The Paris of South America

Gabriel Goldstein
Sep 6 · 20 min read
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Buenos Aires 3/23/19

The last hour of the day, sitting at a café table on Calle Chile, the street that separates the barrios of San Telmo and Monserrat. San Telmo is the quirky, fancy, used-to-be-bohemian neighborhood where I’m staying; Monserrat the city center, which gradually shades from residential to urban and federal. Calle Chile is a relatively quiet street, more foot traffic than cars. From looking at it, you wouldn’t know that it separates anything other than one side of the street from the other.

The establishment under whose drooping green awning I am sitting is called Café La Poesía, and as I was wandering around looking for a place to have dinner I came across it several times. The first time I walked by I was initially intrigued, then skeptical. The second time I went in, looked at the menu and thought it had promise. I was disappointed to see that the inside walls weren’t covered with books — in fact none were visible —how could a Poetry Cafe not have books? But it did have that old-fashioned literary feel, and wouldn’t be out of place in North Beach, San Francisco. The third time by I was just hungry and tired of walking.

Once, long ago, I wrote poesía. Saw the world, heard combinations of words in that way, in terms of poetry. I haven’t written a poem in years — that part of my brain either went away or converted over to writing songs. Perhaps some of the inspiration of the place will magically rub off on me, though I’ll be satisfied with a decent meal. Already I can say that it’s a good place to write in my journal. Apparently after the end of the dictatorship, in the early eighties, this cafe cradled the rebirth of art and free speech and democracy, and was a center of literary and political culture in Buenos Aires.

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Café La Poesía in the daytime

From the vantage point of two days, I can say that this city is truly one of the grand ones, a rare and lovely place, a center of civilization. Haven’t begun to scratch the surface, but it is apparent that there is a lot of life here. I can’t say, though, that I’ve been in the right state of mind to properly enjoy it. Much of the past two days I was a sleep deprived and distracted traveler. Just got my beer, finally, a cerveza roja brewed on the premises, and it is delicious. The handsome waiter also brought me a bowl of peanuts in the shell, and about a quarter loaf of fresh baked bread with some kind of eggplant tapenade. These things are just complimentary with the meal. What luxury, what abundance!

Buenos Aires is utterly singular in my year and a half in Latin America — there is nothing like this that I have seen. Córdoba, my last stop, was similar in terms of affluence, organization and being well-kept, but it’s a bigger medium-sized city, not a metropolis. México City has the same scale and grandeur and sense of culture overflowing, but that city is much more chaotic, and almost claustrophobic in its energies. It is remarkable for a city to be this big and also relaxed.

There is history, architecture, lovely parks, art everywhere, tons of museums, neighborhoods with character. The city is relatively diverse for this part of the world, a place that people immigrate to. There is an excellent metro system which is modern and comfortable. Perhaps my favorite part is the quality of food and drink. I wish I was a fresh traveler, full of appetite for experience and vigor for discovery. Alas, I am not fresh. I am a weary journeyman, on the last stretch of a long run. On the flip side though, if I had just flown in directly from the states, I wouldn’t really understand the context of this city, any sense of how Buenos Aires fits in to Argentina or South America, or the ways in which it is distinctive.

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My food has arrived, and this plate is a treasure. On the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the especialidad de la casa, Raviolon de Pavita. Large salmon colored house-made raviolis filled with minced turkey, covered in a cream sauce with crimini mushrooms. Wow. Everything is good. And this is just a reasonably-priced place I stumbled upon and chose more for the ambience than any expectation of good food.

Meal is eaten, every crumb. Fantastic. It’s a good scene here on Calle Chile. People look interesting, fashionable. This city is called the Paris of South America, and sitting here I can see why. It would be nice to know someone, to get beneath the surface impressions. My friend Dani finally got back to me yesterday, when I wrote her in Spanish after many messages in English. She wrote back but didn’t respond to the next message, where I tried to actually make plans. So here I am, drifting alone through a weekend in Buenos Aires. I am reminded of how much harder it is to make friends in big cities. This South American Paris deserves at least a week, but I don’t have a week to give, and I feel like even if I did, I’d just be going through the motions, killing time.

