Hey everybody! Yes, I mean the hundreds, if not thousands of you who have been religiously checking our blog twice a day for the past 600+ days waiting for the latest entry. Your perseverance is being rewarded. Upon moving to London and starting new jobs it seemed we had excuse after excuse to cruelly ignore the blog, allowing it to die a slow death. But the more time that stretches out between now and summer 2014, the more we realize how unique of a time our pretirement was and how important finishing the chronicle is to us. The below entry was actually written in summer 2014, so I’m not reaching as far back in to history as you might think, but to our surprise we still do remember the vivid detail of many days in 2014. This is one of the most surprising and wonderful things about the year of pretirement. We never had a day that was forgotten in a standard workday routine or nondescript Saturday around the house—we built years’ worth of meaningful memories in the span of just 13 months. Anyway, I digress. Buenos Aires:
As anyone following this blog can tell, our top goal during our year of travel was to see as many different places as possible. That meant every few days we would pack everything up, hop on a boat, train, bus or plane, and set our sights on a new destination. While this allowed us to visit a very long list of places and taught us about very different parts of the world, it also meant we never got to soak up a city’s way of life like you can in a long, leisurely visit. Having a full year off of work gave us a rare chance to do just that.
We ultimately chose Buenos Aires for our only longer-term stay for a few reasons. First and foremost, we had been there together before and had fallen in love with the city. The beautiful streets, laid-back but complex culture, cosmopolitan feel, and mysterious charm of a great city past its prime had been calling to us ever since our first visit four years earlier. Throw in the outstanding food, delicious local wine and gorgeous fall weather… we were sold. And that doesn’t even take into account the plunging peso, which allowed us to live life to its absolute fullest for three blissful weeks.
We arrived from Rio de Janeiro on a Tuesday night short on sleep and with long-term hangovers. We were ready for some serious relaxation, which is exactly what we got. Wandering the dark blocks of Palermo Soho late on a weeknight, in search of our Airbnb apartment, we were unable to get any kind of feel for our new neighborhood. What we found was a very friendly host and a nice comfortable bed. When we finally got up the next morning it felt like we had landed in an urban paradise. Despite our budget (about $45 per night) we found ourselves in the trendiest part of Buenos Aires, packed with quirky coffee shops, delicious restaurants, lively bars and a thriving street scene full of locals and visitors alike.
Given the amount of time we spent in Palermo, and our lack of desire to do much of anything “touristy,” the three weeks kind of blended together. In some ways it feels like we were there for months, and in others it went by in a flash. We never fully settled into a routine, but there were certain things that happened enough times to feel normal. Making giant salads with a dozen fresh ingredients, laughing when I paid less than $5 for a drinkable bottle of wine (or less than $15 for an awesome one), running the same route to the pond in Plaza Holanda park, where we knew exactly how far 3, 4 or 5 miles was, decimating the South American cattle population one filet mignon at a time, the list goes on.
A few events over the three weeks stand out. Carla’s diligence uncovered an absolute gem: the Electric Tango Orchestra. While traditional tango seems to be declining in popularity (among non-tourists), this group pulls it by the hair into the 21st century. Imagine a smoky stage and light show, with a pair of electric accordion players (one with dreads), a group of electric violinists, and a few other stringed instruments going absolutely nuts through the amps, all with the tango’s hard-edged bursts and turns. And this was nothing next to the lead singer. Tall and slightly dark, with black hair to her lower back and a deep voice reminiscent of Fiona Apple’s, she ripped through the syllables of Spanish blues like she was living the songs right there on stage. I have no idea what she said, which made it that much better. A diverse group of locals aged 20s through 60s (and almost no tourists) turned out for this performance, and it ended in a standing ovation.
Another musical event found by Carla was the much larger La Bomba de Tiempo (The Time Bomb) show. This took place in an abandoned factory and drew a younger crowd. La Bomba de Tiempo is a percussion group with a couple dozen members, set up on stage like an orchestra. Imagine the best people you’ve seen playing a flipped-over bucket in the NYC subway, but even better (and that’s saying something if you haven’t seen it), except in a huge group with real instruments and a conductor. The show was impressive—I’m not sure I would have really believed something like this existed before spending time in South America. But then, I never knew how important percussion is to Argentines. After this show, I started to notice pick-up groups in parks jamming on drums or bongos, holding a steady rhythm with occasional shifts and riffs for long stretches of time. While this type of music is can be found in other countries, it seems to be very mainstream in Buenos Aires.
