FROM almost anywhere Buenos Aires is far. It's days by train from Rio or Santiago, eleven hours by plane from New York, fourteen hours from Los Angeles. The city itself is enormous (it covers seventy-seven square miles and has a population of twelve million), but if you ever leave it to see something else of Argentina -- Bariloche or Tierra del Fuego, for instance -- you realize that it's an oasis of civilization. Surrounding the city are hundreds of miles of pampas -- an "endless distance," as Argentina's most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges, wrote, where "the nearest house [is] a kind of blur on the horizon." Beyond the pampas to the north is the jungle, to the west are the high desert and the Andes, to the south Patagonia -- a name synonymous with vast stretches of emptiness -- and, after that, Antarctica. It is often said that what the people of Buenos Aires fear most is being forgotten.
But this city in the middle of nowhere has one of the world's great opera houses and once rivaled Madrid as the publishing center of the Spanish-speaking world. Like the great capitals of Europe, it juxtaposes grand architecture with charming neighborhoods. Its people pride themselves on living in the most sophisticated city south of the Equator.
With its sunny days and balmy nights, Buenos Aires in November is like Paris in the springtime, and that is no accident. The city burgeoned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, at a time when, as Borges put it, "there wasn't a single Argentine whose utopia was not Paris." With Buenos Aires seemingly on the verge of becoming a world-class economic and cultural power, its leaders modeled their city after the capital they admired. Its grand boulevards are lined with trees and Beaux Arts buildings of soft-white and pale-gray stone with large windows, French doors opening onto balconies with wrought-iron railings, and roofs with gracefully rounded corners. The eight-lane Avenida Nueve de Julio, punctuated by an obelisk and statuary, cuts a grand swath through the city like the Champs-Elysées. Whether out of homesickness, envy, or practicality, Buenos Aires also liberally copied the structures and streets of Spain, Italy, and Britain, the European countries from which most of its population immigrated. For instance, the opera house, the Teatro Colón, suggests La Scala; a replica of Big Ben stands in front of the train station; and ornate, turreted Victorian commercial buildings are reminiscent of Manchester.
European influence is obvious in less monumental ways as well. The cafés, or confiterías, many with their chairs and tables crowding the sidewalks, would be at home in France; the ice cream resembles Italian gelato and the coffee is espresso; and bakeries sell sandwiches with the crusts trimmed as for an English tea. On the way in from the airport you pass some bleak concrete sentry boxes (remnants of Argentina's military rule) that seem to have been lifted from Albania. Finally, like the Spanish, porteños -- as those who live in this port city call themselves -- keep extremely late hours. At first the effect of all this imitation is disorienting. You feel as if you've entered a European Twilight Zone, a parallel universe where things are familiar and yet somehow skewed.
You pass a building that could be on the Quai d'Orsay, but when the plaque near the door identifies it as the Biblioteca Antárctica, you know that Buenos Aires is definitely not Paris. Greenery, thicker and brighter than could ever grow in a European capital, smothers apartment balconies and makes lush canyons of the narrower streets. And the trees -- the palms, the lavender-flowering jacaranda and the pink-flowering lapacho, the orange-blooming tipas with their snaking branches, the rubber trees with their exposed tangles of roots, the spiked and bulbous-trunked palo borracho that would be at home in a Dr. Seuss book -- are obviously, extravagantly South American.
WE knew we couldn't glut ourselves on three-star sights in Buenos Aires: there are none. (It's the perfect destination for those who like European metropolises but hate having to trudge through all those pesky museums and churches.) Nor, with our pitiful excuse for Spanish, could we fully appreciate the place as the cultural center of Latin America. But we did want a taste of what it might be like to live in this cosmopolitan city so close to the end of the earth.
We started with the obligatory tourist areas. The Plaza de Mayo, for instance, is the center of Buenos Aires as a capital city. At one end sprawls the President's residence, of soft pink stone -- the Casa Rosada, where Eva Perón rallied crowds from the balcony. At the other end, flanked by the Metropolitan Cathedral, stands the original town hall, the Cabildo, built in 1751 and now a museum of the city's Spanish-colonial history. Like the Casa Rosada, whose color is deceptively gentle, given that it was originally made with beef fat, blood, and lime, today's Plaza de Mayo of picnickers, pigeons, and school tours is difficult to reconcile with its not-so-distant past. This is where the Mothers of the Plaza commanded worldwide attention in the late 1970s for their "disappeared" children, the victims of Argentina's "dirty war," and it has been the scene of violent demonstrations between Peronistas and anti-Peronistas and between leftists and rightists.
A walk south of the plaza along Calle Defensa takes you into San Telmo, the oldest residential area of the city, abandoned by the wealthy after a yellow-fever epidemic in 1871 and now a protected historic district and something of an artists' quarter. The architecture is Spanish colonial, with verandahs, shuttered windows, and tiled courtyards, and the houses, long ago divided into apartments, are romantic in their decay. The window frames are crumbling, the walls have a soft, weathered patina, vines snarl around the railings, and the door knockers are shaped like hands.