Category Archives: South America

Dalliances

Matthias believed himself quite fortunate to have been a widower whose children had all entered adulthood. Or else explaining the circumstances which had befallen him to adolescents or teens could’ve been quite mortifying.

He asked himself, ‘Was it an incident? Or a series of misfortunes? Or an exercise in youthful malice?’

At least the English professor could engage the question philosophically. Nora, the other participant exposed, lacked Matthias’ considerable fig leaf. Apart from the pun, fig leaves were exactly what Nora needed. Those and mind wipes, as well as interdicting the bastard who’d swiped the incriminating memory card.

Not solely to cover the naked state she’d shared with Matthias, but to establish distance between the realized gossipy recrimination their private conduct stirred and the preferred mature indifference it should’ve left in its wake. Well, not so private now, though owing to her marital state, certainly illicit.

A university colleague, Nora, had entered a brief passionate romance (romance because affair sounded tawdry) with him occasioned by her husband Fausto. Living up to his name, Fausto was a true macho. Their marriage made Matthias wonder about ardor’s caprice. Continue reading Dalliances

Las Sirenas

    
    Marie Anne Erize Tisseau and Marina Ginestà had a connection. Each now would’ve been tagged an insurgent. Or militant. No. Probably terrorist. Language has undergone so much massaging why call a spade a spade when it can be labeled an entrenching tool? Though the conflicts enveloping both and devouring one were dissimilar, they eventually shared the same depth in their respective causes.  

    Separated by eras, the Atlantic Ocean and clashes, similar impulses must’ve pushed them. Each believed she could be part of a beneficial movement. And each understood the prices victory required might’ve demanded their lives.

    Today that height of commitment solely belongs in the province of religious extremists. What cause will encourage modern men and women to sacrifice their lives if necessary for an idea?

    An idea, not duty. A!–more–>

    Do absolute good and evil (the intellectual versions, not spiritual) even exist today? Unquestioningly so in Ginestà’s time. Many years later when Tisseau strode among us, the old polarities were well on the way to becoming our present-day every shade of gray murk.    

    By coincidence, Tisseau and Ginestà each recently returned to awareness. A newspaper article conjured the long vanished Tisseau the next to last day of 2013. Column inches lent Ginestà an appreciation the first week of 2014. At 94, she recently reached the end of her life.

    Reportage by (Spain) El Pais’ Diego Manrique and Jacinto Antón drew these women from the fog. Or in Ginestà’s case revived her through light and shadow, while Tisseau may have been commemorated in song.

    Ginestà is clearly portrayed. Unless she alerts us from the beyond, Tisseau will stay a good twisty mystery. Mist veils her. She is elusive and maybe all that remains of her is allusive. Conjecture shrouds the tasks which led to her vanishing. Did she also serve as muse for an admirer who became even more ardent as his reticence increased across the decades?

    If Tisseau’s presence tricked one of those heartfelt love requiems from him, he’s not confessing. Neither are those behind her disappearance.

    Tisseau was an Argentine model, Ginestà politically acute and French. Both combated the leading repressive regimes of their times and places. The first woman joined intrigues opposed to her nation’s militarist regime; the second defended Spain against the reactionary Falange.

    The women’s respective causes failed. The rebel victory over the duly elected Republican government not only retarded Spain’s progress by decades, but also emboldened the Axis powers intending world plunder. That much talked about line had been trampled. Could there have been a starker example of put up or shut up than The Spanish Civil War? If the high-minded democracies couldn’t and wouldn’t aid one of their own, weren’t black shirts convinced they too could pick off other weak and disjointed republics?

    Munich didn’t green light the Second World War. Letting Spain become a live-fire laboratory for total war did.

    After withdrawing from Spain, Ginestà bracketed Mexican exile between escaping and returning to France. Postwar she eventually settled in Paris. Indeed, mamie had worn combat boots.

    Again, who can say, or who will ever confess, how Tisseau expired? Since 1976 her physical presence has been completely expunged. The 24-year-old was that figure who walks into the jungle and leaves no tracks behind. But rather than being digested by savannah, the Argentine urban jungle consumed her.

