“All through my wild days, my mad existence”

While I strive for some form of originality when cobbling together these blogs, there are some clichés which are just too irresistible. I was always going to fall into the trap of using a line from Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina for one of my Buenos Aires posts, and this is that day.

We had planned Saturday with military precision. We were going to venture onto the subway for the first time and had already identified a nearby shop that sold the requisite travel cards. We would then visit the National Museum of Fine Arts on Avenida del Libertador, then take a look at the Recoleta Cemetery before joining a 3pm walking tour of the city centre starting at the National Congress building.

Things got off to a swimming start when the hotel concierge offered us a travelcard that had been left behind by a previous guest. Buoyed by this piece of good fortune we practically skipped the ten blocks to the Plaza Italia subway station and negotiated our way across the system to our target station at Las Heras.

London creates certain expectations of how subways should be mapped. Specifically, if a station has an interchange between two (or more) lines, that station will have the same name on each of those lines. And the reverse should also hold true: if there are stations with the same name on two (or more) lines, you should be able to change between them. Neither of these rules hold true in Buenos Aires. To complete our journey, we alighted from the D-Line at Pueyrredon, and caught the H-Line at Santa Fe, which is the same station but with a different name. But we managed and arrived at our destination still filled with the joy that can only come from not only getting a free travelcard, but discovering it still had ARS 100 credit on it, permitting us free travel for the day.

We made our way from the station down to the museum. It was reputed to have a wonderful collection of European as well as South American works and, although Google indicated that Saturday was a busy day for the gallery, we still wanted to see it. Ishbel was even more delighted when we spotted a green-barred woodpecker in the park just across the road from it.

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Sadly, we had forgotten the maxim that was rapidly becoming the Leddy family motto: Never Trust Google. Upon presenting ourselves at the front doors, we ascertained that the Museum was undergoing a major renovation, and would be closed until April 14th, well after we had departed this fair city.

Abandoning this part of the plan, we made our way to the Recoleta Cemetery, famously the (eventual) final resting place of Eva Peron. There are some lurid tales of the adventures of Evita’s body but her tomb is now secured against any future repetition.

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For foreigners, Evita is certainly the cemetery’s best known occupant but her grave is far from being the most conspicuous or opulent. Recoleta is the final resting place of Argentina’s elite, and the monumental sculptures and architecturally extravagant crypts reflect that.

After our visit, we stopped off at a nearby Starbucks where I was too inattentive to notice and prevent them putting hot milk into our tea. We struggled through this horror of a hot drink but didn’t finish it before heading off once again into the public transport system. One change got us to the Congreso station where cheapskate tourists like ourselves were already massing to take advantage of the free city tour. As the clocks around the square struck 3:00pm, the two guides split us up between Spanish and English speakers. Both groups were quite large and I’d guess we had around 25 anglophones in our group. One aspect of walking in Buenos Aires with which we had become annoyingly familiar was the lack of pavement maintenance. The sidewalk is a constant trip hazard, and I’m certain our travel insurers would have preferred us to be driven everywhere. With a crowd this size, I hoped we’d be able to keep an eye on the guide and the pavement to prevent ankle injuries. As it turned out, the pavement-induced wobble if the person in front acted as a kind of early warning system of an upcoming hazard.

Our guide, Martin, started with an explanation of the creation of the Argentine nation, of which Buenos Aires was not originally a part. In fact, it participated in a civil war between Centralists and Federalists to try to retain its autonomy outside the fledgling nation. It lost, but still was made the capital. The city even secured its withdrawal from the Province of Buenos Aires, so that it is now a separate entity from the nation’s twenty-three provinces.

And that was only the start of the tour, outside the National Congress building. Martin went on to cover a vast array of topics, from the fact that Buenos Aires boasts one of only three statues of Rodin’s “The Thinker” that were cast during his lifetime…

DSC_0148 2 …to the power and influence of the Freemasons in late 19th and early 20th Century BA – some of whom appear to have had what verges on an unhealthy obsession with Dante. There are even rumours that they stole his remains from Italy but Italy won’t admit it.

Aside from these unsavoury tales, we heard quite a bit about Argentina’s political turmoil, ancient and modern, together with a first hand account of supermarket shopping during a period of hyperinflation.

