Women and their children cool off in a fountain in a park in Buenos Aires. (Photo credit: EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires diary 4.0

In the fourth instalment of his diary, Dominic Hilton tries to understand Argentina’s ‘redhead curse’

One of the first things I learned when I first moved to Buenos Aires, coming up to three and a half years ago now, is that Argentines are big believers in “The Curse of the Redhead”. Passing a redhead on the street is considered mufa, meaning bad luck. By contrast, encountering a person of colour is believed to bring buena suerte, or good luck.

“If you ever encounter a redhead,” a friend explained to me my first week here, “the only way to ward off the curse is by touching your left testicle.”

I gave him a look, convinced he was pulling my leg. “Come off it.”

“No, it’s true,” he said, wearing a grave expression, “and very important.” Then he turned to face my girlfriend. “Because you have no balls, you must touch your left breast.”

“Like this?” Catherine asked.

My friend’s eyes widened. “Yes, exactly like that. Very good.”

I remember thinking it was the most absurd thing I’d ever heard, as if, instead of moving to the purported “Paris of the South”, I’d stumbled upon a primitive tribal people untouched by civilisation. The kind that fired poisoned darts from blowguns at passing aeroplanes.

Then Burger King ran a nationwide TV campaign for its flame-grilled Whoppers all about the alleged redhead curse. The advert not only made explicit reference to touching your left bollock, but as compensation for their long-standing and socially accepted persecution, offered the nation’s redheads a 2-for-1 deal on all Whopper meals.

I’m not sure if I yet find the attractions of the city of Buenos Aires sexual

As I re-watched the advert for the third time in a row, my mind strayed to an entry in Naples ’44, Norman Lewis’s masterful account of his days as an intelligence officer in war-torn Italy. The locals became convinced that Lewis was a possessor of the evil eye and took to groping their gonads in his presence to ward off the suspected curse. The Neapolitan women, though, would merely cover their faces with their scarves and scurry away, not stand there and fondle their bosoms, which seemed a shame.

I’ve been thinking about the redhead curse a lot lately. On my evening walks around the city’s parks, I routinely find myself in the presence of a porcelain-skinned, six-foot beauty with a stunning mess of ginger curls that fall down her long, shapely back to brush against her tiny tight hot pants. Our eyes often meet, then, shimmering with suspicion, hers reflexively stray down towards my crotch. I worry she’s got me all wrong.

I want to reassure her that I don’t believe in the mufa. I am just leering at her in a perfectly harmless, depraved, objectifying, dirty-minded, lustful male gaze sort of way.

“I’m not like the superstitious natives with their primordial belief systems,” I long to say. “I’m sophisticated. Can’t you tell?”

II.

Today I agreed to read a bedtime story over Zoom to my niece and nephew in England. I’ve been reading to them regularly over the past year and I enjoy the way their deceptively angelic faces glare like moons out of the screen as I turn the pages.

Usually what I do is use Catherine’s details to login to the Oxford University Press online library, which grants me access to titles like Dad, Can You Do This? and Oh, Otto!

But today Catherine was running errands and not answering her phone, which left me at a loss. In search of suitable reading material, I scoured the bookshelves, my gaze landing on titles like The Face of War, Narco Power, Sacred Rage and Scum of the Earth.

Suspecting these wouldn’t do, I widened my search to include The A-Z of Alcohol, Among the Thugs, Anthem for Doomed Youth, The Heart That Bleeds, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, The Terrors of the Night, On the Pleasure of Hating, News of a Kidnapping, The Human Stain and To Hell and Back.

I’m not sure I’d appreciated before how properly fucked up adults are.

III.

In one of those remarkable coincidences that make you believe in higher powers, late last night I was sat in bed, reading a Jan Morris essay on the subject of God, when I came across the line: “Flies are safe with me—mosquitos too, if they don’t press their luck.”

At that exact moment, a giant mosquito divebombed me, causing me to vault out from under the sheets, naked. Hunting the bloodsucker around the bedroom to no effect, I opted to mount a surprise attack from an elevated position, so hopped up onto the bed, hardback at the ready. Thanks to a perfectly timed leap, I managed to neutralise the pest between the pages of the book, only to lose my bearings in the process, clatter my skull against the lightshade, and crash face first into the mahogany bookshelf, upon which I split my lip.

