La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina, (Sarah Pabst/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Failing to escape Brexit in Buenos Aires

You can’t escape entitled Brits whingeing about Brexit, even in Argentina. But you may encounter the ghosts of Nazis

Aside from my family, the thing I miss most about Europe is its history. I pine for leaning towers, X-rated gargoyles and plague cottage gift shops. Turns out when you’re surrounded by the past, weighed down by it even, you have a tendency to take it for granted. Only when it’s gone, and you find yourself part of a large tour group being funnelled around a presentable home built in 1952, do you realise what you once had.

In Argentina’s messy capital, whenever I crave a dose of history, I visit the dead

Renaissance frescos are notably lacking on South American ceilings. And you can forget about medieval keeps within moated castles, or crumbling temples dedicated to warrior goddesses. Maybe you’ll chance upon an Incan citadel, if you know where to trek, and can haggle a decent Sherpa. And I’ve heard about Aztec stones where virgins had their still-palpitating hearts torn from their chests and presented to the sun god Huitzilopochtli before being eaten. But precious few of these delights crop up in Buenos Aires. My city prides itself on being more European than anything. “The Paris of the South” it likes to call itself. Paris without the cathedrals, museums, art or cuisine.

In Argentina’s messy capital, whenever I crave a dose of history, I visit the dead. By which I mean that I disappear into one of the city’s many cemeteries and creep myself out in putrid mazes of elaborately-sculpted mausoleums. Most famous is La Recoleta cemetery, in the no-longer-beating heart of BA’s wealthiest quarter. It’s one of the few places in Argentina where you’re in legitimate danger of encountering an English-speaking guide with a headset, but it’s worth the risk.

I visit La Recoleta whenever I need to contemplate the meaning of life and avoid writing. For some reason, sitting all day in arty cafes, rereading classic novels on my Kindle while sipping endless cups of coffee, makes me feel guilty, like I’m procrastinating. By contrast, long afternoons spent mooching between Neo-Gothic tombs in labyrinthine bone orchards can be successfully passed off as vital research. Get a load of all this inspiration, I tell myself. You can use this in the book you’ll never write.

To be fair, I have witnessed some outlandish goings-on amongst the sullen, zombified teenagers who take cover in the cemetery’s cat-infested alleyways. And I once made a proper fool of myself in front of a beautiful local historian, who after graciously shepherding me to the graves of several prominent tenants, including Eva Peron and Napoleon’s granddaughter, asked me if I had any questions, and for some reason I said, “Don’t you think this place would’ve made an ideal location for a Michael Jackson music video?”

When I’m not killing time in Recoleta, I swing westwards towards La Chacarita, which is less popular with the living, and at two-hundred and thirty acres, the largest necropolis in Argentina. The stiffs in La Chacarita are less snobby than the oligarchs crowding La Recoleta: though the peerless Carlos Gardel rests among its denizens, and Juan Peron spent thirty-two years plotzed alongside its many artists-in-permanent-residence. The ornate crypts are just as impressive as those in Recoleta, the rat-catching mogs just as wild and mangey, and during the long summer months, the stench of cooking corpses equally as pungent. What’s more, a fair number of my countrymen are buried next door, which makes me feel almost welcome.

There’s usually nobody in the British cemetery, except for me, and hundreds of dead people. It’s peaceful, beautifully wild but well-cared-for, and thus pleasantly reminiscent of home. As I stroll aimlessly, listening to my footsteps, I often hear the unmistakeable clink-clink-clink of names being carved onto tombstones, but I can never locate the source of the sound. Which, now that I think about it…

And it’s hard to ignore those names. Juan Brown. Jorge Buxton. Catalina Clark. Jabez Clutterbuck. Genoveva Ferguson. Miguel Murphy. Enriqueta Nuttall. Beatriz O’Connor. Mariana Shoosmith. Rodolfo Simons. Regalada Roper.

