I often daydream of Buenos Aires.
Sometimes I’m leafing through the second-hand bookshops on Avenida Corrientes or drinking cafe con leche in Las Violetas on Rivadavia. Other times I’m in my dad’s apartment on Sanchez de Loria, on the 7th floor of a brutal grey building, gazing at the sun setting over white concrete.
It is less a daydream than a longing; a yearning for another time and another place. I’ll be shuttling along on the Victoria line on a dismal London morning when my brain conjures the voiceover from an ‘80s Argentine hot dog advert and I drift away, bewitched.
Maybe I’ve reached the age where nostalgia is my drug of choice.
I first visited Buenos Aires in 1987 when I was 12 years old. We were visiting my dad’s family, most of whom I’d never met. We stayed in The Eleven Palace Hotel, a faded colonial-style hotel on the corner of the Plaza Once, a bustling local market full of Jewish pawn shops and backstreet stalls selling wholesale fabric. A dilapidated bus station brought a constant stream of shoppers in from the provinces. The hotel was nothing fancy; a neighbourhood place, chosen because it was a couple of blocks away from my father’s childhood home, where my Grandma still lived with my uncle.
I didn’t know what to expect of Buenos Aires, other than knowing that it was the mythical city where my dad had grown up. We’d been on summer holidays to Menorca and Barcelona but this was different. There were no swimming pools or beaches – there were palm trees but there wasn’t a sun lounger in sight. Instead we found ourselves in a vast concrete sprawl of heat, dust, and graffiti.
Buenos Aires was what I thought a real city should look like: skyscrapers and traffic jams and taxis with their radios blaring. It felt alive. And yet so much of the city was also a snapshot of a forgotten time; every cafe waiter was stiffly dressed in black and white, attentively serving like a British butler. The lift in the hotel had an old-style scissor door – you could stop the lift between floors by sliding it open (we did this a lot). On the street outside the hotel the cars were held together by duct tape and optimism. The pavements were broken and there seemed to be real civic commitment to keeping them that way. Haircuts were stuck in the mid ’70s – Rolling Stone mullets for all.
I met the Argentine family I’d only seen in photos. It was unsettling at first. I was a shy middle-class English adolescent raised in the suburbs. Everyone talked. Loudly. All the time. There were jokes I didn’t understand and heated discussions about politics (“Can you please stop arguing?” “What do you mean? We are just talking?!” “You’re shouting.” “This is how we talk!”) It took me a while to adjust to the volume. Nowadays I can appreciate the tactic of winning an argument simply by speaking much louder than your opponent.
Still, I loved that holiday. We discovered submarinos (a bar of chocolate left to dissolve in hot milk) and chewed Chiclets (chewing gum tablets in a distinctive cardboard box) and went to Ugi’s, a bargain basement pizza chain that only did cheese and tomato pizza. We ate sandwiches de miga with the crusts cut off, like a parody of a genteel English tea. We took the subway on Linea A, with its antique wooden carriages and ceramic lighting. We rode in colectivos, the drivers decorating their cabins with every Catholic effigy that would fit on the dashboard. We marvelled that everything we bought, from Coca-Cola to leather shoes had Industria Argentina stamped upon it. My grandma cooked us knishes and my uncle taught us to play poker, gambling for matchsticks.
Mostly, I loved that Buenos Aires belonged to us. Nowadays, it’s another big city on the global route and every half-adventurous traveller with a Lonely Planet guide has stopped off for a few days of steak and tango in San Telmo. But back then it was undiscovered. We didn’t bump into a single English-speaking tourist during that first visit. It was our own private world to escape into. It was our Narnia. It was magic.
That holiday was the last time we stayed in a hotel in Buenos Aires.
By the time of our next visit, my dad had moved back to Argentina and we stayed with him in his new apartment.
I used to say that I was half Argentine. I’m not.
I was born and raised in north London, the son of an English mother and an Argentine father. I grew up in the shadow of Alexandra Palace (I watched it burn down twice. Once, in real time from the school playground, and then later that evening on the news, excited that somewhere so near to us was on television.) I played football and Top Trumps, read The Chronicles of Narnia, Tintin and Asterix and spent the rest of my free time on my ZX Spectrum. Most Fridays we’d do a makeshift Shabbat meal, lighting the candles and saying a prayer, although neither of my parents was religious enough to keep Kosher or observe the Shabbat rules. I enjoyed a comfortable, unremarkable, middle class English childhood. I watched Grange Hill and Neighbours. I certainly wasn’t kicking a makeshift football through the dusty backstreets of Buenos Aires.
