Stu and I headed west to wine country for four days, but the trip is over now. I'm leaving Mendoza for Buenos Aires in a few hours. I'll be back home tomorrow morning.
Yesterday brought a full day of horseback riding in the foothills of the Andes. I am so sore. I have aches in places I didn't even know I had places.
I was without my trusty MacBook, so I had to forgo blogging this past week. But I'll be back in the saddle again shortly.
I've been blogging for a year now. When I started, I told myself I would give it a few months and see how it went. Then I told myself I would give it a year. I'm not sure how much longer I'll keep at it, but this blog has at least three more months left at any rate.
Happy new year and thank you for reading.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Monday, December 24, 2007
When we walked into the art exhibit on Friday, they were already dismantling it.
But Guy No. 1 couldn't have been nicer. "Take your time looking around," he said. Then he spent some quality time with a cigarette and Guy No. 2.
The exhibit was mostly comic-style panels. The guys were patient with us, but they didn't waste any time either. We'd read one panel and they would take it off the wall while we moved on to the next one.
It could have been a performance piece about the impermanence of art, but I'm pretty sure they were just closing down the exhibit . . . several hours early. If we'd gotten there even half an hour later than we did, there wouldn't have been anything left to see.
The biggest piece in the room was this. We overheard the guys talking about it. It wasn't an original; it was a reproduction done by a local poster shop. So when they took it off the wall, Stu said: "You should ask them what's going to happen to it."
And I knew he was right. I mean, this could be my big chance. Could I make off with that great poster?
When we finished looking at the last panel in the exhibit, Guy No. 1 asked us what we thought. We gave it enthusiastically positive reviews. Then Stu coyly asked a question we already knew the answer to: Was this poster an original?
"Come on, Guy No. 1!" I thought. "Shrug your shoulders, smile, and let us walk away with the poster." But, no. A small part of me was disappointed.
Then, unprompted, he pointed toward the front of the room. "Do you guys want to take home part of the exhibit up front?"
We were ecstatic. "Yes!"
We could not stop laughing. We grinned like idiots while he grabbed one of each item on display.
- 1 box, Sueños & Delirios. Consérvense en lugar fresco.
(Dreams & Delusions. Keep in a cool place.)
- 1 box, Pelusas. No se conforme con menos.
(Lint. Don't settle for less.)
- 1 box, Mini agujeros negros. Fuerza cósmica a su servicio.
(Mini black holes. Cosmic force at your service.)
- 1 can, Plasta informe. ¡Sin sabor!
(Formless lump. Flavorless!)
I walked away happy with my free art and very pleased that Stu was able to see one of the best things about living here: Anything is possible. Granted, that's also one of the worst things about living here.
We walked around a lot on Saturday. We saw some very cool old buildings, some in great shape and others not. Even the ones in good repair were often marred by graffiti.
The name I most covet for my blog is "Buenos Aires, City of Faded Elegance." Because it's spot on.
We saw the stately Congress building, had coffee and a bite to eat in two of the city's classy cafés notables, and stopped in (twice!) at an artisinal cheese store.
But we also walked through some slightly sketchy sections of town, climbed over trash strewn across the sidewalk, sidestepped unsavory puddles, dodged mysterious dangling wires and watched an endless parade of hawkers scraping together a living on the subte — a lot of them children.
At one point we paused on Avendia Rivadavia to take in a beautiful building that would not have been out of place on any boulevard in Europe.
That's when Stu said that parts of the city look like they've been hit with an atomic bomb. It's true. Elegant buildings stand amidst chaos, grime and squalor.
We talked about the toll it must take to know that your city, once grand, is now in so many places held together by string.
What would be worse: To be able to remember the golden age? Or, as is the case with most people alive today, just to see suggestions of it while its legacy crumbles around you?
at 4:20 PM
Friday, December 21, 2007
We got a late start yesterday. When we got to Chacarita cemetery, it was noon.
We spent a few hours there, taking photographs under the blazing sun. Stu noted the mausoleums seemed to be in better shape than a lot of the homes we had seen. It's true.
Stu said he had never seen anything like it.
Chacarita is on one end of Avenida Corrientes. We worked our way back down toward the other end, stopping for gnocchi, ice cream and coffee.
We ended up in the Plaza de Mayo, amidst the piqueteros (semi-professional protesters) and riot police.
Then it was time to go home.
at 3:45 PM
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Stu and I walked around the Palermo Viejo neighborhood yesterday after lunch on a picture-perfect day. We talked about the juxtaposition of well preserved turn-of-the-century buildings, their crumbling counterparts, and then the modern monsters that pop up — all on the same block.
We also came across quite the collection of stencil graffiti.
Then I found out what it's like to hang out with someone who reads my blog too much:
We saw this narrow board inexplicably propped up against a building.
We both looked at each other.
"Do you think it's holding the building up?"
at 4:54 AM
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
Now that summer is only days away, the fruit stand displays are getting good.
I snapped this photo while I was running around town today. I'm not posting the photo because it's extraordinary; I'm posting it because it's not. There are stands and displays like this on practically every block.
There's an annotated version of the photo on flickr.
at 1:03 PM
Monday, December 17, 2007
An old friend is coming into town this week and I am really excited.
Stu is coming from Japan, where he's lived for years. A decade ago, he and I were celebrating Christmas in Barcelona and New Year's Eve in Prague. Now we'll do the same in Argentina. Who could have seen that coming?
He's here for three weeks. I may post more, I may post less.
Either way, blame Stu.
at 5:49 AM
Sunday, December 16, 2007
Andrés Calamaro is part of the history of rock and roll in Argentina.
He's been called an Argentine Bob Dylan. I wouldn't make that comparison, but he did open for Dylan in Spain, which is some sort of endorsement for the idea.
His latest album — La lengua popular — is not his best, but it's good. It has some of the best album art I've seen in a long time.
The first time I saw him in concert was eight years ago in Madrid. Last night I went to see him at Club Ciudad de Buenos Aires, an outdoor venue. The sound was not so hot — and loud on a scale that I did not even know was possible. I had to take cover in a remote corner where the volume was not ear-splitting.
This dovetails neatly into my observation that for the first time, the (vast) majority of the concert-goers were younger than me. Ugh. And, you know, I shouted at them to get off my lawn, but the show was so loud they couldn't hear me.
