Back in black

Electricity blackout across all of Argentina

Right then, where were we?

Seven months later – my most dramatic pause yet – and I’m still very much here. In fact, I’m so here that I find myself occasionally forgetting straightforward English words these days. To that end, an Irish friend and I played an impromptu game of charades just last Friday, in our brief mutual search for ‘locker.’ How happy we both were afterwards too.

What have I been doing during this extended intermission, exactly? Why such a long absence? Well, a few things actually. To firstly wrap up 2018, my eldest brother and his lovely new wife joined us for Christmas in the sweltering heat of a deserted Buenos Aires (everyone leaves the city for the province, the beach or Uruguay) as part of their honeymoon in Argentina. That was great, a real highlight of the year in fact, especially as we made a traditional English roast dinner on the 25th with paper party hats, festive classics and too much alcohol. Lots of new experiences all rolled into one for my novia, who had a ball.

Since the turn of the year, I did something that I’ve wanted to do for the last couple of years: start writing a novel. The 2019 goal for this one was to write 1000 words per week. For the record, today is the end of week 23 and I’m on 25,000 words – keeping pace so far therefore. Speaking of which, albeit somewhat tenuous, pace is very much the name of the game for the other chief consumer of all my spare time at the moment…

Yes, I am 2 weeks in to my 16-week plan which culminates in the Buenos Aires Marathon, on Sunday 22nd September. As always, the goal is a PB (< 3:18:07), and so I’m really having to knuckle down. Alcohol is strictly off limits until I’ve completed this first month, for example. Wednesdays are my days off. The other six involve either a visit to my gym at work or running around the various green spaces on my doorstep.

Sticking with this theme of the constant strive for self-improvement, I always like to have a favourite new word on the go. In both languages. Firstly, the English word is interrobang. Thoughts, anyone? According to a professional editor – to whom I sent a draft of the first 1000 words of my novel, for stylistic advice – interrobangs are not yet accepted in literature. Who knew?! The latter punctuation is an example of an interrobang (bonus points to me for usage, although one downside is that I’ve now completely discredited this blog entry as a result).

As for Spanish: llovizna. Meaning ‘drizzle,’ the word is a comforting reminder of home. Well, let me say, there has been plenty of llovizna of late in these parts. It doesn’t seem to have stopped since Friday in fact, and apparently has no plans of leaving before Wednesday. One caveat is that we are of course on the cusp of winter. Although to call it ‘winter’ in any conventional sense would be misleading perhaps, given that the coldest it ever drops to is about 3 degrees Celsius – oh, and it hasn’t snowed in Buenos Aires since 2007.

Anyway, yes, lots of steadily falling llovizna has led to a few complications here and there. Just this morning, I woke up at about 10am and realised that there was another power cut in the flat (the same thing happened in the middle of the night on Thursday). I assumed it was a problem localised to my block and would be resolved fairly pronto, as before.

Needing flour from the shops, to make tortas fritas, I popped out with my better half shortly afterwards. Hmmm. It wasn’t just my block that was without power, it turned out. Furthermore, as we headed towards the main road, Avenida Libertador we could see that everywhere within sight was apocalyptically unlit. Incidentally, crossing that seven-lane avenue was more fun than usual, given that none of the traffic lights were working.

Then came the Whatsapp updates. In the group I have with my work colleagues, people were updating each other firstly from within CABA and then outside of the city that they were powerless. It was obviously more wide-ranging than I had realised. And then came messages from people in other countries, like England and the US, asking me what was going on in Argentina. This was all a bit strange. Soon enough, one of my brothers sent me a link to a BBC article titled: Massive power cut hits all of Argentina (All of Argentina and Uruguay are without power, supplier says, affecting about 48m people).

OK then.

As power cuts go, this one takes some beating: the whole of Argentina (the eighth largest country in the world); the whole of Uruguay; parts of Paraguay; and apparently parts of Brazil. Not a bad effort.

This lack of electricity was aggravated by there being no running water either, from 7am local time until about 2pm for us. The detail of this second point almost had horrendous consequences for yours truly, no less.

In retrospect, I must have tried the tap during the blackout and realised that there was no running water but failed to turn the tap back off properly. There we were, in the kitchen cooking the famous tortas fritas when I noticed a light flicker on my Wi-Fi box. Excited by this apparent development, I tried a few lights and, to my delight, was immediately bestowed with glorious illumination.

Remembering that we hadn’t been able to flush the toilet from earlier, the young lady (who, incidentally, has had a birthday since I last posted – which we celebrated in Ushuaia) went into the bathroom to take care of that particularly unpleasant job. Having only been back on the grid for a matter of seconds, the sink was already filled with water from the erroneous tap, gushing out quicker than the plughole could drain. Needless to say, this could have been particularly costly, but I got lucky this time. Nothing more to say on this close call, except that it’s a lesson learnt for the future.

On the Whatsapp group, summarising the situation, one of my colleagues chimed in with a favourite office punchline of ours: ‘Estas cosas no pasan en Londres’ (‘These things don’t happen in London’). They’re certainly good sports, the Argentines. Numbed by years of calamity regarding politics, economics and other basic things that many of us take for granted, they have the resilience of champions and a fittingly dark sense of humour to match. That’s what makes life fun here. The dark moments are there to be embraced, not rejected. They almost always tend to make a good story too, if nothing else.

