After living for over a month in Buenos Aires, I gained a new appreciation for city living. It seems strange for me to be writing this since it was just ten years ago that Hubby and I picked up stakes to move from the big city of Toronto to a small fishing village in Nova Scotia. I can honestly say “we” were looking to escape the city for a less stressful and less expensive lifestyle, but it was”I” who vowed I would never want to live in a city again. However, Buenos Aires definitely created for me a renewed sense of appreciation for city living – something I never really acquired while living in Toronto.
There are many reasons for my change of heart. The most obvious one is that after ten years I can see the benefits of city living with a different pair of eyes. In Toronto I was one of thousands of stressed out people having to battle horrendous traffic for a job requiring me to drive all over the Greater Toronto Area almost every day. Now I am retired doing things I like to do and not having to work for a living. I have the freedom to travel to foreign countries which can give me an urban and rural lifestyle, depending on where I choose to go. I can now enjoy all that a city has to offer knowing I will be there for just a short while.
This year Hubby and I chose to rent a small, well equipped apartment to set up a base in Buenos Aires (BA) where we could once again experience some city living. For him, BA would be the perfect place to feed his desire for lots of culture, namely music, and for me to explore an exciting cosmopolitan city to feed my desire to write. Unfortunately, I have to confess that my writing suffered because there was simply too much to see and do in BA. We chose one of the best times of the year to be there – their autumn. When we arrived on March 9th, the weather was fabulous with comfortably sunny days. In the last few weeks, it rained more than we liked, but it still beat spending April anywhere in Canada with the possible exception of BC. As my mind shoots back to my days in Toronto, all I can remember is hot, humid summers and raw, cold winters. BA’s climate alone had a hand in changing my perspective.
With time on our hands to be a visitor in addition to living there, the extremely active cultural scene, the abundance of places to explore, and the temperate climate all contributed to my new-found appreciation for the city life. To be more specific and to give you a clearer picture of what will go down as one of the more memorable cities Hubby and I have visited together, I will attempt to write not only on what I (we) liked, but also on what we disliked, found amusing, or downright strange.
Let’s begin with what I liked:
- In case you didn’t know, BA is a multicultural city which gives it the diversity needed to never let it be boring. Like Toronto, it’s a city of immigrants who first arrived from Spain, Italy, Germany, and other European countries going back to the 1700’s. In the mid 1900’s it began to accept large numbers of immigrants starting with the Jews after WWll. Today it has the largest Jewish population in South America. More recently it has drawn in people from China, Africa, and many of the Arab countries. With 48 separate barrios or districts, it is one of the largest cities in South America with a population over 13 million. Each barrio is quite distinct. Our apartment was located in Palermo one of the more trendy barrios. We had everything we could ever want within a few blocks all within easy walking distance. We could have spent a year just in this area alone and had a different panderia or cafe to go to for a coffee and pastry every day.
- One can’t help being impressed with the similarity BA has to most of the great European cities, making it evident why it’s been dubbed “the Paris of South America”. The large French neo-classical buildings, numerous monuments to their heroes of which there are many, the wide, tree-lined avenues, side-walk cafes galore, and grandiose theatres and museums are far more European than Western. After all, Argentinians have a history of gravitating to the east rather than to the north for their refinement of the arts and who can blame them?
- Another thing I liked, especially in our barrio, was the proliferation of parks both large and small. Little did I know this when I booked our apartment that most of BA’s parks were here and that the rest of the city lags behind Paris and even New York for adequate green space. This probably explains why they are so well used since they attract people from all over. We were lucky to have them within walking distance. In spite of the ongoing activity of the sports minded and fitness buffs, the families with babies and dogs, and any others who simply wanted to be out and about enjoying them, all the parks we visited were remarkably clean.
- Being the cultural mecca that BA is put Hubby in his element. I think he enjoyed it almost as much as he enjoys Florence. He even managed to get me to a symphony and two operas! We witnessed the opera, Don Giovanni, performed at the world-class and very beautiful Teatro Colon. BA boasts of numerous other theatres which puts it up at the top of the list for live theatre beating out New York and London. With all of this, plus their avid interest in sports, especially soccer, there is always something on. Then, of course, there is also tango where you can take in one of numerous shows including dinner and dance lessons for an exorbitant price. I felt that we could get a sufficient taste of tango from some of the smaller and possibly free performances that can often be found in various venues if you happen to be in that place at the right time. We had caught some in La Boca and San Telmo so it made no sense to me to blow over $100 for a show and mostly bland dinners (this according to Trip Advisor). As for the dance lessons, Hubby wanted none of that! But about two days before we were scheduled to leave, he began to have a change of heart. In the meantime, I was remaining neutral on whether we did or didn’t see a show. We found out that it was possible to take in just a show at some places so we started the search. Too late! All the solo shows were sold out! Now we have to tell our friends back home that we spent over a month in the land of tango and never once got to see a real show or take a tango lesson!
