Half a World Away

Buenos Aires is a European city six months and a hemisphere out of synch.

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.

Farther south is La Boca, an Italian working-class neighborhood on the Riachuelo Canal, well worth the taxi or bus ride to reach it. The buildings in this district should be just a depressing hodgepodge of shapeless two-story structures made of tacked-together corrugated metal and cheap wood, but instead they are a jigsaw puzzle of bright blues, yellows, oranges, and greens. Like other parts of the city, La Boca is the product of imitation. It's no coincidence that walking its streets feels like moving through a modern painting: the residents of La Boca were inspired to decorate their houses this way after Benito Quinquela Martín, a local artist, depicted the neighborhood in these colors in paintings, murals, and street sculptures.

In fact, all over the city the porteños' sense of color, shape, and design is striking. This is most arresting at night, when, walking along a dark street, you come upon rectangles of light setting off the whimsical iron gates that serve as front doors for many buildings. In the supermarkets grapefruits, limes, and tangerines are arranged in perfect pyramids; the walls outside the little groceries look like mosaics of red peppers, plums, oranges, and green onions; and every few blocks is a kiosco, with its terraced rows of cigarette packages and candy bars in shiny colored wrappers.

are equally artful with their bodies. They're wild about plastic surgery and brag of their tummy tucks, breast implants, and reformed noses. Even the nation's President, Carlos Menem, proudly announced that he has had his hairline moved and his cheekbones touched up. Cosmetic surgery is only the latest manifestation of porteños' self-absorption. Famously, Buenos Aires has more psychoanalysts per capita than any other city in the world -- so many, in fact, that a district has been nicknamed Villa Freud for the many analysts who live and work there.

Most guides to Buenos Aires concentrate on San Telmo and the thronged pedestrian shopping street in the city center, Calle Florida, and its surroundings. Although it's a relief to walk a street without cars hurtling at you (Argentines drive as maniacally as New Yorkers), the goods on Florida are less tempting than those available in any U.S. suburb, and the crowds get tedious after your second or third push through. It's obvious that this area is only a temporary destination for Argentines. It has as little to do with porteños' daily lives as, say, Times Square has to do with New Yorkers'.

Unfortunately, although not surprisingly, many of the tourist hotels are here. At first we took a room at the Gran Hotel Dora, which we had heard was popular with Argentines visiting from other parts of the country, but for the money we weren't pleased with our dark room on an air shaft. We looked at the Lancaster, which was brighter and had a friendly staff, but finally decided to abandon this commercial center altogether and find a place to stay in Barrio Norte, a prosperous residential area, loosely comparable to Manhattan's Upper East and Upper West Sides combined.

Through an ad in the the city's English-language newspaper, we rented a studio apartment with a little balcony and a view of the Río de la Plata for two weeks. There are many weekly rental arrangements, and most come with daily housekeeping service. These are a great deal even if, like us, you never touch the kitchen. There are also hotels in the area, including the city's most elegant, the Alvear Palace Hotel. Like hotels in the city generally, those in Barrio Norte are either luxurious and very expensive or combine shabbiness and charm in a way that Americans usually encounter only when traveling abroad. We stayed in one of those, the Ayacucho Palace Hotel, for the last week of our trip. Our room had high ceilings and tall French windows but linoleum floors and thin linens. The Guido Palace Hotel, in the same neighborhood, was similar.

Obviously, once you stray from the main tourist routes, the more Spanish you know the better, but luckily waiters, cabdrivers, shopkeepers, and hotel staff members not only struggled patiently to decode our requests, but also often initiated conversations, gesturing and repeating their points tirelessly until to everyone's relief we either understood or pretended to. (Our expectations for Buenos Aires had been somewhat colored by V. S. Naipaul's chilling description in The Return of Eva Perón of the city during the 1970s. But the porteños' warmth and friendliness made it impossible to sustain sinister visions of jackbooted soldiers in black-leather jackets patrolling Calle Florida with Alsatians, or of plainclothesmen in well-tailored suits leaping out of unmarked cars.)

MOST of Barrio Norte comprises self-contained middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods like Villa Freud, but the section also includes Recoleta, the area to which the wealthy migrated when they left San Telmo, and which is now a district of embassies, tony apartments, and designer boutiques. Behind the walls of Recoleta Cemetery, where the city's most prominent families have been interred since the 1800s, the dead are housed as elegantly as the district's living. Eva Perón's mausoleum is here, inscribed with her maiden name, Duarte.

The graceful atmosphere of Barrio Norte is at the heart of what makes Buenos Aires a supremely pleasant and civilized city. The streets are busy but not frantic; porteños are purposeful but not pushy; and every couple of blocks there is an inviting confitería, where you are expected to linger over your double espresso. In this section of the city you realize how vast Buenos Aires is. It stretches on for miles, neighborhood after neighborhood, each as densely packed as the next with stores, bakeries, restaurants, and six- to eight-story apartment buildings of Beaux Arts, Art Deco, and modern utilitarian styles.

If you do nothing else in Buenos Aires, spend time in cafés, which are the focal point of the city's social life. It seems impossible that one city can support so many, each with a distinct character. For a sense of the city's past and of the vague melancholy that is said to mark its people, try some of the faded grand cafés in the business center. On a rainy Sunday afternoon we sat on sprung leather seats in the Ideal and listened to a singer who took requests from customers who had probably been coming there for decades, including a family in which three generations were represented. We ordered cake and were brought a plate crowded with exquisite petits fours. We felt compelled to eat them all, not realizing that you pay only for those you consume. The Tortoni, on Avenida de Mayo, traditionally popular with writers, is a bit more lively but equally vast and atmospheric. Elsewhere in the city, cafés lose that museum quality. Often sleek and stylish, they are smaller, brighter, and more vital, reflecting modern life in Buenos Aires, which neatly balances activity with leisure.

