Friday, 21 August 2015

Mi Buenos Aires querido

Something different again this week. Every now and then, I like to post something completely random on my blog. A couple of weeks ago it was opera. The thing I'm most likely to slide off-topic for, though, is tango. Weirdly, posts I've made about tango often prove to be the most popular. This week's post started off as a book review, but seems to have become a mini-essay on Buenos Aires. Like it says in the title (if you speak Spanish) this is "My Buenos Aires that I love." It's not a place I can be dispassionate about (much like the people who live there). Here's my take on Miranda France's take on Mi Buenos Aires querido. I hope you find it interesting.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France

Borges wrote that “You never leave [Buenos Aires] entirely, you keep rebuilding it through the faded snapshots that your memory throws up."

Buenos Aires is, in some ways, the ultimate city. It was built as a port, but over time the river has silted up. The original grand frontage of the city is now well inland and even the more modern port facilities are hardly used: big ships simply can't get into them any more.

Building in the old port area
It grew at a time when Argentina's agricultural produce – mainly beef – was exported all over the world, but the world has changed and Argentina is no longer the fantastically rich country that it was early in the 20th century. The city, with its opera house, its grand buildings, its elegant boulevards, and its air of self-importance, lives on as a memory of a city that time and geography have left behind. Buenos Aires exists because it is there. People like to live in cities and for thousands of miles there are no cities as splendid as the capital of Argentina, so people flock to it, even though it has no purpose.

The poor, discovering that their dream of Buenos Aires does not exist, live in vast shanty-towns or sleep on the streets in shelters that appear like piles of rubbish, The shelters and their inhabitants are, in turn, invisible in the alternative dream of the Argentine bourgeoisie hurrying between shopping malls and coffee shops.

Street dwellers in front of the Congress building

Buenos Aires is a city of fantasy. Everywhere you go – not even just the tourist areas – you hear tango, often thought of as the soul of Argentina, but – though it is taught in schools – not that many people actually dance

it. Emphatically proud of their city and their nation the Portenos, as the locals call themselves, still yearn to be European. With its Italian food, its English post boxes, its French architecture and its Spanish language, Argentina embodies Europe in a way that no European country does. Buenos Aires should replace Brussels as the natural home of the administration of the EU.

Every resident, every visitor, every passing tourist sees a different Buenos Aires and every travel book written about the place describes a different city. Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires is no exception. Living there in the 1990s, Ms France inhabits a city defined by the Dirty War. I almost wrote “the after-effects of the Dirty War” but she argues powerfully that the War was unfinished business. The murderers still walked the streets; parents still searched for their lost children; the country was still cloaked in a pervasive gloom. The Buenos Aires that France lived in was an unhappy place and she describes an unhappy stay, but she does so with flashes of real understanding and an easy writing style.

Memorial to some of the victims of the Dirty War

I first visited Buenos Aires soon after she was there and I recognise the city she describes. But I also recognise the city of the tango (a dance she admits to struggling with, and which she never comes close to understanding), a friendly, chaotic, vibrant and exciting city where I have always felt immediately at home. Although I have rented an apartment and coped, as she did, with the electrical blackouts, the water that fails to come from the shower or refill toilets, the pickpockets, the dirt, the inability of airlines to get passenger and baggage to the same destination, and the general messiness of life in this sprawling metropolis, I have not lived there for any length of time and I have, inevitably, seen a different place. For example, I have always taken care to visit Buenos Aires in the spring and have avoided the horrors of the long, hot, humid summers. Ms France dwells a lot on weather, yet most of her descriptions are of the summer. Her memory of Buenos Aires is, in its way, as selective as mine.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires is one view of the city. Long After Midnight at the NinoBien (surely almost a definition of good times in Buenos Aires) is another book by a journalist who spent some time there and he (Brian Winter, if you want to buy a copy) describes a different city. Winter’s book is flawed and partial too. All books about Buenos Aires ultimately fail to capture the place. If I had to recommend just one it would be The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez. His Buenos Aires is a fictional city in which his hero moves about an almost magical capital, searching for an elusive tango singer. On one visit, we used it as a guidebook. To our astonishment, it took us to some amazing places, for in Buenos Aires, a work of fiction is as good a guide to the city as anything else.


  1. Not been to Buenos Aires yet. I find that when I go to places I've been meaning to go to for a long time inevitably turn into a disappointment.

  2. You could write a tango song about that:

    Buenos Aires
    Magical city of dreams
    Now waking, I walk your filthy street.
    Was it for this I travelled so far?
    etc etc

    (I like tango songs, but they are definitely an acquired taste.)

  3. Sounds good.

    Placido Domingo & Virginia Tola - Mi Buenos Aires Querido (Live In Buenos Aires)