One day can make all the difference.
Until then, the fabled Buenos Aires had not drawn me in: the steaks, wines, football and tango everywhere on offer were not my thing. I drifted, sat about my room, attended a conference. Soon enough I recalled a Chinese saying: the monkeys on both banks are still gibbering (Liang an yuan sheng ti bu zhu). I left the conference monkeys early and began to think of home.
But I had one day remaining. Three moments defined it.
I took a guided tour. A guided tour? Yes, I actually joined one. To be avoided, I had always thought. I prefer to make my own way around a place, finding points that interest me. But now I braved exactly such a tour.
I had a blast. Our group was from Central and South America, with a few Spanish-speaking Germans and me. All were young (apart from me), for we were all dwelling in one of my favourite haunts, a youth hostel. Our guide addressed us in Spanish, and then repeated what he had said to me in English as we walked along to the next point.
He thoroughly enjoyed himself as we explored all manner of topics. He was studying singing through an alternative method with a private tutor. His family had been moderate landowners, but had sold it all in the financial crash of the early 1990s. Our talk turned to politics and he confessed to being a Peronist, despite his family’s history. The setting enhanced the conversation, for we were in the old wealthy part of town. He relished telling stories of petty quarrels between the landowning families that had built the ostentatious ‘palaces’ (on the models of Paris and London). One had funded a lavish church, while another had built a tall building to block its view. Neighbours would not speak to another, for old landed wealth viewed the nouveau riche as upstarts. Yet these were nothing compared to the violent repressions of even mildly left-wing groups that litter Argentine history.
The Recoleta Mausoleum captured the contradictions of our talk and setting. In the midst of this city of the dead, where the old ruling class desperately seeks immortality through monumental tombs, lies the final resting place of Eva Perón (or Evita). This champion of women and the poor remains, we were told, the most important person in Argentinian history. Dying of cancer at 33, the fate of her body acted as a barometer of Argentinian politics. As the Perónists and old ruling class struggled with each other via elections, military dictatorships and regular violence, her body was embalmed, kidnapped, recovered, buried and exhumed, finally to be laid to rest among those whom she had challenged for her short life.
After the tour, I wondered the streets on my own. A restaurant beckoned and I responded. Serendipitously, I was seated in a corner out on the footpath, where I could watch people passing, entering the restaurant, or gathering around a disabled busker with a stunning voice.
A father and daughter came in to eat, he with a love of books and she with a love of her smart phone. An old woman sat nearby, enjoying the mix of solitude and companionship the restaurant provided. A burly man came merely for a coffee and a serious chat with the cook. Out on the street, I was struck not so much by the myriad variations in facial hair but by the way everyone sought to enhance the impression of their behinds. Argentina really is the land of the big, round buttock – and that is merely the men.
One fascination was eventually replaced by another: my meal. It was simply the best risotto I have even eaten. Mushrooms spilled out of rice perfectly cooked. This was no soggy mess that tried to pass itself off as risotto, but rice saturated in the juices of mushrooms, which still had a slight crunch to them. So filling was this lunch that I needed no dinner.
On our guided tour had been a stunningly beautiful woman, Mariana. I noticed a young Mexican man try to hit on her, only for him to be thoroughly disappointed and somewhat annoyed when her mother inserted herself between the two. Amused, I had talked briefly with mother and daughter at the end, only to wish them well on their further exploration of town.
Later and back at the hostel I was absorbed in my own reading when who should slip into the seat beside me but Mariana. She began to read as well. Our Mexican friend arrived at the same time, circled the room a few times and sat in a corner, scowling. Soon enough, Marianna and I were engaged in conversation, our books forgotten. She confessed to being shy, although I did ponder how she defined the word.
She spoke of Argentina, her home town Corrientes in the north-east on the Paraná River, her progressive politics (‘we are an ordinary family, how can it be otherwise?), her family of parents as teachers and four brothers, her studies of law and now of English, her personal life and dreams, her love of being on her own and travel, and her desire to spend time abroad in an English speaking country.
She clearly wanted to continue, so I asked her for a drink in the bar downstairs. She went to tell her mother, who was resting, and we continued our conversation as a band was warming up. I asked about nightlife and eating habits, learning that one usually eats close to midnight and parties on until 8.00 am in the morning. Since I had a plane to catch at about that time, I realised that the Argentinian way of preparing for departure would be simply to stay up all night. ‘But what about work?’ I asked. ‘Oh, if we have to work’, she said, ‘we sleep for a couple of hours and then the day begins’.
As our faces drew closer together, mainly to be heard through the noise, her mother arrived. Her brief protective look slipped away when I stood up and greeted her warmly. Now Marianna was able to act as translator, with her mother encouraging her to do so. But then she began to mix up her translations, speaking to me in Spanish and her mother in English. ‘I am a disaster’, she said, laughing.
From time to time, I could not help wondering: why speak with me rather than the young Mexican who was obviously keen, perhaps too keen? Was it my aura of fecundity, in light of numerous offspring and their respective offspring? Hardly, since my youngest daughter was her age.
I suspect it had a little to do with the fact that I was a safe option precisely because I am a grandfather. And it had much to do with the opportunity to practice English, for too few opportunities are available for such an experience in Corrientes. Indeed, we spoke much about the trials of learning languages. The theoretical knowledge of grammar and syntax may be fine, but conversation is another matter entirely. For those structures to become natural, one needs a constant conversational partner.
But my body clock was not on Argentinian time. I needed some sleep at least before the long haul home so could not continue forever. Reluctantly I farewelled both mother a daughter, with an extra hug for her mother.