The Expat: Mickey Vail

CV: Mickey Vail
Born: Bronx, New York City
Age: 76
Profession: Wall Street Journal journalist turned textile company owner turned wine agent and jazz singer
Education: Journalism degree from the University of Bridgeport
Currently reading: Paul Auster’s Moon Palace
Last film seen: Midnight in Paris
Gadget: My microphone

When did you first come to Argentina?
That was well before I moved here. It was 1993 and I was in the textile business. My first day here was a Sunday and I spent the entire day in Recoleta cemetery. Because of my first three trips here, in ’93 and ’94, I thought Recoleta was Buenos Aires.
I was here for three days at a time on business so I went to Once neighbourhood, made some stops, but as I didn’t have the right contacts to make any sales and I didn’t have an agent to introduce me to wholesalers, I gave it a couple of shots and went back to where I normally did business.

Where did you stay?
It was very expensive to travel in those days and I had a deal with my partner, whose wife wouldn’t let him travel, that if I went to Rio or San Paulo or Buenos Aires that I wouldn’t stay in some motel or sit at the back of the plane for 12 hours.
So I stayed at what was the Hyatt then but is the Four Seasons now, I went to the recommended restaurants, and had a great parrilla. I’m not sure if any still exist but there was one, very high-scale place, that may have been on Quintana and Posadas, that I am sure is still there. I saw a few things, such as Plaza Francia, and the museums were lovely. Business was lousy, but the women were great…
I went for high tea at the Hyatt. I’d never been to high tea anywhere. I went and all these old ladies would go with their nurses. Professional dancers would come out and do a spin with their partners then their partners would break off and they’d take one of these 80-year-old ladies and take them for a whirl on the dancefloor. It was quite cute and a good selling point for the hotel.

Your wife is Argentine.
Yes, I met Martha in 1995 and we started coming twice a year on vacation. We had a nice life in New York. We‘d go to Martha’s Vineyard every summer, and I‘d started going there in 1972, and we went every summer, me with whoever I was with at the time, and ending up with Martha for the last five years for nine weeks.
But then we would come here for Christmas and New Year’s, and spend a month. We’d come down, probably over the Easter break too when my textile business would slow down. And as I got to know the city, I got to like it more and more. I’ve never liked the Upper East Side of New York, which Recoleta reminded me, and I would never have moved there. I still wouldn’t.
Then at the end of the nine-week vacation, we’d paid US$13,500 for a beautiful house overlooking the ocean. The next summer, we called the owner, and she wanted US$20,000 for July and US$30,000 for August. We said “no thank you” and have never been back although I do miss that as it was always a great vacation, but enough is enough.
And we saw the way life was spiralling in New York. We’d always lived, and I wouldn’t say large, but good: Metropolitan Opera seats, Rangers tickets, a box for the ballet, ate at all the fancy restaurants but it became impossible to do because of the cost. So we started talking about moving out of the country.

Argentina was an obvious choice…
Buenos Aires had just gone through the crisis. I said to Martha that it wasn’t always going to be this cheap but it is going to take a long time for it to be as expensive as New York is. I was tired of fighting the rat-race, working harder and doing less.
But Martha didn’t want to move here. She’s from here, remembered the hard times, the people who disappeared, and was brought up by the military government. After being in the US for 20 years, she was scared about being in such close proximity to her family.
But we worked around it and came down to see some properties and bought in 2005. The night we got here, five of her childhood friends took us out for dinner, and that changed everything. I think today she is thrilled to be here. She’s got friends galore and does more than she ever did without the pressure.

Where do you live?
Well, that was the second shock when I told her I wanted to move to San Telmo. She’s from Palermo and her friends tried to get her to talk me out of buying here. I was born in the Bronx and lived the last 20 years in TriBeCa before it became a fancy place. San Telmo is where I belong. Great people, lots of space and air.
We rented the house, which was built in 1909, out for two years and we’d come down twice a year with my tape measure to lay everything out. Everything but four pieces of furniture came from New York, including the bar which I picked up from the street.

Waiting to move in for two years must have been frustrating.
It was but I had agreed with Martha we would move in 2007. I had to have a knee replacement and one of my biggest worries about moving here was the state of the medical programmes.
I find every doctor I have here is at least equal, if not better, than the same doctor I had in New York. You get to be in your 70s and you accumulate a lot of doctors. They don’t beat around the bush as doctors here aren’t afraid of medical malpractice.
My medical group gives seniors the alternative of paying for the year up-front, so you don’t get any inflation increases, which can be up to 20 percent, and I basically pay for 11 months and get a 12-month policy. I don’t believe they make any money on me…

Do you go the whole hog and visit a psychologist?
I go to a guy, and I don’t know how much psychology we do, but I spend an hour with him every week and we discuss literature and theatre and basically it‘s two old guys sitting around talking, but for some reason I feel better after it.

Do you see any differences in BA?
The thing I like most about living here is the people. I get asked, “what’s wrong with the people in New York?” and I say nothing, but they don’t have the same manners. It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t been here, but there are small differences that make life much easier. I find the pressure to be about 10 percent of what it was in New York.

Do you still work?
Oh yes. I closed my textile business in 1998 and was going crazy. I’m healthy, I was an ultra-distance runner and to just sit around and have lunches every day — it wasn‘t enough. So I started working in a wine store, which was helpful as I was drinking too much as I waited for Martha to get home. We’d both get home at 9pm and drink less, and now I’m a wine agent for two bodegas here. I love wines from Spain above all, but a quarter of my cellar is filled with those two bodegas’ wine. I have no problem in finding something to drink!

What do you miss about the US?
An Israeli friend was staying recently who asked me that and I told him, “I don’t miss New York in a heart beat.” I have family, my son and daughter, friends, but that list goes down because, out of sight out of mind. Our lives don’t intersect any more.
I have more friends here as I do things with them. It was easy to meet people as Martha had an army of friends she went to school with, so they were my first friends, and that helped my Spanish.

How do spend your day?
I try to work out in the morning, water my plants, then make a few calls to the States about business. I take two voice training classes and work with my piano player twice a week, see my shrink for an hour and have lunch with one of the guys. I write, read, work on my music.

What does music mean to you?
It’s become a very important part of my life here. We do a show every two months, we’re up to 16 now, and we’re cutting a record next month.
I‘ve been singing since I was 13 years old and when we got down here, Martha started going to a bel canto coach as she teaches and always speaks very loudly. So I started going and she introduced me to a jazz pianist she thought I could sing with. So I called Adrián and we’ve been together ever since. Every one else in the band has changed, but he is the rock, he’s great.
I was very gratified with the state of jazz in Buenos Aires — it’s far more advanced than I thought it would be. The kids play very well. They are accomplished musicians and very serious students of the genre, and open to things I can teach them, even though I’m not a musician.
Both being retired and being in Argentina has allowed me to do this.

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on January 22, 2012
Photo by Mariano Fuchila

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *