Tuesday, November 28, 2006


Here is a first for Homo Ludens : the first post I have written (for this blog at least) from foreign soils. I am sitting in an internet cafe in Buenos Aires, having just finished my first novel of the trip. Considering I am on this continent for five months and only brought four novels, perhaps I shouldn´t have burned all my bridges at once, but never mind.


My flights (London to Washington, then Washington to Buenos Aires) were uneventful. Flights always are ; bus journeys are little better in terms of excitement, and if the train service in South America was a little more modern, that is the way I would travel. You are guaranteed excitement on a train. The only incident of note was being chastised by an American customs officer because I had carried an aerosol deodorant spray in my luggage which was 75 ml over the allowed volume. A man behind me had a 6oz tub of balm confiscated (3oz is the maximum). Shortly afterwards he phoned his wife and noisily rued the inevitable dry skin he would suffer on his connecting flight.

Airports are always terribly tense places, I find. If there is one reaction people most dislike from others, it is implicit distrust. Everywhere you walk in an airport, you feel like a criminal. Anybody who thinks totalitarianism and latter-day capitalism are mutually exclusive should spend an hour in Washington Dulles.

I am staying for ten days in a gargantuan youth hostel in the San Telmo area. I stayed at the hostel this time last year, and one of the girls behind the desk recognised me. Whether deliberately or not, she has given me the exact same bed I slept in last year. As part of my package, I have free Spanish classes, a cycling tour and tango lessons to look forward to (the latter with some trepidation). It is an excellent hostel, full of people - a mixture of South American, European and the usual Britaustramericans, essential if your Spanish isn´t brilliant. A room-mate of mine last year saved money on his room by cooking the breakfast each morning. I may well try a similar tactic.


Time for my first book review : Graham Greene´s Travels with my Aunt. It is, as the Observer reviewer says on the back cover, a picaresque ; but it evokes well the self-consciousness of the tourist. The narrator, Henry Pulling, is a retired bank clerk, a stuck-in-the-mud, a bored suburbanite. He meets his aunt at his mother´s funeral, except that we quickly realise his aunt is actually his mother, his mother being his step-mother. In travelling across Europe and South America with his maverick "aunt," Henry realises the life he has failed to live : one of hotel bedrooms, war criminals, Latin politics and churches for dogs. His spirit of adventure is awoken, but a melancholy prevails. Pulling cannot work out his future, and cannot enjoy the present.

There are some wonderfully comic moments. First, when he leaves his step-mother´s remains at Aunt Augusta´s flat, he is only reminded by hearing a neighbour´s guttural yell : "`Peter can talk about nothing but cricket. All the summer it went on. Nothing but the fucking Ashes.´" And then Henry remembers the urn of ashes sitting in Augusta´s flat.

And this, one of many stories which Aunt Augusta tells Henry about her chequered life : "`The question of names´ my Aunt said, `is an interesting one. Your own Christian name is safe and colourless. It is better than being given a name like Ernest, which has to be lived up to. I once knew a girl called Comfort and her life was a very sad one. Unhappy men were constantly attracted to her simply by reason of her name, when all the time, poor dear, it was really she who needed the comfort from them. She fell unhappily in love with a man called Courage, who was desperately afraid of mice, but in the end she married a man called Payne and killed herself in what Americans call a comfort station. I would have thought it a funny story if I hadn´t known her.´"

But the reason I read this book first is because of the empathy one gets from reading about travelling when oneself is travelling, especially when one is alone. It is an experience which is by turns exhilirating, nerve-wracking, tedious and romantic. One´s every emotion is heightened. So why does one do it? Why does one keep coming back to it?

Tomorrow you may be shot in the street by a policeman because you haven´t understood Guarani, or a man may knife you in a cantina because you can´t speak Spanish and he thinks you are acting in a superior way. My dear Henry, if you live with us in Paraguay, you won´t be edging day by day across to any wall of death. The wall will find you of its own accord without your help, and every day you live will seem to you a kind of victory. "I was too sharp for it that time," you will say, when night comes, and afterwards you´ll sleep well.


Blogger minifig said...

Glad to hear that you made it intact. The USA can be a dangerous place, but at least you've got over that hurdle.

Now I think you're going to have to find a bookshop that sells books written in English...

7:34 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Either that, or it´s back to the Spanish grammar books - a Zizek book on "the symptom in cinema" stared out at me from a bookshop in San Telmo yesterday. Problem is, I find him tricky to read in English ; how the hell would I manage in another language?

1:35 PM  
Anonymous gom said...

You'll be hard pressed to find anyone wanting to be reminded of "ashes" round here at the moment. Apparently the latest ruse being dreamt up is that Michael Vaughn is going to be able to play in the 4th test. So all should be well. He played his first match back from injury yesterday and was out for a resounding duck.

3:01 PM  

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