If there is any other city that I “felt” closest to being in the Calcutta that I grew up – it would be Buenos Aires. A city that is ornate with past glory and grandeur but is a bit lost in today’s world. A city that symbolized modernity in its outlook, character and dereliction long before the rest of the world thought we were living in the modern age. I usually try reading about the place before I visit, usually some fiction. But this sudden trip did not give me much of a chance. I tried reading Borges once but it was a bit to digest his convoluted plots and storyline. So perhaps this time around, I will understand the literature better after visiting the place.
Buenos Aires is a walking city. The streets are full of action. It is filled with beautiful women and even men know how to dress well. Their is a certain classiness among people despite mass poverty and 40% inflation; where cash is still king, as credits cards are not accepted everywhere and ATMs are often drained out. There is a vibrant cafe culture, book stores in almost every block (and you can find a Sartre, Camus, Marx, Kant in a newspaper kiosk) and although I don’t understand Spanish, the limited exchanges I had with strangers were warm, welcoming, and refreshing. While walking in one of the side streets – I curiously asked a group of men what they were drinking. It was Mate. They poured me and said, “try it.” It was awkward to drink from the same cup (Mate), but they explained thats how it is. You pour water into the leaves and then have to drink the entire pour, and then you pass it on to someone, who then gets a fresh pour. It is communal and social. For a moment I got a Zen-like shiver of human connectedness with a group of policemen (yes that group were plain dress off-duty policemen, which I only later found out). But you never know who you end up with, is what brings me out wandering in streets and by-lanes. Like my visits to Calcutta that ground me, people in Buenos Aires come across as enlightened, worldly and intellectual without a long tail of degrees or a wallet full of money. These values go beyond monetary pretension and indeed, there were times and places that exemplify that.
There is a joke about Argentines – more specifically, the Portenos, literally meaning the “Port People”, but a term used for the people of Buenos Aires by others. That they are originally Italians, who speak Spanish, but dress like the English and wish they were French. I think there might be some truth to that. I was told that every visitor needs to do three things – eat steak, dance Tango, and buy leather. I was able to do all three – thanks to some good suggestions offered by my local contact – Chim. Chim who is a Canadian and an alum of Drama Centre London, which has produced people like Colin Firth and many contemporary stalwarts. He left doing Shakespeare and now is a artisan shoemaker in Buenos Aires. He personally took me to the Recoleta cemetery, which I went with some reluctance. This place has a stature similar to the cemeteries in Paris. It was a fascinating experience as he explained the mix of faiths, especially the Masons, Judaism and Christianity as well as paganism. We had a long discussion on Eva Peron, the rise of today’s populism and even the current Pope. I left with more questions than answers.
It was an eyeopener to visit Pope Francis’ original church. Speaking to some of those who know him well, interestingly enough, I got an explanation of his openness, that I had heard but never knew why. “The credit goes to the previous arch Bishop, who mentored him as a Christ purist,” they said. The basic doctrine of love thy neighbor, tolerance and forgiveness. They showed me a set of pictures and newspapers cuttings of the Jewish center bombings in the 90s and the role the church played in solidarity with the Jews that would otherwise be unthinkable for the Catholics. There is also a painting of Madonna – where Mary is depicted as an ordinary “woman”, which is also unusual – as historic Catholic paintings mostly depicted women either as virgins or prostitutes. But hardly as ordinary women with needs, desires, and aspirations, interacting with the world.
I met Jerry and Lucia, a very nice couple; Jerry is Irish and Lucia is local, who are Tango teachers in the San Telmo area. They took me to a Milonga. It was a trip down the memory lane – with a room full of locals dancing and having a good time. The demographic was similar to going to a rock concert these days, heavily skewed to 55 and above; but a stolid reminder of a time when men behaved like gentlemen. In fact, there was this ~80 year old Toto, a legendary Tango dancer of the 70s, who still dances in an almost defunct style, which was designed to protect the woman from getting hurt from the accidental kicks from others in the dance floor. Communication between the man and the woman happens through the eyes. You glance at the woman and if she gives you a friendly glance back; you go and have a dance with her; if not, you “Tango on”. As they say, there are no mistakes in Tango and poetry. You just flow.
Jerry suggested that I should go to a particular Parilla (Argentine steakhouse), so I went. It was a no-frills place, except that in the lore you hear the long list of celebrities that they have served – from the Obamas to the Hollywood stars. Waiters are elderly and old-school and they act as advisers as much as servers. Customer is not the king here. There was an young American couple who were given a paternal reprimand for ordering too much. The waiter cut their order down by saying, “you can’t eat that much…just because you can (order) does not mean you should”
Cities like Buenos Aires make me feel alive. Make me a part of something larger. At will I can become a participant or just a bystander, like my last evening, after buying a pair of shoes – I spent in the Davidoff lounge – sipping shots of espresso and watching people through the window. I felt like Baudelaire’s “Flaneur“. And just as I came to appreciate Baudelaire through Buddhadeb Bosu, I felt closeness to Buenos Aires through my primal attachment of Calcutta.