Lockdown has made me nostalgic – not about travelling so much as about places. It’s no surprise the focus of some of my fondest remembering has been the world capital of looking back: Buenos Aires. The reasons behind this are many and complex. Porteños – BA residents – are famously given to looking far away, to the Spain or Italy of their ancestors, and to romanticising the brief belle époque of the early 20th century, when Argentina was rich and promising. Tango is laced with longing for the missed and elusive.
I lived there for a decade and have revisited every year during the two decades since. This has inevitably made my nostalgia layered, but more than anything I miss walking, roaming the Argentinian capital. Now, incarcerated in my English semi-rural home, I yearn for people and movement and being lost in the crowd.
I have tried to walk every street of Buenos Aires. It’s a foolish quest. There are 2,154 of them, according to one local author, and combined they must measure thousands of miles. But the kindest way for a foreigner to own a city is arguably to walk it. Conquest as reconnaissance. When I first bought a Lumi guidebook – a street map of the capital – I was struck by the regularity of the grid of streets, as well as its immensity. So, unlike England, with its medieval town plans, curves and cul-de-sacs, BA beckoned like a maze.
But as I wandered ever further from the centre – along Avenida Rivadavia, at 23 miles the longest street in the city, turned north into working-class Saavedra and down to El Sur, BA’s southside, associated with tango legends but also a bit sketchy and shabby – I couldn’t help but wonder at the cliched claim that this is “the most European” city in South America. I saw a very Latin American reality: squat, functional terraces, shanties and high-rises predominated. Yet something in the juxtaposition of old and new, burnished and broken, beautiful and bland, beguiled.
Guidebooks were too literal. What I needed was a native to help me decode the metropolis. I found one in an author known outside Argentina as a master of conundrum and enigma.
I’d first come across Jorge Luis Borges in The Book of Imaginary Beings as a teenager. In BA, his name was dropped all the time, and not only in literary circles. The handsome, sober-jacketed hardbacks of publisher Emecé’s complete works stood firmly at the centre of the “Argentinian Literature” sections in city bookshops. Photographs of him often appeared in the newspapers. An arts centre bearing his name sits incongruously in the corner of a downtown shopping mall.
Borges is best known for his Ficciones short-story collection, but it was his poems that provided me with epiphanies on my walks. At the simplest level they helped me decode the built environment. The opening lines of “The Streets”, which opens his first collection, 1923’s Fervour of Buenos Aires, are “My soul is in the streets/of Buenos Aires”. The poem tells how he identifies not with the city centre but with the “neighbourhood streets where nothing is happening”.
Borges was a serious flâneur, making epic wanderings like a modern psychogeographer
He uses words derived from Arabic that evoke Andalucía. I was seeing, through Borges, an old world in the new world. In a poem titled El Patio, a simple courtyard becomes “heaven’s watercourse… the slope/Down which the sky flows into the house”. Borges was a serious flâneur, making epic wanderings like a modern psychogeographer. He notes “the drab houses, the crude banisters, the doorknockers” – of tourist-free suburbs such as Caballito, Pompeya and Villa Ortúzar – but in the silver light of evening finds them “vivid as a verse”. The plainest streets are as profound and generous as poetry.
The title of Borges’s second poetry collection, Moon Across the Way (1925), captures how Buenos Aires was expanding westward, away from the River Plate estuary. If you walked to the edge of the built-up area you would, eventually, come to a street that looked over the pampas. In his next collection, San Martín Copybook (1929), his beautiful and oft-quoted poem The Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires ends:
A cigar store perfumed the desert like a rose.
The afternoon had established its yesterdays,
and men took on together an illusory past.
Only one thing was missing – the street had no other side.
Hard to believe Buenos Aires had any beginning; it feels as eternal as air and water.
Like many city dwellers, Borges laments the passing of what once was: “Our image of the city is always slightly out of date. Cafes have degenerated into bar-rooms; old arched entranceways with their grilled inner gates, once giving us a glimpse of patios and of overhanging grapevines, are now dingy corridors... that lead abruptly to an elevator.”
On my ramblings, I was always looking out for the old, the low-slung, the elegantly faded. Such craving for the picturesque came partly from being a foreigner but it also, over time, turned me into a bit of a porteño – prone to idealising the past, imagined or real.
As with the stories, Borges loads his verse with classical allusions and speculative meditations. By treating Buenos Aires as palimpsest and puzzle, he turns a walk into an investigation, and makes the 500-year-old city as mysterious and captivating as any ancient archaeological site.
Walking a great city can be a balm to the soul: it makes us engage at different levels, rediscover the familiar, and ourselves. In one of the short essays on 19th-century poet Evaristo Carriego (1930), Borges writes: “Buenos Aires is deep, and never have I, disillusioned or suffering, given myself over to its streets without receiving some unexpected consolation, whether from feeling unreality, from guitars at the back of a patio, or from contact with other lives.”
Buenos Aires made sense of the poems, which in turn made sense of the city. Now, several years and an ocean away, in the strange new nostalgia imposed by coronavirus, I can reread poems and evoke the city, and its layers of time and memory. Travel as reading, walking as words.