Borges’ City

“My soul is in the streets/ of Buenos Aires.”  (“The Streets”)

 

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Reading Borges’ poetry for the first time in Buenos Aires is an interesting experience because so much of the city is reflected there. His first poetry book was Fervor de Buenos Aires and he seems to have a tourist’s delight and interest in every detail of the city that surrounded him for most of his life. So I decided to put up some snapshots of the city that remind me of his continued presence here.

 

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entrance to the old zoo, where Borges saw his first tiger

 

“My dreaming is never able to conjure up the desired creature. A tiger appears, sure enough, but an enfeebled tiger, a stuffed tiger, imperfect of form, or the wrong size, or only fleetingly present, or looking something like a dog or a bird.”  (“Dreamtigers”)

 

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I look on them as infinite, elemental

fulfillers of a very ancient pact

to multiply the world, as in the act

of generation, sleepless and dangerous.

(“Mirrors”)

 

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Photo by Walter Chandoha, who died recently

 

“Who is to tell him the cat observing him

Is only the mirror’s way of dreaming?

I remind myself that these concordant cats—

the one of glass, the one with warm blood coursing—

are both mere simulacra granted time

by a timeless archetype.

(“Beppo”)

 

 

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Eva Desnuda by Charles Despiau (1874-1946)

 

 

Whoever embraces a woman is Adam. The woman is Eve.

Everything happens for the first time.

I saw something white in the sky. They tell me it is the moon but

What can I do with a word and a mythology.

Trees frighten me a little. They are so beautiful.

(“Happiness”)

 

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The National Library

 

The faithless say that if it were to burn,

History would burn with it. They are wrong.

Unceasing human work gave birth to this

Infinity of books.

(“Alexandria, A.D. 641” S.K.)

 

 

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Forty cards have taken the place of life.

The decorated cardboard talismans

make us oblivious of our destiny,

and a light-hearted game

goes on filling up our stolen time

with the flowery flourishes

of a home made mythology.

(“Truco”)

 

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Thoughtful cat at Recoleta Cemetery

 

Benign shade of the trees,

wind full of birds and undulating limbs,

souls dispersed into other souls,

it might be a miracle that they once stopped being,

an incomprehensible miracle,

although its imaginary repetition

slanders our days with horror.

(“Recoleta Cemetery”)

 

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Now dead, now on his feet now immortal, now a ghost,

He reported to the Hell marked out for him by God,

And under his command there marched, broken and bloodless,

The souls in purgatory of his soldiers and his horses.

(“General Quiroga Rides to His Death in a Carriage”  A.R.)

 

 

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One thing alone does not exist—oblivion.

God, who saves the metal, saves the dross

and stores in his prophetic memory

moons that have still to come, moons that have shone.

(“Everness” A.R.)

 

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Everything—the drab houses,

the crude banisters, the doorknockers,

perhaps the hopes of a girl dreaming on a balcony—

all entered into my vain heart

with the clarity of tears.

(“Unknown Street”)

 

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Some years ago I tried to get away from him: I went from suburban mythologies to playing games with time and infinity. But these are Borges’ games now—I will have to think of something else.

“Borges and I”

 

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“Lifelike” statue of Borges in La Biela café, something he may have predicted in nightmares

 

Un Sabor de Buenos Aires

I do a lot of thinking about food, and not just thinking either; I do a lot of eating too. You might say that, when I am confronted with food, putting theory into practice is the work of a moment. Now that we’re in a new city, there are absorbing new tastes, eating habits and meal-preparation considerations. It is no exaggeration to say that, for the last four weeks, most of my brain has been occupied with what to put in my stomach and how. Here are some preliminary field observations*.

*Disclaimer: most of these observations are probably wrong.

 

Obviously

 

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 Yes, Argentina is famous for steak etc. The rumors are true. 

