Mi Buenos Aires Querido, just for you, I present my essential A to Z guide, drafted in your honor:
A is for ASADO – When someone mentions “asado” to me here, images of various mouth-watering cuts of beef (or tender, flavorful chicken and succulent pork) being consumed by a family on a lazy Sunday afternoon immediately come to mind. And the smell – Oh. My. God. The SMELL alone coming from anywhere is enough to make me start to salivate like a Pavlovian dog! Yes. Asado. Eat it.
B is for BA EXPATS – I honestly don’t know how I would have survived Buenos Aires without having discovered this super informative and entertaining website and forum that I admit to frequenting several times a day. I’ve made some great, real-life friends as a result of using it, some of whom are foreigners like myself, and others who are locals. I read up on helpful tips about daily living and managing sanity in this city. Once in a while, I post an opinion or a tip. But most times, I just lurk around anonymously and watch from the sidelines as forum members squabble and argue with each other (you know who I’m talking about… 😉
C is for CASTELLANO – Not Español. Castellano. Believe it or not, the Rioplatense dialect of the Spanish language is quirky, charming, and exotic to me. For some reason, the sound of Castellano’s “zha-zha” words and unique intonation sound like an elegant mix of Spanish, Italian, and Brazilian Portuguese, I just love it. Music to my ears, even when hearing, “Che, sos recontra boludo!”
D is for DULCE DE LECHE – Before I came to Argentina, I had only occasionally tasted the brown, sweet, caramel-tasting stuff. It was… Okay (I personally prefer peanut butter). But here? Dude, they put it on EVERYTHING! Cakes, cookies, masas finas, ice cream, pancakes, fruit, or simply straight out of the jar. A lot of it. It’s sweet enough to make your pancreas go into shock. Perhaps it’s something you get used to, but I can only handle it once in a while in very small quantities.
E is for EVITA – The very mention of the most iconic Argentine (sorry, Maradona), will always provoke a strong reaction. They either love her and consider her a saint, or believe that she and her husband, Juan Peron, were the worst thing to ever happen to the country, but there is very little middle ground. Either way, she is a fascinating historical figure, so much so that she has her own museum in Palermo.
F is for FLORIDA STREET – Also known to many as the most popular pedestrian shopping districts in the country, known to me as ten consecutive blocks of ill repute. Trust me, I should know, I resided on the actual street in an uncomfortable studio apartment for than nineteen months, and let me tell you, despite what Lonely Planet might say, it ain’t pretty. Beggars, arbolitos, pickpockets, and other sketchy characters hang around the street lined with overpriced souvenirs that only tourists buy. The grimey street itself is littered trash, including millions of those little slips of paper advertising the services of prostitutes. I now live far, far away from the city’s center and Florida Street, and that is how I like it!
G is for GRAFFITI –
When my mother came to visit me here, she told me that Buenos Aires reminds her of New York City… in the 1970s (err… not good). A major justification of this comparison was because as far as the eye could see, graffiti is EVERYWHERE! All kinds of graffiti, nonsensical, disrespectful, and fugly. The worst is the penis graffiti. Apparently a lot of taggers think it is hilarious to spray paint penises, particularly on advertisements with women. As I’ve written before, I pray that when I die, I do not have tombstone here. They’d have my full name, the day I was born, the day I died, and then certainly some dimwit would draw a penis underneath.
H is for HEALTH CARE – Being from the United States, where the only real health care plan is “don’t get sick; don’t have an accident,” I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Argentina offers universal health care to all of its citizens. While the infrastructure and organization of the public hospitals here may not be top notch, and receiving medical attention for chronic conditions may take some time, there is also the option of private insurance, which is what I have. Is insurance super cheap by Argentine standards? Not really (I have OSDE), but at least it is relatively more affordable and far better than any American plans that I’ve had, including vision, dental, almost no copays, and even doctors who make house calls.
