Ah, the clichéd label “Paris of the Southern Hemisphere” you will see only in guidebooks. It does, however, indeed, remind of Paris. But mostly of Madrid. And to me, even of Belgrade. All the big European cities I love.
I suppose this is what it’s like when you’re always on the road: you take what’s dear along with you. Like memories and symbolisms.
My coup de foudre happened in San Telmo, where else? It was just so that I was viewing a room for rent on Calle Defensa on a Sunday.
Las calles de Buenos Aires
ya son mi entraña
I think the owner was well aware of the effect of her request. I saw the street, I saw the crowd, I saw the dusty ornate facade and I was ready to cash out 2 months rent. Then I saw the improvisation of a bathroom, and the dream drained promptly.
I went back out on the street, sat on the sidewalk, hugged a glass of tinto, and resumed people-watching.
A recent phenomenon in Buenos Aires is the emergence of the short-term apartment rentals, or pisos vacaciones, an option popular with aspiring milongueros – tango aficionados – or Spanish students. This is why the prices for renting an apartment or a room in the city for stays shorter than 3 months are on a par with Western Europe. Oh, and also because Argentinos fancy themselves of the same caliber as western Europeans.
Two more rooms in San Telmo slipped through my fingers. I finally had to settle for a few weeks in Palermo. It has its own charms, but it didn’t sweep me off my feet like San Telmo.
San Telmo reminds me of Toronto’s Kensington Market and London’s Portobello. Mostly their nonchalance.
Old wrinkly Soledad, an illusive fortune-teller (is there any other kind?), was telling me a myth, in her croaky old-smoker’s voice, the kind of myth that only winds get to whisper anymore. My Spanish wasn’t chiseled out yet then (2 months ago), so it all seemed more mystical than it probably was. Still..
La vida es un huego, ¿sabia?
These old sages, schooled at the University of Life, always know just what to say..
There I ran into Alejandro and his friend whom I met one night at Terrazas del Este. I spied Kelly across the street and waved to him. And Ezekiel was there with two foreign girls. It felt funny already running into people I know; the world seems smaller, somehow.
Manu Chao was coming from somewhere
mi vida bala perdida
por la gran via
charquito de arrabal
no quiero que te vayas
no quiero que te alejes
cada dia mas y mas
mi ultimo refugio
mi ultima ilusion
Most of the city was still foreign to me, but here it feelt familiar. Here is where, what looks like, everyone converges on a Sunday. The vendors are usually all the same and so are the local crowds. I can spend a whole day in San Telmo, conversation-hopping.
We walked on and tried to keep up a dialogue in Spanish. Instead, my Italian was getting a workout. Italian phrases immediately bubbled up to the surface of my mind. Sometimes it helps, but most of the time it blocks me, as I find I did know it in Spanish, it just didn’t come to me.
When you don’t speak a language fluently, one of two things happen: you either distill your idea down to the very basic and get your point across in a very straightforward way, or you employ all your creative might to account for the missing vocabulary.
I was manoeuvring my camera this and that way between the vendors and the crowds passing by. Alejandro’s friend asked if I’m a photographer. I forgot how to say ‘not quite’ in Spanish, so instead I said, “mas o menos”. It will do.
A total charmer! With her plastic bottle cut-out she schooled a full 6-piece orchestra!
Well-deserved applause and a bucket-full of pesos.
Still, the stamp of Europe is inescapable in this city of grand boulevards, palaces, opera houses, and monuments.
Porteños keep their head high like the Parisians.
They eat and party like Madrileños.
It’s indian summer here, or the longest autumn I’ve ever managed to clip together. In fact, these austral seasons, inverted, are messing with my head a little when I try to plan ahead.
All the neighbourhoods have a grid layout. It’s a pretty linear city, as far as planning goes. A labyrinth of small coiled streets here-and-there would have been much more enticing. After a few days I was finding my way around way too easily. But biking it is better. I can ride the bike without getting lost (ie. sometimes it just becomes a longer ride).
Palermo, Plaza Italia – this is Little Italy, in theory. Some streets remind of Beverly Hills. It’s both hip and upscale: there are rundown ornate facades next to gleaming steel-glass condos, tiny neighbourhood cafe bars decked out in colourful graffiti across from posh, air-conditioned restaurants, tribal shops door-to-door with chic boutiques, sharing sidewalks with corner produce markets.
I scoped out a few bike rental places, but found tourist prices. Luckily, Argentina does Craigslist where I found a few meagre offers, mainly other foreigners moving away, and bargained for my own two wheels. Ah, I instantly felt free.
It’s a breezy pleasant Saturday afternoon, I am not going anywhere in particular, just riding down Soler. At the corner of Fitz Roy I see B. with a few friends. I park the bike and saunter over. They are speaking English and I frown.
B., who is studying Spanish in Buenos Aires looks over apologetically and says that they got as far as possible on this topic in Spanish. Oh well, I laugh, then join the conversation.
A few drinks later we go en masse to one of the bars in Alto Palermo, then, as hours pass, we trickle down the streets toward the centre, and end up on a fresh Sunday morning in San Telmo. People join us, people leave us, wines come, wines go.
We sit in the shade in one of the cafes on Chile. I almost don’t notice the time passing, or the fact that I went out for a ride 12h ago and ended up here. San Telmo has a pull effect on me. The crowds are growing and the chatter is louder and livelier. The vendors, the performers, and the brunch crowds are starting to congregate.
And I am left wondering.. where did I leave my bike..