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01.01.2008

A Very Porteño Christmas

At christmastime the streets of Buenos Aires are full of fruitcake. Eternal, inedible, weighing as much as a thousand suns, this is a scary pastry even in countries that lack the Argentine anti-talent for baking. But in Buenos Aires it becomes something I don't have the courage to buy, even for kicks. How is it that on all the numberless ships that brought Italian immigrants to Argentina the bakers were either thrown over the side or forced at stilettopoint to convert to making pasta? The porteños of today have kept the Italian taste for bread and cakes, and have even re-created a deceptive infrastructure of neighborhood bakeries, but when you bring one of these loaves home you invariably find it can do double duty as a kitchen sponge. There is an element of tragedy in watching a great people play a losing culinary hand like this, just as there is watching the Chinese attempt vodka or the Swedes try to pickle herring.

Strange things happen when deeply Catholic Europeans switch hemispheres without enough time to adapt their traditions. The little stores selling fruitcake are surrounded on all sides by greengrocers selling actual fruit, the preservation of which into midwinter was probably the whole point of the fruitcakes to begin with. It is possible to eat an Argentine Christmas dinner consisting solely of mangoes, cherries, watermelon and strawberries that are all in season; it might even make a pleasant break from the heat. And yet the fruitcake lives on, sprigs of holly are painted onto the windows, and Santa Claus, despite the proximity of a polar continent (belonging to Argentina, no less!), continues to make the long trip here all the way from the Arctic.

My childhood patience would have been stretched to the limit by the old tradition that presents had to wait until the first star was visible on Christmas Eve, since dusk at this time of year isn't until nearly ten o'clock. But I suppose the fact that Santa had to make the trip from the northern pole would have made the late start more credible.

It may say a lot about the Argentine national character that two of the three life-size Santa figures along my route into the city are statues of Homer Simpson. Argentines seize the holiday as another opportunity to express their profound love for this national archetype, second only to Maradona in popular affection, and it's true that after a few weeks in Argentina it has become difficult to picture Homero without a mate gourd in hand, sipping blithely away.

The traditional Argentine Christmas dinner is, of course, asado, preferably prepared somewhere outside of town. The day before Christmas every one who can leaves the city to spend a day filling up the family charcoal grill with the mixture of steaks, sausages, innards and chicken quarters that are the country's (perfectly reasonable) answer to the exigigencies of any holiday dinner. The news on Christmas Eve is full of alarming reports about the level of congestion on highways leading out of Buenos Aires, especially those pointing towards the southern beaches, and though the capital remains full of pedestrians there are so few cars left you can walk across practically any street without regard for the traffic lights, a rare luxury. The cafes and restaurants hang out big signs warning that they will be closing at five o'clock, and there is an air of rushed anxiety to the last-minute shopping, as if a hurricane or some Panzer divisions were about to come barreling through.

Towards eleven the first firecrackers start going off, and there are ranging shots to calibrate the cheap Chinese fireworks that everyone within staggering distance has dragged to the park across from my apartment. At midnight the fuses are lit, every ship in the harbor begins blowing its foghorn, and Buenos Aires transforms into a very festive Beirut. Quilmes is not a strong beer but even it will have an effect if you drink enough, and the rockets that do achieve flight describe trajectories suspiciously far from the vertical. Many of them just sputter around on the ground, tracing graceful red and green spirals of fire as they scatter the crowd, who return undaunted in wary zigzags. On the rooftops, people are still grilling meat, pausing every few minutes to light a rocket fuse with a hot coal. Somewhere overhead Santa Claus - or Homer Simpson - weaves among the flak, bringing presents.

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