Six hours away from Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata is one of a handful of beach cities that host hoards of Buenos Aires vacationers during the summer months.
The last place I would go for vacation in January is where I knew 100,000 of my fellow city-dwellers would be. But in the off season at least, Mar del Plata is an oasis compared to the hurly-burly of Buenos Aires. I spent the weekend there and loved it.
On Saturday, I was asked for directions twice in five minutes, which is a little above average even for me. When I told the first guy I wasn't from there and didn't know what to tell him, he said that was fine and went on his way.
When the second guy asked me for directions, I told him I didn't know and that "es que no soy de acá." (I'm not from here).
To which he responded: "¡Vos menos que yo!" ("You less so than me!")
Eesh. Can we drop the commentary? You're the one who's lost, buddy. I may not have been able to give him directions, but I was still tempted to tell him where to go.
Near the fishing docks is a colony of sea lions (lobos marinos, or "sea wolves" in Spanish). They are just astonishingly beastly creatures. Fat and smelly, they sit there content to soak up the sun and revel in their indolence.
I stood there watching and snapping photos. You can get really close to them. Sometimes a few will waddle up onto the docks. Otherwise, there's a large group behind a fence where you can stand a meter or two away from them. Which is where I was when one of them turned and looked right at me. And then sneezed on me.
I had sea lion snot dripping off one sleeve. I used my other sleeve to wipe some from my face.
Monday, April 30, 2007
Sunday, April 29, 2007
Happy gnocchi day.
You know, the Washington Post has a piece in the Travel section on los ñoquis del 29.
You might want to check it out. You might want to use the site to email it to friends and relatives. You might want to leave a comment at the bottom of the article. Really, there's no telling what you might want to do.
In any case, it's not a bad article.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
Me: Hi, I would like to open an account.
Bank employee: Blah blah blah.
Me: Blah blah blah?
BE: Blah. Blah blah.
BE: Are you Argentine?
BE: Mmm. . . where are you from?
M: I'm from the United States.
BE: Yeah. I thought there was something just a little wrong about the way you spoke.
at 10:04 AM
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The other day a client paid me by check. Now, normally I would take the check to the bank on which it's drawn, sign it on the back and get the cash. But this check came with two, small parallel lines drawn in pen across the upper left corner of the check.
This means you cannot just go waltzing up to the teller and cashing it. No, no, no. You have to deposit it in a bank account.
But I don't have a bank account in this country.
Last time I got a check like this, I decided maybe it was time to open a bank account. So I tried. I really did.
But it did not go well.
Setting aside for a second all the ridiculous red tape of opening an account -- in a country where they should be begging you to put your money in the banking system -- there is a law that says that you cannot deposit checks for the first SIX months of the account.
Well, sure. I mean, you don't want people putting money into banks willy nilly! Anyway, even assuming I was content to wait six months, the check was only valid for 90 days. It would have expired before I could deposit it.
I eventually took care of that first check with the help of friends. But I didn't want to go back to my friends with this new check, so I decided to try to tackle the problem myself.
I came across a business called . . . OK, not actually "Solutions for Business Development," but something very, very similar and purposefully vague. They promised to resolve your "liquidity problems" through the service of their "analysts."
So I called. They said they would be happy to help. First I had to fax them a copy of the check and an analyst would return my call.
I faxed it over. Half an hour later, a man called back. He gave me his first name and said he was calling from "the place where you sent your check."
He asked me questions about what I did for a living. And then he told me to gather my phone bill, the official government-approved invoice I submitted in order to receive the check and my Argentine identity document. He said someone would call back in another half hour to let me know how things would proceed.
Half an hour later, the phone rings. I am told that they will be happy to give me an appointment with an analyst that day.
So I show up a few hours later in the dingiest office I have ever seen in my life. There is another man in the waiting room. Like the old leather sofa and the blue carpet, he's ragged and sad looking. I try to avoid eye contact.