 

Cute Fruit and Vegetable Shops

These are better than supermarkets for getting fresh stuff, especially when it comes to avocados or ‘paltas’. There is one on practically every block. Not only is the merchandise cheap, it is arranged in a visually appealing style.

 

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Inexplicable Lack of Can Openers

Argentinians apparently have some special method of getting inside of cans. The useful pull-tab is found on only a few canned products. All I could find after weeks of scouring supermarket aisles and dedicated kitchen stores was this thing.

 

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After several minutes of experiment, I came within a whisker of unintentional seppuku and desisted. As a result we have now eight unopened cans. Conclusion: locals use their teeth or they carry sharpened daggers in their vests.

 

Delicious Coffee

This local brand is really good. It tastes chocolatey and will have you striding the calle pushing slow people out of the way for several hours.

 

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No Mexican

Where are all the refried beans? For God’s sake, the only salsa I could find was made in Germany!

 

Italian Influences

I knew there would be pizzerias here, considering the huge wave of Italian immigration. But the northern influence is more pervasive and has even mutated in heretical ways.

For example, I thought vitello di tonno was something limited to northern Italy. Imagine my surprise at seeing huge vats of it at the supermarket around the corner. It is also sold in convenient plastic pouches, like mayonnaise. There are even signs here and there for agnolotti, the lamb-filled ravioli that I also thought was peculiar to Piedmont. It just goes to show. 

 

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Cheeses are created along the lines of Italian counterparts but the taste is noticeably different. Fontina in Italy has a particular kind of nutty sweetness, possibly related to the cows’ diet of Alpine grasses and flowers; what is called fontina here is mild with holes in it and comparatively sour. Mozzarella (often called ‘muzzarella’ seems milkier and more formless.

One of the most popular sandwiches here is the ‘Milanesa’, referring to a breaded chicken fillet. You can even get ‘Milanesa a la Napolitana’

Some things are called Italian without a strict adherence to facts. For example there are pasta varieties here that I never saw in La Patria, particularly a dubious bright-yellow corkscrew-cord-type thing. My favorite yoghurt is supposedly ‘Italian style’, but I doubt it The secret of its tastiness is that it’s half mascarpone, half Greek yoghurt, half sugar and has chunks of orange and pistachio in it.

Also, [WARNING: any native Italians should not read this paragraph], I had a plate of spaghetti at a restaurant that gave me an odd feeling of nostalgia. The pasta was mushy and the abundant sauce had a ketchupy flavor. I realized that it tasted just like the old New Zealand staple, Wattie’s tinned spaghetti, which is best enjoyed on buttered toast.

 

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Mmmm…spaghetti-issimo!!

 

Icecream Good

Very creamy.

 

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Empanadas are Just Meat Pies

Fight me.

 

Soy is Argentina’s Main Cash Crop

Argentina is Europe’s single largest supplier of soya-bean meal. This is something I didn’t know but find quite interesting. The economy depends on GM soy, which is problematic because a) climate change  is threatening the crops, which would make the country’s bad economic situation much worse and b) extensive deforestation of the Gran Chaco in favor of soy crops is creating environmental havoc. Interestingly, Argentina has fewer regulations than its northern neighbor Brazil, so that no one knows what per cent of soya beans are grown as a result of deforestation.

 

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Nudes ‘n Prudes in Jardín Botánico Buenos Aires

On Friday, our new friend Martín suggested we meet him in the Botanical Gardens. It was a place we’ve been wanting to see for some time, eight hectares of thousands of species of plant life just a few blocks from our apartment. We’d already had a tempting vision of its leafy bowers walking past it on New Year’s Day, when it was closed. We’d heard the screeching of parakeets, seen the dense foliage between the trunks of tall trees and glimpsed a gleaming white nude. So it was with a pleasant sense of anticipation that we set off on a beautiful sunny (and, crucially, non-humid) summer evening to see this living monument.

