On our first night out in Buenos Aires, Jim and I were already comparing the city with Paris. That night we went to Soho and Hollywood, both parts of the Palermo neighbourhood (and both with names taken from other glamorous locations). The bars and shops and the atmosphere made us think of the area around Centre Pompidou.
The next day we explored some more, and saw that many of the buildings would easily blend into some of the more uptown arrondissements of Paris, and of course there was the obligatory obelisk to accentuate its resemblance. Even the tourist map called Buenos Aires the Paris of South America.
A few days later, we left to the country our AirBnB host in Buenos Aires referred to as the Switzerland of Latin America – Uruguay. He was mainly referring to the cost of living, which is high in comparison to its neighbouring countries. Not, as it was originally intended, as a compliment to its democracy, wealth and social security system. It’s interesting to notice how perceptions can change.
And now that we’re here, I know, that the comparison with Switzerland is definitely not for its looks. Instead we found ourselves comparing Montevideo to cities of the various Eastern Europe countries we’ve been to. Montevideo seems a quiet and pleasant capital with a mixture of run-down colonial style buildings and functional concrete flats.
On a Sunday, people, young and old, stroll around cradling their thermos flasks and cups of mate, slurping away without a sound. It looks like everybody has their own favourite blend of mate herbs, which you can find for sale on every street corner. We saw something similar in the smaller towns of Russia, although there most people were carrying bottles of beer, or something stronger, in brown paper bags.
And then there are all the McDonalds and Burger Kings, just like in so many cities all over the world. Isn’t it great to be able to eat the same food wherever you go?
As for the costs; we’ve not seen such a big difference from Buenos Aires.
As I think about all this, how we always look for the familiar, I’m reminded of a quote by the famous Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano. Here I am, in his home city, where he died exactly one week ago. In 2010, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, he said, ‘I believe in the diversity of the human condition. The best thing about the world is the amount of worlds it has.’
And here I am comparing and looking for resemblances between countries, cities and the habits of people, instead of submerging myself in diversity. What is about this habit of comparing? Whether I like it or not, I, like probably many other people, cannot help doing it.
And somehow I think it’s a shame. I find that by making these comparisons, it’s difficult to fully experience the country with an open mind, and take it as it is. To see it as unique, as the only place that is like this. Because surely, there is no other place like Montevideo.