ILLUSTRATION BY LISA ENGELHARDT
MICHAEL GREEN SIPS A BITTERSWEET CUP IN BUENOS AIRES, A CITY THAT HAS SURVIVED THE BEST AND WORST OF TIMES.
On my first day in Buenos Aires I caught the trail of lost love: a friend’s love, not mine. But then the sultry city lured me in. Not long ago, my friend lived there with his Argentine girl. They had an apartment in Palermo, just north of the centre. A wrought-iron balcony over a shady street. His favourite cafe, Café Nostalgia, on the corner. “They make the only decent coffee in Buenos Aires,” he told me. But he mustn’t have minded the bad coffee. He lounged for days on end in cafes and cantinas, watching the old couples leaning close, listening to the secret card games in the corner. That was after they broke up. Immersed in the city and lost in confusion, he delayed his return for months. Finally, he went home – for good. And one morning, soon afterwards, my plane landed. That afternoon I walked past his two apartments, the one he shared with the girl and the one where, later, he lived alone. As the sun shuffled through the leaves of the knobbly trunked trees I imagined my friend’s memories. I imagined being in love with the girl and the city. I felt his exhilaration at carving a new, unusual life and felt his uncertainty at its end. I arrived at Café Nostalgia with a list of his old haunts in my hand: travelling alone, with a bittersweet trail to follow. ‘Bittersweet’ suits Buenos Aires. Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires, are famously haughty and brooding. Thirteen million live in the city at the mouth of Río de la Plata and history lingers and threatens them like a heavy cloud in the distance. In the last 60 years they have seen dictatorship and despair, war and torture, poverty and economic collapse. But they are famous, too, for their reputation as lovers. At the turn of the 20th century Argentina was rich. It sat among the 10 richest countries of the world, and its capital bears the marks of wealth: boulevards, parks, plazas and opulent French architecture; tall, carved doors that lead to marble staircases; a blue art-deco spire growing between plain apartments. But it isn’t so rich anymore. Another night, as I drank my coffee, a small boy hunched in the opposite gutter, ripping open garbage bags and pulling out plastic bottles under the yellow streetlights. In the cafe, the ceiling fans swirled, the football was on the television and no one paid the boy any attention. After the peso crashed in 2001, the city changed. A new phenomenon emerged: Los Cartoneros. They are the
ghosts pushing trolleys, scavenging the city’s rubbish from sundown, extracting anything recyclable and scattering the rest. It’s hard, long, degrading work for little return. My friend had told me about them before I came. “The city doesn’t quite know what to do with them,” he said. In 2003, the government registered 10,000 cartoneros, but now no one knows the exact numbers. They come from the provinces and spread through the streets every night, catching the city in a great web of poverty, and maybe even sobering the rich and the tourists as they look out from their bars. Tango, the tourist icon of Buenos Aires, was once the music of the poor. On Sundays, struggling Spanish and Italian immigrants dressed up and danced while the rich turned up their noses. Now, nightly tango spectaculars have become slick foreign money-spinners. At many community dance halls, though, young porteños are claiming it back. “On a Thursday night at Cochabamba 444,” my friend said, “you can drink a few beers and watch the people dance tango.” The doorway opened from a dark street to a narrow dance floor surrounded by simple tables and chairs. The crowd brought a change of shoes for dancing and hung their small bags from hooks on the wall. With a flick of the eyes, the men asked the women to dance and the floor filled: firm bodies gliding, pausing, leaning; interlocking, kicking legs. They moved with eyes closed and impassioned faces, as though savouring the flavour of a fine wine. The tango is heartbreak to a tune. Another night, in a small old bar called El Boliche de Roberto, two silverhaired tango singers played while a storm came down heavily outside. High up on the walls, the wooden shelves were stocked with antique liquor bottles now black and dusty. The young, fashionable crowd shared the anguished lyrics, mouthing the words and staring into their drinks. Then for one song, almost everyone in the bar sang along, and the sadness changed to joy. Now I am back at Café Nostalgia, on my last afternoon in Argentina, already reminiscing. My plane leaves tonight. Here I am, looking out at the flower stall beneath the trees, daydreaming of the city. I followed my friend’s bittersweet trail and I, too, have fallen for his lost love – Buenos Aires. I never did meet the girl.