Whew. Sorry about that. I know I said I’d try to get something written during the week, but everything conspired against me, “everything” being defined as personal exhaustion. (Also, that Spanish keyboard, which reduced my usual brisk writing pace to hunt-and-peck.) The trip was, how you say, packed. We spent most of every day racing from one engagement to another, interspersed with the sort of eating you thought went out with the Romans, but didn’t. More on that in a minute.
I rode a horse on an estancia (“dude ranch” in Espanol), and I shook the president’s hand in Evita’s own Pink House (“Casa Rosada” in Ingles). That was pretty much the range of experiences we had. We met the U.S. ambassador, took a tango lesson, talked to political dissidents and victims of the military junta of the late ’70s, had briefings from bankers and economists on the country’s current economic problems, went leather shopping, drank many toasts to international friendship and rare beef. I can’t say I came away with an incisive understanding of the place, but then again, we heard again and again from Argentines that they haven’t figured the place out, either.
It was a wonderful trip. What a fascinating country. Interesting Argentine fact: Did you know this country is one of the last places where old-fashioned Freudian analysis still thrives? Really. There are 40,000 psychoanalysts in Buenos Aires alone. I sat next to one at dinner one night. She specializes in domestic violence and scorned the American method — Prozac and a few sessions of focused, results-oriented therapy — as superficial. I wouldn’t want to quote her on anything — her English was spotty, but far superior to my Spanish — but I think she told me that if one of her clients repeated her pattern of choosing Mr. Wrong, at least she’d understand why she kept doing so.
The country is one of the most European in South America, and shows it in its wedding-cake architecture and the easy-on-the-eyes faces that pass by in the streets. You see Indian bone structure and skin coloring here and there, but far more common the sharp noses and deep-set eyes of Spanish and Italian bloodlines. These are some great-looking people, the women with long, flowing hair and effortlessly chic outfits, the men in shaggy haircuts and nicely cut suits. They give you an air kiss when you meet and say “ciao” when you part, and if you try to speak Spanish to the shopgirls, more often than not they’ll answer back in excellent English, even outside the tourist districts. When I tried to ask which way Avenue Santa Fe was, the clerk said, impatiently, “Don’t try to tell me in Spanish. Just speak English.” Ohh-kaaaaay. I didn’t think I was massacring “donde esta” that badly, but I’ll take her word for it.
The food: Protein. We had at least four or five meals in parillas, steak houses where the grill is in the front window, a large, open fire surrounded by whole pigs, goats and sides of beef. They’re tended by career grill men and the meals they serve are orgies of protein. We generally started with an empanada — a meat pie, appetizer-size — followed by sweetbreads and assorted innards, salad and then — only then! — do they put a cut of beef the size of a baby’s head on its own little brazier next to your plate, along with a side of fried potatoes and whatever else they can stuff down your throat before you get gout. It was an embarrassment of riches, and led to a painful, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” moment our last night, when the last in our group to leave witnessed poor people fighting over the leftovers in the restaurant’s trash bags. We were told over and over that Argentina’s poverty rate now stands at 50 percent, with half of those in extreme poverty, and a smaller but still disturbingly high number who don’t have enough to eat. We saw evidence in the people who come into the city every night, digging through trash for paper and cardboard, which they sell to recyclers. Everyone was optimistic the improving economy might chip these numbers away, but I still spent too much giving to panhandlers and tipping at a 50 percent rate. With prices for nearly all locally made products at about one-third of what they’d fetch here, how can you not?
OK, then. I’m tired, having spent about 18 hours today in transit of some sort (and may I just say, the “trip map” function on the 777 aircraft personal video screen is the coolest thing since cinnamon toast), I’m ready for a Canadian beer, a vegetarian dinner and a long, deep sleep. Pictures later. Comments welcome.