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.

Macri-economics

Macri facing an uphill struggle to reverse Argentina's economic fortunes

A snapshot of Buenos Aires life right now, the ubiquitous Mauricio Macri was spotted in billboard form on Saturday evening in Recoleta. With the flag fluttering behind him, atop one of the capital’s many splendid art museums, a beleaguered President was being urged to keep his word on yet another issue by yet another of his growing number of detractors. If he looks fed up now, well he might, as the relative calm before the storm has long since passed.

Upon coming to power in 2015, the former Boca Juniors chairman was clear about the economic challenges ahead and how he would face them. A perennial problem, Argentina was broke. Macri therefore set about curbing state spending and attracting foreign investment through the issuance of short-term bonds.

In a bid to stem the frankly ridiculous flow of inflation in the years immediately preceding Macri’s tenure, these LEBAC bonds initially stimulated an influx of more stable currencies such as the Dollar being traded into the country for Pesos. Yet just over a week ago, interest rates here were upped to 40%. Many overseas investors have long since left Argentina in anticipation too, effectively quitting while they were ahead.

What does this all mean for the man in the street then? Yesterday I broke the rules – 1984-style – by taking a quick break from looking at or thinking about Macri, to go out and purchase a new iron. Heading to the intimidatingly large Carrefour, just around the corner from my office, I found what I was after and went to pay the AR$ 750. How shocked the woman at the till was when I asked to pay for it all in one go as well, rather than ten cuotas as is the norm.

Indeed, the current state of the economy is so shambolic that a common marketing ploy is for customers to pay for almost anything in instalments, or cuotas. The attraction of this system is that there is no interest or even price-relative-to-inflation payable (i.e. By the time the tenth and final payment of AR$ 75 has been paid for the iron, the AR$ 750 that you have paid is far less than the AR$ 750 you would have paid if you had paid the full amount 10 months ago). Not sufficiently au fait with the black magic of the Argentinian economic system however, I paid my £25 or so and was happily on my way.

When I arrived in November the exchange rate was AR$ 17.5 to the Dollar. This has since gone up by about 40% to over AR$ 24 in just 6 months. In my job we trade in both currencies, and the novelty still hasn’t worn off that we must revise the rate almost daily. Most of my colleagues seem unbothered about the whole thing though, accepting it as part of life in the same way that there are seven days in a week and twelve months in a year.

That said, as I discovered not long after starting my job, in Argentina there are apparently thirteen months in a year. Known as Aguinaldo, all workers are given a 50% additional bonus on top of their usual monthly pay every June and December – these two extra amounts hence being termed the ‘thirteenth month’.

Whether this is chicken or egg re: economic malaise, I’m not sure, but something for certain is that Macri’s proposal to scrap Aguinaldo has been one of his more unpopular reforms in the last 3 years. That remains up in the air for now though, as does a mid-year 10% pay-rise rumoured to be on its way at my work, to vaguely track inflation. In any normal course of events, everybody would be delighted with such a sizeable, unconditional increase in salary. This isn’t a normal course of events though, and so here they are almost disappointed that it won’t be more. How absurd the whole situation is. How Argentina.

The view from the top

Panamericano Buenos Aires, 9 de Julio

Last Thursday was a day of celebration. Not only did it mark 6 months to the day that I first touched down in Argentina, but it was also my young lady’s 24th birthday. Somewhere I had always wanted to go, since first spying the strikingly brutalist twin towers that impose themselves so decadently over Avenida 9 de Julio, was the 5-star Hotel Panamericano. Finally, with an excuse or two to hand, I booked us a staycation for the following night.

Something helpful about CABA (used in common local parlance to refer to Buenos Aires federal capital, rather than Buenos Aires province) is that the barrios within its clearly defined city limits are particularly well serviced by public transport. An example of this is the SUBTE metro system, where the respective 6 lines all remain within CABA from start to finish. This makes the place very workable therefore, and it was just as well as I had a spate of journeys to cram in before luxuriating in the Panamericano’s marble magnificence.

A few trips later – clothes/bags changed at home; room checked in; birthday girl collected after her exam in Recoleta – we were sipping G&Ts in the hotel’s in-house stylish Celtic Pub. Adjacent to the cigar room and billiards table, the bar oozed Gatsbyesque panache with its tasteful lighting and hum of smooth jazz.

Once we’d finally extricated ourselves from this rabbit-hole of relaxation, we crossed the world’s widest avenue in the lashing rain, passing the Obelisco en route to highly recommended pan-European restaurant Zum Edelweiss. Running to Argentinian time, it was just before midnight when we sat down among the alpine panelling and ornate stained glass for dinner and a bottle of the house Malbec.

Probably the best meal I have enjoyed here yet, this was rounded off with limoncellos as a parting gift from the waiter. Willingly defeated, we crossed back over 9 de Julio and retreated to our generous four-room seventh-floor chamber which was more like a penthouse apartment.

This theme of timeless European décor and classiness continued the next morning at breakfast. Situated in a grand old hall with high ceilings, pristine tablecloths and cutlery, there was an endless array of everything one might conceivably want at this time of day. The immaculately turned out hosts were attentive too, keeping the operation moving along seamlessly yet without the fuss of table service.

Saving the best until last, we had a quick costume change in the room afterwards and then headed up to Nivel 23. Situated on the twenty-third, and top floor is a health spa that boasts spectacular views of the city. Opting firstly for the sauna, I subsequently jumped into the swimming pool and dived under the hatch to its outdoor rooftop section for a most pleasant of light reliefs. Some hard-earned poolside dozing, obligatory photos and then repetition of the sequence proved an altogether dreamy Saturday morning-come-afternoon.

This clutch of hours, beginning on the Friday evening, were so enjoyable that they really concentrated the mind. Briefly tasting the high life, I didn’t want to give it back all so soon. Indeed, these kind of snapshots into what my life could look like, with enough hard work, always have a profoundly aspirational effect on me. If this is what ‘making it’ feels like, I am even more motivated to ‘make it’ than I already was.

The railway children

Ferro Carril is a typical Argentinian sports club and centrepoint of the community

Watching Ferro Carril Oeste play their final Primera B Nacional game of the season, against cross-town rivals Nueva Chicago, is how I spent Monday afternoon. Having told my workmate that I was keen to join him in the terraces at his local beloved Ferro one day, we quickly set the date for the first of the two consecutive public holidays this week.

Like many sides here, Ferro’s story is one steeped in history. Translating literally as ‘Railroad west,’ the club was founded in 1904 by a group of railway employees. Some thirty years later it cut ties with the railway company and was renamed to reflect this. In the meantime, it was in 1911 when the club had settled on its home colours. More than a century on, green remains synonymous with Ferro, as does the sense of community in the Buenos Aires barrio of Caballito which has the club at its epicentre.

Indeed, annexed to the right-hand side of the wonderfully-lidded main stand is a basketball court, for example. This is just one of many sporting facilities available at the club. Others include taekwondo and table tennis in the sports hall under this stand; swimming in the pool on site; and athletics on the track adjacent to the pitch. Oh yes, this is more than just a football club. We were reminded of this at half-time too when the club’s respective sports teams were paraded in full kit to warm applause.

With regards to the game itself, there was not much of note as Nueva Chicago edged it 1-0, ensuring their survival. Or at least I think that’s what happened, based on their ascension from 25th position (of 25 teams) to 23rd as a result – and the wild celebrations on the pitch at the end. One caveat I would add is that, for anyone familiar with the incongruous Argentinian promedios, you will know that a calculator is always needed for this kind of thing. Originally designed to protect the so-called ‘Big Five’ – of Boca, River, Independiente, San Lorenzo and Racing – this format decrees that average points haul over three seasons determines final standing. Ironically this worked against River Plate in 2011, when they were relegated.

