Travel

Buenos Aires a bustling capital city recovering from economic bust

By John Bordsen

McClatchy Newspapers

(MCT)

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Since September, Paula Kweskin, 23, has worked in Buenos Aires, Argentina, as a consultant for PriceWaterhouseCooper. She is a native of Charlotte, N.C.

Q. How much Spanish did you have - and was it enough?

A. I studied Spanish in high school and majored in political science and Spanish at Chapel Hill. I spent two summers here volunteering and taking classes and also spent four months in Barcelona, Spain.

For having a life here - getting an apartment, going to a supermarket, working in a Spanish-speaking office - you need to be confident and comfortable and have a good sense of humor. I'm lucky to have a safety net - friends and connections here.

I'm fluent but still get tripped up because there's a slang called lunfardo that is particular to this city. Sometimes I go out to lunch with friends and miss the context of a story because they use a lunfardo word instead of academic Spanish.

For example, they could be talking about a "mina" instead of "chica," which means "girl" in Spanish. But in Buenos Aires, they always say "mina." I got a note from my boss that said, "Gracias sos una capa." That means "great job," but I had no idea what a "capa" was. I looked it up and it means "band leader," as in a band of Mafiosos.

Q. When did it first sink in that you were truly in a different country?

A. The first time I was here, in 2004. We dropped off our stuff and went to the Casa Rosada, where Evita (Peron) gave her famous speeches. Since I was a little girl, I had a crazy fascination about this powerful woman (wife of controversial Argentine president Juan Peron) who was embroiled in all this political conflict yet was admired by millions.

That's where it hit me that I was in an enigmatic place so far from home, yet somewhat familiar because of my studies and movies I'd seen.

Q. Is the Peron phenomenon still around as a political force?

A. This year especially. The president, Nestor Kirchner, and his wife, Cristina, are a formidable political force. One major focus of political gossip is who will be running for president to carry on their political regime. Many times people try to link this to Peron and the popularity of his wife, Evita: Will Cristina run or will he?

People don't think of her as a modern-day Evita, but the Peronist party is taking advantage of her dynamism and femininity to see how far this can really go.

You can't talk about Buenos Aires without talking about the political crisis of 2001, when the bottom fell out of the economy; it shrank by at least 25 percent. The peso was devalued, and right now is worth a little less than a third of the U.S. dollar.

The economy has been recovering the last two or three years.

There's also a huge influx of foreigners taking advantage of the weak peso. As an American, I have a huge safety net back home. Yet I'm paid in pesos, so my lifestyle is definitely more "portena" - from the city of Buenos Aires - than touristy.

Q. So I guess you know where the deals are. Where do you find the best shopping?

Instead of going to the malls, go to Avenida Cordoba, a street filled with outlet stores. It's the same clothes you see in the mall, but there are better prices. A nice pair of slacks on sale would cost $18.

On Sunday mornings, go to the Feria San Telmo, where you can buy great antiques. But go with a native speaker, otherwise you'll be charged twice the price.

Q. A good restaurant deal?

A. I work in El Centro - the downtown financial district with winding streets and sidewalks so narrow you have to step into the street if someone's going the other way. On Tucuman Street, there's a restaurant called Simple, where you can get a "menu del dia" - special of the day - with fish or meat, a drink and a salad for 12 pesos; that's $4. I go there every day.

Q. Best thing to buy and bring back?

A. Everyone will tell you to buy leather, which is stunning and of fabulous quality. For something unique, get a mate ("MAH-te").

There's a drink popular throughout Argentina that's tea leaves from a bush called yerba. You put the leaves into the mate - a gourd - add hot water and drink it through a metal straw called a "bombilla."

You can buy a hollowed and dried gourd for as cheap as 50 cents. You can buy a wooden or metal one for 40 pesos - $13. The most handsome are wood and cased in leather.

Whether you're a business person or a waiter, you drink this. Sometimes all day long. You fill your mate with tea leaves and go through the day adding hot water from your thermos. You can use the leaves 10 times or more. You have to learn how to drink it so the leaves don't get in your mouth.

This is very communal and a ritual in itself. People pass their mates around my department at work.

Q. Does everybody share the same straw?

A. Yes. They say the natural elements in the tea kill any harmful germs. That's ridiculous, but people share the mates anyhow.

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Know someone who lives in an interesting city or country who would like to give us the inside line on visiting there? E-mail, in English, jbordsen@charlotteobserver.com.

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