Excerpt

“Tourists and Travelers”

Hebe Uhart (trans. Maureen Shaughnessy)

October 22, 2019 
The following story is from Hebe Uhart's collection, The Scent of Buenos Aires translated by Maureen Shaughnessy. Uhart was a teacher and wrote short stories, travel essays, and the novels Camilo asciende and Mudanzas. She received Argentina’s National Endowment for the Arts lifetime achievement award. Shaughnessy's translations have been published in The Paris Review, Brick, AGNI, Words Without Borders, Asymptote and elsewhere.

You’re right, we did go to Miami. But that was different. Miami is all about “shop till you drop,” that’s what a tourist does. But on that program “Around the World” I heard Pepe Ibáñez explain the difference between tourists and travelers. A tourist is when you let yourself be led around like a sheep, and you don’t notice anything around you. Like a horse in blinders. But seriously, did I even bother to tell you about my trip to Miami? All I saw was a couple of shopping malls and some palm trees. But I’ve got ever so much to say now! Besides, when I saw the pictures of Naples and Capri in the Sunday supplement I said to Aldo: “That’s where we’re going.” Because you can never tell with him, you can never get a clear answer. You have to get him to sign a piece of paper just to find out what he wants. Why is that, anyway? I read it in an article called “Personality.” Oh well, I forget. We scraped together all we could because I wasn’t about to leave Leo behind. Besides, Leo studies Italian. I always wanted him to study English, which is so much more useful, and I thought: Now is the time to cash in on that Italian. But it was as if they didn’t understand what it meant to have a project—I don’t know which planet men live on. When I started pinching pennies—serving rice, eggs, and sausages—Leo kept saying,

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“But Mama, but Mama!” with that scratchy voice of his (poor angel, his voice is changing). And Aldo just stirred his rice around in circles, as if he could magically whip it into cream, something that drives me up the wall. You can bet they got on my nerves once we were in Naples, too. You should have seen the hotel room, filled with antique furniture. (All three of us slept in the same room because that’s how they do it there.) Aldo peeled back the bedspread as if it were a ghost’s cape to see what was underneath—he’s always poking around as if he were in search of some sort of dark secret. And Leo looked at the round chest of drawers with warped legs and said: “What a piece of shit!” The words that come out of that kid’s mouth! And to make matters worse, he does it in front of other people. Aldo took out a guidebook but I said:

“We aren’t going to go where everyone else goes. We are going to explore those little streets that wind around in circles. And if we get lost, even better.”

They didn’t like the idea of getting lost because they have no imagination. I’ve spent my whole life dreaming that I could just walk along until I end up somewhere new. It was as if I’d been given the chance to become someone else. So to convince them, I said:

“We’ll walk straight down one street then turn around and walk back on the next street over.”

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We went out and realized that you can’t walk straight: the streets just dead-end all the time: at an angle, in a circle. And the first thing we saw were three men arguing. They were gesturing vigorously, and I would have given my life to know what they were saying. I asked Leo and he told me:

“Just what do you think, Mama? They didn’t teach me insults. What could they possibly be saying? ‘I’ll break your face, you bastard.’”

When you go on a trip you have to act like everything is perfectly natural.

And I can’t set him straight. He’s got some reputation to live up to. Aldo stopped in front of a shop window to look at some food, all garnished. His mouth hung open like he’d never eaten in his life. I got all worked up and I said to him in a rage:

“Nobody looks at food! You look at clothes, magazines—but people don’t get all worked up about food displays!”

He seems to understand me when I tell him stuff like that, but then he’s back to his old tricks. He can’t help looking at that kind of stuff. Another time he grabbed me by the arm and said:

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“Look, a Neapolitan fag just walked by.”

“A gay man, you mean.”

“Same thing,” he said. “You missed it.”

