When we think of travel, we think of the time we spend in another place—how we can maximize our schedules to do or see as much as possible. We give less thought to how we will leave the places we visit. When the last day in a certain city or country arrives, we are bewildered that the experience could be over so suddenly. When that moment comes, how can we say goodbye?
“This is so weird,” I said again, as if doing so would alleviate the feeling.
“I know!” my friend Ivana said, trying to be sympathetic before pouting, “don’t leave me!”
We had had this exchange at least five times during our last weeks in Buenos Aires. After five months of ups and downs in the city, it felt like I had only just arrived at a point of contented comfort, only for it all to end. I had overcome the culture shock, the social anxiety, and the constant panic of living in another language, but I was not ready for the final emotional hurdle: saying goodbye. And more than that, it was saying goodbye without knowing if I would ever be back.
So where did that put me on my last day in the city? In a state of frenzy, made worse by having a semester-long project to finish. But I was not content to spend the day putting together my presentation slides and packing. Busy as I was, I decided on a three-step to do list for finding closure with the city. I would:
Step 1: Go out of my way to see one last new thing.
Step 2: Get a different perspective.
Step 3: Decompress.
Step 1 began in the afternoon. After dedicating the morning to school work, I met Ivana for lunch at a restaurant called Como en Casa, a diamond in the otherwise culinary rough of our neighborhood Recoleta. When we finished our meal, we rushed to catch the 17 bus to Barracas. The neighborhood was so new to us that even the bus line seemed novel and exciting. When our navigation app recommended the 17, our eyes lit up as we both said “oooh, I haven’t been on that one before.”
Barracas is a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Buenos Aires, much less popular than its neighbor La Boca. Even my host mother, who has lived in Buenos Aires for all of her 70+ years, had never been. Ivana and I made the trek so that we could visit Calle Lanín, a small residential street known for its colorful facades. I had seen pictures of the street on the Buenos Aires tourism board’s official Instagram and had marked it as a “place to go” on my Google Maps. As passé as a street full of colorful houses could have been at this point, Calle Lanín is special because the houses are not just painted, but actually decorated with unique mosaics. The designs are more abstract than representational, bursting with bright blues, yellows, greens, and oranges. And unlike the colorful graffitied alleys of Palermo, the street was basically empty. Calle Lanín had no people posing for Instagram photos, except the two of us.
As we walked and stopped in front of the various tiled houses, the only people we ran into were the street’s actual residents, stepping in and out of the homes we were photographing. Any embarrassment was tempered by their kindness, and they seemed happy that we thought their houses were pretty. Speaking with us briefly about the history of the street, one man told us that while the houses were over a hundred years old, the mosaics were additions from the last 30 years. He even pointed us to the studio of the artist behind it all, inside a house just two doors down. When we walked by the studio, we saw the artist, Marino Santa Maria, at work. His assistant noticed us looking through the window and invited us in to observe.
What followed was somehow simultaneously very exciting and rather mundane. Santa Maria stopped his work—a table-sized ceramic tile dotted with delicate glaze—to speak with us. It was not the most intellectual of conversations; my Spanish being less than fluent, I could only just follow as he explained the Lanín project. First he paints murals on the houses, then he covers them in mosaic. He asked us where we were from, why we were in Argentina, what classes we were taking and where—standard stuff, the laundry list of questions I had answered dozens of times already. But never before had I spolen about my classes at the Universidad Nacional de Bellas Artes with someone who I’d discover to be one of the university’s founders. Visitors to Buenos Aires can see Santa Maria’s work without making the trek out to Barracas; he has large installations in the metro stations of Plaza Italia and Puerreydón, on the D line.
When we left the studio, Ivana and I were buzzing. That we had just met such an important artist completely by chance had us reeling. It was a gratifying reward from the universe for leaving our usual zone in the city; a final cheek kiss from the city.
So how did we top it off come nightfall to fulfill step 2? We got high, at least in the sense that we went to a rooftop bar.
My friends and I had wanted to go to one for months, but poor timing had foiled us. It being our last night, I was determined to get to one and see the city from a new perspective.
Buenos Aires has a fair number of rooftop bars, which led to some more misadventures that fateful night. When our first choice was closed for a private event, we walked over to Trade Sky Bar in the Comega Building in Retiro, before getting confused and ending up at a different (the wrong) terrace bar within the same building. It was at least a pleasant detour, with a silent DJ and patrons all relaxing under the night sky with their glowing headphones. My friends and I usually don’t like techno music, but here we made an exception — after all, it was something new. We relaxed for awhile before heading off in search of the extensive views we came for.
We made our way up to Trade and immediately took in a close view of the iconic Centro Cultural Kirschner across the street. On the opposite side, the Obelisco is visible and lit from below in violet. After waiting for the crowds of young professionals to move around, my friends and I were able to snag seats, where we sat and sipped our drinks from the bar, reminiscing and making promises to visit each other — in Nashville, in Miami, in Buenos Aires again in five years. Compared with this, we had had more wild nights in boliches (clubs, in the local slang) that lasted into the daylight, but we were content with this finale.
As the bus rolled up to my stop, I shared a last smile with Ivana. The sorrow washed over me again when I stepped off the bus, alone again and already missing everyone and everything. Languidly, I walked down my street, taking in the signs, the storefronts, the balconies, the bumps in the sidewalk. As I unlocked the door of my building and climbed the stairs, I marveled at how I would only do those things a few more times.
Once in the apartment, it was time for step 3.
My host mother’s apartment was deceptively large. My orbit had always just been bedroom-bathroom-kitchen, so I didn’t realize for many weeks that there was a large balcony, or that there was a third bathroom and fifth bedroom tucked behind the laundry room, or that there was a patio attached to the living room. As soon as I was in the door of the apartment, I made a beeline for the patio, where an empty lawn chair waited for me. I sat there for at least half an hour. I played sad music on my phone, I may have cried a little bit, but for the most part I just gazed up at the sky. The light pollution of the city meant I just stared at a wash of dark gray nothingness, with stars much too faint to discern. That didn’t matter. I just needed to breathe, to live in that moment and feel all of the love and sorrow in my heart. Breathe in, breathe out. I would definitely be back, I told myself.
Then I got up and finished packing.
Do you have any fond memories of a last day spent somewhere? Let us know in the comments!