This is actually about three weeks out of date now, but I forgot to post it so… you’ll have to deal.
Winter is officially here. I wasn’t supposed to see it, I was supposed to be sweltering on the coast of Salvador by now. But the Battle of Wounded Knee has kept me locked up deep in the Southern Hemisphere. And I have to say – as of today, Buenos Aires has never been so beautiful. The day is perfect, gold and blue. A sky so clear you can almost hear the crack as light passes through it. I don’t know if it’s an illusion, but it always seems like winter sunlight looks different, gentler, and the colour of the sky comes through a in softer shade. The city seems bare – skeletal trees and the hard edges of apartment buildings – but somehow the light gives it all a kinder cast.
I am alone on the high terrace of Palermo House and watching the city fan out before me, recumbent, snoozing in this late-season gift. The warmth is indisputable. I peel back my layers of shirts piece by piece, unstrap and ditch the knee brace, and finally end up in a leant-back lounge chair, jeans rolled up, arms spread wide and open to the world. With a hair-of-the-dog litre of beer warming within reach, even my hangover is a kind of benediction, something that makes me appreciate lying here and doing nothing just that little bit more.
It’s strange how I keep circling back here. I stayed at Palermo House the first night off the plane from Sydney, finding it by accident after the place I’d intended to go to was full. I had wandered the streets with my bag as dark started to come on, more thankful than ever of my travel-incredibly-light policy, up and down Palermo lanes, asking a few questions, and finally finding myself outside this tiny unassuming door with an intercom buzzer. I wasn’t quite sure what to do when it said “Hola?” Should I commence negotiations from the street over this fuzzy channel? “I was wondering if you have a free bed, or do I have to make a reservation?” I said hesitantly in my best stilted phrasebook Spanish. “Come on up,” said the voice in English.
I struggled through the narrow aperture, up a tiny cramped set of stairs, got buzzed through a second set of doors and then…once inside, the place opened up like the Tardis. An enormous hollow concourse with rooms opening off it all along its length. Another set of stairs at the far end, then yet another tiny twisting narrow set folding back on itself to yet another level. It was only after climbing this, red and puffing, that the reception at last made itself known. Just one part of the idiosyncrasy that makes this place so enjoyable. I got my dorm and watched the street below, standing at the wrought-iron rail of the window feeling raw and new and in awe of it all. Every new thing the city threw up, however slight, was something to notice and digest and try to adjust to. Each shop sign and passing remark, each pedestrian crossing and cracked footpath slab. Like I had abrasions all over my body, and each slight touch of the wind set off another flurry of nerve endings beneath the skin. Later, it was the aforementioned terrace that really made me feel at home. I stood up there that night watching the lights of the city and feeling the buzz of travel and adventure and finding somewhere new. And on the other side of that long jet-lagged sleepless night, I put in my headphones and listened to a friend’s new record while I watched the sun, with its attendant symbolism of rebirth and renewal, hint that this was the start of a brand new phase, and that if the lush gold strokes in which it painted the city were any indication, things just might turn out to be glorious.
I stayed a week or so, and while I stayed in a few places afterwards to try and get to know different neighbourhoods, I somehow always ended up back at Palermo House. The epic cross-continental mission with Mr Fox and The Doctor terminated here – that’s where we met Hawkeye and the Coloradans, and it cemented my fondness for the place. If they handed out medals for trashbaggery then that week would have given us all spinal damage by now from the metric tonnage around our necks. Even the staff remember our group as going especially hard, which given their industry is an enormous achievement. I was back again just before New Year’s when I was between apartments, and then more recently my place with the crazy old folks was two blocks down the road. By this point I’d become good friends with some of the denizens, so I would stop by just to hang out, and the relationship continued.
