First published in Black & White, 2005
‘The years I spent in Europe are an illusion. I always was (and will be) in Buenos Aires.’ (Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Arrabal’ from Fervor de Buenos Aires)
We cross the Rio de la Plata in the blackness that comes before dawn, on a slow boat from the old Uruguayan smugglers port of Colonia del Sacramento. Before us, a pale stain lights the horizon: not the rising sun but the insomniac glow of the city.
On the long road down the spine of South America, the spectre of Buenos Aires has haunted us during moments of monotony and hardship, promising, like the Emerald City of Oz, all manner of enchantments. Now it materialises in the crimson and salmon light of daybreak, Borges’ city of sadness.
We pace the streets that first morning, from the tango heartland of bohemian San Telmo, to the revolutionary heart of the city – the Plaza de Mayo, home of the pink presidential Casa Rosada and the balcony from which Evita Peron de Duarte bewitched and beseeched the world. Enamoured, we buy sugary churros from a pastelaria and sit in the glorious Tortoni, Argentina’s oldest cafe, amid gilt and velvet opulence and drink cortados (short blacks with a dash), brought to us by studiously disdainful elderly waiters in bow tie.
Buenos Aires is a European city with the blade of the pampas gaucho buried in its heart. Built by the Spanish in 1580, the city languished for centuries behind the iron curtain of trade restrictions, until revolution won the colonists independence in 1816. A bloody civil war ensued, followed by the first of Argentina’s dictators, who, with the aid of his enormous army and notoriously ruthless secret police, launched a precipitous cycle that continues to afflict Argentina to this day, as the pendulum swings from peace and prosperity to misrule and mayhem.
The second half of the 19th century saw the first major influx of immigrants into the city since its early days – Spanish, French, Italian and German migrants, lured by the gleam of the fabled new world and a boom in trade that saw Argentina become one of the richest countries in it, flooded into the city, shaping it after their own homesick yearnings, into a European metropolis of leafy plazas and boulevards, soaring art nouveau follies and luscious gilded salons, and a population that had doubled to more than a million people by the turn of the century.
The city strained under the waves of new arrivals and it was in this crucible of hope and malcontent that the tango was born: heartsong of the poor European migrant clawing for a foothold in the outer barrios of the city, yawing like a tomcat for love and home. Nothing stirs the soul of the Buenos Aires Porteño like the melancholic passion of the tango. (Except perhaps football).
On weekend nights, the sultry city throbs with milongas – dances held in the backroom salons of cafes, bars and clubs, where couples steer a dextrous path through the maze of other bodies, rapt in the intensity of the dance. At the San Telmo Sunday antiques market, we watch a pair of performers in their 60s raunch it up to the delight of the crowd: she, a faded vision in fishnets, straining garter and a teased confection of yellow hair; his gaze unwavering beneath the black fedora.
One steamy night we stumble, with the luck of the uninitiated, on a live performance by an electro-tango collective known as Bajofondo Tangoclub, at San Telmo’s Trastienda – seven pieces of double bass, violin, piano and the melancholic bandoneon, throbbing with an electronic pulse and the scratch of vinyl. Guest MCs join their voices to the more traditional tones of tango singers in shades of gravel and honey. Behind the band, images of rioting crowds in the Plaza de Mayo are cut with those of a tangoing couple.
In the words of Jorge Luis Borges, leading light of Argentina’s literary avant-garde and one of the 20th century’s most influential writers: ‘The tango is a direct expression of something that poets have often tried to state in words: the belief that a fight may be a celebration.’ Born in Buenos Aires in 1899, Borges finished his schooling in Europe, but returned to the city in his early 20s, where he published his first book, a volume of poetry titled Fervor de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires Fever). For Borges tango was the city – a symbol of all its sentimental machismo and nostalgia.
Today, with more than 50 per cent of the country’s population living below the poverty line, porteños are as glossy and sleek as the inhabitants of any European city. As well as a reputation for egotism and arrogance, the city’s 13 million inhabitants have among the highest rates of plastic surgery and psychotherapy in the world. But it is this will to transform – to mine joy from the bleak stone of despair, that gives the city its infectious vibrancy. Porteños ride the cresting wave of their fortunes with gusto, living each moment as if it could be their last.
In the face of injustice they rage. The Plaza de Mayo, site of the 1810 May revolution, has seen hundreds of celebrations, demonstrations, rallies and uprisings over the past two centuries. Here, the adoring crowds paid homage to populist president Juan Peron, and his wife, actress Eva Duarte (played by Madonna in the 1996 film, Evita), who died of cancer at the age of 33, but is still worshipped in Argentina as a folk hero. Here, the mothers of the desaparecidos (‘the missing’), known as the Plaza de Mayo Madres, still hold vigil, demanding that the orchestrators of Argentina’s Dirty War, in which an estimated 30,000 people were tortured by the military and thrown to their deaths in the Rio de la Plata between 1976 and 1983, be brought to justice.
