Buenos Aires, Argentina / Getty Images
Artillery Row

Nowhere to hide

The struggles of hiding in a foreign country

It was springtime, and I was sitting on a rickety chair outside a picturesque café, enjoying the sunshine with Ayaz, my newest friend.

“So, tell me,” he said, “what are you hiding from?”

I put down my espresso and stared at him for a few moments. “Hiding?”

“Sure,” he said through a yawn, stretching his long, bronze limbs like a contented cat. “You must have a good story, right?”

A dwarfish man approached our table balancing a wooden tray crammed with flowers on his head. He looked at us hopefully, holding his little hands together in prayer, and we shook our heads. “What story?” I said. “What are you talking about?”

Ayaz grinned. “Come on, man. Everyone has a story. What did you do, kill a guy?”

“When? Where?”

“Back in England. Is that why you’re here, in Argentina?”

“Oh,” I said, wishing now I’d bought some flowers, “I see what you mean. No, I didn’t kill anyone.”

“OK, sure,” Ayaz said.

“No, really I didn’t.”

A bulbous raspberry muffin sat on the table between us. I’d sworn off such things, but Ayaz picked at it, tossing a few crumbs towards his mouth. “Alright. I don’t care. Then why are you here?”

We’d met twenty minutes ago and already there was something about Ayaz that I liked. Handsome and charismatic, he was barefoot but well-groomed, clad in a loose-fitting vest with tatty shorts. His laidback demeanour permitted a refreshing bluntness.

“Well, if you must know,” I said, “I gave a problematic speech at a friend’s wedding and had to go on the run.”

He laughed, and I couldn’t tell if he believed me. Not that it mattered. When you live abroad and keep to yourself, it’s widely assumed you’re either a spy, or wanted for genocide. People expect you to lie.

Ayaz described how he’d followed a woman to Venezuela, married her, divorced her, married another woman, divorced again, then ended up in Buenos Aires. “That was eight years ago,” he said, leaning back in his chair to gaze up at the impossibly blue sky. “Eight fucking years. What the hell am I doing?”

I rolled up my shirt sleeves and finished my coffee. “What are any of us doing?” I asked. I’d said it to console him but ended up sounding like a crazy nihilist.

He snorted in a way that meant “Too bloody right!” and I got to thinking about the worn-out cliché of the fugitive on the lam. If I’d wanted to hide, I’d have stayed in England. A person like me sticks out like a sore thumb in Argentina.

“A sore thumb?” Ayaz asked with a frown.

I tried explaining. When I walk the city’s streets and parks, people stop and stare. In restaurants and cafés, I’m brought menus in comically misspelled English. Every time my blue-eyed, blonde-haired girlfriend and I enter our bustling local greengrocers, the women behind the counters wave their meaty arms about, shouting, “Aiii, Barbie y Ken! Barbie y Ken!” Customers turn to gawk, wittering amongst themselves and pointing at us. Some even take photos. I offer to autograph body parts, and they nod approvingly at Catherine, not understanding me.

I hadn’t expected any of this, before I arrived here. Buenos Aires is hardly some far-flung backwater, populated by uncontacted peoples. But for a nation founded by and for immigrants, present-day Argentina seems strangely unaccustomed to them. Economically, this makes a certain amount of sense. Argentina is where money comes to die, with historic rates of recession second only to the Congo. No one’s constructing rafts out of doors and inner tubes, risking their lives to float here through choppy seas and make their fortune. Still though, Barbie and Ken?

“Well, that’s dinner,” Catherine says every time it’s time to pay for a meal. “Now for the show.” She hands over her National I.D. card, and we wait for the waiter’s eyes to pop out of his head on springs.

Viven acá?” he screams on cue.

Admittedly, we might have mentioned this earlier, when he refilled our wine glasses, asking what time our cruise ship sails.

