Ah, Buenos Aires – I just can’t get my head around you! I’ve been trying to write this post for days but BA is such a complex, colorful, musical, noisy, frenetic, delicious, exhausting city that I just don’t know how to capture it. So here’s a cop-out, a few of the stories that have had the biggest impression on us (so far):
The Two Faces of Evita. There’s a lot more to Eva Perón than the Andrew Lloyd Webber-ized (and highly biased) version. As the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952, when she sadly died of cancer at 33, she had a tremendous impact on the lives of working-class Argentinos. Her husband, Juan Perón, was president but she had the bully pulpit. Through her influence, Argentine women got the right to vote and hold office, and the foundation was laid for programs such as free education and healthcare for all. There’s no doubt Evita left her fellow Argentines better off than she found them, and rank-and-file citizens adore her to this day.
Evita famously was despised by the oligarchy and adored by the poor and the working class. In downtown BA, the Ministry of Heath building has two imposing new ironwork sculptures that depict this. On the side of the building facing south, towards the blue-collar neighborhoods, she smiles adoringly – and on the north side, facing the ultra-rich neighborhoods of La Recoleta and Retira, she lectures away with her famous microphone.
A Splash of Color. La Boca, one of BA’s oldest working-class neighborhoods and the place where tango was born, deserves a blog post all its own. But the first thing visitors notice is the vivid colors of the buildings, a stark contrast to the rest of the city’s relatively monotone architecture. The story goes that the immigrant dock workers back in the 1800s were too poor to paint their houses a single color, so they used whatever bits of leftover paint they could find – resulting in a brilliant patchwork.
The Voice of Tango. Tango is the beating heart of BA, and in the 1920s and 1930s there was no more prominent figure on the tango scene than Carlos Gardel. He was best known as a swoon-worthy tango singer, and – just like Evita – tragically died before his time, in a plane crash at age 44. For our first week in BA, John and I stayed in the neighborhood where Carlos grew up, and his presence is everywhere. Even the subway stop near our apartment bears his name. We loved seeing Carlos’ grinning mug around every corner and hearing his smooth-as-silk voice in every tango club.
The Countess and the Irishwoman. Around the turn of the 20th century, an obscenely wealthy woman named Mercedes gave so much money to the Catholic Church that the pope made her a papal something-or-other. She was so grateful that she built a church with her own money, across the Plaza San Martin from her gaudy and decadent pile of a mansion. Then her son fell in love with the wrong woman, a gal named Corina Kavanagh who was not only Irish but nowhere approaching Mercedes’ social class. Naturally, Mercedes forbade the marriage. But Corina got her revenge 20 years later, when she built Latin America’s first Art Deco skyscraper RIGHT NEXT to Mercedes’ church – completely blocking it from view unless you happen to be standing in a small alleyway right in front of it. Talk about serving it cold . . .
The Time Coca Cola Bowed to Football. There’s no way to overstate how important football (don’t you dare call it soccer) is to Argentines. Does the name Lionel Messi ring a bell? In BA the biggest rivalry is between the Club Atletico Rio Plata and the Club Atletico Boca Juniors. Our tour guide, Gaspar, is such a huge Boca Juniors fan that he got all misty-eyed when he showed us the CABJ home turf, La Estadia Bombonera. He sighed, “The Juniors are my religion and the Bombonera is my church. It’s the most beautiful sight in the world!” But I digress.
Apparently the rivalry is so intense that when these two teams play each other the fans get really violent and ugly – to the point that no one is allowed to wear the CARP colors of red and black at a home CABJ match in the Bombonera. So what happened when Coca Cola, that famously red brand, signed up to be a CABJ season sponsor? For the only time in the company’s history, Coke was persuaded to change its logo – and the signage encircling the Bombonera was in black and white. True story.
It’s a Dog’s Life in BA. This isn’t really a story, but how can I write a post about BA without mentioning the pups? In any neighborhood you’ll see owners out for a spin with their fur babies as well as professional dog walkers with 10-15 little yappers. One curious detail is that many of them walk off-leash right alongside their owners, even in the busiest parts of the city. Even the dog walkers have one or two charges trotting along untethered. It makes me cringe – if our own kids Rosie and Tango were here, they’d be dashing out into traffic in no time. But somehow these dogs have been conditioned to city life and they know to stick close to their owners.