All photos courtesy of Anne Larkin/Catalyst
It’s certainly not Mexico and it’s not quite Spain. It’s somewhere inbetween, with its multitude of cafes hawking jamón crudo sandwiches and café cortados, its old colonial facades in various states of shine and disrepair, its cobbled streets and somewhat shady barrios. Buenos Aires is a beautiful, worldly mess of a city — originally a Spanish colony, the city has grown in the two hundred years since gaining independence from Spain into a giant metropolis comprised of millions of immigrants and immigrants’ children from every continent.
Each block brings memories of a different place — or alternatively, surprises completely, showing something never seen before. The tree-lined streets of swanky Recoleta, paraded by high-heeled women and well-suited men, bring to mind the Upper East Side, or the “Paris of South America” as the city has often been heralded. The open squares are surrounded by cafes circled like wagons, their fleets of tables spilling outside toward the center, filled with lazy tourists and laughing locals. They mimic the plazas of Madrid, the piazzas of Rome. Some of the excellently dingy hundred-year-old bars even bring to mind the dust-caked “brown bars” of Amsterdam or the woodsy halls of Durgin Park in Boston. On hotter days, the carteneros ripping open trash bags in search of saleable recyclables seem exactly like the trash-pickers of Jakarta.
But just as often, Buenos Aires is insanely unique. The Argentines are all so fiercely Argentinian, speaking rollicking Castellano rather than “Spanish” — their “ll’s” turned in to strong sweet “juh’s,” the rhythm closer to bouncy Italian than the rapid-fire Spanish of Florida or the simple, halting language of the classroom. Extraneous “s’s” at the end of words are nonchalantly dropped and sentences delightfully slurred together, “buenos dias” becoming something closer to “bwendy,” tossed across the spiral staircase of an ancient apartment.
Each block has a café — or at the very least a bodega or a food stand — lest anyone in Buenos Aires fear hunger, and every café has a seemingly endless supply of soft ham sandwiches and media lunas — the sweet croissants that scent the streets with caramelizing sugar every morning. A tiny breakfast makes way for a fair lunch, a great beefy dinner at 10 or 11, and a generous handful of cakey, chocolatey, powdery sweets throughout the day. Couples will sit down for a light snack and after slamming down a couple café cortados — the Argentine answer to the macchiato—follow the bitter smack of espresso with a couple, few, five decadent pastries caked in frosting and layered with dulce de leche, savoring them while sugar-shy tourists look on.
Families of five arrive at bright parillas to tuck in to dinner at 9:30 or later, even the littlest ones wakefully partaking in the simple feasts of various grilled cuts of beef, starchy pastas, overflowingly cheesy pizzas almost devoid of sauce but topped with whole olives and the ever-present jamón—an interesting mix and skew of the culinary tradtions of both the colonizing Spanish and immigrant Italians—salads topped with bright beets and richly greasy bowls of papas fritas dashed with bright parsley and garlic.
Bustling days, the never ending web of densely commercial streets swarmed with people, the street scene ceaselessly fascinating, shade into to sleepy afternoons, which give way to evenings dawdling in cafes, killing time before the luxuriously late dinner hour — after which the cafes fill once more and the taps crank out glass after glass of foamy Quilmes, the national beer.
The squares serve as epicenters of commerce and life in general— little shopping hotspots or markets during the day and natural gathering places at night. One night during a city-wide arts festival, a unremarkable little café became the center of a real celebration of arts, of culture, of lovely Argentine-ness, as one darkly handsome young man played guitar, his friends joining him in these apparently widely known songs around a big table over glasses of red wine and ice. Passersby joined in these lilting songs, the crowd happily growing, everyone apparently in possession of a great folkloric repertoire.
The spectators knew every word. Further yet, they knew the indecipherable clapping patterns to along with the songs, creating rhythms for the dancers that began to emerge from the growing group. Young people slipped into the center of the circle with a partner in tow, tens of couples comfortable, joyfully starting the steps of the milonga, generation-old Argentine dances, danced by their grandmothers’ mothers in these same squares, somehow preserved through inheritance. These weren’t dance-class dancers either, they were regular people: college students in torn jeans and mothers in swishy skirts who slipped just as easily back into the observers, laughing. They were entirely unembarrassed, proud of their inherited traditions, glad to have their nationality replete with culture — thermoses tucked under their arms to revamp their mate, the steps and songs of the milonga somehow engrained in the brain of every child.
A city of immigrants, the center of a young nation like our own, just a year past its bicentennial, born out of European settlement and revolution. Buenos Aires is a big, bright, busting city, reminiscent of cities the world over — yet it’s also sweet and personal, individual and nationalistic, distinct and thrilling, tempting you to stay forever.