Capital city

September 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

I’ve been in Santiago de Chile since last Tuesday, gathering materials and ideas for the next stages of my PhD research. It’s proving to be a somewhat piecemeal process, moving forward in fits and starts, but very enjoyable nonetheless.

One of the pieces thus far has been Santiago’s annual international film festival, SANFIC, which ran from 25-30 August. I saw several really interesting films from Chile, Argentina, and elsewhere, and hope to blog about a few of them over the coming days. The first I want to mention, Showroom (Fernando Molnar, Argentina, 2014), is a pitch-black comedy about a man who, after losing his job, is forced to move his family out of Buenos Aires to the Tigre Delta, a fairly remote patchwork of waterways to the north. Desperate to pay off his debts to his uncle and return to the capital, he takes on a job selling apartments in a new high-rise development (via the showroom of the film’s title). While his wife and daughter grow more attached to the slower pace of life in Tigre, the man (Diego Peretti) becomes obsessed by his work and the aspirations he tries to instil in others. The results aren’t pretty.


I wanted to start with this film because, oddly enough, it helps me articulate some of the aspects of Santiago which I find disturbing. This is odd because Showroom is on one level a very Argentine film: Diego Peretti, the lead actor, is a renowned comedian in his country, and the film plays with a roster of national stereotypes: the uncle, for instance, is a typical vivo criollo, someone out for their own gain at the expense of all others, but who hides their individualism behind a  front of affability and backslapping.

The name of the new high-rise development the protagonist sells, Palermo Boulevard, is also a nod to a phenomenon specific to Buenos Aires: the ever-expanding list of subdivisions which have been added to the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo in an attempt to marketise place and atmosphere: Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood, Alto Palermo, Palermo Chico, Palermo Queens. This last one, it is worth noting, is simply the rebranding of a neighbourhood with its own historic identity: Villa Crespo.

So, much in Showroom has to do with the particular topography of present-day Buenos Aires. Yet in laying bare the ideology which presents quality of life as a form of capital, as accumulation of amenities (swimming pool, gym, security cameras) the film points at something which is easily visible on the other side of the Andes. In fact, as I walked out of the cinema last night, I passed a hoarding advertising a new development eerily similar to the one in Molnar’s film.

Santiago is, in short, a city full of capitalised spaces. The film festival took place in two enormous Hoyts multiplex cinemas, one of which is located in Parque Arauco, a gigantic, luxury shopping mall in a posh neighbourhood. An odd setting, perhaps, for a film festival. But then the organisers have little room for manoeuvre: there are, I think, three independent cinema screens in all of Santiago. One film I didn’t manage to see at SANFIC, Chicago Boys (Carola Fuentes, Chile, 2015), in a sense explores how this situation came about: how, under Pinochet, a group of economists helped turn Chile in a laboratory for free-market economics pushed to extremes.

I can’t leave things so downbeat, though. Santiago is not a city that lavishes its charms upon you at first meeting: it can feel a bit grey, a bit tired, a bit too in thrall to commerce. It holds back, demanding slower, more painstaking exploration. But the rewards are not insubstantial: today, for instance, I discovered the Barrio Yungay, full of elegant old houses and vibrant murals. There is, moreover, the constantly consoling fact that on a good day, you can stand facing north at any major intersection, turn to your right, and look up at the snowcapped peaks of the Andes.


Green silver

June 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

While the Eurozone is consumed by worry and gloom over the fate of its own currency, Buenos Aires’ middle class is expending a lot of energy protesting about someone else’s.

The protagonists of the ‘cacerolazos’ (pot-banging protests) of the last two weeks haven’t shown much concern about the strength of the Argentine peso – none of them really takes it seriously. What bother them are the ever-increasing barriers between them and their beloved greenbacks.

Since November of last year, the Argentine government has made it pretty difficult (now virtually impossible) to buy US dollars at the ‘official rate of around 4.5 pesos, set by the central bank. Why is this such a big deal? Well, because many Argentines, including the president and virtually every member of her cabinet, reckon the North American currency is a safer bet for their savings than the peso.

What’s more, many high-value transactions (like the sale of real estate) are always carried out in dollars, and in cash. (Just to make things clear, there is legislation currently in Congress which will likely change this, and the president’s declared her intention to switch her three million dollars of savings to pesos).

And why the restrictions? There hasn’t been any official explanation, but they’re generally seen as an attempt to stem the flight of capital from the country, which reached the hundreds of billions of dollars in 2011.

