Buenos Aires: the shock of the familiar

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Sometimes first impressions are shaped as much by the place you just left as they are by the one you’re arriving in. I will always feel right at home in Australia because when I set foot in Sydney for the first time it immediately felt so much more British – or at least British – than California, which I had left fourteen hours thirty minutes and two days before on the other side of the International Date Line. As implausible as it sounds, I couldn’t quite shake the impression that United Airlines had deposited me in a giant, Pacific Rim Bournemouth, where the people were younger and the thermostat was set a little higher. It was a similar mélange of water, bungalows and affluence, though pies and Devonshire cream teas featured more prominently in Sydney than in southern England.

Something similar happened the day I first saw Buenos Aires.

We had left our hotel in Rio de Janeiro in a morning panic of heavy traffic and bad driving. With mountains restricting access to the central business district from its affluent coastal strip Rio’s rush hour is truly infernal; it makes London’s look like the joys of the open road. Despite his inability to steer a steady course our cab driver seemed determined to break a few world records – or necks – before the ride was over. Deposited early at Rio’s international airport, we had plenty of time to savour its damp, mouldering brutalist charms. My partner had an extended row with his bank in the UK by phone over its arbitrary decision to stop his ATM card from working. It was a dismal last taste of the cidade maravilhosa.

And then we arrived in Argentina and everything seemed to click into place. In contrast to the careworn, atrasado air of Rio-Galeão the Aeroparque Jorge Newbery created a snappy, businesslike first impression, with crowds striding purposefully across gleaming tiled floors. Gone were Rio’s exotic hills and dramatic beaches: in their place was architecture, something which had seemed almost incidental in Rio, for all Oscar Niemeyer’s efforts.

My sleep-deprived brain was back in Europe. On the smooth flight from Rio to Buenos Aires we’d fallen through a wormhole and somehow disembarked in a well-chosen anthology of the European Union’s Greatest Hits: Paris meets Madrid with an Italian accent, echoes of London and an unexpected schluck of upmarket Düsseldorf – sometimes all in the same street.

That feeling of ‘which continent is this?’ was to stay with me for the duration of our time in Argentina’s capital. It was reinforced that first afternoon on the Avenida de Mayo. Buenos Aires’ principal boulevard is a stunt double for the Champs Elysées and prima facie evidence of the city’s claim to be the Paris of South America, from its Subte metro stations to its turn-of-the-century arcades and impeccably Haussmann elevations. We stopped at an ice cream parlour; the gelato was delicious. We were surely in Italy?

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But the red cast iron postboxes were British through and through, their manufacturer’s names that intriguing mix of Hispanic forenames and British family ones that underlined how comfortably the Anglo- prefix once sat with the Argentine. The vast, derelict Harrods in Calle Florida is so fine and so central it’s a wonder the parent company hasn’t thought to reopen it. Everywhere there were branches of a clothing company whose brand name – Kevingston – paid unintended (if somewhat abbreviated) tribute to the glory of London’s former mayor. The smell of the Subte, the look of its century-old stations, the resigned, bored look of its commuters: all of these whispered ‘home’ to a misplaced Londoner.

Lovely, colonial San Telmo bore the stamp of Spain still, but the sleek dockside towers of the nearby Puerto Madero were Germanic in their smartness and modernity, complete with Mercedes dealership.

Where Rio’s rugged terrain and incomplete public transport had made exploring it a challenge, Buenos Aires was an easy city to explore on foot. And as we did so it became increasingly obvious that it has charms all of its own, which don’t need constant reference to European originals to give them meaning: vibrant painted facades in La Boca, Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood, the shock of subtropical colour that Jacaranda blossom lends those Parisian-style boulevards; the disarming warmth and friendliness of the people.

But inevitably, first impressions linger, even in a city as large and sophisticated as this. And all things considered, Europe’s Greatest Hits isn’t such a bad place to start.

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In the midst of death, we are in life: the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires

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ɪɡˈz(j)uːb(ə)r(ə)nt,ɛɡ-/

adjective

adjective: exuberant

  1. full of energy, excitement, and cheerfulness.

Can a place of burial ever be full of energy and excitement? I think the answer is yes, but only if it’s in Buenos Aires.

Cemeteries tell you a lot about a city. The Glasgow Necropolis, standing high and proud on a hill, is testament to the sheer confidence and economic clout of Scotland’s biggest city in the Victorian age, when it was the second city of the British Empire and the world capital of shipbuilding. The Art Deco gravestones at Vyšehrad in Prague tell you all you need to know about the optimism and sophistication of interwar Czechoslovakia. Père Lachaise’s roll call of artistic greats – among them Sarah Bernhardt and Colette, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde – speaks eloquently of how Paris was once the world capital of intellectual and creative endeavour.

