Argentina staggered me. My conceit slapped me in the face within a few hours of arriving. I had spent too much time in the northern regions of Latin America. In fact it was my first return to South America since I left the continent of my birth in 1965. I had conditioned myself to believe all of Latin America is a polluted mishmash of colonial grandeur, poverty, and kitsch.
Argentina is not that stereotype. It is more European than native. It is not that the native South American influence is absent, but it is second. In the rest of my Latin American travels the presence of Indian America is prominent even when oppressed. In Argentina the huge waves of European immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries make it a visually European experience from people to architecture.
I spent a day in Buenos Aires wandering between the Plaza de San Martin and the warrens around the pedestrian shopping of Florida Street. San Martin was the George Washington of Argentina, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. His equestrian statue in the center of the plaza is classically post-Waterloo in style. Just in the few square blocks surrounding the plaza were the boulevards, gardens, and parks of Paris.
I expected Spanish influence, but was unprepared for the predominant French gabling and stone work more reminiscent of the Right Bank than the Mediterranean. The park than runs down the hill from San Martin’s statute spread a canopy of unknown trees from the Southern Hemisphere toward stairs and a grassy hill. At the bottom of the stairs was the Memorial to the War of the Malvinas and the South Atlantic – the Falkland Island War to Britain.
The names of the Argentinean war dead spread across the semi-circle on plaques hanging on the simple red concrete. In front of them were the two Argentinian Navy sailors on guard. They maintained their vigilance even as a work crew was restoring the memorial for the thirtieth anniversary of the war.
It is in many ways an understated memorial with its focus on the names of the dead as on the Vietnam War memorial. Tthe human loss and suffering that the war represents in Argentina may have led to something more stark than the surrounding grandeur. There is no substitute for victory in war.
Looking back up the hill and to the left the Kavanagh building rises in terraced rounded edges high above the city. In 1936 when it was built it was the highest building in South America and today its massive art deco exterior dominates the skyline. And from the park it is a short walk past the Kavanagh to Florida Street and a wild parade of Argentine flair.
The only shop not swamped with buyers and wares was an abandoned Harrods store. Argentines move briskly, particularly in my Latin American experience. You get the sense they have places to go and people to see that does not include leaving prime shopping space vacant for long.
There is the shady street vending scene common in many cities, but with a more Amsterdam humor than my other visits to Latin America. The street performer shellacked into a violent wind was the outer limits of my “hey, mister” experience. What separates a walk down Florida street from other cities in the Americas is the Argentinian steak houses and leather shops. And the only difference between Florida and European public space with their outdoor cafes spilling chairs onto the street are these Argentinian steak houses are real.
Once again, as in Quebec in 2010, I reminded myself of my US tendency to categorize the American hemisphere as either English Canadian, American, or monolithically a Spanish derived heritage of corruption and decay. A view that misses the richness of the American hemisphere and half the fun. And I have not yet even been to Brazil!
More about the Argentinian people, Northern Argentina, the Malvinas, and Argentine conservation in coming posts.