And well, like I was telling you, we were walking down those little streets and we didn’t even know where we were anymore, when some kids who must have been around 11 years old started throwing eggs at us. And they had pretty good aim from far away: eggs in my freshly washed hair, eggs on my ICARO jacket. There were two groups, one from the front and one from behind, because I turned around to see where the eggs were coming from and—wham! Right in the back of my head. And that boy of mine must have a screw loose. He was laughing! And just a hair away from teaming up with the others to go throw eggs at all of Naples. I’d had it with him. I asked him:

“Whose side are you on, anyway? Ours or theirs?”

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“Uff! Mama!”

And since I noticed some policemen, I shouted for them to come over. They looked at me, scared. Clearly they thought there had been a crime or something like that, and I told them, using gestures, about how we had been pelted with eggs. The idiots just laughed and one said:

“Well, it’s Carnival.”

Leo spoke with one man who said in Africa he had been a prince. Could that really be true?

I would have given him a piece of my mind but I didn’t know the language. And it took us a while to get back to the hotel, all covered in muck, because we ended up about ten blocks away. Why am I calling them blocks? More like ten spirals, because if the streets of Naples were all in a grid, we would have made it back just fine.

And I thought: I didn’t come all the way to Italy to do laundry. Plus the water in Naples, which is really more like drool, got all mixed up with the disgusting egg. I wanted to cry. Those two dopes of mine turned on the TV and started watching soccer, which the Italians call calcio. It made me want to get on the first airplane home. I couldn’t stop thinking about my show. You have to tell me what happened while I was gone. Did she marry the blond guy or the delinquent? Well, it turned out alright. Thank heavens. An afternoon frittered away, but the next day we went to buy some secondhand coats at the Naples flea market, just like a lady told me, and she also told me to keep an eye on my purse because you can get robbed there.

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We set out for the market and the fight was on to keep our belongings safe; we weren’t about to have another stroke of bad luck. And we walked to the bus stop, that way we could see everything. You wouldn’t believe it—the windows of the houses look directly out on the street and you can see everything people are doing inside, as if you were right there with them. You can see if they’re in bed, or if they open the refrigerator. Through one window I saw a piano, and on top of the piano there was a fruit bowl. I guess they like a real mishmash of styles. They like a real mixed bag when it comes to anything, because next to the church there’s a fishmonger and the fishmonger picks up the fish as if he were picking up a cat by the ears and says: “Mirate, mirate!” And there goes Aldo again all dumbstruck as if he’s never seen a fish before. And some of the people I saw through the window, they’re so fat! It’s really bad for their health. And they put huge death notices up on the walls. Leo noticed them (he did know how to read those). He came over and told me:

“Look, Ma, what a creepy sign!”

Just what does he think Argentina is? A speck on the map? I took the opportunity to tell him that Argentina is a huge country.

And I’m always trying to teach him about how we have to respect people’s differences—although honestly the size of those things . . . But right by the bus stop there was something I just fell in love with. I just swooned. A giant charming manger where someone had sculpted the fishmonger, the baker, a bicycle—all crafted so beautifully. There were also sculptures of two women who were completely plastered in make-up, they looked like whores to me, but what do I know? Maybe they shouldn’t have been included, I don’t know. Say, did Teresa’s apartment sell? Fat chance. Anyway, their buses are really nice. On the bus there were quite a few Africans, or extracomunitarios, which is used to describe anyone who lives in Italy but isn’t from the EU. They’re really well-behaved, really well-mannered. There was one man all dressed up in African garb and Aldo was just gaping at him. I had to pinch him because it’s rude to stare at people like that. When you go on a trip you have to act like everything is perfectly natural. Besides, what if someone decides to beat the living daylights out of you? And the flea market has anything you could ever want: beautiful shoes, boots, jackets, dresses. Dirt cheap! In every stall there’s a man up on a little stepstool who starts to yell: “Comprate, comprate!” Beats me. They must climb up there to get a better look at what’s happening below because everything happens so fast that somebody comes along and snatches something right out of your hand. I went to grab the same thing as another lady and she could have just said: “I saw it first.” You have to pounce on everything you like and then take it over to a little corner, which I did. But the guys are no help at all. If you tell Aldo: “Grab that,” he says: “Where?” And by then somebody else has already taken it. Now, the vendors couldn’t be sweeter until they’ve sold you something, at which point they turn their backs on you. They don’t even look at you anymore. Afterwards we sat down at a café and Leo wanted to open up all the packages right away, wrapped in second-rate paper with flimsy strings. We would’ve had to carry everything back to the hotel, slipping out all over the place. I felt so good in that café! I started daydreaming: To think I’m here in Naples! Who would have thought? If only my great aunt could see me now, she was from somewhere around here. Where was she from? I can’t remember, and anyway, that woman never did say a word about anything. Let me tell you: next time I’m going alone, without those two. Then I gave my order:

