The Underdog


I like the underdog. I want  the short kid to get the shot over the tall guy; the number 16 to beat the number one; the homely singer to win the talent show. Davids always win my heart over Goliaths. So after spending last week walking around lovely Buenos Aires, I tried to remember my allegiance to underdog Caracas–ugly, maybe not so smart, and unlikely to be voted Prom Queen. 


Like New York, Buenos Aires is a pedestrian city. Most days, I’d walk for hours in some direction, maybe heading for a museum or a cemetery. There’s a busy street life, sidewalks full of people ducking into shops offering empanadas and fresh pastas. Parks and plazas fill downtown. And on nearly every corner, a cafe or historic bar where I could stop for a drink. It’s kind of perfect. Poor Caracas suffers by comparison.

When you go to Argentina, you eat beef. And the best way to eat beef is at an asado, an outdoor barbeque. My Venezuelan pals had hooked me up with their friend Lorena in Buenos Aires, who took me to an afternoon party and asado in the countryside. Lorena and her friends grilled up bife and chorizo, and lomo, and all kinds of blood sausages and organ meats–delicacies! Guillermo at the grill claimed that he was no great cook, but it all came out tender and tasty. We passed hours drinking on the patio and snacking from overfull plates, and then we drank mate from a shared gourd, sipping the sweet drink through a metal straw.

Thursday morning, I took the train to the river delta town of Tigre, full of holiday shoppers and city folks who want to explore the area’s parklands and waterside walks. Trains leave every 15 minutes, and they’re all packed. Once we were all aboard, a friendly-looking big man stood in the aisle and made an announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s a pleasure to be here with you today. As always, I am Jose, and it’s my good fortune to join you on this trip to the northern suburbs of our city. Today, I would like to offer you some songs, the first by the famous Luis Miguel.” Jose belted an acapella version of a popular ballad. Polite applause. Then, “And now, if I may, a brief reflection on this, the Year of the Woman, and how central women are in the economic and cultural development of our great nation” and he went on from there. It was inspiring. As always, the pesos flew his way.


The Argentine Spanish accent is not easy, especially for a guy who’s been working on his Caribbean Venezuelan S’es and long O’s. There, and especially in the city, any sound that in the rest of the world would be a “y” (think of the “y” in yo), becomes a hard “sh”, the sound that teachers made when you talked too loud in elementary school assemblies. In fact, the whole country sounds like a convention of animated librarians, working themselves into a conversational tizzy about traffic or politics, then remembering to shush each other before it gets out of hand. 


Listening to folks in the capital shushing and shashing and sheshing all day long was exhausting. In Caracas, I understand about 97 percent of casual conversation. Buenos Aires knocked me down to about 76 percent, and that was when I tried hard. As soon as I got settled into a rhythm and figured out what someone was saying, they would hit me in the chin with a few hard shushes, and I’d be on the ropes for another two sentences. But like late-career Ali, I’ve got rope-a-dope staying power and I could come back to win the round, or at least stay even.

Anyone who is anyone in Argentina–as long as they’re dead–can be found in the Recoleta Cemetery. It’s in a nice part of town, obviously, since bank presidents, top physicians, and Spiritual Leaders of the Nation could afford good real estate when they were living, too. Aboveground granite and marble tombs line the paved passageways, packed in tight. They bear plaques naming the deceased, but also honoring the people who paid for the monument. Some tombs have staircases leading down to larger rooms full of the dead; others have a single occupant, whose casket you can see propped up on an altar, with a cross and wilted flowers. Eva Peron’s remains are here, at the only tomb tourists crowd around to see. The rest, even founding fathers of the nation and generals, artists and poets, are just quick stops on the way to the main attraction. As you’d expect, a family of cats holds court in the cemetery. One of the maintenance workers called them to order with kibble and fresh water. They all have names, she said. This one–she pointed to a kitten with bright eyes–is Evita.


More from Escuela Campo Alegre: Last month was checkup time. The government requires all teachers to have a full medical workup each year. At least, that’s how it was explained to me. Who knows? So I had three separate in-house appointments. First with the otolaryngologist, who wanted to know how many students I have, and if I shout a lot. Next, a physical with the kindly elderly father of one of my colleagues, a general physician who used to work for the the oil companies. I don’t mind undressing in front of anyone, but there is a certain amount of discomfort in telling an elementary school teacher that her dad saw me naked, and that he was gentle. Last up, a cardiologist using 1953’s top technology to measure my cardiac health. He led the cables from a yellowing plastic machine, affixed the cups and probes and sensors, pushed a few buttons, read the strip, and told me my heart was fine. That’s good news. Maybe it’ll help me think fondly of Caracas, when I want to dream of Argentina instead.



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