantly filled with grit, as are my ears. my shoes are filthy. my computer is choked with dust. after a day of walking about, my capri cuffs are carrying pantloads of the city and i have a tan line around my watch.

must go. we're on our way to the zoo with marcia's kids and mo needs advice about her shoes. "i'm just thinking my white shoes will get really dirty if i wear them today." you see what i mean?

Friday, May 9, 2008

Things portenos like

i've noticed that, as is always, surprisingly, the case with large cities, there are a few things that everyone agrees on. according to my observations, portenos like:
  1. dogs. big dogs, small dogs, pretty dogs, ugly dogs, there are dogs everywhere. as i write this post, i can hear four different dogs talking to each other. BA dogs are rarely on leashes, but their freedom has acculturated them to city life. not being on a leash means that they are not interested in the usual things: other dogs, passing cars, my crotch. the only thing portenos like more than dogs is dog-walkers. what they don't like about dogs: picking up after them.
  2. converse all-stars. at first i thought it was just a schoolgirl thing. then i thought maybe a schoolboy thing too. now i'm convinced it's a national obsession. old people, young people, hipsters and children: everybody's wearing chuck taylor.
  3. 80s music. i know "tainted love" is popular all over the world right now (something about royalties, i suspect), but 80s tunes are out of hand here. equally popular are the resuscitations -- flock of seagulls, anyone? -- and the remixes. we heard a bewitching cover of "sweet dreams" at a parrilla in san telmo, but alas, nobody could tell us who did it.
  4. ham. everybody knows argentina is the beef capital of the world (take that, alberta!), but nobody warned me about the ubiquity of ham. they put ham in everything. i ordered a cheese quesadilla and it came with ham. i bought a bag of crackers with a picture of dainty little ham rolls, which i took to be the standard 'serving suggestion' you get on crackers, the buyer-beware that you are not buying actual watercress or gruyere cheese squares. however, i was wrong. the crackers are ham-flavoured.
  5. shopping. avenida florida is an 8-block pedestrian mall with an average density of 5 people per square metre. on florida you can buy leather jackets, bags, wallets, footwear, purses and skins made of calf, cow, sheep, lamb and carpincho. you can also buy futbol jerseys, lottery tickets, CDs, stereos, men's clothes, women's clothes, children's clothes, perfume, jewelry, flowers, magazines, ponchos, knives, silver, books, and chachkas. best of all, you can buy knock-offs: 'PRAGA' shoes, 'RALLY' boots, dura-cell batteries. most knock-offs are made in a free-trade zone of paraguay, though some -- like the batteries -- are stamped, ominously, industria argentina.
  6. the pan flute. okay, i'm lying about this one. nobody likes the pan flute. i'm actually convinced there's just one pan-flute busker who follows me around the world. as soon as i relax into a big-city groove, there he is in that awful poncho playing, without fail, the theme from titanic.

Water palace

when you think about the developments that have made your life better, you have to include running water. right? so why not a palacio del aguas corrientes? why not indeed. the building is still a working building. people walk into the palace to pay their bills and complain about the service. only they sit under 50-foot stained glass windows to do it.

one little corner of the building is given over to a plumbing museum. i think this is the throne room (groan). seriously, have you ever seen so many toilets in one place? meanwhile, these water meters are so beautiful i want to start my own collection.

there are a few more pictures here.

Walking with marcia

we walked the breadth of the city, marcia and i. we didn't necessarily mean to, but we had rhythm, energy and curiosity enough that at each turn we just carried on.

we started in pretty palermo, with its two-storey buildings and big green trees. marcia and her family are staying in this part of palermo viejo, palermo soho. it's full of cute little shops and the dreaded yoga studio. mo and i are staying across the tracks in palermo hollywood. on the whole, our neighbourhood is rougher, yet gentrifying more rapidly.

we stopped at the museum of carlos gardel, the famous tango singer. i love museums organized around the cult of personality. on display was a telegram he'd sent from europe. just think: the person who typed that telegraph got it from a transmitter in europe who talked to a clerk who spoke with gardel himself!!

just beyond the gardel museum, in abasto, lies once, the jewish district. you can see it in the movie el abrazo partido. our part of once was the tailors' district, including mannequin row. we have no idea who uses these giant mannequins, nor who sells the clothes that would fit them.

once leads to monserrat and the back of the congreso we saw the other day. then lavalle opens onto the obelisk. the massive avenida 9 de julio separates monserrat from the central business district, microcentro. i love the way my little 35 mm crunches the skyline here. it's just how you feel.

