This Independent Study has finally come to an end with the culminating trip to Argentina, and Borges-inspired tour around Buenos Aires. There were various highlights throughout this tour, and I am excited to share them in this blog post.
The journey began in a Starbucks in San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires. There, I met with my Argentine professor (Gabriel Cortiñas) for the first time in person. After having spent months meeting with him weekly through Zoom, it was a delight to actually meet him and share a conversation face-to-face. From the Starbucks we took a left, walked down until we reached a corner, and took the following pictures:
Prof. Cortiñas explained to me how this same neighborhood we were in, San Telmo, had once been a bustling and prosperous area in Buenos Aires. He told me about how it contained large swathes of wealthy Argentine citizens, leading to the development of grandiose expensive buildings and houses throughout the neighborhood. However, with the yellow fever epidemic of 1871, this wealthy population fled the area, leaving hundreds of vacant estates behind.
We remarked about this history for a while, and continued moving around San Telmo — venturing through markets and interesting buildings. At one point, we finally landed at our first site that was specifically significant in regards to Borges: a zaguán (the plural being zaguanes). This word native to Argentina refers to a sort of central hallway leading to the main courtyard of a residence. Neighborhoods like San Telmo are rich with these zaguanes, truly making them a staple of Buenos Aires. In regards to Borges, he seemed to have almost an obsession with zaguanes — referring to them constantly throughout various poems and stories. Below is the picture I took of the zaguán we found together, and two poems where Borges mentions and refers to a zaguán (translations are in the captions):
Continuing our journey, we travelled along Calle México (Mexico street) until we stopped at our second significant site: the old headquarters of the National Library of Argentina. We entered the library and Prof. Cortiñas explained how Borges would spend immense amounts of time working there — often having to sleep in its rooms due to its uncomfortable distance from his house. Below is a photo of the outside of the library, two breathtaking pictures I took from the interior, and an information-wall dedicated to Borges:
As we left to our next site, we began discussing a short story that I was tasked to read before our encounter: Emma Zunz — contained in the compilation El Aleph. We analyzed and disputed the story as we crossed into the neighborhood San Nicolás, and visited the branch of the University of Buenos Aires in which Borges taught English literature for a period of time (pictured below).
Our next stop was a picturesque cafe in the center of Buenos Aires. There, we both had a coffee, and discussed Borges’ poetry as well as the creative piece I have been writing for this course. I took the following artsy picture of one of Borges’ stories in Ficciones, showing the surrounding cafe and street-view of Buenos Aires:
Finally, it was time for us to visit Borges’ former apartment. My initial impression of the residence was one tainted with disillusioned feelings: we had previously discussed how a bronze plaque commemorating Borges would be attached right next to the front door of the apartment, and when we arrived, this plaque was not there. With one look, Prof. Cortiñas told me instantly that it had been stolen, and that bronze robberies were quite common in Buenos Aires. This fed into a previous conversation we had had concerning Argentina’s spotty record in terms of historical conservation: figures like Borges rarely receive commemorative buildings such as museums, and historical sites often receive little to no attention in terms of maintenance. As the initial disappointment quickly passed, I took various pictures of the apartment, and one of Prof. Cortiñas and me standing right outside its door (featured below).
We now had two important sites left to visit, the first of which was the San Martín Plaza. This open, grass-filled area is located in the neighborhood Retiro and, from its center, allowed an excellent view of Buenos Aires. After a few moments spent just taking in the scenery, Prof. Cortiñas pulled out a poem by Borges called La Plaza San Martín, and read it out loud — truly creating a wonderful moment. Below is a video I took of the experience as a whole:
Reaching the end of our journey, we headed towards our final destination: Recoleta Cemetery. As we navigated its complicated map at the entrance, Prof. Cortiñas explained to me how only the most historically important and wealthy people of Argentina were buried in this cemetery — not including Borges, however, as he died and was buried in Geneva, Switzerland. Throughout our visit of the cemetery, Prof. Cortiñas pointed out various different figures, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (former Argentine president), Bartolomé Mitre Martínez (former Argentine president), Manuel Ocampo (successful structural engineer and part of an aristocratic family), and, most significantly to me, Victoria Ocampo (renowned Argentine writer). Victoria Ocampo was dear friends with Borges, and even published the famous magazine known as Sur with him. Her name frequently appears in the epigraphs of Borges’ stories, showing how dearly he thought of her, and how important she was to his work. Below, I featured one of these epigraphs mentioning Victoria Ocampo alongside a photo I took of her plaque in Recoleta Cemetary:
With this visit to Recoleta Cemetery, our Borges-tour had finally concluded. Satisfied and exhausted (we had walked for over 3 hours), we met with some of my family at a nice restaurant to have lunch, and reflected over the day. It was truly an unforgettable experience, and an excellent culmination for all the work I have done for this course.
On that note, it is with bittersweet feelings that I say that this will be my final blog post for this Independent Study (except for the final creative piece). I can, without a doubt, say that this was the most enjoyable course I have ever taken throughout my educational life. I treasured every moment learning about the fascinating world of Jorge Luis Borges and Argentine literature — even (if not more so) when the content was highly intricate and difficult to grasp. My Wednesday-sessions with Prof. Cortiñas and Mrs. de Radcliffe were often the highlight of my week, and cemented a beautiful weekly routine that I could always look forward to (this routine would involve brewing of mate, preparing a short story by Borges, and spending hours carefully annotating and analyzing it). Beyond my love for the course itself, I also found that I grew an immense amount as a learner because of it. I gained multitudes of keen insight into the literary world, and have even improved significantly as a Spanish-language writer.
I know that there will always be a place in my heart for this course, and am incredibly thankful for having received the opportunity to be a part of it.
NOTE: I would like to give a special thanks to both Prof. Cortiñas and Mrs. de Radcliffe for all of the tremendous help they lent me in both the creation and execution of this course. Their dedicated assistance was key to the success of this Independent Study, and was one of the main contributors to my enjoyment of the content.
NOTE: Additionally, I would like to thank the Jack Linger Explorers Grant for their generous funds (used to assist my trip to Argentina).