Tuesday, September 26, 2006

If I could, I would

I've been accused by many anonymous comment leavers who are ex-residents and expats in this town of trashing it. Inevitably, they end their message by telling me (or are they also telling themselves?) they love Buenos Aires and their buddies agree. I'm really happy for them and their buddies but they seem to forget that all of us come from different backgrounds and have different standards and priorities.

If I were an expat without family ties and concerns about the future of my sprogs, this is indeed a fantastic party town, all the more so because it is very affordable. Try living this sort of lifestyle in any capital city in the First World, one would have to have a job that pays seriously well. I would love it too if those were my priorities right now.

If I were an expat with a family, this could still be a fantastic town...I could suddenly afford to live how the other half lives; the maid, the nanny, the dog walker, private school for the kids, eating out regularly at trendy restaurants, weekly manicure, pedicure, hair appointment...the list goes on. I would love it too if living this lifestyle completes me.

If I were moving out here from a small town in the middle of nowhere in the U.S. or the U.K., I would love it too. So much more happens in a capital city, so little to miss back home. After a few years of living here, I probably would wake up one day and realise I have nothing and nowhere to go back to.

Sadly, I am none of the above. I had a job with a top Wall Street firm so I did all the partying when I was much younger with money I personally earned and paid tax on. I am also fortunate enough to have grown up and lived much of my adult life to date with domestic help; it is not a novelty or a thrill for me. Anyway, I had and can easily live without it.

Thanks to my parents' hard work, I attended private schools in Hong Kong, Sussex and Sydney. I learnt many useful things in these schools but I also pick up some deplorable values and priorities which I had spend years to unlearn.

To top it all off, I had lived in some of the most energetic and modern cities in the world and my parents have two bases, in beautiful Sydney and Hong Kong. What can I say; I have a very fortunate life which I am extremely grateful for. This may help to explain why I am not particularly enamoured with Buenos Aires.

On the other hand, I am seriously concerned that my Argentine husband would have to work until he physically can no longer. Defined benefit or defined contribution pension plans are almost unheard of here; when he could no longer work, we would then live on the little savings which survive the various crises we would have to endure in the coming years, plus maybe 100 pesos of monthly State pension if we are truly lucky.

We would live in a selfish society littered with dog poo and rubbish because the citizens couldn't care less. We may get hit by some projecting body from a car accident because the passenger exercised his civil liberty in refusing to wear a seat-belt. We would definitely be robbed blind by the politicians, the banking system, fellow citizens who dodge tax, etc. and that's all before starting a family.

The State school system is a reflection of this country so our kids would probably go to an average private school, like most middle class families, and learn to speak fluent Spanglish. Otherwise, with some help from my parents, they may go to a top tier private school where academic excellence still takes second place to whether we "summer" in Punta del Este which defeats the purpose of sending them there in the first place.

They would probably study to become a lawyer, a doctor, or some other professional. However, from the number of lawyers and architects who actually drive taxi for a living here, their future would still be precarious.

For the sake of my hypothesis, let's just say our kids become medical doctors. If they work in the public health system, they may earn between 2,000 to 4,000 pesos a month. Divide that by 3 and you get the grim picture in US dollar terms.

If they become successful private practitioners, say like my gynaecologist who has a roomful of patients waiting at all times? They may earn about 20,000 pesos (still less than US$7,000) a month based on an hourly rate, reimbursed by private health insurance companies, of about 30 pesos (US$10) per patient. Mind you, my gynaecologist's busy practice has been built for him and his brother by their father, el professor, a well respected gynaecologist who has long held a teaching position at UBA (this actually implies very few hours of teaching at the university but builds prestige for the practice).

Then our kids would have to work until they physically can no longer, just like their father. Meanwhile, they might marry their private school sweetheart, a mamamone (mummy's boy) or an anorexic with blonde hair from a bottle and silicon boobs. Our grandchildren would watch Barney all day while munching on dulce de leche laden alfajores...and this would repeat itself generation after generation.

Guillermo has lived a different life from his family to realise that he doesn't want this future for himself or his own family. I, needless to say, will never be ready for this. We have tried to fit in but it is clear that there is only one solution for us.

It was a truly sad moment for Guillermo's parents when we talked to them about our plans to leave within the next couple of years. It is not just that their son is leaving them; it is a judgement on their country.

In 2001, Guillermo came home for holiday from London. He witnessed porteños crowding the streets of Buenos Aires, chanting "se vayan todos" (equivalent to "out with all", referring to all that was corrupt in this country). Most people thought the 2001 crisis gave the country a clean slate. His parents chanted with the crowd from their balcony and urged their son to join in.

Guillermo told them things weren't going change unless the people, themselves, change; the country had so far failed to breed people with integrity to take over all.

Fast track to today, 2006, the positive feeling of "se vayan todos" has pretty much evaporated completely. The economy has recovered and people have gone back to their old ways. In a macro sense, this Argentine story is also going to repeat itself generation after generation. Even Guillermo's parents have realised that now. Who could blame them for being sad?

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