Monday, March 31, 2008

The last word on Buenos Aires

Before I got glasses, my vision wasn't terrible by any means. But since I got them, it's certainly better. And now I can't stop putting them on and taking them off again as I turn one idea over and over in my head: How many other things in life get worse so gradually that you don't even really notice, until something happens and suddenly you see so clearly?

Probably not an original idea, but it's the first time it occurred to me.

* * *

I was trying to finish my article Saturday when I took a break to run downstairs for pizza and ice cream. I was walking, pizza slices in hand, to the ice cream shop when I felt something flash through my body and lodge in the pit of my stomach. It was a thought: "Am I doing the right thing by leaving here? Oh, God . . . what if I'm not doing the right thing?"

* * *

I worry about this country. It has a lot to offer, a lot of potential . . . and a killer boom-bust cycle that has destroyed any confidence that people might have in the future, or trust among each other.

Can you imagine being in Europe early in the last century and looking toward the Americas for a way out? From a continent wracked with war, poverty and hunger, you look out across the Atlantic and see nothing but open land and opportunity.

And that's how it worked out for a lot of people who left Europe for the United States. But the ones who left for Argentina were in for a much rockier ride.

These last few weeks have been particularly difficult — certainly not horrific by the standards of historical lows, but no picnic either. A lot of people I've talked to have told me that they feel like the revival of the cacerolazos and the brutal resolve of the farmers on strike means that all bets are off. The rules that applied during the last administration evidently don't apply in this one, and that could spell economic and social trouble.

* * *

While I probably won't update as often, I'll still be blogging here after I leave Buenos Aires and before I start working for the farm. The beauty of naming my blog "The World's First Expat Blog" is that the title was never true to begin with. So now it'll just be a little less true. It is, at the least, still a blog. It was definitely prescient to include that in the title.

Some people reading this have known me half my life, some for years, others I've met since I started writing the blog, and still others I've never met at all. Some people leave comments and others prefer to suffer in silence.

No matter, I LOVE YOU ALL.

No, I'm just kidding. I do love some of you. But come on, it would be a little weird if I loved you all. I am glad you read the blog, though. It's been really gratifying.

* * *

Living in Buenos Aires has been great and I wouldn't trade these last three years for anything. But it's also prevented me from doing other things, and now it's time to move on.

I've always tried to check the mental balance sheet and make sure the positives about being here outweigh the negatives. And they always have; they still do. So why am I leaving? Because it's important to stay ahead of the curve. And I can see the way the curve is heading if I stay.

There are definitely a few regrets. I should have started selling more stories and doing more writing earlier on. But I didn't; I had what I guess you would call a writer's block. Also, I honestly did not believe there would be a continued media appetite for stories about Buenos Aires. I am completely sincere when I say that, though obviously I was terribly — almost comically — mistaken.

As far as other regrets, I should have started this blog sooner. But I didn't because I shuddered at the cliche of the expat blogger. (I still do.)

So, yes, there are some things I'd do differently. But overall, in moving here I chose the path of fewest regrets. That's the best way I know to make decisions.

It's why I came here, and it's why I'm leaving.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Me: "Two please."

Subway attendant: "You're paying in coins. That's fantastic. That's how it's done."

Me [taking the fare card]: "Thanks."

SA: "Sure. But don't use that card. Just walk through the open gate."

* * *

Street vendor in La Boca: "Wait, are you Argentine?"

Me: "No."

SV: "But you speak like an Argentine."

Me: "I've been here a while."

SV: "So you know how to cuss someone out then?"

Me: "Yeah, I guess."

SV: "Oh, well then you're practically Argentine."

* * *

I will really miss this beautiful fucking disaster area.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Providencia, again

Providencia moved out of its space on Cabrera and is on Arévalo now, just half a block from where it was.

I stuck my head in yesterday. The new place is fine. It's nice. It's great.

But . . . like . . . it looks like an actual restaurant now! With tables and chairs outside. And . . . and . . . the door open!

I said hello to the woman behind the counter. When she told me what the hours of operation were, my first thought was not, "Huh, you're going to be open for breakfast?" but rather "Wow! You're going to have actual hours of operation?"

