A Heterosexual Man’s Guide to Kissing Other Men

•November 3, 2007 • 12 Comments

You’re socially liberal. You’re well-traveled. You’re culturally sensitive and possibly multi-lingual. And you’re a straight man in Buenos Aires.

If it’s your first time in the city, you may be slightly taken aback by the sight of these famously macho men kissing other men in greeting. As a progressive, open minded, non-homophobic individual, you think, oh this is simple, I can do this, it’s just like kissing a woman in greeting.

But it’s not. The mechanics are different, the physical dimensions are all wrong, and there’s that whole scratchy beard thing. So how do you kiss other men as smoothly and casually as a native porteño?

1. Verbally greet your manfriend with a nod of the head and a standard greeting, “Como andas?” or “Que tal?”
2. Approach your manfriend and incline your head clearly, unequivocally, towards their left cheek, signaling this cheek to be your intended target.
3. Simultaneous with your lean-in approach, raise and place your right hand on your manfriend’s left shoulder and pat it in a congenial buddy ‘ol pal manner.
4. Move in for the kiss. Now, what’s more important than actually placing your lips to his cheek is the symbolic gesture of kissing. Place your cheek to his cheek and make a very loud smooching sound that says, “I am kissing you, dude, and it doesn’t make me the least bit uncomfortable with my sexuality, even though it’s really weird feeling your scratchy-ass beard all up on my face!”
5. Follow up with the phrase, “Todo bien?” Say it two or three times just to be safe. Chances are, they will ask the same question, to which the proper response is, “Todo bien.” Therefore, the total verbal exchange should go something like:
“Hola, como andas?”
“Hola, todo bien?”
“Todo bien. Y vos? Todo bien?”
“Todo bien.”

6. Congratulations! You’ve managed to kiss another man without endangering your masculinity. You are now a dude-kissing machine. Look for other dudes in the group and repeat from step one.

Important notes:

Do not mix greetings. For example, some local men will assume that as a foreigner, you will not be expecting a kiss from another man and will therefore offer you a hand. Do not shake hands and then go in for a kiss. It’s like a double greeting. It’s redundant. It’s awkward. It makes you seem either overzealous or insecure. Don’t do it.

Kissing other American men. It’s okay to kiss other American men whom you’ve met in Buenos Aires, but I think if I were to see these guys in America, I would probably offer them a hug but it would be strange because I’d never hugged them before. Mid-level intimacy just gets lost in translation.

While many things are open to interpretation in this greeting, do not place your right hand on your manfriend’s love handle while greeting him. This is a very sensitive place for a man to be touched and it’s like crossing a line.

When kissing a much taller man in greeting, never, ever stand on your tiptoes.

Advertisements

The Value of Utility vs. the Utility of Value

•October 24, 2007 • Leave a Comment

img_1596.jpg

Take a look at the photo above. Which of these three things would you most want if you were in Buenos Aires? If you’re like me, you might find your American value system is often contradicted by the Argentine market, but that could be because I tend to measure all prices in terms of how much steak I could purchase instead. (As the price of beef is controlled domestically, it’s relatively cheap in comparison to other less popular sundries, like shampoo.)

While keeping inflation in check and the fragile economic situation under control seems like a complex game to the Argentine government, next to fútbol, the most competitive sport in Buenos Aires is the most excellent and ruthless game of hoarding small bills and change. This is a game that everyone must play, and while some play very fair (most bartenders and waiters), many people play dirty (kiosk owners, certain taxi drivers). But visitors or future residents looking for a general rule, it is this: nobody here has change.

Or at least nobody wants to admit it. It’s like the card game Bullshit where you’re trying to get rid of your hand by lying about your discards while retaining your possible assets. While we have the opposite instinct in the States – how many of us think, “Woohoo! Exact change! Take these damn coins!” – the biggest cause of coinage hoarding here is the bus system, which transports the majority of Buenos Aires (much more than the metro system), and only accepts coins. Kiosks and delis discourage large bills by posting signs reading, “We have no coins.” Even major grocery stores won’t change your big bills, especially if it’s early in the day and they might actually be telling the truth. I have no idea why people don’t admit to having small bills, but it must be a trickle-down effect from the coin shortage. I’ve asked friends here who have studied everything from economic development to microfinance to real estate development how this happens to a country. Nobody knows.

