On a phone call to London this lunchtime, I was interrupted by a loud and ceaseless thumping noise.
“What the hell is that?” asked the irritated voice on the other end of the line.
I slid open a window to poke my head outside. A seasonal storm was brewing. Giant black thunderheads loomed over the city like mountain ranges, while hot, menacing winds swirled in the square below, where a jumbled troop of flag-waving communists were dragging their feet around the bust of a military General, like they were lost. One of them, a skinny teenager with a Beatles mop, had a bass drum slung over his shoulders on a woven harness. Every time he beat the drum, which sounded like a car backfiring, his face stretched into a toothy grin.
The ragbag troop came to a stop outside the Ministry of National Security, immediately around the corner from my building.
“Well?” said the voice in my ear.
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just communists.”
Then came the deafening blare of sirens as armed police raced into the plaza, paired up on motorcycles and spilling out of meat wagons. They must have been waiting in the cobbled side streets, anticipating the rally. The commies held their ground, brandishing their enormous red flags lovingly embroidered with the hammer and sickle and the acronym ‘CCCP’. Banners were clumsily unfurled, many of which incorporated the iconic portrait of “Che” Guevara, which I recently learned was taken by a fashion photographer.
A young woman started to chant unintelligible mantras into a bullhorn, and the assembled radicals responded in dreary chorus, like a Church of England congregation after a night on the sherry. I thought they sounded bored, more than anything.
My shorts used to be navy, but now they’re covered in sweat stains and specks of tomato sauce
This went on for a while, before an elegant woman in a tailored tweed suit and a designer neck scarf started to join in. Clearly out for a stroll in the neighbourhood, she was accompanied by her grandson, who came up to her bony hip and was dressed in a little white sailor suit. Under his grandmother’s encouragement, the boy punched his tiny fist into the air, advocating in shrill, unwitting screams for Marxist revolution. The delighted woman threw her coiffured head back with laughter, clapping her hands together as she tapped one of her kitten heels on the kerbstone, enjoying herself immensely. The communists said nothing, just stared them down, until the imposters sauntered off, presumably for a lunch date.
After taking my Spanish class this evening, I searched online for useful phrases using the verb “creer”, meaning “to believe”. On www.spanishdict.com, advertised as “The world’s most popular Spanish translation website”, I found the following examples:
- We have reason to believe that your life’s in danger.
- We have reason to believe that Ted Kaczynski’s the Unabomber.
- And they want you to believe that tragedy is just temporary.
- It’s hard to believe I bought a dress for that.
- I can’t believe that my brother and Sarah are spies.
- Aurora, you can’t believe she means anything to me.
- Jung Soo, I can’t believe you slept on the floor.
- It’s just hard to believe the Pentagon paid for this.
- I can’t believe what you did to get this couch.
“I don’t know how you stand the filth,” an American messaged me, after reading a piece I wrote about one of my favourite Buenos Aires hangouts. “During my extended stays in Mexico—real Mexico—in the Nineties, I just tried to avoid or ignore it. My hat is off to you for not only ignoring it, but for describing it all in such lurid detail.”
Have I got used to filth? I wondered, reading his message. Then I looked down at the raggedy shorts I was wearing. They used to be navy, but now they’re covered in sweat stains and specks of tomato sauce. I don’t know why. I washed them last month.
“One thing I like about living in Argentina,” my English friend Sam said to me recently, “is that it’s OK to dress like you. There’s no pressure.” He gestured towards my ensemble. My trainers had a massive gash on one side, like they’d been gnawed by a rabid rottweiler. My tennis shorts were faded and misshapen. “And I’ve seen you wear that shirt a million times,” Sam added, topping things off.
I suppose I should have felt ashamed, but I didn’t. I felt nothing. He was right.
In my defence, I still dry heave when I use some of the bathrooms here. But I’ve definitely grown accustomed to the sight of real poverty: of barefoot children with muck-smeared faces handing me prayer cards and pleading with me to give them money. I don’t change my clothes anywhere near as much as I would in the UK. Also, I shower less.
This afternoon I went to drop an empty bottle of Coca-Cola into a large recycling bin and when I pushed back the flap, a pair of eyes stared back at me. I’m used to this, too. One regularly sees entire families foraging inside the city’s bins.
I hesitated briefly, before handing over the Coke bottle. “Thank you,” said the small, grubby man inside the bin, taking it.
And I said, “Oh, it’s nothing. Have a good day.”
My friend Jorge called me “a stupid asshole” today for speaking such poor Spanish.
