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The woman who approached me on the street was quite ugly. I should mention that porteños (“people from the port,” as those from Buenos Aires call themselves) are, on the whole, a fairly attractive people. But when I say that this woman was ugly, I mean she was ugly by even the lowest standards. She old and haggard, wore a faded black Mickey Mouse t-shirt, and had a hair growing a good three inches out of her chin. Homelessness may not help anyone’s physical appearance, but I don’t want her to use that as an excuse. The woman began speaking to me in Spanish.

“[something in Spanish],” she said, with hand outstretched.
“No,” I said, also in Spanish.
“[several more Spanish sentences],” she went on, gesturing towards Mickey Mouse.
“I don’t understand.”
“…understand…,” she said. I was able to pick out the single word, but still nothing else.
“I don’t understand!” I tend to be more convincing when I say this.
“Ah…don’t understand my language…!”
“Yes! I don’t understand my language!”
“…Jesus…you know…?”
“Yes, yes, United States. I don’t understand.”  I tried not to stare at the hair and wondered if she would ever go away.
“…Jesus Christ?”
“Oh! Jesus Christ! Yes. I know. Jesus Christ I understand.”
She then smiled for the first time and delivered her wisdom in simple enough terms for me to hear. “…don’t understand my language…understand Jesus Christ…more important,” she said. She walked away laughing.

Whatever truth that woman intended to bring me, the one comprehensible point she made was decidedly misleading. In life in general, she may have a valid argument, but in Buenos Aires, it’s more important to know Spanish. Mine has come a long way since I took a beginner Spanish class for two weeks at one of several private language schools in the city. I am told that Argentine Spanish is quite different than that of Spain or even the rest of Latin America. Besides some different vocabulary, including a pretty major pronoun change in the second person, the biggest difference is its Italian influence. Most Argentines claim Spanish or Italian ancestry, and I imagine them as speaking with heavy Italian accents. They sip espresso like Italians and spend summer afternoons eating ice cream that’s a lot like gelato and make pizza that they think is really good.

Thanks to my Spanish education, I now know that the name “Buenos Aires” mean “fair winds.” True to its name, most nights a great wind howled past my fifth-floor windows. It sounded like a storm coming in, but one never did. There go those buenos aires, I would think. I quickly changed my mind when I had a cold shower in the morning. The wind had blown out the water heater’s pilot light, which for some reason is six inches from a vent to the windy outside. I lit it again, and it was out again within the hour. “Males Aires Que Apagar Mis Luz Piloto del Calentador de Agua¨ is probalby too long for a city name, but I submit that it is more accurate.

That’s not the only issue I’ve had in my apartment, and resolving any of them is a bit difficult with a landlord who doesn’t speak English. The day after I reported this issue, the woman who takes care of the building stopped me as I was going out the door, talking my ear off. “Oh, I don’t speak Spanish,” I reminded her. But she persisted, surely repeating herself several times, until I heard the number 38, my apartment. “Yes, 38!” I said. As she kept going, I reminded her again that I don’t speak Spanish, and tried to excuse myself out the door. She kept talking, and we began playing a game where when she said a word I recognized, I would repeat it. “…telephone…” “Yes, telephone!” “…hot water…” “Oh, hot water!”

She was trying to help with the pilot light. It is a little discomforting to to talk to a complete stranger who doesn’t understand your language only to realize that she somehow knows where you live and what appliance difficulties you’re having. As I somehow communicated that it was okay at the moment, she said something to the effect of “See, we can work this out. I can understand your language and you can understand my language.”

That encounter was on just my second day of class. By now, I can actually communicate and understand a bit in the language. It´s not a lot, but it´s enough for me to pretend.  I´ve had the following encounter just about every day. (I´m of course not able to pick up on any subtleties of vocabulary, let alone tone or accent, but for our purposes, the conversation is translated into what I imagine it sounds like to a native Spanish speaker.

“Want grill sirloin.”
“Bueno, you wanna the grill-da seer-loina. And a howareya gonna wan-ta that cooked?”
(Pause.) “Yes, grill sirloin. Want.”
“Okaya, the seer-loina…”
”Yes! Sirloin!”
“And a how-a do you wanta that cooked, a rare-a, a media, a wella done-o?”
I pause to think this over. “I speak little Spanish.”
“You don’ta saya! Woulda you likea- the side of a salad or a fries or a vegetables?”
“I touch red wine half.”

In other circumstances, it might entertain someone, but here I don´t think they find it amusing. The people of Buenos Aires are definietly city people. (Lonely Planet makes no convincing mention of the locals’ hospitality.) They’re not mean exactly, but maybe a little cold. They don’t say hello, they don’t smile. Eyes straight ahead and face without expression, they walk purposefully as if each is the only person in the world.

One excuse given for their forlorn looks is their long history of corrupt politicians and failed economic policies that have erased the country´s many advantages and given the Argentines little reason to have any confidence in a bright future. I’m also told that Argentina has the second highest number of psychiatrists per capita, a number drived largely by throngs of unapologetically narcissistic women who want to go talk about themselves. The rest of Latin America thinks of them arrogant wannabe Europeans, and the porteños don´t seem to dispute it.

Cold they may be, but they´re certainly not anti-social. The bars and restaurants fill with people going out with family or friends. The cafe lifestyle is a public one, but I have not seen a lot of intentional interaction between strangers. Buenos Aires has well-attended outdoor festivals all summer long, but they seem to be rather subdued affairs. (This does not apply to soccer games, where I heard it’s not uncommon for ten fans to be killed in fights or stampedes every week of the season.) Although the people are social here, they´re not boisterous, not particularly expressive at all. As I develop my ear for the language though, their picture is beginning to come into focus.

As I was moving out of the apartment I was renting, my landlord was trying to help me get to the bus station. She took out a piece of paper and started to wrote down exactly what I needed to say to ask to leave my bags for a few hours, along with her son´s phone number in case I got into trouble. Before she could, I said, in Spanish, “Yes yes I know, ‘It´s possible to leave the bag here the four hours, bus go four o´clock.'” “Oh, you´ve a learneda the Spaneesh!” she said with perhaps a hint of excitement. Well, maybe a little.

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