Aerial view of the empty 9 de Julio avenue in Buenos Aires, on March 20, 2020. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Dominic Hilton’s Buenos Aires diary

Dominic Hilton reminisces on his past few weeks in the lively Argentinian capital

I was in our new apartment, examining a coffee table book about windswept Patagonia, when I heard, “I need to go out, but I don’t want to.”

I looked up from the book, but Catherine must have been in another room. “Eh?” I shouted into the emptiness.

She didn’t reply, as usual, so I got back to reading about a lake-dwelling plesiosaurus allegedly spotted in southern Argentina in 1922 by a “defrocked” Texas sheriff.

Soon after, Catherine drifted into the room in her underwear. “Is that Uruguay?” she asked, gazing out of the French windows towards the Rio de la Plata.

“Eh?”

“The land mass on the horizon.”

“Maybe. How should I know?” I shut my book, distracted. “You shouldn’t go out dressed like that.”

“No,” Catherine said absently, falling into a chair.

I asked what was wrong and she said, “Oh, nothing. It’s the concierge.”

“Which one?” I asked, as they work around the clock, in shifts. I’ve met at least three, but I suspect there are more.

“All of them,” Catherine said. “I don’t know the protocol. Plus, they think I’m mad.”

“Mad?” I said. “How so?”

“Because I’m always coming and going, and I never know what to say. I’m no good at small talk. Not in Spanish, anyway. It’s so… awkward. I wish they weren’t there.”

“But… twenty-four-hour security…” I said lamely.

Which is how we ended up writing a list of chatty phrases, which I’ve pinned to the fridge. Highlights so far include: “How windy it is today!”; “When will the peso be devalued?”; and “You must be worn-out.”

II.

I learned today that the street I live on is named after the Chief of General Staff of the Argentine Army during the War of the Triple Alliance, none of which means anything to me. The street I used to live on was named after an Argentine historian, jurist and politician, which likewise means nothing. “Among the large number of published works,” states his Wikipedia entry, “the seven volumes of Argentine Constituent Assemblies stand out.”

Seven volumes. What would make a man do such a thing?

The same, I suppose, could be asked of the porter in the adjacent building, who in 2013 raped and murdered a sixteen-year-old resident he’d known for eleven years, wrapping her lifeless young body in nylon then placing it inside a plastic waste collection bag before dumping it in a recycling bin. He must have been one sick psychopath.

Seven volumes, though, that’s insane.

III.

I saw a dead man today. He was slumped over a seatbelt, having ploughed his car into a fruit and veg stand at the side of a busy avenue. He looked to be in his mid-fifties, though I can’t be sure, as he also looked very dead.

His lifeless skin was the colour of gruel and his blueish mouth hung open, like it was ready to catch the oval-lensed eyeglasses hanging askew from the end of his slender, pointy nose. I guessed he’d had a heart attack whilst driving, as the airbag hadn’t inflated, and there were no signs of gaping wounds or spattered blood.

Scores of policemen dotted the scene, most leaning against their motorcycles, while a babbling crowd of middle-aged women, plus me, sharp elbowed each other out of the way, eager to get a better look. Several curious pedestrians stopped to take photographs with their phones and countless office workers materialised out of stairwells to smoke cigarettes and see what all the fuss was about. In front of the car, which was a Mercedes saloon, four teenage greengrocers in white cotton overcoats were salvaging what they could of the smashed produce. Their diligent coordination was impressive, shaming the rest of us, and their hands were caked in the juicy remnants of tomato and avocado.

I thought that maybe the police would stop me, but I was able to walk right up to the passenger side window and, shielding my eyes, peer into the car at the dead man. His carefully trimmed beard had the same salt and pepper consistency as his curly, receding hair. He was well dressed in an Italian sport coat and he wore a gold wedding band. I wondered about his wife, and whether he had children, who didn’t yet know what I knew. It was them that I found myself picturing as I departed the scene: three young adults in their twenties, innocently going about their days, unaware that their lives had just been turned upside down.

Later, as I waited outside the supermarket for Catherine to finish food shopping, I watched a beautiful young woman in black Lycra sports gear and gleaming Nike running shoes take fifteen minutes to travel one hundred yards along the pavement. I don’t know much about these things, but my guess is that she had cerebral palsy. She staggered bravely on crutches to the end of the block, then stood waiting for another fifteen minutes. I watched her, unsure what to do. Was she waiting for someone to meet her, or hoping that someone would help her to cross the busy boulevard? I didn’t want to seem forward, or presumptive, so I held my ground. Eventually, she forced herself across the small side street, finding someone to assist her across the thoroughfare, and I felt like hell.