 

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The garden’s full name is Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays de la Ciudad Autόnoma de Buenos Aires. Carlos Thays (1849-1934) was a landscape architect who strongly influenced the design of central Buenos Aires. He is personally responsible for the fact that there are so many open spaces remarkable in a city of this size. Born in Paris, Thays moved to Argentina at the age of 40 and decided to stay for life. In 1891 he was named the city’s Director of Parks and Walkways and got to work planting trees, designing plazas and parks and reserving large tracts of land for his creations. My favorite running area Parque Tres de Febrero, for example, is an area of about 400 hectares, formerly the personal property of dictator Juan Manuel Rosas but now a public playground filled with trees, flowers, fountains, lakes, grand monuments and relatively innocuous sporting venues.

 

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Planetarium and palms in Parque Tres de Febrero

 

Curiously, there only seems to be three ways to enter the botanical gardens, and gates close pretty early. We had to walk about two blocks before finding the one on Avenue Santa Fe. I am wondering if this security measure could have to do with the preponderance of people depositing unwanted housecats in the gardens, where they’d need to fend for themselves dining on rodents and birdlife.

 

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Near the Santa Fe entrance you are met by an urchin offering you a cup of water and carelessly spilling the rest of it out of a giant urn. Straight in front is the house where Thays lived while planning and planting (quite grand for a worker’s shack). To the right is the Roman garden, where we headed first.

 

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The Roman garden features a bust of Pliny and species of tree that he described growing around his villa in the Appenines–cypresses, poplars and laurels. It had never occurred to me that a garden could be a kind of literary reconstruction, and it struck me as an interesting idea. What other ancient gardens might be resurrected? The walled rose-scented garden where Assasssins took drugged novitiates, so that they would wake up thinking they were in Paradise? The gardens of Babylon? The pleasure forests of India where Todi Ragini played the veena to deer?

 

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A little beyond this was a pretty pond in a kind of concrete bath containing waterlilies and papyrus reeds. I was drawn to this at once, feeling some fondness for the papyrus plant since our visit to Sicily, where they say the plant has been growing since 250BC thanks to a gift from King Ptolemy to Hiero II. 

Turning back, Martín led us back to his favorite monument in the gardens, a remarkable sculpture titled ‘Saturnalia’ by Roman sculptor Ernesto Biondi. It shows a group of ancient Romans of various caste and class reveling together in the holiday famous for its relaxation of societal norms—slaves played at being owners for a day, women dressed as men and, if Biondi is to be believed, got very drunk.

 

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The original, completed in 1899, caused a sensation at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and again in New York, where it was slated to be exhibited at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1905. The museum trustees attended a private preliminary viewing and were so appalled that the piece was pulled. Biondi sued the Met (unsuccessfully) for breach of contract (the brouhaha related amusingly in this blogpost).  In 1909 Argentina-based artist Hernán Cullen Ayerza (1879-1936) acquired a copy for the city of Buenos Aires, but it was considered so risqué it was held in Argentinian customs for years. Ayerza finally decided to put it in his private garden, where it remained until his death. He gifted it to Museum of Fine Arts but it wasn’t until 1988 that it went on display here in the gardens.

Moving on, we drifted on red-clay paths towards the ‘Oceania’ section, which seemed mainly to involve dozens of varieties of eucalyptus. The ‘Asiatic’ section featured maple trees, a little Japanese bridge, tons of bamboo and more waterlilies.

 

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As Martín and John talked about Vonnegut and Argentine literature, we passed into a little plaza with a circle of agapanthus. I have liked this plant ever since I found out it meant ‘flower of sacred love’ in Greek, as opposed to eros or philia or other sorts. That said, if I spend much longer in Buenos Aires I’m afraid I’m going to get sick of it because it seems to be the only kind of civic flower they have. The town council must have got a bulk order at some point. Either that or the agapanthus lobby threatened it with revolt.

Around this little circle of purple, there were several statues of naked women representing nature. There was this dryad-like figure whose pose reminds me definitely of the twisty trunks of several native Argentine trees.

