Cultural Observations About Buenos Aires, Part 1

Alright, so I’ve been slacking.  Fedigan, since I know you’re fan, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.  Anyway, now that I’ve been here going on two months (which I still can’t really believe), I’m starting to feel a little more like an actual resident, and not someone just passing through.  Here is a short list of some of the quirks about living in Buenos Aires that I’ve learned to love/hate/embrace/live with.  I’m calling it Part 1 because I’m sure I will have more to write about that I’m not thinking of in this post, or that I’ll pick up the longer I live here.

I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas!!  A post about how I spent my first Christmas on my own away from home is coming soon!

1) Time is of no importance.  Service is slow, people never show up on time to anything (in fact, if you show up earlier than 20-30 minutes after the time you’re supposed to meet, you’re waaaay too punctual and probably a loser), no one is in a hurry to do anything, and no one will ever hurry you.  No one makes plans earlier than half an hour ahead of time, and even then, those plans aren’t ever set in stone.  People wait in line at the grocery store for half an hour, just to check out a bottle of milk and some cheese.  And, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, people have dinner at 11pm, go out to bars until 7am, and then wake up at 3pm.  I was never punctual to begin with, and here I feel like I’m always the one trying to hurry people and push them to make plans.

2) The general attitude about everything here is “meh.” Not in a bad, apathetic way, but in a chilled out, “no pasa nada,” no big deal kind of way.  No one gets too riled up about anything (including the police about petty theft), and the pace of life is generally much slower and more laid back than in the States.

3) The public bus system (here, the buses are called colectivos) will become your best friend. It is enormous, extensive, and will take you to just about anywhere you want to go.  There are somewhere around 700 lines that zig-zag their way through the entire city, along small side streets, and through all the neighborhoods.  Fare costs about $0.30USD one way.  Although the buses are hot (A/C would be too much to ask for), bumpy (I’m pretty sure bus manufacturers here have never heard of shocks), and god help you if you’re hungover and riding a bus in midday traffic and heat, they’re still a great and cheap way to get around the city.

4) Supermarkets are generally shit–at least for a gringa like me.  It’s hard to get good produce in supermarkets, and they lack a looot of things that we’re used to in the United States, namely the huge variety of produce, snacks, cereals, frozen foods, sauces, and lunch meat, i.e. 3/4 of what our supermarkets back home have. (A note about lunch meat: They loooove ham here.  They basically put it on everything.)  But a telling characteristic of Argentine supermarkets is that they almost always have an entire aisle–if not two–dedicated to wine, even if it’s a small grocery.  Another weird quirk about Argentine markets is the enormous cracker aisle in every one of them. They have a tiny selection of snacks, but about 100 different types of plain crackers.  It’s beyond comprehension.  I have also eaten more frozen chicken nuggets here (because this is one food item that almost all supermarkets will have) than I have in the last 15 years combined.

5) That said, the ole’ standby for when I don’t have anything good to cook myself is empanadas.  MMMM.  EMPANADAS.   Empanadas are a traditional fast food/snack here, and they’re just about the greatest things since sliced bread: seasoned meat, cheese, and/or vegetables wrapped inside pastry crust.  The best kinds are the northern Argentine ones with a flakier, buttery crust. Yum. Why haven’t more people opened up empanada shops in the U.S.?  Any takers for a business investment? Let’s open up a shop when I go back!

6) Drivers are crazy.  Not only do they drive crazily, but they drive as if they are literally invincible. I’ve seen some very incredible feats of driving here–mostly gripped with fear from inside a taxi.  There are no stop signs here, people treat traffic lights more like recommendations, and the fact that there are lanes painted on the roads baffles me because no one actually uses them.  There are also very few crossing signals, so it’s a little like frogger whenever you have to cross the road.

