30 Jun Buenos Aires: After Eight Months
AFTER EIGHT MONTHS, I find Buenos Aires as entrancing and enchanting as the day that I arrived.
For the record: I first typed “After seven months…”, then stopped to add them up. Eight, it is. This is that kind of place – time just goes by.
Following are further reflections on my adopted city…
Buenos Aires is fractal by nature. Any barrio, any street, any block, breaks down into smaller components that each contain yet smaller, similarly complex, elements. No two streets, no two buildings, are alike. Zoom out or focus in – there will always be a detail to greet your eye, to hold you, pondering.
The exception is Puerto Madera, an old wharf district recently redeveloped in homage to American office parks: block after block of rectilinear glass. The streets facing the dikes and the bridges are redeemed. The blocks behind are repellent, the least inviting geography in the district.
Barrios each have their distinct character. Put a blindfolded porteño on a strange street anywhere in his side of the city and he will be able to recognize the barrio instantly. The same would not be true if you put him down on the other side of town. A porteño autentico has probably never been to the other side of town.
Never have I seen a city so entirely turn its back on the water. Buenos Aires is built alongside the Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world, that also forms the border with Uruguay. And yet, you could live in the city for months and never know that it is there. The population is cut off from the coastline by highways, an airport, train tracks, a container port, a fenced-off nature reserve. In aerial views, it looks deliberate, though I cannot image the reason.
Rio de la Plata is, admittedly, not the most beautiful of rivers – moody, sluggish, and brown from sediment carried from far inland. But it is still water… Modern urbanism values waterfronts for recreation and views, but not here. One of the few places where the river meets the city is in La Boca. The waterfront promenade, which had fallen into disrepair, was rebuilt for the film production of Evita. Standing on the breakwater, or the Prueba balcony, the difference is tangible. The air, the bridges, the horizon, are links to movement, space and possibility.
The city is mysterious. There are sections where there are no street signs for blocks. To find out where you are, you need to ask. Fortunately, people on the street are accustomed to it and ask for directions frequently. I enjoy their surprise when I am able to give directions, despite my obviously foreign accent.
Some barrios, such as Palermo – once you leave the designer nonsense behind – are among the leafiest, most graceful on earth. Others look suspiciously like Flatbush, in Brooklyn, right down to the signs in Spanish. I still stumble across parks and plazas that I’ve never seen before. Some are enormous, and I cannot imagine where they have been hiding. There is the Skateboard Church, a chapel surrounded by multi-level concrete slabs where skaters cruise, day and night. Others, especially Parque Centenario, are never the same twice. On a sunny afternoon, Centenario shows off more slices of life in one place than can be imagined: old folks, families, puppet shows, musicians, aerialists hanging from trees, dogs up for adoption, lindy hoppers, museum goers, guitar strummers, maté drinkers, dogs, ducks, cops, toddlers, strollers. All side by side, enjoying, nobody rushing to be elsewhere.
It is a long way to anywhere. Head north, south, or inland – the Pampas is enormous. We are an island in an ocean of grass and cows. By bus or car, the nearest Argentine beaches are five hours away. The mountains are twelve or more. The California weekend – drive up to snow for the day, or the foothills, or down the coast, does not exist here. We are remote in other ways. Bs As goes about its business outside the mainstream of global currents, looking inward. There is no overlapping media from other countries, not even Uruguay.
Most of you who will read this are in summer. After a stately autumn, we are in winter. Solstice, the longest night of the year, occurred last weekend. The import restrictions reinforce the sense of isolation. Elsewhere, when you hear about a book that you want to read, you order it from Amazon. Not here. Apple products? Forget about it. The business climate is inhospitable to foreign investment, so companies go to Chile, or Brazil, or anywhere else. If it were not for the World Cup, and the fact that Argentina’s short-term financial fate is being decided by a judge in Manhattan, you could almost forget that other countries exist.
There is more to do here, on any given day, than may be comprehended. The music scene is incredible. The city sponsors festivals throughout the year, one after another – film, books, jazz, circus – and a number of events are always free. Every weekend, there are three hundred theater pieces presented in the city, from the enormous Broadway-style revues on Corrientes to plays presented in apartments where the audience is asked to snap fingers, rather than clap, to avoid disturbing the neighbors. I know a director who relocated from Madrid, because the Spanish live theater scene did not compare. Last night, I stopped by an event which combined figure drawing with a live jazz band. It was packed.
Everyone greets with a kiss. Men, women, children, all offer besitos when they enter and leave. I arrive at my office in the morning and kiss everyone who was there before me. Those who arrive later make the rounds of the office, stopping at each desk. The besito is a quick press of the cheek accompanied by kissing sound. When a group arrives at a dinner party, minutes can pass while everyone in the first group kisses everyone in the second.
