America claims to have bars and eateries where “everybody knows your name,” but they are increasingly franchised chain clones with faux historical decor, uninspired menus, and rotating casts of alternately self-absorbed or mechanically detached managers and waitstaff.  America, in fact, has already passed the tipping point beyond which there are more chain restaurants than “mom and pops”.  Everywhere else in the western world foodservice means locally owned cafés  and bistros which often serve three meals daily, where food is freshly prepared and reasonably priced, where the staff and ownership have remained unchanged for years, and that have truly acquired the status of neighborhood institutions.

Plaza Dorrego Cafe & Bar, San Telmo, Buenos Aires

In Buenos Aires these are called “confiteria,” and you’ll find one at or near virtually every street corner.  As my B.A. immersion deepens, I find myself more often starting the day there with an espresso or cappuccino, grabbing a light midday snack, or occasionally taking an evening meal.  It’s another great way to experience a daily slice of Argentine life and to observe and better understand the B.A. psyche.

These places seem to cut across social classes in a way that establishments in nominally classless American society increasingly do not.  During morning rush hour a suited businessman can often be found seated at a table next to a store clerk wearing her workplace smock.  This leads me to reflect further upon how common it is in B.A. to see people wearing workplace uniforms to and from work in a way that Americans haven’t since the 1940’s. For one thing, trade unions remain a powerful force in Argentina as in other social democracies, and the right to a lifelong job is still widely and successfully sought after as a political right.  In contrast, American workers seem increasingly to see their jobs as a transient part of their lives, and at best peripheral to their identities.

But there may be even more to it than workplace identity.  I am struck as I walk among literally thousands of pedestrians every day by the singular absence of affinity-branded clothing among porteños.  Rarely if ever to be seen are shirts with pro sports or college alma mater logos, political slogans, political incorrectness masquerading as humor, or variations on the “I’m-a-bad-boy-and-that’s-a-good thing” theme.  It’s as if Argentines have an inner compass that lets them feel secure in their personal identities without the need to label themselves and broadcast it on their chests.  While the chic shops carry the latest from European designers, porteños’ choice of clothing most often has an understated sense of style that seems to place a higher value on timeless fashion than on here-today-gone-tomorrow trendiness.

This sense of self and balance seems also connected to a different sense of time.  I am struck as I move around the city by the singular absence of clocks on public buildings and in shops and restaurants. This place hustles and bustles from 9 to 5 in a way totally unlike the sleepy, banana republic version of Latin America, but it is not a nation of clock-watchers.

What a contrast this is with the Japanese, who  often seem determined to out-do Americans in their embrace of rock ‘n’ roll music, golf, Western fashion, and the longest white-collar work week in the world.

The New World seems so often  to have freed transplanted European culture of its most onerous confinements to make it more open and easy-going.   One can’t help wonder, however, at the different turn that metamorphosis has taken 40 degrees north of the equator than it has here, 40 degrees south of it.

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