On a typical day, the kind I like best, my hours are divided between bed, desk and plaza. The precise ratio of each activity to the others fluctuates according to factors like weather conditions, workload and how badly my wife wants me gone. Last Sunday, for example, the sun was shining, all deadlines were met and my wife wanted it very badly indeed. So I ended up making two trips to the plaza, one before lunch and one around dusk. Like I said, my kind of day.
I don’t go to the plaza to drink wine from a Tetra Pak or charge around shirtless while trying to belt a football between two saplings, though I’m not saying I never will. I go there to play with my three-year-old daughter and have been doing so on a more-or-less daily basis since before she could walk.
In those two and a half years, the happiest of my life, I have watched her and her plaza buddies grow from crawlers into toddlers into whirligigs of flesh and sound in motion. I have exchanged nods, smiles and shop talk (“Valentina’s vaccination bruise has really gone down since yesterday, hasn’t it?” “She’ll eat black pudding but not chicken breast; I just don’t get it!”) with other parents.
When we began our jaunts to Plaza Güemes (just “the plaza” to us in the ’hood, of course) it was little more than a square of wasteland shaded by young tipa trees, with a derelict warehouse on one side, a posh Jesuit school on another and a flagpole in the middle that was naked all year round, even on Flag Day. There was a sandpit that operated as a kind of unlucky dip, with used condoms, syringes and broken glass among the non-glittering unprizes. So we hung around the flagpole, which my daughter used as a leaning post.
She was starting to toddle when some good news arrived on our doorstep in the shape of a note from Jorge Macri, our mayor. Paraphrasing a bit, it read: “I’m going to raze your crappy old plaza and replace it with a best-in-class recreational zone. And I’m going to do it in three months.” By the purest coincidence, this happened in the run-up to the municipal elections.
Well, it took six months of course but glorious George, now handsomely re-elected, delivered alright. It was out with the putrid prophylactics and in with swings (including specially adapted ones for kids with disabilities) and roundabouts, slides and climbing frames, drinking fountains, concrete butterfly chairs, brightly-coloured fitness stations and more muted dog turd receptacles. They’re still looking for that flag.
I was impressed. My daughter was thrilled. Luis, who owns the kiosk just off the square where we get our pop and alfajores, was so elated he almost smiled.
Straight away, our new and improved neighbourhood hub began to draw in all kinds of folks from the peripheries. Pre-teens from our local shantytown mixed with pensioners taking their twilight constitutional; office workers on their lunch break stepped carefully around entwined couples. My daughter made a new – a stab of jealousy here – friend every day, relegating me to the (still crucial) roles of crossing guard and carbohydrate dispenser.
What makes our plaza so unmistakably Argentine? It’s difficult to grok let alone convey. But my friend Ian Mount was on to something when he told me that Argentines are unrivalled at the art of turning any green space into a bustling urban environment. Most of our neighbours ignore the park furniture Jorge has so kindly provided, preferring, at great and unnecessary inconvenience to themselves, to lug their own, all the better to sit around bitching about inflation while supping mate and eating biscuits so dry an ancient mariner would have thrown them to the gulls.
In a few days’ time, my daughter will start pre-school and the plaza will cease to be the locus of her leisure. There’ll be others to hold her hand, dry her tears, remove the grit from her Crocs, shout “Wheeeeeeeee!” when she goes down the slide. A wave of sadness hits me when I think about this, but a sublime sadness, the kind easily mistaken for joy.
Matt Chesterton is a British freelance writer and editor who has lived in Buenos Aires since 2002. He came to Argentine for love, and stayed for the deep-dish pizza and warm nights. He is married and has a three-year-old daughter.