Having read Mshedghogs me and Buenos Aires http://mshedgehog.blogspot.com/2010/05/me-and-buenos-aires.html I was driven to write a reply, but of course my regular readers will know that my trip there got in the way, still it gave me time to think about all the things I love about this great city.
It would be wrong of me to just go on about how great it is without first letting you know the downside.
I studied Spanish for years, I am not saying I was the greatest student, I did always find it difficult. When I first arrived in Buenos Aires however I had to throw away the grammar book along with how to pronounce Spanish. They talk very funny here, large numbers of Italian immigrants coloured the language with their own style and accents, throw into this mix the indigenous Indians, Jewish settlers and eastern Europeans and you begin to see why this could never be pure Spanish.
The condition of the city roads is appalling, though this is nothing compared to the pavements, which are regularly dug up by the utility companies who seem to have no obligation to repair them. So while you dodge the holes and broken flags mind you do not put your foot in the Buenos Aires dog dirt mountain. Dogs here are regularly walked in large groups by professional dog walkers, who have neither the time nor desire to clean up after their charges.
Another thing I do not like is Americans who come here just to teach tango, OK forget I said Americans, just tango teachers, if you look foreign and dance everyone wants to offer private classes at upwards of fifty dollars an hour and they are not averse to offering you advice from the minute you start dancing.
It does not rain here often but when it does, it does it like it means it. The streets get flooded and getting about is difficult, taxis become non existent and the power often fails.
There are just too many tourists, and on every corner (in the centre anyway) there is some one trying to sell you leather or paintings or just general tat like any major city. Also like any other major city beware ladrones. There are a million scams to separate the unwary from their wallets, so beware.
So now I have put you all off let me try and redress the balance and show you what, despite its faults, makes me love this great city.I have to start with what brought me here first, The Tango. There are over one hundred and thirty different milongas each week. (A milonga is a dance event in this case) Don’t mix up venues with milongas, the same place on a different night could have up to three different milongas starting at different times, they are different also on different nights. They have different hosts and DJs, different staff, sometimes and the whole feel is like another place. The classic example is Sociedad Leonesa, everyone calls it Niño Buen this is the name of the milonga on a Thursday not the venue, it has other names on other nights.
Your choice is about the crowd that goes (young-old, couples-singles, Nuevo-traditional and on) the DJ and the Host but never are two the same. The DJ and host can make the place; some DJs play exceptional music others so-so. Some hosts treat you like a long lost friend from your first visit, to others you are just another source of dollars. In my favourite milonga every one kisses me when I arrive, the host (male) the waitress and most of the punters who are regular (male and female).
So when you first go be sure to get someone who knows what you want and knows the milongas to show you the way. On most days you can dance from about two in the afternoon until four the next morning, but there are sometimes even twenty four hour milongas. Dancing is not the end or even the beginning, you can of course see any one of the dozens of dinner shows around, most of the “tourista” milongas have exhibitions and on the main streets you can see busking dancers on almost every corner. Still it does not end, why not catch a concert, there are even free ones where artists, conductors and bandonistas of world renown perform in public buildings, if you can get there early enough to beat the locals to a seat. Make no mistake these are great performances and locals will queue for three hours for a chance of a good seat. They know what they are listening to, it is in their blood, so when you see them giving a standing ovation to a youth orchestra, you know they are not just good but great. Every street in the centre is infused with the sound of tango as you walk the streets the sounds will change from Pugliese to Canaro from Otras Aires to Gotan. Tango culture is everywhere; you cannot compare this city to any other. I could bang on forever about it, but in all honesty, words are not enough, if you have not been then you simply cannot understand. I have said it before and will go on repeating the words of Carlos Copes “to know Tango you must know Buenos Aires”
You cannot visit a foreign land without sampling local cuisine, and if you are adventurous enough to try, Buenos Aires will not disappoint. Steak obviously is a staple, do not leave without having tasted at least one Biefe de Lomo it will melt in your mouth and leave you feeling very full indeed. Then of course there is the great Argentine barbeque Asado, go to a genuine family asado and you will see meat piled to the sky sizzling with flavour and dripping with juices.
Don’t miss out on other local dishes like locro (a type of stew), or carbonada (slightly sweeter). Lentejas (lentils) and not forgetting the ever present empanadas (a type of pasty). For breakfast there are medialunas (croissants) and facturas (pastries) with crème de pastel or chocolate and of course the ubiquitous dulche de leche which they will eat with any thing and often make cakes almost entirely of the stuff.
With all the Italian immigrants you would expect ice cream, pizza and pasta and you would not be disappointed they are everywhere. Enter one of the many family owned iced cream parlours and you may think you have died and gone to heaven.