✦✦

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Came in to the Terminal Retiro bus station yesterday, a little after eight in the morning after an overnight bus. Long ago, back in México, I started a list entitled Things I’m Too Old For. The very first item was “overnight buses”. In more normal circumstances, when traveling is temporary and you have an actual bed somewhere that you can eventually recover in, an overnight bus or plane or train might be acceptable. People do it all the time. But when a transient state becomes the norm, the overnight bus is a massive disruption and hard to recover from, at least when you’re forty one years old.

I’d paid for a cama seat to try and make it as painless as possible, but still woke up fifty times during the night. The seat was indeed comfortable, but it was no “cama”. I could stretch out maybe ninety percent of the way, but this is nothing like being able to actually stretch out. Just about every bump in the road seemed to wake me up. Nevertheless, I did sleep some, and felt surprisingly decent upon arrival, but decided not to push my luck and brave the Metro. Not during the morning commute, with all my bags. So I took a taxi down to San Telmo, watching the city’s urban barrios stretch on and on out of my window. This is a very big city.

At my hostel, a newfangled fancy-basic place, they graciously allowed me to come in and hang out, even though I wasn’t slated to check in for six hours. Stashed my bags in a storage room, made a pot of tea, exchanged some traveler pleasantries with the people making their breakfasts. It all starts to blend together to the point where you don’t even remember what they said a few minutes later. There were lots of travelers hanging around, no scene to speak of. Just individuals and little groups vaguely sharing space together, most on devices of some kind. The phone people, the laptop people, the headphones people. For the first time in a while, there was a little bit of English being spoken at this hostel, and even a couple Americans.

I went out to find a market to get some food to make a desayunos, and found that the little bodega around the corner had good things. I came back with a baguette, eggs, ham and blue cheese. But when I went to start cooking, I saw a note on the stove that the gas had been turned off for some hours due to construction. The hostel had only been open for a few weeks and was still very much a work in progress.

This seemingly minor setback was a crushing emotional blow to a person who hadn’t really slept and was very much in need of a good breakfast. Resignedly, I ate a joyless cold ham and blue cheese sandwich. I tried to do some writing but got lost on the web, tried reading my book, and ended up falling asleep/passing out in the TV room. Was awoken from my unplanned nap when some guy started watching blaringly loud music videos right next to me. He didn’t even ask, and perhaps he didn’t need to, but it was certainly jarring. I took this as my cue to get moving.

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Wandered out into the afternoon, exploring San Telmo, old stone-brick streets, grand trees, charming buildings in variously curated states of decay. Came upon the old mercado, all specialty stands of antiques and curios, hipster heaven, and something of a food court in an iron and glass atrium. After much perusing of menus, sights and smells, I sat down at a little restaurant stand devoted to Choripan, which in fact was called La Choripanería and which I later found out is considered one of the best places for it in the city. If it isn’t self-explanatory, choripan is a chorizo sausage on a roll. But choripan is not a hot dog, or anything like it; it’s a more serious and significant item. There were pork and lamb and beef chorizos and they came alone or with accompaniments.

I ordered the variety that came with scrambled eggs, sharp cheddar cheese, and an artichoke chimichurri. I think this was a nod to America, and a sign that the foodie movement has arrived in Buenos Aires. The place was a little bit too cute, too casual/fancy/well-put together, but all that became irrelevant when my plate of food arrived, the breakfast I never had. Redemption in sandwich form.

A little further on into San Telmo I found the Plaza Dorrego, where respectable late lunch diners at the café tables, many with glasses of wine, were being entertained by an elegant couple all dressed in black, dancing tangos. This wasn’t real, it was a contrived version of Buenos Aires being sold directly on the street, but the most striking thing was how normal it was. The dancing was exquisite, and no one seemed particularly interested, though after each song most of them would still clap. I sat on a bench nearby to watch for awhile, and between songs the female tango dancer smiled at me, a miniature consolation for a lonely traveler.