But for sheer architectural swagger, none of these can touch the Recoleta cemetery in Argentina’s capital.

Laid out in the garden of a defunct convent in the early nineteenth century, Recoleta is strikingly urban; though it is in Buenos Aires’ most elegant neighbourhood this is no leafy garden of repose, but rather a compact précis of the city’s architectural ambition.

That ambition was grounded in firm economic foundations. Of late, the headlines would have you believe Argentina’s economy is a tale of pitiful diminuendo, though it only takes a short visit to Buenos Aires to realise the quality of life is rather sweeter than the headlines imply.

But from the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth Argentina was one of the world’s tiger economies, as beef and grain powered what had been a backwater of the Spanish colonial empire into one of the world’s richest nations. With wealth came sophistication, but a New World, hothouse sophistication which drew on the European traditions of Argentina’s immigrant-based society to create one of the world’s great cities. To walk the streets of Buenos Aires’ Microcentro is to rediscover Paris in the southern hemisphere, though it’s a Paris in which the buildings are taller, the domes more exaggerated, the sheer accumulation of architectural ornament that bit more luxuriant.

As with the city, so it is with the cemetery. Recoleta is an open-air exhibition of European funereal fashion, but with the volume turned up. Alongside Victorian Sentimental there is Gothic Revival of cathedral-like ambition, Beaux Arts, voluptuous Art Nouveau, Art Deco and even a hint of mid-century modernism. The overall impression is not so much one of mourning as of an affluent elite expressing the confidence of its class and nation.

Every great cemetery needs its icon. Recoleta has Eva Peron.

Located on a side avenue, the Duarte family tomb is elegant enough but by no means the most ostentatious in La Recoleta. Threaded with flowers and with small devotional plaques from keepers of the Peronist flame, it is the cemetery’s major tourist attraction. Evita’s route to her final resting place was famously macabre and tortuous. Her corpse disappeared for several years after her death, resurfacing under a false name in Milan and later accompanying her husband’s exile in Spain before finally being returned to her native Argentina in 1974. Even then, it was a further two years before she was interred in the Duarte vault.

Though in life they might have bridled at the thought, in death the cream of Argentinian society are buried alongside the woman once regarded as an upstart by the nation’s elite. They’re a disparate bunch, from admirals and patriots to actors and academics, and among the illustrious families there’s quite a scattering of Anglophone names – here a Campbell, there a Davison. What seems for the visitor to unite them post mortem is a shared commitment to sculptural and architectural display. And in the midst of death, there’s something really rather life-affirming about that.

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Sunday afternoon at the Iron Curtain

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It was Easter Sunday, 1978. An early lunch had been eaten; there was just time for a quick blast of fresh air before the relatives arrived for kaffee und kuchen.

It was a time of firsts for me. My first holiday without my family. My first trip outside the UK and my first visit to Germany. The beginning – though I didn’t know it at the time – of a lifelong relationship with that fascinating country and its people. I was a fourteen year old school exchange student who, with my classmates, had anticipated with eagerness swapping the mundane routine of life in England for the supposed exoticism of Schladen, in the Landkreis of Wolfenbüttel in the Land of Lower Saxony. My expectations had been confounded, for what struck me most about life in that quiet corner of West Germany was not the differences but how familiar so much of it seemed, from the brand names in the shops to the groups appearing on Musik Laden, the West German equivalent of Top of the Pops. Half a century of British-German belligerence had melted away in the shared experience of Kate Bush and Boney M, of teenage hormones and new best friends.

All this was about to be put into its geopolitical context. We piled into the Wolter family Mercedes and took off down the Schladen-Hornburg road, a route I had already travelled a dozen times during my short stay. Halfway between Schladen and the picturesque medieval town of Hornburg itself Herr Wolter made an abrupt right turn, taking a route that was narrower than the main road and which, after a short distance, became narrower still. The reason for this soon became apparent, for the road didn’t lead anywhere. Not any more. Though the village of Göddeckenrode could be seen clearly in the distance, it could not be reached. The way was blocked by a wire fence, a ploughed strip, soldiers – in short, the chilling paraphernalia of the inner German border; Churchill’s Iron Curtain in all its forbidding glory.

It wasn’t merely the fence, or a minefield, nor even the East German border guards barring the way; all the tectonic might of the East-West standoff rendered that country road to Göddeckenrode impassable. We pulled into in a little car park to the left of the road, just below a wooded rise on which stood a concrete watch tower. As we got out of the car the guards in the tower kept a wary eye on us – an unsettling experience, made surreal by the litter bins and advertisements for western ice cream brands that gave the car park something of the atmosphere of a tourist destination.

