Montevideo and the Get-Out-Of-Pain Campaign

On Friday John and I decided to go for a weekend trip to Montevideo, the capital city of the Oriental Republic of Uruguay. Montevideo is only a three-hour boat trip from Bueños Aires so it seemed like a good thing to do while we’re here.

So, bright and early, we boarded the Francisco, a comfortable catamaran destined to ferry us across the River Plate. Strangely, there was no access to the outer decks and windows were all blacked out so it was very difficult to see the river. Instead, our gaze was drawn to television screens advertising a newly opened Trump tower at Punta del Este and some kind of New Age retreat starring an earnest big-eyebrowed woman named Isha.


Isha Judd, who taught a spiritual system to Mexican soldiers to soothe their human-rights-abuses problem


Disembarking, we were fed into a waiting taxi line, only to realize (1) that we hadn’t brought any Uruguayan pesos and (2) there were no ATMs in sight. Luckily, the first driver we spoke to accepted Argentine pesos and we were soon tooling our way through town to our hotel.




It was an overcast day, not cold but grey and gloomy—the kind of weather guaranteed to take the sparkle out of any vista. Even allowing for this, though, the prospect was pretty dreary. The street near the port was lined with closed-up, abandoned and decrepit buildings, covered in graffiti and not good graffiti either. Of course, ports are rarely in posh neighborhoods but as we travelled towards the city centre, there was little change. The eye was drawn to blemishes: cracked paving stones, piles of dog- and human-do on the sidewalk, some skinny grilling chops over coals in the gutter outside what looked like a prostitution point, judging by the drunken pair a couple of metres downhill (and by the blonde creature who propositioned John later on in the same spot).




Arrived at the hotel, we checked in and found everything as it should be. It was around this time, however, that John felt the first twinge of his molar. This little mischief-maker had given him bad trouble a couple of weeks back, but a round of antibiotics had seemed to clear it up. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but in my experience teeth often like to air their grievances at the least convenient times. Easter and Christmas are great favorites, as are four-day weekends. John once had a particularly bad problem around Christmas in New Zealand, when almost all dentists have a 10-day break. And now this molar had decided to speak up just when we’d arrived in a new town on the weekend. But the twinge subsided and he thought he might have been imagining it anyway, so we set out to see the sights.

It was a short trip. In the few blocks around the hotel, including the big street called Avenida 18 de Julio, almost everything was closed. Burger King was not, so we went in there. As we sat sipping coffee we watched some excitement across the street at the big Rio Santander bank: four armed policemen were guarding the door, scanning the block, index fingers caressing triggers as if actively willing some lunatic to rush them. Because there was an armored vehicle outside, I presume they were transferring funds out of the bank. A line of about twenty weary Uruguayans waited patiently for the bank to be open for business again.




After finishing a ‘medialuna’ (croissant) and café con leche, we strolled a bit further along the street and saw a big poster above a cinema showing four figures, only one of which we recognized–Alfred Hitchcock. Further on was a large statue dedicated ‘to the Gaucho’. The legendary gaucho is a figure particularly important to Uruguayans and Argentines. In days of yore they were nomadic horsemen and outlaws admired for their courage and trickiness. Gabriel Uriarte recently gave us a copy of Argentina’s great epic poem “El Gaucho Martín Fierro” by José Hernández. We weren’t quite sure why the gaucho statue held a three-pronged stick–maybe we’ll find out on reading the poem.




As we pondered the pointy-stick mystery, John said his tooth was really hurting now and that he’d like to head back to the hotel immediately. Off we went, with a quick trip to a pharmacy for some anti-inflammatories. And it was back at the hotel room where poor John spent most of the weekend. He would not go to an emergency dentist, but resolved to wait until Monday, when he’d see a proper dentist. The reason for his hesitancy was not fear but prudence; in the aforementioned 10-day holiday in New Zealand, a novice dentist had given him a botched root canal that had come back to haunt him for years.

Leaving him in bed and agony, I callously set out again, determined to see something. Here are some of the items of interest:


Black Magic!


