A BACKWARD GLANCE
It’s been a year since I temporarily set aside my search for a country to return to San Francisco. When I left Asia this time last year, I decided to stay put in my home in San Francisco for one year. I still had slight misgivings about my desire to live abroad. Was I running from something? If I put in consistent time in San Francisco would I find my purpose here? I would give the States one last chance. Several friends had hinted that the reason I felt disconnected from the U.S., was because I was always on the run.
Ok then, I would throw myself into my community full-time, nourish friendships, develop contacts in the writing world, tie off the distracting loose ends of my former marriage. And complete my two biggest goals: Finish my book and find a mate.
No go on both counts.
The publishing world is in a state of paralysis – work for writers has all but dried up. It is so expensive to live in San Francisco, that I when I am here, I must occasionally rent out my condo, which means I have to move out for one to two weeks at a time, making it impossible to really sink roots here. I have dated two American men this past year. Neither shares my longing to live at least part of each year out of the United States. One thinks that much about our country stinks, but he believes that those who cut bait and run are selfish, that one should fight for change from the inside. Why would I want to live somewhere other than the best country on earth they both want to know? Why indeed? Because I am happiest living and working among people with an international view of the world. I want to do what I can to bring various cultures together in peace, to foster acceptance of our differences, and to shed light on the fact that in all ways that matter, we are more alike than we are different.
Even my most liberal friends are isolated from the rest of the world. They hear only one side of the news – that of American owned radio and TV, and even they let it sneak out every now and then, that they believe that Americans are somehow better than the rest of the world; it’s the government, not us kind of thing. Granted the people I call friends do travel occasionally, but usually just for a 2-week peek at “the others” from the confines of a tour group or a five-star hotel.
Like Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear, I set out again in search of my tribe.
Over the past six years, my search has taken me to France, Italy, London, Spain, Katmandu, Bali, Thailand, Mexico, and Belize.
One month ago, I headed south of the U.S. border, way south, to the Southern Cone, to a place rich in mystery and intrigue – Argentina.
FIRST A FEW FACTS
- There are 3.5 million people in Buenos Aires, 12 million including the metropolitan area.
- Literacy is nearly 97 percent, one of the highest in the Americas.
A 19th century tidal wave of Italians, Basques, English, Irish, Welsh, Ukrainians, and other nationalities has made Buenos Aires a mosaic of immigrants
LAND OF IMMIGRANTS
Argentina has fascinated me as long as I can remember. It’s a proud (some say haughty, but I admire their verve in the face of their ups and downs) European country surrounded by earthy, fiery, less prosperous Latin American countries.
Like America, most of Argentina’s immigrants arrived on ships from Europe. Adding to its mystery is its shadow: a history of political and military coupes, the “disappeared”, and the recent economic meltdown in what was once the world’s fifth wealthiest country. With the precipitous drop of the peso in 2001, Argentina was suddenly the global investor’s dream. I might be too late for the big bargains, but Argentina was still a less expensive place to live than the U.S. and who knew? Perhaps in Argentina I’d find the home that had so far, eluded me.
Standing in the check-in line at the San Francisco Airport, I feel something distinctly different about the people around me – the way they hold their heads, their graceful movements , the mellifluous words coming from their lips which at first I don’t comprehend. Spanish with an Italian lilt.
Yes!!! The familiar flutter in my stomach is back in anticipation of setting out for the unknown. I’m still alive.
The American Airlines 747 fills with Argentines returning home – and an American tour group headed for the Antarctic.
It will be a long flight, and like surgery, I’d rather wake up when it’s over. So in go the earplugs, on goes the eye mask, and between me and the airplane window, a pillow. I go to sleep imagining Argentina.
JANUARY 30, 2004
The taxi driver delivers me to the guesthouse I chose on the internet the night before I left – Che Lulu – painted bright red outside like a Scandinavian barn and inside delightfully shocking colors, urban hip with an eclectic blend of furniture.
