Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Slow Gluttony

Red Wine. Steak. Dulce de Leche. All signs of unforgivable gluttony, and all staples on the classic Argentine menu.

Yet the narrow pavements of Buenos Aires are not heaving under the weight of podgy porteños. In two months living in Buenos Aires, I have not once been confronted with the shocking sight of obesity, one which appeared in abundance within two hours of transiting in New York.

The conclusion can thus be drawn that the ‘typical’ Argentine diet is merely a stereotype; I certainly do not eat a fry-up for breakfast, fish & chips for lunch and a few pints of lager for dinner. Statistically, however, your average Argentine consumes 70kg of beef annually, generously seasoned with a hail-storm of salt. Furthermore, the bakeries of Buenos Aires are unrivalled not in terms of wholemeal breads, but the variety of sweet treats that would make even Bruce Bogtrotter gasp.

The admirable porteño physique does not therefore come down to a careful observation of the ‘five-a-day’ rule, but an attitude towards food which seems wholly lacking in North America. Fast-food simply does not exist here. McDonald’s has of course made its commercial mark, yet has transformed its North American neighbour into the ‘McCafe’. Customers do not grab a burger and go; they recline with their papas fritas and enjoy the air-conditioned atmosphere.

In contrast, my first Starbucks sighting occurred just last week. Occasionally someone can be seen rushing down the street with a cup of coffee and a croissant; it will be a waiter delivering a shopkeeper’s lunch on a silver tray.

The Slow Food movement may have been founded in Italy, but it is here in Argentina that it has been perfected. Dinner cannot possibly begin before 10pm, but rather than a quick ready-meal before bedtime, extends into the early hours with friends and family. The menu may not be Atkins-aware, but shows an appreciation for the excellence of local produce, which in the Northern Hemisphere has been replaced by polystyrene cups and high blood pressure. An apple a day may go a long way, but a steak knife and a slowly poured glass of Malbec will go that bit further.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Just don’t mention the war. Being British in Buenos Aires.

In 2003 it was near impossible to travel without a stamp of shame in my passport; Britain had gone to war, and the world was outraged.

A similar sense of anxiety accompanied my journey to Argentina. Not only had we gone to war with the eighth largest country in the world, but as a result we had taken something which was (and still should be) theirs. Within my first week of arriving there was a front page reminder of the war, marking the 176th anniversary of the British “illegal occupation” of the Islas Malvinas. I held my breath and swiftly eradicated the term ‘Falklands Islands’ from my mind.

However, not only did I receive an unprejudiced welcome from porteños throughout Buenos Aires, but I began to see a city bursting with Britishness. Unsurprisingly a British pub has a firm place on the backpacker map, but the phenomenon goes far beyond the pints at Gibraltar (an ironic reference to another stolen territory?).

Within a block it is possible to stroll past a piece of Banksy graffiti, drop your letters in the circular red post box, and pop into the bright red telephone box. After which you may head to the theatre for a J. B. Priestly play, to The British Arts Centre for some Faulty Towers reruns, or maybe just for a drink in Soho.

Despite this overwhelming influx of British culture, the truly patriotic porteños have at least one site of resistance. The Plaza Británica, and its resident Toree de los Ingleses, were swiftly renamed Plaza Fuerza Aérea Argentina and Torre Monumental in the post-war era. I admire this statement, and if the power was bestowed upon me, would permanently replace the British name of those distant islands.

However, there is a more subtle work of resistance that I cannot support; Cadbury’s dairy milk fills the supermarket shelves, but it simply tastes horrible. Sabotage!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Patience is a(n Argentinean) Virtue

The phrase 'pop to the shops' does not exist in Argentina. This is not for lack of vocabulary, but simply due to the impossibility of such an event ever occurring.

I have attempted this simple act, strolling around the corner to pick up a bag of milk (another story, in itself), and somehow failed. I successfully made it to the supermarket, the dairy fridge, the milk, only to be faced with a staggeringly long queue.

Now I can appreciate a good queue as well as the next English person, but it must be said that the population of Argentina has taken the polite custom to an unparalleled extreme. Queues are formed at every opportunity; long before a bus arrives at a stop, running outside shops and banks, some include dozens of people and appear to lead nowhere. I have contemplated this phenomenon whilst waiting for everything and anything, and have reached just one conclusion in this recession-driven world.

Argentina is of course no stranger to financial struggles; within the last decade its citizens have borne the brunt of a collapsed economy, leaving a debt of around US$150 billion (and a very informative ‘Museo de la Deuda Externa’ to boot). Whilst the world was lavishly spending, Argentina was in the mindset of necessity; the supermarket may only be half staffed, but a longer queue is the least of one’s worries after scraping together pesos for bread. The nation’s patience was tested, and passed with flying colours – so much so that whilst the economy recovered, the queues remained.

Meanwhile, on a small island thousands of miles away, people indulged in express checkouts whilst their economy collapsed around them.

Perhaps on returning to the UK I will once again be greeted by the queues of a nation in recovery, where jobs cuts and rising prices have quietened the huffs and puffs which now characterises a Briton in waiting. And taught by the best, I will wait with the patience of an Argentine.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Cementerio de la Chacarita

The ritual of burial has never really appealed to me, as the thought of my body slowly rotting beneath the ground upon which I once trod seems somewhat undignified. This opinion was however altered on my first visit to ‘Cementerio de la Recoleta’, where throngs of tourists walk in awe amongst the marble mausoleums. Although by no means a frequenter of graveyards, the grandeur of Recoleta intrigued me into a visit to the common folk equivalent.

A short stroll past the streetside florists, between the peach pillars of the entrance, and I have been severely misled. ‘Cementerio de la Chacarita’ was founded hastily after the yellow fever epidemic, thus bringing to mind little more than row upon row of weary gravestones. What is not to be expected is Recoleta once again, with the addition of broad, tree-lined streets and the absence of camera-wielding gringos. With some structures reaching the size of houses, the first section of Chacarita resembles an abandoned city more than a poor-man’s graveyard.

Having meandered through the empty streets, I was soon confronted by what seemed to be a vast expanse of concrete nothingness. A second glance revealed large holes in this concrete floor, and an underground labyrinth of resting porteños. Walking amongst this Soviet-style maze is perplexing, and a little unnerving when you realise the stairs seem to have disappeared. On finally reaching the surface, I came across the third and final section of Characita, and a sea of wooden crosses.

Coming from the chaos of the city, the tranquillity of this space is overwhelming. The care which seems lacking on the streets of Buenos Aires is found here, where even the oldest graves are adorned with fresh flowers. With a brush of white paint indicating nothing more than a name and a date, here rest those who are truly wealthy. For whilst the mausoleums of the rich & famous are hounded by a relentless stream of tourists and the din of traffic, the masses have found their ultimate respite.