The tour ended outside the presidential palace – the  Casa Rosada – on the Plaza de Mayo. Here, we heard moving account of the struggle for justice of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. During the military rule of Argentina from 1976 to 1983, opposition was brutally wiped out. Also at this time, it was illegal to gather in a group of more than two people. If three people came together, they could be arrested for holding an unauthorised assembly. In the square outside the Casa Rosada during this time, many of the mothers of those who had been taken came together in pairs, and walked a silent circuit around the plaza, never stopping so that they could not be arrested as protestors. As a symbol of why they were there, they carried a tied, empty nappy (diaper) representing their missing child.

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Martin also told us that Argentina has one of the world’s most advanced DNA analysis labs for a heartbreaking reason. When dissident women were captured, there was a taboo on killing them if they were pregnant. In such cases, they were imprisoned until they gave birth. Once the child was born, the mother was killed and the baby given to a childless couple in favour with the regime using faked adoption papers. A campaign to track down these children is spearheaded by a group known as the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. I cannot begin to imagine the emotions experienced by the people identified by this process.

Our tour ended on a sobering note as we were made aware that the next day was March 24th, a public holiday in Argentina designated as the Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice to commemorate these events.

I don’t speak Spanish, but I know that’s not Castillian

The classic Spanish, like what it is spoken in Spain, is Castillian. The version spoken in South America is different. In much the same way that English at home is different from the US or Australian versions, the language in South America has suffered what is known as colonial lag.  This is a (disputed) hypothesis which postulates that migrants who move far from their homeland tend to preserve their native language in the form that existed at the time of that migration. So although the season used to be known as fall in the UK, the latinate form – autumn – became more popular later while the original persisted in the US.

It would appear that a similar phenomenon exists in South America. This is somewhat annoying for me as it appears to impact the very few words and pronunciations in Spanish with which I am actually familiar. So, when I greet the locals with a jolly and robust “Buenas dias”, the response drops the endings. It appears that the ‘S’ is silent here, so I get back “Buena’ Dia’.” Similarly, I know that the rule is that when a pair of Ls appear in the middle of a word, I should pronounce them as a Y. So if I want the chicken from the menu, I should pronounce pollo as paw-yo. No. Here, the double L is pronounced like a soft ZH, so I need to say paw-zho. Or, more likely, just point.

This is all a lead up to our big Argentinian meal. I had heard recommendations for a place called Don Julio, a grill restaurant or parrilla that is so popular, it gets booked up months in advance. I had actually missed the availability for dinner on any date during our stay, but I had managed to get a 1pm lunch slot with which I was perfectly content. We took an extensive stroll around the Palermo neighbourhood before presenting ourselves at the threshold of the restaurant.

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Although bookings are difficult to get, they do also offer a queuing system for the sufficiently patient. You can show up at the door and put your name on the list then wait for the requisite period to get a table. They were quoting 90 minutes to the guy in front of us as we arrived. When booking, they make a point of telling you that your table will be held for 15 minutes only. We made sure to be prompt and felt slightly smug as we gave our name to the host and were ushered immediately indoors and seated at our table for two.

Although smug, we were also ever so slightly envious of the outdoor hopefuls. It turns out that, every twenty minutes or so, small glasses of fizz are distributed to the queue together with miniature empanadas. We weren’t envious enough to stand outside and wait, though.

I had heard that portion sizes here were large and, given what we’d already experienced in Argentinian restaurants, there was no reason to doubt this intelligence. Accordingly, we skipped starters and went straight to main courses. We played it safe and each ordered a sirloin steak. After all, how excessively sized could that be?

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Really quite large indeed, turned out to be the answer. Mashed potato, roasted red peppers, and splendid red wine accompaniments made for an excellent lunch. We also had the kitchen theatre going on right behind me as the chefs worked their magic at the grill.

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This is a place that should be on your list if you come to Buenos Aires.

After that meal, there was nothing to do but try to walk off the weight of food. A small stroll through Palermo and then a relaxing evening sorted us out for the rest of the day. But, have no fear! We did undertake some planning for Saturday so that we would do something other than just eating lunch.