Wild tales

Colourful rocks in Cafayate

Before I packed up my life and moved it to Buenos Aires last November, I watched a procession of Argentinian films and documentaries to educate myself on the culture. In hindsight this proved invaluable, possibly more so than the Spanish classes I attended in fact. Indeed, perhaps the film with the most profound effect on me was Relatos Salvajes.

Translating as ‘Wild Tales’, through six standalone stories this black comedy masterpiece explores argentinidad (literally, and somewhat clumsily, ‘Argentinianness’) at its most hot-blooded and avenging. How enlightening for me it was, then, to see the infamous bridge where the most striking scene of the film was shot, and by this virtue also an important symbol of the watermark for Argentinian cinema. That said, we’ve missed a few important parts in the plot.

*

A month to celebrate, whilst the first weekend in November marked my one-year anniversary here, just a fortnight later it was my birthday. A lovely nuance of language, ‘cumpleaños’ has inherently more cause for celebration than its English counterpart. The completion, or rather ‘fulfilment’ of years is suitably cherished in these parts, and the introverted Englishman in me almost felt a bit embarrassed by everyone’s kindness and didn’t quite know where to put himself.

To this end, one pleasant little quirk of my job is that we are all given our birthday as a holiday day. Given that this year it fell on the Friday before the Monday feriado, I well and truly lucked in. Having realised this a few months ago, and well in advance of me, delightfully, my better half had secretly been concocting our extra long weekend getaway for the occasion.

After a delicious steak and wine dinner on the Thursday night, under her orders we were back to my apartment in time to blow out the candles on the balcony as the clock struck twelve. I then opened the fantastic football shirt from her mum and put it on, ready to piece together the jigsaw of my good novia’s present. Lots of cellotaped cuttings of paper later, it emerged that said document was our boarding pass for a flight to Salta – the charming desert region in the north – in just 6 hours’ time!

Aided by a brief nap, having thrown a few things into my sports bag, a few hours later we had landed in beautiful Salta and were tucking into the local cuisine of llama empanaditas. Helping us get our bearings, shortly afterwards we took a cable car up to Mount San Bernardo for some incredible views of the city and the surrounding desert in which it is enveloped. A spot more exploring ultimately concluded in us retreating poolside with a bottle of local tipple Salta Rubia, as a purple sun lowered itself behind the mountains for another day.

Saturday was the daytrip to Cafayate, rocky and rugged as one could hope for. A series of stops along the way included photo opportunities of breathtakingly dramatic dry river valleys, multi-coloured overlapping ridges and even a vineyard. In what felt like a barren nowhere, improbably this wilderness doubled up as the fertile breeding ground for rows upon rows of red and white grapes. How delicious the respective homegrown bottles of Malbec and Cabernet which we imbibed in the consecutive nights that followed were too. Unfortunately however, sour notes were to follow.

Yes, with Sunday having been a relaxing day of wandering around a museum or two, we dined at a recommended restaurant not far from the hotel to commemorate our last night in Salta. Opting for the healthy option, we both chose a salad dish. It then emerged that our candlelit dinner for two had at least one other uninvited guest, possibly more.

Unapologetically chomping away through one of the lettuce leaves, leaving a light trail of slobbery destruction in its wake, was a tiny yellowish lava bug. This explained the cluster of green gaps throughout both sets of plated shrubbery. Unimpressed, to understate, but dignified and polite, we sent the food back before paying a discounted bill, making our excuses and hastily exiting.

The less descriptive the better, but the ensuing middle of the night was not a pretty one for either of us. Medical callouts and emergency injections meant that we just about soldiered on to our 11:25 flight back to Buenos Aires the next morning, although that was touch and go as well. Bed-bound/toilet-bound until Wednesday afternoon, this final twist felt both unexpected and unfair in what had been an otherwise hugely enjoyable jaunt to Salta.

*

The director Damián Szifron describes the motif throughout Relatos Salvajes as being driven by ‘the fuzzy boundary that separates civilisation from barbarism, the vertigo of losing your temper, and the undeniable pleasure of losing control.’

Although I’ve come a long way in the integration process over the past twelve months or so, there’s apparently still a long way to go before argentinidad becomes intrinsic. At no point up until and including now was there ever an overpowering force jolting me to get even with the restaurant that made us so ill. That said, I think we owe it to ourselves and future customers to leave a fairly scathing online review of the place – one in Spanish and the other in English, for good measure.

As for the bridge, a highlight of our Saturday daytrip was unexpectedly recognising an unassuming, terracotta-coloured steel structure blending into the dusty backdrop as we passed it on the way to Cafayate.

In the road rage episode in Relatos Salvajes, an angry driver shunts his adversary off the road, before they grapple in the car as it dangles tantalisingly above the river and subsequently explodes under the bridge after the aggressor lights the fuel tank, both hotheads paling in suitably fiery fashion. Such was the effect of this brilliantly storyboarded scene that, albeit contrastingly tranquil this time round, I instantly placed the bridge upon glimpsing it.

