Wednesday, February 28, 2007


On my walk to get grilled pizza last night, I saw something on the sidewalk I hadn't seen in a while: fallen leaves. Not many of them, but the first of them.

I also saw yesterday that the price of honeydew melons has gone up. Not because of inflation, but because it's coming off the height of the season.

And, yes, I know that writing about the seasons might antagonize some Northern Hemisphere readers. But you know what? I have a pretty good handle on how many people read this blog. And I could totally take both of you.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Don't take my word for it

From The Economist's monthly email newsletter on Buenos Aires:

Argentina’s president, Néstor Kirchner, seems to be testing a new way to lower inflation: fiddling with the numbers. In January the government hired a new director for the consumer-prices section of the National Statistics and Census Institute (INDEC). Beatriz Paglieri, a trade specialist, has little experience with statistics, but she is backed by Guillermo Moreno, the secretary of internal trade and the chief negotiator of price-freezing agreements. Five days after Ms Paglieri’s appointment, INDEC announced that inflation in January had been just 1.1%, far below the 1.5-2% estimates of private economists.

The institute arrived at the lower figure by changing its methodology. Ms Paglieri dropped from the index the prepaid annual health-insurance plans, whose average cost increased 22% over the past year. She also changed her sampling of tourist companies, such that holiday costs for January rose by only 3.7%. It remains to be seen whether the move was merely a one-time adjustment. Should the statistical tinkering continue, Mr Kirchner’s reputation (and chances of re-election) might suffer, as might the country’s recovery from the financial collapse of 2001.
The biggest problem this country faces is that Kirchner is using so many tricks that can only be used once. These short-term, one-off solutions mean that, increasingly, the country's economy -- like the buses, the sidewalks, and the banking system here -- is held together by string.

Monday, February 26, 2007


  • Cost of one liter of milk in plastic bottle: 2.20 (U.S. 72¢, or $2.73/gallon)
  • Cost of one liter of milk in Tetra Brik: 2.19 (U.S. 72¢, or $2.73/gallon)
  • Cost of one liter of milk in bag: 1.65 (U.S. 54¢, or $2.05/gallon)
Maybe you're thinking: "Oh, but the bagged milk probably comes from a dairy with brucellosis or tuberculosis." But no. Because all the milk packaging bears the same announcement:
Dairy officially free from brucellosis and tuberculosis. Fewer than 50,000 bacteria per ml.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lard almighty

Among the products in the local mega-mart that I will not be buying in this lifetime:

Dulce de leche de soja
Dulce de leche made not from milk but from soymilk. Gack!

Hamburguesas de palmito
Hamburger-style patties made from hearts of palm. These suckers are more expensive than real beef or normal veggie burgers. This has got to be some sort of kooky government scheme to soak up surplus hearts of palm. (They're a big industry up north.)

Leche en bolsa
Considering you can buy milk in a eurostyle Tetra Brik or in a fairly normal looking bottle, milk in a bag is baffling. It must be a few centavos cheaper. I would hope it is. BECAUSE IT'S SOLD IN A FREAKING BAG! Also available: yogurt in a bag. Have I seen dulce de leche in a bag? I want to say I have. But now I don't know if I really have or if I'm starting to hallucinate some sort of fantastical land where everything is sold in bags.

Galletas de grasa
Lard crackers. Evidently good with mate, the tea-like drink that's a national favorite. I recognize that lard has its place in cooking. But even with that concession, this country's lard fetish is out of control. It's everywhere. I especially love it when it's in things that are slyly marketed as healthful, like cereal bars.

I'm sure I've unwittingly eaten my weight in lard since I've been here.

The first time I noticed lard for sale in the market, next to the butter, I saw that the label read: "primer jugo bovino," or "first juice of the cow." It made me think of extra virgin olive oil, obtained from the first cold pressing of the olives. I guess producing lard is like squeezing olives? You just press down on the cow? Neat!

