Indoors outdoors

August 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

I promised the next post would be about mate, and it is, amongst other things. Yesterday, I managed for what must be the first time since arriving in Buenos Aires to have a completely relaxed day. I didn’t leave the house once, which sounds like it would be depressing and claustrophobic, but wasn’t because luckily my house looks like this:

My room.


Big fan of brick


Dining room


Stairs leading to...


La terraza


With all-important parrilla

I spent a large part of yesterday afternoon on the terrace (hence lack of claustrophobia), drinking mate with housemates and reading Rayuela by Julio Cortázar. The two things in order: mate is a sort of tea made from a herb of the same name (the cup you drink it from is also called a mate, which is confusing). You fill the cup with leaves and stems and insert a metal straw called a bombilla, so it looks a bit like this:

You pour water in from a thermos, refill when you’re done and pass it round. Thermos sales in Argentina must be colossal – people drink mate in groups in their houses, in parks, in the street – and, I’m told, in cars, passing it between driver and passengers. It seems the quintessential social ritual – and the preparation is complicated enough to require a fair bit of initiation. You have to tilt the leaves to a 45 degree angle, and the water, while hot, absolutely must not be boiling. My technique still requires some work.

Element number two of my non-claustrophobia was Rayuela (Hopscotch in English). It’s a bonkers novel, really, where you skip backwards and forwards between chapters, and between Paris and Buenos Aires, via musings on the nature of art, chance, leaves and just about everything else. But it’s also glorious, largely because Cortázar’s sentences are so wonderfully crafted, each one with the rhythmic precision of verse. (I’m getting a bit carried away). The novel is very much of its moment (the 6os) in its willful experimentation – but Cortázar manages better than just about anyone to use formal fireworks to convey a psychological or emotional effect.

One example, not from Rayuela but from another story which uses a 1st person plural narrator to tell the story of a failed romance:

Nunca habremos hablado de esto, la imaginación nos reúne hoy tan vagamente como entonces la realidad. Nunca buscaremos juntos la culpa o la responsibilidad o el acaso no inimaginable recomienzo.

Which in English is something like:

We will never have talked of this; imagination brings us together today as vaguely as reality did then. We will never look together for the blame or the responsibility or the perhaps not unimaginable new start.

I’m wittering on – Julio has this effect on me. One important I did take from yesterday, though, was that I am very glad to be writing my year abroad dissertation on Cortázar. Travelling companions don’t come much better.

P.S. A housemate just sent me this, which I can’t resist sharing. Tango and Cortázar. Genius.


Beyond the city

August 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Bit of a gap since my last post – no real excuse other than bad organisation and…well, bad organisation. Classes at the university have more or less got going, despite another couple of ‘bomb threats’, I’ve continued to meet people, explore the city and generally enjoy myself. Last weekend I did however reach a point where I needed a break from Buenos Aires – as fun as it is, it can be a bit overpowering (particularly if, like me, you’ve never lived in a big city before). There isn’t a huge amount of green space either, at least not close to where I live.

My destination of choice, then, was Rosario, a city in the province of Santa Fe, and 4 hours from the capital by bus (peanuts, in Argentine terms). It’s not renowned as one of Argentina’s top attractions, but it certainly served a purpose. Which was partly to reassure myself that Argentina existed outside of Buenos Aires (it does, and it’s flat and grassy, from what I’ve seen). It was also partly to have a couple of days in a quieter environment, to let me catch my breath. It was perfect for that, since it’s got most of the attributes of a city like the capital  – stylish old buildings, trendy cafés, bars, galleries and theatres – but on a smaller, more tranquil scale.

The big draw for me, though, was the river. The Paraná is the second-biggest river in South America (I’m not sure by what measure), and the area along its banks in Rosario has been redeveloped and has lovely parks, restaurants etc. The Monday I was there was a bank holiday, so the whole town was out along this strip of greenery, sunbathing (with mate, of course), playing games, or eating food from the several family-run grills scattered around. The atmosphere was , it was sunny, and I finished reading Middlemarch. All in all, a good trip.

There are photos of Rosario (and some new ones of BA) here.