I didn’t know what to say, so I blamed the locals, who are always trying to talk to me in English. “How much want?” a guy said to me in the bakery this morning, when I went to buy my medialunas. I told him I wanted three, and he counted to three in English on his fingers, raising his shaggy eyebrows at me like I was supposed to give him a round of applause.
This afternoon, the cashier at the supermarket said to my girlfriend, “You are very pretty. I enjoy you today.” Then the greengrocer said, “Want you three or forty?” when selling us zucchini.
After I’d quit making excuses, I went to pay for our drinks. “Thank you,” the waiter said, with a click of his heels, “welcoming.”
“See?” I said to Jorge, throwing my hands up. “What’s an Englishman supposed to do?”
I continue to enjoy an Instagram account that teaches me Argentine slang expressions. Some recent favourites include: “They are like arse and underpants!” (when two people are inseparable); “Close your arse!” (shut your mouth); and “Misplaced as a dummy in the arse!” (?).
Argentines seem to be obsessed with arses. Another phrase I’ve learned—and plan to use as often as possible—is: “It lasted less than a fart in a basket,” meaning something sadly ephemeral, like a politician’s promise.
This afternoon, sat on my balcony, I watched a woman walking her dog in the square. The dog was huge and hairy, a Bearded Collie, or something like that, and I was surprised when the woman stopped, lifted the stationary dog’s tail, and stuck her finger up its arsehole.
Standing upright again, she shook her head and turned around, walking the dog back to its building.
I don’t even want to think about what she was doing.
The crap saxophonist outside the Decorative Arts Museum has expanded his repertoire to include the 1978 Rod Stewart hit “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”
The National Library is located a minute or two by foot from my apartment and is surely the ugliest building in Argentina, if not the world. Designed in the brutalist style in 1962, political and bureaucratic delays meant that construction didn’t start until 1971, and its doors weren’t opened until 1992. In her brilliant book, Bad Times in Buenos Aires, the British writer Miranda France described the library as looking like “a defecating monster”—and I can’t improve on that.
A friend of mine lives in an apartment directly overlooking the hideous eyesore. “I’ve grown to love it over the years,” he swore to me the other day, but he said it without conviction, and I refused to believe him. The only thing I love about the library is a statue of María Eva Duarte de Perón which stands in a square at the front of the building, facing the Avenida del Libertador.
I first noticed the statue a few weeks ago, when I was relishing the dappled sunlight in the tree-lined gardens of the library, which is situated at the site of the Peróns’ presidential palace. The Palace became a place of pilgrimage and worship following Evita’s death in 1952 and the military coup that overthrew President Juan Domingo Perón in 1955. The new dictatorship was determined to wipe out all traces of the Peróns, so the magnificent Beaux Arts mansion was detonated to rubble in 1958.
I get a lump in my throat when I hear the chaotic Argentine National Anthem
The monument to Evita was erected in 2000, and it’s an extraordinary thing. Originally Evita’s own idea, she planned for it to be sculpted in marble and stand sixty feet tall, insisting it be as visible as the Eiffel Tower and as imposing as the Statue of Liberty or Christ the Redeemer. The current, more modest structure stands twenty metres high, replacing a statue of a Nicaraguan poet, who was presumably whisked off somewhere else. Cast in bronze, it is said to depict Eva Peron “in an attitude of advance”. She looks to me like she’s ice-skating. And from my slightly elevated vantage point in the dappled sunlight, I couldn’t quit staring at her perfectly sculpted bottom.
It’s pert and firm and, frankly, it invites admiration, being flawlessly outlined against the fabric of a flowing chiffon split dress. I’ve taken to cutting down the path behind the statue, even though it’s slightly out of my way, just to get a daily eyeful of those buns of bronze. While it surely counts among the lesser sins, every time my gaze drifts towards Evita’s chiselled derriere, my mind aflame with amorous thoughts, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve committed heresy, albeit against a peculiarly Argentine dogma.
Tonight, I met my friend Sander for dinner, and it struck me, as we tucked into our great hunks of steak, that this was the first time I’d been to a restaurant in ten months—which is nuts, as before the pandemic, I’d eat out four or five nights a week.
It felt equal parts exhilarating and surreal to be dining indoors again, and strange because of the protocols. The nearest diners to us, a family of seven, were deliberately sat five metres away and there were three giant tubs of alcohol gel on our table, which the waiter kept encouraging us to use.
Halfway through the meal, we were talking about how long I’ve lived in Argentina, when Sander said, “Your Spanish is really bad for someone who’s lived here for three years.”
I hoped maybe I’d misheard him, and I asked him to repeat what he’d said, which he did, verbatim. I felt wounded and slightly betrayed, as I always do in the face of honest criticism. I made some noises about how I practice every day, and how I’ve never taken formal classes, but my heart wasn’t in it. Sander was right, the bastard.
