Rostros / Faces
Sitting in a cafe at the corner of Montevideo (a street in Buenos Aires, not the city) and Alvear, idly scanning the faces of people in post-lunch lounge mode, it occurred to me that just from that information alone I would know what city I was in. There's something about Buenos Aires faces, a little like what you see in New York faces but with a different accent. It's a little like the way you can always tell a Parisian from the way he holds his mouth (or she hers, but I think this is more typical of men), that tight pursing downward of the corners of the lips. I think it's supposed to convey the message, "I am a serious person whom you must treat with respect."

The face I'm talking about, the Buenos Aires face, communicates a different message -- that "I'm listening, but don't assume that I believe you." It doesn't appear all the time, maybe, but there is usually this air of canny intelligence, evaluating and weighing a politician's speech, a street performer's joke, or a friend's chatter. But it is not the more aggressive kind of mistrust that New York faces often convey, with message, "Geddoudaheah!" No, this is a face that also conveys that, even if the other party is not to be totally trusted, "Go on talking; I too know how to play this game." I love it.

Funny. I never saw that face on people in Montevideo (the city, not the street). That may be why porteños (people from Buenos Aires) feel so much more relaxed in Uruguay. They can take a rest from playing the game. Soon, though, they miss it.

And a lot of Argentines have been watching Kirchner very closely, cannily, and so far are surprised to see that he doesn't seem to be playing a game at all. His government dealings are open, and he is amazingly, un-porteño frank. Maybe that's because he's not from Buenos Aires, but from Santa Cruz. Those southerners are almost like Uruguayans.


A tooth for el ratón Pérez
This was the first time in my life that I'd kissed a dentist, and now as a reward she has extracted a tooth for el ratón Pérez.

Well, not really a reward. I like this Argentine custom of kissing perfect strangers as a greeting, especially when the strangers are of the opposite sex. (Men sometimes kiss men, too, as a casual greeting or parting, but not until they have been introduced.) I was also pleased to see that Dr. Flavia Dell'Acqua was quite comfortable in her dentist's whites, version miniskirt and cunning little bow at the waist. Soon, though, she had my mouth open and what I was most aware of were her hands. Very competent hands, fortunately. The tooth in question was not much of a challenge -- when you've had a baby tooth for half a century, it's usually ready to go with a slight tug. It's opposite number, however, is still firmly gripping its place in my jaw with its tiny roots. She packed the little extract up in a plastic bag for me to put under my pillow. In this country, a mouse named Pérez does the job of the Tooth Fairy.

Meanwhile, all of Argentina is waiting to see what happens with el gato FMI -- or IMF to English-speakers. Unlike Pérez, who leaves a coin under your pillow, this gigantic and voracious cat snatches all the money you have and leaves you a bill for future payments. Our little mouse is standing up and squeaking mightily in Dubai, so soon we'll know if the big cat backs off.


From the other shore / Desde la otra orilla
BUENOS AIRES -- Yesterday morning we took the Buquebus -- the "boatbus" -- from Montevideo for the 3-hour trip up and across the Río de la Plata to "the other shore," la otra orilla, as the Uruguayans often refer to Buenos Aires. Before I left, I wanted to publish here my impressions of our stay in Montevideo, but Internet connection problems frustrated me. So here are the notes of what I had meant to say.

September 21 is the first day of spring, which in Uruguay is the "Día del Patrimonio" -- roughly, the Day to Celebrate Ourselves. Places that are usually closed to the public, such as the port with its naval installations and other official buildings, are opened and places that normally charge admission, mainly museums, are free, and in Montevideo at least the Old City is one gigantic street festival. It had been very cold up till then, and we had had heavy rain on Saturday, but as if by magic the sun came out brilliantly for the "Patrimonio", and we strode through the Puerta de la Ciudad, the Door to the City (a big stone arch which once was the entry through the city wall) and plunged into the dense, friendly crowds throbbing in the narrow streets where colonial Montevideo was first laid out. The Museo de (Joaquín) Torres García, just the other side of the Puerta, has a disappointingly small collection of the works of that enormously inventive artist; like most of the most inventive intellectuals of this tiny country, he had to go abroad (Paris, New York) to find the audience and challenge for his work to grow, but he returned for his last years. Back on the street, we mixed into the crowd listening, rapt, to the bouncy, boisterous, corpulent singer Arlette Fernández, who had everybody going with a mix of patriotic songs they'd learned in school (hymn to General Artigas, for example), candomblé (the African influence is strong in Uruguay), and political songs remembering the horrible pain of the disappearances (i.e., people snatched by the military and never seen again) during the Uruguayan military dictatorship 1973-1984. Just the day before, on one of our several tours to get acquainted with the city, we had visited the Memorial to the disappeared -- in a park on the monte that gave Montevideo its name, it is a modest but beautifully elegant open passageway between walls of glass on which are inscribed the names of the disappeared. One only hopes it inspires future generations to reflect on the costs of repression.

Then, after a huge repast of parrillada mixta, a mixed grill including many parts of the animal rarely eaten in the States, we hired a taxi for the 50 km run to Atlántida, to see one of the most famous works of another of Uruguay's creative geniuses, the engineer-turned-architect Eladio Dieste. The little church is too beautiful for words alone, so I've included below a link to some images. Dieste invented forms never before realized in common brick, and worked with ordinary bricklayers who must have been amazed to see what they could do with their material. The walls undulate in ways that seem precarious but actually act as -- what's the word in English for contrafuertes? Our taxi driver was, as I, blown away by the simplicity and beauty of the structure. I saw it as confirmation of wonderful powers of the human imagination; he, an Evangelical, saw it as an inspiration of God, and that Susana and I had been vehicles of His divine will to reveal this sight to our humble chauffeur. As a God-fearing atheist, I kept a discrete silence and tried to change the subject, but for most of the drive back he wanted to talk about his faith, and how God had so blest him that he was able to endure his poverty, and I thought (silently) that for a member of the working class that had lost so much in the latest economic crisis, I certainly wasn't going to try to deprive him of his God if it (he, she, whatever) gave him solace.

And so our last adventure before boarding the Buquebus to the other shore. Next, something about Buenos Aires.
Joaquín Torres García, bio & images (in Spanish)
Memorial a los Detenidos Desaparecidos
Eladio Dieste images