October 09, 2003

Falling in love in and with Buenos Aires

Although I arrived exhausted after a red-eye from Lima, I liked Buenos Aires right away.

I got off the plane and headed straight for a little coffee bar in the airport. The espresso was the best I'd had in months, and the croissant was perfect, and I thought to myself that this was all very promising. Then my cabbie locked his carkeys in the boot and I lay down on the back seat and read Dickens for an hour while he and some security guard smashed his car up trying to retrieve them. I wasn't expecting that, but I'd been in Latin America long enough not to mind unexpected delays.

Dopey cabdrivers aside, everyone had told me that Buenos Aires is the most European of Latin American cities and this is certainly the case. It is almost like being in Europe, really, as the city is full of elegantly dressed pedestrians smoking like chimneys, little green parks and squares, grandiose monuments, excellent coffee, and what appears to be millions of astonishingly handsome men wandering around with their sweaters tied over their shoulders in the terribly naff but strangely appealing manner favoured by the French and Italians. It is a rare pleasure just to park oneself in a café window and watch them sauntering by. What's especially gratifying is the way they eyeball you right back with a terribly steamy directness. It's enough to make one blush.

Buenos Aires is nothing like other Latin American capitals, with their Spanish colonial center, surrounded by hastily constructed modern buildings and ringed with sprawling slums (although BA does have slums, they are tiny in comparison to those of cities like Lima and Mexico, and are clustered in little pockets close to the centre). The middle of town is criss-crossed by elegant boulevardes lined with gracious beaux art buildings with elegant little French balconies and grey slate-tiled cupolas. There are shops everywhere, full of stylish clothes and shoes. The Argentinians don't go in for the tasty, rustic street food that other Latin cities have such a passion for, and in general there's a sense of order and tranquility here that sets Buenos Aires apart.

I had intended to spend a week or so in Buenos Aires, staying with my friends Marina and Luca. Marina went to journalism school with me in New York, and is a writer for the weekend magazine of Clarėn, Argentina's major newspaper. Her boyfriend Luca is a photographer and photo editor for a Spanish agency. They live in a dear little leafy residential neighbourhood called Olivos, with cute greengrocers and cafčs all around - it is very civilised.

I was supposed to leave for Brazil weeks ago but I have gotten stuck. The trouble is, I met an Argentinian man. With all that eyeballing going on, it was difficult to avoid, to be honest.

I had asked my friend Alberto, an Argentinian schoolmate of mine from New York who is the correspondent for the Argentinian broadsheet La Nacion, to send me the names and phone numbers of all his handsomest friends. Four nights after I arrived I dined with a very pleasant young man called Luis (he looked just like Ray Davies from the Kinks), and I was sipping some wine and evaluating his physical charms, when some others started to arrive, and suddenly the question of how handsome Luis really was became quite irrelevant.

Nicolás has thick black hair; deep, black almond-shaped eyes with very provocative lashes and a lean, compact body. He is the best sort of self-assured, sociable, smart, imaginative, brave, considerate, affectionate person. We started seeing quite a bit of each other after that first meeting, and I always intended to leave after the next weekend, but now it's five weeks later and I am still here.

So after a week enjoying the lovely hospitality of Marina and Luca, I removed to Casa Esmeralda, a guesthouse in Palermo Hollywood, a charming old leafy, cobblestoned neighbourhood that in the last decade has become a sort of SoHo, and my life since then has acquired a kind of incredibly languid, pleasant rhythm.

Casa Esmeralda (if any of you ever visit Buenos Aires, you should stay there - it's excellent) is full of other people who can't leave Buenos Aires. Scott, a Californian, just loves how cheap it is, and he sort of toys around with plans to start an IT outsourcing sweatshop here, but mostly he just does laps at the pool and eats in restaurants. Eva, a Swiss ski instructor, has a boyfriend here and has been in the city since the ski season ended in Bariloche - she is very lively and funny, and has a chuckling, gurgling laugh just like a baby's that bursts forth at the slightest provocation. Lise, a Frenchwoman, is a mystery. She is the biggest space cadet I have ever seen and she just seems to exist here. She speaks English and Spanish with an accent so thick one can hardly understand her. She doesn't seem to mind. She dances to Brazilian music by herself in the garden for exercise, and likes to get very drunk in the evenings. Damian is a very beautiful curly-haired Parisian boy who is doing a marketing internship at Lacoste in Argentina - but of course.

