The thing I like most about Argentina, besides the juicy beef and superior wine, the historic bars and charming cafés, the dreamlike mountains, glassy lakes, arresting women and majestic waterfalls, is that everything here is how you’d depict it in an overblown story. Gentlemen’s tailors have eyebrows and moustaches like Groucho Marx. Women selling out-of-style dresses wear gaudy make-up and half-moon spectacles on neck chains. The wealthy have multiple facelifts and the poor have open sores. It’s like living in a Dickens novel. Everything is a cliché and the place is stuck in an eternal time warp. By comparison, the Western world feels dizzying and cold.
Regrettably, the things I enjoy about Argentina are the same things a great many Argentines detest about Argentina. The Dickensian caricatures. The rundown bars and dated cafés with water-stained décor and feculent toilets. The ugly greasepaint, festering wounds and the chilling sense that the country is never ever going to arrest its own slow bleed. Last night, I typed “Argentina” into Google, and the first thing I learned is that only seven countries in the world are more corrupt. Seven.
I hate corruption. Selfishly, I also don’t want Buenos Aires to become another Miami or Dubai, and I worry that it will if it someday gets its act together.
“Ah, yes, poverty porn,” my friend Marianela said to me today at a table outside a favourite lunch spot. She eyed me strongly, dabbing her ruby lips with a napkin. “All you Westerners are addicted to it. Like those tourists who visit Havana to take selfies in front of colourful houses and next to cars from the 1950s, after which they go back to their suites at the Hotel Nacional to sip Daiquiris and smoke cigars before they fly back home — to the First World.”
I paused, thinking how fond I am of banks in the province that use pencils to jot figures in ledgers and supermarkets in the city which give boiled sweets as change. Then I waved a hand in the air, signalling to the octogenarian waiter in the waistcoat and bowtie for another round of Fernet Branca to wash down the colossal blood sausage tortilla we’d just scarfed. Marianela sighed her approval.
The Argentina football team won the Copa America competition last night for the first time in 28 years, thanks to a goal by Angel ‘Noodle’ Di Maria. That was nearly 24 hours ago now but all across the city car horns are still honking as fireworks go off in the streets. After the final whistle, I stood on my balcony, listening to a jubilant song rise into the cool night air from the nearby slum. I’m already tired of this story but I fully expect it to dominate the news cycle for the next six months.
President Fernández unveiled the new ID cards which allowed non-binary citizens to use “x” as their gender definition
Live footage of the players partying on the plane home from Brazil filled the networks as thousands of euphoric, flag-waving fans flocked from all over Argentina to gather around the Obelisk on the Avenida 9 de Julio. “Despite everything we are experiencing, we can celebrate!” shouted one young man, thrusting a bug-eyed baby above his head in imitation of Lionel Messi lifting the trophy. Once again, the city’s strict Covid protocols were bunged out of the open window for the sake of football. “I don’t care if I die!” screamed a shirtless fan with a tattoo of Diego Maradona’s head bobbing over his pudgy stomach. “I had to be here! This is a once in a lifetime moment!” One unimpressed onlooker lamented “a country full of thermos heads”. Another, “a country full of banana trees”. I have no idea what either of these phrases mean, but I can guess.
Across the city, electronic billboards have substituted messages of celebration for traffic safety information, and murals have already started to spring up depicting recently deceased former President Carlos Menem gazing approvingly down upon the champions from heaven. When the players arrived back on Argentine soil this morning, rabid mobs charged the snaking caravan of coaches, cars and motorcycles, climbing over the vehicles like zombies. I dragged myself to a dismal Irish pub in Palermo to watch England lose on penalties to Italy in the European Championship Final. “What could be more English than a faux-Irish pub?” I asked, sat at a table with four other wilting Englishmen. The only beer on tap was honeyed and filthy. Everyone else in the dump was Argentine. They cheered stridently for Italy.
When England lost, I didn’t feel anything. I can’t get behind all this hype about the team being the fresh, inclusive face of enlightened progressive bravery, or whatever it is, while the racist fuckwittery and shit-faced violence of the Hogarthian England fans make me never want to go home. I just thought Italy deserved to win, not only because Italians have better taste, but because their football team played better football.
