Saturday, March 26, 2011
With a daily routine, a sense of order and normalcy has arrived to my life in Buenos Aires. Most of the time I think and speak in Spanish, and my nascent friend circle and social life, too, is falling into place. Several times a week I go to the supermarket (Carrefour) or my local “chino” (name for the Chinese-owned bodega-like markets ubiquitous throughout BA) to buy fresh ingredients to cook for that night’s dinner. Life without a cell phone has also proven to be surprisingly liberating and hassle-free; the people who actually want to see you will make the necessary provisions to do so. I am, at last, settled in.
Going outside of my home, and into the streets, is an invitation for turning my head, and constantly looking back in rapid secession. Seeing hot girls (and, really, all walks of life) is quite easy and commonplace here, since people actually walk places, and aren’t stuck inside of cars or air-conditioned shopping malls surrounded by enormous parking lots. You see alot of old people here as well; probably because Argentines don’t coup them up in retirement homes, or ship them to Florida. Day after day, nothing feels better than being out of a city (actually, country) where a culture defined by sprawl, suburban living, fast-food, and auto-centricity dominates. That said, the liberal Californian in me wishes it was possible for something to be done about the complete freedom and impunity smokers here enjoy.
I attend school in the city’s Downtown, a crowded, congested maze of banks, armored cars, pedestrians and motorcycle couriers. In many places, especially Ave. Gral. Juan D. Perón, the sidewalks are so small that walking two-abreast is impossible. That means one must walk in single-file lines, always behind somebody dragging away on a cigarette. And there is no getting out of it, lest you wish to walk in traffic, putting your life on the line. It is as if smoking here is still “cool,” whereas in the developed world, with its bans on outdoor (and indoor) smoking and cigarette advertising, we are, fortunately, moving away from it.
Elaborating on the people: for however trendy, European, or sophisticated the people may be (or are said to be), many are cold and reserved, at least on a superficial level. And provincial, too; you won’t believe the number of people I have come across who have never left “La Provincia.” The situation is better in the less-touristy barrios, where people are helpful, genuinely pleasant, and down-to-earth - even if sometimes weary or cautious of outsiders. Yes, living in a big city can mean keeping things to yourself in order to avoid being taken advantage of, or being brief to save time, but many people here are plain rude. Addressing somebody on the street with a buen día, only for it to be returned by a blank stare into the sidewalk, or an increase in walking speed, never leaves a good impression. For your well-being, I will spare any mention of the zombie-like ambiance on the subway, where nobody says as much as even a word, let alone cracks a smile. Such attitudes starkly contrast with the warm and amiable ones found in, well, just about every other country in Latin America.
Recently, I have done a good bit of exploring - primarily in the city’s rarely mentioned (except for crime!) south, as well as Colegiales. The city’s northern outpost of indie and youth culture, many of my friends live there, which means I find myself spending alot of time there (especially since it is walkable from my house). I like Colegiales. It, too, is unique: people actually live in homes there. A few nights ago, I was puzzled when a friend gave me her address, only for it to not include an apartment number. She later did confirm that it was indeed her place..phew. The barrio is also pretty well-known and respected in the street art community, visible in its graffitied-up power plant and adjacent Calle Cone having become pilgrimage sites for tourists seeking out edgy street art.
For one reason or another, I have also happened to find myself in the barrios of Bajo Flores, Flores, Parque Chacabuco and Paternal. Flores captivated me the most, and was the most surprising. In local, porteño circles, it wouldn’t be wrong to say it has a a bad reputation. In the conversations I have had regarding the city’s worst neighborhoods, Flores has had its fair share of mentions. Being the city’s most-populous barrio, it surely couldn’t hurt to visit, however short the visit. I did, and it totally caught me off guard! While Bajo Flores *is* bleak, and is to be avoided (moreso because there is nothing to do there, although crime surely is a big factor, lol), the part of Flores close to Plaza Irlanda was a joy. Blocks of neat, English, French and Spanish-influenced homes, happy-looking families out walking their dogs, and new luxury condos abound.. Being the last day of summer, I brought a ¼ pint of white chocolate and Swiss chocolate ice cream from an artisanal ice cream shop, eating it as I strolled adjacent side streets.
On the topic of prices, as an avid chef, I feel obliged to mention the oddities I have come across shopping here. Four sirloin-tip steaks cost 21ar ($5), yet a small bottle of olive oil will run you 17ar ($4.20). My favorite was seeing a kilo of garlic costing 50ar ($12.36). Fortunately, the Bolivian-owned verdullerías and fruterías (typically) have great prices on most fruits and vegetables. Despite this, I still have no clue why mangoes are 7ar a piece (almost $2 per mango). As for any imported goods..forget it about it; the price premium is unbelievable. To the rescue is Barrio Chino, the city’s fledgling Chinatown, and the place where I (and every gringo) go to buy food items that porteños don’t like. These include (among other things): spices, herbs, Asian noodles, seafood, and the gringo fan favorite, peanut butter. On a recent trip, I brought a kilo of mushrooms, Siracha chili sauce, a big bottle of soy sauce (of which is available at my local markets, but for absurd, unrealistic prices), and some hard-to-get chilies.