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Buenos Aires

The city has awakened from decades of slumber and is now the most exciting capital in South America.

There's a well-known saying in Argentina, "An Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, thinks he's French, and would secretly like to be British." Certainly a visitor to Buenos Aires seldom has to wait long for an introduction to the national identity crisis. I am sitting with a friend, professional polo player Carlos "Charlie" Mayon, at Las Lilas, a stylish restaurant on a recently refurbished city quayside. "We do think of ourselves as inhabitants of a large island somewhere off the southwest coast of Spain," Charlie remarks casually, while waiting for the food to arrive. "And everyone else in South America hates us for it."

As proof he tells me of a dinner in Costa Rica, where, unexpectedly, he found himself sitting across from Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista ex-president of Nicaragua. Polo players and Marxist revolutionaries not having a lot in common, both were initially stuck for conversation. Playing it safe, Ortega asked Charlie where he came from. On being told, he replied with ill-concealed scorn, "Ah, you Argentines! You're not proper Latin Americans at all."

Like Argentina, Buenos Aires itself suffers from a kind of cultural schizophrenia. Widely acknowledged to be the most congenial and gracious capital in South America, it might be more accurately described as a European city in exile. At sidewalk cafés, its inhabitants like to scan their newspapers between desultory sips of espresso, while its black-and-yellow taxis are predominately Renault or Peugeot. On the whole, the people look more Spanish than French, and the sun seems to have an Iberian rather than Gallic intensity. But even though Buenos Aires was founded by the Spaniards in 1536, there is very little Spanish colonial architecture since the town was never an important colony. The city is overwhelmingly and unmistakably Haussmann-inspired: the long, wide, straight boulevards are lined by French 19th-century mansions and punctuated Parisian-style, by fountains, obelisks, and grandiose equestrian statues.

But to me the European veneer of Buenos Aires is no longer the most striking thing about the city. It's been five years since I was last here, and I'm expecting the old BA (as Buenos Aires is familiarly called)—a city of faded elegance, with an atmosphere of melancholy tinged by bitterness; a place that has endured 50 years of frustrated hopes, its potential doomed by military coups and foreign wars, by hyperinflation and civil strife.

No more. On my first day back I can see that the decades of chaos are over; Buenos Aires is finally on the way up. There is a new freeway in from the airport, and my hotel, the Park Hyatt, is so shiny and state-of-the-art that it might have mushroomed overnight in Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong. In my absence Buenos Aires has signed up for the modern world. The army is confined to barracks; the economy is on the move; and general affluence seems a distinct, if as yet unrealized, possibility.

I can see it as I sit with Charlie in Las Lilas while the darkness outside thickens and the restaurant begins to fill up. (As in Spain, restaurants in Buenos Aires don't open until around 9 p.m. and are not busy until 10:30 at the earliest.) A steady flow of Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs draws up at the door, while over by the bar a crush of elegant couples sips pre-dinner coupes de Champagne. Virtually everyone seems equipped with a mobile phone: Everywhere business is being done or liaisons finalized in a sibilant and conspiratorial whisper.

Of course, in Buenos Aires cell phones are less a symptom of affluence than an admission that the regular phone system is a shambles. Still, anyone under the impression that Argentina remains a land of asinine juntas and surreal hyperinflation could scarcely fail to be impressed by the evening crowd at Las Lilas. The society on display is youthful, prosperous, and confident—in fact indistinguishable from the kind of people you see at fashionable restaurants in New York, London, or Paris.

Charlie, too, is cautiously optimistic. "Things are much better than they were," he agrees, "but you have to remember that when the Menem government first came to power in 1989 inflation was running at two hundred percent a month. So people are still afraid to take risks. They remember the bad times."

