Dawn breaks on my first full day in Buenos Aires.
I return to Palermo, and spend the afternoon searching for the Museum Xul Soler, dedicated to the sigular genius of that name.
The heat remains oppressive, the pavements bake. Sweat runs everywhere, covering everything and everybody.
I never get to the museum. Because I stumble instead across another item from my to-do list. This a unique vintage furniture shop, called La Passionara, run the last twenty years or so by a twinkly-eyed man called Paco. The business if you can call it that, (perhaps more of a passion, as the name suggests) is an enormous warehouse, lying just off a courtyard shaded by tropical plants. The vast space within is piled high to the barn-like roof. The whole ensemble looks a little like that famous last shot from Citizen Kane, (minus the packing cases.) Paco actually lives here, his kitchen lies in the middle of the furniture.
The whole place is brim full of superb furniture and object d’art from the 19th and early 20th century.
One only has to look around at this stuff (or indeed at the supurb architecture studded around the city) to be reminded that for much of that period Argentina was one of the four or five richest countries in the world. Indeed, during the 1920s and 30s, Argentina was often richer than Britain, the United States, Japan or Switzerland. It’s huge and hugely prosperous middle classes- all evidentially spent their free time and vast hoars of cash commisioning stunning city mansions & buying up the best art and design from around the world.
The clues to this vast former South American prosperity are everywhere, part of what makes Buenos Aires such a mass of contradictions, as well as one of the most stylish, elegant cities in the world.
Paco’s stock includes leather and teak armchairs from famous workshops in Milan, Germany and Coppenhaggen, Art Deco beechwood drinks cabinets, statues and antique globes. My eye is particularly taken with a1960s cantilevered light. It has a 18-foot long steel and chrome spine. It has a base of white carrera marble. Did I mention it is cantilevered? I want it.
The stuff however is not cheap.
I abandon my previous plan to charter a ships container and to flog Argentina’s design heritage back in Dublin. I’m too late, in at least two ways. (Ireland is sinking into National Bankruptcy, while Argentina is on the rise again)
(Editor’s note: at least it appeared this way, at the beginning of my trip. Later evidence suggested that, sadly, Argentina is heading back into deep trouble. But as I say, the level of display in the wealthier areas suggested the very opposite)
Day 3. Wednesday morning.
I try, not for the first time, to get in contact with a Argentine woman called Nadia, a contact kindly suggested by Carlos. By all accounts Nadia is beautiful, clever, intersting, bi-lingual, and a lovely person too. It is imperative therefore that we meet immediately. But the complexities of the Argentine phone system and the lack of internet in my apartment have so far frustrated our many attempts at communication. I try various numbers, get various messages. Eventually I go to an internet café. I see Carlos has sent me an e-mail overnight, with an address for Nadia. I duly send a message.
Attention turns to the next task. I need something ordinary looking and anonymous, to conceal my camera, or it will be robbed within the week.
Sadly, Buenos Aires is notrously high on street crime.
In my first week here, a French tourist with a camera, is standing by Il Monumento dellas Malvinas. This is the memorial to the young Argentine men who died in the 1980s conflict with Britian over the Falkland/Malvinas. He is accosted for his camera. When he refuses to relinquish it he is stabbed. He bleeds to death in minutes. This occurs on a busy public street, in the city centre, in broad daylight. Everyone here is talking about it.
I am axious to avoid a similar fate, but I’m also detirmined to use my camera.
The solution seems to be a simple old-fashion over-the-shoulder canvas army bag. I want to be able to travel with my camera in peace.
I have become increasingly preoccupied, one might almost say fixated, with buying such a bag.
There are none in the local covered market in San Telmo, which is in all other respects an wonderful place. There are plenty of nice leather bags, both new and vintage. (Argentina fully merits it’s excellent repuatation for leather goods) But I have decided leather is too hot and heavy for this climate. No, I want an old, shabby, army, bag- dammit.