san telmo, an older part of buenos aires. the sidewalks here are so narrow the buses brush your arm as they storm by.

finally, la boca, with its brightly painted storefronts. on the left is the store where i bought a football jersey for darien -- a BOCA jersey, of course. most of la boca is not tarted up for tourists. it's a working-class district and looks it.

of all the visual pleasures this day afforded, perhaps none was as exquisite as seeing marcia herself: watching her face as she talks, witnessing the way she moves through space. i got to see her think, and laugh, and inquire, and tell... we haven't had this much time together since before the twins were born in 2002.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Life in BA

little crises notwithstanding, daily life falls pleasantly here. i tend to wake between 8 and 8:30. i come down from the loft and open the wall of windows to the jumble of courtyards, balconies and roofs beyond. since i brought my little travel espresso maker, i have coffee to sip during the morning quiet, which is when i read, write and blog.

mo wakes up a couple hours later and does her morning thing. she shuffles out to the balcony for her first cigarette of the day. she sits for a bit, waking. then it's her turn to plug in and go online, to cultivate her facebook presence and look about her. the mornings pass almost without notice here. it's so cool and quiet in our apartment that it's hard to remember there's a world beyond.

around 11 we are ready to go. some days we meet up with marcia and lee; other days, we're on our own. we choose a destination or a route or a general vicinity of the city, and off we go, exploring, photographing, meandering, wondering. i travel light: a wallet, a camera, and loose change in case we take the bus. a map, which we rarely use. lunch is a cafe en route, anywhere between 1 and 3. especially when we're with marcia or lee, we come back to the neighbourhood in the late afternoon, as we're losing the light (it gets dark about 6:30 these days). that's the time of day when i go for a run, we download our pictures from the day, one or both of us showers.

we've adapted surprisingly easily to BA meals, so around 8:30 we start talking about where to go for dinner; we usually head out around 9. admittedly, this is still early for portenos, but only a week ago i thought dinnertime would never arrive. we walk past tantalizing restaurants in our neighbourhood, all lit up by 8:30 and waiting for the trade. everyone throws open their doors to the street. this restaurant is dark and red, with candles on every walnut table; the next, chic black and white; bio, the neighbourhood vegetarian joint, crisp lime green. waiters stand at the back of the restaurant, or at the door, or sometimes at a table outside, waiting. their shifts won't begin for a while yet.

at 10:30, as we are walking home, the neighbourhood is hopping. restaurants are full. arguments, passion and gossip flow as freely as the wine. to walk the street is to make your way through restaurant after restaurant, cafe tables spilling as they do onto city sidewalks. there are no ropes, no fences, no bollards to demarcate the end of one restaurant and the beginning of another. this restaurant ends where its tables end. the next set of tables, clearly in a different idiom, belongs to the next restaurant.

no one here eats breakfast. i can't quite go that far, my anglo-teutonic roots screaming for 3 square a day, but drinkable yogurt is plentiful here and cheap, and not as sweet as the churros you'd get in a cafe. it works. last night we skipped the restaurant meal in favour of a picnic at home: grilled cheese, apples, fresh peppers, and chocolate from canmore. tea. things in the mercado are not so refrigerated as they are at home. eggs, cheese and salamis breathe on the outside of the glass enclosures. the gruff greengrocer inside the market selects your mandarins for you, corrects your pronunciation of "verde," "rojo," "manzana." a loaf of bread, the most expensive thing we bought, costs a canadian dollar and a half. milk is nearly free.

there's rhythm to this city, and passion, and silences. great love. gusto. fear. primitive streetworks, lovely parks, viciously beautiful women, men who kiss each other, unbreachable class divisions, communism. life.

Meanwhile, back on the home front

the saga of the roof continues. this note from our housesitter:

On Monday night at 11:30 PM we had quite a downpour and that is when
the drips started to come in through the living room ceiling - in the
middle. This means that somehow the water is coming in one place and
pooling between your upper storey floor and the main storey ceiling
and dripping out along the beam in the middle of the living room. As
the rain got worse the little mop buckets were no longer adequate. At
2:30 AM that night I ran out to the alley in the rain, dressed in my
PJs, and grabbed your rubbermaid garbage can and used that and the 2
mop buckets to catch the drops. They remain there today in case the
rain returns.

