Interior Design? Just let me buy the lighting! And buying art in Buenos Aires.

I think they call this a colour palette?

As readers of this blog may already be aware, I have been struggling to get in touch with my feminine side, a.k.a. my inner interior designer. While I had strong views on what The 5th Floor should end up looking like, I didn’t really have the roadmap to get me there. And while I intuitively knew what furniture I wanted, I couldn’t find it so realised I would have to have it made.

Luckily the Irish bird who runs the local fish and chip shop (yes we now have one in BA) said she’d take care of it, and as she has a way with cod, I had absolute confidence she would have a similar way with colours. When she told me that her boyfriend was a dab hand with a saw and a hammer (not necessarily in that order), I asked if he could whip me up 8 desks, 14 bedside tables, 7 mirrors, 7 bedheads, a load of cupboards and a few sundry other items, all to Art Deco designs and in a range of elaborate finishes.

“No problem, would you like salt and vinegar with that?” she replied.

As you can imagine it was a weight off my mind.

But a man has to take responsibility for something in this process, put his stamp on his creation so to speak, and strangely while spending months trawling through auction catalogues, markets and antique stores,  I have developed something of a passion for the lighting of the 30’s and 40’s (with possible deviation into the next decade if I’m feeling frisky). Deco chandeliers you might describe them as, lights that make a statement, retain an elegance that modernism slowly sort to erode but without the dripping crystals that either make you think of your grandparents or a Russian oligarch.

Indeed, now I can tell the difference between chrome and nickelled silver at a glance, appreciate the glow of alabaster and have developed a particular weakness for Murano glass, especially this one, the main living room light:

Living Room LightI was in two minds whether to post pictures of some of my other recent acquisitions. Would anyone really be interested? Would it seem either pretentious or a bit precious? A couple of things convinced me. The first felt like a little victory. La Doctora and I have a shared vice. Every now and then we pop into one of the 4 amazing shops in San Telmo belonging to one or other of the Guevara brothers. While apparently the brothers no longer talk, they are still the undoubted kings of high end Art Deco, growing as others wither, serving an almost exclusively international clientele (at least that is my presumption).

When we first visited for inspiration, we were immediately immersed in a one stop shop that provided all our furnishing needs. Then we asked for a few prices and realised that a couple of armchairs and a desk had blown our entire budget and that our guests would have to sit sharing them in the dark because we wouldn’t be able to afford the appropriate lighting. So we decided to go the “Americano” route. Light, small, comfortable furniture, whose retro charm is very fashionable here at the moment as people try and give some character to their increasingly modern and decreasingly sized, apartments.

“Ah,” said the bird from the fish and chip shop. “You’re trying to go for the set of “Mad Men” look?”

“No I’m bloody not,” I replied. “I’m trying to go for Buenos Aires, golden age elegance and Art Deco styling.” She smiled knowingly. I realised that the Americano was not going to cut it. I pulled a couple of photos of stuff I liked out of my back pocket and asked her to tell her boyfriend to get his hammer out.

So this weekend we went back to the Guevaras for a little look-see. And while we were still impressed we weren’t overawed. We listened quietly to their sales pitch, the provenance of the articles, the dates, the designers and then giggled at the prices. The reason being, we already own half of this stuff. They had two different chandeliers for sale that were identical to ones we had recently bought. On average they were selling them for 22 times the price we had paid. I went home and looked up dealer prices in New York and London. Even higher. I realised I had learnt a new profession, so the last 6 months in grubby antique stores has not been a waste of time. Throughout the war years Buenos Aires benefitted from its country’s enormous export capacity, and as 40’s design revolves back into fashion and Poteños move from elegant mansions into high-rise penthouses, there is lots of the good stuff on the market if you know where to look. Which now we do!

Secondly, I was contacted by someone who actually read my blog. He and his wife are interior designers coming for a stay in BA. It got me thinking about what they might be interested in. Maybe they too would like to see what lighting or furniture is available here, though for most it might be too bulky and difficult to ship. However, they should certainly have a look at some Argentine art.