Mural by sea wall


Fancy footwork




Sleeping in a fishbowl




On Sunday, when I wasn’t gadding about, I researched viable dentists. Finally, I settled on one on Bulevard España, which judging from the ad seemed to be one of those vast, gleaming medical complexes. There was a clean-cut young woman in scrubs on the website, and dental tools gleaming with antiseptic sparkle. Even better, it opened early, at eight.

The next morning, I dragged a pain-harrowed husband out of bed and into a taxi, looking forward to having everything fixed up in a jiffy. When the taxi dropped us off at the correct address, I sought the medical palace of my mind’s eye. Instead, there was just a poxy apartment building. A relatively respectable poxy apartment building, but certainly not a hospital-type building. We hovered outside the building, double checking the address, when a world-weary doorman came out to meet us.

Despite his suffering, John spoke suave Spanish and the man nodded yes, there were dentists here. Which one did he want to see? Dr. Russo? Said the doorman helpfully.

John and I exchanged a glance. On the one hand, this was weird, but on the other hand what we really needed was a dentist. We indicated that Dr. Russo would do. The doorman assured us that Dr. Russo was very good, very experienced, so we got into the lift and let him guide us up to the eighth floor. He got out and, with the gestures of an impresario, rang the dentist’s door. He spoke to someone for a moment and then gestured that we should go in.

As we stepped through the door, we met a character in scrubs who was unshaven and spoke very softly and slowly, as if in a dream. John explained what he needed in Spanish and the man gazed at him as if he were a magnificent sunset. John thought this meant he’d failed to get the message across.

“No, no, I understood,” the man said very slowly. “Very good. Wait here.”

“Shall we go away now?” I whispered.

John shook his head, resigned.

The waiting room was very dark. There was no electric light. Cardboard boxes stood piled up in the corner. A door slightly ajar revealed a cupboard-sized room that seemed to be an untidy repository of instruments. I picked up an issue of Hola and quickly put it down again out of nerves. The surgery door opened, letting in a bit of natural light and a middle-aged man emerged. A patient. He seemed calm. I hadn’t heard any screaming. The dentist beckoned John in and to sit down on the chair.

I had a bad feeling. I stood up and went in but it was a pretty small surgery so retreated and sat on a chair by the door, peering in.

The dentist interrogated John in that quiet, dreamy voice, and John explained the issue. I noticed that there were instruments on the table by the chair that didn’t look terribly clean. There wasn’t any assistant, and the dentist wasn’t wearing gloves or a mask. But what do you know, you’re not a dentist!

He inspected the area and said there wasn’t anything he could do because it wasn’t the tooth that was the problem—the infection was in the soft tissue. I heard him say “Bueños Aires” and guessed he was telling John to get it taken care of there. I felt greatly relieved and was already picking up my bag when I heard a drilling sound and froze in my tracks.

Quite suddenly, without any preliminaries, the dentist had decided to do pick up his electric saw and file away part of the molar. This was surprising, because he’d just spent three minutes saying that it wasn’t the uneven bite that was causing the pain.

John, as usual in a medical office, gave no outward sign of discomfort. However I noticed that his face had gone ashen. Sure enough, once we were safely away from the building, he informed me that it had hurt quite a bit having a tooth filed without any analgesic and that moreover he didn’t have a very high opinion of the “top-notch dentist” I’d sourced. There were some other heated words on the subject in the taxi back to the hotel.

The rest of the visit was pretty much an eager looking-forward to getting on the Fransisco and returning to dear, sweet, beloved, Bueños Aires.


The four Charrúa sent to France


I would like to end this account by drawing attention to the fate of the Charrúa, the indigenous people of Uruguay. They were seasonal nomads, used to shifting according to the weather or availability of food. When Europeans settled in the area, they lost their cattle and suffered from famine and persecution. In 1831, Bernabé Rivera organized a campaign known as La Campaña de Salsipuedes (the Get-Out-If-You-Can campaign) culminating in a massacre on April 11 1831 that led to the official extinction of the Charrúa. Four survivors were sent off to Paris and exhibited to the public. The display was not particularly successful and they all died in France. No reason. Just thought I’d mention it.  


Detail of a photo of Avenida 18 de Julio from 1869




Remembering the Disappeared

On Friday, seeing as we had our brilliant friend and Argentine native Gabriel Uriarte on hand as a docent, we headed along to the Remembrance and Human Rights Centre, a museum on Avenue Libertador devoted to the memory of victims of Argentina’s military dictatorship (1976-1983).

