Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Monday, October 29, 2007

Mrs. K

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.

Just hysterical.

* * *

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.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rice pudding

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.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Executive summary

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.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pizza heritage

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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Banana hanger

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."

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The H line

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.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

La Chacarita at dusk

After working all day in my apartment I had half planned to walk around La Chacarita cemetery before it got dark. Unfortunately, only half planning it means they were closing the gates as I got there at 6pm.

Fortunately, it's photogenic from the outside, too.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Dear dairy

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. 

But this isn't the kind of blog where I talk about feelings.

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.

It was in the Congreso neighborhood, half a dozen blocks from the Congress building itself. (Shown above in a rear view).

San Miguel makes all their own cheese on site. I picked up mozzarella for a pizza that night and a little wedge of smoked cheese studded with whole peppercorns.

It was a great diversion and a welcome reminder that, while no one has it harder than I do, there is always cheese.

My project for today is to pitch a few more story ideas. I also need to figure out how I can make a go of giving ice cream tours of Buenos Aires. This is not my idea, but it's a very good one. You'd take an ice cream tour with me, right? But how do I let other people know that they should?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Three capers

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.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Free tomatoes!

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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hey, look at the poverty here!

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:

  • Band-aids
  • A power strip
  • Cell phone cards (of seriously dubious origin)
  • Sheets of Disney stickers
  • Tissues
  • A carrying case for my CDs
  • Cards with saints on them
  • A flashlight
There were also a few blind guys asking for coins. It was unclear what I would have gotten if I had given money to them.

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.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Dead air

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.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Tomato republic

I know my posts on government and the economy are particularly popular.

Among insomniacs.


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.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Museum night

La noche de los museos
started Saturday at 7pm. It lasted until 2am. That's when the after-party started up. Now, I'm about 90 years old mentally. So most nights 2am finds me fast asleep and dreaming about yelling at the kids to get off my lawn. But that doesn't mean I sat out the whole evening.

The idea is an open house at more than 100 museums with special dance, music, movie and lecture presentations. There is an absolutely ridiculous number of things to do. (That page is just the events in the first hour. You have to click around to see the rest of the evening's programs.) In fact, they should probably spread it over two nights. Or do it twice a year. Because there are more than 300 events in a single night.

With so many institutions participating, there were several within five minutes' walk of my apartment. But I skipped those; too easy. And then the bigger museums of course had some interesting programming on, but I guessed they'd be crowded. (I was right.)

Instead, I figured, why not take a bus across town to a piano concert at a sculpture garden I'd never heard of? I'll tell you why not: I had no idea where I was going, the bus apparently did not follow the route laid out in the bus guide, and by the time I realized I had overshot my goal, I was in the middle of a deserted park practically in the Province of Buenos Aires.

But that's neither here nor there. (Actually, I have no idea where it is.)

The concert, somewhat predictably, started half an hour late. So despite all my hand-wringing over the bus goof making me late, I still had time to twiddle my thumbs before the guy took the stage. A little Chopin, a little Debussy. Two hours and 50¢ later (bus fare; the program was free) and I was back home making dinner.

I got an email from my friend Eli at midnight asking if I was planning to go out that night. Planning on going out? Hah! I told her to get off my lawn. I was one hour and one episode of "Dirty Sexy Money" away from being fast asleep and dreaming.

To market

My vegetable delivery scheme has changed in my absence. They're not doing deliveries these days. Now they're part of a twice-weekly market, one that's not too far from my apartment.

In the email they sent to tell me of the change, they warned that the market location wasn't much to look at from the outside.

When they said that, maybe they meant that about 200m in front of their door, you'd run into this:

. . . or that it was located in the alley next to a commuter railway station, beside which stood rusted out train cars, some of which apparently were serving as living quarters for down-and-out families.

But once you get past all that, you get to the large bright yellow shed that houses the market.

It was great. I mean, modest, but great. It's early spring, so I had limited expectations. It'll be exciting* to see how it changes going into summer.

I bought two bunches of spinach, two kinds of cheese, a dozen eggs, a kilo of tangerines and some yogurt. I even had a little chat with the guy who makes the yogurt about full-cream versus skim yogurt. (He was pleased I was buying the full-cream yogurt.)

No, I did not take pictures of the produce. Please! What kind of blogger do you think I am?

There was quite a bit of English being spoken there (by the customers). And the woman in line in front of me for the yogurt was from Spain. Interesting that it should be such a magnet for outsiders. Foreign influence in Argentina has been a mixed bag, but it's nice to think it might help expand the market for sustainably raised food.

* Some of you may have to stretch your definition of "exciting." Not me, though!

Saturday, October 6, 2007


You almost wouldn't know that there's a presidential election coming up in three weeks. Sure, there is propaganda up all over the place. But there's always propaganda up all over the place.

What caught my eye today wasn't really political propaganda. It was anti-political propaganda.

I spotted this sign posted on a tree in a park nearby. It stands out because it seems purely grass roots. It's not tied to a party. It's not tied to a candidate. It's a protest of an entire political system.

And what can I say? The Jiminy Cricket-Pinocchio conceit cracks me up.

What's wrong Pinocchio? Why are you so sad?

Jiminy Cricket, I was always famous for being the biggest liar in the world, but now any Argentine politician has me easily beat. They're such big liars that the very same politicians and the very same lies have governed the country for 40 years, voted in by the same people who have been tricked as always.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Why would you want to live here?

It's all coming back to me.

This is the place where I have to pay for fruit. Where I have to go to seven ATMs before I can withdraw money. And where they have a crushing national complex.

I went to the doctor today (nothing serious; minor but painful fingernail thing). I waited about 15 minutes to be seen and then was seen by two doctors within an hour. Both could not have been nicer. Both asked me where I was from. And then both asked me: "Why are you living here? Everyone here wants to be living there."

It's probably the question I'm asked most as a foreigner.

I explained that I was a pioneering expat blogger and that my work compelled me to be here. OK. Fine. Not really. I may have tossed off something about being a freelance journalist. I left out the part about selling fruit, subtitling videos and writing bilingual catalog copy; after all, you have to know how to edit yourself.*

Whatever it is I do, I'm taking this week off from it. From a lot of it, anyway. I am doing some stuff. My biggest concession to work is thinking of story ideas. It's a lot easier to do when you're seeing the city with fresh eyes.

But mostly I am just trying to take it all in and enjoy being here. That is sort of the point, isn't it? After a little while, I'll probably get caught up in a tangle of projects, mini-odysseys and half-ass money-making schemes.

Right now, I'm just walking around and spending the money I don't make. Oh, and examining my belly-button lint on my blog.

* Blog implodes from irony in 3, 2, 1 . . .

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

. . . and boy are my arms tired

"Are you going down to Argentina to visit or do you live there?"

"I live there."

"Yeah, I've traveled a little. I've been to Mexico. Canada. But never to Argentina. It's pretty much the same, right? I mean, except the language and culture?"

"Well ... there are similarities and differences."

"So what part of Argentina are you from?"

"I'm not from there. I'm from the United States. But I live in Buenos Aires."

He showed me pictures of his baby on his iPhone while he chewed tobacco and spit into a plastic airline cup.

Thank god the flight was only 11 hours.

It was bad to leave Chicago but it is good to be here.