I have to admit that I continue to be somewhat bemused by all of this. The way Argentina works really has little to do with what us we citizens of the Old World are used to, despite the endless comparisons with Europe. One thing that stands out, though, is just how different people’s relationship with money is.

That last statement probably sounds so general as to be meaningless. So here are couple of examples: in Buenos Aires you can buy a toaster worth 28€ in 12 monthly payments, or a 38€ iron in six. Spending is made to seem as attractive, and cost-free, as possible. Saving is not the order of the day (week/month/year).

When people do save, it tends to be in their ‘colchón’ (mattress), a word which sometimes has its literal meaning, and sometimes functions as a metonym for any number of household objects. There’s a story about a woman who kept thousands of dollars in a flowerpot on her balcony, and many others about people hiding safes behind plug sockets, under floorboards or buried in the garden.

It would be hard to blame the Argentines for their preference for hard currency. After all, the 2001 economic crisis gave them good reason to distrust the banks.

It’s just striking that all this goes on in a country named after a mythical source of of silver, lusted after by the Spanish conquistadors. With money such a visible and polemical element of daily life, Argentina lives up to its etymology.


Dancing in the Cathedral

September 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

I’d thought of writing a post about what tango means today in Buenos Aires – whether it was just a half-dead tradition kept on a ventilator for the tourists, or something more vibrant. I’m not going to go into any sort of detailed discussion, though, because a) I don’t know nearly enough to make it worthwhile, and b) Wikipedia is always close at hand.

So I’ve gone for a bit of story-telling instead, which should hopefully shed some light on tango too. Last night, some friends from my house asked me whether I wanted to go to a milonga (a gathering in a café or bar where people listen and dance to tango). This wasn’t a difficult decision to make, and I ended up trumping  their offer by saying I’d go a bit earlier to the place for a dance class and meet them when they got there.

The venue, La catedral, is a warehouse in the district of Almagro which rests, like half of the city, under a web of coloured graffiti. It deserves its name, though. Going inside felt like stepping into a temple to tango, in an alternate dimension. Behind the rusted metal door to the street, I encountered a fat bearded man squeezed behind a shabby table. I asked about the 9 o’clock class; I was just in time.

“The nine o’clock class starts at ten.”  Unforgiving looks from both the man and the cat curled on a half-collapsed sofa in the corner. Fine, I could come back in an hour.

“Or you could take a ticket now and wait upstairs.” Not a question, this. It all seems a bit obvious in retrospect – of course the class would be an hour late, of course I’d have to take a ticket and wait, like you have to for everything else here. I went to buy a magazine to read, paid my 20 pesos, and went upstairs.

The portal to the other dimension must have been just before the first floor. Once through, I found myself in a colossal dance hall with a wooden floor and an enormous vaulted wooden ceiling. On the walls, next to pipes and wires, hung guitars, paintings, bicycle wheels, photographs (I spotted Che, of course). Above the dancefloor, an improvised metal candelabra housed multicoloured bulbs.

I sat down near the bar, changed chair for one that seemed less likely to collapse, and ordered a coffee. There wasn’t enough light at my table (barrel) to read by, but luckily enough my coffee came with a candle. I remember thinking that people must have ruined their eyes in the past. I was just thinking about how the ceiling and its beams reminded me of a Cambridge college dining hall when I noticed that in my copy of Newsweek Argentina there was an article by Lord Eatwell, the President of my college at Cambridge. Strange coincidences, in this dimension.

The tango class was not exactly a success – it took me far too long to work out that my legs are about 50% longer than anyone else’s – but afterwards I found my friends from the house, and we sat drinking wine and watching the dance. It’s wonderfully intimate, and watching couples of all ages enjoy the music and each other’s movements seemed really heart-warming (or maybe that was the wine). A bit later there was a live orquesta típica and singer on the stage, which was piled with layers of boxes, and topped with a enormous poster of the inescapable Carlos Gardel.

There were a fair few tourists there, but plenty of porteños too (and not, I think, just men investigating foreign talent). I decided, at about 2am and with the help of the wine, that tango is in a sense for tourists, that not all young people like it, but that it is clearly a whole lot more than that. Between the music, the lyrics to the songs, and the dance, all of which are constantly changing, there is an entire culture.


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.





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?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Buenos Aires at Thoughts in Colour.