The fact is, other than Quinquela Martin (who sadly is my favourite), early to mid 20th century art here is surprisingly affordable, and surprisingly good (at least to my tastes). The market for Argentine masters is actually quite liquid, but strangely doesn’t seem to increase much, at least in dollar terms. Buenos Aires is one of the few places where you can go to a national gallery or museum, browse through exhibitions of its greatest painters and then go to an auction house preview and discover comparable works that are actually within your price range. And unlike many “emerging markets,” Argentina’s artistic tradition and accompanying European style documentation makes issues such as provenance far more reliable. Further I would recommend the auction house previews as an excellent way to get a feel for the tastes of the private collectors of the era, and an idea of how Argentina then saw itself. Currently, you can acquire unique paintings by many of Argentina’s well known artists for a couple of thousand USD and upwards, while good limited edition serigraphs and agufuertes, start in the early hundreds. I suspect few are the tourists wandering round the Museo de Bellas Artes who find a favourite work and think “I’ll have one of them”, while in reality they could acquire something stunning for little more than the price of their plane ticket. Further, as long as the work is not over 100 years old there is apparently no problem exporting it.

Anyway, back to my own past months of acquisitiveness, and some photos for those who might be interested;

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This light now hangs at the top of the stairs, and frankly looks as though it has been there forever.

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Though it’s a lot bigger than it looks in the picture.

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This now hangs proudly in the bar, with a matching alabaster standard lamp.

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Something for a bedroom above.

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And another bedroom (don’t ask me why the sizes of the photos come out differently, I know about lights not technology).

la fotoAnd another, one of the classic designs.

So, I won’t bore you with the rest. After all there are quite a few rooms. Though the only modern ones are the studio bedroom and the dining room. My friend Gustavo is designing a far reaching and thus food illuminating, bronze sputnik for the latter.

la fotoAbove is his mock up.

I do occasionally ask myself whether my guests will care. Would they be equally happy with nice chrome circles above their heads. Am I doing this for the pleasure of my future clientele or to feed my new obsession.

Well the other thing I do care about is comfort, and during my banking days I stayed at too many cutting edge design hotels where the furniture looked cool but gave you a backache in 5 minutes. Not for me! So here are some of the things we are/ have been restoring.

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And it you really need to relax and put your feet up with a large scotch in hand see below;

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Just hoping mine doesn’t arrive with a resident blonde!

It’s frustrating when people ask you to send information about your hotel, but it is still a work in progress. We are opening in six weeks, but I wont have any marketing material before we do, as it isn’t quite finished yet. So for those of you with imagination, envisage the above accoutrements, installed in a place that looks like this;

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With an excellent breakfast included, and an owner who will make you the cocktail of your desires before you venture out in the evening and partners that know their way round the best that BsAs has to offer.

Are you ready to book?

Un Día Peronista or Argentina’s Got Talent?

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Today didn’t start well. Waking up with a bit of a hangover, I was immediately presented with the realisation that I am gay. You may reasonably ask whether this was inspired by some experimental activity undertaken in a dark corner of the smart party in Recoleta we attended last night, or by a sudden flash of attraction that I felt for some dark Argentine boy across the dinner table at the delicious (albeit vegetarian) dinner we went to prior to that. But no, it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with interior design. My first waking thoughts were about ceiling lights. I’m getting obsessed with colours and glass. When I should have been thinking about greeting the new day and La Doctora with a manly awakening, I was actually contemplating the best way to restore my Vitreaux! Further, I am boring the pants off everyone with talk of vibrant colour palettes and having to seek out the company of gay men, as they are better at pretending to be interested.

What to do? As La Doctora’s head emerged into the chilly air above the duvet, I decided to come out immediately. She looked a bit for confused for a moment, mulling over the predicament. In Argentina you can turn virtually any noun into a profession by adding the suffix –ISTA.

“What you are in danger of becoming my dear, with your new Murano mania, is a Lamparista.”

Sounds painful, but even I knew she was trying to fool a naïve Englishman. You can’t turn a light (lampara) into a profession. La Doctora handed me a business card from the nice man at the flea market who had relieved me of thousands of pesos for one of the aforementioned. Sergio, Mercado de Pulgas, Lamparista! Well at least he’s out of the closet and happy with it.

“Are you ready to go shoppin’?,” La Doctora asked me sympathetically. And liberated by my confession, I was, eager to jump back on the horse of pendants and appliques, sconces and standing lights.