During the dictatorship, it belonged to the Escuola de Mecanico de la Armada (ESMA)—the naval mechanics’ school. This is a sprawling complex of buildings on 17-hectares of pretty ground: tidy lawns, flowering pink hibiscus and tall trees where parrots flit and squabble. The façade of the school building itself is grandly neoclassical, with tall half-columns and an official coat of arms in the gable. It all seems stiff and institutional but pleasant enough, in spite of grim concrete watchtowers, especially on a fine summer’s afternoon.


John outside ESMA, talking to Gabriel (off-screen)



During the Dirty War, this pleasant spot was the site of a clandestine torture center. Although throughout Argentina about 30,000 people were secretly  tortured in about 500 centres, ESMA is the most notorious. While unspeakable things were happening in the basement of the officer’s mess hall, the complex continued to be used as a military school. Officers and their families lived in nearby buildings, and had barbecues on nice days, and students even sat exams in the schoolhouse.


Visualization of the network of detention centers during the last junta


Example of a multiple-choice question that was part of exams at the school. Answer: d!


The National Reorganization Process (1976-1983)

In the 1970s, Operation Condor spread its fell wings all across South America; a US-backed campaign of political repression and state terror was waged right-wing dictatorships against civilian population. The idea was to eradicate Soviet and communist influences and ideas by silencing (killing) dissidents, which included leftists, union and peasant leaders, priests and nuns, intellectuals and suspected guerillas. Cooperative governments included Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil, all of which received technical support and military aid from the US government.


Left to right: Massera, Videla and Agosti


In Argentina, May 1976, President Isabel Peròn was overthrown and a military junta installed in her government’s place. The leaders of the junta were Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, Admiral Emilio Eduardo Massera and Brigadier-General Orlando Ramόn Agosti. They took the name of the National Reorganization Process, (Proceso de Reorganizaciόn Nacional), later known simply as el Proceso.

Admiral Massera, who many consider the mastermind of el Proceso, was in charge of the terrorist repression at ESMA. Gabriel’s father Claudio Uriarte wrote a book about him that is considered a masterpiece in Argentina, Amirante Cero: Biografía no autorizada de Emilio Eduardo Massera (1992) (Admiral Zero: Unauthorized Biography of Emilio Eduardo Massera) (unfortunately not yet available in English).

El Proceso was much grislier than the bureaucratic term makes it sound. In fact, it was so horrendous that even Henry Kissinger was nervous about its excesses. In this declassified memcon verbatim transcript from October 7, 1976, Kissinger urges Argentine foreign minister Admiral Guzzetti to hurry up and get rid of the opposition before human-rights types made a stink about the massive abuses occurring: 


Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems but not the context. The quicker you succeed the better… The human rights problem is a growing one. Your Ambassador can apprise you. We want a stable situation.We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.


The junta’s favorite targets were young professionals, high school and college students, trade-union members and workers. Sixty students were arrested at Belgrano High School just for joining their school council. Victims were arrested summarily, often without being formally charged, taken to the nearest detention centre, tortured and kept hooded until it was time to die. Some prisoners died in mass shootings, others were thrown drugged and naked from planes over the Atlantic Ocean. Because a lot of the victims disappeared without a trace, they are now known as Los Desaparecidos – the Disappeared.


A gallery of photographs of the disappeared, printed on the windows of the main hall in the Space of Memory


Walking through the city, it is impossible to miss the colorful plaques on the pavement that commemorate the sudden kidnapping of someone from that very spot.


Here lived Eduardo Miguel O’Neill, Popular Militant, detained and disappeared due to state terrorism on September 9 1977


In the main hall there were hundreds of photographs of survivors, plaques featuring testimony of torture, and artwork devoted to the victims.  One excerpted statement from a survivor brought home the discomfort and pain experienced by so many: 


“You were in the ‘hood’ without moving, without speaking, without knowing who threatened or hit you or how to defend yourself, without having the slightest idea of your situation and fate, without having interlocutors to ask. You could only be alone, breathe, feel around; once a day you were allowed to go to the bathroom (and, sometimes, clean yourself up) and sleep.”


