Acclimating, Adjusting and Being Accidentally Groped by Alberto

So I have been a terrible blogger. Forget the months of May and June. I was in stage two culture shock (think Kate as the Hulk, tiny purple shorts and all), so there would have been a lot of whining anyway. What follows is going to be a little bit about what brought me out of my intense frustration with all things Argentine and into what feels like the early stages of the acceptance/acclimation phase. Which is good, because y’all, Argentina is awesome.

As I might have mentioned earlier, I was hoping to find a girls soccer team here. I haven’t played in a while and I thought that would be a great way to meet people. Argentina is crazy for soccer, so it seemed like a fool proof plan . . . except that very few women here play. I haven’t been able to find a team here in San Luis, even though everyone claims to know someone who plays and assures me they will put me in contact with them. So I decided to take this opportunity to learn something new. Because functioning in a second language isn’t frustrating enough. (It is. Oh God, it is). And that’s how I found myself taking Tango, Bachata and Salsa classes.

Anyone thinking, “Hmmmmm, Kate. You’re much more of a contact sport, sweating, looking gross kind of girl. Are you sure you want to put yourself that far out of your comfort zone when you’re already fighting with the language stuff? Also, that whole man leading woman following thing.” Yeah, anyone who thought that, cookie for you, because the only thing I can think to equate learning to dance to (drumroll please) is learning a second language. Learning to move my body in a way that I am not used to/REALLY not comfortable with, learning what specific pressures and marks from the dude mean and what movement I should make in response, all in time with the music. Es mucho. Those first few classes had that “This is new and exciting” shine to them. And then it because clear that I am not a natural dancer. So for most of May and June I was dancing badly five nights a week and struggling daily to not sound like a really pretentious and frustrated five year old (speaking Spanish).

Let’s start with Tango, which I have the unfortunate tendency to pronounce “tengo.” “Tengo” actually means “I have.” This has resulted in my frequently telling people “I am taking I have classes.” But yes, Tango. When I watch my professors dance I can’t help but think that Tango is a truly strange and lovely blend of elegance and violence. Also sex. My professors are a couple, and when I first saw them dance I felt exactly like one of the dudes on Mad Men (I forget who it is) when he sees Joan being saucy and says (slack-jawed)  “She is so much woman.”

I am not so much woman when I dance Tango. I’ve only learned the basic step, ochos, sandwichito, and a couple of nifty turns. At first I felt as graceless dancing Tango as I felt speaking Spanish, and it’s worst when I get paired with Alberto, a 70 something who has less musicality in him than I do, and who has the unfortunate tendency to grope me. I’m pretty sure this is less to do with him being a pervert, and more to do with him having poor eyesight, forgetting to bring his glasses to class and then mistaking my breasts for my shoulders. Frequently. Being accidentally groped by Alberto does NOT make me feel like the Tango goddess I had hoped to become.

And then there’s Salsa and Bachata. We often get split into two groups in the class: The beginners, and the people who know what the hell they’re doing. There is no middle ground. This means I fell in with the beginners, learning the basic steps over and over again for about a month and a half until I finally realized that if I actually wanted to get any better I was just going to have to throw myself in with the more advanced dancers and try not to drown. These classes are both much larger and more chaotic than my Tango class. There’s time for questions and clarifications, but there’s no way to make sure everyone is doing everything exactly right. When I finally made my way into the more advanced group, I discovered that I actually have a really natural sense of rhythm. . . . . which makes letting guys who have NO sense of rhythm lead especially difficult for me, and then I start thinking about dance as a metaphor for all the things that are wrong with patriarchy . . . and then I stop myself and decide my time would be better spent learning to move my hips more like Shakira and less like Elizabeth Proctor. I’m still pretty repressed looking when I dance, but at least it’s rhythmic repression.

And then things shifted. About a week ago almost everyone I know made a point to tell me how much my Spanish has improved. I’m speaking fluidly, if not exactly fluently, and people are finally talking to me like they feel confident I’ll understand what they’re saying. Funny that that should happen around the same time that I start really having fun with the dance classes. These days when I’m Tangoing, Salsaing and Bachataing I’m thinking more about how much fun I’m having than how stupid I might look to others. Last Wednesday I went out dancing with some friends from the Salsa/Bachata class. I met a swarthy Argentine lad (that one’s for you Ms. Trish), and we danced and talked until 6 AM. And it was actual dancing, where he marked certain moves and I could actually follow most of them without falling flat on my face, not to mention actual talking. He pretended not to notice when I mangled verbs and mispronounced the word pronunciación (the irony). It was all the fun.

No profound truths to offer. Mostly I’m just grateful to be vindicated in my prediction that the first few months here would be really hard, and then things would get awesome. Things here are awesome, and there is more talking, Salsaing and Bachating to be had this Saturday. And then of course there is Tango class tonight. I really hope Alberto brings his glasses.