The good news is that I really liked the opening band — Fito & Fitipaldis. (Warning: link plays music.) I was aware of them before and had heard a few songs, but it never really clicked until last night.
at 3:47 PM
Saturday, December 15, 2007
Squash blossoms are fragile. You should eat them the same day you buy them.
But I found some at the market this morning and I won't be home for dinner tonight, so they're going to have to wait for tomorrow. I expect to stuff them with ricotta, batter them and deep fry them. And I expect them to be freaking delicious.
Sometimes a very simple food crosses a line and becomes gourmet, and the price goes up accordingly. This happens a lot with fish. Monkfish and lobster used to be trash fish, either discarded outright or sold off for cheap. Now you'll pay top dollar for them.
Squash blossoms are a very pricey item in the States. When I would buy them at the farmers market in Chicago (back in the days when I had to pay for things there), they were 75¢ or $1 apiece.
Here, I bought them for 5¢ apiece. Yes, some things are cheaper here than in the States, but this is disproportionately and marvelously inexpensive.
And who can resist eating flowers?
I'm loath to make generalizations — even positive ones — about porteños. But I really do think that people here talk to strangers a little more than in the States.
I was coming back from the market this morning and about to cross a busy street. To my right stood a woman in her 70s.
The light changed and I strode out into the crosswalk.
Behind me, I heard a voice shout: "Wait for me!"
I took a few more steps and heard it again.
I turned around to see the little old lady galloping my way. She had been speaking to me.
"¡A los dos juntos no nos van a atropellar!" ("They won't run us both over together!")
We got to the other side of the street and she thanked me. "Please!" I said. "It was nothing."
It made me think of how I always feel just a little bit better about crossing the street with a nun. Because if you run over a nun, don't you basically go straight to hell?
Then again, maybe they'll swerve to avoid the nun and take me out.
at 10:44 AM
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Six months ago, a police explosives team conducted their daily security sweep in the office of the economy minister here. They found a bag containing $60,000.
What the hell was a bag of cash doing in the bathroom of the economy minister? Well, you could try asking her. A lot of people certainly did.
But Felisa Miceli kept changing her story. First the money belonged to her and was, of course, 100% declared before the tax authorities.
Then most of it was a loan from her brother for a real estate deal. She had meant to take it to the bank, but didn't have time.
One of the problems — I mean, besides the fact that $60,000 was found in a paper bag in her bathroom — was that some of the money was still wrapped in an eminently traceable bank band. And when the band was traced, neither her nor her brother's name came up.
Some of her assistants cast doubt on her already dubious story, testifying that she had never mentioned a real estate deal to them. Others tried — and failed — to explain it away: Miceli was often very forgetful, they said. Like, she would totally leave her cell phone in a meeting room. Or, you know, bags of cash in the bathroom. Whoopsy!
(Frankly, I think it's better to assume she knew damn well that bag was there. Otherwise you have to ask how many other bags of cash she has lying around where she was able to forget the $60,000 in the bathroom.)
Miceli stuck around for a month or so, but not surprisingly she ended up getting the boot. I've been wanting to mention this for a while, since I was otherwise engaged when this all went down. The news hook for this post is that she told her story to a judge yesterday — one of her stories, anyway.
Along the way, Miceli said her handling of the incident was marked by her naivete. She has also tried to paint herself as the victim.
If anyone wants to victimize me by leaving $60,000 in my bathroom, you know how to reach me.
at 3:16 PM
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
When you consider how low I've set the bar for a post on this blog, it stretches credulity to say that there hasn't been anything worth posting for the last four days.
We did change presidents on Monday. But I was completing a wildly lucrative subtitling project, so I couldn't leave my apartment to watch the inaugural hoo-ha.
Fortunately by last night I was freed from the exigencies of my freelancing empire.
So I met up with fellow expat blogger Matt, who's in from Chile on a secret mission. He didn't say this, of course. But then, he wouldn't, would he?
He's not the first blogger I've met here.
I had a chance to meet Robert some weeks back. I think it's fair to say that he is twice the blogger I am — especially because he has two blogs.
In his first blog, line of sight , he writes a great deal about the architecture and history of Buenos Aires. His new blog AfterLife is dedicated to Recoleta Cemetery. If you've never read it, it's the best blog about a cemetery you've never read. It's particularly interesting because so much of what lies inside those cemetery walls is really about the history of the city and country outside the walls. (Robert, you can thank me later for the three hits these links will likely generate.)
Anyway, Matt and I had a good time last night. Mostly he sat quietly while I read aloud to him from my blog.
Somewhere amidst the fourth post on inflation — or was it ice cream? — he stopped me and talked a little about how he started his blog because there were really no English-language resources on his city, Valparaiso.
I told him I started mine for the typing practice.
at 7:43 AM
Friday, December 7, 2007
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Outgoing president (that makes him sound gregarious, doesn't it?) Néstor Kirchner gave an interview in which he summed up the state of affairs he's leaving his wife, who takes office on Monday:
"I'm leaving Cristina an almost normal country."
Maybe they should turn that into a banner and string it up at the airport.
"Bienvenidos a la Argentina, un país casi normal."
at 8:01 AM
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
When you think about all the chocolate milk in the world, it was almost discrimination that there wasn't dulce de leche milk, don't you think?
Meh . . . I don't really think so either. But now we have dulce de leche milk. Maybe we did before, for all I know. Anyway, it's sort of milk-flavored milk, isn't it? Well, milk- and sugar-flavored milk, dulce de leche being nothing more than boiled and reduced milk with abominable amounts of sugar added.
Anyway, these posters for dulce de leche milk are up all over town. And I keep seeing them. So I thought: "Huh, that might make for a mildly amusing blog entry. Maybe I'll say something about how chocolate milk is all over the place but you never really think about dulce de leche milk."
And then I started to think about how odd it was that the flavoring they're adding to the milk is itself milk-based, as covered two paragraphs above.
And then I visited the web site for the milk and SWEET MERCIFUL CRAP THAT CARTOON COW HAS FRIGHTENINGLY LARGE UDDERS.
That is just not natural.
