Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires diary 5.0
Dominic Hilton offends the fumigation guy and witnesses the death of a former President
My friend Josh got in touch from the Far East, where he’s working as a teacher. Josh used to live in Buenos Aires but moved to Hong Kong last year. He wanted to know if I was familiar with the term ‘Loser Back Home’ (or ‘LBH’).
“No,” I said, intrigued. “What’s that?”
“Well,” Josh said, “a Loser Back Home is the standard expat who’s a 4 out of 10 with no job prospects in their native country and something missing in their personality. You can’t decide what is missing, but they’re just plain odd and creepy. The dregs. Every expat here is an LBH.”
I asked to know more, so Josh sent me some reading material. In every article, a Loser Back Home was defined as “defective” and a “functional alcoholic”. “They move to other countries,” explained one, “hoping that cultural differences will mask their inadequacies.”
A worrying thought entered my mind. “Are we Losers Back Home?”
Losers Back Home “never had a girlfriend in their home countries”, I read, but overseas, they steal all the local women, who mistake them for rock stars with countless dollars to burn.
“I have no doubt in my mind that most of the expats in Buenos Aires were heavily bullied at school,” Josh said, after I’d finished enjoying the articles he sent. “Romantically, most will have struggled in the UK and the USA, due to being cripplingly awkward. But abroad, they suddenly become Casanova.”
My girlfriend Catherine and I are both English. As a couple in Argentina, this makes us rarer than kangaroos. Virtually every other expat we know is male and either a) married to a hot Argentine chica b) dating a hot Argentine chica, or c) sleeping with tens of thousands of hot Argentine chicas.
I stared out of the kitchen window across the rooftops of Recoleta, sipping coffee as I imagined Josh and his new wife together in Hong Kong. Then I recalled the life I left behind in England.
A worrying thought entered my mind. “Are we Losers Back Home?” I asked.
“Yes,” Josh said, “of course.”
This lunchtime, lost down another Wikipedia rabbit hole, I stumbled upon an entry on the subject of ‘English Argentines’.
Under the heading ‘English immigration’, I read the line “English families sent second and younger sons, or what were described as the black sheep of the family, to Argentina to make their fortunes in cattle and wheat.”
I sank into my chair, warm afternoon sunshine bathing my skin as I smiled neutrally, thinking, How do you know where my finger’s been?
It stopped me, because I am my father’s second and younger son. I’ve not yet made my fortune in cattle or wheat, though it’s quite possible I’m thought of as the black sheep of my family.
Later, sat on the balcony, I talked to my parents on a video call. My mother was complaining about my father, who, she says, “is falling apart, piece by piece. If it’s not his blasted ears, it’s his sodding eyes, or his bloody teeth.” My father, gap-toothed and grinning, sat silently alongside her.
His latest malady is a crown that needs reinforcing with concrete, or something. I wasn’t really listening. Apparently, such things cost thousands of pounds, or, in my mother’s words, “an arm, a leg and a bloody foot.” All of which are also causing my father problems.
“So when are you going to make your fortune to keep your father glued together and me in the manner to which I’m unaccustomed?”
It’s a question she’s been asking me my whole life. For a moment, I thought about mentioning cattle and/or wheat, but instead I just chortled in my usual, non-committal sort of way.
“Yes,” my mother said sourly, “that’s what I thought.” She tilted her head, eyes narrowing. “It’s high time you pulled your finger out, young man.”
I sank into my chair, warm afternoon sunshine bathing my skin as I smiled neutrally, thinking, How do you know where my finger’s been?
Last night, we had dinner at a friend’s house in Palermo. My friend George was there, and we got to talking on the rooftop. George is British and his parents hail from Columbia. He grew up speaking Spanish at home, which makes me pitifully jealous of him.
Like all of us, George has grown his hair and a beard during the pandemic. He looks great and I told him so. “Yeah,” he said, “but it also makes me look more threatening.”
I laughed, then he told me about an Argentine friend of his here in the city who drives a Porsche. “This guy always boasts about me having dollar spending power,” George said, “and because I’m a British citizen, he loves to introduce me to all of his rich friends. Little does he know. Anyway, the other day, he introduced me to another friend of his—only this time, because of my new look, he described me as “having British citizenship”. And I know it’s because of my new look. I now look more Latin, right?”
“I suppose,” I said.
“Well, to him, I no longer qualify as British, because I don’t look like you. Can you imagine? This place is so racist. For the first time in my life, I’m not considered exotic. In the eyes of Argentines, I’m now just another bloody Columbian.”
The fumigation guy came this morning for his monthly spray of our apartment. As usual, he wore some sort of proton pack on his back, making him look like a Ghostbuster.
His legs are covered in strange tattoos, and I plan to ask about them one day, if I can muster the courage. He’s not very friendly and seems to deeply resent having to do his job. “Just one more bathroom,” I say in a cheery voice, and he groans, as if I’ve asked him to edit one of my essays.
Today, I made the mistake of mentioning the number of cockroaches we’ve killed in our apartment since his last visit. I’d meant it to be useful information, but he took it as a personal insult and refused to talk to me for the rest of his visit.
