~ Well, not really the literal translation as in "Buenos Aires Thoughts," since I'm not from Bs.As., but more like a few personal thoughts or observations on the nine days I just spent visiting that great city. Since Buenos Aires is a Port city, residents call themselves Porteños (not only to identify with the City-Port, but apparently to also mark their identity as unique from the rest of Argentina). Now that I'm back in Oakland, which is also a Port city, I think Bs.As. has inspired me to shake up City Hall with a campaign to call ourselves something sexy like Porteños ~ but that is a post for another day. If you have any suggestions, let me know.
So, my trip. For better or worse, given my law school education and legal-eagle eye, my first impression of Buenos Aires screamed TORT(!) and TORT LIABILITY(!). It became clear to me that, for better or worse, the look and feel of Buenos Aires is not dictated by liability issues, lawyers, and/or an overly-litigious society. In fact, I became curious pretty quickly about how Porteños view attorneys. That's why I laughed when I read that the Porteño slang for an attorney is/was "lavandero," which means laundryman in Spanish. Very soon after this lawyerly intrusion into my enjoyment of Buenos Aires, I did notice other great aspects of the City ~ but let me start first with the tort-related sights.
At many street corners, there is no Stop sign, no stop light, and no painted cross walk for pedestrians. Nothing. The controlled chaos was mesmerizing. One night, I saw two buses careening down two perpendicular cobblestone streets, heading for the same intersection ~ they came within inches of each other, and both screeched to a halt. Then, while taxis and pedestrians streamed around the two buses, like a river forking into two streams around two boulders, one bus driver calmly gave the signal (like a symphony conductor's swoop of the hand) for the other bus driver to go on through the intersection. One bus ambled on, its air brakes sighing and moaning loudly about the near-miss.
At other intersections, most pedestrians, even moms toting young children, often tested the odds, choosing to outrun the car heading towards them ~ believe me, the cars do not slow down when they see you cross the street. Often, even in a close call between pedestrian and car, everyone seems to treat it as an ordinary event ~ the pedestrian might hang back a little while the car literally brushes past him ~ or the car might weave around the pedestrian at the last minute. But there did not seem to be a set policy on who has the right of way, or when, or on speed limits. As any Porteño will tell you: las calles son un quilombo por el transito.
I began romanticizing the notion of this dance everyone does at the intersections, even the ones with a stop light and/or a cross-walk ~ how you must just "get used to it" and not blink an eye as you face down a taxi barreling towards you ~ until someone told me two buses did collide last week and until I read (when I got home) several articles explaining how traffic accidents and fatalities are a serious problem all over Argentina.
So, while I tested my street bravado a few times, often I would wait until there was absolutely no car or moped within a mile radius before trying to cross a street. It will be interesting to see how community groups, non-profits, and the government address this serious traffic safety issue.
Almost every sidewalk I walked down had tiles or bricks missing -- I stumbled more than once, but it seems as if the locals just know how to navigate the fractured sidewalks as well as they know how to careen around the cobblestone streets. You do not know, or maybe you do, how many Personal Injury lawyers in the U.S. get rich filing "slip and fall" and even "trip and fall" claims against municipalities and private entities for a plaintiff who has injured himself on a "faulty" sidewalk. In Buenos Aires, and I suspect in almost every place except the United States, the motto seems to be, "Watch Your Damn Step," and "Be Careful," and finally, "If You Trip, It's Your Own Damn Fault." I liked that. What a refreshing way to walk down an imperfect sidewalk.
Our walks were incredibly enjoyable and trip-free, and the occasional crack in the sidewalk just made it all more of a Wabi-Sabi Walk.
Children and Families
Like countless other cities, scenes of families enjoying the parks, or working together, or sitting together on the stoop, dominated the urban landscape around me as we enjoyed miles of walking around different Barrios. Kids ran free, sometimes unattended, in parks, along dusty streets, in plazas ~ I never saw a child on one of those awful parent-child leashes which I see in so many malls here at home. Even better, there was no yelling of "get back here" or "it's your turn to watch him" ~ adults could carry on their own conversation, with that secret parent's third eye keeping watch.
We talked about how overly protected some kids are, some of the ones we've seen here at home ~ Moms and Dads debating whose turn it is to watch the kids, worrying over child kidnapping stories, wanting to sanitize everything the kids touch, worrying their child will suffer a bump or a bruise while playing, etc.