To be able to survive in Buenos Aires as an honest consumer who uses monetary currency as a means of legal tender, you have to be sneaky, cunning, and guileless. You have to lie through your teeth, making someone change a $50 peso bill, swearing you don’t have anything smaller whilst hiding your $5s and $10s from the cashier in your other hand. You have to plan how many bus rides you might take and grab a number of coins from your assiduously accrued stash. Even rookies here know the most basic trick to get a clean start out of the blocks is to withdraw amounts like $190 or $290 pesos from ATMs to avoid being saddled with all those hundreds. The worst thing that could happen would be to be stuck in a time of mundane need with a $100 peso bill.

Case in point: this Sunday morning, I was on my way to the music school to practice. I had a $20 peso note, and a $1 peso coin in my pocket. I spent my $1 coin on the bus, and received $.20 centavos in change. After reaching the school, I was dying of thirst and stopped into a kiosk to buy a $2 bottle of water. All I had was my $20 peso note. The kiosk owner firmly refused, and would not sell me the bottle unless I had something smaller. (This is the only country I’ve been to where people will refuse to do business with you because you have too much money.) After my practice session, I still couldn’t get anyone to take the $20, and without $.80 centavos in coins, I couldn’t take the bus home, and had to resort to a taxi. After an $8 peso ride, the driver gave me $12 in change (a $10 bill and a $2 bill), allowing me to finally quench my thirst with my newly acquired $2 peso note. The moral of the story? I should have planned better. How? By thinking ahead – as in the night before, when I had carelessly surrendered multiple $10 peso notes without considering how thirsty I might be the next morning.

I also always carry a bottle of water with me now.

A Strand in the Fabric of the Tango

•October 14, 2007 • 2 Comments

tango.jpg
Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro – Not your momma’s tango orchestra

Now that I’ve gotten my feet on the ground here, settled into an apartment, somewhat adjusted to the late Argentine eating schedule, and bulls-eyed all the best bookstores, cafés, and music shops (not to mention a California burrito joint) I figure it’s high time to get my hands dirty with some tango. After all, that’s the reason I’m here.

Many local musicians will tell you there are many similarities between tango music and culture in Argentina and jazz music and culture in America. Both are popular native forms that grew out of rural musical traditions, both require a high level of musicianship and dexterity, both are associated with specific dance forms, and now that they’ve bled into the mainstream and spawned mutant strains and fusion genres (i.e., smooth jazz and electro-tango) both are obsessed with the question of authenticity. And it is as a student of the tango in Buenos Aires that I find myself regularly confronted with this last aspect.

One significant difference I’ve found between tango and jazz culture is this: whereas the jazz world can oftentimes feel like an exclusive clubhouse where membership is subject to a variety of criteria from one’s race to one’s chops, in Buenos Aires, the local tangueros are almost unanimously appreciative that you want to learn their music, and are thus almost always willing to teach even foreigners. The primary criteria are that you are eager to learn, and that you know someone in common. Not only is it socially much easier to be referred to a teacher by a known musician, but in the tango tradition, it is absolutely critical to the authenticity aspect of the form.

The tango world is essentially a huge ball of yarn, and there is a clear lineage within the art form. The Golden Age maestros are dying out, and the “true” tango is once again in the fragile and precarious state of being passed from one generation to the next. (One of the greatest living legends, the pianist, composer, and arranger Horacio Salgán only recently published a definitive text on the music, Curso de Tango, in 2001. I had to ask for it at Zival’s, the one-stop tango music shop on Callao, and it was brought out from under the desk and carefully folded in Saran Wrap like an ancient relic, costing by Argentine standards, a small fortune ($30USD).) Therefore, to ensure a proper passing of the tradition, the question of with whom one studies is of the utmost importance. I was lucky enough to have a mutual connection from Brooklyn with the renown tango and jazz pianist Pablo Ziegler, and when I met him it was in this vein that he warned me: “Only study with friends of friends.” (Not a bad prospect from someone who learned the form himself by playing in Astor Piazzolla’s Quintet for a decade. Think playing with Miles Davis in the 60’s or being on the starting five with Michael Jordan – when he played for the Bulls, not the Wizards.) Ziegler (all tangueros are referred to by their last name) then proceeded to empty out his cell phone to me, virtually opening, to some degree, every door in the tango music world in Buenos Aires. It was not lost on me that I was at that moment becoming a living part of the tradition, and by studying with the true maestros, would take on the responsibility as a part of the yarn: to learn and be equipped pass on the “true” tango to another.