Crossing my plaza this afternoon, I encountered an adorable-looking toddler on a scooter, who stopped in front of me, grinning. “Hello,” I said, after which our conversation proceeded as follows (in Spanish):
TODDLER: You are a whore.
TODDLER: I said, you are a whore.
ME: Right. Thanks.
I looked at his mother, who wore her long black hair in a rope-like plait. She said nothing, just nodded her head at me, and I moved along, feeling seen.
Later, I had the following conversation with Otto, four-year-old son of my friend Benedict:
ME: Do you have friends at school?
ME: What are their names?
OTTO (after much hesitation): I only know their names in Spanish.
At lunch today, my waitress took 25 minutes to acknowledge my existence, then another 25 minutes to bring me my espresso. Across the front of her tightly fitted T-shirt were the words “TAKE YOUR TIME”.
The latest political scandal involves a former model who visited the presidential residence 60 times during the pandemic
My thoughts drifted to an upscale restaurant in Carmelo, Uruguay, where two years ago Catherine and I turned up hungry for lunch. The veranda overlooked 50 hectares of vineyards and orchards, and attractive, elegant families had gathered to dine on the award-winning gourmet cuisine. “Heavenly,” is how Catherine described it over the top of her A2 size menu, which was written in calligraphy. Our waiter shuffled over to refill our water glasses for the third time and I selected a pricey bottle of local Tannat.
“Good choice, sir,” the waiter said with a sharp nod. “And to eat?”
He needlessly pulled out his pad and pencil, for it transpired that every single item on the beautifully presented menu was unavailable.
“Well, what do you have?” I asked irritably.
I explained that Catherine is gluten intolerant and the waiter stared out across the sun-scorched vines, deep in thought. Then he shrugged and said, “She can eat the sauce.”
That’s when I noticed the tattoo on the inside of his forearm. It was stencilled from elbow to wrist, also in the calligraphic style. It read, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”
I stood, pointing a harsh finger at the tattoo as I threw my linen napkin onto the perfect white tablecloth. “You should show that to your chef,” I said, and Catherine laughed in a lovely, fluttery sort of way, before gathering up her bag and accompanying me back to the rental car, which mercifully I’d parked under the shade of a tree.
Reading the newspaper online this morning, I felt too tired and lazy to follow the Spanish, so I cheated and translated the page into English.
“CRISTINA KIRCHNER USED RAPERS AS AN EXAMPLE OF CONNECTING EQUALITY”, screamed the headline.
It turned out “RAPERS” should have read “RAPPERS”, but still, the story made my morning.
“This country is close to anarchy,” my friend Ricardo said to me today. “There’s too much stupidity and too much malevolence.”
I didn’t argue, but I did ask him what the answer is.
“You have to deal with it like you are at the theatre,” Ricardo said, “watching a Beckett play.”
Which actually made me feel a little better about everything.
Tonight, I saw an advert on TV that used the words “your vagina”. It was for a fungal powder, and it made me wonder if adverts on TV in the UK now use the word “vagina”? The fact that I haven’t the first clue made me feel oddly homesick.
“There are thousands of ways to love and be loved,” President Alberto Fernández said in a special televised ceremony today from the Bicentennial Museum. “There are other identities besides that of a man and woman.”
Fernández was unveiling the new identification cards which allow non-binary citizens of Argentina to use “x” as their gender definition. The first three ID cards using the “x” format were handed out by Fernández and Elizabeth Gómez Alcorta, the Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity. With any luck, this ground-breaking initiative will put Argentina’s gender reveal party planners permanently out of business.
In other news, the latest political scandal involves a former model and actress who visited the presidential residence 60 times during the pandemic. Leaked documents reveal that Sofia Pacchi went in and out of the presidential compound, mostly late at night, including in peak Covid periods, when the nation was supposedly in strict lockdown.
It’s all very silly, which is why everyone’s talking about it. “What a disgrace!” my friend Valentina said to me today, her eyes glittering.
Presidential sources say that Señora Pacchi is employed as an administrative assistant of the First Lady.