 

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And this odd little number, a tribute to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony. I really like the 6th symphony, but I have to admit that it never occurred to me to associate it with a topless girl shouldering a lamb. 

 

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Passing on from these installations, we came across a miniature water garden that reminded me of Monet. I tried blurring my eyes to make it look even more Impressionist. I suppose the similarity isn’t surprising since Thays was also a nineteenth-century Parisian and that sort of thing was in fashion back then. The variety of greens combined with the silvery water was soothing.

 

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Then we went around the native section, featuring plenty of steroid-bulky trees, cactoid monstrosities and vigorous epiphytes that look like they are trying to wrestle their host trees into submission. John urged me to take pictures of tree roots. He said something about one of them reminding him of a sandworm in Dune.

 

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Nearing the end of our circuit, we saw a massive greenhouse. Like Saturnalia, this was on display at the Paris Exhibition in 1900. It was carefully dismantled and moved to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we decided to leave and get coffee somewhere.

In any case, I plan to be back n the near future for an eyeful of more botanical vistas like these.

 

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Buenos Aires, Sunday Central

Rain arrived on Sunday, creating perfect conditions for a long run. I particularly wanted to see the Parque Natural y Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, a huge wetlands park on the northeast edge of the city. The attraction of going there would be that I’d be able to see the River Plata, which I still haven’t seen after three weeks. So, after mucho coffee, I laced up and hit the road.

 

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The first thing note were two people-shaped black plastic bags in a doorway near the Hard Rock Café. They might be sleeping, I thought. After all, it was raining and plastic is waterproof. On the other hand, they might not be sleeping. This was a troubling idea but they were both lying in rather an unnatural position, very straight and still; it didn’t seem comfortable. A police car was parked nearby and a cop in a bullet-proof vest was sauntering in the general direction of the two figures. She seemed quite relaxed, almost day-dreamy, and I decided she was just letting them sleep in a bit before asking them to move on. Yes, that must be it.

I turned onto Avenue del Libertador and made for the area of Retiro. There were many other people sleeping on the street, not covered with black plastic. Some of them lay on old mattresses which I suppose they acquired from where they’d been dumped by large public waste bins. Closer to the Microcenter, near Plaza San Martin, there were more women and children, even families occupying these outdoor mattresses. As I went to put money beside a sleeping young mother with three children, she instantly popped up and took the bill in a motion that suggested the constant alertness of the constantly desperate.

 

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On Saturday we’d met a local for lunch at La Biela, a popular old café near Recoleta cemetery. Handing money to the eighth or ninth beggar who came by our table, he told us that homelessness in the city has recently increased.

“There are more homeless people now, for sure, just in this year. That’s something I know from my own eyes, looking around. Last year was very bad for our economy. The bubble burst.”

As soon as I crossed the bridge and came to the edge of the park, I felt the humidity increase. It was suddenly like jogging in a sauna. I couldn’t see any entrance to the park, just a long walkway. To the left of the walkway, over a wall, was a big lagoon, and on the walkway itself were numerous foodcarts selling hamburguesas, hot dogs and soft drinks. In the lagoon you could see the prolific birdlife: ducks, coots, grebes, swallows, parrots, herons. There was even some red-crested bird belting out a melodic number from the top of a tree. A little further along there was also a parade of Argentine sports heroes moulded in bronze:  racing car driver Juan Manuel Fangio, swimmer Jose Meolans and hockey player Luciana Aymar. Lionel Messi had been removed, except for bits of his feet.

 

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I kept looking for the park entrance without luck. I saw a few gates with signs showing park hours—according to them, the park should be open on Sundays. But the gates were all padlocked shut. This put the kibosh on my planned route. It was a blow but, considering the humidity, not altogether an unwelcome one. With a mixture of disappointment and relief, I turned away from the park and followed a road that would take me south.