Friday, March 28, 2008


This morning I ran across the street to catch the subte, only to find no one in the ticket booth.

(Why didn't I just use a ticket machine? For all intents and purposes, they don't exist. Though there are a very few out there, the subte workers union opposes them and sees to it that even those few never work. You're more likely to see Cristina in the subte than a working ticket machine.)

A few other passengers and I milled around for a minute before we saw an open gate and just walked through.

Which I'm guessing is exactly what went down with Fido here.

When a train came, he would run alongside it and bark.

When I got on the train, so did Fido. He ran around for a few seconds but then decided to chill out for a while.

Eventually a subte employee rousted him and chased the little guy back into the station, with the help of a few passengers.

This is a good time to mention this NPR piece that aired a while back.

The guy botches the name of the Perito Moreno glacier . . . and then compares dog-walking to dancing the tango . . . and then manages to fit in the old saw about Buenos Aires having more psychiatrists per capita than anywhere else.

But for all that, he makes a good point.

For me, the report had another important message: All this time, I was trying way too hard to think of story ideas.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Es lo que hay

I got glasses today. Everything is so clear now. A little too clear. The city looked better without the glasses.

If you need glasses in Buenos Aires, I highly recommend Optica LMS on Rio de Janeiro 616.

* * *

Things are happening faster than I could hope to blog about them. The farmers strike means that at least one supermarket on my block closed altogether, while the others are limping along with serious shortages.

We've now had fifteen days of the strike and now two nights of cacerolazos — loud protests where people take to the streets banging pots and pans. Protestors of the government's agriculture policy clashed with the traditional working class supporters of the Peronist administration, mob vs. mob.

Food prices have gone up 10%, 20%, 30% from two weeks ago. Absolutely everyone is talking about the strike.

I went to a restaurant yesterday for lunch and asked for a Mediterranean salad.

The waitress came back a minute later to say: "I'm sorry, we can't do the Mediterranean salad . . . or any of the salads actually. We're out of lettuce."

This is not Argentina at its best.

But it makes the civility of daily life — even if it's rote — even more surprising.

Today I asked a guy at a newspaper stand if he could tell me where the No. 65 bus to Belgrano stopped.

"A block and a half that way," he said. "Then turn and go up half a block."

"OK. Thanks."

"¡No! ¡Al contrario!" he said with a smile.

I mean, really . . . how often do you get thanked for asking for directions?

* * *

There's so little time left that some of the things I've always wondered about will continue to be mysteries to me even after I'm gone. Like the lady who works at the produce stand around the corner . . . and then on some evenings sets up cardboard boxes on the sidewalk and sells underwear by the fruit displays.

I guess I could ask her about it. But what's my question? "Why are you selling underwear?" I'm pretty sure no question would lead to an answer I would find satisfactory.

* * *

I've mentioned the "por las dudas" ("just in case") and "es lo que hay" ("that's all we got") mentality here and rarely has this come into sharper focus than in the current food crisis. You go to the store and see that there's no beef, very little chicken and milk only if you're lucky? Well, it might not be what you want, but es lo que hay. Better stock up while you can. You know, por las dudas.

Monday, March 24, 2008

La Flor de Almagro

On some levels, La Flor de Almagro is an unmitigated disaster.

The neon sign chops its name to Flor de alma (poetic, yes, but not what they were going for). The interior is bathed in fluorescent flood-lighting. If you're lucky, the kids behind the counter are merely indifferent toward you.

Fortunately, it has an utterly redeeming quality, the mitigating factor: the ice cream. The banana split flavor — with large chunks of bittersweet chocolate, pieces of banana and a generous, gooey ribbon of dulce de leche — is a can't-miss.

Crema de higos con nuez (fig cream with walnuts) is another hit, with big pieces of figs.* Chocolate almendrado is fantastic as well — dark chocolate with chunks of candied almonds mixed in.

Along with Il Bombón, it's my favorite ice cream place. It's on Estado de Israel, about two blocks in from Corrientes, so it's a lot closer to me than either location of Il Bombón.

