If only it wasn’t impractical for my commute, the charming cobbled streets of San Telmo and indeed original site of the city’s foundation would be my preferred base in Buenos Aires. Finally visiting the elegant Mercado de San Telmo – not to be confused with the famous outdoor Feria de San Telmo – for the first time last weekend endeared this neighbourhood to me further. That said, beware the dolls.
Amidst the artisan pastries, filtered coffees and vintage clothing spots, there is an unnerving sense of permanence about the ageless, unblinking porcelain model children. Voyeurs of everything that has gone on in this market, seen and unseen, since its initial opening in 1897, they sit or stand with disarming patience. Whereas consumables must obviously be consumed and, albeit less urgently, clothing fashions of the day change, these dolls remain largely as they were a century or so ago – relics of a bygone age.
There is something quintessentially Argentinian about this too, for they are inherently a nostalgic people. Rather topically, as June approaches, one only needs to look at Diego Maradona for a prime example of this. An embodiment of a sentimentalised footballing yesterday, Maradona was once a demigod that represented every man, woman and child in Argentina. They cried his tears in defeat, they felt his blood pump through their veins in glorious victory, and they were there to lift the World Cup with him in 1986. As through Diego, the ornately besuited or gown-wearing dolls provide access to a gilded past that cannot quite be let go of.
This is to be flippant of course, as many of the dolls on display in the foreground in this particular shot are now plastic and have been updated accordingly to cater for children born in the social media age. One of the girl dolls has the exotic allure of pink hair, for example. Meanwhile numbers of the more venerable dolls continue to diminish, as when they are gone they are gone. Either that or, if deemed of sufficient vintage, the dolls are promoted to the bright lights of the museums. In fact, I had not even been living in Buenos Aires for 24 hours when I visited the Castellano Fotheringham sisters’ donated collection of rare antique dolls dating back to the 1870s, housed at Casa Fernandez Blanco, as part of the city’s museum weekend lates initiative.
As previously alluded to, by modern European standards Argentina is by no means a politically correct country. Take as an example the pair of dolls stood in the window, hair and skin uniformly black as coal and without any visible features, seen by all but purchased by nobody. Analogous of Argentinian society, there is more a clumsiness than sense of malice about the occasional insensitive misrepresentation of people from different backgrounds in these parts.
Moreover, when the Argentinians try to address this truism they invariably get it horribly wrong too. Just three or so years ago in December 2014, the sale of a trans-gender doll in the nearby Buenos Aires district of Once caused quite the stir, as reported in local news outlet The Bubble. Dressed in a skirt, with feminine features and to all intents and purposes a girl doll, a quick lift of the skirt revealed that not all was quite what it seemed. Doubtless leaving many children here deeply confused, and probably a bit traumatised, it perhaps wasn’t the Christmas present that parents had in mind when hitting the shops that festive season.
Back to the indoor market then, and accessible via entrances across no less than four different San Telmo streets, this gem is absolutely worth a visit when in Buenos Aires. Grab a cafetière coffee, wander around, nibble on a choripán from the comfort of a breakfast bar stool, wander around a bit more, sift through a disorganised mix of old football jerseys/second-hand summer dresses/inexplicably loud dungarees all on the same railing. Yes, you can really lose yourself in the gloriously preserved Mercado de San Telmo – and why not, nobody’s watching. Well, almost nobody.