The chief architect of this change, President Carlos Menem, is in many ways an extremely perplexing figure. Born in rural Argentina to a Muslim family of Syrian origin, he converted to Roman Catholicism and was elected on a Peronist platform, which broadly means one designed to further the interests of the working class. Once in office, however, he took to wearing suits of patrician sobriety and engaged the services of an economics minister, Domingo Cavallo, who instituted a regime of neo-Thatcherite rigor, privatizing everything in sight, pegging the currency to the U.S. dollar, and regulating the money supply strictly according to the level of the country's foreign reserves. A bemused electorate took this astonishing volte-face grimly in stride, especially when the inflation rate fell below 20 percent and foreign bankers suddenly recognized Argentina to be a country of limitless promise. Overseas investment flooded in, and a modest consumer boom staggered to its feet. Only the collapse of the Mexican peso in late 1994 and temporary loss of confidence by U.S. investors in Latin America as a whole—the so-called Tequila Effect—slowed down the pace, but not before concerted attempts had begun to spruce up Buenos Aires.

Las Lilas itself is an expression of the new climate of confidence. It's in Puerto Madero, a stretch of downtown riverfront that not long ago was a scrapyard of abandoned docks and rusting cranes. Now it's a snappy corporate-real-estate and trendy-restaurant district.

The morning after my dinner with Charlie I set out to explore Recoleta, the most fashionable area of the city. Although Buenos Aires is big—the greater metropolitan area has a population of around 11 million—it actually feels a manageable, unintimidating place, being divided into distinct barrios, each with an easily recognizable personality. It's also a pleasant town to walk around—clean and safe—which further reinforces its lack of kinship with other South American cities.

I begin my walk at the southern end of the consummately elegant Avenida Alvear, in Carlos Pellegrini Square. It's an exquisite assembly of Beaux Arts buildings and home to the French Embassy and the Jockey Club (the social nexus of "old money" Buenos Aires). Many of the mansions along Alvear—immense urban palaces for the stupendously rich, with colonnades, carriageways, and fabulously ornate wrought-iron work—would be grand in any context.

Having ticked off most of the familiar names from the roster of international designer boutiques, I take a quick swing through the gilded and mirrored lobby of the Alvear Palace Hotel, before settling down outside La Biela, a café on the corner of Quintana and Ortiz. This is a critical intersection in the social life of Buenos Aires. Ortiz is the city's restaurant row, a pedestrian promenade, cool and shaded on a warm spring day, and reckoned to be the best people-watching spot in the city.

Across a wide, green park are the whitewashed walls of Recoleta Cemetery, final resting place of Argentina's rich and well-born, from which the entire district derives its name. It is here that Eva Duarte Perón was eventually interred, an illegitimate daughter accepted at last into the cold respectability of the Duarte family mausoleum. (Evita herself is commemorated by a simple brass plaque on one of the least ostentatious tombs.) The cemetery is an astonishing collection of neo-baroque excess—acres of gleaming black marble, hundreds of inconsolable Virgins, hosts of wildly gesticulating angels—where the country's elite awaits the Day of Judgment in splendor and, one suspects, an unwise degree of complacency.

Down the hill from the cemetery is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, which contains a patchy collection of European paintings, including five Goyas and a superabundance of Impressionists. It tells you quite a lot, I think, about Argentine cultural priorities that the Spanish and French art is well-lit and displayed on the ground floor, while that of Argentina is badly hung, in semidarkness, on the floor above. There is one picture there, however, just about visible in the gloom, worth the trip by itself.

The work of an artist named Angel Della Valle, it is called La Vuelta del Malón, or The Return of the Band. It depicts, with grimly realistic detail, a party of native Argentine Indians, under a lurid sky, on their way home from a raid on an estancia. I have never seen a painting that more forcefully conveys the fear and loathing felt by European settlers for the indigenous New World population. The frenzied, barbaric Indians have a white woman in tow. She is tied, seminaked, to a horse, from which the decapitated head of her husband dangles. The Indians have managed to get away with the family's silver, most of its livestock, and the husband's leather briefcase. One of them is flourishing a crucifix. It's an astonishing piece of propaganda, and looking at it you have to force yourself to remember a salient fact about Buenos Aires: One of the reasons it is such a European city is that Argentine Indians were slaughtered with a genocidal thoroughness unsurpassed anywhere else in the Americas.

