Argentina's love affair

Published Nov 13, 2006


By Nicholas Dall

I have just had to renew my visa; my travel agent emailed me a few days ago to make sure she could cancel my flight home; my birthday is in a couple of weeks; and winter is coming to an end.

This means I have been living in Argentina for a year, and the cancellation of my flight means I'll be staying here for at least a few more months.

In a year here I have at least a smidgen of an understanding of what it means to be Argentinian.

Not even the number of Argentinian restaurants abroad could have prepared me for the love affair this nation has with the cow, particularly when cooked slowly over a sparse bed of coals.

Known as asado, large chunks of heavily salted meat are cooked for hours, while various types of internal organ are served as appetisers.

The chef and those who accompany him drink red wine and the meal is generally served after midnight. The meat is invariably well done, and eaten with lightly dressed lettuce and bread... nothing overly exciting is allowed to steal the cow's thunder.

Although the asado is an exclusively male domain, when it comes to mealtime, the women are as rapacious as the men. I think Argentina is the only country in the world where you can take your girlfriend or wife to an expensive and sophisticated restaurant to eat parrillada, or mixed grill.

A small fireplace is brought to your table and you and your loved one take it in turns to feed one another mouthfuls of sizzling intestines, liver, blood sausage and, ultimately, more conventional 'meat'. If I had grown up Argentinian I might just have been stereotyped as romantic...

Being Argentinian also involves a lot of self doubt and regret at what might, and should, have been. Every Argentine lives the triste historia (sad story) of the tango on a daily basis.

For a nation blessed with a plethora resources it is amazingly poor; for a people who aspire towards and, to a certain extent manage to achieve, the sophisticated Mediterranean lifestyle of fashion and good food, there is surprisingly little money.

The country has even embraced some of the snootiest British activities: Mendoza has an active rowing club on the lake in beautiful Parque General San Martin; and the Argentine Polo Association boasts over 80 percent of the world's A-rated players - all of this in a country where only five years ago inflation was so high that afternoon prices were double those in the morning; a country which had five presidents in three weeks after its most recent economic collapse.

Most Argentinians place the responsibility at the door of politicians, although a few of the more educated people blame it almost entirely on argentinidad or 'being Argentinian'; they reason that politicians are as Argentinian as Maradonna and Carlos Gardel and corruption and poor decision making spring up like epiphytes in anyone who achieves some sort of power.

Making those around you happy is distinctly Argentinian, and maybe it is this characteristic that means all Argentinian governments, regardless political leanings, are populist; and it certainly explains the current president's decision to suspend all exports of beef for six months so as to keep local prices low.

Another problem is politics in Argentina is never about incremental tampering with tried and tested formulae, but instead involves widespread reform.

This means with each new government - which is more often than not a polar opposite to the one before it brought about by an electoral knee-jerk - all of the old policies (even the good ones) are abolished. At the moment Argentina is as politically stable as it has been in years, and president Nestor Kirchner has popularity ratings of over 70 percent (hard to achieve with a name like that and the appearance of a penguin!) and will almost certainly be re-elected.

This is cause for some very cautious optimism, but those in the know insist he is just a more wily criminal than the rest, and that Argentina will soon be run into the ground yet again.

Although populism doesn't do much for their politics, it certainly makes Argentinians as a nation the most genuinely well meaning people I have ever met.

One of my students explained to me that 'we don't eat breakfast because we're too busy.' What she forgot to add is they are 'too busy' saying hello; asking about children or holidays or pets; looking at wedding photos; or teasing one another about the weekend's football results. I know that in most parts of the world the first hour or so of work is a gentle easing into the day, but this is normally done on the quiet. In Argentina the boss only arrives at work at eleven, so the beginning of the day is a free-for-all of friendship and very little work, which suits me just fine.

Argentinians are friendly in the office, in the supermarket, in the hairdresser, in lifts and even in nightclubs: when you accidentally knock a guy after a few too many in a South African, English or let alone Italian nightclub you will almost certainly be greeted with a few choice phrases and quite likely a shove to the chest. In Argentina you will just as certainly be asked your opinion on the attributes of the resident female population.

Once you have given your glowing approval, the guy who should be bitching at you for spilling beer on his shirt will try to set you up with his younger sister; his girlfriend's best friend; or his best friend's girlfriend. One guy even seized his girlfriend's face, thrust it in my direction, and said: "Tell me this isn't the most beautiful thing you've ever seen." If I hadn't known it would ruin my chances with his sister, I would have agreed with him.

No year in Argentina would be complete without football, which might be more important to the nation than rugby is to New Zealand. I've been lucky enough to be here in a World Cup year; in spite of the fact that the team flattered to deceive, and bombed out against the boring Germans. I watched all of the Argentina games with Argentinians, normally sipping on mate (a herbal tea) as I did so, and always eating asado after the game. I danced in the centre of Mendoza, under a rain of blue and white squares of paper from the windows above, after the 6 - 0 demolition of Serbia and Montenegro; and I experienced the diagnostic sadness of a nation struggling to come to terms with the fact that often beauty can be beaten by structure and organisation.

In the past year, all of my exposure to Argentinian football has been via television, but that is - with any luck - about to change. Godoy Cruz, a local team, has qualified for this season's first division after a 25 year absence.

Unfortunately their first home game was called off after 16 minutes of play because a handful of supporters objected to the club's refusal to pay their bus tickets to away games.

The game will be completed in an empty stadium, but hopefully the Islas Malvinas Stadium will be home to large crowds including one South African.

My time in Argentina has been memorable. I have come to appreciate the triumvirate of beef, beautiful women and football. I have developed a fondness for Argentinians which will stay with me until I die from cholesterol.

I have been as confused by some of the issues in this country as many Argentinians and I sincerely hope one day they're able to thrust themselves out of the economic rut while maintaining their ubiquitous friendliness.

But, as happens whenever you live anywhere other than your own city, I have found other things harder to come to terms with: I have never been able to agree that Maradonna is the greatest player of all time; or that the Falkland Islands should be shown on official maps to belong to Argentina. And I'll also settle for my own cup of Five Roses over a shared gourd of dungy mate, thank you very much.

- This article was originally published on page 8 of The Star on November 11, 2006

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