Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Note of the Caption: photographed by Matt Shonfeld (it came with the New York Times article, but the editor lists the photographer’s on-line archive)
link to the caption
Note from the blog editor: It is one of those days that I see something out-of-date but interesting, and feel obligated to put on somehow related articles together. After all, the logic could have been crooked long ago as you may find. Two additional links are about the newly-elected president in Bolivia coming from the farming backgroud to gain the governing power (from the Nation), and how Latin Americans in the United States see the States (from Mother Jones).
November 20, 2005
Not long after we had arrived in Buenos Aires, we crossed one of the bridges connecting the Puerto Madero district to the rest of the enormous eastward-spreading city and began to stroll along the quay. It was a bright, clear afternoon, blustery in that housecleaning way of early spring, and the city appeared to be populated exclusively by young people. (Later we discovered the university nearby.) In New York it might be fall, but here it was spring; my good friend and I may no longer be a romantic couple, but for now we were traveling companions; and I might have plenty of other work to do, but for the moment my job was to report on the night life of Buenos Aires. Duty compelled me to dine at fine restaurants, dance all night long with my beautiful ex-girlfriend and keep the bottles of malbec coming. And all for the sake of the story.
I was already having a hard time believing my luck when Catherine and I spotted several Argentine bills skittering across the brick-paved quay. We gathered up the money and began to look around for the worker or student whom the wind had just robbed. But we saw no one worriedly patting his pocket or nervously inspecting her purse, no one scanning the pedestrian path for a half-dozen fugitive bills in large denominations. For several minutes we stood there holding up the money and looking around for its rightful owner. And then we began to feel foolish in the way of any pair of blond gringos waving lots of money around a South American capital and waiting for someone to take it off their hands. Eventually we resigned ourselves to our good fortune and pocketed the 430 Argentine pesos.
The amount is equivalent to about $140, but that tells only half the story. Until December 2001 - when Argentina's government, which had been borrowing money and signing bad checks, defaulted on its massive foreign debt - the country's peso was pegged to the American dollar at a ratio of one to one. After the default, it took four pesos to buy a single dollar. The currency collapse led to riots and foreclosures and factory closings; it culled many families from the middle class and had businessmen lining up outside soup kitchens. It has also had the effect of making a tourist's paradise out of what had nearly been a first-world country.
A bit guiltily, we took our windfall and treated ourselves to a delicious three-course lunch. We drank a bottle of almost chewily rich Mendoza wine, served slightly chilled to moderate the sweetness, and then took a long nap back in our hotel, Faena Hotel + Universe.
Alan Faena is a sort of celebrity developer, an Argentine Donald Trump (with better hair), bent on turning the abandoned warehouses of Puerto Madero into so many luxury condominiums and boutique hotels.
It's hard to imagine that any of these can be more luridly opulent than the Faena, which was designed by Philippe Starck.
Once a big grain warehouse of stolid brick, it now contains a gym and hammam; a cabaret (about which more later); an all-but-bookless "library" bearing a very close resemblance to a bar; two restaurants serving the cosmopolitan fare known to Argentines as comida urbana, or urban cuisine; a brimming lap pool (where one rainy afternoon we saw a troupe of synchronized swimmers in bathing caps practicing for the Veuve Clicquot party to be held that evening); and - just for us - a snow-white suite with blood-red velvet drapes and, in the center of the room, a rotating silver-glass entertainment system somehow reminiscent of an unsheathed dagger.
Presumably these are the amenities that qualify the Faena for the status of a universe. But it's the central hallway that immediately strikes you as the most impressive and impious thing about the place. The narrow hall with the tall ceiling and the clerestory windows would already remind you of the nave of a church, even if it weren't for the panes of red and green glass with fractured flowers of symmetrical air bubbles at their hearts. Doormen admit you into the nave as ceremoniously as if you were a pair of medieval cardinals who had purchased a mess of indulgences.
We peeked into the bistro. I suppose it's one thing to sit in a white leather throne at a white table in a white room, beneath a huge chandelier composed of many pendant tears, and to eat a nice bloody cut of tender Argentine steak and to wash it down with some lip-smacking premier cru. But how does it feel to have the heads of white plaster unicorns mounted above each table? "If I saw the ghost of Gianni Versace in there right now," I said to Catherine, "I wouldn't be surprised."
"Maybe seated with Liberace?" she said. "And wearing a bathing suit, but with the pope's miter on his head?"
We encountered few other guests, and so our curiosity as to what sort of person would pay for such unreality (about $300 to $500 a night in this bankrupt country) remained unsatisfied. However, the confidential and effusive tones in which several employees thanked us for being so polite to them suggested that this sort of person may not be especially nice.
Each guest at the Faena is assigned a rotating team of "experience managers." And I declare that if I were God himself, and wanted to hire someone to greet Spanish- and English-speaking inductees to heaven and give them advice on how to spend eternity, the experience manager Romina Nicolino would be my first choice. Not many are born to work in the hospitality industry, but Romina - beautiful, smiling Romina - made us feel that there was nothing she preferred. Looking at us with a twinkle in her eye, as if there were something a bit scandalous and very pleasant about us that she already knew and we would soon discover, she called up the Gran Bar Danzón and lyrically spelled out for the hostess my somewhat ungainly German surname: "K como 'kilo,' U como 'Ursula,' N como 'Nene,' K como 'kilo,' E como 'Eva,' L como 'Lola."' Then we were off in a taxi, both confessing our love for our experience manager and permitting ourselves to hope that she loved us, too.
We didn't love her the less, either, when we'd settled at our table at the Gran Bar and were tucking into our risotto with coconut milk, goat cheese and smoked corn, and our marinated red mullet with baby shrimp croquettes. Though the bar itself, with exposed cinder blocks and a revolving, soft green strobe, was done in a style of generic hipster minimalism, the prices were Argentine, so that the salt of a bargain was sprinkled over everything we tasted.
"Night life" we took to mean dancing, and Wednesday night is a night of "after office" parties. These begin directly after work, and most of the revelers head home by 2 or 3 in the morning, early by the standards of Porteños, as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires are known. By Friday we would be staying out all night, and now was the time to begin working on our stamina.
"After office" takes place in some of the coolest clubs. There is Opera Bay, in Puerto Madero, with its great white wings of beveled concrete heaped above several communicating dance floors that were lighted from below in chartreuse; there is Museum, in the grittier San Telmo, where a constellation of spinning mirror balls presides over a long, three-tiered arcade in a Beaux-Arts style; and then there's Asia de Cuba, near Opera Bay, which has a carved dragon entwined around a pillar in the middle of the dance floor, like the muscular serpent in certain Flemish depictions of the Fall. The music wasn't bad either, especially at Asia de Cuba, where decent house sounds - thumping, monumental and intricate - pulsed and washed through one's deafened mind.
The only trouble with the "after office" party is that it's lame. I wouldn't suggest going to one unless you are an upwardly mobile young Argentine guy who enjoys dressing like Alex P. Keaton and standing around with your buddies ogling some of the women, whom you vastly outnumber.
We had imagined Argentina as a nation of beautiful people and excellent dancers. And for those beautiful, dancing Argentines we had brought our fanciest clothes and best moves. But they weren't dancing! "I don't know if dancing's what they're into," Catherine noted pointedly. The clubgoers who were not standing in separate encampments of men and women were mostly unfortunate couples whose faces had become stuck together.
Being disappointed and also, by this point, having enjoyed many cocktails, I said, "Man, all these Argies know how to do is suck face." Fortunately, not too many young Argentines, many of whom appear to spend a lot of time at the gym, understand idiomatic English.
The savior of the night was the famous (to the natives) Argentine pop star Charly Garcia. Back at the Faena he was warming up with his band in the red velvet lair of the cabaret. In spite of the capacity crowd (some of whom were curiously shouting, "Viva de porno!"), Catherine and I, with our mysterious good luck, were admitted to the show free, just in time to watch the curtain rise, revealing a middle-aged man wearing thick nerd glasses, headphones and a luxuriant mane of black-and-silver hair. Then Garcia began to sing, in English. The song, to judge by the ecstatic reaction of the crowd, must be one of his greatest hits:
"In another part of the world I can be free / In another part of the world I can be me."
Cooler by far than the kids we'd seen milling around and making out on Wednesday night were the middle-class people of every age and description gathered, on Friday, at La Viruta. This milonga-tango club is held several times a week in a dim room, not unlike a department-store basement, in the shabby-chic neighborhood Palermo Viejo. The coolness of everyone was not apparent until the music struck up and people began to dance.