We didn’t stay long; the brute fact of the Iron Curtain aside there wasn’t much to see. I remember thinking that all the cozy familiarity of western life came to an abrupt end here. This was the end of the world. Later I learned that it wasn’t quite that simple. The previous autumn had been among the least cozy in West Germany’s brief history, as the authorities played a bloody game of cat and mouse with the Red Army Faction guerillas. And the western world of Abba and McDonalds, of Volkswagen and Adidas – my world – didn’t end quite as abruptly as I thought, for though the products themselves were not available in the east, the iconography of capitalism was. West German TV ensured the brand names were beamed freely into East German homes. Even so, Göddeckenrode was as physically remote as Vladivostok, though it lay a scant few hundred metres beyond the border.

It took me 29 years to finally reach that East German village. On a drive through Germany in the summer of 2007 I stopped for old times’ sake in Schladen. The farm where I had stayed, the nearby inn, even the village itself – all seemed familiar and unchanged. I wanted to see Hornburg again too, but before I got there, an unremarkable-looking side road caught my eye; though a quarter of a century had passed I recognised it immediately, and I turned right off the Bundestrasse 82. The topography had changed little: the same low, wooded rise, the same flat foreground. But the political landscape had changed utterly. Where once a fence and an army had barred the way, a simple stone now commemorated the reopening of the German-German frontier. As memorials go it was a little too low-key for car parks or ice cream advertisements. But the few minutes it took to drive the short distance into the village beyond it felt inexpressably momentous.

Happy anniversary, Germany.

What Clarkson should have seen in Argentina

In earlier times, there was a simple bit of advice that spared feelings on all sides when travelling in the land of a former enemy: don’t mention the war.

Tact and diplomacy are not the fashion now, and Top Gear’s adventures in the Argentine are an embarrassing reminder of just how hot things can get when you assume everyone shares the world view of a Daily Telegraph columnist. I’d really like to believe the professions of innocence; I’ve been a Top Gear fan for years. But I cannot. I just can’t quite swallow the suggestion that nobody on the BBC team realised the offending registration plate might actually offend.

The problem of course is that Top Gear has form on this kind of thing, leaving a trail of frayed feelings around the globe from Mexico to India in the wake of its otherwise highly watchable specials. So even if the innocence is genuine this time, many – like me – will not be convinced.

It all seems so unnecessary. In Buenos Aires they welcome you like a long-lost cousin, for the good reason that you might actually be one. Argentina is a very European society; there are many more people of British descent there than in the Falkland Islands. From a derelict Harrods to the red pillar boxes and a clothing chain apparently named after Ken Livingstone, reminders of Blighty are everywhere. Perhaps it’s different in Ushuaia. It’s an awful long way from the capital; evidently feeling on the Falklands issue runs hotter there.

And then there are the cars.

Like the country itself, Argentina’s car industry displays the fruits of successive waves of foreign influence, and the result is a series of mechanical hothouse flowers transplanted from their European or North American roots, from the Siam di Tella 1500 – a sort of 1950s Riley with spats and a Panama hat – to the VW1500, which is what a Hillman Avenger becomes when it sticks around long enough to have more facelifts than the late Joan Rivers. This estofado of influences produced one genuine classic, the IKA/Renault Torino. It’s a Rambler/Pininfarina hybrid with sleek Italian lines that look perfectly at home in the leafier streets of fashionable Palermo Soho. Juan Manuel Fangio drove one, and he’s automotive royalty.

The streets of Buenos Aires don’t have quite the same blend of American Graffiti and rust you’d see in Havana, for the simple reason that the cars are more often European in origin. Yet just like Cuba’s Cadillacs and Chevrolets, Argentina’s transplants have survived far longer in the benign local climate than they did in their countries of origin.

The result is a treasure trove of automotive exotica. And that’s something I’d quite like to see on Top Gear.

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King’s Cross Square: a place for us?

To King’s Cross on a sunny winter afternoon, to evaluate at first hand the new public space that has replaced the sorry mess of prefabricated mediocrity that blighted the front of the station from 1972. It achieved a certain notoriety on the night of the King’s Cross fire, when it became a visual metaphor for everything that was wrong with Britain’s dilapidated transport infrastructure as the Thatcher years reached their apogée.

When the new square was unveiled in the autumn of last year the London-based national press gushed with the sort of onanistic hyperbole only the truly parochial can do, lauding it as though the Piazza Navona had mated with the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center to produce the very acme of urbanism al fresco.

The truth is somewhat more prosaic. The square is handsome enough but it’s functional rather than decorative; more Ryanair Square than Place de la Concorde. There’s a distinct shortage of baroque fountains, hissing espresso machines and Audrey Hepburn lookalikes. And there’s little that can be done about the British climate.