I is for INFLATION – We have one of the highest rates of inflation in the world. While the INDEC and the Argentine government reports it to officially be at about 10% annually, absolutely no one here believes it, and for good reason. The real rate of annual inflation is closer to 30% (or even more, depending on the commodity), which drives more and more people into poverty with each passing year. The reality is, what you can afford today, you may not be able to afford tomorrow, causing many to play Hot Potato with their monthly salaries and illegally hoarding foreign currency (which is incredibly difficult to acquire if you don’t get it from the black market).
J is for the JEWISH COMMUNITY – Being Jewish by birth, I find the strong presence, solidarity, and support within this small community to be impressive. In some parts of the city (for example, near Once), it is quite easy to take notice of the synagogues, stores, restaurants, schools, signs, and people of the Jewish faith, almost like what you would expect to find in Williamsburg or Crowne Heights in Brooklyn.
K is for KIRCHNER – The current president of the Argentine Republic, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is another controversial topic. Personally, I can’t stand her, but as a foreigner, I know that it is best to keep most political opinions to myself. To keep this particular letter from rambling, in a nutshell she represents corruption, cover-ups, and crime. That, and she thinks that she’s the reincarnation of Eva Peron. Ick.
L is for LOVE –
Before you go thinking that I’m a jaded cynic, you should know that I met the love of my life, my Argentine husband, Fede, here in this fine city. We’ve been together for more than five years and have a son who is too freaking adorable for words. It is because of my husband, my muse, my life partner, and my very best friend in the world that I now understand that everything happens for a reason.
M is for the MALVINAS – Known as the Islas Malvinas in Argentina and the Falkland Islands to the rest of the world, these little islands off the Patagonian coast are yet another point of controversy in this country. This is the deal: They had officially been under British rule since the early 1800s, but in 1982 in the era of the “dictadura,” Argentine forces invaded, claiming that the territory belonged to them, leading to a brief but unfortunate war in which the British ultimately triumphed and retook control. Still licking their wounds over this loss, some use this to rally anti-British/xenophobic sentiment whenever it is politically convenient. Is there more to this story? Of course, I’m just giving my personal observations. According to the renowned Argentine writer, Jorge Luis Borges, the fight over the Islas Malvinas is a “fight between two bald men over a comb.” Enough said.
N is for NIGHTLIFE – I will never, ever be able to keep pace with the Argentine nightlife (GOD, I’m old!). To me, it is enough of a challenge stay awake after eating a hearty dinner at 9 or 10pm, but just the thought of going out clubbing, drinking, dancing, and causing shenanigans until daybreak wears me out and just reaffirms my love and desire of curling up with a cup of tea, my cat, and a captivating book. Good times, good times.
O is for the OFFICIAL DOLLAR – Also known as the “Dolar Blanco,” “Dolar Libre,” or if you ask me, the fictitious dollar. As of the day of this post, the official US dollar is equivalent to about 8.72 Argentine pesos… *Pfft* Only if you are foolish enough to willingly go to a bank with your passport and part with your greenbacks there. See, this is how it works: You can easily exchange dollars or any other foreign currency into pesos, but, regardless of your residential status, you cannot change them back, as the Argentine currency has no value outside of Argentina (and barely has value even within its borders). Anyone who knows better takes their dollars to Florida Street or any other place with a “cueva” to take advantage of the black market rate that is illegally offered, currently closer to about 13 pesos per US dollar. What that rate will be in a month, in a year? Nobody can say for sure.
P is for PALERMO – Be it Chico, Hollywood, Queens, Soho, Botanico, etc., the largest barrio in the city is a fashionable hotspot for foreigners, as one can tell when meandering its streets (just watch out for the dog poop!). By far my favorite place within this neighborhood is the Feria de Libros on Avenida Santa Fe near Plaza Italia, where you can find an eclectic mix of different books, children’s books, antique books, best-sellers, textbooks, even some in English. Sometimes you have to pick through a bunch of stuff, but if you’re an avid bookworm like me, when you find that rare literary gem, you feel like you unearthed a little bit of treasure.
