Buenos Aires

A consideration of Buenos Aires

Part of the central section of Buenos Aires

We are going to live here for about 3 and 1/2 years, and are nearing the halfway point of that period.  Here being Buenos Aires, Argentina. Lately, I’ve had some conversations with people about what it’s like living here, from the foreigner point of view. These are some of my general impressions of the city.  But first and most obvious (see above) it is really big. The population of the Federal Capital of Buenos Aires is about 12 million people, although the city itself, which is simply the capital of the federal district, is closer to half that number, a paltry 5 or 6 million.

Drivers in Buenos Aires are proof of the old maxim that you can take a basically normal person and put them into a car and create a flaming idiot. These are the worst drivers in the world: madly aggressive, dangerous to themselves and especially to pedestrians (see photo below left), taking rudeness to a level equal to insane rage … it’s a long list of stupid. A man in a car in Buenos Aires is encapsulated within his manhood, it is not a car, it is an engorged cock, and get out of the way because it’s looking for another car, or especially a poor pedestrian, to rape. If you think a car cock is dangerous, consider a bus! Their pure anger at anyone else with the audacity of putting another car on the same street they want to be on will produce a maddening cacophony of horn honking that makes Manhattan seem as quiet as the Kansas prairie.

Typical view through the windshield

The hapless pedestrian, if he survives getting across a marked crosswalk (a completely meaningless concept here, where everyone knows that cars have right of way over people in all circumstances), then has to zigzag through the no-man’s-land minefields called sidewalks. Has anyone lived in Buenos Aires longer than a year without a broken leg, or at least a twisted ankle? Usually injuries result from the dog shit tango, dancing your way through the animal latrines that are sidewalks here. Photos below.

Dog shit and autumn leaves

Broken leg waiting to happen

The next thing is not really a complaint, it’s just remarking about a radical cultural difference that makes Buenos Aires difficult for people from other ways of life.  Porteños (how people from Buenos Aires refer to themselves — people of the port) reserve the most interesting and entertaining aspects of living for the very late night. Which means they sleepwalk through the day, pretending to work, and if there is to ever be a coherent explanation for why a country so rich in natural resources and abilities remains so backward, this may be it: they are dead tired during the time they ought to be creating, studying, or working. People do not go out at night until after 9 p.m., do not order dinner until after 10 p.m., do not finish eating until around midnight, and then go out to clubs, to dance, to drink, to party, often not ending the night until the approach of dawn. Then they sleep, or not, for an hour or two and then go to work or school. Even small children follow this habit. We often see children of 4, 5, or 6 years old having dinner with their parents at midnight. When do they sleep? Probably at work and during class. Again, accounting for why a country that ought to be fully-developed and a leading economy of the world is so backward and trivial. They can’t stay awake in school or work long enough to accomplish much thinking. Not easy for someone used to having the evening meal around 7 or 7:30. I go to bed here about the time most people sit down to dinner.

On the other hand, parts of this city are quite beautiful — admitting that most of it is decrepit, rundown, broken, poor, and crime-ridden … maybe if they just got a few hours sleep now and then? Here is a photo of a street downtown. There are many streets like this in the central city.

A not untypical city street in Buenos Aires

Although the poor sucker crossing this street probably just missed being raped to death by bus penis. The woman is smarter, waiting until there are no wild-eyed vehicles in sight.

As the photo above indicates, Buenos Aires is about as European a place as one finds in the Americas, north, central, or south. Judging by the gait, clothing, and physicality of people you see on the streets, it would not be inappropriate to suppose you are in Madrid or Milan. This is only true of Buenos Aires. In every other major city in South and Central America, you know you are with the descendants of Indians: Mayan, Inca, Aztec. In Argentina, the native population was wiped out almost entirely, leaving only Spaniards and later immigrants, mostly from Italy. (Following the US policy of “manifest destiny,” it seems.)

It spite of the brutal dangers lurking everywhere, that is what I like most about living in Buenos Aires: its European feel. This is as much as cafe society as one finds in Paris or Vienna. Places like this (below) are literally all over the city, one on almost every block.

