Monday, March 31, 2008

The last word on Buenos Aires


Before I got glasses, my vision wasn't terrible by any means. But since I got them, it's certainly better. And now I can't stop putting them on and taking them off again as I turn one idea over and over in my head: How many other things in life get worse so gradually that you don't even really notice, until something happens and suddenly you see so clearly?

Probably not an original idea, but it's the first time it occurred to me.

* * *

I was trying to finish my article Saturday when I took a break to run downstairs for pizza and ice cream. I was walking, pizza slices in hand, to the ice cream shop when I felt something flash through my body and lodge in the pit of my stomach. It was a thought: "Am I doing the right thing by leaving here? Oh, God . . . what if I'm not doing the right thing?"

* * *

I worry about this country. It has a lot to offer, a lot of potential . . . and a killer boom-bust cycle that has destroyed any confidence that people might have in the future, or trust among each other.

Can you imagine being in Europe early in the last century and looking toward the Americas for a way out? From a continent wracked with war, poverty and hunger, you look out across the Atlantic and see nothing but open land and opportunity.

And that's how it worked out for a lot of people who left Europe for the United States. But the ones who left for Argentina were in for a much rockier ride.

These last few weeks have been particularly difficult — certainly not horrific by the standards of historical lows, but no picnic either. A lot of people I've talked to have told me that they feel like the revival of the cacerolazos and the brutal resolve of the farmers on strike means that all bets are off. The rules that applied during the last administration evidently don't apply in this one, and that could spell economic and social trouble.

* * *

While I probably won't update as often, I'll still be blogging here after I leave Buenos Aires and before I start working for the farm. The beauty of naming my blog "The World's First Expat Blog" is that the title was never true to begin with. So now it'll just be a little less true. It is, at the least, still a blog. It was definitely prescient to include that in the title.

Some people reading this have known me half my life, some for years, others I've met since I started writing the blog, and still others I've never met at all. Some people leave comments and others prefer to suffer in silence.

No matter, I LOVE YOU ALL.

No, I'm just kidding. I do love some of you. But come on, it would be a little weird if I loved you all. I am glad you read the blog, though. It's been really gratifying.

* * *

Living in Buenos Aires has been great and I wouldn't trade these last three years for anything. But it's also prevented me from doing other things, and now it's time to move on.

I've always tried to check the mental balance sheet and make sure the positives about being here outweigh the negatives. And they always have; they still do. So why am I leaving? Because it's important to stay ahead of the curve. And I can see the way the curve is heading if I stay.

There are definitely a few regrets. I should have started selling more stories and doing more writing earlier on. But I didn't; I had what I guess you would call a writer's block. Also, I honestly did not believe there would be a continued media appetite for stories about Buenos Aires. I am completely sincere when I say that, though obviously I was terribly — almost comically — mistaken.

As far as other regrets, I should have started this blog sooner. But I didn't because I shuddered at the cliche of the expat blogger. (I still do.)

So, yes, there are some things I'd do differently. But overall, in moving here I chose the path of fewest regrets. That's the best way I know to make decisions.

It's why I came here, and it's why I'm leaving.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Me: "Two please."

Subway attendant: "You're paying in coins. That's fantastic. That's how it's done."

Me [taking the fare card]: "Thanks."

SA: "Sure. But don't use that card. Just walk through the open gate."

* * *

Street vendor in La Boca: "Wait, are you Argentine?"

Me: "No."

SV: "But you speak like an Argentine."

Me: "I've been here a while."

SV: "So you know how to cuss someone out then?"

Me: "Yeah, I guess."

SV: "Oh, well then you're practically Argentine."

* * *

I will really miss this beautiful fucking disaster area.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Providencia, again


Providencia moved out of its space on Cabrera and is on Arévalo now, just half a block from where it was.

I stuck my head in yesterday. The new place is fine. It's nice. It's great.

But . . . like . . . it looks like an actual restaurant now! With tables and chairs outside. And . . . and . . . the door open!

I said hello to the woman behind the counter. When she told me what the hours of operation were, my first thought was not, "Huh, you're going to be open for breakfast?" but rather "Wow! You're going to have actual hours of operation?"