There is a way to be both English and Argentine. There are historic connections between the countries; a wave of English immigrants settled in Argentina in the 19th century and quickly rose to prominence; you see it in place names – areas called Thames and Wilde. Football clubs called Newell’s Old Boys and River Plate. My dad grew up on a street called Virrey Liniers – when it reaches Rivadavia it changes its name to Billinghurst. The connections between England and Argentina still exist in the upper-classes; in the polo and rugby set, who travel from polo matches at the Hurlingham Club in Buenos Aires to drinks in Twickenham. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone posher than upper class Argentines, whose Englishness is preserved by never actually having to live in England. But that version of English and Argentine was never for me. Those people come from a different Argentina to my father, and exist in a different England to me. They scare me.
No. I can’t claim that I’m half Argentine.
We live in an age where identity is our currency. Anyone who has spent time on social media sees how quickly we all learn to leverage our identities; we intuitively understand how to take a small element of our existence and build a personal brand around it. What in my background lends me authenticity? What gives me the moral high ground? What makes me seem less middle class – less privileged? We play up the exotic, interesting aspects of our identity and bury the private school education and a childhood in the suburbs. We are different. We are special. Our views carry real weight. It’s a game I’ve also played, but honestly – what can I do with half Argentine? It doesn’t help me at all. I don’t look Argentine. I can’t pretend to be Latino (all my ancestors were European Jews). I’ve never lived in Argentina. I’m not a citizen. I didn’t grow up listening to Argentine music or eating Argentine food. I speak passable, imperfect Spanish. I’m incredibly proud of my Argentine roots, but what connection do I have that isn’t second-hand? What right do I have to claim a country as my own? I’d feel like an imposter.
If I’m not half Argentine, what am I? The best I can say is that I am more English than anything else. I am English but not completely. I’m incompletely English and incompletely Argentine. Mostly, I’m just incomplete.
I’m also a Londoner, Jewish, middle-class, sexually indecisive and a Spurs fan. Like I said, incomplete.
I can’t write about Argentina without writing about my dad.
My dad was the funniest person I knew. The jokes were often terrible but he told them with such warmth and mischief that you had to laugh. He was an artist by calling and a shipping clerk to pay the bills. He was short, bald and paunchy (thanks for those genes, dad!). He boasted that he stored soup in his moustache. He had a thick Argentine accent and a set of catchphrases that he’d deploy whenever the conversation lulled: “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is mystery!”, “Buy now, pay tomorrow!” “Never a dull moment!”
He was born in Buenos Aires in 1936, the second of four children; two boys and two girls. His mother was either born in Argentina or arrived there when she was a toddler. His father was born in Ukraine, but fled – a combination of antisemitism and the unappetising prospect of being conscripted into the Russian Army. He arrived in Argentina aged 24, having acquired an understanding of Spanish after five years in Romania. He sold electrical goods wholesale to shops; my grandmother worked in one of the shops on his route. He asked her out and she said yes.
I get the impression that my dad had a happy childhood. Where I stayed at home reading and playing computer games, he was out on the streets, skipping classes and playing football in the barrio with his friends; I think he was more comfortable in the company of others than I ever was. Being at ease with people is an underrated life-skill.
He loved Boca Juniors and basketball (like me, he was 5’ 5” and insisted that the sport should be grouped by height, just as boxing is grouped by weight, with lower hoops for short people) but his true passion was art. He drew, painted and did woodcut prints. I don’t think he ever struggled with his art – he certainly struggled commercially, but I think he always felt a pure joy in drawing that never left him. If we went out for dinner his napkins would end up covered in doodles. He couldn’t resist. I’ve always envied him that certainty.
In the early sixties he moved to New York – partly spurred by the desire for adventure, and partly because of the political situation in Argentina. It was there that he met my mum. She was trying her luck in America and ended up working alongside my dad’s sister. Introductions were made. When my mum returned to England my father soon followed. They were married a year later.
I try to imagine what it must have been like for my dad, arriving in England in the late 1960s, having lived in Buenos Aires and New York; I picture it as The Wizard of Oz in reverse; travelling from a world of colour to a world of black and white. I recently unearthed a set of old 8mm films my dad took in the 60s: the films of New York are bathed in colour and movement. The films of London are grey and dismal; everything is steeped in tea and rain.