An infamous aspect of el Proceso was the detention of pregnant prisoners until delivery, at which time the baby would be appropriated and given to a family with more tolerable political views. About 500 of these babies were born in the detention centre, their mothers handcuffed and hooded during labor, then murdered soon after. Most of the babies grew up without being aware of their real origin until well into adulthood. At least one child was adopted by a man involved in torturing and killing her biological parents.

Even during the dictatorship, two groups were especially vocal in wanting the truth to be revealed, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to locate the dead bodies of their children, and the Abuelas or Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who wanted to find their living grandchildren. The Abuelas became a powerful force and, thanks to their work, a national genetic bank was established that would allow people to match DNA with surviving aunts and uncles. Mandatory testing is sometimes enforced. Some people don’t want to get it because they  don’t want to be responsible for sending their adoptive parents to jail, in other cases the parents threaten their children. One particularly high-profile example of the anguish, disruption and reluctance to uncover the truth when it comes to stolen babies is evident in the story of the Clarìns heirs Marcela and Felipe, who were both adopted in 1976 but have not so far been identified as children of the disappeared. And if you want to watch a real tear-jerker of a documentary, watch this account of how families have coped with learning the truth.


“Dolor” by Julian Pons


Detail of “Dolor” by Julian Pons

Riverine World

The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by the sound of exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham


The memory card for my camera is now full and before retiring it to doom in a corner of my pencil case, I’ve been browsing photographs taken in the last year. A lot of them are of water, particularly rivers. I think this is partly because it is generally safer to run along the bank of a river because there is less traffic, but it is also partly because I feel a bit like Mole in the presence of this body of water.

There is something fascinating and lovely about a river. My husband is particularly fond of them–most of his favorite books involve a river journey. In Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, the river is a vehicle towards spiritual illumination:


Cheerfully, he looked into the rushing river, never before he had like a water so well as this one, never before he had perceived the voice and the parable of the moving water thus strongly and beautifully. It seemed to him, as if the river had something special to tell him, something he did not know yet, which was still awaiting him. In this river, Siddhartha had intended to drown himself, in it the old, tired, desperate Siddhartha had drowned today. But the new Siddhartha felt a deep love for this rushing water, and decided for himself, not to leave it very soon. 



The Sungai Klang is a river in Malaysia that is about 120 kilometres long and feeds into the Straits of Malacca. Kuala Lumpur is built on the point of its confluence with the Gombak river , hence the capital’s name, which means ‘muddy estuary’. The river is very polluted but an extensive clean-up operation is underway.




This 14-mile river flows into Lake Samamish in northern Washington state. Home to salmon and trout.




This is the main river crossing Montpellier in the Hérault province in southern France. It flows to the Mediterranean Sea.





A fizzy mountain torrent that straddles French Savoie and north-west Italy. It eventually meets the Dora Riparia at Susa. This is a view looking south to Novalesa Abbey.





Dora Riparia

This runs for 125 kilometres before joining the Po. Here it is where it flows through the town of Susa.





The Po is about 680 kilometres long and crosses northern Italy from the Cottian Alps eastward to a delta near Venice that drains into the Adriatic. It has 141 tributaries.




East River

This is not technically a river but a salt-water tidal estuary in New York. But what the heck, close enough!



colder than it looks


Assunpink Creek

A creek in Trenton, New Jersey, that leads into the mighty Delaware River. Assunpink means ‘stony, watery place’.




Tiber (Tevere)

Rome is built on the banks of this river that rises in the Tuscan Apennines and flows southwest for 405 miles before entering the Tyrrhenian Sea at Ostia. Tiberinus was the Roman god of the river.




Tiberinus with cornucopia



This river in southern Portugal runs 75 kilometres from the Serra do Caldeirão ridge into the Atlantic near Portimão. The banks of the river used to be the site of a large sardine-processing factory.


Part of the old sardine factory




River Plate (Río de la Plata)

This is also not really a river but an estuary formed by the confluence of the Uruguay and Paraná rivers. It is the widest river in the world, with a maximum width of about 220 kilometres and empties into the Atlantic Ocean.


