A closed cafe in Buenos Aires, 2017 Photographer: Pablo E. Piovano/Bloomberg
Artillery Row

The comings and goings of “Club Cupido”

Dominic Hilton recalls the cast of characters at a Buenos Aires club de barrio

Not to downplay the global pandemic, but there are some things I kind of like about life under lockdown. For instance, before Covid-19, I wasted far too many afternoons and evenings on rooftops, mixing with my sophisticated, worldly friends. We’d drink and smoke, feasting with our fingers on juicy hunks of beef while teaching each other to tango or samba. Our erudite conversations about wine and Greta Thunberg would often carry on until sunrise. Sometimes, we’d play backgammon, and now and again, somebody would suggest wife-swapping. We’d throw our heads back and laugh, wondering if they meant it. Man, were we insufferable.

For obvious reasons, I don’t miss all that, but what I do miss are restaurants, cafés and bars. Without them, upon which its entire culture turns out to be built, Buenos Aires is kind of pointless: like Cairo without the pyramids, or Santorini without the Instagrammers. La cuarentena has sadly killed off many of my favourite city hangouts, but I’m informed it hasn’t yet claimed amongst its victims a remarkable establishment I’ll call Club Cupido.

It looked exactly like what Hollywood thinks all of South America looks like, and hence what I thought all of South America looked like before I moved here

The first time I encountered Club Cupido I felt sure I’d wandered onto a film set. The place was just too real to be real, if you know what I mean. It looked exactly like what Hollywood thinks all of South America looks like, and hence what I thought all of South America looked like before I moved here. Industrial strip lights flickered erratically alongside broken ceiling fans. Flaky, water-stained wallpaper curled over peeling 1950s Formica tabletops, while a leaning tower of three-legged chairs swayed hazardously before a trio of buzzing refrigerators crammed with fat bottles of watery beer. The place was deserted, except for a tight cluster of old men in flat caps and shirts with yellowed collars who were hunched around a small table in a far corner, silently absorbed in a sinister-looking card game. I tried nodding “Hola!”, but I may as well have been speaking Martian.

It was late afternoon. Shafts of sunlight seared through cracks in the rotten shutters, overheating hundreds of jars of out-of-date olives stacked in pyramids against the wall. Enchanted, I held my spot in the doorway, casting my eyes towards a tottering wooden bar laden with decorative sports trophies and faded photographs of old footballers I didn’t recognise. Behind the bar was a large kitchen area that had plainly never once been cleaned. I swore I heard the squeal of a rat as it scurried between the fermenting slop buckets—though it may have just been wishful thinking.

On TripAdvisor, Club Cupido is described as “authentic”, “no nonsense”, “unsophisticated” and “a hole in the wall”. A woman from Concord, New Hampshire, who stumbled through its rickety doors one evening by accident, calls it “SEEDY!!!” While one sharp-eyed Brit denounces it as “a YMCA-type gym with a dining room”, which is exactly right. Officially, Cupido is what’s known in Argentina as a club de barrio: a sort of neighbourhood sports and social club, though, somehow, more than that. In Spanish, I’ve heard it called, “a place of meeting and solidarity,” which makes it sound like a branch office of the Communist Party of Cuba, and it’s not that bad.

My father is determined to believe that I live in an exotic, faraway land, where dandily dressed men wear fedora hats pulled over their brows and fiery couples tango their way around gaslit cobbled streets—so I’m almost glad his age prevents him from visiting. He’d just be so incredibly disappointed by all the green-haired anarchists with face tattoos and the cosmetically altered women-of-a-certain-age in leopard skin onesies.

I can picture him now, gaping in horror at one of the brutalist monstrosities, or removing his hearing aids to escape the assault of a chart-topping slice of reggaeton. In my imagination, he turns to me, and in a dignified but quavering voice, asks, “What… happened to the culture?”

And I sigh sympathetically, laying my hands on his slumped, timeworn shoulders. “You’re looking at it, che.”

Cupido, though. Cupido, he’d get. “Now this is the real business,” he’d say. “Oh, boy.” Then he’d reach for his cumbersome, analogue camera, dropping into a frog-like squat to focus its gigantic telephoto lens on the card-playing men.

“You’ve still got the lens cap on,” I’d tell him, mentally planning our escape route.

The same week I discovered Cupido, I was introduced to Camila, a tiny but zealous sociology student at one of the city’s respected universities. Despite the pitiless summer heat, Camila was clad in a heavy embroidered waistcoat with thick velvet trousers, and for a minute or two, I worried she was trying to touch me for a loan. Unshed tears jewelled her beady eyes as she clung to my forearm and told me her dream is to one day complete a doctoral thesis about Argentina’s five thousand clubes de barrio.