Note: I imagine most people have a sense of what Tango and Salsa look like, but a lot of people have asked me what Bachata is. Here is an extremely humpy example of Bachata. It’s pretty much highly structured raunch. My first class I seriously considered asking the professor if I could just learn the pretty twirly parts of the dance and not the humpy parts. I refrained, mostly because I didn’t know what the verb “to hump” is in Spanish. Anyway, I’m learning it all and it’s seriously fun.

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“We are very racist towards this country”

I’ve spent the past two weeks settling into the rhythm of life here in San Luis. When I arrived in mid-March I spent so much time figuring out what I needed (food, something to cook that food on, things that make my apartment pretty, a safe running route, FRIENDLY HUMAN CONTACT DEAR GOD, etc.) then procuring those things, that there was very little routine to my days. Then I had that whole week of unexpected vacation, and it would have been such a waste not to travel, so I spent that week in Cordoba and then Mendoza. Not complaining! In some ways it was ideal. I set up house, went off and frolicked in two awesome cities with lovely people, and then came back to a place that was familiar but still newish and started work. WORK! I am finally getting to do the things I’m being paid to do here: teach and try not to be this lady. I am certainly working on both – it’s too early to tell how successful I’m being.

I was more than nervous about beginning classes. Like . . . opening night, first kiss, pre kick-off levels of nervous. I find teaching to be this weird combination of acting and directing traffic. You have to get your class interested in the subject (which requires you be knowledgeable enough to both lecture and improvise), hold that interest, and then convince them to interact with one another and produce something with that interest and newly acquired knowledge. In college I always got really ruffled when people would criticize professors without first trying to imagine why they might have conducted their class in a certain way, or why they might have given us a specific assignment. Granted, my parents are teachers so I’m sure there’s some serious Freudian grossness I really don’t want to look into any deeper which inspires that reverence for teachers in me . . . . but still. Whenever I had to do class presentations or lead a discussion I always left thinking, “DEAR LORD THAT WAS HARD/EXHAUSTING/EXHILERATING/LIFE SUCKING.” You see all these expectant (or bored out of their skull) faces waiting for you to tell them all the things, entertain them, say something new, make them think harder, inspire them to approach problems from new angles, and on and on. Thankfully my task here is much simpler than all that. I just have to facilitate a safe space for my students to speak and to listen in English for an hour. But I am new to this, so that is task enough. And here’s the totally self-involved and superficial reason why I was so nervous to get started. I have had the following exchange with almost every single person I have met here:

Other person: Kate, ¿Cuántos años tenés? (How old are you?)
Me: Tengo 23 años. (23 years old)
Other person: Vos pareces MUCHO más joven. (You look MUCH younger)
Me: YOU SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH. (Obviously I don’t actually say this.)

I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, right? Well, yes, but it didn’t make me any less nervous to get up in front of a class filled with students, most of them older than me, and convince them that I had something to offer them. I know I do, even if it’s simply that English is my first language. It’s not a skill I had to work for or something I’ve studied at great length (literature, yes, linguistics and grammar, no). It’s not even something I’m trained to teach. My colleagues here at the IFDC, even though they are not native speakers of English, are infinitely more qualified than I am to teach English as a second language (ESL). They learned English as a second language themselves and are well versed in the pedagogy of teaching ESL related courses. But at least I can help my students with their accents, speech patterns, vocabulary, idioms, and with day to day interactions in English. Anyway, I prepped for my first conversation classes as thoroughly as I could and trusted my students to trust that I have something to offer them. . . . and it went really well. As usual, I proved to myself that I waste a lot of energy being anxious about nothing, and now I can stop fretting about looking younger than most of my students and start channeling all my anxiety (and I have so much anxiety to give!) into figuring out how the heck I’m going to tailor these discussion sessions to the very different dynamics present in each of my four classes.

All four of my conversation classes are made up of students in their first year of studying to become certified English teachers. I teach two classes on Wednesdays and two on Fridays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays I help out in the other first year classes. For my first week of classes I had students pair off and interview one another in English for about 15 minutes. Then, each person introduced her or his partner to the class. This worked even better than I thought it would, because it gave me a chance to get to know their names, learn a little bit about each student and assess what levels of English I am working with. Turns out that since there is no proficiency exam for entry into the program, their spoken English is all over the map. Some students are practically fluent and able to switch between a British and an American accent at will, while others can hardly understand a word I’m saying much less say anything in English themselves.

This week we played a homemade version of TABOO I made with some index cards. They’re doing a unit on travelling and tourism in some of their other classes, so I made it country themed TABOO. It was great in that it simulated the feeling of trying to communicate something and not having all the necessary tools at hand. For example, for most of the countries that are islands, island was a TABOO word that they couldn’t say. One student realized she could get around this by saying, “This is a country surrounded by water,” and then some other students saw what she was doing and were able to use that same technique of looking for a second and a third way to say something. It was educational for me too, because all of the TABOO words I put for each country came from my very North American perspective, which this game proved is very different from an Argentine perspective. For example, to describe Bolivia, one students said, “We are very racist towards this country.” EVERYONE except for me knew that she was talking about Bolivia.