Then there are the two Argentinian guys who run the joint. Sebas had big plans to work at the UN but now he utilises his several languages and impressive knowledge of international affairs in more modest ways among his international guests. Justo, Sebas' cousin and possibly the most amiable young man I ever met, speaks only Spanish and he's the one who gets up and makes us breakfast as soon as we appear in the mornings. He is so obsessed with football that his team's name, Racing (pronounced "rrrassing"), is tattooed across his shoulders.

He serves us hot coffee in a thermos as we sit in the garden, and criossants accompanied by a pot of his mother's homemade dulce de leche - an indescribably delicious kind of thick, caramelised condensed milk. You pour it all over your croissant, and it's makes up the creamy centre of a special Argentinian biscuit called an alfajor that puts Australia's much-celebrated Tim Tam utterly to shame.

Justo keeps us company while we breakfast, cracking jokes and sipping from a special gourd filled with mate, the Argentinian herbal brew that has a whole ritual attached to it. You pour boiling water into the herb-filled gourd and suck it through a special silver straw that has a kind of filter at one end to stop the leaves. You pass it around from one person to the next. It's pretty strong but I quite like it. Coffee's better, though. Mora, the black Belgian Shepherd, tears around the garden like a psycho while we eat.

I basically spend my days here living the life of a flaneur. It's a perfect city for that - the air is clean, there is plenty of pedestrian activity, hundreds of cafčs and park benches to sit on, and the weather right now is perfect. I sit around reading novels (most recently "The Life and Times of Michael K" by J.M. Coetzee - an incredible book) and the International Herald Tribune, wandering in and out of shops and galleries, and really doing nothing much at all. It's a nice change of pace after the hectic sightseeing schedule I was on in Mexico and Peru.

Most evenings I go out to dinner with Nicolās and drink in bars. The eating doesn't start until after ten o'clock so the nights tend to be long, which results in a fair bit of sleeping in. There are countless restaurants in my neighbourhood, most of them serving variations on a meat theme. Argentinians are obsessed with beef and are always asking you whether you think theirs is the world's best. Only one answer is acceptable. A restaurant just around the corner serves extremely juicy empanadas (Argentinian meat pies that are so much better than meat pies I can't tell you) and very tender steaks. They have a shrine to football legend turned notorious cocaine vacuum Diego Maradona, that sits in a glass case in the centre of the room and displays a football jersey with his number on it, and various photos, including one of his baptism.

One evening Nico and I went to see the great Cuban jazz piantist, Chucho Valdez, at the gorgeous Teatro Colōn. It was opened in 1908 and is the one of the lovelist buildings I've ever been inside. It takes up an entire block on the enormous, sixteen-laned Avenida 9 Julio. Inside, the round balconies are stacked directly one above the other, and decorated with pretty lights and little plaster flourishes and lots of red velvet. The high domed ceiling is painted with courtly images of musicians cutting very elegant figures. One feels like Anna Karenina, only not suicidal. Chucho played solo, and he was so good at it we could only laugh.

And once I went to the football with Justo. I was shocked and disgusted to discover that no beer was served at the grounds, but when I expressed my astonishment to Nico, he answered with a look of disbelief, and said there would be no telling what might happen if the fans were allowed to get drunk. They certainly were lively, and I noticed with amusement that the home team's supporters were separated from the visiting team's fans, and weren't allowed to leave the stadium until the visitors were well away.

It's hard to know what I've been doing all this time, actually. I suppose I have gotten to know the city in the last month, and I guess I've gotten to know Argentinians a bit, although I can't tell how much. They probably deserve their reputation as an excessively proud bunch, but they are so warm and convivial that it's easily forgiven, I think.

I was moved to see the procession of bereaved and determined mothers and grandmothers on the Plaza de Mayo, who are still mourning their children who were "disappeared" during the Dirty War - the military dictatorship's reign of terror from 1976 to 1983 that saw some 30,000 Argentinians vanish after being kidnapped and tortured by the military. There is still no list of names and hardly anyone guilty of the murders is in prison.

