Tuesday, 21 October 2008

River Geography

Parts of the city begin to make sense to me. I relax into my own sense of bearings. I sense my street body language subtley shift from some (probably transparent) affectation of orientation to actual orientation. There is a satisfaction here, a kind of validation for a decision to see fewer places and to know them in some sense, over passing through many and not really knowing any of them at all.[1] 

At the same time there is a sense of loss too, as ‘my generation’ of hostel friends gradually depart, I am left more properly in my real context, essentially living alone with the few fine folk I have met who reside and exist here day to day. One month in, some phase passes through to another.

I’m aware that Buenos Aires is civilisation for those who have travelled from the north to the south (from Bolivia or Peru for example). Though new in so many ways I am experiencing something of a gentle introduction. Nonetheless it is an almost an equivalent shock to realise how quickly this familiarity finds me.

A few of the tricky questions creep in. What have I left behind? What exactly am I doing here? What is my purpose? Or the very quiet one at the back...What do I do when its done? I came here to travel and work. So slowly, as the shock of the new recedes, I find my head opening up in the evenings, as the beginnings of possible works come to me - works that will necessarily have to adapt to my humble environs and means, but works nonetheless….As if the city has been an enormous swell of river around me this last month; a river that has just begun to freeze over and I’m tentatively wondering if I can now skate on it a little. [2]

[1] One is ultimately a stale mate reflecting a certain lack of ambition or curiousity (in travelling terms) and the other is ostensibly a list of locations whose ambition defies any real sense of culture or experience. I suppose I only mention it out of a desire to acquire some kind of harmonious balance between the two.

[2] These times are curious because they are never willed. If I set time aside for ‘work’ I ultimately sit in the vacuum of my own silence and doubt for that allotted time. If however I set myself the task of falling asleep, then occasionally it will come, with all the ambivalence that that entails. (When that time precedes a day’s work I suffer an almost inseparable feeling of excitement and dread. It usually manifests itself in a comedy of lights going on and off, covers being flung around and pens being picked up and put down on pages of illegible scrawl. I suppose here I have the luxury of time, a little time at least where these moments are not in parenthesis to the rest of your daily life).

Miss Argentina

Last weekend I headed back to the hostel for pre-club drink or two and was introduced to Miss Argentina. A friend of a friend’s date it would turn out (himself a model, naturally enough). She’s only eighteen and, perhaps because of it, though poised, she is charmingly bereft of any of the haughty arrogance that I tend to associate with models ….She lives with her Gran, kindly corrects my verb conjugations and wants to try my Chesterfields (though she can’t be photographed with one).[1] Later, at the club, I momentarily flatter myself that she is looking impressed by my dancing, but more likely it was expertly disguised bewilderment.

[1] However I think my related anecdote about the scene in True Romance with Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper went some way over her head. (She probably wasn't born when it came out after all).

Monday, 20 October 2008

Some Random Observations

There’s a child who can’t be more than eight running around the subte with a kid of 18 months in his arms and a toddler of two at his heels. I can’t see any evidence of a parent. It’s getting so commonpace I almost don’t notice it…

Aside from the ubiquitous Kumbia being pumped out of seemingly every kiosk and clothes store around the city I have been plagued by the song ‘I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It’. I don’t know who it’s by but, despite my best efforts, after hearing even the merest snippet of it, I am unable exorcise it from my brain - for hours. It is made worse by the fact I can’t, or have subliminally refused, to retain any more than the chorus which subsequently swims around my head on this brief and nauseating loop involving cherry chap-sticks .

The only way you can use the bus in Buenos Aires is by having some cents or a peso coin for the onboard machine (you don’t deal with the driver at all). Most everywhere else, aside from the big supermarkets (and not always them by any means), it is difficult to get hold of any coinage. Apparently the metal is worth more than the value of the coin itself so there is a shortage. So a good portion of the inhabitants of this city are, like me, regularly lying to shop keepers that they only have a twenty peso note for a bar of chocolate and wander around scavenging for the smallest denominations of money they can get hold of to get on a bus.