So what about the music? Though I’m reluctant to admit it to my teachers, I love electrotango like Gotan Project and Bajofondo as much as anyone, and my truest affections lie with modernists like Piazzolla and Dino Saluzzi. Yet watching a good traditional tango ensemble live is like nothing you’ve seen in the States, that is unless you’ve seen a good tango ensemble live there, but chances are it was more likely a tango spectacular, or what they call here literally “tango for export” rather than a traditional orquesta típica, which is a very different thing. Part of the experience is watching the front row of four bandoneonists ply their trade (the bandoneon, the quintessential tango instrument, is basically an accordion with no keys, but buttons on both sides). I’ve been granted observer status at the Orquesta Escuela de Tango in Almagro, an orchestra school under the famous bandoneonist and composer Nestor Marconi, dedicated to the preservation of the art form, and am studying piano with their resident pianist, Germán Martinez. To underscore their openness, there are three members from Japan, and one from Australia. (It is important to note that while they provide me with certain scores, many I must return because the arrangements and/or bandoneon solos are to be protected and not distributed by any means.) And though many tangos are not particularly harmonically challenging to the ear, the form is complex, and when played correctly, thrills. There is no irony in the tango. There is melancholy, there is sadness. There is nostalgia, there is playfulness, and naturally, a great deal of fiery passion.

And there is also rocking out. This week I attended my first (of what I’m sure will be many returns) performance of a group called the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro, a group of ten terminally hip young musicians, complete with dreadlocks, sunglasses, grunge tees, and loads of attitude. While these impressive tangueros played beautifully, this is not your momma’s tango. In the Club Atletico Fernando Fierro, a dark and hard to find warehouse space in a non-touristed part of town (Sanchez de Bustamante 764 in Abasto for any visitors), outfitted with a full bar, gym bleachers, and a surreal “bathroom” themed stage (there is an enormous plastic roll of toilet paper hanging from the ceiling and huge plastic flies perched on the wall), the OTFF played as hard as any rock band I’ve seen, throwing their heads back and forth, bodies undulating under the strobe light (yes, strobe light) and disco ball. Occasionally, vocalist Walter “El Chino” Laborde, would emerge in various states of dress to serenade the audience, at one point appearing in a motorcycle helmet and a skirt. The sardine-packed crowd was mostly young Argentine hipsters who screamed their brava’s at the end of each number with religious zeal. When it comes to charisma, Gotan Project has nothing on these guys:

(And of course, I’ve taken a free tango dancing class, as well, and when I wasn’t stepping on my partner’s sneakers (she would cry, “yepa!” but assured me I wasn’t doing any permanent damage) found myself entranced by its rhythms.)

I had my first musical ‘a-ha’ moment as I was wrestling with a big dramatic piece on the piano by Osvaldo Pugliese amidst a gloomy and drizzling afternoon. In the empty cafeteria I was playing in, against the backdrop of pouring rain and thunder, something clicked in, and felt right. In stark contrast to the flashy tourist-aimed tango spectacles with women in six inch heels and black leather, and men that look like Wayne Newton fifty years ago, the true tango is a dark and dirty thing, beautifully crumbling and best enjoyed without its makeup, lest it betray its roots as a dance brought over from sailors in whorehouses. I never thought I’d say this about a tradition born in the brothels, but it’s quite an honor to be able to be in some tiny, infinitesimal way, a part of it.

Buenos Aires – First Impressions

•October 7, 2007 • 2 Comments

img_1345.jpg

Let me start off by getting one thing straight: the food in Buenos Aires is almost all good.

It took me six days and approximately fifteen meals before I got a bad one. And that was in a Chinese restaurant, so think I was just begging for it at that point.

I find that arriving in any city I plan to live in for a period of time arouses a complicated mixture of emotions; a state of extreme selfishness and extreme humility. I don’t know a single soul so I’m driven back into the most basic need for companionship and acceptance, yet I’m looking around and thinking, this is great, this sucks, what the fuck is that supposed to be, this is amazing, I’m going to eat here all the time, etc. It’s also a time for dispelling myths and fantasies.

I find that arriving in a city I plan on living in for any prolonged period of time elicits the most childish responses from me, for better or for worse. Naturally, I’m wide-eyed and open mouthed, drinking it all in, the sights, the smells, the shapes the sidewalks take, how the people look. But I’m also less inhibited and find myself talking at length to strangers, telling them I’m looking for a room, what’s the best place to have a coffee in the area, how can I rent a cell phone for a few months, both as a query for information and also as an icebreaker, and people have been exceedingly helpful. For instance, Sonya, the girl who works at the Palermo Soho branch of Notorious, a CD shop, helped me look on her computer online for rooms and called her friend to help me with a mobile phone, not to mention recommend music to me. The woman at Café Orsana on Jorge Luis Borges already knows me and what I like to drink (a café con crema), and all the guys who work at the hostel are always giving me names of musicians to listen to and gigs to check out. A willingness to laugh, share your story, and make a possible fool of yourself go a long way here. I also people remember a Spanish-speaking American of Chinese descent.

