In the City
Summer, mid-afternoon, the sun hangs over Buenos Aires. Outside chicharras buzz.
We meet with a handshake, witty joke about my pinked skin. Michael’s smile exposes teeth as straight as a line of soldiers. “How are you adjusting to the city?” he says.
“Fine,” I say.
He nods, slinks on to a pine coloured armchair. “Whilst here you should try to learn Spanish.”
“I begin next week.”
Soft cotton shirt, cream khakis and Reebok trainers, dressed like he is about to board a long flight. His eyes remind me of Greek waters, feelings are expressed with a Latin tongue, hands move in tandem with lips. He used to be a drummer boy: bossa nova, limitless jazz, late nights spent in dimly lit bars.
“What did you know about Argentina before you came?”
“That they had prairies here,” he says.
“As a boy I understood that Argentina had large areas of grassland.” Caught in thought I study the lines of his face, high cheekbones, taut skin, wispy blonde hair, strong jaw. “That was all I knew then.”
Lilt laden tone, as he tries to recall I make notes on a European expat; consider a heritage visible in appearance, Latin cultures that influence his way.
“Katherine,” Michael says, peeking at her owlishly.
Together they talk in Spanish, flailing arms, playful expressions. I scan shelves: ‘Das Kama Sutra’, ‘Rastro de un sueño’, ‘El profeta’. Michael puts his words in order. “Ah,” he says, “at six I discovered literature, books allowed me to travel to other worlds.”
“Many worlds,” his daughter says.
Ivory ornaments of sculpted Asians with close-set eyes rest around the room. As our conversation enters his past, I sense a knowing presence. In the kitchen the sweet smell of canelones drifts through an open door; later we will eat together.
I ask what brought him back to Buenos Aires from the country where he was born. “In Germany I understood every type of person, it wasn’t the same as here. In Buenos Aires it was easier to feel.”
A cool breeze is welcomed like an old friend.
Born into This
7th September, 1943.
Michael was born, war raged across Europe, fear and mistrust natural emotions of the day.
Troubled youth stills wandering eyes, muddies blue waters. I listen. At times words echo like a siren, at others there is quiet. Rise and fall, rise and fall. “You’d like to talk about the war?”
“A little, well. Not exactly,” I say.
“It’s fine, go on.” Silence settles like dust on a shelf. He passes a book with a battered front cover. The script is gothic German, black letters, late 19th century. I turn fragile pages that could easily fall apart; inhale scents of vanilla, peat, damp wood. “I don’t know why I have this,” he says.
I don’t know either. Attempt to unearth his past like a palaeontologist: aware of its imbued richness, hopes for the future, memories of the past.
He was born in Kalisch, East Germany during the Second World War, a few hundred kilometres from the Russian front line. Birds didn’t chirp where those soldiers stood, the threat of confrontation bonded enemy grounds. “Kalisch is Poland now,” he says, “it’s important that you understand the difference.”
We speak about the differences between Kalisch and Kalisz, take a break. On the balcony I smoke a cigarette with Katherine, then another.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen those books.”
The day grows long, canelones warm my stomach; the taste of red berries rests on my tongue. Outside chicharras buzz.
When the war was over land was divided up. Communism blanked Michael’s opalescent canvas. There was never enough to go around. Literature, if discovered to be contrary to propaganda, was taken. Outside pleasures were considered an offence. People went to work to school to homes.
About childhood, Michael remembers little things. “I was questioned by the school director once. He’d discovered that I had Walt Disney magazines. I don’t know how, I think another classmate told him. He came for me personally.”
“How did it make you feel?”
“Worried for my father.” He runs fingers through his hair, clasps hands. “They burnt literature from the outside in a big incinerator then. When I met with the director I was told these magazines could be dangerous.” Concern softens his stare, decades removed childhood fears remain. “If my father’s employers found out that his son had…” his voice trails off, comes back, “I dug holes in the ground, there was mistrust among friends and enemies.”
“Do you think the director was trying to help you?”
“I’m not sure.”
Michael’s father was a hard-working man who carried emotions like a loaded Luger. Well established in an industrial company, he provided a good income for the family, voiced opinions regularly. “He was a big monster in the city. I had to be careful with my behaviour.”
At school Michael studied communist ideals, Joseph Stalin, read propaganda. “Everyone studied these things.” I ask where his humorous nature came from. “My mother had Polish relatives, they loved to sing and dance,” he says, as though common knowledge.
24th December, 1956. Michael left East Germany on a train bound for Berlin. In a satchel he carried simple things: a toothbrush, pyjamas, bread; a hardback copy of Mark Twain’s Die Million Bfundnote. I ask about the book. “I remember a man who travelled to another country with one dollar in his pocket.”
