Singing barmen & music on public transport: appreciating the small things in life

Amidst the craziness of big city life, it is all too easy to miss or forget about the small things, which are often what make a place special. Here are just a few of quirky characteristics that for me define Buenos Aires.

Singing barmen

This is about knowing where to go and it is guaranteed in one of the landmark bars of the Almagro neighbourhood, Lo de Roberto. Don’t show up too early – unless you want to claim a table, appreciate the snug atmosphere and the walls lined with bottles dating back to 1893. If you can’t dance tango, then Lo de Roberto is the next best way to understand it – even better with a glass of Quilmes in hand as a local and often impromtu duo sing Naranjo en Flor or some other Pulgiese classic. This bar was frequented by Carlos Gardel and other tango heros and is generally packed with locals. Passer-byers stop at the wide-open windows and hang off the windowpanes entranced by the lyrics and of course, the rosy-cheeked and plump-bellied SINGING barmen, who inspired by cerveza or unable to contain their passion (I’m not sure which), emerge from behind the bar to accompany the musicians in rich bellows of song.

Warning to the ladies: the chaps here like those in many corners of the city are also masters of carefully crafted compliments. I had to smile when my friend Meg and I were asked: “Do you two know piratas?” “Huh?” “Piratas?” And both looking confused still trying work out what piratas means in the context of our evening our suitor quickly chimes in; “No? I figured that two treasures like you must have been brought here by pirates.” Mmm.. 10 points for creativity!

Cerveza by the litre!

After enjoying beer by the litre in bars for some time now I forgot that this commodity is not so easy to find in other parts of the world. I was reminded by visiting friends who thought this was pretty splendid! Especially alongside empanadas, a choripan or a hamburguesa! Considering that Argentines tend to be rather modest drinkers, number 38 on the list of beer consumption per capita, it is an interesting trend reflecting a culture that loves sharing food and drink, as well as economic savings! Argentines are world-leaders in recycling as far as beer is concerned – returning their empty bottles (aka envases) to the stores in exchange for a cheaper beer.

Music on the public transport

It’s hard not to be aware of two key realities about public transport, it’s transport and it is public. Although we know we should appreciate the mediums that get us from A to B, especially amidst taxi-fare increases and subway strikes, it all gets more complicated when the bus doesn’t stop (even though you are practically in the middle of the street waving your arms wildly) or you are swished into a colectivo hanging of the bars on the roof of the vehicle with someone elses armpit in your face!

Thankfully, while in most places grim remains grim, here there is always someone to turn it into an opportunity. Firstly, I’m on the bus on my way to work and some young lad with his guitar starts strumming because, well, why not! The lady to his right inspired by the spontaneity and who also happens to be a singer decides to join in. It is all muy buena onda. After their impromtu duo, they exchange emails and resolve to get together to jam sometime.

Quirky live music on the subway will range from a boy with his eyes closed playing the flute with all his might, to a rastafaren with terrible vocals but a contagious smile and a likeable groove – you can’t help but love them.

And while you are waiting for your bus at 2 or 3am in the morning, it is much more fun with a group of teenagers cheering and mooning the oncoming transport in exchange for a “toot” or an orchestra! The best thing about this: the oncoming transport seem to understand exactly what it is like to wait at a bus stop late at night, almost invariably laughing and cheering from their vehicles and cranking up their sound systems at the red light. It is lovely to be in a city where there are so many people waiting to transform the ordinary and mundane into something special.

Colourful walls

I was lucky enough to take a street art tour in Buenos Aires with graffitimundo and while I love art, the most interesting thing for me was the context. The contemporary art scene in Buenos Aires is the consequence of a repressive history (military dictatorships and economic crisis), which nurtured an already existing traditional of expression. People through their suffering began to appreciate the true value of freedom of expression. Buenos Aires certainly has exceptionally colourful walls (and even subway carriages), which go nicely with the colourful Italian hand gestures and the playful language. Que haces flaca or as we often tell each other at work, sos un boludo!

It can be refreshing that people are generally not afraid to say to others exactly what they think, whether this is telling something they ought not skip the line at the supermarket, that they are their long-sought “media-naranja,” or waving a fist at yet another person who should never have passed their drivers license. For me what is most perplexing is the lively dynamic between this tendency towards expression and the strong set of social rules that seem to be alive and kicking in Argentine society. El Hombre de Al Lado is an interesting Argentine film touching on the boundaries of free expression between two neighbours.

Colourful people

Some of favourite and most-admired people here in Buenos Aires are the friendly folk I get to see every couple of days in the conveniently-located kiosks and local fruit and vege joints. Why are these people heros? They graciously put up with my “intermediate” Spanish without ever treating me any differently. While working what seem like relentless hours they never fail to say hello with a warm smile and ask me how ny day has been, often on a first name basis.
Lest not forget that they sell me delicious treats like alfajores and fresh fruit and veges and sometimes even give me little mouthfuls to sample! These people are an everyday reminder that it doesn’t matter what you dedicate yourself to, you can make a difference in other peoples lives through what is as simple as a smile.

By Sarah. Sarah works for The Argentine Experience.

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