Actually it’s pretty amusing to be here now, just near the house I ran away from unannounced a few weeks ago. I wonder if I’ll run into my charming old landlords. Apparently they didn’t take too kindly to the note I left them pointing some of the reasons why they were fucking insane, and a brief helpful rundown of how the rental process generally works in a non-asylum environment. I deduced that this had been their reaction when the Malaysian Pyjama Ghost (who is also their neighbour, you may recall) emailed Clemenceau (who used to rent one of the MPG’s places) to pass on the gossip gleaned from my landlady that I was in fact a male prostitute. Had I been bringing home a lot of men for paid sex this would make some sense, but as it stands this accusation was a little bit left-field. (The gaybar story only happened after I’d moved out.) It sometimes feels like certain stories in my life could only have happened to me. Only I would have gone to Argentina, popped my knee in a gay nightclub accident, and so enraged an old Paraguayan ballerina that she started trying to convince a Malaysian property tycoon that I suck dick for pesos. Admittedly if there were enough pesos involved I would give it some thought, but a suitable offer has yet to be made by the Argentine homosexual community. And frankly I think they already owe me for one medial ligament and one ACL. The lack of which certainly makes it hard to get down on my knees, whatever the hourly rate.
The hostel guys have a better job than street hooking – they basically sit around, talk shit, drink beer, press the buzzer to open the door, and occasionally check someone in. The ones who aren’t working tend to go there anyway to hang out, and sleep there half the time when it’s too late to go home, until eventually their shift rolls around. So they’re always amongst friends, it just so happens that one of them is getting paid. Julian is one of nature’s gentlemen, a shaggy beardy smiley dude who it’s impossible not to like. He basically lives there, and without him the place would fall apart. Lora is a Bulgarian by birth who has lived in Algeria, France and Madrid, so aside from her mother tongue she speaks fluent French, Spanish, and excellent English, and can hold down an interesting conversation in any of the four. It seems every European I meet just compounds my mono-lingual shame. El Turco is the comic relief. He gives the most awesomely surly customer service when he’s tired, which is most of the time. If he’s not up all night in a bar then he’s curled up on the tiny two-seater couch passed out, stumbling blearily over to hit the door buzzer whenever the bell rings. Apparently he holds the record for the most number of people locked out of the hostel for the longest period of time, while he slept blithely on through the dinging and donging that must haunt all of their dreams.
It’s El Turco’s fault that I’m here again today. I stopped by last night for a quiet beer and a hello, checking carefully over my shoulder for mad Paraguayans as I waited on the step. It panned out that way for a little while, but El Turco was getting increasingly deranged. He hadn’t slept during the previous night of bar-hopping, had rolled straight in to his shift at work, and then had hung around until I showed up. By this stage it was nearing midnight. “Let’s go out tonight,” he kept saying, with one of those vague stories people have about a friend and a nightclub and so on. The club in question was again one of the enormous trashy superclubs that line the river under the flightpath from the Aeroparque. I pointed out that I had ruined my knee in one of those places only two weeks earlier, and that a repeat mightn’t be a great idea. I pointed out that it had taken me about fifteen minutes to climb the endless fricking stairs to the top of Palermo House, and I didn’t want to go down again. I pointed out that I still couldn’t really walk, let alone dance. But El Turco is a charming and persistent motherfucker, and eventually he got his way. (Not in the way the Paraguayan ballerina thinks. El Turco doesn’t have that kind of money.)
Now, if you know me, you know I fucking hate nightclubs, especially big trashy commercial ones. Dance parties I can do, but when the object is listening to bad R&B and looking pretty, it’s just not my scene. But I have recently discovered a way to survive those places, and even extract some enjoyment out of them. Ladies and gents, it’s called alcohol. Indeed. Versatile stuff, no? The Blutac of the emotional world. If you are impossibly savagely drunk, you can forget that were you sober this music would have you clawing off your own skin like a wet pink shirt, and that most of the people around you are loathsome specimens of humanity, and that you would C4 the entire premises with approximately as much guilt as you would feel in incinerating a barrel full of cockroaches. The important thing is to do achieve this state before you leave home, so you don’t end up spending x-hundred dollars on tequila shots so expensive that you’re convinced you must have somehow drunk yourself thirty years into the future. If you time the pre-game right, you can ride that wave all the way through the night and be home by the time you really need another drink to settle your shaking fingers. So El Turco and I relentlessly nailed four litres of beer in an hour, then threw ourselves into our tilt at tomorrow morning.
