Buenos Aires Feature

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Local Do's and Taboos

Customs of the Country

Welcoming and helpful, porteños are a pleasure to travel among. They have more in common with, say, Spanish or Italians, than other Latin Americans. However, although cultural differences between here and North America are small, they're still palpable.

Porteños are usually fashionably late for all social events—don't be offended if someone keeps you waiting over half an hour for a lunch or dinner date. However, tardiness is frowned upon in the business world.

Political correctness isn't a valued trait, and just about everything and everyone—except mothers—is a target for playful mockery. Locals are often disparaging about their country's shortcomings, but Argentina-bashing is a privilege reserved for Argentineans.

Sadly, the attitudes of many porteños toward foreigners vary greatly according to origin and race. White Europeans and North Americans are held in far greater esteem than, say, Peruvians or Bolivians. Racist reactions—anything from insults or name-calling to giving short shrift—to Asian, black, or Native American people are, unfortunately, not unusual. Although there's little you can do about this in day-to-day dealings, Argentina does have an antidiscrimination body, Institución Nacional contra la Discriminación, la Xenofobia y el Racismo (INADI; www.inadi.gov.ar) that you can contact if you're the victim of serious discrimination.

Greetings

Porteños have no qualms about getting physical, and the way they greet each other reflects this. One kiss on the right cheek is the customary greeting between both male and female friends. Women also greet strangers in this way, although men—especially older men—often shake hands the first time they meet someone. Other than that, handshaking is seen as very cold and formal.

When you arrive at a party it's normal to kiss and greet absolutely everyone in the room (or, if you're in a restaurant, everyone at your table). When you leave, you say good-bye to everyone and repeat the performance.

Porteños only use the formal "you" form, usted, with people much older than them or in very formal situations, and the casual greeting ¡Hola! often replaces buen día, buenas tardes, and buenas noches. In small towns formal greetings and the use of usted are much more widespread.

Sightseeing

You can dress pretty much as you like: skimpy clothing causes no offense. Argentine men almost always allow women to go through doors and board buses and elevators first, often with exaggerated ceremony. Far from finding this sexist, local women take it as a god-given right. Frustratingly, there's no rule about standing on one side of escalators to allow people to pass you.

Despite bus drivers' best efforts, locals are reluctant to move to the back of buses. Pregnant women, the elderly, and those with disabilities have priority on the front seats of city buses; offer them your seat if these are taken.

Children and adults selling pens, notepads, or sheets of stickers are regular fixtures on urban public transport. Some children also hand out tiny greeting cards in exchange for coins. The standard procedure is to accept the merchandise or cards as the vendor moves up the carriage, then either return the item (saying no, gracias) or give them money when they return.

Most porteños are hardened jaywalkers, but given how reckless local driving can be, you'd do well to cross at corners, wait for pedestrian lights, and even then keep a close eye on nearby cars.

Out on the Town

A firm nod of the head or raised eyebrow usually gets waiters' attention; "disculpa" (excuse me) also does the trick. You can ask your waiter for la cuenta (the check) or make a signing gesture in the air from afar.

Alcohol—especially wine and beer—is a big part of life in Argentina. Local women generally drink less than their foreign counterparts, but there are no taboos about this. Social events usually end in general tipsiness rather than all-out drunkenness, which is seen as a rather tasteless foreign habit.

Smoking is very common in Argentina, but antismoking legislation introduced in Buenos Aires in 2006 has banned smoking in all but the largest cafés and restaurants (which must have extractor fans and designated smoking areas). Smoking is prohibited on public transport, in government offices, in banks, and in cinemas.

Public displays of affection between heterosexual couples attract little attention in most parts of the country; beyond downtown Buenos Aires, same-sex couples may attract hostile reactions.

All locals tend to make an effort to look nice—though not necessarily formal—for dinner out. Older couples get very dressed up for the theater; younger women usually put on high heels and makeup for clubbing.

If you're invited to someone's home for dinner, a bottle of good Argentine wine is the best gift to take to the hosts.

Language

Argentina's official language is Spanish, known locally as castellano (rather than español). It differs from other varieties of Spanish in its use of vos (instead of ) for the informal "you" form. Locals readily understand the use of but you blend in more with vos. You conjugate it by simply replacing the "r" of the infinitive with "s" and placing the stress (and accent) on the last syllable; thus the vos form of caminar (to walk) is "vos caminás", and of decir (to say) is "vos decís." The verb ser (to be) is irregular: "vos sos" (you are) is the local equivalent of "tú eres."

There are also lots of small vocabulary differences, especially for everyday things like food. Porteño intonation is rather singsong, and sounds more like Italian than Mexican or peninsular Spanish. And, like Italians, porteños supplement their words with lots and lots of gesturing. Another porteño peculiarity is pronouncing the letters "y" and "ll" as a "sh" sound.

In hotels, restaurants, and shops that cater to visitors, many people speak at least some basic English; in less touristy places, English-speaking staff are rarer. Attempts to speak Spanish are usually appreciated. Basic courtesies like buen día (good morning) or buenas tardes (good afternoon), and por favor (please) and gracias (thank you) are a good place to start. Even if your language skills are basic and phrasebook bound, locals generally make an effort to understand you.

Buenos Aires' official tourism body runs a free, 24-hour tourist assistant hotline with English-speaking operators, 0800/999-2838.

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