Relaxing by the river-estuary beach


Rivers are attractive paradoxes, mingling change and permanence. The Nile may be ancient but, as Heraclitus pointed out, you can’t step into the same river twice. They are refreshed every instant but also stay alive for millennia. Marcus Aurelius puts a gloomier cast on it:  

Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.

Anyway, tomorrow I’m planning to get another memory card and take another 300 pictures of rivers.  


Christine de Pizan’s Books for Bucks

My niece Emily started school this week, and it’s got me thinking how much I take reading and writing for granted now. At Emily’s age, I found writing very difficult and have a vivid memory of repeatedly failing to spell ‘the’, Mrs. Bartlett’s face purpling prettily with each fresh failure. This isn’t Emily’s first step towards literacy; her parents and sister have encouraged a love of reading since she was a baby. In fact, her play sessions, in which she identifies as a ‘jewel thief’ suggest the influence of G.K. Chesterton. Her choice of birthday cake was reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘L’albatros’. 

It is strange to think that, had Emily been born in fourteenth-century Europe, books would not have been part of her life. Literacy was not a universal even among men, but for girls it was extremely rare. Reading and writing was the preserve of clergy, merchants and some aristocrats. Authors were usually male (despite exceptions like Trotula of Salerno [12th century] and Hildegarde von Bingen [1098-1179]). Women were supposed to produce children and manage a household. Those who could read, like Catherine of Siena and Hildegarde, were considered so weird that their literacy was a miraculous sign of their holiness. Considering all this, the life and writing career of Christine de Pizan (1364-1430) is a remarkable anomaly and surprisingly little known outside of Gender-Studies departments.


Hildegarde von B. with book


Christine was born in Venice, daughter of Thomas de Pizan, a physician, court astrologer and Councillor of the Republic of Venice. Alessandro Barbero, in his lecture on her life, stresses that astrology at that time was considered a respectable science, inseparable from astronomy. It was accepted fact that heavenly bodies affected earthly bodies, and that by careful observation of the stars and moon it was possible to divine many things, including the propitious date for starting a war or embarking on a journey. Thomas de Pizan’s expertise was so valued that Charles V of France hired him to become court astrologer. The household moved to Paris when Christine was about five years old.

Thomas de Pizan was an unusual father in that he provided his daughter with a good education and encouraged her to read. She soon developed a love of books that would eventually enable her to earn a living, not to mention great fame. It didn’t hurt that she lived in the cultural and commercial heart of Europe, either. Paris was stimulating to her imagination—she talks of seeing a tightrope walker walk between two towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and a diplomatic visit from the Sultan of Egypt—a spectacle of exoticism that attracted a huge crowd.

While her father encouraged her love of books, her mother regarded them eccentric distractions. At the age of fifteen she was married off to Etienne du Castel, a secretary to the king and started the busy life of having babies and organizing a household. This left her little time to devote to reading.




A recurring theme of medieval literature is the Wheel of Fortune, embodied by the goddess Fortuna, often represented by a blindfolded woman spinning a wheel. The idea is that one’s life can be drastically and suddenly altered, usually for the worse, and there is not really anything you can do about it. It wasn’t a new idea–Tyche or ‘Fate’ was a capricious goddess in ancient Greece associated with uncertainty and risk. However, Boethius (480-524) refreshed the idea for Christian audience in his Consolations of Philosophy:

“I know the manifold deceits of that monstrous lady, Fortune; in particular her fawning friendship with those she intends to cheat, until the moment when she unexpectedly abandons them, and leaves them in agony beyond endurance.”

In 1388, Fortune spun the wheel, giving Christina’s husband the plague and leaving her a widow at the age of 25. The young mother was now solely in charge of her family, including her mother. On top of this, she had the task of trying to collect the backlog of wages owed her husband—many years’ worth. Despite her assiduous requests, she didn’t receive them until two decades after his death.

Christine de Pizan had a dream at about the time. She and her family were in a ship that was suddenly caught in a storm. Her husband was thrown from the ship and disappeared in the water. She dreamed she cried herself to sleep and, in a dream-within-a-dream, she was approached and touched by Fortuna. Waking on the ship, her dream-self noticed that her body has changed—her limbs were stronger, her voice was deeper—she had become a man. Now, instead of crying, she picked up a hammer and got to work fixing the ship.