Football is absolute obsession here. There are televisions everywhere and they mostly play football. Even when they don’t have the TV rights to the match you still get one and a half hours of panning shots of the crowd and some gratuitous shots of cheerleaders shaking their asses at half-time.

They get through an awful lot of plastic here, my shopping bag containing one loaf of bread and carton of milk will be put aside so that my bananas and 3 mini yogurts can placed in the next. They do however recycle. Around seven or eight in the evening groups of boys and girls or families (or both) sift through the litter in the baskets on the street separating out the plastic, card and paper. Then they load up a horse, a cart or a bicycle until it is virtually impossible to distinguish which of above it is, step out onto three lanes of traffic and head uptown to get it re-sold.

I have been perplexed by the amount of airplay Rick Astley seems to get here. I thought that the ginger fruit had been (justifiably) airbrushed out of pop history, even in his homeland, even largely out of eighties pop history. I’m even more perplexed by the fact that nobody else seems to have made the same observation and I get to thinking it might be God’s way of making me re-appraise his back catalogue.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Familia Zapataria

Second time at the Zapateria (shoe menders) in Buenos Aires. Fifth time in as many months for the same pair of shoes. Un-mendable, on any side of the world it would seem. It’s been much colder and wetter than I planned for, which, in the ultimate analysis is not saying a great deal. With the usual foresight I packed two other types of footwear – a pair of ridiculously fashionable white Fred Perry trainers and a pair of ridiculously unfashionable brown heel-less sandals. Both of which (aside from their being utterly impractical for the conditions and for the respective reasons above) I don't feel especially comfortable in. The Fred Perry’s in any case already look like two pantomime urchins at the end of my legs and smell horrible regardless of my increasingly fastidious attention to foot hygiene (which rather dampens their ‘of the moment’ appeal – for me and anyone else I imagine). The sandals are conversely odor free and also very comfortable indeed but every time I put them on I can't help imagining myself as an ageing bachelor in a Swedish pornographic film from the seventies (which, I don't know, could affect a small but crucial change in body language and somehow give me away) . I don’t need telling I’m a schmuck. So, in short, the shoes I can’t do without and besides I’m too attached to them to let them go.[1]

I returned to the same Zapateria. It’s a boring story to say why, suffice to say the lady there was not at fault on my first visit. I realized they needed surgery, not a band-aid and, I guess superstitiously, I was happy to go back to the site of a small but happy co-incidence. The woman greeted me with recognition and it was then I realized that the daughter and husband (ie: the whole family) were actually stuffed into this tiny space. They all miraculously disappeared into the half of the shop I couldn’t see and proceeded to perform the necessary work, which became known to me through a series whirrs and grinds and mutterings.

Realising that the task set would entail a good deal more time than my first appointment I took the opportunity to get a coffee from the small bar in the arcade explaining as best I could to the girl at the bar the reason why I wasn’t wearing any shoes. I finished my coffee and, after a fruitless attempt to make any clear sense of the newspaper on the bar, I returned to the Zapateria. As my shoes are being finished by the husband, the lady and her daughter engage me in a bit of polite chit-chat. I tell them of the difficulties of introducing myself as Guy in Spanish using the English phonetics (‘Hello, I am gay’) and my dislike of pronouncing it Guhy with the Spanish. This explained why I had come to use the name Guido on my Zapateria ticket  (it’s close and recognizable enough to be comfortable though naturally, with a spanish name, everyone then wonders why i speak it so badly). The mother then proceeds to tell me a long anecdote from which i managed to glean that she has a cousin who lives in the north called Guido who, it transpires, is as gay as they come. I leave the shop with sparkling new-old pair of shoes and the democratically elected name of Juan.[2]

An interesting post-script to this long and completely inconsequential story is that, when I returned to the arcade a week later (following a fruitless search for a cheap guitar around Corrientes downtown the week previous) I stumbled upon this lovely Argentinean classical guitar in the second hand shop literally next to the Zapateria. It cost me about twenty-eight English pounds with a bag. I have no idea how I’ll manage lugging it around Boliva, for example, but despite the total mundanity of this incident a feeling persists that it is a rather lucky spot  – utterly insignificant in most respects but momentarily significant to me.