7) You’ve probably heard it before, and it’s true: Argentines are a fairly attractive bunch.  Let’s just say for a people who eat SO much red meat and pasta and other forms of uncomplex carbs, their genes have blessed them with the ability to stay thin without ever having to sweat out the previous night’s midnight dinner on a treadmill.  Argentines–male and female–also have generally more hair than their North American counterparts.  And I’m not just talking longer hair, or more facial hair, although this is certainly a part of it.  But–as my roommate recently aptly noted–you rarely see young men with receding hairlines, and, let’s face it, this is a problem that plagues guys in their mid-to-late twenties back Stateside.

8)  Finally, it’s a pretty homogeneous society.  I could literally count on my fingers the number of black people I’ve seen here, and I’ve seen exactly zero indigenous, Indian, or South Asian people.  There are a handful of Chinese and Taiwanese (woot!), but they all own grocery stores–and that’s not even a generalization.  The stores are called “chinos” which literally means “Chinese.”  Argentines also have a habit of calling black people “negros” or “negras” as nicknames, which describes both their coloring (dark-haired and dark-featured Argentines are also called negras) and is also the word for “black person.”  Though not quite racist in that it’s not meant to be disparaging or hurtful, it certainly does create a culture of calling people out by their skin color and racial identity.

Addendum: I just thought of this one as I was walking around today. There are a few things one must always dodge while walking around on the streets.  First, dog poop is everywhere.  You don’t realize how much you appreciate those laws about picking up your dog’s crap until you are somewhere where you have to avoid piles of it like landmines.  It’s also rare to not get wet while walking around the streets of Buenos Aires.  Either loose sidewalk stones pop up and spray your feet with some sort of old rain water/gutter runoff mix, or you get dripped on from above (from what is presumably air conditioners… although often I’ll look up and only see store awnings overhead…).  BUT, that said, the streets of Buenos Aires are really lovely, especially in my neighborhood, Palermo.

Alright phew!  That was a lot of cultural explanation in one post. Feel free to add anything you’ve noticed about Argentine or Buenos Aires society if you’ve ever visited or lived here!

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14 thoughts on “Cultural Observations About Buenos Aires, Part 1

  1. Hi- Just found your blog. It caught my eye because I also did a study abroad in Buenos Aires. I completely agree with everything you’ve said about the culture there! And another thing to add: no one eats on the go. One time, I walked down the street munching on an apple and I got the funniest looks. Also, the coffee is really small (the servings) but really good. It’s sure different from the Venti Starbucks cups everyone carries around up north! And not to mention mate. Great post.

    1. What you said about eating on the go is so true! I usually like to eat empanadas on the go… and I’m not sure if I get funny looks because I’m a) eating while walking, b) Asian, or c) an Asian eating while walking! : ) And mate will deserve its own post–but thanks for your comment!

    1. Alright smart guy. I basically put Julia’s Empanadas on the map (er… among my friends) as I was eating Julia’s in college, when no one else was venturing further than Georgetown for eats. Julia’s is great… but we can’t have an empanada monopoly, now can we, businessman JB?

  2. “Meh” and “no pasa nada”? And time doesn’t matter AND plentiful empanadas? KIC, stay in BA. You have found your people. I will visit you.

  3. Just got back in Nov from spending a month there in Recoletta. Loved apartment life, loved corner grocers, loved the bus system! Amazingly beautiful people and they know how to groom and dress themselves: no sloppy WalMart Shoppers in sweat pants and slippers!
    And HAIR! Professional men with long hair and women don’t wear short hair. And they all look so good.
    I truly enjoyed Buenos Aires…even enough that I could overlook the dog poop and loose sidewalk tiles.
    BTW- I decided their lack of obesity is a direct result of not eating the processed/convenience foods you say they lack in the grocery stores. Also notice while you’re there that food is less salty and sugary than in these fat UnitedStates. Even McDonalds doesn’t taste the same as here. And you won’t find a donut shop, that’s for sure. But I sure fell in love with FACTURAS!

  4. “I was never punctual to begin with, and here I feel like I’m always the one trying to hurry people and push them to make plans.”

    I’m just marinating on this.

    miss you!

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