December 9, 2013
In Buenos AiresSunday, September 1, 2013
Children of the revolution
By Matt Chesterton
for the Herald
My two-year-old daughter is Steve McQueen-grade persnickety when it comes to choosing a ride. Like the late great escaper she prefers motorcycles to cars: I’m guessing (she’s no great conversationalist) she likes to feel the wind in her curls. In the absence of motorised transport she’ll grudgingly mount a horse, all the while eyeing the bikers, waiting her turn. Fantastical vehicles — bug-eyed robots, space rockets, cartoon characters — don’t interest her and one ill-starred attempt to place her astride a goose will live long and horribly in the memory.
THE JOYS OF ADDICTION
Such are the joys and challenges of fathering a merry-go-round addict.
It’s a vice more easily acquired in Buenos Aires than in most cities. Here, my daughter can choose from around 55 permanent merry-go-rounds or calesitas, in spots as diverse as Plaza de Mayo, Parque Lezama and Patio Bullrich. London, by contrast, has none; kids there must either revolve by their own steam or seek out one of the temporary rides that, distressingly, vanish overnight. New York City has a proud carousel culture, although some of its newer rides, gleaming and ambitious, could be said to stretch the genre to breaking point. Battery Park’s SeaGlass, for example, is an “aquatic carousel” that aims to “not only entertain visitors, but inspire and educate them.” All well and good, but my girl just wants to have fun.
So that’s what we go looking for. In parks and squares that I’ve walked through a hundred times, the shady nooks where the calesitas spin, previously invisible to me, are now my regular mid-afternoon haunts. We don’t always ride; sometimes my daughter just wants to press her nose against the perspex casing of the popcorn machine, squealing with glee every time a kernel detonates. She’s also developed a dance routine that involves striking a succession of yoga positions (don’t ask) to the tune of La Gallina Turuleca, a song which by my unscientific reckoning tops the merry-go-round pops by a wide margin. (The rest is tinny Latin pop that sounds like it was recorded by Gloria Estefan’s less talented younger sister in 1984.)
As well as discovering new places – Parque Saavedra, for example, whose 1950s calesita was favoured by tango legend Roberto Goyeneche and his kids – I’ve fleshed out my resumé with new skills, such as the ability to wipe lolly juice from a child’s chin as she sweeps past me at five metres per second. Of lesser but still crucial importance, I’ve learned some history.
According to the terrific website lascalesitas.com.ar the first Argentine merry-go-round operated between 1867 and 1870 in Barrio Parque, close to present-day Plaza Lavalle. An appealing but no doubt apocryphal story tells how the police planned to have the calesita dismantled, on the grounds that the kerfuffle would disturb then-president Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who lived nearby. But the great man slapped them down; what, he said, could be sweeter than hearing the sound of children’s laughter through one’s window?
The technological innovations of the succeeding decades – the city’s golden age – touched merry-go-rounds like they touched everything else. Hand-pushed or horse-drawn calesitas gave way to motorized ones; kerosene lamps were snuffed out, electric bulbs screwed in; barrel organs morphed into radios which grew up to become ghettoblasters which shrank into iPods. Somewhere along the line, Snow White got bumped for SpongeBob.
One crucial aspect of the merry-go-round experience to have weathered the storms of change is the sortija, a metal ring attached to a pear-shaped block of wood which the calesitero (as the calesita operator is logically known) dangles in front of the whirling infants, who try to grasp it. The kid who snatches the ring (with the connivance of the calisitero, of course, though that’s strictly between you and me) gets a free ride. It is a remarkable coincidence that the child who gets the ring is invariably the one who looks least able to afford another ride...
Law 2,554 of November 2008 may be neither the best nor the worst piece of legislation to be passed by the Buenos Aires City government, but it’s certainly one of the most touching. It bestows cultural heritage status on 30 of the city’s merry-go-rounds, protecting the right of my daughter to go round in circles and round again; and then to forget all about it; and then, one day, to return and watch her own kids do the same.