Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Buenos Aires as a "European" city

Buenos Aires (BA) is sometimes considered the most European of the cities in the Americas.

I know very few cities in the Americas so am not in a position to say whether or not that is true.

But BA is certainly very European. In some ways, it has the feel of an Italian city (mixing latest architectural styles with unkempt traditional buildings). In other ways it is quite Spanish (for example, in language - though its version of Spanish is quite distinct not only from Spanish itself, but also from other South American forms of Spanish). Yet it also has people who have settled here from Africa (some 4% of the population), not to mention Russians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Germans, Greeks, Dutch, Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Gypsies, Chinese, and some hundreds of Indians (if one excludes the thousands of Indian IT and other "temporary" workers).

The most interesting aspect of Argentina is its British (or, more precisely, Scottish) connection. Though only some 100,000 people of Scots origin live in Argentina now, that connection subtly imbues a lot of things in Argentina.

For exmaple:

My wife and I have been here a week and we've had only one warm sunny day, the rest has been cold, grey with rain. We even had giant hailstones one mid-day, but we had got off the bus in the centre of BA - 40 mins on the "rapido" from where we are staying - and were in a cafe eating interesting Argentinian snacks and watching the hail stones on the tv, when we met an older Argentinian twosome who recommended the vegetarian "tart" and started talking with us in English. Towards the end of our meal the man, Sanchez, asked if we liked coffee after lunch. I agreed, so he invited us to a very English shop with a surprise behind it. The window held English-style trousers, jackets and caps, cuff-links, etc and we went through the first part which then went on to displays of pipes, tobaccos, and then a whole wall display of different cigars. But the area then opened into a comfortable "gentleman's club" lounge where we sat and chatted while drinking coffee as Sanchez smoked a cigar and, when my wife declined coffee, looked hard at her and then offered a port. Well, said my wife: yes, please! Interesting, as she had just been looking round the room and thinking, this is where one would drink port! And she had not had one for years. Though she told me that it wasn't as rich and aromatic as those from Portugal. The room had a corner full of small wooden cupboards with keys where members kept their favourite cigars in their own humidors. Not sure whether that was the way things were in London in the 17th to 19th centuries...

That afternoon we took the subway to visit the Natural Sciences Museum which had a good display of Argentinian birds, of which there are many - in fact, more species than any other area in the world. Very interesting and beautiful. In the city itself, 2e have seen bright yellow fly catchers, "oven birds" with their clay "oven" nests, and a red cardinal - that that last was in a cage hanging on a tree in the street outside a house... My point was only that from museums to gentleman's clubs, the city is still influenced by the few Scots more than most Argentinians (or, for that matter, even the Scots themselves!) realise.

As for the English, their legacy survives in many place names (though other, more obviously British place names were changed following the Falklands War). The legacy also survives in the Anglican churches here as well as in the work of the South America Missionary Society, in the popularity of football and polo, and so on.

In some ways sadly, though probably only to be expected, the Scots and English communities are now fully integrated into Argentina, and even the English Club has disappeared.
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