Friday, March 28, 2008

Dogs

This morning I ran across the street to catch the subte, only to find no one in the ticket booth.

(Why didn't I just use a ticket machine? For all intents and purposes, they don't exist. Though there are a very few out there, the subte workers union opposes them and sees to it that even those few never work. You're more likely to see Cristina in the subte than a working ticket machine.)

A few other passengers and I milled around for a minute before we saw an open gate and just walked through.

Which I'm guessing is exactly what went down with Fido here.


When a train came, he would run alongside it and bark.


When I got on the train, so did Fido. He ran around for a few seconds but then decided to chill out for a while.


Eventually a subte employee rousted him and chased the little guy back into the station, with the help of a few passengers.


This is a good time to mention this NPR piece that aired a while back.

The guy botches the name of the Perito Moreno glacier . . . and then compares dog-walking to dancing the tango . . . and then manages to fit in the old saw about Buenos Aires having more psychiatrists per capita than anywhere else.

But for all that, he makes a good point.

For me, the report had another important message: All this time, I was trying way too hard to think of story ideas.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Es lo que hay


I got glasses today. Everything is so clear now. A little too clear. The city looked better without the glasses.

If you need glasses in Buenos Aires, I highly recommend Optica LMS on Rio de Janeiro 616.

* * *

Things are happening faster than I could hope to blog about them. The farmers strike means that at least one supermarket on my block closed altogether, while the others are limping along with serious shortages.

We've now had fifteen days of the strike and now two nights of cacerolazos — loud protests where people take to the streets banging pots and pans. Protestors of the government's agriculture policy clashed with the traditional working class supporters of the Peronist administration, mob vs. mob.

Food prices have gone up 10%, 20%, 30% from two weeks ago. Absolutely everyone is talking about the strike.

I went to a restaurant yesterday for lunch and asked for a Mediterranean salad.

The waitress came back a minute later to say: "I'm sorry, we can't do the Mediterranean salad . . . or any of the salads actually. We're out of lettuce."

This is not Argentina at its best.

But it makes the civility of daily life — even if it's rote — even more surprising.

Today I asked a guy at a newspaper stand if he could tell me where the No. 65 bus to Belgrano stopped.

"A block and a half that way," he said. "Then turn and go up half a block."

"OK. Thanks."

"¡No! ¡Al contrario!" he said with a smile.

I mean, really . . . how often do you get thanked for asking for directions?

* * *

There's so little time left that some of the things I've always wondered about will continue to be mysteries to me even after I'm gone. Like the lady who works at the produce stand around the corner . . . and then on some evenings sets up cardboard boxes on the sidewalk and sells underwear by the fruit displays.

I guess I could ask her about it. But what's my question? "Why are you selling underwear?" I'm pretty sure no question would lead to an answer I would find satisfactory.

* * *

I've mentioned the "por las dudas" ("just in case") and "es lo que hay" ("that's all we got") mentality here and rarely has this come into sharper focus than in the current food crisis. You go to the store and see that there's no beef, very little chicken and milk only if you're lucky? Well, it might not be what you want, but es lo que hay. Better stock up while you can. You know, por las dudas.

Monday, March 24, 2008

La Flor de Almagro


On some levels, La Flor de Almagro is an unmitigated disaster.

The neon sign chops its name to Flor de alma (poetic, yes, but not what they were going for). The interior is bathed in fluorescent flood-lighting. If you're lucky, the kids behind the counter are merely indifferent toward you.

Fortunately, it has an utterly redeeming quality, the mitigating factor: the ice cream. The banana split flavor — with large chunks of bittersweet chocolate, pieces of banana and a generous, gooey ribbon of dulce de leche — is a can't-miss.

Crema de higos con nuez (fig cream with walnuts) is another hit, with big pieces of figs.* Chocolate almendrado is fantastic as well — dark chocolate with chunks of candied almonds mixed in.

Along with Il Bombón, it's my favorite ice cream place. It's on Estado de Israel, about two blocks in from Corrientes, so it's a lot closer to me than either location of Il Bombón.

I can't state unequivocally that it's the best around because your neighborhood might have one that's just as good or maybe — maybe — better. But I'm confident that it's the best within walking distance, and my definition of walking distance is the better part of the city.