As predicted, things got politically incorrect REAL fast. For China, Japan and Korea all the students pointed to their eyes until I explained why that made me uncomfortable and then decreed that there was no more gesturing allowed in TABOO. For England everyone mentioned the Malvinas Islands. For the United States EVERYONE said, “there is an obesity problem in this country.” May I just take this moment to say that as charming as Wall-E was, it has not done great things for our public image. Practically everyone I meet asks me about the “obesity problem” in America. However, my favorite moment in the game came when one student described Canada as, “the hat on top of the United States.” I nearly died laughing and then had to explain about Canada jokes and How I Met Your Mother, and I wished Barney Stinson was real (only time in my life I have wished this) so that I could tell him that my Argentine students were making Canada jokes.

Anyway, this week I’m trying for some warm up games that actually lead us into a good 20-30 minute discussion. It’ll be a challenge considering the varying levels of English in the classes. We’ll see.

Outside of teaching, my life has consisted of meeting students for intercambios (exchanges) where we speak in English for 30 minutes and then in Spanish for 30 minutes. I’ve joined a gym where the personal trainer has decided Kate is too hard to pronounce and instead calls me “Louisiana” and makes me do this weird fist bump/handshake thing to say hi when I see him in the mornings. It has become a strange but comforting little ritual. I’ve played charades with some new friends, which was a blast since it was movie charades and that is actually something I know about! It was such a breath of fresh air to feel like an asset on a team and not like a child to be baby-sat. I have also discovered the romance novel genre . . . . . in Spanish! That’s right,  Romance novels. Historical, contemporary, romantic suspense, all of it has been translated into Spanish, and I am partaking! DEAL WITH IT WORLD. Maybe I will even write my own someday. It will be set in Argentina and I will call it The Gentle Gaucho. It will have a cover to rival these. Also, TANGO CLASSES TONIGHT! Details soon to follow.

And wouldn’t you know it – I have another full week of vacation coming up next week. It’s a national holiday until Tuesday, then, later in the week is a holiday to celebrate the patron Saint of San Luis. In typical puntano (puntanos are what people in San Luis call themselves) fashion, the government decided we may as well just take the whole week as a holiday. So, I am off to Rosario, Santa Fe province with at least two other grantees for the first half of the week, and then we’ll see where else.

More later this week, dear readers (Hi Mom!). Besos from San Luis!

Spin the Gringa

My dear friend from home, codename The Jackal (Like it lady? We can change it if need be.) was introducing me to the glory that is The West Wing right around the time BAMF was becoming an acronym people used to indicate badassery. So when the Bartlett team did something particularly meritworthy, we would audibly congratulate them and one another on their BAMF-itude. It goes without saying that CJ consistently racked up the most BAMF points. My point is, and I’m talking to you jackal lady, I think I may have discovered the BAMF trump card, namley, EVERY YOUNG PERSON IN ARGENTINA. Let me explain . . .  .

I had the entirety of last week off because classes at my school hadn’t started yet and because of the Easter Holidays, so I packed my suitcase and headed to Cordoba with the daughter of the family I rent from (codename A) and 3 of her friends. I will not be able to tell you very much about Cordoba the city in the touristy sense of, “doing the city” where you go to museums, parks, monuments, guided tours, government buildings, etc. I’ll have to go back if I want to experience any of that, but I had absolutely the best time tagging along with A and her friends, and immersing myself in the rhythm of life as a student in Cordoba.

We were staying at the apartment of another of A’s close friends who is studying medicine in Cordoba. I had gotten to know the group a bit on the 7 hour bus ride to the city, and we hit it off really well, my Spanish being good enough to converse with them, but not so far advanced as to be able to banter. Let me just say that trying to follow along while young people start joking with one another is the absolute hardest. It’s like listening to Graceland (or watching MGMT music videos for that matter): It’s everyone’s favorite album and you know it’s all profound and stuff and you like the music, but you just don’t understand the lyrics so you just nod and smile don’t say anything and then someone looks at you expectantly and you’re like, “Ummmmmm.” Only here when I say “Ummmmm” I remember that in Spanish it’s “eeeeeehhhhhhh” and not “ummmmmm” and I feel like even more of a dingbat . . . . . . .  *takes deep calming breaths* So yeah, that’s what it’s like trying to understand banter here. That said, the girls were all kinds of patient with me, treating me like one of the group but explaining things when I was clearly lost.