I had actually planned to blog about something else today. I had planned to do a lot of things. But now I've seen those udders.
at 12:14 PM
Monday, December 3, 2007
I was restless yesterday on a hot and sticky day, so I took the bus to Villa Urquiza to get some ice cream at one of my favorite heladerías, Il Bombón. I hadn't been to that location in nearly a year. (The brothers that own it have one other location, to which I've been back a few times.)
I'm happy to report it has maintained its high standards and unsophisticated decor. I sat on a bench just outside the door and had two flavors: rice pudding and banana with dulce de leche.
The woman on the bench across from me was scooping out ice cream from her cone and letting her dog have a lick of the spoon before scooping up some more and plopping it in her own mouth with gusto. And dog saliva. Gusto and dog saliva.
I took the bus there but walked back to kill some time and get some exercise. I found myself just outside Chacarita cemetery and decided to cut through. There's not much reason to think a cemetery would be noisy, of course, but it's amazing just how quiet it is in there even with buses and trains rumbling by just outside the walls.
at 3:10 PM
I have mentioned my zero-tolerance policy for gratuitous references to the tango in foreign press coverage of Argentina.
This New York Times article on gay tourism in Buenos Aires manages to squeeze in references to both the tango AND beef in the lede, and then wraps up with a quote about Cher and Madonna. No, I don't have a policy against mentioning them in press coverage of Argentina, but it's pretty unoriginal to finish an article about gays with a quote about Cher and Madonna.
It's also a little baffling that an article about tourists doesn't quote any tourists.
I should say that I worked in a newsroom for five years, so I know how easy it is to criticize from the outside.
What? That's why I'm doing it.
at 2:49 PM
Saturday, December 1, 2007
The "closed-door" restaurant I blogged about way back in March is in the New York Times Style magazine this weekend, effectively throwing open the doors.
It had only been open a few weeks when I went with Joel, my erstwhile rakish dining companion and man about many towns.
I'm happy to see the restaurant succeed. Diego was a pretty cool guy. I have no way of knowing if success has spoiled it, but I suspect success has changed it. And I'm glad I went when I did.
In more personal terms, it makes me slightly queasy to think about what the writer probably made selling this piece to the Times, a piece that mentions half a dozen spots within a 30-minute walk from my apartment.
Can I just make something absolutely clear? I can be bought. I will sell out, I will sell out big-time, I will sell out cheap, and I will sell out before you can even finish your sentence asking me to sell out.
The site for the restaurant: Diego Felix.
The New York Times article. (Warning: annoying Flash presentation. Diego Felix is No. 2 on the map.)
at 8:34 AM
Thursday, November 29, 2007
There is a huge problem with this blog.
No, not that.
Um. Not that either.
Why don't you let me go first?
The huge problem with this blog is that there are no photos of people.
There are millions and millions of people in Buenos Aires, but only a handful on my blog — and most of them are in my short photo series "People of Buenos Aires from Behind."
It would be great to have photos of people on this blog.
Like, on Saturday on the subte, there was this amazing magician who couldn't have been more than 20 years old. He had the whole car's rapt attention for 9 stops. It would have been great to get a picture of him. But my camera stayed in my pocket.
And the kids here will get out of school soon and some of them will be walking around with their guardapolvos — their white "lab jackets" worn as a school uniforms — inked with friends' signatures and best wishes. (Versions of "Have a cool summer!!!!" and "Stay sweet!!!!" only with exclamation marks at the beginning of the phrase, too, because, you know, ¡¡¡¡it's in Spanish!!!!)
Photos of them would be a kick, too.
And I would love to be able to post photos of the ladies who wash my clothes, the farmers at the market, the police officers in their thick bullet-proof vests, the woman who sells me cheese, the man who sleeps on the sidewalk and uses his dog as a pillow, the Orthodox Jews clad head to toe in black.
It would be great to post photos of everybody, really. . . including my doorman, who showed up at my apartment yesterday to ask me if he could borrow $300.
Although in that case, I don't know if it would have been better to get a picture of his face as he asked me, or a reaction shot of my face as I just about shit a brick.
at 9:43 AM
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
I am absolutely in love with café con leche.
It's about one part espresso to two parts steamed milk. And, sure, there's the buzz that comes with it.
But there's also the ritual. If I'm making it at home, there's the careful scooping of the grounds into the filter basket of the espresso machine. If I'm having it out, there are the swift, deliberate motions of the waiter as he sets down my café con leche, my small glass of carbonated water and my complimentary cookie.
And there's the taste. The first bitter sip of the morning before I add the sugar. The foamy, slightly caramelized scalded milk mixed with the espresso. The syrupy espresso at the bottom of the cup where the sugar has settled, treacly but great in small doses.
Of course, at a certain point, there's no café con leche about it. After noon, it's cortados all the way down.
I was introduced to café con leche in Spain, but in some ways it reaches even greater heights here in Argentina.
Here, café con leche is rarely served without a small glass of carbonated water and a little cookie. It just feels so damn civilized.
The sugar almost always comes in a little packet. And that's where the blog "Sobrecitos de azúcar" comes in. This 47-year-old woman has been collecting sugar packets since her childhood and has more than 1000 of them. She is sharing her collection on her blog.
Though I don't have a photo of it — what am I, some sort of Internet photo-taker and writer? — my personal favorite was the sugar packet I got one morning a few months ago at the cafe down the street. It was from LADE, the government-owned, military-operated airline.
You know there had to be a story there.
I'm picturing a cafe owner scrambling through the flaming wreckage of a LADE aircraft, emerging in tattered clothes and smelling of jet fuel, grinning as he clutches as many sugar packets as he can hold.
But I could be wrong.
at 4:23 PM
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The boxes of lint for 4 pesos ($1.25) and boxes of mini black holes for 6 pesos ($2) were what caught my eye.
Lint for 4 pesos? I'm kind of on a budget. Didn't lint used to be less expensive? Still, the sign promised it was the "best lint" and I suppose 4 pesos is a steal if we're talking lint of a certain ...
Wait a minute.
The lint was displayed in a handsome package on a shelf facing the street. I spotted it through a window. I had stumbled across a fantastic art exhibit. Works by Miguel Brieva were on display at the stark white gallery space of the Spanish Cultural Center of Buenos Aires (Paraná 1159).
Had I known about it beforehand, I don't know if it would have sounded appealing. But I'm really glad I found it, because I got a big kick out of it. In a city full of surprises, this was easily the best one since . . . the puppet museum.