There is almost always an employee eating ice cream when I go. And the last few times I got a cuarto to go, the kid ran his finger around the lid to seal it and then quickly licked it clean — the finger, not the lid. It's that good.

I've mentioned La Flor de Almagro in passing before, but it deserves more than that. Because if you could only eat ice cream at one place in Buenos Aires, I would probably send you to La Flor de Almagro.

And then to Il Bombón for dessert.

* I once recommended this flavor and someone said to me: "Sounds kind of gross. Aren't figs kind of gross?" The only possible reply: "Figs are gross if you don't like figs."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

¡Salud!


For a while, I didn't know just how my last week or so here would play out. And then Thursday night I got a pretty clear idea. I managed to trick an editor into liking one of my story ideas, so I'm going to spend most of my last week working.

A friend asked me Friday if I was staying awake 24/7 to soak up my remaining time here. Not quite. But almost.

One week and many wine bars to go before I sleep.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Three strikes

We have a long holiday weekend — not just Jueves Santo and Viernes Santo, but Monday's Día Nacional de la Memoria por la Verdad y Justicia.*

Banks are closed for the holidays**, but many bank employees had already been on strike anyway. The big question going into the holiday weekend was whether there would be enough money in the ATMs to withstand demand.

That question is academic if there's nothing to spend the money on anyway. Farmers in this country have gone apeshit after the government raised their taxes*** and have been on strike for 10 days. Shortages are starting to crop up in supermarkets.

Meanwhile, taking a flight in this country is always a gamble, but usually it's Aerolíneas Argentinas that's making passengers riot.**** This time, flights on LAN were delayed for hours or canceled. Why? A strike at the weather service meant they couldn't plan their flight routes.

I'm giving this country ten days to shape up or I am so out of here.


* This is the relatively new holiday that marks the 1976 military coup. It has always fascinated me, living in Spain and living here, the long shadows that dictatorships cast on the memories of those who lived under them. My friends Eli and Leo were teenagers during the dictatorship and a lot of their stories about growing up are not just about youth rebellion for rebellion's sake, nor are they about the broader horrors perpetrated by the dictatorship. Instead, they are stories of the mundane oppression and indignity of living in a military state — like how someone decided it would be a good idea to ban pinball machines in the city.

** It's curious that a country with a history of bank runs would allow the banks to be shut for five days straight.

*** The government charges farmers export taxes on the products they sell on the international market. I'm not talking a token 1% or 2% levy. Farmers now pay a 45% tax on soy they sell abroad. This is up from 20% not too long ago. There's a lot more to this, but not right now, OK?

**** Or have a heart attack . . . like when Stu and I were on Aerolíneas flight in January and a recording came on saying that cabin pressure had been lost and oxygen masks would now be deployed. I would have flipped out, except that we were still on the ground. It was less funny when it happened a few times after we took off. Through it all, the utter obliviousness of the cabin crew was priceless.

Mmm... footnotes. Full of footy goodness.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I'll get right on that

I canceled my health insurance policy this morning.

My plan requires small co-payments for office visits. But you don't pay when you're at the office. They bill you for them.

I told the woman that I thought I still owed three co-payments, probably something in the neighborhood of US$15 total.

The woman nodded. "Those should show up in the system in a month or so and then we'll bill you."

Right. But I'm leaving the country on March 31. I'd feel better if I paid you. So ... if you could just tell me exactly how much I owe.

"They won't be in the system for a month or so. The bill should come in May."

By which point I'll be long gone.

"Well . . . Maybe someone else could pay your bill for you?"

Just then, a new identity — forged by years of observation and assimilation — reached its zenith.

Which is to say I smiled broadly and shrugged.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Super!

I've been trying to sell myself all day. It makes me feel a little cheap and slightly dirty.

And after today, I'm not sure I wouldn't do better selling my blog by standing on a street corner in a long, pervish overcoat.

The best part of a rejection email in this case is when it reads: "Hi. Thanks for the pitch, but we're going to have to pass on your blog about fruit."

Well. Yeah. I mean, when you put it like that!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Horton hears a what?


Today was a ridiculously nice day. The sun shone brightly, but not with the blazing intensity of January. It was warm, but not too warm. The sky was clear. A breeze blew ever so slightly. . . . which is more than this post will blow if I keep writing about the weather. But I'm just saying. It was frickin' awesome today.