We arrived in Cordoba Friday night at about 10 PM, and got to A’s friend T’s apartment at about 10:30. We unpacked, ordered some pizza (a standard pizza here is a thincrust with tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano and green olives . . . it turns out I like olives! Who knew?) and chatted. I assumed that bed was soon to follow, but then the girls started to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . . and drink. At about 1:30 AM we headed to a club downtown where a lot of students go. We waited outside for about 30 minutes and finally got into the club, which was packed. Being 5’ 1’’, packed clubs are kind of my nightmare because I am right at armpit/elbow height of most people. Besides the fact that it was bursting at the seams, it was way too loud for me to understand anything anyone was saying in Spanish, so when we finally left at about 5:30 AM I was frankly relieved. We went back to T’s apartment and were joined by a group of guys A and friends had grown up with. We drank mate and chatted until about 7:30 AM, at which point it became clear I could not last much longer and so I kissed everyone on the cheek and said Ciao (still not used to cheek kissing strangers) and slept until 3 PM the next day. When I awoke, there was a text from the girls who had NOT GONE TO SLEEP AT ANY POINT and had instead gone to the mall. I got a cab and met them at the mall where we proceeded to shop for hours. Then we went to the grocery store, made some dinner . . . . and then began to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . and start the process all over again. Seriously. For four days straight. I was always the first one to conk out and the last one to get up. At several moments during the weekend I wanted to be like, “Are you all just beautiful robots or something! Do you not need to sleep???!!!!!” But they were just BAMFS, plain and simple. Shop, party, talk, primp, eat, drink, mate (the beverage not the discovery channel verb), lather rinse repeat.

Now this was a vacation rhythm for A and her friends. During the school year it’s not quite like this (although from what I gathered by listening to them it kind of is), and these girls are childhood friends who don’t get to see each other much so it was really fun and touching to see them aprovechar de (take advantage of) this opportunity to be together. Childhood friendships are at once so sweet and so raw. There’s just something really special about the bond you build with people you have known and who have known you since the beginning (Here’s looking at you Stubman and Jackal lady – I’m sending you hardcore virtual snuggles right now). Anyway, I think my favorite thing we did was go to a Peña, which is essentially a baile folklórico party. A is a ballerina, but also teaches baile folklórico, and so she has been telling me all about the different regional musical stylings and dances there are here in Argentina (post pending). A is a self-described clown off the dance floor. Her facial expressions rival Jim Carry, and she broke like 2 plates and a bottle of beer at T’s apartment, while sober. But when she dances she is all grace. The Peña we went to had 4 different bands from all over the north of the country that played while the audience members who knew how to (like A) danced in the center of the restaurant. I’m still working through the many different kinds of songs and dances that fall under the category of baile folklórico here, so for now I’m posting a video of one of the kinds of dances we saw.

You’re probably laughing at the poofy pants the dude’s wearing. The people I saw were just wearing normal clothes, which I liked. This is a kind of dance a lot of young people here know and do and they don’t need costumes to feel like it’s a significant link to their past. I think it’s really lovely. There’s another kind of dance called a Zamba they do that’s similar only both parties have a handkerchief and there’s this whole seducing without touching think going on. A’s friend M explained to me that it’s all about gauchos seducing innocent peasant maidens. Hmmmmmm.

One of the guys doing the dancing was also one of the musicians. He was from Tucumán, and his dancing (the fancy footwork from the dude you see in the video) was noticeably more exaggerated than that of the other men dancing. M leaned over to me and began to warn me about men from the north of Argentina. This is not he first time I have received this warning, and I’m never quite sure how to handle it. He said that as soon as “the gaucho” as he called him, heard that there was a foreign girl at the party he would try to “conquistar” me. I responded with my most alluring snortlaughter. M was of course joking, but nevertheless I assured him that I was no innocent peasant maiden and that I, the short but inarticulate gringa, was more likely to be conquistado by someone who could explain the pluperfect subjunctive tense to me than by the dashing “gaucho.” I also made a mental note that “conquistar” is an infinitely superior verb to “seduce.”

On our last night we went to another club, but this time there was plenty of room to dance and to talk, and our group was made up of both ladies and gents, so we could actually do some real dancing. . . . which I am pretty bad at but absolutely love to do. Eventually a different group of guys made their way over to us and we started pairing off. My partner was SO TALL, but was actually a really good dancer and was able to work with my passing knowledge of the salsa. . . . and then he got a little ambitious and began a fairly dangerous game of what A and I later decided to call “Spin the Gringa.” If you ever want to play, this game entails finding a gringa and spinning her till she’s extremely dizzy to this extremely popular Brazilian jam.

I was really disoriented by the end, and I think my dance partner flattered himself it was because I was so enamored of him. That was not the case. I was, in fact, just really dizzy, but menos mal if he wants to think he swept the gringa off her feet. It was good fun, and I’m excited to start dance classes soon so that I can stop describing my dance style to people as “casi madera” (half wooden).

So all in all it was an absolutely wonderful first half of my vacation week, mostly because I got the chance to interact with a lot of really interesting and fun people . . . and dance. I’m trying to think of a way to thank A and her friends for including me, so if anyone has suggestions let me know. From Cordoba I made my way back west by bus to Mendoza . . . which was equally wonderful, but very different and thus deserves its own post methinks. Until then, have some music:

To Cordoba I go!

