Saturday, 20 August 2011


The lunch was very amiable, warm and friendly, with a lot of laughter, but what sticks in my mind was how it ended. I have a slight dread of the moment when the bill arrives, since disputes about how much each should pay have sometimes ended great meals. 'Let's just split it between four.' 'That's not fair: you had wine and I didn't drink.' 'But you had a steak'...

But the end of this lunch was really memorable. The elderly tanguero picked up the bill and just glanced at it. 'Let's see: M, you had polenta and a glass of wine and if we add a tip that comes to 47.60 pesos. N, yours was the most expensive as you had salmon, which comes to 74.40 pesos with the bottle of water and the tip.' & so on. It was so immediate and authoritative that we unhesitatingly laid down our 5, 10 and twenty pesos notes on the table, which he picked up and neatly arranged in an efficient-looking wallet, taking out several crisp new one hundred pesos notes to hand to the waiter with the bill. Changing one hundred pesos notes can be a problem in Buenos Aires, but he'd ensured himself enough small bills to last for a while, and the waiter brought him more as the change.

I happened to know that his literary skills weren't great: I'd been surprised to find that I could spell basic Spanish better than he did. But his numeracy was first-class. This had been the survival skill of his youth; anyone buying or selling goods or services, which means everyone, needed to be fast and accurate at mental arithmetic. There might have been calculators of some kind in offices, but when he grew up mental arithmetic was absolutely vital. From giving or receiving change to any business transaction whatever, not being fast and accurate meant you could be cheated, and if you got it wrong you could be regarded as dishonest, a bad reputation in business. It had never occurred to me that being numerate could ever be more basically important than being literate.

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