Buenos Aires: Why The Long Face?

The sun on Argentina's flag: Is that a smile?

When I saw Prague several years ago, instantly I knew I liked the city. There was no doubt. I can say the same about Rome, Cape Town and many other places in the world I have been fortunate enough to visit. After  more than a week in Buenos Aires, I’m still not sure what to make of South America’s second most populous city –  only Sao Paolo, Brazil, is larger. 

There’s much to like, even love about Buenos Aires, but cities are about the people in them as much as they are about what’s in them and what they offer. Paris is full of beautiful things but don’t visitors always say that sadly it’s also full of Parisians? The people of Paris get very low marks when it comes to friendliness and helpfulness to outsiders. It’s as if Parisians would rather see all these millions of tourists disappear. Never mind that these visitors from all over the world pump billions of dollars into the French economy and have made Paris the number one tourist destination for decades.

Parisians, rightly or wrongly, get a bad rap. Some of it may be deserved. I did not enjoy my first trip to Paris because of negative experiences with the Parisians I had turned to for help with directions. Most of them were shockingly rude. Amazingly, several of them made their living selling stuff to tourists. Could they even imagine what just a weeklong world boycott of Paris would do to their bottom line?

Urban Gaucho: in the Recoleta neighborhood

And yet, on my last trip to Paris some three years later, just about every Parisian I met couldn’t have been nicer and extremely helpful. I kept asking myself what had changed. Had there been some tourist board campaign to tell Parisians to straighten up and fly right? Had Parisians themselves seen the light? Had they decided to turn a new leaf after much international bashing?

Suddenly Paris was filled not only with nice things but nice people and that made for a nicer experience. This is the rub I’m having with Buenos Aires. I like the city. I’m not too sure about the people.

It’s not that the people of Buenos Aires are rude or unhelpful. Stop anyone on the street and they will help get you on your way. They will even offer a smile afterward, or a no-need-to-thank-me-it’s-my-pleasure. They definitely show themselves to be friendly. My problem with the people of Buenos Aires is how cold and unfriendly they appear en mass. Nobody smiles. Everyone seems to look at each other with suspicion. They don’t seem happy. Ride the buses or the trains and the only long face you don’t see is that of a child at play. Of course, go to a bar or a disco and there are plenty of jubilant people there, mostly under the influence of beer. But I’m not talking about the people celebrating something in the Palermo party district or alcohol-induced giddiness. I’m talking about the regular Joe going about his day. I understand that going to work for some may not be reason enough to smile or even appear to be happy to be alive, but I can’t help but to think “why all the sad faces?”

Then I wonder is it something in this city’s DNA or the country’s troubled political history? The years of ruthless military dictatorships? The scars of the economic collapse and deadly protests a decade ago? Are these otherwise nice folks just simply physically and emotionally exhausted?

Okay, I know, I know. Buenos Aires is a big city – a huge one – and people in big cities with big problems need a reason to smile. Living in a city is challenging. Just getting around on overcrowded trains and buses in the summer heat is enough to make a person want to scream.  Yet, I’ve been to dozens of cities, some as large or larger than Buenos Aires, and the people didn’t  look like downtrodden huddled masses yearning to breathe free. They were light, talkative, shared a smile upon eye contact.

In some way, I understand that in a city – one that has its share of petty street crime – you want to wear your don’t-mess-with-me, or leave-me-alone face. Coming from a city like New York, I completely understand. But at the end of the day New Yorkers are at least entertaining and laugh at themselves. Sooner or later, something or someone around you will give you good reason to smile, even laugh.

Now, as I said before, the people of Buenos Aires aren’t necessarily unfriendly. They just seem that way until you engage them in conversation. Then, you sort of like them.

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One thought on “Buenos Aires: Why The Long Face?

  1. Naninealexander@comcast.net

    Hey Michael,
    I’m just catching up. I knew you were in B.A, and returning to Miami to attend to an injury (wanted to check on how you were doing). Following the threads, I wanted to comment on this post. My quick take on Buenos Aires after spending a month there (Xmas 2008-Jan. 2009) is that it was like a cross between NYC and Paris. Thus, one finds a brisk preoccupied pace and precious little eye contact!

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