We left Turin before dawn in a thick fog, Christmas lights gleaming blurrily from a few balconies. Fourteen hours later, we were standing in the warm night inhaling fried empanadas and mildew.
Travelling from Italy to Argentina in half a day is even more disconcerting than you’d think. One minute you’re sipping mulled wine in a chilly piazza humming along to Aida, the next you’re in an urban greenhouse wondering how to say ‘Don’t mug me please’ in Spanish.
We are not the first to have made this particular journey. People of Italian descent make up about 60% of the total population, and it’s not difficult to find traces of the Old Country every five steps or so. There’s a pizzeria on every second block, a Vespa on every corner, torrone in the corner shops, and people say ‘Ciao’ instead of ‘Smell you later’. Somewhere along the way panettone has become Pan Dolce and espresso lost out to café con leche as the drink of choice, but these are minor differences.
Such echoes cannot disguise the fact that we are now on a different planet. The wilderness impinges in a way that it rarely does in Europe—the harsh Southern-Hemisphere glare, the wind that seems not even to notice the city, the exuberant birdsong. All this (and rugby) reminds me of New Zealand actually, but here there is an added difference in that everything is bigger. The avenues, plazas, parks and public buildings in Buenos Aires are gigantic, as if desperately trying to dominate the natural vastness.
This city is a bit overwhelming to be honest, so my mind is all awhirl with first impressions. For want of anything more , here are five odd things that stand out even among the hundred other odd things during our first four days in Argentina.
5. The Economic Crisis
Not that I understand these matters, but the Argentine peso is not worth very much right now. In May this year, the government asked the IMF for an emergency loan for a $30 billion bailout and Argentina’s central bank raised interest rates on the peso to 40% from 27.25%.
According to this Reuters article, “In Argentina, 2018 has become the year of the “new poor.” People have lost jobs and there have been double-digit increases in costs like electricity bills and transport fares.
In everyday terms, the poverty is noticeable. Wandering through any public park you see people lying sleeping on benches or on the ground. Beggars—often children–wander into cafes and ask for money. When you pay for groceries at the supermarket you need to provide identification and a signature, and the cashier scrutinizes both of these very carefully. Individual trash collection is seriously competitive— cartoneras or trash pickers—can be seen every evening emptying the public bins and filling their hand-drawn carts with recyclable goods.
4. Bizarre Trees
The plazas showcase some of the oddest and most impressive trees I have seen. I admit I was getting a bit jaded on the tree front—I thought I’d seen it all, but there are some species that stir the soul.
As it turns out, the trees were part of the city’s design. The man mainly responsible for their prominent part of Buenos Aires is Carlos Thays (1849-1934), a French-Argentine landscape architect who also designed the city’s botanical gardens.
The jacaranda is flowering at the moment. I particularly like the twisty dark branches that remind me of a Medusa except for the light purple blooms littering the parkland beneath. Then there is the Ombu that grows on the pampas and can tolerate drought and sub-zero temperatures. Tipuana tipu or rosewood are nicely described here by Beatrice Murch, who has published a book devoted to the city’s trees. There are a lot of other species here that I don’t know the name of yet. John’s favorite is this handsome stranger:
Dulce de leche is so popular in these parts that it is listed as an acronym on menus. I am so far wary of it, as I imagine it as something like sweetened condensed milk. People have it for breakfast, put it in cakes, and frankly I suspect them of eating it by the spoonful.
2. Ancient Elevators
Old-timey elevators with concertina gates that you have to close behind you manually before the thing will move. This morning we gave a couple of locals a good laugh when we stood in the elevator waiting for the doors to close on their own.
Argentina’s national bird is the rufous hornero, whose song you can hear here. Admittedly, I haven’t seen it yet but there are certainly plenty of other birds in the city.
Monk parakeets rule the parks. There is a large wetlands park on the edge of the city where you can see herons, kingfishers, grebes, ducks and the adorable chopi blackbird. In the city itself there is an exceptionally musical bird that sings with gusto at about 4pm in the trees lining our street. I don’t know what it is yet but will investigate.