A Buenos Aires style cafe of the old type

It is no secret to regular readers here that I work almost exclusively in cafes. It often takes a while for me to find the right fit, and for the first few months I may try four or five or six. It seems I have settled on this one. (Photos below) It is just far enough away from where I live (a 30 minute walk each way) to give me some exercise, it has a comfortable “look,” an attentive enough staff (and it doesn’t hurt that they are all nice-looking young women), and following the European cafe tradition, enough sense to leave you alone for as long as you indicate you would like to be left alone. This place is called Mama Racha, and if you are in the city, it is on the corner of Armenia and Costa Rica in the barrio of Palermo. I work there most mornings.

The front of Mama Racha

Inside Mama Racha, seen from my usual table

It is the cafe life that makes Buenos Aires most livable for me. I believe that a city needs at least two key features to make it worth living in. One of these is a river, particular if it runs through it; the other is a cafe life. It also helps if the architecture is interesting, and I am certainly a fan of security and some cleanliness. Good markets are nice. Some variety in cuisine. Buenos Aires excels in a few and fails dismally in others.

Now that brings me to cuisine. Abject failure here. Yes, the steaks are good. But after a while, if you are eating steak all the time, it just becomes another version of macaroni and cheese. You just get sick of it. And steak is about all they do well here. There is no fish cuisine; there cannot be more than five or six restaurants in a city of six million that can produce interesting, edible fish dishes. They relish their empanadas, but basically it’s just a street size miniature wrap that gets warmed up. The only spice they can handle is salt — and they handle a deadly amount of that.

No, you do not come to Buenos Aires for the food. They may like to think they have more than a passing acquaintance with Paris, but except for sidewalks littered with dog turds and occasional pieces of old-looking French architecture, they have absolutely nothing in common with Paris, and especially not cuisine.

Okay, the weather is really fine much of the time. As close to San Diego as I’ve ever experienced. It is more often than not sunny, there is a continual breeze (the buenos aires?) that helps clear the air from the more brutal pollution of millions of people and their decrepit cars, most of the time the temperatures are mild — it snowed one time in the last 100 years in Buenos Aires — the temperature almost never gets to freezing, and summers are more often warm rather than hot. Yes there are cold days, and yes there are hot humid days, and yes it rains sometimes, but add up all the various forms of bad weather days and I doubt you could get to 20% of the total weather picture.

Here’s another overview photo of the city.

Yep, it's a damn big city

It is a big city. But it is also a city of separate and distinct neighborhoods, barrios, and much of one’s time is spent in the barrio where one lives. I live in Palermo, which is the largest barrio in the city; so large it is for practical purposes divided into smaller segments: Palermo Chico (mostly embassies and parks), Palermo Nuevo (new high rise apartments and big shopping complexes), Palermo Viejo (the older section of the barrio, now filled with cafes and bars), Palermo Soho (restaurants and night life), and Palermo Hollywood (because there are some TV and radio studios there, and some artsy people hanging around).  I can’t figure out just where Palermo is in this photo, but based on the high rises and green spaces, I think it’s the upper center part.

This is not Europe, and I have a European soul. But it is as close as one can get to it in this hemisphere. It’s an interesting place to spend a few years, but it would be a horror to be stuck here forever.

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23 replies »

  1. How can a city that is next to the freaking sea not have good seafood cuisine?

    There must be a few sushi shops around, anyway.

    • As to the second part … no. There are a few sushi places around, but I have yet to be in one that compared with even a mediocre sushi place in, say, Omaha. Mostly the sushi is made with salmon (farm raised, not from the sea) and cream cheese.

      As to why? We’ve asked this question often. Answers vary from (for inexplicable reasons) Argentines never developed a seafood culture, mainly because of the Pampas, which are gigantic and perfect for raising huge herds of cattle, to whatever sea catch there is would be exported because it was worth more abroad.