Off the waiting room are two doors, both closed. Finally a woman comes out and calls my name. I go through one door, into a very short corridor filled with more closed doors and one open door. I step through the open door and into the office, windowless and bare except for a closed-circuit television screen, a pencil cup and some papers.
I stare at the pencil cup for a few minutes waiting for my analyst. When she comes in, she asks me all the same questions I was asked over the phone, takes some paperwork from me and leaves the room.
More staring at the pencil cup. My analyst comes back a few minutes later.
Good news! My transaction has been approved. Just sign here.
Of the check's original value, 7% of it was charged as a fee for my consultation with the analyst.
A percentage point or two went to the government's check tax. Yes, this is a real thing -- don't get me started.
And then another 15% was charged as interest on the loan.
What loan? Well, they don't actually cash checks. They just give you a 30-day loan. . . which you then pay back 5 minutes later by signing the check over to them.
It's possible that the only thing worse than having a bank account here is not having one.
at 9:35 AM
Monday, April 23, 2007
Ordinarily, I will go 24,901 miles out of my way to avoid going downtown. It's a pretty soulless place, beset by crowds and choked with exhaust fumes.
But the other day I found myself in the Plaza de Mayo, smack in the middle of it all.
On one end of the plaza is the Casa Rosada, the rough Argentine equivalent of the White House* and, yes, the site of the iconic Evita balcony scene.
It's getting a fresh coat of pink paint, which explains the scaffolding.
It was about 4pm on a bright autumn day when I snapped the photo. The shadows were long. The sun was already thinking about setting.
* The difference is that the Argentine president does not live above the store, like his U.S. counterpart. There's a presidential residence in the suburbs.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Friday night I had dinner at the apartment of some friends.
One of them said something that made me bliss out for a second as I reveled in how much of the culture here was revealed in the space of a few words.*
He was talking about lousy bread. And he described it as "más seco que un bacalao" -- "drier than cod."
Would a fish epithet be the first thing an English-speaker would think of to describe something dry? Of course not. So why did it happen in Spanish? Because he was referring to a form of cod seen here (and immensely popular in Spain): dried salt cod, which is hard as a rock when you buy it and needs to be soaked for days in several changes of water to be edible.
But wait, there's more! What do you call the person who calls the shots? El que corta el bacalao -- the one who cuts the cod.
*This is one of the biggest pleasures of living abroad and speaking a language that is not my native English: the mundane can instantly become fascinating.
at 3:37 PM
Friday, April 20, 2007
For the first two days of class, see here.
The third day of class was given over to hands-on ice cream production.
I made my fair share of ice cream when I was in the States for the summer there nine months ago, sometimes by myself, sometimes with a partner in crime. There was strawberry, black raspberry, peach and apple cider ice cream. (Are you seeing a farmers market seasonal progression?) Oh, and olive oil ice cream, too.
But those were all in a little $50 Cuisinart ice cream maker. Don't get me wrong. I love that thing. And I miss it now that I'm here and it's in the States.
But in class here, we were using a $20,000 Italian machine.
We made 12 batches, some of which were slight variations on another. For example, we made two lemon ice creams, one with emulsifier and another with emulsifier and stabilizer.
We also made two versions of dulce de leche, one with an almost black, highly concentrated, prescription-only dulce de leche. It gave the ice cream such a toasted flavor that it was almost coffee-like. Then we made another with a combination of the super dulce de leche and standard-issue dulce de leche. The flavor was more balanced and less aggressive.
The flavors we made:
limón al agua
pomelo al agua
frutilla al agua
dulce de leche
chocolate granizado con café
Crema americana was the most interesting for me. I never really had a good handle on what this was, even though it's on every menu. It's just milk ice cream. No vanilla. No lemon zest. No cinnamon. It takes like sweet milk.
It might seem odd for a product that is frozen, but there is really nothing better than freshly made ice cream right out of the machine.
By the end of the day, we had made dozens of kilos of ice cream. They offered to let us take some home, but at that point, the last thing I wanted was more ice cream.
I asked what they did with all the leftover ice cream.
Some of it they give away to people in the neighborhood. A little of it goes to the vegetable stall down the block in trade. And the rest of it they give away to the old folks home.
