Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Argentina—Land of “Tomorrows”

How can I keep a sense of time when I live in a time warp, or at least in a country with a very different time perspective?

I seldom wear one of my three watches. No need for that! We don’t count minutes here on the pampa, we count days or weeks. If the plumber says he’ll stop by “tomorrow,” it could indeed be tomorrow. . . or next week. . . or maybe never. Hard to guess which! With seven pipes-a-leaking and no reliable hot water, the last six days have seemed an eternity.

But this is not new. The owner of a small computer tech firm promised us broadband “next week.” That was January 5. Today is August 9. Roberto (with a straight face!) told me at lunch that another tech firm is putting up an antenna at a factory down the road this week, and the fellow says we can expect the signal “next week.” I burst out laughing: “Lo creo cuando lo veo!” I made that one up to say “I believe it when I see it.” It might not be good Spanish, but it expresses my doubts and a general uneasiness at all the “broken promises,” as I tend to see these things.

Case in point: When I applied for the requisite Letter of Good Conduct from the Federal Police in February for my residency application, I was told it would be ready in two months. It arrived four months later—expiring in transit! Now that really is snail mail! “Yep, sometimes a week takes a month here,” laughed one of my art classmates, a señora with lots of smile wrinkles. Appreciation for the absurd helps here!

So why do I bother with a clock in every room, even the bathroom? For calculations, they are only slightly more useful than my carefully shipped measuring cups and spoons in this metricized country. What a shift from New York and California, where I could measure life in minutes and teaspoons! The cultural differences in measurements are substantial.

When I was five, Disneyland opened up 14 miles down Harbor Boulevard from me. On our frequent visits, “Tomorrowland” totally mesmerized me with its moon rocket trip and gadget-filled kitchen. . . a land of “tomorrow” that actually materialized in the First World. Given my dad's fascination with gadgets, we were the first on our block to have a stereo, then a dishwasher, and even an electric typewriter.

But of course, in Argentina “tomorrow” (the famous “mañana”) is a different kind of diversion, a waiting game. To live here, you must learn to play it. No Type A’s need apply for residency here!

Forget the dishwasher--I don't even have a dryer! I hang clothes out—and hope they dry before rain or night falls. Customers regularly zone out in sluggish lines in banks and supermarkets. The shopper who grabbed milk and eggs off the shelf usually gets stalled for 10 minutes in the priority checkout lane. Yet no one complains or rushes to find a shorter line. No one runs anywhere, not even across the narrow city street to miss the cars that swerve to dodge them. (Do drivers speed here because it is the one place they can hurry?)

There’s a lot of waiting, and people accordingly manifest an unhurried pace (and wouldn't dream of moving out of my busy way on the sidewalk). When I complained to a nurseryman that he still had not delivered a gift of two trees to a friend despite one month and two reminders, he was taken aback, and seemingly offended that I would complain. Instead of apologizing, he justified it: “Nosotros Argentinos no somos muy cumplidores.” ["We Argentinians aren't very good at finishing what they start or keeping promises."] Was I expecting Disney standards for "guest services"?

Argentina may be the land of “tomorrows,” and simultaneously, it seems the land of yesterday. Rusty Fiats, Renaults, and Fords, vintage farm machinery, timeworn buildings, unpaved roads, handwritten archives. People here ride bikes and walk, not for pleasure, but to get to work or school (and they do it without helmets). Work is done by hand that North Americans let machines do. When was the last time you swept a carpet? Made homemade pasta? Boiled water to wash dishes?

Of course a "vintage lifestyle" means things take longer. . . and so a lot less gets done. Luckily no one seems overly concerned! Efficiency, productivity, progress. . . these are the bywords for some places north of Cuba. My young porteña friend Eliana is anxious to move to Madrid after her recent visit there. “It’s like Buenos Aires could be—in twenty years. Do you know what I mean?”

Sure I do, though San Nicolas might need forty years to catch up. Or more. Maybe it isn’t even a goal, and maybe it shouldn’t be. I must confess that find comfort in some aspects of traditional life here. On Thursdays after art class, I stroll over one block to one many tiny local drugstores. The elderly pharmacist invariably welcomes me with a grin, embrace, and kiss, after which his daughter pharmacist--my friend Maria--pours me an espresso in the back room. And maybe the next customer will lose a few seconds while she admires my latest watercolor attempt or shares on of her latest profound thoughts on spirituality.

As of now, there is exactly one public place with wi-fi—the incomparable Italia ice creamery, where the owner still relies on her highly sensitive palate to create fabulous gelatos. (The blueberry sorbet, among others, should make San Nicolas an international tourist destination!)

When broadband and wi-fi are everywhere, will the green grocer still inquire about our strawberries and carry my bags of tangerines, potatoes, and artichokes to my car? Will the butcher keep three other patrons waiting to teach me how to make a pizza by baking his super-sized chicken milanesias with tomato puree in the oven? Will the ice cream lady still take time to fix me an espresso with a scoop of vanilla and a dusting of chocolate shavings? (Try it!)

When the twenty-first century finally arrives, will Roberto still share a leisurely breakfast, lunch, and dinner with me every day? I wonder. Meanwhile, while I am waiting for broadband, the plumber, and tomorrow to arrive, I might as well enjoy another espresso!

P.S. When broadband arrives, I will have fewer excuses not to post blogs more regularly!

No comments: