Buenos Aires

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Well, we like Buenos Aires.  We like it a lot.  A little slice of Europe cut off and connected to the bottom of South America.  The Porteños compare it to Paris.  Well for the most part they've never been to Paris and BA's not really in that league, but the few square miles of central BA does have a very European feel and is very nice indeed.  It's certainly the most elegant city in South America and by quite a long way.

There are parks and some impressive avenues.  There are museums and theatres.  There are elegant fashionable people and the shops to go with them.  There are of course world class wines and good restaurants - though it has to be said that a passion for beef will be helpful if you do visit (more on that later). There's also Yerba Mate and Tango - more on those later as well.

Oh and finally - it's cheap.  Not just a bit cheap, but very, very cheap.  Certainly the cheapest country in South America that we have visited and that makes it the most enormous bargain.

 

When we arrived we booked ourselves into a cheapish hotel just off Florida, which is where an awful lot of tourists seem to be drawn.  It's the normal mix of tourist tat, tourist restaurants, very expensive tourist tango shows and for some inexplicable reason, electronics and computer shops.  Sort of Blackpool Promenade mixed with Tottenham Court Road, with added Tango!

We used that as a base whilst we went flat hunting.  We had no frame of reference.  No idea what any area was like.  No way of short-listing.  So we did it the hard way.  We walked.  And we walked.  And we walked.  And when we'd finished walking an area we took taxis to somewhere else we could walk.  Now this is December, the middle of Summer, and Buenos Aires is very hot in summer.  Most Porteños suffer the heat until Christmas and then anyone who can scrape together enough cash is off to the coast until it cools down.  Temperatures often crept into the 40ºs!  We should also mention the pollution, our eyes streamed until we became accustomed to it.  I'm not sure if it really is very bad or just that we were more susceptible after so long on the boat.

Anyway we finally spotted, in an agency window, the apartment that was to become home for the next 4 months.  Right in the centre of Recoleta, a couple of blocks from the cemetery, a few blocks from Alvear and a few blocks from Santa Fe.  These names won't mean anything, but truly this was a good neighbourhood but where Porteños lived, not tourists.  Though it has to be said that the devaluation of the Peso in 2005 (by 300%!) has made BA such amazing value that a lot of foreigners are snapping up property at bargain prices.

 

The Cemetery is worth a few more words.  I don't know about you, but being close to a huge cemetery is not something I'd normally put on the front page of the publicity material when I was trying to sell my house.  But Recoleta Cemetery is different.  It's hard to describe: A small town of tombs and mausoleums; A tribute to post mortal ostentationism.  Each tomb seems be trying to grab God's attention before the occupant arrives.  Or perhaps maybe they're saying that although other people can't take it with them, I'm sure that rule doesn't apply to me. 

However it's described, it is worth a visit (all the other tourists seem to think so too), and if you avoid the most important tombs (and remember that less important doesn't directly relate to less ostentatious) and just wander down the narrower streets, you'll avoid the tourists and the place does have a very special feel.

Enough of dead people.  What's BA like for the living.  Well for a start, it smells of barbecuing meat much of the time, which for some is great, but it does mean that one's mouth is often watering and one's stomach rumbling.  There's no getting away from it Porteños do eat an enormous quantity of grilled meat - oh and in BA the words meat and beef are synonymous. They eat very little meat that isn't beef - though since the election of a president from Patagonia, Patagonian lamb, together with all things Patagonic, is enjoying a renaissance.

Then there's Tango, and the dancing is spectacular and really worth seeing, particularly if you can avoid the amazingly priced tourist traps.  This isn't too tough, since if you go to the right areas it's pretty hard not to trip over tango dancers in every square or park.  Though we would both have to confess that after a while the accompanying accordion music can become just a tad tiresome.  As Tom Waits said - " A gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't"!

 

And we should mention Mate or more correctly Yerba Mate. A drink, a social occasion, a tradition, an addiction, a way of life, a bit of each? 

Boiled down to first principles, mate is a chopped-up tea-like herb which is steeped in hot water in a almost spherical bowl about the size of a tennis ball with the top sliced off - called imaginatively a mate. This can be made of various materials, but the best we're told, are dried gourds decorated with silver.  The mate is sucked from the mate through a bomba - a silver straw with a ball which has lots of tiny holes on the end and acts as a filter.  The mate is continually topped up until the flavour has been lost.  In groups it is passed from person to person each time being refilled as a kind of social ceremony (a note here on mate etiquette - it is indescribably impolite to wipe the last person's saliva off the bomba before putting it into your own mouth) .   Often though you'll see people walking the streets, mate in one hand, bomba in mouth and flask of hot water over the shoulder.  If you cross the river to Uruguay, it's even more prevalent and the mates are much bigger - the Uruguayans have bigger bowls joke would, of course, be unavoidable, but thankfully doesn't work in Spanish.

A final oddity is that you cannot buy mate to drink in a cafe or restaurant.  It doesn't work like that.  You either drink your own, drink your friend's, or you don't drink it.  There is now actually one solitary mate cafe in BA, but it's for tourists of course.

 

A couple of the things that identify BA are actually a result of the 2005 financial meltdown, which saw huge numbers of previously affluent middle class Argentineans on the breadline practically overnight:

At twilight the Cartoneros make their appearance, with their trolleys which they pile high with cardboard for recycling and the price of a meal.  During the night they and others like them will open every garbage bag that's been left out for collection.  Absolutely anything that's recyclable or has a residual value will be extracted.  And then, as if by magic, the residue will be cleared away - the streets will be clean and there will be no sign that the garbage or the carteneros ever existed.

During daylight there are the Pasa-perros - professional dog walkers - walking often 20 dogs at a time, around the streets and off to the city's numerous parks.  More remarkable than the Pasa-perros themselves is the behaviour of the dogs, which is always absolutely impeccable. 

In some ways the dogs seem to have absorbed the Argentinean psyche, because in spite of the lurches between left and right wing governments and military dictatorships, in spite of the financial calamities that have caused so much hardship, and in spite of the resulting huge disparities between rich and poor, Argentineans remain proud and optimistic, and Argentina remains a relatively safe country without the crime and violence that defines many of its neighbours.

 

And we really hope it stays that way because we love the place.  Though there are many signs that another financial catastrophe could be developing and one wonders how many more of them the country can weather.  Another in a series of populist Perónist governments (the president is the previous president's wife),  whose only policy seems to be re-election, is running the country.  Inflation is spiralling whilst the government continues to publish low figures, which both the IMF and the World Bank publically say are erroneous. The finance minister announces a tough bundle of measures to control inflation in line with the recommendations of the World Bank.  The following morning he has been replaced and the measures shelved. No votes in "tough measures".

Instead the government keeps in place a range of subsidies that distort the economy, whilst keeping the electorate happy and themselves in power.  80% of this spending subsidises energy.  The country has a real energy crisis, supply often doesn't keep up with demand and of course the bulk is imported.  However energy is subsidised, so there is no incentive for industry or the population to moderate consumption.  An odd spin off is that it is virtually impossible to walk the streets of BA without being rained on by the water dripping from thousands of air conditioning units retrofitted and protruding from apartment windows, which are left running whether the apartment is occupied or not - it's just not worth turning them off!.    

 

 

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Last updated 5th June 2017