I hope when I am old, someone brings me ice cream.
at 3:48 PM
Thursday, April 19, 2007
I just finished a three-day helado-making class.
The class was geared toward people who are considering opening their own ice cream shops. I don't really have the money or business acumen to do this. But of course my pea brain seized on the concept anyway and I have since become a little obsessed with it. Is it so unreasonable to imagine myself hoisted on the shoulders of my fellow citizens and welcomed as a gelato-serving savior in the United States?
That's what I thought.
- We learned the four basic gelato groups, the master flavors on which the others are based:
- base blanca (milk or cream)
- base amarilla (with egg yolk)
- base de chocolate
- base de dulce de leche
- Anyone familiar with the bread formulas used by professional or serious amateur bakers would feel at home with the percentage-based formulas for gelato -- balancing fats, milk solids, waters and sugars to land the totals in the right ranges.
- You had to love when we discussed costs and profit margins. The instructor opened up the Excel spreadsheet that showed the outlays for producing different types of ice cream, and in the impuestos (taxes) cell entered "0."
- Along the same lines: Why is ice cream consumption so much higher in Chile and the United States when there are ice cream shops on every corner here? Because the statistics here only cover reported sales. And reported sales mean taxes due.
- We talked about putting ice cream on display under a glass case versus storing it "hidden" in stainless steel tubs with covers. When you have it on display, it deteriorates faster. It's almost never on display here. In the States, I don't think you could expect to sell much ice cream if you kept your product out of sight.
- The instructor told us why Americans are so fat. It's the ice cream -- with a hefty 14% butterfat content. It's a miracle most of us can even roll out the door and into our SUVs.
It was fascinating to hear the different accents.
The Brazilian used a mix of Spanish and Portuguese words wrapped in a Portuguese cadence and pronunciation that sounded almost alien but was sort of mesmerizing.
The Chilean sounded like she was singing when she spoke. It was beautiful. It would be easy to think that, since Argentina and Chile are neighbors, the speech patterns are similar -- like they are between, say, here and Uruguay. But in fact, no. Chilean and Argentine Spanish are very different.
As for the Ecuadoreans, I don't know how I would characterize their accent, but I got a kick out of their word choice. I can't really picture anyone here describing something as delicioso -- bueno, rico or riquísimo maybe, but not delicioso. There were a lot of little quirks like that.
(A little ice cream with your digression, Dan? Why, don't mind if I do.)
The first two days of the class were lectures on theory, marketing, business practices, etc. The last day of the class was hands-on. That's when we made 12 batches of gelato.
More on that next time.
at 8:00 AM
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
Like a lot of people, I am sometimes blind to the beauty of the things I see regularly. Then there are the things I see regularly that make me wish I were blind.
A few weeks back, I was walking near my apartment with a modish globetrotting pal of mine when he paused, pointed at this hideous monstrosity of a building and said, "What is THAT?"
I had gotten used to looking at it. But as soon as he said that, I came back around to seeing just how mind-bendingly ugly the Hospital Naval is.
Oh, you're saying, it looks straight out of the '50s. Or the '70s. Or the bowels of hell.
But, in fact, work began on it in 1981. It cannot hide behind age as an excuse.
Look at those bizarre, dingy window coverings. And that horrendous tile. It's obviously trying for a nautical theme, and part of me wants to admire it for the ways in which it succeeds here -- the portal-style windows, the conning tower-type structure on top.
However, I cannot help but feel that this effort would have been better spent on designing something that does not make me want to claw my eyes out and rend my garments.
at 4:18 PM
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
On Friday morning, the commotion started -- drum beats, clapping and shouting. It did not let up for hours so I finally went down to see what the hell was going on.
There's a pharmacy next door to my building and the workers had shut it down, accusing the business of being a "slave driver" and of not paying night differential.
The crowd of protesters expanded and contracted over the course of the day. At one point, the whole avenue was blocked.
