Daniel Tunnard, the Brit taking all the buses in Buenos Aires, continues his Colectivaizeishon series with The 19.
Most of the buses that go from Saavedra Bridge to Once do so via avenues Cabildo, Santa Fe and Pueyrreddón. The 19 isn’t like other buses. The 19 is a maverick, a bus that plays by its own rules, a bus that knows that the best way to get somewhere isn’t always the shortest way. In short, the 19 is what is popularly known as “vueltero”, meaning that, rather like my narrative style, it goes round and round and back on itself without ever really getting anywhere.
And so we quickly get off nippy avenida Cabildo and head down avenida San Isidro for one block, turn immediately down Arias for a couple of blocks, and so on like that until we get to Once some twenty-five streets later. But it’s a quieter, more picturesque route, and really, when was the last time you were in a hurry to get to Once? Once is so called because that’s the number of times people hurry there before deciding they would do well to tarry in the future. You can’t beat a bit of tarrying where Once is concerned. Plus, the undeniable roundaboutness of this bus route means that I get to go past the premises of one of many former employers, the Buenos Aires Japanese School.
When I started at this school I had an interview with the director of English studies and the school principal, both of them Japanese who had worked in Buenos Aires on a three-year jolly and were gearing up to go back to the real world, or “Nihon” as they called it. (I lied to you just now about why Once is called Once. Sorry. Once actually means “Eleven”, as in 11th of September.) The principal was an old and very curious fellow. During the interview, he’d ask me questions in English, such as “Where you from?”
I’d answer “Manchester”.
“Ah, sooooo desuka?” the principal would say (I trust you have a rudimentary grasp of Japanese. It’s not that 11th of September, by the way.) Then he’d nod his head and sit in silence for about thirty seconds, deeply contemplating my answer. He asked me about four questions, and after every one of my answers he’d do the same: “sooooo desu”, head nodding, thirty seconds of silent contemplation, which may have actually been an attempt to recall his basic primary school English. To be honest, I liked this guy’s interview technique, once (that’s once in the usual English sense, not Once the area of Buenos Aires named after the 11th September 1888) I’d got over my own discomfort with these long silences. Can you imagine that kind of silence between three porteños? It’s a miracle if the three of them don’t all speak at the same time. This place, I quickly decided, was the place for me. (11th September, by the way, was when Domingo Faustino Sarmiento died.)
It didn’t take me long to realise that teaching English to Japanese kids isn’t the same as teaching English to Argentine adults. Unlikely though it may seem, the latter group speaks English with all the grace and fluency of Prince Charles compared with the former. After two months at the school, I’d given up on the possibility of ever teaching them to conjugate verbs or form coherent sentences and was concentrating on teaching them all the names of the fruits, which was the only thing they were interested in, apart from calling me rude names in Spanish (Sarmiento was kind of the father of education in Argentina, and advocated encouraging British and American teachers to immigrate to Argentina. He clearly didn’t have my type in mind.)
My most frequent lesson was “Fruit Salad”. Every pupil had to stand inside a hula hoop with all the hula hoops laid out in a circle, and I gave each pupil the name of a fruit. The pupil in the middle had to shout out the name of a fruit, and all the students who were that fruit had to swap places and occupy another hula hoop. Hours of fun. Or twenty minutes of fun, which was how long the classes were. If the pupil shouted “Fruit Salad”, they all had to swap places. Oh, the mayhem. This accounted for about eighty percent of all my classes. Somewhere in Japan right now, there are several teenagers who can’t speak a word of English but can enumerate all the fruits you’d care to mention.
End of term brought free outings to the best Japanese restaurants in the city, after which the wives would go home with their kids and the men would go to one of various Japanese karaoke bars. These are secret places and effectively exclusive for Japanese, mainly because even if you or I could find them, we wouldn’t be able to afford the entrance fee and the whisky. And these Japanese drank whisky. In fact, the only drinks available were whisky and water, and in the great Japanese tradition every teacher had his own bottle behind the bar with his name on a label. Before they’d downed their first Chivas, they’d start singing. You have not experienced everything Buenos Aires has to offer until you’ve sung “We Are The World” and “Shima Uta” with two middle-aged Japanese men in a speakeasy in Barrio Norte.
When I left the school in 2006, we went out for sushi once again and I was asked to say a few words, and since I’m rarely the kind of person who turns down the chance to speak about himself to a captive audience, I told them this story:
When I’d started at the school three years earlier, I was told that I’d be teaching my classes in the “prayer room”, which I understood to be a kind of chapel, as we all had to take our shoes off before entering. The room didn’t look much like a chapel, just a big TV and a new carpet, but I knew these Asians to be spartan in their places of worship and thought nothing of it. A couple of years went by until one day I asked Marcelo, one of the few Argentine teachers at the school, if that day’s class was in “the chapel”.
“The chapel. You know, the prayer room.”
“No, boludo, that’s the playroom!”
“So why do we have to take our shoes off when we go in?”
“To keep the carpet clean!”