Airline Music and Buenos Aires
Buenos Aires, Argentina
If travel broadens the mind, the flying part, if nothing else, plays havoc with your moods and tastes. The excitement of traversing oceans and continents is prone to affect your preferences and weaken your defenses. The only place I’ll eat peppers, for instance, is on an airplane.
And this is how, for example, I came to appreciate the Don McLean song “American Pie” after despising it since childhood. On the way to Greece in 1992, McLean’s classic was a featured cut on the plane’s entertainment system. Chilled out in a Club Class semi-sleeper, headphones at max volume, suddenly I was ordering “whiskey and rye” while tapping my foot in a sort of faux-nostalgic bliss. Hey, this song’s pretty cool.
Boredom, too, has something to do with it. We’re a captive audience for hours at a time, and the geniuses who compile those onboard audio programs needn’t get too wrapped up in their playlists. Sure, why not pair the Cocteau Twins with Kenny G and call it “Inflight Atmospherics”? I mean, what else are people gonna to listen to? Everybody’s got an iPod anyway.
Except me. And this time, somewhere over the Amazon basin at 37,000 feet, Dave Wakeling is hosting channel ten’s “Eighties With an Accent”, a nauseating mish-mash of the lamest possible hits of twenty years ago. Not even campy bad — where are Men Without Hats or those “99 Luft Balloons” when you need them? — just insipid, meant-to-be-taken-seriously bad.
I’m trying to lighten up with a glass of wine, but it’s not working. Not even Don McLean could save this mess, and no amount of travel-induced adrenaline will ever cause me to enjoy the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” arguably the most horrifying song ever recorded.
It’s aggravating, and I’d expect better from Dave Wakeling. Possibly you remember Dave and his early ’80s ska-poppers, the English Beat, responsible for a handful of decent releases. If ever I held a certain fondness for the Beat, namely due to the band’s 1982 album, Special Beat Service, the cover of which depicts Dave and his mates descending the stairs of a British Airways VC-10. (That’s the Vickers VC-10, a ’60s-era jetliner conspicuous for having four aft-mounted engines, similar to the Russian Il-62).
Still to come on channel ten, the in-seat magazine tells me, is The Clash. Fantastic, I’m thinking. What I’d give to hear “Safe European Home” or maybe “Silicone on Sapphire.” Alas — and surely you smelled this coming — prepare to hear Mick Jones shouting: “Dar-ling you’ve got to let me kno-ooow. Should I stay or…”
Bad enough in 1983. Ten times worse in 2005 through a 60-cent plastic headset.
We’re descending over the pampas now, and fortunately Paul Weller is on hand to save us. Amidst all of this sad droning garbage is none other than the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” Where did that come from — a terrific song that will stick with me for the next four days, keeping the gruesome choruses of Combat Rock and Annie Lennox at bay.
Twelve hours later, Weller is in my head — the sweet lyrical glue of his voice singing, “Mister Jones got run down…” — while I’m lost at rush hour in the Buenos Aires subway.
Overall I’m disappointed in Buenos Aires, but the city’s rapid transit system, the first in South America, is fast, cheap, and groovy. The old electric carriages of the A line, running between Plaza de Mayo and Primera Junta, are wood-panel relics with slat benches and doors opened by hand. These beautiful antiques are well kept and provide a quieter, smoother, quieter ride than my own subway’s newest equipment. I’m in no way a railroad aficionado, but the old cars are so charming I double back for a second ride.
Many of the platforms feature elaborate tile mosaics. Coming out of Independencia station in the bohemian San Telmo neighborhood, the tilework is a geometric arabesque that looks straight from one of the more splendid mosques of Fez. A less than accidental nod, it turns out, for the design is framed with inlaid squares of Arabic script.
As for the rest of Buenos Aires, how much the city lives up to its billing as the Paris of the South depends how you see it. I suppose it resembles a run down version of Paris, though a run up version of Mexico City is probably more accurate. You get the impression it would have been a grand metropolis two or three decades ago, with its long boulevards, fashionable shops and elegant buildings.
I know almost nothing about architecture, but Buenos Aires must be on any architecture buff’s short list of must-sees, if only for the novelty: a distinctively, almost stubbornly European city in the middle of Latin America. I’m tempted to call it “stunning,” but that’s a word that implies a measure of new, bright, and gleaming. Buenos Aires, for all its neoclassical monuments, carved facades and filigrees, does not gleam. It exists gloomily beneath a layer of grime and neglect, which at this point, depending on the neighborhood, treads the precarious ridge between old word charm and dilapidation. A certain state of postcolonial disrepair would be ordinary in lesser developed countries, but from a supposed world-class center of sophistication I expected more. So it goes in Argentina after years of corrupt governments, hyperinflation and economic free-fall. I was amazed at the numbers of homeless people wandering around BA’s busiest commercial zones. Not merely individuals, mind you, but whole families, sleeping on heaps of refuse and rummaging through dumpsters adjacent to chic clothing shops and banks.
Despite having few skyscrapers, Buenos Aires an extremely vertical city in the sense that the streets and avenues are sided by unbroken rows of apartments and highrises. A typical block is less a sequence of buildings than a single, unified structure, partitioned only through the differing fanciness of the balconies, gables and pillars. All this concrete and hemmed in space helps to affect a near perfect echo chamber, and so every BA street becomes an ear-shattering orchestra of public buses, trucks, and motorbikes.
Buenos Aires is also home to the world’s most narrow sidewalks. For pedestrians jostling to pass, there’s scant margin for error lest you be clipped in the back by a speeding, fume-spewing bus. And if, after a day’s walking, one’s pantlegs are blackened with soot, he or she may thank the city’s roaring fleet of colectivos, whose exhaust stacks are aimed thigh-high and directly at the sidewalks. It all acts as a kind of forced pedecide, evidenced by the 400 or so residents run over and killed every year.
A cursory critique, perhaps, but much of any city’s true character and liveability are manifest in raw infrastructural tangibles. I’ll judge BA first by its levels of noise and congestion, secondly by the guidebook standards of tango lessons, nightlife and art museums.
Thus the best thing about Buenos Aires, maybe, is its proximity to Montevideo, the surprisingly green, clean, and otherwise pleasant capital of Uruguay, 125 miles to the southeast across the Rio de la Plata.
Some joke of Montevideo as a suburb of BA, and an undistinguished, boring one at that. Which is less than fair, and I maintain that if Montevideo were able to spruce up its historic Ciudad Vieja — the old colonial core of crumbling facades — it would be one of the most picturesque cities in the world. Like BA it’s a tarnished and neglected town, in fact strikingly more so in parts, but with a population of 1.3 million, roughly a tenth of the megalopolis on the other side of the river, it’s also easier paced, quieter, and generally more agreeable.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.