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Sunday, 09 September 2012

Buenos Aires: Porteños & passion

Argentinians are famous for being passionate, meat eating, polo playing, tango dancing, beautiful night owls - and Porteños (from Buenos Aires) embody the extremities of this stereotype.

So after 5 months of living and working in Buenos Aires I have a few ideas I'd like to share about what makes the people here TICK. TICK. TICK. My first visit was December 2011, when I was voted to come here on my bicycle. Even though I encountered multiple robberies, mechanical issues, language barriers and even electrocution, I was inexplicably smitten with the city. 

The last time I felt this way about a city was when I visited Berlin for the first time. I walked into a shop that sold only buttons: Big ones, round ones, sparkly varieties - an entire shop dedicated to circles with holes in them. Berlin, like Buenos Aires, is the kind of place where you get the feeling anything can and will happen - if you want it badly enough. 


If I was to choose one color to describe Porteños it would be Blood Red. A color of warning that has the potential to love or kill with the same smoking hot passion. The average porteño male is an image conscious malbec wine-drinking, metro-sexual. 

Like a crooked art dealer the Porteño appreciates beauty, but the less you know about where it came from, the better.


Even the pictures in my Spanish lessons are hot!

The porteña female breezes past ogling men with her impossibly long locks of hair. The street is her catwalk and the game is to never acknowledge the hisses and whistles of appreciation around her. This is a culture that openly cares about looks first. The women are jealous and proud and absolutely forbid their men to have plutonic female friends. As a result you rarely see mixed groups of friends out socializing that aren't couples. The men are alpha male types who are unafraid, bold and brash but often it's the woman that wears the pants in the relationship.

It is custom to greet every person with a single kiss on the cheek. Men kiss men, everyone from your boss to the cleaner gets a sloppy one.

It's kind of like the Argentine equivalent of a handshake. This intimacy with near strangers lowers the barriers we are so good at putting up in the western world and opens the channel for a more meaningful and equal exchange.

Another random fact: Argentina operates on a completely different timezone to the rest of the world.

Like most things here, adjusting your watch to the 'official' time is useless until you understand the concept of ArgenTIME. Everything here happens later, dinner at midnight doesn't raise a porteño eyebrow, organize a party for 10pm and guests will start showing up 11.30/12, because everyone knows it doesn't really get going until 2am. This relaxed attitude to time makes life more tranquilo, if not a tad less productive. They then party until sunrise, sleep away the morning and rise ready for lunch. 

The Spanish have Siesta, the Argentines have Mate.

To combat tiredness, Mate (pronounced mar-tay), the wonderful caffiene-laced drink is a popular tradition enjoyed by sleepy Porteños in parks around the city. It's like a bitter tea (sherba) drunk out of a plant gourd, shared among friends through a metal straw. The ceremony of the pouring, receiving and the bucket load of biscuits consumed makes for long, slow conversations that run their course as the thermos of hot (not boiling) water empties. 


A few gauchos (Argentine cowboys) enjoying a Mate break.

You can sleep when you're dead (or when the economy crashes next!)

Nobody trusts the banks, no one trusts the police and nobody in their right mind trusts the Argentine peso. (The official rate is 4.5 pesos to the American dollar but the true black-market value is nearing 7 dollars) The president Kristina, is fairly popular but she has put such strict restrictions on the US$ that my friend spent an afternoon at the bank trying to get US dollars for our trip to Uruguay. 3 hours later she was awarded $95 for her entire expenditure, and had to sign an oath that if she didn't spend all $95 she would return it to the bank. As a result everyone trades $ on the black market and stuffs their life savings under the mattress.

As a taxi driver told me last week, there is the law and there are the rules. 

No one pays any attention to the law, but if you break the rules and walk where you shouldn't walk or drop your guard momentarily you will know about it. That's why tourists are such sitting ducks. Here common sense will protect you far more than the authorities. It's a whole new level of street smarts that you have to be constantly aware of, as I learned last week when my laptop was ripped out of my hands while working inside a cafe.


I knew the exact location of my macbook when it was stolen but the police didn't care.