The first thing I saw after crossing the road was the Museo De La Cárcova, a house devoted to the work of the realist artist Ernesto De La Cárcova (1866-1927). It was closed. I then passed several large parillas (steak houses), a giant casino beside which was a port for cruise ships and a vehicular entrance to the port. Even though I was running quite near the port, the only glimpse I got of the water was this, a view that John describes as ‘Stygian’.

 

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Eventually I ended up outside Hospital Dr Cosme Argerica. It was here that I noticed that the buildings were suddenly much older and more decrepit than the ones in the CBD. The people seemed to walk differently. A woman who heard my footsteps behind her flinched and looked back, fearing the worst. A shopkeeper stood smoking in her doorway looking at me darkly, Neapolitan-tough. As a tourist holding a camera in one hand and a map in the other, I started to feel a little conspicuous. Glancing with feigned insouciance at my map, I noticed that I was now in La Boca, an area that our local friend had said was relatively more dangerous for non-locals.

 

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“Nya…ya wanna get mugged Doc?”

 

“If someone speaks to you, they are testing you, checking to see how much you understand, feeling out your street smarts, deciding if you are prey. I used to work with two English guys in a rough area of town and they got mugged maybe five times each.”

Remembering his words, I made double sure of my directions and proceeded to tiptoe away, back towards the central area. This took me through Parque Lezama, a nice green space with bizarre plants and a giant 1930s monument to the conquistador who ‘founded Buenos Aires’, one Pedro de Mendoza

 

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“How about I just clap my hands on his skull?”

 

Through sheer dumb luck, the street I chose to take me back to the center was Difensa;  on that very day that that one street was hosting a huge artisanal fair. It stretched about eight blocks and was crowded with tourists, empanda touts, blind beggars and bargain-hunters. The attendees were all walking at browsing pace so I decided to adjust, reasoning that my long run was supposed to be relatively slow. OK, maybe not sedated-snail slow, but the point stands. Popular articles at this fair included knitted cartoon characters, rhodochrysite jewelry and leather items.

 

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Emerging from the crush, I resumed my jog and ended up in the big Plaza de Mayo right outside the pink Parliament buildings, the Casa Rosada. Jogging around with only a vague notion of where to go next, I then found myself standing under an enormous white obelisk and proceeded trotting along the Avenue 9 de Julio. This was sprinkled with more sleeping homeless people. One of these was surrounded by an attractive pack of dogs curled up against one another, and I wondered if he was one of the many dog walkers you see in the city leading a group of ten or eleven dogs by the leash and having to stop every five steps while one of the number decides to pee.

 

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By this time I was sweating buckets and eager for a drink and a shower so headed home. I decided that, though the run may not have been the nature safari I’d wanted, it was still pretty interesting and a memorable quick tour through a fair chunk of the city.

 

 

 

 

La Recoleta’s VIP Cadaver Cribs

“So, have you been to the cemetery yet?” One of our Buenos Aires contacts asked.

The question surprised me. I’m not used to thinking of cemeteries as big tourist draws, but La Recoleta was, according to some websites, a must-see. Sure enough, when we arrived at the magnificent entrance, we were among a big crowd positively clamoring to get in. There were a dozen tour buses outside the tall walls and eager holiday makers lining up for the security check.

Security check? You ask with furrowed brow. Yes, a serious one. A doughty female nearly tackled me when I failed to take my backpack off. The guards were checking even baby strollers and wheelchairs. As it happens, there is a reason for this. Last month, two enterprising anarchists disguised themselves as an elderly couple, the man pushing the woman in a wheelchair tricked-out with a homemade bomb. The timer failed and the resulting explosion killed the man and sent the woman into a coma. There was no damage done to graveyard property or bystanders.

 

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Security detail at the bone yard

 

It is possible that part of the reason for La Recoleta’s popularity is that it is the final resting place for Eva Peron, among other illustrious citizens. It would appear, for example, that Argentina has had about five hundred prime ministers and more than its fair share of naval officers.

