Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Will My Love for Buenos Aires Bloom Again Now That I'm Going Back?

I'll never forget the day I fell for Buenos Aires. Although we already had been getting along splendidly, it hadn't been exactly love at first sight upon my arrival there. What we were having before that crucial epiphanic moment was the perfect one-holiday stand that didn't necessarily need to go any further than what it was. I was in like for sure, but what I felt was well short of that all-consuming love that sometimes leads to packing up and relocating.

Then on that Sunday afternoon in May of 2005, one week after my first arrival in BA and the day before my first departure, everything changed. I was walking aimlessly through the Sunday market on la calle Defensa in San Telmo with Brad, a 25-year-old tourist from San Francisco whom I'd met the previous Wednesday at a bar called Sitges. Suddenly, I was overcome by a holy trinity: Brad's excellent company, the afterglow of our perfect Saturday hanging out together in BA (sightseeing, a tango-show dinner, dancing at Glam -- another holy trinity, all 100 percent platonic), and the gorgeous French-style architecture on Defensa. I felt like a pipe had burst inside of me, and I was overflowing with love -- for the city and for everything/everyone in it.

By the time I boarded my direct flight back to New York City the following evening, I was thoroughly obsessed. I'd be back, and it couldn't be soon enough. It was the beginning of an obsession unlike any other I'd felt for any other city, even London, since New York City circa 1991 to 1995. Nearly eight years later, it's still hard to explain, but I was certain I had lingered in BA in another lifetime, and I belonged there in this one. From then on, for the next few years, I resented anything that took me away from Buenos Aires. (Damn, my career in New York City!)

Two visits later, I bought an apartment in BA, and by the next visit, my fourth, I was there to stay -- for six months. I ended up sticking around four years longer, which may have been two years too long.

By the time I left Buenos Aires at the beginning of March 2011, I'd come to regard it the way I often look back on high school and college -- with a certain wistfulness for the good times (yes, there were definitely a lot of those) but also with a considerable amount of anxiety (PTSD?). I've been out of classrooms for 22 years, yet I still regularly dream that I'm taking an exam I haven't studied for, only to wake up relieved that those school days are long gone. Sometimes during my first year out of BA, I'd wake up in my sixth-floor apartment in Palermo Hollywood, terrified and confused. How did I end up back there? Then I'd wake up for real, in Melbourne or in Bangkok, thankful that BA, like those end-of-semester finals, was behind me.

Only it wasn't. I own an apartment in BA that's left me tied to the city. It's actually a large part of what went wrong with BA and me, and not just because it was robbed twice -- once when I was living in it and a second time 14 months after I left. If only BA and I had kept it light (no strings, no property ownership), then perhaps we might have made a cleaner break, to use a dreaded dating cliche. They say never mix love and money, don't go into business with someone you love. That warning would certainly apply to BA.

Expats beware: Buenos Aires is made for porteños (Argentine locals) and short-term visitors. Anyone from another South American country (say, Bolivia or Peru) who spends a significant amount of time in BA would understand why the former holds true. As for the latter, tourists can enjoy the beautiful, eccentric Argentines without getting too involved. They don't even have to worry about learning the language, which opens a Pandora's box of local defects (many of which I've documented right here in posts on this blog). Even Argentines from outside of BA have misgivings about the city's native populace. Last year in Bangkok I dated a guy from Salta who reprimanded me every time I said "Argentines" when I should have been saying "porteños." "There's a big difference, you know," he always reminded me.

When you move to Buenos Aires and you start dating porteños and understanding them when they're speaking Spanish, you begin to discover the cracks in their beautiful armor. We all want what we can't have until we have it, but porteños have turned the thrill of the chase (and the loss of interest at the end of it) into an art form. There's even a word -- histérico -- that's used to describe those who have mastered it. This may have been only my experience and nobody else's, but I thought of porteños as highly as I now regard Thais and Australians (positively, overall, though not with blinders on that prevent me from seeing their warts and all), until I started living among them full-time.

Love has never been a bloodier battlefield for me than it was in Buenos Aires, and I truly pity the fool who must engage in those particular wars of the heart while battling the Argentine bureaucracy. It's a sluggish, unwieldy beast, and you can't appreciate its true horrors until you own an apartment there and are forced to tangle with it.

I'm not saying that owning in New York City was such a breeze. Co-op boards and astronomical maintenance fees presented their own special set of challenges, but thank God for the American emphasis on expedience, efficiency and, perhaps most importantly, punctuality. In BA, the simple act of buying a drink in a bar was a drawn-out process, a peek into the bureaucratic mindset. First you had to wait in a line to buy a drink ticket from a cashier, then you had to wait in line to order from a bartender, and once you ordered, you had to wait while three or more bartenders mixed drinks, seemingly in slow motion. Nothing was ever straightforward and concise.

I still have unsettling BA flashbacks of jumping through hoops to secure a telephone land line with Telecom and the weeks I had to wait for furniture I'd bought at Buenos Aires Design to be delivered or for a malfunctioning air-conditioning unit to be fixed. Nothing in BA ever seemed to happen quickly, and everyone was always late, if they bothered to show up at all.

Being stood up by a date is frustrating, yes, but it's nothing compared to an AC repairman who blows you off while you're sweating bullets on a sticky leather couch. Having my apartment broken into six months after moving to BA and having to deal with the police process only compounded the bureaucratic horror that I wouldn't wish on my worst BA boyfriend. I'll never forget or forgive being attacked and robbed by three burglars only to be basically told "Get over it. It happens to everyone who lives here." I could go on for hours telling stories about the three B's in BA (bureaucracy, burglaries and bad boys), but you'll have to buy my book to read them.

Ironically, it's the sale of my apartment -- the one that made my time in Buenos Aires fiscally feasible while occasionally rendering it nearly unbearable -- that will bring me back to BA in exactly three weeks and is making me hopeful about BA and me again while I'm starting to look forward to the non-living things I'm most excited about revisiting: my siestas, my Pilates classes and my ensalada de fruta. But first we need to work out some kinks. The selling process is already underscoring the unimproved BA bureaucracy in blood-red ink. Selling my NYC apartment three years ago didn't require nearly as much pomp and circumstance, and the BA sale has been underway for less than a week.

Sometimes I wonder if government workers in BA just enjoy pushing paper, or if they're punishing those lucky/unlucky enough to own property there. I also wonder if the clowns I dated in BA and the ones who ripped me off would have been easier to stomach had I been more detached from my living situation, not having to worry about tardy or no-show repairmen and bungled police investigations of home invasions in which corrupt cops were possibly involved.

Once the sale is settled, I'm hopeful that this trip will put BA and me back on good terms. For the first time in three birthdays, I'll get to spend my next one on May 7 surrounded by close friends. Meanwhile, being there as a visitor, living in someone else's space, will eliminate the need to involve myself with any bureaucratic process outside of the sale of my apartment, which, hopefully, will be well enough underway by the time I arrive not to cause too many migraines.

Despite how much I hear BA has changed due to out-of-control inflation and the threat of another major economic crisis, maybe it will be almost like old times again, back when I enjoyed the city as a traveler passing through and not as an expat trying to make sense of it and find my place there.

I'm even looking forward to those beautiful Argentine men, the ones who regularly tested my willpower, my patience, and my faith in the inherent goodness of mankind. And the best part is that since I'll be there for one month only, I won't have time to fall in love with anything but the city.
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