Miguel Brieva is from Seville, Spain, and the exhibit is at one of two cultural centers in Buenos Aires funded by the government of Spain.
Besides being brilliantly drawn in bold colors, Brieva's stuff has a sense of humor that I appreciated. The comic book-style art is critical of consumerism and mass media (wide and easy targets, granted).
The piece at the top of this entry was several meters long by at least a meter high and occupied the most prominent spot in the gallery. One of the women in the center of the piece says, "The great thing about the dictatorship of the market is that it has all the good parts of that other fascism before it, but without all the marches and military parades and crap!" To the right is a woman filming her husband and child. The husband asks, "Do you think we're happy, dear?" to which the woman responds: "Yes! It says so right here in the camera viewfinder!"
Below are links to two more examples of his work gleaned from the web, with translations. (The text of the second one is a tiny bit crude.)
The exhibit is free and on until Dec. 21.
"Wow, that's weird! What do you think that is, dear?"
"Who knows. ... Well, we'll find out later on TV."
"Look, dear. Look what I've got! It's the latest in balls of excrement, covered by a fine layer of organic refuse carefully chosen by the most well-regarded professionals. Its interior is comprised of an exquisite and varied mixture of deposits gathered from the most refined . . . "
"Yes, yes. Come on! Once again, they've sold you the same shit as always."
at 11:32 AM
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Yesterday I was getting ready to head out to a small exhibit featuring art done by kids living in the slums.
I realized the exhibit was on the same side of town as the English-language bookstore . . . and that the bookstore wasn't so far from the cheese shop and the Italian bakery.
I hit the bookstore first and made 35 pesos (US$11) selling them four used paperbacks. Cheese money!
I got to the art exhibit and it was closed. A lot of businesses here lock their doors. But there's usually someone to open up if you knock. Not there, not this time. At other points of my life, I would have found this more upsetting. But I know better now. So I moved on to the bakery.
This Italian bakery is old school. It's been around for very nearly 100 years. And you can tell. (I did not take photos inside the bakery, but there are some photos here.)
I have sworn off buying bread in Buenos Aires, not out of carbophobia but because most if it just sucks. In a place with so much European heritage, it's ridiculous that this should be so, but it is. Every bakery for miles around makes essentially the same bread and it is all insipid and fluffy.
So I'm almost down to only eating bread that I make. But the bread at the Italian bakery is one of the very few places that makes bread worth buying, so I picked up a loaf.
They've got some great-looking pastries too. The one I bought, pictured above, is the pasticciotto. It's a cookie crust filled with pastry cream and chocolate. The man behind the counter dusted it with powdered sugar before he stuck it in a bag for me.
The cheese store is only a few blocks away. It was locked when I got there. But I tapped on the glass and the same old woman who is always there let me in.
I asked for some ricotta first and then asked about the burrata. I had heard of it, but what was it exactly? She told me it was a ball of fresh mozzarella stuffed with a mixture of mozzarella, cream and basil, whereupon I informed her that one of those would be coming home with me as well.
While she totaled up my purchase by hand on a small slip of paper, we chatted a bit about the business.
"¿Sos de acá del barrio?" she asked me.
No, I told her. I live in Almagro.
I told her that good cheese was worth the trip, and she naturally agreed. I said that I sometimes waited until I had something else to do on that side of town to come, but not always. Sometimes I just enjoyed the walk to the cheese store.
"Y sí," she said. "Hay que tomarlo como un paseo." You have to treat it like a stroll.
It's true. On my way there, I had chanced upon some things I didn't know existed. (Who knew there was a puppet museum or a Lunfardo Academy of Buenos Aires?) Plus, I never spend any time in San Telmo or Congreso and they're both great neighborhoods to explore.
True, I hadn't even seen the art exhibit I set out to see. I had managed to pick up some great food, but even if I hadn't it wouldn't have mattered. Paseos are not like blog entries. Even a rambling paseo that doesn't go anywhere isn't a let-down.
at 3:40 PM
Friday, November 16, 2007
Luna Park is where Juan Perón met Evita. That's a tough act to follow, but last night I went there to see Rosana in concert.
It's a straight shot about 40 blocks down Avenida Corrientes from my apartment to the venue. It was a beautiful evening, so I walked there.
The walk took an hour and a half and was really good for clearing my head, even as I choked on exhaust fumes and sneezed from my allergies. By the time I got to Luna Park, I had reached all sorts of profound conclusions about my life!
It was a great show. The acoustics there aren't as good as they are at the Gran Rex, where I saw Rosana last time she was in town. And she was struggling with her voice.
But I still had a great time.
I was a little sad when the show was over. I don't know when I'll be able to catch one of her shows again. She doesn't tour the States, and I won't be here next time she comes around.
But how great is it that I've been able to see her twice here? And Joaquín Sabina twice! And Andrés Calamaro twice! And Jorge Drexler!
I feel pretty lucky.
I sometimes think the best part of learning Spanish is all the music it's allowed me to discover. When music connects with you it's more than the sum of its melody and lyrics. The connection is very personal.
That's why I'm passing along a video clip of Rosana, but without expectations it will do much for you. (This blog is a lot of things, but it's not quite OMG YOU HAVE TO BUY THIS ALBUM IT IS AWESEOM AND YOU WILL LOVE IT! Because if it were, I would by now have mentioned The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, which is an awesome album that you have to buy because you will love it.)
I was saying? Oh, yes. Here's Rosana:
I just want to reach through the screen and shake you! Wasn't that amazing?! I mean, you can freaking hear her smiling when she sings!
Anyway, it was midnight when the show was over. The crowd spilled out onto the street.
As I walked up Córdoba to catch the 109 bus, I passed a restaurant half full of people. I was three paces past it when something made me go back. I turned around and stared into the harsh fluorescent lighting of the cafe.
My gaze settled on a table near the bar and I caught the eye of a smokin' transvestite hooker sitting alone with her drink. I gave her a goofy grin. She smiled back. And then my bus came.
Executive summary: Boy meets girl, they fall in love, start a legend. Too much thinking is bad, but walking is good. I see a concert of someone you've probably never heard of or don't care about. Huh. I've seen a lot of concerts of people you've probably never heard of or don't care about. Super duper! Here's a YouTube clip, because you know, there's something you don't see enough of on the Internet. Once again, boy meets girl — but this time it's the same person. And then my bus came.
at 10:23 PM
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
In my last post, I mentioned the absurd shortage of coins in this country.