I told the story of how, before I started law school, I lived for several months with friends, a new Mom and Dad, and how different they each approached child rearing. Even when it was the Dad's turn to watch the toddler, the Mom would worry over what her baby girl might be getting into ~ Dad usually left his power tools around, or looked away just at the moment that the toddler placed a glob of dirt in her mouth. The Dad would usually shrug it off saying, "Aw, she'll just build a stronger immune system ~ a little dirt never hurt anyone," or "Well, she'll learn the hammer hurts if she drops it." I agreed ~ but I couldn't say so because I don't have kids.
But Gever Tully doesn't have kids either, and he gave a fun TED Talk entitled, 'Five Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do'. He describes how allowing kids a certain freedom will nurture them to be creative, confident, and in control of the environment around them. In Buenos Aires, I saw just that, and parents who were watching but not worried ~ it was nice.
Fortunately, my "Tort Blinders" soon came off and I enjoyed so many other elements of Buenos Aires:
Apparently, croissants are fat-free, low in calories, and good for your skin in Bs.As. because everyone has at least one, often two, for breakfast EVERY DAY ~ yet they are slender and beautiful. How do they do that?
Most mornings (or afternoons as it were, when I took sleeping-in to new levels), we each had, simply, un café y dos media lunas for breakfast. After day one, I started adding butter or jam to the croissants. At a few places, they brought us a basket of croissants and small rolls, so that I may have, ahem, lost count of how many I had on any given morning, (justifying the carb-binge with the long walk we would take afterwards, on the way to lunch, see below). After a few days I started ordering a fried egg, just to add some protein to the buttery sweetness that jolted me awake each morning. By day 6 or 7, I just wanted some granola and yogurt ~ but it does not exist, at least not where we were, in San Telmo. Then, on the flight home from Bs.As., they served medialunas for breakfast! Ay, if I eat one more carb I think I will explode. All in all, though, each desayuno was lovely.
Quite simply, the steak is an art form in Buenos Aires, and there is a parilla on every street. Everyone will tell you the steaks are cooked perfectly, not really needing much seasoning, and the choice of cuts is impressive. But what I liked best is that often when you order a steak, that's what you get, a huge slab of perfect steak ~ no need for side dishes, except perhaps a small ensalda mixta ~ and a cup of wine. It is heaven. I was raised in Houston, where not only are the steaks huge, but they usually came with a side of lobster, a baked potato dripping in butter and sour cream, and even prawns wrapped in bacon. Seriously. I have seen that platter. In Buenos Aires, your plate might look like what we had on my last afternoon, at La Raya in San Telmo. Morfamos como chanchos (pero cute chanchos)!
The Cheek Kiss Greeting
My first day in Buenos Aires, we went to Paula's house for lunch. When Paula opened the door, I instinctively held out my right hand to shake her hand, but then in that nanosecond I noticed she had leaned in towards me, and reached her right hand up to place on my left shoulder, and had clearly intended to give me a cheek kiss hello ~ which I quickly learned is the greeting all Porteños use ~ for men and women. I felt so rude! I meekly walked into the next room, where four strangers were introduced to me ~ and each one warmly grabbed my shoulder as they kissed me hello. It was lovely. Later we all shared beer and lunch, and then mate ~ a gringo, una Mexicana, tres Porteños, a Brazilian, and a Norwegian; it was perfect.
The next night, at Paula's going-away party, I was ready for some cheek-to-cheek kissing! We walked into the party room to about nine smiling faces sitting around a large table filled with food and drinks ~ it took forever to kiss everyone hello, which made it that much sweeter. Then, every time someone new arrived, we watched as that person ran around the table kissing every person hello (and later, kissing each one goodbye). I say we all adopt this wonderful custom and kiss each other on the cheek the next time we see each other. If you're a macho man worried about kissing other men hello, take a moment to read this hilarious post with step-by-step instructions on "how to kiss other men as smoothly and casually as a native Porteño." ~ :)
Pocho Spanish vs. Porteño Spanish
Apparently, Spanish, which was my first language, is "quite good" according to some Porteños. My first night out with them, though, a few couldn't understand a word I said, although that night, there was Tequila and beer and wine involved, so that might have added to the language barrier. At that party, someone had to literally translate my clipped pocha Spanish/accent into the fluid Rioplatense Spanish they speak in Buenos Aires. Believe me, this caused me great grief. To top it off, when one of them asked me, "que eres?" I automatically answered, as I always do, "soy Mexicana." Then he asked where I was born and when I said, "los Estados Unidos," he corrected me and said, "Bueno, entonces no eres Mexicana." Oh the existential angst that crept up for me had to be washed down with a swig of cool Heineken.
And that is another blog post for another day........