Sunday, February 20, 2011

Why I might be leaving Buenos Aires just in time

Buenos Aires has its charm. Though a lot of it has faded for me, for a while, there were enough things in the plus column to keep me here for more than four years. From the right vantage points, the city's tarnished glamour is still breathtaking, the fruit salad is to die for, and tango, wine and red meat make for a romantic -- if not necessarily heart healthy -- combination. People visit the city and will continue to do so because it's a highlight of South America, right up there with Brazil's twin attractions, Sao Paulo and Rio.

But that's not why so many people from the United States have been flocking here to live over the past few years. Yes, all of the above stuff is a draw for them, too, but for the most part, we moved here because it was cheap.

Was cheap -- emphasis on the past tense to accentuate the negative.

I remember going out to dinner with a friend during my first visit to BA in 2005 and spending the equivalent of US$20 on a whiscola, a shared bottle of wine, an appetizer and a main course. Though the exchange rate has improved (in the beginning US$1 equalled three pesos; now, it's four), you'd be lucky to get an entree and bottled water in any decent restaurant for under US$20. No wonder so many locals are wired to rip us off. The prices go up up up, but the salaries don't. I'm not sure how the honest survive.

The other night I went out with my friend Rob to a traditional BA cafe -- a charming little place by local standards, but the kind of semi-dump you wouldn't be caught dead in on any other continent. Rob ordered a Fernet and coke, and both of our jaws dropped to the floor when the waiter charged him 45 pesos. That's US$11 and change! For a foul-tasting local concoction (Fernet is a kind of unofficial national drink of Argentina) that I wouldn't spend half of that on in the states.

A few nights later, I ordered a whiscola at a bar where whiscolas used to cost around 15 pesos. When I handed the bartender a 50, I wasn't expecting to get 35 pesos back (you know, inflation), but I sure was expecting more than 17 in change. That's US$9 for a mixed drink made with cheap national whiskey that's almost guaranteed to give you a deadly hangover. Sometimes I think they'll continue to raise the price of everything until they no longer have to make change for a 100.

The inflation wouldn't be such a bummer if there were an increase in quality, or if service came with a smile now and then. But it's same old same old here in BA: a kiss on the cheek for all and a scowl if you dare to ask for help. You could buy a bottle of whiskey and Coca-Cola at the supermercado for less money and have enough for a month's worth of whiscolas while avoiding all that porteño attitude. I make it a rule never to drink at home, but if I were sticking around, I'd probably start. Melbourne may not be a bargain basement, but the quality standards are high, and service usually comes with a smile or at least a "Good day, mate." It makes spending 10 bucks on a beer less likely to induce groaning.

To be fair, some things are still pretty cheap in BA. You can rent a decent apartment for less than half of what you'd probably pay in any other major city. If you skip bars and restaurants and do all of your eating at home, you can get by on about 40 pesos a day. I recently even had my apartment painted for US$200. But if you're in the market for luxury items, or you want to go out, be prepared to pay dearly.

I think I read somewhere that the rate of inflation is expected to be 33 per cent in 2011. I'm terrible at economics, so I'm not sure what that means exactly, but it doesn't sound good. Looks like I picked the perfect time to leave a party that was kind of dying anyway.


Gastón Arcuri said...

Jeremy, an increase on the inflation rate doesn't necessarily account for an increase in good/services quality! So don't expect it. It's just related to the value of the currency being LESS than before, which means your purchase power decreases; thus, you need "more bills of 5 or 10 pesos" to pay for your Fernets.

Order a drink in Europe, and I'm not talking about the UK (and their utterly expensive English Pounds). In Barcelona, Spain, for instance, you get charged up to 13 euros for a drink in an OK club.

Jeremy Helligar said...

I know! I was in London and Europe last year, and it WAS expensive, but I don't think it was quite as bad as everyone says it is. Australia, however, is ridiculously expensive, though they don't seem to think so. And I do come from New York City, which is one of the priciest cities in the world, so I'm used to paying top dollar. My thing is that in the U.S., in Australia, in London, in Europe, you generally get what you pay for, so I don't frown when I order a $20 burger in Australia. It comes out pretty quickly, and the person serving it smiles and says, "How's it going, mate?"
But when the waiter charging Rob 45 pesos for his Fernet and Coke can't even crack a smile, or when I'm eating a 125-peso entree at Casa Cruz, surrounded by a bunch of scowling waiters, it makes me want to run home and order delivery for 30 pesos! In the general scheme of things, the cost of living is still pretty low if you have U.S. dollars in Argentina, and I know I'm going to be hurting in Melbourne.

Carla said...

I don´t think you should go. BA it is a city you never finish exploring. It is a city where every corner tells a tale of the past or represents the height of modernity, and nowhere is the tight bond between the past and present more clearly represented than downtown at the Plaza de Mayo. I had a Buenos Aires rent rght there and it was so great to be near all of the main attractions. Loved it!