We’re obviously not ready to contemplate another visit quite yet, following our recent tale of woe, but we certainly intend on revisiting Salta one day. Similarly to the bridge, that I initially encountered on-screen as the setting for unfettered chaos but redeemed itself upon the second time of asking, a little bit less wild next time is all we ask for please.

A fairytale final

Superclasico Libertadores final

One year and one week later, yet it feels like only yesterday that I arrived: I am waiting for my residency documents to be processed; and no-one cares because there’s a Superclásico on.

Incidentally, my tramites were all lined up ready to be stamped for another year back in the third week of September. It’s a very simple process, they repeatedly assured me. Almost there now, should be any day. But Argentina.

It was around this time meanwhile that River Plate and Boca Juniors started to breathlessly glance at each other from their respective sides of the Copa Libertadores quarter-final draw. The last ever final to be played across two legs, the fairytale ending of defeating a most bitter rival to be crowned kings of South American club football was a dream that both now dared to make.

Hay que esperar’. That’s already the default answer to most things here. Meaning ‘You’ve just got to wait’, imagine how often one hears it when one actually does have something specific to wait for (like residency documents). A lot.

Amidst the fever pitch of anticipation that swept the capital during the semi-finals, this deliberately vague one-liner was of course the golden punchline heard when porteños would chance meet in the street.

‘Do you think it could really happen? A Superclásico Libertadores final?!’

‘…And how are you by the way?’

Well, the city waited. And it got.

*

An Argentina v. Brazil pair of semi-finals, of the two domestic clubs River faced the biggest challenge – drawn against current holders Gremio. Whilst those two did battle on consecutive Tuesdays, Boca were tasked with despatching Palmeiras of Sao Paulo on the Wednesdays that followed.

In the end, despite a brief scare in the second leg, Boca rode through with relative ease thanks to the dynamite impact of a reborn Darío Benedetto. A second half substitute in both games, he scored 3 of the Xeneize’s goals in their 4-2 aggregate victory.

Things were far less straightforward for Los Millionarios however. Having gone down 1-0 at home, the road trip that thousands of hardcore River fans such as my ex-boss made to Porto Alegre seemed most likely fruitless. Trailing by a goal in Brazil with 10 minutes to go, they probably thought as much too. Enter VAR.

Following a cross swung on to the head of Rafael Borré by Pity Martínez late on, it was the latter’s controversial 95th minute penalty that would snatch an improbable, unforgettable victory on away goals right at the death. Whether the ref saw it, we’ll never know, but someone with the benefit of camera angle manipulation and super-slow-mo replays certainly did. Seven minutes passed between the red card given for the handball and Martínez’s converted spot kick, before the officials were given a military escort off the pitch at full time. The whole situation could only be described as a VARce.

Thereafter all the River fans in the vicinity made themselves known, spilling out onto the balconies in my building and those opposite, to release various warbles of emotional outpourings. One Boca fan two floors below me was less than impressed, making sure he also had his piece on the matter. A brief crossfire of colourful exchanges later, and off both parties went. Saving some for the final, no doubt.

Unfortunately, this inevitable sequel was one I missed, electing instead to watch the Boca home leg and drink champagne with the River fans in a bar next to their stadium, in Núñez. More on that shortly, though.

Still, how I would have loved to have been a mosquito on the balcony yesterday during that one minute or so period in which Boca took the lead through Ábila’s thumped finish (’34), only to be pegged back 1-1 from the ensuing centre by River’s Pratto (’35).

Having only recently returned from a long injury layoff, Benedetto again found himself on the bench for this one. There was a murmur of unease around the River fans bar when he came on ahead of schedule to replace the limping Pavón however. Not long after, on the stroke of half time, Boca duly took the lead. Who else?

Something not to be overlooked is how this treat of a first half almost didn’t happen this weekend at all. Due to a cluster of electrical storms, beginning on Friday night – and partially flooding my kitchen – to the absolute dismay of almost everyone here, the footballing body CONMEBOL said it would conduct a pitch inspection at 13:00 (ahead of the 17:00 kick-off) with a view to postponing the fixture.

To be seen to be believed, the TV channels had pundits commentating on whether they thought the game would be on and what it would mean for each team if it wasn’t, whilst we saw CONMEBOL officials walking around La Bombonera in wellies and dropping match balls in the puddles.

With many events around Buenos Aires such as weddings having been rescheduled to accommodate this once-in-a-lifetime final, the bated breath of one and all was palpable, post-pitch-poddle. Initially deciding to delay the game by 2 hours, another more intense storm localised to the La Boca neighbourhood almost immediately put paid to CONMEBOL’s desperate efforts to proceed as planned on the Saturday.

Not to worry. There was I, 24 hours later, celebrating River’s leveller with a glass of bubbly being loosely swirled around in my left hand as one over-zealous fan had bought a dozen or so bottles of champagne to give out to people at the start of the second half. His beloved River were losing at this point too, let’s not forget. 2-2 it finished though, and so quite the result for him and others in the leafy north of the city over their rivals from the docks in the gritty south.

Less than a fortnight from now is the final chapter of this incredible epic. There’ll be plenty more drama to come one suspects too, as River hope to capitalise on their home advantage from 5pm local time on Saturday 24th.

Victory would be sweeter than ever for the winner, defeat unimaginably unbearable for the loser. Whether directly affected as a fan or otherwise, there is apparently no space available on anyone’s mind here for anything other than the Superclásico Libertadores final right now.

