Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Why a blog?

The top two questions I have heard upon telling people I live in Buenos Aires:

1. Do you like it there?

2. What's it like?

The answer to the first question is yes.

The answer to the second question is this blog.

That's the idea anyway.

Casa Biderman

Monday, January 29, 2007

Happy gnocchi day

Today, the 29th of the month, is when we take a moment to remember the pillowy potato dumplings in our lives. Won't you wish someone close to you a happy gnocchi day?

As for me, I had planned to eat gnocchi at lunch, but my top gnocchi restaurant options were closed for vacation and I did not feel like cooking in the heat of the afternoon.

So I saved the gnocchi for dinner. Around 7pm, I walked over to the best pasta shop in this part of town. I often don't go there on gnocchi day because the line is usually ridiculous. The shop is usually closed on Mondays, but because it is gnocchi day, it was open. Open but empty.

"There's no one here," I said to the woman behind the counter.

"They're all on vacation," she said.

On vacation and eating gnocchi, I hope.

Friday, January 26, 2007


As you can imagine, writing this blog means being bombarded with requests for information about my life. To answer the most frequent question: Fathers, lock up your daughters; I'm single!

The second most frequent question is, "Why must you publish the mundane details of your life and your two-bit observations?"

I think that's mostly rhetorical, but thanks for writing in!

Moving on to the third most popular question: "Dan, how do you pay your bills? I've got a hunch that the answer to this question is fascinating!"

My God, you could not be more right.

Since I -- like many others -- do not have a bank account, I cannot write a check for, say, the gas bill. Nor can I have them debit my account. A few companies will let me pay over the phone with my credit card, but most won't.

So I take my bills to any store or kiosk that offers PagoFácil. They scan the barcode at the bottom of my bill and I pay them in cash what I owe. My account is credited. This works for nearly everything -- gas, electric, cable, Internet, taxes. You can even buy plane tickets online, print out a bar code, take the bar code to the drugstore and pay for them that way.

There is no charge to me for this service.

It's a pretty cool system that works quite well for a country with so little trust in the banks and so much cash changing hands.

One downside is that the lines to pay bills can be unreal. That's why I was so happy a few months back when I discovered a "secret" PagoFácil location in the headquarters of the pastry workers union. The line is always short and the woman is always so nice. It has occurred to me that perhaps it is really meant for workers in the baking industry, but no one has said anything to me so far and I am not about to ask.

Plus, the image of me being discovered and then dragged kicking and screaming from the pastry workers union headquarters is amusing enough that it's worth taking my chances.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Every other Wednesday

I am very lucky to have a found a farm that delivers organic vegetables. (Since ice cream shops also deliver, you might reasonably ask why I would ever leave my apartment. The answer is that I don't.)

I tried a few other vegetable delivery schemes before I found the people I order from now. Some of the others are middlemen who don't grow the vegetables, some are expensive, some aren't that great, and some are combinations of the three.

The place I order from -- La Parcela -- grows what they sell me, is not expensive and, the best part, is a social and educational program that teaches people how to grow organically and promotes sustainable agriculture.

The vegetable delivery scheme I had in Chicago delivered every week. The first time I ordered from La Parcela, I scarfed down an entire delivery's worth of vegetables and called the next week to place my order, only to find the somewhat surprised voice on the other end tell me, "The deliveries are every two weeks."

I hope they at least got a good laugh out of imagining the foreigner turning green from eating so much arugula.

Now that I've got it down I can usually stretch the delivery to last the better part of two weeks.

One thing they do with the greens that certain readers might appreciate is they bunch them together neatly, all facing the same direction. If you don't want the stems, you just chop them off and you're ready to go. No picking through an entire bag of loose greens to de-stem them!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The kiss of an urchin

Someone is always kissing someone.

And someone is always hawking something on the subway.

First, the kiss. The greeting here is a single kiss on the cheek, whether it's two women, a woman and a man, or two men. To a frosty North American, two men casually exchanging pecks on the cheek is a kick.

