30 Aug 2011

Volver

"Because it is far away" is not a valid excuse. But for one reason or another, I had not been back to Buenos Aires ever since I'd left it five years ago after two months of language immersion. It had turned out to be much more than just a few Spanish lessons, for I had very much embraced this exuberant, lively, pulsating city of 13 million. Its charm, crumbling beauty and exquisite cuisine put a spell on me. And that meant that sooner or later, I had to return.

This moment finally arrived last weekend. Finding myself living "just" a 90 minute flight away, it was impossible to resist a friend's invitation to join him for a weekend on River Plate, and so I found myself checking into a hotelroom around midnight on Friday. Perfect timing, the friendly receptionist suggested, to start on a bit of carrete. Maybe it was her suggestion of starting to go out after midnight, maybe it was just the utterly charming castellano argentino she spoke (or maybe just the fact that she was as pretty as only porteñas can be), but it helped unlock a wealth of recollections of the marvellous time I had had in this city before.

As I started walking down the streets the next morning (so much for carrete), it was as if a Google Earth 3D map slowly started loading again in my head. Turn after turn, block after block memories started coming back. Wasn't this where we we used to go for fresh empanadas? Ah, in this park I drank my first mate. And here's the bar in which we danced the nights away...

Although it may not be quite as bueno as it claims, there is something in the air in BsAs, an intense energy that lets me taste the city's passions and glamour. Tucking into gargantuan pieces of beef at noon on Sunday, or licking delicious ice cream amidst the teenies beleaguering Freddo's on a sunny afternoon, I keenly eavesdrop on this charming mix of vanity and self-depreciation so typical of Argentines. Fortunately, they are also a gregarious bunch, and so it does not take them much to strike up a conversation and to express their unrequested sympathy for this gringo's predicament of living in Chile. Encouraged, I proceed to buy my first collection of short stories in Spanish, el intenso argentino, which will undoubtedly hold more insights of supremacy.

Even now, back from the "right side of the Andes", I am not quite sure what it is in Buenos Aires that gets me so much. Perhaps it is the fact that the city is everything that my native Switzerland is not: Loud, diverse, unpredictable, unreliable, exuberant, passionate, charismatic, seductive. Or maybe it's just that it in my mind, it will forever be associated with a last furtive escape between graduation and the beginning of work life. Either way, one thing is certain: It will not be another five years.

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18 Aug 2011

Potential

Clearly, I am not a local. Not even a well-travelled tourist, in fact. No, this gringo has barely peered beyond one upscale Lima neighborhood - and yet the place seemed strangely familiar. Upon my second brief visit to Peru, which has just ended, I returned to a market on which I have spent most of my waking hours over the last three months. Tasked with an in-depth assessment of this country's market potential for my client, I've read through countless studies, spent hours surfing websites, crunching numbers and sifting through annual reports. I've studied ownership structures and consumer behaviors, drafted focus group questionnaires and database queries, forecasted revenues and profits.

By and large, however, it happened from afar, with the internet's global reach empowering this quintessential desk researcher (a species closely related to the armchair voyager, bar the romance). So in theory, I knew quite a bit about Peru. And I thought I was well prepared.

Then I walked the streets of Lima. Smelled the exhaust fumes. Heard the noises. Eavesdropped on the local slang. Attended customer panels. Watched people shop at the grocery stores I knew the market shares of, fill up at the gas stations whose corporate mission statements I'd read, haggle at black market stalls which strangely eluded my research. And suddenly, like a genie from a bottle, a real country populated by real people started to emerge from the numbers. Was this a member of the C segment talking on this first pre-paid mobile phone? An A segment head-of-the-household flaunting his premium credit card? And look at these teenagers taking informal, unorganized colectivos back home!

As I sat down for lunch at an oceanfront restaurant (target audience: foreign visitors and urban affluent segment), observing the people strolling by, it became clear that no matter how much you read, how deep you dig, how far you forecast, you'll never be able to fully grasp the potential of a market until you've spoken to the people on the ground. It is they who can help you putting the pieces together and making sense of it all. They align any market potential analysis with real life by providing the crucial color and the essential local flavor.

And as if on cue, my waiter appeared with a wonderful plate of freshly prepared ceviche and an all-Peruvian Pisco Sour. Clearly, Peru has lots of potential.

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2 Aug 2011

Villa Alemana

It was only six o'clock, and I was still perfectly sober, albeit on my way to a local watering hole to meet a German co-worker. But when that big noisy fire engine zoomed past me on a busy Santiago street, I could barely believe my eyes. Across the front of the fire truck, big block letters proclaimed FEUERWEHR. Was I hallucinating?

I was not, confirmed my colleague when I reached the bar. I had merely witnessed another rescue mission of Santiago's own Deutsche Feuerwehrkompanie, It was just another example of the skills, sense of duty and cultural heritage the countless Germanic immigrants had brought to Chile. After all, as we talked, we extinguished our thirst drinking Kunstmann cerveza, which is brewed in the southern Lakes District.
According to Condor, the German language weekly, this region with its vales and dales and trails closely resembles Bavaria. That was enough to make me plan my excursions to any other place.

This weekend, it was the turn of the pittoresque seaside twins of Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, where I was seeking some respite from the city's smog. Fortunately, they are only a 90 minute bus ride from Santiago, so I only needed one sandwich and one Laugenstange from my local bakery, Pasteleria Alemana Roggendorf, for the ride.

As the bus made its way west towards the Pacific, just past the exit to Villa Alemana, the last inevitable sign of German immigration appeared on the horizon: car salesmen. The large and shiny Mercedes dealership along the autobahn autopista was owned by a Sr. Kaufmann, and even the distinctively more proletarian motorbike merchant down the road proudly labelled his shop MOTORRAD. However, I think that this particular entrepreneur is a teutonic impostor, for he had benefited of Chile's economic boom to build a larger, more upscale used car showroom next to the bike shop. And the big sign on its roof proudy proclaimed: AUTORAD.

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