Welcome to Mesopotamia Part 1

14 October 2016

They’ve always warned me about the fridges here. Don’t open the fridge barefoot. What? Don’t open the fridge barefoot. Why not? You’ll get an electric shock. I open the fridge. No sparks. Am I supposed to put my shoes on every time I want a drink? Yes. Why do you take your shoes off inside anyway? It’s rude. Taking your shoes off is rude? Funny people.

A week after I move here, I touch the top of the fridge. It gives me a little shock. Not the flying-across-the-room kind, but just enough to make you feel like someone you don’t really know has just mildly insulted you. I want to believe it’s our fridge’s way of saying welcome to Mesopotamia, that I’m one of them now. But the fridge came with us from Buenos Aires. I still open it barefoot. Live a little.

The boy architect tells me I have to buy broza for the house we’re starting to build. I don’t have much idea what broza is, but it’s the stuff they put on the ground first, before anything else, so I like to think of it as the rubbly essence of the house. A man called Victor comes to my mother-in-law’s house, the jocular sunburn smile of a man who spends his days trucking to the local quarry and back. I need seventy cubic metres of broza. This seems like an awful lot of broza. I try to imagine a cubic metre, then five cubic metres. I find that my limit for imagining cubic metres is twelve. He says it’ll be about fourteen journeys in his lorry, at $450 a load, which works out at $6300 but he can get the quarry down to $5800. It is a dizzying display of mental arithmetic, though he’s probably used to multiplying multiples of $450, like a quiz show sidekick constantly called upon to multiply 75s.

I say OK, let’s do it. See you Monday. He looks at me with a smile. ‘¿Entendiste?’ My words say sí, my body language would appear to say no. I think I’ve understood. I am a translator, although granted, most of my work this month has been for a literary anthology. I’m pretty sure I can negotiate the delivery of seventy cubic metres of broza in my second language, even if I haven’t yet pinpointed a satisfactory translation for broza. I call my mother-in-law in from the garden. He explains it to her. Turns out, I had understood. It was the dizzying mental arithmetic that threw me. I give him 3000 pesos and he signs an ad-hoc receipt for me, in pencil. Good people.


After a week, I drag my bike off the balcony, where it was threatening to turn into one of those depressing balcony bikes, tyres deflated, rusting in the rain, the sad reminder of a once healthy ambition. I pump up the tyres and finger uncertainly the slightly broken saddle, check the brakes, which work, which is good as I wouldn’t have a clue how to fix them, and off I go. Cycling in Concepción is something else after Buenos Aires. There are only about four main roads, only one bus route, so if you avoid them you barely come across another vehicle. I leave my helmet at home, my reasoning being that this is the kind of town where people have a devil-may-care attitude to road safety, unhelmeted moped riders carrying step ladders and Alsatians on their vehicles. If I am to die of severe head injuries, it is part of the fate I have chosen. When in Rome, crash a Vespa and all that. I probably won’t die of severe head injuries.

I cycle the five kilometres to the building site on the edge of the city. Actually, ‘building site’ conjures up all kinds of busy-ness, cranes and cement mixers and hard-hatted Paraguayans. Our building site is a field next to another field, in which about four half-built breezeblock structures have so far gone up, and where few people ever seem to be working. Picture an incipient shanty town, but in the countryside, a kind of slum idyll.

My man Victor pulls up with his truck full of broza. I look at the broza. It’s kind of reddish dirt and stones. There are already three piles of it on my land. Good, good. I shake Victor’s hand. He tells me he probably won’t have to make fourteen journeys, boy architect reckons ten (it ends up twenty, one of boy architect’s many miscalculations), so I might get some money back. Good old Victor. I say good, good and tell him we’ll talk later and other empty phrases. I am a brilliant foreman. My work here is done. I cycle past the workers building the house up the road, shout out an ‘adios’, the local way of saying ‘hello and goodbye’ as you pass, it is returned by two of the builders (come on!) and off I cycle. (Conversations during car journeys around Concepción with my mother-in-law are frequently interjected with ‘chau’ and ‘adiós’ as she sees someone she knows in every block. She’s a popular woman.)