The waiter adjusts his waistcoat, spins on his heel, then marches off to the counter, waving over his colleagues. Catherine’s eyes flash with excitement. I unwrap a toothpick to dislodge beef detritus as the restaurant staff huddle by the till, their consternation hammily dramatized in a full-scale theatrical performance featuring histrionic hand gestures, rapid-fire commentary and exaggerated headshaking. They peer at the I.D., then at us, then back at the I.D., then back at us. My mind strays to those images in National Geographic of isolated rainforest tribes first encountering aircraft. Catherine grins triumphantly and I let out a weary sigh, pulling a generous tip from my pocket.

When you live abroad and keep to yourself, it’s assumed you’re either a spy, or wanted for genocide

In December 2019, two British tourists were shot in a mugging in downtown Buenos Aires. I followed the news as it broke online, sat at my desk with a cup of hot tea. What, I wondered, opening a new tab on my browser to listen to the BBC, would the press call me if I was shot in a mugging in downtown Buenos Aires? Would I too be “a British tourist”? I pictured old school newspapermen with dogeared notebooks retracing my footsteps around the city. “He was known locally as ‘Ken’. While it remains unclear what he was doing in Argentina, sources suggest he could have been an intelligence operative.” They’d interview Ayaz, who’d say, “I hardly knew him, but he stuck out like a sore thumb, so it’s no big surprise.”

That evening, I voiced some of these fears to Catherine, who picked the worst possible time to tell me about her colleague, Sarah, whose father-in-law, Ricardo, moved to Argentina from Sicily when he was five years old. Ricardo is in his late Seventies now, but he still officially classifies as a foreigner.

“A Sicilian tourist?” I panicked.

“I don’t know about that,” Catherine said, swirling the wine around her glass. “He can vote in all the Italian elections—you’ve seen the posters plastered around the city—but not in all the Argentine elections.”

“That’s … insane,” I said. And suddenly, I felt a long, long way from home.

I feel the same way whenever I smile at strangers queueing in shops or passing by on the pavement. Like all Brits, I do this reflexively, to apologise for my existence, only here it’s interpreted as the predatory leer of a six-foot-four weirdo. In return, I receive aggressive, heart-stopping glares. Old ladies jab me out of the way, screaming accusations. Homophobic men flex their muscles, threatening to slice my throat.

Which is all fine, because stuff I’d never dream of tolerating in the United Kingdom barely tickles my feathers in South America. It’s one of the big pluses of living so far away from home. I never feel especially put out or threatened by the locals, about whom I know very little, and understand even less. Their culture is a curiosity, not an albatross, and as a result, nothing anyone does ever feels like a personal affront.

I sit in charmingly dilapidated cafes, reading old books, and the constant nattering from other tables wafts over me like a clement breeze. Shrieking, doted-on children charge back and forth into the back of my chair and it fails to break my concentration. A smoke-belching, fart-canned car screams past, its oversized rear wheel catching the kerbside as the gratuitous bassline of some mindless urbano anthem thumps from its subwoofer, and… Well, you get the idea.

On evenings and weekends, clusters of macho men loiter on street corners, wolf-whistling and grabbing their junk as they offer up lurid and enthusiastic reviews of Catherine’s rear-end, and our studious tête-à-tête about interleaved practice in curriculum design barely misses a beat.

Nowadays, the only times I get really steamed up are when something reminds me of life back home. Like one Sunday when I innocently turned a quaint little corner in my attractive neighbourhood and happened upon a flock of hipsters waiting in line outside an overpriced vegan pop-up. Goddamn it, I thought, feeling like I’d been teleported back to Dalston, don’t any of these people have minds of their own?

An Englishman’s voice tells you everything you need know about him—his whole dreary life story

Worst of all are the rare occasions when—deprived of adequate trigger warnings—I overhear a British accent. Accustomed to the unrelenting din of castellano, the mere hint of an estuary twang and I instinctively freeze or flinch, a familiar dread walloping my stomach, as if the disreputable past I thought I’d buried has finally caught up with me. Oh my god, they found me, I think. I don’t know how, but they found me. The T glottalisation. The Yod-coalescence. The intrusive R. I detest them all and have no choice but to pretend “No hablo ingles.” I sit statue-like, praying nobody notices I’m reading a P.G. Wodehouse novel, every “alright, mate,” “well chuffed,” and “cheeky pint” an anxiety-inducing punch to my Anglo-gut.