    Thanks to the world’s myriad ideological or religious discords, Westerners are familiar with the shadowy villains slinking among us looking to foment this cause or indoctrinate that creed by whatever method of imposition necessary. Their blood-drizzled objectives make no distinction between bystanders and the particular pillars they insist need razing. To ideologues, there are no innocents. People living as unobtrusively as possible merely bolster their contention. If you aren’t with them …

    Marie Tisseau became an Argentine dissatisfied with her nation’s narrow direction. Now she’s nearly a caricature of a limousine revolutionary. She was that bourgeois baby who agitated for bread and justice, but whose upbringing had delivered her material goods and comfort aplenty. Her concept of “without” was just that. Theory. Elevated roundtable chatter made romantic through the chaotic energy of youth, cigarette smoke, though ultimately condescendingly delivered regarding “the people.”  

    Fighter, militant, insurgent, “terrorist” even, Marina Ginestà is best seen as a recruiting pitch. More pointed than posters featuring Uncle Sam or Lord Kitchener, Ginestà’s pose atop a Barcelona roof in 1936 made an appeal stronger than ¡Sangre y Patria! The Catalan capital as her backdrop, the 17-year-old’s glance summoned without hectoring. Uncle Sam and Kitchener beseeched ambivalent patriots into serving. Ginestà’s easy on the eyes coaxing flatly stated “Boys, this is what you’re fighting for!”

   

Marina Ginestà, Barcelona, Spain, June 1936.

    One must wonder whether Ernest Hemingway ever glimpsed her portrait. With all occurring around him, had her image imprinted itself in Hemingway’s mind? Could Ginestà’s inviting steel have been the basis behind the fictional Maria in his For Whom the Bell Tolls?

    Here’s a backstory: the militiawoman’s come-hither defiance was a setup. Hers seems a contrivance Joseph Goebbels should’ve staged. Hans Gutman, a German pro-Republican photographer had his Edward Bernays’ moment. One he hoped advanced Republican sympathies. In Ginestà, Gutman found the requisite pretty girl. He and his subject climbed to the roof.

    Mediterranean sunlight emphasized Ginestà’s peasant loveliness. A mild breeze ruffled the short black crop atop her head. Barcelonan cityscape provided effective contrast. Yet the scene was incomplete. She lacked an accessory. Clever Gutman appropriated a nearby militiaman’s rifle and slung it over Ginestà’s shoulder. Perhaps the weapon enhanced her allure, and with it the Republican cause. Wouldn’t be the first time an armed woman has been regarded deferentially.
 
    Nothing so martially clear for Tisseau. She and her Montoneros, the leftist assemblage opposing the right-wing junta then ruling Argentina, engaged in asymmetrical shadow warfare. No great battles. No stirring proclamations. No sterling literature. No bombastic sloganeering or music. Given the conflict’s nature, also little valor. Nothing romantic about it at all.

    Unlike the Spanish insurrection, Argentina’s aptly named Dirty War lacked fixed lines and readily admirable leading personages. It was an ideological struggle that dissolved into state sanctioned torture and murder. In reflection, the Argentine government assumed the worst vestiges of what we widely recognize as an organized criminal structure. Due process for a lost number of political captives ran along that dictated by Alice’s Queen of Hearts: “Punishment first, then the trial!”

    Is anyone still alive who can attest what deeds Tisseau performed on behalf ogf the Montoneros? Was she a go-between? Active in a cadre? Or just a peripheral traveler whose prominent profile fit into Argentine domestic intelligence’s crosshairs?    

    Unlike Ginestà’s unwavering fealty to Spanish Republicanism, Tisseau drifted into the Montonero movement. Casually politicized at best, she’d led an idealized youthquake life. Lovely, languorous, and fearless, the cover girl gadded-about throughout early 1970’s Europe.

 


Marie Anne Erize Tisseau, unknown.

    Glamorous, say, an Uschi Obermaier who didn’t reach the next shore, Tisseau exemplified that era’s free-spirited vibe. On occasions – oh, the usual no cash ones – she dipped into larceny. But exquisite larceny! No grubby bank heists for her. More than a flighty personality behind a pretty face, the mannequin nurtured an interest in anthropology. A concentration the least-likeliest thief turned into lucre by smuggling art.

