Beyond the Backyard #2: Mi Querido Buenos Aires – Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mi Querido Buenos Aires
I’m here. After two of the bumpiest flights I’ve ever experienced, and more bad food than I was capable of stomaching, I finally arrived in Buenos Aires, exhausted but ecstatic.

And then I collapsed and slept the day away.

Hola! Que tal?
Before I left, I combed the internet for cheap Spanish classes for foreigners and finally found one that sounded good at this cubbyhole of a place called Casa do Brasil. Apparently I fake Spanish really well, because they put me in the intermediate level. The teacher is a man of indeterminable age who insisted, in a heavy Argentine accent, that he doesn’t have an Argentine accent. This man’s passion for verbs rivals only that of my high school French teacher. Yo estoy, tu estas, usted esta, el esta, ella esta, nosotros estamos, ustedes estan, ellos estan, ellas estan. Repeat with every irregular verb in the dictionary, in more tenses than I have fingers and toes, and that’s more or less the general idea…

But I can understand (some) Spanish (only if spoken slowly).

The City
So here I am in Buenos Aires, armed with only my broken Spanish and my boyfriend’s tattered guide to the world’s most complicated bus system. The city itself is fantastic; it’s always moving, never sleeping, 26-hours-a-day adrenaline. Awesome. And it’s pretty easy to navigate; I only got lost…uh…

Well, once on the way to the Canadian embassy, because the streets are only marked on one corner, and if you’re on the other side of a six lane street, let me tell you that tiny white writing is pretty hard to find, let alone read.

And then again looking for the Spanish school. The building numbers move, I tell you. They move and jump like no tomorrow. Nothing’s labeled either. And when I finally found 433 Calle Callao (ka-yey ka-ya-oh in my Spanish, ka-jey ka-ja-oh in the maestro’s Spanish), I couldn’t figure out how to get into the building because there are no signs, only brass buttons with letters beside them. The Spanish school is at letter P. I would have stood there pressing every letter from A to P had another student not come by and explained how to get in. Minor details…

And in the mall. Good Lord, what a mess. Stairs all over the place, and nothing ends up where it begins.

Hmm. Not bad.

In this city, cars rule. In Jerusalem a few years ago, I was almost hit by a bus one night while walking on the sidewalk, and I thought that was pretty bad. This is worse. Never again will I complain about road rage back in Toronto. The drivers estan locos aqui.

Pedestrian roadkill must be at an all-time high in this city. One of the most fascinating things to do on my first walk around the neighbourhood was to watch the cars going through this little four-way intersection with no stop signs. How they know who has the right of way is beyond me. They just seem to go, and damn all others who get in their way (myself included, on more than one occasion).

After finally figuring out how to dodge the traffic here (the key is to always follow the locals; if they’re crossing, then it’s pretty safe to run after them), I managed to take in some of the sights courtesy of Julian, my personal tour guide whose grasp of the English language is more or less comparable to my Spanish skills. Despite the language barrier and some really bad translations on both ends, he was still able to show me some great places. First he took me to Plaza San Martin, a memorial plaza to the country’s heroes. Surrounding the plaza, of all things, are palm trees, which were pretty out of place in the chilly winter weather. Then we went off to see Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada. Normally tourists can see the insides of the buildings, but because of the riots, and the political and economic tension, they were cordoned off by heavy metal gates and guarded by police. We had just missed a riot, because leaflets condemning the IMF and the banks were strewn across the square.

Then we walked right into a riot. Along the pedestrian walkway in the heart of the downtown core, protesters banged and clanked their pots and pans in front of one of the banks. A few carried picket signs calling for the president to resign. Several hewed away at the steel doors with hammers. Two or three had guns and shots rang through the air.

It was a fine introduction to economic turmoil and political unrest, if I do say so myself.

My personal tour ended in Caf� Tortoni, a place where men like tango legend Carlos Gardel used to wine and dine in the days of yore. Julian had been complaining of the cold (what cold?! It was a balmy two degrees!). Over lunch, I learned from Julian that my reputation as a Canadian igloo-dweller and ice fisher had preceded me while munching on an ensalada de manzanas (apple salad) that curiously contained no manzanas.

Dinero, you say?
As beautiful as the city is, the economics and politics of the country are hard to ignore. They pop up in corners, in lunchtime riots in the pedestrian mall, or in the beggars lining the street, clutching their grimy children while begging for a peso or two. It rears its head in the travel agency, waiting for Aerolineas Argentinas to confirm some airline tickets (by the way, I think they might give Air Canada some serious competition in the lousy customer service category). Since the government froze bank accounts early in the year, most Argentines have no access to their life savings, and devaluation of the peso in December has left their money practically worthless. The cost of living is up; salaries haven’t followed. Emigration is up. Morale is down. The people are bitter, and with good reason.

Bad news from home
The week ended on a bad note. My grandfather had been sick for a few months already, and things weren’t looking good. Tuesday evening, I got a phone call from my dad in Toronto. My grandfather had passed away earlier that day. He had been diagnosed with leukemia, and it had eaten away too much of his frail body. The funeral is tomorrow, but I won’t be going back. It’s too far; I can’t make it to Toronto in time. Instead, I wrote part of the eulogy from here, and tomorrow evening I’m going to find a local synagogue to say Mourner’s Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, and light a memorial candle with my boyfriend at my home away from home.

God works in mysterious ways, I guess.