It’s hard to believe that I’ve already spent 5 weeks here in Buenos Aires. By this upcoming Sunday, I’ll be back in the United States where everything seems…well…normal. And so English!
I’d just like to start by pointing out that Buenos Aires’ name (literally, “Good Airs”) is somewhat misleading. I don’t want to complain too much about this city—it is beautiful, after all—but the combination of smog, traffic exhaust, and secondhand smoke makes it a bit difficult to breathe at times. I’ve been wondering, actually, whether Buenos Aires is more polluted than either Chicago or San Antonio. It doesn’t seem likely, yet I never seem to be conscious of the air being dirty when I’m in Chicago. Then again, that might just be because I’m complaining too much about how cold it is in the frozen north. Thank goodness I’m heading back to 100-degree Texas for a month before I have to return to Evanston!
Now, in defense of Buenos Aires, I have to say that I haven’t felt unsafe in this city for a single moment. (Knock on wood). The businessman on the plane who I talked to on the trip over kept telling me about all the stuff I needed to avoid—the trains, most of the buses, the streets at night, and the subway at rush hour. ISOS (Northwestern’s international security warning system) concurred: Avoid trains and buses as pickpocketing is likely. Puh-lease! How the heck am I supposed to get around the city if I don’t use the subway?!? I cannot take a private taxi everywhere I go! Sheesh.
So, throwing that advice aside, one might well wonder: How does Alina tell when an area is safe?
It’s easy! Just use the “shoe rule!”
The women (and men) in Buenos Aires are much, much more stylish than their counterparts in the United States. I’ve already mentioned that los porteños aren’t afraid of color—they aren’t afraid of platforms, either! When you buy a pair of sky-high electric green booties with studs on the sides and wear them to do grocery shopping, then, and only then, my friend, have you embraced the Buenos Aires style.
So usually, when surrounded by all of this eclectic footwear, I feel quite safe. I perform a hasty calculation of the shoes encircling me, and then sigh in relief. With my boring (comfy!) gray sneakers that I bought on sale at Filene’s Basement before it closed, I feel more than capable of running away from any potential robbers much faster than any of the poor Argentines in their 3-inch heels. And the shoes make me look poor, too! So much for having to avoid “ostentatious displays of wealth”—my laid-back American style did that for me already.
Moving on to the more tourist-friendly section of the post… On Thursday, July 26th, Hanna and I visited the Museo Judío (National Jewish Museum) of Buenos Aires. Though initially skeptical given my halfhearted appreciation of museums, I ended up being very glad that we took the tour of both the synagogue and the museum proper.
Our tour guide was a lovely little old lady who spoke perfect English, albeit a bit less rapidly than I’m sure she would have talked in Spanish. (After discovering that both Hanna and I were here in Buenos Aires to study Spanish, she reprimanded us for not asking her to give us the tour en Español! Oh well.) I learned a great deal about the Jewish population in Buenos Aires, which I previously did not even realize existed. The synagogue was, of course, beautiful, though the curios in the gift shop were a tad expensive.
On Friday, I went to the “Manzana de las Luces” with Hanna and Lauren. In case some of you reading this know a bit of Spanish, the answer is no: We did not go see a giant apple made of neon lights. “Manzana” usually means apple, but can also mean a small group of houses situated in a city block. So, technically, we visited the “Small group of houses of the lights.” Bad translations aside, the “Manzana” was interesting—basically, it consisted of a group of houses and a set of subterranean tunnels built/constructed by monks over the past 400 years. I was very excited by the prospect of the underground tunnels, but unfortunately the view aboveground was much more impressive.
Our guide, though, was pretty entertaining. She was a very proud porteña and kept going on and on about how lots of famous Argentine politicians & writers had their own special booths in the aboveground cathedral. I mostly stopped paying attention after that, until we were below the ground in the tunnels and she started talking about the ríos de sangre en la calle (“rivers of blood in the streets”). What blood? Why rivers? Your guess is as good as mine!
On Friday I also met with the lovely Nora Lía from ALIJA, who gave me a VERY HEAVY bag filled with articles, books, and essays by & about María Elena Walsh! *Sigh. I’m such a nerd. I felt like Christmas had come early!
Nora was extremely helpful (and also quite easy to understand, thank goodness!) and told me the 3 predominant texts on Walsh’s work. I promptly headed off to the bookstore and bought the 2 I didn’t have, as well as a study of the censorship under the 1970s-1980s dictatorship. I feel much, much better about my research project now—especially since I am allowed to make photocopies of whichever essays & articles I need!
Now—after several weeks in the heart of Buenos Aires, Hanna and I felt like we needed to take a weekend away from all the hustle & bustle. After all, most of Buenos Aires looks like this:
Zoom! Buenos Aires’ motorists strike fear into the hearts of pedestrians.
So we took the day off and went to El Tigre, a quaint seaside town about 45 minutes away from the city. And you won’t believe the price to get there—1.10 pesos (25 cents!!!!!). After a delicious lunch on the outside balcony of a café, we purchased 60 peso tickets ($13) for an hour-long boat cruise. The (ahem) “steep” fare was well worth it!
The city is so named because of the tigers that used to roam the area. Unfortunately, the European settlers killed all of them off. Nevertheless, tiger drawings adorn most of the signs & boats in the town.
