Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Buenos Aires Nights by Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Buenos Aires, when I look for a defining image, strikes me as a teeming conglomeration of humanity huddled together for comfort and mutual consolation on the shores of the broad River Plate, with all eyes looking north towards New York and Miami, London and Paris, and all backs turned implacably away from the Argentine south and the country's twin soul-destroying wildernesses - the lonely endless-stretching pampa and the empty stony wastes of Patagonia. Small wonder, then, that life here at the ends of the earth is indelibly tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, and that these are the emotions that porteños - the citizens of Buenos Aires - wallow in. They even invented the tango to record, celebrate, and turn their ills into myth.

Forty years ago I lived there, working with Argentina's foremost writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Since then, I have spent long periods in Buenos Aires, engaged in myriad cultural projects. At one time I knew virtually every writer in the city and over these decades have translated work of about fifty of them. When I look back - in nostalgia, yes, but without the porteño sadness - my head swims in the riches of Buenos Aires nights, its restaurants, its authors.

One of these writers was the late Isidoro Blaisten. I had known him since my early days in the city, when he had a slim volume of poetry and a first book of stories to his credit. Later, like many other Buenos Aires literati, he taught private writing workshops to a handful of students who met evenings once or twice a week at his home. Isidoro ended his career a member of the Argentine Academy of Letters, a stuffy institution that I could never have imagined him associated with but which in no way besmirched his exemplary fiction.

I had reconnected with Izzy in 1979 at the Buenos Aires Book Fair. By then he had changed his surname from Blaistein to Blaisten, which was easier for the Spanish-speaking tongue, and he wore an impeccable pinstriped suit of dark blue. He no longer looked the happy-go-lucky Izzy of old, who had always seemed a character out of one of his own hilarious stories. Now, signing copies of his books, extremely serious in the serious double-breasted suit, he was more the picture of a salesman then a writer. In the intervening years Isidoro had become popular, with a top-drawer publisher and a following. In homage to the old days, he regaled me at the fair with signed copies of his latest editions.

Years later, my partner Susan Ashe and I began paying regular weekly visits to him and his wife Graciela Melgarejo. We were translating a tale of Isidoro's in hopes that it would be the first step to a volume of short stories. These evenings with Izzy always began punctually at five in the afternoon around the big desk where he wrote, in his top-floor flat in Calle Alsina, only a few blocks from where I used to work with Borges. The warm, cosy room was lined with books, among them several multi-volumed sets that I suspect were the profits of easy-going Izzy's one-time short career as a bookseller.

In the throes of studying English at the time, Izzy eagerly puzzled out our draft translation while helpfully shedding light on our doubts and at the same time amusing us with anecdotes about his teacher, an elderly Anglo-Argentine spinster who seemed a product of the imagination of an Agatha Christie. By eight o'clock or thereabouts, a few hours after tea and a huge platter of cakes and pastries, we were all four at work on a magnum of champagne.

On the first of these occasions, no mention had been made of dinner. In Buenos Aires it is a norm and therefore tacitly understood that a party such as ours, at eight-thirty or nine or even later, would begin to make its way to that most beautiful of porteño institutions, the corner restaurant. Every Buenos Aires household has a favourite, but, neglectfully, I had never acquainted my partner with these all-important cultural niceties.

At eight, she began casting me frantic looks about our making a getaway. No, I told her as Isidoro shared around the last of the drink, it was okay. Then, a minute later, sotto voce, she pointed out that these people had to be getting their dinner. Not to worry, I said, still unmindful. Then, the last drops drunk, Isidoro announced, with hundred-per-cent predictability, 'Well, where shall we eat, then? Want to try the Spanish Club? It's just around the corner.'

While the Club Español is a club, it is more a social centre, and its big ground-floor restaurant is open to everyone. Such establishments abound in the city, and in style and tone they are neither exclusive nor snobbish. The Buenos Aires Spanish community alone boasts, additionally, Galician, Catalan, Andalusian, Asturian, and Lucense (from Lugo, a province of Galicia) centres, if not others. A dozen more national groups have them too, as do the city's numerous Jews, who by far make up the largest Jewish community in Latin America.

