The streets the Palermo district of Buenos Aires, Argentina, have a quiet calm in the weeks in which autumn changes to winter. The breeze is as soft as the accent of the ‘ll’ in the word calle (street), which is a ‘y’ sound in most of Latin America; a hard ‘j’ sound in Spain; but a soft ‘sh’ sound in Argentina.
Swishing, whispering, moving slowly, the leaves sway back and forth ever so slightly, above streets that are mostly deserted. After all, it is below 30 degrees right now in Buenos Aires. Summers are reversed in the southern hemisphere, and the advent of June first brings with it thoughts of chilly days, the possibility of snow, and—
“Ah!” I gasp, quietly, to myself, jumping back to the curb before I’d even let my foot settle on the street in front of me, on which I’d intended to step.
I had been wandering the streets, musing to myself about the cobblestones and abandoned-for-winter outdoor cafes, walking from one block to another in the brightness of the sunlight which only seems to bring more cold with it, when, at a street corner, I had poked my head around the corner to see if a car was coming, and yes—Ah!—one was. One was coming very quickly. And one was not going to stop, whether I stepped in front of it or not.
“Are there traffic laws here?” I asked a native, during one of my first days in the city.
“Yes,” he said. “In theory, yes. In practice… not so much.”
Whether or not you have the right of way in Buenos Aires seems to matter little to most drivers, who will do anything to avoid stopping for a pedestrian, or who will stop at the very last second, mere inches away from you, as you hurriedly walk from one block to the next. One becomes thankful for one way streets which intersect with others. This means that while one line of cars is moving, the other line of cars physically cannot. This also means you can cross safely.
Having become accustomed in Slovenia to the austere practice of waiting at a crosswalk for the walk signal—whether or not a car would drive down that particular road in the next second, minute, or even hour—this new system of navigation was a bit of a shock at first. Things ran smoothly in Slovenia, when I lived there: people walked when they had their signal; cars went when they had theirs; few people disturbed this rhythm, and those who did were issued tickets. The fear of getting a jaywalking ticket—which could be more than $75, and which happened frequently in a city with virtually no crime, and therefore with little else for police to monitor—was motivation enough to follow the rules.
Buenos Aires, of course, is a different story. Here you must hold your purse close while riding the Subte, or the subway, during rush hour. Here you must look twice before crossing the street, even if you have the right of way…
But it is also a city of extremes. The disruptions, the harsher edges, serve only to awaken you from the trance of its beauty: willow branches reaching down toward cobblestones; brightly colored homes and shops brightening a French colonial architecture; the creamy taste of a caramel dulce de leche poured over every sweet you could imagine…
“You are used to living in a small town,” a friend observed.
“Yes,” I said, though at various points I’ve also lived in small cities, like Providence; Cambridge, England; and Ljubljana, Slovenia.
“Yes,” I said again, with a smile of contentment, looking forward so very much to my stay of nearly one month in Buenos Aires.
First published a few weeks ago by the Stonebridge Press.