But then Jesus got in contact, a quick call to say bye-for-now and during the course of the conversation I realised I was starving. The problem with vegetarian food is that it digests too quickly. You wake up in the morning feeling like you haven’t eaten for a week. It may even have been the insufficiency of red meat that had led to my self-doubt and rapidly to-be-forgotten gay phase. I explained to Jesus that his packing and paperwork could wait, as could my lamparas, and that chorizos, morcillas, bloody steaks and pinot noir were the order of the day. If God is as easily persuaded as Jesus, there may yet be a place for me in Heaven. We arranged to meet at Minga, my favourite winter parilla, in 30 minutes. It is entirely coincidental that Minga’s staff are 100% gay and lesbian as far as I can tell.

Marching orders received, La Doctora turned on the radio. According to the DJ it was cold outside, meaning possibly less than 10 degrees C. Anyone who has lived here for a little while, will understand that Argentina has a completely different and far more dangerous, form of cold to anywhere else in the world. Firstly, the cold always comes with an Ola Polar (Polar Wave). This kills you (Te mata!) explained the DJ. “Si te Maaaata”, agreed her colleague. Then of course there is the effect of the humidity that on a hot day can add lots of degrees to the temperature (last Christmas night was apparently 45 degrees, or 55 according to some DJ’s) or on a cold day subtract them. “Te moris” (you die), explained the DJ. “Obvio, te moriiiiis,” agreed her colleague.

“Estar abrigado,” means to be well wrapped up. “Estar re abrigado,” means very well. I’m a canny Englishman. I’m not going to let this lethal Argentine brand of cold catch me off guard and kill me, literally, obvio! I left the house re-contra-mil-putas abrigado. I will leave that to your imagination but suffice to say that with my boina (beret), layering and scarfs, I could have survived a sneaky ice age that surfed in on a polar wave. Outside the door it was bright sunshine, blues sky, and about 12 degrees. Spring to us English or actually most of summer. A bead of sweat formed under my boina before I had got to the corner.

Luckily we were running late so took the car. If I had had to walk, I would have lost more weight than Franckie Dettori in a 5 hour sauna, while wearing a wetsuit and sticking charlie up his nose. And guess what, it was Un Dia Peronista. This term, literally a Peronist Day, is used with and without irony depending on the political views of the person using it, to describe a perfect day. It involves crisp sunshine, lack of wind (no maldito ola polar which kills you), no humidity to confuse the temperature (remember, you die). We get to the restaurant. The tables are full outside. We get the last table on the upstairs terrace. The sun’s still bright so we take off some layers.

A quick shout out (God I hate that expression, but it has snuck into my vocabulary, though I’m not even sure whether I use it correctly), for Minga (Costa Rica side of Plaza Armenia). While in the UK a minga is an ugly girl of uncertain cleanliness, our lesbian friends are smart, clean and efficient. The morcilla (crunchy exterior and creamy interior) is better than the chorizo. Steak, excellently juicy. Chips hand cut. Salad green, but I didn’t feel the need to taste it, having eaten vegetarian the night before. A pinot noir, Padrillos, very acceptable at 110 pesos. Coffee good and served with chocolate covered dulce de leche bombs. Service pleasant and attentive. What more could you want on the second day of winter, sitting on an (unheated – they have a smoker friendly heated terrace downstairs) terrace, soaking up red meat and sun?

Then kisses exchanged (yes you do a lot of kissing in Argentina but kissing a Mexican apparently does not make me gay), it was time for lamp shopping. Except it wasn’t, as on leaving the restaurant I heard a distinct riff emanating from the square.

“Hey, someone’s playing a bit of Muddy Waters. Doesn’t sound half bad. Let’s go and investigate?”

“I suspect they won’t be playing blues,” says La Doctora.

“Ni importa, at least the guy can play guitar,” says I.

So Argentina’s got Talent. And what’s more it doesn’t wait to get selected for a TV show. No, it loads up its kit into a van, buys some petrol for the generator to drive the amplifiers, and sets out its stall in the plazalita. Obviously, it has practiced for at least 5 years before assailing the public with its renditions. Its timing is tight. It realises that to make interesting music you need at least six people in the band. And a guy doing the mixing, not too loud but crisp. And its out there playing, reliant on the approval of a random audience and the fact that small children will dance ecstatically in front of it.

