The beat of Buenos Aires Argentina: Freed from its tango with terror politics, the cosmopolitan city with the melancholy, nostalgic soul has never been better.

August 09, 1998|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

In today's Travel section, a photograph of the San Telmo neighborhood in Buenos Aires is misidentified as La Boca.

The Sun regrets the error.

In a map on Page 4 of today's Travel section, labels for the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were inadvertently transposed.

The Sun regrets the error.

There are few sensations so emptying as going back to a place that's no longer there, a house you lived in, a favored neighborhood, or even a city or country that has become utterly different, and you find that the nest that warmed your memories is gone. But it is not always that way.


My first sight of Buenos Aires came in November 1964. It was from the deck of a rusty freighter named the Rio Araza, a 20-year-old U.S. Victory Ship bought and operated by the Argentine merchant fleet.

It had taken three weeks to travel from Brooklyn to Buenos Aires. It was a long, hot voyage. The only object of wood on that ship, which is to say the only thing that didn't conduct heat, was the butcher's block in the galley. To make matters worse, we ran low on water off the coast of Brazil and had to ration. I walked down the gangplank with only $500, a good tan, few prospects as a free-lance journalist, but lots of energy. It's true: The sea is restful.

Buenos Aires is best seen this way, the way I saw it, coming in over the flat undisturbed surface of the River Plate. It is all verticals, the way New York's skyline is, but without that heroic modern architecture that so characterizes Manhattan. But in its center Buenos Aires unfolds in a strangely European setting, a collection of green copper domes, towers and cupolas, carved stone entryways, and vaulted galleries full of shops and coffee stands.

I had come from Washington. I remember the contrast of the white, neo-classicism of the brisk American capital with this gray baroque congestion, full of shadows and secrets, and oblique, cautious conversations. Recently I retrieved the two paragraphs put in my journal the day I arrived. They were an attempt to crystallize my sense of removal, my response to this new country.

"I would live in a city, or deep in the country. Keep me from suburbs everywhere. I prefer older cities as I prefer older houses, where people have lived, created their stories, and where the residue of their experiences down through the generations has accumulated and is at times detectable by some sense within us that is not always at our disposal, some way of understanding independent of our rationality.

"These houses of which I speak stand before compressed streets uncongenial to automobiles, where a million transactions money and goods have been made, declarations of love and hatred offered, and many pledges, where trust has been fortified or betrayed, probably an equal number of times."

Buenos Aires was such a place. Three years I lived there. From the first day I was at home. Earlier this year I returned and learned to my surprise that Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. I also wonder at how little my attitudes have changed about the way people arrange their lives.

Yes, things were intact, and even improved. My memories of Buenos Aires were largely sown during my residence and on frequent visits throughout the long cycle of militarism (1930-1983) and the muscular anti- democratic politics of Peronism. My returns were nearly always made during periods of crisis and general political despondency. But Argentines have now lived nearly 15 years under an active democracy. And it shows.

Before, Buenos Aires was characterized by a seductive melancholy, a taste among its people for the sad pleasures of nostalgia. The prevailing attitude was captured by a friend there who said, "Our point of view? We simply believe things are never as good as they were."

Buenos Aires was a place out of time, a center of turbulent human emotion out on the periphery of Western civilization, removed from the usual currents of culture that flow back and forth between Europe and the United States. It was, if you can imagine, a glittering backwater. It had its own history and national experience, fought bloody wars few people here have ever heard of. It played no active part in the two major world wars in this century that have so shaped the thinking of Europeans and North Americans. It is, simply, a different place. It's literature was tragic, it's art violent and bizarre. It's music? Well, there is the tango.

Today there is a new beat to Buenos Aires. It is livelier, more expectant, integrated into the global economic currents.

Argentina always sent its beef and grain off into the world; now it sends its troops off to serve as United Nations' peace keepers in the Middle East and elsewhere, thereby broadening the scope of the country's perspective. What was once a slow-moving command economy has been turned into a comet of private enterprise, with all the usual results and consequences. More money is coming in than is leaving. Some Argentines grow rich as Croesus; others, bewildered, fall into poverty.

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