Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Café Latinita

Este conto é muito significativo pra mim. É de Andrew Talbot, um escritor inglês que conheci em Buenos Aires na noite do Reveillon, uma pessoa muito especial.

Café Latinita does not stand out. And nor should it; cafés like this hang on every corner in Buenos Aires: a selection of white plastic tables covered in white table cloths surrounded by short deckchairs all glowing empty at 5pm whilst inside old men huddle individually over the sport section of evening papers and the waiters lean on the bar chatting passionately about something that does not matter at all.

I take my usual seat and wait for Alex, the waiter, my friend. I have been coming to this restaurant everyday since I arrived, over three months now, and it feels to me more homely than my rented apartment. On the table I lay my normal belongings; a cracked and scratched mobile phone that rings maybe once a week but never when it is near me, a packet of Camel Blues - one of its cigarettes turned up and therefore made lucky (I love irony more than I love anything else) – a half read novel I have read before (this week it is Kundera’s ‘Immortality’) and a disposable lighter that has been almost empty all week. Although I have had this paradisiacal setting almost every day and I soon took it for granted, there was something different about today, something even closer to perfection. The hot air had ceased suffocating the city and a weak breeze brushed the street; traffic had become strangely thin; numerous beautiful women stalked the shopping arcade, one of which had even given me an uncommon look of surprised attraction: yes, it was a good day to be me.

Alex and I, in my slow and repetitive Spanish, have had and keep having the same conversation everyday. He is over sixty with rich grey hair that softly falls from the middle of his head to below his ears, an elegant man who moves with smooth accuracy and always gives me a smile of genuine, although sometimes puzzled, affection. The conversation goes like this:

Alex: Andres, how are you?
Andrew: Alex, everything is good, and you?
Alex: Perfect! Is it too hot for you Englishman?
Andrew: No, never! But do you have a cold beer?
Alex: Cold? It is frozen!
Andrew: Perfect, one frozen beer please and the menu (although I already know what I will have.)
Alex: Of course, sir.

As he returns into the cool dark of the café’s insides, I breath out a full breathe and look at the main street one block away: to my minor surprise I see the woman who served me at the post office this morning cross the street in a mild rush, perhaps anxious to get home to waiting children, or a cooling shower, or just not to crushed flat by the oncoming traffic. These insignificant links in life’s tapestry is one of my chief joys; the little coincidences only I see and when expressed to anyone else would seem paltry and dull. To me, however, they are fascinating.

Alex returns with my beer and the ashtray he knows I would ask for. I give the menu a quick, fake look, just to make sure they haven’t added or subtracted anything, something they haven’t done since the restaurant opened over fifty years ago.

Andrew: I’ll have the ricotta cannelloni with the Bolognese sauce, please?
Alex: A wonderful choice, sir. You know all the pasta and sauces are made right here in the morning? (Yes, primarily because he tells me this everyday and it is one of the reasons I give the owner the majority of my money.)
Andrew: Yes, thank you.
Alex: Did you watch the Boca game last night?
Andrew: Of course! (Although I didn’t and rarely do, but always read up on the results for this precise occasion.)
Alex: Ah, it is too bad!
Andrew: Yes, they miss Gago, no?
Alex: Yes, he is a great player, and Real (Madrid) do not use him. It is too bad! (And with the look of a man who has just remembered in aching lucidity the first time he made love to his first love, he returns inside to pass on my order.)

I lean back, satisfied with another successful conversation in Spanish (although if he had varied even slightly off the script I would have been sent flying to my dictionary) and I see what I can see; the harsh sunshine streaming onto the pavement floor, the pot plants waving at each other in the weak wind, the dozens of women carrying shopping bags walking in front of their men who no doubt would have given a kidney to swap places with me rather than be taken to another clothes store (shopping in Buenos Aires is a daily religion). Briefly, my mind remembers my ex-girlfriend, wondered what she would have ordered, what she would have said. A Danish beauty with a five word name whose brutally humorous impression of my British accent – with a torrent of R’s after every shotgun barrelled vowel – never failed to make me smile, even when, as per usual, she was driving me crazy. Then she is gone and I am glad she is not here, monopolising the conversation with Alex in her perfect dialectic Spanish, leaving me to pretend to read the blurb of my book with sudden unexpected interest until he walks away, giving me a quick smile that says at the same time “Women! They talk like a river runs!” and “If you got your nose out of your fancy novels and studied that book of Spanish verbs we could have a proper chat for once!” Or something like that.

It is then that thoughts of the future, both of fear and freedom, rise within me. In a week my time here will end and I will move to Brazil, to Sao Paolo of all places, to become a stranger in a strange land once again. I find it remarkable that all the things I thought I had to do in my youth, now that I have done them, did not need to be done, and have brought with them few epiphanies and little clarity. Of course they had to be done, or I would be still dreaming of them but without the opportunities to do anything about solving them, a far worse situation. But I am hopeful for Brazil, if only to meet again one of the few women who have come close to the person I have been dreaming of for my last ten years, since women entered my head and refused to leave. Deep down I realise that we will never meet again but that does not stop my mind picturing her in front of me now, imagining a funny argument we might have as I watch her hair dance in the air. I return to Kundera.

Alex returns with my food and it is as good as I hoped it would be, as good as it was yesterday. He is a very proud man, like all Argentineans, and delighted that a man from as far away as England is so taken with the food he serves. While I eat he watches me from the corner of his eyes, desperate to talk to me about his beloved Boca Juniors even though I would only understand a small percentage of his words, would only ever be able to agree.

When I have finished my food, smoked a celebratory cigarette and have generously tipped him – a whopping two pounds - I sit back in my chair and take a moment before walking the two minutes back to my - thank God - air-conditioned apartment and almost finished novel that has been almost finished for over five weeks now. I think that when I leave I will miss Alex and Café Latinita more than anything else in Buenos Aires; more than the constant sunshine and conveyor belt of beautiful women, more than the afternoon naps and all night parties, more than the people I have met, more than the woman who became my girlfriend.

Walking home I stop and look at the table where I had eaten: my once cold beer stands empty next to the crowded ashtray and half full basket of fresh bread, my chair at an angle to the table, as if someone was soon to return to their seat. And then I realise I will never come here again.

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