|Not Happy Juan|
by Sally Hammond
"I still have that one peso menu," says my guide, Maria, as we pass a McDonalds in downtown Buenos Aires.
Apparently it all happened without warning - but how could no one have known? On that Friday afternoon in 2001 when most businesses had closed for the week and many staff had left for the weekend, keys turned in bank vaults for the last time and were, in effect, thrown away. Argentina's currency had collapsed.
Today, instead of one peso equalling a US dollar, people need to find 3.5 for each dollar transaction. In anger, people attacked the banks themselves, as if it were the buildings - not the operatives or the government - that were to blame.
Even on the sunny day recently when we drove through the streets of Buenos Aires, Argentina's still-gracious city of eleven million, we encountered a march of picketers.
"About the banks," is all that Maria would say, when we asked what they were doing, but her set expression told us more. "No pictures, please." She ordered as we passed former banks, boarded up, the breaches in their doors and windows covered with corrugated iron, which in turn was scribbled over by graffiti.
Just the day before, the Buenos Aires Herald had reported that an anti-Iraqi war demonstration had diversified into the breaking of bank windows. Another report in the same paper stated that three banks had been destroyed.
As we carefully threaded our way - doors locked, windows up, please - through the traffic, snarled because of police roadblocks connected with the march, it seemed impossible that lovely Buenos Aires should have come to this.
Gracious, elegant BA, its street facades an intriguing mixture of Rome and Paris, with a splash of Madrid, was carefully planned and designed four hundred-plus years ago by the sixty Patrician families that settled here, seeking to raise an antipodean Rome rich with freedom and a future. Even today, the many descendents of these founders account for the Italian blood in 70 percent of the population.
In the beginning those wealthy, cultured Romans were the cream of the fledgling community. Now, their gracious homes have become apartments, or prestigious homes for soapie stars and footballers. For these are the new ruling classes. Soccer is the national religion. Ninety percent of Argentineans are nominally Roman Catholic, but more go to the game than to mass. More cheer for their team than chant Hail Marys, it seems.
Despite this, at other times this Spanish-speaking country is simply Spain most southern outpost. Lovers kiss in the parks, new acquaintances clasp your hands and ooze Latin charm. Even the flight attendants on the country's national carrier, Aerolineas Argentinas, smile as if they mean it - and that's while serving breakfast when nearly at the end of one of the longest long-haul flights, Sydney to BA. Even in Economy.
In Patrician times, there was no middle class, and again there is a gulf fixed between the haves and the have-nothings. The mega-rich are here, apparent by their Hermes and Versace accoutrements, their bearing, their cars, and the fine wining and dining spots where you find them.
But at the other end of the scale are beggars, and people sifting trash on the footpaths. While you can argue that there is a beggar element in every large city, often this is more scam than necessity. But to patiently and openly pick over the contents of a garbage can speak of rock bottom desperation.
It was Madonna who sang Eva Peron's song 'Don't cry for me - Argentina'. You might want to cry for Argentina and its downturn. But the message from inside seems to be don't let sentimentalism stop you from seeing for yourself this proud and beautiful city that although certainly fallen on hard times, is slowly trying to turn itself around. Which is precisely why we should visit. And soon.
Let's face it. BA has plenty of inevitable poverty-led petty crime, but your passport is at as much risk in Paris - it's a big-city thing. Buenos Aires is still one of the world's safer destinations, tucked away well south of many of the current hot spots.
One if the love it-hate it by-products of economic recession is that shopping for local goods and services becomes infinitely more attractive. Leather is the inevitable by-product of Argentina's cattle industry. Shoes, jackets, handbags, belts - they're all here, and the price (despite the fine workmanship) seems to be about a third of what you would expect. Dining is inexpensive, and the cost of accommodation (often in very elegant surroundings) is moderate compared to Europe.
To Australians, the many cultural similarities make Buenos Aires an attractive destination, although the cuisine has enough differences - think Spanish-French-Italian overlaid on barbecue and you get the drift - to get your juices flowing.
Then there's the weather - same hemisphere, same seasons - yet even so, you need to keep pinching yourself to realise you have not somehow managed to arrive in Europe in 14 hours instead of 24. Those gracious buildings and leafy streets, the dog-walkers deftly handing seven or eight large hounds in one group, the generous parks, the European buzz, the style - this, sprinkled with empanada shops, and 'whiskerias' - this is what draws you in.
The peso may have plummeted. The paint may be peeling. The party– certainly for many in the wealthy middle classes – may be over, but Buenos Aires is not finished yet.
Already places like highly charged La Boca at the waterfront – think, Montmartre on acid – pulsates with life. Here, you can almost slice those bold colours that don't just brighten the amazing cartoon-like statues which hang from first floor windows or lounge on street corners, but spread over walls, balconies, roofs and windows. These few streets really rock, and we strolled entire laneways filled with irresistible art works and sculpture.
To comprehend the extremes of this city, you need to remember that this is the country that brought us the tango, and the beat lingers on. The economic climate may well be 'not happy, Juan', but dancing is free. And easy.
It takes two to tango, so that's probably all the invitation we all need.
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