When I got back to the hostel my bed was finally ready, in a nine-bed dorm room with only one other resident. This was good. I climbed in to my second-level assigned bed, pulled the curtain closed, and went into a deep deep sleep. Woke three hours later to find that five of the eight other beds were now taken, though I was the only one in the room; I’d slept through all of their arrivals and unpackings. Decided to make a cup of tea and then go out exploring, but the tea wasn’t powerful enough to overcome my grogginess, and I just couldn’t summon the motivation to brave the city street. This is what always happens to me after a night bus — a lost day. I laid in my bed and read a bit of my book about Patagonia, hung out on the balconies looking wistfully down at people with friends and somewhere to go.

In pursuit of at least making something productive out of my day, I started researching the ferry across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay. My hope was that I had taken the last bus of my journey, but reality seemed to have little interest in my preferences. There was indeed a direct barca, three hours to Montevideo, but it was thirty five hundred pesos, the equivalent of more than eighty dollars — a very significant portion of my net worth. There was another ferry going directly across the rio, which is here really much more of a bay than a river, to the city of Colonia, followed by a three hour bus to Montevideo. This cost a mere fifty dollars. The third option was to take a bus that went north all the way around the mouth of the river, but that was eight hours on a bus and sixty five dollars. Ouch.

Looked further and found another ferry operator with an online promotion of forty dollars for the ferry-bus combo, and figured this was the best I was going to do. The only problem was that the “5” and “6” keys on my travel laptop don’t work. It’s been this way for awhile, and I usually work around this when necessary by copy-and-paste, but the credit card screen did not allow this. Another payment option was available, something called Pago Fácil, a network where you can go into a store and pay bills or buy tickets. Looking it up on a map, I saw that there were several options within a few blocks of me. I completed the transaction, and the site gave me a code to present at the point of payment.

On my way out I saw a sign at reception that they were having their weekly asado on the terreza that very night, two hundred fifty pesos for food, four hundred with beers, and I signed up for the former. My plan hit the next round of hurdles when all three of the nearby Pago Fácil locations were closed for the night and didn’t open again until Monday. Went back to my computer to try again, and saw that all PF offices are closed on weekends, but that various convenience stores also accepted payment. One, the place where I had bought my breakfast foods, was right around the corner.

After waiting in line behind a lot of people buying alcohol, the guy at the register told me that this was a Pago Fácil Expreso location, where they only accept payment by bar code, which I did not have, even in the confirmation email on my phone. No es muy fácil, I said, but my humor was lost on the guy and he just shrugged. Back at the hostel I talked about these difficulties with the folks at the reception, and they suggested I just go to the ferry terminal in the morning and pay in person.

According to the posted hours, the asado was now in progress, so I made a pot of yerba mate — I’m still drinking it like a gringo and have come to the realization that here in the land of mate I absolutely must have a calabasa and bombilla — and took the jumpy elevator up to the sixth floor terraza to find a bunch of guys hanging out. A chorizo party. There were the two Chileno party dudes from Santiago drinking Pisco and Sprite, Guy from London and Scotty from Fort Worth drinking beer, Raoul from São Paolo and a French group drinking wine, and a contingent of Argentinos drinking Fernet and Coke and keeping to themselves. They looked like they were in their early thirties and turned out to be the owners of the hostel.

On the parrilla built into the wall was a very impressive spread slow cooking over coals. Big thick slabs of beef, various vegetables and sausages. There was exactly one woman, one of the French, out of about fifteen persons. Got to talking with the guys who were not in a group, and the first thing is always to figure out what everyone is doing, where they are coming from and going to.

The Chilean guys were here for a long weekend, hoping to get lucky with hot Argentine women. Guy was traveling South America for three months. In his first month, he had made it down the coast from Rio to here. Raoul was here on business, and Scotty to attend a conference on universal basic income, something he’d heard about on a Joe Rogan podcast. Turned out the Chileans hadn’t paid to be part of the asado, and when it got to be serving time, they were politely kicked out.

The steaks were just excellent, a round of applause for the asaderos, as is customary. Not quite as good as in Cafayate, but that was my very first asado, and they weren’t charging anyone to participate, so that was a different beast, so to speak. There were various chorizos, grilled sweet potatoes, onions, red pepper, zucchini and carrot. Everything but the last was delicious. Maybe there are some things that aren’t meant to be grilled. Mostly talked with Guy and Scotty, first about filmmaking, as Guy wants to be a screenwriter, which I know a little bit about. My advice was to write. Perhaps it is overly simplistic, but in the end if you’re not writing, you’re not gonna be much of a writer.

