Argentina, May 2022
In May 2022, My spouse and I travelled to Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires and Cordoba. After two years of working from home, being on lockdown, or whatever travel restrictions, travelling only within Canada, travelling to Buenos Aires is inspiring. This trip won’t be the last time we were going there.
Argentina is considered a developing country. It has two different rates for exchanging US dollars, one is the official government rate, and another is the blue dollar rate, which you can get by changing money in non-government regulated places. It seems illegal at first, but then when the hotel representatives recommend specific spots, and they are shouting on the streets “Cambio dollars,” — it is not illegal. Since there are two exchange rates, with the better one being the street one, we functioned daily in hard cash — so 20th century. I realized this country must have been through the most challenging time with covid since when people use cash, it doesn’t matter how many times they wash their hands — the paper bills are the best way to transfer diseases.
A developing country, but in most aspects I consider, Buenos Aires is more developed than most North American cities. It has diversified architecture and multiple unique attractions not intended to be attractions. No cemetery was constructed to be a tourist attraction, even with beautiful mausoleums. I think it became an attraction because it maintained its purpose for centuries: A burial place for notable people.
We walked to Villa Crespo, a long and enjoyable walk that taught us how people live. The people in the city assume the best about you. We sat in a coffee place for about an hour, thanked them for the service and left. After about 300m of walking, we realized we didn’t pay! We walked back, and the waiters smiled at us as if it was obvious we would come back.
When we sat for late lunch/early dinner, the menu clearly said a wine carafe of 500ml, and the waitress tried to repeatedly ask us whether we wanted one or two since one is not enough for one person. Ok, we took two, as if the price makes a difference. When she returned with one litre of wine, she used her hands to explain to us: “See, this is too little for two persons” — Sure… When we paid the bill, I left a decent tip (of 12%), as we were sitting there for two hours. She brought the change back. I tried to explain: “It is ok”, but she insisted, so I just left it there on the table. At some point, I think she got it.
On the way back to the hotel, after we had drunk enough wine for two persons, I needed to use the washroom urgently. After about 30mins, I gave up and said I might as well buy something so I could use the restroom. I entered a coffee place, the owners looked at me, and I guess they noticed — they simply pointed me to the toilet. When I came back, I said gracias multiple times. They smiled, I felt like a person again and continued back to the hotel.
Tango for everyone
We met a local and a Brazilian digital nomad, Marcio, who came here for a week. I realized digital nomads from South America are a bit different. Although he had been once to the Czech Republic, he mostly goes to countries in South America, and each country is big enough to rebase within it. A local girl, porteño, was trying to promote all kinds of initiatives and demonstrate how vivid the city is — Epic failure on realizing we are here to relax, not to squeeze every little juice possible.
The porteño kept asking why Cordoba, as it is not the usual place tourists visit. I realized Argentinians consider Cordoba a local secret. Marcio and I have known Cordoba since we can remember anything, and explain it is a must-see in Argentina.
Socializing can be difficult with people with the wrong energy. However, when having such a sharp contrast of good connection vs. lousy connection at the same table — the people with a good rapport can recognize its value quickly. Marcio wrote me later that he enjoyed meeting us and we should meet again. I was googling where we should go with the idea of tango/dinner and figured I might as well ask him. We agreed to meet for a drink before and go to Muy lunes Tango, a tango place that seems to be for locals — the prices were in pesos, dinner was not included, and they did not have an English website!
We went there together, we missed the class but enjoyed watching people dancing. Old and young, wearing suits or jeans, fat and slim, gay and straight — tango seems to be an activity for everyone. People come there to find a relationship, meet friends, dance, whether as a hobby or professionally, or just to watch. It is pretty incredible.
Around midnight, on a Monday!, there was a show by professional tango dancers — that was intense, beautiful, and emphasized how ingrained tango is in the local culture. I assumed that was the highlight of the evening. Considering the level of the professional dancers, I did not know what could top it and who would go to the dance floor now that it was a new day. But after the show, the dance floor was even more packed than before — People felt inspired and had to dance now. It was educational.
