Buenos Aires: Overhyped, Annoying, and… Awesome?
Argentina was losing — something it hates to do. Somewhere shortly before the third successful attempt at a goal by the Germans, out of the crowd of thousands gathered to watch the World Cup match on TV in the middle of the Avenida 9 de Julio, came Juan. He put his arms around me and smiled.
“What the hell are you doing here,” he asked, eyes twinkling.
It seemed like he already knew, and even if he didn’t, it wasn’t important. But he still wanted to curse — just for effect. This makes him like a lot of other people in Buenos Aires.
Sloshed on Quilmes beer, my new best friend began to complain, and bitterly. He was angry at Argentina, at Maradona. But he was also angry about other things — about life in his hometown, where it seemed, he thought, you could never make enough money. Try as he might, Juan confided, he just couldn’t gain any traction with the fairer sex.
He demanded to know: Which team did I like? Considering the fact that we were in a free-wheeling city like Buenos Aires and considering that Juan was practically hanging off me at this point, I wasn’t sure if we were talking about soccer or sex. Figuring he might just be drunk and need something to hold on to, I guessed at the former, swearing up and down that I hated the Germans.
Even if I didn’t, by that point I certainly wouldn’t have come clean; just a few moments earlier, a group of pretty blonde girls staying at the hotel across the avenue had been waving the old Red, Yellow & Black. By goal number two, a large portion of the crowd had turned in their direction, screaming at them to shut up and go home. It was a nice little moment.
Satisfied at least in part, Juan stumbled off into the increasingly disgruntled crowd, leaving me to watch the game with two friends, Joel and Leo. Joel is from Chicago and couldn’t have cared less about who won. Not so Leo, who lives down the street. Normally a mild-mannered individual, Leo wasn’t much happier than Juan at this point, headbutting me in the shoulder every time Argentina did something stupid. If you saw the game, you already know this happened a lot.
With every new failure to recapture lost glory, every new humiliation, the mood grew darker, even though, for winter, the day was gloriously sunny, approaching 80 degrees. Nice weather could provide little comfort; Argentina — defiant Argentina — had been dragged over Germany’s knee and spanked, but not in the fun way.
Let there be no lies; I enjoyed the whole sad spectacle. Memories of the previous week’s match with Mexico were still fresh; it wasn’t enough that Messi and Co. steamrolled over them, they did so with such little grace and so much whining and rolling around on the ground in mock-pain, you sort of wished Argentina harm somewhere down the road, and lots of it. A lot of it, they got.
This kind of sums up the way I feel about Buenos Aires; for me, it is the sort of place you love to death and yet, wish death to. Maybe it’s the lingering smell of the fake bird poop that the pathetic old peasants squirt on you as you walk through the downtown shopping district, in hopes that you won’t know what their game is. (It’s to help you wipe it off, and in the process, go digging through your pockets.) Maybe it’s the taxi drivers who pretend not to know how to find the top hotels in town, or the fact that the top hotels in town charge triple per night what many Porteños pay in monthly rent. There are enough petty scams going here to make Mexico seem honest.
Whatever it is, I’ve found it hard to care for Buenos Aires, the way others do. I am mystified by the deification of long-dead political figures; bored by the idea of tango as tourist attraction as I am the beaten-path blues clubs of Chicago or the tired jazz halls of New Orleans. The architecture’s fine, but it is fine in many a Latin American city. It’s really, really weird to propose that someone fly eleven hours to a place that looks a little like a dirtier Paris crossed with a more gray Madrid, when you could just go to Paris or Madrid in half the time. After a flight this long, you really should be somewhere unique, like Istanbul. Or Tokyo, or Cairo. All places that you can fly to in about the same time from New York, in case you were curious.
If we’re being honest here, Buenos Aires as a physical plant, well, it isn’t much. It just isn’t. And can we talk about the food? Empanadas are not a cuisine, people. They are Hot Pockets. Slightly less scary Hot Pockets. Don’t like ice cream? You’re screwed at dessert time. Though it must be said, even the most lactose-phobic have to try dulce de leche at some point, in some form. All the talk about Argentine beef ignores the progress made in the United States over the past few years. At its best, it’s great, but so is the grass-fed beef you can get at more clued-in restaurants here at home. And speaking of restaurants, how many fusion menus served in spaces where the décor that looks like it got ripped off the pages of Wallpaper magazine can one economically troubled city stand?
I’ve always suspected that much of the ado made about Buenos Aires is made by expat writers who live there. It is pretty intoxicating, this idea of buying your way into the nicest neighborhoods in town for a few hundred bucks a month. File a couple of stories a month to your editors in the States, and you’re living like a king. Really, who wouldn’t love the idea of getting out of the grocery store with a full basket for twenty dollars, as I did last week, turning that basketful into no less than 5 or 6 meals. The better wines are pitifully cheap. It’s pretty awesome.
But there are many places that are cheap and kind of fun. Most of them closer to home. Is affordability enough?
What I have come to understand is that in Buenos Aires it is not necessarily about what you see, it’s about what you don’t. Buenos Aires is a feeling, a state of mind. While it may be not be a terrifically satisfying city to strike out and explore — the very act of wasting energy like this means you have it all wrong. Daytime is for working; possibly also sleeping. Everything good here seems to happen at night, just a short, cheap cab ride — bring small bills and don’t take any crap — from wherever you are, probably. At night, Buenos Aires reveals its true self; it’s sexy, sexy self. It may not let it all hang out like Rio or Miami, but that lack of cheap showiness is perhaps what makes it even sexier.
Where this all comes from isn’t entirely clear. It’s something you eventually begin to feel coming over you, perhaps as you watch an impossibly old couple dance gracefully in a cafe; maybe it’s after your second bottle of Torrontes in a smoky little restaurant where, at 11pm, the tables are starting to fill up again. Who knows — maybe it’s the way Argentinians just go for the gusto; the trademark confidence that many call arrogance, a state of being that will be familiar to any New Yorker.
Unlike New Yorkers, though, who are so arrogant and career driven and then often so retiring and/or neurotic in social situations, Argentinians do not appear to be crippled so much by shyness. If they like something, they go after it. If they want to dance, they’ll dance. They do not appear to be afraid to feel. This is not the culture of the stiff upper lip. Let’s just say, after a week, don’t be alarmed if you feel like you’ve been sucked onto the set of a bad telenovela.
Sucked in. That is perhaps how best to describe the Buenos Aires experience. When and if you finally do make your peace with this bedraggled metropolis, it’s not so much that you’ve fallen in love with it. No, Buenos Aires sucks you in. Once in, you have a choice. You can swim against the current, tough going to be sure. Or, you can just lay back, close your eyes and hope you don’t drown. This might be the best thing that ever happens to you.
David Landsel is the Travel Editor of the New York Post. This article is cross posted on nypost.com.
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