Thursday, April 14, 2011
I love this city, and all of its quirks. For instance, in when leaving in the morning, the cacophony of hola’s, qué tal’s, and buen día locos. Then there are the sidewalk cafés: sitting at an outdoor café with a friend and debating the merit (or conversely, the lack of merit) of women, fútbol, politics or, in Argentina, pizza, is unbeatable. Far from being a restaurant snob, when I am in the mood for a quality cup of coffee and place to converse, ambiance is everything.
Reflecting that, some of my favorite places belong to the new wave of cool-but-cheap restaurants popping up in slowly gentrifying places like Chacarita, Colegiales, and Villa Crespo. Le Blé, a French boulangerie on a shady, tree-lined stretch of Avenida Dorrego, is my favorite of the bunch. Its airy interior, oversized communal tables and, most of all, flaky pain au chocolate, won me over. On the other end of the spectrum, there is the bare bones, sparsely-decorated La Piurana in Abasto, whose 18ar ¼ pollo-a-la brasa “promoción” brings me in on a weekly basis.
Recently, I came across a website run by a Mexican woman who makes tortillas and other Mexican foodstuffs in her spare time. As tortillas don’t exist here, I ordered a ½ kilo of hand-made, yellow corn tortillas. After picking them up from her office in an unassuming, un-renovated Montserrat building, I got together with a friend, Gringo Mike, and made tacos. Mike, who is from Virginia, is one of a handful of Americans I have met here. Evidenced by a pair of New Hampshire college students befriending me in a lonely, un-interesting coffee shop, I have noticed that once abroad, regional (American) and political differences melt away, and people unite under a national identity.
Still, the randomness of the city is what always does it for me. Stumbling upon a death metal club on a deserted San Telmo sidestreet, at 2:30am on a Tuesday. Or walking into a bodegón and seeing viejos in full-blown suites, cardigans and argyle-patterned pants on an 80 degree summer day, drink Basque wines in cups full of ice cubes. Or the hidden art gallery in the small house next door, with no adornment or signs announcing its presence. Or the attractive older lady in the Montserrat óptica, who fixed my Ray Bans because she enjoyed my “presence.” If “not ever knowing what comes next” was a quality, BA would have it in spades.
About the viejos, they are most common in the near-south neighborhoods of San Telmo, Constitución, and La Boca. A friend called these areas the Casco Viejo of BA. True, there always seems to be alot of older men, wandering around, overdressed for the humid Argentine summer. These barrios are also the main focal points for the city’s much-loved parillas (neighborhood restaurants specializing in comida porteña, especially large, oversized cuts of beef). But as time hasn’t been to kind to these once-grand neighborhoods, viejos, often born to European immigrants, are the only whites left. I guess that is the Argentine equivalent of White Flight. Visiting is like stepping into a real-life Grand Torino movie. The paucity of whites (along with the abundance of graffiti, derelict buildings, and the [usually non-Argentine] thugs, thieves, and pregnant teenagers) lends the southern part of the city a very..”Latin American” feel.
Last week, in La Boca, I saw a guy cross a street mid-block. Initially, I thought nothing of it, as city-dwellers routinely cross during a lull in automobile traffic. Bit-by-bit, as the man emerged, I saw drops on his shirt. But as he was still in the shadowy part of the street, I wrote that off, thinking it was part of his shirt’s design. I then walked into a market, to buy a cold drink. As I walked out of the market, I saw the man again, and as he entered plain view, the entire right side of his face was covered in blood. I guess that answered my question about the “drops” on his shirt. Or the San Cristóbal grandma, with a broken nose and missing purse, crying and screaming for police. Or the bare-footed ladrón leaving the cozy confines of his Calle Godoy Cruz slum to try and wrestle a purse from a well-dressed, middle-aged mother and daughter. I have seen more crimes take place in six weeks here than I have in my whole life in Los Angeles.
I reserve a special disdain, though, for the “trapitos.” People who, in busy areas on the weekend, extort money from drivers parking their cars, “making sure nothing happens” to their cars. You see them standing on corners wearing orange vests and swinging towels in the air; the towels are used to cover their hands when punching out the windows of people who refuse to pay them.
Relatively speaking, BA is a safe city, and it enjoys low levels of violent crime. Unlike other Latin American cities, here one can stay in posh, luxurious locales like Palermo, Puerto Madero, Recoleta, or Retiro, and - for a second - squint your eyes and pretend you are in Europe. As for the occurrences above, while they don’t define and characterize life here, as they do in Caracas, or Managua, they are apparently common enough to bare mentioning.