I guess that paperwork will just have to wait a bit longer, then.

Crisis? What crisis?

Argentina economic crisis

A fortnight ago it was 10 months since I relocated to Buenos Aires. Not a particularly common milestone to commemorate. On this occasion however, it was. Almost to the day, plotting the Sterling against the Peso, it marked 100% inflation since my arrival.

Whereas the Pound equated to roughly 23 Pesos when I was fresh off the plane last November, it now exchanges for closer to 50. To put that into context, that’s a compounded increase of more than 7% every month.

In case you missed it, President Macri requested an early release of the pre-agreed $50bn loan from the IMF at the end of August, prompting the Peso to plummet as many markets scrambled to short their Argentinian assets. The Dollar rocketed up to 40 Pesos, this new high being a new low as it were.

Cue the tsunami of social media satirical takes on the situation. Highlights included a man trying to put out a fire with what he thinks is a bucket of water but turns out to be oil – in turn causing the ensuing, larger fire and ultimate explosion that knocks him off his feet, with the caption translating as: ‘Macri calming the markets’.

There was also a Photoshopped image of a worried Macri looking up the best helicopter to buy online, from his government office, plotting an escape. This one was a nod to disgraced ex-President Fernando De la Rúa, who fled the Casa Rosada by helicopter like a defeated Bond villain, at the height of Argentina’s last major economic meltdown (el argentinazo) in December 2001. My work colleagues remember watching it live on TV, complete with commentary, like a surreal hybrid of action movie and football match.

Like any good joke, it turns out that there are 3 ways of dealing with the inflation here: the English way; the Argentinian way; and the Venezuelan way.

Playing out our various stereotyped roles in the office, there was I, two Thursdays ago, unable to comprehend what was going on. Having never experienced anything like this before, accordingly I started simulating a multitude of farfetched doomsday scenarios in my head.

Then there were the locals, who have seen this kind of thing before. They were revelling in it all, energised by a triumphant sense of told-you-so inevitable calamity about the government going back to the IMF for help, whilst uttering every expletive under the sun about Macri.

Meanwhile, the Venezuelan engineer on my floor in the office, nonplussed by all the commotion, was straight-faced serious when she remarked, ‘We wish we had an inflation rate as low as Argentina’s!’

As an aside, whilst in the countryside with the in-laws last weekend, there was a moment after lunch where the man of the house was walking back with us to the car but then didn’t quite make it for some reason. After waiting more than 5 minutes, a quick glance in the wing-mirror elicited a roll of the eyes and then much beeping of the horn from his good, but growingly impatient wife. She had spotted that he had struck up an animated conversation with the car park attendant and, of course, recognised those telltale wild gesticulations of his. ‘He’s complaining about Macri again,’ she sighed.

What are the implications of all this inflation, then?

Well, there are many. Fundamentally, there is a human tendency to panic during perceived times of crisis. This has translated in Buenos Aires into almost all the shops raising their prices por las dudas (literally ‘for the doubts’, of which there are many). This escalates the problem.

One very visible consequence of this kind of reactionist behaviour is that homeless people are becoming increasingly conspicuous on street corners. Or for those that instead live as okupas (squatters) there are a whole host of formerly glorious, now derelict buildings to choose from in the city.

Just take that of the now-obsolete Ministry for Federal Planning, in Belgrano, that I walk past every day. Although the ministry was disbanded by Macri’s government in 2015 and its gorgeous white stone quarters walled up ever since, the national flag still flutters defiantly as a symbol of the resilience and fortitude of which the Argentinians are necessarily made.

Rather than squatting, I am on my second stint of housesitting in the Recoleta area. This time it is for an English expat friend whilst he is at home seeing his family for a month. Although I had been looking to move straight in to somewhere more permanent, the timing was far from perfect. Around the same time as my landlady moving back into her apartment, not only did rental prices spike, but also owners were demanding larger deposits upfront due to the economic situation.

To my mind, there are two things that all savvy tenants must do here in order to survive therefore. Firstly, make sure that the agreed rent is payable in Pesos, not Dollars. Secondly, confirm that the amount is fixed for the duration of the term.

It was partly because of this and partly due to a string of misleadingly well-marketed places (expert photography, credit where it’s due) that my countless viewings of flats never bore fruit. Predictably, I ran out of time and ended up having to move my life via a taxi/bus combination to and from a rather basic Airbnb spot near Plaza Italia, where I stayed all last week.

Happily, though, through my expat friend (the house-sittee) I did finally find a lovely place to move into in October that follows my two commandments of renting in Buenos Aires. Dovetailing with his return, my 6-month lease begins in just under 4 weeks. Only then will I permit myself to fully unpack all my things again and feel at home, but I’ll get there, with all recent hardships wilfully forgotten.

Crisis? What crisis?

‘Bienvenido al tercer mundo’

Is Argentina a third world country?

I can’t remember where I first heard it. There are many contenders, although one of them is definitely not MALBA (Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires).

Last night I accompanied my better half to a talk at the uptown spot in Recoleta, and home of some of the finest private art collections in the continent. In-keeping with her International Trade Relations course, this particular charla was about economic development in India and the opportunity it presents from the perspective of international commerce.