"It's true that we have a problem of identity," says Daniel Larriqueta, turning to look out the window of his ninth-floor apartment. "It's not unusual to hear someone in Buenos Aires saying, 'Unluckily my grandfather came here instead of going to New York.' And there are a lot of people, I daresay millions, who still have a European passport."

An animated, confident man in well-preserved middle-age, casually dressed in a brightly colored, open-necked shirt and sporting closely cropped silver hair, Larriqueta looks exactly like someone the French would describe as "un intellectuel." An economist, writer, and academic who served as both secretary of defense and secretary of the interior in the Alfonsín government of the 1980s, he remains a leading light of the Radical Party, the major opposition to the ruling Peronists.

He has recently published a book, La Argentina Imperial, which together with an earlier companion volume, La Argentina Renegada, sets out his thesis that the country's turbulent history can best be understood as the result of a conflict between Buenos Aires and Argentina's rural heartland. For almost three centuries under the Spanish the most important city in what is now Argentina (but which until 1776 was part of a viceroyalty administered from Lima) was Córdoba, in the northwest. During this period a society developed much like that in the rest of Spanish South America: conservative, patrician, and theocratic. Then in 1816 came independence and the rapid growth of Buenos Aires, a liberal, secular, capitalist city with strong economic and cultural ties to Western Europe, particularly France. Immigrants flooded in, and the porteños, the "port dwellers," as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires have styled themselves ever since, began to forge a distinct and rival urban identity.

"We are still trying to make this marriage work between the cosmopolitan city and the countryside," Larriqueta continues. "Twenty years ago we tried to solve our problems by killing each other. But we are at last arriving at a synthesis. Now we have a measure of agreement between the two major parties, and together we have reformed the constitution. Culturally, the nineties in Buenos Aires are a very interesting time."

Looking around Larriqueta's civilized, sun-filled apartment, with its modern paintings, sculptures, books, and good contemporary furniture, it's hard to believe that just 14 years ago, when I first visited Buenos Aires, it was a sinister place, a city of tyranny and palpable fear. In those days people would joke nervously about los desaparecidos, the "disappeared," and offer, half as a macabre joke and half for real, to take you out at dawn to count the bodies floating down the River Plate. During the time of the last junta, Larriqueta was himself forced to flee to Paris, where he became vice-president of the Radical Club, chief focal point of Argentinean political life in exile. And it was only the fall of the military regime in 1983, thanks to their disastrous Falkland Islands' adventure, that made possible the restoration of democracy under the presidency of Raúl Alfonsín.

Another man in exile at that time was Andrew Graham-Yooll, now editor in chief of the Buenos Aires Herald, the capital's English-language newspaper. I went to see him one afternoon at his office on a quiet, tree-lined street, close to the Plaza de Mayo, the central square of Buenos Aires and a scene of routine tumult over the years. In 1976 Graham-Yooll, then the paper's news editor, learned that he was on a list of people scheduled for "disappearance." Sensibly deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, he left hurriedly for England, and there soon settled into a successful newspaper career, which included an assignment to cover the Falkland's War for The Guardian. It was an experience that must have involved a curious conflict of loyalties.

"My father was a Scot who arrived in 1928 to be a fruit farmer," he says, "but my mother's family came over from Liverpool in the 1860s. So I'm as Argentine as anyone." An avuncular man with short, gray hair, his white shirt rolled up neatly to the elbow, Graham-Yooll leans forward over a pile of proofs. "And this newspaper is not an English newspaper; we try to be the voice of Argentina in English." Certainly, since its founding in 1876, the Herald has regularly attracted the ire of Argentina's politicians and exercised an influence completely disproportionate to the size of its circulation (11,000). Perhaps its greatest badge of honor is that Perón once closed down its printing press.