After a while the conversation turned to politics. The big Brexit deadline was about a week away and the UK was in chaos; the Mueller report had just been delivered to the US Justice Department, but hadn’t been released. Raoul chimed in with the human rights abuses of Bolsonaro, the Brazilian president. Police rounding up protesters and opposition leaders, closing down media organizations critical of the government. None of us could figure out how or why things had gone so wrong in our countries, nor could we really see viable solutions going forward. When enough of the population is in favor of detrimental xenophobic policies and authoritarian leaders, and they become cultishly committed to them, simply getting rid of the leaders won’t be enough.

Scotty, the American, was all about going after the big banks and the world financial system, who he sees as the real enemy. Guy, the Brit, was just moving to Canada. Likewise, I am moving to Uruguay. As a positive, Raoul brought up the Green New Deal that has recently been released by progressives in my country. I sighed and said that legislation like that won’t pass for at least ten years, if ever. Guy asked if I thought there would be an impeachment; I said maybe but there was zero chance of getting the sixty seven votes to convict. We were all pessimistic about the future — Brexit was going to be a disaster; Trump was going to get re-elected. On some level US politics is very simple: Incumbents with an economy not in recession get re-elected. It was all very depressing.

When all the food was eaten, three rounds of asado, an absolute feast, we went downstairs to the main balcony to hang out with the other hostel folk. The sad beautiful blonde Swiss girl who didn’t see the point in traveling anymore. “I am in the most beautiful places, and I don’t feel anything,” she said; the Japanese guys speaking really broken English, the cute nerdy American-Chilean couple who’d met on New Year’s Eve in Mendoza, the Chilean guys who were drunk by now and talking about fucking. They were supposedly going to a club and trying to convince everyone else to come along. They made me a strong Pisco cocktail verging on toxic which I sipped very slowly for awhile and then called it a night.

All I really wanted was a good night’s sleep. It was not to be. Nine-bed dorms are not designed for good sleep. Every bed was taken by now, and when I laid down, only one other person was in. It was a parade of drunken travelers coming in, slamming the door, unzipping bags, talking, clambering up the metal ladders. Then, right on schedule, people were leaving first thing in the morning. Some of them were considerate, most weren’t. My breaking point came at seven am, with some young punk Japanese kid having an extended cellphone conversation from his bed.

Several times I said “PLEASE”, but he didn’t get the message until I climbed up to his third-level bunk, flung open the curtain, and said “Out. Now. We are sleeping!” He seemed offended and stomped down the ladder and out the door, which he proceeded to leave open and continue his conversation from right out in the hall, much louder than before. Someone else got up and slammed the door. After a while I fell back asleep, still angry.

✦✦

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Today was even more sleep deprived than yesterday, stumbling through in a worn and emotional haze. I feel so over traveling, want to be in Uruguay already, to find my own room to live in, be done with hostels. But I know this more settled existence might be weeks away, if it comes at all. I have to find a job and a room in an expensive city. After a somewhat redemptive ham and bleu cheese omelette, the breakfast I’d meant to make the day before, I walked over to the Puerto Madero district and found the Colonia Express ferry terminal.

At the counter I managed to explain my situation to the lady. I had a reservation but needed to pay for it, and couldn’t do so at a Pago Facil Express. She was able, after some digging, to locate my reserved ticket, but then proceeded to accidentally delete it. She said she was very sorry, that she could sell me another seat, but for $12 more. The online promotion wasn’t available in person. I was so frustrated: that I’d walked forty minutes just to have to pay an extra twenty five percent for my ticket. ¿No hay nada que puedes hacer para mi? I asked, with ninety percent of my brain despondent and ten percent wondering if I should have used the subjunctive for my question, or por instead of para.

