Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires Diary 7.0
Dominic Hilton on the Instagram influencers in his plaza, conversations with his mother and a terrible death on the streets near his home
Since moving to Argentina, I’ve made a habit of not drinking before 8pm. An early tipple is rarely indulged in here, so ordering one can make you feel like a proper European lush. Today, though, I met my Dutch friend Sander for a couple of vermouths at the degenerate hour of 5pm. We had no choice, as the new lockdown measures require restaurants and bars to close their doors at 7pm. After 8pm, no one is allowed out onto the streets—and like last year, Buenos Aires once again feels only semi-recognisable.
En route to the bar, I walked up Calle Agüero a block from my home, fully expecting to see Violeta, the wild-haired 78-year-old who lives with dozens of mangy cats in a white trailer stalled permanently against the kerb. I can always count on a polite nod of recognition or a spirited wink from Violeta. Only today, not only were there no cats to be seen anywhere, there was no Violeta. There wasn’t even a van.
Violeta had continued to sleep on the pavement after receiving her new trailer. Which is what she was doing on the night she was brutally murdered
At the entrance to the building outside which her van should have been parked, pictures of “Abuelita Viole” had been posted to the windows, along with poems written (I hope) by children. I was running late, so I snapped a few photos on my phone, took note of the hashtag—#JusticiaPorVioleta—and moved along, assuming the authorities had done the same to Violeta and her van.
I didn’t think about her again until later, when sat at my desk, reviewing my notes from the day, I learned that a couple of nights ago Violeta Fernández was beaten to death in the street outside her trailer. According to the preliminary autopsy, “the victim died as a result of a severe trauma to the face caused by a blow with a blunt object.”
A 25-year-old man has been arrested, charged with aggravated homicide. The police found 19,000 pesos and 1,200 US dollars hidden in the lining of Violeta’s coat.
The news was described by one NGO as “a hot iron that nailed us in the heart”. “A bastard murdered her,” they said, “but we wonder if others didn’t kill her before…”
I, for one, wondered what they meant by this, only to learn that Violeta’s original van had burned a month before mandatory isolation was decreed by the government in 2020. I’d no idea about this (though I’d vaguely wondered why her trailer appeared to have been spruced up), nor that she’d spent the entire winter sleeping on the streets. Frightened by memories of the fire, Violeta had continued to sleep on the pavement after receiving her new trailer. Which is what she was doing on the night she was brutally murdered.
The NGO accuses us all of “looking the other way while hundreds of grandparents live on the street, lost in their world, unprotected and waiting for death to rest their bodies and little souls full of pain and abandonment.” That made me feel crappy, and I poured myself a whisky. Returning to my desk, I read in the newspaper that a thirty-year-old woman has been found beaten to death in the street around the corner from my old apartment. After reading that, I shut down my computer and went to sleep.
The President of Argentina has tested positive for Covid-19. This is despite receiving the Russian Sputnik V vaccine back in January in a bid to demonstrate its effectiveness against the virus.
Support for the President has plummeted, and there are angry nightly protests across the country after the government was caught vaccinating its supporters ahead of the most vulnerable and needy, too many of whom forgot to vote the right way at the last election. Maybe I’ve been here too long, but something about the whole sorry saga feels utterly inevitable. President Fernandez says he feels “like a crazy man,” which I suppose is one way of staying in touch with his people.
Meanwhile, my mother says I need to force the British Embassy to inoculate me with the AstraZeneca vaccine. On the phone today, I tried explaining to her how that’s not strictly possible, but she would have none of it.
“You just need to give the Ambassador hell,” she insisted, adding, “If you ask me, it’s high ruddy time you lived in a more civilised place.”
“Like where?” I asked, winding her up.
Prince Philip has died. A frequent visitor to Argentina, the Duke played polo at the Hurlingham Club, and I’ve heard more than the odd story from people here, both at the club and elsewhere.
On the subject of his death, though, my Argentine friends have been in touch today to ask a single question: “Was it Meghan?”
Five different people made the same joke: which made me wonder if it was a joke.
Sitting outside a café this afternoon, my nose buried in the collected stories of Dorothy Parker, the stylish woman at the table next to mine struck up conversation.
“Are you a foreigner?” she asked, and when I told her that I was, she nodded and said, “I thought so, because of the way you were reading.”
The way I was reading? I wondered in what possible way I might read differently to an Argentine, but before I had a chance to ask, she pointed at my book and said, “Dorothy Parker.”
I glanced at its cover in a deliberate way and said, “Yes, Dorothy Parker.”
She nodded again, like she was going to say something more, but she didn’t. I tried to carry on reading, but I found it hard to concentrate. Then she piped up again. “I never finish any book I start reading.”
“Never?” I asked, finding this hard to believe.
“I lose interest,” she told me, “after fifty or so pages.”
Now I nodded, not knowing what to say. Eventually, I said, “How sad,” and she shrugged.
“It’s nothing. I’m at that age, I suppose.”
Later, when she stood up from her table to leave, she said in a resigned voice, “Well, it was nice to talk to you.”
And for some reason, I wondered if we’d been talking all along about sex.
I learned a great new phrase today: estar meado por un elefante. It means “to be pissed on by an elephant” and refers to those moments in life when everything has gone to shit.
My plaza continues to be besieged day in, day out by Instagram influencers, pretending to walk, pretending that they live here, pretending to read books or be lost in thought, and pretending to be happy. This morning I watched a young woman leap into the air because it was her birthday. She was clasping a cluster of colourful balloons and must have soared skywards forty or fifty times. Her miserable-looking companion was clutching a smartphone against his chest and she was furious at him for making such a hash of recording her very special day. “Do better!” she yelled, stomping back across the square to resume her starting position. Then she rocketed into the air again, the heels of her black patent platform boots grazing her bottom, another jubilant smile suddenly plastered across her heavily made-up face.
