Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires diary 3.0
In the third instalment of his diary, Dominic watches a man doing ballet on top of the British Ambassador’s Residence, and deals with his rude neighbour
We have no water in our building, and because it’s a Sunday, no one is coming to fix it until tomorrow afternoon. The porter was deeply apologetic when he told me—embarrassingly so. He chased me out of the lobby, then we stood together under the portico, him with his hands clasped prayer-like in front of him, the outsoles of his polished black shoes pressed together as the big silver buttons of his ill-fitting suit-jacket flashed in the glaring sunlight. “There is no problem, my friend,” I told him, as if it wouldn’t be a major setback to not shower after playing tennis for two hours in muggy ninety-degree heat.
Late afternoon, I walked to the nearest bodega to buy several bottles of bottled water. Turning the corner of my square, I came upon a twentysomething woman out with her dog. The dog was squatted square on its haunches, looking up at her impatiently, while the woman was feverishly messaging somebody on her phone. She wore rainbow flip flops, tiny hot pants that showed off her bum implants, and a magenta boob tube stretched to snapping point over the gigantic globes of her fake breasts. Her tan at least looked natural and had turned her hairless skin the colour of Dairy Milk chocolate. She watched me over the top of her phone and gave me a smile. I smiled back and bid her a good afternoon, at which point my left foot sunk into the steaming pile of fresh shit left on the pavement by her dog.
I couldn’t believe it. After hopping on one leg around the pavement, cursing the gods, I turned to her, asking in poorly constructed Spanish, “Couldn’t you have said something before I walked in the shit?” It seemed a question I’ve been waiting a lifetime to ask, but in response she merely shrugged, waving her phone at me to suggest she’d been too busy.
I was livid—and humiliated. As I wiped the sole of my trainer against a tree, she continued to tap away on her phone. Then I turned back to her and said, “So, anyway, what is your phone number?”
She laughed what seemed to be a genuine laugh, and stinking of stale sweat and spicy dog shit, I thought, You charming English bastard, you. Have you really no shame at all? Then she pulled a plastic bag from the waistband of her hot pants, bent over to pick up the steaming shit, and disappeared around the corner, out of my life.
Heading back home this evening, I barely dodged a girl lurching around on roller-skates like a baby giraffe learning to walk. She had tight pigtails and a frightened look on her face, while her musclebound father, who was jogging in a leisurely manner several metres behind her, barked various words of encouragement. On the girl’s T-shirt, in large letters, were the words ONE IN A MELON.
OK, I thought. Decent pun. Then I noticed there was no melon to be seen anywhere on her T-shirt. No photograph, no drawing, nothing. It was a spelling mistake, not a pun.
In my imagination, instead of scuttling past, self-conscious and terrified, I reach out and grab her bangle-laden wrist
Last week, on the Avenida del Libertador, I walked past a woman in her sixties wearing a truly obscene amount of make-up. Her eyelashes were false and coiled, her eyebrows fat and inky black. Her sagging cheeks had clownish red circles painted on them, while her legs looked like they were made of tree bark. Her long coarse hair was the colour of a rotten cherry, and on her T-shirt, in shiny block capitals, was the word SHIT.
I stared in bewilderment for too long and she raised those creepy eyebrows at me. Afterwards, I had to stop outside a pizza parlour and take a few breaths.
In the days since, I’ve been fantasising about her all the time, imagining how differently our little moment could have played out. In my imagination, instead of scuttling past, self-conscious and terrified, I reach out and grab her bangle-laden wrist. Guiding her to the edge of the pavement, I pin her boxy frame up against the stone walls of the Lebanese Embassy. I take a moment, staring one more time at the word stamped in block capitals upon her heaving bosom, then I lean towards her, press my lips against her ear, and say, “Señora, ¿qué está pensando?”
I jot down her exhaustive answer in my notepad and thank her for taking to the time to heighten my understanding of her nation’s puzzlingly complex culture. After which, we go our separate ways, me for coffee, her for yet another vampire facelift.
It occurs to me that I’ve been here long enough now to have seen a meaningful degree of cultural change. For example, three years ago, I’m certain TV adverts weren’t what they are today. Now, every advertisement on Argentine TV is certain to include a sledgehammer demonstration of corporate wokeness. The young woman booking a holiday to a famous Florida theme park happens to be a hardcore feminist with a shaved head and giant tattoo of Frida Kahlo on her thigh. She’s indistinguishable from the septum-pierced hipster in an advert for the world’s favourite soft drink, or even the Viking-wannabe with the beard-plaits exterminating Covid with a household name cleaning product.
The one that really gets me, though, is for a popular Brazilian beer. In the brand’s latest TV spot, a group of urban hysterics with face tattoos and bone earspools bid good riddance to 2020 by dancing around a flaming twelve-foot pyre on a deserted beach. They spring over the sand like sharp-nosed frogs, their studded tongues stuck out Haka-style as they hurl various objects into the flames—books, for example. Occasionally, they swig beer from cans. The commercial makes me feel uncomfortable, not least because I’m clearly meant to empathise with these neo-primitivist circus freaks. I don’t consider myself a stick-in-the-mud, and doubtless 2020 turned me a little nutso too, but I draw the line at burning books.
