Argentina

I have learned to stop walking like an American. I cannot walk like an Argentine, because Argentine women walk down narrow sidewalks in tiny four-inch heels, their feet stepping precisely and quickly below their summer skirts and bloomer pants and they have a mincing balance that escapes me, especially when it is hot.

Now it is very hot. It is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, and the heat here is worse than a Washington summer. Your shirt clings to your back. The streets are narrow and the buses roar down them and shoot soot straight into your face like a vacuum cleaner gone berserk: PHLOOM, then they're gone.

But I do not walk like an American any more. Americans walk open, innocent, loose at the arms. The stride is longer. The knees bounce a little. Sometimes they smile as they walk. You can spot them a block away. Once, in Montevideo, Uruguay, we picked two of them out in a restaurant -- they were not even walking, these two, just standing there smiling and defenseless. We did not have a moment's doubt. "Want this table?" asked my husband, and they looked startled. "Sure," they said.

Also, I have learned to carry a shopping bag. If you go to a market in Argentina without a shopping bag the merchants will sigh, wrap your purchases in newspaper, and tie them with string. The aging ladies in flowered blouses all carry cloth shopping bags with plastic handles, so I bought one at the little booth at the public market where a small man with a mustache perches atop a stool and sells the household goods stacked behind him on the shelf. Next to the household-goods man are the fruit men with their sweet peaches stacked and their grapes piled high, the vegetable man with their deep red tomatoes and eggplants and green beans, and the butchers with their giant cuts of unfathomably good beef.

If there is no time to walk to the market, I go to the fruit man on the corner and the badly lit little pasta shop that sells cheeses, mineral waters, fresh tagliarini (a type of egg noodle), cooked chickens and Italian spinach pie.

There are not very many supermarkets, and nobody pays much attention to them. This may be because paying for more than two days' food is fairly dangerous to the nervous system; (those cooked chickens, for example, just went up from $11 to $12 apiece). Or it may be because, if other people have the same kind of refrigerator we have, their refrigerators freeze everything except mustard.

We also have a washing machine, but the washing machine does not know how to empty itself. You must grasp the black rubber hose that sticks out the side of the machine and jam the hose into a hole in the kitchen floor. Although this hole is designed solely for hose-jamming, it is far enough from the washing machine that no matter how fast you whip the hose in, small fountains of soapy water spew out over the floor tile. On its spin cycle the machine tends to rise up, shake violently back and forth, and begin advancing on the spare bedroom. I tried to beat it back once, but it gave me electric shocks, so I now leave the kitchen at this stage and wait for it to resume control of itself.

NORTH AMERICANS do not think about the telephone. When the telephone rings you get out of the shower, or drop the simmering white sauce, or interrupt heated arguments and answer it. If you want to make a phone call up there, you pick up the receiver. This is not the way it is done in Argentina.

Here is how you make a telephone call from Buenos Aires: Pick up the receiver. Wait for a dial tone (in Montevideo, it is good to have an interesting novel handy at this point). When the tone comes -- it will be an anemic, warbly little note, but never mind -- begin dialing. You will not get all the way through. Three-quarters of the way through your number you will get a busy signal.

When you try again you will get a ringing sound before you reach the last digit, then it will beep at you. Then it will make a sound much like a small robot strangling. Ultimately you will make it all the way through -- and be greeted by silence. No ring. And when it does ring, it's a wrong number. "Equivocado! (Mistaken!)" the voice will cry. The second time you call the wrong number, the voice will kindly offer to leave his or her phone off the hook so that the telephone system cannot divert you again to that particular line.

The first time I encountered this laborious procedure, I was so fascinated that I took copious notes on my efforts to reach a colleague who lived four blocks away. The second time, I was on deadline and it was only the great good humor of the office assistant that kept me from hurling the telephone out the window. Now I take ulcer medicine in small, regular doses.

Argentines find all this amusing. They tell great tales, most of them true, about the telephone: how an unpaid bill means the company will cut off your service and it will cost $10,000 to renew; how messengers in automobiles reach cities hundreds of miles into the interior faster than a telephone call; how generations come and go in homes still waiting for the telephone installer. The record wait is said to be something more than 35 years.

THE HEAT is worst in the late afternoon. The subways rock side to side with their windows open, and the hot wind blows across the cars. One of the lines is all wood. The English built it, and someone still works at polishing and varnishing the wooden walls, the burnished train and the slatted seats.

On the hottest nights we go to the movies. The last one had Barbra Streisand, who sang, but the electric fans sang louder. There were 10 big fans, four down each side of the theater, and they roared with such fervor that we followed the plot line by reading the subtitles, which is always less fun, because the subtitles never include the swear words.

When Streisand reached her big moment on stage, the film broke. In Mexico this would have caused a minor riot in the balconies, but Argentine audiences are extremely polite. When we went to see a picture about "The Village People," in which young men from a singing group while dressed in construction outfits, Indian feathers, hot pants and full leathers, the audience watched with silent, consuming interest. We contemplated telling them that this really is how people dress in Greenwich Village, but decided against it.

In the movies, the United States looks like this: simple, savage, expensive, saved by love. There is a picture making the rounds in northern South America, where the censors are not so vigorous, whose title translates as "American Madness," and it is a sort of documentary about North America. We saw it in an eastern Venezuelan oil town, where the buildings were small and pastel-painted and "American Madness" played to a packed house.

It featured (and you knew, instinctively, that they had not made these things up): a car wash where the assistants are women wearing no shirts; a pot hotel where owners leave tape recordings of their voices so the animals will not be too anxious; a midair parachutists' wedding in which the couple lands in the middle of a nudist colony; and some people in Florida who find it amusing to keep pet piranhas. We left that one early, while the theater was still darkened.

One night in Montevideo we went to two theaters in a row. The first one had Clint Eastwood as a New Jersey shoe salesman who gets out of prison (he shot his wife, but we are meant to understand that this was because she slept with his best friend) and starts a traveling Wild West show. He is his own creation. "Little pards," he says to the children in the audience.

A spoiled blond heiress, abandoned when her husband absconds with the limousine, stumbles upon Eastwood. They push each other around for awhile, have an adventure or two and join up together in the end. Her millions matter less to her than having her true love throw knives at her on a spinning Wild West wheel. The troupe members, all of whom are also ex-convicts, counsel the bewildered blond: "You can be anything you want to be."

When we left that one, we walked down the street and saw the Brazilian flip side of the same movie. This picture is called, "Bye Bye Brazil," and it is about a tiny traveling carnival, a magician and his seductive rumba queen rolling on a truck through the dry white dust of the Brazilian countryside.

They pick up an impassioned accordionist and his pregnant wife. The accordionist loves the rumba queen, the magician lusts after the pregnant wife, the land is so dry that nothing will grow, and the people implore them, parade saints, ask for rain, and ask for food. There is no rain and there is no food. The magician gambles away his truck. The rumba queen turns tricks to make extra money. The love is barbed, huge, full of pain, and it does not save the poor or humble the rich. In the end the human spirit is a desperate, wonderful thing, but it does not take away the drought.

I wonder what a Brazilian thinks when he sits down in front of Clint Eastwood, a Clint Eastwood playing on celluloid to a continent where children dance in the street for food money, as we saw one night in Lima, Peru, or lurk as they do in Columbia, waiting to rip silver earrings from women's ears?