Dominic Hilton spots a sniper on a balcony, has embarrassing encounters in lifts and thinks gender-neutral language would make learning Spanish a lot easier
Sipping coffee on my balcony this morning, a startling scene. Across the way, eight floors up, a young man lies in the prone position at an open window. He’s pointing a rifle at the elderly pedestrians walking their sausage dogs through the square. I watch as he coolly picks them out one by one through his riflescope, selecting his target, his shoulders rising and falling with each long, steady breath.
He’s pointing a rifle at the elderly pedestrians walking their sausage dogs through the square
The man is in his teens. A boy, really, at closer inspection, using the zoom function on my camera phone. My heart skips a beat or two, after which I decide it’s a toy rifle he’s aiming, even though it doesn’t look like one: not at all. The boy is enjoying himself, clearly, and I half expect a loud report followed by the splattering of brains on the chalk grey paving stones outside the British Embassy. I picture the plaza filling with SWAT teams who hurl hand grenades up towards the open eighth floor window, and I wonder if the assassin drops his weapon and surrenders, or if he turns the rifle upon himself.
My daydream is cut short when the sniper loses interest in the oblivious pedestrians and levels his firearm directly at my sun-glazed forehead. Unsure what to do, I lift my arms into the air and cry, “Don’t shoot!”
A grin flickers across the young man’s face and he squeezes the trigger, recoiling backwards. There’s no bang, just the “Pew!” of his mouth replicating the sound of a gunshot, but still I nearly Fosbury Flop with fright, spilling hot coffee all over my espadrilles. When I’ve regained my composure, I watch the boy climb to his feet and slip back into the shade of his apartment, and I now see that he’s wearing nothing but his powder blue underpants, which sag a little at the rear. I disappear inside too, where I brew some more coffee, restore a little dignity, and spend the next half an hour locked in the bathroom.
This morning I visited the spinal specialist to discuss the results of my latest MRI. My appointment was early, and it took me a while to find his office, which was located on the top floor of a glass-fronted tower better suited to the world of finance. When I eventually got the right door and was buzzed in, his jowly receptionist clutched a hand to her bosom and exclaimed, “My God, aren’t you tall?!”
I smiled behind my facemask, saying yes, I am tall, though not freakishly so, to which she shrieked, “Look! You can’t fit through the doorway!” This was patently untrue as I was inside the waiting area, handing her my documentation. She leafed through it spiritlessly, saying, “You’re English. Is that why you’re tall?”
I didn’t know how to answer this, so I said, “Yes, that’s why,” which immediately struck me as one of the daftest lies I’ve ever told.
In the doctor’s office, I made a proper berk of myself. The news was not great, and he invited me to join him at his side of the desk to examine the scan results, as if I suspected he might be lying. “See?” he said, pointing at the big monitor with a long bony finger. “Those discs, they are black. They should be white. Plus, they are all falling. No, not falling. What’s the word? Slipping? They are all slipping.”
As is so often the case in Argentina, he insisted on speaking to me in hideously butchered English, and I refused not to reply in shockingly garbled Spanish. I don’t know why this always happens, but it does. Politeness, I suppose. Plus, in this case, he was trying to show off.
We talked things over as best we could, fumfering like a pair of speech-challenged toddlers, then I rose to leave, feeling awful but thanking him for his time and attention. “It was pleasureful,” he said.
When I had one foot out the door, I turned back and said the dumbest thing. “You speak Spanish very well for an Argentine. Thank you for your effort.”
His face fell and it was only when I left the room and was halfway down the corridor that I realised what I had said. “Mind your head!” the receptionist shouted from behind her desk as I span on my heel and knocked on his door again.
“¡Adelante!” the doctor said, and I poked my head back into his office.
“English! I meant to thank you for your English, not your Spanish. You speak it very well.”
He brightened. “Ah! No, I don’t, but you’re welcome.”
There was a pause. “I’m an idiot,” I said, by way of explanation, and he clasped his hands before him on the desk, nodding.
Back at my apartment building I breached Covid protocols by sharing the lift with another resident. The man reeked of cigarette smoke and was clad in ill-fitting running gear. When I asked him which floor he lived on he said, “Ten,” one below mine. “Ah!” I said and for some reason pressed the button for the second floor. Then I pressed the button for floor eleven, my floor. The man stared at me and in an unkind voice said, “Ten.” And I said, “I know. We are neighbours.”
With a tut, he leaned in front of me, punching the button for the tenth floor. The lift stopped at the second floor and he gestured for me to exit, saying unconvincingly, “Well, it was good to meet you.”
