The Culture Shock of Dancing Atoms
Only travel, love, reading, and art have made me truly vulnerable to beauty and its multiform psychic violence. After all, familiarity on some basic level is immunity. When we’re familiar with a specific space, we stopped being affected by it, and this is the only reason why I stop trying to understand what places mean (to the world, to me, to its people) until I’m lost again, until I’ve become exiled by unfamiliarity, until I’ve been thrown out of my predictable life by the bouncers of modernism redux. When LB and I returned to Chicago after living in South America for a year and traveling through Europe in youth hostels, I got a taste of the vulnerability and the unfamiliarity I’d craved since my first year of college and it fucking scared me.
I’d always loved the idea of not recognizing where I lived or seeing my native land as foreigners did for the simple reason that I’ve always sought defamiliarization since I was a hapa boy trapped in a beautiful hamlet in Northern Michigan where racial and cultural differences were erased, ignored, or indicted, but where the human spirit was also nourished by clean air, quiet streets, fresh lakes, sakura groves, and Ansel Adams forest snapshots. Walking down Michigan Avenue with fresh and untrained eyes as an adult meant that I could fall in love with my city all over again, it meant I could recreate Chicago into a fresh, subjective, and linear experience of joy and self-discovery again as it once was for me as a seventeen-year-old teenage boy with California tan lines and a briefcase of debate evidence. Seeing Chicago with fresh eyes meant I could recreate its segregated majesty in my soul again, one pothole-filled street, one brick apartment, one half-dead courtyard, and one back-breaking skyscraper at a time like the narrator in Borges’s “Circular Ruins.”
Sometimes during naps and extended daydreams, it felt like LB and I had been transported back to the melodic din of loquacious, smoked-filled cafés in Paris, the soft blur of Amsterdam bike lanes and its whispering canals, the chilly majesty of the frosting-covered mountains in Geneva’s confectionary cityscape, and the opioid sunshine of Sitges where I suggestively licked a popsicle in front of a group of gay Spaniards by accident, LB in complete hysterics. I could see our dusty bed in our two-star hotel in Sol where LB and I made love in the dust-filled darkness after eating photogenic paella at a famous restaurant we’d talked our way into in Spanish and dozing off before being woken up by drunk Madrileños singing ’80s rock songs and Magic Flute arias in the streets and hyperactive French teenagers racing down the hallways and knocking on the doors of guests. Fous le camp, I’d grumbled. I could see us stuck inside a creaking, scorching old train that threatened to bake us alive as we traveled through the Sahara desert, the dust invading through the open window before we arrived in Marrakech and almost got mugged by Moroccan teenagers in the medina who yanked the map from my hands and tried to charge me €20 for taking us to our ryad against our will before I got into a shouting match in French, LB standing there confused and on the brink of tears, their leader threatening to beat me up for not paying their unsolicited fee, my patience turning into unstable anger before I finally handed him a pocketful of small coins.
Traveling is always simultaneously time-traveling. You’re learning about that country’s history at the same time that you’re exploring its urban spaces, constructing a new historical framework (for you) at the same time you’re reconstructing its culture in every street, landmark, and alleyway as you reverse engineering time itself. It’s only because each country’s history is new to you as the cultural tourist that the present and the past always collapse into each other, but that’s part of the magical blur of travel. Your long-winded strolls through each new city are just a kinetic ethnography, so you walk until the soles of your feet are blistered with historical footnotes.
After returning to Chicago, Zoe seemed worried about our ephemerality, like LB and I were flickering between parallel worlds in Buenos Aires, Paris, Madrid, Geneva, Barcelona, Casa, Marrakech, and Amsterdam like fickle atoms dancing under the scientific gaze of electron microscopes. Sometimes, she curled up on our suitcases in protest. Take me with you, her naps said. Don’t leave me alone, her naps shouted. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough room in Chicago for all our memories of Buenos Aires. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough time in Chicago to rescue every memory kidnapped by the shifting historical frames of the present. My Latin professor in college once said that the present changes the past, not the other way around, an argument I would have embraced if it hadn’t come from someone whose scholarship was entrenched in antiquity. But later in life, I realized he was right and I should have studied my declensions more.
In Chicago, the morning sunlight streamed into the bedroom like aerated bourbon. Inside my head, I saw visions of human pyramids climbing into the Barcelona sky, their faces embellished with gold dust, a tiny child clambering to the top to blow a gold bugle like an LDS herald of the apocalypse. I forgot where I was when I woke up one afternoon, but I’d woken up in a cold sweat, afraid I’d slipped into a wormhole straight to Marrakech, counting the seconds until the night blotted out the natural light like a slumlord nailing the windows of a condemned building. Sometimes, traveling felt like a collective hallucination that I stumbled into like walking onto someone else’s movie set. Other times, traveling felt like the gradual annihilation of my once-familiar life in Argentina, one sumptuous meal, one Instagrammable stroll, one bucolic train ride, and one exhausted flight back again to an old life that hadn’t changed nearly as much as you had.
Though I eventually stopped calling our Palermo Viejo apartment home, it was the last place LB and I were a cohesive design. We had spent the last year living on the other side of the equator where toilets flushed counterclockwise, futból and protests were national religions, and empanadas, asado, and mate were lighthouses for the shipwrecked and the disoriented. In Cap Fed, cafés became small operas, sometimes introspective, sometimes unbearably bright, but always contrapuntal: a social melody with baroque rules of simultaneity. In this mythical and faded city, mate gourds froze timelines, ambient laughter was viral, echoing in almost every street, bluntness slashed etiquette, the sticky winter sky weaved tales of thunder out of unraveled rain clouds and every conversation in the street became dialogue in someone else’s short story or bar anecdote. Time in Cap Fed was an emotional force of nature crashing down recklessly on the sad exaltation of every missed sunset. I still think about the used bookstores there all the time with smoke filling my heart.
For the first month back in Chicago, I thought I was back in South America every time I woke up in Lakeview. My mind was sluggish, tortured by nostalgia, and confused by differential sunlight. Chicago was my complex dream catcher, capturing the grainy sedimentation of my unconscious mind, amassing the sensory details of all the places I’d traveled to and passed through that summer. My mind was a mixed-up photo album of confusing experiences that I began doubting, moving closer each day toward the Chicago stockyard again like an almost-broken freight train gaining strength through momentum.
At every stage in my life, I always returned to this working-class city where I became an adult, began college, learned to smoke, became a “writer” first and then a writer second, and daydreamed obsessively about the globe beyond the simulacrum ocean. I spent most of my 20s dreaming about the rest of the world, but now culture-shocked and jetlagged, Chicago became my cradle of infancy again. I loved her as an adult for all the reasons I’d despised her as a college student obsessed with literature, language, and philosophy: the El was filthy, the sunshine broke out into thunder showers without warning, the air was sticky and sultry at night, the Loop resisted transformation, the sidewalks reeked of stale beer, the vegetarian restaurants were ten years behind California, strolls across the Chicago River routinely broke my heart, and there was a feeling of solidity when I walked through neighborhoods made of brick and mortar. Every time I returned, I was forced to create a new relationship with her streets, always starting from a harsh discontinuity, always continuing with a blurry and fierce disfiguration of time, always skimming the instructions of exile, always stoking my intransigent and conflicting fire for sanity, adventure, stability, novelty, belonging, and alienation. There could never be a détente.
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