I wondered if I should try to explain myself. But as he squirted lethal chemicals into the drain next to one of our bidets, I decided it’s never a good idea to argue with a man carrying a proton pack.
It’s Valentine’s Day, which is a big deal here. Out walking, I passed hundreds of amorous couples lying around the city’s parks. The couples were mostly young, presumably with nothing better to do, but a good many were middle-aged, and several of them were pensioners. Rolling around in the grass, they snogged and groped each other as if they were invisible to snooping Englishmen. I saw one man with his hand wedged down the back of his shapely lover’s yoga pants.
I saw one man with his hand wedged down the back of his shapely lover’s yoga pants
It baffles me, the days of the year Argentines choose to make an official fuss over. There’s the Pizza and Pastry Worker Day (Jan 12), Publicity Writer’s Day (Feb 15), Airport Security Police Personnel Day (Feb 22), National Day of the Medical Examiner (Mar 7), Industrial Wood Day (Mar 19), Human Behaviour Day (Mar 31), National Rower Day (Apr 11), Decorator’s Day (Apr 12), Hygiene and Safety Day (Apr 21), National Seismic Prevention Day (May 8), Speech Therapist Day (May 12), Argentine Cameramen Day (Jun 29), Magazine Editor’s Day (Jul 2), National Bandoneon Day (Jul 11), Advertising Promotor’s Day (Jul 28), Dietician’s Day (Aug 11), Customs Broker Day (Aug 20), Hairdresser’s Day (Aug 25), Hardware Store Day (Sep 4), Occupational Therapist Day (Sep 10), Footwear Worker’s Day (Sep 13), Secondary Student Rights Day (Sep 16), National Horse Day (Sep 20), Chemical Industry Worker Day (Sep 24), Inventor’s Day (Sep 29), Meteorologist Day (Oct 4), Circus Day (Oct 6), Soccer Referee Day (Oct 11), Graphic/Industrial Designer Day (Oct 24), Pedicure Day (Nov 3), Radiologist Technician Day (Nov 8), Chemical Technician Day (Nov 26), Retiree Day (Nov 27), National Housewife Day (Dec 5), Gaucho Day (Dec 6), Wholesale Distributor Day (Dec 7), National Tango Day (Dec 11), and Pharmacy Employee Day (Dec 22).
Christmas Day, meanwhile, is a total bust.
Former President Carlos Menem has died and current President, Alberto Fernandez, has declared three days of national mourning. The news coverage is wall-to-wall.
“The country needs major surgery without anaesthesia,” Menem once famously said. He was a divisive figure, simultaneously credited with Argentina’s boom in the Nineties (or what passes for a boom here) and blamed for the inevitable crash that followed. Tiny and tanned, the surgically enhanced President-playboy wore a toupee and sported bugger grips like a rock star. He was known as “El Turco”, on account of his Lebanese heritage, and described himself as “an Argentine outlaw”. In his early days on the national stage, he paraded around in a poncho and flares. He was, in short, exactly what I choose to expect from an Argentine politician.
“The country needs major surgery without anaesthesia,” Menem once famously said
It’s hard to pick a favourite story about Menem. He married Miss Universe after locking his previous wife out of the presidential palace following a public spat. He entertained supermodels at the taxpayer’s expense and ate champagne pizza with the Rolling Stones, declaring himself “the fifth Stone”. During his presidency, he used to zoom around the streets of Buenos Aires in a racing red Ferrari. The sports car was considered bad optics in a poor country, but when told to give it up, Menem protested, “The Ferrari is mine, mine, mine! Why am I going to donate it?”
Perhaps best of all, though, is the “Menem curse”. In Argentina, it is believed to be bad luck to mention Menem’s name: a daily nightmare for the nation’s 44.94 million political pundits. Widespread belief in the curse began at the dawn of his presidency, when one of his appointees immediately died of a violent heart attack and another perished in a plane crash. Then, much worse, Nery Pumpido, the superstitious goalkeeper of the national football team, refused to shake the President’s hand at the 1990 World Cup, so instead Menem tapped Pumpido on the knee. The keeper then shattered his kneecap, side-lining him for the rest of the competition.
This being Argentina, Menem was later prosecuted for his role in an arms-smuggling scandal. According to La Nacion, the city of Rio Tercero—where the factory manufacturing the arms was conveniently detonated, killing seven and injuring three hundred—is refusing to respect the period of national mourning. Last November, the municipality officially declared Menem a “non-pleasant person”.
What a legacy.
Last night I met my friend Alex for dinner at a trendy wine bar crawling with beautiful women. Alex and his family have been trapped in Norway for the past year, thanks to the virus, and it’s good to have them back in Buenos Aires. I still can’t quite believe their surreal story: they left for what they thought would be a flying two-week visit with his family only to return to their pretty house and deserted dog twelve months later. His children were forced to spend an entire year in Norwegian schools, which I doubt did them any harm.
We talked about the differences between Norway and Argentina, him hardly knowing where to begin. “It’s… sane in Norway,” he said
We talked about the differences between Norway and Argentina, him hardly knowing where to begin. “It’s… sane in Norway,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Too sane. It’s boring, actually. Especially when compared to here.”
