Grape expectations

Mendoza is world renowned for its vineyards

A last-minute trip to Mendoza was one final treat to myself before starting the new job on the following Friday. Having spontaneously decided on Saturday evening to book the flights, I jetted off from nearby domestic airport Jorge Newbury Aeroparque 24 hours later.

Situated to the east of the Andes and western border with Chile, Greater Mendoza is the largest producing wine region in Latin America. Noted also for olive oil production, this part of the world is most distinguished by its grapes which constitute renowned Argentine wine Malbec. Very much the purpose of my visit, I booked in a bicycle tour around the bodegas (vineyards) upon my arrival at the hostel on the Sunday night.

The next morning at the hostel I indulged in Argentinian breakfast staple dulce de leche on sweet bread (routinely cited by Argentinian expats around the world as the thing they miss the most about home). After this and a leisurely amble through the impressive Parque San Martin General, large enough to boast two different football stadiums, I went to the meeting point for the walking tour.

Truly a product of Andean aridness, our dry host entertainingly signposted the history of the city in two or three hours, bemoaning an apparent tradition of national incompetence along the way. Notwithstanding that, the simplistic yet ingenious grid layout of the city is worth a quick note. Revolving around central point Plaza Independencia, all block roadsigns reference their location relative to the plaza (i.e. ‘2 Norte’ means you are two blocks north of ’Independencia). Providing further clarity on this idiot-proofing urban design concept, Marcelo made the helpful comment, ‘And if you are really lost, just look for the Andes – they are always to the west, they never move’.

The most interesting insight for me though was the conquistadores-biased statue in Plaza España. As can be seen, the statue depicts the woman symbolising Argentina (with the grapes in her left hand) turning in deference to lady Spain, by whom her right hand is pinned down. The Spanish symbol meanwhile does not engage eye contact and clutches a book in her right hand, emphasising the need to educate and civilise the natives. If this metaphor is not clear enough, deliberately above the downtrodden farmer from Mendoza ploughing the land for his new masters, there is an Armada ship heading from the direction of Spain to Argentina. So displeased were some of the locals by this depiction and accompanying storyboard of the conquest that various graffiti defaces this otherwise culturally rich monument.

Tuesday was all about the vineyard tour, and it was great fun to cycle from bodega to bodega in the sunshine, a little wobblier as the day progressed. Each winery sold us its own version of a family heritage, significance of the grape and tour of the brewery and its equipment. With all due respect however the best part every time was the tasting. The various wines seemed to improve as the day wore on as well, funnily enough.

This was sandwiched between nights out until the little hours sampling the local reds with some Australian and Dutch backpackers I had met on the walking tour. The second of these sessions culminated in my first ever missed flight in fact. As penance for this and a warning to my future self, instead of a later flight I opted for a 20-hour bus journey home to Buenos Aires. Indeed, you can take the boy out of Mendoza – very slowly and painfully in this case – but you can’t take Mendoza out of the boy.

Partying like porteños

Football and pizza are just two of the many inherited Italian obsessions on show in Buenos Aires

‘Porteño’ is a general Spanish word for a person from a port city. That said, it was adopted by the locals here a long time ago. Such is the universal acceptance of this that my Spanish-English dictionary reads, ‘Person from Buenos Aires’ under porteño, for example.

Around the late nineteenth century, places dotting the Río de la Plata region were very literally the first port of call for predominantly Italian and Spanish immigrants. Unlike more traditionally preserved inland Argentina (known here as ‘the interior’), in Buenos Aires there was a second invasion of European language and culture. On this occasion though the Spaniards left less of a mark than the influx of Italians. The porteño was born.

Tango is widely touted to be a consequence of this hybrid of cultures, with other legacies from the Italians including sartorial elegance and pizza. Borne of a fiery passion within, porteños are often referred to as Italians who speak Spanish. Something closely resembling Spanish anyway. Indeed I have despairingly realised that porteños use a lot of slang, indecipherable to an outsider trying to learn the lingo.

I was reminded of this when I confidently ordered a bag of strawberries from the greengrocer, to celebrate completing my Spanish course on Friday afternoon. Not fresas apparently, but frutillas (with an Italian ‘zhuh’ as always, rather than Spanish ‘yuh’ for the double L’s incidentally). The older gentleman – who had helpfully corrected my textbook Spanish with porteño slang – smiled sympathetically as he washed and bagged my frutillas in silence, having already reminded me that I still have a lot to learn.

