A Moveable Fiesta

Dominic LoTempio photographing a model on his rooftop in Buenos Aires.Photo: Pablo Abuliak

Dominic LoTempio leans back in his deck chair and surveys the grounds of the second home he rented for the year: a sleek, modernist two-bedroom in a gated retreat 30 minutes north of Buenos Aires. Ten feet from his toes, a stiff putting-green-style lawn continues uninterrupted to the border of a heated, infinity-edge pool and then eases down to a man-made lake with a dock for canoeing. And half a mile down the street is the field where he takes off and lands his paraglider. “It’s like living in the Hamptons,” he says. Except the whole thing costs just $1,400 a month.

It’s these economics that have led LoTempio, a 31-year-old former senior vice-president of bond sales with the Belgian banking conglomerate KBC, to step off the Wall Street treadmill and join the growing number of New Yorkers who’ve taken their year-end bonuses or real-estate winnings and relocated to Buenos Aires. “I came to live life as a rich guy,” he says. In fact, he lives like a Master of the Universe—not like some Wall Streeter who checked out with enough to be technically, barely, a millionaire, but like the young, loaded Hollywood version.

“I remember when I decided to move,” says LoTempio. Working in bond sales, he was keenly aware of the various financial crises around the world. “Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Russia, Mexico. Every time this would happen, the office would go bananas. Things would be melting on our screens. And somebody would look at their Bloomberg and say, ‘You know what, fuck, I could move to Thailand, convert my dollars to baht, live like a millionaire, and never have to work again. But nobody would ever go. They were trapped. I was the only one who was young and single and could do it.” And he knew he had to make a change—he was already beginning to feel the physical effects of an all-work lifestyle. He started seriously considering expat life when Brazil devalued. “It hit me: That’s it. I could live there.” But just as he was getting ready to quit, Argentina crashed. If he’d needed a sign, this was it. The culture and climate of Buenos Aires seemed “more American” to him. He could imagine feeling at home there. In October 2003, he traded in 6:15 a.m. wake-up calls and 60-hour workweeks for his expat fantasy: late nights, no work, massive spending power, and beautiful Argentine women. LoTempio still thinks of it in Wall Street terms. “Lifestyle arbitrage,” he calls it.

Since Argentina’s 2001 financial collapse put a two-thirds-off sign on everything in B.A., the city has become a playground for Europeans and Americans looking to relax or reinvent. The exact number of transplants is hard to pin down—under Argentina’s lax immigration regulations, many expats live illegally for years on 90-day tourist visas—but signs point to a boom. The number of Americans registered with the embassy jumped nearly 13 percent between 2004 and 2005.

There are other cities across the globe that offer relatively inexpensive living, of course: Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Bangkok. But potential expats generally cross them off the list because prices have started rising (Mexico City) or they’re too culturally different (Bangkok) or because the rich-poor conflict makes being a “rich American” too dangerous (Brazil). Buenos Aires mixes a potent cultural cocktail: low prices, a familiar-but-different (and sexy) vibe, good weather, great food, and the chance to start over.

For New Yorkers, the draw is particularly strong. “I find Buenos Aires to be as much like New York as you’re going to get in the world,” says LoTempio. The architecture, the culture, even the neighborhoods make New Yorkers feel comfortable: The expensive boutiques of Recoleta are reminiscent of Fifth Avenue, the family-heavy quiet of Barrio Norte is the Upper West Side, the vaguely tough San Telmo is the East Village of a decade ago, the hippest restaurant-and-boutique zone is called Palermo Soho, and Las Cañitas is a mini–meatpacking district. “People try to tell you where to go, and you say, ‘No, I already know,’ ” says Alfred Abraham, a 32-year-old New York doctor who recently finished a four-month trip to Buenos Aires in preparation for a move there.

What better place to take your year-end bonuses or real-estate winnings and turn a life of subway rides and work into one of multiple homes, fancy restaurants, and weekend jaunts to Uruguay’s chic Punta del Este? I should know, I did it. In May 2005, after our Lower East Side co-op rose 75 percent in value in two years, my wife and I left New York in a quest to live cheaply, learn a second language, and work on long-dormant book projects. Life in B.A. isn’t perfect by any means. The litany of expat complaints includes one-ply toilet paper; slow restaurant service; strikes that shut down subways, airlines, or highways nearly once a week; and, as LoTempio puts it, an “embargo on cool shit” like plasma TVs, which arrive six months late and cost twice as much. But from a wallet angle, it’s hard to deny the attractions of Buenos Aires. The average price for a square foot of Manhattan real estate—about $970—will get you ten times the space in a tony neighborhood here. (LoTempio’s tricked-out pied-à-terre on the trendiest street in B.A. set him back just $68,000.) And a three-course meal including rack of lamb and a nice bottle of wine will only set you back about $40 a head at Sucre, one of the best restaurants in town.

LoTempio in his apartment.Photo: Pablo Abuliak

But the point isn’t just cutting costs and living Soho lite. It’s about deciding that maybe you weren’t meant to be a banker/lawyer/consultant/ad exec after all. That maybe, if you just had the time and brain space and a good exchange rate, you could make it big with that business or artistic project you could never start in New York. With half a chance, you could be who you really are, and if you tried, you could be huge. That’s one of the most appealing parts of the Buenos Aires fantasy—that you can become the Player, the Mogul, the Entrepreneur, without paying the dues that New York would require.

LoTempio hadn’t planned to work when he moved to Buenos Aires, but after early retirement got boring, he started thinking about doing something productive, but not too productive. The answer seemed obvious. “Clearly, one of the attractions here for single 20- or 30-year-old guys is the girls,” he says. In fame-struck Buenos Aires, bikini-clad women will chat with anyone who might be able to get them into a magazine or, better yet, on television. And what would be better in high-definition television than “stunning footage of exotic travel, girls, bikinis, beaches?” thought LoTempio. “If I’m a miserable, overworked single guy back in the U.S., that would be my dream to flick on.”

So LoTempio and a few friends ponied up $20,000 and partnered with Tamir Lotan, the co-host of an extreme-sports show on Fox Sports en Español, to launch MariposaHD, an Internet-distributed fashion-and-babes-and-travel show that sells the escapist fantasy LoTempio is living. “What would you do if you could just walk away from your life, start over, and do whatever you want?” teases the Website.

Whether the show is a success is sort of beside the point. It’s already meant raised profiles and can’t-lose opening lines for its creators. LoTempio spends a lot of his time scouting for beautiful “talent” at clubs or on the beach, and there isn’t a velvet rope he isn’t ushered past. “We’re just meeting all these celebrities and models. And I was like, This is something I can’t do in the U.S. I can’t go to parties and hang out with movie stars, and I’m doing it in Argentina, and I don’t know these fucking people.” He almost can’t believe his good fortune. “If I go back and tell my friends what I’m doing, that’s more than every guy’s dream,” he says. “That’s the icing on the cake.”

Steven Blackman knows all about making sure people in New York are aware of How Great His Life Is in Buenos Aires. He visits the city every six weeks to tell them about the dinners at Sucre, the drinks at Gran Bar Danzon, the fashion events in Punta. Not to mention the fact that he pays $800 a month to rent two adjacent apartments from the son-in-law of Susana Giménez, Argentina’s surgically enhanced version of Oprah. Or that his maid comes five days a week: “She cleans over the same places every day, even though nobody’s been there. It’s insanity. But it’s something like 10 pesos a day. I’ll deal with it.”

In May 2004 Blackman was a burned-out Mercer Delta organizational consultant in a Canali suit. After sixteen years in the business, “I was so done,” he says. “And they were done with me too.” So, with a six-figure golden handshake that pushed his net worth “easily into the sevens,” he sublet his Central Park West one-bedroom, hung up his Canalis, and left town.

The idea to move to Buenos Aires had come to him while he was riding an exercise bike at New York Sports Club—and happened to be pedaling next to a former Meredith Corporation exec named John A. Kuhn who wanted to start South America’s first city magazine. Blackman, Kuhn, and their partners put up about $250,000 to launch Buenos Aires Metrópolis, a Spanish-language magazine that features fashion spreads, articles about surviving the single life, and news from New York. Last fall, after the first issue hit the newsstands, Blackman and his cohorts threw a well-attended launch party complete with a half-nude lingerie show (required at all top B.A. parties). At the end of the event, Blackman mounted the stage to cheers and whistles. “Más, más, más,” he hooted into the microphone.

“It doesn’t take long here,” he tells me later. “I’m a bigger fish here after a year than I’d ever be in New York.” That status bump to Big Fish—instant glamorization—is a typical thrill for expats used to being ants in Manhattan, says Margaret Malewski, author of GenXpat: The Young Professional’s Guide to Making a Successful Life Abroad. “You may be middle class back home, and suddenly you’re dealing with the upper classes,” she says. “That’s one of the tough things when you come back: You become a nobody again.”

Blackman’s friend Heather Willens agrees with that assessment. “He’d be nothing in New York,” she says, without cruelty. Her tone says she could be talking about herself, me, or any other expat. “It’s just so hard in New York. There are a million smart, interesting, wealthy people. Whereas here, it’s easy to be the most sophisticated person in the room because, like, you’ve gone to Thailand.”

Willens herself didn’t move to become a big fish; her goal is to be able to live “half fucking around” without skating too close to the economic edge. In New York, she had a fashionable job at Daniel Johnnes Wines that offered her plenty of free meals but a salary under $60,000 a year. She couldn’t save any money, and she could never splurge. “I never realized how much I was treading water,” she says.

Since moving to Buenos Aires in December 2004, the 34-year-old wine broker can afford to work a more relaxed schedule—her commission on one recent sale was more than the average annual salary in Argentina—and indulge hobbies that were out of her reach in New York. Her $500-a-month two-floor apartment is decorated with paintings from Recoleta galleries that, at prices below $600, allow her to be a collector of sorts. And she pays about $55 a month for her membership in the swank Buenos Aires Lawn Tennis Club, which is akin to a $20,000-a-year Westchester country club.

There are opportunities to be found in Buenos Aires’s bargain-basement pricing—especially when it comes to real estate. B.A. offers New Yorkers the chance to turn back the clock on the boom. Property values have gone up 14 percent here in the last year, but nice two-bedrooms still go for under $100,000. Mark Morgan-Perez, a 34-year-old Wall Streeter turned nonprofit real-estate developer, moved to Buenos Aires after clearing more than $400,000 on the sale of his 16 Park Avenue one-bedroom. Now he’s looking to transform his tidy profit into Trump-style moguldom. “A one-bedroom apartment in New York can become two buildings, three buildings here,” he says. He’s in the process of buying a four-bedroom house with a terrace and garage for $170,000. He plans to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast or boutique hotel.

But it wasn’t just the economic opportunities that attracted Morgan-Perez to Buenos Aires; it was the lifestyle. For one thing, he was drawn to the city’s gay life, which he describes as more “mixed” than New York’s, not defined by the “Chelsea gym-bunny scene and the East Village snobby scene.” (In fact, B.A. is a very progressive city—the first in Latin America to approve a civil-union law.) But he was also looking for the work-life balance that had eluded him in New York. “I want to sit around and play piano and collect rent and read. Life in New York had become too much of a grind. Everybody’s time is so precious. People are so wrapped up in careers,” he says. “Here, I can invest and do projects and make money and not have it dominate my life.”

And like all the New York expats I spoke with, he has no desire to go back. As Dominic LoTempio puts it, “Doing what I’ve done is an interesting study in happiness. Psychologists will tell you changing your station in life doesn’t change your level of happiness. But am I happier now than I was getting up at a quarter after six every morning? The answer is yes.”

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A Moveable Fiesta