Iwas born in Buenos Aires in 1946. My mother left my father when I was two years old; it was a sudden end to a failing marriage, and she took me with her (my brother and sister, both older than me, stayed with our father). We moved into a recently finished apartment building. I still remember what must have been my first hours there as soundless images of bare walls and naked light bulbs dangling from ceiling roses. If I were pushed to associate an emotion with that early memory, unhappiness wouldn’t feature at all-just a feeling of puzzlement or disorientation.
Unhappiness would come later, once I was old enough to understand the reality of a divided family. It must have been at that time that I began to realise that our building was a postwar Noah’s Ark. Many of the residents had fled Europe before or after 1945. Among the earlier escapees was Nicolas Benoist, the leading stage designer for La Scala in Milan, and his family. I remember the impression made on my child’s eyes by his sketch for a scene in Wagner’s Ring: a gloomy, cavernous space dramatically lit by a raging fire. There was a contrast between the energy of that image in their sitting room and the air of melancholy of Signora Benoist and her young son. Some time before I met them, the paterfamilias had announced one evening that he was going out to buy the evening paper. Instead he went to the airport and took a plane back to Italy, never to return.
In the apartment above ours lived the Nicolaus family from Greece. Here the family unit had remained intact, and holy icons were the reminder of the life they had left behind. Another Greek touch were the Homeric rows between husband and wife. Occasionally I played with their daughter Tamara, who was my age, but our friendship didn’t last. During a dispute over a toy she showed signs of ancestral temper and threw my goldfish out of the window.
My favourites were the Martins, who lived across the lobby from us, and pampered me with the wistful affection of people who can’t have children. They were Austrians. Unlike the other refugees from the war, their domestic life-and they themselves-had an aura of contentment. Carlos (Karl?) was an engineer, probably in his early forties. He worked as production manager for an…