They took the night off but were back on Saturday. That's when I took the photo. As you can see, the riot police nearly outnumbered the protesters at this point.
One protester was speaking into a megaphone, saying they were peaceful and would not be intimidated by the police.
The police, for their part, looked mostly bored. One talked on her cell phone.
Yes, I know this is the third mediocre photo in a row I've posted of the back of people's heads.
But, see, here the heads belong to people who are protesting and/or milling about! Whereas in the previous post, the heads belonged to people who were watching a soccer match!
Really, I don't think photos could be more different.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Today was the big game between Boca and River, the Superclásico.
I'm very meta. Rather than watching the game, I watched people watch the game. It's always a kick to walk around the city during big matches and see every bar and cafe with a television positively packed -- very often standing room only.
And then there are the spillover crowds.
Some people can't even fit into the bar. Or maybe they don't want to spend the money. The cafe across the street from the following photo had a sign warning patrons that the minimum consumption during the game was 5 pesos -- that's nearly 2 U.S. dollars!
at 5:46 PM
Rakish globetrotter Joel, in his waning days here in Buenos Aires, has taken a final shot at appearing on the blog. While I would normally resist such transparent attempts at manipulation, I have to say, his is an admirable bid.
He asked me the other day what they were saying in a Ford commercial and I had to point out that my go-go schedule of blogging, drinking coffee and taking pictures of meat did not allow me a lot of time to watch television.
Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, we can all watch commercials whenever we want!
The short monologue at the end is as follows:
Una flor que se marchita,
una paloma con cuello ortopédico
y un tema franela
te pueden hacer replantear
un montón de cosas,
pero ¡que no te confundan!*
You may have to rewatch the beginning of the commercial to make sense of the first three lines.** I am not in love with the idea of posting commercials here, but since I already have, I should note that it rewards repeat viewing. This is a deeply weird spot.
For example, those socks he tosses on the fire . . . where did those come from? Exactly.
*A withering flower, a dove with an orthopedic collar, and an overwrought love song can make you rethink a lot of things. But don't let yourself get confused.
**UPDATE: Thanks, Juan.
I have one question regarding tema franela. I am aware of the literal definition of franela ("flannel") but my lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) dictionary says it can also mean someone who goes to a whorehouse and is too cheap to pay for a prostitute. So is this referring to a warm, comfortable song or a cheap love song?
at 10:55 AM
Friday, April 13, 2007
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Cafes are very much a part of life here. Many of them — especially the older, more traditional ones — are staffed by people for whom waiting tables is a lifelong profession.
The city's terrific web site has an excellent photo report on the waiters of Buenos Aires.
Look at their faces. Notice how they are dressed. And take a second to study the background and see the cafes in which they work.
at 10:52 AM
I'm reluctant to generalize, but it's hard to escape the idea that people here are both fiercely proud of this city and incredibly down on it at the same time.
I am often asked, with utter puzzlement, why I would choose to live here if I am from the United States. Don't even get me started on the ease with which people refer to this as the Third World, or remind me that I am not in the First World.
The last time Starbucks came up among my friends here, someone mentioned that they had stores in Chile and that rumor was they would soon be on this side of the Andes.
Someone raised an eyebrow and pronounced herself skeptical: "This isn't exactly Chile."*
Starbucks made Clarín the other day under the headline "Starbucks backs dulce de leche." Any article about the States automatically has potential to be amusing because it can feel like you're reading dispatches from Mars. Take the new beverage Starbucks has introduced -- please!
The push for this spring is the Dulce de leche Frapuccino, which sells for $4.50 a glass. A true caloric bomb, this star product intends to lend Starbucks Latin American authenticity.
In their search for authentic dulce de leche, Starbucks visited Costa Rica and Gautemala, but, curiously, did not visit South America, cradle of dulce de leche.
So, basically, you're paying 14 pesos a pop for this beverage and Starbucks couldn't even be arsed to provide you with authentic dulce de leche. I mean, let's face it. Costa Rica? A fine place, I am sure. But it isn't exactly Argentina.