In fact, I draw the line at face tattoos. I dread to think what the modern-day Don Draper looks like, but I’m resigned to the fact that he won’t be pretty.
Today I learned that a bread bin costs £200 in Argentina. A bog-standard 800ml cafetière costs £100, while a Bodum cafetière costs £180.
The list of things I will never understand about this country grows longer with each passing day.
Stepping out onto my balcony at dusk tonight, I was surprised to spot a trim man clad in a body-hugging black outfit stood alone on the rooftop of the British Ambassador’s Residence.
At first, I thought he might be a sniper, as he was setting up some sort of electronic device against one of the tall chimneys. Then he took three or four backward strides away from the device, held his position, and against my wildest expectations, began to vogue.
Framing his smoothly-shaven face with his arms, he executed a perfect pirouette or two, and before I knew what was happening, his svelte physique began to pop, his narrow hips gyrating back and forth like a wild animal as his hands explored the contours of his young body. This routine went on for a minute or so, his graceful, Michael Jackson-like talent undeniable, and at the dramatic, quiff-flicking finale he stuck his S-shaped pose for several seconds before letting out a sigh of relief as he looked up towards the heavens, as if to say thank you.
There’s no such thing as a quick coffee. Sit down for an espresso and you’ve given up an hour of your day
He skipped pointy toed over to his phone and watched his routine back over, covering his mouth with his hand and giggling with delight as he jumped up and down, always landing softly on what I suppose is technically British soil. Then, in a flash, he vanished down one of the iron stairwells, back inside the historic Edwardian building, and I sat back, sipping a chilled sauvignon from Jujuy, grateful for the free show.
I’m quite a fast walker, which means that compared to everybody else in Buenos Aires, I always feel like I’m rushing around, in some sort of hurry. Life here is lived slowly and for some reason the only people ever moving at speed are the drivers, who accelerate and swerve and break every reasonable traffic law as if there’s a ticking timebomb at their destination for which only they know the deactivation code.
Every day I watch porteños stroll at a snail’s pace in front of cars, staring into space, or into phones, as if irate drivers aren’t honking horns and screaming obscenities from windows of vehicles they’ve skidded to a screeching halt. There’s simply no thought of hurrying up—ever. The wide boulevards don’t give you enough time to cross, which always baffled me, until I realised that people here don’t care about walking in front of oncoming traffic: it’s the done thing.
Today, I took a seat at a table outside a traditional café, opened my book, and timed how long it took until the waitress bothered to bring me a menu. After thirty-four minutes, she pretended to have just noticed me, wiped her hands on her apron, and meandered over. With a smile, and in a perfectly friendly voice, she said, “¡Hola! Buenas tardes. ¿Cómo estás?”
When I first moved here, this sort of thing would bother me intensely. I was convinced I’d done something wrong, committed a series of unknowing faux pas and upset everybody, obliging the locals to forever exact punishment upon me. Now I realise it’s nothing personal, just the way life is done here. There’s no such thing as a quick coffee. Sit down for an espresso and you’ve given up an hour of your day.
Really, I’ve learned to ask myself, what else were you going to do? What makes you such a big shot that you can’t spare one measly hour? Calm down, man. Relax. Enjoy your coffee. Read your book. Or just stare into space, thinking about nothing whatsoever. Doing nothing means you’re doing no harm. People in a hurry are busybodies, notoriously up to no good. They are pests and they should never ever be trusted. ¿Claro?
Early this morning, I was stood in the sunlight outside the front of my building, waiting for my tennis partner to show up, when I heard the door open behind me and the concierge guided an elderly resident out through the door. The woman walked with a cane, slightly stooped over, and was wearing expensive jewellery with a red beret.
She stepped gingerly down the step, then glanced up at me, and I straightened my shoulders, ready to bid her a good morning, perhaps even introduce myself as her neighbour. It was as I took a step forward, flashing a warm—if obsequious—smile, that she tutted at me and shook her head disapprovingly. It wasn’t a subtle thing, either. I mean, she really tutted, throwing her head back, as if to say, “The riff-raff loitering in my elegant square these days!”
Admittedly, I was clad in tatty sports gear and a baseball cap. My hair is getting long, but my tennis racquet is a classic. The woman appeared to be waiting for a car to pick her up and as I stood across the portico, open-mouthed, she waved her cane at me, shooing me off.
At this point, my tennis partner appeared over my shoulder, apologising for being late. I told him that I’d forgotten something upstairs, that I’d just be a second, and marched back to the door of my building. The concierge jumped to his feet from behind his desk, but I gestured at him through the glass to sit back down, and in the most ostentatious way possible, let myself in with my fob key.
