Monday, 30 March 2009

San Telmo Sundays

An eerie silence blankets Avenida de Mayo on a Sunday morning. Gone are the restless protestors and screeching buses, replaced by just a handful of perplexed tourists and falling autumn leaves. The city sleeps, or so it seems.

A few blocks away, vans trundle down cobbled streets and traders start unpacking. Within minutes throngs of tourists flood Plaza Dorrego, and the Ferria de Antigüedades San Telmo can begin.

Even after a dozen weeks, it seems impossible to tire of a Sunday afternoon in San Telmo. Without a permanent home to decorate, the gramophones and silver cutlery stands invite a desire for domesticity which the backpack fails to satisfy. Others hark back to the elegance of Evita, with graceful jewels nestled between fur coats and silk gloves. With the purse-strings tightly pinched, however, watching waiters rush around the ageing corner café is enough to transplant one decades.

Back on Defensa, modernity blends with it’s past as a troupe of twenty-somethings wheel a piano past tango dancers and begin to play. Other street performers abandon their static poses to chat for a while; the white-painted man and his multicoloured co-worker seem inseparable. And although supermarkets close their doors on the day of rest, there will always be baskets of piping hot empanadas and fresh orange juice to cure the effects of a Saturday night in Buenos Aires.

And so for just one afternoon a week, the broken pavements and pollution of San Telmo are forgotten, replaced by affection for a neighbourhood that has become home. But familiarity inevitably invites surprises, and I abandoned expectation the day a llama took a stroll down Defensa on a Sunday afternoon.

Friday, 20 March 2009

¿En serio?

¿En serio? I asked, as a friend explained how a moment of mistranslation had led to her unassuming self being invited to an orgy. It appears that smiling and nodding along whilst trying to understand does not always succeed. Sí, en serio.

It is inevitable that crawling through an adult world with the linguistic ability of a toddler will lead to some interesting situations. But somehow as the study hours add up, and linguistic confusion diminishes, the ¿en serio? moments still plague daily conversation.

It seems that whilst one can adapt to cultural differences with time, there are elements of Buenos Aires which remain beyond my reach of logic. Under the burden of such peculiarities, I am amazed the city functions at all. Here are the top five (explanations welcome).

¿En serio? the city is littered with shops proclaiming they are ‘Open 25 Hours’.

Now I can appreciate that China and Ethiopia maintain vastly different calendars to each other and the rest of the world, but I was sure that nations were in general agreement that one day held 24 hours. Not only is this supported by the solar system, but a very thrilling television programme has succeeded largely on the premise that one man can save the world in exactly this time period.

¿En serio? milk and yoghurt are sold in plastic bags.

Another clear sign that the science ship sank before reaching the shores of Buenos Aires. Once opened, a plastic bag containing a liquid will spill. Unless of course you follow local advice and buy a plastic carton to put said bag in, thus turning the bag into a milk or yoghurt carton. Coming from a nation where the milkman still reigns, I must insist on the superiority of purchasing milk in a solid container.

¿En serio? you can book flights online with the national airline, but not pay for them online.

Aerolineas Argentinas offer a hassle-free booking process online. Your confirmation e-mail will inform you that you still have to pay for your flights, but provide no details as to how to do this. On phoning the airline’s office, you will be told that all lines are busy, before the line goes dead. On visiting the office, you will be given a number and join the queue behind dozens of other potential passengers. Your flight will be confirmed by a smiling assistant, who will give you an invoice, but you cannot pay her for your flight. You will now have to join the queue for the cashier. On trying to use your Visa or Maestro debit card, you will be instructed to go to the bank and return with a wadge of notes. You will not receive a hard copy of your ticket, it is an e-ticket, after all.

¿En serio? you cannot buy Boca tickets until the day of the game.

This leads to a queue of a few hundred rowdy and hungover football fans congregating around the stadium on a Sunday morning. Having reaching the front of the sun-blazed queue, you will be informed that men and women have to buy their tickets from separate places, and at different prices. If you arrive as two women buying tickets for men and women, you will be sent to the men’s booth and charged the same price for all. Such a frustrating system may or may not be the cause of subsequent rioting, which last weekend resulting in an elderly woman being shot.

