Monday, 9 January 2017

Buenos Aires - after the weekend

Buenos Aires is a place where the weekend matters.

In Europe, that 'weekend feeling' has largely evaporated, Saturday and especially Sunday becoming indistinguishable from other days of the week. In a summery Buenos Aires, Friday still sounds a clarion call for the weekend. Here is a feeling of anticipation, and wind-down - as traffic chokes 9 de Julio for an hour and office workers return home on busy colectivos. Soon that is all over, and the weekend starts in earnest.

Pass any restaurant on Friday night between 9 pm and late, and you will see families dining together. Not as in Europe, where the cost of eating out precludes all but the well-off. Here, ordinary working people arrive - often with tiny, well-behaved children who sit, smile and eat with their parents, grandparents, aunts, cousins - and especially their favorite uncles and grandfathers, their slicked back grey hair, whiskers and friendly faces setting them apart as fun people.

Later, after 11.30 pm, the young families give way to families with older children, couples and groups of friends, eating steak or sharing a pizza, together with a bottle of wine, large Quilmes Cristal beer or litre bottles of fizzy fruit juice, so popular in the humid evenings.

Eating out has an altogether different feel and connotation from that outside the Latin world. It is a leisurely affair, the table for the night, the little cameras, the toasts, the hugs, the waves across to other tables that are not really separate but form an organic whole. The waiters stay busy, moving quickly from table to table, carrying large plates of meat, or calamari, or pasta - or a pizza the size of a small bicycle wheel. Glasses clatter to the table, and corks are pulled without ceremony - save for the peremptory tasting ritual. The atmosphere is like two interconnecting cogs, the small, fast one of waiters - revolving the large slower one of diners.

On Saturday traffic is lighter than midweek. The emphasis is on shopping and portenos fill the streets; but not in the same way as previously. Now the pace slackens to a stroll, and greetings are shouted across the sun-filled street in Castillano. Neighbours meet under the shade of an occasional street tree to stop and chat. Saturday is a big preparation for party night.

As the evening arrives, young girls brush out their hair and apply their makeup; teenage boys are torn from their computers, and wives will pass over a freshly ironed shirt. The clubs, bars, milongas fill towards midnight, and the restaurants resume their busy trade. Portenos are out on the street, some simply sitting on steps by the pavement, or enjoying the luxury of a balcony above. For festivals, the portable barbecues appear on the sidewalks, together with stools or upturned buckets as seats. Smoke and the smell of cooking drift on the evening air. Shadows fall and voices hum under the Jacaranda trees.

Sunday brings yet another change. Where have the Portenos gone? The streets are deserted, even by the cartoneros - the street people that collect boxes and plastic to sell. The baker is closed. Cafes struggle to open by noon, and perhaps mid-afternoon the few teatime couples or groups of older women sit and drink coffee together. Even the solitary taxi drifts, as if the driver has lost his way, free-wheeling to lights and stopping well before they change to red. On green there is a further pause whilst the driver returns his mobile phone to the dashboard, and the taxi slides slowly away looking for a fare. 

Then Sunday evening. A quiet settles over the city. Families are indoors to eat, or sitting in hidden gardens to the rear of their homes. Family time is coming to an end. The boys are solitarily back in front of their screens; the girls are messaging their friends. He brushes the collar of his jacket, she carries a pile of fresh laundered towels to the bathroom. The weekend is over. Tomorrow, the city will return to its weekday state of agitation and rush. The dove that has called from eves will disappear for the week. And we await the next weekend with fresh anticipation.