What does home really mean? Is it where we were born or where we choose to live, if we are lucky enough to have a choice? Do we really have to pick just one? These are questions likely to, well, hit home with many expats who have made Buenos Aires theirs, at least for the moment. What is it about the city that draws foreigners back for another trip because the first two-week vacation wasn’t quite enough? How does one visit lead to the search for an apartment, to plans to find a way – any way – to stay on in the city?
New Zealand author and psychologist Jessica Talbot has an idea or two. She has lived in Buenos Aires for ten years now, and in her novel ‘Picaflor: Finding Home in South America,’ she shares the adventures and misadventures that lead her to Argentina by way of Australia and Peru.
‘Picaflor’ is part travel memoir, part exploration of the psychological and emotional drivers behind Jessica’s search for home. It is rich with travel tales both bitter and sweet and full of light. Vivid descriptions of place — Cuzco’s bustling streets, a bumpy bus ride north in Peru, porteño neighbourhoods and night life — make up a backdrop against which we meet travel companions and love interests, and learn of the loss carried so close for so long. Jessica is a keen observer and the cultural differences she describes are likely to resonate with other expats living in the city.
I talked to Jessica about the journey from New Zealand to Buenos Aires that begged to be told, the process of writing it down, and what it is she believes foreigners find in the city.
How did you come to write Picaflor?
It was a whole series of little events and little things that sort of built up. I never imagined writing, but then, on the journey itself, there were so many moments that were interesting, and I kept meeting people and I’d tell them a bit about my story and they’d say, “Oh, that’s a great story, you should write that.” You know, they just threw it out there. After years and years of hearing that and meeting people with similar kinds of stories, I just thought well, why not?
I also kept meeting people like me, in their early thirties, travelling in Peru or Buenos Aires, a bit lost, a bit disconnected, sort of free floating, like the dandelion seeds that are a metaphor in the book. I thought, how do we become like that and how do we overcome it? How do we find ‘home,’ how do we find a place where we feel good about ourselves and a place where we belong?
What was the writing process like?
First of all I started writing emails to myself and finding old emails I’d written and expanding them into a kind of scene and then I patched them together. Finally I put it into a Word file called Hummingbird – ‘Picaflor’ came later. Then I just built on it until it became a 140,000-word rambling document and I said, “This is a book,” and gave it to all my friends and they went, “Yes, it’s great, but um, it’s kind of long and sounds a little bit like a diary.” So that’s when I got some help from an editor, a mentor really, from Australia. Then later I found an amazing editor from England, who lives in BA. It wasn’t quick, this whole process took more than three years. So I’m pleased with it. I’ve come out of it having a whole different skill that I never imagined in a million years I would have, and a new passion.
You’ve lived in Buenos Aires for ten years now. What was it that initially attracted you to the city?
I think there was something special about the way people had friendships, the way people touch here, the way people kiss here…. A lot of people come here, though there were a lot in Peru too, for a period of time and they end up staying, not always because there was a boy or a girl involved, though sometimes that was the initial spark, a romance or something. There’s something about the culture. New Zealanders and Australians are great people, they are great countries to live in but you know you just don’t get touched, you don’t get kissed as much. Between my students, friends, and the parents at kindergarten were my little boy goes, I get kissed at least thirty times a day, and I never had that growing up…. I guess it was something I needed and I got it here. I think perhaps that happens for other foreigners too. You feel a part of something bigger, more connected somehow.
So there’s something about the way people relate to each other and the relationships they form that you think leads foreigners to make Buenos Aires a permanent home?
People really go out of their way to build friendships, to see you. It’s not, let’s book a time two weeks from now where we might go for dinner, it’s like I’ll pop around tomorrow, let’s have an asado on the weekend. You feel much more in people’s minds. It’s partly a cultural thing, from the background, from the Italian, from the Spanish, but it’s also a product of the history too….
I think when a country is ‘easier’ to live in, like perhaps your country Canada or New Zealand, Australia, I think people can drift so far, even accidentally, and they don’t know how to come back from it. You’re encouraged at 18 to be out of the house, get a job, be independent and I think it’s too soon. I think people need to be closer. It’s human nature to have, like I talk about in the book, a tribe of friends and family, of connected people around you that care about you and you care about them and you do things for each other. I think in countries where things are easier, your tribe is smaller, like two people pairing up. It’s a different attitude to family and friendships…. You ask an Argentine, “Why don’t you leave Argentina?” They always say, it’s almost like this echo, “My friends and family are here.” It’s like they look at you as though you’re crazy. You ask a New Zealander or an Australian and it could be something like they miss the food or they miss the beach that they went to all the time. Friends and family are down the list somewhere.
In Argentina, family, friends, fire (the asado!) and food are still the main things that fuel most people’s lives, and that’s something core to human existence. I think we need that more than ever in this rapidly changing world.
Also I was fascinated with that concept of making a nest where we land, how we do it and what we bring into it. I didn’t have one before, not in my home country, not in Australia; I always felt free floating, on my own, and I don’t anymore. So the book was about that psychological, emotional journey and I think a lot of people have similar journeys, especially other expatriates here in Argentina.
(an excerpt from the opening chapter)
BRIGHT RED DROPLETS FORM, break and then weep into each other. A tissue wipes them away. There’s a buzzing, rattling sound as the machine’s needle digs into flesh, ploughing in the ink. It’s muggy in the small room above a busy restaurant. I smell garlic mingling with the metallic odour of blood. I look up at the tattooist’s face. He’s concentrating hard; translucent drops of sweat fall, catch in his eyebrows and trickle down his nose. His hand seems shaky. I wonder if he’s high. Cusco is known for its coke.
It feels as if a sharp knife is being drawn slowly along my skin. It’s excruciating, but oddly calming at the same time. I ride a surge of endorphins as they well up to dull the sting. I understand why they do it now, the girls and boys at the clinic where I worked, ‘the cutters’. They want relief. They wait to be soothed by the gentle waves of our body’s natural painkillers. Some cut because they crave a point of pain in the sea of overwhelming angst. Others do it to feel something, anything. They seek pain in order to confirm that they exist.
Is that what I’m doing? Is this crazy?
No, I tell myself. It’s the opposite. I’m doing this to mark the end of numbness. It’s been two months since I landed. Two months in this dusty country, where the light shines differently. I’m aware my feelings are unravelling still; they are no longer knotted together with sadness. I can differentiate one from another. Through the blur, I can sense colour coming back…[/box_post]
‘Picaflor: Finding Home in South America’ is available for Kindle from Amazon.com. Readers interested in picking up a hard copy can do so at Walrus Books or visit http://jessicatalbot.net or https://www.facebook.com/
Jessica will be presenting the novel alongside Argentine author Emiliano Néspola at the event ‘Kiwi Latino’, which will take place on 23rd September. Admission is free of charge though it is necessary to RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 19th September.