According to online sources, other persons of interest include sexploitation-film director Armando Bό, literary sisters Silvina and Victoria Ocampo, musician Zenόn Rolόn and Silvina’s husband Adolfo Bioy Casares. We didn’t see any of these.

 

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Armando Bό. Gosh.

 

One celebrity tomb we did see was that of the boxer Luis Ángel Firpo (1894-1960), the ‘Wild Bull of the Pampas.’ A tour guide had gathered her flock around it and was talking about the famous painting Dempsey and Firpo (1924) by George Bellows, passing her cellphone around to show them a reproduction.

 

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I’m not sure why, but Buenos Aires seems to have produced a large number of physicians and medical scientists. Bernardo Houssay (1887-1971), for example, discovered the role of the pituitary hormones in regulating blood sugar, and in 1947 became the first Nobel-prize winner from Latin America. Luis Agote (1868-1954) performed the first non-direct blood transfusion in the Americas. La Recoleta holds the remains of Luis Federico Leloir, who won a Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1970 for discovering the function of sugar nucleotides in cell metabolism. Notable physicians also moldering within the cemetery walls include Eduardo Wilde , Cosme Argerich, Francisco Javier Muñiz and Guillermo Rawson, all of whom enjoyed fame in pursuits other than that of their profession. Muñiz, for example, was also a colonel, politician and naturalist. He died while treating patients in one of the four severe outbreaks of Yellow Fever in the city in the last half of the 19th century.

 

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Francisco Javier Muñiz

 

Even without knowing who is interred in the tombs, the cemetery is appealing for the quality and variety of designs of the mausoleums and statuary. Porteños of yore were so anxious to construct worthy memorials that they imported materials from Paris and Milan and employed famous sculptors such as Lola Mora, Luis Perlotti. The artistry and thought put into these final resting-places is staggering — there was clearly a competitive instinct at work. 

 

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Sculptor Lola Mora

 

Immediately upon entering, you are faced with a number that seems influenced by Egyptians, to the extent that the lettering looks like fake-hieroglyphs.

 

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There is another Egyptianoid head.

 

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One of the biggest and most eye-catching tombs is that of the estate-owning family features a virgin lighting a seven-branched candelabra that looks like a menorah. The effect is to make you wonder if there is some kind of provocative inter-religious jibe intended by the motto “O crux ave spes unica.”

 

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Particularly striking for us were the mausoleums hewn out of black stone, which look as if they house some demon waiting for the right moment to rise up and commandeer your soul for apocalyptic purposes.

 

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Bejeebus!

 

One working-class hero among all the doctors and admirals is David Alleno (1854-1910), cemetery caretaker who made it his life’s goal to own his own plot there. He finally saved enough even to commission Genovese sculptor to sculpt his image on a headstone, complete with the tools of his trade (keys, broom and watering can). Incidentally, Genoa was famous for producing funerary art, which is why cemeteries all over the world are crammed with Italian sculpture.

 

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“Who’s that hippie?” John asked, pointing to a sculpture of a young woman patting a dog. Peering at the dates, we realized he wasn’t far wrong—it was a monument to one Liliana de Crociati de Szaszak (1944-1970) who died in 1970 at the age of 26, was killed in Innsbruck on 26 February when an avalanche struck her hotel. Her mother designed a Neo-Gothic tomb and commissioned Wieredovol Viladrich to create a sculpture of her daughter in her wedding dress. Liliana’s father contributed a poem written in Italian that stands on a plaque next to the tomb. When her dog Sabú died, the same sculptor added his likeness, placing it under her hand.

 

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In general I prefer my cemeteries to be half-forgotten green spaces, but La Recoleta is definitely the best collection of ostentatious mausoleums I have seen and there is a refreshing party atmosphere there that makes you forget, temporarily, that death is usually associated with feelings of sadness and futility. After all, these people may be gone but they’re still the life of the party in this city.