In the morning on Tuesday I looked around for your roofing company
contact. I called "Martin" the "Vice President of
Installations" at 604-789-9446 in Delta BC and gave him shit for not
fixing your roof and asked that he send a crew immediately to patch
the roof. He relayed the message to "Rodney" in Calgary at
1-866-867-1857 who phoned me back and assured me that "Peter" in
Edmonton at 425-345-4864 would patch the roof that morning (Wednesday)
and he would call when he was "nearby". This he did. I jumped in the
Mobile Urban Planning Command Centre at work and sped over here to let
Peter in and supervise the patch job. The rain stopped around this
time and the jury is out on whether this patch has actually stopped
the leak. Things dried out and the ceiling actually looks quite good
- thank goodness it is cedar and not plaster or gyproc because then it
would be rather unpleasant. The rubbermaid can has a good 5 inches of
water in it. All things being what they are (spring and more rain
coming) I encouraged Peter to come back and put the new roof on. He
was non committal.

i know: you're wondering what on earth is the mobile urban planning command centre and how can i get one? but pull back from your fantasies for just a second a commiserate with us. five inches of rain in our living room!

i'm going out for a walk in the buenos aires sun.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

BA streets: congreso

this city is so very, very beautiful your heart aches to be present in it. every street you walk has something going on. every building is made for gazing. you look, and you see, and then you look again, and realize you've seen nothing. that carving above the door is a scowling face; the one over there is smiling. that statue is emerging from a sheaf of wheat. that mural 30 storeys in the air is made of gold. it's a city that resists being photographed, and begs for it.

today we walked from the plaza de mayo to the congreso. from the plaza de mayo you can see the building from which evita addressed her admiring crowds. the plaza is still the hub for all kinds of political activity. today the protest was about soldiers who fought in the falklands war on the mainland. the government of argentina does not recognize those battles even though apparently the british made several forays onto argentine soil. the veterans want recognition. last week, casino workers were demonstrating for better working conditions. but of course the ground zero of politics here is las madres de la plaza de mayo. every thursday afternoon, still, the mothers of the disappeared march through the square wearing their signature white scarves, protesting the deaths of their children. las madres are old now, and the movement has many elements to it, some of which have disbanded the thursday marches. i simply can't get over the sheer bald fact of mothers marching to commemorate their children's deaths. it is as forceful in its simplicity as the disappearances were bald.

not far away from the plaza we happened upon la casa de las madres. it's a big building with a bookstore in the front, a cafe down the middle, and a meandering open area at the back, with offices, bulletin boards, a high-ceilinged dance floor/meeting room, and stairs to a second floor. there were three people staffing one of the offices. a laser-printed sign on the office door opposite read "bienvenidas comandantes." hanging on the walls and presented around the hallways were artistic renditions of las madres: a huge blow-up photograph of three smiling grandmothers in white scarves; a bronze statue of a woman giving birth to death, politics and defiance; a garish painting. most moving of all were three huge display boards on which were pasted 3x5 inch photographs of the disappeared. the photographs were black and white, and frayed with age. the people in them sported 1970s moustaches and early 80s farrah fawcett dos. one board had 180 photos, the next 260, and the largest, 440: 880 of the 30,000 people who were disappeared. to hear activist groups tell the story, disappearances still take place. the scale is much, much smaller, but nearly every group that demonstrates at the plaza de mayo tells a story about a member who has vanished under mysterious circumstances.

back outside, on avenida de mayo, we came across a police station. like so many other BA buildings, its architecture is exquisite. but i didn't feel comfortable taking a picture of it. the military and the local police officers worked hand in hand to effect the disappearances. this means that you just never know what you are looking at. were people tortured in there? killed? you look, and you see, and then you look again, and realize you've seen nothing.

Perfect uruguay day

we woke up next to the ocean. we drove around the coast. we picnicked on the beach. we shopped at artisan markets. and at the end of the day, we saw sea lions. words don't do it justice, but the pictures are pretty good.

oh, and i learned to make a movie! you might get a little seasick watching. i understand (now) why ppl use tripods.

and then, just when i despaired of ever seeing a woman kite surf, there she was, at sunset. check out the flash:

Sixth mountain from the west

that – sixth mountain from the west – is how the city of montevideo got its name. “monte” is easy; then you’ve got your roman numerals “vi”; “de” (from); the west (“oeste”). bunched into that little anecdote is all sorts of rich stuff: the city’s spanish/portuguese colonial heritage along with the extirpation of uruguay’s indigenous population; the fact that montevideo orients itself toward the outside, principally argentina and brazil, between whom uruguay remains a buffer; that the city is all about its port; and that its heyday dates from the days when we still used roman numerals.

montevideo was troubling.

caveats: we were there only for a day, and that day was a sunday in the late fall. cities always look more desolate when shops are boarded up and no one is going about their daily business. also, liveliness is seasonal. downtown edmonton looks pretty desolate in november, and nobody raves about london in early march.

