My Exotic Russian Submarine ClockFriday, May 28, 2010
Sir Edmund Hilary climbed Mount Everest along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953. I heard about it on my radio in Buenos Aires. I was 11. I was excited. Mount Everest was one of the most exotic and forbidden places in the world. I am not too sure that the broadcast mentioned Tenzing Norgay. In 1953 the world was a white man’s world. At school when I would gaze at a map of Africa I would note that all the British possessions had a little red line around the borders. When I traced these maps for homework assignments I made sure I had my red Prismacolor pencil handy to draw the borders on Kenya, Rhodesia and Tanzania.
My grandmother was a diplomat in the Filipino Legation. There was no ambassador and the man in charge, Narciso Ramos had the position of Minister. He had a liking for me so I was invited to his home where I was exposed to a brand exotic I had never seen. His son, once showed up in a West Point uniform. Many years later General Fidel Ramos became president of the Philippines. In this milieu I learned to eat Filipino food including those curiously transparent noodles that looked like they were made of extruded cellophane. The minister taught me to sit on a small stool with a piece of flat metal with an end that had a serrated edge. With this cutcuran I was able to grind a coconut so that his wife could make a delicsious dessert called bibinka. In a short time I picked up lots of useful Tagalog.
My father who had ruined his chances to become the editor of the local Buenos Aires Herald by throwing an ink bottle at the publisher (my father was inebriated at the time) was a translator for the Indian Embassy. He would bring his friends (who drove exotic Hillman Minxes) from the embassy and feed them his own version of very hot curry. My neighbourhood friends would come to the house to ask me if the dark turbaned men were magicians. They like me had never ever seen any Hindus or as my father would have spelled that Hindoos.
At the American School where my mother taught she had some students who were from the Chinese Embassy. Younger siblings were in my class. I remember being invited with my mother for lunch and I marveled at the strangely shaped spoons that we used for the soup which was strange in itself. One of her fellow teachers was a Texan who wore cowboy boots. I was convinced that he was real cowboy who kept Gene Autrey peacemakers at home.
The Italians, the Germans, the Irish, the English, the Gallegos (from Galicia, Spain) the Russians (in Argentina even today, they call Jews rusos) were all commonplace and un-exotic in my Argentina. I would look at American magazines and wonder who those black people were. I became interested and investigated the American Civil War in books at the American Embassy’s Lincoln Library.
Argentina of the 50s was (as it is today) a class society in which dark skinned people were called cabecitas negras (little black heads) and anybody who was begging on the street was either a Bolivian or a Paraguayan. We read in school that most of the native Indians had been systematically eliminated in the late 19th century by General Julio Roca who gave his name to one of the Argentine railway systems.
My world was a normal one to me. Chinese with coolie hats planted rice in stylized maps. In those maps, men in short leather pants hovered over Germany and Mexicans slept under large sombreros while leaning against cacti. Every country had its place. Mexicans lived in Mexico, the Vietnamese in Cochinchina and Canadians in Canada. My grandmother spoke of an exotic place she had arrived at in the late 30s. With my mother, uncle and aunt to the Bronx they were headed to the Bronx in New York City by rail. They arrived in a Japanese ship in a place with mountains and trees called Vancouver.
In the late 50s I purchased a Pentacon-F single lens reflex camera. I treasured looking at the embossed leather on the bottom that read Manufactured in USSR Occupied Germany. I would gently caress the metal of my camera and think how foreign and how strange it was. It was foreign.
It was as strange as the first poppy-seed cookies and a peanut butter sandwich my mother once brought from her school sometime around 1951. I fell for peanut butter (it was not heard of in Buenos Aires) and even today I find it as exotic as I did then. As exotic as the first package of Lime Jell-O I ever had which my mother obtained from a friend who worked at the US Embassy.
In early 1960 I noticed a strange car in Mexico City. It was a Lada. I looked at it and thought, “This car, this metal, it was all manufactured in a perfectly different (perhaps alien is the better word) country." The metal seemed to have a different shine to it. It was so because all countries were different. That was before globalization.
It took a while for me to understand that my used Pentax S-3 was a superior product to the Pentacon-F that represented a sort of primitive East German manufacturing base. My mother had told me that the Japanese knew how to imitate but did not know how to innovate. But it was about then, when those Pentaxes and those exotic rangefinder Nikons appeared on the market when my world began to change. The exotic, inexorably became less so. I remember sometime in 1966 when the first hamburger joint opened in Buenos Aires. Argentines scoffed at the idea that anybody would wan to eat ground meat. In my last trip to Buenos Aires five years ago, while strolling on the fashionable Calle Florida I saw at the intersection with Avenida Corrientes (the street of which so many tangos are about) a venerable art deco building with a prominent Burger King sign on it.
Now on any given Sunday my New York Times’ travel section has articles on places I had never heard of then. I could go there now on Airmiles.
I read that Viennese Austrians sometime opt for the local Viennese Starbucks because of the no smoking regulation as opposed to the Viennese coffee shops where excellent whipped cream on top of coffee is served but smoking is permitted. The world of difference is becoming one of boring uniformity.
It is for this reason that I like to read relatively obscure Spanish, Cuban, Portuguese, Italian, Argentine and Mexican authors. They write, still in a style where there seems to be a difference of approach. There is a difference of thought. Their goals seem to be different. I find comfort in this.
And I find comfort in going to my garden and gazing under the Western Red Cedar where I bolted some years a clunky but genuine Russian Submarine clock. You have to wind it once a week and there is no wondering why the Soviet Empire failed if this is a sample of the technology they were using to compete with the United States.
There is a comfort in the clunkiness and in the bright red star on its face. I can hear the second hand ticking on a quiet afternoon. I feel that the world can still reveal a bit of the exotic