Spending any significant amount of time abroad means discovering new customs and habits, and the Porteños, the residents, of Buenos Aires, have many that might seem strange at first, but which one starts to appreciate and even adopt.
Most of us are used to meeting up with a friend for a coffee or to making a round of tea for colleagues in the office, but drinking from the same cup? The whole concept of mate takes the social ritual around drinking a caffeinated beverage to the next level, and there’s a lot to learn: that one person serves, that the mate moves counterclockwise around the group, that saying “gracias” means you don’t want any more.
Some people find the bitter flavour of the drink and acquired taste, and find it strange at first to drink from the same bombilla as everyone else in the group, but soon you learn to love the ritual and what it stands for, which is sharing: sharing a moment, sharing stories and sharing the same mate.
How do you greet someone new you’ve just been introduced to? How about a work colleague when you arrive at the office in the morning? With a handshake? With a brief “good morning?” In many parts of the world, a hug or a kiss is reserved for one’s closest friends and family, but in Buenos Aires everyone greets everyone with a kiss on the cheek, whether it’s your grandmother, your line manager or your kids’ school teacher.
Men in particular often find it strange to get used to kissing other men on the cheek when they meet. One time when a friend came to visit me in Buenos Aires, we went out to eat and after the meal, he wanted to thank the waiter for the good service and reached out to shake his hand, only for the waiter to pull him towards him and plant a smacker on his cheek. Hurrah! His first Porteño kiss! His reaction was unmissable but soon he was enjoying the more affectionate way of greeting people.
You might think that you speak Spanish, but if you picked it up in Spain or Mexico, or anywhere else in fact, then you’re in for a surprise. Porteño Spanish is something else entirely. Owing to the diverse origins of the immigrants who came to Buenos Aires, particularly from certain parts of Italy, as well as indigenous influences and the prevalence of our own slang, lunfardo, not only do Porteños have a very distinctive accent, but we also have different words for a lot of everyday objects when compared to the rest of the Spanish speaking world. But you’ll soon to learn to say “che” when you want to get someone’s attention, and become familiar with calling people “boludo” in different tones depending whether you want to use it as an insult or as a term of affection.
You’ll learn that someone who’s very cool is “re copado”, with a heavily rolled “r”, and that someone who is very boring and pours water on the party is “re ortiva”. The day that you greet a friend with the phrase, “Che! cómo andás, boludo,” they’re likely to respond, “Che, ya sos Porteño!” (Man, you’ve become a Porteno!”) . . . and you might even be accused of being a chamuyero - a smooth talker!
If you think mate is bitter, wait till you try Fernet! Argentina’s most popular alcoholic spirit and the drink of choice at parties and many clubs in Buenos Aires is an old Italian aromatic, served with cola and ice and often glugged from big shareable plastic cups or glasses (I already said that people here like sharing!)
Many visitors, the first time they try Fernet, react with a grimace. “Eh! It tastes like mouthwash!” they exclaim, before taking another sip to check. A little more cola might be necessary the first time you try it, but at the next party you go to it will be the first thing you’ll think of drinking.
So you think you know what a barbecue is and how to get one going. Then you come to Buenos Aires and discover the Argentine asado and learn a whole new culinary artform. Hamburgers? Please! A barbecue is for grilling whole cuts of meat - and blood pudding and sweetbreads of course! And it’s not just for summer; it’s a tradition every week, all year round.
You need to start the fire early, a couple of hours before you eat, and the food should be cooked slowly over the ashes, preceded by snacks, wine, and lots of conversation. One thing’s for sure, once you’ve experienced this, you’ll never again consider a few flimsy hamburgers over a disposable grill to be a “barbecue.”!
Dinner a 6pm, drinks at 8pm and bed at 11pm? Forget it! In Buenos Aires, nightlife means nightlife. Most people have dinner at around 10pm, go out for drinks at midnight, and head on to a nightclub at 3am to dance until 7am.
How will you cope? Just be sure to get some rest before dinner! And remember that if a group of friends arrange to meet up for a drink at someone’s house at 10pm, you’ll probably be the first person there if you arrive before 11pm!
Even if you’re coming from football-crazy Europe you might be surprised by how much passion soccer inspires in Argentina, and if you’re coming from elsewhere, you’re likely to be blown away. At first it seems strange to hear yells of “goal!” or cries of dismay echoing around the neighbourhood on Sunday evenings, but you’ll soon be carried away with the contagious passion and find yourself yelling “gooooool!” from your balcony at the top of your lungs when your adopted team scores.
Of course, if you come from a keen footballing nation yourself, you’re going to have to decide who to root for in international matches. If you’re from England, can you put the “hand of God” behind you and get behind Argentina? Of course you can! And, if the team does well, you’ll be in the thick of the celebrations at the obelisk!
Learn more about Porteños, the people of Buenos Aires.