When you get invited to a wedding in Buenos Aires, it's easy to say "I do."
My boyfriend Grant and I were lucky enough to be included in the August nuptials of his dear friend David. God bless the vivacious fiancée, Alejandra, for being Argentinean. Or Porteno, to be exact, the word these port-city dwellers use to describe themselves. After a few days spent exploring the city, I wanted to be a Porteno, too.
Buenos Aires has always been an intriguing city. Jorge Luis Borges lived and wrote here, Evita was loved and lost by the masses, and celebrities and socialites have long made it a chic destination (poor Christina Onassis overdosed here in 1988, but we didn't let that kill our buzz). And because B.A. is a Latin American amalgam of the food, fashion and culture of European cities like Milan and Madrid -- not to mention that it's dead cheap, owing to the crash of the Argentine dollar in 2001 -- the city has reemerged in the new millennium as a sizzling international hot spot.
Of course, no one wants to cheer the bad fortunes of a country in the interests of shopping and dining. But Portenos are so busy setting up chic little boutiques and trendy restaurants, and running them with exuberance and optimism, that it's hard not to be swept up in all that positive energy. It's so contagious I suspect this city won't be a bargain for long.
For now, though, if finances are a little tight after the holiday season, B.A. is a pleasure that's not too guilty. Price tags read the same as at home -- except you get to divide by two or more.
A tasty, thrifty touchdown
We arrive on a Tuesday afternoon and head for our borrowed apartment (it belongs to the bride-to-be's Uncle Rudy). It's tucked into what will become our favourite barrio, Palermo Viejo (Old Palermo).
Alejandra has blanketed our bedroom with shopping maps given out at fashion boutiques, as well as little foil-wrapped discs she explains are her favourite treat: alfajores, layered cookies filled with dulce de leche, a Buenos Aires staple. These are fitting power bars for our locale.
The happy couple rushes off to do wedding stuff and we head out for a late lunch. The weather is cooler than we expected -- it's the tail end of winter, so we wear thin jackets over sweaters and jeans.(January, however, is the height of Argentine summer.) We wander through the aptly-named Palermo Soho, one of two sub-districts (the other is the nightclub district, Palermo Hollywood).
The sidewalks are crumbling, but the bohemian low-rise buildings and abundance of groovy shops evokes the NYC Soho of the 1970s. There's one square that keeps drawing us in: Plaza Cortazar, ringed with cafés and streets named for other Latin American countries, each leading off to a thousand possibilities.
Although it's also home to museums, a zoo and botanical gardens, Palermo Soho unfolds before us like a hipster theme park. Around every corner is a gem of a shop -- this one selling pretty architecture-themed dresses, that one selling colourful wools or baby gear.
We quickly learn that it's hard to make a wrong turn when you're hungry or thirsty at just about any café, restaurant or traditional grill house called a parilla. (To further distinguish themselves, Portenos don't pronounce the double "Ls" in the way you'd expect. Instead, it's "parizha.") We randomly pick Reencuentrro, a parilla, at the tail end of lunch hour (about 2:30). It's smoky and people are nursing their coffees. We order chorizo sausages and rib steak, the first of many encounters with delicious Argentine beef. And we partake of a very classy salad bar.
An older American couple is getting up to leave as we await our meals. "We've been here every day!" shouts the wife. "We just love the salad bar."
We are pleased that we've hit on a favoured spot, but also dismayed that this couple clearly hasn't pounded enough pavement.