My Kindle lockscreen has finally started advertising books that I might actually read. This week alone it has recommended Jeeves in the Offing by P.G. Wodehouse, The World of S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen’s autobiography, and a collection of Robert Benchley stories that I already own in hardback, but purchased anyway, out of gratitude, I think.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a threadbare sofa in a café in my old barrio, when I noticed a pretty woman at a nearby table giving me funny looks. At first, I ignored her, but after enduring 15 minutes of her overt stares, I started to feel self-conscious as I tried to read an Eduardo Galeano paperback, wondering if I’d unknowingly farted, or left my fly open again.
To leave one’s apartment in Buenos Aires these days is to embark on a moral assault course
I watched her eyes stray to my Kindle, which I’d placed on a small coffee table, then back up to my embarrassed face, then down at my Kindle again. I reached protectively for the device, only to discover three wet, hunky men staring back at me. One of the hunks was long-haired and naked, flexing his washboard abs. The copy below the erotic book cover read: “Their summer days are full of camp activities. Their summer nights are totally unsupervised.”
I looked up at the woman, only to realise how ridiculous any attempt at an explanation would sound, so I smirked in a pointless sort of way, and her dark eyes shifted to my fly, which was indeed wide open again.
Today is my birthday. I celebrated by talking to lawyers about a sudden crisis concerning my visa and visiting my physiotherapist to have my spine wrenched and electricity shot through my spasming body.
This morning, I woke up to a message from my health plan provider. “We care for your health every day,” it read. “And today, we celebrate your life!”
It was swiftly followed by an invoice for 11,118 pesos.
To leave one’s apartment in Buenos Aires these days is to embark on a moral assault course. The streets are plagued with beggars, at least half of whom are children. I find their desperate pleas for money and food wearying to ignore. Today, on Avenida Pueyrredón, I saw a man with a metal curtain rail for a leg. He’d clearly fashioned the wretched contraption himself and it was all I could do not to pull out my iPhone and snap a few photos.
The city is shrouded in fog, London-style, which is something I’ve never seen before. It’s unnerving. Walking home via Avenida del Libertador, I witnessed a group of four wealthy-looking seniors make an enormous fuss over a puppy. “¡Que linda! ¡Que linda!” they shrieked, their spotless, bespoke leather ankle boots dancing around the fluffy, perfectly white Maltese with a scarlet bow in its hair.
The dog was frisky and delighted, as was the teenage girl clasping its leash. Less impressed was the homeless beggar girl stood alongside them. She was about five-years-old and smeared with muck. She wore a pink My Little Pony T-shirt and knickers, with no shoes. She stood chewing her finger, watching the adults gush histrionically over the puppy, and they all acted like she wasn’t there.
“I have always felt that there is something in Buenos Aires that I like,” said Jorge Luis Borges. “I like it so much that I don’t like other people to like it.”
Before I came here, I knew that Buenos Aires was where C.K. Dexter Haven had been hiding in The Philadelphia Story. I knew that the Soup Nazi in Seinfeld had escaped to Argentina, and I knew that every rogue and every convict in every movie and TV show ever made had either spent time in or bolted to Buenos Aires. Then there were the real Nazis, of course. I knew about them.
This city drives you to distraction, then throws you a succulent scrap of grilled meat
“And how do we say, “I didn’t come here to die”?” I was asked in my Spanish class tonight. I’d spent another whole day dealing with mountains of unexpected, mind-frying paperwork, and was frustrated to the point of throwing in the towel, accepting defeat, and calling the whole thing quits. Then came a glorious, sky-shattering sunset in red and gold. Beneath it, proud couples of every age promenaded arm-in-arm up and down the avenues, admired by the throngs of people-watchers choking the pavements outside the cafés.
It does this to you, this city. Drives you to distraction, then throws you a succulent scrap of grilled meat. I’m told this is how Peronism works. And it’s worked on me.
I don’t know about Borges, but I do know about Holly Golightly. “Brazil was beastly but Buenos Aires the best,” she scribbles on a postcard at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. “Not Tiffany’s, but almost.”
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