That's right: for the first time ever, a white guy is going travelling in South America. Read about my adventures as I travel the continent and try my best not to steal or conquer anything.

June 17, 2006

So long Group of Death, thanks for the memories; yours, Argentina

Cambiasso betrays some enthusiasm after he puts Argentina up 2-0 against Serbia and Montenegro.

Though I have no unique insights into what took place yesterday, to write a blog set in Argentina and not mention THE GAME would be a thundering silence, as the oxymoron goes. The significance of Argentina's 6-0 dismantling of Serbia and Montenegro yesterday, considering just the impact on the tournament standings, is actually relatively minor. Argentina was expected to win, expected to finish in the top two of Group C, and expected to establish themselves as a contender in doing so. Wednesday's game between Argentina and Holland will decide who finishes on top of the group, but both teams have now assured their passage to the Round of 16. Had Argentina earned anything short of their six points thus far it would have been a disappointment.

The significance of the game to the country, however, is simply that it was one of the greatest World Cup matches in Argentina's history. The game was a majestic rout; a performance so dominating that the Serbians & Montenegrans were rendered foils for Argentine brilliance, no more a threat than the Washington Generals. Fans were delirious with the spectacle, and the players - all of them - described the experience as "a dream", or "dreamlike", or some similar nod to the sense that what just happened was so much better than what could or should have been. The game, as most of the commentators and columnists and ex-player-turned-talking heads have noted, was perfect. Looking for a quick start? Maxi Rodriguez gets the party started in the sixth minute. For consistency? Three goals in the first half, three in the second. Teamwork? 25 passes before Cambiasso drives in the second goal. Individual skill? Carlos Tevez breaking through one defender, and another, and bending the ball past the helpless keeper for the fifth goal. Even Leo Messi - the 18-year-old phenom who's face is becoming about as ubiquitous here as Maradona's - capped the scoring in his first ever World Cup match.

Now, obviously it's too soon for Argentines to clear their schedules on July 9th, or RSVP for the victory party that night. But the world has been put on notice, and while Argentina hasn't looked in finer form since 1986, their opponents are sputtering. The English got their result, but needed 83 minutes to pull ahead of Trinidad & Tobago; the Germans just squeaked by Poland with an extra time goal; the Mexicans couldn't beat the Angolans, the Italians couldn't beat the U.S., and even the mighty Brazilians looked vulnerable in their opening match against Croatia. When planning out various scenarios for this tournament - and adjusting my travel schedule accordingly - I realized that finishing on top of Group C would give Argentina the best chance of avoiding any serious competition until the semi-finals. Avoiding England, Brazil, and Spain seemed the best way to assure a good result. Now those teams ought to be asking themselves an equally pressing question: "how can we avoid Argentina?"

This city is buzzing. There wasn't an Argentine friend I spoke with yesterday that wasn't in celebration mode, not one who wasn't making comparisons to '86; there wasn't a bus on the street from 10:00 to 12:00, a business that didn't take time off for the game, a bakery with any medialunas (mini croissants) in stock by 10:30. Six is the number. 1986, 2006. Six goals, six more games. Six more victories to an event of epic proportions, and if you think I'm exaggerating, well . . . ask a porteño. You're in the minority.

In other news, it turns out that they used to show "Different Strokes" down here, only they called it "Blanco y Negro", which means "White and Black". Rather lacking in subtlety, no? Anyway, when I found this out from one of my Argentine friends, I naturally asked after Gary Coleman's famous line. I refused, just refused to believe that such an iconic catchphrase could be accurately translated. She told me that whenever he was responding to his brother with his trademark incredulity, Arnold would say "de que estás hablando viejo?" This literally translates to "of what are you speaking elder brother?", which I pointed out is totally not in the spirit of the original catchphrase, but she then told me that the more colloquial translation of the phrase is "what are you talking about older brother?" That's fine, except that of course Arnold didn't say "what are you talking about Willis?", he said "whuchutalkinboutWillis?", dropping only the patently superfluous syllables from the clause. Now, Spanish is a syllabic language, and unlike English-speakers, people really say every syllable down here, and my friend simply COULD NOT imitate Gary Coleman accurately, but only get as close as "whatareyoutalkinabouWillis", which is no more Gary Coleman-esque than the same line in Swahili. Checkmate.

Oh, and Kermit the Frog in this country? Rana René. WTF?

June 04, 2006

A few Argentine heroes

General Jose de San Martín

Image shamelessly ripped from some site on San Martín I found on google.

A little history: San Martín liberated Argentina from Spanish rule. That's a pretty good one-sentence bio in and of itself, but it's only the start: after studying in Spain and fighting against Napoleon in the Battle of Baylen, San Martín returns to Argentina and quickly beats back the disembarking Spanish army arriving from Montevideo. He then decides that the only way to completely liberate Argentina is to unseat the Spanish royalists in the Viceroyalty of Peru, and so takes over as the Governor of Cuyo in western Argentina, and devotes three years to developing his strategy for conquering Peru. At some point the BsAs old boys feared his popularity and power, and tried to strip him of his Governorship, but protests in his support and against his successor force San Martín's reinstatement. In 1817, San Martín crosses the Andes and defeats the royalist forces in Chile, following it up with post-siege takeover of Lima. Checkmate. In 1824, depressed by civil wars and political infighting, San Martín moves to France to raise his daughter, dying in 1850, never living to see his dream of a strong and united South America.

