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The Return of a Native

 

Probably you’re bored by all the opinions you’ve heard – and expressed – on the war in Iraq, President Bush’s mangling of the English language, even the Texas version, and the latest revelations of transexuality within the British political establishment. So, to be different, I’m going to describe a personal trip I made to the United States with my family this month. There’s no guarantee that this will interest anyone except me, so you know where to click out before it’s too late.

Actually the trip was planned for September 2001, a few days after 9/11, but the events that week, especially the closing of the airports, made it impossible.

Then, a year later, illness cancelled the trip. I had already purchased the tickets, however, with LAN-Chile, the Chilean airline. You may wonder why LAN, when we live in Argentina, which has a national carrier as well as many other foreign carriers, such as American and United, better know than LAN, serving the country.

There are several reasons, the first being that we live in the hinterland, a thousand kilometers from Buenos Aires, where all those airlines operate. This reduces the alternatives to two airlines: Argentine Airlines, who have a connecting flight at the Buenos Aires international airport for passengers departing from the provincial capital of Córdoba, such as us; and LAN Chile, who offer the same service via Santiago de Chile. However, my 14-year-old son had no Argentine passport and, as a dual Argentine - U.S. citizen, born in Argentina, he needed an Argentine passport to leave Argentina, and the U.S. one to enter the United States. Logical, right? So why didn’t we just get an Argentine passport for him. I wish you’d ask difficult questions; that one’s too easy. The Argentine government hadn’t paid the company that makes the special paper they use to make the passports, so the company stopped delivering the paper. Ergo, no new passports.

However, Argentine citizens can travel to neighboring countries, such as Chile, using their National Identity Document, i.e., without a passport. So, the trick was to pretend you’re only going to Chile, then make the connection to the U.S. from there. So we were reduced to one possibility: LAN Chile. Nevertheless, as I mentioned above, illness prevented that trip.

Another complication was that the U.S. consulate refused my wife a visitor’s visa. No questions, no reasons given, just no. They must have thought she was either a terrorist or intended to be an illegal immigrant – of which there are muchos. I had to intervene with the Consul. That was shortly after 9/11 and they were refusing almost all applications for new visas, probably because the consul was terrified at the possibility that someone they gave a visa to would blow up the Statue of Liberty, and they’d be blamed for negligence. (More about the Statue later.) I hope that that particular paranoia has since becalmed. By this time we were asking ourselves – Do we really want to do this? 

By the time we were ready to go a few weeks ago, my son had his Argentine passport. I had previously asked LAN for a refund, but they pointed out that our tickets read “nonref”, meaning non-refundable. I worked in the airline business for three decades, and during those idyllic years “nonref” only applied to tickets purchased on credit, and even those could be refunded at the issuing city if fully paid for. But now it means exactly what it says: no refund, period. If for some reason you can’t use the ticket you lose the money.  So we had to go, and with LAN Chile.

Aside from passports, visas and National Identity Documents, we also needed an officially notarized and duly stamped document, signed by us, his parents, stating that our son, a minor, was authorized to leave the country. This document was required regardless of the fact that he was traveling with us! If all this sounds complicated, remember that we hadn’t even left yet.

But finally we did. A three-hour drive to the airport in Córdoba, then a two-hour wait there. Our checked baggage was rifled through by hand. The police lady doing so told us the bags would later pass through an x-ray machine. Hmm. Then an hour flight to Santiago, Chile, a three-hour wait there for the connecting flight to New York. When I bought the tickets, they told me that the flight from Santiago to New York was “directo”. From my airline experience I should have remembered that “direct” doesn’t necessarily mean non-stop. I realized it wasn’t once we were on board and the purser announced our flying time to Lima, Peru, would be three hours and some minutes. A stop like that adds about three more hours to your trip time. (sigh) The airline’s reservations records showed my son as being a minor. Therefore, on board they served him a Mickey Mouse meal, despite the fact that he is 14 years old and eats twice as much as I do. (sigh)

Eventually we did arrive in New York, which was the whole purpose, although I had begun to feel that the purpose was the traveling itself. No matter, we were at JFK, where my wife was still a bit nervous because the consulate in Buenos Aires handed out a flyer stating in no uncertain terms that the granting of a visa does not mean that the “alien” will be admitted to the United States. That privilege is up to the Immigration Service, the ghouls at the airport. So when we entered the immigration hall at JFK, I queried an immigration guy standing at the portal. I told him we were a family – Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear; Papa and Baby were U.S. citizens, but Mama was an alien. Might we superior beings nevertheless accompany her through the alien Checkpoint Charlie? He said emphatically no. We should all three pass through the U.S. citizens checkpoint. “We believe in families keeping together.” The immigration official who stamped our passports was equally laid back, no problemo.