You don't hear people talk much about the Dirty War, but they complain an awful lot about the economy. If international observers are mystified as to how a country filled with educated, sophisticated people and loaded with natural resources continues to be such an economic disaster, Argentinians are wound up to a pitch about it, and while generally they like to do a fair bit of sciting (they love to boast about their beef and how terribly good looking they all are), they heap abuse on themselves when it comes to their political system and its economic missteps. It's hard not to feel sorry for them - after eleven odd years of a peso equal in value to the greenback, it has been at three-to-one since the 2001 crisis and the cosmopolitan upper middle class set, used to regular trips to Europe, now has to satisfy itself with holidays in neighbouring countries. Most unsatisfactory.

I have made several attempts to leave Buenos Aires for Brazil, but I have never succeeded - once there was even a proper farewell complete with tears and begging, but in the end I couldn't summon the will to get on the bus. Nicolās now won't even let me go up to Iguazų Falls for a few days. He says it's boring although I know it isn't - it's supposed to be one of the most magnificent sights in South America, dwarfing Niagra. I feel mildly guilty about not seeing much of the country, but I'm really just far too happy to stay here with Nico, to be honest. We went to Pina Mar together one weekend. It's a beachside town and it really is amazing what non-Australians have to put up with in that department. We had a great time, though, stuffing ourselves with seafood and gazing at one another, etcetera.

I also spent a few days at Justo's family farm with Eva and another Swiss girl. It's out in the beautiful, dusty, flat countryside near Cōrdoba and we rode the horses and chased cattle with the gauchos (a kind of Argentinian cowboy) and chatted with Justo's incredibly friendly parents around the table in their charming old brick farmhouse with its 20-foot ceilings. But the countryside looked too much like home and it made me melancholy, and I missed Nico.

The weather in Buenos Aires is even lovelier now than when I arrived more than a month ago. The jacarandas are in bloom, reminding me of home, and I am afraid I really will be leaving very soon. I can't stay forever, and I have an appointment to morph myself into some kind of surfer chick at a resort in Costa Rica next week. I know I'll be useless at it, but it will be fun, I hope. It feels strange to be nearing the end of my trip, especially since I've been in such a state of suspended animation here. I am looking forward to the sea, and then to the snow, perhaps - I'll be back in New York for Thanksgiving.

I don't like to think of feeling sad, but I will. I don't quite know how much I will miss Nicolās, but it will be a lot. Fortunately, though, Buenos Aires is a city I will always be very glad to see again.

Posted by Sarah at 01:39 PM | Comments (3)

October 06, 2003


I arrived in Lima in the middle of the night, after a pleasant flight next to a very cheerful Mexican nun, who helped me practise my Spanish. She asked me whether I knew any Australian Catholics who might want to give her money, and told me I looked like Princess Diana. When I got off the plane I headed to the well-appointed apartment of Nano, a friend of a friend who had kindly agreed to put me up and show me around.

I bowled in at midnight with my backpack and my weighty supply of literature, and Nano was sitting up with his friend Mario, drinking and answering the cell phone, which rang non-stop. His bachelor pad is so funny because he has hardly any stuff and the windows are still covered in brown paper because he hasn't gotten around to furnishing the place, even though he moved in two years ago - Nano sort of seems to be camping there. Decorative quirks notwithstanding, the apartment was the first stop in the evening's revelries, and soon enough more men started showing up. I had brought a bottle of tequila with me from Mexico, which they utilised with some enthusiasm, while they poured me a steady stream of pisco, the local poison.

Nano is 32 and works for a US bank. My friend Emilio, an Argentinian who lives in New York, introduced us over email. Emilio used to live in Lima and recommended Nano as excellent company.

Indeed, all the company was excellent on my first evening, with all the fellas happily answering my questions about Peru and eagerly filling my glass. I was particularly fascinated to learn that all these blokes still live with Mum and Dad despite the fact that they're in their thirties and have perfectly good jobs. Apparently it's normal and it doesn't drive anybody mad. In fact, Nano said his mother was most disappointed when he decided to move out. I asked them how they managed their sex lives under these conditions, and they said they managed - that's all. I guess hotels do a particularly good trade with the locals. Later Nano explained that hardly anyone lives together before they're married, and the culture is still extremely conservative and Catholic when it comes to this sort of thing. He said he wished it weren't so, and I'm sure I'd feel the same. Several of Nano's friends were well-informed about travels, as they'd been reading my diary in advance of my arrival, which I thought was very sweet of them.