[1] Here I must give thanks to the Baskott without whom, in the slightly anxious hungover fog that was my last two days in blighty, I would have packed only the urchins and the swedish pornos .

[2] I would hate for this to be read as homophobic in any sense. It’s a frequently distracting, albeit comic,  misinterpretation of my name and, even if I was gay, I think I might avoid such an admission as an opening gambit to a conversation.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

Short Story As James Bond

This gallery/residency is beyond the city limits, limits which are themselves extensive run seamlessly into the province also known as Buenos Aires, which is probably bigger than the UK  itself (I don’t really know). Though Avellenada sits to the south, only just over the river border, I have a hard time getting there. The 93 bus is cancelled. Not that there is any information to that effect, I just wait long enough to know it as an empirical truth. Instead I get a 95 heading in vaguely the right direction and a taxi from there. I’d been told, for my own security, not to get in anything other than a radio cab but it turns out the radio cab driver hasn’t got a clue where I want to go so I have to switch to a local firm – a guy who mercifully turns out to be a very lovely chap indeed. Avellenada is a rough round the edges industrial district. He thinks I’m a lost or at least a bit crazy for thinking there is anything like a gallery here and waits for me while I check I’m in the right place.

I ring the doorbell and it turns out I am. I’m suddenly a bit nervous – I don’t know anyone except Asli, one of the three artists showing. From an utterly deserted street I’m suddenly surrounded by lots of people – people who all seem to know each other very well. So between that, being largely bereft of any Castilian vocabulary for art and wanting to make a good impression - I’m feeling a bit shaky.

The house itself is rather lovely, a large L shaped building with a split level patio/terrace, studios and a kind of 70’s looking, open plan living space. It’s like a luxury portneño holiday home sandwiched between a mechanics yard and an abattoir. I guess the east end of London must have been like this twenty years ago. Even so, with a host of trendy folk swanning around this oasis in such an incongrous location I kind of feel like I walked into a secret criminal underworld hideout...SPECTRE’s den maybe and a guy with a white cat is going to come out and roast me slowly on an asado…until I talk art Castilano.

Aslı does a good job of putting my nerves at rest and introduces me to a few folk. I recognize one of the other artists showing from a night out in a club the previous week as well. I befriend an artsist from Norway. It turns out most of the people I meet speak English better than my Spanish which, though I needn't mention it again, is helpful but embarassing. In short I fudge through the evening well enough – but really there is no connection here yet and inevitably I have a few moments propped up against a wall on my own looking, in all proability, like I’m still waiting for a 93 bus. 

No Scene

Four doors down is the Argentinian equivelant of a working men’s club that’s full of artists dancing their tits off. It’s not a restaurant, it’s a room that sells food for eating it in - and I love it. There’s nothing on the walls and a few unostentatious tables and chairs cover the part of the floor not occupied by the dancing crowd. The lovely couple behind the bar serve Quilmes (local lager) at seventy pence a litre (with those white plastic cups you got given orange squash in on your 7th Birthday), hot empanadas and some kind of apple and pear tart I forget the name of.

Opposite the bar there’s a DJ playing a selection of tunes so carefully sequenced that they belie their overall randomness.  I arrive with some kind of latin accented minimal electonica (that makes my hips twitch involuntarily) and left just after a slightly naff, but ultimately joyful clash of Mick Jagger singing ‘Paint It Black’ over a Sugarhill Gang sample. Like any self-respecting Englishman I don’t dance unless I am pissed out of my tree, but it’s is one of those rare nights when you feel like an idiot if you don’t rather than if you do.[1] It's the best club I’ve been to for ages. In fact it reminds me a bit of an Argentinian Tube Bar, and there’s not many better compliments than that.[2]

[1] I can’t abide the self conscious ‘half way to pissed but trying to look good shuffle’ stage and besides any picture I’ve ever seen taken of me dancing looks to all intents and purposes like I’m doing an ridiculously sincere impersonation of a dyspraxic turkey.

