- Retiro Station, Buenos Aires
A balmy Sunday morning. Maya blue hues the sky as far as Palermo, and an unabashed Sun bathes the high-rises in golden temperament. A pleasant breeze pushed by the mammoth Rio de la Plata makes it delightful to walk the streets of Buenos Aires, through its magnificent gardens and prime neighborhoods in Barrio Norte and Recoleta.
“Henry, let’s stroll past Plaza San Martin to the Botanical Gardens and then visit the Evita Museum,” Silvia suggested. “It’s such a gorgeous day and I’ve read in my guide book that the Evita Museum is a top spot in Palermo. Could we do that?”
“Sure Silvi,” Henry said, “if you’ve feeling up to a nice stretch of around 20 kms to and from. “After the museum we can take a late lunch, Argentine-style, and either walk or taxi back, depending on how energetic you feel.”
“It’s so quiet here,” Silvia remarked. “I suppose the Argentines sleep in on Sundays and brunch late.“
“For sure,” Henry confirmed. “But up ahead, you can already see a few old ladies making their daily walks, chit-chatting, gossiping, chirping like the courtship serenade of Blue Martins. These are upper middle-class neighborhoods. Look at the beautiful old buildings, constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, when Argentina with its great wealth and flirtation with things French was said to be the Paris of Latin America.”
“The impact of technology never ceases to amaze me,” Henry went on. “The development of the windmill and sawmill provided Holland with cheap energy and construction of ships that made the country a global economic power. Likewise, the invention in the late 19th century of trains and ships with refrigerated containers turned Argentina into a major exporter of plentiful beef to Europe.”
That’s my Henry, Silvia reflected. Always equipped with his little mini-lectures. I wonder where he finds the time to pick up such information.
“I rather think of Buenos Aires as a mélange of three European cities, Madrid, Rome, and Paris,” she replied, returning to the subject. “What was it like when you first came here?”
“Buenos Aires was my entrée to Latin America,” Henry said, “though it wasn’t safe then.” There were terrorists operating here, members of the People’s Revolutionary Army, Ejercito Revolutionario del Pueblo or ERP, as they called themselves. I was constantly vigilant and changed hotels frequently. Usually I disguised my identity with a wig, beard, or mustache,” tugging at his chin as if a faux goatee were still there.
“And the caution was well-founded,” Henry explained. Later on my senior colleague was kidnapped and ransomed for US$11.2 million after a long captivity. As brilliantly managed as the company was, it had a cultural blind spot. Carlos, our negotiator, kept telling executives to pay up, but they were stubborn. In the end, the ransom payment increased a million bucks.”
“Well, we’re safe now, aren’t we?” Silvia asked, an apprehensive tinge in her voice.
“Safe as a sea turtle beneath its shell. There are no sharks around these upscale neighborhoods,” Henry quipped. “The most you have to watch out for is water dripping from the overhead window air conditioners in the older buildings and dog shit on the pavements. Rest easy.”
“Anyway, I’m glad we left our passports and credit cards in the hotel,” Silvia commented “I read in my guide book to avoid carrying around much cash, wearing fancy jewelry, or needlessly flashing electronic stuff.”
“Hey Silvi, not to worry!” Henry said, putting his arm around his partner. “It’s not like we’re in Peru, or Columbia. Guidebooks sometimes overdramatize safety, risking that you become paranoid as a tourist. This is Buenos Aires. Incidentally, there’s the French embassy across the street, in all of its stately pomp and circumstance.”
“Wow, Argentina did have a love affair with France,” Silvia commented. The older buildings around here remind me of Paris.”
“They were built between 1880 and 1910,” Henry edified, “together with the splendid parks and expansive avenues you see, in the tradition of Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris.”
“I’m sorry we missed the Jacaranda blossoms,” Silvia lamented. “My guidebook says the gorgeous purple flowers peak in November. Oh Henry, don’t look now but there is a man walking behind me carrying a menacing wooden stick!”
“Those are working poor, Silvi, and I have a great respect for them. They self-employ to pick up and recycle whatever they can find in those green garbage bins you see all over the city,” Henry explained. They wouldn’t hurt a flea. Watch and you will see he passes you up and uses the stick to keep the bin lid open while he rifles through the garbage.”
“Walking around here, and the Casada Rosada on Avenida de Mayo,” ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ is ringing in my ears,” Henry added. “I can’t wait until we reach the Evita Museum.”
“Well you won’t have to wait long. I see the museum banner right up the street,” Silvia remarked. “They said she bought the house in 1948 to temporarily lodge women coming to Buenos Aires for work. Lucky women. The museum is described as a reflection of colonial Spanish and Italian Renaissance architectural styles,” she added, glancing at her guidebook.
Light, coherence and spontaneity mark Evita’s home, beautifully appointed in its original furnishings, a cultural treasure house of artifacts and antiques. Subdued is the museum’s lighting and tone, celebrating the most iconic woman in Argentine history. The tiles on some floors and walls have a Moorish taste reminiscent of Andalucía.