Buenos Aires is a geometric grid of blocks, a city built upwards not outwards. People live in apartments, not houses, with balconies rather than gardens. Everyone lives (quite literally) on top of each other. And on almost every block there’s a cafe, a panaderia and a kiosko; you can get a coffee and a medialuna without crossing a road. If I picture my dad as a young man in Buenos Aires, he’s making conversation on the stoop or waiting outside a bar or chatting on a corner. Life was lived out on the street.
London is not a grid. It’s a series of villages, flattened out over centuries until they spread into each other; it’s a patchwork of meandering roads, lined with rows of terraced houses where an Englishman can take refuge without having to actually talk to anyone. For my dad the suburbs of north London must have felt like the countryside. He considered it a scandal that he had to walk 10 minutes to a corner shop.
If my father was missing Argentina I didn’t know it. By the time my sisters and I were going to school my dad had a good job in town, the occasional exhibition of his art and plenty to keep him busy. He painted in the makeshift studio in the cellar, listening to Trevor McDonald on LBC on an old Roberts radio. On Saturday mornings he coached the school football team on the muddy playing fields of Durnsford Road. In hindsight I realise he dealt with his homesickness by pretending Argentina didn’t exist. He didn’t go back to visit and he barely spoke Spanish around the house. He blocked it out and tried to focus on his life in England. It worked, for a while.
It’s difficult to look back at the period through adult eyes, trying to remember how I experienced it as a child. I missed so much because I wasn’t looking for it. I had no reason to think anything was going wrong. He was my sweet, funny dad. Why would that change?
In April 1982 Argentine soldiers landed in the Falklands. Days later Britain and Argentina were at war.
My father’s colleagues at work were supportive, but it must have been hard not to feel unwelcome when the newspaper headlines screamed about ‘Argies’ every day for 10 weeks. He was one of the enemy. Decades later he told me that when he’d phoned his family in Buenos Aires, they insisted that Argentina was winning and that the British were retreating. Of course they did – the military dictatorship controlled the media.
The conflict may not have lasted long, but the damage was done; by the time it ended he wasn’t just on the other side of the world, he was on the other side of the war. I doubt his problems started with The Falklands, but the conflict brought it all to the surface. A seed of unhappiness had been planted, and in the years that followed it blossomed into unbridled misery. Slowly, then quickly, he fell apart.
They were long, unhappy seasons of indecision. I remember them as a pair of curtains, closed. He was desperate to return to Argentina and desperate to stay in London with us. He could not choose. He was neither here nor there. For a long time I think he was nowhere.
And then in 1988 a decision was made. He bought an apartment on the corner of Loria and Moreno, two blocks away from his mother. He moved back to Buenos Aires.
At first he visited every year and we’d have surreal intermissions of normality.
For three weeks he was back in the family home, smoking thick panatella cigars and leaving a trail of ash around the house. He’d drop me off at the bus stop for school and in the evenings we’d watch snooker and old films. Doug Mountjoy and 12 Angry Men. My most vivid memory of the time is that he made lots of salads and overused the word ‘condiments’. I have to laugh now, thinking about it.
And then he’d return to Buenos Aires. I rationalised his absence by saying that I’d rather have a happy dad on the other side of the world than a broken dad here, but it was a miserable bargain.
We visited him in Argentina the year after he moved back there. I recently rediscovered a set of old photos from the time and there is a grim, gallows humour in comparing our first and second trips to Buenos Aires. In one it’s spring and we’re all smiling, happy to discover this wondrous new city. In the other set it’s winter and we are in the sullen depths of adolescence; surly and resentful of the hand that life has dealt us. No one is smiling. The city looks suitably desolate.
It wasn’t all glum; there were advantages to having a dad on the other side of the planet. For two summers running in our mid teens my twin sister and I flew to Buenos Aires to see him. For all the family complications, it was glorious just to escape London for this other world. Arcades had sprung up all along Avenida Corrientes and we spent our afternoons giddily playing Out Run and eating churros filled with dulce de leche and chocolate. We’d play pool at The Richmond, an upmarket cafe on Calle Florida and eat cheap steak at a place on Belgrano that was overrun by flies. I was into comics, and in Argentina I acquired a taste for Fierro, a semi-pornographic anthology that introduced me to the greats of Argentine comics: Solano Lopez, Alberto Breccia, Muñoz and Sampayo. I’d disappear to browse the second hand bookshops on Corrientes, where the comics and graphic novels were piled up alongside cellophane-wrapped porn. It all felt tantalising and transgressive. I still read the comics; I still sense a faint residue of teenage anticipation.