So what would Simon Cowell have said? I suspect he might have mentioned that the lead guitarist (who had a real Santana onda), shouldn’t have worn the cardigan that his granny had knitted him. But then Simon doesn’t understand Argentine cold, so would almost certainly die here due to inappropriate clothing choices. Simon wouldn’t have liked the bongo player. Why? Too dark skinned, huge hands, an afro hairstyle, TOO stereotyped as a bongo player. But the guy played great bongos. Or the “indigenous” percussionist? Sitting on his beat box, shaking gourds, rubbing gourds, bashing the box. But he had the best voice of all of them. Would Simon have liked the authentically cheerful ambiance, the fact that all the musicians could actually play a wide range of proper instruments, the fact that there was nothing to manufacture, because these guys already know what they do for fun?

I doubt it, but I do.

So we thought we would sit on the edge of the fountain and listen for a couple of tracks, but the band was better than that. Forget the shopping! Lighting will still be there tomorrow, the band, maybe not?

Mala Macumba (sort of bad magic) it’s called. Here is a link to their stuff. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ipetzX3uCEQ

Pretty jolly? The kind of band I want at a party. The kind of band that will get everyone up and dancing (como locos). A band that distracted me from my interior design. Made me think that maybe I’m not gay. The kind of band that has a nice chap wandering around with a hat collecting money for the petrol for the generator.  We paid him a twice when we realised we were staying for the full set. The kind of band that makes a perfect day. And given there was some strange (possibly autistic) artist type doing cartoon versions of the kids (which they were loving) seemingly for free, it wasn’t just a perfect day for me.

Gracias chicos, sos capos! You are why I live here!!!!!

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Lost in Translation?

So I go to Diego’s, my local Chino as we refer to the Chinese run supermarkets of the barrio, which stay open late and serve the local community with necessities including beer and credit. Diego is a star. I’ve spent a couple of months in Beijing and there a happy Chinaman was a rarity. Diego (I have no idea what his real name is but a supermarket name is a bit like a porn name – if your’s is recognised you are already famous) is an integral part of the barrio.  He knows all his customers by name. He greets everyone who comes in. He is unfailingly cheerful until he gets completely exhausted when he becomes mildly grumpy. He provides a bar for people that can’t afford bars!

In England, kids drinking outside a supermarket would set off alarm bells. You would expect aggression. You would cross the road at least and normally with good reason. Here it is different. If you don’t have much cash you go to the Chino with your mates after work, buy a litre bottle of beer, drag out a few crates and share your beverage sitting in the street. And you talk. The beer is just the lubricant of the social event, not the raison d’etre. Normally I know half the kids sitting outside Diego’s. Two of them are my favourite butchers, the chicken and pork guys. Then there’s the guy who sells newspapers and talks English with a posher voice than I can achieve, gracias presumably to the BBC World Service. Occasionally a Cartonero will join. These are the guys who go through the bins separating out anything that has recycling value. They drag massive carts behind them, manually. It’s harsh work, and I was shocked by how educated and eloquent the guy who joined us the other night was.

But the story is the “new chino ” (all Asians are lazily referred to as chinos here as well).  A cousin of Diego’s has recently arrived. How I’m not sure, he looked pretty beat up when he got here, covered in bandages. However, like Diego, he has “Buena Onda.” Happy and smiley. Always says hello and goodbye. Can’t say anything else because that is the limit of his current language skills. Doesn’t qualify for a new name yet but is desperate to learn Spanish. Argentina is not a country where failing to integrate is rewarded and I suspect that Diego has pointed this out.

The problem is that his self-elected teacher comes from Paraguay.  Their Spanish is more classical than our Castellano. And mixed with Guarani! El pobre Chino isn’t going to understand anything. So I made the mistake of sitting on a crate, taking a swig of the communal beer and explaining the technicalities of Argentine pronunciation. From the point of view of an Englishman? Hell, at least I can do the RRRRs better than his LLLLs.  And I think I have been elected the official “professor”.  I went through 20 phrases with him. I’m now possibly an expert in supermarket speak.

But let’s face it, how difficult is this teaching gig? Why wouldn’t I want to try to teach a cheerful Chinaman a few basics while sitting on a box outside his family’s supermarket? I live in Argentina, the epitome of economic insecurity. In 5 years I may need a friend who owns a supermarket. And although I can’t understand anything he says, I can tell he’s a charming guy.

And, the Paraguayan butchers are good guys too. They are teaching me phrases to shock the sh*t out of my builders, in Guarani. And the cartonero guarantees to set up a “piquette”, outside any business that rips me off. I’m sitting on a box outside a supermarket, something I would never have considered doing in Fulham, discussing the veracity of the Foreign Office’s recent warning that anti-British sentiment is rising in Buenos Aires. But I’m not worried. The butchers assure me they have big knives.

