A Week In Buenos Aires

Our bus journey to Buenos Aires was extremely comfortable and was amusingly topped off with a bus-wide game of bingo in Spanish during which I had to ask Annika which number to cross off every time a new one was announced. We were quite relieved when we didn’t win as neither of us knew whether Spanish people shout ‘CASA’ when they complete their card or not.

When we arrived in the capital, it was dull, grey and raining. Sitting on the tube, everyone looking glum and damp, we felt like we were back in London and, with the weather forecast looking miserable for the next few days, we were both quite down.

We dumped our stuff in our rented apartment and headed out for some food. A very poor steak in a local bar didn’t help our mood and, after a trudge around San Telmo and a couple more drinks we began to wonder whether we were going to like Buenos Aires.

Things didn’t improve when we tried to get some sleep. Our apartment was very nice to look at but wasn’t ideally located and has to be a contender for the noisiest bedroom on Earth. It’s at the junction of two busy roads and there was no noise insulation from the windows so it felt like we were trying to sleep in the middle of the M25 in rush hour.

The next day the rain had eased off but it was still grey and, having slept quite badly we needed to pick ourselves up. Knowing what makes us happy, one of us planned to buy tickets for a football match and the other did some shopping. Deciding who did what is an exercise for the reader.

After a pretty exhausting day of mainly walking, we squashed ourselves onto the tube during rush hour and headed home for a quick freshen up before our evening out. After many months in the planning, we were about to learn how to tango!

We took a taxi back up to Palermo, one of the more fashionable areas of town, bought our tickets and watched nervously as the teachers did a bit of an intro dance before splitting people up into groups according to ability.

Despite the language problem, we somehow managed to figure out which was the novices section and prepared ourselves for total embarrassment. The group was around 30 strong and consisted mainly of locals – most of which, as we soon discovered, had been to at least one previous lesson. Our teachers demonstrated the basic step to us and we then tried to copy it. It didn’t seem all that hard at first glance but was deceptively awkward and, when combined with the fact that none of the lesson was conducted in anything other than breakneck speed Spanish in a very noisy room became almost impossible. Every so often the teachers would stop us all so that they could show us some new aspect of the step which would improve our skills but to my untrained-in-Spanish ear it just looked as if they were doing the same thing again and again. Whenever we had a chance to practice we would barely get through one complete step before crashing into another couple and having to move out of the way. All in all, it was quite frustrating and we were quite relieved to sit down an hour later and watch some much more able couples strut their stuff whilst we did what we do best and took full advantage of happy hour!

Despite our tango-related frustrations of the previous night, we did enjoy it and we love the music so we vowed to find another venue for lessons the next evening, preferably delivered in our native tongue.

We spent the day wandering around the major buildings in the centre of the city, doing the tourist trail and then wandered around a much more upmarket shopping area where Annika found a bag she liked! Who’d have thought?! We’d found a place that claimed to run tango lessons in English so once we’d downed a preparatory beer, we entered into the fray once more. First impressions were good – the large room seemed even more spacious when we realised that, at least for the first 15 minutes or so, we were the only pupils! The teacher (for there was only one) spoke to us in English and immediately showed us a few things about the basic step that improved our ‘style’ – if you can call it that. Annika was having trouble walking backwards in heels and I found that unless I concentrated 100% on what I was supposed to doing with my feet at all times, I simply forgot on occasions and had to start again. More couples arrived in the end but there were only around 5 in total and the whole experience was much more relaxing. Directions were still given in the local language but every once in a while we were given help in English and I feel that a modicum of progress was made. We may even try and continue to learn when we get home – we’ve downloaded a Carlos Gardel (a famous old Argentinian tango crooner) album onto the iPod so we’ve made a good start.

In order to reward ourselves for our stellar achievements we decided to go to the most highly recommended parilla (steak house) in Palermo – La Cabrera. We arrived at 9.35pm to find around 20 people waiting outside for a table and in the end had to wait for just over an hour before we could sit down. Feeling overjoyed at the prospect of food after another exhausting day, we plumped for the most expensive option – the famous Kobe beef. It has to be said, it was nice but we weren’t sure whether it was any better than some of the other cuts they have here. Still, it disappeared very quickly along with all of the accompaniments that they serve with your meal. Astonishingly, there were still people waiting for a table when we left at around midnight! People eat late here.

The weather forecast had predicted rain for Saturday so we decided to do the museums. The Museo de Bellas Artes was quite good but, predictably, the modern art museum held my interest for a longer period as I do like the more bonkers stuff like things that move around, have flashing lights and interesting, changing images. Like a child, basically. In the evening, I had managed to somehow convince Annika to go with me to the football. I tried to replicate my usual match day experience at home by having a pre-match meal in the closest thing I could find to a greasy spoon. What we had wasn’t quite the Star Cafe on Blackstock Road but it achieved the same thing.