Hi there, lovely readers of TheMeerkate. I just want to let you know I’m off to Cordoba until mid-next week, and then to I don’t know where until Easter Sunday. I will not be bringing my computer because if anything happened to it . . . . *shudders* . . . I will take lots of pictures and have some moderately intelligent thoughts to share upon my return.

Besos!

The Little Green Vegetable That Looks Like a Tree

* Post with actual facts about San Luis still pending – the public library where I’m doing most of my research doesn’t have a set schedule so I’m having a little trouble coordinating their available hours with mine. Soon though!

When I was in high school my favorite teacher made a habit of asking our class, “Does anyone have any scathingly brilliant questions? . . . Moderately intelligent questions? . . . Terminally stupid questions?” I would bet money that I’m not the only member of my class or from her classes past, who to this day categorizes questions/knowledge in those terms. In normal circumstances I like to think I average a solid “moderately intelligent.” I have my fair share of brain farts (putting my keys in the freezer) mixed in with the occasional insight (maybe I put my keys in the freezer!), and this allows me a respectable level of confidence in social situations. After two weeks of operating closer to “terminally stupid” both in terms of language and cultural savvy, I can safely say that I miss the social agility that comes with linguistic and cultural fluency more than any other comfort from home.

Here, everything I say is saturated with an endless chorus of, “cómo se dice (how do you say)” and “cómo se llama (what do you call).” I am lucky to have found such a lovely family (hereafter known as TFM – stands for The family M) to rent from because they are equal parts patient and understanding. They actually seem to want to talk with me and we’re getting used to each other’s speech patterns. The act of conversing is becoming easier allowing the content to become more complex, but it’s impossible not to be aware of how the power dynamics in a conversation change when one party is fluent and the other talks like a racist caricature of herself. For me, speaking Castellano is like driving through a city with a detour sign at every other corner. When I can’t think of the word I need at the exact moment that I need it I have to think of another way to say what I want to say which more often than not brings me to another detour sign. The resulting sentences aren’t pretty. I’m fairly certain that at some point yesterday I came up with this gem: “Where can I find a business that has the machines that make the clothes go in a circle so that they get clean and the other machines that make them not wet anymore?” In case anyone is worried I found the nearest lavandería (a word I knew, just like I knew limpiar (to clean) and secar (to dry), but of course couldn’t come up with any of them in the moment) and I now have clean clothes. But man, I felt like such a child. I wanted to smooth over the situation with a laugh by doing the “I’m a monster!!!!” thing Buster from Arrested Development does. Then I remembered that I’m as culturally ignorant here as I am linguistically limited and that awkwardly imitating American sitcom characters is more likely to hurt my cause than to help it. I might do well to remember this upon my return stateside as well . . .

Anyway, TFM don’t seem too fazed. Nor do BPE1 or BPE2. I told them I felt a little at sea earlier in the week and so they’ve started teaching me all about San Luis slang and how to properly make and serve mate. Tomorrow I will purchase my very first mate gourd. Nóm (The ó makes it a castellano “nom.” Just go with it.). Today Anabella and Mama M were teaching me bad words and we were all giggling at how strange they sound coming from me. It’s funny what an innocent I seem to them when I’m speaking Castellano. It’s not like this is my first time swearing, but it all seems so much more scandalous when I have the words but lack the contextual knowledge of when, where and how to use them. That agility with language I was talking about earlier comes so much more slowly than the discrete vocabulary words.

Whatever. It’s only been two weeks. And besides, these limitations have their perks as well. In group settings I stay pretty quiet because I’m working to follow along and I know that to join in would mean interrupting the rhythm of the conversation. I’m finding that it’s kind of wonderful just to sit back, listen and observe. To not be always thinking about what I want to contribute and instead to really concentrate on what everyone else is saying. And then, when I do actually manage to contribute something moderately intelligent to the conversation, it’s so unexpected to these people who are used to hearing me say things like, “Last night I cooked pasta with the green vegetable that looks like a tree,” that what I’ve said seems SCATHINGLY BRILLIANT by comparison. Even if it’s just that I’ve successfully remembered the Castellano word for broccoli . . . which is actually brócoli.

So I’m working my way through a Spanish grammar book to review and build up my confidence a little. I think that if I strengthen my understanding of the structure of the language the linguistic (and thereafter social) flexibility I miss so much will come with time. In the meantime my goal is to laugh instead of getting angry when my brain fails me so that these first few months are funnier than they are frustrating. Luckily, Argentina makes both fun and relaxation a priority. Last Friday I went for drinks, dinner and dessert with BPE1, BPE2 and some other professors from the school I’m assisting at. I learned several new swear words and tried fernet, a really popular alcoholic drink here. It’s made from herbs and in Argentina they drink it with coke. It tastes like a mixed drink one of the iron chefs would make if the secret ingredient was cough syrup. That doesn’t sound appetizing but it’s actually really good. On Saturday I went to see The Hunger Games (review posted) and when I got back to my apartment at about 10 PM, TFM were all outside star gazing and talking. We stayed out there until about 1 in the morning just chatting, drinking sparkling grapefruit juice and NOT BEING ANXIOUS. It was absolutely wonderful. Sunday I went with them to “El Campo” about 30 km out from the city center. I saw the house Mama M was raised in, walked around some gorgeous sierras, saw a baby horse, drank mate and ate croissants until dark (pictures below). I love the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere!

