The thing I like most when travelling is interacting with the local people. Some of these encounters have become found memories I go back to and smile at time and again. And they find their way in my books. Here's one of them, told as it happened one sunny morning, under the blooming jacaranda trees...
My next stop is the launderette. My flat doesn’t have a washing machine. Very few flats in Buenos Aires actually have one, anddishwashers are even rarer. But here, there are launderettes at every corner and they cost next to nothing. Sixty pesos for a full load works out to about £5.
I’ve discovered that £5 in Argentina buys you pretty much anything—a blow dry, a manicure, one lunch with drinks, or half an hour of physio.
“Hola. Cómo estás?” I ask the old man behind the counter at the first launderette I spot. I’m freshly trained by the jewellery shop to take things slowly. He smiles and tells me he’s doing great, and how am I? “Good, thank you.” I point to the bag of clothes, thinking we’re done with the niceties and can now get straight down to business. But no, it’s not so easy. He wants to know my name. Roxana, I say, and then I give him my short form: Roxy. They all like short forms here. But he sticks to the full length of it and pronounces it the way most Argentines do: Rosanna.
“And where do you come from, Rosanna?”
“Ah, from a long way away. From Romania.”
“How interesting. How is Romania these days?”
Well, I don’t know how Romania is, because I live in London and have been living there for the past thirteen years. I struggle to explain, wondering for the hundredth time why I don’t make up an easier story about where I come from.
“Ah, even more interesting. And what brings you here?”
“I need to strengthen my wrist. I broke it badly last year and had surgery just before coming here.”
By now I’m impressed I can say all this in Spanish. Two weeks of language school have done miracles. Or maybe the second week did it all, since I spent my time actually studying with Santi instead of flirting with Curly Hair.
“No! Really? And what happened? How did you break your wrist?”
“I had a fall in a tournament. I play polo.”
“Seriously? I thought only men played polo.”
“No, ladies too. We play mixed in England.”
“Do women play polo here as well?”
“Yes, they do, but not mixed. Guys with guys. Girls with girls.”
He smiles. This makes sense to an Argentine psyche. Men and woman flirt with one another here; they don’t play rough games together.
“And how long are you going to be here?”
“A few months, perhaps. I’m not sure.”
I glance back nervously at the two women who are also waiting with bags full of washing. They don’t seem to mind that it’s taking a long time to get through this customer-interrogation phase before we can arrive at my laundry bag.
“And where do you live?”
I tell him I live around the corner.
“And are you sola here?”
Ah yes, back to the sola question again. Yes. Sola. Single.
“How come?”He is now leaning over the counter watching me attentively, as if he’s watching an interesting TV reality show, and I’m the star. The women behind me are clearly listening to the conversation and they, too, are interested to hear what I’m going to say next.
“Well, I’m alone. No boyfriend.”
“How about in London? Have you got a boyfriend waiting for you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Pero cómo?” the old man exclaims. “Están ciegos en Londres?” Are they blind in London?
He points at me and carries on in the same stunned voice. “A beautiful girl like you alone? Sola? Alone in London as well? They must be blind. Men in London must be blind.”
The women behind nod approvingly. One smiles at me.
“No te preocupes.” Don’t worry. Here, a girl like you won’t be sola for long!
I nod, smiling to hide my embarrassment. It’s not like I’m a top model in the prime of her youth. I’ve just turned forty-one, for God’s sake. I may look a lot younger—I’ve been told so many times—but the reality of the situation is that I’m divorced, I’m over forty, I have a wrist that doesn’t move, and I have been single for longer than I’mprepared to admit to anyone.
I talk to the guy for about twenty minutes before I finally give him my bag of dirty laundry and agree to pick it up the next morning. Just before I go, the old man adds, “And don’t worry. If no one asks you out in a week from now, I’ll do it.”
I glance at him. In the back, I can see an old woman, his wife probably, ironing shirts. She doesn’t look like she would mind. I don’t mind either. I smile.
“Dale,” I tell him. “We have a deal.”
At least I have a fallback option.