Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires diary 6.0
Dominic Hilton comments on the latest perceived injustice in the capital, a man eating dog biscuits, and the strange meaning of numbers in Argentina
I woke up this morning to a message from Nacho, my Argentine “Deep Throat”, so to speak.
“Did you hear about Anya Taylor-Joy?” his message read. “INSANE!”
I crawled out of bed, made some coffee, and typed Anya Taylor-Joy into Google, uncertain who she was. Am I so out of touch because I’m buried down here, at the bottom of the world, or is it just me? My obliviousness can embarrass me, sometimes — just not enough to do anything about it.
It turns out Anya Taylor-Joy won the Golden Globe Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made For Television. This is apparently a real awards category, and not the kind of thing I’d normally expect Nacho to concern himself with.
In this case, however, Anya Taylor-Joy was being hailed by Variety magazine as “the first woman of colour to win this category since Queen Latifah in 2008”. Which is strange, not least because Taylor-Joy is platinum-blonde and about as porcelain-skinned as it’s possible to be. She’s also Argentine, sort of, which is the reason she’s being classified as a woman of colour — and the reason Nacho sent me his “INSANE!” message.
Taylor-Joy, I learned, has Argentine ancestry. As a child, she even lived in Argentina for a few years, where she “had horses and animals everywhere,” before emigrating to the United Kingdom after the 2001 financial crash to settle in Knightsbridge. She identifies as “a white Latina”, taking pains to acknowledge her white privilege. “My warmth and my life outlook are from Argentina,” she claims, adding, “I’m very effusive.”
“So,” Nacho WhatsApped me later, “am I now a person of colour because I am from Argentina?!?”
It’s fun to mess with Argentines’ muddled sense of identity
I replied with an emoji of a blonde woman shrugging, which only made him madder. It’s fun to mess with Argentines’ muddled sense of identity, which is why I’m so grateful for the Anya Taylor-Joy story. Folks down here are so adamant that they’re displaced, old world Europeans, abandoned and forgotten by their peoples by an accident of geography. Compare Argentina to other Latin American countries, for example, and Argentines will storm from the room, shouting at you over their shoulders, plotting assorted vendettas for your disrespectful insult. It’s hilarious.
As I cooked dinner this evening, I thought back to the time I watched a group of fans toss bananas at a TV screen during a football match, because one of the players was black. And I found myself hoping, praying, against all odds, that those same men read Variety.
Walking home this afternoon, I saw a man sitting in a parked car eating dog biscuits.
At first, I thought I must be mistaken, and did the kind of double take you’d see in a silent movie. Sure enough, the man was slumped behind the steering wheel with a jumbo bag of doggy treats torn open in his lap. Stuffing his fist inside the bag, he pulled out a biscuit in the shape of a bone. He studied the treat for a moment, as if it was hand-crafted by a maître pâtissier, before lobbing it into his mouth, chomping away with a contented look on his pudgy face.
His car was a Citroën saloon, silver bodied and well maintained. He wasn’t poor, so I guessed he just liked dog food.
I walked on, imagining his conversation when he returned home.
“Are you hungry?” asks his wife after he trots through the door and starts sniffing her bum. “I can put something in your bowl.”
“No, it’s OK, honey,” the man says, patting the hairy belly he then invites her to tickle. “I’m beat. I think I’ll just go straight to my kennel.”
More drama in the capital today. This time it involved a march to demand justice for Diego Maradona.
Huh? I thought. Then I saw the slogan of the protest: “No murió, lo mataron” (“He did not die, they killed him”). Nobody dies in Argentina without being murdered. Or so everyone seems to believe. Maradona is allegedly the latest homicide victim in a never-ending list.
