Unfortunately to many US citizens anything below the country's border is assumed to be either a dirty, underdeveloped barbaric country or a Caribbean paradise born for tourism. It's hard to objectively explain what living in Buenos Aires as a foreigner is all about, as I tend to prefer to write about and express how I feel about living here.
A good friend of mine originally from Florida, USA is leaving Buenos Aires this month. Her reflections on the way out of this urban jungle really struck me as clear and understandable and I wanted to share them:
A few weeks ago, I had to laugh when in a mixed-nationality group of 10 or so people walking from a tango class to a milonga we stopped at a red light, looked back, and realized the group was divided in two, with the foreigners being a full block and a half ahead of the Argentines, whose pace of walking is markedly slower. I don't have to feel stressed out over being 5 minutes late to work, or 10 minutes late to meet a friend for dinner. The traffic is so bad, the strikes and protests blocking the streets so frequent, and the subway so unreliable that it's nearly impossible to be on time, even given your very best effort. I'm a little concerned over how this relaxed attitude towards time will translate when I get back to the States - I've never been a particularly punctual person anyway, so I'm worried that will be even more exaggerated now. Let me ask forgiveness in advance: If I show up late to see any of you, chalk it up to reverse culture shock, please.
The people are just a little warmer, friendlier, open. One of the habits I love here is that when someone walks into a room where someone else is eating, they always say "Buen provecho" (I guess we would say bon appetit - see, we don't even have a way to express that in English!). It's a small pleasantry, like saying "bless you" when someone sneezes but it just strikes me as lovely. They also greet each other and say goodbye on elevators: "Hola, buen día" ....1....2....3....4....5....6....7...8...ding! "Chau, suerte." I love the custom of kissing on the cheek to say hello - it just feels like it immediately opens a channel of communication, even and especially between strangers, instead of just walking up to someone and standing in front of them, saying hi. I know we have the handshake and the hug, but they have all of the above, and we certainly don't use those every time we greet each other. Another thing that took getting used to after 3 years spent mostly ignoring people in New York is that when people perform music on the subway, everyone claps. Even if they don't give money, they clap. There's just this raw humanity to it all, this beautiful acknowledgement of the fact that there is another human being occupying your same space and breathing your same air.
Then there is, of course, one of my two greatest local loves: the Spanish language. For the second most widely spoken language in the world, it's a bit...narrow...of me to assign it as a characteristic I like of Buenos Aires, but the lilts and sounds of the rioplatense Spanish are so sweet to my ear. I've started finding little caprices of the language that I really enjoy - for example while in English we say "I dreamed about..." in Spanish it's "I dreamed with..." Much more romantic, don't you think? As if you and the whole cast of characters in your dream are equal contributors. Or the clever evasion of personal responsibility - wouldn't you much prefer not having to say "I dropped it" when you could say something that roughly translates as "It fell itself from me"
aaand the not so great:
I don't understand the ins and outs of all the economic events and changes that go on down here, but basically, it's bad and getting worse. What I understand well are the symptoms that I can see for myself: Inflation continues to be a problem. When I arrived a year ago, I paid 4.50 pesos for a liter of milk; today I paid 8.50. The big chain supermarkets are under a mandatory 2 month price freeze on some 200 products, but from what I gather this only delays the increase in price and does nothing to stop it from happening.
Expats are leaving in droves, selling properties (the real estate market is run on USD, and as access to those becomes rarer and more difficult, due to new laws in an unsuccessful attempt by the current Kirchner administration to make Argentines less dependent on stable dollars and more reliant on the fickle Argentinian peso, the market is on the decline); international companies are leaving, taking production and jobs with them. The U.S. is also putting pressure on Argentina to pay its outstanding debt.
There are two exchange rates - the official and the blue, which is basically like the black market for dollars, and the gap between them is widening. About 2 months ago it hit an all-time high of double the official rate; it's since gone back down, but the average is still on the upswing. The government has been internationally censured for lying about inflation data. One of my students told me about something called the "Big Mac Index" which I had never heard of before. It measures the purchasing power parity between two currencies by comparing the price of Big Macs in those 2 countries. Apparently, McDonalds is under orders from the government to keep the price of specifically *just* the Big Mac down, in order to line up with the false inflation data.
If there's one anecdote that sums up the Argentine government/infrastructure/bureaucracy and frankly, the general slightly off-color Argentine way of doing things, it is "Big Mac Index". This is one of the main reasons I'm having to leave -- it's nearly impossible for someone who has student loans to pay in US dollars, to live on pesos. Unfortunately, I'm borderline broke all the time, I can't buy dollars or send money home, it's impossible and impractical to save, as the peso loses its value.