“I think you do it on purpose,” he said, dabbing his lips with a large linen napkin. “You like to be an outsider. It suits you to not care about the country in which you live.”
It was one of those moments when you know people have been talking about you behind your back—as all of us do about everyone, all of the time.
“I guess,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t only that. It’s also my brain, which simply doesn’t work as well as everybody thinks it does.
On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, I’ve taken to watching an opera company give public performances on the steps of the neoclassical law faculty.
As the skies turn pink, the singers belt out a standard repertoire of crowd-pleasers, from Beethoven to Bizet, while an inebriated hobo with no shirt and an unruly mullet snakes between the audience, yelling at us to listen to the radio instead.
The performances always close with the national anthem, and everyone stands, hands on their hearts. Something stirs in me upon hearing the national anthems of countries that aren’t my own. I get a lump in my throat when I hear the chaotic Argentine National Anthem, the same way I get choked up when I hear the Star-Spangled Banner and the Marseillaise, whereas I’ve never once felt teary-eyed hearing God Save the Queen.
Why is that?
Today, outside the Teatro Colon, in the blazing midday heat, a man dressed as Santa Claus swerved drunkenly past me selling perfect snow-white puppies from the basket of his rusty bicycle.
This happened to coincide with a WhatsApp message from my sister in England, telling me that my three-year-old nephew has posted his letter to Santa in the North Pole.
“I had to write it, of course,” my sister said. “When I asked Gabriel what he wants Father Christmas to bring him this year, he thought long and hard before saying, “A wrecking ball.””
The big news today is about Pope Francis, an Argentine, whose official Instagram account “liked” a saucy photo of a Brazilian model barely wearing a naughty schoolgirl uniform.
An official investigation is under way, with the Papal Press Office stating that “as far as we know, the ‘like’ did not come from that Holy See.” Meanwhile, the scantily clad model says she is excited about the “like” as she is religious.
A lot people in Buenos Aires are pretending to be offended, but I’m also sensing a good deal of national pride.
Argentina has placed second to last in a Bloomberg global ranking of coronavirus pandemic management. The nation also ranks in the top ten countries for recorded deaths as a proportion of the population.
Reading those numbers this morning, I thought back to the beginning of the nationwide quarantine, when a big fuss was made about an image of the Virgin Mary which appeared in the sky at 5pm on a Wednesday in the city of San Carlos, in the northeast of the country.
“A rainbow started to be seen,” is how one enraptured resident described it, “and then some drops started to create the figure of the Virgin in the sky surrounding the sun.”
Others fell to their knees and thanked the merciful Lord for his everlasting protection against Covid-19, before spreading the image on WhatsApp and Twitter.
But one brave man by the name of Ricardo Busto remained sceptical, telling reporters, “My cousin says she sees a penis.”
“It’s such a shame for people in Argentina,” my mother said today about the death of Diego Armando Maradona, “as they’ve really got nothing else.”
I thought this sounded a little harsh, before reading her subtext. What she meant was: “Now Maradona’s dead there’s really nothing left for you at the bottom of the world. Come home!”
I changed the subject, and we got to talking about Brexit. “They want our fish,” Mum explained, “but we’ve put our feet down.” Then she said some stuff I didn’t catch about the Prime Minister’s spin doctor dressing up as a chicken and a government U-turn on Scotch eggs.
At which point, my father appeared. “My life isn’t actually worth living,” he said, referring to the nightly stress of his pre-bed routine, which involves taking multiple pills and organising additional pills to take the moment he wakes up. A doctor has told him he has an underactive thyroid, but Dad is convinced it’s all nonsense. “The only people who have thyroid problems are retards,” is how he put it, adding, “I’m going to the dentist next week and they’re going to drill my skull.”
I mentioned the vaccine, and dad explained that at ninety-one years-old he’s first-in-line for the jab. “It’s the first time I’ve been first in line for anything,” he said, through a grin. “I just hope I don’t turn into a woman, or Frankenstein’s monster.”
“What happened to your tooth?” I asked, noticing another gap.
“I lost it,” he said.
“Well, it’s a long story, but it ended up in a toffee.”
“You see what I have to put up with?” my mother said.
Dad was staring at a painting on the wall above my head. It portrays a bustling scene in the colourful Buenos Aires port of La Boca. “That’s so recognisably England,” he said.
“It’s Argentina,” I told him.
He nodded knowingly, as if that’s what he meant. “Yes, of course. So, how are things down there? Crazy as ever?”
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