Un cortato. Cúanto costi?” And Leo goes:

“Aww, jeez Mama!”

The waiter just looked at me, he didn’t understand (or he acted like he didn’t understand) so Leo ordered for me. Since everything there ends with a “t” and an “i,” so I honestly thought I was saying it right. At least that boy is good for something. I swear to you, I’m going to go back there one day and walk up and down all those streets that go in a circle.

*

The day we walked down Via Toledo (which is like their version of Calle Florida) we got into an argument. Leo wanted to go to a cybercafé and Aldo wouldn’t get dressed to go out: he was watching television. I always have to be the one to lay down the law. He never says anything to that boy. He ends up being the absent father, like Dr. Socinsky says, and I flew off the handle—I’m telling you I just lost it. I told him that if he didn’t speak up sometime soon he was going to get an ulcer, an anxiety attack, or something worse. And that boy of mine must have a screw loose because he grinned at me and said: “You want him to get an ulcer.” I nearly slapped him across the face. He might know some Italian—that I won’t deny—but he is not playing with a full deck. I thought: I am all alone, and again it made me want to get on the first plane home. Which is just a figure of speech because I was actually dying to go out to Via Toledo and just forget about the argument. Tell me: Did Adriana’s mother get better? What a relief. Via Toledo is bustling with movement under a blue sky, which is not like the sky here, it’s a vibrant light blue that fills you with life. How can I explain it? For starters, the street is filled with extracomunitarios, Africans. They pretty much all sell the same thing: Band-Aids and stuff, watches. Leo spoke with one man who said in Africa he had been a prince. Could that really be true? A prince, even an African prince, who sells Band-Aids? Who knows? And there was a Romanian sitting on the ground, selling kittens. He wanted to sell us one that was just darling, but you can’t take a kitten into a hotel room. He said his brothers had immigrated to Argentina and he was there alone, with his cats. And he told us the name of one brother who’s in Rosario, to see if we knew him. Just what does he think Argentina is? A speck on the map? I took the opportunity to tell him that Argentina is a huge country, that he’s got it all wrong. That made me remember just how big it is, I’d like to explore the whole country, top to bottom. And right next to the Romanian there was a storefront with dolls. Heavens! No comparison to the dolls here. Have you ever noticed there are no nice dolls here? In Naples each doll was dressed for something different: a model walking down a catwalk, a skier on her ski slope, a little cook in her kitchen. It was a dream. When I stopped to look, Leo ducked into a cybercafé without telling us. Later that day we went back to look for him at the cybercafé and he wasn’t there. And then Aldo made me even more nervous, he kept saying: “He’ll show up.” When that man gets an idea in his head there’s no telling him otherwise. I went back to the hotel at my wit’s end, ready to call the police or the consulate, and I realized just how much I love that boy. When we got to the hotel he was just sitting on the bed clipping his toenails. I could have killed him. That’s when I decided that each of us should go out on our own and do whatever we wanted. Because Aldo wanted to see some catacombs with volcano lava—and I’m not about to go underground, it makes me claustrophobic. And if Leo wants to spend his life inside a cybercafé, he can go right ahead. Besides, with so much to see above ground, why would you bother with what’s underground? At night Aldo would look at the guidebook over and over again, which makes my blood boil. You have to forget about the guidebook. You’re in Naples and you’re going waste your time looking at the guidebook? Go ahead, do whatever you want. I went out walking, to explore everything around me. I took a cable car—I didn’t even know where it was headed, what a thrill! And I ended up in a rich neighborhood, right by the sea, all new houses. And there was a travel agency with a sign: “Weekend getaway to London, 200 dollars.” Just think, they go to London like we go to Mar del Plata. Two hundred dollars! I couldn’t believe it. If I’d been by myself, I would have gone to London. Later I reassured myself with the thought of how much more I still had left to see.

