Cats, dogs and lizards

Trip Start May 01, 2005
Trip End Mar 25, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

It's pretty hard to get excited about Christmas when it's 34 degrees outside and there's more chance of me getting a dog as a pet than there is of snow falling. This will be my first Christmas in a hot country, and my sisters arrive soon to celebrate it with me and I can't wait to see them - although Christmas came early a few weeks ago when I received an emergency parcel from lovely friend Lynne which included midget gems, a Heat magazine and three pairs of M&S knickers.

I've been in Buenos Aires for over two months now, and I've settled in to life here pretty easily - to be honest, you'd have to work really hard to hate it. Every morning I have a Spanish conversation class with an Argentine woman who is as mad as a bag of rusty beavers. Susanah speaks about 10 languages, is studying Latin at university, and has just invited her 45 year-old professional-tennis-player-boyfriend Jorge to live with her. She's 69. She's horrified at my lack of decent clothing and is trying to force me to borrow one of her dresses for Christmas - I can't think why she imagines that I would suit the clothing of an old age pensioner.

Her methods to improve my Spanish include getting me to make the coffee every morning and describe in Spanish what I'm doing while I make it, and inviting herself and Jorge round for dinner and then ordering me to explain in Spanish how I cooked each course. This morning for example she tried to get me to go and buy cheese for her in order to practise my Spanish but I refused on the grounds that I hate cheese. One morning I thought I'd surprise her by bringing a few little cakes ('facturas') from the local pastry shop, but she just laughed and told me I'd committed the biggest gastronomic faux-pas in Argentine history - when buying facturas to take to someone's house, you must always buy an entire trunk of cakes ensuring each person has at least four each and not the measly-but-polite English-sized one per person.

As well as trying out my Spanish on the elderly, I've been torturing the very young too. Every week I visit the dialysis unit in one of the province's children's hospitals, allegedly to cheer up the little kids who are stuck there for three or four hours at a time. Unfortunately I have discovered that making balloon animals is not going to be one of my major life skills, as my attempts tend to resemble grotesque parts of the female body. I just tell the children that the animals I make are new species that have yet to be discovered in Argentina. For a few weeks we weren't able to visit, as the train station we normally get out at had been burned down by passengers irate because their train was delayed. Now that's what I call passenger action. I also go to one of the capital's very poor suburbs where we teach the local children how to share toys and interact with each other. This is great fun, as I get to play at skipping with the children, help them to make cards and draw pictures, and brush Barbie's hair for hours. Nothing too stretching, but the children seem to look forward to laughing at my Spanish. One of the kiddies laughed so much the other week that she actually peed on me.

Last week I met the mother of a fellow volunteer, an Argentinian, who is recovering from an operation on her face. She has stitches above each eye-lid and below her hair line. She explained that she had suffered from a problem that resulted in her eyelids sagging, and so had had a medical procedure. I wanted to tell her that we have that in the UK too and it's called old age. This is a city obsessed with image and style and clothing - Susanah thinks it dreadful that I wear flips-flops in the street and own just one skirt. Most of the time the women here get it right, but I've noticed a frightening trend amongst young girls to wear trousers that are a combination of footless tights and baggy clown pants, attractively elasticated at the ankle and on sale at two of the capital's most popular shops - 'Beige' and 'Clap'. Plus of course there is the national scandal of the visible knicker line, and the horrifying return of the mullet here. And this from a city progressive enough to have just introduced a bill to make organ donation compulsory. It's a mystery.

Everyone eats late here, and I've got used to getting home from dinner at 4am. But there isn't a big drinking culture, and people drink beer or wine very slowly and actually eat a decent meal. The restaurants are fabulous - there's even one round the corner from me where you can choose which colour room to eat in. I've been lucky enough to have some lovely visitors - Shazza from Colchester and Pauline from Bogota - so I've done most of the touristy things. One of my favourite places here is the Botanic Gardens, which is verboten for dogs and so is just crawling with hundreds of semi-wild cats. You can sit and enjoy the sun quietly in the gardens with a book and, if you are very lucky, a little cat will crawl on your lap and purr on you. And given that my friend Alberto thinks I am becoming obsessed with dogs and mention them all the time, this is just for him .... yesterday I saw a man in a park walking seven dogs and one very large iguana who was wearing a big yellow bow around its neck. The bloke was chasing away a flock of cheeky birds who were trying to have a go at the iguana and all the squirrels were shouting "fight! fight! fight!", it was brilliant. You don't see that every day in Twickenham.

On to Christmas. My sisters, Louise and Julia, and I are off to an estancia for the Christmas weekend where we shall be attempting to ride horses and round up cattle. Or ride cattle and round up horses, whichever looks the most fun. I hope everyone has a magical Christmas and a sparkling New Year.

Feliz Navidad de Buenos Aires!
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