Where do I begin with Buenos Aires? I’ve already gushed about the Lovelies, the city’s foremost ambassadors, and hinted at our delirium over the cuisine, but there is so much more to this miraculous place than meets the eye…or the stomach. Quite simply, this could be my place. I’ve found a few that fit the bill–Los Angeles (my home of 6 years), Capetown (aaahhhh), Hanoi (go figure) and now this South American seductress, which translated into English means something like “Fair Winds.” I can’t attest to the wind, but I do know that the sunlight is spectacular as it glimmers over Puerto Madero in the afternoon.
Everything here is grand–the boulevards, the parks, the buildings. They seem as if they were designed for a different era, one when men wore top hats, women carried parasols, and ticker tape parades were a rite of passage. The city is often referred to as the Paris of the Southern Hemisphere, but this is far too simple a reduction. It is distinctly, inherently South American, and though it bears many resemblances to the grand old continent, it is very much its own creation. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt Paris to gun for the title of the Buenos Aires of Europe.
It’s not just physical attributes that make this city addictive–it’s the spirit, the vibe that pulsates through the streets and the people who walk them. They’re commonly known as Portenos, or people of the port, and live their lives as if custom ordered to fit my biorhythms. Take the way they eat, for example: small medialunas (slightly sweet croissants) for breakfast followed by a big fat midday lunch and finally a light late night meal that is more about socializing than eating. We were in heaven when we visited Spain back in 2000 because in the summer dinner begins around 10:00 pm. Here since it’s winter, it starts earlier, around 8:45. None of this North American 6:00 pm malarky. We fit right in since at home we can’t seem to put together an evening meal until everybody else’s kids are already asleep.
Portenos understand that creativity and camaraderie lurk in the wee hours of the night and stay up late accordingly. While I rise in the dark to put my kids on a schoolbus in the US after only a minimal amount of sleep (ouch), they wouldn’t dream of starting their day before the sun rises. This isn’t to say they’re unproductive, they just don’t see much need to do business before 10:00 am. Neither for that matter do I and there have been many days when I’ve considered homeschooling again simply to avoid the predawn hours.
The good people of Buenos Aires win my approval for their fashion sense as well. They don’t seem to follow any of the world’s fashion prescriptions but bust out in their own unique expression of glamour, whether it be vintage overcoats a la the Lovelies, the timeless Chuck Taylor hightop, or the oversized aviator sunglasses that are all the rage even among the senior citizens. They share my belief that warmth is comfort and blast the heaters in restaurants, apartments, and even busses. The radiant heat that emanated from our apartment floors was so abundant Tom and Paula had to open the windows just to cool off. When they asked if we could somehow adjust the temperature, the agent told us the doorman controlled the heat for the whole building. He felt we needed heat, so heat we got. Good man, that doorman.
I am not a Spanish speaker, but after a few weeks of iPod Spanish lessons and a lifetime of hearing bad Mexican accents on TV, my ears can discern the difference in the Spanish of the Portenos. Their Spanish is luscious, gorgeous. They turn the double l into a “zh” instead of a “ye”, the y in yo into a “dj” and drop the s at the end of many words, e.g., Buenos Dias becomes Buen Dia and seis becomes sei. There’s so much mystery and suspense in the omission. Where’d the “s” go and why? My theory is they keep it to themselves to savor and later add as embellishment to other less evocative words.
Portenos like their food like I do–mild. They may be South American but they sure don’t like things spicy. It took us four visits to the corner empanada shop to realize it was Tom’s picante (spicy) beef version I liked rather than the suave (mild) one we kept ordering for me (it was full of boiled egg and devoid of flavor). Here in the land of beef, potatoes, and pasta, I get to feel I’m eating with a zest my timid pallate doesn’t normally merit.
With all these fascinating and strikingly familiar traits, the residents of Buenos Aires present an abundantly likable yet intriguing population. They are passionate but subdued, elegant yet relaxed, glamorous yet understated. They ooze charm and confidence and seem above all happy to be here. Their history is unique in the world. Their country went from being one of the planet’s 10 richest before WWII to the bewildering status of developing nation in its aftermath. Military coups, mass demonstrations, recurring economic crises, and a frightening period as a police state created a backdrop of uncertainty and terror unparalled by anything modern Americans have experienced.
Americans who survived the Great Depression emerged with a strong faith in the power of cash. It wasn’t safe in banks, so they stored it under mattresses, in jars buried beneath the ground, and in baking soda boxes in their refrigerators. Here faith in cash is nonexistent. It weakened after decades of chronic inflation and received the death blow with the financial crisis of 2001, still known as “the crisis,” in which the Argentine peso was devalued by 2/3rds almost virtually overnight. Just six short years ago many people lost their life savings to an exchange rate and what little might have been left to rapid inflation. As a result Portenos spend their money as soon as they make it or sometimes even before. We learned that even a $10 purchase at the grocery store qualifies for an installment plan as if it was a purchase from an old Sears catalog. When Tom and Paula went to the grocery store, they couldn’t understand why the clerk wanted to know if they wanted to pay once. Paula grappled with her Spanish, thinking it might be a translation problem. After much confusion, she clearly established the question was, “Do you want to pay one time?” Both she and Tom answered with a baffled “si” thinking they surely didn’t want to pay twice or thrice. It was only later that we realized the question was “Do you want to pay the full amount now, or half now and half later?”
This particular aspect of Porteno life would be unnerving for me since I’m fiscally conservative, but I’ve got to admire a people who can put the importance of money into perspective. Even if you work hard and save it, it can disappear through no fault of your own. You might as well enjoy it while it’s still worth something. And if you don’t have it, so what? There’s still barbeque, beauty, and the Boca Juniors in the world.
The irony in this Porteno lovefest is that we received many warnings about safety in Buenos Aires, so many that Tom was reluctant to come. I overrode him, as only a wife can do, figuring we should show up and decide for ourselves. Initially we were terrified of taking taxis since we had been warned they might take us at knifepoint to an ATM, but after a few weeks in the city hanging with locals and American residents alike, we learned that this oft quoted danger is greatly exaggerated if not entirely nonexistent. A few incidents after the “crisis” ballooned into urban legend and guidebook paranoia and have yet to fade from popular opinion. Yes, Barbara Bush the younger had her handbag stolen here, but one local assures us it was her celebrity status that provoked the incident rather than a rampant crime epidemic. Of course this guy was equally amused that an Albanian crowd member relieved the president of his watch during a handshake last week. In his book it is not chance but challenge that draws thieves to high profile victims like the Bushes.
I cannot deny that safety is an issue here. There are shantytowns, thieves, pickpockets (ask Dax about them), and even kidnappers, but we’ve felt safer in our section of the city than we do in many places in the US. As with any place you visit, following a few simple rules can keep you safe and we’ve done our best to learn them all. (American readers should bear in mind that the US is viewed as a violent, dangerous country by people around the globe. We couldn’t believe it at the start but the statistics support the image. Check out this site for further info.)
This beautiful city has won not just my heart but Tom’s as well and earned a solid spot on our Top 6 Cities list. There is no doubt we will be back. The only question is when. Maybe we can convince one of the Lovelies to get married and throw a wedding asado. Any volunteers, girls?