Juan Carlos and I packed about as much culture into our last day in Buenos Aires as one would think possible. We went to a fantastic Duchamp exhibit at a new museum called PROA, walked around La Boca, met friends for lunch at Mott in Palermo, booked tomorrow’s Buquebus tickets to Colonia, went to MALBA, walked to El Ateneo and finally went for a goodbye parilla.
I am going to miss Buenos Aires, it is a fantastic, sexy city. It is interesting that I have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is about this place that is so enticing. There are not a lot of great landmarks, no particularly amazing architectural gems, not a lot of destinations in and of themselves. Overall (and despite Argentine protestations to the contrary) this is not a foodie destination as Argentine cooking is fairly bland and basic. But the collective fabric of the city is incredible, and the feel of it makes you want to wander aimlessly, criss-crossing the town by day or night to soak up the fantastic energy of the place. The people are friendly and welcoming, and it seems like there is always something to do with friends new and old. Buenos Aires is one of those places that makes me feel strangely at home and at ease, but also feels so very sophisticated. I will definitely be back.
Unlike every other country I have been in, there seems to be no standard direction for maps to be drawn in, ie “North” is up. And you might say that, hey, there is perhaps a certain logic to drawing maps in the southern hemisphere with “South” being up. And that would be fine, but there is no convention that I can discern here at all. Some maps have North up, some have South up, and some don’t bother with any cardinal alignment.
A rather large number of people walking on the streets of Buenos Aires are smoking a cigarette on their walk. And when I think about it, I don’t see all that many people smoking in bars or restaurants. But walking somewhere seems to be the preferred time.
More than any other country I have been in, there are lots and lots of dads with strollers or carrying babies. They are everywhere and very often without a spouse. I think it says something very good about the current state of fathering here.
What a gay ole time we had yesterday. It started off with the Buenos Aires gay pride parade at the Plaza de Mayo. As is the trend with this sort of event, it was pretty similar to any gay pride event anywhere else in the world, except the parade part was kinda small and one of the largest individual groups seemed to be the communists. That (according to my friend Guillermo) is because the communists crash any and all demonstrations or parades here and insert themselves into the happening, germane or not to their cause. I wasn’t sure if I admired their tenacity or was annoyed at their egocentrism, but fortunately it did look as if several of them were gay. After hanging out with the homos all day (and taking advantage of some free hugs, see below), we finished off the evening in what had to be the most appropriate way: We went to see a musical about Eva Peron. No, not that one. This is a new musical, called simply “Eva”, with all new music and with a somewhat different focus than the Broadway production. While I only understood about 50% of it, the staging and music were still a treat.
Continuing my investigations into the minutiae of Buenos Aires life, I want to share with you two more small signifiers of the culture here.
– Inexact change. In almost every situation involving paying for something (restaurant, store, pharmacy, grocery) if you or the vendor doesn’t have exact change or can’t give exact change, everyone just lets it go. It seems that for anything under a peso (about 30c) this is true. Everyone makes do with what they have and provides whatever centavos they have, but if a few are missing in either direction, no big deal. I can’t imagine this working in a place like a grocery in the US, where everything is accounted for to the penny. I am not sure how it all works out in the end, but I like this easygoing attitude about a few pennies.
– Dog walking. This could well be a feature only of my slightly upscale neighborhood (Palermo), but I notice on a daily basis an inordinate amount of dog walkers, usually leading a group of about 10-15 dogs. During any given day I will come across at least 3 different walkers, one day I counted 7. Are there really THAT many dogs in (this part of) Buenos Aires? Perhaps that explains all the shit.
Ricky invited me to go with meet some friends of his at a sort of restaurant/cabaret/bookstore called Clasica y Moderna. The place has great atmosphere, but the quality of the food is absolutely atrocious. If you go there, the only safe things to order are wine and water. The entertainment, on the other hand, was great. We watched the enticing tango singer Mimi Kozlowski, and not all was sad sad – there were a few uptempo numbers in the mix. But her version of Jaques Brel’s “ne me quitte pas” was definitely a slice-up-your-wrists kinda moment. After the show to ease the pain (of the food as well as the song), we stopped by my favorite ice cream place, Volta for a dulce de leche. Mmmmmmm. Works every time.
I’m probably one of the few people to notice or care about these details, but it is probably as a result of the multitude of places I have been. Seemingly small facts about the built environment can add up to a very different experience of it. Here are two small things I have been noticing in Buenos Aires:
1. Sidewalk paving tiles. Unlike many other places, Buenos Aires sidewalks are largely covered in thin tiles of all shapes and sizes, and in many colors and patterns. This causes all manner of problem in the long run as they loosen, break, and crack due to a variety of factors. Most annoying after a rainstorm, when one is very likely to have a loose tile squirt up onto one’s pant leg whatever sludge is trapped below. Also annoying as they sometimes shift and slip, and generally look like hell after a few years. Compare this with their cheaper cousins of poured concrete which hold up better (if not perfect) or the more expensive (such as French) sidewalks where heavy, much thicker stones of granite are put in place and grouted. Thin paving tiles are an eyesore and menace if you ask me.
2. A pause between reds. One of the traffic details I quite like here is that there is a couple second pause between a light turning red and its cross street turning green. This seems to make crossing the street for pedestrians quite a bit safer, as it is a couple of seconds longer before the cross traffic lunges forward. During this pause there is a yellow to warn of imminent change in the cross direction, not solely when the light is about to turn red in the first.
I’m a lucky bastard. I have the good fortune to meet wonderful people from all over the world. People who invite me to visit, for a meal, to go on outings, or who share their culture with me in a variety of ways. Today I was invited by two such people I met recently, Philippe and Roberto, to come spend the day with them in their little island home away from BA, in a place called El Tigre. El Tigre is the name of the delta region north of Buenos Aires. It is also the name of a small town that is sort of the gateway to the islands of the delta. The delta region is a fascinating and vast place, with a huge number of islands, some simple, some fancy, some wild and some quite developed. The weather was perfect, and we had a lazy day of eating and drinking and walking the island their house is situated on (called Santa Monica), followed by a fantastic boat trip offered by one of their neighbors to tour some of the delta. One could spend many days and not see all of it. In some ways it reminded me of the backwaters of Kerela; in others it reminded me of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. And yet in others it is totally unique. It is also super cheap and easy to get to from Buenos Aires. I just hopped on one of the frequent (every 20 minutes) trains at the beautiful Retiro Train Station, after buying my ticket for (I kid you not) 35 cents (US). Roughly 45 minutes later, I was in El Tigre.
Today, after a satisfying visit to the MALBA art museum, I took a stroll down to (and then through) The Recoleta Cemetery. Talk about a city of the dead, boxes and boxes all lined up with sealed coffins in them. There are quite a famous number of Argentine luminaries buried here, and of course the biggest draw of the place for checklist tourists is the tomb of Eva Peron. For the most part the place was deserted until I got to her tomb. Then there was a long line of people snapping photos and ooh-ing and aahing. Frankly, hers was not one of the better designed mausoleums.