A love letter to Buenos Aires

If you’re ever living somewhere overseas for a few months or longer, try this. Sometime after a couple weeks, take a trip away. You don’t have to go too far, but spend a weekend at a nearby beach town or go into another city you always hear people talk about. Then go back to that place where you’re staying. It’ll feel much more like home.

That rule of thumb seems to be in effect right now in Buenos Aires. I’m cradled between two rows of French colonial architecture on Avenida Santa Fe. I don’t have to be anywhere in a hurry, so I’m taking my time getting home, peering in each of the storefronts and occasionally stopping in and looking at the things on their shelves.

I see brightly colored ceramic gourds for yerba mate, next to a musical instrument shop.

There’s a bookstore in the vicinity too. I have a look. In one short month my Spanish has gone from extremely rusty to quite good. I feel comfortable browsing through each of the books, though I question whether I’d have the motivation and patience to attempt an entire novel in Spanish. For now, I’ve been listening to Spanish audiobooks of Harry Potter I was able to torrent, and those seem to be plenty to work with for the time being.

People say that Buenos Aires is very cosmopolitan. From now on, whenever I think of cosmopolitan, Avenida Santa Fe is what I’ll be thinking of. If you look up, it might as well be European. Every buidling has an ornate façade. On the ground level, it’s something else entirely. There are street vendors and beggars and families and people walking a dozen dogs all at once. Although the view looking up is much nicer, people here don’t really pick up after their dogs, so you’re probably better off looking down.

I decide on one more stop before I head back home. Something to eat.

Right across the bookstore is a tested and true café. I sit down at one of its seven tables. It’s dark on three sides, but light pours in from the front of the store. I give the menu a cursory glance, but I already know exactly what my order is going to be. One serving of morcilla- the Argentine blood sausage, and a side of steak fries. It’s a dish that most of the other Americans over here aren’t that into, but I love it and I know I’ll miss it when I’m no longer in Argentina. For now, I’m happy to put down nine pesos for it. That’s about two bucks for a full meal… and a delicious one at that.

Sometimes I think about how odd this experience is. How I’m able to put my life on pause for a few months and instead live in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Buenos Aires keeps teaching me new things. I’m out of my element and in a world I’m all ready to learn from.

I’m living with a small family, just Mama Argentina and Natalia. They’re great and eccentric and I love them for all their quirks. Last night, Natalia spent a good hour convincing me that mermaids were real based on evidence she saw in a documentary. I saw no need to debate her, but Mama Argentina did. There’s a lot of love between those two and I can see it.

This is one of my favorite parts about being away from the familiar and in another world. I get to see a mother and daughter interact, a chef prepare my meal, and a man sell crafts on the streets. They all do it in the way that’s unique and special and distinct to where they’re from. And I’m from miles and miles away, an entirely different world, and I get to just sit in the middle of a café and be a part of it. Just for a little while. My parents never had this sort of opportunity. Most of the people who have ever lived have never had this sort of opportunity. It’s hard to believe.

This isn’t to overly romanticize the experience. There are plenty of things about Buenos Aires I don’t enjoy. I wish it was safer and that there weren’t pickpockets all over the place. People here have been pretty desparate financially for about a decade, and it’s taken its toll on everyone.

I’m also missing people. I see updates of what Daniel and Meaghan and Deanna and everybody is up to back at home, and I know I’d be a part of those outings if I were back there. I absolutely love the life I have back in Santa Barbara and every now and then, I feel homesick. It’s a surprisingly foreign feeling to me.

Most of all, I wish I had the chance to share this experience a little bit more. It’s the cost of my wanderlust, really. I’ve gotten a habit of simply saying yes to experiences like this, and I really like where that’s taken me so far.

Last weekend, I went to Mar del Plata with some of my new friends.

We must have been quite an unusual bunch. Me. A couple girls from Davis and Berkeley. A guy from Alabama, and another guy all the way from Japan. He doesn’t speak English. He’s in my Spanish class, and he and I actually hit it off, constructing our friendship entirely in Spanish.

I introduced him to the wonders of Argentine ice cream. He and I talked baseball.

At Mar del Plata, we all spent some time hanging out on the beach. We got to see a little bit of the seaside town, have a few good meals, and walk in and out of the small shops. We saw a giant statue of Jesus and it was a great weekend altogether. We came back well rested, and even better, we came back to a Buenos Aires that felt a lot more like home. After all, it was my first time leaving and then returning.

Finishing up my meal, I realize that it’s great to be back in Buenos Aires altogether. I finish up my meal and peer some more at the street corners of the Palermo district. Out there it’s Paris meets Barcelona meets New York City meets something else enitrely.

I walk on. Headphones in.

Elbow is such an underrated band. I’ll never understand quite why. They’ve been around for a long time, putting out consistently solid albums. I loved the heck out of Weather to Fly and now they’ve got a new one I’ve just started to get into.

I put on a track from the middle of the album. with love. 

It starts with some hard notes moving down a scale, punctuated by some bass. My steps toward the city’s subway system seem to match the rhythm without even intending to.

Best intentions bring joyless droughts.
Pack your hacksaw, come push me out.

Tbe subté is an old friend. It works well enough to get me places, which is more than I can say for most of the public transport systems back at home. It’s not the most comfortable of rides, and this time of the day, it’s packed.

I squeeze myself into a corner, headed on the green line towards Avenida José Hernandez.

The subté is also perfect to stop and watch the rhythms of life in this incredible city. So many people of Buenos Aires living so many different stories. Porteños, they call themselves, and for the time being, I am one of them.

When your dentures prevent your smile.
These adventures will fill your eyes

With love.

With those two bars, Elbow has just sung the perfect words for everything going on in the moment. There will come a time when I have more life behind me than I have ahead of me, a time when suddenly dropping everything to spend months in South America is no longer an option. There will be a time when I’ll have to ask myself if I’ve used my life well.

And that’s when I’ll remember these kinds of days. I’ll remember them with love.

I hear the air brakes and the opening of doors as the automated system reads off another stop along the green line. It isn’t mine, but this moment is mine. People shuffle and lightly shove, and everyone’s a little bit sweaty and there’s a stench, but such is life.

I’ll remember Argentine cafés with great food for two dollars. I’ll remember befriending Japanese students with only Spanish as a second language. I’ll remember the love and the moments shared between Natalia and Mama Argentina. And I’ll remember all the other adventures that go beyond Buenos Aires, that go beyond this place or any place. I’ll be thankful for that internal bug that often pulls me towards places that I’ve never been. I’ll be thankful for this condition of curiosity, and all the places that it’s taken me.

With love.

Philippe Lazaro2011