Any touring in Buenos Aires should be frequently interrupted by snacking. First thing in the morning have a café solo (one shot of espresso) or a café con leche and a medialuna, the Argentine version of a croissant, smaller and denser than the French kind. At the tiny Café Pasadena you can sit at a table on the sidewalk and, while your lungs accustom themselves to a level of exhaust that Americans haven't breathed for decades, watch the professional dog walkers escort a pack at a time down the street.

Halfway through the morning step into a bakery, or panadería. Buenos Aires is awash in bakeries, all displaying fancy cookies, cakes, and breads that are like nothing you see in the United States. In the Panadería Norte, for instance, the cases and trays are so full that it's hard to believe the place is not preparing for some kind of photo shoot but really intends to sell everything. Lots of the cookies are some form of alfajore -- two wafers sandwiching dulce de leche, the caramel sauce that Argentines put on everything from toast to white cheese to canned peaches. If you don't plan to eat your baked goods immediately, they'll be wrapped carefully in paper and tied with a bow, like a gift.

Amenities like this, part of Buenos Aires's customary formality, make even the simplest everyday activities gracious. If you order a cup of coffee, a waiter in a jacket brings it on a little tray and carefully lays in front of you first a napkin, then the espresso cup and saucer, and then a plate of tiny alfajores on a doily.

Around lunchtime groups of mothers begin to cluster at nursery school doors, exclaiming with delight as their children are brought to them one by one. Older children, in white coats (school uniforms that make them look like miniature scientists), walk home to eat, often accompanied by a parent in a business suit. Although many peoples are said to dote on their young, it's remarkable to an American city dweller how much of life in Buenos Aires seems to revolve around children.

Traditionally, lunch is a heavy meal of steak or pasta, because on the whole Argentine cuisine is a mixture of Italian and beef, and the difference between the fanciest restaurant and the simplest is the quality of the meat. Almost all Argentine beef is grass-fed; the most expensive is melt-in-your-mouth sweet, the least expensive -- usually served very thin and breaded, as steak milanesa -- is downright cheap but still far more succulent and tasty than most American cuts. Always-crispy, intensely flavorful papas fritas, probably fried in kidney fat, are the usual side dish. Most of the green salads aren't even up to the standards of an American school cafeteria, but after a day or two you'll be happy to eat that plate of boring lettuce, white onions, and tomatoes with your steak.

Evening is another opportunity to snack, since many porteños don't even think about dinner until nine or ten: normal office hours are from about eight to eight, with four hours off for lunch. It's easy to get a meal at 2:00 A.M. any day of the week. We felt authentically Argentine with a glass of wine and an empanada at La Querencia, but our favorite evening café, El Cervetillo, served the universally available appetizer called picada: first a tray of cold hors d'oeuvres -- octopus, olives, nuts, chicken salad, sausages, and cheese -- and then, when you're pleasantly full, a tray of hot hors d'oeuvres -- six varieties of sausages, some in sauces. While you sit outside in the warm evening air, bevies of high school girls in those white lab coats meet for a minute or two on the corners, squealing with news, and then scatter in twos and threes down the darkening sidewalks, holding hands. The women of Buenos Aires are known for their warm, intense friendships, independent of men. It's common to see groups of women -- married and single -- out together, not just for a drink after work but for a whole Friday or Saturday night's entertainment.

Buenos Aires is clearly a big city -- dense, busy, and sophisticated. Perhaps, as the home of the tango, it even has a reputation for decadence. Most striking, however, is its wholesomeness, which makes it feel like a vast small town. Even the teenagers lack the sullen, jaded look of their American counterparts. Porteños relish the night, but it's a mistake to assume that nightlife means only nightclubs and bars. Here, where the streets are shockingly safe all night long, whole families are out late together, going to movies and eating in restaurants. At Pippo's -- a place where the tables are covered in white paper, the waiters are brusque, and two can share a salad, a heaping bowl of pasta with both pesto and meat sauce, garlicky papas fritas, steak milanesa, and wine and seltzer for less than $20 -- parents make their children comfortable on their laps or across two chairs and go on talking until after 2:00 A.M.

On Saturday nights the streets are lively until dawn. When we emerged from the movie theater on Calle Lavalle at 4:30 A.M., it might have been noon, so thick were the crowds still thumbing through cassettes in the music stores, licking ice cream cones, playing video games in the arcades, or simply strolling up and down. (Argentines, by the way, are very serious about movies, and several of the city's screens show art and foreign films nightly. For those, like us, with plebeian tastes, a trip to Buenos Aires is a perfect chance to catch up on mainstream American movies -- they are in all the theaters, in English with Spanish subtitles.) At five in the morning we decided to go to the fashionable Café La Biela for one last coffee. Almost every doorway we passed framed a pair of kissing lovers, and the café itself was still half full.

As we sat the next afternoon at a café's open window, eating a medialuna with a little ham and melted cheese and watching the children in their lab coats playing beneath a lavender froth of jacaranda blossoms, we tried to remember that it was December, and that in most cities like this one winter was closing in.

Benajmin Schwarz is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Christina Schwarz has just completed her first novel.

The Atlantic Monthly; September 1998; Half a World Away; Volume 282, No. 3; pages 46 - 54.