Kissing is a mania here. Everyone kisses everyone hello and goodbye, a single, chaste peck on the cheek, or a quick press of the faces while kissing the air. Less elaborate and more widespread then the double or triple kiss European greeting, you can greet pretty much everyone this way, even if you’ve never met them before. Apparently it´s not the done thing to kiss your dentist though. Or your dustman. And my landlady looked a little taken aback when I kissed her. It’s hard for non-Argentinians to pull this off with a natural air, but the porteňos do it with an easy grace that’s delightful to see. Women kiss men, men kiss men, women kiss women, children kiss everyone. When I arrive at the community centre in La Boca where I’m helping with after-school English classes (in the loosest possible sense: the kids colour and play snap, while I encourage them to name the colours of their crayons and the animals on their snap cards in English), the children offer their lovely grubby little faces up for a kiss. And if they forget to do it again when they leave, Roxana, the stoical centre coordinator, chides them to ‘saludenle al seňor’. That´s not a mistake: teachers of both sexes are addressed here as seňor, which Anne, the American teacher who works alongside me and I both find immensely amusing and endearing.
I´m getting vaguely into the rhythm (is that spelt right, Steve?!) of the porteňo lifestyle, though it´s beyond me how these people get enough sleep to survive. Work seems to start at 9 or 9.30ish (though punctuality isn’t sacrosanct or even particularly desirable: as I was advised by the owner of the tango centre when I went for my solitary tango lesson and arrived before the teachers: “If you want to blend in and become more argentina , you have to learn to be late!”). There’s no afternoon siesta. You eat dinner at 10 or 11 at night, then go for drinks afterwards. If you want to dance, no self-respecting Buenos Aires-dwelling club-goer would arrive before 2.30. The clubs are open until 6 or 7 in the morning and then of course there are the after-parties. While people claim it isn’t so, my theory is that they must snatch a life-saving catnap after work and before dinner. Otherwise this is a zombie city of the waking dead. I haven’t ventured into the club scene, but even a couple of consecutive nights arriving home at 4.30 after various jazz, tango, flamenco and drumming events have left me feeling like a husk hollowed out by wakefulness. You’ve got to admire their stamina.
Along with the kisses and the late nights, another constant feature of BA, a sad and depressing one, is the cartoneros (rubbish pickers). These unfortunate people quarry the rubbish bags left out in the streets every night for cardboard, paper and bottles to sell to recycling companies on the fringes of the city. It’s an organised industry and there are said to be around 100,000 cartoneros in BA. It’s horrible to see people, including young children, systematically trawling through rubbish in search of their livelihood. The first time I saw a professional cartonero, I couldn’t work out what he was doing: a young, very cool man resting his arm on a supermarket trolley-full of folded cardboard, nonchalantly chain smoking (a packet costs a mere 3 or 4 pesos). You can of course argue that it gives people an income who otherwise would have nothing – and even that it contributes to the environment by recycling materials that would otherwise go straight into landfill – but it´s a dirty fact of life here that is painful to see.
If you liked this, you might be interested in some of my other musings on life in Buenos Aires …