So despite all the whining about my frustrations speaking the language here, life in San Luis is the good. Today I discovered that I live 2 blocks from a store that makes and sells all kinds of fresh pastas, so for dinner tonight I had tagliatelle verde with the little green vegetable that looks like a tree brócoli. Nóm.

The view from the spot where we took our mate/croissant break. Mama M says she feels like she can truly breathe out here.

We saw this little guy on the way to Mama M's childhood home.

I love the streetlights along the dirt roads here. It's like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Wherein I Review The Hunger Games

Around this time last year I was working on my thesis, and I came across this line in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “Who can deny that bows and arrows are among the prettiest weapons in the world for feminine forms to play with?” The contrast between “weapon” and “play” within this seemingly innocent musing on the narrator’s part spells out a cruel irony: in the nineteenth century, when Eliot was writing, female archers didn’t wield weapons. They “played” with them, while the spectators admired the female form on display as the archers drew back their bows. Though the archer held the weapon, she was, in fact, the target, the arena a stage and the spectators the real sportsmen. It’s the same dynamic in the countless action films where women with weapons are something to be laughed at, oggled or both, but rarely taken seriously as action heroes (with some notable exceptions!). And this is why Katniss Everdeen rocks my world. In her hands a bow is anything but a toy. She wields it like it’s an extension of her own body, and judging by book and movie ticket sales, no one is laughing. Maybe that’s because it’s finally not a big damn deal that a female action hero is carrying a wildly popular novel film franchise. Maybe the gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with it. Whatever Suzanne Collins intended when she created Katniss, I think it’s absolutely perfect to have a female archer at the heart of a narrative that can as easily be described as an extended meditation on the politics of spectacle as it can be classified as Young Adult fiction.

The first installment of the Hunger Games introduces us to Panem, a society in which the Capital city’s only contact with its 12 outlying districts is a series of propaganda videos and the annual The Hunger Games. In these games, two “tributes,” a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen at random to fight to death in a strategically crafted arena while the bloodbath is edited and packaged as must-see reality TV. Once in the arena Katniss uses her wits and her bow, along with a fair amount of help from some fellow tributes and her mentor, to re-write the spectacle of the Hunger Games so that it becomes a weapon against the government that created it. Ever since I read the first novel I have been really excited to see the narrative brought to life on screen via a medium capable of visualizing what the novel can only describe  .  .  . and I absolutely loved what they did with it.

I liked the books. They hooked me from the first page, but if I’m honest they read like a first draft, as if Suzanne Collins was making notes to herself within the text about things she would come back to later to develop further or smooth over. Often I felt like she was shouting at me: KATNISS IS CONFLICTED ABOUT PEETA AND GALE, BUT THEY BOTH THINK SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER AND WILL LOVE HER ALWAYS, BUT WAIT, SHE DOESN’T HAVE TIME TO WORRY ABOUT THAT BECAUSE OPPRESSION, AND NOW SHE HAS TO GO FIGHT PEOPLE TO THE DEATH BUT I STILL WANT YOU TO BE REALLY INVESTED IN THIS LOVE TRIANGLE. Or perhaps even more obviously: RUE REMINDS KATNISS OF PRIM. ARE YOU GETTING THIS? PRIM, HER LITTLE SISTER? RUE = PRIM, GOT IT.  .  .  .  I’M NOT SURE YOU’VE GOT IT (credit to Stubman for this point).

Now I suppose that might be a little unfair to Collins. Her vision of Panem and it’s annual hunger games does as much to comment on the narrative cliches it utilizes as it does reinforce them. The most obvious example being that the first hunger games, which takes up a good three fourths of the first novel, offers up as much in entertainment value as it does in social critique. After all, to get invested in the outcome of the games and route for Katniss and Peeta is to hope for the death of 22 other children, thus demanding that even the least critical of readers engage with the moral ambiguity of the narrative at some point. So I agree with the critics who praise Collins for trusting her young audience (and let’s be honest, everyone) to be critical readers. I just wish she had trusted her audience to get the subtler moments within the narrative as well.

The film is at once shorter and denser than the novel. It trims, expands and reorganizes where necessary, the most important change being a shift in perspective. In the novel, Katness shows us Panem. We experience the narrative with her and her alone, but Collin’s vision is bigger than the frame she’s given herself to work with so that some of the strongest components of her vision thematically speaking – the political manueveings of President Snow, the omnipotent power of the gamemekers, and the uprisings within the districts – are the clunckiest in terms of narrative. In the film, we don’t see Panem through Katniss’s eyes; rather, we watch Katniss in Panem. It is a broader perspective that allows the film to more vividly develop both the dystopian world of Collins’ imagination as well as the supporting cast of characters.