In a nation this large, I hadn’t a clue if five thousand was an impressive number, but Camila was standing on her tiptoes, gazing at me expectantly, so I said, “Eso es muchos clubes!

Si, si, de verdad!” she enthused, before steepling her hands under her chin and employing a bizarrely formal style of English that made her sound like she was reading off a teleprompter. “It is my stated contention that clubs like your Cupido are the adhesive glue that holds our native communities together.”

My Cupido? Again, I didn’t know what to say, so like an idiot, I said, “Well, it’s certainly sticky enough”—a wretched attempt at a joke which, of course, sailed straight over Camila’s beanie cap.

Club Cupido is seventy-five years old, which in South America affords it roughly the same reverence as an 11th Century English tavern

Club Cupido is seventy-five years old, which in South America affords it roughly the same reverence as an 11th Century English tavern. “Can you believe how old this club is?” its patrons ask, catching my wrist, and I’m forced to answer, no, I cannot believe how old it is. “Seventy-five years,” they say, looking around, shaking their heads in wonder. “Practically forever.”

“Right,” I say. “The same age as Tom Selleck.”

Situated in the raucous heart of an otherwise uber-trendy neighbourhood, the downscale and dilapidated Cupido is admirably, almost bolshily uncool. I’m told vast cash offers are regularly made to the club’s consortium by shady conglomerates, but so far, the place has somehow managed to hold out against the gentrifying forces of progress. There’s a great deal of truth to Camila’s corny description of the place as “an extended family”. This is Argentina, so on any given day you see people from all classes and generations in the same space. Back when I could still go to Cupido, I’d sit beside distinguished men in business suits who sat next to sweaty men in football kits who slumped against plump women nursing new-borns as they spoon-fed grandpa. I’d watch pongy tramps mooch into the dining room, toes poking through the front of their shoes, and everyone would shake their calloused hands, kissing their grubby bristles like they were anyone else.

With as little fanfare as anything can be done in the Southern Cone, these people looked out for each other. If a regular wasn’t seen for a day or two, questions were asked, calls were made, and someone would drop by the missing club member’s home to check for signs of life. “In my day…” our grandparents never stopped saying. And Club Cupido suggested they might not have been exaggerating.

Like everywhere, it’s illegal to smoke indoors in Argentina, but at Cupido, no one ever cared—certainly not the policemen, who’d duck inside while on duty to put their boots up and enjoy free coffee with their cigarettes. Diners of every age threw bread rolls and newspapers at each other, glass bottles against the walls, and tables over onto the floor—and nobody so much as batted an eyelid. During football games, or news bulletins, insults of every description were hurled at the TV set, typically concerning the reproductive organs of somebody’s mother. I once witnessed a group of friendly, respectable-looking men—men who had made a special point of welcoming me into their world—yell, “Ooh ooh ah ah!”, scratching their armpits as they launched bananas at the crappy, wall-mounted TV screen, all because one of the footballers was black. As a spectacle, it was flabbergasting, and strikingly alien: a dreadful and necessary reminder of where I was. Then, afterward, I found myself wondering where they’d got all the bananas from.

In my notepad, I wrote the following questions:

  1. Do these men carry fruit with them at all times in the constant hope that a suitable opportunity arises to display their racism?
  2. Do they buy bananas in bunches for the sole purpose of displaying their racism, or do they intend to eat them, too?
  3. Are they in trouble with their wives when they get home, who planned to use the bananas to make some sort of pudding?

Pre-lockdown, I liked to go to Cupido with my friend, Sander, who’s one of those real-life characters you only expect to meet in novels, and therefore suits the place perfectly. It was Sander who first introduced me to Cupido, of which he claims to be some sort of “elite member”. I laughed when I heard this, though it explained why I’d been made so welcome. Sander is Dutch but has lived and worked in Buenos Aires as a tour guide for over a decade and knows the city better than any born-and-bred porteño. He cycles forty kilometres per day and because he’s marathon-runner thin, he automatically makes me feel chunky, even when I’m not. “I come to Cupido to relax,” he says, and when he leans back in one of the unsteady dining chairs, its arms seem to wrap around his skeletal frame in a hug.

The first time I met Sander, on a sweltering Christmas Eve in the provinces, he wasted no time describing himself as “a romantic”. What he meant, I later came to realise, is that he’s the type of bloke who periodically disappears into Paraguay or Colombia to record the plight of farming villagers who’ve been brutalised by cartel gunmen and paramilitary death squads. He once fell in love with a girl in Havana, and when I asked him about her, he said, “Her father’s a communist, and she was such a good student that she got to meet Fidel. Her classmate was the granddaughter of Che Guevara, too, which helped.” The qualities we’re all looking for in a partner.

