Flavours from a Rotting Country

Argentina, 2002
It hits you from the very first steps, out of the domestic airport. When the wind blows from the brownish waters of the Rio de la Plata, many strikes of smoke cross the coastal avenue, hit the arrival building, fly over the runway to mix with the kerosene smell, then joins the thousands others evaporating around every corner of the huge city behind. From poor barrios to flashy cloistered properties, from the dirty unpaved streets of the southwest hair-raising neighbourhoods to the cypress-shadowed placid canals of the artificial Venices of luxury along the Delta, the smell raising to the sky is the same. Like a triumph of apparent democracy and genetic populism, the overwhelming sacrifice of thousands freshly butchered cows that renews every Saturday night gives the fresh perspective of Argentina, the country holding an unchallenged record in the contest among those who can more rapidly swallow and defecate the highest quantities of wealth produced (even if the two processes are not as a rule brought along within the same social class…)…

Burning coals sprinkled with sausage sweat. Broiling grills dripping cow fat.
Always. Any season, any weather, any hour.
The whole country on the grill. Or, locally, Parrilla.

As usual, coals are red at tennish. The set, a wide veranda over an artificial basin where yachts lazily float…
‘Hi T, how is it going hombre? Sausages doing good?’
‘Ready to go. You are the first as usual. You Italians always on time?’
‘No, but not always late. How was the week?’
‘Same as usual, we try to float on, you know… What about you?’
‘Rather well, especially because I am leaving this country of nuts in less than a month. I cannot stand it any more. You know what happened yesterday? Being pulled over by the federal police of the speedway, for A. did not wear a helmet. The guy as usual put it down hard, menacing impounding for lack of import papers. Than his colleague arrived and guess what? He was the same fellow I bribed the week before with 8 dollars for I did not have even my personal document with me… He is a gentleman and told his pal: no, no problem, the guy’s OK, let him go. I wanted to ask how long a bribe lasts…this country is a marvel… I wonder how it did not rumble down well before… My innate European education is developing an allergy to this culture, or better lack of it… By the way, is your charming wife back from Miami? Oh, here she is…’
‘Hi Marco (one kiss on the cheek), where is A? I want to show her my new boobs’
‘Yes, have a look… bit bigger than the last ones. My Argentinean friend up in Miami fixed them up for me, in exchange for a stock of silicone tits I smuggled in for him. You know, this material is illegal in the states… Oh, here is your delightful partner and daughter! She is Argentinean you know?’
‘You never cease to remind that to me. We are fascinated by your various activities. Car dealing, stock brokering, tit smuggling, watch import, real estate… oh, by the way, do you have more of those nicely printed Franklins? I sold most of mine…’
‘T. is waiting for a new edition, straight from Mexico… The numbers are better printed and they finally solved the relief problem. 33 per cent is the cost. Crazy country we live in, a fake dollar is worth a mint peso… Please do not mention them to the other hosts. One of the two lawyers is an honest one, you know…Oh, and here is the other one. Hi H., how is the country doing?’
‘Shit to the throat guys, shit to the throat. They polished off all the money. But we do not have to worry you know, it already happen and will happen again… I have loads of trials going on of people suing banks to have their money back. They are winning now’
‘I gather none of the people coming tonight has lost a penny in the corral (that is to say the bank accounts limitations), right?’
‘Of course not, only the honest working middle class kept the money here. The smart middle class keeps it in Uruguay, then as you go up in income you cross to Miami and Switzerland. But for us is simpler. We do not even have an account… we just have debts. It is always better to have debits than credits here… How are you last immigrants doing by the way?’
‘Well, my hobby of extreme tourist gives me plenty of satisfaction. I can now state that you cannot come to know a country if you do not fall in love with a local, dish out a new native, start a company and bankrupt it, and create a new and close set of crazy friends, achieving all this without actually even being officially in the country…’
‘You see, Marco? This can happen only in Argentina! Do not complain, man. You know we love you, at least you use the bidet the right way, not like these peasants here… Oh, here is M. coming… hey old sport, how do you wipe your ass, facing the taps or shoulderin’ them? You must know, architect, the world must know…’
‘Hi everyone. Well taps are supposed to be set for a user facing them, but I allow that long legs might be an inconvenience…’
‘M, you look troubled. Pop another white will you please A.?’