So what is the point of this story? For me it’s about integration and liberation. It’s also about shared values that can be recognised across the classes. Yes, in my youth I occasionally sat debating with the odd Tuareg, or El Hadj, or some Niger army officer with no shoes but a big, shiny gun, in the middle of the Sahara but I never once assumed I had anything in common with them. Here I’m an immigrant too. I have aspirations. And quite frankly it is more important to “network” with my butcher than my banker, as it will have more impact on my quality of life. My girlfriend thinks it strange that I walk down the street, shouting my helloes to everyone, but she is from here. I would find it strange if she did the same thing in Fulham. So however, would the other people in Fulham!

Maybe it’s the difference between thinking of yourself as an immigrant rather than an expat. It creates an affinity more rapidly. Ideas of class, money or smartness drop away. You create a new network, some deep friendships but as importantly, lots of casual acquaintances. People who will do you favours, give you guidance, or share your insecurities. I’m not saying I have turned into a non-judgemental person who welcomes all new relationships with open arms. That’s never been my style (though I suspect I’m rather more forgiving than I used to be).  But yes, I value the Uruguayan gipsies who will bid for me at antiques auctions, or my hairdresser that will record blues with me, and of course all my butchers and basically anyone whose overriding desire is to have a decent conversation and point the new boy in the right direction.

Argentina is a country of recent immigrants. Most weren’t “A-listers” when they arrived.  They had no support network to fall back on other than the one the created.

I think that’s why I fit in? And given the company it’s not half bad!

What I love about Buenos Aires 4 – Suspendido Por Lluvia!

You’ve got to love a city where the people don’t go out in the rain. Where previous plans are considered null and void for any more than a passing shower. Where there is no shame in withdrawing from a social engagement at the first hint of thunder. Nearing the end of one of the finest autumn April’s I can remember, this Saturday the clouds rolled in and the rain came down: Nothing spectacular, not exactly a storm, just a bit damper than strictly necessary.

My enthusiasm to sally forth evaporated as quickly as today’s puddles will do, in tomorrow’s morning sun. I think I’ve turned into a porteño. I rang La Doctora. She was still in her pyjamas at 7pm. No “ganas” to go anywhere. Good! Jesus, my architect and creator of all things, may be able to walk on the stuff but there was no way he wanted to get his feet wet. Excellent! Anyone up for a drink? “Ni loco,” was the consensus. Why would you expose yourself to such nastiness? Quite. My feelings exactly!

Of course in England, such an attitude would mean not going out at all or at best counting on five social events a year. It’s not that it actually rains all the time, but it has perfected the menacing grey, could happen at any moment attitude, that would terrify a porteño. Remember, these guys are delicate. Their interactions with psychiatrists are so frequent that most health plans cover 20 visits a year at an incremental cost of about US$ 2.50 a visit. Imagine if they were SAD too, as in suffering from Seasonally Affective Disorder, not just 1970’s rock star fashion disorder.

However there is no doubt that that the rain affects the national psyche of us Brits. We tolerate the smell of wet dog because it is indistinguishable from the smell of damp office worker crowded into an overheated watering hole for an after office beverage. The porteños would have said canine in the salon in a flash and it would emerge perfumed and dressed in a weird costume to protect it from the elements. Long hair was a passing fad in the UK (at least among men), surely due to the unpleasantly effect of soggy locks chilling one down to the cervical vertebrae. The porteños still sport their mullets with pride. Hunter wellington boots became a fashion brand in the UK. Need I say more? The British Bulldog, “grin and bear it” ethos than characterises the true inhabitant of those dank isles, may be entirely derived from the fact that half the time it is an unpleasant event just to walk out your front door.

To not go out in the rain is a celebration! It says, look it may be horrible out there but it won’t last forever or even long. Before you know it there will be a day of bright blue skies and glorious sunshine. It might come with spring breezes, summer humidity, or autumn alpine freshness but it will come. And then we will all say to each other that the day is lindo, hermoso, precioso, and make it an excuse to have a long lunch in the sun because it just might be the last glorious day of the aforementioned season and it would be stupid not to take advantage of it. In fact, if the government here ran the UK, they would probably decree a national holiday every time the sun came out. And still end up with less incomprehensibly justified national holidays than they have here.

Good weather. Yes it’s important.