We'd been told that the tango was no longer really a living art. Clearly these young and old tangoers, sober or a little drunk, well and not so well dressed, hadn't heard the news. Catherine and I and our new friend Matt (his band had recently disbanded, and he'd left his bartending job: Buenos Aires these days attracts all sorts of young people at loose ends) sat at a crumb-dusted table and watched with fascination, turning into something like joy, as an obese elderly man with drooping eyelids, a Roman profile and surprisingly nimble feet took in his arms a hot young thing in tall heels and a fishnet blouse. This pair was joined by a handsome and skilled couple in their 50's, his denim shirt half-unbuttoned, her tiny skirt hiked almost to the point of indecency.
We watched as the couples executed their steps and swivels, their dramatic twirls and pregnant pauses, pressed tight and upright against one another, with nothing much in common besides a look of almost somber concentration. I particularly liked the young woman with the liquid hips, in her flowered dress, and that sly-looking older man with his sober dark suit and rockabilly pompadour. But the milonga seemed above all a democratic affirmation, both casual and intense, of the beauty of each and all of its participants. Really, it was like nothing we Americans have ever seen in our own country. Walt Whitman, you would have thought, was their national poet, not ours.
Still, we weren't quite ready to give up on the clubs and devote ourselves to the tango. We met up with our other new friend, Chloe (who'd temporarily quit the British film business to learn Spanish), and made our way to a Palermo boîte bearing the name Club 69.
It was electro-cabaret night, and Catherine and Matt and Chloe and I, along with the Argentine couple we'd picked up en route - such is the way of the city in the small hours - were soon standing on the dance floor. Meanwhile, onstage, women in metallic bondage regalia and men in suit jackets and shiny underpants pranced and thrusted before a Mao-size video image of Liza Minnelli. Evidently she was the goddess of this cult, which we were pleased to join. Good electronic dance music induces a sort of violent mysticism; the mind is forcibly emptied, the ego is suppressed by the beat.
Soon the go-go dancers were sporting enormous purple crests in place of hair, and Liza Minnelli had given way to abstract red-and-violet Navajo patterns blossoming in endless iterations, and I was drenched in sweat after dancing for hours. So had everyone else in this club, so much hipper, gayer, crazier and no doubt more under the influence than anyone we'd seen so far.
We didn't want to leave but had heard that it was important to check out the club Pacha. And so our party (without the Argentine couple, who had melted away into the night) piled into a cab at 6 a.m. We were afraid of arriving too late, though we needn't have been. There on the Rio de la Plata, at the northern edge of the city, with the sun nudging up over the water and the country of Uruguay discernible as a faint disruption of the horizon, was a big hacienda of pink stucco with a Spanish pantile roof, emanating trance music and spilling partygoers into the dawn: Pacha.
"How can they keep at it?" Chloe wanted to know. As for the four of us, we kept going because, I guess, our last night as a group had now turned into our last morning. We danced and danced, and raised up our arms with the rest of the crowd when the beat dropped, and jumped up and down when the light swept over us. We danced among ourselves, and with the drooping flowers of Porteño youth, until the music stopped and the D.J. hung up his headphones.
For a long time, Buenos Aires has been both ridiculed and admired as a European capital marooned in South America. You might say that these days "the Paris of the South," as it is known, is the only Western European city in which the dollar is still strong. But now it was time to return to the Northern Hemisphere, where the dollar was not so strong, and it was not spring, and my friend and I would no longer be a couple. Moreover, it seemed to me I would be returning to New York with a cold; already I felt that distinctive scratchiness at the back of my throat. It seemed I was too old to be a club kid treating several nights of each week as a portable rave. But I didn't want to give up any of my remaining hours to sleep, and when Catherine crawled into bed, I went to take a look at the ocean.
On my way there, I passed sunbathing old men, picnicking families, floating swans and bounding unleashed dogs. The cement promenade was covered with political graffiti and overlaid with the smoke of grilled meat. This was the realest-looking scene of any that I'd witnessed, and I thought how unreal our time had been here, in cheap, dirty, proud and delirious Buenos Aires. Before long I was standing on the shore of a very brown Atlantic Ocean, on a shingle not of pebbles and sand but of broken concrete and mangled rebar and pieces of scrap wood. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Beautiful and Damned," Gloria, 25, remarks that there is nothing that she wants "except to be young and beautiful for a long time, to be gay and happy, and to have money and love."
link to the original posting
the promised links:
Bolivia's Home-Grown President(by Daphne Eviatar, the Nation)
How Latins View the US (By Alvaro Vargas Llosa, Mother Jones)