- I have to admit it was all the cafes which provided the most enjoyment for me. I love to sit alone, with Hubby, or with a new-found friend as we often did during our stay. They are perfect places for people watching or for getting into great conversations as we did with our friend, Peter, an ex-pat from Scotland. Peter is a writer who has lived in BA for over 15 years. We appreciated how he took us under his wing to show us the ropes of where to go and what to do in BA. I particularly enjoyed talking to him about what makes the people and the city tick. His psychological approach helped me understand what city living is like not only for ex-pats but also for those who have lived there all their lives.
- I was also impressed with the transportation system in BA. Although the subte, the Spanish word for subway, was a tad antiquated, it was convenient and cheap. Furthermore, I felt safe when using it in spite of repeated warnings from the locals to guard my belongings. When the subway couldn’t take us to our destination, we used the buses. With over a 100 bus lines running in every direction to all parts of the city, it was a bit daunting at first, but once Hubby got them figured out, we used them whenever we could to save our feet. With a bus pass, they were even cheaper than the subway! We never once got lost as most people were more than happy to help us out with directions. In fact, if we ever looked the least bit perplexed about the numbering system or where we were once we got off the bus, there were numerous times when help was offered by an English-speaking person without our asking, and it was offered with no strings attached. So different from our what we experienced last year in Morocco where unwanted guides kept pestering us for a charge, of course.
These were some of the good things about BA which I noticed, and I’m sure I would have found more in time. Now for the things I found particularly annoying which others we talked to also noted:
- The most obviously one for any visitor has to be the dog poop! Yes, dog poop on the side walks is the thing I detested the most about this fair city. It even surpassed my horror at seeing the garbage on the side walks of Phomn Phen for despicable things about a city. Everyone in our area, most of whom were apartment dwellers, owned a dog or dogs, of all shapes and sizes. Even though a law exists addressing ‘pooping and scooping’ not everyone is obeying it. With much care and focus I managed to side step it, but Hubby got caught a couple of times.
- The typical Argentinian’s approach to time, which is always ‘manana’ meaning ‘tomorrow’ in English, is another of my pet peeves. People here live very much in the moment so we found that setting a time for social occasions or getting things done could be problematic. ‘Maybe’ is their preferred word. We had to learn not to have expectations and simply ‘go with the flow’ which was a big adjustment for us.
- Communicating was another big problem, especially for me. I tried to learn some Spanish and did manage to build up a very basic vocabulary which was far better than my Thai, for example. However, when I tried using my limited Spanish, I was often left with a blank stare followed by such a rapid barrage of words I couldn’t even begin to understand. I found this very perplexing. I concluded that we in the western world are way too impatient and don’t listen nearly so well as the people in Thailand, Cambodia or Viet Nam where they intuitively seem to know what we want and are able to provide it easily. In both Argentina and Ecuador, my attempts at communicating always seemed to baffle them which would lead to both parties talking at each other but accomplishing nothing. This led to many of the communication screw ups we encountered. I had more communication disasters in three months in South America than I ever encountered in the eight years I’ve gone to the Far East.
- One more thing I did not like about living in BA, which was also true of Toronto, was the noise level. Our apartment was on a fairly busy corner and practically next door to a busy restaurant which isn’t at all unusual in such a residential area where there are restaurants on practically every corner. The problem in BA was that most people don’t eat dinner until 10 o’clock about the time we were thinking of going to bed. On weekends no one seemed to sleep because at 4 a.m. there would be parties going on all around us. This caused some trouble when we first arrived when we didn’t know that most stores wouldn’t be open on Sunday until later in the day. Again we had to adjust accordingly. Eating at a late hour wasn’t a problem for us since we did our own cooking in our apartment; however, we did have to make sure we had the food bought ahead of time. As for the noise at night, I solved this with the help of ear plugs.
- I was not a huge fan of the Argentinian cuisine which came as no surprise to me since I’m not a huge beef eater. Beef plays a huge role in not only the diet but the psyche of Argentinians. This stems back to the country’s beginnings when the vast flat lands that surround BA known as the pampas ultimately led to cattle raising as one of their main industries. This industry is still very much in evidence today as the majority of restaurants pride themselves in their skill at producing the best cut of the animal in a manner which they think will convert every vegetarian supporter over to their side. I have to admit I did try a few meals along with the ones cooked by Hubby where the beef far surpassed anything we would have at home, and it was more affordable. For me it ended there. I found that generally most of their food comes over salted and over sugared. Some locals and Peter, our ex-pat friend, agreed so it wasn’t just me. Salt is used in everything whether freshly cooked or from a package and other spices are still not used except by those who dare to expand their cooking skills beyond the tried and true. I never did find a natural yogurt with no sugar added. It’s mostly sold in bottles and loaded with sugar. Most baked goods are made with white flour and too much sugar even down to their croissants. I had to look long and hard for healthy bread that was anywhere near what we can get in Annapolis Royal. I finally found it at a popular restaurant and bakery not too far away from us on Lafinur 3275 called Molvan. Hubby and I happened to find it one day early into our stay after a lovely afternoon walk in a nearby park. I just had tea and a muffin but my first bite told me I had found a bakery that knew what it was doing and was producing something that wasn’t only delicious but healthy with just the right amount of sugar. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I returned to Malvon for another of those yummy muffins that I discovered they also had bread that looked healthy so bought some and once again wasn’t disappointed. This bakery became my bread supplier for the remainder of our stay. Thanks to Hernan, the owner, and his brother who know what they are doing and have dared to hone their skills in another direction to give locals and visitors alike good and healthy food.