So how, I wonder, does Graham-Yooll feel about the new democratic Argentina, brought about by Presidents Alfonsín and Menem? Is it only skin-deep? Or will it be robust enough to withstand the social consequences of an austere, anti-inflationary economic policy, not to mention the turbulence sure to precede the election of President Menem's eventual successor? His reply is surprisingly upbeat: "Alfonsín restored the country's cultural self-respect. To be honest, I doubt whether Argentina has ever been as free as it is now, at any time in its history. And I think it will stay that way. People here don't want to lose what they've got."

Certainly the Plaza de Mayo is tranquil enough as I stand on the grass in front of the Casa Rosada, home of the executive branch of the government. I'm surrounded by hundreds of office workers reading, sunbathing, or eating take-out lunch. The famous balcony from which Eva Perón addressed tens of thousands of descamisados, the "shirtless" poor, to whom she seemed to offer the hope of a better life, is quiet, empty, its windows shuttered. And I wonder if anyone here today even recalls that in 1955 the Casa Rosada was bombed by the country's own air force.

The Plaza de Mayo is by no means the most beautiful square in Buenos Aires—its architecture is a jumble of styles; its flower beds a bit dusty and trampled—but it is unquestionably the center of power. As well as the Casa Rosada, here are the Metropolitan Cathedral, the Banco de la Nación, and the Cabildo, or Town Council. I make a swift circuit and then head up the Avenida de Mayo, one of the city's major arteries, finally ducking out of the heat into the cool, shadowy interior of Tortoni, the most famous café in Buenos Aires, and a place that claims (like not a few others) to have been a favored haunt of Argentina's celebrated writer Jorge Luis Borges.

There is a vaguely Left Bank feel to the place. Pictures of artists, writers, and musicians cover the walls, and the atmosphere seems to be chiefly compounded of literary debate, political dispute, and generations of cigarette smoke. Under successive military juntas most Argentine writers had a hazardous life. Painters, on the other hand, tended to fare better. Such at least is the view of Ruth Benzacar, the doyenne of the Buenos Aires art world.

"I guess the generals could read, but they were far too stupid to understand modern art," she remarks trenchantly when I drop by her gallery, which is generally acknowledged to be the epicenter of Argentine visual art.

Benzacar herself is a very charming, approachable woman, fizzing with energy and enthusiasm. Trained as a social psychologist, she has been in the fine art business since 1965, her big break coming in 1967, when she made her first trip to New York. Taking with her a film of 20 Argentine painters, she got off the plane and began making phone calls. Within a week she was showing her little movie at The Museum of Modern Art. Hardly anyone in Manhattan had seen Argentine painting, and its novelty was sufficient to launch Benzacar's career.

"It's always been my ambition to introduce Argentine art to the world market," she explains, as she shows me around her current exhibition. No Argentine painter has yet achieved the international fame enjoyed by the Colombian Botero, or the Mexican Diego Rivera, but some reputations are by now well-established.

"Antonio Berni is a big figure these days. One of his pictures sold at Christie's in New York for $607,500 in 1997. In my opinion, Berni is as good as Rivera. Maybe better."

The journey from highbrow to lowbrow Buenos Aires takes 15 minutes by taxi. To the south of the city is La Boca, a barrio which, 100 years ago, was equivalent to Manhattan's Lower East Side. It was here that immigrants, mostly Italian, first struggled to make a go of life in the New World. By 1914, 30 percent of Argentina's total population had been born in Europe and made the long voyage south.

These days La Boca remains an area of relatively low-cost housing, but it has an alter ego as an artists' colony. The person chiefly responsible for this development was Benito Quinquela Martín, an orphan born at the turn of the century, who gradually achieved local fame with his paintings of life among the desperately poor. Quinquela Martín encouraged local residents to paint their houses in vivid primary colors and took over an alleyway, the Caminito, which he decorated with murals and sculptures. Nowadays his studio is a museum, and the Caminito a daily open-air market where artists sell their work from stalls. It's not exactly Montmartre, but the idea is the same.