I meet Andreus, who runs a stall in the market selling old movie posters. I eye up an original 1977 cinema foyer, A-1 size poster for Star Wars, the first film I went to without a parent. My step brother and I made what soon became a weekly pilgramage, to the local fleapit in Greystones. After a further eight viewings we knew the dialogue verbatim. The entire film was re-enacted each night from our pine bunkbeds. He was always Luke Skywalker, I was Han Solo- a division of roles I have never regretted.
At age seven and eight I thought I was Han Solo.
Until a few years later, when I realised I was in fact Indianna Jones.
*Please note how my entire life story has been thoughtfully relayed for the public by an American actor called Harrison Ford- (thank you Harrison).
In a mix of English and my limited Spanish, I wave my arms about, describing an imaginary army suplus store.
Andreus nods understandingly and tells me such a shop is called Rezagos Militaris
He thinks for a moment and then recalls one on the distant street of Calle Alverez Thomas, near the military hospital.
This seems like a likely enough location.
I conjecture, in a heat-induced daze of stupidity, that injured soldiers don’t need bags while they recuperate.
But it is fully fifty or more city blocks, nearly an hour away.
The heat is scorching.
I decide to continue the research.
I seek further local advice outside the market. People scratch their heads. Then some knowledgable-looking elder remembers the old Army Surplus store on Calle Patricia, a mere forteen blocks away.
This is more like it.
I resolve to walk, heading South out of San Telmo, towards Bocca, counting blocks, keeping to the shaded side of the streets. Block by block the streetscape reveals that endless changing mix of elegance and shabby decay so distinctive to Buenos Aires.
Marbles steps cascade down from some Art Noveau masterpiece of a townhouse, onto a delicately laid pavement, carved with a design with mid-century pattern, shaded with plane trees and figs.
A few metres away, the same pavement is shattered. The gaps are full of rotten fruit, dogshit and abandoned bags of litter, torn open by stray animals.
Cooked by the unforgiving sun, the stench of old bin- full of nappies and God knows what, is ripe enough to turn the stomach.
After half an hour, and what seems like fourteen blocks, I am finding hard to see the signs with the street names.
A kindly electrician offers directions to Calle Patricia, pointing and gesticulating.
In order to gain the best vantage point he insists we stand out in the middle of the street, with our backs to the rapidly moving, oncoming traffic.
I find it hard to concentrate on the directions, as another small yellow and black taxi screams past, screetching on its horn and screaming obscenities out the window. Perhaps the weather is putting some people in a bad mood.
But my electrician is charming. He looks cool. He is small, in his mid-60s I guess, friendly, relaxed and good-looking, like most Porteños. Even his electricians’ tool box is some sort of cool-looking antique. It looks like a soldier’s radio kit from the Second World War in the Pacific, with a twist. An old tester light bulb sits in a protective cage, held in a battered steel spiral, bolted on the side. In fact I realise am jealous of his electricians box. (Do you ever worry you’ve become too… materialistic? )
At last I get to Calle Patricia. When I ask final directions at a fruit and vegetable shop run by an Argentine-Chineese couple, they point across the street.
I look across the street. My heart sinks.
There is the shop. It is boarded up, and clearly out of business.
Despite unambiguous evidence that the shop has ceased trading, I am unwilling to accept defeat just yet.
I cross the street, to converse with the two policemen standing outside.
They look indigeno, people of the Andes. The high-vis jackets and pistol holsters seem incongruous somehow. I am desperate for buy this imaginary bag. It is far too hot and the sun may have got to me. I have a rare and little known mental condition called canvas bag fixation. I have no idea what I am talking about.
I speak to the two policemen, I am all subtlety, yes, subtlety and guile. I try to gently guide the topic of conversation around, to the idea, of discreetly cracking open the locks of the shop and perhaps seeing what sort of stock has been left behind?
Perhaps I could make a donation to the police widows and orphans fund?
The two Inca policemen stare back at me impassively. Maybe they are embarrassed for me. I don’t know. This is the second time in my life I have attempted to bribe a policeman. (The first was in Africa) On both occasions I have failed to make even basic progress.
Fortunately, my Spanish is not good enough to make hints, however ludicrous.