We went out dancing after a few drinks, to a bar right near the ocean. The waves came crashing right up to the glass windows, and there was a DJ and lots of hip young Limeņos grooving around. We stayed until about 3 - Nano left early and left me in Mario's care. Mario is from Chincha, 200 km south of Lima, and was staying with Nano for the weekend as well. He was suffering from the pounding house music and both of us were hungry, so we went out for some chicken then went to bed.

The next day Nano had to play sports with some colleagues, so after waking at around midday, Mario and his friend Carlos, a lawyer from Lima, took me into the centre of town to look around.

Lima's Plaza de Armas is very grand. The cathedral is painted yellow, and the cardinal's palace next door boasts an impressive set of those shuttered wooden balconies for which Lima is famous. They are made in an ornate Moorish style, and modest ladies could look out of them at the passing crowds without themselves having to suffer the gaze of the plebs below.

The square was full of Limeņos just wandering around, enjoying the scenery and the plaza's lovely big fountain. The weather was warm but overcast, which is a perculiarity of Lima. The sky is low and permanently grey, but it never, ever rains. Well, perhaps it rains three days in a year, but not more. Limeņos must be used to it, but I think it would make me sad. The presidential palace occupies one whole side of the plaza, and is a very ornate, regal affair, with a couple of snazzily dressed guards out the front.

We were starving, so the tour was pretty brief. Lunch was at a Chilean restaurant owned by a friend of Mario's. We drank four or five bottles of wine between us (delicious Chilean stuff) and I had the most delicious ceviche I could ever have imagined. It was so tender and perfect and I wish I could describe it.

I was practising Spanish all afternoon because Mario and Carlos don't speak English. But they were so friendly and warm, and so eager to feed me and make sure I drank as much wine as possible, that we had no trouble getting along despite the conversational difficulties. We rolled out of the restaurant at around 5 and headed to Baranco, the bohemian end of town, for a beer. I was well and truly finished by this time, so we all went home for a nap before heading out in the eveing, but unfortunately, we didn't wake up until the next day. There was no sign of Nano and I bade farewell to the excellent Mario, and took myself off to meet Sara for our Peruvian adventure.

I saw Nano again after my return from Cusco, as he had very kindly and warmly told me his house was mine. He was in bed with a hangover when I showed up after saying goodbye to Sara and the Pirate and the others, but he was rallying for his next outing. His cousin Hugo showed up and we didn't have far to go, as there was a party on the roof of Nano's building, and all his neighbours, including his sister and her husband, who live on the second floor, were all up there eating barbecued venison and drinking pisco. I gained further insight into Peruvian social mores from Nano's brother-in-law, who said "We are machistas - if my daughter grows up and does what you're doing, I don't know what I'll do." I raised my eyebrows but he just laughed and said he couldn't help it. His daughter is only two so she has plenty of time to wear him down, I guess.

The next day Nano took me to his family's place for the customary Sunday lunch. It's lucky they have maids, because the Sunday lunch is no small affair. By the time the enormous amount of food was ready, there were around 25 hungry people there. Nano's father's brothers, who all look alike and smile a lot and are superfriendly, were there with their wives and kids. Nano's mother was equally delightful, and so were his aunts and sisters. There was excellent food, including this cool Peruvian mashed potato surprise called causa - it's like a mashed potato mountain with sliced egg on top and avocado and tuna buried underneath.

Everyone was very welcoming, and I sat in the sun (this part of Lima is less cloudy, for some reason) chatting to Nano about Peru and his family. Nano said he'd like to go into politics some day, but his father was a congressman and retired from Fujimori's government disillusioned with the intractable corruption. Nano says corruption makes everything difficult - he'd also like to be an entrepreneur but says it's almost impossible to be an honest one. It's the same in nearly all the countries I've visited down here - everyone finds it so frustrating but nobody knows how it is to be stopped.

I flew to Buenos Aires the next day, and I bade my delightful host goodbye. He said I could come back whenever I liked, and I hope Nano visits me somewhere some day.

Posted by Sarah at 04:49 PM | Comments (0)