Photo: R.M. Nunes/Shutterstock

Buenos Aires: Don't Call It the Paris of South America

Buenos Aires Narrative
by Mark Pampanin Jan 13, 2015

WHEN I first came to Buenos Aires, I played a particular conversational card when (especially older) porteños asked what I thought of their wonder city.

I wanted to say something complimentary and simple, enough to earn a smile, but not so much that my rudimentary castellano might trip me up first. And so, lo and behold, out came the favorite line of travel agencies and second-rate tour books: “It’s the Paris of South America!” This happened at least five times in my first two weeks, and it worked every time. Eyes lit up, smiles broadened and a proud “Ah, siiiiiii!” bellowed from the heart of each porteño. But these moments were never without feelings of guilt. Though it was an easy way to bring a smile to the face of every porteño I met, it did have the one problem of being untrue.

Because Buenos Aires is not Paris.

Somewhere along the way, Paris became the heavyweight champion in the culture department, and sometime a little bit later, Buenos Aires found out about it. The Argentine culture was literally founded on a fondness for the French, with Sarmiento’s French-filled and kind of racist “Facundo” setting the Franco-focus for the city’s early elites. But even with time, this culture boner refused to die, extending well into the time Julio Cortázar sent Oliviera to Paris in “Rayuela.” Today, this French cultural hangover survives on Paris-themed ‘AY Not Dead’ T-shirts and among those who refuse to let go of the kinda-sorta economic and historical ties Buenos Aires once held with Europe.

But once you see Buenos Aires with an eye a smidge more critical than that of an in-flight magazine, you realize how the comparison is not only incorrect, but also a massive under-sell — Buenos Aires is not Paris. It’s in fact much, much more.

Paris is just one city, but Buenos Aires is what happens when everyone is invited to the party — the Fernet is from Italy; the teatime is from England, and the empanadas, beer, and wine are all homemade. Porteños were flooding this city with new things, thoughts, and culture long before the buzzwords of “cosmopolitanism” and “globalization” entered the minds of city planners. Buenos Aires is the only city that can have streets seeming exactly like London, Los Angeles, and Latin America all in the same barrio, and more importantly, streets that are uniquely our own (and not only because they are clogged with colectivos.)

You know you’re on a Buenos Aires street when it’s lined with French architecture built with British material housing American stores, but you’re too enthralled by all the various characters to notice. In one walk to my local market, I bore witness to a young man’s shouts of “Andrea!” as he chased down his distraught lover, an old woman buying herself a bouquet of tulips because she can, and a group of children sitting on a sidewalk, playing with a sack of limes. Why were they playing with a sack of limes, you ask? The answer is the same for all inexplicable happenings in our streets: this is Buenos Aires, who are you to tell them they can’t play with a sack of limes?

We certainly know the economic history of Argentina is nothing if not unique. But despite the distinct chaos that is the Argentine economy, Buenos Aires refuses to call it quits. This city has seen it all, yet has somehow never allowed its passions to harden into cynicism. Through it all, Buenos Aires wears its heart on its sleeve, passion and opinion front and center, marching in the street or dancing in the boliches, or neither, if that’s what your into. And if it is neither you’re into, there is certainly something here to suit your tastes, and even if there isn’t, Buenos Aires welcomes you to build your own niche.

In an attempt to explore the music offerings of Buenos Aires one weekend, I went from a hip-hop club to an indie rock show to a jazz club to La Bomba de Tiempo — all four bound together by the common element of feverish fun and sincerity, as if each one truly believed it was their genre that represented the city. People here never run out of new things to do or the energy with which to do them — whether that be partying or embarking on a new entrepreneurial project. Even when the economic forecasts look dim, the intrepid spirit of Buenos Aires has never been extinguished, bringing new meaning to the phrase: “Turn down for what?” (Someone show Lil Jon Buenos Aires). This may be the most distinct quality of Buenos Aires — it’s very much alive. While other cities may have settled into given identities and expectation, Buenos Aires has never been so easily pinned down, always climbing, falling and redefining, mystifying onlookers and energizing those who fell in love with this city. No one can quite define what Buenos Aires is — it’s all at once so many different influences and like nothing else before.

I like to think that this keeps us young. The morphing mystery that is Buenos Aires keeps us on our feet — once a city has defined itself, quickly its pride can sour into snobbery, and its unique elements harden into routine. In always having something new to try, events and ideas in Buenos Aires never develop the air of haughtiness behind those of many old Western cities; where people go to the same places to see the same people because that is what is considered the culture — we do things here in Buenos Aires because they are fun as hell and because we want to.

This truth made itself known to me as I exited a swanky Palermo nightclub one summer evening to a growing dance party on the sidewalk. As the multitude of well-dressed patrons spilled out onto the humid street, they gravitated to the stereo of unknown origin, dancing and clapping along. Without a pause for self-consciousness, everyone began to have as much fun as our $100 pesos had bought us inside.

Buenos Aires is a city where you’re just as likely to be struck by art hung in the MALBA as sprayed under a bridge, where some of the best tango is performed for coins in Plaza Dorrego, where the tastiest licuados aren’t sold by some corporate machine, but by two Venezuelan expats who wanted to move to Buenos Aires and open a smoothie shop, so that’s what they did. As I write this from a Belgrano Starbucks, a group of school children are rearranging all the furniture to accommodate their gathering of young gusto — café sophistication and corporate sensibilities of furniture feng shui be damned.

Simply put, it’s a city with more to do than anywhere in the Americas, but gives less of a shit than any city in Europe.

OK, that may be a bit of a generalization. But the point is, this ‘is-it-Europe-is-it-Latin-America’ identity crisis (that has, by the way, earned us zero friends) must come to an end. Historically, economically, and demographically, Buenos Aires is an incomparable city, and though there are those who will try to throw this city’s identity under the shadow of another, we should revel in the ambiguity, take pride in the uniqueness, and refuse to be compared.

Because it simply cannot be done. Buenos Aires is like Buenos Aires, nada mas. And the city’s pride should stem from that uniqueness — not from Paris-themed niceties or travel book taglines.

So I call an end to such Franco-flattery and false com-PARIS-ons, and ask the guidebooks and in-flight magazines to use a more appropriate tagline: “Buenos Aires — it’s the Buenos Aires of South America!”

This article was originally published on The Bubble, and it has been re-posted here with permission.

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