Daniel Tunnard, the Brit taking all the buses in Buenos Aires, continues his Colectivaizeishon series with The No. 184.
By early October in the Colectivaizeishon project I’m already exhausted. In the last fortnight I’ve taken 15 of Buenos Aires’ bus lines from start to finish, plus two other buses I had to take due to wandering around La Boca with an outdated street map book. I’ve written 20,000 words about the journeys including the first two columns for La Razón. I’ve walked 200 blocks. I’ve taken 15 buses, but I’ve still got 126 to go. After the first day on the buses, I got home and wrote for five hours straight. By the fifth day of this nonsense, worn out from the physical and mental strain, I get home and don’t even want to see another bus, never mind make up sarcastic jokes about them.
It’s the third time in a week that I’ve walked the 30 blocks to Puente Saavedra to take the bus that then takes me back along the 30 blocks I’ve just walked. I know I could easily cheat and start the journeys at Cabildo and Juramento and no one would know any different, but I’d know. As my mum used to say when I was a boy, and she still says it because she’s transmogrified into a really nagging conscience, when you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself. Clearly, my mother forgets a certain Maradona goal in 1986.
I wish I didn’t have to cover these 30 blocks because there really isn’t much to say about Av. Cabildo in Núñez, the northernmost barrio of Buenos Aires. Four years ago, this area was completely foreign to me and I was scared of what awaited me whenever I crossed under Puente Saavedra to go to piano classes in Florida, which is a town in the province of Buenos Aires, not the place where old New Yorkers retire to. Being afraid of the wealthy Zona Norte is up there with being slightly afraid of my neighbour’s barking poodle on the list of things I discreetly show to people still labouring under the delusion that I am a real man.
But later I got a job as a scriptwriter for a producer in Núñez, and I liked the barrio so much that I moved closer to it (I’m one of many people who live in the skankier part of dreadfully unhip Belgrano and say they live in Núñez in a desperate bid to look cool. I like to call this area Belgrúñez.) It was this producer, Faivre Hermanos, who gave me my first gig as a writer, the first to believe in me as a writer and pay me to write, and I will be eternally grateful to them for giving me this start, not least because it saved me from having to complete an unnecessarily labyrinthine novel that made Liberace look unpretentious.
As a consequence of living the last three years a few blocks from Av. Cabildo, I find it harder to write about Belgrúñez than some other barrio on the other side of the city, because I’ve stopped seeing it through the eyes of a foreigner. This is partly why I’m writing Colectivaizeishon now, before the whole city seems so terribly quotidian and I have nothing original to say about it. I know that in the eyes of the Argentines I’ll always be a foreigner, because even though they famously think of themselves as a country of immigrants, they very much see things as “us” and “them”, where “them” is immigrants from the last 30 years and “us” is anyone who can trace their Argentine lineage back to the French Basque royal family, a dirt-poor Sicilian village or some sixteenth-century Syrian family who once owned a whole northern province (and very often all three of these at once.) An English friend moved to Buenos Aires thirty years ago, during the last military government, and still has to answer the same three questions that Argentines always ask us, the not-really-Argentines.
These three questions never vary, and I know this from conversations I’ve had with thousands of foreigners here. The first is always “where are you from?” and the second “have you been here long?” So far, so good, most of us would ask the same. But then comes the third question: “do you like Buenos Aires?” Note, oh patient reader, that you have just told your interlocutor that you have lived in this city for 10, 20, maybe 30 years, and it still occurs to them to ask whether you like it. Now, there are obviously things we don’t like: the cordilleras of dog shit on the pavement, the inability of the average Argentine motorist to understand that beeping his or her horn will accomplish no more than making every person in that block hate the average Argentine motorist, and the fact that the simplest bureaucratic procedure takes up half your working week. But do you really think that a foreigner with the means to go anywhere in the world would stay in Buenos Aires half their life if they didn’t like it? I know some cases, but they are very scarce and very embittered. In general, it’s the Argentines who hate Buenos Aires. Us foreigners love it, which is why we come here and end up staying, even though the fourth question in this inevitable litany is “do you like dulce de leche?” My own response to this will require a whole chapter of its own.
Going back to where we were before the fifth paragraph got all tangential on our arses, what can anyone write about Belgrano? I think it’s one of those barrios where you rarely hear people say “my barrio” with the kind of exaggerated pride you find in the locals of, say, Villa Crespo or La Boca. Moving to Belgrano is like having sex when you’re married: it’s functional and safe and you don’t have to put much thought it into. You’re never going to see a sign on Av. Cabildo, such as you see in La Boca, declaring “Welcome to the Republic of Belgrano”. At most, in Colegiales (trendy-without-trying-to-be-trendy barrio between Palermo and Belgrano) there is a sign pointing forwards to Belgrano and back to Palermo, in case you have second thoughts and want to go back (we passed this sign the day we moved from Palermo to Belgrano, and had a moment’s hesitation.) Not even the biggest club in the Argentine second division boasts about being from Belgrano. Although River Plate’s stadium is within the limits of Belgrano, they call themselves el Club de Núñez. To look cool, probably.
But, however and notwithstanding all the abovementioned, I like Belgrano. I like how, unlike Palermo, there are hardware shops and fishmongers instead of chi-chi shoe shops and restaurants twisting semantics to push up their prices. It’s true that the only time I entered a hardware shop in the last three years was to buy wall plugs so that my father-in-law would do a 400-mile roundtrip to put up some shelves for me, but I do find their presence comforting. I like being close to Chinatown and the kitsch shopping galleries on Avenida Cabildo with their tobacconists and record shops. And I like the fact that it isn’t a cool barrio, so you only have to make the slightest effort in order to become the coolest person on your street. A natty hat, perhaps, or a pair of coloured socks.
And I like how I have the same birthday as Manuel de Belgrano, after whom my barrio (feel that pride!) is named. Here’s a story I love telling because it makes me look important: During the Falklands War, the Belgrano was sunk on 2nd May, and on 4th May the HMS Sheffield was sunk in retaliation. I was born in Sheffield, but live in Belgrano. I studied Spanish at the University of Sheffield, and taught English at the University of Belgrano, where I told this hilarious anecdote to my students. None of them laughed. It was their first day of classes, and they didn’t speak English. If I ever die in Belgrano, one 16th June like Manuel de Belgrano did, I hope at least one of the mourners will say “ah, fancy that.”