As we approached River Plate’s stadium, which is, oddly, located in one of the most upmarket areas of town, Annika was slightly perturbed to see the number of riot police with shields and batons that were stationed around the ground. It certainly took me back to some of the darker days of English football and reminded me how much more of a pleasant experience going to a game is in England these days. It was all for show though and did a very good job of keeping the visiting supporters from Mendoza away from anyone who might not appreciate their presence.

We found two spare seats in amongst the main fans (not the hooligans – they take the upper tier, strangely) and crossed our fingers that we would see a decent match. River Plate are a huge team in Argentinian football but they have really struggled this season and were in the bottom three at the start of the evening and, having sacked their manager the week before, their chances of getting anything against table-topping Godoy Cruz seemed remote. However, they somehow managed to win 2-1, coming from a goal behind and scoring twice in two minutes in the second half which caused the River Plate fans to go absolutely mental and at one point the stand we were in was literally rocking – bouncing up and down gently under the rhythmic jumping of the jubilant supporters. It was one of the best games I’ve ever seen as a neutral and I think that Annika would admit that even she ‘didn’t hate it’ at times! I’m going to write a full match report for my other website, therealfacup.co.uk, in due course if anyone is interested in the more gory details of the game and I also got a couple of good videos of the fans (of which I am now one of course!) in good voice.

Sunday is market day in the San Telmo area of town so that was where we headed when we eventually woke up the next morning. The weather was beautiful and warm and we spent almost the whole day wandering around the market stalls and shops. I bought some old football stickers from previous World Cups (Nelson Vivas is my favourite!) and Annika picked up a new Panama hat but there was plenty more we’d like to have bought if it wasn’t for the fact that our bags are already very heavy. Exhausted once again, we altered our plan of eating on the cheap by cooking at home and went for a meal at another very popular parilla – La Brigada this time. We ordered the rib eye of beef but the waiter said that was only enough for one person so we changed to what they call ‘baby beef’. At 850g it was our biggest challenge yet and, when the waiter cut it using a spoon (to prove a point regarding tenderness we assume – they do have knives here – bloody great weapon-style ones!) at our table, confidence was high that we could do it. We did do it but boy was it a struggle in the end! 425g of meat each – plus a salad and chips. Health is a thing of the past.

After an enormous storm which threw tons of rain into the San Telmo streets and cleared the market in minutes, we went home – but not before I grabbed the biggest ice-cream I’ve ever seen in my life from the place across the road from our apartment.

The next morning we’d planned to both do different things – Annika had a 2 hour Spanish lesson in the apartment to try and improve her already-good Spanish and I took a bus to La Boca to see their famous stadium – La Bombonera.

In comparison to the stadium of their hated rivals (River Plate) which is large, circular and has a running track around the pitch, Boca’s ground is rectangular and right up against the pitch. When I say up against the pitch, I mean that the first row of seats is about 2 or 3 yards from the touchline! This, and the fact that their fans are, even by Argentinian standards, absolute nutcases means that the ground seems to feature more security features and protection than anywhere I’ve ever been. The pitch is surrounded by either a wire mesh fence or toughened glass, both topped with barbed wire. The door that the away team uses to enter their changing rooms from their coach is covered with a concrete shelf in order to prevent objects thrown from the terraces above from raining down on the unfortunate opposition players. None of the seats are what you might call comfortable – three tiers of terraces at each end and even the posh seats in the main stand are simply L-shaped pieces of plastic bolted onto stone! It is a football ground from the old days and whilst I’m sure that the atmosphere generated is fantastic, it really reminds me how far England has come in terms of facilities at sporting venues.

That evening, we went to a performance by a group of drummers and bongo players called La Bomba in an old factory which had been converted into an arts centre. It was a superb show but it really brought home how old we are when we were so disappointed to find that there were no seats and we’d have to stand for the entire gig! The place was filled with trendy students and the air was thick with ‘special’ cigarettes and we left to get some dinner before the end.

Today is our last day in Buenos Aires and, it has to be said, we love it here despite our glum mood when we arrived. We even talked last night about whether we could live here for a year were the opportunity to come up! It has been totally exhausting but we have crammed a lot in and it’s all been worth it. This evening we take a bus to Puerto Iguazu in the north where again the weather forecast is bad but hopefully it’ll be better once we arrive and we can see the falls in the sun.