Monday, June 20, 2016

Home away from home: Buenos Aires

Argentina's White House = the Pink House, Casa Rosada
When we left Rome on December 1, it really felt like we left home. This shouldn’t have really been surprising to me, considering how much time I have spent living there and how four years ago I finally declared Rome my home. Yet, somehow, it was surprising. It was even more surprising to realize how many people we were saying goodbye to, not just friends and colleagues, but to neighbors we got to know, to our dry cleaner up the street, to our Porter, to my aesthetician, to the priests who married us in Spello, and all the other people that we saw regularly in our life in Rome that we wouldn’t see after December. It felt like a final goodbye this time, even though it was my fourth goodbye to Rome. Perhaps it would not be a real goodbye, like the three times before were not, but it felt different, scarier, this time and there was a large part of me that feared that this one was for real.

Outdoor cafe in la Boca area
Five months later we landed in Buenos Aires and even in the airport, I felt like I was in Rome again, for all the good and bad reasons. There were about 5 ATMs in the airport, none of which worked, the rationale: it was Sunday. Yes, we could have been in Italy. The resemblances just kept popping up throughout our entire stay: The cashier's resentment at getting a large bill. The mega long lines and peculiarly slow check-out at grocery stores. The 4 dollar bottles of wine that were better than the North American 30 dollar ones. The protests ever couple days. The blocks and blocks of yummy pizza and gelato restaurants. The coffee culture.

Famous traditional cafe, Cafe Tortoni
The similarities ranged from small things like the pits in the olives on pizza and the bidets in the hotels and apartments to big things like being able to sit outdoors in cafes during the mild winters and receipts that were wrong or change that was missing. To me, even the way people speak Spanish is reminiscent of Italian; Argentinian Spanish has the same beautiful, sing-songy inflections and dramatic tones as Italian.

Random Gondola
Of course, there is an obvious reason for all of these similarities.  A huge percentage of Argentina's population has Italian heritage (up to 62% according to some sources). Most of these immigrants came over about 150 years ago, in the late 19th - early 20th century, around the same time that they went to New York. To a much greater extent than the Big Apple though, Buenos Aires really felt like it has carried on the culture and feel of the mother country.

Pizza at Pizzeria Guerrin, one of the many famous spots
Don’t get me wrong, Buenos Aires was very un-Italian in many ways too: broader, grander boulevards like those of Paris or Madrid, a much farther-reaching, organized and cheaper metro, avocados on the streets, tango clubs and radio stations, bold, shiny Latin-looking buses, more legitimate parking options and churches filled on Sundays, to name a few. Argentina very much has its own culture and national identity, one that they are proud of, and should be.

Gardel's ubiquitous portrait
We didn't stay in Argentina long enough to get into the real subtleties of the culture, but we did have time to take in the local life. We had rented an apartment for those 12 days in Buenos Aires, so at least for that short time, it felt like we were properly living there. We went to the grocery store every day and to mass at the corner of our street. We used the metro to get everywhere and went running in the nearby parks. We did laundry in the building and then at the nearby laundromat when the laundry machine broke (… also like Italy). We cooked meals with the local ingredients and had coffee in the neighborhood cafes.

lovey sight from the BA metro's open doors
Yes, in many ways it felt like being home, but in others it felt far from it and far from friends. I had visited Buenos Aires once before in 2004 and I had loved it. It was the one other city aside from Rome where I could see myself living. Now I know why. Back then, I don't think I had picked up on all the similarities. This visit was a little bittersweet for me; I still loved it now, but it felt a little like dating a boy that reminds you of your ex. It might ease the pain, but it is not a great reason for being together. Buenos Aires reminded me of my ex and I wasn’t sure how I felt about it this quickly after the break up. Perhaps it was too soon.

One of the many elegant buildings found across Buenos Aires

Monday, June 6, 2016

Don't judge a country by its travel guide: Visiting Colombia

I am not even sure how we ended up in Colombia. Last I remember, we were struggling with how to cut down our large and ever growing list of countries to visit on this sabbatical. After a not-so enthusiastic review in our travel book and the realization that our friends who were in Colombia were no longer there, I remember opting to leave it out on this particular tour of South America. Then we somehow realized we would fly through Colombia anyway en route to Argentina and it was back on the list. Colombia ended up being one of my favorite countries yet on this trip. So it goes to show you how impressions (and travel guides) can be wrong.

Colombian Colors
Cartagena was the first of two stops in Colombia, Bogota the second. Completely different in climate, temperature, elevation, character and almost everything else, it was hard to see them as part of one country. But this proves the diversity of the large countries in South America.

We arrived from Haiti to Cartagena to face even hotter and more humid temperatures than the island we had just left. Cartagena is steamy alright, and there is nothing to do about it but get used the constant perspiration and rehydration cycle. But you could hardly care about that when you are wandering the old colonial streets of this enchanting city. You are surrounded by color: on the buildings, in the flowers, the artwork, flower pots, door and window frames, murals. Everything catches your attention, eye and heart in this ode to color. Like admiring a peacock, just watching this fanfare of hues can make you happy.

Cartagena's Bocagrande skyline
Cartagena was a great mix of modern and traditional: skyscrapers in one direction, fortified walls and canons in another. With its heat, tones, coastal front walkway and seaside sounds, the place screamed summer, vacation and relaxation. Cartagena is the place you dream of in the middle of winter after 3 months of cold gray skies… or perhaps the place you dream of when living in Bogota in April.

New England-style: Brick buildings and side walks in Bogota
Funny enough, our next destination, Bogota, could have easily been the site of one of these aforementioned gloomy dreamers. April in Bogota is 10-15 degrees Celsius, cloudy, threatening, rainy and gray. It has English or Irish weather. And the similarities to England didn’t stop there. Actually Bogota reminded me even more of New England in the US. The city was a sea of red bricks: buildings, neighborhoods and streets filled with them. Many of these red brick buildings were pubs. Beer was advertised everywhere. You could tell instantly that beer is a large part of the past-time in this particular city. Many artisan beers were featured on billboards, but even the national beer, Aguila, made quite an appearance. Restaurants and bars were set deep inside these brick houses creating cozy, dim settings with bars and benches of wood. Bogota could have been Cambridge, Massachusetts or London, England. A far cry from the hot, Caribbean feel of its Colombian sister, Cartagena.

Bogota Beer Company
In both cities, the people were hard working and courteous. The food was excellent; breakfast like the Central American ones, heavily featured eggs, plantains and a meat of sorts. The juices were thick with tropical fruit. Both cities had massive grocery stores with everything you could want and coffee stores that demonstrated their tradition of coffee.

I kicked myself in the end for being swayed by a book’s opinion and wish we had included other Colombian cities, but we already knew that this trip would be a small sampling of South America, not an exhaustive experience. Cali, Medellin, even Cartagena’s islands and surrounding towns would have to wait for another time, but I was more than happy with the time that we did allot to this country. Like making the acquaintance of someone that you had not expected to get along with, I had made a new friend with Colombia.


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