Hey, so, as of 12:01 a.m. Sunday, we're back on our normal time zone. Two weeks ago we were four hours ahead of Chicago and now we'll be down to only two hours ahead. Crazy, huh?

Wow. I swear. The time zone here is just like the weather. If you don't like it, wait a little while and it'll change!

Right now, in order to force my computer into the right time zone, I have to set it to think it's someplace called Grytviken. I'm not making that up.

OK. Geez. You know what? I'm really sorry.

It's obvious, isn't it? I'm sort of avoiding the elephant in the room.

It's just that I don't even know what to say about the latest NY Times article on Buenos Aires.

Le sigh. The spirit is willing but the snark is weak.

Hey, speaking of elephants in the room — because I was, unless you skipped that paragraph — I saw that "Horton Hears A Who!" came out. And the first question that came to mind was how they were going to translate the movie title into Spanish. There are posters up all over the city so I didn't have to wonder for long. It's "Horton y el mundo de los quien". That's "Horton and the World of the Who."

Meh. I mean, it was never going to be the same, was it?

* * *

I want to recommend a place to get breakfast, but first I want to tell you what happened when I went this morning for a bite to eat.

The door was locked, which is not that strange because some businesses ask you to knock or get buzzed in as a security precaution. But the door to this place isn't always locked, and so I struggled with the handle before I caught the eye of a woman inside.

She walked over to the door and, failing to conceal mild contempt, told me that it was locked. Then she opened it for me.

I smiled and shrugged as if to say, "Huh! I'm such a boludo!"

I grabbed a magazine from the rack and took a seat. The young woman reached for a menu but I stopped her by politely telling her my order.

She could barely tolerate my request for a café con leche and three medialunas, and it showed in her face.

She brought out my coffee and served me three medialunas from a tray sitting in the window. I added my usual amount of sugar to the coffee cup and took a sip. It was shockingly strong, espresso with the merest suggestion of steamed milk on top. I added more sugar, but it didn't do any good.

I considered what that much espresso would do to my insides and set the cup aside. . . .

. . . which is when I realized that she hadn't brought my sparkling water. Not that I had ordered any. But café con leche normally comes with a small glass of sparkling water. Except this time.

Hey, but listen. This place is usually great for breakfast. Good medialunas. Bread baked on site. Excellent coffee. Nice selection of magazines and newspapers. Cool atmosphere. Not crowded.

You should stop by for breakfast. Maybe not for lunch or dinner. But for breakfast. It's called Masamadre es con M and it's at Olleros 3891.

Good luck!

* * *

Maybe you're wondering if there's anything that's changed now that I am down to my last couple of weeks in BsAs. I can see, say, having a list of things I want to see or do before I leave.

But I have dispatched with that whole ordeal by telling myself that I'll be back somehow or another before too long and, really, there's enough to see here for two lifetimes. So trying to fit anything extraordinary in two weeks would be a little silly. I'll just see what comes my way.

So, no. The only difference between the me of now and the me of a few months ago is that now I am spending my pile of coins with reckless abandon!

¿Que si tengo monedas? ¡Me sobran monedas, che!


* * *

Before I hit the farmers market this morning, I stopped off at Chacarita for some shots of the cemetery. I stitched together the panoramic photo at the top of this entry. It does an all-right job of giving you perspective on the place, but still falls short.

As always, you can click on the image to enlarge. If you scroll to the right, there's a woman walking in the shadow, which will give you a sense of scale.

* * *

There are different rules for public display of affection here. Maybe I should say that there is only one rule: Display as much affection in public as you can and display it with your tongue.

The idea is not new to me. I've seen it here, obviously. And it was all over the place in Spain.

But.

Today I took a crowded bus back from Chinatown.

A young couple got on the bus and then proceeded to maul each other inches from my face for the duration of the 40-minute bus ride.

I am not a prude. And I don't wish my frigid northern sensibilities upon the warm Latin peoples.

But it was making me a little nervous. Part of me wanted to turn a hose on them and scream "NO! If the bus hits a bump, you're going to bite off her tongue!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Fibertel

I canceled my Internet connection yesterday.