 

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Weird, Weatherer World

This morning I was woken by the sound of the sky being ripped apart in a violent struggle involving cosmic bazookas. I won’t say ‘thunder’ because it was more serious than that. Stumbling out of bed, I looked out of the window and noticed that there was a raging monsoon outside and that buckets and other untethered objects were flying off balconies, splashing onto the road below.

 

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an unholy torrent

 

Yesterday, by contrast, was a Bangkok-worthy sauna–thirty degrees in the shade and eighty per cent humidity. Walk one block and sweat dripped off your forehead in great greasy globules. We were investigating the gold street of Libertad for an anniversary memento and as pleasant as that sounds, it was no easy feat. Finally, though, among the silver guitars and chunks of the meaty-looking rhodochrosite, we found a shard of lapis lazuli that looks like a piece of star-map. Relieved, we sought refuge from the heat in an old-fashioned lunch place called Bar Bidou, with white tablecloths and bowing waiters. The kind of place where cigar smoking and mafia dinners might have happened in days of yore. The food was not to my taste but the sparkling wine put me in an excellent mood. After lunch we ducked into the subway whose caverns are sweltering but whose cars are mercifully air-conditioned.

 

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Bar Bidou

 

We’ve done a lot of walking in the last week and so far there have been no mishaps. We were primed by guidebooks for trouble all over the place—muggings, beatings, purse snatching, but there has not even been a hint of anything like that. In fact one kindly citizen noticed us ineptly reading a map, patiently asked us where we wanted to go and gave extremely specific directions.

 

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Nevertheless, it seems Argentinians strongly mistrust each other and believe their neighbors would murder them given the slightest excuse. There is a porter on guard in the ground floor of nearly every apartment building and quite often there’s also a security guard. Some lobbies even have large screen facing the window that displays the face of an alert young man who (I suppose we are meant to imagine) is keenly inspecting thirteen security monitors. At the fire station there always a fireman standing guard outside the station, long gut-troubling knife in his belt.

 

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How Argentinians see themselves

 

Yesterday evening, when it got a bit cooler, I went for a walk in the plazas and parks near our apartment in effort to get acquainted with the host city. One thing that stands out is the abundance of statuary, much of it vaguely French. In Plaza Mitre there’s quite an impressive scene involving a bunch of grotesque divinities under some horseman. In Plaza Francia we have Luis Braille and in Plaza San Martín we have an allegory of Doubt.

 

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The impression of faded grandeur is not limited to statues but appears in signs, tiles, architecture, details, the way the elderly people dress, the design of buses and lampposts. Somehow the natural features enhance the sense of tired mystery bordering on the surreal. Walking by the national library, I noticed that it looked like a gigantic spaceship from the Jetson age. It was surrounded by tall trees, including one with enormous waxy white blooms. Lovers caressed one another on one bench, a trio of scruffy guys huddled together discussing some illicit transaction and I peered confusedly at a series of posters that seem to refer to some famous-in-Argentina comic book.

 

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Confusion is the theme so far. Buenos Aires is so different, and the trip here has been what I imagine interplanetary travel might feel like—as if you have been roughly dismantled and now you have to rely on a well-meaning chimpanzee to put you together again. Everything aches, the weather is strange and there are no laundromats. 

After listening to Borges’ story “The Garden of Forking Paths”  this afternoon, I have decided that, like Dostoyevsky, the man was a mere journalist. What people have contributed to his inventiveness was merely the result of walking around Buenos Aires trying to make sense of it. 

 

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“Oh God, where am I now?”

Buenos Aires: Five Strange Things

We left Turin before dawn in a thick fog, Christmas lights gleaming blurrily from a few balconies. Fourteen hours later, we were standing in the warm night inhaling fried empanadas and mildew.

 

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National dish

 

Travelling from Italy to Argentina in half a day is even more disconcerting than you’d think. One minute you’re sipping mulled wine in a chilly piazza humming along to Aida, the next you’re in an urban greenhouse wondering how to say ‘Don’t mug me please’ in Spanish.

