It was a plain sheet of paper with typing packed on both sides, and it was yellow. A dozen different cities were listed, each with a short description. I remember wondering why the university’s honors program had chosen such a garish color for such a boring purpose. Was an administrator having a whimsical day at the office, or did they simply run out of white paper?
This was my sophomore year at NYU, the beginning of my second year living in the city—I’d adapted and learned it was never New York City and always just “the city,” because it was the only one that mattered—and I was already disillusioned. The winters were cold, fun was out of reach on my student budget, the contrived irony of people I met was difficult to relate to. I was lost, but at first I was too busy choosing classes and chasing unpaid internships to notice.
When I went to visit my mother that winter I broke down in the car ride home from the airport and sobbed that it wasn’t working, that I wanted to quit. In her usual practical way, she made it very clear too much had already been invested in my tuition for me to even consider backing out now. I had chosen this, against her better judgment, so I was going to see it through. I carried on, miserable and scattered.
I joined the Honors Scholars Program for less than honorable reasons. I had the grades, and it would look good on my curriculum one day. The application process was easy, the research requirements few. None of that mattered; my real motivation was the spring break vacation the program offered. Honors Scholars could choose an all-included trip from over a dozen possible destinations, with flights, hotels and outings almost entirely covered by the university. It was my chance to escape New York for a while and enjoy myself. I signed up and received my yellow paper, a list of potential destinations, in the mail a few months later.
It was that easy. If I replied quickly enough, I could spend an entire week almost anywhere in the world, from Ghana to Paris to London to Mexico. It was only a week, hardly a monumental decision. At most, a heartbeat of escape.
I nixed Hong Kong, Beijing and the other Asian destinations as being too far away. I ruled out Paris and London because I’d been there before, the rest of Europe because of jetlag. I looked south. By coincidence, by elimination, I chose Buenos Aires.
I knew nothing about Argentina. There were no romanticized images of gauchos galloping through my mind’s eye, no smell of charred parrilla, Argentina’s barbecue, tickling my nostrils. I didn’t know who Evita Perón was, and had never heard Madonna sing “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.” I chose letters on a page, a place that to me evoked nothing. I simply hoped that the March weather would be kinder in the Southern Hemisphere than it was up north.
Tour guides often refer to Buenos Aires as the Paris of South America, and I can understand the comparison. In the upscale neighborhood of Recoleta where I lived that spring break week, the architecture has a deliberate Haussman vibe. Tall white buildings line wide avenues, and on many sidewalks rows of trees grow so tall their canopies touch, filtering the sunlight and tingeing the streets with a green glow. I was never a romantic, but I fell in love immediately.
Buenos Aires is defined by its details. It’s the dinners that begin at 11 p.m., and how no one ever complains they have to work in the morning. The simplicity of the empanadas and the way the sun shines even in winter and no one leaves the house when it rains, because it doesn’t really rain that often. The way each neighborhood has its own chosen identity, from pleasantly bohemian San Telmo to fashionable Palermo. It’s the way Argentines have lunch with their families every Sunday, without fail, and look forward to it.
Guidebook comparisons aside, Buenos Aires isn’t Paris. Outside Recoleta, the city’s tumult is visible in its buildings. In the central Plaza de Mayo, right outside the presidential palace, neo-classical edifices and 1970s monstrosities sit side by side, daring visitors to find a pattern. The presidential palace itself, the Casa Rosada, is painted a bright pink. At night the effect is accentuated by small purple bulbs that light up its façade. The people themselves, porteños as they are known, exhibit Latin warmth in everything they do, from their crude catcalls to the barbecues that last well into the small hours of the morning.
The truth is, I never really liked Paris, its history and arrogance. Like New York it feels too cold, too harsh, too expensive. When I look at the city it glares back, whispering, “how dare you presume to belong?”
In that week Buenos Aires felt like home. Maybe because, like me, the city—and the country—is still finding its way. Argentina has been economically unstable for much of its history, and inflation is rampant; accusations of political corruption are met with resignation; the shadow of the Dirty War that killed thousands in the 70s and 80s still hovers at the edges of it all. My messy utopia isn’t for everyone. Loose pavement stones spray un-cautious pedestrians with leftover rain and waste. Spicy food is inexistent, bureaucracy labyrinthine. Much like Paris, dogs leave gifts on every sidewalk. But under the chaos there is a beauty, a space to breathe that New York, with its crime-free streets and sky-high rents, never gave me.
Five years later, sitting in my apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, I can’t imagine another place to be. Though the decision to move here after college was monumental, that first choice, the childish desire to go south for the winter, seems incredibly small. From my balcony I can catch a glimpse of the Jardín Botánico, the botanical gardens where the author Jorge Luís Borges used to wander for inspiration. I stroll there too on occasion and peer into the ancient greenhouses, careful not to disturb any of the dozens of stray cats that claim the gardens as their home. That yellow piece of paper is long gone, but when the noise of the streets disappears between the trees and the light catches a certain green glow, I can still feel its weight in my hand.