Unsurprisingly, they don’t boost open the shop and I don’t get my bag. Instead getting a bag (or getting arrested) I get a second set of directions.
Or rather I get given my original set of directions, again… to calle Thomas Alvarez, by the Military Hospital. My heart sinks further into my sweaty sandals.
Thomas Alvarez is now about seventy-five blocks and an hour and half away. The sun has had plenty of time to bake the pavement to oven temperature. It is difficult to do justice to the heat. It is agressive. It radiates out of the scorched earth, from the blistering walls of buildings and from sky above. I am dehydrated and just want to stand under a cold shower in the apartment. For a week.
I contemplate one more attempt at bribery.
The Incas stare back impassively.
A little voice from somewhere deep inside tells me to shut up.
I slouch off, in abject defeat.
I have no change for the bus, so I buy an apple from the chineese couple. They look furious, handing over half their float of coin in exchange for an apple. But I don’t care. I need to find a bus. Prays are offered it will have air conditioning.
I find and catch a number 10. The buses in Buenos Aires-called collectivos– are excellent, numerous, efficient, and ecconomical.
This one even indeed has something resembling air conditioning.
It is just over an hour to the Military Hospital.
I spend the second half of this journey seeking and getting reassurance I haven’t mised my stop.
In truth, this is mostly just an excuse to converse with the pretty nurse or trainee doctor in the seat across the aisle. She is charmingly patient but, I sense, possibly not falling in love with the pauchy grey-coloured writer, beaded in sweat, asking inane questions, and grinning like a urang-utan on smack.
What on earth is wrong with the young woman?
Can she not see my inner beauty?
At last, at the Military Hospital. It is impressive, an absolutely vast 1970s concrete building, on a scale quite unknown in Ireland. A scale only drempt of by dictators and Latin American military juntas.
I ask a news vendor for the tienda with the Rezagos Militaris.
He tells me no such shop exists.
He has worked on this street twenty years and has never heard of it.
I grimace, in the international language of theatrical doubt.
I have double information, from Andreus and from the Inca police.
From impecable retailing and law enforcement sources, if you will.
We go across the road, to under the large shaddow of the giant hospital. The news vendor’s friend sells tickets for the State Lotto. He has been working on this street for thirty five years. He confirms there is no such store. Nor can he recall there ever being one.
I slouch off again in abject defeat.
But once again not without a new set of directions. Oh no. The news vendor and lotto man direct me to Avenida Juan B Justo, running along one side of the main line rail tracks through the city.
This is only thirty-five minutes walk. By a pleasing coincidence this is more or less in the same region as the thermometer. It is now early evening and the sun has eased off very slightly, although the heat still radiates fiercely from the ground.
When I get to Avenida Juan B Justo, there is indeed, amazingly, an army supply shop there.
But it is all hi-tech modern gear made from nylon and Gortex, aimed at hunters and hillwalkers.
The shabby canvas shoulder bag of my dreams is nowhere in sight.
I refuse to be beaten. I will find this bag.
One last desperate push then.
I head once more back to Palermo.
This is getting silly. It is my third time here in three days.
In my defence it is by far the largest, the most picturesque and most central Bario in the city.
Besides, this I make for the other end of it, for the Il Mercado de Pulgas.
Rather pleasingly the Spanish phrase for this type of market is identical to our own. (Yes, a pulga is a flea )
Where else will I find a old canvas army suplus bag, if not at a flea market?
The market is found and entered. Directions and advice are sought. (One’s entire life as a tourist seem to revolve around directions)
There is much head shaking and head scratching, but eventually, begrudgingly, someone admits there is one shop in the Mercado de Pulgas that might, possibly, have such goods.
I find the shop.
I look about.
There, hanging on a rail near the back, hangs a bag.
It doesn’t exactly meet my expectations, but it is mighty close.
It will certainly do. It is old, it is canvas, it is previously of the army.
Ideal for the concealment of cameras.
Ideal for the avoidance of muggings and stabbings.
There is only such bag in the market store.
One solitary bag meeting my specifications.
With immense cunning, I ignore the bag.