With the sweat from writing that last entry still dripping from my brow, I headed downstairs to buy food.
The shop two doors down has placed the following sign in its window:
I am so hoarding coins now.
For every 100 pesos in coins, we will give you one kilo of El Puente-brand dulce de leche.
Thank you very much.
at 9:56 AM
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
This place sometimes feels like it's one stop before the loony bin. It can be a beautiful brand of crazy. But it can also be challenging.
Out of 90 airlines sampled, two Argentine carriers ranked 86th and 87th for on-time performance. Their flights adhere to schedule about 25% of the time. It doesn't help that sometimes they don't even take off on the right day.
There is an absolutely desperate lack of change in this country. Where do all the coins go? Good question. It is a deep mystery and apparently a perennial source of fascination to foreign media. The BBC did a story on this last year. Reuters just did a story on this. And there's a video report here.
As the BBC story points out, it turns you into a liar. Because when you hand over 20 pesos for a purchase of 12.25 and the clerk asks you if you have any change, you lie through your teeth as the jingle of the precious, precious coins in your pocket echoes in your head like the beating of the telltale heart.
This video report about buying people's votes in the most recent election is a flawed piece of journalism. Why, for example, did these people cooperate with the reporter? It's not explained. Also, the voice-overs in English don't always completely match what the people are saying in Spanish. But I'm inclined to chalk this up to bad editing. There is certainly truth at the heart of this.
People in poor areas were paid to vote for candidates. And what to make of these vote-getters working both sides of the ballot? They collected votes not just for one candidate, but for the opponent as well.
It's like these vote buyers are completely unprincipled!
Last week, the sidewalk newsstands that sell all of the city's magazines and newspapers closed for a day. Why? To celebrate the National Day of the Newspaper Seller. I am not making this up. Naturally, the newspapers were not thrilled with this, since it meant they would lose a day of sales.
According to this article in La Nación, the usual arrangement is that the newsstand owners pocket about a third of the paper's cover price. To entice them not to close, the newspaper companies offered to let the newsstand owners keep the ENTIRE price of the newspaper, thereby earning them enough money to pay a helper for the day and be able to relax on the National Day of the Newspaper Seller.
The newsstand owners said no thanks and closed up for the day.
* * *
Turns out, the banker and the newspaper seller honor their professions in the same time-tested way: by not showing up for work.
This all leads up neatly — so neatly you'd swear this blog entry had a point if you didn't know better — to this advertisement for a book promising to unveil the "marvels, oddities, curiosities, and mysteries" of the Argentines.
The best part is the tagline on the cover:
"Argentina isn't a country, it's an adventure."
at 10:35 AM
Sunday, November 11, 2007
The prime minister of Spain was in Buenos Aires yesterday, after participating in the Ibero-American summit in Chile.
Having tenuously linked this post to Buenos Aires, I'll continue:
The summit in Chile wasn't exactly a love fest.
Uruguay and Argentina are in the midst of a diplomatic row over a paper mill in Uruguay that Argentina says will lead to unacceptable pollution.
And then Spain and Venezuela got into it.
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez called the former Spanish prime minister a fascist several times, which prompted the current Spanish prime minister to attempt to respond. . . .
. . . which prompted Chávez to not shut the hell up, even though his mic was off.
Which leads us to King Juan Carlos of Spain — who should certainly know a fascist when he sees one — wagging his finger at Chávez and asking him why he won't shut up.
Not really becoming a monarch, but sort of great anyway.
at 11:04 AM
Friday, November 9, 2007
The trip from Salta to Cafayate — the nucleus of the local wine industry — was about 120 miles. It took just under four hours. It might have gone faster, but the bus wasn't just the bus. It was the paperboy, too.
If you lived in any of towns along the dry mountain highway, you could flag the bus down and the driver would sell you a newspaper.
These were very small towns.
In most of them, we would stop at the first building in town and you could clearly see where the town ended up the road a piece. (Still, we'd stop three times to make pick-ups and drop-offs.)
By the time we got to Cafayate, even a town of 11,000 people seemed big.
I paid five bucks to rent a bike just off the expansive main plaza and then pedaled around to the wineries, most of which were a few miles out of town.
The area is desert. It was dry and hot, and it's only November. The heat in January must be unbearable.
Now, you may know that I am sort of a half-assed vegetarian. Increasingly, half-assed I'd say. I eat fish. I had a steak for my birthday this year. And when I was in Chicago, I ate duck at an event put on by Slow Food and the farm.
To that list, we can add the steak I ate in Cafayate.
My dining options were somewhat limited.
I picked a restaurant, leaned my bike against the lamppost and plopped myself down at a table. The waitress handed me a menu.
"We don't have everything on the menu," she said.
"That's fine," I said.
She went down the menu and named about ten things they didn't have before I stopped her.
I had seen signs for lomo a la frontera all over town. I asked for that.
It was steak and eggs over fried potatoes, with some onions and bell peppers thrown in.
Such a contrast to the steak I had six months ago for my birthday. At Bar Uriarte in Buenos Aires, the atmosphere is studied and refined, urban and sophisticated, with a carefully designed menu.
Here, it was plain and rural. Without pretense. Also, apparently, without a menu.
I finished my meal and biked off onto a dirt road into the hills.
Of course, who should I run into?
I hoped I hadn't eaten someone they knew. Well, someone they liked.
Aside from the wine and the scenery, the best thing about Cafayate is that the people aren't sick of tourists. They are definitely placing a heavy emphasis on developing the tourism industry there, but you can tell it hasn't gotten old. Yet.
Mendoza is the Argentine region that everyone associates with "wine country," but I think Cafayate is going to be the next big thing — as a travel destination and as an appellation.
I got back to Salta about 11pm and collapsed into my bed.
The next day, I flew back to Buenos Aires.
Yes, I had planned to take buses on this trip. But I had already taken a 10-hour bus to Córdoba. A 12-hour bus to Salta. And then a 7-hour round-trip to Cafayate and back.
