Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hola, Buenos Aires

A city is like a lover - smell is everything. I remember on my first trip to India, when Mumbai was still Bombay, how I was struck by the city's pervasive perfume. A sweetish smell, like a spice, but freighted with complexity. A smell of rosewater and shit and betelnut and grimy human living. Even the fruit juice I drank tasted of it, as if it were some kind of obligatory local condiment. It scared me, as a twenty-one year old venturing for the first time into the third world, because of its complete alien-ness, its suggestion of layers upon layers of ingrained life. Coming from my sanitised Australian suburb, the floral-fecal smell of Bombay challenged my white, middle-class squeamishness, my unconscious rejection of the physicality of existence.

Buenos Aires has a particular smell too. A very different one from Bombay circa 1989, but a particular aroma that, once you register it consciously, makes you think, what is that? It also makes you wonder, as a lover's smell can, are you and I going to get along? Or are we too chemically different, will we react to one another like incompatible transplants? Because smell is a city's chemistry, and I'm convinced it works on and with our chemistry too, that there's a reaction. Perhaps that reaction somehow becomes the fate we experience in that city - whether it breaks or steals our heart, makes us king or robs us blind...

I am holed up now in a guest house somewhat further from the city centre than the internet ad promised, and I have actually lost track of how long I haven't slept for. I think it's about 28-odd hours now, so if my prose is lacking, I trust you'll cut me some slack. In fact, I'm just now starting to become delirious, and my eyelids keep spontaneously closing, so I'll keep it short. ish.

First impressions of BA: it looks like a third world city, it smells like a third world city, it functions like a third world city, but it costs like a first world city. Strange. What's more everyone speaks in Spanish all the time. Curiouser and curiouser. Now I never flattered myself that my Spanish was anything but dreadful, but, well it's even dreadfuller than that. I did have something resembling a Spanish conversation with the taxi driver who ripped me off from the airport. A conversation in which it took me about thirty seconds to remember the word for 'twelve'. Absurd. I had to actually count up to it in my head to get it. In fact -I'll admit it - I never did get it. I remembered the word for 'fourteen' and used that instead because it was close enough for the purpose (how many hours was the flight?). It was pure stage fright of course - my first actual conversation in actual Spanish in actual Argentina.

I was relieved that the receptionist at the guesthouse spoke English very well. He asked if I spoke any Spanish and I replied (in nice Espanol) that I was learning, but had only been doing so for a month. Any class in particular, he asked. I continued to explain in Spanish that I'd learnt it from an iPhone app. That seemed to amuse him for some reason. Later he wrote the word 'hoy' on a map and then, after explaining it meant 'today', said, with just a touch of irony, 'But you probably know that from your iPhone program.'

I said, 'It's a good program.'

And he said, 'Sure. You made a whole, properly formed Spanish sentence before and everything.'

Could it be there are limits to the iPhone's power?? My world, my world is crumbling!

Moving right along... I wandered down to San Telmo, the old, cobble-paved district where they sell lots of pricey antiques. After browsing for a while I thought I'd buy a certain young someone a present of a big old Argentinian coin, only it turned out to cost 750 pesos (divide by three-ish). But they do have the most fabulous old junk, including swords and daggers that were obviously real antique weapons, still sharp. Try buying one of those in the nanny state! (OK, I believe in our weapons laws, but still... there's something so charming and liberating about unregulated countries.)

Another thing I failed to fully appreciate about Buenos Aires ... it's eff'n big. Fourteen million people according to the taxi driver (unless my Spanish betrayed me again). It's eff'n big and it's eff'n noisy and Buenos Aires? Good airs? No. No, these are not good airs at all. Time to follow in Mumbai's footsteps and get a new name. Malos Olors, I suggest. Catchy.

1 comment:

AlbertaRoss said...

was there in the 1980s - big big big and the noise and life 24 hours day -I have no spanish and really life almost impossible without it - but I loved it there and had no flack from the Falkland war - enjoy yourself

I never have been able to describe the smell of a place but often a random smell will take me on a magic carpet back to some place in the past