We took a taxi to the hotel I had booked on the web. The Wolcott on E. 31st. Street was built in 1902 and looks it, with a gilded lobby, huge chandeliers and slow elevators. It’s one of the few central places in Manhattan where you can get a “suite” (one-and-a-half rooms suitable for three people) for 150 bucks a night. Recommended. That’s about 450 Argentine pesos, for which in Buenos Aires you can get a suite equivalent to the Waldorf Astoria. We told ourselves we’d have to stop thinking in pesos or go home right away.

There’s a lot to do in New York, much too much for the six days we had available. We went to two plays. One, “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg”, I’d seen many years ago in London and considered it one of those fine semi-classics my wife and son would enjoy. Alas! Instead of playing it straight, they messed around with a moving stage and second-rate British actors. Or maybe they were good actors over-influenced by the director. Directors are like that, you know – they like to put their individual “stamp” on something which is best left alone. Don’t get me wrong, it was still good, but disappointing for one who had seen the real thing. Also, the acoustics were deficient. Then, a few nights later, we saw “Man of La Mancha” – slick but somewhat tired, which is no wonder, as it’s been playing for years.

Among other things, we went to a New York Mets baseball game. As everyone who knows anything knows, the Mets are cursed. Despite the team laying out big bucks for Hall of Fame-ers, as soon as they put on a Mets uniform their batting averages drop a hundred points or, if pitchers, they forget where the plate is. Their unmovable stars like Mike Piazza sprain their groins or break their legs. Therefore, to go out to Shea Stadium in Queens on the rattling elevated subway on a chilly night to see them play against the league-leading Atlanta Braves was a form of masochism. But I couldn’t resist. My son, Gawain, is also a Mets fan, but had never seen a pro game except on TV. My wife, poor thing, didn’t know a foul ball from a dirty word – and still doesn’t. But she was anxious to learn, tired of watching disconnected TV images and having to ask silly questions that our son answered disdainfully.

But lo and behold, the lowly Mets came through for shivering us by blasting the Braves out of their wigwams 9 to 3. 

My cousin Barbara – we hadn’t seen each other in muchos moons – came down from Rochester, which was much appreciated, and we wandered around Greenwich Village one day, and in the evening had dinner in Little Italy. “Bona sera, signori”, a waiter in formal dress with a red bow tie greeted us and seated us at a sidewalk table. The food was very good, at least as good as in Italy, and I saw on the wine list that they had imported Valpolicella. I also noticed that it was cheaper than the California wine, and asked the waiter, from curiosity, if he knew why that was so. Though obviously Italian, I assumed that he also spoke English. But he answered in native-speaker quality Spanish, which he had heard us speaking. The California wines were very good, he explained, but probably more expensive to produce than the Italians. I eyed him suspiciously. “Are you Italian?” I asked in Spanish. “Hah,” he replied, “the only Italian here is the chef, who is also the boss. I’m Mexican.” So much for atmosphere. A moment or two later an American lady who was leaving approached him, followed by her hands-in-pockets husband. “Arrivederci,” she said, and giggled. The waiter bowed low, kissed her hand and solemnly intoned, “Arrivederci, signora.”

I promised to tell you about the Statue of Liberty. I had gone to it once before, accompanying a friend from Europe. For a true New Yorker to visit the Statue just to see it would somehow be beneath his dignity. You need an excuse. That time it was closed for repairs – though you could go to the island and visit the museum there. This time it was also closed – for security reasons. Before boarding the ferry we had to pass through metal detectors and a hand baggage search, just like in an airport. Once on Liberty (previously “Bedloe’s”) Island, it seemed all you could do was walk around and gawk up at the Statue. But then a Parks Department guy jumped up on a low wall and started to talk about the statue’s history – how, where and when it was constructed, and so forth. Did you know that the engineer who finally solved the problem of how to make the thing keep standing when exposed to the elements was none other than Eiffel? And that it took those lazy but generous French about ten years to figure it out? A lot of stuff like that.