Sat at the open window of a perfect little corner café at lunch today, I read another essay in the same collection, which included the line: “It is many years since I realized that I found the attractions of the city of Venice not merely sensual, but actually sexual.”

People I’ve spoken to here are convinced the United States views their nation as a banana republic

For obvious reasons, this caused me to look up from the book and stare out towards the sun-drenched street beside me. A pair of taxi drivers were shouting at each other over who had the right of way. A perfectly poised young woman in a white summer dress cycled past, flashing me a smile. A heavyset older woman with bulbous cankles and a lit cigarette dangling from her lips shuffled between the uneven paving stones lugging a fat bag of laundry. An elderly gentleman in a handsome three-piece suit and Panama hat dangled a cautious foot off the kerb. All within the perfectly drawn shadows of once-grand buildings whose fading beauty somehow only adds to their appeal.

I’m not sure if I yet find the attractions of the city of Buenos Aires sexual, but I must admit, there are times when it’s a disturbingly close call.

IV.

All anyone has been talking about this week are the events in the United States, where an army of Trump-supporting zombies stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., leaving five people dead and the reputation of the USA floating in the global toilet bowl.

Alberto Fernandez, President of Argentina, publicly condemned the “serious acts of violence and outrage of Congress”, while former President of the United States, George W. Bush, insisted, “this is how the results of the elections are resolved in a banana republic, not in our democracy,” which has really got everybody’s backs up.

I’m not sure Argentina ever counted as a “banana republic” but people I’ve spoken to here are convinced the United States views their nation as one. The general sentiment, with which I find it easy to sympathise, is that if similar events played out here, the United States wouldn’t hesitate to declare Argentina a “failed state” and invade in a heartbeat.

I’ve been saying for some time now that current global events point to Argentina being ahead of the curve. I was sort of joking before, but now I’m not so sure.

V.

The T-shirt madness continues.

Today, I passed a female jogger who was struggling in the midday heat, panting like a dog as rivers of sweat cascaded down her crimson, chipmunk-like face. She watched me closely as our paths crossed and I noticed she wore a big baggy T-shirt that read, in English, TRUST NO ONE, EVER.

For some reason, the phrase really made me laugh. Caught in the blazing sunshine, mine wasn’t an amused little chuckle, but the kind of laughter where you have to stop moving and the tears start to flow as you’re bent double, clutching your abdomen. TRUST NO ONE, EVER. It’s just so… final.

Nothing beat the sight today of a young man using a fountain like a bidet

Laughing on your own is always such a strange experience, much closer to crying than laughter. I don’t know why this is. In my experience, when I laugh alone, I’m somehow laughing at the sheer lunacy of the entire human experience, as much as I’m laughing at anything in particular, and it always makes me think of the things I love, like my family, and then I start to laugh some more. It’s the best kind of laughter, I think. Exhausting, exhausted, and oddly accepting of the inevitability of death and the reality of the inescapable struggle. Bruce Willis does it in Die Hard. I did it the first time I watched Derek Smalls get trapped inside that plastic pod in This is Spinal Tap.

Again, who knows why? Doubtless there’s some physical or psychological explanation, but I can’t be bothered to look it up, in case it ruins the romance of the whole thing.

As we went our separate ways, I thought more about the woman in the T-shirt and wondered what her story was. TRUST NO ONE, EVER. Who made her like this? A cheating husband? A thieving daughter? The Argentine government? Or was she just born with a deep, unshakable suspicion of her fellow humans?

On some level, of course, she had a point. You never know who you might encounter in the course of an average day. You go for an innocent jog in the midday sun, in order to keep fit and live longer, and you happen to cross paths with a lanky Englishman, who for some reason starts to laugh out loud at your attire. Now he’s bent double on the sun-baked corner of the boulevard, clutching his abdomen and… is he crying? Later, the Englishman heads back home, where he writes about you in his diary, making you look ridiculous for comic effect. A couple of weeks later, his diaries are published, and other people read what he wrote about you, and now they start to laugh, too.

