Buenos Aires – the early days (Travel Blog, March 2008)
MARCH 9TH 2008
BUENOS AIRES – THE EARLY DAYS
“Never to return from the Pampas?”“Have you fallen in love with a porteño?”“Or a gaucho?”“Do you plan to come back to us?”
And just plain..
“Where the hell are you?”
Yes, my dear family and friends, these are the kind of messages you have been sending me as I have disappeared over the last week…But the truth is this. No, I have not fallen in love and yes, I do plan to return…although, I should add that if there was any way I could stay an extra month here, or 4, there is no doubt that I
would. If my diary was empty for April, I would not return.
Buenos Aires gets under your skin in a quiet way. Without the drama of Cuba, Beirut or Cape Town – and without a drop of sun for over a week – it has been easy to sink into a new life here, as though I simply always lived here. I have found an amazing yoga centre which also has some of the best kulfi and other Indian healthy food I have ever eaten (Valle Tierra/Quibombo), I have found pilates studios aplenty, and we have found tango teachers…I even found a little course in the bakery near our flat where I could become an expert bread maker….
The truth, of course, is that I haven’t done a single class of any kind. I have been over a week and I have little to show for it. Studiously, I have been spending time aside every day writing, as I planned. And maybe because of that, it has honestly felt like I have been working in Buenos Aires, a true porteño. The dismal weather, rain every day and grey skies has only lifted this morning, and so, although it has not been cold, there has been no passion in the streets, no faultless, cloudless skies to admire. In fact, we have not yet profited from our spectacular balcony for which we bought (rather optimistically it seemed last Sunday – in queues of over 1 ½ hours for home delivery at the local supermarket) an inflatable mattress in case we were too lazy to walk up one flight of steps to the dipping rooftop pool and sun loungers.
I am not entirely truthful, perhaps. There are some spectacular moments that have been packed into the daily routine of working and cooking delicious food with some of the finest produce I have ever encountered….
Forgive me, just a moment, if you are not from my family. You may not understand this next paragraph: The melon, which the local Peruvian grocer happily delivers with his round of coriander which arrives on Monday mornings with chillies (especially for me and those of chilli fame in this quarter) is “SUGAR SWEET”. Pappa, that is just for you, so one more time “Shhhugar sweet!” And the little eggs are unbelievable with freshly baked medialunas (salty crescent-shaped croissant like pastries everyone eats here in the morning).
Back to life outside the flat. Wednesday night, after a day full of writing inspiration, we were invited out by a friend of a friend to a milonga, the traditional tango evenings in random unmarked dance halls all over the city. Do you remember the scene in Scent of a Woman where Al Pacino dances with the stranger as she waits for her partner? Now, multiply it, add romance and sensuality. Now add a healthy dose of reality and imagine Nath and I on the side with a random selection of French, Italians, a Japanese girl and one porteña, sipping happily on Malbec and avoiding eye contact with any men who want to dance (making eye contact is the subtle and sophisticated way of asking a woman to dance here). No, you can’t make up the Tango. Stunning and elegant, it would take months to learn. And given that over a week has gone by and I have barely made it to the telephone to call the dance teacher, I am not sure I will come by ready to dance with Anton du Bek.
Leaving the Neighbourhood..
Well, Thursday was a special day. And I need to precede this by saying that I have had a terrible migraine since Thursday morning, no doubt to do with working at a laptop without any ergonomic support, endless banging and drilling from construction of new buildings in the barrio and maybe a glass or two of the finest Malbec ever to be encountered most days…So, we decided we needed to leave the flat and the neighbourhood for a few hours. We decided to venture to La Boca neighbourhood, a proletarian quarter of which Che may have been very proud today, but notoriously known amongst porteños for being unsafe. Birthplace of the Tango, and a million miles from the scrubbed-up Notting Hill-esque neighbourhood of Palermo Viejo in which we live, it was time for A Change.
So, hurling ourselves into a taxi, we sought out a little worker’s eatery known as El Obrero somewhere in the heartland of La Boca. All we knew was that we should turn up in a taxi, and that it was somewhere south of the river…The taxi driver, having much in common with his London cabbie comrades, whinged endlessly about having to cart us south of the river. Even when we eventually got close to the restaurant, he sourly threw us out about 2 blocks from our lunchtime goal. He was the only unpleasant cab driver we have had, for they have all been of almost unbelievably cheerful disposition.