*

I’ve always been quite sensitive, things always really affect me deeply, you know? While I was out walking and walking I started to think: Why did I ever get married to Aldo? If you ask him whether he likes his food he says: “It’s edible.” He’s like that with everything. And that boy of mine isn’t interested in anything, only the cybercafé. He made a friend there who looked like a bona fide angel: blue eyes, curly hair, innocent little face. Then what do I find? The two of them in a plaza down the street firing rocks at the dogs with a little slingshot they’d made. That—and the fact that it took us forever to find each other when we went out on our own—led me to make a new rule: we were going to go out as a group again. Like Antonio Kalina says: family first, family has to be cultivated, if something’s not growing, it’s dying. And we were not growing as a family. Certainly I was growing, I was maturing, but family is like an animal: if one paw is wounded, the whole beast takes a turn for the worst. Plus my feet were covered in blisters from so much walking. No exaggeration. So at night, when Aldo took out the guidebook, I told him to pick somewhere we could all go together. Right away Leo says:

“Aww, Mama, I thought you said the guidebook was a pain in the neck!”

“Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t,” I told him firmly. “Uff!”

Who knows, maybe in Naples that’s how they do it, just make up a bunch of nonsense.

Leo wanted to hang out with Pier Paolo, angel face. So we had to drag him along on the excursion to Saint Francis of Assisi. The journey was unbelievable, filled with castles from long ago. The guide went along telling us which era they were from—although I’ll bet he didn’t even know them all himself. There were more castles than you could count. We went by a striking black castle, which I imagined to be inhabited by ancient ghosts, and Leo blurted out:

“What a piece of shit castle!”

I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make a scene on the bus, but also because he was actually paying attention to the guide—not that you could call the man anything remotely close to a real guide. He spoke Spanish—in a manner of speaking. And he said he had lived in Quilmes. I didn’t believe a word of it because he looked like a rehabilitated prisoner. You know the type? Like rehabilitated alcoholics who look like they’ve just stepped out of confinement. This guy said:

“When Saint Francis got hot flashes he jumped in the river because the fires burned everything up.”

Would you believe it! Just how is Saint Francis going to get hot flashes! It’s him, the guide, who probably gets hot flashes and jumps in the river. With that no-good face of his. He was not a proper guide. A real guide should know more than the people he’s guiding; but I had to keep my mouth shut because it was my idea to take the excursion. Somebody must have taken pity on that man and given him the job so he could earn a few bucks. What other job could he possibly get?

I always count my money because I think I don’t have enough and when I find out I’ve got more than I thought, it makes me so happy. I wasn’t about to do the laundry. I set off for the flea market to buy some things and the second time I was such a pro that I snagged the best of the bargains. I went on my own—the guys are a drag when it comes to shopping. How different it all is from the first day you get somewhere and your eyes take it all in—but now everything had become so natural! I’d already gotten used to seeing everyone through their open windows. A fat lady watching TV? Why not? The guy selling bootlegged CDs on the street? Might as well—I even said hello. I felt like I’d been born there. I loved the fact that they took me for a local, not a tourist. And I went back to Via Toledo, which by now I knew my way around like the back of my hand. It made me remember how impressed I’d been the first time I saw those Russians: two girls and an older man, two blonde girls playing the violin as if it were a real concert, and the man directing them as if he were the conductor of the Teatro Colón. They followed his every move.

Back in Russia they must play at a real theater. The girls were all dressed up. At first I would stop to watch them, they were there every day no matter what time and they passed around a little plate to collect coins. Then I stopped watching them, but I kept thinking about how they couldn’t make any progress in life or get off the streets because the man playing the part of the conductor must have been their pimp. I walked by a bookstore and the bookseller was at the door. He spoke to me in Spanish:

“Argentina?”