[2] Tube Bar was a club night that also used a Working Men’s Club as a venue and that was, at least initially, the antithesis of pervasive scene clubbing of the mid-nineties. The DJ’s were from the John Peel School Of Mixing and happlily played ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ back to back with ‘Up, Up and Away In My Beautiful Balloon’. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Hostel Characters (With Affection)


Argentinian, 23. Recently relocated ‘Journalist’ who never seems to have any work to do. Very little English. Possesses a thick drawled Rosario accent that makes him sound like a man twice his age and is utterly unintelligible to me most of the time. Hilariously screams down the walls of the hostel when Boca win, lose or draw (but bizarrely doesn’t seem to display the slightest curiousity in going out and seeing the city from which they herald). Speaks with genuine affection (and shows you numerous pictures) of his girlfriend back home whilst taking a wholly democratic interest in the continuous influx of pretty young backpackers passing through the place – with no small amount of success (allegedly). Thinks most modern and latin music is shit but is evangelical in his support of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and George Michael.


Belgian, 32, builder by trade. Has been everywhere you care to mention and is rightly proud of the achievement. Is an enthusiastic supporter of Pearl Jam, travel and meat – any kind of meat. Has a pathological tendency to pre-empt ‘Pedestrians Walk Now’ signals in a country for which traffic laws are a complete anathema. (Making me feel rather like his mother as a result). Shows incredible guile and altruism in hiding the ‘Before 11am’ breakfast comestibles from staff, to the grateful advantage of his later rising hostel mates. Is equally hospitable in his invitations for evening meals (which consistently involve meat) – a condition that seems to prevail regardless of whether or not you continue to live in the hostel. Couldn’t give a rat’s chuff for art or its discussion. Displays an irrational hatred of Radiohead given the fact he’s seen them five times. Is an excellent drinking buddy and a genuine, funny guy to hang out with. Eats an incredible amount of meat.


American (San Franscisco), 23, dropped out art student with a passion for alchohol, Hunter S Thompson and my cigarettes. Possesses a remarkable knowledge of the film Withnail and I (which I confess disproportionately biases him in my favour and from which we have been known to loudly quote at inappropriate times). Has a tattoo design derived from an album by The Mars Volta on his chest and seems to wear the same low V necked T-Shirt for weeks on end to make sure nobody misses it. Writes and seems inclined towards bouts of solitude and introspection when sober, lively and occasionally pretentious when drunk. Is relentless in his pursuit of a night out and inclined to call you a coward if you don’t share his enthusiasm (because he’s too scared to go out on his own). Is generally perceived as a bit of a mixed up kid who is younger than his years and over-compensating but, and I know how patronising this sounds, reminds me a bit of myself at 23 and, probably with a fair dose of warped narcissism, I can’t help liking as a result. An american that gets irony √. 

Friday, 3 October 2008


Twenty hours on a plane, all in. It’s a good opportunity to quit they said, and they were right. Another opportunity I didn’t take. Instead I spin out in the manner of a fourteen year old taking his first toke outside Buenos Aires airport fending off over-zealous taxi drivers with bad spanish.

I keep forgetting I am on the other side of the world. I’ve yet to observe the light encroaching into the evenings rather than receding – though I know it’s the onset of spring from the fiestas of Saturday evening. Its cold, a lot colder than I expected and slightly overfamiliar. Its very Europeaness belies its geographical remoteness – its not a new thing to say I know, but it is felt – uncannily felt.

Rolling tobacco is sold here, but clearly not often. It collects dust on the shelves of the Kiosks. The Argentinians disguise any curiousity they may have about you very well day to day – another European trait I guess. It does seem to attract their attention when I roll a cigarette though….its clearly associated with smoking pot and then presumably only in the dark corner of a club or in the privacy of one’s home. I think they take me for a disoriented or laissez faire Dutchman.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

I Like Where I Live

Morning. Warm. Bright sunlit room. Small white bare walls. Dappled brown tiled floor. A bed.  I entertain myself with the notion of having stumbled into Leonard Cohen's bedroom; like the photo on back cover of Songs From A Room when he lived on Hydra. The same kind of aesthetic. Aesthetic-Ascetic. The desk, minus the beautiful mischievous smiling blond siren in a towel. Oh well....