All she could do was say she was sorry, less and less convincingly. I walked out of there without buying a ticket and stood outside in the shade to assess my situation. I knew that I was not in a good head space, and was taking this stuff way too emotionally. But then before I could come to any rational conclusions, my not-good head space came up with a plan. I’d passed by the Casino Buenos Aires on my way in, and I would go play some blackjack, win enough to pay for the difference of the direct boat to Montevideo. I envisioned walking back into the terminal triumphant. The day would turn around and I wouldn’t have to take any more buses after all.

It was not a good plan. I knew it wasn’t. Gambling in a bad mood, when you are set on winning and can’t afford to lose, is never advisable. I knew I was frustrated and feeling empty and this scheme was a way to fill up that hole. But the hole and the bad mood were talking much louder than any voice of reason. At the casino, I sat down with a bunch of Argentino men, young and old, drinking and smoking lots of cigarettes at noon. One older guy couldn’t really see, and the other players had to tell him what the dealer’s cards were, and he was also a little bit deaf, which they responded to by yelling.

Things started well. I went up early, as it so often goes. After a few hands I had doubled my twenty dollar buy-in, and had an additional five hundred pesos, about twelve dollars, on the table. I needed to win one more hand to reach my goal of being up forty dollars, the difference between the boat + bus ticket and the direct boat. The dealer gave me a queen and a jack, twenty, and his card showing was a four. His next was a three, and things were looking really good for me. Turn over a face card and I’d win. But the next card was a four, and then he turned over a king. Veintiuno, he said, and looked sad as he took everyone’s chips away. From there it was all downhill. I had a clear feeling I should walk out right then, but I didn’t. Slowly went down to my original buy-in, which by my own rules is when I’m supposed to leave, but I didn’t.

Instead I went to play craps, which was stupid. You need a lot of money to play craps. The dice didn’t even make their way around the table to me before I was down to one hundred pesos, below the minimum bet, so I tried my nonexistent luck at roulette. Bet on red when it was black and black when it came up red, and that was that.

The best thing I could tell myself as I walked out and across the gigantic parking lot in the bright sun, as waves of people made their pilgrimage towards the sacred house of moneywinning, was that the money I had lost was almost exactly what I had won in Salta, so I was even for Argentina.

Walked by some soccer fields, the miniature kind with artificial turf and chain link fence, and stood there to watch for awhile. These guys were really, really good. I’d seen so many pick-up fútbol games like this in the past year and a half, and this was by far the highest quality I had encountered. Crisp passes, accurate shots on goal, diving keepers, actual strategy. This seemed like a much better, more wholesome way to spend an afternoon than the way I had, in that dirty seedy casino.

Spent the afternoon reading in bed and feeling down, and in the evening borrowed a laptop — with all the keys working — from the American guy who was passing the day in bed with his Chilean girlfriend. It took me five minutes to buy my ticket to Uruguay for the day after tomorrow, the boat + bus option, at the promotional online price which had gone up three dollars. I finally left the hostel again about five, walked all the way up Calle Perú to the Plaza de Mayo, the center of the country.

The first thing I came to was the cold gray neo-classical cathedral, which reminded me of a federal building in Washington D.C. The restos of General San Martín, the are buried here, and an eternal flame for liberty burns outside. If these things ever had any meaning for me, they have lost it. I’m sure this flame was maintained during the dictatorship that was run out of this very square, and I’m sure it was venerated by the Generals. Although I suppose to be fair it was burning throughout — maybe San Martín was a hero to the resistance, too — and still burning when the country regained some semblance of democracy and rights.There was a colossally big Argentinian flag, light blue and white with a sun in the middle, and a rust-pink Presidential palace, la Casa Rosada, whose color rumor has it originally came from paint mixed with cow’s blood, where Eva Peron addressed the people from the balcony.

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Whatever could be said of this place, it was imposing, impressive. Walked up through the very urban microcentro district and then over to the Plaza Lavalle to watch the last of the day turn to twilight. Friends were drinking mate on the grass, kids playing soccer. This was like a much more European and relaxed New York. It was a pretty picture, this Buenos Aires, but I wasn’t in the picture at all. No photographer would have included me in the frame.

✦✦

The Great Southern Migration

in which the author journeys over land from Virginia to Uruguay

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