Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The life of a Porteno

Health problems aside, I initially relished everything Buenos Aires had to offer in my first few days here: its food, its culture, its people, and the very special porteno culture. Although I didn´t walk around on a permanent high, I did feel in what I can only describe as bewildered awe. I loved the laid-back vibe of my hotel, the wide and sprawling streets, and the bustle of the Microcentro.

After just under a week in Argentina, I left the cosy confines of the Hotel Ritz and headed over to my student accommodation, a short walk away in Congreso. While attending school to learn Spanish here I would be staying in a shared apartment with fellow estudiantes - the place turned out to be crazy and wonderful all rolled into one. It was a large, old and beautiful apartment, with a long balcony which looked out onto the Plaza del Congreso: it was full of huge windows which would remain open throughout the day and night, the strong winds blowing a gale through the common areas. There were many of us students who found ourselves staying in the apartment together while we studied Spanish for this short time in our lives: a range of nationalities, ages, professions, personalities and backgrounds, we came together to hang out and share some wonderful experiences and memories of this great city and country - something which was very special indeed.

The first day I woke up at the apartment was a Monday, also my first day of school at Coined. The weather had begun to grow more cold and rainy and I remember, late as ever, rushing down the Avenida Rivadavia to the Coined school on Suipàcha in the Microcentro, determined not to be late for my first day of classes. I needn´t have worried - as I walked through the doors of school that morning, I realised it was a laid-back and friendly place where the students were welcomed and very valued. That morning I met my teacher and classmate (both lovely) and began to get to grips with the Spanish language. Lucky to have always naturally taken to words and linguistics of all kinds, I didn´t find it to be a huge struggle to begin understanding this language which I had no prior knowledge of. However, that didn´t mean it wasn´t problematic to adjust occasionally - in particular I found trying to find the words for simple things while talking with classmates and flatmates often tiring, hence why I spent most of this first week with a permanent coffee and nicotine buzz.

My first experience of a milonga - the traditional tango hall where Argentinians go to meet, eat, drink, dance and enjoy the beauty and melancholy of the music - came the following day. I met my colleagues in the beautiful and rare La Catedral de Tango in the barrio of Almagro, where we joined in as best we could with the portenos there to watch and learn from the talented teachers who were clearly in love with the dance and all things related.

This week, my second in Buenos Aires, was when I first began to fully understand the city and what it was about. I tried the traditional Argentinian food, empanadas, tried to get to grips with tango, and went with a porteno friend to a parrilla where every kind of meat is available and cooked in front of you on a huge griddle. The parrilla was in the Puerto Madero by the water - after a short Subte ride to the Plaza de Mayo, the walk to the lovely restaurant, followed by a great evening, with amazing food and wine, was one of the most special experiences I had during my time in Argentina.

Some friends and I spent the following Friday night in Bs. As´ party central, the barrio of Palermo. We visited the wonderful nightclub, Crobar, where we stayed till the early hours dancing and enjoying the buzz and vibe of the place, jampacked with portenos keen to party throughout the night.

I returned to Palermo a couple of days later for a visit to the Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays and Museo Evita. The sun shone really brightly that day, and I enjoyed wandering round the beautiful gardens and spending time at the museum while reflecting on my first couple of weeks in Argentina: I thought a lot about the people I had met and my experience of Spanish thus far, and I looked ahead to my final week in this very special place.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

La ciudad de bello espíritu

Just a few small weeks after I finally found myself with the necessary freedom to embark on a trip I had coveted for such a long time, and I was in South America.

One of the blessings to come out of the struggle I had faced over the last and out of work, back in a city I had been away from for so long, and lacking a sense of place...was the liberation I felt at being able to cut myself loose from the constraints of life in the UK, and head to a country which was completely alien to me, to open myself up to an entirely new experience.

One of the things about arriving in a new city after a long-haul flight is the strong sense of disorientation I tend to feel: ever inquisitive, all I want to do upon touching down somewhere I have never been before is to see and do everything. But this is always in stark contrast to my body´s reaction: being as slight as I am, I tend to be knocked for six by altitude, lack of sleep and a change in time zone and climate. Coupled with culture shock, this is something I can find tricky. This time, my physical reaction to my new environment was more extreme. On the cab journey to my hotel in the early hours of the morning, I took everything in: the surroundings, the driver´s demeanour, the level of traffic, the motorway billboards...but after I checked into my hotel and took my first walk around Buenos Aires, I felt something shift physically when I lay down for some rest. I later discovered that the dizzying feeling and lack of balance I felt, along with the agonising pain coming from my ear was a result of a burst eardrum caused by flying while suffering with a throat infection.

