Arnon Grunberg

How to Become a Latin Lover

In 1991, when I was still living in Amsterdam, I acted in a play for children. My part was very small, lasting less than five minutes, and the money I received for it was not much more than social security benefits. But since it was the first time in my life I actually got some money for an acting job, I couldn't complain. All the other actors had been in the business for several years, but thank God, there was one fellow who had been unemployed for more than twelve years and had given up his dream of returning to the stage. He had two dogs, and they were all he seemed to care about. Sometimes, before the rehearsal, he stared into his cup of coffee and whispered, "It makes me feel so bad to leave them alone."
I was almost twenty years old, and all the secrets of life had yet to be revealed to me. I would never suggest that the secrets of life have now been revealed to me, but at least I could cross some of them off my list. For example, the secret to opening a beer bottle with your teeth. I gave up on that. Many years ago. After my dentist spoke to me for more than twenty minutes in quite a desperate way.
I'm still working on the secret of how to become a Latin lover, but I'm on the edge of giving up on that secret, too. However, I would like to emphasize that my dentist is not involved in that decision.
One thing I was already sure about in 1991 was that life is about escaping from the deadly truth, the men in bars who crack the same joke every evening about the two things that are certain in life: death and taxes.
One of the actors who said that every day after the rehearsals was well known for never having paid a single penny in taxes his whole life, so he must have had quite a feeling for irony. I still think of him as a guy who thought you could live forever, if you avoided paying taxes.
Everybody has the right to dream his little dreams, especially as long as nobody gets harmed.
Every single day of rehearsals, somebody had a nervous breakdown. The nervous breakdowns became our routine. That's when I decided only to marry if, on the day of my wedding, nobody around me would have a nervous breakdown. I have never gotten married because as soon as I started thinking about it, I could feel my own nervous breakdown coming.
My dentist said, "The secret to a good life is being happy with what you have." But he got married five times, the last time to one of his patients. The people who know keep silent, and those who don't keep giving you advice.
Almost six months ago I got a letter which said: "Stay away from that woman. She's happily married and has two beautiful kids."
It was obvious that the letter had been written by her husband. So I wrote to him: "Let's make a deal. If you stay away from that woman, I'll stay away from her, too. You cannot expect me to take one-sided steps. After all, I'm not a country, and I didn't lose a war."
Five days later he wrote me: "This is my last warning. I spoke with her mother, and she's on my side."
I wrote back: "I spoke with her grandmother, and she's on my side. You as a neurologist should know that wisdom comes with age."
After that we stopped exchanging letters.
Now I should speak about Sabina, and the real wisdom that comes with age.
She was an actress who was performing in the play for children. She was rather famous, as famous as it gets in Amsterdam.
One day she had a nervous breakdown while we actors were all having lunch, and by coincidence she was sitting next to me. I was trying to learn my text by heart, which was rather difficult because it was an awfully abstract text. One of the most abstract texts I've ever seen in my life.
Suddenly Sabina started crying. I felt uncomfortable, but thought the best thing to do was to continue learning my text. She cried for at least fifteen minutes. Which was heartbreaking and very bad for my concentration.
Then she stopped crying, looked at me, and said, "Do you realize that we share something in common?" This was the first time she had ever said something to me. Besides saying, "Hello, how are you?"
I had never realized before that we had anything in common, but I looked at her, and I'll be very blunt: I felt she was right, though I had no clue what we had in common. Only that it must be a lot.
From that day on I started looking at her differently. And I wrote twenty poems to her, which were all very sad and without even the tiniest little bit of irony. Back then I thought that irony and love were enemies. Now, almost nine years later, I've reached the opposite conclusion, that love without irony is nothing but hate and a lot of broken tea sets.
About the performances themselves I remember almost nothing. Only that at one of the last ones Sabina suddenly asked, "Do you want to go to Paris with me? A French movie I was in will be playing."
It was the second time she had ever given me an invitation. The first invitation was to buy her some chewing gum. Which I did, but it was the wrong brand, so she was really sad.
On a warm spring day, we went to Paris by train. I expected to be with Sabina in Paris at least for a few days, so I brought a suitcase filled with clothes and neat shoes.
From the station in Paris, we went straight to the movie theater. The movie was about a woman who cried a lot, especially in the bathroom. After the movie, we went to a bar and Sabina suddenly said, "You'd better go back to Amsterdam now." Since not only wisdom but also the skill of manipulation comes with age, I replied, "Yes, you're right."
She brought me to a taxi and told the driver, "Take him to Gare du Nord." When I was sitting in the taxi I asked her, "So I did Paris in one day?" But she never answered the question.
The train to Amsterdam was very crowded. The only space left was in the dining car. I ordered a glass of wine, but my French was apparently not that good. I got a rabbit, a bottle of wine, and some French cheese as dessert.
Back in Amsterdam, I had to walk home, since all my money was left in the dining car. That night was the first night of my life I started thinking seriously of writing love letters to make a living.