I was lucky enough to meet not one, but two great groups of people in the hostel, American university students studying in Santiago, Chile who were kind enough to welcome me into their circles to eat great food, take a bike tour, attend a milonga (tango dancing salon) drink at fancy bars, and get our ears blown out at nightclubs. It almost made me forget I needed to actually find a permanent place to stay. Luckily, craigslist has made it to Bs As and I think I’ve secured a room in a flat in Palermo Hollywood, near the Botanical Gardens and a short walk to the hip cafes, restaurants, and boutiques of Palermo Soho. Details are to be worked out tonight.

A few of the more superficial observations I’ve made:

* Yes, it’s true. You can have an amazing, grass-fed steak for $4.50. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

* The mullet is alive and well – nay – thriving in Buenos Aires.

* People can actually get a signal on their cell phones in the Subte (metro), yet are thankfully discreet about telling their personal lives to the entire train.

* When you thank someone, they will usually say, “No, please,” or “No, it’s nothing,” but usually something that begins with the word “No.”

* Buenos Aires is in a constant war for small change and bills. It’s like a game. If you have a $100 peso note, you’re screwed. If you have monedas (coins), you’re good. Don’t ask.

…on the road again…

•September 18, 2007 • 1 Comment

Today I leave for another sojourn out of the country, this time way down to the southern hemi to Buenos Aires for three months of studying tango music, spanish, and the age old art of charring a good hunk of beef. It’s always a bit nervewracking getting ready to leave the country; you’ve got to put all your affairs in order, call your credit card companies, put the cell on hold, photocopy every piece of government issue ID, print out boarding passes, get enough cash to exchange and last but not too much that you start to sweat from thinking about how much you’re carrying around… buy reserve toiletries, wash and dry your clothes on super-hot one last time because who knows the next time they’ll see the inside of a machine dryer, map routes and itineraries, charge the iPod and camera, etc… It’s all very meticulous and anxiety-inducing, but once I get moving it’s good and I’m operating mostly on instinct.

I’ll be revisiting my youth by crashing in hostels sleeping six to a room for the remainder of the month before I can (hopefully) find a more permanent living situation (hopefully) with natives so I can (hopefully; did you know that using ‘hopefully’ in this context is grammatically incorrect, as it literally means I’ll be doing these things ‘full of hope’? which in this case is actually true as well) improve my spanish and learn the local culture, and yes, with so much hope in my heart, maybe be invited to one of these mythical weekend asados (bbqs) I’ve read about that sounds essentially like the ritual sacrifice of so many cattle in someone’s ranch-house in the suburbs.

I know it sounds like I’m hyping the beef consumption aspect of this trip a lot, and if you didn’t know me you’d think that was the entire reason I’m going down there (and if you do know me, you probably know it is) but it’s not, it’s more like… a huge perk. I’m hoping to have the chance to learn about another culture not only via its people but most importantly via its music which is something I haven’t had the chance to do yet; a shameful thing for a composer I must admit. The way we sing as a people says a lot about who we are as a people, and this world is too damn small to not enjoy that collision course on foreign turf. The fact that tango music just happens to be among the most beautiful music on the planet is again, just a huge perk.

What I do hope is that what castellano I do have will help me land a room a helluva lot easier than it did in Madrid, where I was telling scores of renters that I was “interesting in your bedroom” before Señor Luis, the bespectacled and bearded sire of MuchoMadrid hostel oh-so discreetly slipped me a scrap of paper with the correctly written, much less suggestive phrase.

So as I’ll be using this forum as my primary diary (I dislike mass emails as much as the next guy), keep your eye out for more (mis)adventures. If you don’t see anything written here in a couple of weeks, call my mother and arrange for my bail.

Need a free vaccination? Check your heterosexuality at the door. (Buenos Aires, here I come.)

•August 9, 2007 • 1 Comment

Come Autumn, I will again be loosed onto another unsuspecting country to mangle the language, plunder the culture, and most likely make a complete ass of myself. Hopefully along the way, I’ll pick up a few productive things. The country in my crosshairs here is Argentina, and the city will be Buenos Aires. I’ll be there from September 18 – December 17 studying tango music, practicing my Spanish, and eating enough red meat to clog the Lincoln Tunnel. Consider this an open invitation for anyone who wants to come visit.