I realise as I write that I’ve mentioned mate a couple of times now without explaining what it is. It’s a herbal tea which the Argentines drink religiously (not really an exaggeration – the social ritual involved in preparing and drinking it is amazing). A subject for the next post, I think.

Another subject for a post is tango – I’ve been enjoying the annual festival at the moment, and went to an astonishingly good concert by Néstor Marconi on Thursday. Until then, here’s a taster:

So why are you studying here?

August 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

…I have been asked several times in the three weeks I’ve been here. Not an unreasonable question, and one with no immediately obvious answer, beyond the fact that I had to do something, somewhere for a year. But as it turns out, I think the faculty of philosophy and literature at UBA (Buenos Aires’ public university) will work quite well for me. There are some great teachers and courses – and it’s not quite like university at home, which I reckon is a good thing.

In fact, one of the more common discussions I seem to have with friends and family in the UK is over what a university should be for, what ‘university’ really means. This may not the place to wade into the depths of that debate (but please comment if you disagree!), one thing I have clear now is that ‘university’ in Argentina means political activism, or an appearance of it, on a scale quite unlike anything in Britain. Here are a few photos of my faculty to illustrate (not mine – from here):

As the last photo suggests, it’s not just a question of politics, but of very left-wing politics: lots of slogans about revolution and solidarity. In the run-up to the elections this past Sunday, I was a bit bewildered by the sheer variety of different socialist parties on offer: the workers’ movement, the socialist workers’ party, the ‘Consequential Left’ (my favourite). Admittedly I don’t think any of these have much force in the country or even the city, but they clearly mean something within the faculty.

Do I wish Cambridge was more like this? Not really, but it makes a refreshing change from the dinner jackets at the Union. And it’s nice to know that some people in the world are daring to think beyond the standard Western capitlalist framework (regardless of whether you think they make any sense). Oh, and they have a good sense of humour:

This is not a chair

Of course, you might equally say that they’re conforming to a standard student type in an entirely predictable way. Once I know some more people there I’ll have to ask – though from what I’ve heard from other porteños (Buenos Aires residents) the faculty certainly has that reputation.

The other reputation is has, which I’ve already had confirmed through personal experience, is that of organisational chaos. Last Friday afternoon, I was scheduled to have a class in ‘Problems in Latin American Literature’, but five minutes after the lecturer had started, an alarm went off. A student popped round to tell us to evacuate the building, and everyone grabbed the things and sauntered downstairs, merrily commenting that it was another bomb alert, what a nuisance, and that we’d have to wait a couple of hours for the police to come. So wait we did, hundreds of people completely blocking the street outside, but at the end of two hours the police hadn’t come and the impromptu group I’d become a part of decided to call it a day.

As far as I understand (and no one was really sure what was going on), it was nothing more than someone calling the police for a laugh. But I also gather it’s a pretty frequent thing (‘practically every Thursday last term’, I heard someone say) – not that the police can ever just discard it. One day there might be real wolf…though I suspect it would probably pick some juicier targets first.

What else have I been up to in the last few days? I’ve seen a couple of films (one – Ausente – excellent, and the other – Copie conforme – good but utterly bewildering). We had a somewhat larger than expected party at our house on Saturday night, and I have generally been enjoying the company of locals and fellow foreigners. I looked back at an old message from a friend about BA the other day, where she said she thought it was impossible to be lonely here. I’m sure that’s not quite true, but from my own experience of people’s warmth and buena onda, I can’t really help but agree.


August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

In keeping with my aim to keep posts focused, here’s a bitesize topic to start me off: time. Don’t worry, I’m not just going to blather on about lax Hispanic attitudes to punctuality (though – warning – this may figure). To start on a slightly different note, one of the biggest lifestyle differences I’ve noticed here is that people stay up late. Really late, in fact. And that, coupled to the fact that I’ve never been the best person at getting an early night, means that I’ve been suffering not so much from jet-lag as from culture-lag. It seems that bed at 2 on a weeknight is fairly near the norm – which makes me very glad that I haven’t got any university classes in the morning.  Weekends and nights out are another story entirely – it’s unheard of to set foot in a club before 2am, and they all stay open until 7 or 8 (as do some bars!). It didn’t take long for me to decide that my hereto rock-solid rule of not staying in bed past 12pm only applied to the Northern Hemisphere.