The few hours that followed were scary, as I negotiated a new language and culture at the same time as having zero clue as to what was happening to me physically. Even with a Spanish-speaking friend to help me, zipping round the city in cab with a blood-soaked tissue held to my ear was an unsettling experience. Odder still was my first experience of a foreign hospital: I couldn´t help but think of Scarlett Johannsson in Lost in Translation as I stood at the reception, unable to make head nor tail of the list of floors and departments.

I suppose the experience was something of a baptism of fire to the country - certainly after this I was unfazed by any other challenges that presented themselves, and I felt fresh and new and eager to explore the city once I had been examined and walked away with some wise words of advice and a bag full of antibiotics.

That night I was able to properly reflect on where I was, and I felt extremely privileged to be in this city for this period of my life. My dorm room was huge and spacious with a vast and high ceiling, and I could step out on the balcony to be met by a fantastic view of the Avenida 9 de Julio in all of its hectic, lively glory. There was lane upon lane upon lane of traffic, contrasting with beautiful, sedate monuments which were dotted up and down the street: I felt overwhelmed by this new place, and could only really compare it to how I felt when I arrived in Tokyo - Japan´s vastly different culture was like nothing I´d ever seen before or since, and I felt this similar sense of ´newness´ about my first experience of Argentina.

The oddness of the climate was something else that I was thrown by in my first few days. After recovering from my strange ´health scare´ and upping my caffeine intake ten-fold with countless cafe con leches, I set out to explore some of the city´s sights, instantly unsettled by the strength of the sun alongside an oft-unbearable cold breeze. But this really only enhanced the intensity of my experience of Buenos Aires as I wandered along street after street, taking in the bustle of the Microcentro and the creativity of the architecture. The towering presence of El Obelisco is a sight to behold in itself, but it is surrounded by countless other beautiful buildings, of which the Teatro Colon is arguably the most stunning.

The regular demonstrations taking place in Plaza de Mayo gave me a real insight into the political convictions of many Argentinians. Seeing so many people come together to speak out about something important to them for little other than pure principle was very sobering - it caused me to reflect on how few protests I have seen back home throughout my lifetime. Although maybe symptomatic of ´the English reserve´, I couldn't help but think there is something special and important about expressing opinions and feelings for the sake of expressing them. So it may be that is disrupts schedules and unsettles some people, but it enables people to feel they have a voice and that they are using it, arguably the most important of all things.

My visit to the Cementerio de la Recoleta was perhaps the most moving of all my experiences during the trip. It is difficult for me to describe the scale of it: row upon row upon row of elaborate tombs, each one entirely individual in its design. It is really more of a minature village than a traditional cemetery, and like nothing I´d ever before seen. The number of floral tributes which adorned the family vault of Eva Peron was something I found particularly overwhelming: it has been over fifty years since her death, and yet people regard her so highly they are still moved to leave fresh flowers at her tomb.

In stark contrast to this visit was the trip I took the following day to San Telmo and La Boca. The home of tango in the city, and all things flamboyant, San Telmo was teeming with visitors, street performers and vendors of all kinds on the Sunday I visited. I loved wandering up and down the narrow streets, watching the many performances and mooching around the huge number of antique stalls, with everything from grandfather clocks to Mickey Mouse teaspoons on display.

La Boca´s deprivation, alongside La Bombonera, home to their beloved Boca Juniors, put me in mind of how I felt when I first started going to Old Trafford as a teenager: here was this area full of poverty, but its community was brought together by a universal love of a football club, its commerce and graffiti alike devoted entirely to all things Man U.

The tango shows and parrillas along El Caminito, along with its colourfully decorated shopfronts and apartments gave me a similar feeling - La Boca makes up for in spirit what it may lack in material wealth.

I suppose at this stage of my Argentina experience, what struck me the most was the level and scale of contrast I had witnessed. There is poverty in so many quarters of Buenos Aires, and it is apparent for all to see, but still it remains soulful and committed to passion and beauty - I think it is this above all else which caused me to fall for it in no small way.