Tuesday, March 10, 2009

International Affairs

I started a grad program yesterday, in international affairs with a focus on relations between the EU and the Mercosur. Tonight was the first econ class and we talked about growth, mostly Argentina's history which has been the story of a progressively richer nation hitting many economic walls. Today it is a country that could have been, that still hopes to become fully franchised, always looking to the US, Italy and Spain to join the ranks of the countries it identifies with in the First World. While 50% of Argentines subsist in poverty.

I take the bus from the marginal neighborhood where I live on the south side of the city, the old section of Buenos Aires proper, to the elegant part of town. Recoleta is where the wealthy shop and dine, it resembles areas of Paris, and Fendi and Louis Vitton are around the corner from the Universidad de Bologna.

The program is made up of 50 students, most in their late 20s from upper-middle class families in BA and neighboring La Plata. I had coffee with a well-dressed girl from Venezuela today and chatted up a guy from Puerto Rico. Rio, Mexico City, Quito, Rome and Milan are also represented. So far it's a nice program and I'm the only English speaker, deciphering Spanish and Italian lectures and trying to ask questions without stumbling. It's both exhilarating and extremely humbling.

One thing that always strikes me, living here, is that even the people at the top of regular society live well within their means. They are frugal, they live with their parents until they can buy something of their own, they eat at home, they wear clothes that show signs of actual use. They ride the bus. I saw the same when I lived in France and Italy.

Waiting in line for the bus on my way home, in my own skirt and blouse circa 1998 and Payless shoes from 2005, I revisited the lecture and how Argentina escaped the Great Depression by being in their own private economic bubble. Their economic progress has been bleak compared to that of the US but I thought how we Americans could learn from the Argentine response to crises.

I've spent the past four months working at the British newspaper here, doing some writing about economics and social issues and being really glad I don't have to be in this economy forever. On Wednesdays I visit the office of the paper, bought out by the national financial newspaper - their equivalent of the Wall Street Journal. Ambito Financiero can't pay my salary in full because they can't get access to funds. Their advertisers pay by check and the bank holds their funds for reasons I can't quite wrap my head around. So I join a thick book of invoices that have to be paid out bit by bit since the accounting department only gets a few thousand pesos in cash a week, and works through payments as it is able.

The accounting department of the national financial newspaper.

I'm reading my way through events at home and peeping chapters of Studs Terkel's Hard Times but obviously I am disconnected. Still, here in Argentina where I live off pesos I gather as I can from jobs long completed, I'm in the rhythm and thinking of you people back home, living through a gloomy piece of history. This cool article from today's NYTimes looked for the upside of dealing with market dribbles.

Let me know what is happening with you? It's hard to picture NYC slowing down or LA without petty cash. Besides, in economic downturn, isn't that when Hollywood, bars and city nightlife make the most loot?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rio Carnaval

Rio de Janeiro has a reputation for:
a) danger and mayhem
b) Samba
c) Carnaval

Argentine Virna and myself spent the first three days of Carnaval in Rio, before heading to the beach at Buzios. We saw the famous city through the lens of the biggest single party in the world and it was high energy.

Urban jungle was juxtaposed against nature's jungle. Dramatic cliffs jutted up through a neighborhood block, fuzzy stone mountains against turn-of-the-century architecture.

People looked like home to me. Every ethnicity faced-off in friendly Rio. We felt safe and enjoyed staying in Botafogo, in the communal apt I found on Craigslist a couple of weeks before Carnaval. We had a room along with two American students from Chicago, an Italian living in Rio, and a local couple who wanted us to enjoy local plant life through their bong. The woman who organized the Carnaval rental was Fernanda, a Rio journalist and environmentalist. We ended up staying an extra night when we couldn't get bus tickets on to Buzios, Fernanda's friend Ricardo hosted the last night at his apt in Lapa. He's a veteran musician and producer of Samba records. His latest record, Blocos de Laranjeiras, sounds exactly like Rio Carnaval.

Lapa is the nightlife hub with winding streets full of people every night of the week. Music, caipirinhas, costumes, all that you'd expect was there full blast. It was Brazilian though, I mean there weren't many foreign tourists the way there are in Buenos Aires. Everyone spoke Portuguese and they were there to follow the blocos and marching bands that made their way to the old neighborhood under the arches of a former aqueduct; giving the scene a Roman gladiator vibe with a Samba soundtrack.

Yes, it was a lot like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, minus the lewd suggestions to females and extreme intoxication. Rio was surprisingly sober and elated nonetheless. The party congregated around the music, with people dancing together in the street, singing Samba and smiling all for hours.

3 days at Rio Carnaval in the Buenos Aires Herald here.