Now, the subway. The subte merchandise can be divided into two categories: things I would consider buying in this lifetime and things I would not buy in a million years. The former category includes maps of the city and flashlights. The latter category includes toothbrushes and bandages.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these vendors are pretty down on their luck. The saddest part is that many times they're kids. I've seen children who couldn't have been older than 8 hawking junk on the subte.

If you're lucky enough to grab a seat, you're likely to have things tossed into your lap. Someone will come around, drop a sheet of stickers or a sewing kit or whatever in your lap and let you look at it for a while until they come back around to either accept your money or take the item back.

The last kid I saw selling things on the subte was handing out playing-card-size images of saints. As he dropped the cards in people's laps, he was kissing them on the cheek and receiving a kiss in return.

Now, I can't even bring myself to touch the stuff tossed into my lap, so clearly my OCD was not going to allow me to kiss some scruffy, random street kid. When it came time for him to drop the card in my lap and lean in for a beso, I politely declined.

But I was the only one. And I felt pretty rotten.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Six more flavors

I'm hoping last night was the last round of tasting. (If you recognize the burden that eating so much ice cream represents, you may post your sympathies in the comments section)

  • Chocolate selva negra (Black Forest chocolate, i.e. chocolate with cherries)
  • Pera (pear)
  • Dulce de leche granizado (dulce de leche with chocolate chips)
  • Chocolate con pasas de uva (chocolate with rum-soaked raisins)
  • Durazno (peach)
  • Banana con dulce de leche (guess)
We only went to three ice cream shops.

The revelation of the evening was banana con dulce de leche -- the clear winner. It made me want to go buy a bunch of price-controlled bananas and an econo-size tub of dulce de leche. (Although, if anyone from immigration asks, I always have dulce de leche in my apartment, OK? ALWAYS.)

I noticed there were a lot of 60-something and 70-something women getting ice cream last night. Only today did I realize why: There was a huge fútbol game (Boca vs. River). The men stayed home or went to the bar to watch the match; the women went out for ice cream.

Well, the women and me.


I talked to a guy last night with a great story about a friend of his who got a little drunk, took a pretty hard dive and broke a few bones. As he lay there all but immobile, a taxi driver came up and asked if he wanted to go to a hospital. The guy said he didn't, that an ambulance had already been called. The cab driver shrugged, then reached for the guy's wallet and ran off with it as the poor slob lay helpless on the ground.

It's a secondhand story, but it rings true because the cab driver was honest and helpful to a point but, come on, he was presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help himself to a free wallet.

There are quite a few stories about dodgy cab drivers and robberies. You definitely need to be careful. Still, I don't take cabs very often, but I have twice had cab drivers round down the fare. On another occasion, the cab driver knocked a couple pesos off the total because I asked him to take me to a store that he hadn't known about and, as he said, discovering that store was worth something.

Maybe they could only afford this generosity because their wallet-snatching gigs were going so well for them.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Year three

Today marks two years since my arrival in Buenos Aires. That calls for some ice cream, don't you think?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

A cruel frozen mistress, cont.

Ice cream flavors from the last few days:

  • Arroz con leche (rice pudding)
  • Banana
  • Ananá (pineapple)
  • Maracuyá (passion fruit)
  • Crema de higo con nuez (fig with walnuts)
  • Sambayón con cerezas (Sambayón is a version of the French name for zabaglione, a dessert or sauce made with Marsala; this rendition had cherries added. This is definitely a staple flavor here. There are usually two or three -- or even more -- kinds of sambayón on the menu in most heladerías)
I've been looking for rice pudding ice cream here for two years. In Madrid, it brought me a pleasure bordering on the indecent, but I had never run across it in Buenos Aires. I finally found it the other day.

I spoke to the owner of the shop where I found it for a good half hour and began our conversation by congratulating him on a rice pudding ice cream well made. It really was great, with a swirl of cinnamon and flecks of lemon zest.