Dancing in the Park

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I expect many things from BA but not necessarily that it is the home of modern, improvised, Arab dancing. However these young ladies from Minga Belly Dancing (http://www.facebook.com/mingabellydance) were out in the Bosque in Palermo today, giving a show and a free class to anyone who similarly wants to roll their abs and jiggle their hips in sensual bedouin style. Women only and if you feel embarrassed to strut your stuff in public, indoor classes are available. Just another thing that you have probably never considered doing that is available in BA and a recommended activity for any serious applicant to the position of my next wife. The delicate Monet-esque tones of the photo are a result of trying to capture a moving target on my phone.

Death of the High Street?

Reading the English press a few days ago, I found myself particularly irritated by an interview with the Boss of one of the major supermarket chains. He was claiming that the proprietors of the small, specialist shops that used to inhabit British high streets were largely to blame for their own demise, a situation that has left our towns and cities colonised by identikit corporate clones selling junk food, junk coffee and apparently horsemeat burgers, to a “Public” left with little option. The prevalent opinion of “big business” is that it was the failure of such minnows to grasp modern marketing, provide “what the Public wants” and run lean, efficient businesses that led to their extinction. Just being an expert in selecting vegetables or repairing shoes or running up a pair of curtains is not enough. You have to be a businessman before you are a butcher.

Strangely he forgot to mention high street rents inflated by chains such as his, landlords inclination to rent to corporations that can reasonably guarantee a ten year income stream or the ability to squeeze suppliers’ margins in return for promised volume, until the pips in the un-ripe lemon squeak or someone comes up with the bright idea of fobbing them off with a lasagne that runs faster than Shergar. Certainly, as an eight-year-old boy walking home from school, the contents of the old fashioned (even then) sweet shop on the corner was definitely what this public wanted.

Luckily in Buenos Aires, other than the streets of clothes shops, the high street has never really existed. Small shops pepper each block; the commercial and the residential intermingled. There are few areas where you cannot find a deli, a baker, a greengrocer, a pasta maker, an ice-cream shop and a butcher within a 2-block radius, making your evening constitutional a purposeful and sociable event. Some of these make a vague stab at looking modern but most simply don’t bother. When getting a pair of shoes repaired recently, I had the choice of two locations. One was a zippy, open plan one-stop-shop offering a range of other services such as shortening your trousers while cutting you some keys. Possibly what the public want? The other was a hundred years old and just did shoes. I went with the latter, figuring that if it was so old and all it did was shoes, then it must be pretty good at it. And it was excellent at it!

The relevance of all this was bought home to me yesterday. Early morning and my builders ring. They can’t open the door to the property. Can I come with the spare key? I did but to no avail. Even though of fine German construction, the seventy-year-old lock had finally failed. Kaput! So what to do? In England you would have one choice, to ring the experts (the ones with the biggest presence on the internet of course), who will send someone round on a bike in an hour (if you sign over your first born son) or in a van sometime that day (if you only feel inclined to part with a pound of flesh). And that charge will just be for the consultation, because how are they going to replace a 70-year-old lock while leaving the lovely brass fittings intact? And how likely is it they have the right inventory on their bike? And by the way, your whole door closing system is obsolete and needs to be replaced with the latest Korean security device! But don’t worry about the fact that you have to take out a second mortgage to pay for all this because it is now considered semi-respectable for your daughter to pay her way through university by working in a lap-dancing club.

Here you just walk round the block, find a shop with a sign that says “Locksmith, established 1940,” that looks as though they haven’t repainted in the meantime, has no air-con so is roasting inside, and guess what? They only do locks. So you explain your situation to the nice woman inside and while reluctant to hand her full scrotum leverage by admitting that you have 15 idle builders waiting outside, you try and instil a little urgency into the conversation. And she asks for your address and then the key and squints at it and says no worries, I think my husband’s father or possibly his grandfather installed that lock. That’s when you know this is going to turn out alright.

So she grabs hubby from the workshop and he’s ready, willing and able. He brings a tiny box of remarkably unsophisticated tools. You get him on site and the first thing he says is “what beautiful door fittings, you have to preserve them, don’t change them, comprendes?” So you know he’s your kind of guy. And he unscrews and jiggles, and does locksmith stuff that doesn’t involve any of your worst-fantasy power tools and gets the door open and your building work springs back to life. Then he gives you the bad news, couched in admiration about the fine German mechanism that he officially pronounces Kaput. But don’t worry; they still make a copy of this mechanism in Argentina.

