Friday, February 25, 2011

Familiar and Unsettling

We’ve been in Buenos Aires for over a week. Though there have been days with no set agenda, we have kept ourselves busy. The city streets near our apartment have grown familiar and with that comes the feeling of belonging to a place. I have even spotted the building custodian around the neighborhood. Again, there is a pleasure in knowing someone, even if it’s just the person you call when the stove isn’t working.
As I get more comfortable here, more sure of where to go and what to say, I am also discovering things that are less comfortable, or perhaps less digestible. While we are staying in a relatively upscale neighborhood, there is a sense of scarcity even here. Like the rest of the world, the economic situation has people on edge. The banks have strict regulations on how much money people can withdraw in a day, about US$250 and sometimes less. There are times of the day or towards the end of the week when it is impossible to withdraw any money at all, the ATMs are empty.
In addition, there is a shortage of small bills. At the grocery store, the cashier will often give more money in return rather than give the correct amount of coinage. Also, at many restaurants, if you try to pay for a bill with AR$100 (equivalent to US$25), they will often not have change. That’s what happened to us at dinner last night. 
When I don't feel comfortable carrying
a camera, I sometimes sketch.
This shortage of money has a visible effect on the poorest of the Argentine population. While sitting at cafes, restaurants, or even at the park, it is very likely that you will be approached by children and adults who are trying to pedal everything from pens to socks. Most people simply lay the items on your table or lap and move on to the next table, returning in a few minutes to either collect the items or your money.
The most troublesome instance occurred last night while Marisa and I were out for dinner with an American friend. Around 11 PM, a young girl who was definitely no more than ten years old approached our table. She swaggered over carrying herself like some one twice her age. Speaking at lightning speed, and breaking off to bite a piece of her blood sausage sandwich, she leaned onto the table and asked us for money. We said we didn’t have any and offered her a piece of pizza. “Eso no me gusta,” she tossed back, as a piece of blood sausage dropped onto the table. She began picking up our bottles of water and peering in to see if there was any left. I offered her my half full bottle. She took it and proceeded to chug without pausing for a breath. When she had drunk the last drop, she looked down the neck of the bottle. Satisfied that there was none left, she moved on to the next table where she made off with a bottle of Coca Cola. 
We too went on our way. We walked the dark streets quickly, aware of the possible dangers. But it is not just danger that feels unsettling, it is the constant presence of hardened children and weary adults hustling for a few pesos.

Friday, February 18, 2011

First Impressions of Buenos Aires

My sister, Marisa, and I will stay in Buenos Aires for the next three months. Marisa will take classes to progress in her study of tango; she has been dancing in the U.S. for almost three years. I hope to teach English for a few hours each day and also improve my Spanish.  We rent a small house in the neighborhood of Palermo. 
I didn't take picture of the fabulous sunlight,
but here is the evening view.
Last night we slept without blankets. Even though Marisa left the balcony door wide open, the night air never grew chilly. As far as I can tell, Buenos Aires lives up to its name. I awoke this morning rested and ready to see what the first full day would bring. The sun streamed in through the large sliding glass doors and a woman wearing a colorful house coat watered her hanging potted plants in the adjacent apartment building. 
The streets offered their share of excitement. We strolled to the a neighborhood called Recoleta. As we waited at a street crossing a spectacled man standing in front of me turned around and said, “Hace calor.” It was extremely hot, so I answered, “Sí.”  From that single syllable, he deduced that I was American and promptly began to explain in a mixture of English and Spanish why he didn’t like Obama. His critique has nothing to do with Obama’s foreign policies. The man’s dislike is purely personal. It turns out that Obama has an uncanny resemblance to his ex girlfriend’s new boyfriend. Moreover, the Obama look alike showers his girlfriend with gifts. I told the man that I was sorry things hadn’t worked out in his favor and then let him walk up ahead.
After a brief stop and the Casa Rosada which is a familiar sight to anyone who has ever seen the musical Evita, we headed down a side street. We kept a steady pace, each immersed in our own thoughts. Suddenly there came a scream from further up the block  followed by the sound of a quickly accelerating motorcycle. It whizzed by carrying two men. The man in back held his helmet under his arm and looked back quickly. Within a split second several men ran past me whistling and yelling. They were followed by an elderly woman saying, “Me robaron mi cellular.” I stood by for a few seconds wondering if there was anything I could do. Deciding there wasn’t, I continued down the street. 
For now, Buenos Aires remains an enigma. I am enjoying the weather, the architecture, and the plants, but have yet to confidently navigate the people who live here.