In style is the characteristic usage of moldings for the door frames and white walls with deep niches for windows. The walls echo the spirit of Evita, who offered women a shelter as long as needed— until they found work and a more permanent home— in her words “a table, a bed, consolation and motivation, encouragement and hope.” Evita’s clothes, hats, shoes, paintings, writings and other memorabilia adorn the many rooms, snuffing out the propaganda films of Juan Peron. Whether one does not know her, knows her but wants to learn more, or comes just to pay homage, this is Evita’s place. Her spirit is omnipresent.
“Coming here you really get a feeling for how much good social work Evita did,” Silvia remarked, “much more than what came across in the movie: her building schools for orphans and for nurses, and buying homes for transient women. It is hard for me to imagine a residence for them as grandiose as this place. The other thing that strikes me is how elegantly simple, pure and stylish was Evita’s clothing. Her dresses would look so good on our daughters,” she commented further, walking away from the showcase with the flourish of a model.
“Indeed they would,” Henry says, “as fashionable as anything coming out of Paul Smith these days. “Anyway, if you’ve seen enough, let’s go find some place to eat. I’m hungry, aren’t you Silvi?”
Silvia relished the cozy Argentine trattoria Henry chose for their late lunch and found the milanesa de ternera, carbonara, and mixed salad she ordered especially delicious, washed down with a superb glass of Argentine red wine.
“What’s this wine?” Henry, she asked. “It’s exquisite.”
It’s hard to find a bottle of Argentine Malbec that isn’t smooth and hearty,” Henry said, “but if truth be known, my taste buds aren’t sensitive enough to pick up the blackberry, plum and raspberry flavors described on the label, and I can’t really sense the floral, sage and thyme aromas,” he added with a smile and a wink. “To me, it’s just succulent, inexpensive red wine characteristic of Argentina. The Malbecs produced in Mendoza like the Catena Zapata we’re drinking top my list.”
“Oh Henry, that was such a nice spot,” Silvia remarked later. “I’m pleasantly full. Why don’t we skip the taxi and walk back, along the way we came, past those lovely residences and boutique leather shops. It’s a good way to digest our meal and a little training for our trek across northern Spain next year.”
“I too found the lunch delightful,” Henry replied. “You can find these neighborhood family-type restaurants everywhere in Buenos Aires. If we get started now, we can be back to the Plaza San Martin to watch the sunset from the park.”
Considering the long way home, Silvia began to have second thoughts, but the window shopping along Calle Arenales had a mesmerizing effect, and she soon got over her hesitation, sometimes walking a few feet behind Henry, stopping to notice and comment on a store item, sometimes stepping ahead. Henry’s walking was leisurely at best so that most of the time she set the pace.
“Lookit, Silvi, with all the shops sights to capture our attention, we’re already past the Avenida 9 de Julio and just a few blocks from our hotel,” Henri said, looking forward to a relaxing sauna in the hotel’s fitness center. “It sure has gotten quiet, almost as if Buenos Aires were deserted.”
“Henry, damn if I didn’t get splashed from oil or something dripping from the air conditioner above,” Silvia shouted, turning around. “Oh my God,” Henry, it’s all over your shirt too and in your hair and on your backpack,” she shrieked. “What a mess!”
A middle-aged woman approaches Silvia offering tissue paper to wipe the oil and Silvia thanks her graciously in the basic Spanish she has acquired. She then invites Henri over to wipe the soiling on his shirt. Another passersby approaching from the other side also offers Henry tissue paper, gestures towards the building balcony above, and says pájaro, meaning bird in Spanish, but Henry waves him away, embarrassed.
“That sure was a nice Argentine lady,” Silvia said, as they walk towards the hotel. I guess she lives in one of the apartments in the neighborhood. But this oil smells awful, like rotten fish.”
“The Argentine guy who came up behind me said it was bird shit,” Henry pointed out, “ironic because I was telling you to watch out for the dog shit on the pavement. When we get back I’m going to wash my hair a couple of times. Whatever it is that fell on us, it sure stinks,” he repeated, echoing Silvia.
“By the way, did you notice the lady that helped you sitting in a taxi?” Henry asked. “I guess she was in a hurry to get home. For a second I thought she was going to offer us a ride back to the hotel.”
Back in the hotel, Henry and Silvia shower and change into fresh clothing. “Let’s get these stinky garments down to the laundry as quickly as possible,” Silvia said. “I can’t get rid of the smell of that oil or whatever it was.”
“You bet,” Silvi, “I’ll ring for the chambermaid. Can you fetch a few dollars from my wallet to give her? It’s in my backpack.”
“Oh no Henry, your wallet isn’t in your backpack!” Silvia shouted. “Don’t tell me you brought it when we were walking to the Evita museum,” she gasped out the words.
A flock of blue-green collared feral pigeons sweeps down on Florida St., changing directions in a flash of movement to feed on the scraps littered by fast-food consumers scurrying to Retiro Train Station, inured to the incessant Cambio, Cambio chanting of blue-market money changers. While to the northeast near Recoleta Cemetery, Evita’s final resting place, a taxi driver in on the scam and his two passengers patrol the streets scouting around for their next prey.
©2015 Warren J. Devalier