Surprisingly, he was very good. In fact, he is wasting his time on Liberty Island when he could be doing very well elsewhere as a stand-up comedian. Excellent one-liners slyly interspersed with statue history – although most of the crowd were foreigners and I don’t think they got half the jokes. The constant drizzle gradually turned to serious rain and by the time he led us around to the last viewing point there were only a handful of listeners left. “Now, I should lead you into the statue herself and show you our excellent museum; you could take the elevator up to the crown for the beautiful view, even in the rain. But if we tried that those guys inside with machine-guns would chop us to bits. Au revoir and merci beaucoup.” 

María Teresa walked into a shop near the hotel to look at a blouse she saw in the window. The attentive clerk was still describing its virtues when she interrupted to ask where she could try it on. He seemed confused for a moment, then smiled and pointed to a door in the rear. She went to the back and opened the door. Instead of a dressing room, she found what looked like a storage room. Oh well, she thought, maybe that’s how they do it in America. When she was still in her bra with one arm in the sleeve of the blouse, an older man opened the door, gasped and his moustache began to twirl. “What you doing?” he almost shrieked. “Trying on this blouse,” María Teresa answered. “What are you doing here?” “You no unnerstand,” he said, “We are Muslims, cannot look on a naked woman. My son sometime forget. Take it home. If not fit, come back.” He stepped back out and slammed the door. María Teresa quickly buttoned up the new blouse, worried that they might stone her if they found her any part of her anatomy uncovered. She walked back into the store, where the old man was berating his son. “It fits,” she said. “I’ll take it.” She paid and left, wondering how they could sell clothing without the customers being able to try things on. Probably they had only Muslim clientele, whose women wouldn’t think of such a thing. Strange people who can’t look at women, but can treat them like chattel.   

When I lived in Switzerland and Germany we had a foster son who grew up with us. We’ll call him Carlos here. He’s now grown and living in New York. I called him and we met for dinner at another Italian restaurant of his choosing. For the fictionalized story of his early life, see http://www.etext.org/Fiction/Paumanok/smith.html. He is doing fine, working as an actor as well as having a paying job to stay alive. He thinks that New York City is the greatest place on earth and he wants to stay there at all costs. He works hard, pays his taxes and is an upstanding illegal immigrant – a situation which, after 9/11, has become very worrisome for the illegals in the U.S.A – and they are legion. Being caught would certainly result in deportation (or worse) to a certain Latin American country he hasn’t seen since he was seven years old. He calls me Frankie now, instead of Daddy, as heretofore, which is okay. He insisted on picking up the check – which may explain why he didn’t want to order wine or dessert, which I did anyway. It was real good seeing him again, and I hope he eventually solves that problem.

Off to Florida. We went there for one silly reason. LAN Chile (remember them) had cancelled the connecting flight in Santiago from New York to Cordoba, a flight that existed when I originally bought the tickets. So we would have to stay overnight in Santiago. The only alternative was to fly from NYC to Miami, pick up an evening flight there to Santiago which does connect to the Cordoba flight. So I figured, what the hell, if we have to go to Miami anyway, we might as well spend the weekend there and go to the beach.

The security measures at LaGuardia (where I worked when it wasn’t much more that an elongated Quonset hut) are draconian. During the three-hour flight no food was served, which I appreciated, for otherwise I might have been tempted, and airline food is only fit for the starving. The pilot gave us a running commentary on our location as we proceeded and on arrival he was standing near the exit smiling and thanking each passenger for traveling with American Airlines. I have flown a lot, but I never saw that before. The most you can expect is a phony smile from the flight attendants. And I was quite sure management didn’t dictate it. Airline captains are very independent individuals and passengers seldom see or hear them. I know that AA is close to bankruptcy, and that may have something to do with it. In any case, it is effective, and other airlines could learn from it.

Although I hadn’t been to New York in a long time, when my mother was alive and living in Florida I went there every year. I had gotten used to a rent-a-car company called “Interamericana”, which catered to Latin American passengers. The employees were all Latinos, probably second generation Cubans, who spoke Spanish with the clients and English among themselves. The service was good, there were seldom long lines and they had shiny new cars. Also, they were located right on Lejune Road, a block from A95, so it was hard to get lost. So, at Miami airport we waited for the Interamericana bus to come by – except it didn’t. Finally one came with the words “Interamerican” and “Global” lettered on its side. Ah, I thought, Interamericana dropped the “a” in order to look gringo and Global to ride with the times. So we hopped on – the only passengers.