Nobody dies in Argentina without being murdered; or so everyone seems to believe
Claudia, Maradona’s ex-wife, joined the protest, as did Dalma and Giannina, his two most famous children. Later, after Claudia had disappeared, another former partner of El Diego put in appearance, along with at least one other of his many kids. “Trial and punishment for those guilty of his death!” screamed the circulating flyers. Drums were drummed, trumpets trumpeted, chants chanted. Facemasks were sold picturing “D10S” in heaven, delicately controlling a football on his meaty thigh. Homemade dolls of Diego were attached to helmets upon protestor’s heads. An altar was erected with candles.
And this being Argentina, there were also robberies, fights, and the obligatory assaulting of journalists and photographers. Sometimes this country can be exhausting.
Today I met a nice man at Café La Biela who told me that in Argentina, people attach a meaningful significance to every number. “Do they do the same in the United Kingdom?” he asked me, and I shrugged, telling him that I didn’t know. He smiled, but I could see that he didn’t believe me.
Later, I looked up the numbers 1-99, discovering that in my adopted country the number 7 signifies a revolver, the number 14 signifies drunkenness, and the number 25 signifies a chicken.
Meanwhile, the number 36 signifies butter and the number 37 signifies the dentist. The number 43 signifies a balcony, the number 51 a saw, the number 61 a shotgun, and the number 66 earthworms.
The number 71 signifies excrement, the number 78 prostitutes, and the number 87 lice.
For the second time this month, two young men have spent the day in my apartment, failing to fix one of the automatic blinds.
The chattiest of the men has a shaved head which I can’t stop staring at. For the life of me, I can’t work out if what I’m looking at it his natural skull, or if he’s had his whole scalp tattooed.
It’s possible that it’s a birth defect, or that someone’s taken a hammer to his skull. But my money is on the tattoo. It looks like you can see his brains, so if forced to bet, I’d wager he’s had a tattoo of a human brain stencilled onto his head.
Which, come to think of it, may explain why he can’t fix the blind.
Scrolling through old photos today, I came across one I’d taken from the balcony of my old apartment in Palermo. It’s of a cartonero across the street who’s just climbed out of an enormous public bin after rummaging through the waste for objects of value, like plastic or cardboard.
In the photo, he’s carrying his metal pick in his hand, marching up the street to climb inside the next bin. His T-shirt reads, in English, “HARD WORK PAYS OFF”.
My father is annoyed at me because I can’t identify the hawks that circle the trees below my balcony.
“They’re Roadside hawks,” I told him today on our videocall. “That’s what people call them here. What more do you need to know?”
“No, no, no,” he said irritably. “They’re not ‘Roadside hawks’. That’s not the proper nomenclature. I don’t understand: why won’t you ask somebody?”
He slapped his forehead and made one of his weary groaning sounds. “For heaven’s sake, haven’t you any ornithologists among your circle of friends? Surely, there must be one or two, at least.”
Sometimes I wonder where he thinks I live. And in what century.
I witnessed two fights today.
At a busy junction, a taxi driver was violently angry at another motorist. The two men burst out of their vehicles and squared off, throwing one or two punches, but mostly grabbing each other’s shirts and wrestling each other between the waiting traffic. The taxi driver ended up pinned to the bonnet of the other man’s car. A circle of spectators formed, viewing the free show in a listless sort of way.
The fight was eventually broken up by an out-of-shape policewoman, who sauntered towards the scene smoking a cigarette, looking as unimpressed as the rest of us. The men held their hands up, like guilty footballers at a card-dispensing referee, then climbed back into their vehicles and drove off as we all mooched away in search of further entertainment.
Today I saw the prettiest beggar in the long, sorry history of pennilessness
The second brawl was between two drunks. They were both shirtless and the bigger man had the smaller man in a headlock as they staggered together in a sort of dance. Their accents were strong, and their speech unpleasantly slurred, so I couldn’t make out what they were yelling at each other. The whole thing was being watched by a squat woman in soiled pink sweatpants and sparkly flip-flops. She was sat on the pavement with her back up against the outer wall of a museum, eating an ice cream. I assumed the fight was about her as she was egging the men on, not looking particularly bothered which of her two dashing suitors emerged victorious.