    Doubtlessly the sort of daring-do which further aroused an already besotted tunesmith. Verses, well known ones in specific circles, resound about a thoroughly captivating woman. Do these refer to Tisseau?

    Throughout decades the lyricist has preferred obscuring his muse’s identity. Doesn’t lovelorn cloaking attract our curiosity all the more? On the surface his reticence may appear selfish. Is his one of those manufactured mysteries meant to keep embers alive, the artist’s name in speculation? Or does the songwriter’s silence derive from an instance of a draw so powerful, a loss so raw, that revelation would wrench soul debilitating pain?

    There are some nuggets our human hearts never wish to yield.  

   

The Amoralists — Part Two

    Fabio could’ve taken lessons in deviousness from Celia. He should’ve. Maybe pointers from her might’ve prevented his now and forever pronounced limp. Probably not. Indifferent a student in youth as he had been, Fabio was not an old dog to be taught new tricks.

    Maybe ascribing Celia as devious is unnecessarily harsh. Driven. She was driven. At least that lends her a trait Americans can admire. Otherwise it would be too easy to call her manipulative.

    Celia grew up in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. Once I asked her town’s name, and she told me, but I forgot it. Or misheard it. Likely the last. Sometimes having drank too much vitamin whiskey her accent thickened into incomprehensibility. And she couldn’t be understood either.

Continue reading The Amoralists — Part Two

What Is Beat?

    Finally watched the film version of On the Road recently. Anticipating disappointment, Walter Salles’ 2012 effort lived down to expectations.

    I imagine when the project was pitched and possible directors were suggested, Salles emerged a natural fit. After all, the Brazilian had done a tender job helming The Motorcycle Diaries, the sort of movie that makes most American audiences eyes glaze over yet rewards patient viewers. You know, solitary figures sitting in the dark interested in more than excessive explosions and stunted adults wallowing in juvenile humor.

Continue reading What Is Beat?

Sinister Sojourns


    Isn’t the best part about movie remakes comparing them against the original? Or given that today’s moviemakers take such license, the “source material.” Title and characters remain unchanged but the newer efforts detour and slalom moments after the premise has been established.

    Recently the 2010 remake of And Soon the Darkness lent me an opportunity to see how far storytelling has advanced. My interest in both films stems from a distinctly modern actress, Amber Heard. She’d been a bunny on NBC’s short-lived Playboy Club. Maybe that program would still be in production if Frank Ballinger from M Squad, and Crime Story‘s Mike Torello and Ray Luca (all characters from TV series also set in early 1960s Chicago) had run tabs there.

    Heard filled out her bunny costume and shook her tail nicer than I remembered happening inside the actual clubs themselves. Of course today I have much greater appreciation of such nuances. Continue reading Sinister Sojourns

Fulfilled Women, Empty Men

 

    Several years ago, the Brooklyn Museum extended the bounds of good taste by exhibiting pulp magazine covers. For those too young, pulps supplied literary thrills and adventures from the late 1920s into early 50s. Labeled “pulps” because the editions guts were printed on coarse paper, the appellation could’ve extended to the covers as well.

    Although glossy, the wraparounds didn’t bother teasing prospective readers about the contents. Rather, lurid covers promised all sorts of dicey situations filled with malevolence. Be assured rare was the denouement that promoted uplift and redemption.

    Some chapters might’ve aspired to The Four Feathers, but none ever neared that level of daring-do.

    The stories were turgid and churning. The covers reflected that assiduously. The Manhattan-based Society of Illustrators just wrapped up its own retrospective of pulp magazine covers. Dames in distress, gunsels, hop heads, fortune seekers, and space aliens were displayed.

    Unlike our contemporary criminal chronicles which mine present-day fears, those long ago entertainments made no effort to hold mirrors against then-society.

    Skip reflection or deep-seated introspection. Just the thing committed for the basest reasons. Which is why I’m so enamored with Argentine crime. Continue reading Fulfilled Women, Empty Men

A Piropo of Nothing

 

    Journalism disabused me of any hero-worshipping. While it is fine to admire and acknowledge exceptional feats, those performing them are just as human as the rest of mankind. Having acquitted themselves well in stressful situations the remainder of us might’ve fallen woefully short, I learned often that more than the feet of such people were made of clay.