It made me think of a teenage girl I’d once seen wearing a T-shirt that read OH MY KARL. She happened to be walking past a church when I spotted her, but I was carrying shopping bags in both hands, so couldn’t reach for my phone and take the picture that would inevitably have won me a slew of awards.

When Argentina closed its borders to tourists, Sander escaped back to the Netherlands to sit out the pandemic with his family. I miss him in the same way I miss Club Cupido and the city’s historic, state-subsidized bars. In their absence, the place is strangely soulless—a sprawling metropolis of private residences—and for the first time since I moved here, I feel like I could be anywhere. Which rather begs the question: if I could be anywhere, why the hell would I choose to be somewhere with an utterly broken economy? Twice a week, Sander would volunteer with NGOs in the capital’s crowded slums—because of course he would. I kept promising to accompany him on one of his regular do-gooder missions, but somehow, I never seemed to get around to it. “Maybe you can cook some food to donate to the many families going hungry,” Sander said, causing me to panic about my esoteric culinary skills.

“Do they eat squid ink? I’ve been told my Fideuà is fit for a king. The secret is to leave the skins on the garlic cloves.”

I’d tell myself it couldn’t be true, but Sander seemed to know everyone in Buenos Aires—and intimately, too. If I tried talking to him in the street, an endless parade of passers-by stopped to kiss him on the cheek and chat in brisk lunfardo while I stared at my nails. “Sorry about that,” Sander would say, twenty minutes later. This, in a city of seventeen million people.

Once, I met him for dinner, and when we strolled into the enormous, family-owned pizzeria, the staff started to chant his name

In restaurants or bars, he’d be greeted like the prodigal son. Once, I met him for dinner, and when we strolled into the enormous, family-owned pizzeria, the staff started to chant his name. “You’re… unbelievable,” I told him, green with envy. Then, as we sat down, one of the old school waiters in a black waistcoat and bowtie pulled up a chair, joining our table, where he spent the next hour and a half sobbing uncontrollably.

“I can’t go on!” wept our uninvited dinner guest. “My six-month-old daughter died in my wife’s womb, and now my wife must give birth to a lifeless baby!”

Snot streamed from his nose, resembling the thick mozzarella topping on the pizza only I was eating. Sander’s eyes flickered disapprovingly towards me, and I raised my eyebrows at him, a wayward string of cheese swinging like a pendulum from my mouth as the waiter pounded the tabletop with the palm of his hand.

“I ask God, “Why, God, why?” but He doesn’t answer me! Why doesn’t He answer me?”

“I don’t know, my friend,” Sander said, patting him gently on the back. “I don’t know.”

I poured myself another glass of beer, the cold-hearted gringo of many a local legend.

But then I heard a similar story from one of the thousands of chicas in Buenos Aires who’ve dated Sander. She was Colombian, I think, and I met her on Sander’s rooftop, where we were celebrating his sister’s recovery from cancer in Amsterdam. She told me Sander had taken her to dinner the previous week, twirling her hand to mean, ‘blah-blah-blah’. “Of course, wherever we go, all the waiters know him,” she said. “It’s so boring. But this one waiter, he sits with us and starts to cry like a baby.”

She launched into an impression of a grown man crying like a baby, her bare shoulders dancing as she pretended to gasp for breath. It was oddly compelling and seemed through my inebriated fog to last way longer than necessary.

“Did his daughter die?” I eventually asked.

“Not his daughter,” she said, wagging her finger at me, “his wife.”

I shook my head.

“I know, right?” she continued. “This waiter, he sits at our table all night, crying about his dead wife—during our so-called date! I didn’t know what to do. To be honest, I just wanted more wine.”

It was the perfect moment to tell her that in Cupido, people suspect Sander’s gay.

“Gay?” she screamed. “Why?”

I shrugged, enjoying her obvious discomfort. “Who knows? I suppose because he always goes there with men. Me, mostly. Also, flight attendants.”

She gulped a mouthful of wine, eyeing me warily.

“Plus, he’s European,” I added, helping her to understand. “Dutch, even. So, you know…”

I never saw her again.

