Postcard from Argentina: part two

By | Category: Travel destinations

Kaye’s constant quest for adventure has taken her back to Argentina – the land of gauchos, glaciers, futbol, tango and beef

Continued from last time

Buenos días from Buenos Aires. And what a beautiful morning  – think blue skies and balmy temperatures – it is here in Argentina’s charismatic capital, whose alluring lifestyle revolves around cafes, culture and all things cosmopolitan.

I love that the Paris of the South – a city with no end of places to go, things to do and people to see – still has the type of shops that have pretty much vanished from British high streets.

I’m talking independent bookstores, butchers, bakers, green grocers, repair shops, hardware store, proper cafes (Costa doesn’t count) and post offices.

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I love living in a town where I can stroll to individual shops each day to get my Cortado (essentially a shot of espresso, with an equal amount of steamed milk) and alfore (a divine Dulche de leche cookie) fix and fulfil my errands. Ok, so I am not sure I actually ever stepped foot in a butchers back home – being a lifelong veggie and all – but I rather miss them now.

What’s more, I miss picking up a local paper too. A staggering 150 local papers have folded since 2008 – a stat that fills me with sadness. Sure as a journalist, I have a vested interested in the survival of papers but even so I genuinely don’t think that there is any institution as important as the local paper which serves as a vital link for the area’s residents, telling them what is really going on in their community. By contrast Buenos Aires cherishes its newspapers and books (not for nothing, is BA known as the book capital of the world).

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All of the aforementioned (and more) led me, last year, to state that Buenos Aires may just be my favourite city. It’s a bold assertion but I stick by it, which is not to say that there haven’t been hiccups. My apartment has been plagued by power cuts this past week  (every morning  when I ask when  electricity will be back, I’m told: “mañana” …) Meanwhile my shiny new iPhone was recently stolen at La Bompa de Tempo (a percussion concert that is fast becoming one of Buenos Aires’ biggest and best parties). Argentina – for whatever reason – has banned the sale of iPhones meaning that Apple products are irresistible to the city’s pickpockets.

But perhaps the fact that my smartphone was stolen at a party that was packed – even on a Monday night in January – just underlines my belief that nowhere produces drama quite like Argentina.

Case in point? I thought Monday’s party was off the scale but according to my Mati, my Argentine mate, it was a tame evening out. Reader – it was anything but your average Monday night. At 2am the band – all brass and bongoes – were belting out Argentine rhythms mixed with Central American and African beats from the stage, while the crowd was giving it large on the al fresco dance floor. If Mati wanted to show me a quiet night, he took me to the wrong place.

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But while La Bompa de Tempa might have been buzzing, I will allow that the streets of the Paris of the South aren’t packed with quite as much excited chatter (studies by the World Health Organisation have shown that Buenos Aires is the noisiest city in Latin America) as usual.

Portenos tend to beat the summer heat by escaping to Mar de Plata – the premier Argentine beach destination – on the Atlantic Coast for the duration of January and February, despite having just had Christmas off. What can I say, the Argentines are lovers of life… How do/can they afford it? Well as the old adage goes: “An Argentine will make one peso and spend two.” All of which perhaps explains why Argentina seems to be stuck in a permanent financial crisis…

One Porteno who has stayed put is new president, Mauricio Macri. The former mayor of Buenos Aires defeated rival, Daniel Scioli (who shared the previous president Cristina Kirchner’s Peronist pedigree) in a run-off election late last year. If you read the international press, chances are you’ll be under the impression that Macri’s upset victory (he won with 51.4% over Mr Scioli’s 48.6% in the second round) prompted jubilant cries of “Vamos Argentina!” together with much fist pumping throughout Buenos Aires’ Parisian style apartments.

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And in many, it did. By and large the Buenos Aires residents I’ve encountered, are ecstatic that 12 years of Kirchnerismo (a political movement named after the late President Nestor Kirchner and his spouse and successor, Cristina) are over.

For while the Kirchners made a lot of progress – particularly in the early years –  in reducing inequality and unemployment and securing deals with some of Argentina’s creditors, it was under their watch that inflation surged to 30 percent and the poverty gap widened. Queen Cristina, as she was known, also had no trouble making enemies abroad (she famously called Britain a “crude colonial power in decline” and wrote an open letter – published as a full-page advert in The Guardian and The Independent – to David Cameron “in the name of the Argentine people”, calling for the UK to soften its stance towards the Falkland Islands).

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Speaking of which, whatever you do, don’t mention the Malvinas (Falklands) to an Argentine, all of whom have strong passionate opinions on the Falklands. Make no mistake: the amount of anger and sadness that still surrounds this conflict, has caught me by surprise.

The war took place some 30 years ago and yet posters reasserting Argentina’s claim to the  Falkland islands are a common sight on the streets of Buenos Aires. Meanwhile many young people – many of whom weren’t even alive at the time of the skirmish – sport tattoos of the Malvinas in the national colours. I was asked one evening, while out with an Argentine lawyer (Javier) who speaks five languages and has lived abroad in Brazil and America, as to what we Brits think about the Falklands. I tentatively tried to explain that the average Brit doesn’t really think much about the Malvinas at all, while simultaneously stressing that we respect the islanders right to self determination.

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Wrong answer – Javier’s face noticeably darkened. When I pointed out that all but three islanders chose to stay British in a March 2013 referendum, Javier exploded claiming that the referendum was redundant because the islanders are British. “What is the point of asking Brits if they want to be Brits? It is a waste of time” he exclaimed angrily and even went so far as to call the islanders “illegal settlers on Argentine soil.”

To the Argentines, it’s obvious that The Falklands belong to Argentina but were wrongly captured, occupied and defended by Britain. They see the islands are part of their identity – it’s tied up with their performance on the world stage – and can’t comprehend while Britain won’t just hand the islands back… Needless to say, largely due to our different opinions over the Malvinas, Javier and I didn’t make it to date two …

But back to Mr Macri,  the first centre-right leader to come to power since Argentina returned to democracy in 1983. As mentioned, many Argentines are thrilled by his victory, heralding it as a the beginning of a new era not only for Argentina but for South America. Since assuming power, the new president – a wealthy businessman of Italian descent – has promised to introduce more pro-business policies, cut deals with foreign creditors and forge closer relations with the US and UK (as opposed to Venezuela and Iran).

However his critics counter that under the “blue eyed millionaire businessman,” the country will return to “savage capitalism.” They aren’t making it easy for Macri: everyday a different street is closed with Peronists protesting the departure of ‘Queen Cristina’ who controversially chose to skip the swearing in of her successor.

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Not that Macri is exactly a colourless character himself… The 56 year old business man, who is estranged from his Father and has described his Oxford-educated wife, Juliana Awada, as “insatiable” in bed, was kidnapped by rogue police for 12 days back in 1991 – an experience that prompted him to consider entering the world of politics. First though, the thrice married Macri entered the world of football as president of Boca Juniors (Maradona’s club) from 1996-2008, before becoming mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007 (he was re-elected again in 2011).

It’s early days but after a dark decade there is, with Macri at the helm, a sense of optimism in Argentina right now and a real feeling that the future is bright.

Of course Argentina being Argentina, it’s impossible to say whether this period of peace will last…

Talk to you in two weeks!

Kaye

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To read part one of Kaye’s Postcard from Argentina series, please click here

Words and pictures: Kaye Holland

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