Look around at homes in Buenos Aires: one of the first things to strike you is all the bars on the windows. People are obsessed with security – front doors in apartment blocks and many shops are always locked, meaning lots of time waiting on doorsteps for people to emerge with the key. When I arrived in 2006, I just put it down to a hangover from 2001, when Argentina defaulted on nearly $100bn and 36 people died in anti-government riots.
I still don’t think Buenos Aires is a more dangerous or insecure place than any other big city, but maybe I should have taken note. A few months after moving here with my then three-year-old son, we were about to transfer from a temporary flat to the charming wreck of a building site I had just bought. We came home from a sunny Sunday lunch to find the front door kicked in and all our valuables gone.
Not the best start for a jobless, single mother in a city I’d only ever visited on holiday and about which I had misgivings – after all, I am a vegetarian in the mecca of meat. And Buenos Aires is stuck in the middle of dull, flat farmland, far from the seaside I had left behind in Peru, where I had lived since 2000, and where I had ended a 15-year career with Reuters news agency.
It’s all a far cry from where I was born and raised. Born in West Bromwich in 1967, I grew up in Halesowen, near Birmingham in England, studied at Oxford and joined Reuters after university. When I moved to Peru I was excited to be discovering a new continent with a whole new set of news stories after five years in Italy – many of them, it felt, spent writing about Rome’s battle to qualify for the euro.
I swiftly had to ditch the Italian handshake in favour of the South American greeting of a kiss on one cheek, and to switch from the European Spanish I had studied at university to the continent’s lilting pronunciation. When I moved to Argentina, the Spanish around me morphed again – Argentines have a vocabulary and a delivery all of their own that makes their language particularly picturesque and peppers their speech with “sh” sounds.
Buenos Aires in 2006 was booming – and if property wasn’t as cheap as it had been immediately after Argentina’s crash, prices were still hugely attractive. Doing up, or as Argentines say, “recycling”, old buildings was all the rage. Our first place was in Villa Crespo, a traditional Jewish neighbourhood, on the fringe of the über-trendy Palermo neighbourhood whose bars and boutiques make it a favourite with expats.
Though our two-storey house, set behind a patio, was spacious, the neighbour with his eternally barking dogs and loud tango music at all hours eventually proved too close for comfort. Parking was a perpetual nightmare as was the one-hour round-trip twice a day to school. The last straw was the demolition of a building next door for a block of flats that threatened to take away our light and privacy. We sold.
Given Argentines’ obsession with the dollar – the preferred currency for savings in a country where people have painful memories of confiscated bank deposits and economic cycles that have all too often swung from boom to bust – buying a house is an eye-opener.
First of all, you buy in dollars, not pesos. New rules mean you can get a bank draft for house purchases now, but then, the dollars had to be stacked up in cash on the table – suddenly looking pathetically paltry – for the seller to count and take away.
When I joined the FT, after a year in Argentina, I went to work just a few blocks from the imposing Obelisk in the city’s bustling Microcentro in what had been, at the time, one of Buenos Aires’ tallest buildings. The Edificio Safico, with its white art deco façade, is nestled amid nondescript buildings on the busy Avenida Corrientes, just a couple of blocks from the calle Florida, the city’s main tourist shopping street. But then that’s typical of Buenos Aires: the city is studded with half-hidden architectural jewels and it often pays to look up to catch pretty wrought-iron balconies or stuccoes.
Many expats are attracted to atmospheric San Telmo just to the south of the city centre, full of cobbled streets, crumbling old buildings and historic cafés. Those with the deepest wallets can plump for Puerto Madero, the dockside development overlooking the River Plate. While the average price for a brand-new flat in Buenos Aires is about $2,500 per square metre, though, expect to pay $6,000 in Puerto Madero.
Despite a new art district and a gorgeous nature reserve that succeeds in blotting out all sense of the skyscrapers nearby, Puerto Madero remains soulless. Families tend to go elsewhere – often to the northern city suburbs, where they can have big gardens, swimming pools and peace. The price they pay is a daily battle with traffic – the result of ever more people seeking to beat relentless inflation by buying new cars – or a commute on decrepit, jam-packed trains.
A half-way house is the chic Recoleta, whose grey slate cupolas and elegant buildings are a permanent reminder of why Buenos Aires became known as the “Paris of the South”. This district is home to some of the city’s fanciest hotels and its ritziest shopping centre, as well as a gaggle of smart restaurants. But just a stone’s throw away, beside the train tracks and sprawling underneath a motorway flyover is the city’s biggest slum: Villa 31 is a painful reminder of the aching gulf between rich and poor in Latin America’s third-biggest economy.
With my son, French partner and daughter (born in the living room of our Villa Crespo home), we moved to the Saavedra neighbourhood in the north of the city a couple of years ago. It felt a long way away – 20 blocks from the end of the metro line – and for a while we wondered what we were doing.
But the nearby motorway makes swift work of trips into town (and for escaping to the country), not to mention the early-morning drive to school; there are cycle paths; the local shops deliver – very handily as I now work from home; and the nearby park with its old-fashioned merry-go-round is my daughter’s delight. We are also close to Chinatown – essential for the spices that Argentine cuisine shuns.
Writing about Argentina’s economy takes up much of my time – and is fascinating, as the government ploughs ahead on an unpredictable, heterodox course with a questionable mix of policies it credits with hauling the country out of the post-default abyss and towards several years of heady growth.
But the cracks are showing and inflation – heading for 25 per cent, though denied by the government – is definitely one of the most wearing aspects of day-to-day life. An official crackdown on imports, designed to stimulate local industry and create jobs, means, in practice, less choice, higher prices and often poor quality.
Meanwhile, increasing restrictions on buying dollars has sent the black-market rate for greenbacks soaring, paralysing real estate operations while people wait and see whether or when the peso will be devalued, or if multiple exchange rates are on the cards, despite government assurances to the contrary.
In Argentina’s turbulent economy, bricks and mortar have long been a safe bet and hedge against inflation. Argentines themselves, mostly charming and hugely inventive, are welcoming and the lifestyle is relaxed,like the long sunny days. Despite my brush with insecurity, I don’t regret a thing.
●One of the world’s most vibrant cities with plenty of art, design and culture
●Excellent wine, that is still cheap
●Child-friendly with lots of year-round sunshine; affordable childcare
●Argentina is a traveller’s treasure trove: the high Andes, the thrashing Iguazú falls, the imposing Perito Moreno glacier ... But there are no cheap internal flights and no long-distance trains
●Economic uncertainty though Argentines are blasé – they’ve seen it all before
●No service culture. Argentines never apologise. And watch where you walk – dog poo is a pavement peril
What you can buy for ...
$100,000 A 47 sq m one-bedroom apartment in a middle-class neighbourhood such as Colegiales or Belgrano
$1m A four-bedroom villa with a garden and garage, pretty much anywhere in the city except the chic embassy enclave, Barrio Parque