When asked what I was planning to do on a brief trip to Buenos Aires, my first visit, I said I was going to take the Borges tour. I thought I was joking but soon learned that in Argentina it isn’t easy to be sure of such things. I am sitting in a café which already seems more like the sheer idea of a café than the real thing could quite be. Red velvet chairs and benches, marble-topped tables, excellent coffee, croissants which are literally called ‘half-moons’, medialunas, waiters who are curt but not surly, with the clothes and style of their French confrères but without the deeper commitment to bad manners. My friend asks me where I am staying. I say the place is called the Marriott Plaza but looks older and grander and a little more decaying than Marriott locations usually do. For example, you have to go up or down a flight of stairs to reach the lift, a sure sign that servants are supposed to carry not only bags but people where necessary. ‘Oh it used to be called the Plaza,’ my friend says. ‘Borges calls it the Hotel du Nord. It’s the hotel in the story “Death and the Compass”.’ I have scarcely unpacked and the Borges tour has started.
Vol. 25 No. 24 · 18 December 2003
Michael Wood says that the first European settlers on the ‘smelly coastal swamp’ beside the River Plate called their new city after Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Aire, ‘Our Lady St Mary of Good Air’ (LRB, 20 November); and that even if the Spanish phrase del Buen Aire were to mean ‘of good aspect’ this ‘would still be quite a splash of bravura’. So it would have been – but in fact those Spaniards dedicated their city to ‘Our Lady of Good Wind’, patroness of sailors, in thanksgiving for their safe passage. I grew up in Buenos Aires, and my parents’ quinta a little outside the city was named ‘Buen Aire’. We had a ceramic-tile representation of Our Lady of Good Wind let into one side of the house; she is shown holding the child Jesus on one arm, and on the palm of her other hand a three-masted sailing-ship.
My first visit to Buenos Aires was different from Michael Wood's. On the pretext of attending a conference, and inspired by too many Hollywood movies of the Bogart era, I went in search of a seedy waterfront bar where, clad in a grubby white suit and Panama hat, I could romantically drink away my declining years. Alas, I couldn't get to the waterfront at all. There was the old port, the new port, the public gardens (out of bounds because of subsidence), the railway station, the municipal airport; and the only bar I could find was cut off from the river by a busy highway. Disconsolate, clutching a bag of exam papers due for marking, I trudged on until I found a cracked and disused concrete pier sticking out into the River Plate. I'd walked to its end and settled down to the essays when a gust of wind carried off half the papers; I watched them sink slowly into the South Atlantic. When I told my students the story, most of them didn't believe a word of it. I had to give them all good marks.