Lard is not sold in bags.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Q.E.P.D. (R.I.P)

Some of the city's best architecture is in its cemeteries, one of which is a top tourist attraction here. Home to the tombs of the rich and powerful, Recoleta cemetery is in Buenos Aires' toniest neighborhood. Its biggest draw? Evita's tomb.

Neither Evita nor her husband, Juan Perón, the Argentine leader who spawned a political movement, have rested in anything close to peace.

Evita died in 1952. Her body was first sent to a secret location in Italy, then to Spain in 1971 and then back to Argentina a few years later.

Juan Perón died two decades after Evita. And what of his body? He ended up in Chacarita cemetery, halfway across the city from Recoleta. Befitting the man who drew his support from labor unions and the working class, the cemetery is populist, not the resting place for the wealthy that Recoleta is.

In 1987, Juan Perón's tomb was violated and his hands were removed. An anonymous letter demanded $8 million for the return of the hands. The judge investing the crime died when he lost control of his vehicle a year after the robbery and the investigation never regained traction.

In October 2006, Perón's body was moved to a grander mausoleum in the suburbs. Unfortunately, this didn't go so well. Protesters and onlookers were met with tear gas and rubber bullets from police as union members fought for access to his estate, location of the new tomb.

The new, grander mausoleum has room for Evita's body, too. But so far she has stayed put.

Chacarita, Perón's resting place until recently, is laid out like a small city with main roads and smaller paths lined with mausoleums one after another after another. In the center are underground crypts and toward the back are graves similar to what you would see in a U.S. cemetery. The most striking difference is that rather than being covered in grass, the ground is bare earth -- dry and cracked in the summer -- with neatly laid out patches of plants in front of the headstones.

Outside Recoleta cemetery stand souvenir hawkers. There's a mall and a movie theater just over the cemetery walls. Tour groups march through at all hours of the day. Some scattered tourists wander on their own. Everyone wants to know where Evita's tomb is but finding it isn't hard; just follow the crowds.

Yesterday, I walked around Chacarita cemetery for the first time in a year or so. It's vast and the tall walls that surround it block out the sounds of the city. Before Perón's body was moved, newspapers talked to bereft followers who insisted they visited the cemetery every day.

I don't need to go seven days a week. But I would take Chacarita over Recoleta any day.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The danger is real

The Chicago Tribune had a Travel section article about Buenos Aires on Sunday.

As a service to readers, I provide this executive summary: Buenos Aires. Wow! Tango! Meat! Evita! So cheap!

Let us examine the article via a few brief excerpts:

So . . . is it a cliche to compare Buenos Aires to the tango?
Yes. Next!
There is something about this city, a vitality strongly flavored by anger and angst and, in talking to folks, an indefinable but palpable sense of yearning.
Actually, I think the vitality is beef-flavored.

And now, though it pains me to do so, I must set aside snark for a moment to address one aspect of the piece that does a true disservice to readers:
And speaking of danger, alluded to a couple of times and rumored to be rampant in Buenos Aires: It's an illusion.

No doubt stuff happens, as in any major city--but in nearly a week of clattering over bright and less bright sidewalks and in crowded subways, typically lugging a visible $1,000 camera, I wasn't hassled at all, nor did I hear of any problems from other visitors. . . .

The closest thing to a crime I experienced was being approached by an unattractive streetwalker.
I have no idea how he can make a sweeping pronouncement about danger being an illusion based on one week, although granted he did speak with "other visitors." Wait. Actually it's not clear if he spoke to them. Perhaps other visitors were expected to report street crime to him? But they didn't. So all is well?

There is a depressingly unequal distribution of wealth here. Walking around displaying a camera equal to several months' salary is probably not the best idea. Street crime definitely happens. You don't need to be afraid, but a little paranoia and good judgment go a long way.

I cringe when I see people
  • walking around with expensive cameras on their necks
  • busting out their shiny iPod on the street
  • leaving their purse/bag sitting on the chair next to them at a cafe
  • digging out a 100-peso bill from their purse/wallet and making no effort to hide the fact that there's more where that came from
Hell, I am tempted to steal from half these people just as punishment for their own fecklessness.

