Kissing Strangers

I've been kissed by 16 people in the last two hours - men and women. When half a dozen pizza boxes arrive, they're filled with small half-moon-shaped savory pastries. Empanadas. Unlike their Mexican counterparts, these are filled with all manner of things European, as in the caprese that I inhale. It's an Italian margherita pizza wadded up and stuffed into a fist-sized pouch. I may never leave this country.

The mood is festive, sitting among an impossibly hip crowd of young Argentine filmmakers in an impeccably appointed apartment in Paternal, an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood. It's a wrap party for a short film directed by a 20-something named Pablo, who has already won awards for cinematography at the Festival de Cannes.

My couch surfing host Natalia, a bubbly 23-year-old working actress, invited me to join her this evening. The electricians and grips are a small delegation from Costa Rica, having moved here to study film and work in entertainment. One woman is from Spain. Director Pablo is about to leave for Jordan for six weeks to work on a new film. I get the feeling that there are more passport stamps represented in this room than there are words for stamp.

Buenos Aires has always had a level of European-influenced sophistication that captivates people fortunate enough to come to this smash of a city that exists in its own bubble, well detached from the rest of the rugged country. And the generation of Argentines I'm hobnobbing with proves that the reputation for international flavor is holding.

Most of the people in this place are my age. Well-educated, successful, and by the looks of it, not too affected by the rampant inflation and stagnant politico-economic environment. These people are on the top half of the great divide that's widening when it comes to the middle and upper classes here.

It's a sharp contrast to Natalia's childhood home, where I'm spending half my stay while filming an episode here. In order to have the freedom to pursue her burgeoning career, she moved from the shabby-chic city center back to her father's home in Castelar, a suburb about 45 minutes away. The house is under never-ending construction.

Naty says her father has single-handedly renovated the old split-level home, adding a second story, and building her a small custom suite at one end. But the project isn't anywhere close to finished. She tells me her father works on it piece-meal, doing things as he comes up with the money. Which is harder and harder because of the high tax rate that hits her dad, who owns a small electronics repair shop. She's not a fan of the current president, Cristina Kirchner, whose policies Naty feels are geared toward hand-outs for the poorer classes and economic favor for the wealthier. It's harder to stay middle class, she says with a frown.

Tonight, as we sit in the perfectly preserved 1930's-era building with exquisite hardwood floors and a marble staircase, we don't talk about politics. Everyone is here to celebrate an achievement. But listening to all of the chatter about jaunting here and there across the map to make more movies, I wonder about something else Naty said.

One of Kirchner's other policies is meant to encourage people to stay in Argentina - in some cases by simply making it more difficult to leave. Natalia would like to vacation in the U.S. To do so, in addition to getting a visa from the United States, she has to ask her government for permission to go, and then they decide how much foreign currency she can have. She's not allowed to buy U.S. dollars in Argentina, a country that not too long ago pegged their peso to the dollar. She tells me that Argentines are being exposed to expensive advertising campaigns touting the amazing beach destinations within the country, except that it's more expensive to vacation at many of them than it would be to fly to Rio de Janeiro instead.

The capital city has intrigued and baffled me. It's full of painfully beautiful architecture - that's covered in graffiti. Nearly every inch of surface here within arm's reach is coated in spray-paint. Within the past year, a law legalizing gay marriage was passed, but women may not have abortions. At all. I find this mind-boggling since the president is female. In the case of pregnancy by rape, a woman has to present her story to a court of law, a process which can often take longer than the pregnancy, forcing her to carry a fetus to term, wanted or not. One of the more recent high-profile news stories was about a girl with Down syndrome who was denied an abortion after she'd been raped.

It's hard for me to come to reconcile these issues with the reality of a city that's my kind o' town: huge, freakishly fast-paced, sophisticated, and moody. So I stop thinking about it for tonight. It's enough just to try to remember which cheek to turn to strangers for kisses when they meet me.


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