Friday, February 29, 2008

Buenos Aires, a portrait in sepia

Before going to Argentina, I expected to see a rather homogeneous culture and too much Tango. The impression I left Argentina with was very different from what I expected.

Buenos Aires felt somehow familiar, after a first glimpse one realizes it is a collage of all European architectural gems. Buildings of Madrid and Barcelona along wide avenues of Paris sprinkled with some Italian piazzas and a couple of Dutch houses, with a tower from London. The city is quite elegant and speaks of a prosperous past, but halas, when crises hit, nothing can be done.

Not only do the city's buildings feel imported, but so are its inhabitants.
Porteños, I was told, feel they still belong to their lands of origin. As most immigrants had fled the first world war and could never return, they fed homesickness to their offspring. If you walk down calle Florida and stop at one of the kiosks there, you'll find in addition to newspapers and postcards a zillion pins on the stands; in addition to icons like El Che and the rival football teams, the pins feature flags of Argentina coupled each with a different flag, Italian, Portuguese, Lebanese, marking a sense of belonging to the land of origin.

As for the people, they are quite sociable people who wine and dine on weekdays, sometimes at 10 pm. Elegantly decorated with admirable attention to detail, most restaurants inhabit the
Palermo neighborhood, a typical Spanish colonial town, and the various Sohos that have a more alternative flavor.

Pleasant and good humored, most Argentineans can share a joke about their own kind. This is probably the reason why, from Quino's sarcastic idealism to Maitena's burlesque feminism one thing is evident, Argentine comics are the best.

The only neighborhood that fitted my colorful Latin America cliché, is Boca. Even though the streets have nothing but communal tin houses, the inhabitants have painted their tin houses with paint leftovers from the neighboring port on the Río de la Plata, the result is magnificent. Red, blue, green and yellow houses adorned with
papier maché statues of the local idols, Maradona, Evita and Gardel. In spite of being the working class neighborhood in one of the world's most elegant cities, Boca was the only neighborhood that tempted me to take out my camera.

To contribute to the joyful air, Coca Cola ads in Buenos Aires are also unique, joyful and somehow frivolous (observing ads to get a feel of the country´s socioeconomics and culture is by now a hobby of mine).

The soundtrack to my visit was exactly what I expected it to be,
Carlos Gardel's eternal Mi Buenos Aires Querido which I was humming as if Buenos Aires were my own town which I longed to go back to.

Photo: Coca Cola Ad, bar at Caminito-Boca

About the City's architecture: Buenos Aires: City of Faded Elegance
Palermo restaurants:
Quino's page
Maitena's page
Recommended restaurants in Palermo, I vote for La Cabrera (you may want to split the giant steak with a friend)
Gardel's Mi Buenos Aires Querido with photos of the city by night

Lisbon's nostalgia

In my mind's eye Portugal is crafted tiles, exquisite street lamps, and an architectural style that speaks of nostalgia for the sea.

The aura of most Portuguese cities is one of a former empire. Walking the streets of Lisbon, you feel the city is looking out to the sea with this nostalgia to conquered land (although the city itself overlooks a river). Upon seeing the
Monument to the Discoveries built in honor of the nation's explorers, one feels that one day the people of Lisbon have knelt and prayed while anxiously awaiting the explorers' return home.

In spite of the melancholy, the city has a sort of nonchalant air going at the pace of its trams and funiculars. Sometimes the mood is even festive instead of rain washed and lonely, but that's only on occasions. In Christmas, Europe's tallest Christmas tree fills Praça do Comércio - the city's main square- with people singing along to jingle bells and and savouring roasted chestnuts. On sunny days, you can enjoy eating delicious fresh fish in any of the restaurants flanking the Tejo river.

I remember a friend saying that if you want to know a city like a local you have to feel its subway, I'd add that some of them are indeed works of art. One thing I'll always remember about Lisbon is its metro, whose lines are labeled with a seagull, a boat and a compass. One particular station, Parque, makes passersby think that they are passing through an empire, portraying on its navy blue tiles a white globe where Portugal is connected to its former colonies through dotted lines. As for the people who travel the subway they seemed warm without being as sociable as their Mediterranean neighbors. The dog-obsessed should be warned that they might end up broke in a matter of stations, as the Lisbon equivalent to street artists are young boys playing the accordion with sad puppies perched on their shoulders while holding small buckets where commuters should drop a few coins.

To really be touched by the beauty of the city, go up the
Elevador de Santa Justa which is by itself a work of art. This neo-gothic creation twists iron into lace, providing very inspiring shadows and patterns for talented photographers (it's a shame I'm not one of those*). Once up the elevator, if not too dizzy from the altitude you can absorb the scenery and see from above the city on seven hills. Inspired by the view, I recall running out to the Baixa Chiado shopping area to buy pastel crayons, I bought only 4 crayons, silver to paint Santa Justa, blue gray to paint the river, adobe to paint the rooftops and yellow to fill my painting with trams.

Come night hit
Alfama's bars, where jazzy music replaces the mournful Fado that haunts you downtown throughout the morning. Onda Jazz is where I listened to Cape Verde's barefoot diva Cesária Évora for the first time. It's strange how contagious Portugal's nostalgia is, for the former colony's blues are still filled with nostalgia in spite of their African beat .

If you're in the mood for a day trip, head to Sintra, it's the closest thing to a fairy tale, with enchanted forests and castles, its beauty is beyond what I can describe. In Sintra buy hand crafted ceramics to remind you of this magical city and eat queijadas to munch on the way back into town.

Elevador de Santa justa (*I'm thankful I have friends who are good photograhers, this one is borrowed from Francisco Fuentes)
Lisbon metro and its
parque station homage to the discoverers
Monument to the discoveries
Onda Jazz Bar
More on
Cesária Évora and a song of hers
Sintra UNESCO World Heritage Site
Recipe for Queijadas