The real surprise is how fine Lewis Cubitt’s austere station building looks now that it has been so splendidly refurbished. It is the pièce de résistance of the King’s Cross regeneration. The neighbourhood I called home from 1988 to 1991 is looking better than it ever did, and the new development is, for the most part, progressing with tact and sensitivity towards the area’s existing landmarks.

If I have a reservation about it, it’s that regeneration in London so often goes hand in hand with gentrification, which suggests British planners have yet to find a way of successfully reinvigorating existing communities rather than supplanting them with newer, wealthier ones. I can’t help but think that amid the welter of advertising agencies and tapas bars the existing working class King’s Cross is being quietly edged aside.  Perhaps it doesn’t pay to be too sentimental about the old King’s Cross: this was an insalubrious part of the capital where the traditional street trader’s cry wasn’t ‘who will buy?’ but ‘fiver with a rubber, dear?’

And yet I wonder where all this is heading. One day, when everywhere in inner London has been regenerated, gentrified or otherwise re-imagined for the affluent, where will the ordinary people live? Will they be told – as inner London residents are already being told by the crasser sort of backbencher – that they must leave their homes because improvement has made them suddenly desirable?

We live in an age in which politicians seem to wish the poor would simply go away. Too often, regeneration seems like the physical manifestation of that uncharitable impulse.  And no amount of tasteful new paving can disguise it entirely.

When the feasting had to stop: the Accident & Emergency diet

I start the year with a cautionary tale.

I am a professional glutton. As a travel writer and serial reviewer of restaurants, I over-eat for a living. And it’s no penance: I love to eat, and most of all I love to eat well, in fine restaurants with starched napery and long and interesting wine lists.

There is one obvious downside to this sybaritic existence: the never-ending struggle between gustatory pleasure and an expanding waistline. I have often promised myself that this year I will only eat half of what is put in front of me, or that only the smallest of glasses of wine, judiciously sipped, will accompany my restaurant meals.

But it never seems to work out that way.

There’s an element of professional pride in all this. Denial in the face of abundance seems akin to dereliction of duty. I’m paid to evaluate plenty, and as a reviewer there is no inspiration to be found in a dessert skipped or an amuse bouche untasted. There have nevertheless been times – as I guzzled my way manfully from foie gras to bavarois – when I wondered if all this over-indulgence is entirely good for me, and if there might, at some stage, be a reckoning.

This month it came to pass. Instead of enjoying New Year’s Eve in the company of an attentive maître d’, I spent it as a guest of the equally diligent National Health Service. I was admitted to hospital on 31st December with horrible abdominal pains caused by diverticulitis, a condition associated with ageing, physical inactivity, lack of dietary fibre, obesity and – oddly – the use of ibuprofen. A sobering list, not least because I am relatively fit and active, visit the gym regularly and haven’t relinquished control of my waistline without a fight.

Diverticular disease is extremely common, but if the condition is mundane the pain certainly wasn’t. The treatment was pure torment. For the first few days I was ‘nil by mouth’ – allowed only sips of water. Repenting of all those four- and five-course dinners yet an epicure to the last, I craved soup – and not just any soup. Miso figured highly in my fevered imaginings, as did the delicious clear broth I had enjoyed with my Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore.   When it came, the hospital’s soup was rather less flavoursome, but after two and a half days of fasting it seemed like a feast.

With diagnosis came an answer to the riddle of why I always felt full, even when I felt hungry. After four nights in hospital on intravenous antibiotics my weight problem began to melt away like so much snow in summer. I lost more than 6kg in a week, making the Accident & Emergency diet an unpleasant but undeniably effective one.

If there’s a moral to my story it’s simply this: don’t ignore symptoms, even if you feel a bit silly going to your doctor with something as vague as ‘feeling bloated’.

And if you’re a food writer or restaurant critic, be kind to your digestive system. It’s one of the tools of your trade; you won’t get another.  Slow down, savour your food; chew. And along with the truffles and petits fours, try to pop something healthy into your mouth now and then.

Spring in Buenos Aires

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November is autumn’s sad finale in Europe, but in Argentina’s beautiful capital it’s glorious spring. At this time of year Buenos Aires wears jacaranda like a feather boa, its broad, stately avenues given a festive air by the trees’ unmistakable blossom. For four perfect days the sun shone from a cloudless sky as I explored the city on foot, from historic San Telmo to earthy La Boca and from funky, fashionable Palermo Soho to the slick docklands of Puerto Madero. The people are as urbane and good-looking as the city, and their beauty is more than skin-deep, for I found the welcome to be as warm as the weather. I was smitten, I’ll admit – and I’ll be back.

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