You have to show up in person for this. I was already at Santa Fe and Pueyrredón, so I stopped at the Coronel Diaz office of Fibertel.

The Coronel Diaz office of Fibertel looked like the place where hope goes to die. People with long, tired faces milled about. There weren't enough chairs. Agitation hung in the air.

Also, it smelled like feet.

I took a number. My number was 42. They were calling number 82.

Ugh.

I remembered Fibertel had a few offices in outlying neighborhoods, so I decided to give one of those a shot.

Score! The Villa Urquiza location, at Avalos 1910, had exactly one person waiting before me. I was in and out in about 5 minutes. It was fantastic.

I told the woman who helped me about my trip to the Palermo branch earlier that day and how I would so be blogging about this when I got back home.

"Really?" she asked. "You're going to blog about this?"

"Sure," I said.

"But how many people could it possibly interest?" she asked.

I threw my head back and my deep, booming laugh echoed across the office. "You obviously haven't seen my blog," I shouted behind me, adjusting my cape and leaping skyward in a single fluid motion.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ñoquis

Today's entry begins with a short quiz. Please do not skip it. It is "de carácter obligatorio", as they might say here.

You own a business or run an organization. You want to know how many people you have working for you. Do you . . .

1. Call human resources/personnel and tell them to whip up some numbers for you?

2. Use your high-level access to enter the corporate intranet and pull together the figures yourself?

3. Ask interns from a local university to conduct a census for you because, honestly, fuck if anybody really knows how many employees there are and what they're all doing?

If you answered (3), congratulations! You're the mayor of Buenos Aires! You don't need to read this entry. In fact, I'd rather you didn't. This city is held together by string; you really need to get back to work.

If you answered (1) or (2), you might want to read on.

* * *

Of course, the city government census is political. The relatively new mayor has already tried to get rid of some public employees, which caused a huge shitstorm.

Now, the public employee unions are contending that the census is just a pretext for being able to dismiss more employees.

One of the central questions here is how many "ñoquis" there are in city government. Ñoquis are what we would call in Chicago "ghost payrollers," only with a far more awesome name. They're ñoquis because, like the delicious dumplings, they only show up once a month — every 30 days to collect their checks.

The mayor says no register exists of how many employees there are and what their jobs are. The Clarín article notes that the estimations of the number of public employees in Buenos Aires run from 110,000 to 120,000.

I guess you could say: Hey, those numbers don't vary that widely. There's less than a 10% difference between the first figure and the second.

Or you could say: WTF? There are 10,000 people who may or may not be working for you?

You can probably guess which option more accurately reflects my sentiments.

I believe the mayor when he says no one knows the real number. But the census has only a small chance of determining that number, because politics on both sides will inevitably come into play.

They'll probably have about as much luck counting ñoquis as Cristina has had counting air conditioners.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Butcher


There's a butcher not far from my apartment with an amazing variety of beasts for sale.

Llama, deer (including breaded deer cutlets), boar, frog, rabbit (including rabbit burgers), an ostrich-like bird called rhea, pig, pheasant, partridge, hare, a giant chinchilla-like rodent called viscacha, goat, duck.

Yeesh. Half that list sounds like someone went berserk at a petting zoo!

As to any of you wondering whether people actually eat these things, the answer is sure, sort of. Few of these critters are terribly common in Buenos Aires. But a lot of them are more popular in regional and/or rural cuisine.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Going out on top

Maybe I should just leave now, because it's never going to get better than this.

Walking up Angel Gallardo toward my apartment, I heard sirens and saw a stream of motorcycle cops coming at me.

They were clearing traffic to make way for . . . a visiting dignitary? ¡¿la presidenta?!

No.

The Iron Maiden motorcade.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Calle Florida


Usually, I avoid Calle Florida at all costs.

Pedestrianized streets are great. I wish there were more of them. But Christ on a crutch! It's hard to walk down that street without feeling ogled, marked, jostled . . . and icky.

It's crowded with wide-eyed tourists in safari hats and lined with businesses gleefully fleecing them. Not that there aren't plenty of locals there, too. Because there are.

In fact, I would say that of the city's 3 million people, at any given moment, most of them are on Calle Florida. Standing right in my goddamn way.