She was clasping a cluster of colourful balloons and must have soared skywards forty or fifty times
Then there are the skateboarders, whose numbers are swelling. They are here all day, every day, smoking weed and filming each other’s slapstick bloopers, and I can’t help wondering what these wasters are about. Some of them appear to be in their fifties and seem to have nothing better to do with their lives than fall repeatedly onto the seats of their baggy, 90s-style shorts. The constant clatter of their skateboards against tarmac is starting to drive me insane, and it occurred to me this afternoon, as I was sunbathing on my balcony and wondering what my mother means when she calls me “a drifter”, that I’ve never witnessed a successful skateboard trick. Has anyone?
Out walking this evening before the curfew, I crossed paths with a husband and wife. They were both healthy-looking and dressed in exercise gear. Her T-shirt read, in English, I AM ANYONE’S.
I stopped and stared, and the husband stared back at me, frowning.
Coming home, I passed a man sat on a bench in Plaza Mitre, who undressed me with his eyes. His T-shirt read, in English, YOUR MEAT, MY HEAT.
Today is Action Day for Tolerance and Respect between People. I did my part, first by tolerating a shuffling pair of big-boned women who wouldn’t get out of my way on the pavement. Then this evening, I let the concierge know that he didn’t have to get up from his office chair behind his empty desk to open the door for me: that I was perfectly capable of doing it myself, just this once. I thought I was showing him respect, but he scurried anxiously across the lobby, flashing me a desperate look as he held the door open anyway. “It’s my job, sir!” he said, like I was trying to erase his entire existence.
My friend Lucia told me a great story at lunch today. Lucia is a teacher at a private school in the Buenos Aires province and last week, in a class about urbanism, she shared a link to a website called “Price Tags” with her Year 9 class.
“So, I asked the children if they thought the website was a reliable source,” she told me. “And one of kids said, “Hm. I don’t think so. The name of the website makes me suspicious. Price Tags? I mean, it sounds… strange.” I hadn’t a clue what he meant, so I googled the name and found a definition of “Price Tag” in the Urban Dictionary.”
She pulled out her phone and typed “Price Tag” into a search engine. Then she handed the phone to me, saying, “Read that.”
I stared at the screen.
A sexual act (whether intentional or unintentional) that involves the removal of the penis from a partner’s orifice in such a way that the condom remains partially within the partner, thus causing the condom to hang from the partner’s orifice resembling a price tag on a piece of clothing or a stuffed animal.
Lucia bit into a carrot. “I just pray the other kids didn’t find the same definition, though I’m pretty sure they did.”
My mother called to tell me she’s been made the Safeguarding Officer for her Parish Church Council. When I asked her what the role entails, she said, “It’s my job to protect St. Mary’s from terrorism. If I get suspicious, I have to report people to the Diocesan Safeguarding Board. We’ve had some funny cases.”
My mother called to tell me she’s been made the Safeguarding Officer for her Parish Church Council
After laughing, I thought, Oh, yeah, terrorism. There’s another thing I don’t miss about home.
My friend and erstwhile colleague A S H Smyth started his job as presenter of the Breakfast Show on Falklands Radio. The fact that he is living on the Islands, let alone doing that job, and at the same time that I’m living in Argentina, is something I know I’ll never fully come to terms with. Ever.
Today, at his request, I tuned into his show, which felt like an act of subversion in Buenos Aires. The first thing I heard was the “Mystery Voice Segment” in which an islander described a typical day in her life, shearing sheep and scraping mud from her wellies. Listeners were invited to call in and guess her identity. (It was Sue.) The subsequent news segment included the latest on “the sheep chill factor”, a “top 10 fishing-catch chart”, and a solid eight minutes on the subject of darts. Then came today’s mystery question, which was “Lard is the fat of which animal?”
Following a musical montage, comprised of popular hits by Daniel O’Donnell and George Formby, it was time for “What’s the Bill at the Till?” a competition in which listeners had to guess the price of household items at the local Asda. “Checkout!” said Smyth. “Ch-ch-ch-checkout!” The winner stood a chance of bagging themselves a £25 voucher in a weekly draw.
Today’s items were a 550g bag of Tilda basmati rice, a packet of strawberry Angel Delight, a 500g bag of split peas, and a butcher’s meat-grinder/sausage filler.
In a seventy-page report leaked to the press, a panel of twenty medical experts has concluded that the care given to Diego Maradona in the days and hours before his death was “inadequate, deficient and reckless.” I predict a riot. Plus, charges of manslaughter.
The newspapers are already declaring “a war”. Both Maradona’s chief psychiatrist and his chief psychologist have been singled out for blame, which is yet another thing I can only imagine happening in Argentina.
Meanwhile, at the Argentinos Juniors football stadium in La Paternal, four miles away from my home, a chapel has been constructed for “El Diego”. Worshippers who enter the chapel can kneel in wooden pews and pray to Maradona at the shrine, in which a giant, grinning picture of the former footballer looms over a chintzy statuette of the Virgin Mary. The walls of the chapel are filled with football shirts and more hagiographic images of Maradona at various stages of his extraordinary life. “Tierra de D10S” reads the metal sign above the chapel’s hallowed entrance, and just the thought of it makes me preposterously happy that I live in Argentina, the Land of God.
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