Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires Diary 8.0
Dominic Hilton meets a nun on national day and tries an Argentine MRI
En route to the bakery this lunchtime, I got side-tracked by the mesmerising spectacle of a homeless man. From his crusty scalp to his bruised and swollen ankles, this miserable pobre was straight out of central casting; the archetypal swivel-eyed bum. Strands of his filthy yellow-grey hair hung flaccidly over his ears. His shirtless back exposed a gruesome skin condition, while his heavily soiled peasant trousers were barely held up with a fraying length of rope.
From the ankles downwards, though, his fortunes took a dramatic turn. I watched as he drew an expensive-looking pedicure kit from his decomposing satchel, opening the monogrammed leather pouch before tenderly unfolding it across the plane of an attractive stone bench. He then lifted one of his model-worthy bare feet atop the pew and, after pausing to take a long deep breath, proceeded to pummel away at his left ball with the dexterity of a professional, his silver surgical file flashing in the sunlight.
Snooping like a foot fetishist, I pretended to admire a nearby statue of a mutton-chopped nineteenth-century horseman as the tramp fixated upon his delicate undertaking with a trance-like intensity. After slipping the silver file back into its case, his gnawed, calloused fingers daintily unscrewed the lid from a vile of nail polish. Spreading his toes, he painted each of his immaculately clipped nails a colour I can only describe as electropop fuchsia, his steady brush strokes betraying a master’s touch. This man should be a beautician, I thought, before recognising that I’d never let him anywhere near my own feet, particularly if he was brandishing a sharpened scalpel.
A wild grin of satisfaction cracked across his grotesque, boil-ridden face as he unceremoniously dropped to his backside to let the snazzy lacquer dry in the sun, and I moved along. It was only when I reached the bakery that I realised I’d completely lost my appetite.
In my Spanish class this evening, I searched online for everyday phrases using both the imperfect and preterite forms of the verb tener, only to find the following examples:
- How old were you when you got your first gun?
- Michael here would have been about the age you were when you… had your accident.
- The boys were scared when the building collapsed.
- I know you were drinking because, for whatever reason, you felt you had to.
- Unfortunately, you had to build these antennas on your own — until now!
- It was not a dry discourse — you wet it well with tears of grief and anxiety.
- Will, how old were you when you had to protect your mother, your brother, and your two little sisters from a grown man who was drunk and violent?
Overheard in the street today: “So, they gave me the vaccine, but now my dick hurts.”
“Any big news?” I asked my sister in England this afternoon. “What am I missing?”
“Well, let’s see,” Sophie said, popping a slice of apple into her mouth. “I asked your nephew what he dreamt about last night, and he said, ‘Oh, it was a good one. I dreamt about a lovely shelf’. I laughed at him and he refused to speak to me for the next hour.”
“He doesn’t want to talk to you on the phone anymore.”
“What? Why not?”
Sophie shrugged. “He says he wants you to come over and play.”
“Did you explain to him that I live in Argentina?”
“His sister did. She called him an idiot, then showed him a map of the world.”
“He thinks you’re making excuses.”
I said nothing.
A provisional list of things that I miss about Britain, in no particular order:
- Rowntree’s Fruit Gums
- My family
- Tarka dhal
- Shoes that fit my feet
- Smelly Barbour jackets
- Politics that makes some sort of twisted sense
- Cheese (particularly Stilton)
“ALARMING SURGE IN CORONOVIRUS CASES” scream the headlines as Argentina suffers its inevitable second wave. There were 745 deaths from Covid-19 yesterday and everyone is losing their minds about the lack of vaccines and the fact that football has been suspended for ten days.
Nobody seems to agree about anything — except that life without football is not worth living. Turn on the TV to learn about the pandemic and instead you get blanket coverage of the latest controversy re the upcoming 2021 Copa America competition, explosive rows over the future of Carlos Tevez at Boca Juniors, live feeds of Kun Agüero raffling off one of his Land Rovers, and breaking bulletins about Lionel Messi’s new leg tattoo.
