Two Weeks in Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires almost everyone I met eventually talked about La Crisis, about waking up one morning and finding that they had two thirds less money than they had had the day before, about having to drop out of university, about losing their jobs, their apartment, their house.

One woman was in Germany in 2001 at the time of La Crisis. She rushed to the bank to get out what money she could, but from the time she joined the queue to the time she got to the bank teller, the Argentinian peso had dropped even more. Her life savings were no longer enough to pay for a ticket home.

A taxi driver told me that he was part of the largest social class in Argentina—those who once were middle class, but no longer. "I still think that way," he told me, "but what does middle class mean when you are in your forties and you and your wife and children live with your widowed mother in her one-bedroom apartment?"

He wanted to know about the cost of living in Australia. How much is a cup of coffee? What is the average wage? How concentrated is ownership of Australia’s wealth? How widespread is poverty? He was able to reel off statistics about Argentina. To my shame I could not match him. What did I think about Chavez in Venezuela? he asked me. What did Australians think about him? I didn’t want to tell him that most Australians had not heard of Chavez.

I told the story several times of how, but for a bureaucratic decision, I could have been Argentinian: In 1938 when my grandfather had to get out of Poland in a hurry, he applied to migrate to both Argentina and Australia. Argentina was his first choice, it seemed more European, less far away. The Argentinian consulate turned him down, the Australian didn’t. (Of course, if my grandfather hadn’t wound up in Australia and adopted my father, there’s every possibility I wouldn’t be the me that I am. I didn’t mention any of that. It ruins a good story.)

I had the similarities-between-Argentina-and-Australia conversation many times. Sheep, cattle, wine, immigrants, colonialism. The conversation always ended in a moment of silence as we contemplated the differences between the two countries. There has (so far) been no La Crisis in Australia. While poverty back home is disgraceful, it is not on the scale of Argentina, where more than fifty per cent of the population now lives below the poverty line. There has never been a military coup in Australia.

Back in New York City, I told an Argentinian friend how impressed I was by the book culture of Buenos Aires. How many bookstores there were, how incredibly well stocked, how beautiful. How many streets were named for writers. How everywhere I went I saw people reading. I had experienced none of the anti-intellectualism that is so common back home. When I told people I was a writer they were not bemused, they did not ask if I was published or not, they understood and appreciated what it means to be a writer. "Ah yes," he said. "Books. But that’s about all that’s left. All the major publishing houses have closed or been bought up by Spanish companies. The universities are crumbling. Twenty years ago they were the best in Latin America, now the students don’t know whether their professors will turn up or not."

He sighed. The same sigh I heard many times during my two weeks in Buenos Aires. The sigh of the waitress who told me that, "Of course, I can’t ever travel. Not to Australia or Europe or Asia or North America or Africa. Those doors are shut for us now. Airplanes are too expensive and when we arrive our money is not worth as much as the paper it is printed on. We have to do whatever we can here." She waved her arm to take in the bar, and beyond that Palermo, the rest of Buenos Aires, of Argentina. "And if I want to know what those places are like, I talk to tourists like you."

"Doing whatever we can here" is in evidence in all the trendier parts of Buenos Aires. Fabulous new restaurants and bars, gorgeous clothing and design shops are everywhere. The street markets are overflowing with really wonderful clothes, pottery, jewellery, toys, art, books—all made by the person selling them to you for embarrassingly low prices. We bought more than we could afford, because everything was so beautiful and so cheap, and because we were trying to salve some of our yanqui-dollar guilt by contributing to the fragile economy.

New York City, 4 October 2004