I can't state unequivocally that it's the best around because your neighborhood might have one that's just as good or maybe — maybe — better. But I'm confident that it's the best within walking distance, and my definition of walking distance is the better part of the city.

There is almost always an employee eating ice cream when I go. And the last few times I got a cuarto to go, the kid ran his finger around the lid to seal it and then quickly licked it clean — the finger, not the lid. It's that good.

I've mentioned La Flor de Almagro in passing before, but it deserves more than that. Because if you could only eat ice cream at one place in Buenos Aires, I would probably send you to La Flor de Almagro.

And then to Il Bombón for dessert.

* I once recommended this flavor and someone said to me: "Sounds kind of gross. Aren't figs kind of gross?" The only possible reply: "Figs are gross if you don't like figs."

Sunday, March 23, 2008


For a while, I didn't know just how my last week or so here would play out. And then Thursday night I got a pretty clear idea. I managed to trick an editor into liking one of my story ideas, so I'm going to spend most of my last week working.

A friend asked me Friday if I was staying awake 24/7 to soak up my remaining time here. Not quite. But almost.

One week and many wine bars to go before I sleep.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Three strikes

We have a long holiday weekend — not just Jueves Santo and Viernes Santo, but Monday's Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia.*

Banks are closed for the holidays**, but many bank employees had already been on strike anyway. The big question going into the holiday weekend was whether there would be enough money in the ATMs to withstand demand.

That question is academic if there's nothing to spend the money on anyway. Farmers in this country have gone apeshit after the government raised their taxes*** and have been on strike for 10 days. Shortages are starting to crop up in supermarkets.

Meanwhile, taking a flight in this country is always a gamble, but usually it's Aerolíneas Argentinas that's making passengers riot.**** This time, flights on LAN were delayed for hours or canceled. Why? A strike at the weather service meant they couldn't plan their flight routes.

I'm giving this country ten days to shape up or I am so out of here.

* This is the relatively new holiday that marks the 1976 military coup. It has always fascinated me, living in Spain and living here, the long shadows that dictatorships cast on the memories of those who lived under them. My friends Eli and Leo were teenagers during the dictatorship and a lot of their stories about growing up are not just about youth rebellion for rebellion's sake, nor are they about the broader horrors perpetrated by the dictatorship. Instead, they are stories of the mundane oppression and indignity of living in a military state — like how someone decided it would be a good idea to ban pinball machines in the city.

** It's curious that a country with a history of bank runs would allow the banks to be shut for five days straight.

*** The government charges farmers export taxes on the products they sell on the international market. I'm not talking a token 1% or 2% levy. Farmers now pay a 45% tax on soy they sell abroad. This is up from 20% not too long ago. There's a lot more to this, but not right now, OK?

**** Or have a heart attack . . . like when Stu and I were on Aerolíneas flight in January and a recording came on saying that cabin pressure had been lost and oxygen masks would now be deployed. I would have flipped out, except that we were still on the ground. It was less funny when it happened a few times after we took off. Through it all, the utter obliviousness of the cabin crew was priceless.

Mmm... footnotes. Full of footy goodness.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'll get right on that

I canceled my health insurance policy this morning.

My plan requires small co-payments for office visits. But you don't pay when you're at the office. They bill you for them.

I told the woman that I thought I still owed three co-payments, probably something in the neighborhood of US$15 total.

The woman nodded. "Those should show up in the system in a month or so and then we'll bill you."

Right. But I'm leaving the country on March 31. I'd feel better if I paid you. So ... if you could just tell me exactly how much I owe.

"They won't be in the system for a month or so. The bill should come in May."

By which point I'll be long gone.

"Well . . . Maybe someone else could pay your bill for you?"

Just then, a new identity — forged by years of observation and assimilation — reached its zenith.

Which is to say I smiled broadly and shrugged.

Monday, March 17, 2008


I've been trying to sell myself all day. It makes me feel a little cheap and slightly dirty.

And after today, I'm not sure I wouldn't do better selling my blog by standing on a street corner in a long, pervish overcoat.