The elderly woman watched me the whole time, frowning beneath her beret. I waited for ten or so seconds in the lobby, then patted my pockets, pretending that I’d just discovered I’d remembered whatever it was I was supposed to have forgotten. Then I slapped my forehead, waving to the concierge as I cursed my mindless English idiocy in slang Spanish, and let myself out again.
“Buen dia,” I said to my neighbour as I passed her by, twirling my keys around my index finger.
“What the hell was that?” asked my tennis partner.
And I said, “Oh, nothing important,” which was a massive, massive lie.
I was up until sunrise again last night, so Christmas Day saw me moving around the flat like a tranquilized sloth. One highlight was a Zoom call with my family in England, who were of course separated from each other, thanks to the virus.
My father wore a pink paper crown from a cracker he’d pulled with mum and was keen to tell us about a bottle of Argentine Malbec he’d opened to toast my absence, information which felt like a stab to my already aching heart.
“It’s smooth,” he said, holding the bottle up to the camera to show me the label, “and fruity.”
And without missing a beat, my sister, bless her, said, “Like you then, dad.”
It’s not often that Argentina leads the headlines in the UK, but it did so today, after the Senate voted to legalise abortion. Young women crowded together in the city’s Plaza del Congreso, welcoming the result with delighted screams, group hugs and tears of joy.
The legal victory belongs to these grassroots ‘Green Wave’ feminists, who have been campaigning, protesting, occupying and marching on this single issue non-stop for at least five years. They are recognisable by their green bandanas, which are ubiquitous amongst the youth in Buenos Aires, worn around heads, necks or wrists, tied to bicycles, beltloops or rucksacks. When I first moved here, I was rather bowled over by the campaign’s omnipresence. Abortion graffiti is everywhere across the city, and at times it feels like young women here care about little else.
Young women wore the green handkerchiefs as bikinis, posing for selfie shoots while sticking their tongues out, porn-style
I was sat with a friend outside a scenic corner bar called Musetta when the result came in, and at around 1am the establishment started to fill with jubilant campaigners, all wearing green, hugging each other and sharing more tears. My friend and I watched them, then he turned to me and said, “I support their cause, you know? So, one time I went to the Plaza del Congreso to protest with them, and they told me I should leave, that I wasn’t welcome there, because I’m a man. They had their tits out, for some reason—they were topless, with slogans painted on their bodies, which I thought was unnecessary, because I don’t need to see their boobs, you know? I don’t need that shit. What’s that got to do with anything?”
He sighed resignedly and I looked over at a smiling mother and her young daughter who were sitting together at a table across from us. They wore green bandannas and ate in picture perfect silence, filling up on pizza and beer, which the daughter didn’t look anywhere near old enough to be drinking. I found myself wondering how long their happiness would last.
When I arrived home, at around 3am, I read more on the story. In several of the accompanying photographs, the feminist campaigners were thrusting placards depicting Evita Peron above their heads. In others, attractive groups of young women wore the green handkerchiefs as bikinis, posing for selfie shoots, giving the finger to the camera while sticking their tongues out, porn-style. I fell asleep feeling kind of drunk and strangely uneasy.
It took me half an hour to find a taxi tonight, as opposed to the usual half a second. There are as many taxis as people in Buenos Aires, and they are absurdly cheap. “You are very lucky,” the driver said through the Covid-unfriendly plastic sheeting as I climbed into the back, expressing my relief. “I may be the last taxi in Buenos Aires.”
On New Year’s Eve, he told me, the drivers go home to spend the evening with their families and toast the New Year. Then at 1am, they clock back in again, roaming the streets, drunk.
I love your country, too, I said, which was a lie. I don’t love his country
“Where are you from?” asked the driver, noticing my poorly accented Spanish.
I told him and he said, in English, “London is a good city, but the best city in the world is New York.”
“OK,” I said, not caring to correct him. Then I complimented him on his excellent English.
“I used to live in the United States,” he explained. When I asked where in the United States, he said, “In Palm Beach. In a big mansion.”
I didn’t know what to say, and fearful of insulting him, resisted asking what the hell happened. After a while, I said, casually, “What brought you back to Buenos Aires?”
“This is my country,” he said, throwing a fist into the air in front of his face. “I love my country.”
“I love your country, too,” I said, which was a lie. I don’t love his country, I just like it more and more every day, against all reason.
He swelled his chest with obvious pride. Then he said, “Yes. And Buenos Aires is the best city in the world.”
And I thought, What happened to New York? The same thing that happened to your mansion in Palm Beach?
Soon after arriving at the rooftop party, I got to talking to a sommelier named Miguel who wore a white short-sleeve shirt with a flat cap, an absurdly long tie, and ragged, knee-length shorts, like that singer from AC/DC. Miguel had lived for several years in Switzerland, and we naturally got to talking about the differences between Europe and Argentina.
“In Zurich they say “Fuck!” from here, you know?” Miguel said, pounding his chest like Tarzan. “Whereas here in Buenos Aires, we say “Fuuuuuck!” from here, deep down in the gut—do you understand?”
And the terrifying thing is that I think I did.
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