Subte Stories explores Buenos Aires’ lesser-known subte stops and the neighbourhoods they are found in, scoping out local stories and the best on offer within four blocks or less. To inaugurate the series we take a look at Caballito’s Estación Acoyte on the A Line – the southern hemisphere’s oldest subway.
Tanganyika, the Upper Volta, East Germany, Italian Somaliland…nations long since expunged from the maps and textbooks now live on only through the silent, colourful stamps staring up at me from the scrapbook; first day covers bearing witness to public holidays, forgotten Olympic heroes, polar expeditions, flora and fauna. The vendor smiles wistfully when I ask to see the stamps from países que ya no existen – countries that no longer exist. Could it be a request he gets often? How many others in this city find comfort, or an unexplained curiosity, in leafing through the philatelic histories of these all but forgotten places?
It’s Sunday afternoon in Caballito and the Parque Rivadavia teems with people – old couples strolling the concrete pathways with their ubiquitous pint-sized poodles, toddlers in smocks painting-by-numbers beneath the araucaria trees. Joggers nap under the protective gaze of Simón Bolívar, sword raised in perpetual sculpted triumph, lord and conqueror of the superpancho carts.
Beneath the branches of a towering ombú tree towards the centre of the park, vendors and collectors at the Feria del Ombú pour over Old World bric-a-brac, as they have since 1943. They are a sea of cardigan sweaters enveloped in a cloud of pipe smoke, examining, bargaining, swapping, coveting. Tweezers in hand, magnifying glasses enlarge their gin-blossomed noses. The tables, arranged in a circle around the tree, are piled high with stamp albums, old coins, postcards written in green ink with an unsteady hand, black and white photos of anonymous family vacations, Soviet pins and medals. Souvenirs from the past, from worlds that no longer exist.
Travel guides love to encourage the clichéd view that Buenos Aires is a “European” city; Buenos Aires is many things and can’t be so simply defined. That being said, it has always struck me as a city of exiles. Perhaps it’s just the romantic imaginings of a foreigner, but porteños, it seems, have always kept one eye fixed on the Old World, a world they were made to leave and which is perpetually growing more and more distant.
The vendor and I make small talk as I waver between a collection of Israeli stamps and some postcards from colonial Africa, unable to tear my inner eight-year-old pen pal away from the colourful pages of his albums.
“When I was young, I could speak English, French, German, and Hungarian,” he tells me. “Now…” he makes a helpless gesture, throwing his hand back over his head. No more family trips to Hungary, no one with whom to speak the language of his parents and grandparents. Hungary may as well be South Yemen, or Rhodesia – its existence evidenced by old stamps and yellowed postcards, yet accessible only in memory.
What to do
Feria del Ombú – The fair is held every Sunday from early in the morning till about 2pm, weather permitting. Most come for the coins and stamps, although books, movies, magazines, and records are also sold by vendors whose stands and blankets spill out onto the Avenida Rivadavia. Come early and indulge your inner history buff and/or stamp nerd.
Where to eat
El Coleccionista, Av Rivadavia 4929, open 24 hours. Directly across the street from the park sits this aptly named café, a favourite among locals for its attentive service and fair prices. After a long afternoon at the fair, situate yourself at an outdoor table or in a quiet corner of this welcoming, airy confiteria and review the day’s purchases. The “Coleccionista” brunch special ($40) includes coffee, orange juice, toast with jam and butter, cookies, and a slice of pie or cake.
Prosciutto, Florencio Balcarce 44, 12-4pm and 8pm-1am (open till 2am Fridays and Saturdays). This Italian restaurant, with its ostentatious neon sign and wrought-iron balconies, is difficult to miss on the tiny Pasaje Florencio Balcarce, off the Av Rivadavia. Classic Italian dishes (beyond the typical milanesa napoletana) are available alongside local staples such as bife de lomo, with live piano music. Expect to pay around $100 for dinner.
Where to drink
The Oldest, Ambrosetti 31, daily 7.30pm-close. With most of the expat pub crowd enamoured with old favourites Gibraltar and Bangalore, Caballito’s The Oldest has so far remained a well-kept local secret. Brit-rock dominates the playlist, while Johnny Depp films play on the pub’s many TV screens. While the aforementioned watering holes evoke a Commonwealth atmosphere, The Oldest is decidedly more 60s oriented – attested to by the psychedelic Beatles murals in the front room. Generous portions of decent pub fare complement a varied beer list and playful mixed drinks; fans of ‘Peter Capusotto y Sus Videos’ will appreciate the “Micky Vainilla”, a vanilla-vodka cocktail with mint. Drinks range from $20-$50.