Monday, November 28, 2016
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Years ago, when I first started flying back for visits to the United States from Argentina, where I long ago decided to reside, I avoided Miami like the plague. I’ve always hated tropical climates. My body is decidedly Nordic. Anything above, say, 68°F and I start to sweat. I can handle dry, desert heat pretty well, but the combination of high humidity and high temperatures I find unbearable. In fact, I’ve never understood how anyone could gladly and voluntarily live in that sort of climate. But then again, those people probably wonder how I could be overjoyed to get up in the morning and see frost on the ground.
Considering what I just said, anyone familiar with Buenos Aires might think that it was an odd choice of a home for me for twenty years. But then again, Buenos Aires is considered a “temperate” climate, even if, in summer, you’d swear you were in Havana, judging from the sticky, breathless heat. But it’s definitely a city with four seasons, even if the changes are way, way more subtle than in my native Ohio. And besides, it’s the city where my wife was born, so the choice was more sentimental than strategic, and, indeed, I fell in love with that chaotic metropolis and love it still, even after another twenty years of living a thousand miles away in the chilly climes of the Patagonian Andes.
Still, during the entire two decades that I lived in Buenos Aires, one of the things that I would, from time to time, grow most homesick for was the climate of my home state—where, the old saying goes, in Ohio there are four seasons: almost winter, winter, still winter and construction—although, admittedly, global warming is changing that somewhat. But comparatively, at least half the year in west central Ohio tends to be cool to downright frigid, while at least half the year in Buenos Aires tends to be insufferably hot and humid.
I remember once, when I was working for a business magazine, I was doing a story on corruption and collusion between a major worldwide multinational and certain IT officials in the Argentine government. I’d been talking to a lot of the rivals and enemies of those involved but now, after pulling a number of strings, I’d managed to land an interview with the CEO of the multinational in question. I’d read up on the guy, knew him by reputation, had even met him briefly once at a cocktail party at the American Club in downtown Buenos Aires. So I had an idea of what he was like and was planning my strategy accordingly. The best way to describe him would be as “a Trump-type” executive, a man who talked about “annihilating the competition”, and who wasn’t averse to bellowing, “You’re fired!” when one of his subordinates failed to meet his every expectation.
I figured if I could remain cool, phrase my questions to “punch his buttons”, field his answers, turn them into new questions and turn them back around on him while stroking his ego, I could get him to say a lot more than he intended to about the company’s government contracting operations. I could, that is, if I could just remain cool.
Of course, Murphy’s Law dictated that the day of the interview was a sultry, partly cloudy one, with thunder rolling in the distance, with mosquitoes thick in the air and with the mercury hovering and 85°F. I was late from another interview and had almost jogged the last few blocks from the subway station to the towering office building near the port, facing the sprawling River Plate estuary, where the company had its South American headquarters. Admittedly, I was nervous enough, running my strategy over and over in my head, without also being late, but once in the elevator on the way to the top floor of the building, I breathed deeply, closed my eyes, and briefly meditated to get my “cool” together.
By the time the doors slid open on the twenty-eighth floor, I was feeling—mentally at least—cool as an Eskimo’s nose. I was wearing my dark blue suit, my red and blue stripped tie and a starchily pressed white shirt and felt altogether presentable as I stepped boldly up to the reception desk and announced that I had a meeting scheduled with the CEO. It was then that I noticed how the receptionist looked at me a little strangely, then turned toward the window as if to gaze out over the vastness of the River Plate, and then back at me with a quizzical expression on her face. I smiled. She smiled back. And then she said, “Has it started to rain out, sir?”
“No, not yet,” I said, and should have left it at that, but instead embarrassed myself by saying, “Why do you ask?” Only to look immediately down at myself to see how the sweat had run off of my head and face and dripped all over my shoulders and lapels, how my now wilted white shirt was soaked through, and how big, dark rings had formed under the arms of my once impeccable blue suit.
In the end, my interview went well enough. I needled things out of the CEO that he’d never said before in public, and I was proud of what I was able to accomplish and the cover story to which it would lead. But, thanks to the climate, any illusion of playing “Mr. Cool” that I may have entertained evaporated—or perhaps condensed would be a better word—before I ever walked in the door.
|Freedom Tower, Miami, monument |
to Cuban refugees
But I digress (as usual)... Miami: As I say, I’d always avoided it. Early on, I would fly into New York’s JFK and—back before the decision of major airlines to fly their passengers through ridiculously far-flung hubs before allowing them to arrive at their destinations—I’d take a direct flight to Dayton, just an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. Later on, the newspaper I worked for in Buenos Aires had an advertising exchange deal with Canadian Pacific, and I could fly direct from Buenos Aires to Toronto and then “across the puddle” to Cleveland, where my sister lives, or to Detroit, near where my brother lived back then. For a while, that became my route home and I found that Toronto was a town I liked a lot and my wife and I would spend a few days there together before forging on to Ohio.