On calmer days, Carla and I could mostly be found at local coffee shops for hours at a time. Most had outdoor seating and the weather was mostly gorgeous, so we were able to soak up the street scene while occupying ourselves with books and blogging while the rest of the world worked. I was particularly determined to finish War and Peace (an accomplishment I will brag about, because the 1,270 dense pages felt like 2,540 and were as rewarding as 5,080). I also wasted a full day doing my US taxes in a Buenos Aires coffee shop, but it was a better backdrop than my desk at home. Not surprisingly, several delicious Cuban cigars were smoked at the outdoor tables while Carla tried to sit upwind.
There were a couple of important things that happened while we were down in Buenos Aires. Shortly after we arrived, I verbally accepted an offer from my old company for a position in London. This was a development that was hard for both of us to get our heads around, as we went very quickly from being people with no income, no obligations and a completely open future to people with less than four months of pure freedom remaining but a promise that we wouldn’t go broke. There was some awkward Skyping with the old office (my long hair induced much laughter) but well before leaving Buenos Aires I had a job waiting for me.
Not too long after, I made a call to Carla’s parents. I knew I wanted to propose soon after we finished traveling, and Buenos Aires was the only place where I could be sure to have good phone access and even a couple spare minutes without her in earshot for at least a month. Also, I wanted to get the ball rolling a couple months in advance so we could have both of our families gather in New York to surprise her. The phone call went well, leading to secret email accounts, secret flight bookings, and secret plans, all of which Carla knew nothing about.
What Carla does know about is leather goods, and she has that in common with the Argentines. Our impending employment got her thinking about leather jackets, which in most countries cost some multiple of what they cost in Argentina. She left Buenos Aires with a fatter backpack for it. Argentina’s cheapness was apparent almost everywhere, from the steaks to the avocados to the leather products. The country defaulted on its debt again in July, and the currency was already far weaker when we were in town. Because the government attempts to artificially prop up the peso’s value against the dollar, there is a better black market exchange rate that is available through sketchy characters. Our sketchy character was the loving, devoutly religious 80+ year old godmother of a friend who will remain anonymous. I will only say that walking into her old-time Buenos Aires apartment and having long conversations in broken Spanish over tea was one of the highlights of our time there. Oh, and I sat in the chair where the future pope had sat at her dining room table.
The best way to put black market money to use in Argentina is by heading directly to the steakhouse. In our case, that meant grabbing at table at Don Julio, which was a five-minute walk from our apartment. Lucky for us, it might be the best steakhouse in town. In New York, the best steak will set you back over fifty bucks for the meat itself (before tax, tip, etc.). Here in Argentina-- $14. And the filet mignon stacks up perfectly next to anything New York has to offer. No fewer than five times did Carla and I stumble home like zombies in a half-drunk food coma from Don Julio or another place like it.
Argentina’s other outstanding food item is the ubiquitous empanada. Stuffed with anything from seasoned ground beef to onions, spinach and cheese, these little baked goods might be the tastiest simple snacks in the world. I’ve loved them since we went to Argentina in 2010 and I was in heaven this time around, scooping up whole batches of them for about a buck apiece. What was more surprising is how the food scene has recently become more international. It’s not all steak sandwiches, empanadas and ham and cheese. If you want sushi, Thai food, vegan restaurants or a bowl of ramen, that can all be found in Palermo. One pan-southeast Asian restaurant in particular really blew us away and could have easily held its own in lower Manhattan.
The only thing that really seems to be holding Buenos Aires back is the political system. I had a few conversations with some locals around my age, both professional and in the service sector, and the overwhelming feeling seems to be disappointment. How could a country that once rivaled the United States in terms of wealth, with beautiful tree-lined streets and opulent architecture, be reduced to an economy about half the size of Mexico? The young people I spoke with feel like the government is hopelessly corrupt and all the politicians are pretty much interchangeable. Seeing a government that “disappeared” over 20,000 thousand people in the 1970s and to this day hasn’t atoned for its crimes, it’s hard not to agree. In theory, the strong populist streak in Argentina’s history should at least keep inequality in check, but unfortunately the opposite is true. While our neighborhood and the surrounding north side was very safe, with police visible on foot every other block, the majority of the city is suffering from an explosion of violent crime. Seemingly every day there were new stories of brazen robberies and murders with crime rates increasing, not decreasing. As the economy continues to suffer and the political system remains the same, it’s hard to imagine things getting much better in the near future.
Our time in Buenos Aires was a great chance to get a peek at what it might be like to live in a country that is wholly different from the United States. We couldn’t believe how warm and welcoming most of the people were, and just about all of them were happy to have a chat through my broken Spanish. Perhaps my favorite memories are the hours spent just walking through the neighborhoods, taking in the century-old architecture and towering trees on both sides with nothing but a lazy afternoon at the coffee shop ahead of us.