Museo de bellas artes, Buenos Aires
We woke up tired and decided it would be a slow day. Museums are generally closed on Tuesday here, so we went to the only open one, assuming it is a small museum. The region around the museum is luxurious by all standards. We saw the building we were heading to, and it looked astonishing. When trying to find the entrance to the museum, we found a few shops — weird. Eventually, we walked through the columns, where a guard asked us what we were doing here. We explained we wanted to go to the museum — and she explained, in Spanish, that this is a faculty, not the museum; the museum is the building in front. Looking where we are, a large hall with two gigantic statues on the sides and modern paintings — for a second, I thought she was trying to fool us. The building where we were was the law faculty indeed. Beautiful building with an entrance similar to the supreme court in the US, but with more stairs, more columns, and generally more impressive.
Yet another example of the everlasting real-estate investment guideline: Buy real estate next to an educational institute. The better the institute, the better your returns will be. Even in a country with a failing economy.
The museum is a pink building, significantly less impressive from the outside. Why would anyone choose to go there when seeing the incredible faculty building? Anyway, We entered the museum and asked for two tickets; I had already taken some money out when the lady in the administration window told me: “Dos? Gratis” and pointed me to enter the museum. Now that’s the symbol of a failing economy: a cultural monument of this size has more employees than visitors. The visitors are international tourists, and Argentinians’ tax money pays the museum employees — Not exactly motivating to pay taxes as a citizen.
The museum contains many unique artworks from the 17th to the 20th centuries, some masterpieces that I previously knew, while others are by artists I never knew existed. My favourite was Rothko.
It is midnight — so can I have coffee before I go home?
We arrived in Cordoba, where we stayed in a hotel in the old city. The city reminds me of my time in Aix-en-Provence — a students’ city filled with streets not meant for cars and some archeological discoveries at every corner.
We went to a small coffee place, where they baked their bread and had bruschettas and probably the best cappuccino so far. After that, we went to a grill place called Patio de la Cañada — I guess due to similarities of Canada/Cañada. We came at 20h, early by Cordoba standards — the place was mostly empty, and we considered going to a different restaurant. However, we were tired and in a “fuck it” mood; how bad can the food be?
We did not understand anything from the menu but somehow communicated, not without difficulties: “A good bottle of Malbec, a salad for a starter, and some meat, please”. During the conversation, I asked whether the ribs were of lamb or cow by saying: “meh or moo?”, the waiter said in Argentina, they do “moo”, and this is a small “moo”, which is softer and tastier. The food was incredible! We spent three hours seeing the place get packed to the point people were waiting outside, people eating meat at 23h — that’s a new thing. We asked for dessert and coffee, something unheard of in Toronto at that time of the day. The price for the delightful meal, including tip, was about 40CAD — Incredible?
While walking back to the hotel at midnight on a Thursday, we saw a fully dynamic city. Coffee places were open; they were not as packed as during the day but not empty. So when do these people sleep?
Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait
We took the free walking tour in old Cordoba. It should have been in English, but apparently, it is based on the audience’s language, which was 90% Spanish speakers. From time to time, the guide changed to English for our benefit. For the most part, the audience was a group of exchange students from Spain. They studied International Relations in Madrid, came to study in Buenos Aires for one semester and decided to spend a weekend in Cordoba.
We felt old in this environment, but still, it felt nice to see how students are these days. Considering the city reminds me of the month I spent studying politics in Aix, it was, in a strange way, a blast from the past. The city has some incredible religious monuments that also preserve the natives’ culture since well… they are the ones who raised these monuments.
The group of students discussed personal preferences. They asked about the “best matte in cordoba” and generally had touristic questions. Even when we went near the memory museum, a museum dedicated to remembering that the military government tortured people in the 70s, no questions were raised by International Relations/Law/Politics students — I guess that kind of shows what the future holds. I asked the guide whether the rebellious group achieved their goal when Argentina became a democracy in ’83. The guide avoided my question, but he did say that they were terrorists who blew up buildings and killed people. So I guess, at least in his personal view, that the museum is not for the tortured people, but for what the government can do — This was refreshing. I thought about Israel and Palestine — While I do want Palestinians to have their state (so they will blame it for everything instead of Israel), I wouldn’t want Palestinians who blew up buses in Israel to be remembered as heroes. Sadly, that probably won’t happen in my lifetime.
