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Hummingbirds And Demonstrations

Recollections of life in Buenos Aires

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I’ve never been much of a diary writer, despite my own advice to students over the years to always take notes. There was one year though, in the early nineteen-nineties, when I kept a diary pretty much every day. This was when I lived in Argentina, in a city called La Plata, about an hour’s drive down the freeway from Buenos Aires. I’d gone there with my boyfriend: he’d been offered a research post at the university there, and I’d found work, too, as an English teacher — something that seemed pretty miraculous at the time: up till then, I’d just been amassing a collection of waitressing jobs and shop work since graduating with what seemed a fairly hopeless degree in English Literature. Running conversation classes in a place called ‘The Institute’, though, seemed like an actual career. And the one thing I resolved to do, before I left home, was to take notes. Looking back, I think I was probably reaching out for terra firma.

I still have the diary: it’s a red, hardback ‘Any Year Diary’ that I bought in W. H. Smith’s. And to be honest, although I was already in my twenties by then and all grown up, some entries in it are pretty Adrian Mole-ish.

‘I’m sitting in the park off 7th Street,’ I wrote on September the sixteenth, about a fortnight after we’d arrived. ‘I thought this might be a good chance to get some writing done, but there’s a big demonstration going on outside the Municipal Buildings, and a lot of chanting and banging of drums. They’re not processing anywhere. The speaker’s voice has gone hoarse. I think it’s about political elections next week but I can’t make out what they’re saying because it’s all in Spanish.’

I was pretty green, clearly: about political elections, and a lot of other stuff to do with Argentina and life in general. The Falklands War was something I’d been aware of as a child, of course, but mainly via newsreels of Thatcher parading around in a tank, headscarf firmly knotted. I had almost no sense of the continuing political scene in Argentina — the rampant inflation, the poverty, the aftermath of dictatorship. There were still posters on walls and trees and lamp-posts referring to The Disappeared. There still were some people disappearing. One day I noted a poster I’d seen, about a journalism student named Miguel Bru, who’d vanished earlier that year. He would have been about the age I was, maybe even younger. But the immediacy and horror of this only dawned on me slowly. With the exception of the IRA – reports about which were always somehow softened by the soothing filter of the BBC – there was nothing I could compare it to.

I suppose some of my ignorance was due to the nonexistence of the internet. My boyfriend had actually gone to La Plata to work on the early stages of ‘message-passing systems’ with an Argentinian colleague: we’d all stood around massive blue computer screens late at night in La Plata University, and observed the embryonic beginnings of emails staggering their way across the Atlantic. But the only real form of communication for me was letter writing, diary keeping, faxes, and the occasional long-distance phone call from my mum.

There’s no denying that I was homesick to begin with and sometimes frightened by the political scene. I discovered, though, that words on the page somehow bolstered me. And soon I began to feel a bit braver. I stopped cowering in disbelief at things that were so different from the life I’d known, and just started being interested instead. It was like the way I was acclimatising to the Spanish language, and the heat and the sunshine. Some things I almost began to accept as part of normal life. I remember looking out of our kitchen window one day and seeing a dead dog lying in the gutter, thirteen floors below. It continued to lie there for four or five days until a man with a horse and cart came along to take it away. ‘The dead dog’s gone now,’ I wrote. In the streets of Edinburgh, of course, a decomposing dog would have been a cause for horror — or at least some letters to the Scotsman. But in Argentina the rules were different.

I wrote about nicer things too, I’m pleased to say: about my first ever sighting of a hummingbird – a ‘picaflor’ – this tiny, almost fluorescent-winged thing, poking its bill into the jasmine and magnolia that grew in the parks in La Plata. I described the little pastries you could buy in the corner bakery, and the second-hand bookshops that existed down little tucked-away streets; I wrote about the ancient paleontological museum we used to visit, and about an amazing coffee shop we went to, El Buen Vasco (‘The Good Basque’), where all the customers seemed about eighty and sat around in berets, drinking espresso. (Now, in the twenty-first century, this would be a hipster’s dream.)

I also wrote about my trips to the Institute, of course. We’d arrived in Argentina in September, and by October my job there had become pretty full-time. I worked four days a week, with a long lunch break to factor in the heat. I taught groups of slightly recalcitrant primary schoolchildren, and of keener high school students, and I also gave individual tutorials to adults wanting to brush up their conversation skills. There was a man named Juan-Paolo who used to see me in the relative cool of Thursday evenings: he’d recently lost his job as an engineer – unemployment levels were high in Carlos Menem’s Argentina – and he wanted to improve his English to increase his chances of finding a new job. He must have been in his late forties (an almost incomprehensible age, it seemed to me), and one evening he brought with him a book entitled Far Away and Long Ago: a childhood in Argentina by someone called W. H. Hudson. At the end of the lesson he gave it to me as a thank you present.

‘This is a great Argentine book,’ he said, sombrely.

‘Really?’ I asked. It did not sound very promising. To be honest, it sounded like Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley, but I suppose when you’re in your early twenties, a book called Far Away and Long Ago has about as much appeal as a knitting pattern.

Anyway, I took it back to the apartment with me, and put it unread on a shelf, and I continued to write notes every day. By now, I was augmenting my Adrian Mole-ish observations with the beginnings of short stories, because there was so much I wanted to document, so much that was different and also familiar: sometimes living in Argentina reminded me of home in ways I hadn’t expected. The smell of oranges on the trees took me straight back to days making marmalade in our Edinburgh flat. Or the rain that sometimes fell torrentially would remind me of wet walks along the Waters of Leith. Buenos Aires even seemed to have a Glaswegian tinge; something to do with the high tenements and the Italian influence and the friendliness and the love of football. There was suddenly so much to write about that my diary could not contain it all. So I began to work out how to get my thoughts down in story form. I’m glad I kept writing those diary entries too, though, because they contain days I’d otherwise have completely forgotten. They also remind me of who I was when I was younger.

‘We went to the museum again today,’ I wrote on November the fourteenth. ‘It’s in a very dusty state because the cleaners are on strike. We looked at some Inca exhibits which were very beautiful and quite sad. They carved faces on everything and even did sculptures of the conquistadors. At about four o’clock, a wind-quartet suddenly started to play in the circular hall on the first floor. Everyone came in to listen. They played Mozart, Debussy, and Argentinian ‘porteno’ pieces and then they left…’

It might have been any year, but it happened to be 1993. It was the year Miguel Bru disappeared so long after the Disappearances were supposed to have stopped, and the year I began to realise how familiar and how strange the world is, wherever you happen to be.

A few weeks ago I finally picked up and read the book Juan-Paolo gave me at the Institute, over twenty-four years ago. To be honest, I suppose I have overlooked it a bit. And it turned out to be completely different from what I’d expected:

‘It was to me a marvellous experience[…]’ (W. H. Hudson writes in Chapter One) ‘[…]to be here, propped up with pillows in a dimly-lighted room[…]and at the same time to be thousands of miles away, out in the sun and wind, rejoicing in other sights and sounds[…]’

I mean, it was a bit of a kick, to realise how much I connected with it.

Ruth Thomas is the author of three short story collections and two novels, most recently The Home Corner. She has recently completed a third novel and is working on a new story collection. Her work is often broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

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