But on the flipside of the coin, the people here are more open than anywhere else I have lived. There is a lot of injustice and corruption but people are not afraid to talk about it. Over a sandwich at lunch people discuss the meaning of life in one breath and the tele novella (Argetntine soap operas)  in the next. People here permit and encourage open discussion of their feelings and most of them have at least one psychologist they regularly see. 

You're encouraged to express your loves and your frustrations but don't try to rationalize it or understand it, or you'll drive yourself crazy. 


Hanging out with Porteños is a rollercoaster, it's normal to see 15 emotions in one day!

On the first Sunday of every month, I attend Masa Critica, a group of thousands of cyclists who meet on their bikes to claim back the city. Motorists are forced to stop until the masses pass and I remember seeing a guy in his car, boxed in with nowhere to go. Instead of honking his horn in anger, he tooted a tune, in time with the chant of the cyclists. My Argentine friend said to me, "That's what resignation sounds like". and it's a perfect summation of how Porteños live. There is an acceptance that things are stuffed up but they make it work to their advantage. 

Insane import restrictions means electronics are hard to find and incredibly expensive.

Once again my outlook has changed, rather than complain I have simply retrained what I think I need. I lost a computer, just circuit boards, a keyboard and a battery but living here I've become aware my true assets can't be stolen. It's not what I possess on my person, but in my person, the unique irreplaceable, uncopyable gifts of mind, body and soul that I have come to truly value.  

The foundations are shaky, the economy is in a constant state of triage, the authorities are corrupt but the culture is incredibly rich. In the developed world I rely on signs and laws and to keep me out of harms way but living here I rely on my common sense. I have become comfortable with the idea of 'here today, gone tomorrow' and long term personal or financial security is a foreign concept. Maybe there's room to apply a bit of Porteño to all our lives?

If you like him, kiss him. 

If you want it, take it.

If it feels good, keep doing it because who knows when you'll get the chance again.


But don't just take my word for it, here are a few thoughts from other foreigners living in BA:

'In Buenos Aires there are lots of boys, but there are few men.'

'The men are incredibly strong minded (to put it lightly!), but once I got over the occasional shock at their opinions and how they can put them across, I grew to actually quite adore the passion; though I would advise that people tread very delicately when dicussing politics for the first time.' Ruth from England

'On a daily basis you're experiencing hot and cold, aggression and affection, estrangement and generosity - coming at you from all angles. When they say "Los porteños son histéricos" I guess it applies to all aspects of life here. It keeps us on our toes, doesn't it? That duality. Maybe that's what attracts us to this place - the endless rollercoaster ride...' Janelle from Australia

'Portenos very proud people. They are witty and Often brutally honest. They are open at times but very paranoid and cautious of others. They all seem To Have therapists, although maybe They are just more honest about that than where I'm from. There are elements of culture ie porteno roasted mate, the collective and football, Which enable portenos of different backgrounds and Incomes to have many commonalities, This Creates a real sense of community in Such a vast city.' Joanna from Scotland

'Porteños are like alfajores. They have a smooth and stern appearance on the outside that may seem all but penetrable. But if you do fight through the first layer, they are wholesome and down to earth with a gooey and wonderfully sweet center.' Kunal from Dubai 

Latest Poll Results
New York: What will Indiana June do in the big apple?
21% Track down and visit Oliver Jeffers:
Renowned Children's storybook writer & illustrator
11% Walk the High Line:
A linear park built on a 1.45-mile section of the elevated NY Central Railroad 
11% Be a NYC detective for a day: 
Part game, theatre and tour to discover some of NYC's most off-the-beaten path spots
13% Explore the City Hall Subway Station: 
Abandoned & hidden from the public for 60 years
12% Flying trapeze class:
Hone her circus skills learning how to fly on a trapeze 
30% NZ Flag + Statue of Liberty:
Bodypaint the NZ flag on her body and go up the Statue of Liberty
2% Go to Queens and find a 'Nanny' sound-alike:
Video someone with the nanny accent saying "noo Zealand, i love that place"
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