December 15, 2008

Alice's Argeninian adventures

A day in BA:

Alice el turista in full force remains an observer of the strange, the silly, and the bizarre. For example, on her city tour, she is astounded that one of the main stops is the soccer stadium.

She had no idea soccer was an Argentine religion, could not imagine a city tour of, say, Wonderland, that put Yankee Stadium so high on the priority list. Alice roots for no team, not in any sport.

Everywhere the tourists come in couples: Alice meets the 50 somethings from Chicago, who think the digital camera in the running for the sliced-bread contest. So easy, they say. So cheap, for thousands of exposures.

So little thought, Alice suggests. So little artistry. Alice prefers to compose one spectacular shot rather than run through a dozen at a clip, attempting to capture the image at random.

The 20 somethings from Seattle are lovers of technology and sport. Alice considers them The Youth, and gets Youth to change her camera batteries, for she is certain Youth has a better handle on all things technological than does Alice. Youth, after all, was born after Alice got her first computer.

Chicago and Seattle don't have as many questions as Alice does: she wants a constant narrative: where are they? what's the historical significance around here? what do the Portenos, as the people of BA are known, think of the multimillion-dollar flower statue whose center follows the sun?

But Alice's Spanish is limited, in part due to a mental block about the language, which she first heard one summer in Cambridge, spoken incessantly by teenage offspring of the Nicaraguan elite, who had been sent to Harvard to learn English. Ha.

They went for a two-month party, highlighted by the celebration the day Somoza was overthrown. None even tried to hablas ingleses.

Then, too, Wonderland is awash in bilingual signs and companies with phone machines that, Alice gathers, ask you to press 2 if you want to conduct your business in Spanish.

Alice thinks it all very fine and well to have a bilingual city, but she draws the line at her local drugstore clerk who does not know the English word for "film."

Yet in Buenos Aires, Alice wishes she did not choke on the language, confusing it with every other romance language she has known. She could use a few sentences to question the tour guide.

On to the Plaza de Mayo, site of Evita's famed plea, and the Casa Rosada, Argentina's answer to the White House. BA is a cross between Washington, D.C., with all its government buildings freshly scoured with her tax dollars, and Wonderland, where government is an afterthought.

The original house of government, the Cabildo, dates from 1765, and is open only as a museum. Outside, it wears graffiti tags and shady teenagers hanging out. A father and daughter who appear homeless sit on the building steps to eat their shared lunch.

This in itself reminds Alice that while she is a tourist, BA is a real city, just like Wonderland, with a huge range of comfort levels.

Caminito is a postcard, an open-air museum with street-dancing tango performers, a locale originally settled by Italian immigrants and now home to tourists from all nations. It is not, as Alice was told, just one street.

It is a warren of pedestrian walks, with colorful buildings that blur in Alice's mind, as well as confuse Alice's sense of direction. There, she nearly misses the bus, for the tour guide fails to live up to her job description. Every other guide Alice meets is perfect.

She is most fond of George, her go-to guy, the man who tells her that if she has the slightest need or curiosity, all she has to do is call. Alice would like a go-to guy in Wonderland, to steer her past all the messy bits, the times when Alice would prefer not to lead the way, not to navigate the crowds herself.

Had his timing been better, he would have given Alice a tour of Recoleta cemetery, where Alice ventures on her own and pays her respects to Eva Peron, one of the many famous and honored at the exclusive plot of mausoleums, where to this day, funerals are held. It is odd, the juxtaposition of the tourist and the mourner.

At the gaucho ranch

The next day, another double-take. Alice has gone to the estanzia with a group of Belgians and a mother and daughter from Columbia. They share the day with a huge group of men celebrating 50 years of their company's manufacturing success.

What does the company make? Toilets. Alice has never given any thought to where the porcelain gods originate, much less where its creators celebrate.

The Columbian daughter has taken this trip to Argentina in lieu of a 15th birthday celebration, akin to Alice's Sweet Sixteen. Are Sweet 16s still part of the teenage lexicon for girls of a certain class? Alice has no idea.

She thinks the trip a much better idea. Two weeks of seeing the world vs. four hours of a party: would Alice have made that decision? Who can remember 16?

At the gaucho-style barbecue, Alice et. al. receive a standard meal for a cowboy: four courses of meat, with an occasional shredded carrot for variety. Had Alice known what a huge repast was planned, she would have paced herself better.

Then there is the floor show, where songs of every nation come alive. There is nothing quite like hearing Hava Nagila on a tourist-ed up horse ranch outside of BA. For a moment, Alice thinks she is at a Bar Mitzvah.

Solo explorations

Alice finds life to be one image contrasted against another, with disconnects abounding, and entertainment found in the oddest of places. At the tango show, Alice discovers the ladies' room has no tampon dispenser, but condoms, or preservativo, have a shiny white dispenser.

The tango dancers are lithe and flexible; the women ballerina-thin and just as agile. Alice takes a tango lesson, and feels exceedingly clumsy. The dancers tell a story that Alice cannot translate, but embraces just the same.

In Palermo, the next evening at a restaurant, Alice spots the preservativo dispenser again. This time, it is paired with a toothbrush dispenser. Obviously, these items are what every Porteno needs in a hurry.

Portenos, like Parisians, are also fond are what are marketed as American brands. Many years ago in France, Alice grew accustomed to seeing sweatshirts from non-existent U.S. universities.

On Avenida Alvear, BA's most elegant shopping street, akin to Wonderland's Madison Avenue, Alice comes across a clothing store called "SoHo New York Est. 1958." She is certain that the brand's creator has no idea that what has become SoHo, was, in the 1950s, a manufacturing district, chic in no one's eyes.

What sums up Alice's experiences best is the BA duty-free shop: She cannot figure out how one fits a 42-inch flat-screen LCD TV under the seat, but it is for sale nonetheless.

Then she comes upon shots of Chivas, dispensed for the tasting, with no one minding the open bottle. Try that in the U.S. Since the whiskey is there, Alice has to have a couple of shots. What better way to fly?


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