    All the more so here in the States. Maybe it’s part of the American character. Maybe it’s possessing an adolescent outlook in a mature bulked-up body, but our culture craves heroes. We’re quick to anoint them, almost as fast to discard them, and on continuous searches for the next one regardless. Continue reading A Piropo of Nothing

Here Are the Conditions

 

Now would’ve been my usual window to visit Argentina and Uruguay. From JFK it’s 10 nonstop hours to Buenos Aires. Seasonal shift makes this an appealing travel time.

Southern Hemisphere seasons are reversed. While northerners are anticipating shedding winter gear for spring wear, southerners are bidding ciao to summer and waiting for fall.

By mid March the worst of their summer has subsided. Cooler zephyrs shove tropical discomfort, particularly its beating rains, back north into the Torrid Zone.

What remains is a somewhat reinvigorated populace taking sweet forever before shrugging off languor. Returned wealthier residents have sunned themselves in Florianopolis, Brazil, or on the Uruguayan coast stretching east of Montevideo. The less moneyed have endured traffic on perpetually clogged Route 2 to bask in the more plebian paradises of Mar del Plata and Pinamar.

Early March, schools have reopened. Students, still restive from the break, resist settling into scholarly comportment. Retailers and office workers perform their tasks by rote, likely continuing so until days require jackets and nights blankets.

By then I’m long gone. I linger there just enough to appreciate the young, slender, fresh, brown-limbed brunettes whose modest apparel forces greater scrutiny of their attractiveness.

While walking along Buenos Aires retail promenades, a man may be deceived by the impression he proceeds in Spain or Italy instead. Women browsing or being served bear little kinship with their sisters elsewhere throughout Latin America. No exotic Brazilian mixtures, slight, if any, notable indio features. It’s as if they’re replicas of their immigrant Seville or Naples forbearers.

Such European beauty notions foster attitudes most North Americans might rightly disdain. That sort of ingrained “lookism” which exalts certain characteristics while demeaning others lessened its grip on us through civil rights and the women’s movement. Two social levelers which haven’t seeped much below the Rio Grande or into the Caribbean Basin.

If they ever realize the incongruity, one hopes they will properly resolve the matter.

The crumbling Second Empire (or is it Belle Epoque?) Buenos Aires streetscape is perfect for aimless wandering or idling. And if one must idle, why not do so behind Ray-Bans at a sidewalk cafe, attended by assiduous waiters? Either way it’s pleasant being among lively stylish people as they go about their business in manners we’d consider performance.

Alive as its days are, Buenos Aires nights pulse even harder.

My first visit, I struck up an unequal friendship with Sophie. It’s designated so because I was a Yanqui. “Yanqui” I can handle. Gringo would be beyond the pale.

A man, my intentions towards Sophie were clear. Dark, good-looking, simmering, rolling r’s ready to erupt, she was bored, underemployed and underpaid. Therefore, we did pleasant things to and for another.

We met at a showing of La Dolce Vita. Serendipity or what?

Sophie had spent time Stateside. To her my allegiance couldn’t have been plainer had it been stenciled across my forehead. We quickly came to an understanding: during our, um, interludes, I wouldn’t insult her and she wouldn’t exploit me. Intentionally. Too much.

Only interludes occur in South America. Episodes transpire here and in Europe.

Sophie led this Yanqui through our first mutual nights. She and coterie of similarly disposed amigas our nocturnal revels quickly acquired were Palermo habitues. “Palermo” will serve as the general rubric for Buenos Aires’ flash neighborhood. It encompasses distinct and subtle districts. We flitted among many.

The girls enjoyed their colorful long cocktails and the opportunity to flaunt Sophie’s butter and egg man. My indulgence allowed them to smoke Marlboros instead of local acrid weeds; to imbibe freely rather than nurse drinks; to make shows of their amiga’s (and by extension, theirs) unexpected fortune. The girls were loud, gleeful, argumentative and fully, carelessly “in the moments.”