Buenos Aires is a city made up of distinct barrios and I’ve chosen the Soho-like barrio of Palermo for my brief stay – Three Argentine airline attendants who fly between Buenos Aires and New York put their savings together and renovated the building, opening Che Lulu less than one one year ago. What would I llike to drink? Here’s the computer – use it whenever you want. What can we do for you? What’s life like for you? And so on. I feel immediately at home as if I’ve entered a womb of like-minded, same-aged friends.
I toss my un-packed luggage on my bed and set out for a walk through the city to check its pulse. I teeter over its cobbled streets, in the shade of its sycamore trees, peek inside boutiques with the latest fashions, stop in a cafe for an espresso and empanada, look at the latest in furniture fashion. The women I notice, look like Penelope Cruz, perhaps a bit softer.. With its crumbling buildings and potholed roads, one gets the feeling of a city once great, which has suffered massive neglect. But with the emergence of boutiques, cafes, bars, and museums, one gets the sense of a city busy being reborn.
Buenos Aires – she is an old, elegant woman with a Bohemian hat.
Mojo and Frederick are entertaining friends tonight. Introductions go around, lots of air kisses, music, laughter and hilarity fill the house – and outside the steady drum of rain.They proudly show their friends each room in their guesthouse and then they gather around the dining table clinking champagne glasses and delivering toasts, ” Buena suerte (good luck) in su trabajo (work), in su familia (family), y en su vida ( life.)
I fall into bed early, the hearty laughter and conversation of friends ringing through the house. As I drop off to sleep, I am thinking that no matter how bad things get, or how destitute one becomes, if one has friends and the time to spend with them, one is rich.
WHEN IT RAINS IN ARGENTINA
At 2 AM I am wide-awake though daylight is still hours away. The rain is hitting the roof hard. I slip on a robe and go into the house to use the computer. A groggy MaJo is working the night shift. We greet each other as I step down into the anteroom just off the front door where the computer is kept. Cold water submerges my feet. “You have a leak in here,” I tell her.
Moments later everyone is up, frantically rolling rugs, moving furniture, as the water begins to pour in through the front door. The street is a river and the house a tributary. I move my laptop and cameras up onto the bed, toss some towels and newspapers inside the door of my room, and return to the main house.
Two feet of water now fill the first floor. From where we sit in a second floor bedroom looking out a window, the street is a raging river, just inches below the window sill. The phone does not work. The power is off. Nobody knows why this is happening. It continues to rain. Boated bags of trash float by and the two cars parked across the street., rise and float, bumping into each other. A dog howls. There is the distant wail of a woman. Majo, Frederick, and friends bail water. Periodically they collapse on the upper stairs, and hold each other making jokes, wiping away tears, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and watching the water pouring in. Majo says, Oh Well, this is it. We are watching the end of our business.
I take photos. (Just like an American Frederick says smiling at me.) We are safe – there are still two floors and a roof above us – just very aware that I am far away from “home”, and of the precariousness of life, and the illusion of security.
The Brazilian women are speaking rapidly to Majo. They want to leave. Why? I ask Majo. They have a plane to catch in three hours, she tells me. They’re afraid they’ll miss it. She doesn’t want them to leave – She feels responsible for their safety. But in the end they wade out through waist deep water, their backpacks held high above their heads.
A rooster crows. The sky lightens imperceptibly. Rain falls softly now. The bobbing cars across the street, settle back onto their tires and when I can see their headlights again, I go to sleep in an upstairs room. I awake ten hours later at 4PM in the afternoon. The water has subsided and the house is filled with women scrubbing, sweeping, and sponging down every inch. Majo and Frederick who have not yet slept , are separating wet paperwork in the office. “We didn’t suffer as much damage as we’d feared,”She says.” But we will move you to another guesthouse while we clean up.” Turns out the flood was due to the city’s failure to open the drains at the bottom of the street. They apologize profusely and offer me a hard candy. “Here, take one, it’s Argentinean Prozac.”
SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 1, 2004
In the Malabia Guest House, my room is that of a princess with 14 foot ceilings, exquisite furniture, tall French doors which open onto a balcony which looks out through the leafy branches of a Sycamore tree over Malabia Street. The room at $50 ($40 iif paid in cash) per night including breakfast is more than I wanted to spend, but I’m not feeling picky at the moment. I have already lost a day, and so I move in.
SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2004
AN AMERICAN IN ARGENTINA
Joe arrived in Argentina in 1985 to cover the human rights issues during the military trials. In addition to working for ABC, he issues reports for various agencies and does translation work for amnesty groups. I walk the ten blocks to the charming cottage where his girlfriend Julietta live. There is little curb appeal in Palermo – houses are set behind walls. One never knows until one enters. The house where Joe and Julietta live is a funky, comfortable cottage, part Indonesian thatched roof, part Berkeley cottage, part Soprano decor. Best of all, it has a backyard with a small pool and barbeque. Few houses in Palermo have “yards.”
They tell me that real estate, especially in Palermo, has already risen to bubble proportions again. They would love to purchase their home, but they have calculated that if they saved 3,000 pesos a month, they would have the money to buy it in two hundred years. Financing? Forget it.
About the safety of living in Argentina, Joe says that Buenos Aires is safer than any large U.S. city. He says that the economy in the 1990’s was like that of Tokyo today. Palermo is gradually becoming gentrified as the Southern Cone’s answer to Soho. There are 350 restaurants in this area alone, he tells me. A fellow journalist walks in and they greet each other and talk a little business before his friend goes back to his table.
I ask the two about the melancholic nature of Argentineans, something I heard about in thes states but have not picked up on since I’ve been here. In fact, I’ve found Argentinians to be full of hope, open, and friendly. Most surprising to me, is that they are not bitter because I am an American, as is the reaction of many Europeans I meet.
In 1997 when Argentina’s collapse occurred, Joe tells me there were a record 181,000 Argentinean entries into the US who never returned. “Since then, the US has tightened visa restrictions, and since 9/11, it is almost impossible to get in,”Julietta adds.
Bryant Gumble did a piece on Argentina a few years ago in which he stated that Buenos Aires has the highest per capita psychoanalysts in practice anywhere in the world. Yes, Julietta and Joe agree, everyone they know is in therapy. “We are a melancholic, introspective people Julietta says. “Compared to Brazilians who live only for the moment and are very happy.” Wayne says he sometimes regrets not moving to Brazil.
ARGENTINA, LAND OF EMIGRANTS
During the two world wars, many Europeans took what they had and came to what was then the promised land to begin anew. There was gold in the streets then. Anyone could succeed then and most did.
About 60-70% of Argentina’s population is Italian or Spanish and the rest are made up mostly of French, German, Jewish, and Swiss ancestry. Julietta’s great grandfather was German, her mother Spanish.
Joe, who was born and raised in New York, says that when his grandfather left Hungary to escape the Nazi’s, he had a choice of two ships, one headed for Argentina and the other to New York. On a flip of a coin, his grandfather boarded the ship for America. Joe says, “I could have just as easily been Argentinian instead of American.”
Is Argentina the flagship polyglot country? What the world will look like when and if borders blend?
As recently as the early 1990’s, Argentina was the fifth wealthiest country in the world. It was the grain and livestock capital of the world. Argentina remained neutral as long as she could and profitted by selling to both sides. She only joined the allies in 1995.
So what do they like most about Argentina I ask the couple? The education Joe says. He has a 10 year old son who attends private school, but beyond private school, especially in the university system, educational standards are incredibly high. Many presidents have come and gone over the past 2 decades, but those who went fastest where those who proposed cutting funds to education.