‘I am troubled indeed. I am probably the only one here paying taxes and had to fire most of my workers last week. No one wants to build even a shack and black companies are trashing down prices. I am loosing fortunes. Add an ex wife and three useless grown up kids bumming around spending whatever left and you have a perfect portrait of depression’
‘You are too honest, M, too honest. This country is not made for honest people. You should think more about yourself’
‘That is exactly what I tell him-says P., his 15-year-younger girlfriend- he is one of the best architects of the country, with offers from the best studios in the states and he prefers to eek out here for the sake of his responsibilities…’
People sits down, meats broils, wine flows in with the guests.
‘Here is one for you man, do you know by chance a good bank abroad?’
‘Well T., I know better stuff that what you have around here… but for what?’
‘The story is kind of interesting, typically Argentinean. Listen to this. A chap frequenting high circles was holding Dow Chemical bonds for around 10 million dollars, probably money under the table from some operation of our beloved former president. Well, a thief steals the dough and then is afraid of what to do. Keeps the shit until he dies few months ago. The funeral parlour guy finds it and is now trying to cash the gold, only the bonds have been reimbursed in the meantime… we need a shrewd bank. Here is one of the bonds for you to check’
‘Geez man, you are a mine of surprises…’
‘Well, all the country is like that’
‘M here is not, he works for good’
‘But he does not call the shots. People who work here never call the shots right H.?
‘Of course not, where do you think we are, in Europe? Merit here is rarely a feature of the achiever. Mischievousness pays more. Then do not forget that here you do not frequently move from lower suburbs to higher ones, whatever the physical distance’.
‘Indeed, joins P., I have pupils at the school in the Private estate X that rarely left the compound in all their life, and just have a slight knowledge of the reality surrounding them. I doubt they will marry out of it’.
Sausages are over, it is time for steaks and ribs, broiled to just a step before charcoalishness.
‘Can you pass me the wine please?’
‘You do not look in the least worried about the last days turmoil. I mean, there have been deaths’ said I
‘This has already happened and will happen again, and probably every new mess will be hairer. There are no more economical stabilizers. The government just came out with the idea of a new currency, you know, we always change currency when the shit hits the fan, but the brilliant brains were taken aback when they realized that there is nothing to back the emission. I mean, the State of Argentina, after the privatisations, now just own its buildings and its embassies. We live of credit’.
‘Thank god we have resources. You know, Argentina is the country of bounty. During the night oil is pumped out of the wells, cows graze and wheat grows. Problems start at 7 am.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Argentineans wake up and start giving it away’
‘We are for sale, man, and cheaply. There is no reason to blame the ‘imperialists’ for robbing us, as many people say. We are our worst enemies. We are the only country that, with oil floating at 27 bucks a barrel, sells it for 12. Is not that style?’
More meat, potato salad with eggs and mayo (another national dish). More proteins.
‘Now you sailors, help me out here, I have a customer who needs to fly to Uruguay. Ideas?’
‘Yeah, just bring him on and we’ll ferry it, piece of cake’.
‘How are those friends of yours… we haven’t seen them in a while’.
‘The fellow lost the job…, they flew to Italy’
‘Fired? But he was the HR manager of the railways…’
‘Wrong political side, apparently, he was saying lately that the new owners are mafia’
‘No more golf and champagne three times a day I guess’
‘Exactly, the company refused to pay a consistent retirement fund and the house mortgage all of a sudden seemed huge’
‘O tempora. O mores…’
‘That was good, you lawyers study Latin…’
‘Fuckyeah, do you think we just use Mercedes SUVs to impress customers?’
‘No, I thought you used Peron’s autographed pictures’
‘You are a shrewd immigrant, Tano, Argentina might be paradise for guys like you’
‘I am not too impressed, you know? I daresay say that the consistent level of freedom you enjoy is more like an impunity. Better, you are not free because you are free, but just because laws are not enforced. The resulting society does not appear healthy in the long run’
‘I understand what you mean. You look free when money flows…’
‘Hey, where is Pi? Not included tonight?’
‘No, our old H. here, sonofabitch as he can be, threw off a word or two too much last party. You remember that he used to screw Pi.’s wife when she was still in decent shape…’
‘That was ages ago… believe me, she was hot in those days. She had a fair share too…’
‘You men are all fucking rude…’