I pick up some other objects and look at them, with minimum interest.
I am bored, it is time to move on. There is nothing here in this store to interest or detain me.
The two Porteno youths running the place for the absent owner can be in no doubt about my lack of interest.
There is nothing here for me. Oh no.
Very, very casually, in an absent-minded sort of way, I pick the bag off the rail and feint utter indifference.
I am just about to toss it aside, when I deign to ask, y eso, cuanto es?
Immediately the older of the two youths flies into action.
He punches number into his cell phone and conducts a high-speed business conversation with his boss.
Eventually he kills the call.
He names a price I consider extortionate, for a shabby old bag I couldn’t care less about.
I choak back a laugh. Then puff out my cheeks in disbelief.
Then shake my head sadly. Then smile in patronising disbelief.
I ask if he is pulling my leg.
He offers the starling fact these bags are rare collectors items, period originals. This is the only one in the market.
I point out that it is a cheap mass-produced utility item, of little worth and there are probably several million in existance.
I make a gesture towards the bag, a gesture of scarcely concealed disdain.
I shrug in a Oh well, that’s a shame, kind of way.
Reluctantly, and making it clear I really couldn’t care less, I offer a sum about 30% less the asking price.
Maybe, maybe, for this price, I would consider the puchase.
I put a lot of emphasis on the maybe part.
He talks about his commission being wiped out.
Something about letting a priceless artifact like this goes for a such deristory sum being more than his job is worth.
We haggle, for the baggle.
The baggle Rezagos Militaris.
Half an hour later, and with nearly a twenty per cent discount, I walk out with the bag over my shoulder.
It takes another hour or two to get even a passing acqauintance with the market, which is large and quite famous.
I try to buy an antique fan, partly as an expedient, so I can write in the apartment. But, I reason, an antique fan would also make a useful and attractive gift for the house, and for my host Carlos.
The woman in the market shop with the best antique fan has a strong sensual face, and superb legs. She looks like a cross between Penelope Cruz and Sophie Loren. Argentinians, in general, are strong contenders for the best looking people on earth.
She won’t sell me the fan, which is in use. I can’t say I blame her. But we chat pleasantly for half an hour. Sure enough, the woman has both Iberian and Italian heritage, with Grandmothers from southern Italy and Portugal. But then she asks me de donde sos?
She is delighted.
Remarkably her surname is Maguire. Her great-grandfather emigrated here in the 1900s. Like thousands of other Irish, he settled, in the area around Suipacha and the much larger Mercedes, both about 100 k west of Buenos Aires. He married an Italian woman, or a Portguese woman. I am not sure. I am however willing to lay a considerable amount of money she was a serious head-turner.
I learn her Grandfather and father both rest in the cemetary in Suipacha, outside the old catholic church.
One or both of them drank themselves to death.
She tells me her aunt is recently returned from a tour around Ireland and this aunt feels strongly Irish. The same aunt travelled Northwards to visit the Maguire castle.
In the market shop, on her laptop, cooled by the antique fan, we Google the castle.
I am expecting a small, crumbling Norman keep.
Instead we find a formidable, substantial castle in County Fermanagh, once lorded over by the Gaelic chieftan Hugh Maguire himself.
I joke she should try to return to her roots and buy her ancestral home, although it is apparent even at this distance it would be some job to prize it off Fermanagh County Council.
The castle now houses a museum and, no doubt, a café and souvineer shop.
I am quietly wondering if she is married.
I’m having a fine time, but I need to go home,shower and re-group.
But before I can even contemplate getting a bus home my body is screaming for cold water and general re-hydration. I get two and a half blocks block and find a café. I sit there over half an hour recuperating, drinking a juego de pomelo con gas, a juego de pomlelo fresco, a bottle of mineral water and about quarter of a metric ton of melt water, from the endless ice cubes I keep demanding from the staff.
Then I realise I’ve left my bloody notebook in the shop.
The notebook can’t just be abandoned. It is already full of notes, phone numbers, names, contacts and suggestions.
I swear some deeply unpleasant swear words and set off back towards the market and away from the bus.
