Living in Buenos Aires, we seem to have come back full circle to the European start of our year. The city looks like Paris or Madrid: cobblestone streets, cafes, buildings built in the Neapolitan style, and high fashion everywhere. We feel like we need to upgrade our wardrobe from the old sneakers and jackets we wear every day. But the sneakers are needed for walking: miles upon miles of avenues, parks and museums to explore. Unlike New York, there is no overall organizing principle, no numbered streets, no “A” train from top to bottom. Instead there are huge “barrios” to visit, each one taking a full morning to explore. The subway system covers the downtown area, supplemented by a confusing patchwork of buses and commuter rail. We have loved exploring the wide avenues and narrow pedestrian streets, the gorgeous stone buildings with towers, turrets and gargoyles, the modern streetscapes that remind us of Fifth Avenue and 42nd street in New York.
The weather, too, feels like late fall in Europe, reminding us of our time in Madrid last November. A chill wind blows off the river, scattering the autumn leaves down the sidewalk. The days are sunny and warm, but the evenings (when the city comes alive) and nights are quite cold. In the mornings, fog floats over the city and looks like a sky full of snow. June in Buenos Aires is winter.
It feels odd being in such an opulent city after living in Bolivia. The number of private cars is astounding. There are no street sellers, no young men shining shoes. Professional dog walkers, no stray dogs. Starbucks has made inroads here, vying with local purveyors of fancy tea and coffee. We choose the local alternative, and ordering a simple cup of coffee, we were treated with fine coffee topped by a dollop of ice cream, along with cookies and a glass of mineral water. Though I certainly survived without coffee for two months, it is nice to enjoy a good cup of the stuff.
We happened upon the Salon de Glace, a circular building that was a skating rink, now a modern art exhibit with creative installations of all kinds. In MALBA, the main Buenos Aires art museum, we saw an interesting exhibit on beef by Cristina Piffer. Commenting on the centrality of beef in the Argentine diet, and its connection with colonialism and violence, she works with slabs of meet (generally frozen into plastic) and rectangles of white fat. Marble parquet floors, tombstones, ropes: meat is transposed into creative shapes to tell her stories.
We visited the little museum dedicated to Eva Peron, heroine of Argentine history though she was never elected to public office. There were no facts in the museum, but a telling emotion. The myth of the little angel who sacrificed all for her people (despite her extravagant wardrobe and her pre-marital affair with her husband-to-be, Juan Duarte). Her image lives on even today in the Peronista party.
The themes in the Eva Peron museum were oddly familiar, from our visit to Che Guevara’s childhood home outside Cordoba. The same prettified biography, the same story of a life of sacrifice for country and ideals, and the accompanying strong religious overtones. In both cases, the underlying message seems to head towards beatification. This despite the violence undertaken by Che as a Marxist revolutionary and later, as an enforcer in the Cuban government. Eva ran an orphanage for poor children, but we know that as a powerbroker in her husband’s government, she was party to violence and injustice as well. Her gravestone reads, in part: I am an essential part of your existence. All love and pain I have foreseen. I have accomplished my humble imitation of Christ.
We visited a museum of a different sort in Cordoba’s “Museo de la Memoria”, Museum of Memory. This museum, and another like it in Buenos Aires, is devoted to telling the story of Argentina’s “dirty war”, the many thousands of citizens who were tortured and killed by the government in the 1970s and 1980s. The police bureau used as a detention center is the actual site of the museum. First-hand recollections of survivors echo along the walls which are unchanged since those days, frighteningly recent in memory. The museum itself is a courageous undertaking in a country where perpetrators of those crimes are still alive and well, many of them still in power.