But the other day I stuffed my wallet and my camera deep into my pocket, steeled myself, and took a stroll down Florida.

It was a warm evening, but Calle Florida was not warm. So many air-conditioned stores had their doors open that the cool air poured onto the street. It was disconcerting.

The street is usually full of touts and street artists, most of whom I habitually ignore.

But the guys in the photo above were way too good to ignore.

They looked like hell, like they'd just rolled out of bed for this 8pm performance. (I was hoping they'd ask the crowd for requests so that I could shout "Take a freaking shower and cut your hair!")

But they sounded great — well-rehearsed, but loose. More than the usual number of jaded porteños stopped to listen for a bit. And I stopped to listen for a few minutes too. I would have stayed even longer, but I had somewhere to go.

What? You think I just spend half my time wandering aimlessly around the city?

OK. You're right. I do.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Avenida Corrientes


It is nearly impossible to shoot street scenes that capture the feeling and perspective you get from walking around the city. But the other day I was on Avenida Corrientes heading toward the emblematic obelisk that stands in the middle of Avenida 9 de Julio. I took the above photo. Click to enlarge it.

I vividly remember looking at a photograph of that obelisk in a high school Spanish textbook and thinking: "Buenos Aires? Huh."

Oh crap! No, what I meant was, I remember thinking: "Buenos Aires? What an impossibly romantic place, full of mystery and wonder! O, to dance the tango and dine on world-class beef! To read Borges and wile away the hours in turn-of-the-century cafes! Someday I shall live there."

The obelisk is flanked

Wait. Before we go on, I have to confess something. I lied two paragraphs up. I'm really sorry.

I do remember seeing that photo in my textbook in high school. But overall, my reaction was much more along the lines of "huh." I was probably a lot more worried about when class would be over and if I could finish my homework for next period by the time the bell rang.

* * *


The obelisk is flanked by two small plazas that stand in the middle of what is supposedly the widest avenue in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio.

I walked by as an honor guard was taking down the flag down in one of the plazas. When they finished, they strolled back to their waiting bus.

I love the surreal image of these flesh-and-blood toy soldiers against the banal backdrop of a crosswalk in the middle of downtown.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Cityscape: Plaza de Mayo


Every time I go to take a photo of the city — not just a building, but the city — I come away disappointed. It just doesn't fit in the frame.

But I may be on to something. Here's a panoramic shot of the Plaza de Mayo, with the cathedral on the left and the Casa Rosada straight ahead.

I employed some quick-and-dirty Photoshop nerdery to stitch together four snapshots. The preview image at the top of the post doesn't do the idea much justice, so — as with all the photos on this blog — you can click on it to get a larger version.

There's an even larger version, with perspective added, here.

It's not perfect, but I'm looking forward to doing a few more of these.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar


It was not the best meal of my life.

There was a lot to like: The food was good. The service was friendly and gracious. The room was sleek and clean. The wines — five of them — were delicious and well paired. I roped Robert into going and we had a great time.

But the place really screwed with my head. I still don't know exactly what to make of it.

We paid just under US$60 each for the meal (including the wine and the tip) and my fear was that I would leave feeling I had overpaid. But no; that's not it. And I didn't leave disappointed either.

I just left a little confused.

Robert (whom I thank for most of the photos in this post) was definitely onto something when he said the dishes were a little muted — no flavors really popped.

It's sort of the Argentine interpretation of the foams-and-small-plates school of cooking, complete with bife de chorizo and papas — though, of course, the potatoes were partly a foam.

I wouldn't not recommend this restaurant, I just don't know who I would recommend it to.

If you're coming from outside Argentina, then, sure, US$60 probably sounds like a great deal and I think you'll probably enjoy your meal, though I don't know if you'll be blown away.

I wouldn't recommend it to my Argentine friends because, frankly, I'd be embarrassed to tell them I spent US$60 on one meal. If they could get past that, I think they'd actually be more likely than people from abroad to enjoy it, but that just brings me to another point:

None of the diners in the restaurant was a native speaker of Spanish. Like so many other aspects of the meal, I don't know quite what to make of that either.

* * *


This is not a complete rendering of our meal, nor am I going to be able to accurately describe all the plates. We practically begged our waiter for a written list of what we were eating. He said he'd write it out if we'd like, but in the end he didn't.