A broken saddle is a treacherous thing. You sit on it for the best part of ten kilometres without the slightest discomfort. Then you rest five hours, get back on it, and suddenly your arse feels like you have a kinky girlfriend. I cycle three kilometres to La Clarita, construction supplies. Cycling is now less the country idyll it was this morning, more a painful and foolish necessity. I buy 20,000 pesos of stuff from La Clarita. I have no idea what any of it is, nor do I see it, nor will I see it, probably, apart from when it’s ensconced in our house. Last month I bought 250,000 pesos of building supplies from Mundo Seco (subsequently to be revealed as the worst company in the world), whose owner I met in a money changer’s office in downtown Buenos Aires. I’m a bit like a mafia lawyer, skulking behind the scenes with a briefcase of dollar bills. Except instead of a briefcase I have a backpack, and I turn up on a pushbike, sweating in my shorts. Walter White would never slip a dollar into my breast pocket.

I look at the receipt from La Clarita, try to make sense of what I’m buying. It says things like:


And so on. I know that there are things like black wire, various pipes, something called Paris-point nails. $10,000 goes on something called a malla, which as far as I know means swimsuit. It can’t be a swimsuit.

Mariano at La Clarita chats to me about where I’m from and what I’m doing here (there aren’t many foreigners in Concepción; I’m quite the curiosity.) I have that conversation again where we talk about how life is so much better here, less stress, the family, es otra cosa. People love saying ‘es otra cosa.’ I have this conversation every day. Normally I would grow tired of reeling out the same clichés about how life in a medium-sized town is, surprise, surprise, in many ways less complicated and more relaxed than life in one of the biggest cities in the Americas. But the thing is, I really do like it here, and I want to tell people this all the time, make them endure my trite talk about how happy and relaxed I am here, even though I’m a little tense about forking out 10,000 pesos for a swimming costume. Mariano shakes my hand twice, repeats his name, leaves me his number. Good people.

The thing is, that whole getting away from the big city for the quiet life thing wasn’t really why we did all this. We love the big city. We both grew up in small provincial towns, small in every way, and always wanted to escape to that noise and rush and danger and extensive public transport system. There’s a funnier episode of ‘Comedians in Cars getting Coffee’ in which Sarah Jessica Parker says we move back to the suburbs because we want our kids to have what we have, to which Jerry Seinfeld replies that really we want our kids to hate what we hated, which is to get away from the suburbs and to the big city.

There were several reasons and circumstances that led to our leaving Buenos Aires for Concepción del Uruguay, but we were never the kind of people who’d go on holiday and talk earnestly about quitting our jobs and opening up a failing tea room in the hills of Córdoba. We were more likely to go on holiday to other mega cities and dream about moving there. I think about six months before we decided to move to Concepción, I swore that I would only ever leave Buenos Aires for New York, Berlin or Tokyo. Even now, we think when the house is finished, if we get lucky, we might be able to do a one-year house swap with someone in a bustling global metropolis who longs for a quiet life serving cake to bored tourists. In fact, the sole purpose of this book is to make the world think that Concepción del Uruguay is some leisurely paradise and create an effect similar to that of A Year in Provence in which we flood the housing market with rich Brits looking for a piece of what we have, thus quintupling the value of our property.

There was also something else about living in a big city that I started to notice, something that probably happens to a number of city dwellers when they get to a certain age: we didn’t really use the city. Younger folk, indeed older folk too, all seemed to be going to new restaurants and trendy bars and art exhibits by renowned foreign artists that had ended by the time I got round to thinking about going and concerts at the Colón that I’d always wanted to go to but couldn’t work out how to get tickets for and special events in the park and outdoor markets and picnics and pool parties, while we stayed in and slow-cooked pork in aniseed and watched Netflix and were happy. As much as living in a vibrant city like Buenos Aires gives you that sensation of being in the place where everything is happening, you suspect it’s all happening to other people when you stay at home on a sunny Sunday afternoon instead of walking slowly around an exhibit that looked more interesting on Facebook and which you only went to out of a sense of guilt. And then you ask yourself well, what do you want? Friends and family and all that, obviously. Maybe a house with a garden and a barbecue. Somewhere where my imaginary children can play. The chance to do some gardening, cook, play some Scrabble (I play an embarrassing amount of Scrabble against myself; I tell myself this is research for a novel about Scrabble; it isn’t), time to read, write and translate, and somewhere quiet to do it. Clearly, Buenos Aires was out and Concepción del Uruguay, my wife’s home town, a place we’d never seriously considered ever moving to, was suddenly, and surprisingly, in.