¿En serio? there is a national coin shortage.

‘Welcome to Argentina’ was the response I received when originally questioning this bizarre phenomenon. Shop windows fiercely proclaim that they do not have change, nor will accept notes for small purchases. The supermarket asks if you would like to ‘donate’ your change to (an imaginary?) charity rather than have the cashier part with the precious metal. The black market consists not of stolen cameras and crack cocaine, but coins. To be able to get the coin-only buses you must become a compulsive liar in all of the above situations. To hand over your change may lead to an incomparable display of gratitude, but you will be walking home alone.

¿En serio? Sí.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Painted Protests

They love a good protest, the Argentines. So much so that one has even become a tourist attraction.

For decades now the Madres de Plaza de Mayo have gathered in Buenos Aires to demand justice for their children, lost in the Dirty War. And now dozens of camera-wielding tourists join them, snapping away at one of the few remaining symbols of a far away ferocity. But this is not a Remembrance Day for friends fallen in battle, but a mark for 30 000, whose tortured bodies lie in watery graves on the banks of Buenos Aires. This remains a protest in the present, where each new government brings hope that Justice is waiting in the courtroom.

But politicians’ failures keep the Madres marching, accompanied by the drum beat of other city protests. This week’s grievances include a drought-ridden export tax for farmers, and the Saturday market in Plaza Serrano. Next week may bring new banners, but one thing remains unchanged; Argentines are acutely aware that fragile democracy can and will collapse under silence.

Despite this, it cannot be denied that the children of this 25 year democracy are largely absent from public demonstrations. However, far from being evidence of indifference, they are in fact busy elsewhere, painting silent protests across the capital.

Buenos Aires has been adopted as the studio for artistic resistance, where layers of spray-paint have transformed concrete canvases into politically-fuelled masterpieces. Simple stencils will teach you more about the harrowing state of prostitution than the daily newspapers, whilst nearby a wave from Fidel Castro promotes communism in the wake of a capitalist crisis. But these are not merely images for the intellectual to admire; the painted protests have and will continue to provoke reaction and change.

In 2001 Pocho Lepratti was shot dead by police in Rosario, as he attempted to stop them shooting at a school. In response to the subsequent police cover-up, street artists across Argentina scrawled ‘Pocho Vive!’, and painted Lepratti’s now-motionless bicycle resting against empty walls. In 2004, the gun-wielding policeman was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison.

If it were not for this unstoppable collective voice, it would be easy to forget about Argentina, seated at the end of the earth. But the sound of drums and the spraying of paint will carry their voice over the oceans. And we will remember the murals of the Middle East and the demands for ‘Nunca mas en Iraq’, and know that they have not forgotten about us either.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Cultura para Respirar

A rapturous applause and a standing ovation greets the close of a summer festival. This is no Glastonbury or Last Night of the Proms; there are no tuxedos or wellies and certainly no hefty entry prices. Just a few metres away fumes and heat collide; here porteños sip mate with a knowing smile. For rather than join the annual exodus from the capital, they have stayed to enjoy seven weeks of free events, culminating in tonight’s Grand Moment.

For nearly two months my trusty guidebook has gathered dust, replaced by the Cultura para Respirar programme. Following millongas and music around the city has created a new walking tour, one which traces quiet streets through plazas and parks. And amongst the trees a stage would emerge, or a huge screen, or a tightrope waiting to be walked.

Fridays would bring tango to the city’s plazas, where professional performances were overshadowed by the effortless style of the ageing Argentines. Week on week the festival crowds grew, and the well prepared arrived with fold out chairs and rugs. But even for the unprepared, lying on the warm tarmac by the Rosedal is not a bad place to watch a film. And for those lacking a picnic, the ‘Ceeeeeerveza-gaseosas-agua!’ man would always be on hand with a refreshment or two, followed by baskets of warm empanadas weaving through the crowds.

Linguistic differences fell away beneath whistles and claps and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ - It seems that language is an unnecessary accompaniment to a circus troupe flipping their way down a traffic-less Avenida de Mayo. And squinting down the Avenue in amazement, I could just make out the knowing smile of those who stayed for the summer.