At Home Abroad: Crisis & Renewal
Source: New York Times
By: Maxine Swann
WITH A VIEW When Maxine Swann, an American writer, moved to Buenos Aires in 2001, her first apartment overlooked the Plaza Las Heras, once a prison and now a park.
"But soon you'll see," she added. "Everything will get more and more beautiful."
I moved to Buenos Aires in April 2001, a few months before the crash, after my Argentine husband, Juan Pablo, received an offer to write a series for Argentine television. I was 32 and had just signed a contract to write my first novel.
Having lived with an Argentine for 10 years but never having seen his native country, I was deeply curious about the place, though ambivalent about leaving behind my newly resuscitated New York life. Juan Pablo and I had only recently moved back to the United States after living together in Paris for eight years, and our plan was to stay in Buenos Aires for six months. I have now been here for seven years.
In the early days, when I was just a visitor, the city was a maelstrom of exciting, often disorienting impressions, but the center of my life was elsewhere. It was only as it became apparent that we were going to be here longer that I began to know Buenos Aires in a different way. It takes a while to settle down in an eternally unsettled place.
When we arrived, Buenos Aires's cost of living was not that much less than New York's, because the government had fixed the peso to the dollar in the early 1990s (the exchange rate was one to one). We paid $800 for our first apartment, a small one-bedroom on the ninth floor of a 14-story building, unremarkable except for the view. Nearly all Buenos Aires apartments have a balcony, usually covered with plants, but ours looked out on the Plaza Las Heras, a square several blocks wide that was once a prison but is now a park.
My favorite pastime was standing on the balcony peering down through the tops of the unfamiliar trees: the palo borracho, with its thorns and flamboyant pink blossoms in spring and fall; the prehistoric-looking araucaria, with its stiff, spiky branches like a giant pine cone. The Plaza Las Heras was populated at every hour with lovers holding hands, making out on benches or sprawled on the grass. When it rained, sudden downpours out of the blue, the treetops swirled and thrashed, shedding flowers and fronds, and the street below would flood. (The city's drainage system needs attention.) I'd watch people wading knee-deep against the current to get from the pharmacy to the bus stop.
On dry days, when I wasn't writing, I would walk. The Jardín Zoológico, eight blocks north along the Avenida Las Heras, was crawling with hundreds of cats. Farther along, I'd come across graffiti on walls, not the tags I was used to but whimsical lines, written in direct address form: "Flor, I need things to go on happening between us, your astronaut." I'd turn a corner and see, in the wide, dark doorway of a garage, a man standing in the center, butchering meat.
As I wandered, captivated, dislocated, I tried to match what I was seeing with the stories I'd heard from my husband about his childhood city, finding that sometimes the vision fit and sometimes it did not. In particular, I hadn't been prepared for the city's endless ability to surprise.
Even within a single neighborhood the city would often abruptly change the subject. Walking along a lively street lined with restaurants and shops, I would suddenly stumble into a wasteland where the railroad passed through. Unlike Paris, which had seemed very much a finished city, Buenos Aires felt distinctly unfinished. It was difficult to predict what would occur. This was also what I liked.
Our neighborhood, Alto Palermo, had a solidly bourgeois character, with modern high-rises overlooking the park, and was known as Barrio Freud for the number of psychoanalysts practicing there. It is widely believed that Argentina has more analysts per capita than any other country in the world. In the same way that every middle-class family has a cleaning woman - made possible by an abundant workforce streaming in from other South American countries - most middle-class people seem to have analysts. Mentioning you have an appointment with an analyst, or that your child does, is comparable to saying you have a hair appointment.
After I had been here a while, though, I began to see that the Argentines I was meeting did not seem particularly interested in self-improvement. The psychoanalysis they practiced and pursued - the strict kind, years and years on the couch - mainly provided them with a lens through which to look at the world. In the same way they are fatalistic about their volatile economic and political situation, Argentines seem to think that you are what you are, and not much about that is going to change, even if the world around you is bound to.
AT the end of 2001 came the dizzying crash. For some time the economy had been deteriorating; the peso's one-to-one convertibility with the dollar was an artificial paradise. Economic measures known as the corralito, or little corral, were introduced, essentially cutting off people's access to their savings. The exchange rate leapt to four pesos to one dollar, then settled at three-to-one. Now, even if people were ever able to retrieve their savings, which was not assured, the amounts would have fallen to a third of their value. People of all classes took to the streets, banging pots and pans, in protests known as cacerolazos, which occasionally turned violent. Some set themselves on fire in front of banks. In less than two weeks from late December to early January, Argentina had five different presidents.
Often when I went out walking now, I would run into crowds. Once, after my Spanish class, I got caught up in one in a square in front of the Pink House, the presidential palace. There were policemen with plastic shields, a helicopter overhead. The crowd started to panic and run for reasons I could not discern. One man, who must have been caught off guard as he urinated against a building, ran toward me, his pants still down. I ran too, my heart racing.
People were scrambling, pressing against one another. In the next moment we were dispersed. I spiraled off, into a new neighborhood, and found myself in streets full of empty taxis. No one could afford to take one anymore.
Although I could not help but be confronted with the crisis on a daily basis, I was also strangely insulated from it. My husband was being paid in pesos, but our savings were not in Argentine banks. Moreover, given the new exchange rate, real estate prices were suddenly absurdly low. We realized we could afford a much bigger apartment, with offices for us both. And although we had never been big savers, we thought we might even be in a position to buy. I began looking, scouting low-roofed houses in Palermo Viejo, a leafy, cobblestone neighborhood that was becoming chic.