Take Peeta for example. In the novel Peeta is obnoxiously impossibly good. This is established early on as Katniss describes the time she was starving in his yard and he gave her some bread he burnt intentionally. In her head this is a one-way debt she feels she has to repay. The film tweaks this encounter, alluding to it in a series of three different flashbacks so that the audience only knows that Peeta came to her aid until the last segment is played about a third of the way through the film. We are left wondering until the last part of the flashback in which Peeta rather coldly throws the bread into a puddle of mud for Katniss to pick up herself. Later on during the games when it is Katniss saving Peeta’s life, she acknowledges the bread and he expresses remorse that he just threw it to her instead of coming out into the rain to give it to her. This is a subtle deviation from the events in the book, but an important one. Peeta’s attachment to Katniss is not a juvenille infatuation as it is in front of the Capital’s cameras, nor is he “the boy with the bread” as Katniss thinks of him in the novels. The film lets him define himself as “the boy who should have done more.” The power dynamics shift ever so slightly, and all of a sudden Katniss is not just someone he wants. She is tied up in the moral question of who he wants to be. In this moment, for me at least, Peeta becomes infinitely more interesting, as does his relationship with Katniss.

Just as a sidenote, Peeta also had the absolute best line of the film when he and Katniss emerge from the cave to hunt and he tells her, “I’ll take the bow . . . just kidding I’ll go pick some stuff.” A cookie for the screenwiter because that moment was all things lovely.

But the film goes even further than just fleshing out the supporting cast of characters. There are several moments when the camera and audio align with the first person perspective of a character, and in the film, unlike in the novel, these moments don’t privilidge Katniss’s perspective exclusively. There is one very important moment that belongs to Rue. In the book, Rue’s death is heart-wrenching for several reasons: she’s twelve, smart, kind, and because she reminds Katniss of Prim. Rues death does more than that of any other tribute to individualize the barbarity of The Hunger Games. But the Rue of the novel is entirely innocent. The Rue of the film, however, is something more. She sees that Cato is the most senselessly aggressive of the tributes and plays a clever trick on him the first day of training. As we see her laughing from the rafters of the training area holding Cato’s knife while Cato accuses another tribute of stealing it, Rue gives the film it’s first real moment of levity and for this reason her death also packs the biggest emotional punch. In the novel, the reader experiences Rue’s death through Katniss’s eyes. In the film, after Rue has been stabbed the camera lingers on her face. She begins to cry softly, tells Katniss she has to win, and asks for a song. All of a sudden the camera cuts away from Rue’s face and aligns with her eyes. We see the light and hear Katniss’s song, both fading into nothing, and we die with Rue. Her death in the film is significant not just because it is devastatingly sad, but because it does what the novel cannot: it demands that the audience, even if just for a moment, see the games through the eyes of a dying tribute, not just the victor.

In the novel, Collins has to spell out every little impact moments like Rue’s death have on the people in the different districts. In contrast, the film takes us to District 11, to the crowd of spectators watching Rue die and actually channels the sadness at her slaughter into the rage of that first revolt. The film shows us the gamemakers manipulating the arena, playing with the lives of the contestants, both in the name of justice and for the sake of good TV. During the games, shots of the Capital watching and betting on what to them is a sporting event are followed by shots of the different districts watching their young citizens slaughter and be slaughtered. And because Katniss knows that the games are first and foremost a spectator sport, she is able to subvert the intentions of the government and gamemakers who would make a plaything of her humanity.

So yes. I’m really looking forward to what they do with the next two books, both of which involve much harder decisions about using spectacle for good and for evil. And if you’re craving more YA fiction now that you’ve finished The Hunger Games, read The Chaos Walking Trilogy already. You won’t regret it! Meerkate out.

Update: A link to some feminist ponderings on The Hunger Games that articulate much better than I can what Collins may be doing with “spectacle” in the novels.

Here Be Puppies

This has all been pretty ME ME ME so far. I mean, it is a blog, as my dear friend, Pianoman (dude, if you hate the name I can totally change it) reassured me the other night via skype, but I want to mix a little more information in with all this emoting. Pure emoting is never a good thing. Unless one is running. Y’all know I like my running music good and angsty. So to add a little more substance I’ve found the local public library and a few museums, all of which have some really good resources on the history of San Luis, province and city alike. I’ve been working with them for a few days, but I have a little more digging to do before I’ll feel confident enough to write a responsible post about it. That’s in the works for those of you who can only take so many “I feel” statements. And Mom, if you’re the only one reading this . . . that’s cool too. I am eating my vegetables, I promise! So for now, what I have to offer are some reflections on the settling in process and pictures of a sweet, sweet puppy. Yeah, that’s right. HERE BE PUPPIES.