* This is the same friend who, when we met up for my birthday the other day, was the first to arrive. While we chatted, she stopped me for a second to ask, "You've been speaking a lot of English lately, haven't you?" I said that I had been. "Mmm. . . I thought so. You sound a little funny." Hey, thanks!
at 7:04 AM
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Let's first turn back the page to ten days ago when an article appeared in Clarín under the headline: "The Church reminds us that eating meat in Holy Week is not a sin." The price of fish was up 40% this year over last and the church felt it was important to reassure people that if you had to choose between going to the poorhouse and eating meat, you should eat meat.
The spokesman for the archdiocese of Mendoza was quoted as saying that for eating beef, "no one would go to hell."
Maybe so. But you may have to go through hell to get the beef.
After a long Lenten season of meat deprivation for (some of) the faithful, meat was finally going to be back on the menu Monday. But Saturday's news delivered an ominous warning: Supermarkets might experience meat shortages on Monday.**
Today the news hit the paper: the shortage had materialized. In the refrigerated section of one large supermarket, instead of meat, shoppers found a sign:
Dear customers: Please excuse the lack of beef. This is due to the fact that our providers do not wish to sell at the prices suggested by the Government.
Meanwhile, at the supermarket today there was only weird milk. And I'm not talking about milk in bags. I'm talking about iron- and vitamin C-fortified milk that always tastes a little funny. No normal milk. And there was a sign saying that my purchase of milk was limited to six liters because of supplier difficulties.
It's also worth noting that, despite higher prices and shortages, meat consumption continues to rise.
I guess what I'm saying is, if you have a cow you're not using, would you kindly send it to Argentina? Thank you.
* I have always enjoyed the honesty with which Spanish refers to meat, by using the term "flesh."
** Fortunately, only 30% of people buy their meat at the supermarket, with the rest preferring to buy from the neighborhood butcher.
at 4:09 PM
Friday, April 6, 2007
It was only a matter of time.
About 3pm, I sat down in the enclosed back patio of Bar Uriarte. The restaurant is minimalist, full of dark wood and clean lines. The service is not at all stuffy, but meticulous. I remember noticing on one of my first visits that when people finished their meals and left the table, the staff came by and measured the distance from the chair to the table, and from one table to another. Everything had to be just so.
The patio was beautiful. The bread basket came, as it always does, with a small pale-green pool of rosemary-infused olive oil. Staring into the oil, you could see the trees overhead reflected.
When I ordered my steak, I thought I heard a slight catch in the waitress' voice as she repeated the order back to me. Was she astonished that I was squandering 10 years of half-assed vegetarianism? That I was ordering meat on Good Friday? That I could order a steak in such flawless, lilting Spanish?
At a table a few yards away, a Portuguese-speaking couple went over the menu practically line by line with the waitress, trying to figure out what wasn't meat. ("The mollejas?" "No, those are the glands of a cow.")
At another table, two French women babbled quietly in silky tones.
A table of 10 sat down. It was half Spaniards (with their "tiós" and "¡hombres!") and half Argentines (with their "si vos pensás").
I had a few sips of Flecha de los Andes Malbec. It was rich, all inky and concentrated.
When the plate came, I ate a potato and cut the steak in half to see what I was dealing with. I stared at it a moment, grabbed my knife and went to town.
I'm guessing both of you reading this have eaten a steak before. So what else is there to say? Especially on a blog ostensibly about Argentina and not about, say, my eating quirks and proclivities.
I will say in all seriousness that the meal has made me feel slightly more connected. Food is important to understanding a place and its people, and extraordinarily important to me besides.
I don't really see myself eating a lot of meat in the near future. But I'm glad I ate this steak.
at 3:16 PM
Thursday, April 5, 2007
Nico Alligator deserves some attention. What does that have to do with putting him on my blog? Good question. But it can't hurt, right?
He's a sculptor creating people, insects, dogs, etc. out of scrap metal, auto parts, bicycle wheels, etc. Appropriately, his "gallery" is a giant garage in Palermo, an area that was once given over to mechanics and body shops but is now full of boutiques, restaurants and galleries.
at 9:01 AM
Sure, you could make a list like this for every city and I don't generally go in for such lists, but this one is pretty great.