      Look at a map of Argentina. There are very few towns and almost no cities along the entire Atlantic coast, which is some 2000 miles long. They just don’t do fish. Even when they do, they farm it rather than harvest it from the sea.

      There are a plethora of cuisine questions one can ask here. Why no spices in food (when all their neighbors do — Chile, Peru, Brazil)? Why, with climate zones ranging from the tropics damn near to Antarctica do they import so much fruit? Even their wines (which are now pretty damn good) didn’t become palatable until they improved it for the export market. Why are the portions served in restaurants so obscenely large that my wife and I always share a course, and usually take almost half of that home. Who eats that much?

      The most consistent answer on the fish versus steak question is the pampas effect. Early on, when Spaniards and Jesuits began conquering this part of the world, they quickly realized the potential of the vast pampas for grazing massive herds of cattle, which could then be exported. Spaniards didn’t think of fish as an export because Spain has all the fishing it needs. So over time, given the abundance of cheap beef, it became a staple in the diet, so a fishing industry never developed. That is pretty much how cuisine cultures develop in most places — what is most abundant and therefore cheapest? It takes a great level of sophistication to rise above the abundant and cheap platform. England didn’t start until the last twenty years; the US started about the same time. It is said that France developed a tasty, sauce-based cuisine early because their basic food stock was so poor and tasteless. Tastelessness does not bother Argentines. In fact, taste freaks them out.

      • Well, I am excited to hear that my city’s sushi beats Buenos Aires! I will throw out that little tidbit of information the next time I have a girls night at my local sushi establishment.

        • Do you know that the British say “titbit” instead of “tidbit?”

          Don’t get too carried away, I could have said Topeka or El Paso and it would still be accurate.

          • No, I did not know that. But interestingly enough, my husband says that all the time. Next time I will ask him to say it with an English accent, in the hopes that it will sound charming instead of annoying. 🙂

  2. Huh. Well, growing up on the American pampas, I disliked fish in all its forms, except maybe for fried fishsticks. Didn’t develop a taste for it until I lived in in sushiland. But then again, western Nebraska is about 3000 miles from the sea, whereas BA …

    Luck of the draw, I guess. In Thailand cheap and abundant also happens to be spicy and fresh and bursting with flavor (not all of a palatable sort to a weak-willed Westerner).

    Hope they’ve got some good import shops around. One of the happiest days of my expat life was finding an import shop in Osaka that stocked … wait for it … root beer.

    • I grew up in Arkansas. Sometimes we had fried catfish and hush puppies. That was the only fish I liked much, although I thought the fish was just an excuse for the hush puppies. I was in Hawaii when I discovered fish, and since then it is my favorite cuisine. Just thinking of Toro sashimi (fat cheeks of yellowfin or bluefin tuna), even at around $25 a piece is getting close to taste orgasm.

      My favorite eating city is Singapore. Maybe it’s because they offered a large variety of cuisines, not just standard Chinese. One of my top ten meals was had from a sidewalk food stall on a Singapore back street, and I first had the pure delight of Kobe beef carpaccio in Singapore. Dim Sum in Hong Kong is certainly competitive. A good home style, slow food, out of the way place in northern Italy makes me fat and smiley.

      Oddly, or maybe not, one of the top five meals of my life was a pure accident in a retired German chef’s home in a village on the Shannon River in the west of Ireland. And it was cod.

      No. Don’t come to Buenos Aires to eat. You can come to Tango, come to drink (really fine wines at rotgut prices), come to experience old world European cafe life, or come to see me, but no, you will not get a world class meal here.

      • God bless the open air hawker centres in Singapore. Epicurean paradises, those places.

  3. So not to get too personal on you, but why are you in Buenos Aires? Although can you really get too personal when commenting on a post that references bus genitalia?

    I feel like I must have missed this important bit of information in my period of lurkdom – is it your wife’s work that brought you there? Or some other reason? I’m awfully curious, so please share if you’re so inclined.

    • There may be a post about stuff like this somewhere back in the archives, I can’t remember.

