Jared and I are creatures of habit.
I wish I could say that we’re spontaneous, all the time, but the truth is, we’re not. These six weeks in San Telmo have been a period of transition; kind of like being in limbo. In order to give ourselves some sort of anchor or feeling of purpose, we’ve developed little routines.
For everyone who asks me, “What’s Buenos Aires like?” I can only tell you what it’s like for me. It’s ordinary, but extraordinary. Even our comfortable weekend routines carry a touch of something extra, an individual character we can only get here in San Telmo.
The weekly food market pops up near Mexico and Balcarce. It bustles with old ladies dragging wheeled plaid shopping bags, young families, and bachelors. An anxious black dog canters past the bread truck, carrying its leash in its mouth. Jared and I take a number at the fruit and vegetable stand and try to stay out of everyone’s way, concentrating hard on listening for our number in Spanish. Finally, a young girl wearing a dirty apron calls “noventa y seis” and we step up to place our order.
A kilo of apples, a kilo of pears, 3 kilos of oranges, 3 avocados, a kilo of bananas. The girl fetches each item as I request it, pulling a pencil from behind her ear to write the price down on a pad of paper. Then, a kilo of carrots, two peppers, four bunches of spinach, two kilos of tomatoes, 4 ears of corn, 3 zucchinis and 2 eggplants. I forget the word for eggplant, just like I do every week. A woman next to me supplies the word. Berenjena. Of course. The girl adds up our purchases in her head, biting her lip and tapping the pencil. 105 pesos – just over 20 bucks.
We stop for quinoa, cashews, and chia seeds. “Never thought I’d be the kind of person who wears minimalist running shoes and buys chia,” Jared says. I am hungry; we went running in the reserve that morning and I’m on the brink of contracting hunger rage. Jared joins the throng in front of the delicatessen truck to buy ham and cheese while I demolish a chalky apple and look at graffiti.
A knee-high boy with platinum blonde curls sinks to his knees in the middle of the sidewalk. His mother, who is holding his hand, looks on, amused. She takes a few steps without him, asking if he intends to stay there. He says nothing, slowly bending forward until his forehead is touching the ground. I understand how he feels; the market can be stressful.
Spontaneously, he leaps to his feet, smiling, and sprints across the footpath, barely managing to avoid a collision with a mate cart. “Amarillo!” he shouts, pointing at a yellow t-shirt. “Gris!” to the gray stones under his feet. “Perro!” to a dog.
“Perfecto,” his mother says. I feel like he is smarter than me because his Spanish is already better than mine.
In the afternoon, we walk to the Casa Rosada, the pink house. According to the flagpole, the president is not in. She is never in. The nearby garden is crowded with easels and people with paint palettes sitting in the sunshine, creating. Instead of going for coffee, Jared and I return to San Telmo and stop into Territorio for two generous glasses of malbec in front of a large picture window.
Tourists begin arriving in San Telmo before ten o’clock, even though the Sunday market is not yet in full swing. I pack my laptop into a bag and walk purposefully along the broken sidewalk to Bar Britanico on Defensa y Brasil, pretending that I am not a tourist. I’m a writer. Well, a writer/tourist, anyway. I order a cafe con leche and 3 medialunas, a standard menu item at all of the local cafes. Medialuna = half moon = croissant. I don’t want three croissants, but it feels like a fair exchange for the table I’m about to occupy for nearly 3 hours. I pull out my laptop and write, happily. The waitress brings out my order and virtually ignores me the entire time, which suits us both.
The coffee is bitter, so I tip the sugar jar over it twice, triggering an accidental overflow into the mug. It is still too strong. Sometime after one p.m., I wrap the remaining medialuna in some napkins and shove it into my computer bag. I try to be sly about this, but the napkins are small and waxy and I can’t get them out of the dispenser or wrapped neatly around the croissant, so several people from the surrounding tables look up to see what I am doing. The waitress is cheerfully oblivious. I leave 21 pesos on a 19-peso bill and feel guilty for tipping so little, even though 10 percent is the norm.
Jared and I go for a walk because it is preferable to sitting in the apartment, reading or playing games on the iPad. We avoid Defensa, because it’s crammed with shoppers, street vendors, performers, musicians, and artists. On quiet San Lorenzo there is a group of out-of-character mimes, smearing on white makeup and smoking real, tangible cigarettes. We are the only ones who see them. It’s weird, like running into a beardless Santa Claus.
We choose our own ingredients for a picada – meat and cheese platter – at the Chinese supermarket and take it up to the roof with a bottle of San Telmo malbec. The food is good; the 18 peso ($3.80USD) wine is not. Our Spanish teacher tells us later that we should never spend less than 22 pesos on a bottle. At least it gets better as the bottle empties. As the sun goes down the wind picks up, so we go back inside. We read. We play games on the iPad. We cook dinner and are asleep before the porteños have even thought about eating.
Ordinary, but somehow, still extraordinary.