Members of the Argentine Naval Prefecture ask for permissions at a check point on a bridge over the Riachuelo stream after authorities tighten virus lockdown measures (Photo by JUAN MABROMATA/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The world turned upside down

Dominic Hilton survives in crazy Argentina by not caring about its fate

“And how do you feel about Argentina? Do you really love it?”

There were nineteen of us sat around a large kitchen table in Buenos Aires. We’d just finished our dessert, and the hostess was interrogating me in an effort to amuse her dinner guests, who laughed while pouring themselves more wine.

“Love it?” Her question caught me off guard. I’d had too much to drink and was busy entertaining a captive audience with tall tales of my expat life. Now, it appeared, the time had come to say something that flattered nationalistic pride. Something corny that if I played my cards right would bring tears to eighteen pairs of expectant eyes. But instead, I said, “Of course I don’t love it.” 

I’d been living in Argentina for over two years, and no one had ever asked me how I felt about the place. Whenever people found out I was British, they’d take a sharp step backwards, as if I’d told them I was on day release from the psych ward. “Then… why are you here?” they’d ask, waiting for the men in white coats to spring out from behind bushes wielding butterfly nets. Certainly, no one ever mentioned anything about love. The idea frightened me. 

“You moved half way around the world, didn’t you?” the hostess continued. “Wasn’t that for love?”

“No.”

She frowned and lit a cigarette. “Then why did you do it? I don’t understand.”

Why did I do it? It was a good question. I took a deep breath, searching for the answer that people wanted to hear. When it didn’t spring to mind, I decided to tell the truth. “Well,” I said, “it had nothing to do with Argentina. I’d never even been to Argentina.”

“But you chose to move here?”

“Well, sure,” I said, craning my neck towards where the voice had come from. “Why the hell not?”

Everyone began fidgeting in their chairs, and at least two people cleared their throats. An attractive divorcée across the table made a sort of clucking sound. “That’s crazy,” she said. 

“Yes,” agreed a distinguished economist whose name I’d forgotten, “you’re crazy.”

Was I? Call me an idealist, but I’d always dreamed of one day living in a country I didn’t know the first thing about, let alone love. I was tired of watching places I cared about go to the dogs. Then one night in a crowded London pub, my friend Harry slammed his pint glass down on the bar and told me I had two options. “Either you can do the right thing and stick around, slaving every hour to help change things for the better,” he said. “Or you can run away and hide, like a big girl’s blouse.” As Harry clasped my shoulder in a drunken display of fraternal solidarity, I remember wondering what movies they would show on the plane.

There’s a special freedom that comes with calculated detachment—even when the country you’re living in isn’t especially free. My doctors in Buenos Aires tell me my blood pressure is remarkably low, and I notice my pulse never throbs when I pass newsstands and inadvertently scan the headlines. Serenity like that doesn’t come cheap, and it has nothing to do with Argentina itself, whose perpetual trials and tribulations would torment even the soundest of minds. A plunging currency. Daily corruption scandals. Hordes of shirtless football hooligans rampaging up the street towards my townhouse. I shrug it all off, dismissing it as not my problem and none of my business. I don’t own a TV. I barely follow the news. Talking to locals, I revel in how frighteningly ill-informed I am. “A man fired a bazooka at Congress?” I say, striking a match and keeping the tip of my cigar above the level of the flame. “I hadn’t heard.”

Because I hold a foreign passport, I don’t feel that I own a stake in my adopted country. It’s not that I wish it ill. On the contrary, I wish it only the very best. But while I enjoy living here, and cherish its many charms, I don’t feel tremendously invested in the place, or especially concerned about its numerous problems. In fact, it’s this blanket sense of indifference that I find so liberating. I’m not thrilled when Argentina defaults on its international debts, or pinches slum gangs for smuggling cocaine inside six-inch plastic penises, but I’m not tearing my hair out either, like Miguel, a taxi driver I once met. It was a hot day and I’d slipped into the back of his car, asking to be taken to the British Embassy. Instead of replying, or hitting the gas and swerving into heavy traffic without looking, Miguel acted like I simply wasn’t there. Slumped against the steering wheel, he had his egg-shaped head in his hands, and appeared to be quite literally tearing his hair out. Like many Argentines, Miguel wore his hair long and wild, after football stars of the 1970s, and it came out into his fists in thick, greying lumps. I leaned forward between the seats and asked if something was wrong. Several moments passed. Then Miguel slowly lifted his head and stared out through the filthy windscreen, catatonic. “Argentina,” he said, through clenched teeth.

When someone told me that Buenos Aires ranks fifteenth on a list of ‘World’s Sexiest Cities’, I felt no great swelling of pride. My reaction to the news was more along the lines of “Well, this is not my city, so…” Maybe not quite that, but I certainly took no credit. Similarly, when Argentina’s football team got dumped out of the World Cup by a far superior French team, I didn’t drop to my knees and weep uncontrollably in the streets, like everyone else, or throw over a table then launch a glass bottle at the TV screen, like the kindly-faced pensioner sat next to me at the bar. Once, in Uruguay, a man renting me a car was astonished when I said I lived in Argentina. I saw an opportunity to trial run one of my fictions, but before I could weave a romantic yarn about robbing trains in the Old West, the man clicked his ink-stained fingers in my face and barked, “Ah, obligatorio! Como todos los argentinos!” I wanted to explain that, in fact, my situation was quite the opposite of obligatory, which was the whole damn point, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough.

Life in a place where you feel no native sense of blood and soil is a bit like watching a sports contest where you have no loyalty to either team, don’t bother learning the names of the players, and feel free to switch off half way through, without ever wondering later who won. I’m not Argentine. Whatever this land is, it’s not my land. As such, I remain blissfully apathetic about its myriad lunacies and perennial disorder. Leave the headaches to the locals, is my motto. When I see people ranting in the barrios, sobbing in dark corners of picturesque cafes, or standing on their balconies banging saucepans in protest or punching patriotic fists in the air, I reach for my notebook, jot down one or two observations, before moving quietly along, footloose and fancy free. 