I learned a new word today: “Desabastecimiento”. It means “Shortage” and it has entered my vocabulary with some regrettable context.
The shelves in the supermarkets of Buenos Aires are starting to empty. Or, more to the point, they’re not being restocked — and there’s a reason.
Inflation is bad. Suppliers figure there’s no value in delivering their goods to stores if those same goods are going to be worth a lot more next week, and even more the week after. Meanwhile, the government has fixed the prices on one or two basic products, providing the suppliers with even less incentive to refill the nation’s shelves. It’s a game of chicken — which, thankfully, remains widely available.
Increasingly hard to get one’s hands on, though, are olive oil, hot sauce, and even half-decent pasta. You get used to this sort of thing, living in a busted economy. Products simply vanish from shops, sometimes for years. Then, out of nowhere, there’s suddenly nothing but that product to be found everywhere you go. It happens frequently with things like tinned tomatoes, beans, and coffee. One summer, I couldn’t get hold of shower gel for love nor money.
“It sounds a lot like Cuba,” my friend Harry, who lives in London, said to me tonight. “I really didn’t think Argentina was like that.”
“It’s not,” I insisted, but even I could hear that my voice lacked conviction.
Out buying empanadas for lunch, I saw the most incongruous sight on Avenida Callao. A beggar sat on the pavement outside a bank, with a woollen blanket thrown over her legs, despite the heat. Only, this was the prettiest beggar in the long, sorry history of pennilessness. I’m talking supermodel pretty. She looked professionally made-up, too, which immediately made me wonder if the whole thing was a stunt.
I started looking around for cameras, then, dawdling at the crossing, I turned and stared at her for the longest time. She stared back at me, smiling, and I didn’t know what to do. After hesitating for another minute or two, I walked over to her and apologised, telling her I had no change, no money at all, in fact. She shrugged, fluttering her absurdly long eyelashes at me, and still, I didn’t know what to do.
What was I going to say? “How is someone as pretty as you homeless and begging on the streets?” That just sounds stupid and insulting. And yet, I still can’t make any sense of it. If she was selling herself, she didn’t say anything, but then I’ve no idea how those things work. Perhaps the john is supposed to ask — who knows?
Now I can’t stop thinking about her, and the sparkling conversation we might have made. She didn’t look high, or like she had a drug problem. The more I think about her, the more I think it was a stunt. I’m probably famous on Argentine TV. “The Englishman without any balls.”
I lied; I did have money. Should I have given her some? I hope I see her again.
Every weekend, I take myself to the Law Faculty to listen to the Associated Lyrical Singers of the Argentine Republic belting out Mozart, Puccini & co. on the building’s neoclassical steps.
I’ve started to recognise many of the other regular spectators, including the drunks from the nearby slum who always try to ruin the open-air show by singing along madly and conducting the singers with their booze bottles.
This afternoon, I sat behind a couple who snuggled together and swayed back and forth to the romantic arias. The man was wearing a bomber jacket with the words LOVE FUCKS picked out in silver studs on the back.
I pulled out my phone and created a new note in which I wrote the words LOVE FUCKS. Then I turned around to find a well-dressed woman peering over my shoulder, spying on my note. Her eyebrows were raised, and I realised how difficult it would be to explain myself in Spanish.
My friend Benedict is the Financial Times correspondent down here, and last night he shared with me a YouTube video of William F. Buckley in conversation with Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina’s greatest ever writer.
The broadcast is from 1977, when reality TV was real, and consisted of highbrow conversations between intellectual titans like Buckley and Borges. The bad old days, before My 600-lb Life and Dating Naked.
Early in their exchange, Borges says about Argentina: “I know my own country, but I am very puzzled by my country. I wish I understood my country. I can only love it. I can do what I can for it. But I don’t pretend to understand it.”
I am officially as smart as Jorge Luis Borges.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe