The Expat: Withers Davis

Who? Withers Davis
Age: 33
From: Maryland, United States
Education: Economics degree, Mount St. Mary’s College
Profession: Founder of Buenos Aires Delivery and Uplifted web designers
Reading: The New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott
Last film: The King’s Speech
Gadget: Kindle

When did you come to Argentina?

I first came for a month’s holiday in February 2006. I spent five days in Buenos Aires and had a great time. I then took the bus to Mendoza and did the biking wine tours, that kind of thing. We went to San Rafaél to go rafting and as it was the end of the summer, the river was on glacier melt. It was the most dangerous time of the year, according to the instructor. We hit a rock which popped me up in the air and someone’s paddle hit me on the nose. I was gushing with blood and in 32-degree water which took me down river. Fortunately, we had some kayakers accompanying us and one pulled me out. For the next two weeks on my travels, I had two big black eyes. Everyone thought I’d been in a fight…

Regardless of that accident, you decided to move to Buenos Aires…
I came here in January 2009 as I was involved in a start-up which was affected by the financial crisis in the US. The start-up had a capital investor lined up but after the Madoff incident (Bernard L. Madoff was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme which stole savings from thousands of investors), our investment dropped by about 80 percent. We planned to move to San Francisco, but had to choose somewhere else.

What changes did you undergo during those three years?
It’s hard to define because being a tourist is very different to living here. As a tourist you go to Puerto Madero and Evita’s grave in Recoleta but that’s not Argentina. Not the real one. So that’s the big difference for me, is that living here, I now get to see the good things and the bad things.
I put being an expat into two categories: being-on-permanent-vacation mode and living mode. When I first came here I loved the nightlife. You can build a social life instantly which makes living here a lot of fun.
I was doing that with a full-time job for the first few months but after a while, it becomes exhausting. It’s great but it’s also difficult to merge those two lives. You need to develop the ability to say no.

That sounds good and bad in one…
A good thing about this country is that it’s interesting and something is going on every single night. That can mean going to a night club or a museum – look at the Noche en Vela music night. That was awesome, but would never happen in Washington DC. It’s a great part of Argentina, but it makes it hard to run a business and be consistent with your job. The culture is a bit juxtaposed to that concept. But I think I’ve found a middle bridge now.

If you were standing for president, what would your policies be?
I don’t know how to fix this, but there’s a complete lack of confidence in the concept of government. I’ve never met anyone who likes a politician. In the US, people believe in Obama, or in Bush, and expect them to make a difference. If the government was more transparent… well, the first thing I’d do as president would be to get the INDEC statistics bureau to report actual inflation figures. It’s unbelievably eroding to foreign investors. No one has any faith as they don’t trust that the country won’t default on its foreign debt. One important step would be to make finances more transparent, then businesses would follow suit.
I would immediately drop the 50 percent tax on imported goods. The fact that Argentines can’t buy a new computer without paying 100 percent more than what it would cost in the US is unfortunate. It means they don’t have the tools to compete.

Where do you live?
I’m in Las Cañitas, as most of my friends live in Palermo and without a doubt, it’s the centre of the expat community. I like the fact there are wide streets, plenty of trees and parks. I grew up on a farm so to live in Microcentro or San Telmo could be very restrictive for me. I’ve moved more than I ever have in my life here — four or five times in two years.

What do you do at the weekend?
Recently I’ve been working every day. But I might have dinner with friends, go to a parrilla, or a more “exotic” place like an Asian restaurant!

What’s your most Argentine trait?
I’m an excellent asador and I challenge anyone to a cook-off. Some Argentines do things wrong. Rule one: don’t overcook chorizos. Rule two: cook a lomo whole and salt it correctly. Rule three: start your coals early. And the most important rule is to have a good butcher.
When I was a junior asador, my tiro de asado once caught on fire. You have to put salt on the meat to put it out. But that was back in my junior days… a good asador doesn’t let his meat catch fire.

Name a lost-in-translation moment.
Once I ordered a cerveza and got a 7-Up.

And a favourite phrase in Spanish?
‘El que fue a Sevilla, perdió su silla’ , which translates as “move your feet, lose your seat.” That’s a phrase I can apply to dating here. There have been times when I was dating a girl, gone back to the US for a bit, and then “sorry”… you moved your feet.

What was your last purchase?
A large trash can. It was unbelievably expensive. Maybe I’m a North American who produces a lot of trash but these dinky little cans are annoying, so I got a really big one.

Tell me about a crazy taxi ride.
One guy who used to be a race kart driver. We got from Palermo to 9 de Julio Avenue in seven minutes. His whole car was kitted out with little lights. I wasn’t worried as he knew what he was doing. In fact, one big demarcation for expats is the transition from taxis to buses. That was a big switch for me. I didn’t step on a bus for the first six months. Now I take them all the time and the 15 is my favourite. It takes me wherever I need to go.

In 2001 B.E.C. (before the economic crisis), Palermo, Buenos Aires City’s largest neighbourhood by both area and population, was just another regular barrio, albeit leafier and greener with rather more lakes than the rest.

Back in the day, there were a smattering of pizza houses and bakeries here, car mechanics and tiny parrillas there, dotting every other corner around the Juan B. Justo area. Now, immaculate boutique fronts jostle for attention with moodily lit bars serving cocktails conjured up by the mixologist of the moment who may not be in employment by the time the leaves change colour.

Palermo and its various Chico, Soho, Hollywood, and Botánico sub-hoods saw a significant boom after the 2001 crisis.

While many property owners defaulted on their mortgage repayments, often ending up with less pennies and homes than they had bargained for, those with dollars and other dominant currencies quickly sniffed out brick-and-mortar opportunities, snapping up plots and edifices with which to start afresh. Over the next few years, Palermo was given the equivalent of financial mouth-to-mouth and an up-and-coming, shopping-and-eating, boutique-hotel haven was born. That was Palermification. Which, apart from its tree-lined cobbled streets and beautiful airy mansions, must be one of the reasons why so many foreigners flock to live there.

Elegant, charming, filled with yummy mummies and quaintly quiet on a weekday, Palermo is both artsy and chic, urban and bohemian. So much so, that perhaps it doesn’t feel like Argentina or indeed, Buenos Aires. A home away from home where languages and cultures blend happily together, and culture and nightlife are joined at the hip.

Withers Davis calls Palermo “the centre of the expat community,” which, wandering down Gurruchaga, Armenia or Malabia streets, a tourist might be forgiven for thinking they’d never actually left their motherland, given the amount of English heard in this pulsating heart of Soho.

Given that the weak peso is surely a red rag to any bullish traveller, it must be surprising for them to be instructed by every single guide book to head straight for Palermo, only to discover that it is in fact physically reminiscent of trendy East London, ethnic diversity excluded.

That said, Palermo is unique, it’s happening and it’s beautiful. It’s home to the Japanese and the Carlos Thay Botanical Garden, a race course and a polo stadium, riverside night clubs, and countless bars and restaurants offering countless good times. Mixing art galleries, private closed-door restaurants, roof terraces and carefully thought-out boutiques, it ticks every single box. For bright young foreign things with a strong currency or a trust fund behind them, Palermo is the perfect playground. Why would they want to live anywhere else?

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald’s On Sunday supplement on June 5, 2011.

Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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