An admittedly rawer experience than my occasional trips to El Monumental to watch the aforementioned domestic giants, the tone was set by the barbed wire and zoo-like cage securing the perimeter of our stand. This was just as well, as Nueva Chicago’s matchwinner Lucas Baldunciel was pelted with bottles, lighters etc as he celebrated his close-range strike immediately below us.

The real villains of the piece however are captured in the photo, both cutting isolated figures as play goes on elsewhere. Running the line on our left was ‘el gordito,’ the overweight linesman targeted by a frustrated crowd after a couple of inopportune waves of his flag. Subsequently it was manager Alejandro Orfila, a man forlornly watching from his technical area throughout, who bore the brunt of this frustration at the end. The biggest footballing insult in Argentina, vitriolic cries of ‘PECHO FRIO!!!’ (‘cold chest’ = without heart/guts), were directed at Orfila who had no answer as his side went out with a whimper, rounding off a disappointing season.

A quick Google Images search of the Ricardo Etcheverri stadium captures not just what a glorious old stadium this once was, but also its projected majesty for the future. Yet currently, due to league regulations stipulating that wooden stands are no longer fit for purpose, there is a noticeable absence of two of Ferro’s original four stands. As can be just about seen, the modernisation process is underway, although they have only got as far as building the concrete steps that lead to nowhere. The requisite money for a full revamp remains outstanding, and so there is no timeframe for its completion.

This uncertainty is altogether a bit unsatisfactory for an outsider looking in. My workmate, a longstanding socio (member) is unfazed about the whole thing though. For him, Ferro is a way of life. He is in good company too, with many of its socios the descendants of the club’s founding fathers from generations not so long ago past. If called upon they will doubtless step in to prevent Ferro from hitting the buffers, as the club explores all its possible avenues of investment first. Hardly full steam ahead then, but for now this train continues to roll along just fine.

Ready salted

Salt exhibition, Recoleta Cultural Centre

There is a special exhibition in the Recoleta Cultural Centre right now called Meteora, by Fabián Bercic. Although its purpose is to discuss memory and identity in the context of Buenos Aires, for me it is inextricably bound up with other metaphors that pinpoint where I currently am.

Not so long ago I was coasting in what felt like my boring, comfortable life in London. Hence the impetus for change. I was ready. Perhaps I swung too far from one side of the pendulum to the other on that front. Attempts to learn my relatively new job, and of course the language in which it is performed, remain ongoing. Meanwhile, from May I will be leading a marathon first-timers running group and then from June also writing a regular column for the local expat news website. An eighth day would be nice. I can’t complain though, these are my decisions, and ultimately if just one of them pays off then that will be a great success. For now, though – amidst this cluster of stumps – I can’t see the wood for the trees.

Glistening sodium chloride makes this winter wonderland scene so brilliant white meanwhile. It last snowed in the capital seven years ago, on Argentina’s Independence Day (9/7/2011). Let that sink in for a moment. Bearing that in mind, most children here have never seen, or certainly cannot remember having ever seen, the white stuff. There could be an exhibition within an exhibition in fact, capturing the disarming effect it has upon these little people as they totter through with a snowballing sense of curiosity. I can empathise with their confusion at not knowing how to encounter such a new experience however. Have a go at something new and be prepared to get it wrong, is my approach. Yet don’t try too many new things all on the same day is the necessary caveat. One failure may lead to another. There is a real danger of first self-inflicting painful damage through unnecessary risk therefore, and ultimately rubbing salt in the wounds.

Finally, the path is not a straight line. This is painfully clichéd but true. Moreover, it is comfortingly discomforting that from the start of the path in the exhibition you cannot see its end. How profoundly apt. One thing I will say is that I’m glad I forced myself along this route, wherever it may lead. Impatient; brave; stupid. That’s probably how I’d sum myself up in three words, in that order too. I must keep walking anyway.