Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scratching the surface

A disheveled, elderly woman cuts in front of me as I wait in the lengthy reception queue at the clinic of Hospital Alemán. I look around to see if perhaps I missed something and if, in fact, I may have cut in front of her somehow. She turns to me, embarrassed and wide-eyed as she realizes it was, indeed, her mistake.

She rambles something to me in Castellano, which I understood to be an apology and an offer for me to return to my rightful place in line. I shake my head and gesture that she can remain ahead of me and meekly explain, “Hablo un poquito español.  Her eyes grow even wider.

For the next few minutes, as we waited in line, we had a tiny dialog in Castellano. She wondered how I was going to tell the doctor of my ailment if I didn't speak Spanish fluently. She worried for my health. I told her I hoped the doctor might speak a little English and that my issue was minor, not an emergency. I would be fine, I assured her. She seemed unconvinced.

The surface of Buenos Aires is pretty grimy and sad. Homeless families commingle with the monstrous piles of trash on the streets. The colectivos spit chunky black exhaust in your face, leaving your lungs congested and coating the buildings with greasy soot. Inflation is so ridiculous that even I have noticed the price increases already. 

Yes, of course, the newness has worn off; I've been here over a month. It's easy to see the shortcomings of a country that has seen very difficult times. But that's not why I am here.

Tango? Yes, I can tango anytime of day, and that’s nice. But, honestly, tango isn’t the only reason for me to want to stay here or even to return. Baires is so much more than tango, even to me now.

Many, many wonderful things about Buenos Aires when you look beyond the grime and grit. Elegant architecture. Delicious empanadas, dulce de leche helado (ice cream) and malbec. Traffic stopping cultural events to stumble upon like a symphony at the base of the Obelisk on a random Saturday, or the ten-hour (no exaggeration) parade of costumed Bolivianos dancing down Avenida de Mayo last Sunday. The Subte can get you across town in under 30 minutes (when there isn’t a labor strike) for about a quarter. But, if you dig just a little deeper than the superficial surface, you will find the real gems of this town. The people.

Ah, yes! ¡La gente de Argentina! ¡Los porteños de Baires! The people of this amazing place are my reason to love this city more everyday. On first  impression,
 porteños seem to be a rather dour citizen—understandable considering all the troubles they have had to bear over the years. (They are used to getting shit on by their government, quite frankly.)

Argentines rarely smile at you on the street, although they will stare pretty intently. They don't greet you enthusiastically when you walk into a store or restaurant; you may get a "Buen día," on occasion, but don't expect much more than that. Even the street vendors are a melancholy crowd compared to their overly aggressive counterparts in, say, Mexico or Jamaica.

However, when you have the chance to converse with an Argentine, even for just a few moments, even in very broken Castellano, you become their friend. They develop a genuine interest and concern for you, as if for a member of their family. Upon introduction, they welcome total strangers with a warm embrace and kiss on the cheek. Even men to men. Even doctor to patient. They are very touchy people. Kind, warm and loving. You just have to scratch the surface a bit.

Thirty minutes after my little conversation with the elderly porteña in the clinic queue, she found me still sitting in the lobby awaiting my consultation. She approached me, kissed me on the cheek, held my hand, looked me in the eyes and assured me all would be well.

"Todo está bien," she repeated several times, pointing at me to make sure I understood that she meant I would be fine.

"Sí, sí, señora, estoy muy bien," I nodded and smiled back to assure her I was definitely O.K. In the back of my mind, I ran through the short conversation we had earlier to see if I may have mistakenly told her in my broken Castellano that I was dying of a dreadful illness. But no, she is just a concerned Argentine. I scratched her surface and, just like her city, what I find is sparklingly brilliant.


  1. Hola, just one thing, the garbage piles are due to a strike by garbage men, nice blog you got. besos.

    un poteño

  2. Thanks, porteño. Always a strike with some union or another here, isn't there? ;)

  3. Yes and isn't that feeling of the "unexpected" what make Baires a city that is absolutely splendid, exciting and unpredictable? Cheers and enjoy your stay there! I surely do each time I visit -- 16 years and counting for me!

  4. Thanks for reading and commenting, Tay! Made me realize that I need to start writing again. I'm back home in the states now and definitely need to update my blog. Looking forward to my next extended stay in Buenos Aires. Hoping to stay for at least a year next time.