It's about discretion, about not making yourself a target of opportunity. I can't imagine anything that screams opportunity more loudly than wearing $1000 around your neck.

As for the unattractive streetwalker: All these attractive people in Buenos Aires and he was approached by someone unattractive? It's a crime.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Te mato

This commercial has been running for a long time down here.

I probably shouldn't find it as amusing as I do, but it tickles me. And it's Friday. And this blog is FREE. FREE DAMMIT! What do you want?

It's an interesting combination of sex and subtlety, in that the "fantasy" scenes they flash to don't last very long. Don't worry, it's safe for work. And you don't need to understand Spanish to get the gist of what's going on. The woman is babbling so much that it was a few times before I understood what she was saying, but I still got what was going on.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Living here has changed both the way I speak and the way I hear Spanish.

For now, just a little bit on the hearing part:

There is an exaggerated, mellifluous, lightly sing-song quality to the speech in Buenos Aires that makes you realize the extent to which Italian immigration shaped this place. You notice this especially in arguments, when people's voices rise and inflection changes.

Peninsular Spanish (which I still adore) sounds clipped and businesslike compared to the long, lingering vowels of porteño speech.

No amount of writing would do to this topic the justice that sound does.

There is a great podcast (iTunes link) focusing on the differences between Spanish as spoken in Argentina and other countries.

In different episodes, she talks about:

  • When she saw the Mexican movie Y tu mamá también, she had to put the subtitles on for the first 20 minutes because she couldn't understand a thing.
  • That she might have a short conversation with a Uruguayan and not realize the person was from outside Argentina; the dialect is that close. But it's not identical.
  • How culo (ass), can mean suerte (luck). So if you're playing poker with somebody here and they say, "Che ¡qué buen culo tenés!"or "¡Tenés un culo enorme!" they're just commenting on your lucky streak. Probably.
The woman who does the podcast is sharp. She has a beautiful voice, a lovely accent and my only complaint would be that her speech is a little too educated to give anyone an idea of what more vulgar (i.e., common) speech here sounds like. She is not the average person you would likely hear on the street.

I sometimes have to remind myself that nearly everyone around me is speaking their first language in a way that comes completely naturally to them. For me, even a brief conversation at the market might have a component of linguistic intrigue. For the person who's selling me cheese, probably not.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Apples and oranges

If I sell you an apple today for a dollar and then sell you an orange tomorrow for two dollars, is that inflation? Not really. You can't measure inflation by comparing the costs of different things.

So if one month I pay, say, 160 pesos for health insurance and the next month I am asked to pay 200 pesos, is that inflation?

Well, see, it would be if I were actually paying for the same thing. But I'm not! Because there is an all new health insurance plan in which I've been enrolled by default. And man is it great! It includes all these super discounts on car insurance as well as unspecified "new benefits being developed in areas such as domestic and international travel, and others that will be added in the future."

You know, I hate myself for being so negative. But that last thing there just seems a little . . . vague. Whereas the 25% premium increase, not so vague.

So if the 25% increase in health insurance premiums, which would be murder on the government's inflation index, is not being used to calculate health care cost increases, what is?

When the government negotiated price increases with the insurance companies, it was decided that you could also choose a plan with a 2% premium increase and new co-payments for services.

This 2% number is what's being used to calculate the inflation rate.

This week I have to stand in line at the insurance office to opt out of the new, improved plan. Although I know I will totally kick myself later when I'm looking for unspecified future discounts.


In a country where tax evasion competes with soccer for the title of national pastime, how fitting that an interview in Clarín with a top economic official for the Province of Buenos Aires* should begin with this:

Q. What is the most ridiculous thing you're willing to do in order to collect more taxes?

A. I would say anything that's legal. These days in Argentina, where the tax-paying culture is not very well established,** you have to be ready to be as creative as possible.

Q. Would you become a supporter of [the soccer team] Talleres of Córdoba?

A. No, not that. I am willing to do anything but that. I will die being a devoted fan of [the soccer team] Belgrano. I would rather be killed than made to put on a Talleres shirt.