The bereaved widow started writing poems, love ballads, not only to assuage her grief but also to capitalize on her unusual gift. She shared her poetry with the people she knew at court, dedicating many of them to members of the royal family such as Isabeau of Bavaria. Her friends and patrons encouraged her to write more on a greater variety of topics. Finally, in 1404 she gained a commission from one of the most powerful men in France, the Duke of Burgundy, who asked her to write a biography of his brother Charles V of France. In return, he offered a bag of gold francs.

This was the first of many commissions—in the next seven years she wrote fifteen works for members of the aristocracy in return for pay. She had become a professional writer.


Presenting the book to Queen Isabeau


In his lecture, Alessandro Barbero has a nice passage about her book-production methods. These days you don’t need anything more than a computer and an internet connection to publish a book (cue shamless ad for my book Teacher, We Girls!), but things were a bit more complicated in the fourteenth century:


“…what does it mean to write and to publish a book? We are at the beginning of the fifteenth century. She became famous in 1399, when her ballads went into circulation. And for the 1400s, she is a very successful writer. What does it mean to for a successful writer to publish a book? There is no printing press. So everything is done by hand so that publishing a book means you the author present your book to your client, to the king, to the Pope, to the cardinal, to the duke. There is only one copy at first. If someone else wants it, then it can be copied. If the book is a success then a lot of copies will be made. But at first there is one example. It is luxurious. The greater the personage you are presenting it to, the more you have to pay for it, the more luxurious the object will be. Christina does not limit herself to writing her works, but she produces the manuscript, not alone, naturally, she has a workshop. She hires some professional copyists, she hires some miniature artists, among which is one woman [known only as ‘Anastasia’] and she is the producer of the work of art that is each manuscript.”


She even includes a little trademark ‘author pic’ in each book, an illustration of herself. Sometimes she is writing, other times presenting the book to the dignitary who will receive the book, other times she is in her studio reading. Every time she is recognizable in the same dress, with the same hairstyle.


Reading to an appreciative audience


Her books included political treatises, epistles and poetry. She wrote several ‘mirrors for princes’—a genre instructing nobles in correct moral behavior. She infamously wrote literary criticism in Le Dit de la Rose (The Tale of the Rose) (1402), a sharp attack on the misogyny of the incredibly popular work Roman de la Rose (1275). This was followed by two more works that treat the role of women in society: The City of Ladies (c. 1405) and The Treasure of the City of Ladies (1405).


Building her City of Ladies


In 1407, Fortuna spun the wheel again and France was plunged into civil war marked by assassinations, revolts and massacre. The problem was (as usual) a succession dispute—the Armagnacs supported the line of Charles VI and his son; their rivals the Burgundians supported Henry V. Accordingly, Christina turned her quill to martial affairs. She wrote a manual of war Livre des fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410), which was translated into English in 1489 as The Book of Feats and Chivalry. In her last major work, Livre de la paix (1413) The Book of Peace., she directly addresses the Dauphin Louis of Guyenne encouraging him to continue in his quest for peace for France.


Harley 4605 f.3


Taking advantage of infighting in France, Henry V sailed into the estuary of the Seine in August 1415. The Hundred Years’ War  was on again, and on October 25 1415 had one of England’s big victories of the war at the Battle of Agincourt. In 1418, Christine de Pizan, a fierce French patriot, wrote a consolation for women who had lost family in the battle in her Epistre de la vie Humaine (Letter Concerning the Prison of Human Life).

Since Paris was occupied by the English at this time, it is believed that she spent her last decade in the Dominican monastery of Poissy. She stopped publishing—probably because she was now away from the court and book-production staff and equipment. However, she briefly broke her silence after Joan of Arc’s remarkable victory over the English at Orléans in April 1429 with Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). It is supposed that she died before Joan’s execution in 1430. 


Jeanne d'Arc
Miniature from between 1450-1500


Second-language Haircut

“Moy Español è mucho male.”

As you are probably aware, the above sentence is not Spanish, nor any known Earth language. It’s more of a linguistic hazard light, a feeble bleat meant to communicate regretful incompetence. And it is effective. Once my interlocutor gets a load of this drivel, everything becomes clear. Understanding dawns on his/her face and we either resort to fluent English or mime.


