Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The weather didn't cooperate in Bariloche, so we left Sunday afternoon for Buenos Aires. Norma had earlier seen a hotel in the Recoleta district that she liked, the LoiSuites Recoleta, so she called them and they gave us a discounted rate. The second photo here is from our room, taken yesterday morning, and it looked right down into the huge Recoleta cementery which gives the area its name. If you wander through the tombs of Recoleta or flip through the pages of any phonebook in Argentina, you will immediately think you've been transported to Italy: well over one-third of the population is of Italian descent. Then comes Spanish, French, German, English, and Arab (though not necessarily in that order).
Recoleta is a trendy place, but mainly it is just a very nice residential area that is not too far from the main downtown area of Buenos Aires. The first photo was taken a few blocks from our hotel and is typical of the mini-plazas that you can find in the area.
After walking from Recoleta to the main shopping district (for Argentines—Americans are not likely to find many clothes or shoe bargains in Argentina) of Avenida Santa Fe, we had lunch at a restaurant called Rigoletto on Rodriguez Peña, about 6 blocks from Recoleta. To me it was one of those quintessential Argentine restaurants, staffed almost exclusively by older male waiters with white towels hanging from their arms. It's the type of place that is unlikely to be visited by tourists since it is off the beaten tourist path, but is full of people who live and work nearby, and it's classy enough to attract some of the upper crust denizens of the city. (Though of course I can't avoid looking like a tourist and the waiters were eager to show off their English skills.) We had lunch with my son-in-law's mother, and she very quickly spotted an Argentine celebrity sitting a few tables behind us: the widow of Argentina's most famous author, Jorge Luis Borges.
We had a very nice bottle of Trumpeter Malbec, from Mendoza, which cost exactly $10; some mineral water and a diet coke, which they call "Coca Light;" three delicious fish entrees with assorted vegetables (it was holy week, so most everyone avoids meat); and an apple tart a la mode we all shared. Total cost for three people, including tax and a very generous tip (an Argentine would have left at most a 5% tip, but I left 10% and that raised eyebrows across the table), was 215 pesos, or about $58.
It was a beautiful day in Buenos Aires. The temperature was in the 70s, the sun was out, and there was a fresh breeze stirring. There are lots of days like that in Buenos Aires, which is why it gets its name. It reminded me of the many people bustling along the sidewalks of New York on a perfect spring day, only there are no skyscrapers and no hot dog stands. Instead you have to be careful where you step, since one of the great mysteries of Argentina is that the country has never figured out how to make sidewalks that don't quickly disintegrate and threaten to break your ankle.
These are the kinds of paradoxes—beautiful people and awful sidewalks—that keep you guessing. What is it that makes this country tick? How can they have such a wonderful social life and such a disastrous government and infrastructure? My best guess is that you can't have it all. If you want a country that looks like Switzerland in its perfection, the people are going to be dreadfully boring. If you want a surfeit of friends, you have to put up with a maddening and corrupt political establishment.
Posted by Scott Grannis at 8:25 PM