I suppose that five days of relentless celebration isn’t really so much to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of an independent nation, or at least a seminal moment in its revolution to become so, but it’s actually starting to feel a little like it. Argentines generally, and Porteños in particular, are a not a shy people in want of expressiveness. They speak up, with regularity, and err towards the employment of bullhorns, banners, drums, collusive cacophony and whatever other means available, lest the meaty thrust of a particular message or complaint lose force, asphyxiate and die off in the flutter and void of the wide Parisian avenues. They demonstrate, march, sing and protest, and they yell a bit, whenever the collective mood strikes, which is more often than not. “A tango in their step and a soapbox under every arm” as Julio Cortázar might have but never actually said. In any case, it is a social characteristic to be admired, I think, particularly in a generation in which most people now testify to their ideological dispositions by joining a group on Facebook, to ensure that the world may know, at last and once and for all, that they “like smiles” or are part of “1,000,000 people against racism” (in case there was some confusion about which side of that difficult fence their straddle was leaning) or something similarly delineative of remarkable personality.
I don’t know exactly what most of the quotidian protests and demonstrations are about in Buenos Aires, since they staunchly refuse to include English translations, either following a particular chant or below the Spanish proclamations, but it appears (to me at least) to speak to specific redress and be relevant to the actual political climate of the day, something noticeably absent from the Tea Party folks in America that have almost no idea what they are actually speaking to. Truly, there is something disturbingly bratty about relatively affluent middle-class people in America taking to the streets (and by streets, I mean of course the large grass exterior knolls that encircle Wal-Mart parking lots), in between a hefty lunch at Applebee’s and buying a fourth flat-screen HDTV (needing one, naturally, for the garage), to complain about taxes during an ironical relative low point in income taxation, compare milquetoast first-world optional health-care plans to violent Fascist militarism, protest with childlike adorability government intrusion into Medicare and otherwise shout-spray bumbling absurdities into the approaching and inevitable spin of the earth – a flailing, aimless and empty swing into the indifferent whistling aether to perhaps feel less marginalized in a world seemingly slipping from their clammy hands. Watching the Abuelas (“Grandmothers”) de Plaza de Mayo circle in somber, soundless and dedicated protest to the loss of their (the country’s) grandchildren that were “disappeared” during the military dictatorships of the 70s and early 80s really puts in perspective the plight of those poor loud Tea Partyers and their noteworthy fear of things like the bureaucratic appointment of a national Education Czar that will no doubt ruin their lives. Though, maybe my tenuous fingernail grasp on Spanish and shallow understanding of Argentine history and culture (I did see Evita on TBS, the Superstation, once) is just creating political romanticism where little really exists, converting an otherwise similar trite bit of emotional look-at-me-ism into something more admirable, as the way dim lighting, alcohol and palpitating neon lights collude to smooth and blush sharp unseemly edges of treacherous women in strip-joints and downtown-fringing discothèques – but I really hope, and chose to assume, that isn’t the case. It would be quite disheartening to discover that all of those descamisados (“shirtless ones”), carrying banners meshing the effigies of Che, Juan Domingo Peron, Simon Bolivar and Emiliano Zapata, singing hymns to revolutionaries and condemning a very checkered past, were but Argentine equivalents to the gold-reflective-Oakley-bespectacled southerners (I can make fun of my own people) harping on witlessly and misspellingly about whatever some Argentinean Glenn Beck told them was surreptitiously harming them, an illusion destruction roughly equivalent to a realization that Selma Hayek was not in fact an adorable Mexican, but born and raised entirely in Ohio and her charming chesty broken English was nothing more than the confluent result of a terribly slow mind and a speech impediment triggered by Midwestern syphilitic fits.
Which most tangential of tangents (I should probably avoid American politics altogether) brings me, and you, hopefully, still, back around to what I was originally saying. This is a culture that rightfully venerates group political expression, whether in dissent or approval, and that’s just an average Tuesday, a celebration of this caliber and scope, only the second of its kind and followed by a good wait for the next (if you are keeping up with the difficult math), would expectedly be cause for some significant excitement and rousing of the rabble. The set up has been going on for weeks, and the festival of events officially began on Friday afternoon, leading up over the course of the following five days to the finale on Tuesday night, which is the actual date of the bicentenario. The events included several concerts in and around the city (Shakira and Ricky Martin could have been predicted, an obscure ZZ Top less so), the reopening of the famous Teatro Colón, endless speeches, a dozen or so parades, orchestras, a soccer match against a helpless Canadian team (always best to pick a pushover for a homecoming game), laser light shows, etc. Millions of Argentinians and other South Americans apparently descended on the capital for the long weekend.