Honestly, there wasn't enough wine in all of Cafayate to make 22 more hours on a bus OK.
at 7:32 PM
Thursday, November 8, 2007
All over Salta, entire buildings are painted with bright-red Coca-Cola ads. The vibrant advertisements, the soft pastels of the buildings, the bright blue sky, the pale purple of the jacarandas. . . They all added up to a very colorful city to explore.
As I walked around, someone called out to me.
I had walked past the guy, but his merchandise had caught my eye, and now he wasn't going to let me off.
"¡Flaco! ¿Probás un damasquito?"
("Dude, do you want to try an apricot?")
Clearly he had made me on sight. Readers of my other blog may remember that the Michigan apricot crop was wiped out by a late spring freeze. No apricots for me this year. Until now.
"How much?" I asked.
They were four pesos, about US$1.25 for a good-sized tray. I popped a sample in my mouth and began digging for my wallet. What the hell was I going to do with 30 apricots? I had no idea. But they were too good to pass up.
I placed the apricots gently into my shoulder bag and kept walking.
A few minutes later I walked past a scrawny kid sitting on the shaded stoop of a convenience store.
"¿Una monedita, señor?" He wanted a little change.
I said no and walked a few spaces before it dawned on me. I spun around and began digging in my bag as I walked up to him.
"¿Che, querés?" I placed four rosy-orange apricots into his tiny, filthy hand.
He thanked me and I walked another block, until another kid asked me for change. I started digging out my apricots again when I turned around and saw that the first kid had finished one of his apricots and was walking up to share the others with this second kid.
I waved him away and gave the second kid some apricots of his own.
I ate the rest of the apricots for dessert that night, left some on my night stand and found that the maid had helped herself when I got back to my room late the next evening.
Who could blame her? They were really great apricots.
Of course, I made time for some ice cream. The place I went had some unique flavors, including cayote con nuez, cayote being in the squash family and looking like a watermelon on the outside; nuez is walnut. I also tried torrontés, ice cream made from the region's star white wine grape. On the menu was té de coca, or coca-leaf tea ice cream. But they were out of it.
I knew I wanted to go to the nearby wine region of Cafayate the next day, but I had to figure out how to get there.
There were plenty of excursiones offered, where they provide a bus and a guide and drive you around. This country is absolutely mad about excursions. I think it's a sort of full-employment scheme to soak up the graduates of the tourism programs at universities.
It's to the point where if you contemplate doing something outside of a pre-programmed excursion, people look at you like you're nuts. And sometimes it's all but impossible to do things without an excursion if you don't have a car.
But I was determined to try. Because the excursions on offer to wine country all involved spending the better part of the day looking at rock formations that allegedly resembled things.
I know this because I went into a travel agency where a woman excitedly showed me pictures of these formations.*
"This is the Titanic. This is called the Obelisk. This one is called the Toad."
"Um, I'm really more interested in wineries. Is there any tour where you see fewer rocks and more wineries?"
"No, not really," she said.
Of course not. Why would there be, with so many rocks to look at?
I should mention that part of my frustration with this excursion-centric system stems from a deeply scarring guided tour I was all but forced on during a trip to Argentina four years ago. I saw nothing of interest but spent 14 hours on a bus filled entirely with senior citizens, who for at least the last five hours of the trip were drunk off their asses and engaging in a group sing-along at the top of their lungs.
So I went to the bus station to see if there was a bus that would take me to Cafayate, where I could then strike out on my own. There was. It left at 7am and took about three and a half hours to get there.
So I bought a ticket and went to bed early.
*It all started to remind me of possibly the most random tour I've ever taken in my life, into the Cuevas del Drach salt caves in Mallorca, where we were shown stalagmites and stalactites that supposedly resembled things and then treated to a classical music concert performed by musicians on boats floating in an underground lake. Naturally.
at 9:18 AM
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
I was conflicted about taking a trip because the only thing lower than my bank balance is my blog readership. Zing!
Shit. I just zinged myself again. Oh well. At least not many people saw me do it.
Anyway, I reminded myself that I won't be in this country beyond April or May, that things aren't going to get any cheaper or any closer, and that, in the end, I've never regretted spending money on travel — even though I'm still paying for my European wanderings 10 years ago in the form of student loans.
I'll get back to Salta like I said I would, but I should start from the beginning.
My trip started in Córdoba, which I reached after a 10-hour overnight bus ride from Buenos Aires.
I spent two days in Córdoba because it was halfway between Buenos Aires and Salta and because it is arguably Argentina's second city.
It was a nice place to spend a few days, but I wasn't blown away by it.
Still, Córdoba does have some nicely preserved historical architecture in the form of a cathedral (above) and some churches (below).
And the jacaranda trees were in bloom.
As I wondered the city, searching for meaning and purpose in my visit, an ice cream sign came into focus. Just like the meaning and purpose of my visit. And my propensity for cheap narrative devices.
Mmm . . . footsicle. Full of footy goodness.
From Córdoba, I took a 12-hour overnight bus to Salta, which is where I will pick up next time.
at 6:14 PM
Sunday, November 4, 2007
A thousand miles from Buenos Aires in the northwest corner of Argentina sits the province of Salta, bordering Chile and Bolivia.
The capital of the province, also named Salta, is one of those dusty, colorful cities you might picture when you think of Latin America.
I mention this in part because I don't always think of myself as being in Latin America when I'm in Buenos Aires — heaven, hell, Europe, the Third World, the First World . . all these things, yes. But not specifically Latin America.
In so many good and bad ways, Buenos Aires is really a world of its own.
Salta, however, is thoroughly and inescapably Latin American.
More on Salta soon.
at 6:17 PM
Thursday, November 1, 2007
I don't want to say that staring out my window isn't normally rewarding, but it felt particularly rewarding yesterday just before sunset.
All this top-notch blogging and whatever else it is I do has me exhausted.
So I am taking a bus north to Córdoba, and then to Salta. (Here's a map of Argentina.)
at 7:56 AM
Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Monday, October 29, 2007
You have managed to live this long without hearing my take on Argentina's national elections Sunday, but why take any chances?
When consuming foreign media reports about Argentina, it is important to follow a strict "no tango" policy. Zero tolerance for gratuitous mentions of the dance as a tortured metaphor for politics, sports, the weather, etc — or as purported insight into the national character, economy, etc.
Most of the salient points were made — tango free! — in the major English-language media outlets: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had a lock on the election from the start. There wasn't much debate or dialog. She won't have it as easy as her husband had it because much of the easy work has already been done.
