In my nuclear family -wife, daughter and sister- we consider ourselves blessed to have the opportunity of living in New York, a modern Babylon. My native city in Northern Argentina, called Tucumán, and New York, where I have lived for the last 50 years, are quite different; the former relatively small and gregarious, the latter big and anonymous.
The things that I still miss most in Argentina are my family, childhood friends, and the easier pace of life. That is why going back home to Tucumán has become almost a ritual for me. And, predictably, those trips have their bittersweet moments.
Bitter moments are learning the loss of loved ones, whose impact is greater when living far away. The loss is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia. It happens when realizing that the city one has left is now a totally new city. Pablo Neruda, the noted Chilean poet, poignantly expressed this feeling. Coming back to Chile after a long stay overseas, he wrote in the poem “Return to a City” (translated by Alastair Reid):
I come back not to return;
no more do I wish to mislead myself.
It is dangerous to wander
backward, for all of a sudden
the past turns into a prison.
These unsettling feelings are balanced by seeing again old friends and relatives and by the pleasures of the unexpected. On one trip to Argentina with my wife we traveled to Salta, a city further north. On the way, we stop at Amaicha del Valle, a small town in the mountains reputed—at least by the natives—to have the best climate in the world. Remembering that a cousin whom I haven’t seen in more 50 years lived there, we stop at many stores and public offices and I ask several people about him. Nobody knows him. I am deeply disappointed.
We have lunch at a popular restaurant and, having lost hope, I casually ask the owner, a jovial 80-year- old man who I later discover is a very good poet: “Of course I know him,” he laughs. “He lives just across the street.” I don’t quite believe him but he seems so sure that I cross the street and knock on the door. My cousin and his wife come out. He doesn’t recognize me. I take my dark glasses off. He still doesn’t recognize me, so I tell him who I am.
Our eyes moisten, and we join in a long embrace. Afterward, we go back to the restaurant where the owner regales us with great food and some of his wonderful poems. Life is beautiful. Later that same day, we returned to my hometown. Today is a hot day in a normally torrid city. I go to the city’s main square to listen to the State Symphonic Band.
The program includes music by Guastavino, a famous Argentine composer, and also by Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin. Although the concert is in the hot afternoon, the 60 musicians in the orchestra are all formally dressed in black. Their suits are old, and so are the rumbling loudspeakers, whose noise occasionally interrupts the performance. But the noises don’t bother me. I am captivated by the scene.
I am sitting near a bass player. My attention is drawn to the strange shape of his instrument. The bridge belongs to another bass, and its cords (two made of steel and two of nylon) are held together by a series of knots. The bass has a big hole and also a small crack on the side. None of this fazes the musician, who handled it lovingly, as if he were caressing the love of his life.
In the meantime, a couple dances under the shadow of a big and beautiful tree, as one of them holds their dog by the leash. I see the face of a woman who reminds me of the mother of a friend, both of them now dead. I feel another pang of nostalgia for what I think were better, happier times.
After the concert I approached the bass player and looked at his instrument, marveled that he could still play it. I couldn’t resist asking him how he managed to play an instrument in such a bad shape. He answers that the instruments are state property and that sometimes the handlers are careless. “But I love music, and I have to make do with what I have,” he tells me sadly…