Buenos Aires – Argentina
There was only one good thing to come of the pandemic and that was delaying my trip to Buenos Aires by two years and thus plenty of time to become fluent in Spanish. Yet despite spending over an hour a day on Duolingo and holding on to an Argentine girlfriend, my Spanish ability is little more than that of a toddler spitting out their first words of utter nonsense. Even so, within hours of landing I found myself sat in San Telmo in a lovely old cafe serving up rustic bread and cheese with a jug of beer for the table, happy to be far from home once again, and as mentally prepared as possible for the coming week which would finally see me introduced to friends and family. My love for Buenos Aires is completely weather dependent. My first visit was mid summer and I loved the place but on my return visit many years later at the beginning of winter it did nothing but rain which left my love a little frayed. However, after emptying the beer jug of its contents we stepped out onto the cobbled streets of San Telmo, drenched in autumn sunshine, and immediately stumbled across a couple dancing tango outside one of the cafes. It was most definitely great to be back in this world class – if not a little bizarre – city. The better half had planned a fantastic week that featured raving outdoors to bongo drums on steroids (the drums, not us), cruising around the beautiful Tigre Delta, afternoon tea, wine tasting (I can taste which regions differing Malbecs come from now!), eating incredible pizza from a tiny pizzeria owned by a woman who must have been serving pizza there for 150 years and served no standard sized slice of pizza and charged whatever she felt you deserved, and finally, negotiating the local buses that charge around the tiny city streets at warp speed and can only be stopped if you literally jump in front of them. The Knight Bus in Harry Potter is no myth. But for once on my travels, it was the locals I had to immerse myself with, in the hope that one day they may allow me to call Buenos Aires my second home.
Lunch with the mother-in-law kicked of the week’s social proceedings and went remarkably well considering we couldn’t communicate apart from my very limited Spanish which incredibly did get me through without being immediately blacklisted from the family. I was happy, but a later day in the week would test my resolve and it went a little as follows. I’m not the best with family gatherings or formal gatherings of any sort if I’m honest and struggle terribly for ‘banter’. Few people my age go to university, travel, enjoy dairy cows, and take interest in discussing the destruction of the planet, and so my interests don’t usually align with others. Unfortunately for me, the Argentines love nothing more than spending hours nibbling away at food, sipping on mate and discussing…. well I’m not sure what because I couldn’t understand everything, but certainly a lot was discussed. Nonetheless, the day began with lunch with one half of the family which of course was nothing less than delicious with beautifully cooked beef and fresh baked bread, a supporting cast of vegetables and salad, all washed down with a sociable glass of Malbec or two. This naturally led to dessert and coffee as I frantically tried to recall Spanish yet found my Spanish being translated by Rut into actual Spanish so that everyone could understand. As disappointing as this was for me, I took great heart in the effort everyone made to speak in English for me or at least speak in Spanish at a pace that gave me a sporting chance of understanding. It was for this very reason that I found it impossible not to feel welcome and it gave me the confidence to keep buggering on and to keep making an effort to understand the lingo.
Stuffed with lunch we jumped into a taxi and headed across town for merienda with the other half of the family. Merienda is a little like afternoon tea or an afternoon style brunch. Something to carry you over between lunch and dinner, taking into account they have dinner around 10pm in these parts. If it’s a good day – like this day apparently was – then lunch will seamlessly merge into merienda which will seamlessly merge into dinner. And so I found myself sat at a table and my plate heaped with food and at one point, a cup of mate, a class of beer and a glass of champagne all to contend with. Again, I couldn’t have been made to feel more welcome and I can say this confidently because no nationality is more open and honest than the Argentine. For this reason I don’t think they would have been offended if I left food on the plate but being English I believe the most polite thing to do in such circumstances is to leave a clean plate. This always goes down well in such situations yet runs the risk of being offered more food and finding the critical balance is always tricky. By now I was long past it and I hobbled out the door, my guts full, and my brain half fried through trying to concentrate on the native conversation, knowing that I had one more gathering to attend.
Flying across town in a taxi, content with the proceedings of the day, the nerves still wouldn’t completely F-off as I glimpsed at the great obelisk that dominates Avenida 9 de Julio for what felt like the millionth time that we crossed the great avenue that week. We had a table booked at a trendy bar where we would be meeting friends and my good lady had forgotten to tell me one key social interaction. I had spent the day trying to master meeting family with the correct formalities through either a fist bump, handshake or a kiss on the cheeks, but with the fear of Covid still circulating it was all a little confusing. Therefore imagine my complete confusion when at the bar, the first guy that arrived bounded confidently up to me and planted a kiss on my cheek; this continued both men and women alike until we were all sat comfortably with drinks. As someone who finds it terribly uncomfortable to kiss his own mother on the cheek, greeting strange ladies with a kiss is something I had mentally geared myself to get on with, but guys, no. Simply because I hadn’t been told that was the custom. Well apparently I had been told, six months before, in a conversation I wasn’t directly involved in but apparently should have been listening. Still, I vaguely worked it out on my own from the greetings to the goodbyes and by the end of the night I was kissing both men and women equally awkwardly on the cheek. How these people can treat you like they’ve known you forever is a skill far beyond my comprehension and so hopefully, during future visits, I can return the feeling without that canned up emotion that the English have perfected so well. Naturally, more food appeared which everyone took great delight in devouring, all except me who was struggling not to be sick at the sight of yet more food. Being a work-night for everyone else we headed off around midnight and thus ending a 12 hour social epic. I was mentally drained, but only because everyone went out of their way to include me. The following morning we sat outside a cafe for breakfast and the waiter insisted I order in Spanish, not because he was being a dick but precisely the opposite, to encourage me. There is no greater confidence boost when trying to master a language when people offer patience and encouragement to allow a mumbling idiot like myself to string a sentence together. The weather may be variable in Buenos Aires but the kindness of her people is unwavering and I leave wishing the pandemic hadn’t delayed my return for so long.