How did he know that? What, do we all have it written across our forehead? At first I didn’t like it one bit. I figured, of course, he’d noticed all my purchases. Besides, I didn’t like him seeing all those flimsy packages because he was an elegant man. He spoke good Spanish because he’d lived in Argentina for a few years. He told me he had a house in Siena where everything was peaceful and quiet, but he’d moved to Naples because he missed the noise and the hubbub. What a conversation! A real Renaissance man. But that part about noise and silence didn’t quite add up, because I heard on that program “Our Country from Top to Bottom” how everyone crowds together in Mar del Plata. It becomes a city brimming with noise, while there are so many havens for solitude out in nature where the silence is deafening. No, that wasn’t it, it was “silence roars.” And I also heard on “Our Country from Top to Bottom” that silence is superior to noise, it’s more supreme. And that Italian gentleman, who was so cultured, surrounded by books, says he prefers noise over silence? What do I know? I had washed my hair the day before and my eyes looked good—because right after I wash my hair my eyes get all small and dark. And I have this problem: either my hair is clean and my eyes are flat, or my eyes are gleaming and my hair is comsi-comsa. My eyes were gleaming because I had been out walking. And since the bookseller kept talking and talking to me, and he told me about such-and-such festival of the Virgin where the men jump into the sea fully dressed, I thought: Could he just be trying to pick me up? Could this all just be a pack of lies? Who knows, maybe in Naples that’s how they do it, just make up a bunch of nonsense. And then he told me how famous people, famous writers, walked up and down Via Toledo all the time. And they’d written almost everything there is to write about that street. Sure, they’d poked around town a bit. But one writer—I can’t remember which—he’d spent the whole time in his room and he wrote about the city anyway. What? Could that bookseller surrounded by books have been lying to me? I wanted to leave because it was time to go eat and I couldn’t figure out how to get away from him; but also because I wanted him to stop filling my head with all that nonsense. Those writers he named weren’t who they claimed to be. Writers study, they research, and now it turns out that I had walked around town more than they had? Me, who only finished my freshman year? It didn’t make any sense. Finally I made my exit like a real lady. I made a little gesture, gave him a little smile to stop him short, and he understood. Too bad I had to pick up all those damn packages from the ground because ladies do not carry packages. One of the strings started to unravel on my way out, but he didn’t notice.

*

On our last day the guys really started to get under my skin. Aldo waited until the last minute to pack his suitcase. He packed it all wrong so I had to unpack everything and repack it for him. I arranged everything just so. He didn’t even bat an eye—he doesn’t give a damn. Leo didn’t want to wear his jacket. We were like the Three Stooges as we walked down the street arguing. On the plane I said to Leo:

“Don’t put that bag up top because it’s going to fall.”

But he put it up there anyway. I don’t know what he had in there, and I don’t care. I was annoyed and I don’t know why: it wasn’t because of them. Was it because I was leaving Naples? On the way to the airport there was a beggar waving a hat around as if he were bidding farewell to someone leaving on a train, and I felt like he was waving goodbye to me. I got a little bit emotional because I thought: Who knows if I’ll ever come back? I’m always talking about going everywhere, walking around, exploring—once I even wanted to go to Antarctica but you just can’t go wherever on a whim. I gave them a look that said Don’t even talk to me, and I was so annoyed that I forgot how scared I was to get on airplanes. Then I tried to calm myself down because it can’t be good for the flight, that doesn’t help. I closed my eyes and the beggar waving his hat on the street came to me, fanning himself with the hat. Then I remembered about how everyone jumps into the sea, fully dressed. One by one they jump in, and I also remembered how they pour milk into the coffee. They pour it from a distance, in circles, as if they were gently tucking in a baby. And then I fell asleep.

––––––––––––––––––––––––––

From The Scent of Buenos Aires by Hebe Uhart, translated from the Spanish by Maureen Shaughnessy. Used with the permission of the publisher, Archipelago Books. Copyright © 2019 by Hebe Uhart. English translation copyright © 2019 by Maureen Shaughnessy.




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