Friday, 14 September 2007

Santa Fe´and Scalabrini Ortez

Its a beautiful day. Sunshine glistens from the tower windows and explicit lingerie hoardings high above Avenue Santa Fe, one of the main routes bringing traffic from Jorge Newbury airport and Palermo into the city. I have walked almost the full length of the avenue from Av Uruguay skirting Barrio Norte and Recoleta. I stop at Scalabrini Ortez just short of Plaza Italia. The towers and myriads of clothes and shoe shops have given way to tall elegant iron railings behind which is an expanse of green. To my right I see groups of men gathered in clusters round stone tables. Their ages range from 20 to 80 and, irrespective of age, they all show the same interest and animation in the afternoon events. My attention is drawn by a cheer from one table where a man in his 60's sweeps objects forward into his hands. They are terracotta in colour, although the group around him conceal their purpose. I divert from the avenue and pass under high trees cascading with aerial roots perhaps 50 feet below their canopy. I can now see that there are about a dozen groups and pairs. The latter play chess with wooden pieces set on inlaid boards, whilst the former engage in drafts and cards. Others sit by and watch or lie in the sunshine, air perfumed with hyacinths and woodsmoke, relaxing with Mate´ the Argentine herbal drink drawn from a communal cup of metal or wood through a steel straw, also shared. Beside them are small hand carts of the Mate´sellers, festooned with battered coloured thermos flasks. I now see that the terracotta objects are chips, broken tiles gathered from the rough paths that wind through the Jardins Botanico Carlos Thays. I stand by and observe this exclusively male preserve. What surprises me, along with the huge divergence of age, is the variety of class. One wears a suit and tie, another a spotted neckerchief and smock. A young man sports a tee shirt and wool hat, and another a torn anorak clearly rescued from a skip. The other surprise is the total absence of money, as this is an activity of sport not profit. My gaze rests on a man in his 70's, his face so lined that it resembles the rail tracks to Retiro, Buenos Aires' main station, but his nimble fingers flick, shuffle and deal the cards with skill for his friends.

Now I notice another movement and glance to my left. Through the iron railings separating the gardens from the street four cats race into view, two grey, one ginger and one black. As I re-focus, maybe a dozen more become visible. And beyond, under sweeping palms and banana trees (more about which in the later blog), dotted, snoozing in the sun, maybe a hundred cats. One man sleeps on the grass on his back and on his rising chest two cats enjoy the shared warmth. Here people and cats sit and stroll together.
Beneath a flush of cerise winter blossom and Stephanie shares her bench with five cats, dozing in the sunshine. What is interesting is the similarity between the human and feline activity, each mirroring each other, whether sleeping, sitting alone or in groups, even the kittens and children running and playing by the fountain. Nearby, a group of girls drink coke together and beside them a group of cats sip from a shared saucer.

I must leave the garden, passing at the junction of Av Armenia a parilla of distinction to which I will sojourn for dinner with Elena tonight, then back into Santa Fe´. Now the pavements throng with women, young and old, who unlike the men of the Jardin Botanico, gather in the dozens of shoe and lingerie shops, the two contrasting passions of the Argentine women of Buenos Aires.

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