Swoon in their company as I did, Palermo, all of them, chafed me. While Sophie and her cohort cackled and capered, we were resented. Or our involuntary audiences smoldered with envy and jealousy. Too often at some seen to be seen scenes I felt the rooms’ merriment ebb around us into muted derision.

I shy from Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires’ glitz trap, and humbler outlying barrios. No need to travel 5,000 miles for badly cut coke rails or present myself as a riches laden, slow-moving galleon for the local Argentine street pirates.

Given choices, and independent of Sophie, or subsequent casual companions engaged, I prefer stalking in two different barrios, San Telmo and Barrio Norte.

Artful decay along San Telmo’s narrow thoroughfares are vivid tableaux of Buenos Aires past. Dusty inviting shops and the elegant but worn residences above them must be repositories of passion, thwarted, squandered, or expended. No doubt if some of those walls could talk they’d yell, toss hair, flare nostrils and utter oaths of inexhaustible love or swear eternal vengeance.

Who the hell wouldn’t want some of that!?

Thus far the best beef I’ve eaten in Argentina or Uruguay was served at Des Nivel on San Telmo’s main drag, Defensa. From the sidewalk this parilla would be nobody’s idea of great shakes. Looking inside even less so. But atmosphere is not an applied cosmetic.

Abutting the entry a grill where the aroma of searing succulent cuts intend to fan passersby carnivore appetites. Constantly on the stereo, Carlos Gardel, Argentina’s national crooner. Before Sirius made such devotionals common, a local FM station committed its airwaves to the 70-year dead singer’s entire playlist. While portraits of Evita and Maradona are absent, there’s no lack of Gardels grinning down off Des Nivel’s walls.

The cat’s an on-key cult.

Unlike San Telmo, Barrio Norte’s esthetics could’ve issued from Anyplace, USA. Other than the Spanish signage, that is.

I’ve found it a fine locale in which to base myself. Two main bus lines run near the hotel. The subway avails a few streets down. Perhaps the world’s showiest bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, waits less than a block away, while the corner newsstand guy knows I buy El Clarin, not La Nacion.

Baser delights exist a lope (going) and crawl (returning) away. Fortunately, I’m older and more mature now because if I weren’t the Shamrock is the sort of saloon which could’ve had my head and liver racing to see which burst first.

Despite the name it’s not an Irish bar. A map of Eire and an Irish tricolor do not confer echt-ness. Proximity aside, three factors compel my frequent Shamrock attendance.

One, Happy Hours end at midnight. Two, inexpensive drinks. Three, until Argentina’s most recent economic reversal, a great mix of people filled the place. Exceptional as the first two attributes are, the third receives the prize.

Although I believe the Shamrock will always be chockablock nightly from 10 or 11 until dawn, its prior patronage seemed equally balanced among locals, foreigners and us. Lack of Argentines with discretionary cash has reduced their percentage. Without them the room is skewed. They’re the social enzyme.

Most hours I attended English predominated. Didn’t matter from where the speaker hailed, he or she likely spoke classroom English. Meaning they took to heart all the grammar and usage instructions we skipped. Also, patrons are so relaxed there.

Not relieved. Not drunk. Well, not piss drunk. Nor disguising insecurities and desperations beneath false fronts. I mean really pleased to be amid other people who are just as glad to be in such mutual company.

That’s a great nutrient for good times, right? As if the drinks contained an insouciance elixir besides the alcohol already therein.

I can’t explain. However, I do know it overwhelms my inner clock, squashes my already low inhibitions, allowing me to stay upright and lucid among the hardiest until night becomes gray morning. I rarely lasted that long as an undergraduate. In Buenos Aires, I became an iron man 2-3 times weekly.

Should I have hooked up sometime during the night, the best part wasn’t the short eager walk towards my hotel bed. Nor anticipating or entering intimacies in that bed. No. The best part became arriving just as the breakfast buffet began. That early, only the most driven, Type-A, hardcore, hardass visiting executives might assault the exposed pastries or whatever warmed in the heating trays. 

There are no such go-getters in Buenos Aires.

