Autumn made a brutish appearance this month — my street is littered with leaves, and my cheeks are perpetually pinched pink from the cold air.
I bought an “original” Argentine leather jacket to fight back, and I’ve picked up a few habits to get me through the chill.
My daily routine goes something like this:
7:45 Actually get out of bed. Look out the window, marvel at the sky. Possibly get back into bed.
7:50 Prepare breakfast. Usually oatmeal. Definitely coffee. Turn on NPR.
9:00 Leave for school. Walk for 30 minutes.
4:00 Go to gym. Swimming, cycling, or Pilates.
8:00 Return home. Eat dinner. Check e-mails. Sleep.
For the most part, my days follow this skeleton, but unlike any schedule I’ve ever had in my life, I have a lot more time to get to know myself.
My Pilates classes have blurred the border between my mind and body. My instructor Cecilia is a willowy ballerina, but she is tougher on me than my brawny Quantico drill sergeants. She makes their boot camp procedures look like a kindergartener’s playground.
Cecilia strides into class in loose yoga pants and her hair in an immaculate ballerina bun. She brings a wide, cigarrette-scented smile, Brazilian samba music, and dark, dry humor. She looks like a dancer. Her movements are fluid. But her words are razor-sharp and emotionless — yet she says them in a whisper.
“Recojá la panza!” or “pull in your tummy!” she says as she makes a terrible sucking noise. She wraps her long, slender fingers around my abdomen and tries to close my ribcage. Meanwhile, I struggle to pull my weight in resistant springs and hold my legs 45 degrees in the air. Naturally, my panza puffs up for oxygen, but she forcefully pushes it back down and continues her liposuction imitation.
When she wants me to lengthen my legs, she yanks on my big toe toward the ceiling and makes a ripping noise with her throat — like she’s pulling my leg out of its socket. “Longer and farther, like you’re shooting your leg out of the room!”
As masochistic as it sounds, I like Cecilia’s torture. She stretches my legs like taffy and strengthens my arms with little resistance on the elastic bands.
Before Cecilia, exercise meant lifting as much weight as I could muster and running until my heart hit its maximum of 202 beats per minute. Through the eyes of a ballerina, however, the body’s own force is the best training mechanism.
And the next day, I wake up pain-free.
If I begin to squirm, I catch her sinister grin in the mirror. Cecilia makes me do another set, only pushing down on my leg and telling me to move “dedo a dedo” or “one toe at a time.” By the end, every tiny tendon and muscle in my feet, legs, wrists, and arms are spent. I feel stronger in places I didn’t know existed.
But one day, she caved — I must have been looking really pathetic.
“I have to tell you,” she said, before she took a petite, ballerina sip of her diet coke. “I’m only really hard on you because you’re good. I want you to get the most out of these exercises.”
As sweet as this was, it smashed my notion that all ballerinas were hellish perfectionists like Natalie Portman in Black Swan.
We continued on to the final exercise, where I placed my legs between the springs, forcing myself as far as possible into the splits. Cecilia came behind me and pushed down on my back, and I thought my adductor was going to tear. Before I could wince, she released the pressure, and I felt immediately longer, leaner, more ballerina-like.
For an instant, I didn’t recognize the barrier between my skin and my self.
Then she pulled on my toe, and I painfully remembered where I was.
At least once a week, I find a quiet corner in a cafe to read and write.
I feel the most at home in a cafe, it’s pretty much where I grew up. When I was 17, I started my life on the other side of the coffee bar. I spent the earliest part of the day grinding espresso beans and frothing milk. What began as a summer job grew into a passion. I learned to love the sound of the steam wand and the feeling of espresso grounds under my fingernails.
Four years later, in another country, the cafe is still where I feel most productive and relaxed. Fortunately, Buenos Aires has thousands of cafes to keep me caffeinated and content.
Downtown, there’s the 70 year-old Gato Negro. It used to be a grocery store, and its dark-wood shelves still hold jars of spices and Worschteshire sauce. I come here for an espresso with cardamom, and a chance to run away from modernity. In Belgrano, I go to MOOI, where Adrian serves a cafe con leche and a basket of tostadas and homemade marmelada for about $5. It’s a bare-brick art haven, adorned with handmade details like yarn, gauze, ribbon, and canvas. In Palermo, I clandestinely sip behind rows of books at Boutique del Libro and lose myself in the sounds of electro tango.
Every place has a different feeling and an incredibly varied clientele. My favorite cafes are the no-frills, florescent-lit bars where men stop to smoke and nibble on medialunas (croissants) or fried cow brain. Although, when I stop in here, I take an inconspicuous place in the corner and hide behind a newspaper — I’m usually the only woman, furthermore blonde, to take a seat.
Cafe culture is such a simple concept, but amazes me. Coffee is a luxury item, a nonessential, yet cafes here are always busy. Even my coffee shop back home felt little or no pinch after the recession. Aside from something warm to sip on, cafes are microcosms of their community and a temporary, unspoken agreement that we’re all on the same level — tired, contemplative, or just needing a pause.
While it may seem depressing that I spend quite a bit of time in my own company, I truly couldn’t be more thrilled. My days are full of activity, full of sensations, and full of speaking. Sometimes I just need to turn it off and check in with myself.
Here I am, alone with my cafe con leche, yet surrounded by porteños of all kinds, and I couldn’t be more content. I’m accompanied by a table of businessmen gesturing over their espresso. Six women chatting wildly and hovering over a few plates of dessert. An older man with the day’s newsprint unfolded in his face.
There’s not a thing more I could ask for — I know I have myself and my own force to make things happen.
Although, I wouldn’t mind asking Adrian for a plate of tostados.