A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Nostalgia & Penguins In The Arctic
Wednesday, July 04, 2007

When I visit my first cousin and godmother Inesita O'Reilly Kuker in Buenos Aires we talk a very proper English but here and there we will pepper it with words in Argentine Spanish or words from the Spanish that conveniently fit some sort of gap in the English. Going to the country may work in England when one thinks of quaint cottages and meandering hedges. In the vastness of the Argentine pampa one goes to the "camp" a word anglicized by the dropping of the final Spanish o. I was 8 or 9 waiting for tram 35 to take me to my grandmother's flat in downtown Buenos Aires when an old man asked me if the "trambuy" (tramway) had passed already. I never saw my father wear un esmoking (tuxedo).

This shifting from one language to another, from one way of thought to another, from one bank of shared memories to another is very much like the partition of my computer hard disc into Disc D and Disk C. I wanted my friend Paul to re-distribute the partition into different percentages. The task was harder than we thought and it has yet to be done right. My computer has been protesting meanwhile. It would seem that it is mimicking the state of my brain these days as my Spanish Disc C whithers and sputters.

Juan Manuel Sanchez and wife Nora Patrich are not living together at the moment in Buenos Aires. They are seeking some sort of separation, and each is living with a new partner. This means that my warm friend Juan Manuel will not be returning to Vancouver. We will no longer discuss the merits of the description of wild gentians in the Alps of Thomas Mann's La Montaña Mágica (Chilean edition). It means that we will not glory together at the cuerpo plástico (Juan's description of a female model's beautiful body that inspires him to sketch and draw and me to photograph). This means that I will no longer share in the lively banter between Juan and the younger Nora as they work on their differences. This means that a whole Argentine experience, its history, its language, its music, its literature, its fauna and flora, its dance are lodged in my head with no way of seeing the light of day. I have nobody to share this with.

My grandmother taught me the glory and the richness of her husband Tirso's Spanish language. Tirso was a member of the Real Academia Española. I no longer consult her gift to me, a dictionary of the Academia. Its on line version The RAE is superior and at hand. But I remember my grandmother and Tirso every time I log on to the RAE.

I miss Juan Castelao, the Spanish conductor of the Vancouver Philharmonic Orchestra. It seems he will be staying in his hometown of Oviedo for a while. He was drier and more formal than Juan Manuel Sanchez. But we shared a love for the intricacies of our Spanish language and hot Nando's chicken wings.

We talked about music and I learned lots of the early compositions of Beethoven or such works as Bruckner's Symphony No. 0. I particularly miss his coming on Saturdays for his 35 minute piano class with Rebecca. We would then move to the dining room for lunch for a four-course meal of soup, rice, stew and Spanish. Our formality reinforced the uniqueness of the relationship in Vancouver. It felt as I always told Juan that we were penguins in the arctic. We are out of place (that Spanish side) and the shared experience keeps us together.

Some 35 years ago I met Cuban Jorge Urréchaga at Lomas High School. We were both teachers at the Mexico City school that catered to rich foreigners. Jorge taught English in spite of his slight accent. He and I conversed in formal Spanish with usted instead of tu even after we became friends. Jorge would come to the house and keep me up until the middle of the night (Rosemary would retire early and shut our daughter's bed room) as Jorge entertained me with opera arias from his favourite Andrea Chenier. Jorge had a beautiful voice but excelled at other things, too like bridge. He taught me the Schenken Convention. We won a lot at bridge. I soon learned why. Jorge had a prodigious memory for nicks and spots on cards. After ten minutes of play he had memorized a deck of cards. He knew what everybody's hands were by looking at the backs. Jorge took me to Bellas Artes to see and hear a young Plácido Domingo. He first took me to the TV truck to watch an act there. Then with pre-discussed code he would bang on the backstage elevator and we would see the second act from backstage. He knew which seats were used by the press. They were mostly vacant. We would finish our operas from there.

The best of Jorge was an experience that we shared with Rosemary. Jorge would call me in the morning that he had a tip. We would go to the Hipódromo de las Americas (the Mexico City race track) and meet up with his friend Isaac the Jew who had a hairbrush factory. Isaac knew his horses by the appearance of their hair. I suspect Jorge had other friends, too who were either bookies or Puerto Rican jockies of ill repute. We would then watch the races and only bet on the ones he indicated we could. That evening we would dine at the Alsacian food restaurant Sep's with lots of champagne. We could splurge with our winnings. It was wonderful to watch Rosemary laugh. She was as aware as I was of Jorge's darker side. This is what made him fascinating.

It was only many years later that I received a call from Jorge who told me he was in Vancouver for a visit. I picked him up in town and brought him home. It was refreshing to talk to him in formal Spanish. He had been recently married to another man in San Francisco. He had AIDS but he was all right. The "cocktail" was working. And then Jorge disappeared and I never heard from him again.

A copy of Arturo Pérez-Reverte's sixth Capitán Alatriste novel, Corsarios del Levante is waiting for me at Sophia Books. Perhaps I will pick it up today and read it in bed. It's a queen sized bed but it is big enough to accomodate my fellow readers, Jorge, Juan, Juan Manuel and Tirso himself.

I miss Juan Manuel Sanchez telling me he will not watch Argentina play on the TV. "If I watch them, they will surely lose." Like my father, Juan Manuel Sanchez always kissed me goodbye. I miss that. A lot.


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