So, back to La Boca. The first thing to strike me was the change of vehicle. A far cry from the jeeps and Peugeots of Palermo, here was the real 1970s deal. No fancy Chevrolets, Havana style, but definitely green and redbacks with more than a hint of Scrappy Doo about them. Everyone here seemed to be a mechanic. But, for all the warnings, there was no hint of violence in the streets. It felt nothing like, say, Finsbury Park….
And, then, there we were. In the middle of the most packed out restaurant we had seen, a worker’s restaurant serving up every bit of a cow, some good seafood, and soup brought in a steel bucket to your table for you to enjoy as much of Mamma’s own that you fancied. The atmosphere was tremendous, businessmen had brought people from all parts of the city, and in a framed photo behind Nathalie’s head was a picture of Bono, enjoying some fine Argentine beef himself. For all the trendy restaurants of Palermo Soho, Nath and I were instantly at home in the reality of the mass. This felt more real, even if the fashionistas and media-types strutting with bad coffee and mobile phones in Palermo are Argentine themselves. And, like everyone we have encountered here, the people who ran the restaurant went out of their way to be kind and helpful.
BOCA JUNIORS and a FOOTBALL GAME
Our softly-spoken waiter assured us there was no problem if we fancied a stroll to the seafront quarter of La Boca, formerly of seamen and ladies of the night (to whom the world now owes tango). So, amble we did. Suddenly, from amidst the grey and rundown houses around us, there rose up, like a phoenix from the ashes, a giant yellow wall structure. It couldn’t be, I exclaimed, but then I saw that indeed, it was. La Bombonera, legendary home to Boca Juniors – Diego Maradona’s former team and one of the foremost teams in South America. Hearing through the porteño whispers that there was an international match against Atlas from Mexico tonight, we decided to procure tickets for a sold-out game.
Stereotypes sometimes exist for good reason. In one of the shops lining the stadium, selling the team’s blue and yellow strip to adoring fans, we were hustled into a backroom by a guy with long grey hair tied back into a pony tail, an Argentina football shirt, oversized black sun glasses and speaking in hushed tones. “So?” he spat “ you want tickets for the match tonight?”……
Well, through a variety of ways, we managed to get tickets rather artfully, though not from our friend San Miguel the Stereotype. And whilst the guidebooks had warned us that tourists must sit in La Platea, which is seated (because tourists apparently scare easily by Latin passion), we ended up by accident in the popular seats, commonly known to English hooligans as “the Stands”. Oh yes. We arrived 2 hours before the match so we could find “seats” on the concrete steps. My migraine was making me dizzy from that height, and as the crowds filled around us, I wondered how they would react to me being sick right there. Of course, there was no way I was going anywhere. I drank Coke to stay vaguely human and just prayed the bucketful of black e-numbers would not make me need the loo…Frankly, by kick off, even if I needed the loo, there is no way I could have found my way out of the crowds. No health and safety here.
Never mind all that. It was AMAZING FUN!!! No English support (and no snide asides about Chelsea here please) can even begin to compete with that noise and passion. Fireworks, trumpets, drums, every single person in the stadium singing and dancing, children on their parents’ shoulders, cheerleaders who had no idea how to dance but could shake their bootie… N, who had never been to a football match in her life, experienced some baptism of fire. Before long, she was screaming for every corner, waving her fists furiously at the referee and getting me to teach her the “lyrics” of the chants. Singing along with everyone about Boca and corazones and amor and blah blah blah brought us cheerful macho Latin protection. In return for our enthusiasm, we got protected by all the men around us from the stamping and swaying. Everyone wanted to take care of “las chicas”. Football fans, for all their expletives and swearing at the Mexican opposition, have never been so friendly. What a blast! Even with a migraine. My footballing credits must be high…
Getting over the football game..
So, yesterday merited dark glasses and Zen. And so to the yoga studio for delicious chai with cardamom and condensed milk, Home Hotel for a tranquil, yet effortlessly cool spa massage, the chilled wine at dusk with some locals DJs spinning some great tunes, a disastrous dinner of unbaked lasagne (apparently that is how the chef preferred it..), and even joining up with the video club over the road from us…
The sun is finally out and porteños are posing in their stylish shorts. I must go and soak up some rays on the terrace before I go out looking pasty.
La vida es Buenos Aires, nothing extreme, just a little bit of everything you love in life.