The national government, which is at war with the autonomous municipal government of Buenos Aires, has announced a new set of lockdown restrictions, my favourite being “You can walk through the green spaces, but without permanence.” Cafés and restaurants are shut, nightly curfews commence at 6pm, and a special hotline has been set-up for vigilant citizens to snitch on their offending neighbours.
Adverts for the hotline pop up every five minutes on my YouTube, tempting my worst instincts. Meanwhile, a message from my building’s consortium has been posted to the wall in my lobby. Residents who invite non-residents or domestic servants through the doors, it says, WILL immediately be reported to the police.
Today was Dia de la Patria y la Revolución de Mayo (National Day) and I was enjoying the sunshine in the Paseo de la Recoleta when a nun burst out of the Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar, galloping around the plaza waving her fist in the air.
“¡Viva la Patria!” she yelled into the faces of people sitting on benches, minding their own business, reading newspapers and eating ice cream. “¡Viva la Patria! ¡Viva la Patria!”
Then she spotted my face, grinning with delight, and she frowned crossly beneath her wimple. Picking up speed, she raced across a patch of grass towards me. I gave serious thought to making a spineless dash for safety, but everyone was now looking at me, so I stood my ground, yet again playing the difficult role of the stoic, unruffled foreigner.
“¡Buen dia!” I said as she got up in my face. “¿Todo bien?”
“¡Viva la Patria!” she screamed, glaring at me with obvious disgust. “¡Viva la Patria!”
“Sí, claro,” I said. “¡Viva la Patria!”
She clamped a vice-like hand around my bicep, forcing my arm above my head. “¡Viva la Patria! ¡Viva la Patria!”
“Ah, right, yes. ¡Viva la Patria!” I half-heartedly pumped a fist into the air, flushing with embarrassment as everyone around me started to chuckle.
The nun studied me a while, then nodded her head sharply, before shooting off to assault a gang of dapper seniors in sunglasses sat placidly under the snaking limbs of a gum tree.
According to a Covid Resilience Ranking published by Bloomberg yesterday, Argentina is the worst place in the world to be for the virus. The nation has somehow managed to place below India, Brazil and Columbia, whose collective misery is currently dominating international headlines.
I didn’t tell my mother, who already thinks I live in the present-day equivalent of Gomorrah.
A popular conspiracy theory doing the rounds in Buenos Aires is that the national government turned down the Pfizer vaccine because the pharmaceutical giant requested as payment either a) the glaciers or b) the Andes.
I really do wonder, sometimes. But then I open a great bottle of wine from Mendoza and remind myself that this month’s gas bill for my apartment came to £1.29.
Friends from twelve different countries across the globe shared the same news story with me today.
Announcing the death of 81-year-old William “Bill” Shakespeare, the first man to receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, a newsreader on Canal 26 in Argentina described the former factory worker as “one of the most important writers in the English language — for me, the master.”
“We’ve got news that has stunned all of us given the greatness of this man,” Noelia Novillo said, before her embarrassing gaffe went viral.
“I expressed myself badly,” Novillo later confessed, attributing the mix-up to poor grammar. “I missed out a full stop, a comma, some brackets.”
As the alerts lit up my phone, I thought despairingly of a friend of mine here who’s fond of saying, “Argentina never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
“Or to make itself look ridiculous,” my girlfriend Catherine added with a weary sigh.
In other news, a Swiss bank admitted in a Federal Court in New York today that it laundered $25 million of bribes received in exchange for TV rights by Julio Grondona, the former President of the Argentine Football Association.
The big story today is that the First Lady of Argentina received top marks from the University of Palermo in 2013 for her graduate thesis “Analysis of interdiscursive tension between Nestor Kirchner and Clarín during the period 2003-2007”. This is despite the fact that twenty of its eighty pages were copied and pasted from Wikipedia.