“Really? How long will it take to get one?”

“Give me an hour or two, I’ll have it fixed by the end of the day.”

Which he did and without balls-in-the-vice price negotiation! So he is now my locksmith. He is responsible for the smooth functioning of every lock in my little hotel. He is responsible for re-coating the brass door furniture with nickel to restore it to its 1940’s glory. And as I walk down the street I will always give him or his wife a wave. I won’t care if it costs me a few more pesos than the next guy might charge. He understands the history of my place. He will do a quality job and if something goes wrong he is just round the block. But he is never going to have a search-term-leading Internet presence, or indeed any at all. He will probably never be much of a “businessman”. He is just a guy who knows about locks and has a sense of history and continuity.

Possibly small things, but important to me.

What I love about BA 3: They don’t talk about cars.

I don’t like to think about the hours of my life that have been wasted listening to conversations about cars. I say listening because I know so little about the subject that I was never able to make an intelligent contribution. Neither did my attempts at humorous interventions elicit warm chortles. “How’s your Bentley Chicken Massala going?” is unlikely to inspire lasting friendship with the guy who has just mortgaged his mother to buy said Turbo Mulsanne. But it was my only car joke and it’s owner was a prick who used to ensure that everyone knew he drove a Bentley by parking it in the pub car park in a way guaranteed to block several other guests, so that the barman would be obliged to ask who owned the Bentley and its clearly under-endowed owner could proudly move it. Repeatedly. And given how irritated its owner became after my repeated mispronunciation added to the fact that he was continually talking about said appendage replacement, I felt I had to ask. Repeatedly.

I could perhaps understand the obsession to talk cars in somewhere like Germany where you can still drive at a thoroughly scary speed. However the photo album from my last trip to England is entirely peopled by pictures of me jockeying some little ford with a minuscule engine, kindly provided by the speed cameras belonging to those nice chaps at the metropolitan police. If after two weeks in a Ka I can’t afford to return to my country (my mother obligingly wrote back to them to explain she had no idea where I lived), how can a Ferrari owner ever afford to leave his garage?

Of course in Argentina you can still drive at a scary speed and in a terrifying manner, with virtual impunity. It would be actually be fun to have a fast car here. I cleverly consulted my taxi driver of 18 years, the omniscient Juan, before making my automotive purchase thinking I would get the ins and outs of what made a vehicle mechanically suited to the mean streets of Buenos Aires (think break pedal connected to horn, accelerator peddle connected to horn, roll bars, bull bars, papier mache break pads that need to be preserved by not using them, security devices for electrocuting street corner window-washers etc.).

“Don’t get anything that makes you stand out. It might make you a target for robbers or even express kidnapping” There went the first rank of luxury autos. “Don’t buy anything not made in Mercosaur, you won’t get the parts due to the import restrictions.” There went the possibility of a hot hatch and narrowed the field to about 4 brands.

“So what do I buy?”

“A Ford Ecosport.”

“Why?”

“Because it is about the most common vehicle on the road, so the odds are that if someone wants to steal one it won’t be yours. And don’t wash it, even car thieves prefer a shiny, fragrant car.”

So there we have the reason why I have never wasted a moment here listening to a conversation about cars. While in all other things the Argentines veer towards stubborn individualism, with car purchases that wily element known as la viveza criolla takes over. They look at their neighbours cars and deliberately buy the same, calculating that they have just cleverly reduced the risk of having theirs nicked. And of course as they all drive the same car and none of them has any outstanding feature other than that of being unremarkable, job done, there is nothing to talk about.  Car communism perhaps but I like it.

What I love about BA 2 : Beer in a bucket

Yes, I can already hear the English getting excited. Beer in a bucket? You mean there is something bigger than a pint, a stein, a yard of ale? We can get it by the bucket? No, what I am referring to is the unexpected custom of your bow-tied waiter courteously placing the litre bottle of beer that you (plural) are consuming on a hot summer evening in an ice bucket at your table, as though it were fine champagne. Its something normally only seen on the terraces of old style cafes, establishments that have survived the ups and downs of the economic cycles, that realize intuitively that a beer “entre amigos” has as much dignity (if not the same remunerative value) as a bottle of Cristal at the Hotel du Cap. It is also a relatively new ceremony, according to my Argentine friends first noticed after the last crash, maybe as a sign of respect for their regular customers who were having to downsize their offerings to Bacchus? Whatever the reason, it certainly lends a sense of occasion to that after-work beer as well as obviating the necessity to guzzle it before it warms.