Is it worth mentioning that in the middle of all this ice cream tasting, I went to my dentist?

No cavities, but she said I was fatter than the last time she saw me.

Naturally, that was all I could think about afterward on the bus ride to the ice cream shop.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

An empty city

It's the height of summer and the city is empty.

Waking up after New Year's Day was waking up to a new Buenos Aires, one where you can get a seat on the subte,* where it is possible to catch a bus during rush hour without getting trampled . . . and one where you have to wonder if the restaurant you always go to is going to be closed for vacation when you show up, or whether the pasta shop decided to knock off for the day.

Normally I can tell whether it's a weekday or the weekend by the sounds of the traffic outside my window. Since Jan. 2, every day has sounded like the weekend.

The vacation timetable divides January and February into two quincenas and you typically take either the first or last quincena of either month as your vacation. God help you if you need to enter or leave Buenos Aires during the cambio de quincena, when one group of travelers streams into the city and another group pours out.

Now that the 15th of the month has come and gone and the primera quincena is finished, the first shift has returned from the beach to the city. Among the lobsterpeople, those bright red from baking in the sun, the men look uncomfortable with their sunburned skin pressed against their suits and the women look like raccoons with large white circles around their eyes from their sunglasses.

* There's a lot of British influence here and it's interesting that the subway should be named not the Metro but the subterráneo -- or subte for short -- just as the London subway system is named the Underground.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A cruel frozen mistress

Gelato hangovers are a bitch.

Saturday, 13 Jan, 20.00 -> Sunday, 14 Jan, 2.00:

  • Banana split (it's a flavor, not a full-blown sundae and, yes, this is what it's called in Spanish)
  • Limón jamaica (lemon with chocolate chips and a swirl of strawberry)
  • Ananá (pineapple)
  • Maracuyá (passion fruit)
  • Dulce de leche granizado (dulce de leche with chocolate chips)
  • Tiramisú (the flavor, not the dessert)
  • Cassis a la crema (creme de cassis)
  • Crema de la viña - Merlot (cream of the vineyard - Merlot)
  • Chocolate Munchi's (the house specialty chocolate of Munchi's, an ice cream chain)

[Intermission: fried calamari, french fries, Guinness (these are not ice cream flavors, thank god)]

  • Peras al borgoña (pears in Burgundy)
  • Quinotos al whisky (kumquats in whiskey)
  • Sandía (watermelon)
  • Chocolate holandés (chocolate with bits of candied orange rind)
  • Frutos del bosque (mixed berry)
  • Manzana verde (green apple)

Looking at the list, maybe it wasn't so much a gelato hangover as a hangover hangover. Damn you, whiskey-soaked kumquats.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I [heart] freelancing

Would you please excuse a brief rant?

Subtitling studio: What is this invoice you sent us?

Me: It's for the work I did in November.

Studio: Well, which projects were they?

Me: You told me not to write the projects on the invoice, just the total.

Studio: Yes, but then you must send us an email telling us what projects they were.

Me: Well, look it up. They're the only two projects I did in November.

Studio: You're not the only person who works here, you know. ... Now, when can you turn in the most recent thing we sent you?

Me: What do you mean? The computer system says its due date is 19 January.

Studio: Never pay attention to the date in the system.

Me: What? Well. When do you need it?

Studio: Absolutely as soon as possible. As soon as you possibly can.

I am reminded of the axiom "Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick any two." And I will leave it to your imagination to decide which two they might have chosen.

I feel somewhat better now. Thank you.

Have you seen Flopi?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Café con leche

The other day, I dropped off my invoice at the subtitling studio and headed around the corner for a coffee.

Coffee here almost always comes with a small glass of sparkling water and a tiny cookie or two -- a sort of coffee tapa. This time my café con leche came with two madeleines.

I sat at a sidewalk table across from a well-dressed young woman who was reading a fashion magazine and texting on her cell phone. Her coffee was finished but she had left a madeleine on the plate.