All because you wore your favourite T-shirt.

VI.

Unable to sleep last night after uncorking one too many bottles of Malbec at a lively local wine bar, I climbed out of bed, pulling a John Le Carré down from the bookshelf, confident it’d do the trick. The book was called Our Game and contained three epigraphs, one of which was Ecclesiastes 1:18: “Who gathers knowledge gathers pain”. I read these five words and slipped the book back onto the shelf, feeling like crap.

I don’t need to know that, I thought, and headed back to bed, where I suffered a fitful night, and today I feel even worse.

VII.

It’s the height of summer, so the poor have taken to bathing in the water around the city’s fountains. I’ve seen whole families packed together in the shade of imposing statues of liberators, doing their laundry, brushing their teeth and shaving their faces or legs.

But nothing beat the sight today of a young man using a fountain like a bidet. His jean shorts and boxers were pulled down around his knees, in front of his family, as he let a water jet spray-clean his anus.

For a moment, I seriously considered taking his picture, but then I caught myself. For God’s sake, man, I thought. There are limits.

VIII.

Today was scorching hot. Officially only 33 degrees centigrade, but in Buenos Aires, 33°C always feels like 45°C, on account of the humidity, and the fact that down here the sun feels like it’s only a few metres away from your face.

Catherine and I wisely chose to stop at one of our favourite heladerias for ice cream. I ordered a vaso chico with towering scoops of limón and mango y maracuyá. We sat outside at a table, where it was so warm and perfect on the pretty Palermo corner and the ice cream tasted so insanely good that it actually gave me an erection.

Caught by surprise, I wondered if my excitement had been caused by Catherine, or by a troop of scantily clad, semi-attractive girls who were slumped around a nearby table.

But taking another spoonful, I felt further movement in my shorts. It was undoubtedly the ice cream.

Now all I need to do is figure out how to write my review for TripAdvisor.

IX.

I heard a great anecdote today. The husband of one of Catherine’s friends works for the Argentine government, heading up a division within one of the departments of state. I won’t say which. Last month, a colleague burst into his office to hand him her resignation, citing unacceptable levels of stress.

The woman had been working the job for over thirty-five years, and her last damning words to her boss as she span on her heel and marched across the marble floors of the historic palace for the final time were: “The problem with you, young man, is that you want this department to be good.”

X.

Out grocery shopping today, Catherine and I strolled past a townhouse, the beautiful façade of which was being defaced by a woman painting a giant mural. The artist in question was perched on a ladder on the building’s ornate second-floor balcony, and her mural depicted a fifteen-foot Jesus Christ clutching a pair of puppies. For obvious reasons, Christ was lovingly portrayed as the spitting image of Keanu Reeves in the John Wick film franchise.

I took a photo, and then, as we walked away, Catherine said, “I don’t like that kind of art—you know, the kind that looks too real. I like my art to be…” She thought for a good long while, before eventually landing on the ideal word. “…blurry.”

XI.

Mum and dad have now both had their first doses of the Covid vaccine. They seemed genuinely elated on our video call today, which made me think I’d underestimated how anxious they’ve been lately. It’s hard to tell from half a world away.

Dad has a new laptop and is equally excited about that. “Today I managed to wipe out Google entirely!” he insisted, and I didn’t bother explaining to him how unlikely that was.

Meanwhile, they’ve been binge-watching some French TV show. I asked them what it was like and dad said, “Full of sex.”

“Yes,” mum confirmed, adding, “Mostly homosexual sex, of course.”

Later in the call, mum left the room, and dad and I tried talking about the news, specifically the vaccine row now enveloping the EU. I told him I didn’t really understand it and he said he didn’t really understand it either, but that it seemed like a big deal and that the European Union is “hampered by its own labyrinthine bureaucracy.”

Mum was clearly still within earshot as her voice rang out from the hallway. “What does he mean, he doesn’t understand it?”

“For heaven’s sake, woman, will you give the boy a break?” dad said over his shoulder, rolling his eyes for my benefit. “He’s in Argentina, remember?”

“I don’t care where he is!” mum shouted back.

Which, I don’t know, I thought was kind of perfect.

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