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Old Europe in Buenos Aires

Source: Financial Times
By: Tom Sutherland
07.18.2009

When it turns cold in Buenos Aires the elephants in the zoo can take shelter in an exuberant art nouveau version of a Hindu temple. Such flamboyant architectural fantasies are scattered throughout the city, which was rebuilt when vast wealth pouring in from the pampas embraced the belle époque at the turn of the last century. Anything was possible.

An Argentine landowner visiting Paris might take a fancy to a mansion on the Boulevard Haussmann and build a replica, only bigger, on the Avenida Alvear. Luis Barolo built a 100-metre tower that symbolically recreated the “Inferno”, “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso” of the Divine Comedy, and made plans to have Dante’s remains placed in a sepulchre under its rotunda. Once a year the axis of the tower is perfectly aligned with the Southern Cross constellation, the legendary gateway to Paradise.

Dante’s mausoleum is still in Ravenna, but the Palacio Barolo and the Teatro Colón, one of the most magnificent opera houses in the world, demonstrate the aspirations of a Mediterranean city adrift between the stormy south Atlantic and an endless sea of grass. The waves of Italians who came here overwhelmed the dour vestiges of colonial Spain and, together with a vibrant mix of other immigrants, created a new urban society that is stylish, sensuous and unruly. It is never dull.

Jorge Luis Borges urged his artistic circle to walk the city with a purpose, to “feel Buenos Aires”. He was right; the streets hum around the clock with residents in ardent pursuit of new pleasures, determined to squeeze out of existence every drop of enjoyment. On almost every corner there is a café where you can watch the spectacle of daily life unfold. Friends greet each other with elaborate courtesy, and then proceed to gossip or argue using a colourful range of gestures to add emphasis and drama. Uniformed waiters serve in the manner of grand old European cafés, and coffee comes on a tray with a glass of water and bite-sized pastry. There is a constant bustle of people coming and going.

“I think Buenos Aires must be the last remaining European city,” a Viennese friend once remarked. Time and distance have left people here with hazy romantic memories of the Europe they left behind. In Buenos Aires family firms keep to the old ways of doing things.

El Progresso pastry shop on Avenida Santa Fe won a gold medal in the 1923 Rome exposition, and the same family still make some of the best pastries in the city using their original recipes. Everything is prepared on the premises behind a plate glass window at the back of the shop.

The pungent aroma of fresh tobacco leaves hangs over the Compania Sudamericana de Tobacos, where three women roll cigars behind the counter in the front of the shop. Clients seeking just the right blend or size can order custom-rolled cigars, as Aristotle Onassis once did. Or, if you need a hat, you can have one made to order at Maidana and watch the milliners at work in the shadow of the Congress building on Avenida Rivadavia.

Argentines are old hands at coping with crises. Like the murky waters of the River Plate that sweep past the dockyards, triumph and tragedy have coursed through its history. The cycle began in 1516 when Juan Diaz de Solis, while celebrating his discovery of the river, was captured on its banks by the native inhabitants, who subsequently ate him.

Politics can be confusing, something like 15th-century Florence under the Medici. The frequent street demonstrations might be cause for concern until you talk to the participants while they are taking a break for lunch. Some have only the vaguest notion of what it is all about, having been lured into the city with the offer of a modest payment and a free meal.

It may be that living with economic and political volatility has been a source of creativity in the arts. There are more theatres in Buenos Aires than in New York or London, putting on an astounding variety of works ranging from Mamita Mia, a musical based on the life of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, to a work performed in total darkness by a company of blind actors. The contemporary dance company at the Teatro San Martin puts on a series of original works fusing European tradition with the energy of this young country.

Since Argentina’s economic crisis in 2001 and the collapse of the peso, artists have been less concerned with following the latest trends abroad, and there has been an explosion of creativity in the visual arts, best seen during the monthly late-night openings of major galleries. New releases of Argentine films regularly rotate through the four screens of the Gaumont cinema. Music is everywhere.

The national sport of Argentina is called pato, a fast and furious combination of rugby, polo and basketball. The finals are usually held in December at the Palermo polo grounds. It is a thrilling game to watch, as the ball (which is now used instead of a live duck) is scooped off the ground by a mounted player who must fend off his opponents until he can toss it into a basket at the goal line.

The polo grounds are set amid miles of the verdant parkland that stretches along the River Plate. The Palermo Park was designed by the French-born landscape architect Carlos Thays, whose monument in the botanical gardens is watched over by a large colony of cats. The cats might occasionally glance warily outside the gates while a menagerie of 10 or more pedigree dogs pass by with their handler.

In a story by Borges, there is an Aleph, a point in space hidden in the basement of a house in Buenos Aires that allows anyone who gazes upon it to see every place in the universe, from every angle. The house was pulled down and the Aleph was lost, but wherever you go in this city you will find something unexpected.

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