“What’s up?” Catherine asked when she emerged from the supermarket, laden with bags.

She’d noticed the look on my face, so I took the bags from her, telling her what I’d seen as we walked home together. “That’s sad,” she agreed.

Then, as we climbed the steps to our square, a troubling thought struck me. “Do you think I would have cared so much if the girl hadn’t been young and pretty?”

“No,” Catherine said.

She didn’t even hesitate.

IV.

I live in a picturesque square and most days it’s inundated with content creators. There are endless professional photoshoots with photographers, assistants and models. But what fascinates me are the vast number of amateurs; the Instagrammers. On the surface, these are just regular people—not particularly attractive, not wearing the latest fashions—and yet here they are, throwing their arms in the air and flipping the peace sign outside my building.

The young men tend to pose like gangsters, a look wildly at odds with the elegant surroundings. They pout, some with their arms folded high across their chest to show off their “guns”, others cradling chin strap goatees between their thumbs and forefingers. A few remove their shirts, exhibiting their latest ink and hairless pecs, and they all wear clothes that defy reason. Shredded, loose-fitting jeans, wife beater tank tops, and the kind of sunglasses you’d expect to see Sophia Loren wearing.

What really gets me, though, is the fake walking. A young woman will pretend to walk three or four steps, performed in ungainly slow motion, then gallop back to check the results on the smartphone being held by her boyfriend. Unsatisfied, often furious, she’ll scald her ersatz director, then scurry back to her starting position, take a deep breath, and repeat the process. This can happen twenty or thirty times.

Fake walking. I mean, really, what kind of a sick world is this?

V.

My neighbours—who I’m told are “in oil”—lunch on the terrace, served by a butler in full uniform

What is surely the prettiest apartment in Buenos Aires is across the way from mine, and I get to look down onto its split-level, Victorian marble tiled terrace from my bedroom window. “Is that a doll’s house?!” my sister asked when I sent her a picture. The owners—who I’m told are “in oil”—lunch on the terrace, served by a butler in full uniform, who gently holds silver serving tongs in his long white silk gloves. It’s like something from a 1930s screwball comedy—My Man Godfrey, that sort of thing—and it makes me yearn both for an era I never experienced and a life I’ll never live.

He looks like someone, this waiter. A French actor, I think, but I can’t place him, and it’s driving me crazy. I do this a lot. People remind me of other people, but I can’t remember who those other people are. Hours of my life are routinely spent trying to make these sorts of connections, and I’m over the moon when I do.

We rent our apartment from a friend I spent many years watching on television, long before I knew him. For all those years, I couldn’t think who he reminded me of, and it would nag away at me like an irritating radio jingle. Then, recently, he said to me, “Of course, in the business, everyone used to call me Jack.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because of the resemblance.” He drew a circle around his face with a finger. “Nicholson.”

It’s not so much that the penny dropped as the entire national mint. Here was something that had been plaguing me for nearly thirty years. I wanted to kiss him—which is something I imagine very few people think of the actual Jack Nicholson.

VI.

Today was the National Day for Respect and Cultural Diversity. Seriously, what cultural diversity? Me. I am the cultural diversity. It was my day.

My sister got in touch to tell me about my six-year-old niece, who asked, “Mummy, Daddy enters the lottery, why don’t you? We could have a house with a pool.”

I mentioned the glorious weather in Buenos Aires, to which my sister replied, “It’s pouring here. Freezing. I’ve just had a flu vaccination in a Morrison’s car park.”

This made me happy.

Later, on a walk, I passed a saxophonist playing an especially crap version of “Careless Whisper” outside the lavish Decorative Arts museum. A fellow pedestrian started to applaud, causing the saxophonist to jump in astonishment and hit another bum note.

Man, I thought, at least pretend to believe in yourself. I dropped a tatty ten peso note into his open case, which at the current exchange rate, amounts to ten pence. He saluted me.

VII.

When it comes to workspaces, my new apartment provides me with several options, though the desks in the bedrooms expose me to the potentially prying eyes of neighbours in adjacent buildings. When I’m procrastinating—standing to stretch, making more coffee, opening books on my desk, fiddling with my phone, etc.—I can feel their judgmental eyes on me. “Jesus,” I imagine them saying, “what does that guy actually do?”

I’ve never understood people who can write in public, like J.K. Rowling in her cafés

I’ve never understood people who can write in public, like J.K. Rowling in her cafés. I guess they must be better writers than me, completely confident that people reading over their shoulders will be impressed by what they see. I can understand working in public if you’re a coder: no one understands what the hell you’re doing, and in fact you could just be pretending to be a coder and writing utter gobbledygook. Someone like me would never know any better—though I’m unsure what the going rate is in today’s economy for fake code.

At sundown, I’m routinely exposed to a handsome woman who sits in a home office opposite. I like to think she’s a psychoanalyst, as her workplace seems set up for it, plus there are more psychologists per capita in Argentina than in any other country in the world, so it’s a safe bet. She sits at her computer, and I imagine her logging the myriad insanities and perversions she’s heard from that day’s patients. Often, I catch her chewing her pen as she stares at me, and I wonder if she’s a Freudian.

I also can’t help wondering what she makes of me. My routine must be well known to her by now. I write a sentence, stare at it for a good long while, then decide it needs “fact-checking”, so turn to Google. Half an hour later, having completely forgotten about the piece I’m supposed to be writing, I’m watching a video of an Alpaca on roller-skates.

VIII.

I’ve been playing a lot of tennis recently at the British Ambassador’s residence, which is next door to my building. Declared a National Historic Monument of Argentina, the property boasts the largest private gardens in Buenos Aires, which include a swimming pool, a tennis court, and herds of deranged, feral cats. I hear a Middle Eastern potentate made a huge bid for the place a few years ago, but thankfully, Her Majesty’s Government advised him to hoover up another piece of London instead.

I play tennis with my friend James, and while we’re careful to represent our nation in the best possible light, when we hit unforced errors, we impulsively shout out swear words. Naturally, the most common of these is “Fuck!”, and variants thereof. But today I found myself wondering what a passing porteño makes of hearing loud cries of “Argh, bugger me!” echo from within the walls of the British Embassy.

IX.

Hardly a day goes by without a major protest making its way down the two boulevards I can see from my balcony. Flags are waved, horns are honked, vague platitudes are boomed out of PA systems, and I’ve never the faintest clue what any of them are about. I’ve seen one protest made up entirely of vintage car owners.

If an Argentine exercises and nobody sees them, do they lose any pounds?

Today was Peronist Loyalty Day, which is not only a real thing, but has been a thing since 17 October 1945, when a million “shirtless” workers gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to demand the release of the imprisoned Juan Peron. Today it involved several “Chorimobiles”: massive grills on the flatbeds of trucks upon which sausages are cooked over coals. In the afternoon, an event for the “Choripaneros” (the men who grill the sausages) was led by the President, who is a Peronist and, presumably, a sausage lover.

My latest bid to understand what the hell is going on in this country had me reading some of the comments posted to a photo essay in La Nacion. “Just by looking at the faces you realize that this country has no future!” said one. “They were all paid to show up!” said another. “Watch out for your wallets!” warned Juan. While a woman named Marina asked, “Where is the virus when it is most needed?”

As usual, my research led me down a series of increasingly bizarre rabbit holes, all leaving me none the wiser. “Violence also erupted in the Congress,” I read, “where members of the Chamber of Deputies threw notebooks at each other, rather than taking action.” Elsewhere: “angry crowds pushed garbage wagons against the doors to break them down in an attempt at lynching the British managers who were besieged inside.”

X.

Somebody has spray-painted ‘FUCK THE POLICE’ on the garden wall of the British Embassy

This afternoon, sat on a bench outside the Church of Our Lady of Pilar by the cemetery, I was distracted by a loud American voice. Looking up from the paperback I was reading about W.H. Hudson, I saw that the voice belonged to a woman marching determinedly up the path in gym gear and a baseball cap. In front of me, a dog was rabidly snuffling the picnic of a bewildered family who had been enjoying the sunshine with their young children. “Good girl,” the American woman shouted at her dog, “eating everybody else’s food!”

On my way home, I got stuck behind a slow-moving, dapperly dressed old gentleman who hit me in the nuts with his walking cane. He didn’t mean to, but he also didn’t apologise as I stood bent double. “Inglés,” he said—not nastily, just as if it was an explanation for my nuts being in the way of his swinging cane.

Meanwhile, somebody has spray-painted “FUCK THE POLICE” on the garden wall of the British Embassy. It’s unclear if they mean “FUCK THE BRITISH POLICE” or “FUCK THE ARGENTINE POLICE”.

XI.

Nobody exercises in private in Argentina. Every day, I watch people working out on their balconies, on rooftops, and all over the public parks with personal trainers barking superfluous orders. The gyms in Buenos Aires all have glass fronts, so onlookers can watch from the street. Everything here is done for display, which begs the question: if an Argentine exercises and nobody sees them, do they lose any pounds?

A similar logic applies in death. If an Argentine dies, and isn’t displayed in a rich mahogany coffin behind the glass doors of an elaborate marble mausoleum, did they really die—or live—at all?

This afternoon, I exercised on the treadmill in my gym, and in a slapstick attempt to adjust the settings, I lost concentration and catapulted off the back. I pray nobody was watching me through the floor-to-ceiling window. Recovering what was left of my dignity, I staggered dizzily out of the gym, only to lose my balance and crash straight into a glass wall, nearly breaking my nose.

XII.

At 3am, it’s storming heavily. I can’t sleep, so I get out of bed and pull a book about Argentina from the shelves. I open the book randomly to chapter 4, in the hope that reading Spanish will work as a sleep aid and help me ignore the thunderclaps. “Argentina is not a normal country,” the chapter begins, “and that is why living here is so complicated.” I slide the book back onto the shelf, confident I’ve read the whole thing.

XIII.

I watch the police sniffer Alsatians check the inhabitants of Plaza Mitre for drugs

I have a long, panoramic balcony that could seat fifty, but come late afternoon, I’ve taken to heading out to a grassy knoll at the edge of my square. The knoll fills up with people at this time of day and slopes down from an imposing statue of Bartolomé Mitre, a former President of Argentina. Mitre is presented astride his horse, surveying the city, which of course means the horse’s arse faces my square. Sat on the knoll, I watch the police sniffer Alsatians check the inhabitants of Plaza Mitre for drugs, after which they are led to their mobile kennels, which look like tiny windows in a Jetstream, only with bars on them.

Today on the knoll I met Lucy. I was having an argument on a phone call and she heard my English voice so came and sat near me. Lucy seems lovely and has just moved to Buenos Aires with her husband, who of course works at the Embassy. Within twenty seconds of meeting me, she asked, “So, what do you do?”

It’s incredible. In three years, no Argentine has ever asked me this question. They just don’t care. But in England, it’s all people care about.

I also never know how to answer. “Not much,” I said, which made me sound mysterious and probably sketchy as fuck. I immediately thought of my friend Luke in the UK. The other day Luke was blocked by a woman on Hinge with whom he says he was getting along really well. She asked about his job status and when he said, “I work for myself,” she immediately blocked him. I find this fascinating: that working for yourself is a red flag, a warning sign, like reading Hemingway or Infinite Jest.

XIV.

We have cockroaches. They’re huge. I was woken this morning by the sound of banging and when I stumbled bleary-eyed into the kitchen, I found Catherine massacring one of the pests with an ankle weight. The anguished look on her face was priceless.

XV.

The people’s love for “El Diego” may end up killing him

Today was Diego Maradona’s sixtieth birthday. “This is a very emotional day for the nation,” announced a voice on the TV, then a very frail Diego was carried out onto a football pitch and perched in a special throne embossed with his initials, alongside the name of a popular energy drink. Cheap fireworks were set off, giant “Happy Birthday” banners unfurled, and weeping fans chanted his name on Zoom calls displayed on jumbotrons. Following many of the Covid-19 protocols, his handlers initially seemed very concerned for his obviously poor health, but they soon got carried away by the emotion of the moment, pulling down Diego’s face mask to kiss him on the mouth. The people’s love for “El Diego” may end up killing him.

XVI.

This afternoon a drone appeared outside my window. It hovered menacingly for ten or fifteen seconds, watching me at my desk, then, with a motorized buzz, vanished out of view. I went to the window to encounter four grinning teenagers, two dolled-up girls and two slovenly boys, huddled together down in the square. One of the boys was operating the drone with a remote control.

They didn’t look threatening, or anything, these youths, but still, I felt relieved not to have been stepping naked out of a cold shower or taking a crash course in Japanese rope bondage. Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not the type of fame I seek.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover