Tuesday, October 20, 2009

If you need a hand

‘Si necesitas una mano para ganar, que sea la mano de Dios.’ If you need a hand to win, let it be the hand of God.

This is the slogan of a popular lotto scratch-card named Play with Maradona. Proof that in Argentina, they don’t only defend Diego Maradona’s Hand of God goal, they celebrate it.

The infamous goal, which Maradona scored against England in the quarter finals of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, went unpunished by Tunisian referee Ali Bin Nassar, and stands as one of the most controversial goals of all time.

The scene is one etched into the minds of many. The fifty first minute, England Midfielder Steve Hodge’s failed clearance sends the ball looping into the penalty area. Goalkeeper Peter Shilton comes out to punch it away, but the 5ft 5in Maradona jumps above him, reaches out with his hand, and fists the ball into the back of the net. He lands, throws a cheeky glance over his shoulder at the referee, and then runs off in celebration, encouraging his teammates to embrace him before the goal is disallowed.

Although the commentator in Argentina, Victor Hugo Morales, immediately shouted handball, he then energetically screamed goaaaaaaaaaaaaal while English players surrounded the referee in protest. ‘Against England today, a goal with the hand, what do you want me to say!’ he said.

For England fans, this blatantly illegal act made Maradona nothing but a cheat. But in Argentina, the goal is considered a work of art. With the Falklands War (La Guerra de Las Malvinas) lost only four years earlier in 1982, the star player getting one back on the English with a handball, was genius.

Love him or hate him, one undeniable act of brilliance was Maradona’s explanation after the game. ‘A little with the head of Maradona, and a little with the hand of God.’ Admit it was deliberate handball, and he’s a cheat, deny it and he’s a liar. Make it the work of God, and he’s a hero.

Add his second goal, voted the goal of the century in 2002, when he dribbled from his own half passing six English players, and with one game, Maradona became an Argentine legend. (La mano de Dios - Hand of God song in tribute to the goal).

Born on October 30th 1960 in a shantytown in Lanus, a city just south of the capital, Buenos Aires, Diego Maradona started his career with Argentinos Juniors before moving to Boca Juniors. He played for FC Barcelona in Spain and then Napoli in Italy before returning to Argentina.

Despite a constant battle with drugs and numerous personal problems, Maradona remains an icon in Argentina, where even those who dislike his personality, respect his sporting success.

He is renowned for saying exactly what he thinks, and has recently run into problems with the Argentine press over criticism of his leadership as Argentine national coach. Needing to beat Uruguay to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Maradona revelled in the 1-0 victory last week telling journalists in a live post match broadcast to ‘suck him off and keep sucking him off’.T shirts with the slogan are already on sale.

Some might say his poor managerial skills and consistent problems in public would be too much for the Argentine people to take. But it seems that the man who scored the Hand of God is too iconic to criticise. He's Maradona, and he'll always be the greatest player who ever lived.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Sucking down on my first mate


I needed to prepare. The family I was off to visit were materos, and I, an Englishman whose hot beverage customs were limited to a cup of tea, was not initiated in the social ritual of mate. It was my second visit to Argentina however, and I wanted to try.

Mate, pronounced mar-tay, is a hot, bitter beverage drunk extensively throughout Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. It is traditionally a social drink, shared with family or friends, both in the home and in the streets (especially in Uruguay).

It is prepared by taking a recipient (traditionally made from a gourd and also called a mate), and filling it three quarters full with yerba, dry leaves and twigs from the yerba mate plant.

The preparation is important and nearly everyone has their own special tips. Generally, the preparer covers the mate with his palm, turns it upside down and shakes it to force any powdery bits to the top. He then tilts the mate sideways at an angle, and gently pours on a little tepid water.

Hot but never boiling water (80°C is perfect) is then added. The yerba expands and rises slightly. Next, the bombilla is inserted. The bombilla is a metal straw through which the liquid is sucked. The end inserted in the yerba has tiny holes and acts as a sieve to let the liquid through without the herby leaves.

Then the ritual begins. El cebador (the server), drinks the first round to ensure the bombilla is free of any powdery bits, and then refills it and passes it clockwise. Each person makes a loud slurping noise when they have sucked the gourd dry, and it goes back to el cebador and then onto the next drinker.

It may sound unhygienic, five or six people sharing the straw, but I wanted to participate when I went to see the family. A few days before the visit, my yerba training began.

My Argentine friend prepared mate and I sucked on the bombilla for the first time. It was bitter and unbearable, and the hot liquid burnt my tongue. I’d read nobody likes mate the first time. It’s an acquired taste and perseverance is a must if you wish to enjoy it one day. My friend added sugar to ease the bitterness and I persisted.

Over the next few days I learnt to tolerate it, and felt ready to visit the family.

I sat down with them around their table as Marina, the head of the household, heated the water. Though nowadays electronic kettles with a mate setting heat the water to a perfect 80°C, Marina used a stovetop kettle and knew instinctively from the sound when the desired temperature was reached.