“Do you have a can opener?”


It occurs to me that a more dignified approach might to be say in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” The reason I don’t say that is that is seems like gross arrogance to come to a country where you don’t understand a word of the local language and then to suggest, in fluent and sophisticated English, that a stranger should speak yours. It seems friendlier somehow to gargle in such a way they know you’re an idiot but also that you mean well.


Ideally, we would all have the linguistic facility, reptilian eyes and devastating charisma of Viggo Mortensen. Alas, we don’t. However, a prudent traveler can take the sensible step of learning key phrases and vocabulary before even setting foot in a foreign clime. A seat-of-pants approach would be to carry a phone with a translation app or a bilingual dictionary. But if you really want to live dangerously, just do what I do—launch yourself on the public trusting in the essential kindness and profit-driven motives of local merchants and service providers, a small percentage of whom speak English.

A clever technique is writing down what you are going to say beforehand on a piece of paper. This was the tack I attempted this morning, before going to the hairdresser’s.

For the past week or so, shop owners have been addressing me curtly, narrowing their eyes, and having their security guards trail me, obviously suspecting me of pocketing their wares. I realized this was a sign that my appearance had finally gone from raffish to mangy and it was time to visit the salon.

So I went into the salon on Pueyrredón with my trusty piece of paper. There were two women behind the counter, both with very stylish, sharp haircuts. They gazed at me wonderingly with cat eyes. With a sinking feeling, I recited the spell:

Um, Me gustaría un corte de pelo en el mismo estilo por favor.”

They continued gazing at me, waiting.

“…y color?” I added lamely, hoping that would spark some response.




One of the women nodded brusquely and stalked to the back of the salon.

A minute later, a kindly man came along and poked his face near mine. It is a given, and I am generally reconciled to it, that there is no such thing as personal space in a hair salon. Strangers have to touch your head and you have to let them; it’s a fact of life, a mutual agreement such as the one between cleaner wrasse and tang. I thought he might be near-sighted and wanting to look at my hair, so I put my head down, accidentally head-butting him. Not to be deterred, in he came again.

“Salute!” he explained.

“Ah!” I replied. The kissing business.


It’s got to be done. Those dead scales aren’t going to eat themselves!


In Italy, you greet your friends with a double kiss, first on the right, then the left. It takes some getting used to, but it’s a nice way to meet people you know. I didn’t know this hairdresser, but when in Argentina do as the Argentines do, so I went for his right cheek.

Bop! Another blow to his nose.

It turns out that in Argentina, people (even strangers) kiss, on one cheek only. As I’d gone to the right, he’d gone left and a collision had ensued.

After this piece of horrible slapstick, I was led to a chair and the procedure commenced. During the lull, I thumbed through the magazines, ¡Hola! , the Argentine edition of Hello!, which was bursting with stale news about luxury dream homes, European royals, local polo stars and Scarlett Johansson, who visited Buenos Aires with her boyfriend carrying a bottle of water just like a local. This much I gathered from the photos.

Then over to the sink, where a girl with surprisingly strong hands washed my hair as I gazed up at a poster of a woman with golden hair flying in some indoor gale. Then back to the chair, where the excess hair came off, courtesy of the kissy man.

The last few minutes of a haircut are always a bit of a trial, as I know I will be expected to actually look in the mirror and make some kind of pleased, effusive gesture. It’s unpleasant looking in mirrors—I already know more or less what I’m going to see and it is not something to make whoopee about. Nevertheless, the dread hour grew near and had to be faced.

“You like?” I heard, with a hint of hurt feelings that I wasn’t already hopping up and down in my seat.

Glance. Smile. Nod.

“Oh yes! Perfetto! Mucho great! Prekrasyny!” 


Another kiss, this time without incident, pay, and leave. Misión cumplida.


Borges’ City

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




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.


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”)






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.



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.




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.



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.)





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.



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”)




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.)





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.)




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”)




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”


“Lifelike” statue of Bioy Casales in La Biela café, Casales being Borges’ friend and frequent collaborator


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.





 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.




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.




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.




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. 




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.




Icecream Good

Very creamy.




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.