Q. And if Belgrano were driven to bankruptcy over a tax debt?

A. Everybody has to pay taxes. But that hypothesis is impossible -- it's something that's never going to happen. Belgrano is a great club.

Eventually, they got around to talking about taxes.

* The Province of Buenos Aires surrounds the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires.
** Ladies and gentlemen, no further nominations in the category of Understatement of the Year will be accepted; we have a winner.

Thursday, February 8, 2007


Here is a list of names approved by the civil registry for people born in the City of Buenos Aires.

If the name you wish to give Junior is not on the list (Junior is on the list), you can fill out paperwork to have the name approved and entered into the master list. (Only it might take until the kid finishes high school to have the paperwork approved and meanwhile you will have to introduce the child as Pending.)

The web page mentions restrictions for any names you might dream up:

Prohibited names include those that "are extravagant, are ridiculous, are contrary to our customs, express political or ideological tendencies, or give rise to confusion about the sex of the person."

It strikes me as a little odd that there should be a master list of names, but what's interesting is how the list reflects the diversity of the population here. It goes far beyond the typical Catholic saints' names. On the list already:

  • Wahaad
  • Skipper
  • Woodrow
  • Dusty
  • Stewart
  • Ludwig
  • Llewellyn (I can't even imagine how to pronounce that in Spanish)
And, finally, my favorite:
  • Del Sagrado Corazón de Jesús
Here's hoping that kid has a short last name.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

More trash

The mayor of Buenos Aires said today that if the trash situation in the city does not improve within 30 days, he will consider it a personal failure.

He's been in office almost a year, so it's hard to say why he's chosen now to get serious about it. Maybe because the heat of summer aggravates the situation. You can pretty much see the stink lines radiating cartoon-style from the piles of trash.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Talking trash

This is a very beautiful city with a hideous garbage problem.

In winter 2005, the city installed orange trashcans on the streets and launched a big publicity campaign to promote their use.

A year and a half later, I'd say there is still a garbage problem.

There are actually multiple garbage problems.

The first is littering, which is what the orange trashcans were meant to cut down on.

The second is the trash collection system, in which the trash bags are left on the streets for collection and then torn open and picked over for recyclables and valuables by cartoneros (cartón is cardboard, so cartoneros is cardboarders). The cartoneros are a topic for another time. I am reluctant to criticize anyone whose lot in life is digging through the trash. And some are actually remarkably neat about it. But some are not and they leave a mess.

There is trash collection six days a week here. Should be the cleanest city around, right? It only means there are six chances a week for trash bags to be ripped open, their contents strewn on the sidewalk.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Lies, damned lies and . . .

This afternoon, I dropped off my laundry to be done.

Wait. I love saying that. I dropped off my laundry to be done.

OK. That ought to hold me.

The price went up again. This is the third time it's gone up in two years.

It started at 5 pesos for washing and drying. Now it's 6.50. That means it's gone from roughly US$1.60 to $2.10.

Fifty cents per load of laundry isn't going to kill me. But it's not just the cost of laundry that goes up. Nearly everything does.* Food, clothes, rent.

It hits the people who have the least money the hardest, of course. They earn barely enough as it is and often don't have the negotiating power to demand more money for their work. Or they don't have work at all.

But there is great news. Inflation may have met its match. The government has tried price controls and propaganda campaigns, with decent results. But this latest move? Genius!

The bureaucrat in charge of generating inflation statistics has been replaced. . . . by a close ally of the economics minister. Filesa Miceli, the economics minister, says she doesn't understand the kerfuffle and doesn't think this will have any impact of the credibility of the statistics coming out of that office.

Of course she said that. What's she going to say? It still reeks to high heavens.


Anyway. I was saying something about not having to do my laundry?

*Some things more than others. Price controls on some food items mean that their prices don't rise at the rate of inflation. And heavy subsidies to buses, for example, have kept a bus ride in the city at the same price.