The paradox of the ship of Theseus asks if an object can remain fundamentally the same if it has had all of its components replaced. If one simply puts all the same elements of an object back together, can it still be called the same object? It is this very thought experiment which applies to Buenos Aires, a city that is that is not itself, it is as imaginary as it is concrete.

Reading anything written about Buenos Aires is that it is the “Paris of South America” as if Paris could be transferred across the Atlantic so easily by copying Hausmann’s architecture and an oversupply of cafes that still think the turn of the century was the best time to be alive. But the truth is that in its attempt to construct a European city on the wrong continent, the city is spectacularly different and entirely unique.

Originally a backwater in the Spanish empire, but soon to become the most Europeanized of South American cities with an eternal gaze toward the old continent.   In fact, up until well into the twentieth century it was quicker to get to Europe by ship than it was to go to neighboring Chile overland.

Just like any city in the world, its position on the globe is key to its identity. The heart of the now fallen Spanish empire was Lima, some four thousand kilometers away over deserts and the Andes. This meant that Buenos Aires was for all purposes a forgotten swamp. But that changed, first slowly during the 19th century, but rapidly as the 20th century approached.

Panorama by Luis Argerich

As the most famous of Argentine writers Borges said, Buenos Aires is not only the most European city in Europe, but the most American in Europe. To partly decipher the great man, Argentines are exiled Europeans. Millions flooded to the city around the turn of century and before this the heroes of independence were intent on copying the old world’s liberalism, from its institutions and architecture to its clothing and operas. Argentina singer and poet Facundo Cabral went further saying that “Mexicans descended from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incas and Argentines descended from boats.” In essence, the least Argentine thing is to be born Argentine. Buenos Aires is a deeply flawed attempt to copy the old world in the new. So how can a place function where no one is in their right place?

Buenos Aires is a city of outsiders. I, like many that came before lived in Buenos Aires as an outsider, drawn by all its charm and faults. The first time I arrived I thought it was a misplaced child, a city that did not know its own place but at the same time was proud of the place it was.

Buenos Aires sits over a delta of the mighty River Plate, resulting in high humidity and often floods as the water rises in urban areas. And its relationship to the water is more than that. Buenos Aires is something that disappears like the waters of the sea after a ship passes through it. To look for the essence in the city is like looking for the path of ship in water: it only exists as a memory of the flow of its uninterrupted movement in time. So just like my first impressions of the city, an ephemeral and fortuitous time, it is impossible to recapture. Just like Buenos Aires’ attempt to recapture a past that never was, is impossible. It never was a rich as locals will tell you, it never was as European as travel writers write, Buenos Aires simply never was.

"And the city, now, is like a map of my humiliations and failures; From this door, I have seen the twilights and at this marble pillar I have waited in vain."

And maybe because it really is the city of lost memory that when I first went to this city, I felt a sense of déjà vu, I had been here before. Everything was remarkably familiar, yet just strange enough not to make sense rendering my experience a dream like reverie. It was this feeling of reverie that I continued to chase each time I went back, and eventually came to live there.

But luckily, Buenos Aires is a city with an active sense of memory. It’s the memory of something that makes the city, ideas which are not eternal, but immortal. Memory is fallible and malleable, it is an imagined space with an indeterminate time. It is a reflection of the present combined with an allusion to a remote past. The remote and imaginary past in Buenos Aires is one of glory and wealth. It is also one of political schisms and dictatorships.

As a traveller one place to start in exploring the shared memory of a city is in the dead. And this obviously has some currency in Buenos Aires with the number one tourist attraction being Recoleta cemetery. Recoleta is located in the wealthiest of suburbs and naturally holds the wealthiest and most notable of Portenos. Taking a guided tour around this cemetery (and just this once I recommend you a guide) is like a tour of the official history books. Generals, politicians – those who official history deem as the movers and shakers of everything – are buried here.

Photo by Miguel César

But an intrepid explorer of Buenos Aires should not stop here. Keep digging and get to know some of the other cemeteries. Death, while the true leveler and universal of all humans is not experienced equally, and Buenos Aires is no exception. Those who die in the poorer West of the city are relegated to the thick hard walls, social tragedy and filth of the La Chacarita cemetery, distance from the linage of the wealthy north that have the military pomp, birds, flowers and marble of Recoleta. Somewhere in between lies ……

Your next trip down memory lane should be the active memory of the dictatorship. Since the 1990s there has been enormous efforts by local NGOs as well as the post 2003 governments to open up memorial spaces linked to the last dictatorship (1976-1983) This seven-year period of violence and oppression that followed, around 30.000 people were tortured, killed and disappeared. The city of Buenos Aires was stage and witness to many violent events during the dictatorship and the public sphere could rapidly turn into a space of fear and terror. In the city today few visible traces of this past remain, but many places retain powerful memories from that period in history.

Anyone with access to the internet will be able to find some of the excellent museums, monuments, buildings and more that have been used to not only commemorate the victims of the military junta, but to play an role in active memory of the past. But there are also hidden stories, the stories of places who have witnessed horrors but today are simply a stop off for a café, or an unknown plaque in an overrun pavement. Trying to tap into this soul of Buenos Aires creates a totally different, albeit depressing experience.

One of my favourite streets in Buenos Aires is Avenida Corrientes north of 9 de Junio. The wide avenue is lined with endless theatres, cafes, bookstores, libraries, pizzaries and more – and best of all almost never closes. A happy afternoon could be spent here. Catch a show at top trashy theatre, or provocative student theatres browse in the hundreds of bookstores, stop for a café con leche con tres medialunas, marvel at the buildings, ride a collective, go across a few blocks to Palacio Barolo. This is the rapidly and strongly beating heart of Buenos Aires

One haunt that became a favourite of mine on the many wanderings down this street is La Giralda, at 1453, famous for its chocolate con churros. A winters day in Buenos Aires can be bitter and to enter this place which time has not touched for delicious hot chocolate and churros is an antidote to the humidity biting your bones. Bow tied waiters efficiently serve customers who more often that not are couples or small groups locked in deep conversation all the while watched over by the neon buzz of the La Giralda sign and Corrientes flowing outside.  It was once a meeting point for not only tango dancers and singers, but prominent intellectuals and counterculture locals. But it was also one of the many places the dictatorship would regularly raid demanding identification and arresting what seemed at random. Some would go to the nearby police station on Tucuman and Montevideo, but some never returned.

Along with the rapidly changing urban landscape, the political and social changes in the past decade have opened up the ability to not only look at the city in a different way, but also mark and alter the city in the name of active memory. Since the election of the now deceased Nestor Kirchner in 2003 more and more spaces have become memorials and museums along with ordinary citizens marking their own sites of memory into the city’s landscape.

Buenos Aires is the modest bookstore we barely browse in, and hence have forgotten, it is the tango tune we whistle but don’t know – it is the place that not yours nor mine, it is the place of dreams, nightmares – a somnambulant megacity that beats to the rhythm of the hearts of all those it sucks in.  


Andrew Self