Spirit of Argentina
Written by Sorrel Moseley-Williams
“Even though we like to think we are in a crisis, we aren’t really,” says historian Gabriel Di Meglio. And to a certain extent, he’s right.
Following Argentina’s economic turmoil in 2001 after defaulting on a chunk of its external debt, Buenos Aires and its porteño residents have turned disaster to their advantage by channelling their creativity productively.
Graffiti artists now exhibit in London, musicians sell out gigs but still play in tiny, fashionable bars, designers who used to sell handmade goods in street markets now own boutiques, chefs open ‘closed door’ restaurants in their homes, and underground publications hold the coolest of shabby warehouse parties. Out of this catastrophe emerged bags of energy, ingenuity, and resourcefulness, and two neighbourhoods in particular have benefited from this needs-must attitude.
Born and bred in Palermo Viejo, Patricia O’Shea, owner of the boutique Home Hotel (www.homebuenosaires.com), has seen all the changes take place, but the 2001 crisis had a positive effect, she says. “A different energy developed as Argentines could no longer visit New York or London. That meant we had to start looking inwards to Latin America, and so a creative process evolved, which led to Buenos Aires becoming more creative.
”Palermo and San Telmo, respectively Buenos Aires’ largest and oldest barrios, have witnessed the most recent developments. “Investments have been made in the former, which now incorporates Palermo Soho, Hollywood, Viejo, and Chico as well as Alto Palermo and Las Cañitas.
Artists and media people have moved in, and restaurants and boutiques have opened up, regenerating these areas, although they jostle for position between old-school steak houses and mechanic workshops,” says O’Shea.Of course, Argentina’s story goes back farther than 2001. Celebrating its bicentenary of independence on May 25 – the city’s Teatro Col?n opera house reopened with La Boheme – a predominant influx of Italian and Spanish immigrants combined with Armenian, English, French, and Irish settlers amongst others means all these races have merged over the past 200 years to make Argentina what it is. And that explains why Buenos Aires, home to 13 million residents, is so diverse and energetic.
Tipped to be one of the world’s most powerful nations at the start of the 20th century, Argentina was unfortunately placed in the hands of bad managers, as porteños often remark. Historian Di Meglio, who is also a presenter for the local Encuentro TV channel, says: “Despite it being the bicentenary, even I will forget about it while the World Cup is taking place in South Africa!” Joking aside, he says Argentines always mark the darkest part of their history, but hopefully they will realise that life isn’t as bad as they think. “We are far away from hell, where we were nine years ago,” he says.
Brought up in Nuñez, Di Meglio reflects on the capital’s past and how that merges with the present to create this pulsating metropolis. “Buenos Aires has always been important and dynamic in the southern cone. We are far away from the mainstream lines of the world, and that makes it a hotspot, despite the fact it’s a city built in the 1960s functioning in the 21st century. There’s always a feeling that we are on the verge of collapse, but that never happens. Buenos Aires is a melting pot with a strong identity, and its spirit is energy combined with activity and melancholic nostalgia. Walk the cobbled streets or in one of the beautiful parks, stop off for a coffee – that will give you the essence of this city,” he adds.
The River Plate (Rio de la Plata) gave birth to tango, still the lifeblood for many porteños, and which the historian calls “poetry from a sad urban place”. But Buenos Aires and this mournful music and dance are “inter-mutual”, says Dana Frigoli, co-owner of DNI Tango school (www.dni-tango.com) in Villa Crespo. The dance teacher was literally born into tango, having been sung to by her pregnant mother, and she talks about how the emblematic genre developed.
“A mix of races created this bohemian culture, and so Buenos Aires and tango go hand in hand. People didn’t speak the same language when they migrated here 200 years ago, but my Greek grandmother always said you can communicate by dancing. And that’s true. Tango is all around you, in every single neighbourhood. It’s the old woman running the same corner shop for 50 years, a taxi driver in his black-and-yellow cab, a milonga dance event going on until dawn – our culture is about creating something in order to survive.
”O’Shea also refers to the city’s zest that has weathered the test of time. “Buenos Aires is a mixture of old and new, the cutting edge and traditional. All the influences we’ve had make [the city] unique because it resembles Chicago, Paris, Belgrade, and Havana, but it’s also contradictory as you see obvious wealth on one corner, then a rundown building on the next: Buenos Aires shows its wounds. Despite that, it’s got a certain energy that few cities have: if you come here you’ll always find a party round the corner,” she says.
The stylish porteños come out to play very late, and an evening may start off with dinner at a puerta cerrada in a chef’s home. According to O’Shea, these restaurants are simply another novel method of creativity. “Although the concept may have been born out of crisis, why should chefs have to take the traditional route of finding an investor to open their restaurant? They simply cook at home. It’s brilliant. It’s about thinking laterally. Argentines are so used to crisis that we are always looking for ways to creatively get out of it.”
Lingering over a cortado (espresso-style) coffee while putting the political issue of the day to rights is part and parcel of daily porteño culture, and especially at Café Tortoni. Since opening its doors in 1858, from a strategic location between the Casa Rosada (Government House) and Congreso (Congress), the city’s oldest café has fed and watered politicians such as Senator Lisandro de la Torre, literatis great and good – including writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges – and tango singer Carlos Gardel.
Founded by a French immigrant, Tortoni is a classic example of a porteño interior thanks to its glistening wooden panelling and stained-glass ceiling. Sink into a leather seat and tuck into a luxuriously thick hot chocolate and churros (stick-shaped doughnuts) – also quintessentially Tortoni. Taking on the double persona of watering hole and museum, Tortoni is the original Buenos Aires tardis – forgotten conversations ooze from every corner in the former hairdressing salon.
Av. De Mayo 825, DowntownSubte (Metro) Line A,
Leaving bustling Buenos Aires behind for a topographically distinctive region such as the mountainous Bariloche in the Lake District often entails a minimum two-hour flight, but Punta del Este is a mere 50-minute hop and skip across the River Plate – the body of water that separates Argentina and Uruguay.
Take a large, comfortable ferry (Buquebus) to Colonia (1 hour) or Montevideo (2 hours), then hire a car, or take the bus. Regional airplane services offered from Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo.