Something is burning on Avenida Rivadavia.
White smoke is rising in thick plumes from a shop on the south side of the road, cutting the perspective like a curtain hanging from the trees. Flames fan out intermittently and passers-by scatter, giggling nervously. Muffled explosions, then, add an undertone of drama. Contrary to what would have happened in London, half the barrio descended on the sidewalks to nose in. Some even bring out their chairs.
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If terrorism is on anyone’s mind it doesn’t show. I watch my new neighbours, for I’d just checked in at a nearby hotel that day, as they indulge in the very Mediterranean habit called, in Italian, farsi gli affari altrui (minding the others’ business). They are a diverse bunch, my fellow balvaneros: Bolivians, sturdy men with gleaming black hair; Venezuelans, almost to a man wearing the hat of their baseball team; Chinese shopkeepers; Dominicans and countless more, all enthralled by the spectacle that is spicing up this Saturday afternoon.
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Buenos Aires’ finest are already on scene, wearing their purple polos that makes them look like Torino FC fans.
Avenida Rivadavia is promptly blocked by a police cruiser, lights flashing, whilst the traffic wriggles like a skittish horse through the grid of one-way roads that lead away from the boulevard. An ambulance finds a hole through the irate clot of cars and is greeted with scornful jeers by the onlookers. “Donde estan los putos bomberos?” yells somebody from the shadow of a Chinese shop. An air conditioning unit drips water from up above as some sort of silent clue. Eventually the fire brigade arrives and everyone disperses – me included.

Somewhere, somebody must be selling iced Quilmes.
Sundays rhyme with market in San Telmo. In this politically-aware neighbourhood shutters go down over slogans such as Peronismo Militante and stalls mushroom on Plaza Dorrego and along Avenida Defensa, climbing above and around obstacles and roadworks. Handicrafts and old fur coats, tat and antique photos stretch for kilometres.
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I sit at a café on the southern edge of the plaza, tiny sparrows hovering like hummingbirds above the tables, ready to spoon up crumbs. There are tourists browsing the antiques and locals getting their blood pressure checked at an NHS gazebo; women with oversize crucifixes dangling from their necklaces inspect ancient bottles of eau de seltz whilst observant Jews cruise past pushing baby strollers.
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The staff at my bar, from the two waiters to the mamacita who obviously runs the shop, are indios. Unlike my Balvanera compadres they don’t have the strong, aquiline traits typical of the peoples of the Andes: their lineaments are softer, their build leaner, their gait almost a dance. People of the forest, Amazonas.
The man who stops and kisses all of them on the cheeks, taking the time to call the girl “Preciosa”, is their polar opposite: tall, with white hair combed backwards and scrupulously waxed moustache. The kind of man you’d be expecting to be immortalised in a statue standing tall in a Mitteleuropean square. He orders two café con leche for “mas tarde” and then proceeds to inspect a stall selling Oriental antiques, exchanging pleasantries with the owner who then explodes in a Homeric laugh; a former playboy strolls past, shirt unbuttoned to his belly, looking as if he’d had one Branca Menta too many.
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Palermo, in the north, is a neighbourhood undergoing an identity crisis. Part of it dreams of being Miami: condos, palms, gated communities. Part is still as it was 100 years ago, cobbled streets and delicate two-storey mansions shaded by leafy trees. Then there’s Palermo Viejo, where one can experience what it feels to be inside the artwork of a Bomba Éstereo album, with the added side serving of hipster mainstays such as craft beer and Frida Kahlo.
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Given its multi-faceted nature, it’s perhaps not a coincidence if odd things happen in Palermo, such as finding the mural painting of a pug or a Nagorno-Karabakh flag fluttering in the breeze outside a church.

It’s a fashionable, edgy and trendy barrio yet I  don’t feel immediately out of place like a Jehovah’s Witness in a floating bordello. I sit down for a beer and another look at the colourful buildings and at the beautiful people that inhabit them before realising that, alas, my time’s up. On my way out, I notice a guy sits outside a pizzeria, soaking on the atmosphere. Somehow, I understand him very well.

18 thoughts on “A fire in Balvanera and other stories: a brief glimpse into Buenos Aires.

  1. Nicely described and photographed. Street photography and its associated writing is out of my comfort zone. I have a hard time picking unique things that jump out and a hard time taking pictures of people without their consent. And if my wife is along, forget it – even pointing a camera in someone’s direction, unless they’re an incidental part of a larger shot, will elicit a grouchy comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’ve captured so many of the Argentinian types … and there a LOT of Argentinian types in my view! We were blown away by the multicultural stew in all of Buenos Aires. We certainly felt the identity crisis you mention in Palermo, and saw clearly the chasm in looks and demeanor between indios and Europeans, but mostly we saw such a collage of faces and personalities that any kind of stereotyping was nearly impossible. (A good thing.) Nevertheless, I have to say that the moustachioed man and the guy in the open shirt kind of personify two “types” I noticed a lot!

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    • Yes, those two really felt “typical”! I was sharing memories with Other Half, who went to BA separately for work, and it was incredible how we both sort of seen the same things, the same behaviours, and how Italian certain people looked. Perhaps an Italy of 15/20 years ago with the viveur, the playboy… I was hoping to see somebody listening to Charles Aznavour singing in Italian but, sadly, I couldn’t follow ‘stached guy home!

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  3. I do so enjoy the way you capture a place, in both words and pictures. I got the vibe of BA, and it brought back so many memories of our 3 weeks there a few years back. I really enjoyed that city, including the San Telmo market.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Alison, thanks for reading. Three weeks feels like a long time! But I’d love to be able to delve deeper, at my own leasure, into a place if I was staying somewhere that long.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Shrewd eye… Ha! I shall use it with our apprentices but I think that if I were to say to them “And remember, nothing you do escapes my shrewd eye!” they’d probably have a laughing fit.
      Yes, it was a bit of a detour from my usual stomping ground (and more will come!). In facts, I’m planning my adieu tour to Central Asia this summer. There’s more around to see around the world!


  4. This is such an interesting story based on your observation of the Porteños who, from your descriptions, seem to be living in a microcosm of Latin America with Jewish and Armenian touches. One of the cities I most want to visit but seems to be so difficult to reach — I heard stories of Indonesians whose Argentinian visa applications were rejected for no apparent reason.

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