Sunday, August 30, 2009
A fine city by any definition, Buenos Aires means, represents and many things to a myriad of people; amongst a few are its citizens, its non-resident workers, its visitors and just about anybody who happens to be in the city for a given moment. For some, it represents a workplace; for some, opportunity - a chance to start a new life; for some, Buenos Aires is home, while to others, it may be a vacation destination. To me it, too, represents many things, though none speak to me as much, or are as true, accurate or defining as it being the City of Faded Elegance. Upon hearing the title, especially people unfamiliar my interpretation and thinking, one may get a negative vibe, but I can assure that’s not nearly the implied connotation.
One may ask why faded elegance? Well, that’s because, uh, it is! To me, anyways, there isn’t a more fitting title to this city. The ever-telling remnants, carcasses and husks are synonymous with its stained glory, something derived from its great, painstakingly obvious fall from its once-magnificent past, which litter the city, speak for themselves.
I won’t delve into History, but I’ll leave you with a few tidbits: from 1890-1930, Argentina was a financial and economic powerhouse so mighty, it attracted 10% of all immigrants from Europe to the Americas (heavy waves of European immigrants brought more than 6.2 million Europeans from 1850 to 1950); its per-capital income and quality of life was superior to that of Spain, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland, allowing it to achieve a (purported) total wealth larger than that of France and Germany combined. With the bulk of the revenues and capital from that period having been poured into the crown jewel of nation, Buenos Aires, the ensuing master planning and riot of opulent European architecture styles that followed easily secured it the nickname the “Paris of South America”.
While this is just my opinion, if Buenos Aires is akin to any Paris, it has got to be the somewhat crude, unrefined Paris of 1910; or whichever Paris it is that lacks an all-important final layer of luster, sheen and polish. Much like it is impossible to walk down a block without seeing a building demolition underway, on the brighter side, it pretty much isn’t possible (or if it is, it requires some serious work) to walk a block without seeing a building with tremendous architectural merit. However, in a far greater abundance are buildings that are emblematic of period altogether bygone, bespeaking long-gone heroic fame and prominence that has since fallen on tough luck. The former second city of the Americas.
The thing is about these buildings in mention, is that most, if not a majority of the structures (the ones still standing, anyways) are in various stages of decay, neglect or in otherwise a less than stellar condition. When such buildings were built, the situation, air and atmosphere was different, to say the very least. Then, Buenos Aires was awash in prosperity and wealth, and in flux, being one of the world’s premier cities; the media, social and political capital of Latin America, as well as preferred haunt for the respective circles and elites those genres attract. Today, they are tangible reminders of the Buenos Aires of then; when such structures represented and stood for the utmost in ambition, hope, power, and vision. Despite my love and infatuation with grit, when I see such buildings I am almost always taken aback, a mere human amidst the former testaments and visible reminders of the ambition and hope that ushered Argentina into the ranks of the world’s best – but also because of how we’ve turned our backs on cities.
That said, Buenos Aires’ gritty authenticity, while all in your face, isn’t super imposing or scary like that of Detroit or a similar, blighted Rust Belt city. By contrast, it’s almost like that of Berlin, Detroit, or Prague; much like those cities, its quite likable, charming and almost romantic, in a sort of dirty, forbidden, almost poor but sexy way -- something very Parisian way in and of itself. To me, it is such grit and decay that differentiates the city, makes it special, and gives it character; the imperfection, lack of sterility or dullness and charm of it all, and most importantly, the fact that if a city has come down this far, the only other way left for it to go is up – an odd, strange beacon of hope.
Friday, August 28, 2009
As part of several installments of posts on Buenos Aires, covering a wide range of subjects, from people to urban decay, I felt it was only necessary to pay homage to perhaps what is one of my favorite aspects of this city: the food!
To put it lightly, food, alongside mate, is an Argentine ritual! Constantly fine-tuned and tweaked over the course of Buenos Aires’ development of Buenos Aires, meals have become grand, opulent social gatherings – to the point where light meals pretty much don’t exist at all; going big or going home is the only way it is here. Breakfast here is practically non-existent, aside from a cup of coffee paired with a small pastry…no doubt the result of such a late dinner. On the other hand, dinners are long-winded and are centered on discussion; one favorite pastime of porteños is having extremely long, detailed conversations about the latest political happenings, or more commonly, informing one on the latest in each other’s respective lives.
Ok. Firstly, mate is a precursor to any and every meal. The bitter, unrefined tea is almost sacred to Argentines, hence it is often enjoyed in the presence/company of others, with the participants taking turns “passing” it around in ornately-detailed gourds, only saying “thank you” when they’ve had enough. A typical day doesn’t start without a cup of the twig and dried leave-filled beverage. Words, adjectives or superlatives cannot suffice the love Argentines have for mate – they LITERALLY don’t go or do anything without it!
