Kaye has itchy feet – again. Read why – and where they’re taking her – only on Just About Travel
“I come from a sad country.”
So said acclaimed Argentine author, Jorge Luis Borges, but my Argentine experience has only been a happy one.
I write this despite the expense (make no mistake, Argentina isn’t a cheap destination with every day groceries costing substantially more than they do back home), extraordinary slow service, weekly power cuts, poor WiFi and all the many, many, many scams.
I’d run out of word space if I was to include all the cons but my ‘favourite’ is arguably the old bank note switcheroo whereby the perfect 50 or 100 peso note you pay your seemingly honest taxi driver is somehow swapped right before your eyes and handed back to you with a mysterious rip in it. The driver shakes his head and says sadly, amigo, he can’t accept this note before demanding that you cough up another. The doors to the taxi - even the so called 'safe' yellow and black ‘radio taxis’ - won’t be unlocked until you do, meaning you’ll have little choice but to pay the fare twice.
Nonetheless while there’s lots to frustrate (I’ve not even scratched the surface), I adore the ‘Paris of the south’ - which thanks to the steamy strut that is tango (the national dance), superfluous steak, shopping, soccer obsession and legendary nightlife - loomed large in my imagination even before I touched down at Ezeiza International Airport. The combination of grit and glamour- think leafy, cobbled streets whose elegant belle buildings are adorned with graffiti art - has proved irresistible, as has the passion of the porteños.
I love the locals all or nothing approach (as Maria, my new landlady in BA, confessed: "We don't have a middle road. We like drama too much”). The porteños are always celebrating or criticising something and, as such, public parades and protests are as much a daily event as dinner.
Most of the frenzied and at times downright scary (think smoke bombs, flares et al) activity appears to take place outside of the legendary La Casa Rosada - whose pretty pink facade was originally achieved by, erm, mixing pigs’ blood with whitewash.
Situated on the east side of Plaza de Mayo - slap bang in the centre of the city - La Casa Rosada is where Argentine football legend, Diego Maradona, famously greeted crowds from the balcony after he helped his country lift the 1986 World Cup. It’s also where that other Argentine icon Evita (who much like Maradona was born in poverty before becoming a hero) addressed her legion of fans. (On a side note, Evita has acquired a status akin to a saint here as recent visit to the Evita Museum in upscale Palermo revealed. “God sent his favourite angel to the earth and when his work was done, ordered her return” was how one exhibit explained Evita’s premature death from cancer at age 33, in 1952.)
Clearly I'm not the only one who feels alive again in Buenos Aires. In the month that I’ve been here, I’ve met many expats who came here for a week’s holiday and then returned repeatedly as the metropolis worked its inexorable magic. In time, completely enchanted, they found a way to move here for good - damn the cost of living, the struggle to master Spanish and all of the aforementioned frustrations.
Take Terrie - an Irish hairdresser who swapped Belfast for Buenos a decade ago, upon discovering that her long term partner had been having an affair with their neighbour. Or Fabien, a divorced father of three from Edinburgh who says it dawned on him - now that his kids have kids of their own - that it was time to do something for himself: hola Buenos Aires! Elsewhere Joanna from Geneva suddenly decided, aged 37 and three quarters, to step off the Swiss treadmill and leave her banker boyfriend behind for a new life in BA. Then there’s Tucker - my extroverted American flatmate (I wake every morning to the sound of him singing Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney’s hit single, FourFiveSeconds, in the shower at full volume) who tells me that his native Tennessee just got “dull’ (something that even Buenos Aires naysayers could NEVER accuse this city of being).
Everyone has a story but the thread that runs through all of the narratives is this: the need to make a change. Do any of the assortment of characters I’ve met and mingled with, regret giving up their homes and jobs to move here? Turns out that they miss certain foods, family and TV shows but not enough to go back. As Terrie termed it: “I’m happier now than I was getting up at 7am every morning in the dark, to scurry to someone else’s salon.”
I’d benefit from a few more contacts (Buenos Aires works on contacts) but I wouldn’t be averse to joining them for the enthusiastic Latin American culture - not to mention the climate - seems to suit me. It’s something that struck me like a lightbulb while pottering around Palermo (Baires’ most graceful barrio) last weekend. I caught sight of myself in a shop window and almost didn’t recognise the reflection staring back at me. My hair was blonder, swept back in a bandana (a big look here) and I appeared heavier (that would be all the helado I have been hoovering up) but happier. More relaxed.
A move wouldn’t be impossible either as English language publications do exist in this city that cherishes its books (Baires is brimming with gorgeous bookshops), papers and magazines. But how do the locals earn their income? From what I have been able to glean, many are in the ‘vacation rental business’ - aka renting out rooms on Airbnb to travellers like me who are looking for an affordable alternative to hostels. It’s pretty good business as Maria informs me: “I’m earning an income without actually doing anything!”.
Alternatively they’re cleaning up as psychologists. Forget tango: BA may well be the world's capital of psychoanalysis. Seriously I have never met so many shrinks and that’s because absolutely everyone - rich and poor alike - goes in for psychoanalysis. It's a BA addiction that’s up there with football and coffee and a conversation with a porteño will invariably open with the sentence “My analyst says…” - proof that psychoanalysis isn’t a taboo in the same way it is in the UK. I asked a new friend (another Maria) who, doesn't appear to have any hang ups, why she has therapy. Maria’s response? “Yes I am pretty great (modesty, dear reader, isn’t one of Maria’s strong points) but I’m not perfect. Who is? We can all be improved.” Quite. Maria’s reply makes perfect sense in my mind, but then maybe I have just spent too much time in this city….
Speaking of which I have decided to bid BA a temporary - I’ll be back again, I don’t doubt - goodbye and move on to Mendoza, aka Argentina’s wine region, at the end of the week. It’s with a heavy heart that I’m leaving but to judge Argentina solely on its capital is like saying you’re intimately acquainted with America because you’ve 'done' Disney. And also, if I'm honest, it might have something to do with the fact that summer is segueing into autumn and I'm all about the sun.
What will I miss most? Where do I start… the tango and nightly milongas, mate (a bitter tea that is a Buenos Aires ritual), my morning medialunas, the way people think nothing of heading out here for a drink at midnight…
Yes BA has a troubled past (I was shocked to learn that the city was a popular destination for fleeing Nazis in the aftermath of the Second World War) and present (the capital, and indeed country, is struggling financially under Queen Cristina’s reign) but it’s still one of Latin America’s most fabulous cities.
To read part one of Kaye’s ‘Notes from a traveller’ series, please click here
To read part two click here and here
To find out how Kaye’s getting on in Buenos Aires, don’t forget to log onto Just About Travel in a fortnight (13 April)