Julietta says her grandmother had only an elementary education. But her mother is a nuclear physicist. Her father too. Education is something everyone here expects and takes advantage of. I remember a woman I met in Belize who was from Argentina. It was she who first sparked my interest in Argentina when she told me all the women are highly educated and most have prestiguous jobs. Coming as I did at that time, from a small community which expected women to stay at home, education or no, Argentina sounded very inviting indeed.
Joe says quietly that what is happening to America scares him. He says that after 9/11 sentiments towards the U.S. were very favorable. Friends called to express their sorrow and to inquire about his family. He was recently sent on assignment to find out talk to Argentineans about their feelings towards the U.S. now. Joe says, “In the years since Bush took over with his “cowboy politics”, views have changed 100 degrees. I searched high and low for one favorable comment about US policy, but I could not find one person in favor of our position in regards to Iraq.”
Does he plan to ever move back to the U.S. I ask. No. He says he gets bored after 2 weeks and cannot wait to get to Argentina. He is now an Argentinean at heart.
While we are walking through Palermo I ask the two what business a foreigner might succeed at in Argentina. Anything tourist-related they say. Hotels, tour operators…. We stop in front of an outdoor barbeque grill where there is a bar set up to serve drinks and food, some plastic tables and chairs – a man is turning a peice of beef on a stick over live charcoals..In the background are large steel tanks of water and folded plastic tents. “This is one of our favorite examples of Argentinian resourcefulness”, Julietta says. “During the day it is a car wash.. At night, and on Sundays, it is a restaurant.”
Monday, February 3, 2OO4
STILL IN KANSAS?
“Cecilia”, a realtor from Reynolds Properties, asks me on the phone what kind of food I like. “Everything”, I tell her. “Preferably, Argentinian.” She sends a driver to pick me up, I assume to take me to downtown Buenos Aires. But we drive out of the city through what increasingly appears to be a miniature version of North America. Burger King, McDonald’s, Ford, Blockbuster Video, and a restaurant called Dallas which the driver points to and says it’s almost as good as “Kansas” where we are going. “Un buen restaurante!” he says. Turns out Kansas is everyone’s favorite restaurant, at least those who live in the suburbs, which is everyone in Buenos Aires who has “made it”. We pull up in front of a restaurant which resembles a TGIF. We are in a suburb called Martinez. Cecilia meets me out front. She’s not the frumpy realtor I’d expected, but a vibrant, pretty blonde in tight pants and heels.
We make our way through the packed restaurant to a table where she introduces me to another realtor, also named Cecilia. We order dinner – me a steak. I am in Argentina after all, Kansas or no Kansas. I have to say I have never tasted meat so delicious. There is something incredible about the flavor and texture. I do not recommend Argentina to a vegetarian.
They ask me what I am looking for and what they can do for me. I explain that I have two objectives. One to gather information on the current state of real estate prices in Argentina for expatriates. The other to look for a place for myself.
“Bargains aside,” I say, “Why should a foreigner buy real estate in Argentina?”
“Argentina has everything,” the Cecilias say. “You have a cosmopolitan city, with thousands of miles pampas, and miles and miles of farmland (and potential wine producing soil!) and the most beautiful mountain range in the world (Patagonia), and hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline. Not to mention, every climate from tropical to freezing year round and in-between.”
They hand me a comprehensive packet which includes information on everything from rentals ($800 a month for a 2 bedroom French apartment in the most trendy neighborhood in the center of the capital, to $3,000 a month for a McMansion with a pool in the suburbs.) to sales of apartments and homes in the city and all the way to Bariloche, a ski resort in Patagonia. (See resources at the end of this story to contact Reynolds Properties. I highly recommend these ladies! They go way beyond their job description as full service relocation experts have three offices, one downtown, one in the suburb of Olivo, and another in Lomas de San Isidro.