Here are a few other tidbits of interest:
1. Voter turnout percentages are not a big thing because voting here is required by law. You can show up at the polling place and cast a blank ballot. You can scrawl "Evita" on your ballot. But you do at least have to show up and drop something in the box.
2. For 48 hours before the polls open, there is a gag order on the candidates as well as a prohibition on publishing polls. Also, no booze for sale on election day until the polls close. (So much for making a drinking game out of fraud allegations). Also banned on election day: sporting events and other public entertainment.
3. There is little telling what Cristina Fernández de Kirchner will do as president.
We know from campaign declarations that she is
(a) against poverty and
(b) in favor of people really pulling together to make a difference.
You can see why she got twice the votes of her nearest challenger!
The comparisons to Hillary Clinton are natural but ultimately little more than a curiosity.
The fact that Mrs. Kirchner was elected after Michelle Bachelet in Chile is great in that it means two women will be heads of state for Latin American countries. That is truly something. But beyond that, you have to look pretty hard to find similarities between the two women. Bachelet is more accomplished and did not ride in on the coattails of her husband after a lackluster campaign.
4. A prominent pollster publishes a blog, but because of the prohibition on publishing election polls in the closing hours of the campaign, he had to get a little creative in how he presented his information.
See for yourself if the depictions and percentages in the art at the head of this blog post resemble the election in any country you know.
Let's see . . . there's a Hanna-Barbera cartoon character in the lead with 45.9% of the vote; a generously proportioned Botero figure in second place with 23.3% of the vote, and Munch's the Scream in third with 14.1%.
Say, the vote totals here in Argentina lined up at 44.9% / 23% / 16.9%! What a remarkable coincidence.
Yes, this is a little inside baseball (¿inside fútbol?) . . . It means more if you know what the candidates look like. But trust me this is a laugh riot.
God, it just makes me giddy to know that when I hit the "publish post" button, the WHOLE WORLD will know my important opinions about politics.
I'm going to go eat some gnocchi.
at 5:00 PM
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Clearly, I am not afraid to tackle the big issues on this blog — the issues that other expat bloggers shy away from.
Today I am blowing the lid off of pudding cups.
I'm sorry. Did I say blowing the lid off of? It should be licking the lid of.
Today I am licking the lid of pudding cups.
Shortly after I moved here, I discovered there were no rice pudding cups in the stores.
I asked someone about this at the time and was told that every once in a while, a company would bring them on the market. They'd last for a while and then disappear from the shelves.
I am happy to say that their time has once again come, as I discovered at the local megamart the other day.
You're thinking: "What could be better?"
Well, you could add a little of that which makes everything better:
Dulce de leche.
at 5:57 PM
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Behold as I succinctly summarize a 2200-word Wall Street Journal article* by highlighting one choice line regarding Guillermo Moreno, the man in charge of trying to contain inflation by negotiating price agreements
and directing the manipulation of government statistics:
"Mr. Moreno increasingly seems like the boy with his thumb in the dike."
Oh, what the heck. Here's one more line for good measure:
"The moves are often proving ineffective and ... could make lasting solutions even more difficult."
With only three days before presidential elections on Sunday, the front-runner and almost certain winner Cristina Fernández de Kirchner finally took questions from the press.
That's right: Before yesterday, she had not taken a single question from reporters for the entire duration of her campaign.
When she was told that surveys showed inflation to be among people's biggest preoccupations and was asked whether she was concerned about inflation, her answer was, to paraphrase only slightly:
"I am concerned about everything."
* Available for seven days via that link.
at 8:05 AM
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Today I finally got hold of a book I had been after for a few weeks: Pizzerías de valor patrimonial de Buenos Aires. It's a book on 39 pizzerias that are considered part of the city's heritage, with some photos and a little history and commentary for each spot.
The press run for the book was only 2000 copies and it sold out within a week of printing.
It took all my cunning to get a copy. Plus 35 pesos. All my cunning, plus 35 pesos.
The city has some of the book's content online. There is some good information there, but the site is poorly conceived and slow. It would probably just be easier for you to come here and see for yourself.
at 3:02 PM
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
I really don't know what I would do without the Internet.
I guess I would (a) still be blogging in my head and (b) have about 12 years' worth of unsent emails in my outbox.
Oh, also: I would be completely paralyzed.
My Spanish is pretty good and if I don't know how to say something in Spanish, it's very often because I don't know exactly what it is in English.
Most auto parts, for example, fall into this category.
But banana hangers do not.
If I think about it, I know what a banana hanger is. But I don't really know how to say it in Spanish.
Actually, that's not entirely true. I can think of half a dozen ways it could be said. But I don't want to end up writing something like "banana hooker" or "plantain preservation and ripening device." So I decided to send a friend here an email, along with a picture of a banana hanger and the question, "What would you call the thing in this photo?"
This all comes up because I am working on a gift catalog, writing copy for the items and translating their names.
Banana hanger isn't the half of it.
Take the "Jolly Gingerbread Man Spoon Rest."
That is to say, the "Spoon Support of the Happy Man of Ginger."
at 8:50 AM
Sunday, October 21, 2007
For the first time in 63 years, a new subway line opened last week. . . in typical Buenos Aires style.
For a while, there were two or three opening dates circulating. Then a last-minute suit was filed to stop the line from opening. It was only minutes before the opening ceremony that a judge gave the green light to inaugurate the subway line.
The stations are shiny and new. The subway cars themselves are very old surplus from another line.
If you are a public transportation geek like me, you will find the flickr photos worth looking at.
So, let's see . . .
In Madrid, they built 80km of subway in three years. This stretch of 3.4km here took just over six years to build.*
The new mayor of Buenos Aires has promised 10km of new subte per year.
My reaction to that is an often heard refrain here:"¡Suerte!" Good luck!
* Granted, that six-year span included an economic collapse on the magnitude of the Great Depression.
at 1:45 PM
Saturday, October 20, 2007
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Yesterday, for those keeping track at home, was the first warm, truly springlike day since I've been back. And it was pretty frickin' great.
It came at a good time, too; lately I've been mired in fecklessness. I still kind of am.
It is the kind of blog where I talk about cheese.
