El mundo es mi suelo, el cielo mi techo, Buenos Aires donde cosecho mis anhelos y mis pasiones…
(The world is my floor, the sky my ceiling, Buenos Aires where I reap my desires and my passions…)
– Gotan Project, Mi Confesión
We landed in Buenos Aires after dark. The cab sped north towards the city centre, the cluster of lights that an hour earlier we’d craned our necks to squint at from the air, now rushing upon us. First, along the freeway, the street lamps and billboards, then a car park and an apartment block, it’s lit windows vibrant rectangles against a column of black. Then come the residential streets, cafes, bars, shops and supermarkets.
Through net curtains a television flickers while its three viewers chat animatedly over its noise. Fairy lights hang over the door of a bar outside which a girl with a camera is ordering her friends into a line. Through the darkened windows of the closed shops we make out the silhouettes of chairs, bed linen, power tools, shoes, lamps, mannequins.
A glimpse through the window of a restaurant, or bar, or kitchen, or bedroom shows glasses half full, forks mid-air, anecdotes mid-flow, confessions about to be heard and apologies just made, tears being fought back, laughter on the verge of brimming over. The city flies by in a sequence of light and dark, seen and unseen. Like frames from a movie, each scene appears frozen in time.
I love arriving in a city at night. Those snatched moments, lives lit for a fraction of a second before they disappear from my view, seem to be brimming with promise. By day a city seems ordinary, however vibrant and chaotic. Business is carried out, transactions are made, conversations and arguments are had, and the cogs of life, of industry, of society, turn.
But at night the ordinary evaporates in a gentle hum. Then, when the buildings sleep and the world exists in chiaroscuro, that’s when inspiration flickers into life, when hope hangs in the air and anything seems possible.
A new day approaches. What will tomorrow hold?
I loved Buenos Aires before I even saw it. Described repetitively and unimaginatively as the Paris of South America, it seemed inevitable. A European-syle city in the heart of Latinoamérica, accessible yet alien, I knew that on a straighforward level, I could feel comfortable there.
But Buenos Aires is not Europe and it is most definitely not Paris. The grand architecture, the boulevards and plazas, the wine bars and coffee shops are reminiscent but deceptive for beneath it all burns a spirit and identity that is entirely Argentinian. Not only is Buenos Aires unlike any European city I have visited, it is unlike any South American city I have visited.
Its history is familiar enough: colonisation, international trade, the growing of power and the subsequent attempts to consolidate this power, attacks from the British and French, independence from Spain, unification, immigration on a grand scale, art, literature, theatre, music and vast economic growth. And all this before the start of the 20th century.
In the last 100 years, Buenos Aires’ story has been laced with the dark thread of political conflict. Grand ideologies gave way to sinister levels of control and politicians were hailed as demi-gods even as thousands of former Nazis were escaping justice and setting up home in Argentina.
Buenos Aires is a city that was bombed by its own navy. It’s a city that watched, helpless, as thousands of people vanished, were tortured and murdered under the military junta. Now walking through the vibrant streets, lingering on street corners to chat, one cannot help but be acutely aware that only thirty years ago such liberty seemed impossible.
Even now, it’s fair to say the city’s future is not exactly certain. In the week we visited, a Jewish lawyer was found dead of a gunshot wound, just hours before he was due to present evidence against the current government’s role in covering up the 1994 bombing of a Jewish cultural centre. The government claimed it was suicide.
For all its beauty, its culture, its vibrancy and its quality of life, Buenos Aires has a deeply ugly side. And that, for me, is what makes it so much more than just a tourist destination. Buenos Aires is not a fantasy. It is real, it is dark, it is complex and after the sight-seeing is done, there’s still so much more to learn, to understand.
Try as I might, I can’t shake off the feeling that I have not finished with this city.