Cecilia #1 is light skinned and blonde with blue eyes – her father is Scottish, her mother French. Cecilia #2 is darker, her ancestry, Italian and Spanish. I notice that the people in the suburbs are lighter than those in the city. In fact if I blinked, I could just as well be in Martinez, California, U.S.A as Martinez, Argentina. I tell Cecilia #1 this, and she smiles and says humbly, “Yes, we do have a lot to offer here.”
Both women haven’t been home since they left early this morning, and both are married and have children. “How do you do it?” I ask. “In Argentina we can afford nannies,” they tell me. Since they have to get to work early in the morning, we leave early (for Argentina) at 11:30 PM. We will meet in two days to look at apartments in the city.
As my driver takes me back through suburbia to the “Capital”, I am amazed at huge freestanding homes, the gated communities, the brightly lit main street with store after store where one can buy everything one didn’t know they needed, past fast-food restaurants, and gaggles of wholesome looking teens standing around in parking lots.
If you long for America the way it used to be, where families have Sunday barbeques (asados) with their neighbors and friends out by the pool, a brightly lit downtown street, restaurants where you see all of your friends even on a Monday night, you can order until 2 in the morning, where sycamore trees form canopies over the streets, where it’s safe to be out at any hour, where you can afford a maid and a nanny and private school for your kids, and a driver too, where you can live in a large brick house with a pool in the backyard in a gated community, and where that 4,000 square foot house costs less than $500,000, where your grown children and parents either live under the same roof or in the same neighborhood, where the sight of homeless people is something you only hear about, where a few minutes drive will have you back in on cosmopolitan boulevards lined with elegant French and Italianate buildings straight out of Europe – then get yourself on the next wagon train to Gaucho Country, specifically to the suburbs of Buenos Aires. It’s North America in the seventies, before moving back to the city became the trend.
LIFE IN THE CITY
I’m not sure whose idea it was to paint lanes on Argentina’s roads, because they are systematically ignored. While I don’t agree that Argentinean drivers are some of the worst in the world, distinct lanes of traffic simply don’t exist. One drives where one finds or makes space. Another interesting aside: In Buenos Aires the light turns yellow not only before it turns red, but also before it turns green.
That night, I open the fourteen foot tall French doors of my room at The Malabia House to my balcony and sit under the leaves of a sycamore tree. I am dressed in cotton pants, a sleeveless cotton blouse, and sandals. I’m not cold and I’m not hot and there are no bugs. The moon is full, and even after midnight, the city is buzzing, cars and voices everywhere. The cafes overflowing with patrons. A policeman stands at the corner in the shadows.
Wednesday Feb. 4
If one desires to live in the city center, La Plaza San Martin is the best neighborhood I am told. The plaza is indeed beautiful.. Where Palermo is hip and bohemian, downtown Buenos Aires is old world elegance. It’s a cosmopolitan world, with ornate buildings, statues, parks, and the hustle and bustle of international businesswomen and men. It is odd to see so many blondes in a Latin country, such a variety of facial features, physical builds. One thing I see a lot of are nose jobs. Strong jaws and cheekbones and big eyes with petite noses that look oddly out of place. I’ve heard that nose jobs are as common here as having your teeth cleaned. From the looks of things perhaps it’s true.
We look at three properties beginning with one priced at $50,000 – an apartment approximately 300 square feet – ideally located, but a sad little box; and ending with a $200,000 apartment, which doesn’t resonate with my heart or my pocketbook.
The middle-range apartment, however, just over 1100 square feet with an asking price of $130,000 wins me over. It is loaded with french architectural details, beautiful wood parquet floors, leaded glass windows, arched doorways, 2 bedrooms and a maids quarters, 3 baths. I love it. It would cost almost nearly a million dollars in San Francisco. Will the owners take $120,00? She’s sure they will. It takes great restraint not to write a check right there on the spot. They have done their homework and tell me that after expenses, if the apartment is rented half the year, I will make 9% profit. It is hard for me to fathom how I will earn a profit on this apartment when the government levies a 21% tax on the monthly rent of only $800. And I have to remind myself that I already have a “city” apartment (in San Francisco). What I’m looking for really is beach property. There are no beaches in Buenos Aires. On the other hand, I can’t stop thinking about that lovely French apartment.
A CANADIAN INVESTMENT BANKER
As we dine on beef ribs on an expansive green lawn, overlooking the wide muddy Tigres in soft sunlight, “Dave”, 35 years old, tells has worked hard all his life to make money. “After the first 50 million and then the second, it gets to be pointless,” he says. A cancer diagnosis (fortunately benign) just two months ago jolted him into rearranging his life. Settling in one location and finding a partner are priorities now. He began his search for home with a short list : South Africa, Argentina, and New Zealand. New Zealand got the boot because it was too far away. After only three week s in Argentina, he says his search is over. He is home.
Dave is from Toronto, Canada he tells me, although when I question him, it’s hard to figure out where he’s actually from, since he’s also lived in Sweden, France, the U.S., and the U.K.
Why Buenos Aires? I ask. He says because of the people, “They go out of their way to make foreigners feel comfortable.” He adds that Portenos don’t care so much about money and hard work, and he is ready for a break from that life. He does plan to continue working part-time via the internet, and so for him, the skilled labor force and excellent infrastructure here are strong pluses. Dave can be skiing or golfing in 45 minutes (if he flies) at his favorite resort in the Patagonias, the Arelauquen Golf & Country Club in Barioloche.” Argentina is a bargain right now. It’s Europe on a Latin budget,” he says.
Friday, Feb. 6
DREAMING OF PATAGONIA
Patrick is a contributing editor for Outside Magazine and author of the book Chasing Che, a book he wrote from research conducted during a motorcycle trip through South America. Patrick is headed home to New York tomorrow. He has been in Patagonia looking at cabins – his dream home away from home.. Unfortunately, it is not the dream of his fiancée, whose work keeps her in New York. And his contacts too, are in New York. He can’t get over the fact that an apartment in Manhattan will consume all their savings at five times the cost of the cabin and land he dreams of owning in Patagonia.
“DIANA” AND THE TANGO
“Diana” meets me at the door of her luxury apartment at 9PM in shorts, a tee-shirt, and bare feet. While stirring a pot of macaroni and cheese for her two sons she tells me that after her divorce in the states, she applied for a job with the US Embassy, and received her first assignment in Argentina. “This has been an ideal, cush, first post”, she says. Here she and her sons, ages 13 and 16, can live a lifestyle they could only dream about in the States. The children are driven to and from private school each day, and their off-hours are filled with activities and excursions around South America. Anything she wants from groceries to cleaned laundry can be delivered to the apartment with just a phone call. A multi-story cinema is around the corner, so when she wants to see a movie, she buys a ticket for a reserved seat in advance. As for social life, there is something to do every night and weekend. “It’s a matter of turning down invitations”, she says.
We slip out leaving the boys immersed in video games to walk two blocks to a restaurant she passes everyday, but has not yet tried. She already knows what will be on the menu although she’s never dined here. Argentine food is always the same she says. Meat, salad, and desert. When she and her friends want something different, they go to an ethnic restaurant, of which there are hundreds in Buenos Aires.
Felix, who at one time lived in Manhattan, is the Argentine owner of Le Petit Bistrot, as well as chef, waiter, and piano player. After he has served our dinner of asado chincharron, grilled cheese with fresh oregano, bread, sausage, salad, and a bottle of wine (I was delighted to discover that Argentina has great wines), he sits down to play Beatles tunes on an electric piano. There are three tables in the charming restaurant. The bill including tip is 50 pesos, or less than $20.
I ask Diana how she explains to family and friends in the States moving her two sons so far away from home. “I don’t even bother,” she says. “My ex mother-in-law looks at my boys and says things like, ‘Now where is this Argentina place where you’re living?’ and ‘When are you boys going to start having a normal life? Nobody really gets it, so I don’t bother trying to explain anymore. The boys love it here.”
On the drive to Diana’s earlier that evening my taxi driver had told me about a milonga where he and his friends have been dancing the tango for 20 years. He invited me to come, and scribbled the name and address on a scrap of paper. “What do you think”? I ask Diana showing her the address after dinner. She wrinkles up her nose and says, ” I don’t know that neighborhood, and a recommendation from your taxi driver?”
“Yeah, I know, but there was something genuine about this old guy. I think we should go.”
We find ourselves at La Grisela, an authentic milonga which is one of many local tango dance halls which never make it into the tourist guides. We stand waiting to be seated and are politely ignored. Maybe it has something to do with the fact we are single women, or maybe its our pants and flat shoes in this tight dress, stockings, and stiletto heel environment. Or maybe it’s the fact that we stand out like beacons as foreigners in a milonga which belongs to the residents of the barrio. Finally the hostess leads us to the old maid’s table in the back of the hall behind a big post. We are seated with some very hopeful looking, heavily made up older women. Under a thick cloud of smoke, we watch as couples young and old, mostly old, slide across the ancient wood floors to the soundtrack of Scent of a Woman.
When all the other women at our table have been asked to dance and we are the only ones left sitting, and when we begin to notice that several elderly gentlemen are looking longingly our way, we wimp out and stand up to leave. These Portenos have tango in their veins and I’m not about to make a fool of myself here. I mentally note that I must learn the tango before I return. It’s 1AM when we hail a taxi. Couples are still arriving. The streets throb with life.
BUENOS AIRES AND THE SITES
I am waiting for the late afternoon light so that I can photograph the city’s major sites. I will hire a driver for $4 an hour because it is unsafe for a small woman adorned with expensive cameras to walk about the city. Among other things , I photograph Avenidue Julio 9, Los Aguas Argentinas, the Plaza San Martin, the Obelisk, and La Recolleta, where the dead reside in a nicer neighborhood than many of the city’s living residents. It is truly a beautiful city, but so much has been written about its “sites” that I won’t waste your time here.
Since 2001 Argentines are poorer than ever, some desperately so.
An Argentine woman stopped me earlier today on the street to warn me to place the strap of my plain black bag across my body. She had just witnessed in broad daylight on Avenida Santa Fe, in front of a crowd of people, a man trying to wrest a gold bracelet from a woman’s arm. The bracelet was too small and her arm too pudgy for him to get it off and so she ended up with a bloody arm, her bracelet intact, when the man jumped on a waiting motorcycle and took off.
This having to worry about hiding valuables: do I want to live this way? Preferably not, especially since my job requires using expensive equipment in public. But what to do? It’s one of the perils of living in a large South or Central American city.
Tonight I join Diana and Kim from the Embassy at a new Armenian restaurant called Manto in my barrio of Palermo. We are the only ones dining. We wonder aloud why the restaurant is not a success, especially since the food is outstanding and the ambience VERY chic. Our waiter informs us that no other patrons are here because 8:30 PM is too early for dinner. Sure enough, when we leave at 11PM, the restaurant is full. I love a city where I’m not always shutting down the restaurants.
On the drive home, we pass cafe after cafe overflowing into the street with people. My American friends gawk at this newly gentrified part of Buenos Aires they rarely since they live downtown near the Embassy. Kim says Palermo reminds her of Greenwich or Soho. The Moon guidebook says Palermo is the home of artists and filmmakers.