Accompanied by that night’s “little friend,” alone except for the bleary-eyed breakfast staff, we’d grab some medialunas. Coffee for me, always juice for the woman, and claim a table.

Here ending and beginning blurring, the sweetness of the medialunas then never failed astonishing me. Having eaten them at later morning hours, those treats weren’t as tasty. Had they rested hours on some tray one could say they’d gotten stale. But people like sweets. Guests scarfed those things, prompting continual replenishment.

Likely there is solid scientific basis behind my time/place specific sharper sense phenomena. I prefer the mysterious. For reasons unknown, medialunas that hour of morning, under those circumstances, are simply sweeter. Sweeter than stolen kisses.

I overheard one of the best shutdowns at the Shamrock. A young American woman, a college exchange student, had fixed on an Argentine. He was a handsome kid, but wasn’t entirely full of himself. Yet. She was wholesome. Taking in her complete package, bosomy too.

She made strained conversation with him. Proper upbringing kept him polite, though just barely.

Finally, girlfriend scraped the bottom of her intriguing questions barrel. She asked if he could tango.

A crushing little smile smeared his face. He answered, “If I were Japanese, would you ask if I knew karate?”

Before ever visiting Argentina, I bought Paul Pellicoro’s tango instruction book. We have preconceptions of different cultures, no? Between a gaucho herding cattle or assuming a Latin lover mien, no way I was saddling up Trigger! So I hoped Pellicoro could baby me into a heartbreaking rake.

By myself I was ballroom competition ready. Dragooning a local practice partner, telling her “do everything I do except backwards,” tango’s basic eight steps became at best uncoordinated, at worst spastic.

Clearly the brain bone was disconnected from the leg bones.

I didn’t surrender to discouragement. Or ineptness. By the time I boarded my first overnight flight to Argentina, toes and knees more often than not stopped mashing and bumping those of another.

The first milonga I entered was by chance. Having spent initial days gaining my bearings, I felt sure enough to dare a wide-ranging nocturnal sojourn. Wandering got me lost. Even today I don’t know where I was. Had the streetlights been dimmer, they could’ve been gas lamps.

The few pedestrians seen seemed shady. Of course in that light everybody was ill-defined.

A beacon of sorts cracked the night. It lit a doorless doorway, a red curtain sheeting the opening. From inside came the prancing lilt of tango music. Doubtless Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova flashed their heels within.

Inside the vestibule, the doorman eyed then informed me [my translation], “Mister, this is a milonga, not a whorehouse.”

Bluffing but glad, I told him he was telling me nothing I already didn’t know.

Inside reminded me of a basement rec room out of my teens. All it lacked was one bare red bulb hanging from the ceiling. Adjusting my sight, I saw the setting more substantial than the old grind rings.

Couples mostly my age or older scuttled around the floor. I guessed the city’s cool and crazy contingent would wait until the weekend before making their ironic appearances.

The milonga contained no wallflowers. Just seated women waiting to be collected by the numerous hunters roaming the dance floor fringes. I knew etiquette dictated my requests be graceful and should she decline stuff my disappointment behind an “ah, alas.”

First time the rookie got in the box he didn’t strikeout. In these parts we call that good.

Though it suffices, I shouldn’t resort to the word “strange.” But strange it was being partnered with a woman — with women — who knew the steps. Every woman I danced with moved at an impossible ease. And they were considerate, too, because that night, as well as others afterwards, every one covered my missteps.

I read somewhere the author Eve Babitz took up tango. In a perfect world she’d strut her stuff in Buenos Aires while I visited. Naturally I’d hope to stumble across her in a milonga. And naturally she’d accept my offer to tango. By then I’d be more adept though still rely on the open embrace.

Babitz gets mentioned because her writings indirectly affected me when I was still impressionable. Okay. Callow. Looking back, I now understand how powerful an advantage that was. Thankfully Jill, the woman wielding it, treated me kindly. If men had made her suffer, the transference probably would given me issues with women today.

Jill was a huge Babitz fan. No. An acolyte. Bibles she wouldn’t swear on. Babitz, though … a whole stack of her books. Jill was cool then. Memory makes her cooler today.

Those are the conditions.

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