“Why is that, do you think?” Catherine asks.

“I don’t know.” I shrug. “Self-loathing?”

And she stares up the street, nodding to herself. “Yes, that’s probably it.”

What can I say? An Englishman’s voice instantly tells you everything you need know about him—his whole dreary life story. The same might be true of Argentines, of course, the crucial difference being that I just don’t notice it. Here, everyone is a complete mystery to me. Trivial class distinctions mean absolutely nothing. “That sounds so romantic,” people always say. And it is that, sure. But mostly, it’s just less irritating.

Back outside the café, I order another coffee, as Ayaz laments his diet. “I eat like a pig,” he says, stabbing the muffin crumbs with a wetted finger. “I used to be in really great shape, you know. But here…” he gestures towards the empty muffin lining, “what’s the point?”

It sounds ridiculous, but I know what he means.

“This place is exhausting,” he sighs. “It drains me. Bit by bit I find myself caring a little less, thinking less, becoming lazier and less motivated. Like, why am I eating a muffin every day? What the fuck is that about?”

“Who knows?” I say.

“I’ll tell you why,” he says. “Because it’s madness to try to be dynamic here, when no one else is. You look crazy and no one cooperates. They don’t change or try. So why should I?”

“Who knows?” I say.

The waitress brings my coffee and Ayaz orders a lemonade with fresh mint and ginger. It’s 3pm and it really does feel like life could be a whole lot worse.

Ayaz tells me his worst nightmare is that people now think he’s Argentine. “I’ve started to walk around like one,” he says. “I’m not sure how, but even in other countries complete strangers identify me as Argentine.”

I feel bad because I did the same thing half an hour ago, when we first got to talking. We’d seen each other around the barrio before, but our relationship had never developed beyond an affable nod. “Sorry, I didn’t think you spoke English,” I said, when he introduced himself.

“I’m Danish,” he said.

“Oh, really?” I said. “I thought you were Arg—” And I caught myself, realizing what I was saying.

“Because of the skin, right?” Ayaz smiled. “Everyone makes that mistake. My father is Pakistani.”

“God,” I said, holding my head in my hands. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I was the kind of person who— What’s happening to me?”

“It’s this country,” Ayaz said, assuredly. “It does things to you. Let’s go outside and talk.”

“Of course,” I said, gathering up my stuff.

“Girls ask me on dates to prove I’m Danish,” he says, waiting for his lemonade. “One girl asked me to prove it before she’d sleep with me.”

We’re interrupted by the sound of rattling wheels on the paving stones. A man treads past in a gigantic pair of shiny red shoes, pushing a shopping trolley festooned with whirling pinwheels. He’s dressed like some sort of clown, multicoloured baubles dangling from the brim of his feathered sunhat. In the trolley, a dog wearing sunglasses sits deathlike still in a garishly ornamented throne. It’s utterly inexplicable.

“You can’t be serious?” I say.

“Absolutely, I am,” Ayaz says. “I refused her request, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Then, after we’d had sex, she noticed my scar and asked how I got it. I said, “It’s tough in the hood.” She frowned and said, “The hood in Copenhagen?” And I smiled and said, “In Caracas.” I never saw her again, but I’d had my revenge.”

I look at him. “That’s such a great story.”

“I know. Will you use it?”

“Almost certainly.”

Later, after we’ve said our farewells and gone our separate ways, my thoughts turn to my Dutch friend, Sander, who has lived and worked in Buenos Aires so long everyone says he’s more Argentine than Argentines. Sander no longer likes to have sex with Dutch girls. “It’s the way they speak,” he tells me one evening, over a bottle of Malbec. “They say the same dirty things in Dutch the Argentine girls say in Spanish. But it sounds … boring.”

When I arrive home, I make myself a cup of tea, then sit alone at my desk, staring out of the window at the cloudless sky as I listen to Vaughan Williams, trying to write, hiding from myself.

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

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover