Collective Melancholia

Istanbul and Buenos Aries: not immediate bedfellows you would have thought, but they do share something that is not physical but spiritual - a collective melancholia that is about decline and past grandeur. It is depressive and sad but made evocative and also beautiful by the magnificence of the buildings and their decay. You don't go to either for business or fun but to absorb an atmosphere. Venice before the advent of mass tourism would have had the same spirit - encapsulated by Thomas Mann in Death in Venice.

The living exponent of this imperial decay is Orhan Pamuk whose book, Istanbul, describing his family and their city in its coal stained dilapidation, came up with a word to encapsulate this sense of melancholia; huzun. In one of the greatest and longest of sentences (it's about four pages long and punctuated entirely by semi-colons) he defines huzun and the city he loves with words as dabs of paint on a pointillist canvas. Huzun describes a place that is still there on a November foggy morning when the cruise ships have long gone to the Caribbean and the Istanbulis, those with a long memory, sit with a pipe and a coffee and click their worry-beads.

Buenos Aires has been described - well - as an imperial city without an empire. For its inhabitants its magnificent past is all around them and a persistent reminder of a dispiriting present and declining future. Miranda France in her Life and Death in Buenos Aires isolates the Argentinian equivalent of huzun as barca. It is barca that makes Buenos Aires the world capital of the shrink's couch and the antidepressant. It is barca that gives the sad eroticism to tango and barca that explains the fascination with the cementerio and its baroque tombs. 

To visit both cities as a tourist is one thing - they have a quality shared by few cities 
in a world of metropoli dominated by glass towers. Naples exhibits the same imperial twilight, as does Lisbon perhaps. To live there is another matter, unless your spiritual constitution is strong - or your wish is to be absorbed by these romantic and fascinating cities.

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