We are not the first to have made this particular journey. People of Italian descent make up about 60% of the total population, and it’s not difficult to find traces of the Old Country every five steps or so. There’s a pizzeria on every second block, a Vespa on every corner, torrone in the corner shops, and people say ‘Ciao’ instead of ‘Smell you later’. Somewhere along the way panettone has become Pan Dolce and espresso lost out to café con leche as the drink of choice, but these are minor differences.

Such echoes cannot disguise the fact that we are now on a different planet. The wilderness impinges in a way that it rarely does in Europe—the harsh Southern-Hemisphere glare, the wind that seems not even to notice the city, the exuberant birdsong. All this (and rugby) reminds me of New Zealand actually, but here there is an added difference in that everything is bigger. The avenues, plazas, parks and public buildings in Buenos Aires are gigantic, as if desperately trying to dominate the natural vastness.

 

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The faculty of Law of the University of Buenos Aires

 

This city is a bit overwhelming to be honest, so my mind is all awhirl with  first impressions. For want of anything more , here are five odd things that stand out even among the hundred other odd things during our first four days in Argentina. 

 

5. The Economic Crisis

Not that I understand these matters, but the Argentine peso is not worth very much right now. In May this year, the government asked the IMF for an emergency loan for a $30 billion bailout and Argentina’s central bank raised interest rates on the peso to 40% from 27.25%.

According to this Reuters article, “In Argentina, 2018 has become the year of the “new poor.”  People have lost jobs and there have been double-digit increases in costs like electricity bills and transport fares.

 

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Bird’s-eye-view of cartoneras

 

In everyday terms, the poverty is noticeable. Wandering through any public park you see people lying sleeping on benches or on the ground. Beggars—often children–wander into cafes and ask for money. When you pay for groceries at the supermarket you need to provide identification and a signature, and the cashier scrutinizes both of these very carefully. Individual trash collection is seriously competitive— cartoneras or trash pickers—can be seen every evening emptying the public bins and filling their hand-drawn carts with recyclable goods.

 

4. Bizarre Trees

The plazas showcase some of the oddest and most impressive trees I have seen. I admit I was getting a bit jaded on the tree front—I thought I’d seen it all, but there are some species that stir the soul.

As it turns out, the trees were part of the city’s design. The man mainly responsible for their prominent part of Buenos Aires is Carlos Thays (1849-1934), a French-Argentine landscape architect who also designed the city’s botanical gardens. 

 

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The jacaranda is flowering at the moment. I particularly like the twisty dark branches that remind me of a Medusa except for the light purple blooms littering the parkland beneath. Then there is the Ombu that grows on the pampas and can tolerate drought and sub-zero temperatures. Tipuana tipu or rosewood are nicely described here by Beatrice Murch, who has published a book devoted to the city’s trees. There are a lot of other species here that I don’t know the name of yet. John’s favorite is this handsome stranger:

 

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3. DDL

Dulce de leche is so popular in these parts that it is listed as an acronym on menus. I am so far wary of it, as I imagine it as something like sweetened condensed milk. People have it for breakfast, put it in cakes, and frankly I suspect them of eating it by the spoonful.

 

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2. Ancient Elevators

Old-timey elevators with concertina gates that you have to close behind you manually before the thing will move. This morning we gave a couple of locals a good laugh when we stood in the elevator waiting for the doors to close on their own.

 

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1. Birds

Argentina’s national bird is the rufous hornero, whose song you can hear here. Admittedly, I haven’t seen it yet but there are certainly plenty of other birds in the city.

 

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Monk parakeets rule the parks. There is a large wetlands park on the edge of the city where you can see herons, kingfishers, grebes, ducks and the adorable chopi blackbird. In the city itself there is an exceptionally musical bird that sings with gusto at about 4pm in the trees lining our street. I don’t know what it is yet but will investigate.

 

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Chopi blackbird