"When I moved here, you had to learn how to speak Spanish," says Wendy Gosselin, a translator from Brighton, Michigan, who runs her own business and relocated to Buenos Aires a decade ago. "Now you go into a restaurant and everyone's speaking English."
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Not long after Michael Legee moved to Buenos Aires from London in 2004, the 34-year-old management consultant opened the Natural Deli, a market and café offering organic fare. The concept of health food seemed so alien one local woman asked, "What are you trying to cure?" But business took off, and within a year Legee added a second deli. He's aiming for ten. "I don't have much competition," he says.
Sam Nadler and Jordan Metzner, who both graduated from Indiana University in 2005, opened a downtown burrito restaurant franchise, even though they'd been warned that Argentines, famously conservative in their food choices, would not go for Tex-Mex. Two years later, their California Burrito Company often commands half-hour lines during the lunch rush. "For the first few months, we had no idea what we were doing," Nadler says. But, he says, the low cost of starting a business gave them the freedom to make mistakes. "Now we're having fun trying to bring something new to the marketplace."
"Buenos Aires seems to be a place where people come to figure their lives out," says Kristie Robinson, 30, who moved to the city more than three years ago from London and founded The Argentimes, a biweekly English-language newspaper. "If you come with some money saved up, you can live comfortably for six months, a year. You can pretend you are in Europe here for a quarter of the cost."
Buenos Aires—"fair winds" in Spanish—has gone through many incarnations and is reinventing itself yet again. And foreigners are playing a big part this time, too, thanks to a weak peso that attracts people from all over. The capital city, situated on the Río de la Plata, one of the world's largest estuaries, has long been described as the Paris of South America, but lately people have begun comparing it to Paris of the 1920s, emblematic as the place where artists, intellectuals and others from around the world pursued their passions.
"In New York, I was just trying to pay the rent all the time," says Seth Wulsin, a 28-year-old conceptual artist who moved to Buenos Aires in 2005. "Having time and space is really helpful. It's the greatest gift." Wulsin's first project there involved strategically breaking exterior windows at a former Buenos Aires prison, then empty and on the verge of demolition, that had held political opponents of the notorious military dictatorship that controlled Argentina from 1976 until 1983, when elections restored a democratic government.
The circumstances that have recently drawn so many foreigners to Buenos Aires arose in 2001, when the nation's economy collapsed. A main cause was a 1990s monetary policy that pegged the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar, an anti-inflation measure that ended up stifling the economy. The resulting depression, combined with deficit spending financed by international borrowing, undermined Argentines' confidence and led to a run on the banks in late 2001. The government responded with limits on withdrawals, prompting riots and police clashes in which dozens of people nationwide were killed. President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. Argentina defaulted on its loans. The peso plummeted and Argentines' savings were nearly wiped out.
But the country turned into a bargain destination for people with foreign currencies. The exchange rate this past April was 3.7 pesos per U.S. dollar. Tourism, at least until the world financial collapse this past fall, has boomed, with some 2.5 million visitors to Buenos Aires in 2008, up more than sixfold since 2001.
It turns out that a surprising number of them are sticking around. Martin Frankel, the head of Expat Connection, which holds outings and seminars for English-speaking foreigners, says many people moving to Buenos Aires have no intention of staying forever but aren't just tourists, either. "The line between expats and tourists is not as clear as it used to be," he says.
There's a joke usually attributed to the Mexican writer Octavio Paz: "Mexicans descend from the Aztecs, Peruvians from the Incans, and Argentines...from the boats."