01 Feb Buenos Aires: After The First Three Months
Arriving in some cities is like returning to a home that you never knew that you had. You walk off the plane and, unexpectedly, you are no longer traveling.
For me, there have been four: San Francisco, New Orleans, Prague, and now, Buenos Aires. There is a quality shared by the last three: texture. Jumbled, unruly texture, layered with history, shot through with beauty and filled with people who would be out of place anywhere else.
Walk down any street… be sure to look down, since the sidewalk does not exist in this town that can be safely traversed while daydreaming. Mismatched paving stones, hasty concrete patches, potholes, boards, and the inevitable ejecta of the local dog population. No two blocks are the same: each is an individual course of minor obstacles.
Pause to greet the next pup that passes… The dogs of Buenos Aires are the happiest dogs in the world. They are everywhere – plump, good-natured, glossy canines with expressions of pure doggie joy. They are often in packs under the control of dogwalkers, a serious set of professionals, usually glowering. Give them room as they pass. Dogwalkers routinely have a dozen charges under harness at one time, but they never fight or strain at the leash.
When they are being walked by their owners, it is a different story. They amble, glad to be out on the streets, as who wouldn’t be? Me, I am a dog guy, the kind who stops say Hi. I have personally approached and petted hundreds of dogs since my arrival. Not once has an owner cautioned me to stay back or showed irritation at my attention.
Look higher, to the buildings on either side. The architecture is a delight, especially in Palermo, my home barrio. Once upon a time, they built with style, and vestiges are everywhere. Balconies, gables, pillars, porticos, you name it… there was no one standard, but plenty of flights of fancy. Among the old houses, no two appear alike.
Layered on top are the indignities of modern construction. Often, the two may be found in the same structure, no attempt made to harmonize the appliance store below with the faded belle epoque second story above. Even the oldest blue-collar barrios have gems along side streets and select major intersections. I frequently find myself taking photos of buildings so I can be reminded of them, one more time, at home.
And, then, there are the people. [Text continues after photo gallery.]
The residents refer to themselves as Porteños, or People Of The Port.
Let us deal with the common conceptions first. The foundations of the Argentine reputation abroad – their dinner hour, their women, and maté – are all true.
They revel in late hours. In my trendy neighborhood, the toughest time to get a table a restaurant is after 11 PM. Dinner portions are scarily huge. As in, steaks that cover a large part of the table. You think that I am exaggerating. I’m not.
The women are decidedly beautiful. The confident, swinging walk is, for me, a part of it. Likewise, the men are either ruggedly attractive, or have something else going for them, to judge by the number of northern women that have moved here to be with their Argentine partners.
And, yes, they drink maté like crazy. For the uninitiated, maté is dried, chopped grass, in a gourd, with hot water poured over it, sipped through a metal straw with a filter at the bottom that, mostly, keep the bits of grass out of your mouth. The brew is naturally bitter. Drinking is a social activity with a carefully proscribed etiquette, passing the gourd around the circle, the hot water refreshed between each person. It is the opposite of a quick cup of coffee – maté is slow time, an excuse for chatting and whiling away an afternoon. Unlike, say, tango, there is no danger of maté ever catching on in the States. Between the taste, the time, and the hygienic implications of sharing the straw, maté stays south.
Culture is alive here. This is not merely the starry reflection of a new gringo. The multitude of small teatros offering live shows is incredible, with four within two blocks of my apartment. Actual old-fashioned bookstores are everywhere, including the less prosperous barrios. There are newsstands on corners and inside subway stations, doing brisk trade in newspapers and magazines. Book vendors set up stalls in parks and the meridians of large streets, reminiscent of Paris along the Seine.
Jazzfest and other open-air festivals are packed. Of course, it helps that many of these events are free, provided by the city for the citizenry.
Going out is not only for the young. Restaurants and cafés are crowded with patrons of all ages. Viejos sit at sidewalk tables until the wee hours. Milongeros (tango aficionados) are of all ages and skew, if anything, toward the more mature.
Tango is happening, any hour of the day or night. Porteños take great pride in the tradition, though my informal poll would show that less than 1% of locals actually dance.
They love their parks and use them. Parque Centenario in the late afternoon is filled with families, old people soaking up the sun on benches, young people on the grass sipping mate or playing guitars. Bosque de Palermo is chock-a-block with runners, rollerbladers, bicyclists and strollers. Every park, like every barrio, has its own character. None are empty relics or vacant leftovers.
They are proud of their city. Someone has to be. Everywhere else in the country, the locals will tell you that Buenos Aires is too crowded, too busy, too fast, and that only a crazy person would ever live there if he had another option.
There are small things that one notices, as an expat, that never (or not yet) fade into the background.
Keys, for instance, are huge gothic affairs. I live in a brand-new building, yet my apartment keys could have been made for the Tower of London.
Cop cars, day or night, moving or stationary, flash bars of blue LEDs side to side, like evil sentinel robots in a low-budget 70s sci-fi flick.
The local population does not fear the sun. At noon, on a crowded street, in direct, punishing sunlight, you see very few hats or sunglasses.
Buenos Aires is the easiest city in the world to catch a cab, and that includes Hong Kong. Unlike any large city in the States, the cabbies are all local, intimately acquainted with the city they serve, and unfailingly polite.
Bus and subway transport is heavily subsidized, enough to be affordable for all. I have yet to see a crazy on a bus or subway car – a stark change from San Francisco Muni. Riding home at 3 AM, the seats will be filled with well-mannered teens, some snoozing, some making out, some drunk but never misbehaving. No gangs, thugs, shriekers or screamers.
There are so many others: the dense scrawl of graffiti, the difficulty of bicycling over cobblestones, the bad beer, the fabulous wine. For now, let this be enough.
