Come to Buenos Aires

Don’t expect freebies and bikinis though

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—I am told that New Yorkers by the planeloads are packing their bags and moving 5,000 miles south to Buenos Aires, to gorge themselves on $4 steaks and to trade in their 18-hour workdays for 6-hour party nights. The Good Life, they’ve recently been told (by the likes of New York Magazine and USA Today—“It has a European air and a Latin flair,” one article exclaimed, along with “Girls in bikinis!”) is available in Buenos Aires for a mere pittance, a fraction of what it costs just to scrape by in the Big Apple.

$1000 per month, more or less, for rent, fine dining, entertainment, shopping, the works. Buenos Aires, true enough, offers up all the comforts of home and more: wide Parisian boulevards, the world’s best beef, trendy boliches (or discotheques, to use the not-so-trendy local term), an up-and-coming design community, beautiful people, and ample psychotherapeutic support to deal with the lingering guilt of living like kings among the ruins of what was once Latin America’s strongest economy. For the record, there are more psychoanalysts per capita in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world.

Argentina’s 2001 default on over $140 billion in international loans imploded the economy, precipitating a massive bank run and widespread civil unrest. When the dust settled, the Argentine peso was trading at roughly four to the American dollar, after a decade of parity. Europeans and North Americans began to trickle into Buenos Aires to take advantage of the exchange rate, and lately the media’s been abuzz about South America’s “best kept secret.”

This publicity comes right on the heels of a 2006 global cost of living survey conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting that placed Buenos Aires as the 142nd most expensive city in the world, out of 144. Montevideo and Caracas both scored higher; only Manila and Asunción were cheaper. No wonder New Yorkers are fleeing their city like rats from a sinking ship—who wouldn’t want to pay less to live a life of cultured luxury?

I’m in Buenos Aires to study literature and history for six months, but folks, even just two weeks into my voluntary expatriation, I can tell you that the PR is nothing more than a show, replete with all the authenticity of a cheesy tourist trap; this picture of Buenos Aires is like laying down $60 for a greasy dinner and an overwrought tango performance—it’s simply not the real thing. People forget that Buenos Aires, despite what its inhabitants may tell you, is, in the end, a South American city: brazen political corruption, misinformation, and bureaucracy like you wouldn’t believe are everyday realities here, not to mention a serious paucity of quality electronics.

Better to find a local milonga ($3-5 US), a dance hall where ordinary Argentines go to tango until dawn: It’s much more unpredictable, surprising, moving, and, in its own breathtakingly nonchalant way, sensual, much like Buenos Aires itself. Some of the most rewarding experiences to be had in this metropolis involve doing ordinary things with ordinary people. My favorite moment in the city unfolded in an unglamorous barrio, at a Chinese restaurant while attempting to order a plate of fried rice with eggs. “Dan chow feng,” I said, pointing to the characters on the menu that I couldn’t read but whose contents I had puzzled out from the Spanish translation. “Muy bien,” the waitress said. “You know Chinese?”

My first effortless trilingual conversation, in three sentences.

By all means, come to Buenos Aires. When Harvard’s intersession rolls around, it’ll be gorgeous here in the southern cone of South America. After all, this city breathes what Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar immortalized in print. Such idylls offer much more than mere hazy fantasies of cheap, hedonistic living. You just won’t find that kind of free ticket here; and in the meanwhile, you’ll be annoying the heck out of the rest of us.

Grace Tiao ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is a joint English and American literature and language and history and science concentrator in Currier House. She wrote this piece while shivering madly in the Argentine winter, on the balcony of her apartment in a bikini.