She drank the first round and then handed the refilled gourd to me. I could feel everyone’s stares as I held the mate in my hands. I leant forward, put the bombilla in my mouth and sucked. I only grimaced slightly but everyone laughed. I wasn’t keen on sucking until the slurping noise but was encouraged to do so. I passed it back to Marina, remembering not to say thanks. I'd been told the the custom was to only say thanks when you didn’t want to drink another round. I drank three or four more that day.

Now, over two years later, I too am a matero. It is a relaxing ritual and the drink’s stimulant affect always helps on those long afternoons. It was well worth the perseverance.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

One week on


When Mercedes Sosa died on the morning of Sunday 4th October, Argentina went into mourning.

The folklore icon, whose distinguishable and powerful voice charmed the world for more than forty years, had suffered with ongoing respiratory troubles and died in hospital early Sunday morning from problems related to kidney disease.

La Negra (the black one), as she was lovingly known, was born in the north-western city of San Miguel de Tucamán in 1936 on the ninth of July, Argentine Independence Day. She was discovered after winning a competition in her home province aged fifteen; and went on to become one of the most respected Argentine artists of her generation.

During her long career, Mercedes Sosa toured the world, sharing her unique style and voice in venues from the Sistine Chapel, to the Coliseum, to Carnegie Hall.

In the 1970s she lived in exile in both Paris and Madrid, while the political climate in Argentina during the Military dictatorship, and her left wing views, made life at home unsafe. She returned to Argentina in 1982.

When the news of her death was announced, President Cristina Kirchner ordered three days national mourning. Television news programmes broadcasted one hour specials, and radio stations played songs from her forty albums.

‘Argentina and the music world has lost somebody special in their hearts, but we’ll always have her music’ said Viviana, one of the thousands queuing in the streets outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, to attend Mercedes’ wake.

Argentine rocker Charly Garcia and television host Susanna Giménez joined other stars to say goodbye. Inside musicians played acoustic guitars and the crowds sang in an attempt to keep the mood upbeat.

‘Divine, divine divine,’ is how one of her brothers described her.

And when asked what Mercedes was like at home during a family barbeque, her nephew said, ‘she just wanted to be one of the family at home, not Mercedes Sosa.’

Respected for her tenderness and her desire to sing what she believed, Mercedes Sosa was the voice of the voiceless ones. Her most famous song is Gracias a la vida (Thanks to life)

Friday, October 9, 2009

Planning and Punctuality in Buenos Aires

'Call me Saturday and we’ll arrange something,’ is exactly what you’ll hear if you call an Argentine during the week to make plans for Saturday.

No northern European forward planning, where calling a friend on Monday and agreeing nine p.m. Saturday night at my place means commitment made, nine p.m. at yours it is. In Buenos Aires it’s a different story. Nearly nobody organises with such advanced notice. The social life of a porteño (Buenos Aires City resident) is usually a last minute affair, with no concern about the where and when until they’re out the door and on their way.

Why not make the plans and schedule it in?

Cynics would say it’s because Argentines are always waiting for a better offer. They won’t commit to your invitation so early, because at the last minute something more exciting might come up.

Others argue the lack of advanced planning is a more justifiable trait. ‘It’s fine to plan in Germany and England and those types of places,’ a friend, Miguel told me, ‘there you know everything will be the same five days later. In Argentina we don’t know if the whole system will collapse tomorrow, let alone Saturday. And if everything is okay; okay still means strikes, roadblocks, and who knows what else.’

He has a point. Forward planning is all well and good in a country with stability. But in a volatile place like Argentina, where anything can happen from one day to the next, (and usually does), any planning, be it financial or career, or otherwise, is virtually impossible. Culturally, this has rolled over into social planning, so that most Argentines prefer to just ‘wait and see’.

And if you do manage to get a real commitment the morning of the event? (And not an ‘estaría bueno - it would be good', which is not a promise); the next issue is punctuality.

Argentine life doesn’t operate on a timetable. Buses, trains, underground, and people, simply arrive when they arrive. With unpredictable public transport, and traffic jammed streets, it’s understandably difficult. But combine big city living with a laid back Latino attitude and a relaxed approach to time; and punctuality becomes a very foreign concept.

Nine p.m start doesn’t mean it starts at nine p.m. It’s enough to drive someone with a Germanic nature crazy as he waits the arrival of his dinner guests an hour late.

Understand the culture and plan to start things an hour after the agreed time would be good advice. As Miguel told me once, ‘I was walking to an appointment that started at midday. It was 11.50 and I was about ten minutes away. So I slowed down and stopped for a coffee, otherwise I would’ve arrived early.’

Moving house in Argentina: Update

Further to the article from September 27th 2009, Moving house in Argentina: Is it really worth the risk?

Security on transaction day has got worse. This week two robberies have taken place inside supposedly secure rooms of the banks. The rooms, reserved in advance by calling the bank, are considered to be a safe place to hand over the money. But in one such room this week, a thief dressed as a bank employee entered, and instructed the seller she would deposit his cash. The seller handed her all of his money. She then walked out with US$70,000. The bank denies that any of its' employees were involved.