It soon became clear, though, that even with the lower prices, we would not be able to buy. Instead, we rented the fifth floor of a Parisian-style building - 2,000 square feet, with high ceilings and a separate servants' entrance - in Recoleta, a wealthy neighborhood famous for a walled cemetery where many of the Argentine elite are buried. Our rent was $500 a month.
The apartment was being used as a huge storage unit; we were told that we could keep any furniture we liked and the rest would be removed. For the first time in our lives, we had guest rooms, and invited guests to stay. We threw lavish parties.
Up to this point I had only one close friend in Buenos Aires, another American. Now I began to get to know Argentines, like Pola. Instead of wandering around on my own, I began to venture out with them, exploring parts of the city I had never been in and seeing those I thought I knew in a new light. I was encountering another city, previously invisible to me.
Buenos Aires was starting to feel like home when, in 2005, Juan Pablo and I had our own personal crash, and our marriage ended. I was reeling, and initially considered returning to the United States. But I felt my discovery of Buenos Aires was just beginning; more than that, it was as if, because of the city, new neural pathways were opening in my brain.
I was working on a second novel at the time (my first was published in 2003), but I found myself focusing on the idea for a third one, much bigger in scope, about Buenos Aires. Returning to New York was not an option. Once again, I began looking for a home.
I started my search in Palermo Viejo, but by now a real estate and construction boom had begun, fueled by Argentines' mistrust of their banks. Increasingly, people kept their money in their homes or in safe-deposit boxes, sent it abroad or invested in property. And when the exchange rate tripled, foreigners and Argentines who had money abroad began buying real estate, driving up prices. Apartments I had looked at several years ago in Palermo Viejo had more than doubled in cost.
One night I went to a party in a converted warehouse in the Chacarita neighborhood, named after the large municipal graveyard. The area around the graveyard was still considered seedy, but the other side was up and coming. Although the party was dark, I had a vivid impression of a glass roof of cathedral dimensions and a tree in an enormous pot standing in the living room.
The owner moved in the same circles I did, and I learned through a friend that, riding the wave of the construction boom, he had recently converted his place into two rental apartments. When I called him, he said the second-floor apartment was free and I could move in right away, on the understanding that he would be doing construction work above me, building a third apartment on the roof.
The apartment was one open space, the floors and countertops polished concrete, and it was put together on a limited budget. The stove, unnervingly powerful, was from a restaurant the landlord had once owned, as was the factory-size fan nailed high on the wall. But the apartment captured my imagination. Vines crossed the windows and a little glass patio box in one corner let in light. Things worked in their own special way. The owner had done all the plumbing and wiring himself, and once, when he was out of town, I had to call a plumber to fix something. He stood and stared for a long time. "What the hell is this?" he said.
Then the construction began above, and water started running down the walls. In places it ran in rivulets, in others in sheets. There were puddles on the floor. One day in a heavy rain the patio's drain was blocked with leaves and the apartment flooded. My neighbor downstairs, whose place was also flooding, came up to help. First we sopped up the water with towels, then, when it rose higher, we grew frantic and began pushing it down the stairwell with brooms. Once it subsided, I lay exhausted on the bed. The owner was putting in a small swimming pool that would double as a hot tub above my head. I could hear the water splashing as I lay there.
THIS new rooftop apartment, with the little pool, has become my home. It has the same polished concrete floors, quirky plumbing and dangling vines as the apartment downstairs, but it is smaller and has a row of windows that lets in a flood of sunlight. Nearly every night, I sit in the hot tub, gazing past the neighbor's araucaria tree up into the evening sky.
By now I've worked out the various walks I can take from here. One option is to cross Palermo Viejo and, passing the superstore Jumbo and the mosque, walk down to the Bosques de Palermo (Palermo Forests), a vast stretch of green on the north side of the city inspired by the Bois de Boulogne in Paris. Skirting Rosedal, the famous rose garden, I follow the runners' path around the artificial lake. People sit together in the grass, next to or on top of one another, doing nothing. The smell of the eucalyptus rises up. In the evening the transvestites materialize; a transvestite in white is often the first, wearing high white boots and white leather. The first cars are cruising slowly, the air edged with darkness.
Another walk is around the Chacarita graveyard. Like Recoleta, Chacarita has its mausoleum sector, distinctly urban, like a miniature city, with white and black marble structures and streets so wide you can drive a car through them. Beyond this monumental zone is the vast common area. Small wooden crosses mark the graves, where yellow, pink and red China rose bushes bloom.
Baffled by the way rotating portions of the graveyard were always being dug up, I stopped one day to talk to a gravedigger. After telling me how much he loved his job - "you're always outside in the sun!" - he explained how the burial system works. Unlike in the States, where you own your plot, here the plots are rented. People are buried for four years, then, unless rent is paid to secure the spot, they are dug up to make way for others. Here, the volatility of your dwelling place in death is apparently as dependent on the winds of fortune as it is in life.
Usually, I walk around the outside of the graveyard, on the path along the wall. There are people along the way I've come to know. I pass the taxi drivers who sack out in their cars in the middle of the day, seats cranked down, doors left open, arms and legs protruding. There's the prostitute in her 40s, round and attractive, who works on the corner, with her great clothing style: suede boots, green-and-brown-patterned skirts. There's the boy with long hair who lives in the slum by the railroad and is always out playing with his friends, whom I've imagined adopting. It's a fantasy, but maybe not entirely.
One sure thing I've learned while living here is how the future keeps busting in and surprising you.
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