Feb. 9, 2004
SUNDAY IN SAN TELMO
An old lady dressed in fishnet stockings, a vintage hat, platinum curls, ruby red lipstick and rouged cheeks is sitting on a tiny stool singing into a microphone, “Jambayla, Mio myo, Son of a gun, gonna have some fun on the bayou”. She’s reading the words from a book in one hand and operating a small recorder in the other which plays the background music. I am mesmerized. Jambaylaya by the … San Telmo? The street with its assortment of entertainers, each weirder than the next, reminds me of Las Ramblas in Barcelona. A puppeteer gives life to a small soft baracho holding a wine bottle, who falls down and pulls himself up while telling his sad tale in slurred Spanish.. At regular intervals along Calle Dorego, statue-still people who have been spray painted, black, silver, or gold stand frozen on podiums, There are tango dancers from another era, – the women with the painted faces of madams, the men mustachioed in tuxes, graceful, proud of their skill, heads held high, faces solemn, with legs intertwined. An accordion player, and a guitarist accompany them. I look at all the stuff for sale in the flea market which looks like all the old stuff in flea markets all over the world. I buy a bag of warm, candied peanuts and eat them while I negotiate the wavy cobblestones under my feet while watching the entertainment and peeking into the store windows of antique shops.
A GERMAN EXPATRIATE
It is time to pack. I leave for Brazil tomorrow. But I’m hungry and it’s only 6PM, hours before the restaurants will serve dinner. And so I walk to Godi Restaurant where I sit outside at a small table during the espresso hour. I order a pizza Napoliatana and a cafe con leche. This being Sunday, everyone is out, either soaking up sun in the park across the street or sitting outside at cafes. They say Argentine women are fashion conscious and it’s true. They wear the latest tight jeans and skirts slung low on their hips topped with tiny blouses. The streets are full of boutiques with avant-garde fashions…places where you have to ring a bell before they let you in and where the clothes are likely to have been designed and handmade by the owner of the store.
A man, sits down at my table while I wait for my bill. The sun has just gone down and the tables on the sidewalk are full. “Carsten” from Frankfurt Germany bought a house in Palermo today for $57,000. I ask him to describe it: A large salon, two bedrooms, two patios, lots of light, and a yard. He and his girlfriend first visited Buenos Aires this past December. They loved it so much that he rode a bicycle through every street in Palermo, taking notes where he saw sale signs. They found their dream house that week and now he has returned to pay for it. Will they move here full time? I ask. He hopes so. They are tango teachers in Germany who have found the source of their passion.
BUENOS AIRES BUENO OR MALO?
The Good: great nightlife, restaurants, sophisticated, educated people, nice, accepting, elegant people (no red-necks here), good prices, excellent healthcare, an international airport, fabulous architecture, artists and musicians, international community. No ocean nearby but a ferry trip to Uruguayan beaches or a short plane flight to Argentinean beaches. Close to skiing as well. Low cost of living, at least at the moment. Reasonable real estate prices which are likely to appreciate. Lenient laws regarding foreigners purchasing property. Community values, where family, friends, good food, art, and music rate higher than the art of massive consumption (with hints in the suburbs that that may change.)
The Bad: – The flat terrain of Buenos Aires. I am most at home in a land of lushly vegetated mountain terrain which meets the ocean. I could probably deal with the short cool winters of Buenos Aires, but I’d prefer warm weather year round. It is also very FAR away from my children and parents and best friends, although no further than say Bali.
The pluses, especially the fact, that I immediately felt (and continue to feel) very much at home among Argentineans, could easily over-ride the negatives listed above. My comfort level among Argentineans will be a common theme on my month long sojourn.
In conclusion, I suspect I could live happily in Argentina if I could find work here.
Will I make Argentina my New World as recent generations of emigrants have done before me?
BRAZIL OR BUST
The second the wheels touch the runway at GIG Airport in Rio de Janeiro, the passengers stand to open overhead bins and begin pulling out their bags. No matter that the plane is still moving at high speed along the runway. The announcement “Please wait until the plane has come to a complete stop before you remove your seatbelt and leave your seat. ” never comes.
I am in a land where rules are, well just rules. Over the next three weeks, I will hear over and over again: “Tudo legal.” Pronounced (TOO-d a lee-GAHL.) It’s Brazilian for “Everything is OK.”
But more about Brazil next month. For now, ciou!