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Exploring Buenos Aires with Wayne Bernhardson

1. How would you describe the mystique that sets Buenos Aires apart from Europe and North America?

Buenos Aires is often, misleadingly, called the “Paris of the South” because of its concentration of Europhile architecture, but you can find plenty of mansard roofs in New York City as well, and nobody calls it the “Paris of the North.” In many ways, Buenos Aires resembles New York, with its ethnic communities—Buenos Aires has Italo-Argentines, Anglo-Argentines, a substantial Jewish community, a Chinatown, a Koreatown, and immigrants from neighboring and nearby countries (Paraguayans, Bolivians, Peruvians). I once described New York, compared with Buenos Aires, as “the city that takes a nap”—Buenos Aires is a 24-hour city with enormous energy. But it’s also a city of neighborhoods where you can establish relationships with local shops and merchants—when I walk to the corner newsstand, the proprietor sees me and has my paper waiting before I even get close enough to speak to him.

2. What is your favorite area of the city?

I have to say Palermo, because it’s where my wife and I have an apartment near the zoo and the botanical gardens. It’s residential and close to public transportation, but it also has large open spaces, museums, galleries, shopping, and perhaps the most creative restaurants in the country. That said, it’s the city’s biggest barrio and, though it’s a prestigious address, it also includes some seedy areas.

3. Name three locations to visit that will give visitors a greater appreciation for tango?

Tango has been stereotyped into elaborate floorshows with lithe and sexy dancers, but that’s not how most Argentines experience it. Instead, consider a participatory milonga; for those who aren’t accustomed to late hours, the best choice might be the afternoon event at the downtown Confitería Ideal. Another good place, for tango song and music rather than dancing, is San Telmo’s Centro Cultural Torquato Tasso, where singers such as Soledad Villamil perform (she was also the female lead in the Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes). The Café Tortoni, of course, is a classic.

4. What are the worst tourist traps to avoid?

Most of the tango floorshows have skilled dancers and musicians, but they present a stereotyped vision of the tango phenomenon (as long as you’re aware of this distinction, a place like the Esquina Carlos Gardel can be OK). As far as destinations within the city go, the barrio of La Boca is both authentic and a tourist trap—it’s literally and legitimately colorful, with its brightly painted houses, but plenty of the souvenirs they sell are utter trash.

5. How would you describe Argentine cuisine, and what’s your favorite dish?

Argentina is famous for its beef, and committed carnivores should not miss it, but it’s far from everything. Italian immigration made pasta and pizzas an everyday item, and that same tradition made Argentine ice cream among the best in the world (don’t miss Cadore, on downtown Avenida Corrientes). While Argentines are renowned carnivores, one of my favorite dishes is my wife’s chard pie, a purely vegetarian item that you can also find at restaurants around town. That said, I think the light-crusted Argentine empanada, filled with beef, chicken, lamb, ham and cheese, or any of various vegetables blends, is one of the world’s finest snack foods—in fact, when I’m on deadline, I sometimes buy a dozen at the local deli and don’t leave the apartment. Make sure they’re baked (al horno) rather than fried (fritas). I haven’t even mentioned, of course, the diversity of restaurants in Palermo and other barrios—Buenos Aires has a global gastronomy where you can find just about anything you want (as long as it’s not spicy, though if you tell the waiter at a Peruvian or Vietnamese restaurant you can handle it, you can upgrade).

6. What are five key phrases or words to know before you land?

  1. Buenos días/tardes/noches (appropriate greetings, depending on time of day)
  2. Por favor (please)
  3. Gracias (thank you)
  4. Carne (this means beef; vegetarians need to realize that chicken, pork, etc. are something else)
  5. Vos (Argentines use this informal form of “you” rather than the standard informal Spanish “tú,” with slightly different verb forms, but unless you know someone well the more formal “Usted” is appropriate)

7. Where is the best place to experience the soccer-crazed atmosphere of Argentina?

Certainly the traditional “super-clásico” between Boca Juniors and River Plate, but the atmosphere may be too intense for some people. Be certain to wear neutral colors (no Boca blue and yellow, no River red and white, unless you’re eager to get drawn into fights). Avoid the cheap standing room unless you want a really authentic experience.

8. What are the top three cultural differences an American tourist should know about before visiting Buenos Aires?

  1. Don’t even think about dining out before 9 p.m. Many restaurants are open by 8 p.m. or so but, if you show up at that hour, the waiter will look as if you came from another planet.
  2. Remember that, as a pedestrian, you are invisible. As Buenos Aires Herald columnist Martín Gambarotta once wrote, this is a country “where pedestrians and not cars have to stop at a zebra crossing.”
  3. Among Argentines, women and men often give each other a kiss (on the cheek) in greeting. This may not be appropriate in, say, a business context, when a handshake is more appropriate.

9. What are the best attractions to visit with children?

Children are welcome almost everywhere, and parents should not feel reluctant to enter fenced playgrounds in the city’s parks and plazas even if they don’t speak any Spanish. Often these will be open until late—it’s not unusual to see kids on the swings at midnight. Certainly the zoo in Palermo is the top single attraction for children, but sights such as Caballito’s Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales, with its dinosaur exhibits, will also interest kids.

10. What are the best places to take a day trip?

Buenos Aires’s best day trip is not in Argentina-it’s Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a walled colonial city an hour away across the River Plate (it’s a better overnight, though). My second choice would be San Antonio de Areco, the “gaucho capital” of the Pampas, about an hour and a half west by bus, where the pace is far slower than the capital—sometimes cars even stop for pedestrians. Again, it’s a doable day trip, but better as an overnight.

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