The Expat: Alastair Mason

Age: 37
Born: Bowlhead Green, Surrey
Lives: Villa Crespo
Education: Degree in Politics and History, Manchester University
Profession: Owner-manager of Querido B&B
Book: Wolf Hall
Film: El secreto en sus ojos
Gadget: iPhone

When British PR Alastair Mason released himself into the wild to take some time out travelling, little did he expect to be married to a Brazilian and own a bed and breakfast in Buenos Aires 12 years later. But, as he says, when opportunity presented itself, making a life in Argentina made perfect sense to him.

Alastair says: “I had a graduate job at a PR consultancy in London, which I did for a few years, then I packed it in to go travelling – the first time I came to Argentina was in April 2002, fairly shortly after the big crash. I thought I was going to go away for a year then probably pick up where I’d left off. But in the end, I never went back.

“The more I travelled, the more I realised I didn’t want to go back to a corporate job in London and that I wanted to do something a bit different. So I started looking for opportunities in South America, and I suppose I fell in love with the continent – I started to learn Spanish and was really enjoying myself. Then I ended up in Buenos Aires, settling here, first because I really liked the city, and despite – or because of – the crash, I could see opportunities.

“I remember walking down Florida Street and it was awful! Half the street was boarded up. The country was in crisis at that point and it was evident. But at the same time, you could still get a fantastic steak and see that this was a country with lots to offer, which could bounce back. And it struck me that there would be massive opportunities for tourism. But on that first visit, Argentina did inspire mixed feelings.”

Although it took several years for Alastair’s Villa Crespo bed and breakfast hotel, Querido B&B, to come to fruition, his business sense led him to first invest in real estate. “I could see tourism was starting to kick off and I invested in three flats in Recoleta in 2004. Prices were still very low and I managed to buy in what’s essentially the most exclusive area in the capital – I could never have bought anything in London. After doing them up, I started to rent them out to tourists. And that’s how I got started.”

Besides dealing in property, Alastair’s also set up a small travel agency, dealing in bespoke two- or three-week holidays. He adds: “I did that for a couple of years but then I sold the flats in order to build the B&B – that was while the recession was going on. As the agency wasn’t feasible, I packed that in and concentrated on building the B&B, and it transpired that looking after the construction was a full-time occupation.”

Setting up a business was challenging, according to Alastair, and not simply because he was overseeing a building site for a two-year period for the first time. He says: “Here, it can be difficult in terms of bureaucracy and paperwork. To set up a limited company took me three or four months whereas in the UK it took me two days – and it cost four times as much here!

“But the upside meant I was doing things I couldn’t do in the UK simply because they would have been financially difficult – there were opportunities for me here. When we finished building the B&B, and even though it was just the two of us working seven days a week and doing everything from the cleaning to the breakfast for the first few years, it was still amazing.

“A lot of the furnishings in the B&B’s living-room is stuff we bought from flea markets – we’ve got an eclectic range plus there are also things we’ve found off the street. There’s a trunk that I bought off a cartonero on Corrientes Avenue, for example. There are great flea markets here and we love that look, which we’ve also mixed up with modern objects. A lot of things were from our flat because when we finished the building work, we were completely skint and moved into the B&B, bringing all our furniture with us. We’ve moved out now, but a lot of the furniture has stayed!”

Married to Mariana, the couple now have a small daughter and while they no longer live on site, they’ve remained in Villa Crespo.

Alastair says: “We’ve been here for years now and live 10 blocks from the B&B, so if there’s a problem it’s just a 10-minute walk away. We love it here – it’s still a neighbourhood and there’s a nice mix. There’s a local butcher, veggie shop, cobblers, all those little neighbourhood businesses that give it its character. And it’s very practical. Everything’s on the doorstep so we don’t need to go very far, and we hardly ever go to the supermarket. There’s also some cool cafés and restaurants – there’s a nice mix. The neighbourhood seems to be growing – there’s a new La Cabrera on the corner and a patisserie is going up next door. There’s a nice balance, and that’s what we always say to our guests – it is real porteño life but you’re only a stone’s throw away from Palermo.”

His family is a multinational one, given his British origin, his Brazilian wife and a baby daughter born in Buenos Aires. Alastair adds: “What will be interesting, when she starts to go to nursery school, is to see how she manages three languages. I speak to her in English, Mariana speaks to her in Portuguese, and of course she’ll be speaking Spanish in school. I’m not sure how it’s going to work out! I imagine she’ll be very Argentine as that will be the main cultural influence, but with a twist at home. I’m fascinated to see how the language thing will work out.”

Living abroad for around 12 years now, Alastair says he doesn’t really miss the UK on a day-to-day basis. “I don’t pine, and I never have. I don’t think about it much! Every now and then there’s a pang of nostalgia, of course. I miss a proper pub, a good English breakfast, Marmite and there’s cultural things. I look forward to going back – it’s usually three weeks for a dose of Englishness and ‘home’, even though home is Argentina now. I love the English sense of humour and banter, and of course you can get that with friends here but there’s something special about it as it’s on TV, on the radio, in music – I lose touch with that.

“Plus, it’s not like I married an Argentine and completely immersed myself in Argentine culture. We’re an Anglo-Brazilian couple that lives in Argentina, so it’s not like I prefer the Argentine way of living to how one lives in the UK. But this is home now. I’ve put down massive roots. I bought properties, built a B&B, it’s bricks and mortar. This is a life project, and that’s a click in the head that says this is what the immediate future is about.”

Occupied by his young daughter and demanding business, Alastair says he doesn’t have much spare time, although one activity keeps the family busy. He says: “We love to go out and eat. Eating and drinking has become our main social activity, although I do go running and play football. We did have three or four years of graft but now we’ve moved out of the B&B and have some employees, we have more of a normal life with normal working hours.”

Buenos Aires Herald, August 23, 2014

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