Country Of The Couch
Updated: Apr 28, 2019
Reviewing Argentina as an example for strengthening the psyche
I couldn’t wait to visit a Spanish speaking country after my two months in Brazil. Its not that Brazil and its incomprehensible language wasn't my taste, its just that I studied a few months of Spanish in Cape Town and initially anticipated to start my Travels in Buenos Aires and not Sao Paulo. Argentina was to be more in line with Latin culture that I’ve been fascinated with over the years - contrary to its neighbour, Brazil, which could be classified as a subcontinent or a cultural anomaly due to its Portuguese language, African influence and sheer scale of the country by both population and land mass. Arriving in Buenos Aires was not as much a culture shock as it was a pleasant reception to what seems to be Europe, south of the equator. The City boasts mostly French and Italian influenced architecture and a culinary scene that could only mildly be described as gluttonously overindulgent. The sheer amount of meat that Argentinians eat is enough to make any vegetarian quiver with fear.
But before all of that, I would like to set the tone for the article first. The word that came to mind when arriving in Buenos Aires was "Melancholy", a word formed by a preconceived judgment I had formed earlier of which you would soon understand. Now this might sound a bit harsh to describe a whole city, it’s culture and population as melancholic, but my perception came from a cooking show called Parts Unknown, hosted and narrated by one of my idols, Anthony Bourdain. Firstly, my love for the late chef, vagabond, restauranteur, philosopher and all-round traveling rockstar transcends most normal feelings of admiration people have to their run of the mill role models. He is an inspiration for me as a traveler and as a self-proclaimed connoisseur of all things strange and wonderful about globe trotting. Even after passing away in 2018, his ever present, soothing voice still guides me when I find myself observing culture and society in foreign places and constantly reminds me to not take it all too seriously. When he visited Buenos Aires in an episode of Parts Unknown, he made me aware of a fact about the country that I did not know before then - Argentina has the most psychologists per capita in the world - most of them reside and practice in Buenos Aires.
Being the great storyteller that he was, the narrative for the episode was formed by him attending a faux therapy session where he laid down on a typical sofa, explaining re-occurring dreams he had throughout his life and takes a deep-dive into his psyche, as he confesses fears and insecurities to the unknown therapist. Being a solo traveler to unfamiliar countries and cultures, I myself am confronted with fears, insecurities, loneliness and sleepless nights. Sometimes I find that the mood of the city and the culture of the population can emphasize these feelings, whether I had a preconceived notion about it or not. Buenos Aires is a wonderful city, rich in culture and tradition with friendly, proud people throughout. Rather than festering about Buenos Aires from a traditional travel writing perspective, I would like to explore the subject of mental health and the prevalence of psychotherapy in their culture. See, when Anthony Bourdain mentioned the fact about psychologists in Buenos Aires, the first thought I had about the culture was they must be a melancholic, depressing bunch, having all the psychologists, right? But the fact is that the majority are psychoanalysts and Argentina has over the years embraced psychoanalysis more as a tool for self-development and exploration, rather than most western societies where individuals often have insecurities about attending or receiving psychotherapy.
The country has 198 psychologists per 100,000 inhabitants with an estimated 46% of whom are in Buenos Aires. Psychoanalysis was founded by Sigmund Freud in the 19th century and uses dreams, fantasies and free association speech to unearth repressed ideas in the subconscious. This practice helps patients uncover greater insight into their emotional state and human experience. When the dictatorial President, Juan Perón, was overthrown in 1955, a cultural modernization was sparked in Argentina, with people accepting anything European by the time. In the 60s and 70s, Psychoanalysis was not only seen as a way of understanding oneself but was also linked to leftist political ideology. In modern times, receiving psychotherapy is not seen as a sign of bad health, but in fact, a sign of self-care and self-improvement. It has made itself part of peoples weekly routines with meetings and other activities easily rearranged for scheduling a therapy session.
Buenos Aires has less of a hustle and bustle than most big cities. Instead, the city feels as if it chooses to take a step back and take its time. I like waking up with a city, getting up early and see how the city takes its first breath of the day. Commuters waiting in line for public transport, street vendors dragging their carts along the side-walk, runners in their neon clothes jetting through the park. On the other hand, Buenos Aires sleeps in, snoozing it's alarm, rolling over and pulling the sheets further up. One can easily walk around and see no action until 12 noon, when you see people emerging from their lairs - leaning against the door of their apartment and sipping on their long mate straw. Shop owners spray the pavement in front of their stores in an endless battle against dog shit and what seems to be any other bit of grime built up during the day.
Observing all of this as a traveler can make you feel quite lonely - people move at their own pace, choosing who and what they indulge in. Walking around with a camera already makes you feel alien but it’s the act of constant observation of people living their lives that disconnects one with your own life. It’s hard to acknowledge but trying to capture the human condition has shown me that it is much absent in my life by traveling solo, usually emphasized by the pictures I try to take. Every time I take a photo of a couple kissing on a park bench, a family playing with their dog, a father sharing a moment with his son, I realize that these are all features that lack from my own life. In contrast to this, framing up an image of a homeless family scrapping around for food, a man passed out on the sidewalk or a neglected child sitting scared in the subway train, I can only help but feel grateful for what I already have.
This constant humbling experience evoked by travel truly teaches the mind to be versatile and durable. Its important to see how others live so that you can take or leave what you want in your own life, by learning what you like or dislike in the lives of others. Society can truly benefit by paying more attention to mental health. Stress, anxiety, fear, depressions etc. affect most of the population and is normally treated with medication or a few skeptic opinions. I believe that these aspects are as part of being human as eating, sleeping, breathing and fucking and should rather be embraced than swept under the rug. By embracing stress factors such as mentioned above, one can feel the true rollercoaster of life, rather than being a sedated, stressed out bundle of anxiety. When you are able to identify your ups and downs, identify when you’re high and know that when you are low, you can manage your own expectations and feelings for what comes next. Studies show that in Buenos Aires, people are less prone to taking medication for mental health issues, a trait that is not so of its Western counterparts. People in Buenos Aires visit their psychoanalyst as they would the doctor or the pharmacy, without any expected backlash or judgment from the population. They use psychoanalysis more as a tool for strengthening the mind rather and preventing any mental health risk factors. The best cure is prevention and by laying a strong foundation, the emotional rollercoaster which is life can be experienced less stomach churning and rather screaming out loudly with your hands in the air.
In conclusion, do I think other countries and cultures should adopt this type of attitude towards mental health - absolutely. Societal progress starts with education and where better to educate the individual than starting at the source of their being. Take a step back, look after your mind and set the example learned from what the great Anthony Bourdain called “The country of the couch”.
All photos were taken by me and are left unedited
on Nikon FE2
Various Black and White 35mm film
Photographs by Carl van der Linde
Story by Carl van der Linde