When the coronavirus came, my family were worried. They asked me about Argentina, in their minds a basket case of drug slums and state terror. Could it cope with such a unique, all-encompassing challenge? Admittedly, I wasn’t confident. Rand Paul, the United States Senator from Kentucky, had called for a dramatic cut in overseas aid, insisting the American taxpayer “stop funding clown colleges in Argentina”. But I was more anxious about the well-being of my parents, and, reluctantly, my own country. I soon found myself sucked back into the UK’s headlines and twenty-four-seven news cycle. And what I saw came perilously close to turning my worldview upside down.

For starters, I had no idea who all these people were giving daily government press briefings. I recognised the prime minister, but not the rest of the gang, who appeared to have come straight off the production line at whichever factory manufactures career politicians. Experience of anything much at all seemed in short supply, while the lobby correspondents had clearly all flunked science at school. Then there were the outcomes. Argentina enforced strict mandatory lockdown in mid-March. In Britain, everyone moaned like the clappers about loss of civil liberties while sharing photos on social media of their day trips to parks, picnics on public beaches and extravagant garden parties thrown by their drunken friends. Back in their homes, they’d be forced to endure the insufferable hardship of ordering another two hundred packages from Amazon or John Lewis. And then they’d die. In horrifying numbers. 

I’d call my mother every day to check she was staying indoors, and in her haughtiest Lady Bracknell voice she’d say, “Of course we are, you fool! Except to get our fresh croissants in the mornings at Waitrose, naturally. And to pick up geraniums and mulch from the garden centre. Also, I popped in to see a former student of mine for tea. Plus, the computer had to be taken to the shop to be repaired—for the third time. And yesterday, your idiot father sat on his brand-new pair of spectacles, so we had to…” I started to pull my hair out and she’d ask me if something was wrong. “Britain,” I’d say, through clenched teeth, staring into my phone, catatonic.

At the time it initiated nationwide lockdown, Argentina also shut its borders. In May, I read that more than eighteen million people had entered the United Kingdom since January 1—all of them unchecked. They’d sail through Heathrow, or wherever, straight onto the trains or underground network. Meanwhile, any citizens repatriated to Argentina underwent stringent health checks at both ends, so to speak, and were herded into mandatory quarantine hotels for fourteen days. In Britain, where tens of thousands were dead or dying, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles shared their secret recipe for something they called “cheesy eggs”—a story that actually the led the homepage of at least one national newspaper. I felt my pulse start to throb. 

“Is everything completely out of control in Argentina?” my sister asked me on a Zoom call. The day before, I’d watched the land of my birth lose its collective mind over a centenarian called Captain Tom, who’d heroically shuffled with the aid of a walking frame around his garden. Everyone oohed and aahed when the Royal Air Force staged a wartime flypast to honour Captain Tom’s inspiring feat. Then came VE Day, and record amounts of bunting were sold for the celebratory street parties. As the nation sang “We’ll Meet Again” in their front gardens, Prince Charles resurfaced after testing positive for the virus, urging his future subjects to form an army, storm the fields wearing suits and ties, and pick fruit. “Food does not happen by magic,” he explained. The prime minister and several members of his inner circle nearly died after they also contracted the virus. One of them, the unelected, anti-elitist architect of the government’s health protection regulations, flouted his own rules by driving three hundred miles across country to drop off his kids, visit a market town, stop his legs spasming and check his eyesight. He later explained that the safety rules weren’t meant for elite people like him, or the government’s chief scientific advisor on the crisis, who after testing positive seized the opportunity to sleep with someone else’s wife, twice. Everyone took to the streets again and talked about nothing else for weeks on end as their countrymen continued to die, alone, particularly in the abandoned care homes. “Here, have another flypast!” “Let them pick fruit!” Kate Winslet, an actress who once pretended to be a doctor in a movie about a hypothetical virus outbreak, pretended to be a doctor in her home, offering expert tips on how to defeat the real-life virus. Emma Bunton, a former Spice Girl, admitted that when it comes to developing and testing a global vaccine, she “wouldn’t know where to start.”

As my blood pressure shot upwards, I listened to Her Majesty the Queen and her prime minister suggest that beating the infectious disease, spread via small droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, talking, or touching surfaces, was no sweat for a people who had once seen off the Nazis with Spitfires. Who needs alcohol gel or facemasks when you’ve got Kipling poems and stiff upper lips? Those concerned that the government was not, as it repeatedly claimed, being “led by the science”, had it explained to them, using cutting-edge sciencey terminology, that Covid-19 was “an unexpected and invisible mugger,” like the Artful Dodger, or Dick Turpin, and now was the moment to “wrestle it to the floor.” At 8pm, as the death toll went the way of my blood pressure, a grateful nation took to its doorsteps to worship the sacred National Health Service, which, as every person of faith knew in their hearts, was “powered by love” and “the envy of the world”—albeit the kind that lacks personal protective equipment, or respirators, or clinical staff, or test kits, and leads the world in Covid-19 deaths against population. “Still, will you just look at all that colourful bunting! Isn’t it marvellous?”

There’s a local expression that I should have recalled as I sat at that large kitchen table, refilling my wine glass while my dinner companions continued with their interrogation. I looked it up later that night as I staggered through the streets back to my apartment and was surprised that I’d forgotten it. Me chupa de huevo. Which means, “an egg sucks me”. You use it to suggest that you don’t care at all.

“And how do you feel about Argentina? Do you really love it?”

Me chupa de huevo. Thank God.

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