I now live in Buenos Aires, on a happily bustling street in Palermo Soho called J. L. Borges. Yes folks, that’s right; I have fulfilled my lifelong dream of living with Borges. Yet I feel slightly out of place here in this, the trendiest of neighborhoods in B.A.: after spending several years on the precipice of the ghetto, it seems odd to be smack in the midst of hip fashion, ‘expensive’ restaurants, and young people. There are no screaming couples or children out back, no whining police sirens, nor street signs in the unintelligible but familiar Haitian creole. The style of Palermo is also a stark contrast to the American suburbs of my youth: the lawns, SUV’s, and military families with 3.8 children. I’m living in the East Village, but confoundingly doing it within our budget. It blows my mind, especially when my friend just tried to move to said Manhattan neighborhood and couldn’t do so with her investment banker’s salary.
At times here I feel incredibly wealthy: we can afford to live in one of the coolest barrios, albeit after three solid days of apartment hunting all over the city, in every real estate agency that we laid eyes on. We have also managed to jet off to foreign lands for 5 months without a hope of potential employment, the longest I have gone without working since freshman year of college. It’s a little scary, but we should be able to make it with the dollar riding high at 3.15 Argentine pesos. Yes, my old teacher’s pay would make me part of the upper class here, but I’ve let that go for a while. In a fit of self-justification I tell myself that the lack of income makes me a little closer to the average BA citizen, but I know that it’s not really true.
I feel like one of the Idle Rich, a sensation that is more foriegn than the language, the food, or even the sights here in Argentina. All that I’m missing is a tiny canine to stuff in my Louis Vuitton purse, and some big-ass sunglasses with the letters C, G, or D glimmering in bling on the sides.
But that’s not me. I get a lot of looks on the street, and I’m not sure if they are because my blonde hair and blue eyes scream “I’m not from here,” or if my clothes aren’t the latest and hottest fashions. Falling comfortably back into Spanish-speaking life, I forget that people who meet me immediately assume that I’m an invading foreigner, ignorant of customs and culture.
Fortunately I have two things working rather strongly in my favor. One of these I discovered by using luck and a bit of intuition. The other is a universal truth: everyone loves teachers. It is considered a sin upon humanity to dislike a teacher on sight, even if the U.S. still won’t pay them, but that’s another story for another day. Getting back to my superpowers…The first genuine smile that I saw from a porteño, as they call themselves in Buenos Aires, was when I spoke the magic word: Miami.
Miami, as the legend goes, is the capital of South America. I didn’t realize it that much when I was there, partly because my job was all-consuming, and partly because the people that I interacted with on a daily basis weren’t from South America. Here, now say with pride “Oh yeah, I’m from Miami.” Immediately, I am a creature of wonder, an exotic resident of the land of turquoise waters, and free from any America prejudices. It’s beautiful, liberating, and quite useful. Everybody wants to know what life is like in Miami, if there really is a golden land full of latinos. Perhaps in less cosmopolitan areas this fact won’t be worth as much, but for now I’m going to milk it for all it’s worth.
Yet Buenos Aires is nothing like the fabled Miami. The more time that I spend here, the more it reminds me of New York. Clearly there are some key differences, but so many places have analagous forms in the Big Apple that they seem like sister cities. During our search for apartments we wanted a central location, ending up in an old hotel in the equivalent of Time Square. The tourists and the neon signs, cheap restaurants and fast food places made me a little stressed out. Luckily we didn’t have to spend much time there, or I don’t think that I would have liked the city much at all.
Like New York, Buenos Aires is also the nexus of immigration. Part of the same wave of European immigrants that poured into Ellis Island in the early 1900’s spilled over onto the shores of Argentina, and found plenty of room in the capital city. As our friendliest taxista told us: “Italy didn’t have anything, Germany didn’t have anything, Spain didn’t have anything, nobody had anything! So they all came here.” This working-class immigrant past still lies beneath the surface of the city, and shows itself in sometimes unexpected ways. There are fewer characteristically Spanish last names here; about a third are Italian, with some German and Eastern European mixed in for flavor. There’s tango, and there’s also the food.
On our first full day in the city, we found ourselves wandering around a bustling shopping district in an attempt to become better oriented. This worked, after a fashion, but it also made us extremely hungry. We wandered in to a swank Italian restaurant right next to the Apple Store B.A. . A Polish waiter ushered us to our table, asked me if I was from the Ukraine, and then showed us the menu replete with fresh-made pastas. My papardelle arrived steaming and happy in a bed of mushrooms, and had the yellow tinge of true egg noodles. Sigh. When I rolled a strand around my fork it was slightly elastic, not mushy at all. Swoon. Then, after the first bite I realized that it was cooked to perfection: I met a tiny bit of resistance at the center, truly ‘al dente.’ I’m in love. Since then, I’ve had brick oven pizza, sopressata, fugazzeta, gnocchi (ñoquis), and real parmesan. People talk about the steak here, and the quality of the beef, but I’m all about the pasta. Sure, the asado is delicious, and it’s hard to beat a medium rare skirt steak with chimichurri sauce, but these pale in comparison to the divinity of homemade pasta. Viva Italia!
Affirming our decision to reside in Palermo Borges gave us another gift, in addition to Ficciones and El aleph. There lies, not six blocks from our tiny apartment, a pasta factory. Now there’s no need to ever venture out of our neighborhood. When we can cook perfect pasta in our own home, made the same day or the day before, why on earth would we go to a restaurant? Already we have been entranced by five kinds of ravioli, stamped out in a 6 foot tall machine that looks like it should be rolling out newpapers instead of plump packets of pasta. In the words of Virginia Woolf, “It is enough. It is enough.”
Thus, we begin to feel that we have trully arrived, and are no longer in transit: searching for a place to belong. Dave chats with the lady at the pasta store, we find a panadería to patronize daily, and the old guy who sells the chickens has somewhat less of an indifferent glare when we pick up some farm-fresh eggs.
The immersion project for DDH proceeds, with gradual success. Each spanish conversation is a little easier, and though it sometimes takes us 15 city blocks to understand one sentence, we manage to understand each other. I have revived the tradition of my 10th grade Spanish teacher, and Dave now conjugates one verb a day in all 13 tenses. “Estoy, estás, está, estamos, están comiendo?” This odious task which I dreaded every week now delights him, and I suppose the repetition is helpful. We are also slowly branching into literature, updates to follow.
While the “Rey of Castellano” continues to conjugate, I think it’s time for lunch. It’s good to be here.