Then there are the official causes of death: “bowel complaint”; “struck by lightning”; “bullet wound in head”; “gangrenous ulcer in the throat”; “mortified leg”; “severely fractured skull from murderous assault in the Partido of Lujan”; “softening of the brain, etc.”; “explosion of boiler on board the Buenos Ayrean Steamer General Outram”; “sudden intemperance”; “pistol shot”; “stab in the thigh”; “assassinated”; “dropsy”; “drowned at the founding of the barque Crusader”;  “by taking arsenic” and “convulsion fits”.

When I first called on my fellow Britons, it was a torrid Saturday afternoon, and sprinklers were watering the vegetation, creating mists that rose and swirled hauntingly around the headstones. Thankfully, there were no signs of life, except for the birds, who seemed to be following me everywhere. I stood contemplating the barbed wire fence that separated the British cemetery from its German counterpart, thinking, Ooh, that’d make a good metaphor—if ever I bother to write about this place someday. The graveyards had been formally divided in 1913, for obvious reasons, so in order to investigate, I had to exit the British cemetery and walk around the corner to the main gates of the German cemetery. A small woman in a headscarf sat outside in the shade of a tree. She saw me coming and rose from her little seat, shoving a disordered bunch of flowers in my face. “No soy alemán,” I explained, to which she pouted her bottom lip, unconcerned. I gave her some money and she looked at me like I was mad.

Again, the cemetery was empty, except for me and the departed. And again, it was impossible to ignore the names. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I was surprised to see so many war graves decorated with the Iron Cross. It just seemed so… blatant.

One of the graves belonged to Captain Hans Langsdorff, who scuttled the battleship Admiral Graf Spree in the River Plate in 1939, then shot himself in his Buenos Aires hotel room. I took out my phone to learn more, finding an article in Newsweek titled “World War II Documents From Argentina Could Shed New Light On Nazi Germany and Holocaust”. In the accompanying photo, taken on January 1, 1940, Langsdorff’s coffin is being carried into the cemetery through a guard of honour, hundreds deep. At the front of the mob, one officer in uniform is saluting the casket British-style: hand to the head, palm facing outwards. Everybody else is performing the Nazi salute.

Was I surrounded by the rotten corpses of Nazi war criminals who’d found refuge in Buenos Aires? Had the woman outside tried to sell me flowers because she thought I was… a sympathiser?

I started to feel uneasy. Was I surrounded by the rotten corpses of Nazi war criminals who’d found refuge in Buenos Aires? Had the woman outside tried to sell me flowers because she thought I was… a sympathiser? I examined some of the tombstones again, this time taking closer note of the dates. Maybe I was just being paranoid, but an alarming number of Germans seemed to have died in my adopted city from the mid-1940s onwards.

My thoughts turned to a favourite pizza parlour on the Avenida Corrientes, where late one night I’d listened to a homeless-looking man with long, dirty fingernails insist that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun fled here via a ratline in 1945. “But didn’t they shoot themselves in the Führerbunker?” I’d asked, enjoying myself. The man flashed his inky teeth and shook his head, like he was schooling the village idiot. “A smokescreen,” he said, wagging a cheese-drenched finger at me. “You English will believe anything.”

Well, it’s not like I suddenly believed him, but as I drifted through the cemetery, remembering his crazy conspiracy theory, I started to feel light-headed, my heart jolting every time I caught sight of a grave marked with a surname beginning with the letter ‘H’. Maybe it was just the heat, but I needed to get out of there, fast.

On the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War I, a newly-constructed gate was opened between the British and German cemeteries. According to the Buenos Aires Times, the ribbon-cutting ceremony was “a supreme gesture of reconciliation”, carrying “all the symbolism of the Berlin Wall but not quite the same drama”. There were bagpipes, though. Not to mention a soprano with German blood, and a local choir, who sang John Lennon’s “Imagine”, along with “Danny Boy” and “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”. So, really, what more could one ask for?

