At first, the city felt too urban, too replicable. I was searching for unique cultural indicators to grasp on to and absorb, and it took about a week for me to find them. Only when I spent a day wandering the city alone, apart from my family, did I begin to understand what life might be like for a local in this beautiful, sprawling, capital city.
Buenos Aires feels much more European than South American. When I stepped off the plane, I immediately felt like I was in a European city. On my first day here, I couldn’t get over how much Buenos Aires reminded me of Madrid or other cities in Spain. I had heard many references to Paris (Buenos Aires is frequently referred to as “the Paris of the South”), but I didn’t really draw that comparison myself until I spent the day walking down the grand avenues lined with majestic buildings, demonstrating both French and Spanish architectural styles. Architecturally, there are similarities to Paris, but culturally (and overall), the natural comparison is to Madrid, or even my beloved Seville. I felt like I was back in my old Andalucian stomping grounds. (Many Italians also immigrated to Buenos Aires, comprising a large cultural component here as well).
This place did not feel like anywhere I’d ever been in Ecuador, Brazil, or Peru- not Lima or even Cusco. This was not South America. European culture seemingly replaced Latin American culture. My judgments were confirmed after befriending some expats living in BA, one for nine years. “They think of themselves as Europeans, not as South Americans,” my new friend said of the porteños. I knew it! I love it when my intuitions are confirmed!
BA folks love their dogs. I seriously think that everyone in this city must own a dog. I’ve never seen so many dog walkers in my LIFE, and they always seem to have about 15 dogs on leashes. These canines seem happy and well cared-for, some sporting doggy sweaters or coats. Oh, but there are no laws in this city about cleaning up after your pooch. Watch out for the steaming puppy pods!
Family is fundamental. This may seem like an obvious observation, but it is something that really made an impression on me during my time here; family is very important to a porteño. Children accompany parents everywhere, even late-night dinners. Despite the busy, hectic life of a large city-dweller, personal relationships never seem to be neglected here. I drew a very similar conclusion about Spaniards after living in Spain for a while.
People are friendly. Counter to stereotypes that most people have of big-city-folk, once you get past the facade of the busy, all-business urbanite, people are eager to interact with and help a curious visitor. Two quick anecdotes: I walked in to a wine bodega, which was camouflaged within an fancy apartment building. Immediately intimidated by the columns of expensive bottles (and realizing that as much as I love wine, I am no expert), I started to stumble over my words in Spanish after the shop keeper asked me what I was looking for. She seamlessly switched over to perfectly beautiful English, realizing the complexity of our topic and the limitations of my Spanish lexicon, and proceeded to help me pick out the perfect bottle for my pallet and my budget.
Second story: After a full day of exploring the microcentro on foot, I headed back towards our apartment in Recoleta. I passed by this adorable bookstore with a stern-looking man at the door. As I walked away, I noted to myself that I find it fascinating that there are so many quaint, specialty bookstores in the city. It’s a rarity indeed back home, as e-publishing is putting even the larger bookstores out of business. I stopped halfway down the street, weighing my options. On the one hand, I really want to go back to the antique novelty and take some photos because I love this aspect of the city. On the other, the man seemed so foreboding. Did I really feel like approaching this man like a naive American tourist, when he would likely shake his finger “no” at me in aggravation? Screw it. I went back and tapped on the glass of the door. He unlocked the door and slowly opened it. “Esta abierta” (Are you open?) I asked apprehensively. “You want to take photos,” he replied in clear, kind English. “Come in- please.” I smiled gratefully and entered, explaining how fascinated I was with all of the beautiful, old bookstores of the city. “We don’t really have many of these in the U.S.” I explained. “Well, in New York, Chicago, Boston, you have some,” he argued. “Yes, but the print book industry is really suffering. . . How is your business? Do you have many customers?” “Well….yes.” He proceeded to show me the back room containing first editions written in English. I must have shot 50 photos of the tiny Harry Potter-esque bookstore, sighing all the while… “This is so beautiful!” I kept saying. I think he got a kick out of me. He was proud… and happy to indulge a silly American girl. Walking away from the shop, I was so glad I made the decision to ignore my initial discomfort of having a potential negative encounter with someone from a different world. It made my day to realize, once again (for the umpteenth time) that people are… just people. I adore and celebrate our differences, but at the end of the day, we all live, love and suffer through the same human condition with (mostly) the same core values. It’s moments like these that make me feel really connected, understood, appreciated and loved. I can’t explain why. Maybe it’s because this is how I feel towards others when I have these connective encounters.
Argentinians LOVE their pastries. I try to be healthy. I don’t eat many carbohydrates at home, but I have a wicked sweet tooth. Buenos Aires has not been good for my self-discipline. My general travel rule of thumb is that all (self-imposed) rules are thrown out the window, especially when it comes to eating. A major part of enjoying a new country and culture is enjoying the food- with NO restrictions. I find myself staring into almost every cafe window that I walk by, which means I am stopping several times on one block. I was reassured when I saw that local porteños behave the same way I do when they pass these confectionary displays, unable to contain their salivating looks of desire. I’ve succumbed to each and every desire and have eaten my weight in dulce de leche cakes and brownies, lemon meringue tarts, churros, alfajores, and any other sweet you can imagine. My clothes are starting to feel very tight, and it’s been a week! How do these people stay so fit?
Tango is alive and electric. This is not just a performance for tourists. The Tango is engrained into the culture of Buenos Aires, like jazz and Mardi Gras are to New Orleans or Carnival to Rio de Janeiro. Everyone tangos. There are dance “clubs” called Milongas where people go to dance the tango, and there is no judgement. There is no trace of “dorky” or “uncool” mentality. It’s such an intense, intimidating dance; a pre-requisite is to stare your partner in the eye. I love to dance and grew up dancing competitively, but I hesitate about learning the tango. Maybe it’s my awkward American discomfort of consistent eye contact. Who knows!
Two weeks is never enough time to fully experience and understand a culture, but I feel that I was able to get a good pulse on Buenos Aires in the short amount of time that I was here. My observations are just some of the initial impressions the city’s people left on me. I’ve just scraped the tip of BA’s cultural iceberg. I look forward to coming back to discover more.