Evening. Silence. After Palermo/Santa Fe, a comparative silence at least. I’ve fallen in love with the dog, Mora...we hang around the house together while Juan is out, she plays still with uninhibited joy of a pup. I settle in to my cabin – the small solitary room above the patio, I move the few things I have around the few places I have to put them – why is it that even in a tent this is something of a remarkable pleasure? I enjoy my solitude – or that weird partial solitude you have with an animal. 


Walked from Palermo to the Microcenter today with the soles of my shoes flapping around in the many cavitities of the BA streets. More sense of bearings as a result. Happlily swanned through those typical tourist spots and landmarks – it's my third day, I’m not expecting the underground just yet. All the same I'm slightly underwhelmed in a way.

The biggest road in South America is very big, as expected; the phallic independence obelisk is phallic and obelisky. Plaza Mayo has a nice enough park I guess. [1] I can’t see most of these things. I can look at them but I don’t really see them, I’m like a robot in a movie trying to understand the 'humanism of tourism' or something, like all the looks before it have taken the colour out of it for me, removed something.

Even in the most beautiful places or when confronted by the most ‘breathtaking view’ I have to first transcend the postcard I’m sending myself - the photograph, the idiom is so well established I lose the sense-experience of it somehow…[2]

There’s a lot of arrogance here, in me. Actually I’m lacking the sufficient sense of history to make sense of what I’m looking at and I’m resisting it - holding out for something ‘real’, I kind of watch myself watching, thinking...'I can wander around these places today but I want to get behind the landmarks, get to something different, raw, authentic…'I get the fear I could be suffering from a terrible case of middle class traveller arrogance; I worry about bullshitting myself basically.…but I feel these things over documented, with good reason perhaps, but I am somehow largely de-sensitised to them, at least today - over burdened by ‘sights’. I think about Duchamp in that interview when he wondered when the Twentieth Century would finally kill off the ‘retinally obsessed’ art of the past….

Walking back. Shoe flappage has increased. Looking for a shoe-menders on Santa Fe, some loose tobacco in a packet (not as easy as it seems) and a mobile phone store (to get a local number SIM). I’ve long given up on the shoes when I wander into a small run down arcade with a ‘Claro’ mobile phone store at the end of the corridor entrance. Turns out they don’t sell the SIM’s but as I'm leaving I notice a tiny cobblers, the size of two english telephone booths virtually next door. This makes me smile; more so than an obelisk.

[1]  I’m also confused by its being almost completely unknown to the Buenas Airean’s, despite my best efforts with spanish pronounciation and the fact that it is completely famous. Finally I’m informed it is pronounced ‘Mashow’. Go figure, as the Americans have it  Today there  was some protesting war veterans  and art students. Not together mind. There are a lot of protests here I think. The culture seems more pro-active. Or maybe it’s just me. These people were certainly more proactive than me. 

[2] Is this a bit Baurillard or Barthes? Someone french – I wonder if Paris did it to them. In Paris I can’t see anything, its too pretty – I was glad when I finally got out of the centre and saw that scummy looking bridge where they filmed The French Connection – it seemed like real Paris, but then, what is it when my experience of the real Paris only extends as far as a seventies Hollywood thriller?

Listening To Music On The Subte

It’s been a long time since I listened to music whilst I am moving. I don’t know why, I just never got it sorted until now. I guess I have a kind of soundtrack in my mind most of the time, like most people; not always a welcome one (‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was one) but always a hovering, discrete one, regardless of whatever else I'm doing.

I suppose in hindsight it is a rather obvious point of reference for a young man travelling around, but I had Nick Drake’s ‘Place To Be’ on mental loop throughout my time in Spain in the late 90’s. This time it has been this Josephine Foster song ‘The Garden Of Early Delights’.

In fact this song is so timelessly, spellbindingly brilliant I can’t get enough of it and, as I got increasingly crammed into an airless pocket of the subte (tube), it still made a kind of ironic sense. This is such a common experience for most people that I feel like an idiot for mentioning it but later, as I’m being hurtled out to Avellenada by this semi-psychotic bus driver, this incongruous combination of movement and sound is an utter revelation to me. Through absence, or negligence, I’d kind of forgotten.