Buenos Aires has more psychologists than anywhere else. Does the city drive its inhabitants crazy? And what, if anything, does the tango have to do with it?
Today is just another crazy, perfectly normal day in Buenos Aires. In smart Recoleta, dogsitters chill with cups of mate beneath purple jacaranda blossoms while a flurry of eight, ten, even 12 dogs romps around them. In the narrow streets of La Boca, the kids put as much heart and soul into playing ball as the iconic Boca Juniors soccer club professionals. The patios of San Telmo, with their barbecues and haggling traders, are never quiet, either, and outside Casa Rosada, the presidential palace, mothers, retirees and students block the street while hammering on pots and pans with wooden spoons in a cacerolada, a popular form of protest – against pension cuts, inflation and the crimes of the military dictatorship, which, 35 years later, have still not been fully investigated.
Some 15 million people live on the Río de la Plata, the world’s broadest river. Porteños (port people) as the inhabitants of Buenos Aires call themselves, inhabit a city of superlatives: Some 38 000 taxis clog its avenues; and with 14 lanes in places, the main thoroughfare, Nueve de Julio, is the world’s widest road. The Argentine capital boasts another record, too – more psychologists per capita than anywhere else in the world. That’s why I want to ask the Porteños, the tango dancers and, of course, the psychologists themselves, this question: Does this megacity drive you nuts? Does Buenos Aires, the “city of fair winds” make people mad with happiness or just plain mad? “The only thing that bothers me here is the attitude to work,” says fashion designer María A Zolezzi. “People in Europe work quickly and efficiently, but here, everything takes forever.” Since she returned to Buenos Aires from Paris six years ago, she has found the unhurried pace of life and economic chaos difficult to bear. But she’s adjusted: To avoid the high rents and minimize her own financial risk, she turned her living room into the showroom for her label, Maydi. Like so many Porteños, she doesn’t let her native country’s instability put her off.
Zolezzi, 43, petite with brown hair and dark eyes, lives and works in northern Palermo, a trendy neighborhood with bars and restaurants frequented by people with money. From the balcony of her eighth-story, two-room apartment, the designer overlooks a polo ground. After studying in London, Zolezzi worked in Paris for 12 years, for companies like Hermès and Isabel Marant. What made her return to Buenos Aires? “I wanted to create something here that would combine Argentine culture and modern design,” she says. She produces the designs and employs local women to do the knitting and weaving. Most of them are close to 70, but these are the women with the traditional skills Zolezzi is looking for. All of the raw materials are sourced in Argentina: silk from La Pampa, merino wool from Patagonia and baby lama wool from the north. Zolezzi takes a 600-euro poncho from the rack: The fabric is robust, but it slips through your fingers like a breath of air. In Japan, where her handiwork is particularly sought after, she charges double that amount.
Zolezzi sells roughly 30 percent of her products through boutiques at home and abroad, but most are purchased straight from her living room. Her customers are mainly wealthy tourists accompanied by a personal shopper. “The Argentinean market is hard to crack, there isn’t much interest in local products,” says Zolezzi. “We need to learn to appreciate our handicrafts, and we need to market them better. Argentinean wool is the best there is, but few outside the country know this.”
It’s not that the Porteños lack national pride, it’s just that in their cosmopolitan lives, they occasionally lose sight of their own culture. Buenos Aires revels in the byname “the Paris of South America,” and it really is the most European city on the continent. In the early 20th century, immigrants flocked to a Buenos Aires undergoing industrialization, which urgently needed workers. Around 1900, there were a million people living here, and New York was the only city in the Americas with a larger population. The two prosperous cities became rivals, each aiming to become the world’s biggest. Around half of the Porteños were migrants in those days, and even today, roughly one in three Argentineans has Italian roots.
The city’s special history has left its mark on people’s souls, or so psychotherapist Andrés Moteni believes. Uprooted and fleeing poverty and unemployment, the immigrants found two ways to ease their homesickness: They invented the tango and they took to the couch. With the arrival of the immigrants, psychotherapy came to the Argentinean middle classes – and stayed. Every Porteño is familiar with psychoanalytical terms. Sigmund Freud is recreational reading here, and some therapists even have their own television shows. At a recent count, there were some 35 000 psychologists and psychotherapists practicing in and around Buenos Aires. Statistically speaking, that’s one for every 420 citizens; In New York, the ratio is roughly one to 670.