A year later

I cross the Argentinean border at 2030, socks and underwear the only corners not accurately scrutinized. The first police block stops me at 2046, less than 16 ks from the border where my documents were thoroughly scrutinized by the officers of two different branches of the army.
‘Docs, licence and insurance, please’
‘Here you go officer’
‘Where are you going?’
‘Buenos Aires’
‘To do what?’
‘Meet my family’
‘You were going too fast you know?’
‘Not faster than the speed limit, officer, it’s so cold I actually could not…’
Other five minutes of questions, mostly useless, documents thoroughly checked to find a non-existed fault.
‘Well, well, I know it’s cold. So let’s walk over to the office where you’ll warm up while I fill the fine’
‘Fine for what?’
‘Listen, I was not speeding…’
‘I think you were, so what do you propose?’
That is the well known sentence, the password after which I am supposed to make a monetary offer to close the deal.
‘Listen, I just crossed the border, do not you think it is a bit early to show me your country will never change?’
Silence. Then
‘Ok, you can go’

In the meantime Kirchner is busy firing off police officials, corrupted public managers, Superior Court judges (they are not exactly fired, for they are offered the choice between letter of demission or an inquiry, the choice invariably falling on the first option, which also involves the loss of monetary compensation), the whole shameful board of the National Trust for Retirement Funds, and finally allowing the last dictators to be trailed in Spain, where the judges are now tasting the pleasure of cutting them to pieces (just with words, unfortunately, and not with torture machines as the generals used). In the same days it is discovered that the busiest band of kidnappers was not other than the… anti-kidnapping unit of the police.
In the first visit to Europe, the President met the usual hawks called top managers of public companies -fellows playing with other people’s money and feeling god- who were shouting for a compensation for the damage done by the devaluation on the tariffs of the services provided by the privatised company in their control, notably telephone, electricity, banking and so on. The President of Argentina reminded them that they did not buy those companies as an act of pity, but instead they made huge, and often tax-free, profits (really huge) on the shoulders of the one-dollar to one peso ratio. Profits that, guess what, were meticulously transferred away from Argentina. It therefore seemed hypocrite to him that they should ask for help now.
Now, the arrival of what appears to be a clone of Margaret Thatcher, the victory of this very big Patagonian whose hair is perpetually neglected and whose Ss are stolen to Sylvester the cat, deeply impressed the foreign press – more the honest middle class of Argentina, who is too used to sudden betrayals. Has Argentina found the right man? Did a whole country at last found reason?
I was eagerly waiting for a parrilla with my strange, but deeply Argentinean friends, to see what their impression was. After widespread and heartily felt hugs and kisses, the usual bottle popping and coal firing, I start.
‘So, A., what about the new president?’
‘Horrible, really could not be worse…’
‘Who did you vote for?’
‘What? I cannot believe it, he is probably the greatest thief still breathing’
‘I know, but I want things as they were when he was in charge’
‘But that means a state of widespread corruption and living on foreign money’
‘And so what? Only Menem could bring money back’
‘You mean that K is spoiling the whole Argentinean spirit?’
‘That is exactly so. This country has always been a mess, where the smartest floats and cashes well and the dumbest work like donkeys to save a small dough, which is regularly swept away by the banks to counterbalance what the smartest stashed in Switzerland’
‘I imagine that Kirchner should be a nuisance for the widespread Argentinean class living off smartness’
‘A mayor nuisance’
H arrives. I have great hopes on my layer friend.
‘So H., what about K.?’
‘Do not mention that zurdo, man, do not, please’
‘Left handed, leftist. Cannot stand them’
‘Is he a leftist?’
‘Sure he is, he was a montonero’
‘What’s that?’
‘Bandits and throat-cutters who menaced generals and politicians in the 70’s’
That seems to me a honourable occupation, I wanted to say, but I remembered the Peron’s autographed picture in his studies and controlled myself.
‘So you do not like what he is doing?’
‘Well, up till now he just met the desaparecidos’ mothers, the Jews and so on, snobbing the entrepreneurs…’
‘But what about the corruption, the firings in the Retirement Funds system?’
‘That is just to put his own gang and stash for himself’
‘And the bloody generals?’
‘Better for everyone if we put a stone over all that. No one gains’
‘Who did you vote for?’
‘What? If he won the world would have laughed for ages. It is as if King Louis XVI had chosen Robespierre as his Defence ministry and private secretary…’
‘We do not care about what the world thinks, we know what is ood for us. And he would have solved the foreign debt problem. We need foreign money’
‘Cause you cannot make enough of your own to live at your previous standards? Come on, no one is seriously thinking of lending a penny to this country now…’
‘Perhaps not now, but with Kirchner never again, with Menem just for a few months… We will see, but now, Tano, shut up and have a glass of this, you know we love you. Hey you, girl, bring on that ice cream… best in town, friendofmine…’

I felt depressed. Only T., apparently, voted for K. I will remember T. Probably not everyone benefits from his simple operations, rather innocent even if tax-free, based on the infallible truth that the world is inhabited by a vast majority of fools. ‘The world is not good, the world is not bad. I am the same. I am a little fish; I damage marginally and would never dream or dare to be greedy. I just try not to be hypocrite. I stay afloat. Someone loves me, others, fortunately much less, don’t’
He is right. He is a child of Argentina, lover of fun, friends, basically honest but not to be trusted as a depositary of funds. But should friends ever deal with money matters?
And smartness, after all, is not greed.

Everyone was saying that the things went bad for the politicians were stealing. This was, is and will ever be a partial truth. The government will always be an expression of its people. Argentineans are messy and their motto will always be ‘One fishes better in muddy waters’. And the establishment, the top managers, the clients, the sub clients, the friends, the nephews, the yes men, the nodders, are a wide population. Even more are those using the huge mesh Argentineans use to filter criminals to make a living and, funnily enough, sometimes pushing the country ahead. All these people hardly want to change.

This country gave me a lot. I feel sorry for it.

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