“I don’t live here,” I said, and he started, like I’d given him an electric shock.
“I pressed ‘2’, but I don’t know why,” I explained as he slowly backed up against the wall, eyes blinking above his facemask. “I’m an idiot,” I added.
He said nothing all the way up to floor ten. Then, as he hurried out of the lift, jangling his keys, he said in a loaded voice, “You are English,” as if I wasn’t already painfully aware of the fact.
Argentina has once again made the international headlines, this time courtesy of President Alberto Fernández.
Accompanied by the visiting Prime Minister of Spain, Fernandez was meeting business leaders here in the capital when he said, “The Mexicans came from the Indians, the Brazilians came from the jungle, but we Argentines came from the ships.”
The remark has triggered a diplomatic storm, making Argentina look ridiculous and racist. The President of Brazil responded by tweeting an equally ridiculous and racist photo of himself wearing a native headdress, surrounded by unhappy-looking indigenous people, while his son, a congressman, said about Argentina’s economy, “I say the ship that is sinking is Argentina,” which I admit made me laugh. “I’m starting to understand rather better why after World War II Nazi war criminals hid out in Argentina,” added one Brazilian Senator.
Clearly baffled by the shitstorm, Fernández claimed he was quoting Nobel laureate Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, when in fact he was quoting a 1980s Argentine pop song. His apology was half-hearted at best, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. “We came on ships! We are Europeans, not South Americans!” If I had a peso—no, make it a dollar—for the number of times I’ve heard this said to me over the years by proud people who look at you like “Huh?!” if you dare to suggest that, in almost every other part of the world, a remark of that sort might be construed as just a teeny bit racist, I’d… well, I’d be a rich man who has to hide his dollars from the government.
Out walking this lunchtime, I was too warm in shorts and a T-shirt. Not bad for the first days of winter. Passing the Japanese Garden, a wild man prowling the middle of the street started to shout at me. He looked like a werewolf and was wearing nothing but a filthy pair of low-slung jeans.
“Hey, chief! Look at this! Look at my arm!”
He held aloft what there was of his right arm. It was a stump, ending where the elbow should have been. A sorry sight, but par for the course in Buenos Aires. Instead of walking into the traffic to hand him some money, I flashed him a thumbs up.
He frowned his shaggy eyebrows and stuck the fingers of his one hand into his mouth, whistling at me loudly. “Hey, chief!” he repeated. “Look at my arm!” As if I hadn’t understood him the first time.
“Yes,” I said, “it’s very nice.”
Later, I wondered what had made me say it, choosing to blame the staff at a favourite neighbourhood bakery who’d scolded me only yesterday. After purchasing four empanadas, a pumpkin tartlet, and a portion of maracuyá cheesecake, I’d handed my change (a fifty peso note, held together with adhesive tape) to a one-legged beggar splatted on the pavement outside the store. But as soon as the toothless bum snatched the grubby note from between my fingers, four women in aprons and hairnets tapped forcefully on the inside of the display window, shaking their heads and wagging their fingers at me.
“Don’t encourage him!” one of them shouted, calling the homeless man a “forro”, which is slang for a condom. A line of smartly dressed customers outside the bakery stared at me, anticipating my response, but all I could do was shrug my shoulders and slouch away, reminding myself that no good deed goes unpunished, even at the bottom of the world.
On TV this evening: a heated, hour-long studio discussion about the similarities between Lionel Messi’s goal celebration for Argentina last night and a goal celebration of Diego Maradona’s in 1986.
In Spanish class tonight, I learned the following phrases:
- She was my teacher and a friend of Il Duce’s.
- I am a star in every scene of my life.
- If the spleen becomes too large, it must be removed.
- For the record, I would have been happy just cuddling.
- If you are elderly, I’m Barack Obama.
- Not even if you were the last man on Earth.
- Okay, you should be able to feel your hand again.
- She could see the light from where she was being attacked.
- What you’re doing there could be illegal in some states.
- And today, I am being sent to jail as well.
The strangest sight today. An elegant gentleman, the spitting image of Jorge Luis Borges, sat within spitting distance of a lifelike sculpture of Jorge Luis Borges.
The spectacle stopped me in my tracks. The two men were dressed in matching suits, both leaning on walking canes, drinking cafecitos, though the lookalike occasionally ran a hand over his silvery, slicked-back hair. I loitered a bit, in case it was some kind of stunt, but seeing no evidence to suggest so, I moved along, wondering if there’s a big market in Argentina for Borges impersonators. If so, it’d be a peculiar gig.
“Go on, then, show us some writing!”
