“I’M sad that you see Argentina like this,” Pola Oloixarac, my new Argentine friend, said one night in November 2003 as we passed a cluster of figures picking through heaps of garbage bags on the otherwise deserted streets downtown. “It’s because of the crisis, you know.” She was referring to the economic crisis of 2001, the most dramatic societal upheaval in over a decade in a country prone to such upheavals.
“But soon you’ll see,” she added. “Everything will get more and more beautiful.”
I moved to Buenos Aires in April 2001, a few months before the crash, after my Argentine husband, Juan Pablo, received an offer to write a series for Argentine television. I was 32 and had just signed a contract to write my first novel.
Having lived with an Argentine for 10 years but never having seen his native country, I was deeply curious about the place, though ambivalent about leaving behind my newly resuscitated New York life. Juan Pablo and I had only recently moved back to the United States after living together in Paris for eight years, and our plan was to stay in Buenos Aires for six months. I have now been here for seven years.
In the early days, when I was just a visitor, the city was a maelstrom of exciting, often disorienting impressions, but the center of my life was elsewhere. It was only as it became apparent that we were going to be here longer that I began to know Buenos Aires in a different way. It takes a while to settle down in an eternally unsettled place.
When we arrived, Buenos Aires’s cost of living was not that much less than New York’s, because the government had fixed the peso to the dollar in the early 1990s (the exchange rate was one to one). We paid $800 for our first apartment, a small one-bedroom on the ninth floor of a 14-story building, unremarkable except for the view. Nearly all Buenos Aires apartments have a balcony, usually covered with plants, but ours looked out on the Plaza Las Heras, a square several blocks wide that was once a prison but is now a park.
My favorite pastime was standing on the balcony peering down through the tops of the unfamiliar trees: the palo borracho, with its thorns and flamboyant pink blossoms in spring and fall; the prehistoric-looking araucaria, with its stiff, spiky branches like a giant pine cone. The Plaza Las Heras was populated at every hour with lovers holding hands, making out on benches or sprawled on the grass. When it rained, sudden downpours out of the blue, the treetops swirled and thrashed, shedding flowers and fronds, and the street below would flood. (The city’s drainage system needs attention.) I’d watch people wading knee-deep against the current to get from the pharmacy to the bus stop.
On dry days, when I wasn’t writing, I would walk. The Jardín Zoológico, eight blocks north along the Avenida Las Heras, was crawling with hundreds of cats. Farther along, I’d come across graffiti on walls, not the tags I was used to but whimsical lines, written in direct address form: “Flor, I need things to go on happening between us, your astronaut.” I’d turn a corner and see, in the wide, dark doorway of a garage, a man standing in the center, butchering meat.
As I wandered, captivated, dislocated, I tried to match what I was seeing with the stories I’d heard from my husband about his childhood city, finding that sometimes the vision fit and sometimes it did not. In particular, I hadn’t been prepared for the city’s endless ability to surprise.
Even within a single neighborhood the city would often abruptly change the subject. Walking along a lively street lined with restaurants and shops, I would suddenly stumble into a wasteland where the railroad passed through. Unlike Paris, which had seemed very much a finished city, Buenos Aires felt distinctly unfinished. It was difficult to predict what would occur. This was also what I liked.
Our neighborhood, Alto Palermo, had a solidly bourgeois character, with modern high-rises overlooking the park, and was known as Barrio Freud for the number of psychoanalysts practicing there. It is widely believed that Argentina has more analysts per capita than any other country in the world. In the same way that every middle-class family has a cleaning woman — made possible by an abundant workforce streaming in from other South American countries — most middle-class people seem to have analysts. Mentioning you have an appointment with an analyst, or that your child does, is comparable to saying you have a hair appointment.
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