When I went to the U.S. Embassy to turn in my absentee ballot a few weeks ago I ended up striking up a conversation with the guy in line behind me. As we waited we exchanged stories about what had brought us both to Buenos Aires, how long we had been here, where we were from in the States, and so on. After we submitted our ballots we were both going in the same direction and continued talking. Having a little free time we did the only proper thing to do when you’re in Buenos Aires and want to socialize: we went to a cafe. Him for coffee and me for lunch.
Having already established that Ethan was working down here as a writer and moved here for the sole reason that he wanted to experience something different, I had to ask why he chose Argentina. Ethan has picked up Spanish in the two years that he has spent living here, but did not speak a word of it when he first arrived. He shared humorous stories about things being lost in translation, we talked about the frustrations we have both experienced in everyday communications, and I poked fun at him for his rather large map which he pulled out to show me where a really cool bookstore was located in San Telmo. I, for one, refuse to be seen holding a guide book in my hands these days and try to be inconspicuous about whipping out my Guía T when taking unfamiliar bus routes, but Ethan announced that he has no problem whatsoever standing in the middle of the sidewalk, map noticeably held up in front of his face shaking it for exaggeration, and exclaiming, “Estoy perdido! Muy perdido! Ayudame, por favor!” He acted out this scene for my amusement as we’re sitting at the table and I laughed loud enough that I’m sure people on the sidewalk outside turned to see what was so amusing to the Americans. After numerous tangents we finally got back to the question at hand: “Why did you choose Argentina?” And so the story began.
Ethan provided me with a brief overview of the situation in Argentina after the 2001 collapse of the economy and what life was like at the time and is still like for many here in the city. Relating it to the current crisis that the United States is experiencing he raised the question to me of what the reaction is for Americans right now, most of who have never lived through any economic crisis and many who can’t comprehend what life was like during the Great Depression. I responded that majority of Americans were in a panic. I can’t open a news website now without finding at least one headline or article about how Americans are relearning the meaning of frugality, panicking about paying their mortgages, losing their homes, and so forth. The attitude of many has become solemn and fear-stricken. He then calls over our waiter and asks if he would mind answering a question for us. The waiter obliges. After an explaining what he were talking about Ethan proposes the question (in Spanish, so all translations or mis-translations are mine alone): “Do you think another financial crisis is likely to happen in the future?” The waiter nodded his head in response to Ethan continued, “Since you acknowledge that another financial crisis is imminent for Argentina, how do you live?”
The waiter doesn’t understand the question. Not because we didn’t ask it correctly, but because it doesn’t make sense to Argentineans. What do you mean how do we live? We live. Our waiter continued to explain that his son doesn’t currently have a job and he isn’t sure how he can afford to support him, only that he can’t afford it. Times are tough, the economy still hasn’t gotten back to where it was pre-2001 collapse and now it’s starting to get worse again. After the waiter tells us a little bit more about his life he walks off to help someone else. Ethan turns to me and says, “Did you understand that?” and I tell him I did but I’m confused about where he’s going with this. He looks me straight in the eye and says, “I went back to the States for a few weeks about a month ago and I swear my blood pressure is still up from that short time. People are always in despair, in a panic about something and the government doesn’t help. Here, times are tougher and people work longer hours for less pay but you know what? At the end of the day, as long as they have their family and can afford to have a beer, life is good. They have hope.”
And it struck me how true this was. Argentines, and porteños in general, are a pretty laid back bunch. If nothing else, their cafe culture shows this. They have a tea time of sorts here called ‘merienda’ and it’s not at all unusual for every table in rather large cafes to be pull of friends and families drinking coffee, sharing medialunas or other alfajores, and simply enjoying each others company. On the weekends many are sitting outside of parillas with a 770ml of beer sitting in the middle of the table laughing and talking. And on any given weekday at any hour you will always find a fairly large number of people sitting in the parks and plazas with friends sharing maté, enjoying live music on the weekends, playing a guitar and singing, or taking a nap while soaking up the sun, and on the weekends this is even more so. You are pressed to find a spot to sit down on beautiful days because it seems the entire city is outside. I now realize that this probably has to do with a more socialist culture where its all for one and one for all and I think Americans would be the better of for it if they learned to lean on each other a little more and realize that life isn’t about working your life away to buy things you don’t need. It’s about realizing the blessing of having friends and family around you, taking care of each other, and letting everything else fall where it may.