“Do you remember the train journey?”
“Of course, I was afraid every minute.”
Arriving in Berlin he stayed with a relative. His parents would arrive two weeks later. By June of ‘58 they would leave Germany on a cargo boat named after Alberto Dodero. The trip to Buenos Aires would take 27 days. Michael wore a hemmed shirt, trousers, black shoes.
“We ate meat, soups, bread,” he says, “my first experience with Argentinean food came in Buenos Aires. At the port there were buses with small windows, the people coming from the boats had bad faces, dirt and things. A relative living in the city took me to Costanera Sur one weekend. We ate choripanes.”
“How did it taste?”
“Good, you should try it here. We also drank bidu cola.”
His teen years were challenging, little came easy. At school Michael was kept back for having foreign qualifications, shared classes with student’s years his junior. They were inexperienced with the affects of war, unsympathetic. “I towered over them,” he says, “most in my class were 11 or 12. I was 15.”
Having learnt Spanish he left school at 16 and began working for the family business. A company that acquired a license to sell German knitting machines to Argentines. Training was given on how to make cotton fabric. Many housewives came, each hoping to produce something they could wear or sell. The business grew quickly with demand. For Michael, working for his grandfather and father was difficult. “My family had strong expectations,” he says, “but I enjoyed meeting the people.”
By 18 the demand for success became reason enough to leave the company. Michael felt he needed to stand alone, headed south towards Caleta Olivia, in a truck with strangers he’d met on the streets of Buenos Aires. They spoke of potential work as they drove, smoked cigarettes and shared ambitions. “There were no roads where we went.” He moves his fingers like he’s sprinkling seeds, “dirt and stones everywhere.”
He worked in a grocery store, sold vegetables for modest pay and cigarettes, existed amongst obreros with a watchful eye, adapted to his surroundings with caution. “People were hardened.”
In his 20s Michael went back to Germany. He doesn’t speak about this much; memories left behind rather than forgotten. “Things didn’t work out.” After a period of travel he returned to Buenos Aires, gained employment in a well-established company with no family members to answer to.
By his 30s he’d established a career in sales, but something was missing in his life, and for a period he considered entering a Viahara. I ask him why he sought eastern faith as he approached middling years. “I was working for a huge company at the time, and meditating, battling faiths.”
Michael never made it to the Buddhist monastery in California, I ask why. “You should talk to my wife.”
Sat in deckchairs, mother and daughter smile at one another. Evening approaches with little warning, shadows are cast by lamplight. I turn to Viviana, ask about her first encounter with Michael. “He spoke with my mother.”
“Not to you?”
“We didn’t speak that day.”
Viviana was stood by a carwash. An only child of 23 years, she was visiting Buenos Aires with her parents. Soon she would return home to Paraná, Entre Ríos. With her father paying for service, Michael pulled over, introduced himself to the mother, talked about his first day in a new job. After complimenting her olive complexion, details were exchanged.
The next morning he sent a note to their hotel asking to see Viviana. A meal was arranged with the family. “He wished to meet with me before I left and hoped I enjoy the pretty sun,” she says.
Within six months, Michael and Viviana would marry in secret after several visits to Buenos Aires. A family would be raised in the city soon after. “He told me about his life straight away, this was not normal for me. I sensed a lot of feeling,” she says.
Jazz plays in the background: stitched instruments, lazy tones, unrushed tempos; ebb and flow, ebb and flow.
I ask Michael about daily life, his work in sales, the people. “They are always reacting, here you see everything,” he says. “I spend many hours driving through the outer barrios of the city, on highways the traffic can be very bad, you have to know where to go at what time, it isn’t always easy to manoeuvre.” He looks tired. “Protests can surprise you on many mornings, piquetes. In Germany we didn’t have those.” I search for piquetes in a dictionary: picket; street band. “No pasa nada,” he says, “you will hear these words often, but the people of Buenos Aires care very much.”
“A lot is written about the government, mistrust,” I say.
“Ah, yes, this may look like civilisation.” He smiles. “It is incredible what happens here.” Michael stares through glass, into the distance, beyond apartment blocks where families rest on balconies sipping mate. An evening hush has come, sunset pinks a blue skyline. Soon night will fall and the city will move in a new direction. “You will see many people selling goods between the trees,” he says, “they come to Buenos Aires from all over hoping to make their way.”
Before I leave the apartment there are warm embraces from wife and daughter. I thank them for the afternoon, the meal, their company. Michael stands to shake my hand, walks me to an elevator. As we wait I turn to him. “Why did you learn the drums?”
The elevator arrives, Michaels pulls open stiff tijera doors. “As a child I had many sounds and rhythms inside of me.”
All photographs courtesy of David Moran and Michael Hahn.