Naturally, you have to prepare for a few things before heading to an unfamiliar country, such as debilitating infectious diseases. While I don’t expect to be drinking the marsh runoff from the Rio de la Plata, it’s always a good idea to get a Hepatitis A vaccination just in case, as my friend Dr. Roger Yu, M.D. puts it, “someone wipes their butt and then prepares your food.” I guess you just never know.

Unfortunately, the HealthyNY insurance plan thru Aetna does not cover immunizations. Of course they don’t. Why would they want to prevent you from getting a disease when the only way they make money is when you have to be treated for one? Always an original thinker, Dr. Yu suggested I go to a gay clinic, since they provide free vaccinations for high-risk gay men in New York City. So with the help of the ever-popular website, http://www.hepclinics.com, I found a spot in Chelsea run by the NYC Health Department that does walk-in Hepatitis A vaccinations. Perfect.

There was of course the small detail of my not being gay. I have however paid 7 years of New York city and state income tax, money that’s helped fund these public health initiatives and therefore consider myself just as entitled to a free shot of liver crippling HepA regardless of what I do behind closed doors and with whom I do it. So wearing my tightest t-shirt that says ‘Robot Power’ on it, I dove headlong into paperwork that placed me in a category with ‘people who use street drugs’ and ‘men who have sex with other men.’ I was tempted to write in the margin: ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that…’ Although there was an extremely attractive and scantily clad woman sitting across from me in the waiting room(clearly a litmus test planted to weed out heteros looking for a free shot), I tried my hardest to focus on checking out the other dudes, giving them the ‘Oh yeah, I’m totally, totally gay, too’ nod, and to sit with my legs crossed in the feminine scissor-style, bobbing my top foot rhythmically (I find I do this quite naturally, and perturbingly so). I even tried doing that thing women do where you snake one ankle around the opposite calf from the front, but it was excruciating and I was trying to be gay, not organ-less.

It’s probably a product of my Chinese DNA, but I’m always looking for a bargain, so I had them throw in a tetanus/diphtheria shot while they were at it. What the heck, just load me up, I said. Any other diseases I can sample while I’m already here? How about typhoid? The doctor on staff said no, but if I want, Long Island Hospital in Brooklyn doles those out at bargain basement prices.

I have to say, saving up to $100 in vaccinations by just pretending to be gay for an hour is definitely an experience I recommend to anybody. I mean, where’s Michael Moore when you need him, and why don’t all backpackers know about this loophole? It’s something you sure can’t find in your Lonely Planet guide.

When to call a spade a bêche.

•June 16, 2007 • 1 Comment

Quick, don’t think:

Just what the hell would you call this?
117221.jpg

If you’re one of the bionic mothers in my neighborhood attached to the stroller equivalent of an SUV, and your similarly robo-fied friend asks you what you’re going to order at the neighborhood café, well, you call it a kwa-ssohn.  And if you’re me, sitting next to them, trying to mind your own business even though you’re not because obviously you’re listening to their conversation, well, you make a face like you just drank curdled milk when you should be focusing on sitting with your laptop and pretending to work.

Alright, so it is a French word, but call me a cynical bastard, or as my writing teacher suggested, maybe I’m “just incredibly ungenerous”, but why does this bother me so much?   If we were in France, I’d say OK (actually, I’d say d’accord, with a really bad accent, and totally in italics).  If either the speaker or the friend, or the waitstaff were French, I’d say mais oui.  But between a couple of American soccer moms in Brooklyn, I mean, c’mon.

Clearly, this is an unfair rant.  After all, if an American pronounced ‘tortilla’ with an ending like Godzilla, and you came back from a stay in South America, you’d probably have a hard time reverting to the then-idiotic sounding American pronunciation, which is how I think the French must feel when they hear their national pastry butchered in the States.

An interesting myth about the croissant which was actually invented in Vienna, and not France: During a siege by the Ottoman Turks, a local pastry chef apparently heard the enemy tunneling beneath his shop and alerted the army, who then carried the day.  As a reward, the pastry chef was allowed to name the pastry “crescent”, after the symbol on the Ottoman flag.  This story is purely apocryphal and I have no sources to back it up.  Come to think of it, I can’t even remember where I read that but it must be inspiring for young pastry chefs in war-torn countries.

So I don’t know who would be more insulted when they see and hear me order a kra-sont: a Frenchman, or an Ottoman Turk.  I still don’t know how to pronounce Louis Vuitton.