I can already see my Argentine friends rolling their eyes ferociously at my next observation. This is their default reaction when their country is praised for anything other than its natural beauty and the quality of the meat. They are proud in the abstract, but overwhelmingly pessimistic about any specific you care to name. I shall proceed regardless: Porteños possess a remarkable sense of civility. Moreover, there is an admirable quality that sets them apart from any other big-city dwellers I have known: patience.
In shops, Porteños wait their turn, never interrupting because they have just one quick question. The clerk will wait upon you until your transaction is complete, attention never veering.
They are the best bus line standers in the world, lining up in perfect order, never jumping the queue or jamming forward at the last minute. Bus drivers will open the doors after they are closed, simply because a passenger wishes to board. Young people commonly offer the elderly seats to older people. Pedestrians ask cab drivers for directions, the cabbies take time to respond. When I’ve pulled a map out on a street, people step up to assist.
It extends to other areas, as well. Once, seeking a specific brand that a store did not carry, the manager walked me into the street to point out a shop on the next block. Before my Spanish became serviceable, shopkeepers endured horrendous assaults on their language with forbearance. Waiters never hover to hurry you onward so that they can clear the table. On the other hand, they are never in a hurry to bring you the check, either.
Even the traffic, famously laissez-faire, displays civility. Lane markers are only suggestions, and most intersections have neither signs nor lights. Every transit through an intersection is a potential accident, yet I have never seen one. Cars nose in, but they also slow and prepare to give way. Their destination will wait until they get there. Compare that with Cairo or Milan, where every driver is in a mad rush at all times, and every cab is a mass of dings and dents.
Sure, there are plenty of things to complain about, and they do. If an electrician tells you that he will be there at 2 PM to restore your power – he won’t. And that assumes that your block has power, which was not true for hundreds of thousands of residents, for weeks, in some cases, during the worst heat wave ever recorded.
During that episode, they took to the streets. Their sense of civility does not extend to the government, which has done little enough to earn it. But, to each other, there is a sense that time is not scarce, that small kindnesses are done because, well, that is what you do. It is striking, especially in contrast with San Francisco. The pace is slower. Time is not such an enemy. There are be other reasons, but that makes the largest difference.
THE CRISIS THIS TIME
This is not to suggest that life is rosy here. It is not, and getting tougher in a hurry.
The crime rate is high. (Robbers are exceptions. They do not show civility.) Corruption is endemic. The Argentine economy is in crisis. Not ‘heading for’ a crisis… It is here and the administration has displayed a complete inability to address the issue, much less fix it.
It is easy to forget, looking at all of the miniskirts and designer shops in my ‘hood, that only twelve years ago they were in a meltdown that made the recent American peccadillo look like a kindergarten recess.
When the government defaulted on their debt at the end of 2001, the economy imploded. The middle class was wiped out. The government seized pension funds to pay their debts and replaced dollar savings accounts with pesos. Many government workers were paid in script or IOUs. By the fall of 2002, 57% of Argentines were living below the poverty line, and 28% did not have sufficient income to eat properly. They went through four Presidents in two weeks, as successive governments failed to cope with the crisis.
This occurred less than fourteen years ago. People in the street remember. When they see a crisis coming, they know how supremely bad it can get. The country recovered, but is still locked out of international capital markets.
Everyone wonders what will happen this time. The peso slid 11% last week, the greatest single drop since 2002. Inflation is near 30%. Farmers are refusing to sell grain and soy, the nation’s most important exports, because they might earn more by waiting. Traveling outside the country, even to neighboring Uruguay, becomes more expensive all the time.
The people in charge of fixing the crisis are widely perceived as corrupt and incompetent. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, La Presidenta, after vanishing from public view for forty days, finally appeared to make a speech which left out any mention of the ongoing crisis. The next day, she jetted off to Cuba to meet Castro.
The only person more reviled in the capital is her Vice-President, under investigation for embezzlement and money laundering. The handsome new Economy Minister, Axel Kicillof, spent his entire career in academia, as a Marxist-leaning professor, before being appointed to the post. Cutting subsidies, he has declared, is out of the question. Peronismo is for the people, says the party in power. Cynics call it buying votes with money that they do not have.
The international markets do not see much cause for confidence.
Foreign reserves fell by almost one-third last year, leaving two years of cash in the Treasury, much of which will go toward vital energy imports. (Argentina has energy reserves, but after the nationalization of the Spanish oil company Repsol two years ago, no foreign corporation will invest.) If reserves drop much further, so that Argentina cannot pay for critical energy and other imports, then… what? Nobody knows.
I was much more sanguine before my Spanish improved enough to read the local newspapers.
Still, Porteños go about their business, eat asado, endure and wait to see what will happen next. They have seen these times before, and when did they expect any different? Summer is here, the cafés are full, as are the milongas, and the clubs, and the parks, and the stoops.
The city is beautiful. Not all of it, certainly, but even the less attractive areas are brimming with character. Texture. The haphazard business of living, right out on the street, without surplus money or desire to cover up with paint, square the corners or set it back from the curb.
It is almost sunset as I type these words. Old folks are putting chairs in front of their houses. Restaurants, closed for the afternoon, are moving tables back to the sidewalk. In Almagro, dog owners take their charges for a stroll. In Puerto Madera, business people begin the long commute home. Young circus types practice slack rope at Parque Las Heras. In San Telmo, parents visit local shops to pick up ingredients for family dinner.
I have changed my plans to stay a bit longer and explore more, especially in the north. Just as Paris is not toute la France, and New York is not the American heartland, the city of Buenos Aires is a country unto itself.
But, now, it is time to be outside. Me voy. Chau.