In my defence, everything I said was true. The men in Cupido do worry that Sander is gay. Also, he does spend a great deal of time with homosexual flight attendants, mostly on account of his job. What fascinates me, in the same way a car crash fascinates me, is the problem folks down here have with it, and how open they are about their bigotries. “Can’t you people at least pretend to be enlightened?” I sometimes want to say. And I imagine leaning back, hands clasped behind my head, basking in my obvious moral superiority, a blissful hit of the warm-fuzzies flooding my sternum like the purest yam yam.

“The worst time I’ve had here was when my father came to visit,” my English friend Will said one evening in Cupido. “Not because of him, but because of his wife. She expected certain standards, like clean streets and functioning bathrooms.”

We were sat with Sander in the crowded dining room. In a niche next to our table was a double picture frame containing photographs of Diego Maradona and Pope Francis. It twinned with an identical frame across the room, displaying photographs of Maradona and the Virgin Mary.

Sander was staring queasily at his milanesa napolitana, a beef schnitzel coated like a pizza, which he’d barely touched. It was sitting on the table when I arrived, and duly startled, I’d inquired into its provenance. “Mono told me they’d scraped everything they could off the floor of the kitchen,” Sander said, “and used it as a topping.”

Mono was the waiter. Everyone called him Mono because—you guessed it—he looked like a monkey. Nobody seemed to know his real name.

I thought about what Will had said and looked out of the narrow double doors towards the bathrooms. “Did you bring them here?” I asked.

“Who?”

“Your father and his wife. Did you bring them to Cupido?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Will said, helping himself to some more Malbec.

I saw his point. The toilets in Cupido are the filthiest, most disgusting toilets this side of the jungle. I dread having to use them, and when I do, I hold my breath, piss as fast as I can, and don’t dare go near the sinks and taps, which are crudded with something very thick and very brown.

My stomach churned, so I turned my attention to the TV above our heads, on which Diego Maradona was waving his little arms above his head as tears spilled down his fat cheeks. Maradona had recently taken a job managing Dorados de Sinaloa, a Mexican second division team based in Culiacán, “the world capital of cocaine”. Dorados games were being broadcast on Argentine TV in split screen. The left half of the screen showed the football match, while the right half, which everyone was watching, showed a single, continuous shot of ‘El Diego’ perched on the bench, passionately overreacting to every minor event on the field. As a metaphor for Argentina it was too on the nose to warrant a mention.

“I want the bathrooms to be filthy in Buenos Aires,” Sander said. “I like them that way. It’s more authentic. I don’t live in Argentina to use clean bathrooms, you know?”

Will looked at me, the beginnings of a smile twitching on his lips. “What about your tour groups?” he asked Sander, chewing a piece of steak. “Do they share your radical views on bathrooms?”

“Pfft.” Sander flicked his fingers underneath his chin, shrugging his bony shoulders. “I mean, some do, sure. Unfortunately, not all of them. I’ve had complaints—mostly from women. But what do they expect?”

It’s incredible, really. Sander has become so Argentine that he even hates on Chileans. “The Chilenos call us arrogant,” he says, “but we call them ugly.”

“The logical solution,” I said, spooning chimichurri onto my plate, “is to replace the people here with the people back home.”

“How’s that?” Will asked with a frown.

“Well, think about it,” I said. “Argentines would revel in all the luxurious First World bling. While the majority of Europeans are poverty porn addicts, like us, who’d go wild for all the crumbling colonial dumps people here don’t care for. It’s an obvious win-win.”

The three of us sat in silence, thinking. Then the dining room burst into a round of applause for the asador, a wildly hirsute man everyone calls Karl Marx, because—you guessed it—he looks exactly like Karl Marx. Nobody seems to know his real name. It’s a tradition in Argentina that you must always show your appreciation for the guy grilling the meats. I’m no gender studies major, but to me this does smack a little of men wanting applause for cooking: something most women do every day for their families, without ovation. They must exist, but in all my time in Argentina, I’ve never seen a female asadora. I once asked a food critic about this and was told, “It’s a caveman thing.”

It’s a tradition in Argentina that you must always show your appreciation for the guy grilling the meats

“Right,” I said. “Like cannibalism. Or clubbing a woman on the head and dragging her unconscious body by the hair back to your cave.”

“You’ve understood perfectly,” the food critic said.

When the excessive handclapping died down, I asked Sander if he’d ever brought a date to Club Cupido. He pushed his loaded plate away, dabbing his lips with a paper napkin. “Once,” he said.

“And how did it go?”

He smiled and shook his head in the way that means I’m going to love his answer. “She got violent food poisoning from one of Karl Marx’s steaks and ended up in hospital.”

Delighted, I lay my knife and fork down on the peeling Formica table, and for the umpteenth time that evening, reached into my shirt pocket for my notepad, so grateful that I get to live here.

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