I went to look at the gate a year or so later, hoping some of its alleged symbolism might rub off on me. But as I stood there, all I could think about was Brexit. The fallout from Britain’s vote to withdraw itself from the European Union had partly inspired my move to Argentina. I could muster little real passion about the fact of it. But the word—‘Brexit’—was something I could no longer face. Its fanatical overemployment had come to exhaust me. There was, it seemed, nothing that my fellow countrymen couldn’t link to or blame on the whole dreary fiasco. When, for reasons I never discovered, my dentist pulled down his surgical mask to yell, “You can thank Brexit for this!” as his assistant vacuumed blood and other assorted debris from my gums, I knew for sure that moving to South America was the only answer.

Sadly, whatever hope I was clinging to proved short-lived, in large part because I fell-in with the British expatriate community. For them, everything lousy and wrong in the global north was an inevitable upshot of Brexit. Donald Trump in the White House? You can thank Brexit for that one. Arsenal lost again? What do you expect, after Brexit? Coastal flooding in Rotterdam? Bloody, sodding Brexit!

Argentines I spoke to felt differently. “Who cares about your little Brexit?” they asked with bored shrugs. “Why are you people so crazy about it?” One hundred years of turmoil had left my new neighbours coolly accustomed to political upheaval. “We may not look it,” my friend Nico told me one evening at the golf range, “but compared to other people, Argentines are well adjusted.” He tapped his temple with a finger to ensure his point wasn’t lost in translation, before addressing his ball. “If the equivalent of Brexit happened in Argentina,” he explained, “maybe it would be the third most important news item that day.”

Could this be true? Had the land of Shakespeare, Milton and James Corden, renowned throughout history for its steady heads and stiff upper lips, somehow evolved into a hysterical land of overly-emotional, apoplectic divas? Had a former globe-spanning Empire upon which the sun never set fallen so far into parochial irrelevance that today it inspired little more than scoffs and eyerolls? Against all reason, I started to feel that by some miracle the country I’d chosen to live in was ahead of the curve. Screw Argentina racing to keep up with the developed world. What was the point in that, when the developed world was rapidly becoming more and more like Argentina? To my porteño friends, the answer to a trifling nothingburger like Brexit was obvious: eat more steak, drink more wine, pull up a chair, and for God’s sake, calm down, will you?

Had the land of Shakespeare, Milton and James Corden, renowned throughout history for its steady heads and stiff upper lips, somehow evolved into a hysterical land of overly-emotional, apoplectic divas?

As my ears started to adjust, the constant whingeing about the situation back home by Brits in Argentina started to sound more and more like an ingeniously conceived party-political broadcast by the Brexit party. Lunacy set in, and I convinced myself that we were the chief reason eighteen million voters had opted to leave the European Union. After all, weren’t we the grotesque personification of ‘anywhere’, resented for eighteen million good reasons by all those unfortunate sods stuck ‘somewhere’? I’d watch us mixing on the grass courts at our colonial country clubs, quaffing bottle after bottle of wildly inexpensive Malbec that’d set you back a hundred quid a pop in a London restaurant, throwing fancy dress parties on our bougainvillea-festooned rooftops, bitching ad nauseam about the ghastly Little Englanders who inexcusably didn’t live in Buenos Aires, and I’d think, My God, we’re the sinister globalist elite—to a man, woman and privately-educated, trilingual child.

“The thing I hate most about Brexit,” a friend told me one evening, without even a hint of irony, “is that father isn’t sure what to do about his second home in Santorini.” Well, that just did it for me. I now knew Brexit was our fault, and I set about telling anybody who’d listen. “Don’t you see?” I’d announce, backing people into corners. “We’re those people you’re always reading about; the occult perverts who host spirit cooking dinner parties featuring menstrual blood, semen, urine and breast milk.”

This line of argument has gained me an undesirable reputation, and the whispers say that I am not to be trusted. Not one of them. There is, after all, a certain breed of person who still views Argentina as a haven for high-status folk concerned for the future of the European continent. I’m not saying I’ll end up in the British cemetery, the victim of a “severely fractured skull from murderous assault in the Partido of Lujan.” But then again, I’m not not saying that, either.

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