Recovering quickly enough from that mild knockback, I went with the other students for lunch in Palermo hotspot Plaza Serrano before we all went our ways for a tactical siesta. A few hours later we regrouped for one of the course coordinators’ birthday night out at 11pm. I was told to head for La Calle, a pizzeria with a secret.

From the street it looked inconspicuous, with punters forming an orderly queue to either take the contents of the pizza boxes home or eat them at one of the two tables inside. There was an amazing collection of football shirts, scarves and photographs draping the walls, but such things are commonplace in these parts. Assuming I had gone to the wrong place, I then saw someone enter through a part of the white wall covered with football paraphernalia that I hadn’t even realised was a door. Like stepping into Wonderland, I followed suit to find an ambiently-lit hidden bar and dancefloor populated by dozens of porteños easing their way into a long night. Ah yes, this was definitely the place.

Grateful for the siesta from earlier, the group of us held strong as we filtered out alongside the energised porteños three hours later towards a nearby nightclub. Admission price included a fernet and coke for the patiently queueing gentlemen, whilst the Marias various were able to drift in freely and free. Yet another export from Italy that has withstood the test of time, fernet is Argentina’s favourite spirit. Bitter in taste and requiring real effort to despatch at first, many an expat has fallen at this hurdle for local acceptance.

A few hours of compulsive dancing passed, rhythmically, before 6am felt like a sensible time to call it a day/night/morning. Blinded by the breaking sunshine, I stumbled home from the two-thirds full club drunk on fernet and sleep deprivation. Luckily the walk was short, with the road to porteñoness now a little shorter too.

(*As a footnote, like many proper nouns which we would be scandalised not to capitalise in English, ‘porteño’ is completely lower case. Capital letters are used sparingly in Argentinian Spanish. This is akin perhaps to the period of time from early Friday evening to late Saturday morning, where the rest of the world will usually, at some point, SLEEP.)

Home from home

Living with two furry flatmates in trendy Palermo Hollywood

Last week presented the first real opportunity for homesickness to creep in – my birthday. No matter though, such is my feeling of residence here already. That’s now a government-approved feeling too, after my certificate of precarious residence was issued on the doorstep by a policeman. Incidentally the procedure involved me answering the door of the address I had supplied, with a form of ID, and that was apparently sufficient. Naturally I marked this somewhat strange occasion with a birthday Quilmes on the balcony, overlooking the trendy Palermo bars below.

A very understated birthday this year, the morning entailed the exchange of a few calls/texts/emails after a lazy start to the day. Communications were by no means confined to Blighty however, as new Argentinian friends and my boss got in touch, whilst my new work colleagues added me to the team WhatsApp group – the ultimate acceptance – and many a ‘Feliz Cumpleaños!’ was wished.

As well as the easy temperament of the porteños, another reason I feel so settled in my new life here is because of where I am staying. I chose an Airbnb apartment in Palermo for my first week in Argentina as it looked quaint yet homely, with easygoing cats a feature too. A few extensions later, by the time I move into the Recoleta apartment (to house-sit for three months) I will have been here for a month.

A city of animal lovers, the roads and green spaces of Buenos Aires are patrolled by professional dog-walkers. Complicated road crossings can be all the more so if you get wrapped in one of ten or so clustered leashes, as I discovered in Colegiales last week. However large the pack, each dog is always immaculately turned out. Carefully selecting a suitable walker is not a job taken lightly by doting owners either, as there is an array of professionals with different selling points to choose from.

Meanwhile the domesticated felines of the population live a pretty nice life too. Lounging in the sun and picking at nibbles throughout the day like a Mediterranean retiree, there’s a lot to be said for being a cat in Buenos Aires. Unlike many mercenary cats elsewhere, the male cats (gatos; not to be confused with gatas) in this apartment come as a pair. They eat together, mirror each other’s pussyfooting, and often just settle and take stock in shared reflection from a joint spot in the flat, wherever it may be.

Although it was enticing, I was keen not to drift into their vacuum of luxurious nothingness over the public holiday weekend. Instead, I met up with a new Irish expat friend at his local in San Telmo on the Saturday, before going on a date with an Ecuadoriana on the Sunday. Although I’m not sure how much the would-be Maria enjoyed it, she demonstrated great patience as I trawled through my limited Spanish repertoire for five or so hours to keep her company.

Waiting to meet a friend who is in town from London with work, I peer out at the grey clouds and watch the rain descend, sat with the equally nonplussed pusses. After more than two weeks of sustained glorious sunshine, right on cue the downpour comes without relent on the bank holiday. Outdoor plans forcibly shelved, seemingly the only logical solution for the locals is to seek refuge in nearby watering holes and wait for further instruction from above. A home from home, perhaps Argentina isn’t so different from England after all.

Sí (what you can do)

Saying yes to everything is the key to making the most of Buenos Aires

Having hit an administrative snag in the process of starting my new job, I find myself with some unexpected time on my hands. Ample opportunity to put my spreadsheet handiwork from when I was in London to good use then. Sourced from the Facebook Buenos Aires expat group, Inter Nations (an expat website) and friends of friends, I created the spreadsheet to arm me with an arsenal of contacts for when I arrived. Since then, I have simply been getting in touch with lots of people and saying ‘Sí’ to everything – its effect enlightening. Things I have learnt so far include:

– Learning a new language is mentally exhausting. I was recommended a local Spanish teacher through an online forum, and happily it turns out that she is brilliant. Last week therefore was built around three hours of one-to-one Spanish lessons with her each day. Still trying to master the past tense (Indefinido v. Imperfecto) among other aspects, I was so worn out that I had to nap after my final ninety-minute session on Friday afternoon.

Three or four days into my residency in Palermo, I had taken the plunge and requested of my landlady that we only converse in her language. Combined with the fact that around 25% of the texts I send are in Spanish now, this approximates learning by immersion I suppose. Fingers crossed it pays off in due course.

Puto can be a term of endearment too. Although considered to be the worst insult in Argentina, the meaning of the masculine variant of puta is determined by its delivery.

When asked at short notice by my new boss to play in the work football mini-league I jumped at the chance. Scoring a couple, I seemed to make a good impression during a game punctuated by the P-word. My reward at the end? A big smile, embrace and genuine warmth from one of the best players on the pitch: ‘You did a good game puto, we want you to play for us every week!’ Suffice to say, I won’t be attempting the word in either context quite yet.

– Supermarkets are expensive here. This naturally follows, as consumer prices have risen more than 15% in the first eight months of this year alone and are forecast to end the year easily in excess of 20% (versus 40% for 2016).

As we enter barbeque season, my solution to this problem has been to network for rooftop asados. The bigger the group, the greater the economies of scale from our pooled resources. One sitting easily provides enough sustenance for the day in this heat, although having water to hand throughout is advisable. Highlights from these asados include a first dalliance with a prospective Maria, and a possible opening as a house-sitter in Recoleta for three months.

– When in Argentina, attend the polo. Rather than an asado or over-priced staple from nearby supermarket Día, Saturday night was a French cuisine dinner party. An eclectic mix of locals and expats included a flamboyant French-Argentine gentleman and his wife who clearly ran to Argentinian time, arriving as the desserts came out. Nonetheless they were great value, and on hearing that I was English both insisted that I attend the Palermo Polo Club for tomorrow’s tournament.

Mixing it with high society, the three of us watched as Argentina’s elite players (many of whom were playing at the maximum handicap of 10 goals) and guest millionaire patrons jostled for supremacy on the finest bred equines. Refereed by two men on horseback clad in lollipop lady yellow, some of the play on display was incredible. Literally end-to-end, as the unguarded target posts alternate after each goal, the games were a fantastic spectacle of freneticism.

In polo those that can most quickly and positively change direction in pursuit of the best play thrive. A metaphor for what I am trying to achieve in Argentina, often the fine line between success and failure simply hinges on one word.

River-Boca glory

Superclasico at El Monumental, November 5th 2017

Having received the very generous offer from my boss to attend an asado (a traditional Argentinian barbeque) at his house, this seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so it proved. Made to feel very welcome throughout, my poor Spanish was happily overlooked as we all chatted away in English between mouthfuls of sizzling meats and sips of locally produced red wine on the sun-drenched patio.

A football fanatic, one of my chief objectives of relocating to Buenos Aires – aside from sifting through the ubiquity of Marias to find the Maria, of course – was to go to a Super Clásico. City derbies don’t come any more intense than the rivalry between River Plate and Boca Juniors. Imagine my delight, then, when my boss produced a ticket for me at his asado. Although very English and politely measured in my gratitude to him on the surface, inside I was a riot of emotions.

Shortly afterwards we walked to the famous El Monumental, where Argentina were crowned World Cup champions in 1978. Inside the stadium the atmosphere reached fever pitch as red and white streamers draped the singing/bouncing/wildly gesticulating River fans and fireworks deafened us from overhead. All that said, somehow something was missing from the scene. Where were the Boca fans?