And today: San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, is interred in a magnificent mausoleum in the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, and lives in effigy on the $5-peso note, though this doesn't put him in especially distinguished company, as dictator and genocide-happy Juan Manuel de Rosas appears on the $20. In BsAs, where every undeserving rich politician gets a statue, San Martín earned the many tributes to him around the city, and around the country, as it seems that virtually every city or town in Argentina has a Plaza San Martín right in its centre. I get the feeling that were he still alive, San Martín would still be living in France, rightfully miffed at the mismanagement that frustrates his vision.

Canada's equivalent: As an Argentine friend is very fond of reminding me, Canada fought no wars for independence, and thus has no claim to a San Martín-esque hero. I'm then fond of reminding this friend that Canada was suiting up for WWI and WWII while Argentina was warming the coals for its "Welcome Nazi War Criminals" asado, but I have to admit, there's nothing quite like a guy who freed your country from imperial rule by military force, and did the same for two of your neighbours to boot. But hey, 2.75 Argentine pesos to the Canadian dollar, so peace and treaties can't be all bad, eh? Eh?

Diego Maradona

Image blatantly stolen from some hardworking guy's fan site on Maradona.

A little history: As if the man needs any introduction. Born in a shantytown outside of BsAs, of mestizo origin, Maradona's talents were first spotted when he was 10, and he was recruited to play for the junior team of the Argentine Premiership squad Argentinos Juniors. Maradona then flew up the footballing ladder through the Argentinas Juniors, the Boca Juniors, Barcelona, and SSC Napoli. It was during his tenure with Barcelona that Maradona is said to have been introduced to cocaine, no doubt by a supporter of Real Madrid, or perhaps a West German spy. Maradona earned accolades at every step along the way, but his most famous exploits came in the 1986 World Cup, which Argentina won. In the semi-finals against England, Maradona scored both of Argentina's goals in the 2-1 game, the first, famously, with his hand. The referee missed the infraction, and Maradona later claimed that goal was scored by the "Hand of God", though his second goal that game was all skill, and voted "Goal of the Century" in a 2002 online poll conducted by FIFA. So I guess it evens out. His better days behind him, the 90's saw him struggle with drugs, his health, and a very public private life, but he has since had a little surgery, kicked the dope, and looks surprisingly good.

And today: As one might guess, Maradona is much in the news these days, given the topical events going on in Germany. What's ridiculous about it, really, is that he's everywhere. In between games he's on the television, discussing his thoughts on this year's squad, or holding a press conference, evaluating the action thus far. He's in advertisements, he's lent his face to various forms of food packaging, he's got his own page in the World Cup section of the daily newspapers here. It's insane. 20 years since that stocky little punk scored two of the most famous goals in history and my English friend tells me that Argentines still give him a special little wave whenever his nationality is raised in a conversation about football. The "Hand of God" is considered to be a classic example of Viveza Criolla, a porteño trait that could be charitably described as a flair for getting away with acts of questionable morality. At least he can say that no one's done it better.

Canada's equivalent: In terms of near-universal celebrity, it has to be the Wayne, though number 99 is a little too clean, and frankly, boring to be compared to el Diez. Maybe the Tocchet and Mrs. Gretzky gambling scandal had a little of the Viveza Criolla in it, but "I didn't bet" doesn't quite have the same flair for mythology as "a little of the hand of God, and a little of the head of Maradona", now does it?

Carlos Gardel

Image very obviously appropriated from Wikipedia, to which I neither donated nor said thank you.

A little history: Though born in Toulouse in 1890, from the first moment that Gardel picked up a guitar and sang, he was pure porteño. Gardel didn't just write many of the most famous tango songs in history, he embodied the tango spirit, and spread it throughout South America, and to Barcelona, New York, and Paris, where he performed in 1928. In 1917, he performed Mi Noche Triste, a song about brokenhearted pimp that makes liberal use of lunfardo slang, at the Esmeralda Theatre in Buenos Aires. Whereas previously tango songs would only be heard in milongas or houses of ill repute, Gardel was performing for the porteño gentry, and he was a hit. Gardel's music and film career was ended in 1935 when he died in a plane crash in Colombia, prompting a few particularly devoted fans to attempt suicide. He remains Argentina's most celebrated musician, and has declined little in popularity since his death.

And today: Gardel's face with its famous smile is plastered all around the Almagro barrio in central BsAs, especially near the Abasto shopping centre, where he toured the club circuit in his early days. Upon hearing his unmistakable voice, it is common for an Argentine to comment that "Gardel sings better every day." The televisions in the subte take time out from their barrage of ads to play selections from his songs. When Maradona scored against Greece in the 1994 World Cup, a popular radio announcer, overflowing with excitement, exclaimed "Gardel is alive! Gardel is alive!" This joy was short-lived, as Maradona was expelled after two games for failing a drug test, and Argentina eliminated by Romania in the Round of 16, but that's okay, because life goes on, new stars emerge, and escucha! - Gardel sings better every day.

Canada's equivalent: Again we're lacking. In terms of songwriting talent, only Neil Young comes close, and I think you could make a case that his innovation and creativity put him at least in Gardel's league, though Gardel had only 45 years in which to book his considerable achievements. But Neil Young has nowhere near the recognition that Gardel had at the time, in his home country and abroad, and obviously our most famous exports don't even warrant a mention on the scale of artistic merit. And that dying at the peak of your popularity thing? Hard to find better legend-making stuff than that. So again Canada finds itself unable to compare, but I suppose that every national hero earns their honours in a style particular to their country, and could Argentina produce a Tommy Douglas? Or a Don Cherry? Or a Lester Bowles Pearson? Keep your freedom fighters, your world-class sports legends, your musical pioneers of a uniquely national genre. We're doing just fine. Oh Canada.