The Expat: Matt Ward

Born: London
Lives: Palermo
Education: International development degree at UEA
Profession: Owner of Back in BA hostel
Currently reading: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Last seen: The Godfather
Gadget: Kindle

Matt Ward.
Matt Ward.
Although he had a new job lined up for his return to the UK following a six-month round-the-world trip, nine years ago education consultant turned hostel owner Matt Ward fell in love twice: first with Buenos Aires and second, with the woman who is now his wife.

Matt says: “It was 2005 and I’d given up my job in education consultancy, which was a good job that I enjoyed, but it was time to do something different. Initially I was going to travel around the world for six months and had a job offer to go back to, but after about three months I called them up and said, ‘I might be a little bit longer.’

“My trip took me through India, China, southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand – I got caught up in the tsunami in Thailand, which not only delayed the trip but it made me think whether I wanted to go back to London to work in an office. Once I carried on travelling, I started spending a bit more time everywhere, then the last stop was South America. I had no particular plan but the first place I went to was Easter Island. I had a year-long ticket that was running out and I knew I could get as far as mainland South America.

“I met some people on Easter Island who were going to watch a World Cup qualifier between Brazil and Argentina in Buenos Aires. And I thought that was a good enough reason to go anywhere.”

During that visit, Matt stayed at a hostel in Microcentro: “I found it a rather traumatizing experience because I don’t think anyone over 30 stays there – and I was over 30. But I met some nice people quickly, then rented an apartment with some of them on Suipacha and Santa Fe. At the time, Microcentro was all there was, well, in our experience. We discovered Palermo later on…

“Then very quickly I fell in love with Buenos Aires. Of all the places I’d been to, there were only two places where I thought I could live – one was Melbourne and BA was the other. I felt I could know this city and be part of it. Within a very short period, you feel you can have your own little corner and understand the city. I don’t think there are many cities in the world that are this accessible.

“One member of our group had an Argentine friend, who introduced us to their friends who took us under their wing as Argentines do – and one of them is now my wife. I met Justina within those first 10 days and here we are, nine years later.”

The big move
Matt decided quickly that moving back to BA was the way to proceed, and by selling a flat he owned in the UK freed up some cash with the idea of buying an apartment to renovate and rent out. He says: “When I got here, I didn’t have enough money to buy what I really wanted, plus the idea of having to spend the rest of my days dealing with estate agents didn’t fill me with joy. Then Justina came across an advert for the hostel which was for sale – and that just instantly clicked. That was what I wanted to do, and after a year travelling, I felt that the only thing I was qualified to do was run a hostel.

Back in BA has a great location but it needed a lot of work and we changed pretty much everything. It’s been a steep learning curve and one of the hardest things has been dealing with the City government, people who make up the rules, literally, on a day-to-day basis.

“I remember when we were trying to get our habilitación paperwork up to scratch. I went to the office, and they said ‘don’t get gestores involved, we’ll make life more straightforward for you’. So I asked for a list of all the rules and regulations we needed to adhere to, so I could go through and comply before they inspected us then fined us. The guy said, ‘there is no book. The inspector will let you know what the rules are when they arrive at the property.’ It’s not printed, it’s not online… talk about a lack of transparency! But perhaps things have changed since 2008.”

The hostel is located in Palermo, and he also lives in the same neighbourhood with his wife Justina and daughter Sophie. “Palermo is a constant churn, there’s always somewhere closing and somewhere opening. It’s a merry-go-round of businesses but it keeps it fresh and interesting for people.

“But there’s a lovely, villagey feel to Palermo. I lived in Barrio Norte for a bit, which I nicknamed Palermo Cómodo because you’ve got everything there but there’s no character to it. But in Palermo, you walk out the door and nice things are going on around us, and it still has all the amenities you need. I love the fact that it’s still a neighbourhood, despite the fact it is Tourist Central, and we can take our daughter to the square. It hasn’t given up its residential soul completely.”

While there’s a general feeling that tourism has perhaps suffered in the city, Matt says the hostel hasn’t felt the pinch, not this year. “2008 was difficult as was 2009, then this time a year ago it was also tricky but we’ve been flying ever since. There’s been no shortage of guests. Occupancy is going down but if you can keep your prices low but ahead of costs, then you can make it work. May and June are normally the quietest months of the year but we are full.

“But the World Cup has been a massive factor. We’ve had people staying in the hostel who are flying to game, staying two nights then coming back because it’s cheaper to fly in and out than stay in Brazil.

“It can be hard work running a hostel but it makes it all worth it when guests say nice things about the place. Of course, the cons are that something always need to be fixed – it’s a constant battle and I’ve taken to doing a lot of the work myself as I don’t like paying people to come and do a slightly worse job than me. I do enjoy being hands-on in the business, and people are always surprised I’m the owner when I’ve just fixed a toilet.”

Daddy and papa
Father to Sophie who is one and a half, Matt’s says it’s tremendous fun raising an Anglo-Argentine daughter. “She’s got two passports already and she’ll have an amazing mix of the two cultures. If the combination was with another nationality, I think it would be more perplexing but there’s a natural synergy between England and Argentina despite recent history. The two countries have so much in common and I have no concern about Sophie not knowing one culture or the other. I’m excited for her being bilingual and having an exotic upbringing which I never had. Her social skills are definitely Argentine as she loves people and parties, and I’m sure she’d stay up until two o’clock in the morning if we let her. But she does love Marmite – I introduced that early before she had a chance to develop any taste-buds.”

After nine years, Matt’s most Argentine characteristic is without a doubt his passion for making asados. He says: “I take great pride in my asador skills and enjoy the end product too! I compare it to being a pilot: you need a certain amount of hours in the air, and I’ve probably got around 5,000 hours now. I love the whole process – what’s not to like?”

Buenos Aires Herald, June 28, 2014
Ph: Mariano Fuchila
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