still, the obvious and in some cases egregious neglect of montevideo’s astonishing architectural inventiveness and beauty was heartbreaking. it seemed to me that everywhere you turned you could read signs of the city’s troubled economy. the troubles include an aging demographic, the 1973-1985 military dictatorship, and what is delicately referred to as “recent economic difficulties,” which i take to be code for disproportionate dependence on argentine wealth – it’s not just for political reasons that uruguay is considered the switzerland of south america.

driving into the city from the east, you first see the massive facade of newish condos facing the sea. it’s a massive wall of outward-facing life, and the living looks good. according to findlay, everybody’s grandparents live in montevideo. you are right on the ocean, which is protected public property featuring a 25 km seawall. on sunday afternoon the promenade was full of runners, dog-walkers, strollers and the elderly, and, of course, the ubiquitous dogs.

take that ring road around the point, and you come across one of the most astonishing things i’ve ever seen in a city: public housing projects right on the beach. in fact, tenements have arguably the best views in all of montevideo. i don’t object to this, of course – i think it’s fantastic – but in any other city in the world, this land would have been “redeveloped” ages ago. what has protected this? the government now is broadly socialist, and the communist party in uruguay is strong, but the military dictatorship was hardly left-wing, and it’s been years since the government’s been able to afford its erstwhile admirably generous social services. the projects appear dilapidated enough that it ain’t sociocultural love that’s keeping them alive. the message i got is that not even developers believe in montevideo. turns out there is something more chilling than gentrification.

fish-hook around to the ciudad vieja (the old city) and you can see what all those sea-viewing condos have turned their backs on: some of the most gorgeous colonial architecture in any hemisphere, in a shocking state of neglect. some of the buildings have been restored – the teatro solis in particular is stunning, the old city gates are currently being refurbished, and one of the city’s best shopping malls is in a former prison (which has nice symbolism) – but much of it droops drearily in despair. here is a picture of what i mean:

just before sundown and our ferry back to buenos aires, we happened upon a flag ceremony at the uruguayan parliament buildings. a big green military van disgorged eight soldiers in dress uniforms and one in camo to take down the flags down before sunset. the sword-bearer and the trumpet-player stopped at the middle of the top stairs and waited for the two teams of three to take down the uruguayan national flag on the left and the artigas flag on the right. the artigas flag has become a symbol of uruguayan independence, though ironically its history is bound up with regional cooperation. as kirsty told the story, the red slash across the middle stands not for the blood that has been shed in the service of uruguayan independence, but for the blood that will be shed to protect it. (wikipedia, incidentally, gives a more sedate explanation.)

anyway, back to our honour guard. the fellows on the right were having trouble unfurling the artigas flag, which had flapped itself into quite a mess. one soldier worked at it for a while, flinging the up rope this way and the down rope that way, trying to dislodge it somehow. then he flung the down rope this way and the up rope that way. still no go. the rest of the honour guard and about a dozen curious onlookers waited. he tried again. nada. the trumpet-player looked at the sword-bearer. the sword-bearer looked at the uruguayan flag contingent, whereupon the low guy on that totem pole leapt into action. he jogged across the stairs and took one of the ropes from the hapless artigas flag manager. together they flung the up rope one way and the down rope another, until they finally got the flag to fly. the helper sprinted back to his place, and the flag men seized their ropes. the sword bearer raised his sword and the trumpeter his trumpet and, to one round of “the last post,” they started lowering the flags. the song was over long before the flags were down, so we all stood in silence while they took the flags all the way down.

now, i don’t know about uruguayan customs in particular, but i know enough about flags in general to know that that point of sending in white-gloved honour guards is to avoid dropping the flag on the ground. this principle was observed in theory. in practice, though, these guys burned their flags a couple dozen times. ‘whoopsie, that’s a bit heavier than i expected,’ conveyed the face of one soldier, as he rescued his corner of the uruguayan flag from the dusty stairs. the guy at the end of the artigas flag line appeared to be daydreaming as the flag accordioned into his arms and then beyond them, down his side to the parliament steps below. two other guys on the uruguyan side might not have worked together before, their faces betraying a certain irritation with each other. the whole spectacle was like a john cleese spoof or a brechtian comedy.

once the flags were folded safely away to fly another day, the honour guard made their ceremonial walk back down the parliament steps. there, they rather unceremoniously threw the flags into the back of the van and clambered in themselves. no sooner were the van doors closed than they started taking off their fancy hats and dress sashes.

this story of montevideo is better with pictures, but i didn’t take a lot of them. if you’re interested, though, they’re here.