After a brief stroll, I sit down at a café table overlooking the Riachuelo, a stream that joins the River Plate and from whose mouth (boca) the barrio derives its name. A few hundred yards away an iron latticework bridge leads across to the district of Avellaneda. Earlier in the century pedestrians also had the option of a ferry, the first successful business venture of a poor Greek immigrant named Aristotle Onassis.

Although his subsequent career could scarcely be described as typical, Onassis' life story is revealing in one important respect. He came to Argentina to make his fortune, but he didn't stay. So what happened? Why did immigrants to Argentina so often fail to transfer their loyalty from the Old World to the New? Specifically, why didn't Argentina become another version of the United States? Why no melting pot? Both countries are chiefly in the temperate zone with exceptionally good conditions for cattle raising and agriculture; and a hundred years ago the two nations were alike in other ways. Both still contained huge expanses of relatively empty land, and both were accepting vast numbers of European immigrants. To a poor Basque or Sicilian, back in 1890, the choice between Buenos Aires and Manhattan might have been decided by the flick of a coin.

The most frequent explanation for the difference in development is that Argentina was not self-consciously created. Americans defined their country through the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Argentina came about largely by accident: Napoleon deposed the Bourbon King of Spain, and in the resulting power vacuum a handful of liberal Argentine intellectuals 7,000 miles away had the temerity to set up an autonomous government in May 1810. Democracy and a constitution were not something invented on the ground here, they were an imported intellectual fad. Hence they never really took root, and until the very recent past the history of the country has involved one caudillo, or strongman, succeeding another and seeking to impose his will upon the various contending factions.

As a result of the interminable chaos and repression, Argentina was a place where immigrants hoped to make enough money to one day return to Europe in style. The idea of building a new nation was simply not part of their outlook.

A wellborn Argentine woman who has lived her whole life within sight of the Alvear Palace Hotel once said to me: "There are streets like Alvear in every major city in the world. How many Vuitton stores do you need to see? Go to La Boca and San Telmo [the neighboring barrio], that's where you'll find the soul of Buenos Aires."

She has a point, for it was probably in La Boca, chiefly in the brothels along Necochea Street, that Buenos Aires' (and Argentina's) most distinctive cultural expression, the tango, was created and first performed. Some people maintain that the dance's sexually explicit gestures were the result of immigrants flung together without a common language. With verbal seduction impossible, the process became, of necessity, more overt. Consequently, even in its country of origin, the tango has often been regarded as a reprehensible celebration of lowlife and loose morals. This disapproval was at its most censorious in the late '50s, after the fall of Perón, when the military government cracked down with puritanical zeal. It was not until relatively recently that tango was rehabilitated and the tanguerías, or dance clubs, revived.

Today tango classes are widely advertised throughout Buenos Aires, and every Sunday morning amateur dancers strut their stuff on San Telmo's Plaza Dorrego. But in an age when sexuality is ubiquitous in advertising and the media, tango inevitably has lost much of its ability to shock. Tanguerías are no longer brothels, merely nightclubs, and usually fairly staid ones at that. And tango itself has become part of the national mythology, a form of expression that speaks to Argentines of a formative period in their country's history, and one that confirms their self-image as a Latin people to whom display, style, and sensuality are indispensible ingredients of life.

Most tango bars are now within a few blocks of one another in San Telmo, these days a pleasant, rejuvenated barrio of old mansions and antiques shops. One evening I buy a ticket to the show at El Viejo Almacén on Balcarce Street and find myself ushered to a plain wooden table just beneath the stage. The mood is subdued and expectant like a theater. Eventually the lights dim and the band mounts the stage: piano, bass, violin, guitar, and finally bandonéon, the button accordion of German origin that gives tango music its surges and laments, its crescendos of passion and its diminuendos of melancholy and regret.