When I return, the shop is closed and locked.
A neighbouring stallholder directs me to a second shop, owned by the same family. It is mercifully close.
The woman has gone home so instead I meet both her very good looking husband and her brother.
The brother is six-foot four, slim but powerfully built, fine Roman features and the colour of burnt mahogony. He is, I reflect, quite possibly the best looking man I have ever seen.
His name is Patrick.
Somewhat annoyingly, both the husband and the brother are also well educated, friendly, beautifully mannered, considerate and helpful.
This, incidentally, is my overall impression of Argentines in general, or at least of most Porteños in general.
The husband encourages me to look them up if I want any advice or help during my stay.
The brother kindly walks me back to the market stall and pens up the shop so I can retrieve my book.
I return home, the proud owner of a small canvas bag and a ring of tightening sunburn around the back of my neck.
That night, finally, Nadia and I manage our rendezvous. She is as attractive, sweet and interesting as promised.
She suggests a place called Million, pronounced milll- eeh- on in Spanish.
It turns out to be a very upscale place, housed in a beautiful city mansion. The mansion was built by a fabulously wealthy German Industrialist in the late 19th century. The huge polished stone staircase has banisters of wrought iron in stripped down Fin de Siecle twirls, the handrail are two hundred year-old tropical hardwood.
Outside, the linen clad tables on the terrace are reserved for diners. We sit instead on the enormous marble steps that lead down to the candle-lit garden far below, full of palms and the scent of semi-tropical flowers. We drink our Mohitos. Why is life so tough?- I ask myself.
The humidity is extraordinary, at some kind of cosmic end-point now. The air crackles with charged ions. This is not some sexual or romantic metaphor. It simply must rain. The dark sky above is full of hundreds of thousand of tons of moisture, sucked out the land for weeks, held in suspension only by the high saturation point of the incredible heat within the broiling clouds.
I idly wonder if the German industrialist actually excavated earth from of the back of his property to create this incredible spectacle. Nothing about the topography of the surrounding district hints at this steep drop. If so, did he have to put in some huge engineering works outside? Supports to brace the ground under the house?
Then I remember we climbed the high stairs and we are actually eighty feet up in the air. I am quietly I kept my musings to myself.
It is the sheer size of the outside marble stairs that creates the effect.
Or the illusion, as I prefer to think of it.
It is… Wagnerian.
Full marks to German Industrialists, on the aesthetics front at least.
I ask Nadia about herself. I learn she is Argentine but grew up and did her schooling in the United States, lived in Texas and New Orleans, worked in banks and marketing, married twice, and had a son young, grown now and living in French Martinique.
Nadia looks and is fantastic, elegant, kind and perceptive.
More recently she earned a living as a yoga teacher. Now she plans to help and develop organic farms, either near Buenos Aires or in distant Cordoba province.
Almost imperceptable, the first tiny hints of rain fall. Gradually larger, in tiny increments, they grow in size. The distant rolls of thunder grow closer and ever more menacing.
Finally, after days, weeks, of waiting, the heavens open up.
The sky empties, simply drops, a millon tons of water, hard, down over the huge baking city.
The water splashes, then flows in rivers, down the marbe steps. The drumming on the canvas awning above the terrace is deafening. Every minute now the sky flashes a brilliant blue-white light to catch the city skyline in a blinding camera flash, as bright as the sun itself.
The rain is a blessed relief.
A celestial gift, bestowed by the Gods, for all us sweating mortals.
I am all for staying on the steps, dancing in the warm rain under the palm trees, singing rock favourites out of tune and drinking twenty Mohitos.
But Nadia and sanity prevails. We sip our Mohitos and wine sprizzers on the terrace, watching the light show across the sky.
The rain doesn’t let up for another two hours plus.
At that stage it changes its status, from monsoon to merely heavy downpour.
An hour later it is only persistant rain.
It has been a magical evening.
But by two in the morning we all need sleep.
It has become apparent the rain has no intention of actually stopping tonight. I walk Nadia home through the drizzle, then take a taxi, breathing out the window, rejoicing at the cool, clean air.