You don’t find many drinking factories in Buenos Aires. While the young are imbibing more than their forefathers, a night out can last 10 hours so they pace themselves. It can be disconcerting for an Englishman, especially with ulterior motives, to go out with a girl that can make a glass of wine last 3 hours…or worse, who is content with water. You have to keep checking yourself before your visions of a good evening out diverge irreconcilably. But you are normally sitting on a warm terrace, have the benefit of laid back (or for a Brit awaiting his first beverage painfully slow) service and can still puff away on your preferred source of nicotine without drawing horrified looks from your neighbours (note: if allergic to smoke you need to get a table inside, in airconditioned comfort. The Argentines still love to smoke). And of course you don’t have to deal with that unpleasant “I know they changed the licensing laws but this pub is going to kick us out at eleven and I may still be thirsty” voice that all Englishmen have genetically programmed in the back of their minds.

Yes, there are upmarket bars here with cocktail mixologists that are too cool for school and overdressed “chetas” (the self proclaimed posh girls) that make you (me) feel painfully underdressed. But everything else is still open so you have a choice! And of course there are clubs with face (age?) checks, who strangely haven’t worked out that some of us non trendies probably have more spending power than their buff, perfectly coiffeured clientele. But get this, the government has got it all in hand. It is going to ban VIP areas in nightclubs for being discriminatory. I kid you not! They took my complaint my complaint seriously. It looks as though it will become law ( http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1529966-buscan-prohibir-los-sectores-vip-en-los-boliches-bonaerenses ).

So at 2.00 in the morning on a Thursday night you may find the mass of humanity wandering the streets a little odd at first but when you seat yourself at a neighbourhood cafe to enjoy “un pequeño ultimo” (just because you can) surrounded by infants and grandparents and everything in between, you realise you are “como la gente” (roughly just a normal person, albeit a normal Argentine). No need to be a big shot here to enjoy as much night life as you have stamina for! And the aded bonus, I have never had to check my skin colour in the morning for that orange tinge that might indicate I stood too close in an overpriced nightclub (ok it was really a sushi bar – http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/6179074.stm) to some Ukrainian aluminium billionaire, whose competitors were trying to knock him off with a plutonium enriched bellini.

It’s true, a 40 peso bottle of beer still buys you a place at the best table!

What I love about BA 1 : Seasonality

You know when it is time to eat a peach when you walk past your favourite verdularía and the air is heavy with the scent of them. UK supermarkets are full of air-mile loaded, early picked, temperature and atmosphere controlled, perfectly formed and infinitely varied offerings, all of which have one thing in common. They taste of very little. Here the numerous little stores offer a more limited selection of fruit and veg that has been picked ripe and transported as far as an open truck can take them without rottenness seriously diminishing the yield. They may fail on the expected uniformity stakes but are generally delicious. It’s important to be a regular though. If your friendly bolivian (they are the kings of verdulería) thinks you are just a passing gringo, the mix of perfectly ripe and overripe will bend towards their commercial imperatives. If you are an exigent and interested local those beautiful peaches will last 3 days in the fridge and you wont have to throw away a quarter of your mandarins while soliciting their delightful juice.

While many (mainly expats) complain about the lack of choice, I happily eat the spring asparagus 3 times a week for the extent of its 6 week season. Yes there is asparagus available for much longer, but the sugar content of the spring stuff means it roasts and caramelises in a little oil in about 2 minutes. Cook up a big batch and the remainder tastes even better the next day with a generous addition of sea salt. Strawberries? I never knew what the fuss was about despite the cream-full Wimbledon tradition. Here they come purple and strongly flavoured and cheap as chips. Spinach, not that insipid baby stuff, but proper solid leaves. And acelga, tough and bitter, perfect to cook with a hefty cream and blue cheese sauce. And them comes autumn and the brussel sprouts, blanched and then fried with smoky pancetta.

So yes, I’m sure I’d love it if I could buy a horned melon fresh from the Kalahari Desert or a Mangosteen from the Sunda Islands, once they have developed a tardis to get them ripe from the plant directly to my Boliviano. Until then I’ll be sticking to the mangoes that have been lobbed on a lorry in Brazil and gently roasted on the journey.