A Letter Home: First Impressions after Moving to Buenos Aires

“Buenos Aires, I go journeying in your streets, without time or reason.”
– Jorge Louis Borges
(the original Porteño rambler)

Roughly a month after moving to Buenos Aires I can finally say with some degree of confidence that I’m slowly, kind of, maybe, getting the hang of it. Or at least the bus ends up taking me to the completely wrong part of town only once a week or so.

The semester started two days after I had arrived and the following couple of weeks were full of the unglamorous parts of relocating to a new country – flat hunting, standing in various lines at the immigration office, trying to buy a SIM card, figuring out the public transportation system, decoding the slushy Argentinian accent and trying to stay on top of all the university readings coming my way.

By now things have calmed down a little – I have found a roof over my head, a couple of places that sell edible things and a cheap-yet-very-drinkable brand of Malbec.

For me an important part of feeling at home is locating all my new favourite things to eat and drink: Dulce de leche, mandarin oranges, empanadas, wine: cheap, plentiful, and oh-so-delicious. As soon as I get my hands on a decent kitchen I’ll bake the masterpiece that will make my fortune: dulce de leche empanadas! (My company will be called Dulce Delicious ™ and I shall live a happy life full of sweets and diabetes. Stay tuned.)

Moving to Buenos Aires

Dulce de leche, medialunas and yerba mate… must be breakfast time in Argentina!

On the downside, cheese and coffee lovers – which includes me – are out of luck. With Brazil just around the corner and the pampas full of cows this one’s a bit of a conundrum, but both are expensive and relatively awful in Argentina.

Instead of a cup of thick black coffee my mornings now include a gourd, a silver straw and dried leaves that smell slightly of hay. Yerba Mate is the brew that fuels the Latin American continent – people drink it at home, on subways, walking down the street, on romantic dates in parks and just about everywhere else. The elaborate process of preparation took me a week to master, but now I’ve grown to love the ceremony of it as well as the nice sustained energy spike it gives me, without any of the coffee jitters. It’s also supposed to be all kinds of wholesome and healthy, so I suppose it makes up for my cup-a-day Dulce de Leche habit.

(If you don’t have an Argentinian handy this youtube video’s got you covered.)

My Spanish leaves a lot to be desired, but by now I’ve gotten accustomed to the accent well enough to understand when a boy at the store asks me why I’m so tall – did my parents stretch me out when I was little?

And then there’s the books. Books everywhere! In The Library of Babel Borges imgined a universe in the form of a vast library, and walking through the city it’s not hard to see where he got his inspiration from. Buenos Aires has the highest amount of bookshops per inhabitant and you will never be more than a block away from one, ranging from kiosks and simple discount librerias to the world-famous El Ateneo, an old theatre that has been converted to a bookshop.
This city is, dare I say it, superior to Bangalore when it comes to book-bingeing.

On a related note, there is no shortage of libraries in the city and while getting through security is a tedious procedure involving three paper-shufflers and a security guard some of the gorgeous reading rooms are more than worth it. Biblioteca Nacional de Maestros has become my favourite place to tackle the endless assignments surrounded by old leather-bound books.

Moving to Buenos Aires - Biblioteca Nacional De Maestros

Biblioteca Nacional de Maestros

For those who prefer to get their entertainment in the form of clickbait and cat videos Buenos Aires has got you covered too. If you ever find yourself in serious Facebook withdrawal you can just pop into any subway station for a dose of free WiFi. (Or so I’m told – my third-hand smartphone is very coy about connecting to open networks.)

In matters of Latin American academia I am on the level of a three-year-old toddler, and after so many years of studying and travelling through Asia everything feels fresh and new. Admittedly some things, like reading Borges and Octavio Paz, strike my fancy more than preparing a presentation on the BRICS New Development Bank – there’s a reason this blog does not focus on in-depth reportage from the world of finance and international relations.

I am also learning for the first time about the relativity of academic time – by now I should have known that even the sacred European academic quarter is just a Western construct!  When it comes to academia these laid-back Argentinians are more German and the Germans, and a two hour seminar means a full 120 minutes of education, straight up. By the time we reach the end of a three-hour seminar (180 minutes!!) my spoiled European brain has already turned to mush and all I can do is stumble out of the classroom and hope I’m not drooling.

By the end of my third week in Buenos Aires I could feel the big city life getting to me and made a mad dash for the countryside.  I only made it as far as San Antonio de Areco, a small Gaucho town some 100 kilometres west of Buenos Aires, but instantly fell in love with its old tranquil streets which are lined with orange trees instead of traffic lights. It’s a shamelessly idyllic little place where I spent an hour lying on the grassy river bank watching the sunlight playing among the trees, accompanied by a stray dog that had adopted me.  I could actually hear the birds singing.

San Antonio de Areco - orange trees

Returning to Buenos Aires on Sunday I found myself wishing I could spend every weekend in Areco, with the friendly stray dogs and the orange trees. Buenos Aires is a big, sprawling, gorgeous mess, with chaotic traffic and little respite from the concrete. I returned home to find out that a housemate had moved out after having a nervous breakdown that included screaming on the roof and sabotaging our router.