The guide said the building was used for torturing people for centuries. They intentionally positioned the building next to a church so no one would suspect. The guide asked my spouse and me: “Would you imagine there is a place where people are tortured next to a church?”. We could not realize whether he was sarcastic or genuine, and I did not exactly know how to get out of the situation in a PC way — I just said: “Well, I guess history knows.”
While walking, we talked a bit with the students, and we realized one of them was an Israeli — yes, even in Cordoba, a small city that most of the world probably never heard of, an Israeli found his way to the tour I booked a day earlier. There was also a student with Ukrainian roots, so suddenly, the group had become more interesting at some point. We discussed cultural differences, and I got a chance to remember I am pretty good at this type of conversation: A student asked me which is better, Madrid or Barcelona? I told her it is pretty obvious. She laughed, wondering what I meant, understanding that if she asked for clarification, it meant it was not obvious to her, which would be awkward. If only everything were as easy as discussing politics with young people.
“Why don’t you give me your number?” ver 2022
While we were at Cordoba, we went out to a cocktail bar at 22h, again realizing we were the first to show up — who goes out so early? They changed our waiter to a waitress that spoke English, the best English we have heard. We asked where she got her English from, and she explained she travelled when she was an exchange student in France and a tour guide.
That was refreshing, a local we can communicate with, though young, she behaved maturely. Delfina suggested we exchange details and ask her what to do in the city. I said sure, but I didn’t know what to do — It felt awkward to write down her phone number cause I was not going to call. I asked, “so what do you use?” I guess that’s how old I am. She suggested Instagram, and all three of us followed each other.
When she came to the table again, She told us she studied in Saintes, close to Bordeaux and Angoulême. It brought memories of our trips. I told her I studied in Aix, and she asked me what year — since perhaps we were studying in France at the same time. We laughed, realizing there was absolutely no way that had happened. She was a baby when I was studying there.
Marriage of art — An Italian and a soviet jew in Argentina
We went to Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), which has some excellent works by Latin American artists — a work that really touched me is a statue by Maria Martins, O Impossivel.
There was a temporary exhibition of Yente and Del Prete. Yente is from a Ukrainian Jewish family who escaped due to anti-semitism in the 19th century. She studied philosophy and then found Juan Del Prete, an Italian who immigrated at the end of the 19th century to Buenos Aires. The exhibition demonstrated how prolific they were and how they influenced each other. It was easy to tell that she grew up with the mindset of ‘education before food.’ She was highly educated. While you can tell he was more fluid and ‘dolce far niente.’.
Their works, or perhaps the way the exhibition was organized, really showed how two people who are passionate about the same things could push each other to explore and grow. My favourite piece is Dos Figuras by Yente — she painted it in 1935 when they were still young. I find that it expresses her transformation.
Guided tour in avenida de mayo
We took a free tour of Avenida de Mayo, the avenue containing all governing institutions of Argentina. The congress on one side, the house of the president on the other, surrounded by the military headquarters from behind, the central bank on one side, the ministry of economics on the other side, and a square with daily protests in the front.
The tour guide was a 20 years old history student with the most mature approach to life I have ever seen for a student. The Churchill quote (or should I say falsely attributed to him): “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.”, in my opinion, played a significant role in the education of Argentinians. They had six military coups in the last 100 years, and 1989 was the first time in 60 years an elected president handed the power to an elected successor.
The guide explained the events that took place in the month of May, the Mothers of May movement and the grandmothers of May movement. She said how the military coups were “welcome” by the population, a 20 years old explaining: “it is better if the military fix things for a few years, and then gives back the power to the people.” — While there is some romance in believing that the people in power will simply give it up after their work is done, still, accepting that life is about balance and willing to accept less freedom for the future good is not something I ever saw in any student.
I wanted to discuss with her more, but we felt it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask her to join us. We compared it to all the people telling me about their “startup idea” that I should start implementing the minute we finish our discussion.
This trip is not our last time in Argentina. The country has a rich history and culture which we want to explore. The food is excellent, the people are friendly, the air is “buenos,” and everything is affordable.