Typical of these things, there was a panel of talking heads on hand to dissect the brilliantly informative presentation that the visiting Professor from Uruguay had just delivered with animated enthusiasm and a telling histogram or two.

Since 2004, there has been a Preferential Trade Agreement between India and the MERCOSUR countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay) which together form a trading bloc within Lat-Am. Yet there is something tragicomic about the reality that this fantastic trade relations opportunity will probably continue to never be capitalised upon. This was the subtext of a pre-death post-mortem that rounded off the slideshow anyway.

Bureaucracy to the point of lunacy, and with mouths to feed at every step of the way, conducting business here can be a wholly unrewarding experience. Despite its much-heralded evolution in recent times, with all due respect, India is unquestionably still a third world country. Live here for long enough however, and you’ll see that many locals impede their own potential economic growth by resigning themselves to a belief that Argentina belongs now and always in that bracket too. This is what I would call: adopting a third world mentality.

It’s no coincidence that the verb you’ll hear banded about with most regularity in the sphere of trade here is esperar. Meaning both ‘to hope’ and ‘to wait’, usually conditioned by context, they come as a pair when there are important business transactions due to take place. As I’m finding out first-hand through my job, seemingly pointless paperwork and the like seems to take an inordinate amount of time to bypass every man and his dog (of which there are many in Buenos Aires) before anything actually happens.

Amidst all this, getting to the truth of the matter is often another story in itself. Many of my colleagues find it funny how offended I am when I am lied to by the people with whom we are doing daily business. ‘It’s not lying, it’s part of the culture here’, they tell me. Something the rest of us might call rotten, the name for it here is viveza criolla.

Although they are very close in meaning, in English the word ‘cunning’ denotes intelligence and therefore elicits admiration, whereas ‘sly’ is more allied to deceitfulness. There is no such distinction with viveza criolla though. An unfair advantage gained through one’s own creative means, dishonestly but undetected, such behaviour is to be celebrated apparently. Look no further than Maradona’s infamous Hand of God as perhaps the most textbook of examples.

Last week I was walking to my bus stop in Belgrano on the way home from work when the heavens opened. Such was my unpreparedness, I didn’t have an umbrella to hand but luckily spotted a place in Chinatown that had a bucket full of them on an outside stall. Quickly registering the respective colours of canopy and handle, I settled for one and promptly handed over the 50 Pesos to the assistant thinking I’d got myself a nice little bargain there too. Or at least I thought he was the assistant…

Only when I saw him confidently pocket the cash and stride away, navigating the overflowing drains in the opposite direction of the same street, did I realise that this guy was nothing more than a chancer who had seen – and duly taken – his chance. Hooray for viveza criolla, right?!

Shortly afterwards, the bemused shopkeeper came out. Again, I handed over a different 50 Peso note for the same umbrella. Not quite the bargain it seemed at first, after all. I wasn’t angry though, far from it in fact, as I immediately saw the funny side of it given the net loss incurred of only roughly £1.50. Disappointed was the word.

Clearly incredulous about the event, I felt compelled to recount the anecdote on two separate occasions to a couple of visibly unfazed porteños. It turns out that there was a punchline that I had neglected to insert, but one that both recipients of my story knew already and indeed obligingly delivered far better than I ever could, with a deep sigh and deadpan flourish – ‘Bienvenido al tercer mundo’.

Back on the horse

Stunning Buenos Aires sunset

Right then, where were we?

Ah yes – the World Cup. After some overdue Messi magic against Nigeria, any brief flicker of hope that the Argentinians had was promptly snuffed out by eventual winners France. Meanwhile, the English gave a disarmingly good account of themselves, finally falling in valiant defeat to Croatia in the semi-finals. It didn’t come home after all then, although incidentally I did.

Due to a wedding (for which I was best man) being moved forward because of an illness, I dashed back to London at very short notice at the start of July. There was I, two days later, somewhat improbably, stood outside a pub in Clapton cancelling my flights to Moscow for the World Cup final immediately after England had been dumped out 2-1 in extra time. Having booked them literally that afternoon to jet off the morning after the wedding, I managed to get my cancellation in just before the midnight deadline. As planned, albeit for only a matter of days, my next flight was the return haul to Buenos Aires after all.

Since being back here, perhaps as a consequence of trips to New York and London in June and July respectively, I feel more settled than ever. Surprising perhaps, given that we are not yet at the halfway point of a 90-day consultation period at work and I have also recently been tasked with finding a new apartment for 3 weeks from now.

It’s this stuff that makes you feel alive though. Through my own fault, by the end I was bored and unchallenged and comfortable in London. Not here. In fact, after 9 months in Argentina – despite the relative chaos in which I am currently enveloped – this change of scene has galvanised me (as planned) to actually do what I wanted to do, and not just talk about it.