The best part of a rejection email in this case is when it reads: "Hi. Thanks for the pitch, but we're going to have to pass on your blog about fruit."

Well. Yeah. I mean, when you put it like that!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Horton hears a what?

Today was a ridiculously nice day. The sun shone brightly, but not with the blazing intensity of January. It was warm, but not too warm. The sky was clear. A breeze blew ever so slightly. . . . which is more than this post will blow if I keep writing about the weather. But I'm just saying. It was frickin' awesome today.

Hey, so, as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, we're back on our normal time zone. Two weeks ago we were four hours ahead of Chicago and now we'll be down to only two hours ahead. Crazy, huh?

Wow. I swear. The time zone here is just like the weather. If you don't like it, wait a little while and it'll change!

Right now, in order to force my computer into the right time zone, I have to set it to think it's someplace called Grytviken. I'm not making that up.

OK. Geez. You know what? I'm really sorry.

It's obvious, isn't it? I'm sort of avoiding the elephant in the room.

It's just that I don't even know what to say about the latest NY Times article on Buenos Aires.

Le sigh. The spirit is willing but the snark is weak.

Hey, speaking of elephants in the room — because I was, unless you skipped that paragraph — I saw that "Horton Hears A Who!" came out. And the first question that came to mind was how they were going to translate the movie title into Spanish. There are posters up all over the city so I didn't have to wonder for long. It's "Horton y el mundo de los quien". That's "Horton and the World of the Who."

Meh. I mean, it was never going to be the same, was it?

* * *

I want to recommend a place to get breakfast, but first I want to tell you what happened when I went this morning for a bite to eat.

The door was locked, which is not that strange because some businesses ask you to knock or get buzzed in as a security precaution. But the door to this place isn't always locked, and so I struggled with the handle before I caught the eye of a woman inside.

She walked over to the door and, failing to conceal mild contempt, told me that it was locked. Then she opened it for me.

I smiled and shrugged as if to say, "Huh! I'm such a boludo!"

I grabbed a magazine from the rack and took a seat. The young woman reached for a menu but I stopped her by politely telling her my order.

She could barely tolerate my request for a café con leche and three medialunas, and it showed in her face.

She brought out my coffee and served me three medialunas from a tray sitting in the window. I added my usual amount of sugar to the coffee cup and took a sip. It was shockingly strong, espresso with the merest suggestion of steamed milk on top. I added more sugar, but it didn't do any good.

I considered what that much espresso would do to my insides and set the cup aside. . . .

. . . which is when I realized that she hadn't brought my sparkling water. Not that I had ordered any. But café con leche normally comes with a small glass of sparkling water. Except this time.

Hey, but listen. This place is usually great for breakfast. Good medialunas. Bread baked on site. Excellent coffee. Nice selection of magazines and newspapers. Cool atmosphere. Not crowded.

You should stop by for breakfast. Maybe not for lunch or dinner. But for breakfast. It's called Masamadre es con M and it's at Olleros 3891.

Good luck!

* * *

Maybe you're wondering if there's anything that's changed now that I am down to my last couple of weeks in BsAs. I can see, say, having a list of things I want to see or do before I leave.

But I have dispatched with that whole ordeal by telling myself that I'll be back somehow or another before too long and, really, there's enough to see here for two lifetimes. So trying to fit anything extraordinary in two weeks would be a little silly. I'll just see what comes my way.

So, no. The only difference between the me of now and the me of a few months ago is that now I am spending my pile of coins with reckless abandon!

¿Que si tengo monedas? ¡Me sobran monedas, che!

* * *

Before I hit the farmers market this morning, I stopped off at Chacarita for some shots of the cemetery. I stitched together the panoramic photo at the top of this entry. It does an all-right job of giving you perspective on the place, but still falls short.

As always, you can click on the image to enlarge. If you scroll to the right, there's a woman walking in the shadow, which will give you a sense of scale.

* * *

There are different rules for public display of affection here. Maybe I should say that there is only one rule: Display as much affection in public as you can and display it with your tongue.

The idea is not new to me. I've seen it here, obviously. And it was all over the place in Spain.


Today I took a crowded bus back from Chinatown.