Molteni, 58, has a gestalt therapy practice in Palermo Viejo. He asks his patients to put on masks and costumes and take on different roles so that they can see their problems from a different perspective. Moteni set up his practice in a casa chorizo, a “sausage house,” as the long, narrow, early 20th-century buildings are called because the rooms are arranged like a string of sausages. Going to see a therapist is as normal in Buenos Aires as going to the gym, Molteni explains, as we sit down on the big cushions on his dark, wooden floor. “You want answers, you speak to someone. In other cultures, that’s a barman or a taxi driver; in ours, it’s a psychologist.”
The Porteños are no crazier than anyone else, Molteni says. And it isn’t their city that’s driving them crazy. They simply self-optimize to keep pace with the times. Like in other countries, Argentineans suffer from the symptoms of modern life, are plagued by narcissism, loneliness and the pressure to succeed. Members of the middle and upper classes see their psychologist regularly and for years on end – even if they have no acute problems. It’s subsidized by the health system, so some psychotherapists charge no more than the equivalent of 12 euros an hour. The right to see a therapist is also written into many employment contracts.
The tango is danced in an intimate embrace. That’s why people love it. Everyone loves to be held
There’s a very different form of therapy that’s also deeply rooted in Argentine society: the tango. Born of melancholy, can it heal it, too? Yes, says Anna Fiore, 48, a slender, short-haired German woman who moved to Buenos Aires nearly six years ago and took over the Tango Taxi Dancers school from her husband when they separated. Fiore’s students often turn up with stooped backs and drooping shoulders, a posture that speaks of defensiveness and pain. But the tango always straightens them out, Fiore claims. “After the lesson, my clients go home with their heads held high. The tango is therapeutic.” To set up her dance studio, Fiore converted a room of her small apartment, had parquet laid and hung mirrors on the walls. I would like to learn this athletic dance with its melancholic approach to life here, too. My teacher is Guillermo Pire, Fiore’s closest colleague whom everyone calls Luc. Now 60, he was just a boy when he fell in love with the music of the legendary tango star Carlos Gardel. “His voice seems to come from another planet,” he tells me. “And the tango is danced in an intimate embrace. That’s why people love it: Everyone loves to be held.”
So I enter Luc’s embrace. My hand rests between his shoulder blades, my collarbone is docked onto his shoulder. There are no set steps in the tango; the man follows the music and the woman follows the man. I try to move with him. Which way is Luc’s back leaning, where is he directing his steps? I close my eyes to stop myself from staring at his feet. The accordion emits a lovelorn sigh, and I totter after the music. “You have to wait,” says Fiore. Wait for what? “For Luc to tell you what to do.” Now I’m in the grip of melancholy, too. Perhaps it will prepare me for my evening baptism of fire at a milonga. Milongas are traditional dance clubs, and Fiore’s teachers often accompany their students there “because the rules are so strict.” If you don’t know them, you could spend all evening waiting to be asked to dance. An experienced escort can tell you to put your dancing shoes on in the restroom, not at the table; will explain that you do not chat during a tanda, a sequence of three or four songs, but that it’s polite to engage in small talk during the cortina, the break.
We head for Club Gricel in San Cristóbal. Red light, ceiling fans whirring, couples on the dance floor. “Blanquita is also here today. She’s the oldest regular; she turned 93 last week,” says Fiore, pointing out a gray-haired lady in red dress and high heels. The invitation to dance is a wordless ritual: Eye contact, a mere nod. If the woman doesn’t want to, she simply averts her eyes. If a man flirts, he should expect to be rejected, as tango is a sensual, not a sexual dance. And you won’t see any acrobatic show tango moves, women stretching their legs up to their chin, being flung into the air or kicking their heels sharply up and back. At least there’s no great risk of injury. I venture onto the dance floor with Luc. Grave-faced couples glide past us, cheek to cheek. For a couple of seconds, I am able to switch off and just follow Luc’s steps as he steers us clear of every collision. The ability to improvise, that must be it – the explanation for the special quality of life in Buenos Aires.