  • Write regularly: 30 posts in 30 weeks, until the recent hiatus. This led to my first paid article and the opportunity to do more – a goal of mine for 2018/ever. When my writer’s block dissipates, I’ll throw myself into this more fully.
  • Pursue entrepreneurial interests: An Irish expat friend and I meet up every weekend to share and develop business ideas. It might feel slow at times, but we are definitely making progress and moving forward each week.
  • Upskill myself: I always feel like I could be better, but I am about to finish reading my first novel in Spanish (Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold). In a moment of wisdom, in London I bought the English version so that I could fill in the plot gaps afterwards, of which there are many. This is my next job.
  • Care less without being careless: Buenos Aires is the best environment I’ve ever been in for appreciating what is and isn’t important. I am self-consciously slowing down, whilst at the same time becoming more decisive. Both are deeply empowering.
  • Drink less: Although I initially utilised my trusty Trojan horse of marathon training, to distract me and ultimately preclude excessive tippling, I’ve since postponed my Punta del Este outing to September 2019. Marathon training is only a short-term fix anyway, yet it seems that I’ve fallen into good habits because generally I’m only drinking one day a week these days.

As a by-product of all the above, I’ve even found a Maria as well. In fact, we had a civilised afternoon of introductions and lunching with her parents just two weekends ago. By choosing a good cake I passed the competency test, fortunately for everyone involved, and was even deemed worthy enough to hijack the obligatory family selfie to commemorate the occasion.

Yesterday afternoon the two of us headed towards the planetarium as late afternoon was transitioning beautifully into early evening, along with the rest of the city apparently. Predictably it was full when we got there. Happily settling for a stroll in the park instead, we crossed Sarmiento at dusk under the watchful eye of General Justo José de Urquiza on horseback, marvelling at the skies overhead. Towards summer we canter.

Argentina’s Messi situation

Is Messi Argentina's last hope?

Here we are then, only 9 days in, and such a wide spectrum of emotions already exhausted by the Argentines:

Expectation that La Selección would easily dispatch the World Cup debutants (pre-Iceland game)

Disbelief when they didn’t, as Messi’s crucial second-half penalty was saved (post-Iceland draw)

Optimism that the Iceland game was a blip; this time it would be different (pre-Croatia game)

Numbness after a hiding, and the dawning of a scarringly severe reality check (post-Croatia defeat)

God-fearing desperation, prayers and everything crossed for a Nigeria win (pre-Nigeria vs. Iceland game)

Deliverance – promises made to the almighty which must now be honoured (post-Nigeria win)

 

It speaks volumes that Clarín made an instant celebrity of Santiago Staiger, a hitherto ordinary resident of San Juan, who apparently foresaw how Group D would pan out in a dream. Not only did he ‘see’ the 3-0 defeat to Croatia, but also that Nigeria would beat Iceland and – the reader is told, with great excitement – subsequently Argentina would edge into the last 16 next Tuesday. A happy ending if ever there was one.

Someone with whom Santiago Staiger must share his newly-found column inches however is of course Leo Messi. How funny it is that the less he does, the more Messi is written about. The less he says, the more he is spoken about. There are apparently plenty of commonly termed ‘football men’ clambering to pick up that particular baton on his behalf too. Amongst them the Argentina legend Diego Simeone, who last night went off on a diatribe about the disarray of the national team. Never someone to leave a pot unstirred, he signed off by asking the rhetorical question, ‘who would you rather have on your team – Messi or Ronaldo?’

Meanwhile, said other person with whom Messi must share his galaxy – lightyears ahead of all the other mere human footballers – has scored each of his nation’s 4 goals and is on course for the tournament Golden Boot. Cristiano Ronaldo has even grown a strange new goatee that he gleefully strokes every time he scores. This is nothing to do with talk about the GOAT though, as he told us all, very unconvincingly.

To ease the pressure under which his close friend Messi seems to be crumbling, Sergio Aguero Tweeted that the prodigy simply had an off-day, after the Iceland draw. Then yesterday, when facing the media after the humbling from the Croats, Aguero stated even more succinctly that he himself had ‘bronca’ (a fiery Latino equivalent of mardiness) and duly stormed off soon after.

As well as intermittent flaps of on-field frustration and constantly cutting a figure of hopeless despair, Messi chose to miss a team bonding asado session last week. Indeed, it appears to be a leaderless camp. Something abundantly clear is that the manager, Sampaoli has little respect in the dressing room due to his insistence on wingbacks and a system that is not completely built around the world’s most naturally gifted footballer.

What next then?

The feeling here is perhaps best summarised as self-loathing, at the relief enjoyed earlier today when Nigeria beat Iceland. Although they got themselves into this mess, getting themselves out is not completely in Argentina’s hands now due to goal difference. In short though, better Iceland’s result on Tuesday and they will qualify. It’s far from doom and gloom therefore, however it is true that only Croatia or Nigeria can win the group.

In order to get through the group stage, Argentina will obviously need their talisman firing on all cylinders. ‘To be well is the most important.’ That’s what Messi tells us in an advert for a healthcare provider next to my bus stop, smiling and with mate in hand. He looks genuinely happy, certainly more comfortable than he has been whilst in Russia anyway. Yet now Captain Argentina must find a way to channel the pressure he is feeling, carrying the hopes and dreams of his fellow countrymen on his shoulders, into something positive on the pitch.

He must acknowledge and embrace that this responsibility comes with the territory of being so astronomically talented, inarguably one of the game’s greatest ever. Only then will he be truly well. We know he is a genius on the pitch, but now Argentina’s progress hangs by the loose thread that is Messi’s wisdom away from the action. If the proverb ‘To be wise is to take one’s own advice’ is true, then it is in this context that a nation must hold its breath in this his most challenging hour.

