Studying in Style at the University of Buenos Aires

February 10, 2011 No Comments

I was determined, upon arriving in Buenos Aires, to leave it four months later, able to comfortably claim Spanish fluency.  The only problem was figuring out how to do that.  I dreaded enrolling in the gringo, pre-packaged Spanish and Tango language mills, catering to obnoxious foreign partiers who were there ostensibly under the pretext of learning.  I was elated,

Watercolor by Kate Rose Johnson

then, upon some researching to find that anyone could enroll at the University of Buenos Aires.  Without wasting any time, I hopped on the subway and wandered around downtown until I found the Philosophy and Literature Building.

Although they make no use of the internet, computers or credit cards, with paper, pencil and cash I was soon tested and admitted at a fraction of cost of the private classes.  What caught me by surprise was the elegance of my surroundings.  The building that I studied in each afternoon was beautiful.  It had a huge carved double wooden door entrance that opened onto a grand hallway leading to a spiraling marble staircase outlined in a brass and gold railings and adorned with busts of Argentinean greats.  UBA (ooh-bah) was without a doubt the most prestigious university in the country, over 10 of their past presidents were alumni and Che Guevara, a national hero, as well.

The large and airy classrooms had high ceilings, leaded glass windows and wooden floors.  The hallway floors were hand-tiled in detailed mosaics.  It was hard for me to imagine why they had put so much money into the buildings of a university.   Many of UBA’s buildings were constructed during Argentina’s glory years.  When the US and Europe were embroiled in world wars and needed food, there was Argentina with the refrigerated ships and delicious meat, profiting at their expense.

My college in the US had been beautiful and even older, but there is always something conservative and disciplined about the buildings and learning on the east coast.  Not this east coast.  Learning here was Romantic.  You were to read poetry and invent radical new political theories to change the world.  Here anything was possible.  I floated up and down the ballroom-like stairs and arrived 20 minutes early to wander in and out of the empty classrooms.   I felt as if wearing a ball gown to class would not be out of place.  Old chalkboards, hardwood creaky floors and wonderful signs from the turn of the century added to the allure.  Argentina hadn’t had the money to restore these beautiful buildings in at least 60 years.  If you ignored the decadent decay you could travel back in time.

One day I decided to photograph the building so I could later remember it.  I was surprised to see in my photos dingy yellow fluorescent lighting, patches of cement in the middle of those mosaic floors, awful new heating units cheaply installed and the paint on the walls peeling in neglect.  The lovely UBA was deteriorating.  Where the country had once channeled money to education it was now either too poor or corrupt or both.  It saddened me to see such elegance being destroyed.  I hope UBA can one day return to its full glory.  Until then, I’ll remember my alma mater with my imagination rather than those photos.


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