I asked for an example and he pulled out his phone to show me a splash front page headline in Norway’s biggest-selling newspaper. At first, I thought it was a joke, but Alex soon set me straight. This was the nation’s top story. A man had ordered a food delivery and the dressing, which came in one of those tiny plastic containers, had leaked a little onto his salad. This was considered a national scandal.
I laughed so hard I almost fell off my stool. Alex stared at me, dead-eyed. I wish that I’d recorded him, telling the story in his flat Norwegian tones. I can’t do him justice on the page.
Today’s top story in Norway is that seven kangaroos have burned to death.
“With no arms or legs,” ran a headline in Clarín a few days ago, “a man stole a woman’s purse and tried to escape.”
Then came the unimprovable lede: “The young man pushed the victim with his torso and fled crawling on his knees. They detained him after a few meters but were unable to handcuff him.”
On a video call today, my father said, “You’re looking more and more Argentine every time we talk.”
It’s not deliberate, and it’s probably just because my hair is long. Nevertheless, I felt a strange, unearned sense of pride. As if, for all my struggles with the language, I’m doing a decent job of blending in.
Later, feeling upbeat, I strolled past a row of market stalls selling knick-knacks outside the cemetery. “Take a look around, why don’t you?” said a bohemian woman slumped in a camping chair behind one of the stalls.
She spoke in pitch-perfect English, and at first it made me start. Then my good vibes evaporated, and I started to feel really annoyed. Goddamnit, I thought, is it really still that obvious?
“No pressure,” she continued, winking at me. “See if there’s anything you like. It’s all handcrafted. Take your time.”
On her way home from the greengrocer last night, a man on a bicycle started to follow Catherine. She quickened her footsteps as he rode alongside her, hurling abuse.
His offensive tirade centred around the accusation that she was “una seguidora de Hitler”—or, in English, “a follower of Hitler.”
“Eh?” I said, back in our kitchen.
Stuffing a gigantic head of lettuce into our fridge, Catherine fussed her hair, which is long and blonde. “Because of my looks, obviously,” she said, her big blue eyes widening. “Can you believe it?”
“No,” I said, “not really.”
The idea that my girlfriend is a follower of Hitler is, I must say, a new one on me. Catherine has her moments, sure. She’s famously strict with her students. And she definitely has the hots for Captain von Trapp. But Captain von Trapp was opposed to the Nazis, wasn’t he?
“What are you looking at?” she asked me after dinner.
We were watching the news and my mind was awhirl. “Nothing,” I said.
“You’re wondering if I’m a Nazi, aren’t you?” she said. “For heaven’s sake.”
“I’m not,” I said.
“Name one thing I’ve ever done that suggests I have Nazi sympathies.”
I mercifully drew a blank. “Well, there’s your hair,” I said. “And the fact that you moved to Argentina.”
“Ah, you see?” she said, snapping her fingers. “And there you have your irony.”
It’s really hot this week, which is great, until you’re out wearing a facemask. On days like today, I find it genuinely hard to breathe. I’m not sure if this defeats the purpose, or if that’s the general idea.
Circling the block, I came across a profoundly disabled man sunbathing in his wheelchair. It’s not something I’ve ever seen before, so it’s possible I stared a little longer than was strictly appropriate.
I read a line that rang as true as anything I’ve ever read. “The country, despite everything, continues to function.”
The wheelchair was an impressively modern contraption: electric, with some sort of caterpillar tread, plus a tablet computer to control its systems. Its occupant was naked, except for a scarlet thong. His skin was oiled and bronze.
With his head rested at an uncomfortable angle on the headrest, he soaked in the rays, an enormous smile glued to his face. Seeing him sunbathing cheered me up immensely, but as I continued walking, I worried that my happiness for him was problematic and condescending.
For all I know, the guy’s just an exhibitionist who gets off on flashing in public parks.
A story about Argentina ran in the Spanish newspaper El Pais today that was depressing as hell. Headlined “Argentina’s Perpetual Crisis”, it detailed a “cursed” century of economic decline.
“The macroeconomic picture is very alarming,” said the article. In 2020, economic activity in Argentina contracted 10%, inflation stood at 38.5%, the currency continued to devalue itself, the nation remained the main debtor of the International Monetary Fund, and four out of every ten Argentines lived in poverty.
But then came a line that rang as true as anything I’ve ever read. “The country, despite everything, continues to function.”
It’s one of the most baffling of Argentina’s manifold paradoxes. When we moved here in 2017, there were nineteen pesos to the British pound. There are now officially one hundred and twenty-four Argentine pesos to the pound and at least one hundred and ninety-three on the blue market. Accumulative inflation in that same period: 165%.
I mention these figures to friends and family in the Developed World and they assume the streets of Buenos Aires are aflame with anarchic revolt. “Get out of there now!” they cry. “While you still can!”
But in the last four years, very little has actually changed. Life just seems to go on, regardless. The tender beef, the delicious wine, the picturesque bars and cafés forever packed with beautiful people. It makes no sense.
Then again, what does?
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