So much for my likes and dislikes of BA. Now I would like to mention some things about this city that I can’t categorize into either one. They can only be called either amusing or strange traits of the city and its people as a whole as seen from my perspective.
- The first one that comes to mind is the subject of the dogs which I have already mentioned. To go a little deeper, I can’t help but wonder just why they are so popular with the BAer’s so I’ve come up with a theory which comes from my background in psychology. My analysis is they are taking on dogs instead of a life long partner or having kids because dogs will give them unconditional love, something they think they will never find from a fellow human being. One lady in our building confessed to giving up her boyfriend because he didn’t really like dogs that much, and that anyway dogs were easier. Like many first class cities in the world and especially in our western hemisphere, the majority of people who live in the centre are usually older in age or if younger are single. In BA young families are moving to the outer areas where housing is more affordable. Most of the dwellings in our area were apartment buildings. Instead of children, people are adopting dogs, not just one dog but perhaps three or four! I simply can’t imagine having three dogs in my apartment. Many years ago I had two cats in my apartment who nearly drove me crazy. Many of these dog owners work so to keep their animals from getting lonely or just going crazy, they hire dog sitters to look after them. We were always amused to see these guys and gals walking along the streets or passing their time in the parks with other dog walkers. Here was a real growth industry for those looking for what looked like a relatively easy way to make a living.
- Another frequent occurrence which seems strange to us visitors but is simply accepted as a fact of life in BA is the constant gathering of groups of people to protest whatever subject is foremost on their minds. We didn’t see much of this going on in our neighbourhood but certainly did whenever we ventured down to Plaza de Mayo or any of the other larger squares in the down town area. In fact, Plaza de Mayo’s reputation rests upon protests starting in 1810 on May 25th, the day Argentina declared its independence from Spain right up to 1977 with the Mothers of the Plaza who gathered to fight for the victims of the ‘Dirty War’ who disappeared and in some cases were murdered. Today most of the protesting is about higher wages which seems to be a forever mantra with employees who claim their wages aren’t keeping up with their cost of living. Salary decreases are very common apparently. We have all heard of Argentina’s constant woes with inflation which seem to keep the country from progressing to an economic status that everyone feels they should have achieved by now. The protests are becoming so common that I have to wonder what purpose they serve as it appears that it’s more about a group of people coming together for a party. We kept hearing from Argentinians themselves that any progress towards any kind of stability is near to impossible given the unwillingness of anyone to relinquish the wrongs of the past and move forward together.
- This fact leads me to my next revelation regarding the people and that is their self-absorption or constant self – analysis. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Psychiatry is a very popular vocation. It seems just about everyone sooner or later ends up in the psychiatrist’s office mostly for the same reason – depression! Does this sound familiar? Coming from Toronto, I have to say that this was a huge topic as well, and one where I personally got involved with all kinds of self-help and self-growth groups. Don’t get me wrong, I think a little help is always good, but I am also a strong believer of doing the work that has to go with it. My impression is that the BAer’s like most people spend an awful lot of time and money on the subject but aren’t really stepping up to the plate to do what they need to do for themselves and their country.
- Another observation which both Hubby and I made was the lack of reading material relating to Argentina’s history. He searched high and low for any books on this subject in English. Oddly enough, there wasn’t much in Spanish either. He did manage to find some at an English title bookstore in San Telmo called Walrus. The BAers like to talk about their present day politics, but when it comes to their past, they hesitate and seem almost embarrassed about it. Or maybe it’s fatalism that nothing will ever change as I heard many times. It’s definitely not a subject that most want to address right now except maybe some one who wasn’t born there.
- Finally, it may be a silly little fashion statement and of not much consequence, but I was amused by the footwear many of the woman were sporting. Suddenly all the shop windows were featuring them in their winter displays of shoes and boots. Platforms were “in” and in a big way. Every day I would notice more and more women wearing these things. I thought they were hideous, but Hubby kept at me to buy a pair since I was wearing mostly my sandals in spite of the rain. I did hear that they not only added much wanted height but were also quite comfortable. The latter may be true as those wearing them seemed to be walking along with ease, making much better headway than we ever did with those very high heels we all felt we absolutely needed. I can’t help wondering why women feel the need to be taller?
I could probably write a book about city living and especially in a city such as Buenos Aires which draws thousands of tourists every year. It is considered as one of ‘the’ great cities of the world to visit, right up there with New York, Paris, or London. It’s a relatively easy city to visit or live in and has something for anyone who ends up there. I am glad we stayed for as long as we did because it would be very difficult to stay for just a day or two. There is just too much to see and do otherwise.