A young couple got on the bus and then proceeded to maul each other inches from my face for the duration of the 40-minute bus ride.

I am not a prude. And I don't wish my frigid northern sensibilities upon the warm Latin peoples.

But it was making me a little nervous. Part of me wanted to turn a hose on them and scream "NO! If the bus hits a bump, you're going to bite off her tongue!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I canceled my Internet connection yesterday.

You have to show up in person for this. I was already at Santa Fe and Pueyrredón, so I stopped at the Coronel Diaz office of Fibertel.

The Coronel Diaz office of Fibertel looked like the place where hope goes to die. People with long, tired faces milled about. There weren't enough chairs. Agitation hung in the air.

Also, it smelled like feet.

I took a number. My number was 42. They were calling number 82.


I remembered Fibertel had a few offices in outlying neighborhoods, so I decided to give one of those a shot.

Score! The Villa Urquiza location, at Avalos 1910, had exactly one person waiting before me. I was in and out in about 5 minutes. It was fantastic.

I told the woman who helped me about my trip to the Palermo branch earlier that day and how I would so be blogging about this when I got back home.

"Really?" she asked. "You're going to blog about this?"

"Sure," I said.

"But how many people could it possibly interest?" she asked.

I threw my head back and my deep, booming laugh echoed across the office. "You obviously haven't seen my blog," I shouted behind me, adjusting my cape and leaping skyward in a single fluid motion.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


Today's entry begins with a short quiz. Please do not skip it. It is "de carácter obligatorio", as they might say here.

You own a business or run an organization. You want to know how many people you have working for you. Do you . . .

1. Call human resources/personnel and tell them to whip up some numbers for you?

2. Use your high-level access to enter the corporate intranet and pull together the figures yourself?

3. Ask interns from a local university to conduct a census for you because, honestly, fuck if anybody really knows how many employees there are and what they're all doing?

If you answered (3), congratulations! You're the mayor of Buenos Aires! You don't need to read this entry. In fact, I'd rather you didn't. This city is held together by string; you really need to get back to work.

If you answered (1) or (2), you might want to read on.

* * *

Of course, the city government census is political. The relatively new mayor has already tried to get rid of some public employees, which caused a huge shitstorm.

Now, the public employee unions are contending that the census is just a pretext for being able to dismiss more employees.

One of the central questions here is how many "ñoquis" there are in city government. Ñoquis are what we would call in Chicago "ghost payrollers," only with a far more awesome name. They're ñoquis because, like the delicious dumplings, they only show up once a month — every 30 days to collect their checks.

The mayor says no register exists of how many employees there are and what their jobs are. The Clarín article notes that the estimations of the number of public employees in Buenos Aires run from 110,000 to 120,000.

I guess you could say: Hey, those numbers don't vary that widely. There's less than a 10% difference between the first figure and the second.

Or you could say: WTF? There are 10,000 people who may or may not be working for you?

You can probably guess which option more accurately reflects my sentiments.

I believe the mayor when he says no one knows the real number. But the census has only a small chance of determining that number, because politics on both sides will inevitably come into play.

They'll probably have about as much luck counting ñoquis as Cristina has had counting air conditioners.

Saturday, March 8, 2008


There's a butcher not far from my apartment with an amazing variety of beasts for sale.

Llama, deer (including breaded deer cutlets), boar, frog, rabbit (including rabbit burgers), an ostrich-like bird called rhea, pig, pheasant, partridge, hare, a giant chinchilla-like rodent called viscacha, goat, duck.

Yeesh. Half that list sounds like someone went berserk at a petting zoo!

As to any of you wondering whether people actually eat these things, the answer is sure, sort of. Few of these critters are terribly common in Buenos Aires. But a lot of them are more popular in regional and/or rural cuisine.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Going out on top

Maybe I should just leave now, because it's never going to get better than this.

Walking up Angel Gallardo toward my apartment, I heard sirens and saw a stream of motorcycle cops coming at me.

They were clearing traffic to make way for . . . a visiting dignitary? ¡¿la presidenta?!


The Iron Maiden motorcade.