10 Things I Now Know about Buenos Aires: July 12, 2013


10.) Watch your step.Most of the sidewalks in Buenos Aires are a cracked, disheveled, stumble-prone mess. A friend told me that sidewalks are not public property, but belong to the shops and businesses behind them. Thus, their care is in the hands of that business, which must mean that most businesses don’t give a  whopping hoot if you step into that 8-inch sinkhole or crack a shin navigating loose concrete tiles.

Add to this delightful scenario the specters of very real and very abundant plops of giant dog poop (some so huge I have seriously wondered whether humans might be contributing to the mess), and you run the high probability of a walk with both insult and injury. (Seriously people, how hard is it to pick up after your dog or at least kick the mess to the side??)

9.) But the buildings are lovely
If you can manage to lift your gaze from the wretched sidewalks, you will notice that the buildings in Buenos Aires are spectacular. Details, friezes, sculpted cornices, gargoyles, busts — the city has a wanton abundance of them. Most of the historic buildings have great backstories to them, too (of course.) My favorite story is the one behind the Kavanagh Building in Retiro.

My favorite building front is in San Telmo along the street Estados Unidos. The building is covered in a detailed iron screen of leaves so delicate it looks like lace. The iron has rusted to a uniform and lovely shade of burnt orange. At night, the screen is backlit by lightbulbs, allowing the brick behind the screen and the iron facade to be seen in a perfect union of light and dark that is thoroughly wondrous.

8.) You can sit and stay a while
Buenos Aires knows how to do bookstores, cafes and restaurants: They have plenty of light, interesting things to read and look at, comfy chairs and free WiFi. Yes, free WiFi is everywhere (almost). Not only that, but the waitstaff never rushes you out the door. Feel free to sit and browse the Internet with your one cup of tea that you ordered three hours ago.

However, by the same token, because they aren’t lingering by your table and/or giving you a depressed “You’re still here” stare,  it also means that they aren’t going to be too snappy about getting you that extra napkin or taking care of any problems you may have with your food.

Ehh, I’ll still take the polite ignoring over oppressive hovering any day.

6.) Where the Asians are
Oddly, they are not all in Chinatown (Barrio Chino). The places where you will find Asians with any certain regularity are small supermarkets. Bigger than kioscos (small convenience stores) yet smaller than the major chain supermarkets (e.g. Coto, Carrefour, Disco), these markets are almost always owned and run by Chinese people. This phenomenon is so prolific that it has given rise to the commonly held belief that these Chino mercados are owned by the Chinese mafia who ship people in to run the stores.
Maybe the mafia has a thing for food, because I’ve also noticed that Asian people are almost always the owners of vegetarian buffets in Buenos Aires, too. The city also has an unofficial Koreatown in Baja Flores, though that area should be avoided at night as it has a reputation for being rough and ready (if the prostitutes walking around are any indication.)

5.) Street names are awesome
To read the street names in Buenos Aires is to get a lesson in history. The widest avenue in the city (also the widest in the world) is called Nuevo de Julio (July 9), in honor of Argentina’s Independence day.There’s also Avenida de Mayo, named after Argentina’s May revolution on May 25.

And away with your simple numbers or streets with only one name! Many of the streets not only have a first name, but a last one, too. More often than not, they also come with a title. Some of my faves: Avenida Roque Sáenz Peña, Avenida Raul Scalabrini Ortiz and Capitan General Ramon Freire.

4.) Street art is even more awesome
This is not your run-of-the-mill graffiti, no juvenile scrawls of spray-painted obscenities or mysterious names in massive balloon type. It’s colorful, it’s complex, it tells a story. Artists from around the world come to paint on Buenos Aires’ walls. And it is constantly going on. Bjorn and I were privileged to see a group of street artists at work. In one day they painted a beautiful mural that covered an entire street corner. The street art is not only fantabulous, but also ubiquitous. It is hard to find even one corner of the city that doesn’t have some colorful detail.

Much of the art has political themes; political groups have even been known to hire street artists to paint political murals/messages for them. Interestingly (and a sore spot for street artists), retailers have also started to get into the act and are using street art techniques to hawk their wares.

3.) Public transportation is a venture in uncertainty
The subway system is not 24-hours, but exactly when the service ends seems to be up in the air. From what I could figure out, the trains stop running at 11 p.m., but the last trip of a certain line could start at 10:15 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. From experience I have learned that after 10 p.m., you never really know if a train will show up at your station. But on the upside, passengers who manage to catch that last train often get to ride it for free.

Bus services run longer, but it is not uncommon to wait 15-20 minutes for your bus to arrive. Also, buses tend to get crowded quickly, so be prepared to stand during your trip.

2.) Be wary of counterfeit money
Counterfeit bills of 100 pesos are rampant in the city. Every time you get one, you should do what the locals do: Hold it up to the light. The watermark image of the guy on the bill should be crisp and clear. If it looks blurry at all/has broken lines/looks like a badly drawn photocopied image, then you have a fake on your hands. You should especially be chary of any money not received from a bank/wire transfer agency. Counterfeit bills of smaller denominations can also be found; Bjorn once received a fake 10-peso bill.

Side note on 100-peso bills: Business hate to make change for them. If your purchase is less than 50 pesos and you hand over 100 pesos, expect to hear hemming and hawing from the vendor. Stand firm though and eventually they will make the change.

1.) A visit to the San Telmo Mercado is a must. Say hello to Manuel for me.
The San Telmo Market is a charming, rambling, random collection of stalls under a metal roof. At the market one can buy antiques, clothing, toys, fruit, baked goods, butchered meat and according to  friends, some of the best coffee in the city. The stalls are in haphazard order, with vintage clothing stalls next to the butcher next to the fruit stall, and so on. You never know what you’ll stumble upon around the next corner.

My favorite stall is a panaderia (of course) run by a man who looks like a live-action version of Mr. Magoo, but with a fringe of white hair. Manuel is slightly cross-eyed, wears coke-bottle glasses, always has on a white lab coat and his ancient TV set is always tuned to some trashy U.S. show like “The O.C.” or “Desperate Housewives” overdubbed in Spanish. In other words, I love visiting him. Plus he has some really tasty treats for sale, like dulce de leche-filled churros that are covered in chocolate and my favorite kind of alfajores: the maicenas (each baked good retails for about 2.50 pesos).

Thanks for the memories, Buenos Aires. I’ll miss you!

~Photos by Bjorn and Jammie Karlman




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