Now, onto the topic of dinners, which I’m left capable of saying only one thing: they are wildly insane. Dinners here are several courses long, and almost always include, in one way or another, the ubiquitous steak! Parillas, aka Argentine steakhouses are unsurprisingly the ground zero for steak culture, consumption and obsession here. Parillas themselves are authentic, character-laden, old-world style steakhouses known for asado, Argentina bbq. As for asado, it almost always means gigantic, grizzly-sized and portioned meats grilled on a behemoth outdoor grill over fresh wood embers or coal. A popular, quintessential meal (..and one of my favorites )here is bife de chorizo (sirloin steak) served with papas fritas a la provenzal (French fries with garlic and parsley) and chimichurri (an condiment made with olive oil and various dry herbs and spices) – though, the best part is that it’ll only set you back $10.00. Second to only parillas in terms of a sheer presence, visibility and and following in the city has to be the legendary empanaderia! Empanadas are the name for a fried-dough pastry usually containing a meaty filling; carne (beef), pollo (chicken) and jamon y queso (ham and cheese) all seem quite popular from what I’ve seen. Finally, the third component to the holy trinity of Argentine cuisine, and the most visible, lasting legacy of the heavy Italian immigration here: pizza and pastas (including raviolis and spaghetti, amongst other noodle dishes). While they aren’t my favorite, especially the pizzas, as they often lack or are completely devoid of sauce, a post on this city’s food would hardly be accurate without mention of them.
Another specialty here, one that’s actually been the recipient of awards and dedicated press, is Argentine ice cream. Nearly as ubiquitous as parillas or empanaderias, heladerias can be found on every block of the city (literally), and for good reason, too, as Argentines love their ice cream. Ice cream here is light, airy and tasty, just like the stuff back in Italy (myriad, colorful flavors thrive here, too). The treat is, like all things here, enjoyed at any and all hours of the day..and night; one night I stumbled upon a line spilling out of the door at one of the coveted ice cream chains here, Freddo’s – mind you it was 2am Back home, after a certain vaguely-defined hour (9pm?), consumption of just about any food is frowned upon – much less eating ice cream at 2am. Alfajores, mousse-dipped, multi-layered cookies, especially but not limited to those from the chain Havanna are quite popular, too. And of course, while on the dessert topic, DULCE DE LECHE! It’s everywhere! And on everything! Pastries, cakes, cookies, pancakes, ice cream; you name it and chances are it has the sticky, sweet caramel sauce on or in it. My favorite of them all though, has got to be the submarino; literally steamed, frothy milk served with chocolate bars in this Argentine DIY version of hot chocolate. Buenos Aires: a blissful food paradise indeed.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Prior to my arrival here, many people, on the heels of media trumped-up isolated instances or examples of racism, attempted to redirect me to another Latin American country – basically anywhere but Argentina. Now, I’m sure such racism and xenophobia exists (as it does in all places), but to blanket a wide-ranging population, both from social standings and groupings, but also economical/financial backgrounds, seems to be, well, kind of unfair. This is in a place where, most, if not all of the people I’ve met have been extremely kind and giving to me, often times going out of their way to things for me. In fact, I’ve “only” had one incident with anybody, and that was a snobby norteña lashing out at my camera pointed in her direction. Everybody else has been quite generous in extending their wonderful, big-city, porteño hospitality to me; mind you, this applies every single one I’ve met.
The people who are the friendliest to me, however, have been the lovely members of the porteña ranks. Thanks to them, there isn’t a place I go where I am not continuously showered with, adoration, affection and joy, and am the subject of much curiosity and intrigue. Based on my experiences and interactions, I’ve found them to be a rather lovely bunch that are very affectionate, attentive and well, feminine bunch – a stark contrast from back home, where it seems like every woman tries her best to stray away from traditional feminine traits. And to be honest, towards the end of my trip, I am still in a state of general shock and disbelief at how such a high percentage of the population can be good looking! It’s like I’ve been shipped to a different planet, one where people actually care and are conscious about their looks and image. Though, perhaps being accustomed to a pool of women where the majority are overweight, obese, not into guys, and/or just plain unattractive/undesirable, may have taken a toll on my expectations, lol. I’m serious! At least 7/10 of the girls I bump into here are above-average, and that’s being liberal with the estimates! Of course, that’s not even taking into account some places, like Palermo Soho, where unattractive women seemingly altogether cease to exist.
As if that’s not enough, the women, for a person like me anyways, are approachable (!), easy to charm, woo and forge relationships with. Smiling, a little foreigner-accented Spanish and a well-placed joke will almost guarantee you a girl for the taking. Though, in all seriousness any special treatment or especially warm receptions I receive are a result of my outward kindness and charming personality – and not because of something as superficial as my skin color – as a human, there’s a certain enjoyment and gratification one gets from all of the said attention. That said, I definitely appreciate and welcome such special treatment, and of course have no problem being the recipient of it.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
first, let this play.
So, as some of you may know, I’ve been in Buenos Aires, Argentina for a few days now. Now that I’ve been here for some time, I certainly feel validated to articulate my initial impressions on this lovely little town. Firstly, what a fabulous city! It’s impossible not to fall in love with it! As a city, Bs As excels pretty much all across the board; hitting on every cylinder that a self-proclaimed foodie, urbanite and architecture/city aficionado and lover could imagine. And that’s not even mentioning the almost brutal affordability the city offers. At a glance, and from a distance, the city seems as if it is almost tailor-made to fit and suite my needs!