One month every four years

Argentina World Cup fever

ES UN MES, CADA CUATRO AÑOS!’ flaps the man in the latest video which went viral in Argentina this week. Captured from a dashcam, he is at first calmly driving along, with his wife in the passenger seat. She mentions in passing that her cousin is getting married soon, and so – like every good husband should – he makes a token acknowledgment that they’ll be going, smiles and says he’s looking forward to it.

Then he asks when it is.

‘23 de Junio.

Visibly, his face is drained of colour and fills with panic. ‘I’m not going, I can’t go, it’s the World Cup! Everyone knows that in June and July you can’t get married when it’s the World Cup. People won’t go! I hope it’s raining!

She asks if Argentina are playing, to which he replies immediately, ‘No, but it’s the second matchday of Group F. I’d miss South Korea – Mexico. I’m not missing South Korea – Mexico!

Yes, silly season really is upon us here. Just to provide a flavour of how seriously some people take this ‘one month, every four years,’ a native was caught on camera jumping in front of a slow-moving car last week – hoping to be signed off work, injured for the World Cup. Meanwhile, a few days ago I spotted a man whose job it has been to check that all the TVs on each floor of our office are working, in advance of Russia – Saudi Arabia kicking off next Thursday.

Now back to the car again where, laughing in disbelief, the wife calls his bluff. She asks if he therefore doesn’t go to work during this month, if everyone knows how sacred the World Cup is. ‘Yes I work, but less,’ he launches back at her, before she has even finished, clearly prepared for this line of amateur questioning.

This is no caricature either, so say my Spanish teacher and girlfriend – two reliable, otherwise disinterested bystanders. During the two hours or so whenever Argentina play, all office phones are taken off the hook. There isn’t even the pretence of being contactable, whilst obviously no work is done. The streets become eerily empty and quiet, before either quickly filling to the point of eruption to celebrate a win for La Selección, or simply remaining abandoned until tomorrow upon the back of defeat.

Not something I’ve had to deal with before, but I recently realised that I had too many tournament wallcharts. There was no point offering my spares to other people though, as they all had the same problem too. In the end, I settled on trimming down to just my Messi-fronted pocket pamphlet. Having submitted my group stage pronósticos (predictions) earlier today, and after an arduous week, tonight I went home to just put my feet up and relax. Well, sort of. The World Cup predictions league wasn’t going to make itself, right?

Correct. Back in the house no more than ten minutes, I felt compelled to fill-in a virtual wallchart with my predictions for every game up to and including the final on July 15th, and then send email invites to people to join my league. They say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Jokes aside, this kind of obsession about football to the point of insanity makes me feel at home. I’m glad to be in the asylum. Deep down, the Argentinians know they’re almost definitely not going to win it, yet you won’t hear any man/woman/dog here say that – and it definitely won’t quell the inevitable backlash when they get knocked out by Peru (according to my predictions league, anyway). This is England, but on steroids.

Like everyone else in Buenos Aires, I already know where I’m going to be for every Argentina group game and can prepare accordingly. This is of course the case for England’s matches too, having attended their last two somewhat ignominious tournament outings. Some people, albeit few porteños, are calling me crazy to plan my entire life around the World Cup for the next few weeks. Although they certainly have a point, to them I simply say this:

ES UN MES, CADA CUATRO AÑOS!’

Let the River run

River Plate 2018 Marathon

Marathon training is well underway for Punta del Este on September 9th, with my novia and I now 2 weeks into a 16-week programme that I devised for primerizos (first-timers). The goal is to get her over the line in Uruguay in a little over three months from now, before ultimately repeating the trick for larger groups in the future as a side project, when I have more experience. One-to-one works great for now though, and we’re both learning lots as teacher/student, respectively. In the meantime, today’s early morning challenge for myself was the River Plate 10K, or Maratón Monumental.

Up earlier than I am during the week for work, it was a slow start to the day. Still a bit heavy-limbed after having concluded an hour’s running just 12 hours earlier (per the 16-week programme), there was I, dopily fumbling around in the pitch black at 6:30. Not long afterwards, because it had been a while since I last ran competitively, breakfast was an exotic assortment which included tuna pasta and a chocolate bar for some extra lift-off at the 8am gun.

As my taxista dropped me off outside the stadium, there was a tranquillity in the air, lent from the haze of the pink dawn we had both marvelled at silently, as night exploded into day between us leaving Recoleta and reaching Núñez. Chilly. That had been my initial reaction to the day, and it persisted when I was out in the open again. Those poor stewards, already sat patiently at their respective posts in fluorescent yellow high-vis when I arrived, both seen and doubtless bitten by the unrelenting cold.

A stadium-centric course, the Maratón Monumental was to begin, end and even detour via River Plate’s iconic home ground. An important footnote to add here is that almost all runs are, rather misleadingly, promoted as marathons and therefore the small print regarding actual distance must always be read, to avoid disappointment/under-preparedness. On this occasion anyway, 10 kilometres.

Meanwhile, it was 40 years ago this month that Argentina lifted the World Cup for the first time, here at El Monumental. There is no public celebration, or even acknowledgment of this milestone however; rather, it is a hollow anniversary of the tournament that no-one talks about.

