New Year’s in Buenos Aires

Mary and I allowed ourselves to sleep until 11 on New Year’s Eve – after several nights in a row of going to bed past 3, it was necessary, especially given the fact that we wouldn’t be able to sleep late the next morning due to our trip to Uruguay. We had a lazy start after that, taking an hour to lay in the sun by the rooftop pool before really getting started with the day.

We spent a couple hours in La Boca, a rougher neighborhood south of the city center that happens to be the home of another staple of Argentine culture: tango. My guidebook utterly failed to convey what I’d find in La Boca; it mentioned neither the brightly colored buildings nor the art and textile shopping that awaited us there. It was actually my favorite part of the city!

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There’s not anything in particular to see in La Boca; you just arrive in this small area called Caminito where there are all of these brightly colored buildings (many made out of corrugated metal; this area is right next to the river, so many of its materials came from the shipping industry). There were various outdoor restaurants that each had their own duo dancing tango for the entertainment of the customers; we meant to eat, but we prioritized shopping first. I, having read mostly just that La Boca was a pretty shady place if you strayed out of this small touristy area, had left my wallet and most of my cash back at home, so I was unprepared for shopping, which was a shame – we encountered some really lovely leather and fur pieces in various shops as well as a lot of great art being sold on the street. Mary was kind enough to loan me money to buy a really well-designed purse that I loved, from a woman who sold it very well and gave me a kiss as we left (such a nice gesture and one that wouldn’t happen anywhere in the US or even in most of Europe, I venture!). We also each got a print of a street scene – as it turned out, I had taken a picture of exactly the same scene before I bought the painting (which is now getting framed, so I don’t have a picture of it):

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A Brief History Lesson…

Our plan after La Boca was to observe the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, who gather in the plaza each Thursday at 3:30 p.m. to continue protesting against the military junta’s disappearances of their children during the Dirty War from 1976-1983.

This is a subject I read quite a lot about in college as well. I’m pretty familiar now, after working on and observing a few genocide trials in law school, with the intimate details of some of the worst atrocities committed since World War II. Those cases all involved a lot of killing, and that happened in Argentina too (many of the disappearances involved drugging enemies of the regime and then dropping them out of planes into the ocean), but what happened in Argentina is bone-chilling in a different way. The military set up torture centers right in the middle of Buenos Aires. A gruesome but fascinating book I read recounted the experiences of survivors who described how, completely aside from horrifying acts like being strapped to mattress coils and electrocuted, it was torture to be in the basement of these torture centers and to see the shadows of pedestrians passing by on the sidewalks above them, to hear the sounds of cars on the streets – normal life going on mere feet from the hell into which they’d been thrown.

The Madres began protesting even before the end of the war. Many of the victims of the dictatorship were young people in their 20’s and 30’s, which also explains the existence today of a second group called the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo: they seek the grandchildren who were stolen as infants at the time of their parents’ abduction, or taken away from mothers who gave birth while in custody, and given to families loyal to the junta. Those grandchildren are now in their 30’s.

Knowledge of all of this stayed subtly in back of my mind throughout my time in Buenos Aires. It’s always – I lack a better word here – interesting to be in a place with such heavy memories in its recent past. In most such places I’ve visited, there are still visible signs of the past in the present (shell holes in walls, etc.), but Buenos Aires isn’t like that – perhaps in part due to the fact that the Dirty War didn’t involve an actual war, so there were never physical signs of it. The only real physical reminder, as far as I can tell, is the weekly appearance of the Madres.

Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive until closer to 4:30, and perhaps because it was New Year’s Eve, there were no longer any Madres to see – though a group was dismantling a tent that had been set up with their logo, so they must have been there. Their logo is the white symbol in the picture below; it’s a headscarf:

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The message above says “governments pass; repression stays – the fight too. 4644 kids killed by the state apparatus.”

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(That’s the Casa Rosada – the presidential palace – in the background.)

I’ll try to catch the Madres the next time I’m in Argentina. (I know I’ll be back.) At least we had the benefit of a talkative taxi driver on the way to the plaza; he pointed out to us the site of one of the torture centers (whose name I remembered), now a crater in the ground but surrounded by various remembrances in honor of those who were killed there. I was a little surprised that he was so willing to broach the subject (though it was Mary who first brought it up by asking if he thought the Madres would still be in the plaza).

Back to the NYE Narrative…

Before getting ready for our night out, and because we’d never managed to have lunch, we grabbed a snack at the Kentucky pizzeria one block down from our apartment. This strangely named chain is all over Buenos Aires and has been around since the 50’s, so I think it’s pretty legit, but we still couldn’t help but chuckle at the name! We decided to try an Argentine specialty called fuggazzetta -a sort of double-layered pizza with cheese in between and a mixture of cheese, onions, and oregano on top. It doesn’t look like pizza at all, but damn is it good:

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And now, it’s finally time to recount our New Year’s Eve in Buenos Aires!