This all relates back to June 2013 in fact, and the top-flight encounter between Estudiantes and Lanus. Following sustained violence around the stadium in La Plata which culminated in the death of a visiting supporter, the match was abandoned at half-time. By no means a rare example of domestic football violence, for Argentina’s national football body this was the last straw. In drastic response, the AFA ruled that no supporters of any professional division football club could attend away games. Now ingrained into football here after more than four years, this new norm is accepted and its explanation reserved only for foreigners these days. That’s the impression I got anyway from the bemusement of my neighbour one along in the rickety wooden seats when I asked.

A game that had sparks of brilliance but cynicism throughout had both these parts on perfect display just prior to half-time when league leaders Boca edged ahead. A horrendously misjudged high tackle closer to a decapitation led to Fernandéz meeting his fate in red card form, before Cardona beautifully floated the ball into the top right corner from the resulting free kick. The hosts did not relent after the break however and got their reward through club legend Ponzio’s wonderstrike, after goalscorer Cardona had not long since received his marching orders for an inopportune elblow.

Heading into the final quarter of the game, all the momentum was with River and there was clearly going to be a winner. Duly as expected, the winner came – but in blue and yellow. Just five minutes after Ponzio had restored disorder in the stands, Boca’s Nández drilled in low and hard after a cross from the left, before wheeling away to the sound of silence. Twenty minutes and much game management later, Boca had extended their winning streak to eight matches. My taxi driver from Friday needn’t have worried after all.

Trudging home from the stadium in Núñez in reflective quietness, River fans now had to deal with the reality that they would have no more say in whether bitter rivals Boca win the Superliga or not (each of the 28 teams in the league plays each other only once per season, with home and away games alternating accordingly). Baptised by fire to River, the process irreversible whilst living in Argentina of course, this reality was also now my problem.

I had started the day off as a fan in the temporary form of Spanish verb ‘to be’ (Estar) purely out of courtesy for my boss’ beloved club. Yet in this shared moment of gloomy despair in the Sunday dusk I had decidedly graduated to its permanent counterpart form (Ser) and there was no going back. Soy River, estoy trudging…

EZE on the optimism

Maria is ubiquitous in Argentina, one way or another

The Argentinians are a pessimistic bunch, that’s one thing that become very clear to me upon touching down at Ezeiza Airport on Friday night. Never has there been such a collective sigh-come-rapturous-applause greet the culmination of a smooth flight until then. Then during taxi, to celebrate the man who had inexplicably landed the plane, the gushings of an air hostess over the intercom firstly in Spanish and then English: ‘I think we all owe a MASSIVE thank you to our pilot for landing us in Buenos Aires safe from Madrid tonight!’ And then back on the carousel of relieved outpourings of emotion we went.

Meanwhile I need not have worried about travelling through on a single ticket after all, as I sauntered through customs with free abandon. A loop of weary smile/‘Estoy muy cansado’ seemed to somehow successfully answer every question I was asked in Spanish. LHR > MAD > EZE all in a day’s work – I had arrived!

Resisting the first opportunity to trade my US Dollars for Argentine monopoly money – Pesos are regarded as a ‘closed currency’ outside of Argentina’s borders due to its volatility – I located my ride. We respectfully spent the three-minute walk to the taxi sussing out our immediate travel companion’s competency in his unchosen tongue. After little prods of pleasantries, it was tacitly agreed that I had won/lost: the next 45 minutes or so were going to be in broken Spanish. Claro.

After a slow start using proper words, in our mutual language of football and exaggerated hand signals we bonded over the upcoming River-Boca Super Clásico. His eyes came alive with an expertise in restrained passion, a tango dance almost. Not long afterwards it was concluded that his Boca should extend their winning streak to 8 games, but they probably wouldn’t. Another sprinkling of pessimism.

What is the cure for this national affliction? Well, religion of course. This was made abundantly clear by the Virgin Mary that immediately greeted me as I entered my Airbnb apartment in Palermo Hollywood. Devoted her own mini-chapel space carved into the wall, arranged so that the requisite amount of holy light could be spectacularly projected on to her, the flat’s design had obviously been built around Maria.

Probably not without coincidence, this truism manifests itself in the naming of girls here in Argentina too. Clearly, to have a Maria is to have hope – or rather, cause for less pessimism.

Yes, in this religious country you don’t have to look far for a Mercedes, Mariela, Mariana or similar enough that all seem to go by our same eponymous heroine. A myriad of Marias perhaps? Quite apt. A ubiquity of Marias? Better still.

Where Europe meets LatAm with unapologetically Argentinian sass, there is a multisensory charm yet chaos that endears Buenos Aires. For the single extranjero the place can be a playground of porteñas. Indeed Maria is everywhere and yet, for now at least, nowhere.