Monday, April 19, 2010

Porteña at heart?

I was young and in love. I remember the six-month affair as a hazy muddle of euphoria and depression, passion and frustration. When we went our separate ways my emotions faded. On the other side of the world I all but forgot my former infatuation.

Yet some memories still make me shudder or induce a wave of nausea while others accelerate my heart rate and induce a wave of nostalgia. I remember being cold and lonely, always lost. But I also remember smiling and dancing, feeling so alive.

After three years of 5,230 miles of separation, I suddenly reencountered my former flame. I'd always wondered what it would be like. I was sure my feelings would have changed -- I'd explored so many places since we left off. I was jittery at the first encounter, then a flood of long-turned-subconscious memories washed over me. We spent almost a week getting reacquainted. I kept thinking, How did we end up back together?

Melodramatic imagery aside (the turbulent relationship in question is with a city, not a man), my experience with Buenos Aires is complicated. The city seduced me with a dream-like, balmy summer and then turned on me with a tragic, dreary winter.

But I swooned all over again for the beguiling South American capital as soon as my taxi from the airport entered the city. With every verdant park, palatial building and Italian-inflected line of Spanish the driver uttered, a layer of my grudge melted.

I was back home. But it wasn’t so sweet. Although everything was familiar I found myself disoriented and confused, looking at maps upside down and furiously flipping through my Guia T bus guide. And things had changed. Where were all the mullets and mate drinkers? And when did Starbucks get here?

But running through the Bosques de Palermo, carrying out a load of shopping bags out of Palermo Viejo and wandering through slick art museums with my iPod blasting soothed my irritation. As did spending a day at the spa, lingering over gourmet dinners of spinach gnocchi with vintage Malbec and  downing dozens of cappuccinos and Volta ice cream cones (some of the best, coming from someone who frequented multiple gelato establishments daily during a three-week tour of Italy). I hate to admit it, but the 4:1 peso/dollar exchange rate can bring happiness.

Soon I forgave Buenos Aires. For everything. I would do anything to be back.

Why Buenos Aires? That's complicated -- It's a chaotic, European-style metropolis made up of a bundle of diverse neighborhoods at the far southern end of the world. A sprawling city known for books and theater, design and fashion, art and music, luxury and poverty, cafés and dulce de leche. It seems as if everyone on the street is walking a purebred dog or in a passionate embrace.  But all that comes with a heavy dose of exasperating bureaucracy, disconcerting plastic surgery and psychoanalysis and constant political protests. And watching elegant women clicking in heels and toting designer bags walk down the same block as leather-faced men from the slums driving horse-drawn carts and sorting through trash can make anyone feel uncomfortable.

The city has stolen and broken many a heart. So many who visit fall in love. But like a jealous, naive girlfriend I secretly believe that the swarms of tourists gushing about the clubbing scene (deserved -- during my taxi ride to the airport at 5:30 a.m. we passed still-pulsing clubs) just don’t know the city like I do.

On the colectivo bus ride to the Palacio Barolo where I interned with Time Out on Avenida de Mayo I contemplated my feelings. Buenos Aires is an exciting city. It’s a volatile combination of thrills and frustration. Anything is possible, yet nothing is possible. Things just don’t work the way they should. Its cycle of political strife, economic failure and government corruption continues.

Over cortados in the business district an 11-year expat and former supervisor tried to divert my fantasies about starting a life there. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And mine wants Buenos Aires. Whether Buenos Aires will ever have me back, that’s yet to be determined.

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