Going home is such a bittersweet experience

by Cesar Chelala

TUCUMAN, Argentina — Coming home to my native Tucuman, a city in the north of Argentina, has become almost a ritual for me. And, predictably, it has its bittersweet moments.

Tucuman and New York, where I have lived for the last 40 years, are quite different — the former relatively small and gregarious, the latter big and anonymous.

Bitter moments include learning of the loss of loved ones, whose impact is greater after living far away. The loss is compounded by a feeling of nostalgia. It happens when realizing that the city one has left is now a totally new city, a totally new and different urban landscape.

Pablo Neruda, the noted Chilean poet, poignantly expressed this feeling. Coming back to Chile, after a long stay overseas he wrote in the poem “Return to a City” (translated by Alastair Reid):

I come back not to return; no more do I wish to mislead myself. It is dangerous to wander backward, for all of a sudden the past turns into a prison.

These unsettling feelings are balanced by seeing old friends and relatives again, and by the pleasures of the unexpected.

I travel with my wife to Salta, a town further north. On the way we stop at Amaicha del Valle, a small town in the mountains reputed — at least by the natives — to have the best climate in the world. Remembering that a cousin whom I haven’t seen in more than 45 years lives there, I ask several people about him. Nobody knows him. I am disappointed.

We have lunch at a popular restaurant. I ask the owner, a jovial 80-year-old who I discover later is a very good poet: “Of course, I know him,” he laughs. “He lives across the street.” I cross the street and knock on the door. My cousin and his wife come out. He doesn’t recognize me. I take my dark glasses off. He still doesn’t recognize me, so I tell him who I am. Our eyes moisten, we join in a long embrace. Afterward we go back to the restaurant where the owner regales us with some of his wonderful poems. Life is beautiful.

We are back in my hometown. Today is a cool day in a normally torrid town. I go to the city’s main square, which looks like most town squares in Latin America, to listen to the State Symphonic Band. The program includes music by Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin.

Although the concert is at noon, the 60 musicians in the orchestra are all formally dressed in black. Their suits are old, and so are the rumbling loudspeakers that occasionally interrupt the performance. But the noises don’t bother me. I am captivated by the scene.

I am sitting near a bass player. My attention is drawn to the strange shape of his instrument. The bridge belongs to another bass and its strings (two made of steel and two of nylon) are held together by a series of knots. And . . . it has a big hole on the side. None of this fazes the musician, who handles it lovingly, as if it were the best bass in the world.

In the meantime, a couple dances under the shadow of a big and beautiful tree, as one of them holds their dog by the leash. I see the face of a woman who reminds me of the mother of a friend, both of them now dead. I feel another pang of nostalgia for what I believe were better, happier times.

After the concert I ask the bass player how he manages to play an instrument in such bad shape. He answers that the instruments are state property and that sometimes the handlers are careless. “But I love music,” he tells me sadly, “and I have to make do with what I have.”

Cesar Chelala is a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.