Then there is the drink, they have a great beer here, the brand name is Quilmes, try their stout or “Negra” lighter and sweeter than Guiness perfect to sup while enjoying the dancing. For celebrations here they drink Cidra a sparkling cider that they serve like champagne, but you do not have to be celebrating to enjoy this, it is so light and refreshing that even a non cider drinker like myself will enjoy it, but even though it is relatively cheap the locals will be surprised if you quaff a whole bottle yourself.
You do not have to miss out on fresh fruit and vegetables, after all this temptation, there is a verduraria on almost every corner, but make sure you pick your own, as some are not averse to off loading their old stock on unwary foregners.
The people here are very friendly, but you need to make some effort. They will often talk to exranjeros, but unless you meet in a business arrangement, it is best to be formally introduced. Once you have one or two friends however you rapidly accrue more as they will all want to introduce you to their friends as well.
Talking of business, keep away from tourist shops and find small local vendors or artisans, give them five minutes of your time and try your castillano and they will move mountains for you. You can get anything made here by skilled craftsmen happy to help you out and not yet on the bandwagon of bleed the tourista dry.
The thing is to get out of the centre, in my barrio (Almagro) I can get almost everything I could want or need within two blocks. Walk five blocks and I have the massive (and expensive) Abasto Centre a bit like the Trafford Centre but bigger and without the themed areas. Shopping heaven here for the real shopaholic, but of course you have come here for shoes. Behind the Abasto is Tango ocho famous for Traspie shoes and on the other side is Susanna Artesenal. Whereas five blocks in the other direction is Tango por Vos, a company established for over twenty five years.
Take the subte into town and you can go to Comme il Faut or Flabella or Darcos all within a few blocks. I am informed that there are now more than thirty shoe makers in Buenos Aires, and I know that Tango Ocho will make to your spec if you have the time to wait (three weeks they told me).
While you are now travelling it is worth noting the cost of travel here; you can travel anywhere on one subte ticket $1.10 about 20p, maximum fare on the bus (collectivo) is $1.25 at present. Of course for the inexperienced you could take one of the ubiquitous black and yellow cabs starting a $4.60, be careful though, they do not like giving change from big notes and the one way system sometimes give them the ability to run you a dance. Beware also the fake note scam, they hand you back a fake note and say that you have given them a fake. It is best to keep smaller notes for the taxis and coins (metalico) for the monedas on the busses. (collectivos only have monedas (coin machines) and do not take notes of any size)
Visit at least one of the cemeteries not for morbid fascination but to view some of the marvellous statues, angels and edifices.
There are literally hundreds of Fairs around the city, one not to be missed is Ferria Mataderos on a Sunday, you can browse all the usual rubbish that is sold or eat from one of the many stalls serving hot food, but you must watch the manic horse riders as they race up the street trying to hook a ring from a scaffold with their knives. Closer to the centre there is Palermo every weekend, lots of souvenirs and antiques to be bought here but much more touristy. And even more touristy is Plaza Dorrego at San Telmo, but hang around and later in the day is a free outdoor milonga, you just cannot beat this for atmosphere.
There are acres of open parkland here that you simply must visit to sit and enjoy the normally glorious weather. Some of the best are the Rosedal, The Japanese Garden (best of the many national gardens) and Parque Centenario.
Walk the streets and view the many impressive buildings, look up and view the cupolas. Visit Teatro Colon, one of the greatest Opera houses in the world. El Obalisco, a giant needle that has come to be the symbol of Buenos Aires. Biblioteca Nacional, a giant flying saucer of a building that redeems the stark and unimpressive architecture of the seventies. And do not miss El Ateneo, formally Teatro Splendid, not just a book shop that was voted second best in the world by The Daily Express, but the building is second to non, I promise.
Finally although some parts of the city can appear dark and threatening, I have never felt personally threatened anywhere and the kids here show some respect, something that they do not in the UK. Respect is something different here, it is not false, driven by rules or some worry about causing offence, it is a genuine understanding of feelings. Political correctness does not exist here; people say it how it is, if you take offence it is because there is a problem with you not them. One famous tango dancer is called Flaco Dany, (Skinny Dany) it describes him, not insults him. Get used to hearing Che Gordo (fatty) or Guapa (pretty girl) or even Che Negro. No one should be insulted they are merely saying what they see.
If you can walk the pretty streets of Palemo in spring or stand in the foyer of El Ateneo or even the Rosedal gardens without a smile on your face, then there is no hope for you, because you must be truly world weary. This city can bring a smile to even the dourest of faces.