The show is a mixture of song and dance routines, all performed with passion and verve, but with a rather uneven level of quality. However, the club's principal dancers, Nélida and Nelson, are reckoned by the cognoscenti to be among the best in Argentina. One routine, in which Nélida is spun over and her head jerks back barely an inch from the floor, has the audience roaring and stomping. Personally, I find the most moving moments to be during the songs, when unprompted the audience joins in, softly at first, but with increasing confidence. Almost everyone knows the words by heart. Argentina, it is sometimes said, has two national anthems: the official one, and the tango Mi Buenos Aires Querido, or My Beloved Buenos Aires.

Tango was born in the hard-bitten world of the docks, whereas polo, the second of Argentina's defining national obsessions (the third is soccer), was imported by high-caste British merchants. Their headquarters was the distinctly genteel Hurlingham Club, named after the famous sports club in southwest London. Utterly dissimilar though they may appear, tango and polo actually express the national psyche in surprisingly similar ways. Both are highly charged and physically demanding, and both celebrate grace, style, and panache.

The focal point of polo in Argentina, and indeed the world, is a stadium in the barrio of Palermo, an elegant district of mansions and embassies just to the northwest of Recoleta. The major championships are shown live on television; the big stars are household names—their pictures on billboards and magazine covers. And every year 20,000 people turn up at Palermo to watch the finals of the Argentine Open.

When it comes to polo, Argentines are simply in a class of their own. To create teams of roughly equal ability, polo players are given handicaps, from one to 10 goals. Each team has four members, so the maximum collective handicap is 40. Palermo is the only place in the world where you can watch two 40-goal teams playing each other—if you're lucky, you'll see a match between two of the most highly rated sides: Indios Chapaleufú (the team of the Heguy family, who are to polo what the Barrymores are to acting) and La Martina, whose star player, Adolfo Cambiaso, is currently reckoned the best in the world.

The Argentine Open gets under way in November and culminates in early December. These three or four weeks are undoubtedly the high point of the social year: The weather is warm and sunny, with none of the extreme humidity of midsummer, and the jacaranda blossoms alone are worth traveling thousands of miles just to see. For this brief period Buenos Aires becomes one of the most fashionable places on the planet. The whole movable feast of cosmopolitan high society jets in, while the city itself, so recently released from the dual curse of hyperinflation and political tyranny, seems to relax, to breathe freely, and to revel in its international rehabilitation.

On my final evening I am treated to an overview of Buenos Aires from high up in the Edificio Kavanagh, a '30s Art Deco tower on the Plaza San Martín generally considered the most desirable apartment building in the city. (The huge, opaque glass screens in the lobby are genuine Lalique.) From his balcony Roberto Devorik, man-about-the-world and London representative of fashion designers Christian Lacroix and Gianfranco Ferre, enjoys a 270-degree panorama. To the east is the vast expanse of the River Plate; to the north are the dignified barrios of Recoleta and Palermo; while to the west are the immense Teatro Colón, the city's opera house, and the green copper dome of the congress.

Devorik, who spends most of the year in either London or Paris, generally returns to Buenos Aires in November. He then stays in town until Christmas, when, like most wealthy Argentines, he heads for the beach at Punta del Este in Uruguay, an exodus equivalent to Manhattan's annual flight to the Hamptons.

"There's something special about this place," Devorik remarks, a voluntary exile unexpectedly struck by the self-apparent virtues of home. "Buenos Aires hasn't been spoiled. There isn't a McDonald's on every street corner. That kind of vulgarity just hasn't made it down here yet."

He's right of course. Buenos Aires does at times have a slightly fifties feel; a relative absence of commercial brashness; an atmosphere of quaintly old-fashioned gentility—all products of decades of enforced isolation. But times are changing fast. The modern world is clearly on its way. And thanks to newfound affluence and political stability, Buenos Aires is at last acquiring confidence in its own identity, finally becoming a city at ease with itself. Already the most dynamic and stylish capital in Latin America, it certainly has the buzz of a place about to realize its enormous potential. So the script is written for Buenos Aires to become one of the truly great cities of the world, a focal point of the 21st century. All that remains is for everyone to remember their lines.

Andrew Powell wrote about fly-fishing in Argentinean Patagonia in the March/April Departures.