Over time my dad visited London less often. Maybe he thought we didn’t need him as much. There was a blank three year period when we didn’t see him at all. I’d get a letter every six months, always slightly lagging behind me as he fumbled to work out who I was. He’d attach articles about pop stars I’d lost interest in years ago. I was resentful: I’d have preferred no letters to letters that reminded me how little he knew me. It didn’t really matter. By this point I was discovering girls and music and was too busy reinventing myself with a leather jacket to think about him. It’s never easy to know what to do with an absent parent. You don’t get angry at them – you get angry at the people who are left behind. (Someone once asked me how I felt about my dad, and I said: “I forgave him a long time ago, and I will never forgive him.”)
Over in Buenos Aires he was slowly putting his life back together. He taught English and Art. He did his lino cuts. My parents divorced and he remarried an Argentine woman; a sweet, much younger Italian catholic who doted and fussed on him. I liked her a lot.
We both worked hard to repair our relationship. As I got older, I visited Argentina more often. We’d see family or hang out in the centre of town or play pool in a grotty hall in Boedo. He’d show me his artwork and I’d show him my writing. We’d eat pizza and milanesas and empanadas and steak, the four basic food groups of Argentine cuisine. He’d haul me on a tour of the Boca Juniors stadium, even though I’d already been. Sometimes I’d go out drinking in Palermo or San Telmo and I’d stumble in at 4am to find him waiting up for me in the darkness; a bittersweet overcompensation for missing my teenage years.
We’d talk about the past. About the decisions he made. He always told me that he loved me and that he was proud of me. I tried to believe him. We spoke about Argentina. He insisted he wasn’t really Argentine – he was a Porteño. “What do I have in common with a man in the provinces? Or someone from Santa Fe or Tucumán?” It was true. His domain was the 40 blocks from his apartment to the centre of town. The subte from Loria to Perú. Everywhere else was another world. He was a man who made it to New York and London but spent the last 25 years of his life living two blocks from where he grew up. He couldn’t escape home.
Things improved. The Internet made the world smaller. He charmed my friends on Facebook. His artistic fortunes also changed: he had solo exhibitions in Amsterdam and London, and in 2014 he won first prize in the Salón de Artes Plásticas Manuel Belgrano, a prestigious national printmaking competition. I was proud of him.
On a dismal evening in December 2015 I was hosting a quiz in a bookshop in Wood Green. I was tipsy. The quiz had ended and we were clearing up the debris with friends. My phone rang. It was my uncle in America. He was sobbing. He asked me to sit down.
I sat down.
He told me that there had been an accident. My dad and his wife had been passengers in a car that was hit by a truck. They had both been instantly killed.
My brain kept telling me that it couldn’t be true, that it was ridiculous and unthinkable, while another part of my brain instantly knew it was utterly, irrevocably, undeniably true, as much a fact as my hands or gravity. I felt sick. I howled. Writing these words now, I feel an echo of that horror and panic. It never fully disappears.
My mother and sisters were contacted and it was agreed that I would fly to Buenos Aires the next day. We needed to hurry; Jewish law insists on a quick burial and I didn’t want to miss the funeral. That night I flitted in and out of sleep, unsure what was real. I remember feeling so hot, despite the December weather.
It was a 13 hour flight to Buenos Aires and I’ll be honest, it was wonderful. For 13 blessed hours I was on my own. No one could reach me to ask what had happened or to send their love. There was no noise. No chatter. No one wanted anything of me. I could pretend none of it had happened. I watched forgettable films and the in-flight map; I was a small dot, moving across the oceans. In some ways I wish that flight could have gone on forever; just curled up under a blanket, eating airplane food, neither here nor there but somewhere else entirely, suspended in mid air and suspended in time.
Despite everything, it felt good to be in Buenos Aires. From the depths of an English winter, I suddenly found myself surrounded by the jacaranda trees and the smell of the city in summer. It was a dream. It was impossible to feel grief; there was too much to take in. I suspect it was harder for my family back in London.
It took two days to locate someone who had keys to my father’s apartment. The same apartment he bought back in 1988 on the corner of Loria and Moreno. The apartment we’d stayed in so many times on holiday, with its wood-effect lino flooring and its fridge covered in magnets; with its view of the primary school opposite where the children played in their white school uniform coats; with the balcony on the 7th floor, where my sisters and I launched paper aeroplanes at the traffic below. With all of those things, but now without him.