Q is for QUEUING – If there’s one thing that Porteños seem to be experts at, its waiting in lines. I’ve seen some crazy, spiraling, seemingly endless lines that look like they ought to be for a [insert name of the greatest musician/band/performer] concert form outside government offices. And then there are the queues that one encounters on a daily basis, such as micro buses and supermarkets. They don’t always have a clear beginning or end, just sort of a disorderly, asymmetrical blob sort of form to them. And they Just. Never. Move. Forward. Every damn time. God only knows why. Patience is undoubtedly a virtue here.
R is for RARE – As in, weird. This is a rare country indeed, where it’s apparently not a big deal for the president to “adopt” a Jewish boy to prevent him from turning into a werewolf. Where vendors sell ferrets on steroids and pass them off as poodles. You seriously can’t make this stuff up.
S is for SIZE LAWS – I left the United States a fairly average sized woman, and apparently arrived here as a big ol’ fatty fat-fat. It’s no coincidence. When I came to Buenos Aires as a student in 2005, they had yet to enforce the “Any-Body” size law, obligating clothing stores throughout the country to carry larger sizes (as in, larger than a size 8!). Before this took effect, you really needed a Scarlet O’Hara-sized waist and thighs like a baby giraffe to shop freely. However, even in 2015, still not all stores choose to comply. Even now, clothes shopping here is a rather complicated, masochistically painful process. Needless to say, I still stock up on clothes when I travel back to Ohio.
T is for TAXIS – (I bet you thought I was going to say tango, right?!) I generally avoid taking taxis due to the ever-increasing costs (as of now, it is AR$14.30 just to get in!), though I admit that I’ve had some real characters drive me around. Some of these drivers have recited poetry, given me history lessons, preached the Gospel, and even asked me out on a date (err… no). When I can occasionally afford to splurge, 9 times out of 10, it’s an eventful ride.
U is for the UNDERGROUND –
Also known as the subway, the tube, or simply, the subte, and the oldest underground transportation system in South America. Though it was not very well designed (there are very few points to transfer, except at the city center), the city is currently working on expanding and improving it. It’s okay, I guess, just watch out for the pickpockets and panhandlers while riding.
V is for VILLA 31 – The largest ghetto found in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires, and the rapidly-growing population has been spilling out in recent years, often committing crimes and other delinquencies. Scary, sobering stuff. I’d rather tiptoe around this topic, not too much else to say about it, except that I wouldn’t survive a New York minute there.
W is for WALKING TOUR – I’ve been on the free Buenos Aires walking tour (http://www.bafreetour.com/english-home) three different times when relatives have come to visit and honestly have to say that each time, I learn something new about my adopted hometown. The people who give the tours are totally bilingual, friendly, and patient with as many questions as you want to ask them (no matter how random!). Totally recommended!
X is for X-MAS –
A tricky letter indeed to write about, but I’ll never quite get used to celebrating Christmas in the stifling heat of summer, and I have never heard of anyone using a real pine as their Christmas tree, just the fake variety. However, I do find the traditional fireworks pretty cool. Besides, despite superficial differences X-mas really is all about being with family and the people you love (awwww!).
Y is for YERBA MATE –
As I’m sure you already know, the traditional Argentine tea drink is consumed out of a gourd and sipped through a straw called a bombilla, blah, blah, blah. A lot of the Argentines who I know drink it in social situations, to help them to stay awake when pulling all-nighters, and also as a diuretic to lose weight. It’s not bad (at least for when I add a small pile of sugar to dissolve on top), but I will always be an Earl Grey kinda girl.
Z is for eZeiza – Argentina’s main airport (now with free Wifi!), the last stop while here where you can spend your Monopoly money (aka- Argentine pesos) on some painfully overpriced, sticky medialunas and coffee before heading back to your country of origin, where you will tell everyone what you saw, ate, heard, and experienced. And that concludes our tour.
Thank you, come again!