24 Noviembre, 2006
As the days go by our little barrio, Palermo Soho, becomes more familiar. Each time that we run errands we take a different route back to the apartment, finding out where the best fruit and vegetable stands are, who has lamb for sale, and where the ecclectic clothing stores are. Much of the shopping is beyond our modest budget, even with the exchange rate, but it’s quite fun to be in the midst of a fashion district. Instead of factory-direct clothing, I can splurge on a dress that a designer actually made herself. Also, everyone goes shopping. Every species goes shopping too; today, I kid you not, there was a German Shepherd staring wistfully at a lavender suede leather handbag.
This is where the students studying abroad, as well as the tourists directed by their guidebooks go in search of hip Argentinian designer clothing. There’s a lot of creativity and a lot of marketing going on at the same time, which makes for an interesting environment. Wading through the propaganda and the bargains to find something that is both well-made and interesting is difficult, so we do a lot of walking and window shopping. This may irritate my boyfriend, who thinks that I am an obsessed maniac, but this is just the way one must behave, if one can only buy one pair of heels this trip. I’m not about to make some hesitant decision. This is a very serious matter, deserving much thought and deliberation, not to mention many blocks of walking
On one such expedition, we found a chocolatería. Not quite the same as the decadent Chocolate Bar in Mahnattan discovered by one M. Warren, they do produce a fantastic chocolate ice cream, and one of my all-time favorite flavor combinations: white chocolate truffles rolled in black tea leaves. It’s crunchy, it’s smoky, it’s sweet, and it melts in your mouth. Yes, I’ll take a box of those.
There are also more practical spots to discover in the neighborhood, like the Post Office for our weekly postales, the internet café, and the grocery store. We had a nice chat with a butcher yesterday about the different cuts of lamb, and ended up with what I think is a flank and tenderloin. My food vocabulary is increasing daily, as well as my knowledge of meats. Some of the things I didn’t even know in English, let alone Spanish! I feel like I’m working up to being able to order in a parillada without embarassing myself, now that I can articulate the difference between a flank steak, rib eye, and tenderloin (or entre vacío, ojo, o lomo). Bring on the menus!
I felt truly ignorant when our favorite baker presented three options for quiches and I hadn’t the faintest idea which one was filled with what. Two weeks later, having sampled the leeks, swiss chard, buttnernut squash, and corn, it becomes significantly more difficult to forget the names of each tasty vegetable. Tasting is truly the best way to learn vocab. Sometimes you can’t even go by sight or pointing and have to jump out on a limb. Our first week here we ordered a pizza with, among other things, morrónes. What to my delighted eye should appear but thick slabs of roasted red peppers, nestled in among caremelized onions and mushroms. Surprises like these are much appreciated. Luckily, I had my most unpleasant food surprises in Spain; I now know the names of most of the offal, that I don’t like morcilla (blood sausage), and would prefer not to eat canned vegetables.
Once these lingüistically problematic territories have been navigated, one can continue to negotiate physical space.
After familiarizing ourselves with Palermo Soho, we have set our sights on La Recoleta, a slightly more sedate and older neighborhood which contains a slew of museums and cultural activities. There are more middle aged business people with families, fewer hipsters, and nary a foreign college student to be found outside the overtly tourist museums. Wednesdays are our Recoleta day, when we cash in on the $10 peso evening movie tickets (USD $3.25). It’s a little quieter than our neighborhood during the day in Recoleta, but during the weekends much of the city flocks to the open air restaurants, the green spaces around La Flor, a huge stainless steel sculpture of a flower that opens and closes with the sun, and around El Cementario.
The flower sits upon a 10 foot tall granite cylinder filled with water, probably 20 yards in diameter. The pistils are huge light bulbs that remain unlit during the day, and I’m sure they are an impressive sight at dusk. So far, we’ve only observed it in the afternoon, when the sun’s golden rays burnish the steel to bronze, and the reflections of the water throw light up onto the sculpture and around onto the rolling green hills that surround the statue for almost a quarter of a mile. It’s a relatively new addition to the city, within the last five years, but it’s quite the iconic structure.
Another staple of our visits is the Museo de Bellas Artes, a broad collection, and free every day of the week. It’s fun to be there around 5:00 pm when the school groups come in for their tours. The kids know the place and almost treat it like their own living room, pointing out favorites to friends and rushing around to find a particularly disturbing or interesting painting. On the weekends, scores of runners are out in the parks of the Paseo de Recoleta which runs around the museum and contains several small pools where kids can play with miniature fully working sailboats and hydrofoils, if their parents or grandparents would ever surrender the controls.
Our next cultural destination was the Cementario de Recoleta, the huge necropolis plopped right down in the middle of this affluent neighborhood. The site sits on top of of a hill, guarded on three sides by a towering wall of at least 20 feet. Poking up from above the cement you can see the back sides of tombs, small cupolas, crosses, and parts of angels floating above the sidewalk. We unintentionally circumnavigated the cemetary, not knowing how to find the entrance, which finally emerged with its renaissance style white marble pillars and portico after a good long walk. The surface area is about 2 city blocks square, but what we discovered after walking inside is that the tombs extend quite a ways beyond the surface…both up and down.
Once you pass through the iron gates which run between the high white pillars carrying the momental command, desire, and hope “Resquiat en Pax,” the city seems to have whirled about itself in a magical storm and condensed into a tiny version of itself. For the cemetary is a city on a miniature scale; there are streets, gardens, abandoned tenements, huge monuments, sleek modern skyscrapers, families, tourists, stray cats, brochure vendors, government officials, and even mini neighborhoods.
The noises of the city fall away, for a visitor of the cemetary literally is above the streets, and tall cypresses loom mournfully over the main pathway leading in from the entrance. Birds circle around, and ghost-like pale cats lounge about in the central rotunda, stalking the streets like souls who have some unfinished task to complete. If you strike out from the central green space, away from the towering evergreen trees, it is easy to become completely lost. The alleyways and avenues of the cemetary are just like city streets: some are wide enough for two-way traffic, for three to walk abreast, and others are thin slices through layers of tombs, with just enough space for one wanderer. This diminished scale increases the eeriness of the streets, making an ordinary sized human feel slightly shrunken. A sense of weight, of foreboding settles in, increasing with the ever-staring angels and carved likenesses of the deceased peering down from atop the marble, granite, and concrete structures. A spiritual weight rests on your shoulders, emanating from the ground, the walls, the air, and other indefinable sources. If this weren’t creepy enough, there’s a smell about the place that is hard to pin down, a musty sweetness that might come from the mold growing on the oldest structures, might come from car fumes on the street, or might be the result of “other” things.
I loved it.
The place is absolutely fascinating. There are tombs that were built in the 1800’s when the city was still younger than the interred, some of which have been cared for during the last two centuries, with spiralling staircases leading down into catacombs for many generations of family members. Other old tombs are in such a state of disrepair that their rusted doors are falling off, bricks and rotting wood fill the sacristies inside, and the familial names have started to wear off. Every tomb tells a story, and those who are more secretive than others inspire stories and fantastical tales to be invented. What tragedy befell the Moreno family after they buried their father in 1950 so that they could not care for the grave? Why is only the younger daughter of the Olivieris given an inscription? How would you feel holding the iron railing as you descended into the tombs of your forebearers? What does it smell like at the bottom of a catacomb? But not all the questions and stories are weighty and grave (pun intended!): how on earth did the Jockey Club get the money to build their first president a monstrous sepulcher complete with four leaping horses and sprawling maidens…and then build three more just like it!? Why do all the architects have the ugliest graves? Who the heck picked that picture of grandma to sit next to her for eternity?
Another reason for my enchantment with the cemetary is that many of the graves were built in the twilight hours of art nouveau, from 1900-1915. The style had already faded back in its birthplace of Paris, but apparently it blazed on in Buenos Aires. The sinuous lines and flowery carvings are perfect for giving a truly otherwordly air to a monument, not as if the place needed any help.
I wandered around for about an hour by myself, losing Dave immediately and unintentionally as I scoured the streets and alleyways for interesting sights. It was nearly closing time when I realized to myself “Hey, self, there might be some important people there.” Then, almost as if on cue, a fellow wanderer asked me if I knew where Evita’s tomb was. Unfortunately in my meanderings I had not stumbled across the resting place of Argentina’s most famous first lady, and was forced to return to the world of the living to find out. Dave, always prepared, came with a map of the cemetery. This, while illuminating and most helpful for finding the big sights like the Duarte monument, took away from some of the mysteriousness.
But the mystery of the Cementario is only part of its nature; the cemetary is not a static land, about to slip into the ether with its population of corpses. The living city of Buenos Aires is invested in it as well. People still come to put roses and carnations in the gates of Evita’s tomb, families clean up and pay their respects, and some of the buildings have glass windows with potted plants; these are obviously used on a regular basis. Also, as we overheard by eavesdropping on a tour, families trade and sell their plots and tombs: a real estate market exists within the necropolis, and families hard on their financial luck can put their mausoleum on the market, move out all the old ashes, caskets, and bodies so that some familiy with new money can take over. It’s a neighborhood with its own infrastructure, investments, and economy, a microcosm of society…except it’s for dead people! Craziness, I tell you.
Each part of the city is distinct, and they change so fast that you can be walking down a street, and all of a sudden you don’t see twentysomethings in black leggings and jean skirts, but you see fortysomethings in matching sweater sets and Mercedes Benz dealerships…that’s were the good ice cream is. But there are many more barrios to explore, and that’s for another time.