But then the CP-Air deal dried up and Aerolíneas Argentinas quit flying to New York and since it usually had the best rates and I was now no longer a newspaper executive but a free-lancer, I took the cheapest route possible. And that meant landing in Miami.
|The Urbano - home away from home|
At first, Miami was just that—an airport and a place to rent a car cheaply. I didn’t even rest a day before making the journey north to Ohio. I would land at Miami International Airport at 6 a.m. after a fitful, restless night aboard a cramped aircraft, grab my bag in Customs, walk out onto the car rental bus island, hail the bus bearing the name of the company I was renting from, go get my car, get hopelessly lost a couple of times trying to get out of the veritable maze of backstreets where the car rental companies have their offices and lots in the swampy back-and-beyond behind the airport, and eventually find my way to the I-75 exit. From there, it was a straight shot east to west along Alligator Alley on a four-lane path wrested from the Everglades, before the highway turned sharply north on a two-day ride through four states to Ohio.
|Saúl and his shiny black van|
But then, a few years back, I started working for a client who had offices in both Buenos Aires and Miami and that meant I sometimes had business to do in Florida’s biggest city before heading home to Ohio to visit friends and family. I found the Hotel Urbano on Brickell Avenue by chance through a travel agency that got me a special price. But it turned out to be a place where I made friends fast. The staff was amiable, overwhelmingly Hispanic, and seemed to get a real kick out of this old gringo who spoke fluent Spanish with an Argentine accent. As my concierge friend described it, with a laugh, the second time I made a reservation there, “Oh, I know exactly who you are. You’re that guy who looks really white but speaks really good Spanish.”
A day-manager named Nestor, who was from Colombia and kidded me constantly about my Argentine-isms, was the one who told me, on my second trip, not to take a cab from the airport, that he’d send me a trusted driver friend of his, also from Colombia, who worked with the hotel. His name was Saúl and he’d be there waiting for me. When Saúl held the back door of his polished black van open for me, I said, “How ‘bout if I sit up front where we can talk,” and that was—as the line from Casablanca goes—the start of a beautiful friendship.
I figured since I had to spend two or three days each way in hot, sultry, tropical Miami every time I flew into and out of the United States, I might as well have a look around. So Saúl and I struck a deal. Every time he found himself unoccupied, he’d give me a call, pick me up and take me to see a part of the city I’d never been to. It wasn’t long before Saúl went from being my driver to being my friend and over the last four years or so, he’s taken me on personalized tours of Brickell, Downtown, Bayside, Coral Gables, Wynwood, Little Havana, Biscayne Bay, Hialeah, Coconut Grove, the Port of Miami, Doral, Edgewater, etc., etc. We’ve shared lunches and dinner, museum tours and art exhibits and, everywhere, he’s introduced me to the city where he makes his home and to some of the friends he talks to everyday. We’ve forged a lasting friendship.
|Saúl and Dan at Key Biscayne|
Most importantly, Miami has become something other than a landing spot that I’m only too happy to high-tailed it out of. Thanks to Saúl, I’ve gotten past it’s hot, oppressive, tropical climate and learned to see it as the extraordinary place that it is, a melting pot, a part of the US where knowing Spanish is a major advantage, a US territory in name only, a sort of immigrant country of its own, a place where people have come following a dream and where many of them are actually making it come true, for their families if not for themselves. It’s a place whose streets and people I now know, where I feel comfortable and accepted, where I know and like folks and they know and like me.
Once, the quicker I could get out of Miami, the better, while today, I love to linger there for a while, rub elbows with its people, browse its streets and buildings... And sometimes when I’m far, far away, I’ll remember some corner of that city that I’ve learned to see through Saúl’s eye, and I’ll imagine the people there, doing what they do, speaking what they speak, and being who there are. And in the end, what that proves to me is that, whether I like the weather in a place or not, the only climate that matters when it comes to how I feel toward one destination or another is the human climate and whether I manage to get to know and empathize with those who live a different life from my own but with whom, given half a chance, I’m sure to find, I have almost everything in common.