I was reading a magazine of my own. Out of the corner of my eye I saw an old man shuffle up to her table. His pants were worn and he was gaunt.

I put my magazine down. He started to speak to the woman. I couldn't hear what they were saying. She apparently couldn't hear him either, because she said something and then he leaned in even closer to her when he spoke again.

When he finished speaking, she quickly bobbed her head and then said, "No, no problem at all. Of course not. Please."

Had he asked her for money? That didn't seem right. She hadn't gone for her purse.

As he slowly walked away, he opened his hand and popped a madeleine in his mouth. And we both went back to reading our magazines.

Monday, January 8, 2007


It's time for my doorman's monthly bribe.

It would be nice to describe it as a "tip." But it really doesn't feel like one.

It's delicate because I have to bribe him enough so that I'm not stiffing him, but not so much that I look like moneybags.

Ever since I gave him a special Christmas bribe, he has been quite solicitous. It's a little scary. But it's touching that he would find time for me in between pickling his liver, sucking down cigarettes, and leering at the women who come in and out of the building.

Plus, if I ever feel like my Spanish is, you know, getting too good, he is right there to keep me real. He usually speaks to me as though I were slow. And judging by the use of his hands, he may in fact believe I speak sign language.

It's worth mentioning that the doorman's union in this city is enormously powerful. They have a first-class medical center, vacation resorts, plenty of time off, and rent-free accommodations in most cases. And I know exactly what the doorman makes because it comes out on the monthly building expense report. If I quit freelancing and became a doorman, I could stop worrying about money.

Anyway, I have come around to having some grudging respect for him as something of an institution. He is probably the most porteño person I know and he does keep the place running.

After nearly two years, we have settled into a comfortable relationship.

He calls me maestro. I call him when I need the plumber.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Quick getaway

This Frugal Traveler article from the New York Times shows what a great time you can have in Punta del Este, Uruguay -- on the cheap! Unless you're not already located in Uruguay and you need to GET to Punta del Este on a plane or something. That might tack a few dollars on to the tab.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Ya no fuma la vaca

The photo in this post was taken the winter before last. It's a restaurant that I pass at least a few times a month, more when I was teaching English because it was on the way to the English school.

The other day I was taking the bus to Chinatown and I went by the restaurant.

The cow . . . she does not smoke any longer! The "que fuma" part and the iconic smoking cow have been covered up and replaced with a "¿_______?" No one knows what the cow does anymore.

I suspect this has to do with the anti-smoking law that went into effect a few months ago. Smoking is now forbidden in most indoor spaces, including the vast majority of restaurants and cafes (in a few cases, restaurants can have separate smoking sections).

While it is unlikely that the legislation specifically addressed smoking cows, the owners probably decided to change the name to reflect a new restaurant reality.

The name that suggests itself to me is "La vaca que toma" with xx in place of the cow's eyes and a jug of cheap wine spilled off to the side, but perhaps I'm putting too much of myself into this.

[Parrilla al carbón is a charcoal grill. You could also, for example, have a parrilla a leña, which would be a wood grill. There are natural gas grills, too, but no one's bragging about those on a sign.]

Thursday, January 4, 2007

New Year's Eve

New Year's Eve brought a lot of fireworks. (So did Christmas Eve, which you might not think of as a fireworks kind of holiday, but you'd be wrong).

It's worth noting that there was no organized fireworks display, so when you watch these crummy videos, taken from my apartment, you're just seeing what local yahoos were launching off their balconies.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Production values

"El caso Patti" is a new prosecution launched over crimes committed during the dictatorship (1976-83). Amnesty laws were overturned by the Supreme Court in 2005 and prosecutions have begun of military and police officials involved in disappearances and torture.