- You can, at all times, find a heladería within 3 blocks
- In your barrio, there are more people on the streets at 3am than 3pm
- You generally communicate better in gestures than actually conversing
- You know the attractive women all over Palermo Hollywood are really men, but that's OK
- A bar at a car wash, a Kosher McDonald's, and a Museo del Jamón all seem to make sense, somehow
- You eat sandwiches without crusts, pizza with a knife and fork and empanadas with your fingers*
- Your swear words include colorful descriptions of the birthing process and the private parts of a parrot
- You know all the parts of a cow and you're not a butcher or a veterinarian
at 7:31 AM
Wednesday, April 4, 2007
This new building down the street is a pastry school, part of the STPCPHYA.
To unravel that string of letters: It's the cake bakers, candy makers, pizza makers, ice cream makers and alfajor makers union.
What's an alfajor? There are variations on the theme, but it's essentially a dulce de leche cookie sandwich. Because I do not have one at hand, this linked photo that I did not take will have to suffice.
I am supposed to get a batch of homemade alfajores with my vegetable delivery tomorrow. They are not strictly speaking vegetables, true, but they do provide 100% of your recommended daily serving of dulce de leche.
Monday, April 2, 2007
On 24 March, Argentina marked the 31st anniversary of the military coup 1976. The date was first celebrated as a holiday last year, having been declared a holiday only a few days before in a bizarre last-minute frenzy of populism. The name of the holiday is Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia, which works out to the rather Orwellian sounding National Memorial Day for Truth and Justice.
Monday's Falkland Islands holiday and the military coup holiday of 24 March are very much related. The dictatorship that came to power in March of 1976 is the same institution that launched the Falklands invasion in April of 1982. It was a cynical attempt to hold onto power by distracting the country from a crumbling economy.
Days after the Falkland Islands war was finished in June 1982, the military dictatorship was over.
Maybe it's been a while since you thought about the Falkland Islands.
I think about them every day. This country won't let me forget.
Two blocks from me is an ice cream shop named after the Falklands (Malvinas in Spanish). When I take a bus, I'm likely to see signs declaring the islands belong to Argentina. When I had some bookshelves made at the carpenter* down the street, the receipt I got had "The Falklands are Argentine!" stamped on the top of it. At least one soccer stadium and town bear the name Malvinas argentinas.
You may have some hazy, Thatcher-tinged memory of the Falkland Islands War. Here "Malvinas argentinas" is not a distant memory, it's very much a present-day rallying cry — or propaganda campaign, depending on how you look at it.
Today is a national holiday. Twenty-five years ago, the military junta in Argentina ordered the invasion of the Falkland Islands, a British dependency. When it was all over, 258 died on the British side. On the Argentine side, 649 died.
*Yes, I live in a medieval village. I have a cobbler two doors down, a carpenter around the corner and two tailors in a two-block radius. All that's missing is the hooper.
Sunday, April 1, 2007
I suppose it was bound to happen eventually. Are Internet pirates trying to capitalize on the wild popularity of TWFEB? Some who have tried to access the site have seen not the page they have grown to love, but rather this:
I don't know quite what to say. Except that for anyone who hopes to get more eyeballs on their propaganda by hijacking this page, the joke is pretty much on them.
p.s. No, this is not an April Fools joke on my part. Come on, I could do better than this.
at 4:43 PM
- On Thursday night, Buenos Aires held a noche de las librerías, where the booksellers row section of Avenida Corrientes was closed to car traffic. Debates and readings were held in the shops that line the street. I went to none of the debates or readings. I did, however, see a man on stilts drinking mate.
- Yesterday, at the "dollar store" a few doors from my apartment, I noticed a basket sitting by the cash register. It was clearly reserved for impulse-buy items, where you might see gum or candy in the States. Here, the basket was filled with the metal straws with which you drink mate.
at 3:44 PM