We arrived at the rent-a-car ghetto and passed all the big companies, and, it seemed, the small ones as well, until we reached the bowels of the area. Instead of the row of smiling Latinos awaiting us, there us one glum, skinny guy who spoke with an indefinable African accent. We didn’t have to wait though, as we were the only customers. I asked him if this was Interamericana, and he said no, they went out of business about a year ago and they, Interamerican, had taken over their clientele. In other words unsuspecting suckers like me. There were only a few cars standing around, and he offered us a Honda with ten thousand miles on it, and except for a few dents it seemed serviceable, so we had little choice but to take it.

We drove north to Deerfield Beach, where I used to stay when my mother was in an ALF (Assisted Living Facility – euphemism for Old People’s Home). It was late afternoon and there were rain showers, but Gawain wanted to go in the water anyway. We walked to the beach, a block away from our motel and he dived in not far from where I had poured my mother’s ashes from the urn.

The sun shone the next morning, but then the rain came again, so Gawain’s mounting pressure to go to Disney World had its effect and off we went to Orlando. Along the highway there were huge billboards advertising discounted hotels and tickets to Disney World from a place I forget the name of. Finally we came to it and, although it was little more than a shack, all those ads had pounded my brain to the extent that I walked in like a zombie. Since we were only going to stay one day, we didn’t qualify for a discount to Disney World, but two nights in what they called a five-star apartment village was ours for the paying: $60 a night which, even off-season, is cheap. After taking my credit card impression, the guy wanted my thumbprint as well. “You must be kidding,” I said. But he wasn’t. “Our bank says it’s the only way to prevent credit card fraud, which is growing exponentially.” I told him I didn’t see how my giving them my fingerprint now could solve that, and he said that if it turns out to be fraudulent, they could get me later. I suppose the psychological factor is that if you refuse you’re more of less admitting guilt. “Look, it’s a special ink that doesn’t even dirty your thumb.” The curiosity syndrome is now included. I placed my thumb on the inkpad and sure enough no ink was visible on it. He grabbed my thumb and pressed it to the credit card receipt, where a faint thumbprint became visible. “See, nothing to it,” the guy said.

The five star apartment was even better than promised. Two large rooms, with bath, kitchen and a Jacuzzi in the bedroom, and a view to a golf course running through the village. I had to sign a waiver of the village’s responsibility if any of us got hit by a golf ball. We went the next morning to Epcot, which is supposed to be scientific. The “History of Man” is a ride in an ascending tunnel with papier-mâché figures depicting the evolution of man from hunk to communications wizard. And guess who sponsors it. AT&T. It reminded me of the “tunnel of fear” ride in Coney Island. In fact the whole place is a thinly disguised publicity stunt. GM sponsors the future car ride and exhibit; even an exotic flowers exhibit is the work of some seed company. It was blazing hot, so you are almost forced to run from one exhibit to the other.

I lasted till noon, when I abandoned María Teresa and Gawain, saying I’d pick them up at five, and headed back to the apartment for siesta time. I took a wrong turn on the highway back – it’s only 2 miles – and was well on my way to Tampa before getting straightened out. At 5 o’clock I found María Teresa sitting on the edge of a fountain looking like the last wilted flower of summer. Gawain, however, said there was a lot more to see, so we left him to be picked up at closing time, 9 o’clock. M.T. and I sped back to the apartment and jumped into the Jacuzzi. If you’ve never had sex in a Jacuzzi you’ll survive, but it’s an experience well worth having, although I wouldn’t recommend it as a substitute for yoga.

According to the five-star regulations, if you aren’t out by 10 a.m. the fine is $100 and hour. This is ample motivation to leave on time. (I have three dear relatives who live in Orlando. We didn’t visit them because there simply wasn’t time. I didn’t call either, for I am a coward and know that a telephone call would inevitably entail a long explanation about why we couldn’t visit them. The fact is that our time was so short because Gawain was missing school for the trip, and he couldn’t miss too much. So if they read this – frankly, I hope they don’t -  I beg for understanding and forgiveness.)