Suddenly the Porteños’ love for psychoanalysis didn’t seem like such a bad idea. Argentina boasts the world’s highest concentration of psychologists per capita, most of them Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysts. There is even a part of town called Palermo Sensible (“sensitive Palermo”) or Villa Freud. The occasional therapy session is seen as a normal part of self-care, “like visiting the dentist,” and one of our professors, an extremely energetic football-playing type, told us of his surprise when realizing, upon moving to the U.S. for his PhD, that most people there went through life without regular psychotherapy appointments.

If you can’t afford a shrink here’s my tip for postponing howling, frothing insanity: never EVER try to get across town in rush hour. The subway reaches Tokyo-levels of humans-per-square-meter density but without the pathological politeness and great hairstyles, and the bus ride will turn into a shockingly realistic re-enactment of the Doctor Who “Gridlock” episode. Sadly, David Tennant never comes to the rescue.

(Fun fact: Argentinians invented the bus. Also the ball-point pen. These were the first two facts I learned at my new university.)

On the bright side the excruciatingly slow pace of your bus gives you time to appreciate the countless murals ranging from the silly to the sublime, from the political to the playful. The artists can paint whatever and wherever they like, as long as they have permission from the property owner, making Buenos Aires a popular destination for world-renowned mural painters, with some pretty wonderful results.
I’m waiting for a sunny weekend to take my camera on a mural-hunting expedition and will report back in due course.

Out of rush hour my favourite way of exploring the city is by hopping on a random bus and seeing where it takes me. The ride only costs 50 cents and I end up in corners of the city I would never have seen otherwise, and can usually never find again. (On a side note: this is probably an exercise best undertaken after you already have a sense of the lay of the land so you don’t inadvertendly take yourself for a stroll in an unsafe part of town. While violent crime is rare muggings are a daily occurrence and bug-eyed foreigners are an easy target.)

Once out of the central barrios, the streets are peppered with the kind of old colonial houses that I really want to live in, with crumbling facades and gothic grille-work, high windows with wooden latticed shutters. Every corner is a splash of orange, mandarins and oranges stacked in crates in front of the verdulerias. In the non-eventful corners of the city, the ones that are not in the guide books, the city makes sense to me. I’m not telling you where they are – finding them is half of the fun.

(Sometimes I wonder why I should write a single word about Buenos Aires when Borges has already said it all: “My soul is in the streets of Buenos Aires, not the greedy streets jostling with crowds and traffic, but the neighbourhood streets, where nothing is happening.”)

It’s a city made for long rambling walks, which is lucky because that’s pretty much the only thing I can afford to do. We were warned about the rising cost of living before moving to Buenos Aires, but that didn’t prevent me from wondering how much my kidney would be worth on the black market the first time I went to the supermarket. With a predicted 40% inflation this year, the living costs of Buenos Aires are quickly catching up with Germany’s – needless to say, the paychecks are not. Regular protests against president Macri’s government and its neoliberal policies have had little effect so far.

Moving to Buenos Aires - protest

Protest on Plaza de Mayo

For me this is the paradox at the heart of Buenos Aires – thousands have lost their jobs and those who still have them are watching the worth of their paycheck decline by the month, yet the restaurants and cafes arMoving to Buenos Aires pricese still full of people having lunch with friends, enjoying wine and a picada in the evening, overpaying for Starbucks coffee. I can’t decide whether it’s an admirable commitment to enjoying the small pleasures in life or just a nation-wide case of bad personal budgeting, but the relaxed attitude has helped me reign in my financial anorexia and splurge a little every now and then.

At the drug store you can buy imported perfume in six interest-free instalment, adjusted for inflation. Same goes for just about anything with more longevity than a bag of groceries – perhaps that way you can have your Café San Martin cake and eat it too!

Luckily Buenos Aires seems to be a city hell-bent on providing cultural entertainment, whatever your budget. Argentina is celebrating 200 years of independence in 2016 and the city is organizing a number of festivals and free events. Tango, Jazz, contemporary dance, exhibitions and concerts, film festivals and even the occasional church rave (or so my cooler friends tell me) … there is no lack of choices, as long as you can find the right bus to get you there.

Speaking of which, I’m out of mate and it’s time for me to catch the bus and get to the library.

Have a good one!

P.S.: Have you been to Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Argentina? I would love some first-hand tips! Including, but not limited to: where can I buy good cheese??

2 thoughts on “A Letter Home: First Impressions after Moving to Buenos Aires

  1. Hi Kaja, I’m just reading through your first impressions of this beautiful yet sluggish city, nodding my head in agreement, hungry for dulce de leche, feeling poor with all this inflation talk, and thinking about how I still haven’t done my Spanish homework…

    I got to your blog through a friend of mine from home, Ireland being home, Sarah being the friend. She sent me a lovely email this morning to catch up and told me that she had met you in Nepal not so long ago. By the looks of it you’re fresh off the boat too! If you would like to get together sometime to grab some terrible and expensive coffee or bitter mate, let me know 🙂

    Also, I know a good cheese shop. The future is bright!

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