So I will just say that the real bright spot came yesterday after I got rejected by an online food magazine. It was actually a lovely rejection — swift, kind and inviting. They encouraged me to pitch them more ideas so I logged onto their site and started reading their forums. Buried in there was a recommendation for a cheese shop across town started by a recent Italian immigrant.
at 2:14 PM
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
It sounds a little wrong to say, but there are some really kick-ass bank robberies here.
1. As recounted in this Clarín article: Shortly after the ATM was loaded up with cash Friday afternoon, thieves put glue on the keypad to make sure no one could take money out of it, thereby ensuring a good haul. They returned at 2am, set up a folding screen to obscure their nefarious activities, busted out a blowtorch and walked away with US$100,000.
2. Meanwhile on Monday morning in Mar del Plata, thieves made off with about US$60,000. They entered the vacant house next to the bank, drilled a hole in the wall between the house and the bank, and cracked into the ATMs. When the police arrived, they found only debris and the hole in the wall.
3. But the mother of them all is the robbery last year in a Buenos Aires suburb.
A little after noon, four thieves took 18 customers and the bank employees hostage.
The hostages were kept on the second floor while the robbers stayed on the ground floor, looting the safe deposit boxes.
By later that afternoon, the bank was surrounded by 200 police officers. Police negotiated with the robbers. The robbers asked for six pizzas and some soda, which they received. In return, they freed three hostages.
At 7pm, police stormed the bank. They found empty safe deposit boxes. But they found no robbers.
In the basement behind a piece of furniture, investigators discovered the opening to a tunnel. The tunnel connected to the sewer system and was booby-trapped to discourage police from following.
The thieves had escaped through the tunnel with at least US$200,000 with neither the hostages nor police realizing it.
Now, obviously you shouldn't rob banks.
But if you do, you should do so awesomely.
at 3:29 PM
Sunday, October 14, 2007
The tomato boycott (probably) worked.
What's indisputable is that the price came down in a week. Some of it likely also had to do with new crops coming in up north, expanding the supply and easing the crunch.
Even the president came out and said that the boycott was more successful than his price controls.
Of course, that doesn't mean there's not a new list of price-controlled items coming out Tuesday.
The items that fall under the price-control agreements usually get special little signs in the grocery store. You know, the ones that stick off the shelf a bit and in a serious country would say "SALE!" or "NEW!". Only here they say "PRICE-CONTROLLED!".
It's always limited to, say, one particular size of one particular kind of one particular brand of flour. Meanwhile, all the other products on the shelf go up to make up for the hit the store takes on the price-controlled items. Obviously.
The consumer group that organized the boycott celebrated its success by handing out free tomatoes on a street corner. I was too busy subtitling a "Ratatouille" promotional video to go.
at 7:50 AM
Friday, October 12, 2007
This afternoon I took the subway downtown to the Casa de Cultura to pick up a book I needed. The Casa de Cultura (above) is a handsome building on a grand block of Avenida de Mayo, an avenue that stretches out from the plaza of the same name. The plaza is home to the Casa Rosada.
But I digress.
The weather this week has been craptacular. Slate gray and dank. Not the kind of weather I would want to go walking around in.
Unfortunately, the Casa de Cultura did not have the book I wanted. So the nice man behind the counter sent me to another address. I showed up, but . . . you know what? Suffice it to say that if I'm lucky, finding this book will only take all of next week.
Meanwhile, my quixotic quest had me on the subte quite a bit.
The rain must have forced a lot of the wandering salesmen underground, into the subway. Because it really was quite the cavalcade.
Competing for my pocket change today were people selling:
- A power strip
- Cell phone cards (of seriously dubious origin)
- Sheets of Disney stickers
- A carrying case for my CDs
- Cards with saints on them
- A flashlight
Everybody was right on top of one another. And, you know, clearly if you're selling tissues or bandages on the subway, it's probably not because you had a lot of other options and decided that this was the career path for you! And a lot of the people selling this crap are just kids. So it was a little sad.
At one point there were two salesmen hawking their wares and a blind guy giving his spiel when the blind guy stopped, chuckled and said to one of the sellers: "¡Che, mirá la miseria que hay acá!" ("Hey, look at the poverty here!")
I guess it helps to have a sense of humor about it.
Mind you, this is taking place in the same subte that has installed — wait for it — Wi-Fi throughout the system.
Yeah, I can see that.
Because half the people here don't have a pot to piss in, but we need wireless broadband in the subway.
at 12:22 PM
Thursday, October 11, 2007
Some of you may remember my excitement over finding out that I was going to be interviewed about my ice cream article for Good Food, a radio program from NPR station KCRW in Los Angeles.
I love that show. And so it was a big deal to get interviewed. I was really looking forward to it.
And then on one glorious summer morning I did the interview.
And then they never aired it.
Do you know what that means? It means I was worse than any of the segments they've aired in the last three months!
Knowing that was bad enough. But today on the subte I was listening to a podcast of the most recent episode, in which they aired a rather lengthy interview with a shopper talking about visiting the new Whole Foods in London.
So whatever I had to say about ice cream here ranks below a woman talking about her trip to the grocery store.
Sigh. It's funny because it's me.
at 6:14 PM
Monday, October 8, 2007
I know my posts on government and the economy are particularly popular.
Wait. I think I just zinged myself. Gaw!
All right. So I've mentioned inflation before. And the government lying about inflation statistics.
But it's getting worse than ever. And the government's fudging the figures is really exacerbating the problem.
If they came clean and said that inflation was running, say, 1.3% a month, that would be one thing. But since they insist it's at .8% and everyone know that's a fantasy, people are being forced to guess at what the real number might be. This generates uncertainty and speculation, which quickly leads to making inflation worse than it might otherwise be.
The latest chapter in the saga is that this week there's a tomato boycott. The official government price for tomatoes is 3.99/kilo (that's about a dollar and change per kilo). And, yes, there's an official government price for tomatoes. Because, you see, if the government just sets a price for something, then everyone will fall in line and how can there be inflation? Right? Right.
It's not uncommon to see tomatoes going for 10, 12, 14 pesos/kilo (two or three times as much as the price agreement level).
Clearly the vegetable producers, distributors and sellers have failed to succumb to the government's reality distortion field.
The boycott is actually not a bad idea.
On the other hand, so is waiting until tomato season to buy tomatoes.
at 10:23 AM