Shrouded in acrimony, due to the foreboding presence of the military dictatorship throughout, the political implications of Argentina 78 from start to finish were ugly at best. Used as pawns for the regime, many players from that Argentina squad understandably now feel embarrassed and choose not to talk about what would otherwise be a football-mad nation’s crowning glory.

At the time, nobody knew the extent of the atrocities characterising the Dirty War that were taking place yet unfortunately the players were effectively representing the perpetrators by representing their country. Unfairly, this unwitting complicity felt in retrospect like an act of betrayal by the victorious players to their countless fallen compatriots. This was a burden that weighed heavily on everyone here afterwards, only lifted somewhat eight years later when Maradona’s cohort was triumphant in Mexico 86.

Bearing the history and physical scale of the 60,000-seater in mind, it was perhaps unsurprising that any loose game plan I had went completely out of the window in the final kilometre. Although many legs were clearly fatiguing, the voices of the River fans running alongside me were only getting stronger. Indeed, the terrace chants grew louder to a crescendo in unison with cheering well-wishers as we entered through the stadium gates and then the stadium itself, scaling the pitch in its entirety on the encircling running track.

What would have been a finish time of 43 minutes became ’46, as I unashamedly stopped to take photos and soak up the fantastic scene once inside El Monumental. A veteran runner and I swapped phones and, from various angles, made sure we both captured the moment for posterity. Once ready, I briefly got back into gear to head back out, past the next incoming batch of would-be amateur photographers, and crossed the finish line metres later.

Reviewing the smattering of photos taken by the kind gentleman, whilst on the bus home, it was liberating to be able to choose and edit the ones I liked, whilst deleting the others. These handpicked shots of me smiling, with the sunshine in the background, from hereon will be my only ever memory of the Maratón Monumental 2018. Moreover, today was a reminder that everyone should always be granted the opportunity to narrate and recount their own story – especially if they were not given a fair chance to write it in the first place.

Country matters

An asado sizzling at one of Argentina's legendary estancias

A particularly endearing part of life in Argentina is the glut of feriados (public holidays). This time we were commemorating the May Revolution of 1810, a precursor to the Argentine War of Independence which concluded some six years later. Naturally this meant that tools were collectively downed across the nation as afternoon became early evening on Thursday the 24th.

Swept up in the infectious wave of nationalism – and somewhat under duress – I had even been spotted sporting a blue and white escarapela (rosette), alongside everyone else in my department, as we sat down for a traditional lunch of empanadas and locro earlier that day. Like how May 25th feels like a dress rehearsal for July 9th (Argentina’s official Independence Day) however, Thursday proved merely the entrée for what followed on Friday.

Just a few weeks ago, the novia had asked if I would like to do a ‘Día del Campo’ one day soon. Not really knowing what this was, in either of the languages we communicate to each other in, I had said Yes/Sí and awaited further instructions. Surely enough they came, and so we met near the Congress building on Friday morning and headed to Buenos Aires province by mini-bus. A hundred kilometres later, we reached Lobos before taking a taxi for the final stretch to La Candelaria country grounds and polo club.

A world away from the city, this was the archetypal setting for the fabled Día del Campo: a celebration of the country’s rural heritage, by stepping back in time to the romantic days of the gaucho. Upon arrival to La Candelaria we were handed a map of the grounds, told where to be when for nourishment and culture, and then left to roam freely.

Occasionally straying from the lush lawns to the surrounding forest paths, first we discovered the ornate chapel amidst an autumnal medley of reds, yellows and browns. Thereafter, an indirect traipse took us to the white brick castle centrepiece, after a break for empanadas. During our guided talk there, the national favourite of asado meats had been expectantly sizzling nearby in the open elements, ready for lunchtime.

Detouring back to the huge marquee via the lake, we saw the slabs of pork/steak/chicken being oak-smoked before the fiery pit and among the coals, as we headed in, ravenous. Otherwise on the brink of slipping into a meat coma just minutes later, all lunchers were suddenly stirred into action by three sword-bearing gauchos galloping to the scene and then ceremoniously dismounting their horses. Out of nowhere appeared three maidens, traditionally clad in dress shirts and wavy red dresses, and the show began.

Lots of theatrical handkerchief waving from both parties took place, punctuated throughout by the heavy staccato clop-clopping of the gaucho’s shoes, as the courting ritual of yore played out to indigenous folk music. Inevitably wooed, the maidens were then left in the wake of the three rugged men. Back on the horses, and from whence they came, went the three horsemen. This added powerful authenticity to the legend of the gaucho, as they cantered into the leafy unknown.

Just a few hours later, we loosely followed the trail they had blazed, en-route back to the city. It seemed only fitting that as our minibus arrived back in CABA we caught a glimpse of the Obelisco, resplendent in the projected colours of the flag. The first successful act of South American defiance in the independence process, the Revolución de Mayo is definitely not an event the locals take lightly.

Indeed, having two hundred years of history thrust upon me in two days, this was one of my more educational feriados. A forerunner of the nationalist spirit that is ingrained in the Argentinian identity today, the gaucho still runs wilder and braver than ever. Nowhere to be seen yet everywhere to be felt, he is Argentina.