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Buenos Aires Unbound

Trapero grew up during the military dictatorship, which devastated the economy and "disappeared" as many as 30,000 Argentines. He says now that he caught only hints of the "dirty war" going on outside his father's auto supply shop: a brief glimpse of a leftist priest hidden in his church school; a frightening search of his parents' car by heavily armed soldiers looking for guns. But he has always known about crisis. "As a kid, you heard that this was the worst situation ever, but you grew up realizing that it could always be worse. This time is different," he says. "This time it really is as bad as it could be."

Theater sponsorship may have dried up, film financing shriveled, galleries shut down, and international opera singers and rock bands stayed away, but the people of Buenos Aires are flocking to the arts, their arts, as never before. Gabriel Senanes, the newly appointed head of the legendary Teatro Colón opera house, was previously the city's music director. "The paradoxical thing was that in the midst of crisis, people wanted more and more culture. We were putting on more than a hundred and fifty events a month and they were selling out," he says. "This isn't just about economics, it's about identity. Asking ourselves who we are has always been a favorite Argentine sport. Maybe now we are really looking for an answer." On a threadbare budget, Senanes is working to lure the stars back to the splendidly ornate Colón, touting the theater's wonderful acoustics, its fine orchestra, its knowledgeable public.

Orly Benzacar, who runs the prominent Ruth Benzacar Art Gallery, agrees with Senanes: "Argentina is only starting to build an identity. There was always a fiction here that we were closer to Paris or New York or Miami than to Latin America. But this crisis is us as we are, collecting garbage in the streets. It is painful, but it is necessary."

Still, the arts scene is bubbling. "There is a huge cultural effervescence right now," Benzacar says. "A month ago, [the newspaper] La Nación counted a hundred and forty theater productions in the city, from establishment theaters to the courtyards of people's houses. Desperation makes for great creativity." Art historian Laura Batkis talks of young artists using whatever materials they can afford and taking the presentation of their work into their own hands. She points me to alternative galleries above restaurants or in the back rooms of bars. "There is a lot of nationalism here," she says, "a sense that you have to resist, that you must stay and fight."

The old faces still dominate politics, however, backed by entrenched machines that are monuments to self-interest. Though plenty of protest groups exist, there is little sign of a coherent movement emerging from the demonstrations of a year ago. That may be because of a disdain for politics or a fear of the kind of authoritarian backlash with which Argentines are queasily familiar.

Something is happening here all the same. As Jorge Luis Borges famously described the founding of Buenos Aires by the Spanish four centuries ago: "They set up a few tremulous ranches along the coast and fell asleep homesick." It is too early to tell, but perhaps this complex, sophisticated city of immigrants is finally waking up from the uneasy sleep that has been its undoing all these years.

B.A. BARGAINS
Cost-wise, there is no better time to visit Buenos Aires. Flights from the United States average about $350, hotels are 60 to 70 percent off, and anything made in Argentina is going for a song (but avoid the swanky Recoleta area, where much is priced in dollars). There are good little restaurants around the antiques market in San Telmo, and at Puerto Madero's renovated warehouses a three-course lunch with a glass of wine comes in at $3. As for hotels, even some of the more expensive, like the Four Seasons (1086 Posadas; 800/332-3442 or 54-11/4321-1200; www.fourseasons.com; doubles from $280), will have special offers. You just have to ask.

The city has recently hired multilingual tourist police officers to provide assistance and help deter crime.

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