“Yeah, write some clever words, Señor Borges!”
The impersonator sighs. “I regret that writing is the lone facet of the great man’s character I’m no good at. I tell you what, though, how about I just sit here, dressed like him, and lean on my walking cane some more?”
Boos rain down. “Blimey, this is a waste of time,” says one disappointed bystander. “Let’s go see the Julio Cortázar down the street. They say his beard’s bang on.”
As I strolled up the Avenida Manuel Quintana, my mind turned to home, and impersonators of famous English writers. One sees the odd Shakespeare hanging outside The Globe, sporting tights and a codpiece, but who else? An occasional Dickens, maybe, with the frock coat and the goatee, but anyone from the Twentieth Century?
“Who are you supposed to be then?”
That would just be weird.
“Why are you wearing those glasses?”
“I’m pretending to be Ian McEwan.”
It would never work. (Would it?)
The city has reeked of drains all weekend. Last weekend, it reeked of burning tyres.
I spoke to my parents on the phone, and my mother spent the hour-long call fanning herself with a hymn sheet, complaining about the heat, which she called “scorching!”, “sweltering!” and “blistering!”. It was only 26 degrees today in the UK.
I went out to buy a bottle of wine, and got run over twice by the same woman
My parents were sitting together on their sofa, watching the European football championships on the TV over the top of the camera. During an advert break, a promo came on for Love Island, and my father started to bounce about on the cushions. “Corrr! Look at her! She’s literally spilling out of her dress!”
My mother stuck her nose in the air, huffing her disapproval. “She looks like a cheap tart, if you ask me…”
“That’s what I mean!” my father cried, licking his lips.
After the call, I went out to buy a bottle of wine, and got run over twice by the same woman. She was riding an electric scooter, so my injuries were mostly superficial. Still, it was like she had it in for me.
First, she chased me down in a park, clipping my heel and causing me to lurch forward like a sprinter at the finish line, nearly dropping the bottle of cabernet I’d just bought. Then, two hundred metres up the street, she swerved out of nowhere and ran over my foot as I stepped off the kerb.
I hopped about on one leg, cursing her in Spanish, and she turned her head, grinning malevolently beneath her black helmet before she whizzed off down the avenue.
The National Education Academy of Argentina has rejected the use of gender-neutral Spanish in educational institutions, calling it “unnecessary”. The statement echoed that of the Argentine Academy of Letters, which rejected gender-neutral language at the end of last year, deeming it “uncomfortable for healthy common sense”.
I can’t speak to that, but personally, I’m in favour of using gender-neutral language
I first became aware of this movement in 2019, on a road trip to Tandil. My friend Jambie alerted me to an article in the Washington Post, supportive of the teenage feminist Peronists who are “rewriting the rules of the language … in order to change what they see as a deeply gendered culture.”
Of course, in Spanish, it’s not just the pronouns that would require changing—“elle” to replace “el” and “ella”; “nosotres” to replace “nosotros” and “nosotras”; “elles” to replace “ellos” and “ellas”—but virtually every other word. This is a language in which everything is assigned a gender. An anus is feminine, as is a colonoscopy. A cucumber, on the other hand, is masculine. Like olive oil.
And it’s not just the neutral use of “e” in place of the masculine “o” and feminine “a”, but liberal insertions of “x”, “@”, “æ” etc., in words like “todxs” and “unidæs”.
In the Post article, this is described as “the most practical way to break with a system so patriarchal that plural words default to male … also a powerfully symbolic way to protest the entire structure of the language.” One woman is described as shouting into a microphone: “Language is a social construct. Language is a product of hegemonic, patriarchal power.”
I can’t speak to that, but personally, I’m in favour of using gender-neutral language. I’m sure it’s the only way I’ll stop assigning the wrong gender to virtually every Spanish noun and corresponding adjective I encounter.
The movement for “inclusive” Spanish has not been without its victories. University departments, magistrates and the President of Argentina have all used and accepted the form. Books have been translated to eliminate the masculine and feminine. Here in Buenos Aires, I do see gender-neutral language used in some of the angrier graffiti, but I’ve not yet met anyone who uses it in a meaningful and/or casual way. Possibly, I just move in the wrong circles. My friend Lucia does volunteer work in the slums, and her female colleagues at the NGO all insist on using it. Because she refuses to play along, Lucia is accused of being tactless and offensive. I asked her why she doesn’t just make her co-workers happy and use “e” instead of “o” and “a”, and she gave me one of her smouldering looks, saying because it’s “estúpido”.
Or was it “estúpida”? I of course can’t remember.