The Spanish Club occupies an imposing, even dramatic, building that is part Moorish in inspiration, part Antonio Gaudí, with inset tiles, elaborate friezes and ironwork, and an imbricated cupola, atop which stands a bronze classical figure who wears wings and holds out a laurel wreath. At first sight, the combination is too much, too eclectic, yet somehow, in a summer setting amid blossoming jacarandas along one of the city's busiest thoroughfares, the edifice has great charm. Designed by a Dutch architect in 1907, it is a fair example of Buenos Aires's genuine cosmopolitanism.

As for the club's restaurant, like most of the city's eating places, large or small, it serves food that is good, unfussy, and modestly priced. In a metropolis shackled by fashion and fashionableness, stylish or faddish or extremely elegant restaurants come and go, all the rage one year, forgotten shortly after. They can be superb - or not - and are usually expensive. But the corner restaurant, from venerable and traditional establishments like the old Biela and the Munich, both by the Recoleta cemetery, down to the lowliest three-bare-table boliche in the farthest corner of the city, will seldom let you down for standard fare. Anywhere in Buenos Aires one can eat the best meat in the world. (Significantly, in Argentina the Spanish word for meat, carne, is synonymous with beef and excludes lamb, pork, poultry, or kid.) At the same time, incredible as it may seem, in a city half whose population bear Italian surnames one once ate the world's worst pasta.

Nights at the Spanish Club with Isidoro and Graciela were unadulterated pleasure, especially with Izzy charming the easily charmed, overly obliging waiters. After our meal and long past midnight we would withdraw elsewhere for coffee and a nightcap. On one occasion, crossing the 9 de Julio to the Avenida de Mayo, we ended up at a café that was nearly empty and seemed on the verge of closing. Coffee and brandies came and went. At some point, the kitchen closed, the cook left, and only we four and our two waiters remained. They stood to one side, all in and half asleep, but would not shoo us out. One last round, we said time after time. Do you mind? They were professionals on duty; they did not mind. Three o'clock slid past and four approached, and still the sainted pair brought more coffee. In the end, out on the Avenida, we said our long goodbyes at the corner of Cerrito, and my partner and I walked back to our place in streets that were far from empty. Five in the morning. It had been a twelve-hour meeting, a twelve-hour night.

Memories of a hundred other lunches and dinners come to mind. With Turco Asís (a maverick and controversial storyteller and novelist at the time and later an ambassador to UNESCO and to Portugal, a journey even more spectacular than Isidoro Blaisten's to the Argentine Academy of Letters) and the critic Teddy Paz at a vulgar, noisy, neon-lighted dive somewhere around Sarmiento and Montevideo that for three of us served a salver piled a foot high with tender beef in the form of asado de tira (rib roast). Perfect bifes de lomo (sirloin steaks) with theatrical agent Margaret Murray at the Munich or with novelist Adolfo Bioy Casares at La Biela. Then, somewhere along Corrientes, a Saturday-night crowd of us that included fun-loving and funny Manuel Puig, eating pejerrey or milanesas con puré or papas soufflés and double salads of radicheta (with lemon juice - never vinegar - and olive oil), washed down with all the wine you could drink, always at affordable prices. Or, for puchero, the Globo or Tropezón. Or, for all-round fare, my own everyday haunt - alas, no more - Las Familias, at the southwest angle of Riobamba and Corrientes.

It was here that I ordered incongruous vegetarian meals for the melancholic Vidia Naipaul. Here where my infant son was always welcome and the waiters opened a way to make room for his cochecito de bebé and gave him bread and bananas while I devoured personal favourites such as sesos a la romana or riñones a la parrilla. Here, where in those bygone days one could pick up the tab for four, easily, for five dollars, including wine and tip. Here, where on breathless summer nights at small tables by the kerb one drank schooners of beer and munched Spanish peanuts, little Tom in dreamland an arm's-length away in his pram, without anyone in ultra-civilized Buenos Aires ever once looking askance at his mother or me for being there at that hour with a tiny child.

And the dozens of other blurred and anonymous places, some half-remembered, others half-forgotten. Long tables in La Boca, where the poet Arturo Cuadrado, one of many noble Spanish Republicans in exile, told María Alicia Domínguez, another poet and still a beauty at sixty - the woman who in 1938 (so Borges told me) had driven Leopoldo Lugones, the eminent man of letters, to suicide - that I had come to Argentina to translate her eyes. Then there were holes in the wall entirely lost to memory, where Borges first introduced me to queso y dulce - locally known as postre de vigilante, or policeman's dessert, because it is so easily portable - a slab of Mar del Plata cheese topped with a slab of either of two preserves, sweet potato or quince. A coffee bar in 25 de Mayo where I taught myself after twenty years to eat and to like dulce de leche, the soft caramelized sugar-and-milk sweet that Argentines are so fond of and that I had always found too cloying. A dish of it, used as a five o'clock pick-me-up, gives a power jolt that beats double espressos.