      It’s toiling away for your government. My wife is a diplomat.

      That is how we have lived in so many places around the world.

  4. Great post, super photos, but I don’t agree with all of your points. I think, for example, that the drivers in the chaos on the streets are excellent; otherwise there would be many more accidents than there are, and I’ve seen very few. I do think that women, given the power of being behind the controls of lethal weapons, are more machista than the men–driving being the one instance in this society that they have some power. It’s true that bus drivers live to take out pedestrians.

    I’ve lived here for 7 years and never injured myself on the street, but I did break 2 ribs in Pilates a few years ago.

    And to Court: BsAs is not on any sea that I know of, just the huge and polluted Rio de la Plata. Even in Mar Del Plata, the seafood in the restaurants is frozen. Being from California, fresh fish is what I miss the most–along with a variety of fruits and vegetables and condiments!

    But we survive, and often thrive!
    Besos, Don!
    Cherie

    • Hello Cherie, I do so much enjoy reading your Tango blog (take note, Nicole, you can click on her name), and looking at your pictures. I’m glad you stopped by. (Nicole is a Tango fan living in Hong Kong.)

      For me, one sprained ankle. So far.

      I am sure there are women drivers out there, but as I reflect on it, I see them rarely. And speaking of buses taking out pedestrians, wasn’t there a family killed by a rampaging bus a day or two ago on the corner of Scalabrini Ortiz and Honduras?

      I still wonder what it is that takes some men I know who are great dinner conversational companions, who do wonderful favors all the time, and then turn them murderously stupid the moment they step into a car?

      PS: Court lives in western Nebraska. From his point of view, having the Atlantic about an hour or so away is pretty much coastal.

  5. I had a reply typed up to this last night when my computer schismed the space-time continuum or something. Enjoy the alliteration.

    Lovely pictures. I especially enjoy seeing those of the street and the cafes. That old type cafe is wonderful. Makes me think of snorting horses and fogs of dust being slapped from chaps.

    • I have a wireless mouse, and I am probably going back to a wired one, since way frequently, I move the mouse and it, with a mind of its own, decides I want to return to wherever I started and get rid of everything following that. I have gotten so tired of lost comments that I have started saving comments at the end of every line — time consuming, but better than trying to recreate comments from scratch. Fucking machines.

      • Ok, you shake your cane from the porch and I’ll bang mine on the warped boards. Ready, set…oh, wait. There’s a girl walking by. Best we settle down and smile.

  6. Tit-bit? Yes, we do I suppose. Brilliant photo’s Don, you do have a knack of capturing the essence of a place. I’m glad you have a European soul, come back to us soon won’t you…

  7. Rose, I actually live in eastern Wyoming. From Don’s point of view, having the Nebraska Panhandle an hour or so away is pretty much western Nebraska. 🙂

    • You’re the one who brought up western Nebraska … since you are from there, you root for the Cornhuskers (in Iowa, we called them the Corn … another word starting with H), and you write about it, one might assume — but you should get your story straight before the Feds figure you out and get on to this Wyoming ruse.

      • I know it. Although I’m more worried about the authorities in Nebraska. If they find out I’ve jumped ship I might have my Nebraska passport revoked and then I’d never get to eat another decent steak again in my life. Unless I came to BA, I guess.

  8. Tracey confirms the Tit bit.

    As far as I can determine, while there may be some traffic laws in this city, there isn’t one shred of real evidence for them. There may be some law that gives pedestrians the right of way when crossing in a crosswalk with the walk light in their favor, but de facto, cars always have the right of way in all circumstances.

    One of my favorites is sitting in the cafe and watching traffic work its way through the unmarked cross street outside. I have been told there is a law stating that traffic approaching from the right at unmarked intersections have right of way. I have almost never seen this applied. It is basically a continuing chicken race.

    When people praise living in a place where the rule of law is dependable, they do not mean a place like this, where either there is no consequential rule of law or whatever there is is applied whimsically.

    A little danger does sparkle things up a titbit, though.