“Recoleta, please,” we instructed the taxi driver. “Oh,” he replied, you must mean the ‘village’.”
Some “village.” Recoleta is the upscale neighborhood of northern Buenos Aires, a few blocks of shops emblazoned with logos like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy and Versace, rows of Parisian town house architecture, and of a string of more than a dozen sidewalk cafes lined up on the main street facing a park and cemetery.
My wife and I recently had a few opportunities to relax, eat long lunches and observe the great class divide separating rich and poor among the 17 million population of Buenos Aires. There isn’t much of a middle class in Argentina; taxes, inflation and currency problems never really gave it a chance.
Midsummer (theirs, not ours) in the polluted fumes of Argentina’s capital can be pretty insufferable without the breezy hills of Recoleta and the 150-year-old banyan tree that shades many of its cafes.
Summer (seasons are reversed “down south”) temperatures were pushing 100 degrees and humidity was hovering around 85 percent — maybe worse than in a real Florida heat wave.
Buenos Aires is one place where the almighty American dollar is still “almighty.” A Recoleta cafe lunch with legendary Argentine beef, local beer, mineral water and a homemade peach brandy, even though it’s in the high-rent district, will seldom reach $10 a head. With the weak dollar, the same meal in today’s Europe would cost more like $50 each.
The sights wouldn’t necessarily be the same, either. Argentine women may be, arguably, the most beautiful in the world. Must be an exotic mixture of southern European and Latin American Indian blood. The most fashionable are drawn to Recoleta; many in short Baby Doll dresses, spike heels and oversized sunglasses. Some, regardless of age, prefer skin-tight jeans with their spikes.
Gratefully for us cafe-sitting voyeurs, the styles in Recoleta are anywhere between ten and 30 years behind what we’d whistle at on Fifth Avenue, if the wolf whistle was still P.C. in New York City.
What really grabs me, though, is Recoleta’s banyan tree. I’ve been watching it grow for half a century. Now, it needs an ample number of two-by-fours to support its huge boughs, thicker than an adult torso. It’s a relief that most of the cafes are shrouded by beach umbrellas to prevent banyan seeds from splashing into our food and drink.
There’s enough competition for our leftovers, anyway. Bold pigeons patrol between tables, hoping to pick up a few scraps. Waiters scare off the most aggressive birds by clapping their hands or slamming their trays against the tables. Never seen a waitress in a Recoleta cafe, by the way; wait staff seems to be entirely male-dominated all over Buenos Aires.
Also wandering between Recoleta tables are armies of child beggars and ragged flower girls hoping to pick up a peso or two from the drinking class. Usually, the waiters chase them away, just like the pigeons. One exception: a shoeshine boy/beggar offers his services for a dollar while you eat.
One beggar, somewhat of a Recoleta fixture, roams outside the cafes, dressed as a clown and making wistful melodies with an accordion. The strains of his mournful music lends an unreal atmosphere to Recoleta’s cafe life, especially when he’s joined in a chorus of “La Vie En Rose” by an Edith Piaf wannabe or even a couple of passionate tango dancers.
I’ve often wondered what the neighbors across the street will say about Recoleta’s boisterous cafe life? Nothing; they’re all dead, safely entombed in fancy mausoleums.
About 200 feet from cafe row is the 12-acre Recoleta Cemetery, a.k.a. “The City of the Dead,” final resting place for some 6,000 of Argentina’s rich and famous. One who went down in infamy 55 years ago is former “B”-actress and presidential spouse, “Evita” Peron, patron saint of Argentina’s poor.
What remains of her cancer-riddled cadaver is three stories down in a nuclear bomb-proof family mausoleum. A map at the cemetery entrance shows you how to find your favorite sculptured mausoleum.
My personal “honey” is a teenage girl who died twice just over a century ago. An illness supposedly got her the initial interment in Recoleta. She woke up, clawed her way out of her coffin, only to “re-die” of a heart attack. But that was all across the street. Reminds me of the Key West bar room slogan: “Hog’s breath is better than no breath at all.”