The Expat: Richard Shindell

CV: Richard Shindell
Born: New York
Age: 51
Profession: Songwriter
Education: Philosophy degree at Hobart College, Masters in Theology at Union Theological Seminary
Currently reading: Tristram Shandy by Laurence Stern
Last film seen: Buster Keaton’s The Soldier
Gadget: My Rewind folding bike

What do you remember your first visit to Argentina?
I saw exactly nothing of the city. We were in 1995 and it was my first visit with my Argentine wife after marrying a few years before. We rented an apartment on Paraguay, and I was excited. But just as we got here, our daughter, just a baby at the time, came down with a horrible fever and I spent the entire time, as my wife was working, staying in the house with the baby for two weeks.
What I did see was a three block radius around those streets which didn’t leave a really great impression — it was winter, cold, grey.

Why did you decide to move here?
We came back in 1998 and we rented another apartment on Córdoba and Riobamba, around the corner from the Aguas Argentinas building, that incredible piece of work, and on that trip I got a chance to walk around and see the place. I remember standing in the kitchen with my wife and I let slip the fatal words: “I could live here.” I think she almost twisted her neck turning her head so fast, to say: “You said it, not me.”
So the seed was planted and we started talking about it. By then we had two kids who were aged four and one, and it just evolved into an actual project, from something you say off hand to being something concrete. It took us a couple of years to get it all together and we landed here on June 2, 2000. I believe there was a general strike that day…

Was it a definite move?
Yes but when you have little kids, you think things are plastic, that they don’t generate their own momentum and turn into inertia. I never thought about it as a long-term thing — though I should have — and kids get older, they make friends, you make friends, you buy a place, you get used to a place and all of a sudden, six years later, this is where you live. Period.
It’s an interesting psychological transformation that takes place. You go from being a tourist and think everything is wild and exotic, everythng new, I’m learning a language, and where all the streets are and little by little that changes into something, which I don’t have a name for, and then you are a local. And that’s what we are now. The kids are definitely more Argentine than North American and it occurred to me, about a year ago, that I have lived in this apartment longer than any other place in my life. That gave me a pause — you tend to think of a childhood home, but no, I lived there for six years. I’ve been here for 11 years now. That’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere so it’s definitely, in some sense, permanent.

How did you prepare for the move?
In a typical North American, half-arsed way, I tried to learn a bit of the language. When I got here I was completely green and learned Spanish by buying newspapers, one of which was the Herald, and La Nación or Clarín, and reading the article in Spanish then compare it to see if what I read made any sense.
Now, looking back, it seems incredible to me that there was a time when I had never heard or been able to understand the expression más serio que perro en bote (as poker-faced as a dog in a rowing boat). My wife’s English, on the other hand, was always excellent. For example, she could deploy (as she frequently did) a phrase like “you’re barking up the wrong tree”. So the balance was all out of whack. I mean, if one spouse is harbouring such an excellent piece of synopsis as más serio que perro en bote and the other party in the marriage is completely ignorant of the fact, then to what extent do these two people really know each other? Call it a fit of sobreactuación, but I suggested that we move to Buenos Aires in order to resolve the question and right the ship. When we arrived, I found out that the dog in the boat was just the tip of the iceberg (hence the serious demeanor). Since then, swimming lessons and lots of splashing. And we very much hope it never becomes necessary to get back into the boat.

Tell me about the first days here.
My wife started her job and I was taking the kids to nursery, and I could write a novel about trying to get our documents in order… In the mean time, I was looking for a place to buy, which was one of the ways I got to know the city as I’d go off on nocturnal walks with a little notepad, looking at buildings.

How did you meet people or find others to relate to?
Well, my wife already had colleagues but I found myself avoiding other anglophones. We didn’t send our kids to an English-Spanish bilingual school, but when I came here I became more Catholic than the pope and my tendency was to throw myself into being a local. That’s what I wanted to do.
I remember going once to see the World Series at a sports bar in Recoleta, sitting there with the Yankee fans. And it felt really weird. There I was with my compatriots but their experience wasn’t mine. So I didn’t go back!

After 12 years, what is your most Argentine characteristic?
I don’t get enough sleep! I have a pet theory that Argentina would do a whole lot better if they had a decree saying that everyone should sleep two more hours a night. Everyone has to eat dinner a little bit earlier and go to bed a little bit earlier. Sometimes I’m on the street and I look around and think “these people show the same symptoms as I do when I haven’t slept enough.” They get cranky, honk horns — I think there is massive sleep deprivation.

You were here in the 2001 crisis.
It was unbelievable. We had bought the apartment, and I was watching all this happen. I read in a paper that “Fernando de la Rúa has decreed that anyone who has a mortgage of less than US$100,000 would now have it turned into pesos.”
I asked my wife, thinking I was having a linguistic problem, and that this could not be, although it was fabulous, for me. She told me that it said what I thought it said so it meant our mortgage was slashed in half, a third, a quarter. That was an interesting milestone and very strange too. Difficult to understand.
I also remember having to learn about economics. When you live in the US most people aren’t investors or economists, and don’t think about monetary policy. But here everyone thinks about it. So I had to bone up on sorts of basic principles of economics just to understand what the hell was going on!
The other thing was that my mother turned up for her first visit to Argentina the day before they declared a state of siege. We were at the Malba when they declared a state of siege. Everyone had to leave, and my mother had no real idea what was going on, as we thought we could lie to her. So we managed to get a taxi, go home, and lots of protests and cacerolazos were going on. In the end, when she finally did know what was going on, she went out onto the streets with a frying pan and a wooden spoon! She thought it was great fun…

Do times like that make their way into your music?
Well, economics has! There’s a song I am working on called Satellites which has to do with sovereignty. It’s about what politicians can or can’t do in the face of serious economic problems and civil unrest. That’s a song I probably wouldn’t have written if I hadn’t come to Argentina!

Has anything less obscure inspired you?
One is called A Juggler Out in Traffic who used to juggle on the corner of Salguero and Alcorta. I was watching him one day, then there is Balloon Man, about a guy who walks past our apartment. He is quite picturesque to look at as he carries them on this big cross, swaying back and forth down the street. He’s adorable.
And we have a house in La Pampa so I wrote a song about that, which also touches on economic issues…

Which Argentine musicians are you into?
I made a record with Puente Celeste — everyone in that band is top shelf. I went to see them and asked them if they would help me out on a record I was making a few years ago. I also listen to tango and I like Troilo in particular. I also like Vicentico and Peter Capusotto and Spinetta was really interesting. I’m not a big fan of rock nacional but I guess Spinetta was in his own world. He wrote some absolutely beautiful songs.

For Expat Extra about Richard Shindell’s obsession with taxi cabs, click here.

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