We went in. The fridge was full of food in tupperware boxes; clothes were laid out on the bed, ironed and folded; a paper note was lying on the table – a reminder for later. Everything left as though they were about to return. There was something illicit and voyeuristic about it; I felt as though we were intruding on their privacy. But someone had to do it. We spent a couple of hours sorting through some of his effects, grabbing items my sisters had asked me to get. I picked up sweaters that smelled of him; one of his beloved baseball caps that made him look like an American tourist; a Boca Juniors polo top. I took an envelope of family photos and a set of his handkerchiefs. I still have them. We tried to make things as right as possible, and then we left. I planned to return when I could.
I never went back.
Two days later, on a hot, sunny afternoon in a cemetery on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, we buried my dad. I didn’t know how to feel. I still don’t. And then a car took us straight from the cemetery to the airport and I got on a flight to London.
I arrived home on Christmas Day. Feliz Navidad.
My partner often has to stop me talking to Spanish speakers in public; we’ll be having a perfectly pleasant walk in the park, and she’ll clock that I’ve overheard a couple chatting in Spanish and am lingering near them in the hope of crowbarring my way into the conversation. She’ll give me a look.
I’m getting better at walking away. On the rare occasions I stumble onto an Argentine in public, I can’t help but accost them and start talking to them; I spill out the story of my life in rusty Spanish, never quite sure what I’m hoping for. It rarely ends well: they’re just getting on with their day and I want to engage them in long, nostalgic conversations about a country that they’ve chosen to leave. I suppose I’m yearning for a connection – with my childhood, with my father, with another version of myself I lost along the way. But they can’t take me back to the excitement of 1987. They can’t make me 12 again. All they can do is make polite smalltalk and then run away screaming.
Sometimes I like to imagine an alternative Greg, who grew up in Buenos Aires but whose father lived in London. I imagine summer holidays pacing the streets of Walthamstow or Wood Green, or gazing with wide-eyed wonder at Camden Market or Oxford Street. Which parts of London would I be nostalgic for? Would I have been obsessed with Angus Steakhouses or Our Price Records? Would I yearn for The Trocadero or the jingles on Capital FM? Would I romanticise double decker buses and The Piccadilly line? Would I dream of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and PG Tips? I know it’s all ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than my second-hand nostalgia for Buenos Aires.
For lots of us, there’s a moment. A point in late adolescence when the world magically opens up; when you’ve escaped the tyranny of school but don’t yet have the responsibilities of adulthood. It’s a moment when you feel on the verge of great discoveries: sex and music and drugs and books and ideas. You know you are on the cusp of something special; it feels like just below the surface, all life’s secrets lie shimmering, waiting for you to dive in and find them. Great glories will be revealed.
And then life happens. And most of the time it’s fine, and some of the time it’s wonderful, but it never quite matches that moment when you’re sixteen, ripe with potential, when every sunset blazes with meaning. I suspect a lot of people spend the rest of their lives in the shadow of that moment, never quite embracing the present, never quite committing to the here and now, always glancing back over their shoulder to an age when anything felt possible. It’s a trap, but it’s a very seductive one; it worms its way into you. It whispers all the things you want to hear. For me, Buenos Aires is that trap. There is a mythical Greg in Buenos Aires who still lives in the technicolor moment of a 16-year-old.
I’m aware that my vision of Buenos Aires is a mirage. I’ve spent enough time there to know of the endemic corruption, the economic instability, the poverty, the squalor, the endless bureaucracy, the constant strikes and the perennially disappointing coffee. Every time I visited the overflow of crime and rubbish from the Plaza Once crept nearer and nearer to my dad’s apartment. I know that in real life it’s a city like any other, full of joys and disappointments. It’s not Narnia – it’s just somewhere else. Another place.
It’s now five years since my father died and I’m a father myself. My life now is pacing around Walthamstow, walking my daughter to school, interminable afternoons in the park, an occasional commute into the office and even rarer trips to the pub. Argentina may as well be the moon. And yet Buenos Aires has worked its way under my skin; it seeps into my dreams. I can’t resist it. I find myself on Google Streetview, retracing journeys I made decades ago, I watch videos of bike rides around the city on YouTube. I scroll through photos of Nueve de Julio on Instagram. There is a vintage map of Buenos Aires on my bathroom wall and I stare at it endlessly; at the road where he lived; at the street where he died.
Buenos Aires is the ghost that haunts me.
There is a video of my dad in the house he grew up in. He’s giving a little guided tour, chatting to the camera in Spanish. His artwork is hanging on the walls and in the background the radio is tuned to Radio Dos Por Cuatro, playing non-stop tango. It makes my heart sing. It destroys me.
Argentina gave me my father and took him away from me. It was the country he loved and the country he chose over us. No, I am not half Argentine, but it was my father’s country and some part of it lives within me. I cannot escape that. I will return.