Key players in the "caso Patti" narrative include

  • An important witness named Luis Gerez, a bricklayer who says that in the '70s he was tortured by Luis Patti. As he prepared to testify last week, Gerez was allegedly kidnapped and threatened with death. He was released 48 hours later.
  • The president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner
  • A chorus of Kirchner's political opponents who say that last week's kidnapping of Gerez was staged. They note that it's awfully convenient that Gerez re-appeared alive about 15 minutes after the president gave a rare televised speech to the nation to emphasize his commitment to justice and to say that he would not be intimidated.
Kidnapping, torture, politics. Nothing new but it certainly has people riled up.

But where is the outrage over the production values of the president's speech? They are mind-blowingly dated to the eyes of a U.S. audience.

When the president of the United States addresses the nation from the Oval Office, he looks directly into the camera, right? Of course, he's reading from the teleprompter, but on some level we all have the illusion that he's looking us in the eye, not just reading from some script.

In this video, Kirchner spends more time looking at his notes than at the camera. He looks like a schoolboy giving his 4th-grade book report. It's really quite jarring.

Beyond his awkward on-air presence, Kirchner is a googly-eyed beanpole of a man who, because of the way he looks, could not be elected dog catcher in most places in the United States.

But maybe all this misses the point.

A witness in another human rights case -- Julio López -- has been missing for months now. "Witness" is a bit of an odd term to use, because it's not as if he happened to passively witness the kidnapping of someone else. He's a witness in a human rights case because he was kidnapped and held for two and a half years during the dictatorship and is expected to provide testimony against his kidnappers.

It's a disturbing cycle of kidnapping and torture that started under a dictatorship and is repeating itself under a democracy. If the kidnapping and release of Gerez truly was a political maneuver to distract from the fact that López is still missing, then that's depressing.

Either way, you can look at Julio López and ask yourself:

What if you were someone who had been kidnapped twice -- once under a dictatorship when you were held for two and a half years, and then again 30 years later in a democracy when you were 77 years old and you thought your kidnappers were finally going to have their day in court?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Wow! I honestly never thought this blog would last as long as it has. When I look back, I realize it's the people who have been with me since the very beginning who are most important. Thanks!

Is this a good time to mention that last night I saw an empanada delivery vehicle with police-car-style emergency lights on top of it? (They were not on at the time.)

The vehicle was done up in the bright yellow and red of the empanada chain Solo Empanadas. [Warning: links to highly amusing Flash animation of anthropomorphic empanada taking family photo, set to somewhat obnoxious music, which means you may want to turn your volume down before you have your mind blown by that link.]

If drivers don't always pull over for police cars and ambulances, would they pull over for an empanada delivery vehicle with its lights on? Because that would be an emergency.

Best restaurant name ever

First order of business

Very exciting news:

I have decided to get in on the ground floor of what I think will be a huge phenomenon -- blogging.

Now, a Google search reveals that there are already hundreds of blogs, so I cannot claim to be the first. But the genius of this blog is that so far no one has thought to blog about the experience of living in another country! (And when I say "another country," I mean a country other than the United States. Yes, I know, I was surprised there were other countries, too, but a Google search reveals that there are several dozen of them. I think being another country could be as big a phenomenon as blogging!)

Anyway, while there are relatively few blogs now, let's face it, most people are followers. And once word of this blog gets out, it's likely that more blogs will spring up.

And so to distinguish myself in what I suspect will eventually be a crowded field, an excellent name must be chosen for this blog. The current name -- "The World's First Expat Blog" -- is certainly in the running. Other names I have considered:

The Fruit Whisperer

Held Together By String

This last one is in reference to the idea that at times this country seems to be held together only by string. Well, string and meat. And sometimes I feel like I may hanging by a thread as well.

Suggestions for names may be posted in the comments. A few guidelines:

* Take your time. Please don't post the first thing that comes to mind because it will probably be crap and I don't want to have to berate you in a public forum.

* Nothing too clever or ridiculous. As a founding member of what I envision as a large community of bloggers -- perhaps someday numbering in the thousands -- my blog must command respect. I'm very flattered that Blogger has selected me to write on the Internet and the name must show that I take this honor seriously.