Last week, I was invited to a military dinner at a base in the province outside the city. (Brief diversion – I was a invited by a guy in the choir which I have somehow, already, found myself singing in. People are so warm and friendly here it’s staggering). The event was very memorable – I doubt I will ever forget the sight of a fully-uniformed colonel bopping along to reggaeton. Needless to say, though, it was as late as any other social event here – we tucked into main course at midnight. I’d been out the night before, so sadly wasn’t able to throw myself into the mini-disco (between courses!) as much as I would have liked. I’ve never been one for daytime naps before, but I can feel the siesta becoming very tempting.

I mentioned that I haven’t got any university classes in the morning, and in fact having them run really late into the evenings seems to be the norm. This is in part because many of the students at my faculty also work. Luckily I seem to have avoided any 11pm finishes, but yesterday I got out at 9…after just two classes of four hours each.

Admittedly (and this is where the above warning applies) four hours, after a 30 minute delay in starting and and ’15’ (40) minute break in the middle, rapidly becomes more like 3. Still, maintaining concentration in what is essentially a lecture for that length of time is not something I’m used to, particularly in a foreign language.  That said, the second class, which was in film aesthetics and really, really interesting, went much more quickly than the first, which was  in ‘Latin American thought’, but was in fact very theoretical and quite heavy going. It felt slightly strange to have left to Cambridge to listen for 3 hours about the approach to intellectual history of the Cambridge school.

Lots more I want to write about the university – but that will have to be for tomorrow. Off for an ‘asado’  (barbecue) now with friends – the 12pm rule may be in danger tomorrow.






August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

are now up here:


with more to follow soon. As will another blog post, I hope.


Noticias del sur

August 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

News from the South have been a long time coming. I arrived in Buenos Aires nearly two weeks ago, and this is somehow the first time I’ve managed to carve out a space to write a blog post. In my defence, those two weeks have been a whirlwind of new places, new people, frantic room-hunting and all sorts of bureaucracy. But now I’m settled in a lovely big house in San Telmo, the oldest district of the city, and life is slowly taking on some semblance of a routine. So here we go:

I arrived last Monday evening, in the middle of an enormous storm that caused two deaths. The lashing rain and apparently endless high-rise towers seen from the motorway didn’t give the best first impression, but things started getting better the moment I walked out of my hostel front door on Tuesday morning and saw this:

which is called the Palacio Barolo, is enormous and was apparently at one point inhabited by just one person. It’s not the only grand building on the Avenida de Mayo, which is one of the main streets in the centre of the city and, like so much of Buenos Aires, lends itself to some rather nice photographs. Putting them up on here is turning out to be a bit of a chore, so I’m probably going to find a less painfully slow way of uploading them.

Buenos Aires feels like a slightly warped version of Paris or Madrid, a city where fancy French architecture sits alongside fading Spanish colonial houses, which themselves brush up against  1970s concrete monstruousities. The blocks and avenues seem carefully planned, but not what sits in them. Another distortion: the Argentines eat for breakfast medialunas, which look exactly like croissants but are deliciously sweet. Sweetness seems a national strongpoint, in fact, what with dulce de leche and alfajores, which I reckon might just be the best pastry-cake-things yet crafted by man.

Ridiculously good

BA’s fancy cafés and cake shops, monument-studded parks and museum-piece underground trains make it hard to connect with the South America I lived in two years ago (rural Peru).  On the surface, there isn’t much at all in common – just a few clues in street names, (some) Latin American Spanish words and an all-consuming obsession with football. That said, ask me the same question in 10 months time, and there will probably be a very different answer.

As of Monday, I’ll be studying at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. I’ve been to the building a few times now, and it feels like a timewarp back into the 60s (I’m thinking May ’68 in Paris – there are socialist banners and slogans everywhere, student movements huddled round tables in every corridor). A nice change from Cambridge, then – and the courses I’ve chosen (in film, philosophy and literature) look to be very interesting, if pretty weighty.

There’s so much else to tell already, from food to music to politics (currently inescapable). I’ll try to make subsequent posts a bit less rambling and more focused on one or two things in particular. In any case, Buenos Aires seems full of all parts of life, and will, I think, be a great place to spend a year.

Where Am I?

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