We’re leaving Argentina in three days, and I’m having an attack of premature nostalgia. So, lest I forget, here are a few things that are special about Bueños Aires!
The people here are amazingly pleasant and patient. Tonight, for example, there was a one-hour wait in the supermarket; the line snaked around three walls of the entire (big) store, but no one yelled or even lost their temper, not even the kids. Even though the country is steeling itself for the worst of the latest economic crisis, locals are pragmatic about it and joke that every generation has its crisis–it’s a rite of passage.
Things happen slowly here–it’s unusual to see anyone in a big rush. It’s acceptable for people to turn up later than they say they will. It’s fine to sit at a café for two or three hours with one coffee.
Although the slow pace can be frustrating if you’re stuck behind a bunch of slow walkers, but at the same time there is something nice about a whole family adjusting their pace to a grandmother who has had a stroke or to a toddler just learning to walk.
According to my Spanish tutor Cynthia, Argentina’s national dance is really baile folcorico and very few locals still learn the tango. That said, tango is the first thing most people think of when you say ‘Bueños Aires’; you can’t really exist in this city without seeing references to the dance and its history. The portrait of Carlos Gardel pops up all over the place, as do images and souvenirs depicting the romantic tangle of limbs. Even the figure on the pedestrian signal looks as if he’s dancing.
The city has numerous parks and some of them are huge. On weekends, they are spaces where families picnic, teams play football, cartoneros doze by their carts, couples canoodle and dogs frolic. People from all walks of life come together to enjoy themselves and relax.
They’re landscaped and lush, with plenty of established trees, impressive monuments and sometimes even a small lake. At the very tops of the trees parrots nest, while at their roots leaf-cutter ants march in single-file carrying little scraps of flowers or leaves.
Floss silk trees or ceiba speciosa trees grow in most of the parks and they are spectacular. The young trunks and branches are covered with sharp thorns. The mature trunks swell up like beer bellies. The roots twist and writhe like anacondas. The flowers are incredible and the fruit are like big green gourds.
Professional dog walkers roam the streets with packs of ten or fifteen dogs at a time. You can hear one pack meeting another as the barks and echo against the high apartment blocks. Portoñeros really love their dogs!
There are a lot of teams in the city, but the one I know is River because their huge stadium was on my running route.
Some weekend afternoons I would know it was game-day because of the rickety old buses headed for the stadium. The buses were full of people whistling, singing and amazingly good drumming. Closer to the stadium, I noticed a stream of people dressed in red and white, some a little intoxicated. Then about two blocks away (from every direction), the roads were blocked by black gates and supervised by two or police with bullet-proof vests.
The sound of cheering and singing from the stadium could be heard a mile away. Nearby, cafes playing the game live were host to large red-and-white crowds gazing up at a TV screen and cheering in unison.
At the end of it all the pavement was strewn with boxes of cheap wine (‘Termidor’) and the cut-off bottoms of plastic bottles.
In the business district, a lot of the older buildings are engraved with the names of their architects, or there’s a black plaque outside saying it’s an historic building. In Recoleta cemetery, it is not unusual to see mention of the crypt-fashioner’s name. But even relatively modest, ‘anonymous’ buildings have eye-catching, arty features: painted tiles, curlicues, fancy gates, molded details on the walls.
Almost every block has its own vegetable-and-fruit stand. These places are not only cheap but also beautiful. They put a lot of thought into their displays and it’s a pleasure to look at the jewel-colored piles edible plants in baskets.
There are lots of minor mysteries too, such as the incredibly loud jets that take off at 11pm and 6am every day. Or the horror of spice (there’s a shop called ‘Épices’ that sells exactly two spices: paprika and madras curry). Or the monument to fallen police, which is almost always guarded by two police officers in dress uniform. Or the difficulty of finding a good Chinese restaurant in a city where there are plenty of Chinese immigrants. Or the fact that the city seems designed to block any view of the great river Plate. Now that we’re going, perhaps I will never know the answers.