I’ve never really been too fond of Argentina to be honest. Be it the hangover in the British press from the Falklands war, an uncanny ability for their national team to knock us out of World Cups, or the fact that they’ve always seemed a bit rugged alongside their glamorous Brazilian neighbours, it’s just a country I’ve never held in a massively high regard. The problem is I don’t think I’d ever particularly fit in. Despite there being a couple of obvious Argentine stereotypes that I can relate to, that being my love of steak and my football skills often being compared to Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi (OK, I like steak at least), there’s not much else there for me. Tango dancing? I have about as much control over my legs as a horse thrown from a plane. Red wine? Try as we might we seem to continually fall out. Rugby? Just no.
But here we were in Buenos Aires and despite the knowledge that we’d not likely feel too much at home, we would give it a damn good go. Our first job was to grasp the complexities of the vast bus network, and we’d been advised that on arrival we should obtain a copy of Guia T, the local bus bible and proceed from there. As we often tend to do when given sound advice, we opted to ignore it and chose instead to spend much of our time stood at bus stops scratching our heads, or watching the place we intended to go disappearing out of back windows. Nevertheless, at around 25p a journey our extra time on the buses was time well spent.
Our first such journey led us to Recoletta cemetery where we took a slightly morbid tour of the elaborate mausoleums of Argentina’s dead political heroes, most famously including Eva Peron. I doubt many people have ever visited the cemetery, visited Evita’s grave and not realise that they’d even seen it, but we did. As graves go it was a touch underwhelming, but I won’t hold it against her. Someone who is definitely not among Argentina’s dead political heroes is our very own Margaret Thatcher, and it was thanks to her that we’d felt a slight apprehension about being ‘found out’ as English here, what with the recently resurfaced Anglo-Argentine tensions. But we needn’t have worried a jot. To a man, every single local encountered was welcoming, but none more so though than our guides Lucy and Diego, a recently exiled friend from home and her Argentine husband Diego. Having shared a beer with them in the sun dappled Serrano Square and taken us around the cemetery, they then set about ticking off a few local food and drink habits for us, and we were more than happy to oblige.
First up was Maté. If you think drinking tea is a national obsession only in England, then think again. Take some loose tea leaves and pack them into one cup, add a drop of hot water and a bizarre straw for filtering, then find some friends in just about any social occasion you like, and you’ll be about there. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, there’s plenty of rules and etiquette (DO NOT stir the straw!), but while we did it in the park; we saw people drinking as they walked down the street, working in shops, and even driving! “Want a drink from the petrol station?” “No thanks amigo, I’ve got a brew on the go”. It seems tea is a serious Maté here.
The other thing they most certainly take seriously here is meat, and I’m delighted to say our second taste of traditional Argentine cuisine was an Asado with Diego’s family. Within a huge brick Parilla (pronounced Pareesha) large slabs of meat, racks of short ribs, chorizo and blood sausage were cooked over burning embers to perfection, all washed down with Fernet, a dark, pungent spirit. They eat late around these parts, and as midnight came we broke to sing happy birthday to Diego’s father, applaud the chef and then finish it all off with coffee and Dulce de Leche biscuits. It was as fascinating as it was fun and we were hugely grateful to have experienced it all.
We took the remainder of our time in Buenos Aires to soak up what we could of the city. It’s a place that is sexy as it is edgy, glamorous with a scaly underbelly. No more so was this the case than in La Boca, a place we were told repeatedly not to stray from the tourist areas. So yeah, we cocked up the buses once again and as result soon found ourselves walking several blocks through eerily quiet streets daubed with graffiti, where thickset youths scowled at us from the shadows. As we came round a corner to see a mob of people coming at us, I have to say we’ve never been so glad to recognise them as a busload of American tourists. The area we were after, Caminito, was as vibrant as we’d hoped; foreigners mingled amongst hawkers and tango dancers amid a surrounding of Spanish guitars and walls washed in the deep yellow and blue of the famous Boca Juniors, their iconic La Bombanera a couple of blocks away. From there we made for the cobbled streets of San Telmo, before taking a dog turd dodging stroll up to Plaza De Mayo, home of the Casa Rosado from which Evita Peron made her famous speech, now forever immortalised by Madonna. I bet she’s delighted.
Buenos Aires had been extraordinary to visit; the people, the glaringly apparent socio-economic issues, the food (Empanadas!), the melting pot of cultures – everything combined to make an irresistibly heady mix, and I even managed to patch things up with the red wine. Our visit had been all too short, but even in that time I had confirmed as expected that my previous view of the country was that of an idiot. From here we were due north. The Iguazu falls awaited and then into Brazil, a country where the only two things I have in common are eating steak and the fact I’m often compared to Pele and Ronaldinho. But you know what? This time I think I’ll fit right in.