Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Andrew Blair

In my mind, I’m sitting in Café Finanzas, on the corner of Lavalle and San Martin. Here, all porteño life passes before you. As in any other café in the city, sooner or later you see every type, every encounter, every crisis that together make up the daily social round of Buenos Aires.

Anything important, and quite a lot which clearly isn’t, happens in the café. This may be true of other cities, but the porteños have perfected these exchanges to an Olympic standard. Not to mention the coffee. The single word produces pure caffeinated pleasure. No messing around with ridiculous menus and variations on a tiresome theme (as in New York, Sydney or London) – but the single command: ‘café’, and out comes the ideal, short and strong black liquid, a little longer than an espresso, with a glass of water and a few biscuits, if you’re lucky. Options range from the typical café con leche, through the cortado, down to the rare but exquisite lagrima, with a mere white, milky teardrop for company.

A peso or two buys the complete experience, and the right to stay there all day. No hassle, no bother – use this place as your office, marriage guidance centre, study or TV lounge – it’s all the same to us. They say Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per head than New York; I live in Palermo district, part of which is known as ‘Villa Freud’. There is a great little Italian place near the zoo with signs in the window saying ‘Freud never ate here’ and ‘Hemingway never drank here’; though I did both. Going to your analista is as commonplace as going to the gym. Some choose to save their money, and use the café instead. English lessons, Spanish lessons, romance, recriminations, first dates, last rites – its all going on if you care to look up from your cup and your copy of today’s Clarin or La Nacion.

On the TV, high in the corner, the news tells of elections, corruption, strikes, road deaths and, most of all, the coming River-Boca football clash: el superclassico. This divides the city like nothing else. I follow River Plate, partly because the Monumental stadium is close to where I live (TV memories of tickertape world cup fiestas from 1978); partly because Boca Juniors was the team of Diego ‘la mano del Dios’ Maradona. The main reason, though, is that the friend who picked me up from the airport, on a hot and humid March Sunday morning, said: ‘it’s River Plate or you walk’, which seemed fair enough at the time. It’s the white and red of River for me, rather than the Lego-toned blue and yellow of Boca, whose fans are charmingly referred to as ‘bosteros’, which roughly translates as ‘cowpats’, or so I was told.

Here, in Café Finanzas, you are only a ten-minute walk from just about everything in the city centre. From the President’s Casa Rosada in the Plaza de Mayo (where the mothers of the disappeared have walked anti-clockwise round a statue every Thursday for almost thirty years, as if trying to rewind time) to the refurbished docks of Puerto Madero, the shops of Calle Florida’s pedestrian squeeze or the relative sanctity of Plaza San Martin, with its huge jacaranda trees shedding purple confetti each spring October.

Alternatively, take a colectivo, the jockey-coloured buses madly ploughing their way through the city, an essential Buenos Aires experience. You can travel almost anywhere in the Capital Federal, with a free workout thrown in, as you are flung around each bend, corner and traffic light, regardless of its colour. The buses all come adorned with football pendants, elaborate mirrors and a picture of Our Lady of Lujan, the saint of travellers, who is there to protect us on our way. Drivers of all types seem to feel that this offers greater security than, for example, a seat belt. Certainly, even the colectivo is safe compared to driving a car, in the city or the province. My lack of faith is never more evident than in the front passenger seat of a BA taxi. No amount of casual banter, directional advice, silence or screaming appears to dent the confidence of an Argentinean behind the wheel. Our Lady must move in mysterious ways, unknown to the unbeliever.

A friend here says: ‘for us, one hundred kilometres is nothing, but one hundred years is everything’, as if that explains it all. In many ways, it does. People think nothing of driving several hours to an asado (barbecue), and certain historical events, proud or tragic, seem like only last week. The Argentinean asado is an event of great endurance, sociability and ritual; fantastic beef (and other, both edible and more questionable parts of the cow’s anatomy, excluding the pats, I trust) but salad and dips generally make only a fleeting appearance. Maradona help you if you’re vegetarian.

The best way to recover from a colectivo ride, or the stress of crossing the wide racetrack expanse of Avenida 9 de Julio, with its skyscraping obelisk to mark the centre of the known universe, is to repair to the nearest café. Say the magic, single word, catch the news and your breath. Any café will do. Maybe Café Finanzas, on Lavalle and San Martin. In my mind, I’m sitting there still.