Apart from some rather cute children screaming in Spanish and a few teenage couples pretending to reenact the famous scene from Titanic on the boat rails, the cruise was lovely & just the break that we needed.
The real adventure didn’t start until we got back to Buenos Aires, however. One of our teachers from Amauta, César, told us about a really cool gallery/restaurant in the center of town. Ever the adventurers, Hanna & I decided to try to find “the place behind the old train station” as César had described. Eventually, our wonderful cab driver found it: “El Gato Viejo.” (The Old Cat). I dearly wish that I had taken pictures. As it was, I was too surprised by the atmosphere to remember to pull out my camera. This, however, is what the interior looks like:
“El Gato Viejo” is split between a very modern art gallery and a very non-committal dining space. The art gallery section was filled with what many would probably call “junk art”—appropriately, perhaps, because the artist used sawed-off pieces of metal and discarded garden tools to construct animals, airplanes, and trains. Amid what at first glance seemed like rubble, I found myself enchanted by a spindly-legged giraffe made out of tin cans, old metal rods, and screws. Hanna and César were equally taken with the semi-destroyed cars that were plopped unceremoniously amidst the general cacophony of metal & colors.
After contemplating the art for a while, we snagged two old, barely-holding-themselves-together chairs and invited ourselves to sit down at one of the already-occupied tables in the dining area. I was alarmed at first by the lack of menus—but then Hanna explained that at “El Gato Viejo” they serve “inspired” food. The “inspiration” consisted of fluffy bread, unidentifiable meat soup, baked onions, somewhat spicy salsa, pita bread, and guacamole. Sound weird? It was delicious! Meanwhile, a London-based fashion designer overheard our distinctly not-Argentine accents and chatted with us for a while about cultural differences in Argentina, the uniqueness of our surroundings, and the absolute steal we were getting with the exchange rate. (You know, typical yuppie foreigner conversation).
After perhaps 20 minutes, a transvestite in a slinky black dress and blonde wig ascended the stage on the other side of the dining room. She told a few choice jokes in Spanish (which I’m sorry to say were above my head) and then proceeded to sing opera. Yes. A transvestite singing opera—you never know what life will hand out next! She treated us to quite the lovely rendition of Léo Delibes’ “The Flower Duet,” and then continued on with a number of other European classics.
All of a sudden, this man appeared.
He plopped himself down at our table, helped himself to the bottle of wine already sitting there, and slurred at us in Spanish. Having noticed that Hanna & I had already finished our first set of beers, he loudly yelled, “¡JUAN! DOS CERVEZAS ESTE MOMENTO! UNA CORONA Y UN QUILMES!” We got our beers, thanked him, and then proceeded to stare at him in amazement as he began loudly booing the opera-singing transvestite. Only it was a rather unique kind of “booing,” as he ended up sounding more like a sheep.
“BAAAAAAAAAAAA! BAAAAAAAAAAAA! BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”
Only much later, after we had left “El Gato Viejo,” did we discover that the hobolike-man with the apparent drinking problem was the owner.
Still reeling from our experience at the restaurant, Hanna & I climbed into a taxi & headed over to my friend Damian’s apartment. I owe a bit of an apology to Damian and his friends at this point—I met them the very first week that I was in Buenos Aires, yet have failed to mention them in this blog so far! I’m always a little unsure of whether or not I should talk about people in a public blog, but Damian, Lala, Ivan, Jojo, Jonatan, Damian II, Daniel, and the many, many others, deserve to be mentioned! They are a fantastic group of people, and without them my experience in Buenos Aires would have been significantly less exciting!
I originally met this set of fun-loving porteños while out on the Buenos Aires Pub Crawl. Ever since then, every Saturday without fail they have invited me to join them as they belt out Bob Dylan & The Beatles with the help of a single guitar, downing Isenbeck & Jaigermeister all along. We stay up until the sun rises, exchanging words of wisdom in broken Spanish & English. I’m happy that they have accepted me, even though a lot of the time I don’t really understand what they are talking about, and I am going to sincerely miss them after I return to the United States.
Unfortunately, I either had a little too much “inspired food” or had one too many Quilmes…or maybe I was just getting sick for a while—but on Sunday & Monday I was completely out. I usually hate it when people complain about getting sick abroad, so all that I will say is that I spent most of the last 2 days sleeping.
The Irish in me doesn’t tolerate sickness for long, though, and by this morning I was back to my fully-functioning self. After school this morning, Hanna & I went downtown again to barter with the artisans on Florida street—one of the city’s most famous shopping hubs. I found some truly exquisite jewelry in green/blue, black, and turquoise…and the vendors were all happy to hear that I was buying them for my tía!
That pretty much brings everything up-to-date. But there are just a few more photos that I need to share before I sign off…
First, an exterior shot of the Amauta Spanish Language School. Considering that I’ve logged over 100 hours in this institution, I figure it deserves at least one photo on the blog!
Second, I just had to include another picture of the scrumptious desserts here in Buenos Aires. Below is a chocolate-chip brownie topped with marshmallow-whipped icing…oh, the decadence!
Annnnd finally, below is a low-quality photo that I snapped of a street sign on the way to the cinema. I couldn’t resist—it’s not every day that you see a crossing sign addressed to “Mister Pedestrian”!