In perhaps the country’s greatest social crisis to date, an economic meltdown at the end of 2001 saw the Argentine peso drop in value by 70 per cent – a boon for foreign tourists but dismayed Porteños saw their life savings crumble into dust. The city’s banks were forced to barricade their doors and windows against a howl of protest. The government collapsed. No less than five presidents would pass through the revolving door of the Casa Rosada over the next 12 days.
Three years on, Argentina owes creditors more than US$100 billion. The city’s banks hide behind battle-scarred steel shutters and the elaborate facade of the Bank of Boston carries the standard accusations: ‘liars, thieves, assassins’. Graffiti on the footpath of the slick pedestrian shopping strip of Florida reads: ‘three stolen years’. Desperation has increased crime and corruption. Once rare, kidnappings increased to over 400 nationwide in 2003 – one reported every 48 hours in the greater city.
Families sort through piles of rubbish under the street lamps – separating the saleable recyclables; women with babies, the elderly and disabled beg on rush hour street corners. At the sidewalk tables of Bar Plaza Dorrego in San Telmo, where we go for morning coffee and afternoon mugs of beer under the trees, a neatly dressed old woman tries to sell us Christmas tea towels. ‘Please’, she insists, gripping my shoulder. ‘I have no money… nothing to eat.’ Both our eyes fill with tears.
We walk north on Alvear toward posh Recoleta where the streets are lined with red carpet. Grand old family residences cum foreign embassies jostle with a who’s who of designer outlets – Armani, Nina Ricci, Cartier, Louis Vuitton. Everything becomes greener and grander. At the new Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA) an Ingmar Bergman retrospective is pulling in the arthouse crowd. While upstairs, the museum’s permanent collection of 20th century art is all magic and whimsy, with paintings and sculptures that capture the swinging fortunes of the Porteño, by Buenos Aires artist Antonio Berni who died in 1981.
At Recoleta cemetary, where the city’s elite are buried in elaborate mausoleums, pilgrims come to pay homage at the Duarte family’s grave, where Evita is interred beneath a stolid edifice of black granite, heaped with white roses, browning in the heat. To wander the quiet boulevards of the cemetery with their soaring stone angels and glass cupola, is to step back to another century. We peek through creepered doorways where curvaceous, silvered coffins are stacked down into the damp earth, draped in mouldering linens and dappled in the sugary light of stained glass Madonnas.
In Palermo, playground of the city’s middle class, the chimpanzees at the zoo suck on helados (iceblocks) tossed to them by their keepers and we lie in the shade of the rose gardens drinking Mendoza wine and dipping our toes in the lake where professional dog-walkers pass us in a tangle of leashes and divergent wills. On Sunday afternoons, the air is thick with the smoke of barbecues. The weekend asado is the linchpin of Argentinian family life and Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport may be the only one of its kind to sell bloody slabs of meat among its bottles of duty free booze and perfume.
The city is awash in spring green – figs, plain trees, paunchy boabs, giant native ombus with their limbs on crutches and the purple carpet of jacarandas underfoot. Flower-sellers sell fragrant bunches of gardenias at the traffic lights where waifs do juggling tricks for small change; lovers young and old kiss shamelessly on streets corners; families sit on their stoops in the late afternoon, drinking mate, a strong green tea sipped from a gourd through a filtered metal straw – one of the holy trinity of national obsessions (after tango and futbol).
We catch a game between Argentina’s favourite Boca Juniors (where the beloved and beleagured Diego Maradona began his career), and top of the ladder Newell’s Old Boys, at La Bombonera stadium in roughhouse La Boca. The visiting supporters, a heaving sea of young male flash, are bussed in early and caged behind bars and we are funnelled into the stadium down designated streets manned by police. But despite a highly visible sponsorship by the local Quilmes beer, and much to the dismay of one Melbourne footy fan, the hardest drink on offer is Pepsi – perhaps a factor in the fine behaviour of the home crowd who recover from their despondence when their heroes redeem their loss with a single goal against Newell’s three, in the final moments of the game. La Boca are later accused of throwing the match to diminish archrivals River Plate’s chance at the premiership.
At night, the sleepy streets of Palermo Viejo and Palermo Hollywood and nearby Las Cañitas throw open their siesta shutters to reveal a startling array of ultra-hip bars and restaurants offering everything from sushi to schwarma, honey to the moneyed young who parade in the Plaza Serrano on weekend nights, while sophisticates cruise the cobblestone banks of the canal-side development of Puerto Madero to the south.
Few restaurants open their doors before eight, and we eat alone, amid seas of empty chairs, until our appetites adjust. By the end of the week we are queuing for a table at 10 but are surprised nonetheless to walk streets and plazas alive with musicians, mimes and dancers, promenading families and al fresco diners opening bottles of wine and descending on parillas loaded with grilled meats and bowls of the city’s famously fresh pasta, at one or two in the morning.
‘There is time to sleep when you’re dead,’ says fashion designer, Carlos. ‘Now is the time to dance.’ And he is gone – swept away by the tide of music. We sit for a while on that, our last night in the city, watching the dancers at the outdoor milonga in the Plaza Dorrego. Bodies pressed together to escape the sadness of life. Smell of gardenias on the night air.