On Buenos Aires and Other Irregular Nouns

By Florcita Swartzman

You might not believe it, but Buenos Aires is not exactly a kind city. If you live in the outskirts, in the conurbano bonaerense, you will have to climb on one of those red or blue trains that speed through both neighborhoods and lucid hours in order to get to Buenos Aires, to get to the big unfair sister who will welcome you with wary eyes full of amusement. And if you live in a different province, you might get the vague feeling that she is the stage in which the rest of the country is barely invited to perform. In either case you would be right: the capital can be very tyrannical over her own fellow provinces; no wonder Juan Bautista Alberdi once wrote that “Argentina broke free from the yoke of Spain only to fall under the yoke of Buenos Aires”. Internal colonialism, as they call it.

 

That said, and though at times it seems so, Buenos Aires is not all that cruel. Strictly speaking, it is a city of contrasts and sunny colors except on rainy days when it becomes a grey metropolis with crying tiles that brood about love and betrayal, just like the old tangueros would, and splash passers-by with their muddy tears. Tristes lágrimas porteñas. But at other times, like warm spring afternoons, jacarandá trees bloom and scatter their violet flowers all across the city while porteños bloom too in their own human, southern ways: they’ll sit at a table outside of a coffee shop and talk over a cup of a cafecito for hours on end about dreams, love, and the hardships of life just as they have done since the beginning of time. Or they will gather with friends at parks on Sundays to drink mate, that tea-like drink foreigners insist has hallucinogenic effects. It doesn’t, believe me.

 

Like coffee, beer and pizza are huge in Buenos Aires. Mostly pizza; one of the greatest legacies of the Italian immigration in Argentina (although the recipe has mutated so much over time that we now complain about la vera pizza italiana when we visit Naples, because nothing in the world tastes quite like una buena pizza porteña). But pizza is not the only piece of cultural wealth that Italy has shared with us: great grandmothers able to cook spaghetti alla bolognesa for an entire Roman legion, slang words like laburo, birra, testa, matina, fiaca, mufa or capo, the exaggerated hand gestures that accompany loud talking and our general attitude towards life are all direct results of the major disembarkations of poor Italian migrants that took place in Buenos Aires between the 1850’s and the not-so-distant late 1960’s.

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Of course there’s the buses too: you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them, but you have to know what they are about if you want to get the pieces of your Buenos Aires puzzle together. The public buses -or colectivos as we call them- rule the streets of Capital Federal and its outskirts, are about the cheapest way to move around and come and go anywhere and everywhere. But there is one little detail about them: their drivers are a different kind of being, something between human and extraterrestrial. Now, how to actually take the bus in Buenos Aires is a different story, as worthy of a book as any other subject. Once you figure out your route, you ‘only’ have to find the location of your nearest bus stop, which can be a real challenge as they don’t tend to be well marked. Spotting them is a matter of luck, intuition, and common knowledge combined, almost like a cosmically accidental divine ability porteños are gifted with at the time of our birth. This sometimes leaves the outsider confused and with the sense that everything in this city works randomly, that in Buenos Aires there are no particular rules for anything at all and that there must be no Spanish translation to the word foreseeability. We know this. We apologize. We are not working to solve this inconvenience, and probably never will.

 

If you manage to walk through feminist riots, protestors against the ban on marijuana, colorful LGBT Pride parades, and just random demonstrations for whatever reason we’re in the mood to complain about (and if you are able to make it out in one piece), Buenos Aires will reward your sight with the beautiful architecture of neighborhoods like Palermo, Recoleta, Retiro, San Telmo or La Boca, each one with its own distinct personality and vibe. You only have to look up to notice a whole new layer of the city; a suspended world of Art Nouveau, Neoclassical and Baroque reliefs in the upper part of old recycled buildings above eye level. It all sounds very poetic -except for the riots and demonstrations-, but don’t forget that you are in one of the loudest capitals of South America, with bars open all night during weekends, people going out for dinner at 10:30 pm, and nightclubs filling the air with muffled music. The lovers of quiet, of words, and of literature, however, won’t feel left out here: a part of the charm of Buenos Aires lives in the second-hand bookstores scattered around the streets Córdoba and Corrientes; little dusty shops like portals to another world. All sorts of books -Latin American poetry mixed up with philosophical essays and cheesy romantic novels- pile up on weak wooden shelves about to collapse any time while customers, who are mostly students of Filosofía y Letras, walk through the narrow dark halls reveling in the pure pleasure of the smell of Jean Paul Sartre’s work.

 

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I’m walking down Reconquista street towards Retiro, the main urban train station of Microcentro. The 6 pm sunlight gives the scene a dreamy pinkish tone and a warmer look to this otherwise hustling, corporate-like, area. These last few blocks before Reconquista meets the busy Leandro N. Alem avenue feel somewhat different from everything else around them, as if the atmosphere all of a sudden changed slightly within a couple of blocks though I have never been able to point out why. Here the street gets narrower, more trees and shops and restaurants line up along the sidewalk and, from a distance, you can already see the Torre Monumental, a Palladian-style tower built to commemorate the centenary of the May Revolution and a monument that has always been linked to our bumpy relationship with England. I take the train and walk home at times thinking about how I hate Buenos Aires, at other times I think of how I love her and miss her against my own will when I’m abroad. I hate her for being so overtly chaotic. I love her for always showing herself as she is, even with her many flaws. I would never want to change a thing about her.

For more content from Florcita check out her portfolio for The Coolidge Review and follow her blog!

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