Memories of the waiters, the best in the world, who took orders from a table of fifteen, no pencil, no pad, writing nothing down, and then came back laden like pack animals, a series of dishes laddered up the left arm, and laid them out, the right one to the right customer, getting it perfect every time without having to ask who ordered what, who wanted his bife well done, who a punto. The professionalism of these men was always something to behold. Such work in Buenos Aires is a serious calling and receives serious remuneration; waitresses or part-time students serving tables would have been unthinkable. Many restaurants paid no wage but shared a percentage of the take. In a city where eating out is a tradition and, in the days I speak of, was an everyday affair, a restaurant could be an entire world in miniature.

In 'Fe de ratas', one of his most brilliant stories, Asís takes us to the bosom of just such a world, the restaurant O Sole Mio, where we are plunged into a clash between two waiters tangled in a web of rivalry, ineptitude, envy, greed, intrigue, hatred, cowardice, contempt, petty theft, triumph, failure, conspiracy, cruelty, vengeance, treachery, one-upmanship, and cringing mediocrity. All this among a cast of six characters. Formerly owned by an Italian, the place had been called - for no apparent reason - the Pata de Confucio (Confucius' Foot); now under the new management of a Spaniard, the establishment has been renamed the O Sole Mio. One of the waiters, Ferreyro (Spanish surname), hates another, Ferreti (Italian surname). Ferreti, whose province is the tables at the back of the restaurant, got all the best customers. Smouldering Ferreyro knows that this is because, for a whole range of reasons, which he enumerates, the back tables are more inviting. The owner washes his hands of the problem and tells Ferreyro to settle it himself with Ferreti. Confronted, Ferreti instantly and magnanimously offers Ferreyro all the tables, front and back, on whichever side he wants. The deal is struck, but still Ferreti, who ends up with the left-hand tables, draws all the clients. Ferreyro seethes, his hatred grows; he is convinced that the left side, for a whole range of reasons, is more inviting than the right.

Of course, on the left, Ferreti was the same as ever. A fixed smile on his face, he blared out orders into the kitchen, always for the most expensive dishes on the menu, he gesticulated, fussed over the clientele, asking their names, ages, occupations, addressing them in the familiar, inquiring about their travels, and the customers showed him snapshots of their parents, snapshots of Italy or Spain or even Israel, invited him to their homes, come and see us any time, any time you like, and they invited him there in the O Sole Mio itself to have a glass of wine with them, right there at their tables, and he remarked on the latest strike or kidnapping or told risqué stories, he patted the kids on the head, kissed the little ones, regaled customers with anecdotes about his younger son, applauded the speaker at farewell parties, improvised toasts, laughing, laughing, always laughing, and for all this he pocketed big tips, hefty tips.

The denouement of the tale is not important. What matters for me is that Asís has caught and kept alive the tone and flavour of a vivid memory. A welter of attitudes, styles, cultures, language, and local nuances runs riot in the story's subtext. It is just such a mix and juxtaposition - more a superimposition, really, a layering - that is the hallmark of porteño life. To construe the milieu of the O Sole Mio as a metaphor for the feisty heart of Buenos Aires itself, perhaps even of large parts of Argentina, would not be farfetched.

In Buenos Aires, a waiter is called a mozo, which - somewhat like the French garçon - can also mean a youth. If you don't fancy what is on the menu, the mozo will get the cook to prepare anything you like, any way you like it, at any time of the day or night. Eating out is the point around which life in Buenos Aires revolved. To be at table over long, leisurely meals with friends, family, loved ones, savouring the wine and food, talking about everything and everyone under the sun, quipping, bantering, scoffing, all in the special cut-and-thrust of porteño humour, with its shifts back and forth between quick wit and laconic irony, the mozos themselves often joining in - was not that companionship the warmest of all possible worlds, the essence of the city and its people, the pinnacle of living in Buenos Aires?

First published, in a shorter version, under the title 'A hundred other lunches come to mind', in the Financial Times Weekend, April 21/ April 22 2007.

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