Going to hospital is a nightmare. But going to hospital in a foreign country where the doctors, nurses and administrative staff speak another language behind surgical facemasks is like living in a bad translation of a Kafka story.
For various reasons, I’ve been in hospitals too often this month. Having to concentrate and focus on everything being said to me always gives me a blinding headache. I become anxious and self-conscious because for the life of me I can’t understand the labyrinthine system, the illogical protocols, or any of the complex medical terminology—the befuddling mishmash of which cause me to nod and grin dumbly at everybody like Harpo Marx as flop sweat drenches my brow.
Today I had an ultrasound and an MRI. I’m not sure what happened at the ultrasound as, after I’d stripped to my underpants, the doctor charged into the room, frowned concernedly at a monitor, spoke a lot of garbled words I didn’t understand at a thousand miles per hour, then waved a stiff hand, told me he’d see me later, and dashed out into the corridor, white coattails flying. For all I know, I may have only twenty-four hours to live.
The MRI was even worse. First, I had to read and sign a long, complicated form, declaring that I wasn’t pregnant, that I wasn’t worried I might be pregnant, that I wasn’t currently having a heart attack, and that, to the best of my knowledge, I had no bullets or shrapnel in my body.
After an uncomfortable wait alongside two trembling pensioners, a friendly technician called my name, then stood watching as I removed my clothing. “You don’t have to do that,” she said after I’d taken off my shirt and pulled down my trousers. “Just leave your belt on the chair and come with me. Where are you from?”
We entered the theatre and I asked her if I had to wear my two facemasks inside the nuclear imaging machine. “Of course!” she said with a chortle. “It’s a very confined space and lots of people have been in there who may have the virus.”
“Oh,” I said, “great.”
I lay down with my neck — the reason I was there — unsupported. “Comfortable?” the technician asked.
“Yes, very,” I said, insufferable pain shooting down my arms, back and legs.
“Good. Now, try to breathe inside the machine, when you can,” she said. “And whatever you do, don’t swallow, ever. This should only take forty minutes.”
“Perfect,” I said.
It was at least the tenth time in my life I’ve been inside an MRI scanner, but this was definitely the most coffin-like of the bunch. My nose actually touched the roof. I immediately wished I’d been permitted to remove my clothing as it was hotter than a cremation oven inside the airless tube. Underneath my double facemasks, my mouth felt like I’d eaten a box of cigars. I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t not swallow.
Then came the noises. Thumping techno beats that rattled both the cylinder and my brain, accompanied by the loudest fire alarm I’d ever heard, which for scientific reasons was blasted into my left earhole. Is this really necessary? I wondered, reminding myself to keep a stiff upper lip and not to cry for help or squeeze the emergency button. Who invented this evil machine, Josef Mengele? The soldiers from Abu Ghraib? ISIS?
As I began to pass out, the motorized bed slid out of the machine and I found myself staring into the eyes of the technician. “Finished,” she said. “How was it? Everything ok?”
“Fine,” I said, silently cursing myself.
Her eyes shone above her facemask as I heaved myself gingerly into a standing position. We stared at each other for another few seconds, then she clapped her hands, lifted herself onto her tiptoes and said, “Well, it was very nice to meet you. See you again soon!”
It took a moment for her words to sink in. “I really hope not,” I said, sliding out of the theatre in my socks.
Every 100 peso note in my possession looks completely different. This cannot be a good sign.
The newspapers say that the Argentine Health minister is in Cuba, begging the communist government for some of its homemade vaccines. Meanwhile, President Fernandez is in St. Petersburg, hobnobbing with Vladimir Putin. “It’s time to understand that capitalism did not produce good results,” he said today, “it created inequality and injustice.”
“What are we going to do?” Catherine asked when I told her.
I stared out of the window. Several of the stray cats that infest the grounds of the British Embassy were lolling in the plaza below, warming themselves in the sun. I may have been imagining it, but I swear my mouth started to water.
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