A friend from Cordoba told me, “Argentina is number one in only two things: long-distance bus travel and corruption.” Two days ago, the Vice President was indicted on corruption charges, as if more proof were needed. I’ll add a third: porteños excel in the fine art of Hanging Out. Unlike in North America, they do not outgrow Hanging Out. Instead, they refine the concept as they grow older, pairing the pursuit with wine, conversation, ambience.
A certain farcical situation occurs frequently. You schedule a commercial transaction – it could be a furniture delivery to your apartment, or a visit from the refrigerator repairman, or a trip to the bicycle store to pick up a part that you ordered. (These are all real-world examples.) They nod and smile. You nod and smile, everyone is muy amable. Both of you act as if it is actually going to happen, while knowing that it will not. There will be a phone call, or perhaps not, and it will be rescheduled for another day, when the same thing will happen again. Frustration does no good. It just marks you as a yanqui, as if that were not obvious already.
In my last writeup, I remarked upon the general widespread civility one encounters here. Months later, the observation still stands.
Fatalism is deep-seated. “The power cuts last year? A disaster. Will they happen again this summer? Of course. What do you think?” And they will, as sure as temperatures will rise.
If a friend is someone you see regularly, smiling back at you, then my new best friend is Lionel Messi. His image is everywhere. Billboards, posters, flyers. During games, one camera is solely focused on his face, in closeup. Even before a game, during warmup, the camera follows him for minutes at a time. I have seen him spit more times than I have seen from members of my family. There is a game of figuring out whether you could survive for an entire month using only products that Messi has endorsed. And, beside all the advertising, he scores goals.
Argentine politicians feel remarkably human compared to those in the United States. For starters, spin has not achieved the same level of glossy perfection. Also, they are everywhere. The Head of Cabinet gives a press conference every weekday morning. The Minister of Economy, all sideburns, easy grin and no tie, stares from every front page and newscast. Christina, La Presidente, officiates at every factory opening, club meeting, and traffic crossing in town. Their remarks are not audience-tested. They say ridiculous things and occasionally have to walk them back the next day after being skewered in the press.
A visiting friend, Rebecca Edwards, said it: “Life is so much life-ier here.”
Odds and Ends
The electric water heating appliances here have a maté setting on the dial. The icon is the silhouette of a maté with a bombilla sticking out.
Ramones t-shirts are everywhere. Protests occur so frequently you cease to notice them. Pizza guys deliver on rollerblades. Taxi drivers are philosophers. Like any city, the way to know it is on a bicycle. There is an embryonic bike path network, though some are no more than former sidewalks with a line painted down the middle. In the Centro, during rush hour, all available routes involve significant danger. Street signs are on buildings, and there are no parking meters, so finding a suitable post to lock a bike can be a problem. Someone will steal it, anyway.
Speaking of which – the province of Buenos Aires (as opposed to the Capital Federal district, which is what most foreigners think of as ‘Buenos Aires’) recently passed a law requiring motorcyclists to wear orange jackets with their license on the back in large letters and numbers, and also display it on the back of their helmet, because so many motorcyclists were cruising alongside pedestrians and riding off with their purses. That has not yet happened to anyone I know, but tomorrow is another day.
Business here requires surmounting obstacles of absurd proportions. Government forms must be printed, on paper, and woe unto you if they do not line up exactly. Online banking is a mess. Paying bills is a nightmare. Students have a right to paid days off to study for tests. When an employee quits, it is not official until a telegram is sent. A telegram! And then they sue you, anyway. I could go on, but you would never believe me.
Argentina has more official holidays than any other country in the world. Two new ones were added to the calendar in the short time that I’ve been here. This compares with one new holiday, in my entire life, in the US, which many states observed by demoting a different holiday back to a workday to preserve productivity. One of the new holidays here is called Day of National Sovereignty. Even my local friends do not understand what it signifies.
The economy is dismal and the outlook is worse, but that topic shall be addressed in a separate post. All that I will note here is that prices are controlled for basic foodstuffs. This is widely ignored, especially by the ubiquitous Chinese markets, but seems to work, to some extent, anyway.
The 35% tax on credit card purchases abroad is waived for travelers to the Malvinas Islands (you may know them as the Falklands) because they “… are part of the Argentine Republic.” If you are tempted toward a humorous remark on the subject – don’t.
Ten minutes. That is the maximum permitted for any conversation before the topic veers to the Copa Mondial. Tomorrow, Argentina faces Switzerland and the US plays Belgium. If both Argentina and the US win – very possible – then they will play against each other on July 5th. If that happens… my head will explode. I am not the only one. (Looking at you here, Ned Howey. And you, Beatrice Murch. As for you, Miguel Helft, I suspect that the conflict will not be as hard as it should be.) I usually appreciate symbolism spilling over into real life, but not this time. I suspect that it will happen, nevertheless…
Ahora, me voy.