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Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Argentina Hoy

I don't know if this is a good thing or a bad thing, but when I go somewhere I don't read up on it a whole lot. I try and get a sense of stuff to do there, of course, but I don't try to become an expert before I arrive. Part of it is probably the malign influence of Paul Theroux, who claims in his travel books not to read about places before he visits, so he can explore them on his own terms. It was in this spirit that I went to Argentina a couple of weeks ago.

Central Buenos Aires, day one


Why Argentina? A number of reasons - the most immediate being that my friend Sita, who writes her own blog "Buenos Aires - Life on the Edge (of a Continent)", has been living there for over a year and invited me down to visit. More generally I've also been fascinated by the place for a long time, since it's where a lot of European (and especially Italian) migration to the New World ended up, and my own grandfather ended up there after World War II, as part of the general Turkish-Armenian diaspora following the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

Buenos Aires was pretty different from any other place I've been... though at the same time, parts of it looked a lot like places that I do know. Some neighborhoods looked like any part of Europe, while others were clearly Latin America. It's a country that boasts a history of immigration and diversity, a real melting pot, though the only language I heard on the street other than Spanish was Chinese (and that was only once).

I suppose the first thing that caught me off guard was the sharp division between rich and poor that exists there. This was because, on the cab ride from the airport to Sita's house in Quilmes, the first thing we passed through on leaving the freeway was a pretty wretched-looking slum. I learned that this was the villa (pronounced vee-zha, because of the weird Argentine accent), and it's Argentina's answer to Brazil's favelas - Sita and her husband Alistair said they'd heard gunshots at night once or twice, coming from the villa.

On the other hand, I have a work colleague who lives in the center of town, and her neighborhood might as well have been in Italy. Next door to her building, in fact, was a store that sold artisanal pasta and olive oil. That part of town has the stores and chains you'd recognize, as well as ones that are local, and was mostly peopled by residents who wouldn't look out of place in Turin or London.

The other interesting thing about the city was how artistic it is. The connections to Latin American writers are well-known, with Borges being referenced all over - a cafe across the street from the Recoleta Cemetery has a pretty unnerving fiberglass statue of him at one of the tables - and with poems or extracts from stories about Buenos Aires on the sidewalks in some parts of town.

The view in Recoleta


There's also a number of great museums, of which I caught one of the most famous, the Bellas Artes. It has a great collection of European works dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century, and a great gallery of Argentine art as well.

Probably the most distinctive thing I experienced, though - apart from rounding a corner in a cafe on my first day and seeing a couple dancing the tango - was the Palacio Barolo, on my last night in town. It's a skyscraper named for and financed by an Italian businessman who'd come to Argentina in the 1920s, and is inspired by Dante's Divine Comedy. The number of floors reflects the lines in each canto, and it's divided into sections of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, while also claiming to hold the mortal remains of Dante himself, removed from Italy during World War II. Everything about the place was creepy and evocative though, as we were led on our tour through its darkened corridors by a guide who'd periodically point out a sinister red-robed figure positioned at certain spots in the building.

The other thing I wasn't really expecting was the Armenian community. As I said, I knew that my grandfather had ended up there after the war, and though I didn't manage to discover where he'd been living, my colleague, Sonia, did find an Armenian school and cultural center that does weekly dinners to raise money for class trips to Armenia. It was right across the street from a theater that has the same name as my mom (Siranush), and featured home-cooked Armenian food.

So Buenos Aires, difficult though it could be (for example, trying to find a bus home to Quilmes or determining which streets were safe for me to walk around), was also an excellent introduction to South America. By the end of the week I was navigating the transit between Quilmes and Capital, and within the city proper, without undue problems, and managed to avoid getting caught by muggers or by strikers. And I got to see a little bit outside of town too, when I went to Tigre, a town on the Parana that serves as the summer getaway for Buenos Aires.

Tigre; clearly where Fitzcarraldo ended up

It might not be top of everybody's list of places to visit, but it's good to experience it for yourself - it's a bit schizophrenic but that tension of European and Latin American cultures makes it fascinating. And as Sita can attest, it's even (mostly) safe for vegetarians - though I did have a couple of decent steaks, because it's the thing you do when you go there.
Pretty damn balanced meal, no?