BA nightclubs are weird. Or particularly, the behaviour of men in BA nightclubs is weird. It’s really hard to adjust to how aggressive (they might say ‘forthright’) they are in trying to attract the attention of women. I’m watching this one guy as a girl tries to walk past him in a large doorway. He’s weird-looking, with a bald head and a rubbery face, like a real-time claymation dude. He’s going for it, literally moving a metre to his right and his left to blatantly block this girl’s path whenever she tries to go around him, grabbing her by the arm, leaning in, grinning constantly, trying his best lines, seeming to think that if he just keeps his hands on her waist she’ll soon forget and leave them there. It continues to a point where, if we were in Australia, I would have chanced stepping in and telling him to fuck off. I mean, it’s a fine line between persistence and assault. What’s the protocol? If this is how things are here am I supposed to accept it? The girls seem accustomed to it. But should they be accustomed to it? By the number of guys repeating the routine throughout the night, apparently it is the way things are done. It’s like the kids trying to sell socks on the subway. Every time you see them you think they have no chance in hell, but their very existence indicates that the technique has a certain margin of success.
Not so tonight though – all the girls I see just brush it off. Although Buenos Aires girls seem to brush most people off, most of the time. El Turco is complaining about this exact phenomenon when a girl on the dancefloor turns around and asks me where I’m from. Australia, I say. “Australia?!” she says. She turns around and tells her friends. They explode into shrieking.
“We love Australia!” she tells me.
“Australia is great. We love Australia. Whooo!”
This chain of logic leaves me somewhat nonplussed. (Side note. ‘Nonplussed’ means confused or bewildered. It does not mean unfazed or indifferent. You’re thinking of ‘not fussed’. Sounds similar, means something else. Can everyone please stop using it wrongly? Thanks.) So yes. Nonplussed. As in, I feel kind of like you do when a crazy person in the street tries to convince you of something. Like I felt when a dishevelled old lady on a tram fixed me with a beady glare and shouted “My brother married twice! AMP! AMP!” But y’know. In this case I go with it. They love Australia. They are drunk as shit. They surround me in a kind of flesh stockade of lady-dancing. I figure it’s as good a way to pass the time as any. And it does go on for quite some time. “You must feel like a pimp,” says one of them, “with your four women.” I do kind of feel like a pimp. I particularly enjoy the baleful looks from various would-be Latino lovers whose own aggro tactics had failed to pay off, given my own tactics were as complex as standing there and being from Australia.
In the end though, I don’t bother trying to push my pimping to the next level. Since a particularly shameful night when I was seventeen (which I don’t really remember, but have been filled in on piecemeal by an intensely embarrassing number of people over the years since) I haven’t been a fan of the random dancefloor hook-up. (The upside of that night, which I didn’t know until eight years later, is that I threw up on Matt Walford on the long bus-ride home. Yes! Take that, Matt Walford.) To clarify, hooking up with someone you already like while on a dancefloor is fine, it’s just that macking onto some random who you can’t speak to and can’t really see smacks of desperation. The lack of speech is the main thing, given the intensity of club sound systems. I don’t like the idea of hooking up with someone when a transcript of your life’s worth of conversation would be five lines long and all in capitals. I’m in favour of close encounters in their own right, it’s just that stupidity is a massive turn-off. Therefore I need to have sussed out that side of things before I actually have any real interest. Smart girls are sexy, simple as that. Of the girls I’ve been involved with, some have been batshit-crazy, and some have been bitterly unpleasant, and some have been emotional clusterfucks, but almost all of them have had a substantial amount going on upstairs.
So eventually I extricate myself from the Australia admiration society, track down my missing Turkish friend, and we exit into the morning light with a random Haitian named Jean-Pierre. Don’t ask me how that happened. And of course, the way life loops around, we find ourselves back at Palermo House, passing out in a couple of spare bunks, and waking up to my old familiar terrace, a litre or two of Quilmes, and the warm embrace of the midday sun. Which I believe is where you and I found ourselves to begin with, circling into circles into circles. Time to lie back, close our eyes, and stop moving. I still have hopes of making it out of the country, but if I don’t, this doesn’t look like such a terrible option. At this rate we’ll definitely be sunbaking in July.