One of the experiences on my Buenos Aires list was to eat at a “puerta cerrada” – a secret, “closed door” restaurant, of which there are many across the city. They’re not secret in the sense of being unknown, but they are not restaurants that you can just happen by on the street. Many are simply the homes of the chefs, so they’re very small and intimate. They have websites that tell you how to make a reservation, and once you do that you’ll receive the address and other necessary information. It’s pretty cool!

A New York Times article led me to one with a more robust website that happened to be advertising a New Year’s Eve menu. The Almacén Secreto Club is in a neighborhood called Colegiales, west of Palermo. It wasn’t ideal from a location point of view in the sense that we’d been strongly warned about the fact that the Subte would close and there would be no taxis, so most people were planning their evenings within walking distance of their homes. We were able to take the Subte west and then walk another 20 minutes to get there, and as we’d learned from doing this the evening before to pay our deposit, it was only a 20-minute walk over to the part of Palermo with all of the bars and clubs, so it ended up working out just fine.

The club is located in a house on a perfectly normal residential street, and the house doubles as an art gallery of sorts – though we never got around to exploring it. Upon arrival, the only thing that tips you off to the presence of a restaurant is the wonderful aroma of roasting meat wafting out of a hallway leading to the kitchen. We rang a bell, provided our names via intercom, and were ushered down a long hallway and into the back garden, which couldn’t have been lovelier.

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There were probably about 30 of us out in the garden for dinner. The evening was like an intimately sized wedding reception where you know no one else. There were a few families (one with kids our age dining with their parents; one with grandparents, parents, and little kids dining together; a mother and daughter) as well as a handful of couples. We arrived at 9:00 and were the first there, but the garden filled up quickly. We ordered a bottle of malbec and then one of each of the options for the set menu:

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What a neat trick with the cork!

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This beef was SO good – it had clearly been cooking all day.

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Possibly the best pork I’ve ever had…

And then, as if all that weren’t enough to stuff us silly, we had a round of desserts (including a brownie topped with delectable ice cream and sort of a walnut and ice cream cake) and then a BONUS round of desserts – they wheeled out a huge table laden with various cakes, breads, and candies and shouted for us to help ourselves. Mary and I could only marvel at how everyone else seemed to have plenty of room to continue eating – we couldn’t!

Just after midnight (we didn’t do any sort of countdown, but nonetheless everyone on cue got up and started hugging and kissing their table mates) the wait staff brought out glasses of champagne, followed by party favors (masks, noise makers, headbands, necklaces). As fireworks started going off around us (though we couldn’t see ANY of them!), a DJ inside the house turned on some music, and a waiter encouraged us to dance, saying “hoy, se puede!” (“Today, you can!” New life motto. #HoySePuede) Mary and I calmly sipped our champagne and continued searching for the fireworks that sounded as though they were exploding right over our heads; eventually we went in to start dancing and had a great time – it felt even more like a wedding reception then! My favorite memory is of two women our mothers’ ages dancing next to/with us during a remix of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”; they shouted all the words! The waiters and cooks danced with us in between their clearing up duties. It was such a great way to spend the evening, and it was only 800 pesos per person – $57, which included everything! (This is in stark contrast to other places where we had originally made reservations – one was 2000 pesos per person or $150, and I bet there wouldn’t have been party favors or dancing!)

Things wound down around 1:00, and we exited from the calm of the garden to the relative chaos of the streets, where people were still firing off plenty of fireworks, resulting in scenes like this:

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Yes friends, that is an actual fire in the middle of the street – and cars were continuing to drive past! One firework exploded just a few yards away from us as we were passing by this intersection; needless to say, we hastened away in favor of a slightly safer locale. Aside from the explosions though, it was a very nice time in the street; we exchanged greetings of “feliz año!” with people as we passed by.

We eventually made our way to Club 69, which we’d heard was having a NYE party. I am never excited to go clubbing but generally don’t regret it, and this was no exception. We were greeted inside by drag queens and very muscular men wearing minimal amounts of clothing – yes please! We pushed through the crowd to get near the bar, and the fact that we were still wearing our party favors (the masks were now serving as headbands) worked in our favor because a guy started talking to Mary pretty quickly. She discovered that he was French and said “talk to my friend! She speaks French!” and the poor guy was so thrilled to find another francophone that he just couldn’t help but kiss me ten minutes later. 🙂 It wasn’t a midnight kiss, but still – I think being kissed by an attractive French guy only hours into 2016 suggests good things to come for me this year! So does the fact that I managed to get out of that club an hour later with absolutely nothing on my white dress.

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My new French friend, borrowing Mary’s mask

We talked to the French group for a little while but eventually separated; we stayed long enough to try another local drink, a fermet and Coke. Fermet is kind of like Jagermeister; it’s very herbal and not a flavor I particularly enjoy. We probably had significantly more Coke in our drinks than the usual ratio would be for an Argentine! While we sipped, we enjoyed the burlesque show, complete with pole dancing!

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We left the club just after 3 and managed to get a taxi within five minutes – it wasn’t nearly the impossibility we’d expected. We’d had a great night, but I was thrilled to get home a little “early” in advance of our trip to Uruguay the next day! More on that in the next post…

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