 

In New York, Carlos had told Gawain that we must go to South Beach in Miami Beach, that it’s so cool, and Gawain believed him. On the way down to Miami, we stopped for a breather at the beach in Jupiter. Storm clouds were approaching and the few bathers were picking up their things to go. A deeply tanned man carrying fishing gear, having noticed Gawain’s T-shirt reading “Patricio Rey y sus Redonditos de Ricota” – an Argentine rock band – stopped in front of us and said, in Spanish, “Hey, are you from Argentina?” We chatted a while. He was from Salta, a province in the north of Argentina, and had been in Florida for three years. “Do you like it here?” I asked him. He thought for a few moments before answering, with a big smile, “No. You have to work too hard here. We’re not used to that, as you know. The only time I have for fishing is on Sunday.”

 

Our flight home was the next day, so we sped down to Miami Beach and checked into the Ramada, which I assumed would be relatively cheap in off-season. It was relatively cheap, but also relatively tacky. The windows looked like they hadn’t been washed in a year. I asked the concierge cum bellboy and parking valet, a Russian named Vladimir, for my car back. He asked me where we were going and I said South Beach. He told me we must go to a great restaurant he knew there, even showed me the menu. “And they pick you up here and bring you back whenever you want. Excellent food, reasonable prices.

A Godfather stretch limo picked us up an hour later, with TV, phone, computer. Gawain was very impressed. On the way we stopped for gas and the driver locked the doors as he pumped gas with the motor running. Was that to protect us or make sure we didn’t escape? The restaurant was a dump inside, but no one went inside except the waiters. The tables were all outside on an elegant looking street full of such restaurants. The waiters were, surprise! Latinos, the food Italian. An unspecified item amounting to over 15% of the total appeared on the bill. I asked the waiter what it was. The tip. “You include the tip on the bill?” “Sí, señor.” “It’s obligatory?” “Sí, señor.” “By law?” “Sí, señor - here in Miami Beach where the waiters work only for tips.” I fully intended to leave a tip, but didn’t like to be told I had to, nor how much. I shrugged and paid with a credit card. He brought back only the CC receipt, so I told him I wanted the itemized bill as well. By that time Gawain was rolling his eyes. “Very well, we’ll make a copy.” I said I’d pick it up when we came back to be taken to the hotel.

We strolled down the street and at the corner I asked a restaurant boss who looked like an Anglo if tips were obligatory by law there. He smiled and said of course not. Some places include them on the bill, but he considered that unethical. I told him what happened down the street and asked what I could do about it. “Well,” he said, “You might report it to the Better Business Bureau. The police wouldn’t be interested.”

Back at the restaurant they gave me a photocopy of the itemized bill and we boarded our gangster limo. The driver, a young man, asked in Argentine accented Spanish where we were from, as though he didn’t know. He turned out to be from Villa Carlos Paz, about 100 kilometers from where we live. I snubbed Vladimir at the hotel, but of course never did anything about the tip.

The morning was bright and we could swim in the still limpid waters of Miami Beach, which didn’t get deep until a hundred yards out. That evening, I found “Interamerican” with some difficulty. The African seemed surprised to see us. Again we were the only customers. He whistled for the bus, which whisked us to the airport for the (mercifully) non-stop flight to Santiago, during which we neither saw nor heard from the pilot. Airline executives never travel in economy class on long-haul flights, so they have no experience with the torture they inflict on their fellow humans. When I used to fly on business, the manager at the other end often asked how I liked their service. “Oh, fine,” I’d say, but that was in First or Business Class. Economy class in an airplane is a vestige of steerage in the old immigrant boats. Just before departure, I finally got Jo Ann on the phone. She is my partner in Southern Cross Review. We have never met physically, and this was the first time we’d even heard each other’s voices – a milestone. I herewith warn anyone tempted to phone her that she has the sexiest voice this side of Venus. I was too excited to remember what was said.

At 6 a.m. a snotty LAN Chile employee at the Santiago airport directed arriving passengers, either to transit or the exit. You know the attitude: you folks are at fault for being so ignorant so I have to waste my time telling you what to do. Three hours later we were on our way back to Cordoba and arrived on time. That’s one thing I’ll say for LAN Chile – they were always on time. The huge baggage x-ray machine was there at customs checking incoming baggage. This is the antipodes, after all, where everything is in reverse.

The private taxi owner who had brought us to the airport was waiting to take us back home. A private chauffer may seem extravagant for someone who protests at the amount of a Miami Beach tip. However, the cost for the 200 kilometer trip over the mountains and to our doorstep was only slightly more than that of the taxi from JFK to midtown Manhattan. María Teresa and Gawain really enjoyed the trip. I did too, actually, but it was good to be home.              

FTS

La cruz del sur, Villa de las Rosas, Argentina