The nice but exhausting part about the full week of celebration is that almost everything is centered around our apartment, probably less because of my omnipresent sex appeal (though we shouldn’t rule it out) than the fact that we are equidistant from the presidential palace at Casa Rosada and the square of the Obelisk (where they have set up the main stage for the symphonies, bands and speeches) and our street, Diagonal Norte, running nine floors below our patio is the most direct and visible route between the two. As a result, every moment of every day for nearly a week just outside our building consisted of seemingly endless parades and festivities, attended by tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands of people with all the trappings of people attending a parade: open-throated howling, the kicking knobby legs of toddlers on paternal shoulders, indifference towards proper waste management that comes from an assumption of post-parade municipal street cleaning, the complete absence of creativity and redundancy of overt nationalism and flag waiving, and the like. All of which, really has about a three-day half-life before becoming slightly tiresome. Keep in mind this isn’t like being in a hotel room on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, or in a hostel in Munich’s Marienplatz during Oktoberfest, there is actually very little traditional “partying” going on to join in, and drinking in the streets is completely prohibited, all of which makes the celebration of a remote historical event in a foreign language from the point of view of a detached and generally sober expat a little short-lived, particularly when the random group of loud motorcycle guys, or incontinent-horse-mounted sheep herders from some arbitrary northern province, or the various clumsy baton-twirling girl marching bands from identical parochial schools, or whoever, get their fifteen minute window to synchronistically trudge down our street at all hours, pregnant with a sense of pride and purpose far greater than their parading merit. All that whined, I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. Better to be right in the middle of the action and unable to get a respite from it than to miss something we would never have a chance to see again.
The final parade on Tuesday night consisted of the most extravagant street production I have ever witnessed, all done to precision by the Fuerza Bruta creators who were put in charge of design and execution. On the street level below our balcony, just in front of the adjacent building, was set up a stage and viewing veranda for state dignitaries and VIPs, including the country’s illustrious President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, generally disliked by the populace from what I understand, and several other South American heads of state. Hugo Chavez was even there, no doubt being all devious and socialisty, and whispering with the heavy and sauna-wet breathiness of a Bond character into Cristina’s ear suggestions on how to possibly nationalize the fun. I suspect that it was Chavez’ presence that ensured no official state representative from the U.S.A. was in attendance, though Hillary Clinton did deliver some platitudes through the international press. The truly amazing part to me was the lack of security, as a dozen heads of state walked the open streets and sat for hours on an open platform accessible from three sides by anyone with a very marginal amount of effort. Our terrace, despite its Oswaldian sight lines, never even registered as a threat to whatever security detail might have existed and Arual and I could, were we so inclined (we weren’t), throw small objects onto the heads of the most important people in South America. Cristina is an interesting political figure. She was much celebrated when she took over the Presidency from her obstinate and powerful husband, but has fallen out of favor generally. She is attractive, youngish and seemingly savvy, but has a tendency to say ridiculous and self-indulgent things and is perpetually on the outs with the media. It’s a rare politician that can say something veritably Palinian like “God wanted me to be the president of the Bicentenary” and also tell her congress that she considers herself a “Hegelian intellectual” (a more typical Buenos Airesian sensibility, and certainly not the sort of thing that could be found in the wistfully vapid large-fonted coloring book pages of Going Rogue).
The most significant party night was actually on Monday night, on the eve of the actual bicentennial day, and Arual the Destroyer of National Sentimentalism and I tried to do our part to celebrate the country and toast to its hospitality to us for the last two months. After wading through the dense crowd on Avenida 9 de Julio and watching the national philharmonic crank out some Argentine classics on the main stage, unable to locate friends in the madness, we stumbled into a little bar off of the corner of Julio and Avenida 25 de Mayo (there is a strange cosmic justice in drinking at a bar on a street named for the day you find yourself drinking there). The next several hours were a blur of shots, tasty empanadas, painful contortions of the most basic Spanish colloquialisms that our kind bartender attempted to speak with us, recurring black-outs when the mechanized vendors on the bustling sidewalks pulled a little too much juice from the block’s teetering overtaxed electric currents, and some absinthe that made watching the 2 a.m. laser light show at the Plaza de Mayo a difficult and throbby affair. Not long thereafter, Arual decided that her full day’s intake of food and booze would better enjoy the snuggly comforts of the down comforter on my side of bed to the dizzying churning gurgle of her reeling acidified stomach, creating a nice little pile of masticated cheese and onion empanada, pepper vodka, stomach oil and a slight smirking hint of unconscious Schadenfreude at the notion of me spending the next wee hour cleaning it up. The nice part, though, is that although my absinthinean buzz wilted and converted into a watery-mouthed disgust and the stone-sober mechanics of extended-arm cleaning, I wasn’t alone by any stretch. Just outside (God is definitely not a shout in the street), Peronistas continued to howl into the dawning tepid aquamarine morning of a fervent and undying love of country, a contention that one would have hoped stipulated at this point.