For starters, imagine a city similar to New York in size and scale, but with a European-style build form and aesthetic, accentuated with a vibe and atmosphere that’s distinctly and unmistakably Latin. The ensuing result is one that is decidedly steamy, sultry, and sexy, despite being down at the heels. As one who adores urban build forms, mass transit and street life, I can’t help but sing praise for this city! It just works! Its vibrancy is incredible, and makes its presence felt in every dimension of life and corner of town. It’s almost overwhelming; non-stop, 100% city – especially since it doesn’t seem to end, instead appearing to go on forever. In light of this, its urban core, while sprawling, feels contained and is relatively easy to manage.
Best of all, no neighborhood is to be overlooked when it comes to stunning architecture, though to be honest, the cream will always rise to the top. Unfortunately, while no neighborhoods are devoid of architectural integrity and a rich history, none are spared from the massive amounts of demolitions and building tear-downs taking place at a neck breaking pace; such sites litter the city. It is practically impossible to walk more than a few blocks without hearing or seeing a demolition in progress; the ubiquitous black tarp covering a building (to protect any “debris” that my blow off and injure passing pedestrians); see-through trash bags filled with architectural ornaments, or of course the obvious, seeing a crew jack hammering away on a structure. Fortunately, the city has such an extensive stock of housing, that the number of tear downs absolutely pales in comparison to what is still intact.
That said, I especially love the convenience and how everything (literally) is no more than within a few blocks walking distance, or a short ride on the subway, locally known as the subte. In fact, in my opinion, the subway’s wild popularity is own worst enemy, it being jam-packed at all hours of the day and night. What other places have rush hour at 2:30 in the afternoon? No single place is within a cell phone’s throw away…well, I’ll take that back – no single place, with the exception of maybe Belgrano. Speaking of porteño neighborhoods…I love ‘em! So, so many are laden with charm, character and personality. Though, if I were asked to pick a favorite, I’d have to go with my current place of residence: San Telmo, with Palermo Soho faring in second.
Firstly, as one friend put it, San Telmo is an inspiration. Well, he definitely wasn’t lying. With its intimate, charming European-style blocks, faded glory and elegance, it’s kind of hard not to be such. Shortly put, this is almost no different from the old world. It joins an almost-exclusive league alongside Havana, or Alexandria; cities, that type feel, in the sense that it is, much like those places, a little slice of Europe in an all together different continent. Palermo Soho, too, is splendid..almost like a giant, neighborhood-sized and scaled Argentine version of Melrose, complete with silly thrift shops and boutiques offering the latest in cliché retro goods.
The people inhabiting these neighborhoods and city as a whole, based on my experiences anyways, are confident, sophisticated and approachable, not snobby, aloof and arrogant as they are sometimes made out to be. In addition, the people come off as quite fashionable - perhaps the of a tremendous lust for la moda, and of course the result of spending hours piling into gyms, and in some cases, going under the knife. Additionally, I have received nothing but love from them, enough for me to designate them as a kind group of people. Everyone I’ve met has went out of their way to please me; showing me around, taking me to various cafes or restaurants, or just being very friendly in general conversation.
Speaking of food, in the land of steak and empanadas, quality food is in abundance and is extremely cheap to come by. The best part, however, is that it is available at all hours of the night; there is nothing like leaving out on a whim at some odd hour of the night, to be greeted by busy restaurants with restaurants filled to the brim with hungry porteño. My main reasons though, for the raving of food here are the insane prices! A wonderful steak dinner, with bife de chorizo (sirloin cut) is $14, a small, gourmet pizza is $5 and desserts/postres, rarely fetch more than a couple of dollars. Breakfast here is short but sweet, unsurprising given dinner is usually eaten at anywhere from 9pm- ?? (seriously, lol). That said, breakfast might just be my favorite meal of the day here; the wealth of splendid breakfast pastries (facturas), no doubt having sealed that deal. A breakfast here is a simple as a medialuna (sugar-glazed, sweet baby croissant) or alfajore (general term for various cookie offerings) and a cup of café con leche (coffee with cream).
However, as with any else in life, not everything in Buenos Aires is like a café con leche; the good also comes with the bad. Luckily, in Buenos Aires’ case, the bads aren’t too visible or much of an issue and by far and large outweighs the cons. I do, however, bemoan over a few minor gripes: dog waste – it is never (!) cleaned up; cars run designated pedestrian crossing with absolutely no impunity; the sheer amount of waste and debris in the streets, even after trash pick-ups; wreckless bus drivers flying down 1-lane streets; the subte closing at 10:30pm in a city where nightlife doesn’t start until 3am. With that said, and on the record, I can finally vouch and attest that Buenos Aires is indeed a fine city – perhaps one that excels my initial expectations, and is a place I look forward to getting to know a little better in the near, not-so distant future.