San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Independent – Contents Page

Barrio Bohemian... Humberto Primero, San Telmo

The street sounds around me faded as I focused in on the small world of an elegantly crafted puppet. He was standing on a cardboard model miniature of a street corner (much like many a street corner in Buenos Aires), behind him the lightly lit colourful cardboard façade of a 19th Century mansion. Staggering sideways with the falling beat of his tango musical accompaniment, he quickly raised his right hand and stabled him self against a polystyrene lamppost. He was drunk. Rocking perpetually in his inebriated fashion, his left hand brought a bottle to his mouth while his head tilted back in a drinking-like manner. Then he fell off the edge of his universe and, his hand quickly grabbing hold of the gutter, dangled in to ours.

The crowd erupted with applause and laughter.

I kept walking. A man on stilts wearing long legged suit pants, a suit jacket, vest, bow tie and top hat, his face painted white, approached the glass wall of a bakery and began heartily bewailing its filthiness: ‘Sucio! Sucio!’ he cried, pulling a bright red handkerchief from his chest pocket and proceeding to dab the glass. Two men were playing flamenco guitar, one rhythm, the other a dazzling melodic improvisation. Stalls lined the pavement selling tasty treats, woodcrafts, jewelry and antiques.

I was on Calle Defensa in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, it was Sunday and I was surrounded by the barrio’s famous antiques market.

The barrio of San Telmo is the thriving cultural epicenter of Buenos Aires, a city that could definitely make a bid for the cultural capital of the Latin world. From the bars and clubs where musical influences mix to make new musical influences (like Tango Electronica) to café’s where minds bursting with ideas and creativity (the mental ricochet of the barrio’s intensive sensory stimuli) babble enthusiastically at each other, San Telmo is an exciting place to be.

Few neighbourhoods in the world contain such a cluster of pleasurable experiences: footpath clinging, multi-storey 19th Century French and Italian inspired mansions; stores filled with antiques (catalysts for bite sized mental journeys of historical insight); small independent galleries (featuring feats of originality, daring and visual comedy); tango dancers; stilt walkers; puppeteers; virtuoso musicians; delicious food (from succulent empanadas to steaks doused in spicy fruit chutneys), San Telmo taps directly into your central nervous system.

The only problem with a place like San Telmo is that in speaking its praises it’s hard to sound believable.

Further down Calle Defensa a band of alternatives sporting decidedly androgynous looks and outlandish colourful outfits were walking towards me. Engaged in some form of defiant, mobile, performance art they were yelling things in Spanish to various passers by (in words I was unfortunately unable to understand). The energy coming from them was palpable. A very effeminate young man wearing superman underwear, torn fish net stockings, a leather gimp-like jacket, mascara and bright red lipstick was making wide eyes and jestingly sticking his tongue out at passing young girl while a pink and white frilly attired roller girl did circles around him. A lithe bodied women, dressed as little girl Alice after an acid trip through wonderland (panda eyed with a tethered and torn conservative British school girl uniform) kept in step with the others, looking across the crowds like a vampire hungry for blood. It was a kind of audio-visual terrorism, driven by indignation, boredom, a need to entertain? It is hard to say.

As if cued by Spielberg for a jolting visual juxtaposition, an acapella performance of five suited preppy schoolboys singing the Argentinean equivalent of Mr. Sandman in a semi-circle appeared soon after they’d left my ambit.

Todo Mundo, Plaza Dorrego, San Telmo

There is a special blend of rich and poor in the history of San Telmo that perhaps explains its present cultural milieu. In the 19th Century San Pedro Telmo (as it was then known) was the home of Buenos Aires’ wealthy. They built the French and Italian style mansions that give the place its present dilapidated grandeur. But in 1871, during a 50-year spate of intensive immigration from Europe (which would take the cities population from 100 thousand to 1 million), an outbreak of yellow fever led most of them to migrate to the higher ground of Recoleta.  The newly arrived migrants soon populated the buildings, packing hundreds of people into premises previously occupied by one family. These majestic mansions and the paved valley-like streets and lanes that lay between them no doubt hosted such a heightened rate of human interaction (symbiotic, parasitic and predatorial) that cultural evolution could not help but be accelerated.

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