So BPE1 and BPE2 found me the apartment I’m staying in, and so far it is absolutely perfect. It’s what my Mom calls a “mother-in-law apartment” –  attached to the house, but with it’s own entrance and everything. The houses here in the city are literally right next to one another, and no one has a front yard. It’s kind of like some of the neighborhoods in the French Quarter that look really small, concrete and closed off, and then when you open a gate there’s a beautiful garden or courtyard or patio. I’ve always loved neighborhoods like this, because it’s like there’s a secret garden behind every door. I mean, realistically I know that there are probably secret gardens behind, like, 20 at the most, and then it gets real Sandlot real fast . .  . . but it sure seems like there’s something lovely and surprising behind all of them. The gate to my house leads you down a 40 meter gravel driveway lined with roses and other flowers to another gate which leads to a nice green yard and then to the house. There’s special area for asados, an outside workspace and a shed for my landlord who is a retired metalsmith, and a yard for the grandkids and puppies to play in. My entrance is hidden off to the side. I have a small kitchen/living space, a bathroom and a bedroom all furnished, clean and comfortable-like.

Settling in reminded me a little of how I was as a kid am now. I couldn’t wait for anything, and my mother would kindly but sternly remind me that I really needed to learn patience. Well, I bought a router the first day here so that I could connect my computer to the available wireless. I finally got it to work, but until I did I was kind of an anxious wreck, and I’m certain Olga and Federico (my landpeople) thought I was crazy while I was muttering to myself and typing frantically. When I finally got it all fixed I slumped down in the chair and Federico came over to me to say, “Lento, lento, lento bonita.” This is how nice people say “Chill the f*&$ out, crazy gringa,” in Argentine Castellano. Note: People here are adamant that they speak “Castellano” and not “Spanish.”

Federico and Olga are wonderful, and even thought they saw me living up to every awful stereotype about uptight Americans that first day (so much for being a good global citizen), they have still welcomed me into their home, given me mate, fixed my shower, and let me snuggle the hell out of their puppies and guinea pig. They have three children (Just FYI everyone I am naming has given me permission to use their real names in this blog) Gisella (26), Anabella (22) and Camillo (?). Gisella is a student at the IFDC where I am assisting, and she has two adorable daughters and a son on the way. She speaks English quite well as she is studying to be an English teacher herself, but she has been kind enough to speak to me only in Spanish because she knows that’s what I want. Anabella is a ballerina and is studying to be a physical therapist. Next weekend she’s invited me to Cordoba (a city a few hours away) to celebrate a friend’s birthday, so this will be my first taste of Argentine nightlife. Science fair project time: will drinking make my Castellano awesome or awful? Hypotheses?

I’ve settled in in other ways as well. The first thing I did on Monday when things opened up again (everything is closed on Sundays), was join a nearby gym. Routine! I was hopeful I might meet some people there, but it’s pretty dead in the mornings when I go. No matter. I am also trying to get in with a group of people who do mountaineering-like things around the province and further out. It’s funny, I didn’t mean for this to happen, but when my colleagues/bosses (the English Professors at the IFDC) found out I had joined a gym they all kind of decided that I was re (re = very/really) deportista (into sports) and so now they’re all looking for a women’s soccer team I could play with. Trouble is that women here don’t really play soccer. Field hockey is much more common. I would love to play again, but in case that doesn’t pan out . . . I’m looking into Tango lessons. I know, me dancing Tango is kind of a horrifying/hilarious mental image, but I think a dance class would be a really fun way to meet people. Other things: I’ve gone to the movies, found a class in Castellano for extranjeros (foreigners), walked the city and located the local library, laundromat, pharmacy, grocery store and bakery. Seriously, I am going to buy the pastries here in bulk because the “sacramento” I ate today (croissant with fruit filling) may be the first thing that’s made me cry since The Notebook. Judge me, I dare you.

Obviously it hasn’t all been puppies and pastries so far. There have been difficult moments and I have felt isolated at times, but there have been many more small kindnesses offered by individuals than there have been individual frustrations. It’s gotten me to thinking about what immigrating must have been like centuries ago, when there were no telephones, much less skype, and when saying good bye meant “good-bye forever” more often than “good-bye for now.” Have any of you ever read The Arrival? It’s an absolutely breathtaking graphic novel for children by Saun Tan (he won the Oscar for his short animated film, The Lost Thing, last year) about starting a life in a different place, and . . . just, yeah. It’s enchanting.

And then what about immigrants from Spanish speaking countries today, living in America? I feel isolated, and my welcome/adjustment period has been about as cushy as it gets. I may be the least bad-ass person I know. I can’t imagine immigrating to a country that is so repulsed by my presence that entire areas would ban courses that taught my culture. The inevitable alienation one experiences when adjusting to a new place and culture is hard enough, but when coupled with complete rejection . . . .

No way to gracefully transition from that to this, so here: have a puppy!

When you rub her tummy she moves her arms like a roach on its back. Swoon!

Have two puppies!

I think this one is Nuni. If I'm completely honest, I can't tell the three of them apart yet. But they all like to snuggle which is the material point.

Thanks for sticking with me dear readers (Hi Mom!), and I promise more substantive content soon. Besitos from San Luis.