On Monday Azure and I woke up from a siesta at about 7pm, stomachs still full of meat, we were slow and aching. We were in this quaint but plain room on the second floor of a hotel in Buenos Aires, and the traffic outside the room had died while we napped – cabbies and bus drivers headed home for Xmas Eve.
Though we knew it would only be a salad, probably a side salad at that, and probably split between the two of us, we stepped onto the street looking for something to eat because if we'd stayed in the room we would have felt like crap the entire night. Buenos Aires feels a lot like Paris when you're on the street – small trees line the sidewalk, the sidewalk is made of tiles which are often loose, there's a good amount of dog poop on the loose tiles and in the morning all the shop keepers and doormen wash down the sidewalk with hoses. The buildings themselves alternate between tasteful old and tasteful new, the old ones looking a lot like the common, gorgeous buildings that make Paris Paris.
There weren't many people out that night, but across the street we could see a church service just getting out. We crossed so we could walk through the crowd. People were dressed nice, in white, they smelled good. I saw a priest kiss a baby on the forehead as the mom carried him out of the church (the baby, not the priest). The next doorway was the chapel and I ducked in – nothing special, really… pews and a bunch of idols. But the chapel was attached to the courtyard where the service was held, and when I hopped a little barrier to go in there I was really struck. The courtyard was immense, but the buildings were very high, so it felt like you were in a coffee cup looking up at the sky. It was such a different atmosphere than other churches I've been in, having an open roof seemed fitting.
Outside, walking alone now, I asked Azure what Christmas is actually about. I mean, we know it's the birth of Jesus (though the date was changed for political reasons), but what is it supposed to make you think of? To become? I grew up not celebrating Xmas but you'd think I'd be inculcated with its message by now. In Judaism, we have a holiday where you reflect on the past year and make amends, we have a related one where you think about the future. There's another where we recommit to understanding what our freedom means, what it cost our ancestors.
On the street we passed a couple little kiosks (one-aisle minimarts) that had tables set outside and people sitting at them, which was unusual. I don't know if I'm right, but I assume the people were the wives & kids of the employees, wanting to have Christmas Eve together despite the husband having to work. The families were eating what looked to be pretty full dinners, right there at an improvised sidewalk cafe. We were about 4 blocks from the main avenue, walking East toward it. The food smelled good – it looked like a side of pork and a bunch of really red tomatoes with olive oil on them or something.
I asked about the meaning of Christmas because I wanted to write this email to you all, and I can't just pretend the holiday isn't happening when it clearly is, for most of the people I know. I figured that if I wasn't going to write about Christmas itself, I could write about its theme obliquely, so that I was referring to it without actually acknowledging it. That might work if I knew what it was about.
Azure wasn't feeling well. We had reached the main avenue – Santa Fe – and the meat still wasn't sitting right (and, writing this 2 days later, it's still not sitting right with her). So she made her way back to the room and I continued down Santa Fe looking for a diner or something. The street was eerie – so wide, I think it's about 7 or 8 lanes each direction, and in a city with 20 million people there wasn't anyone out. It reminded me of our annual "once-in-a-century" storms in Seattle, and how everyone makes a run on duct tape and water before barricading themselves inside and you can just feel the anticipation in the air, even if you're alone outside.
Walking down Santa Fe, I spotted a corner diner that looked like it was still open and I went to the doors – yep, open. I was a little nervous about walking in, getting a table for one and getting the sympathetic looks of, "Awww… he's alone on Christmas Eve. I wonder what horrible things he's done to deserve this." But I walked in and it was all tables for one. Every one. There were probably a dozen people there, and they were all single men around 40 years old, sitting alone watching men's gymnastics on TV. Good crowd. I ordered from the waiter an orange juice and a side salad. They came and they were awful. A kid walked in and went to a table to beg. The waiter, I expected him to come up and shoo the boy out, but he put his arm around the kid and led him back to the kitchen where I assume he was fed.
Growing up, while everyone was with their families on Christmas Eve I'd go for these long walks around the neighborhood, up to Somerset Elementary, into the forest and down the streets. I'd see families celebrating in their houses with the orange light and the streets were so quiet and I could see my breath. I didn't feel left out at all. I felt that for one night I had the entire world completely to myself, within and among my own (geographic) community as it faced inward, that everyone for one night forgot about the clouds & moon & trees. That feeling – of being oil among water or the other way around – defines travel and also defines my experience on Xmas in Bellevue. I still resist celebrating it even though I know Azure's family doesn't celebrate religiously. I just don't want to lose the separateness.
I grabbed some rolls as I left the restaurant to give away as I walked home in case I saw someone who wanted them. Still on the main street, I walked past a group of street kids and made eye contact with one of them. I passed them, and as I crossed the street I looked back to see someone trotting after me. One of the girls in the group came up and put her hand out. I offered her a roll and she shook me off. "Cambio?" She wanted money. I didn't give her any even though I had some loose change in my pocket.
Up the street now to the hotel, and there were a group of homeless men in an entry way. I made eye contact with one of them and he smiled or nodded at me, so I offered him the rolls. He took them and thanked me.
Last week I took this picture in Punta del Diablo. It was a picture of a candle-lit restaurant at night, from the outside, with the moon overhead. You can see people are together and warm inside, there might be music, there's definitely wine and good conversation. If you look close enough, you can probably smell the food and perfume, you can probably hear the laughter. But you can also see that there's action going on between the clouds & moon above, and there are dark corners on the ground as well. The night is pleasant, beautiful and dramatic and it's interesting – enlightening – to be outside.
Much Love, Happy Holidays,
Mike & Azure