Working left-to-right, top-to-bottom, among the dishes were seaweed and fish-skin candy (resting in a bowl of salt); remarkably crispy deep-fried dill and basil; a beautifully buttery potato foam with a potato, egg and truffle square resting in a pool of butter; trilla (fish) sitting atop a grilled plum; duck confit cannoli with a peapod; bife de chorizo with roasted tomatoes and chimichurri sauce; a tea jelly coated with citric acid, and a dessert plate that included a pistachio ice cream, a square of warm chocolate cake, a chocolate cream and two other things that I'm quite sure I was able to identify at the time.

There were other elements, too — a shooter of ceviche; a pork cheek swimming in a deep, smoky broth; a meaty piece of pollack served alongside puffed rice in a paella reduction; a two-temperature pea soup; candied almonds; bonbons, and a lollipop that tasted like toothpaste.

No pictures of the wine, but we enjoyed two glasses of a Malbec rosé, a Viognier, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend, a Tannat and a glass of Malbec port to wrap it all up.

I'm looking over this list and wondering (a) why is it we didn't need a crane to get us out of the restaurant? and (b) why in the world am I so conflicted after all this great food and wine?

* * *


We got to the restaurant at 9pm. It was 1am when we walked out. We covered a lot of ground — foodwise, obviously, but also conversationwise. Mostly it was me expounding on my philosophy of blogging . . . until Robert threatened to get up and leave, at which point I started talking about fruit.

We also found time to talk about the best meal of our lives and what kind of things play into that.

For both of us, the best meals of our lives had been while we were traveling. It's easy to see why this might be.

When I see tourists here, I sometimes flash to how exotic and mesmerizing Buenos Aires must seem. Seeing what I see every day and knowing what I know, it can be hard to put myself in that perfect place, but I do at least remember how exotic and mesmerizing it seemed to me — enough so that I quit my job and moved here.

Wednesday night's meal wasn't the best of my life, but I did like it. I also liked walking around for half an hour afterward and talking about the city, both as it once was and as it is now.

It's not hard for me to see how you could have the best meal of your life in Buenos Aires. And why not have at La Vineria?

La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar is at Bolivar 865 in San Telmo.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Feed me

What is among the worst things you can say about a restaurant?

"It's terrible; don't eat there!"?

Sure.

But at least as bad is, "You have to eat there! We had the best meal of our lives."

Because you know what a fan of low expectations I am. So an endorsement like that is just asking for trouble.

And yet, how can you ignore that recommendation? Especially when it comes from two seasoned travelers who make fine food their business.

What I'm trying to say is that a month ago I tipped off the Slow Food couple to a new restaurant I was starting to hear good things about, but had never been to.

They went and raved about it. Specifically, they termed it the best meal of their lives.

And, you know, maybe you think I shouldn't trust them. But I also keep reading good things about it online. And would the Internet lie to me?

Exactly.

So I'm going tonight.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fidelito


Andrew wanted to take a photo of one of the memorials that have gone up for people kidnapped, tortured and "disappeared" by Argentina's dictatorship. (There are more and more such memorials. Line of sight has photos.)

The mini-memorials are part of the sidewalk and follow the formula: "Here is where so-and-so was taken as part of state-sponsored terrorism on such-and-such a date."

It's jarring and effective. Yes, there are other monuments to victims of the dictatorship. But these work well because they're integrated into daily life. You're walking along trying not to step in dog crap and suddenly you're confronted by the fact that four people — usually named on the plaque — vanished from the spot where you're standing.

I knew there was one of these plaques on Callao not far from Corrientes. Andrew took photos while I diddled with my camera. I was still fiddling around when I heard Andrew say, "Gee, I wonder why they were taken."

He was being sarcastic. I realized this when I looked up and saw the Communist Party headquarters. They were rounded up because they were communists.

Decorating the entrance to party headquarters was an item of stencil graffiti that just became dated this week. "Aguante Fidel." ("Hooray Fidel" or "Hang in there, Fidel" or "Right on, man!")

[Digression I: This is a good time to mention again the young woman blogging from Cuba. In the latest entry, she mentions that neither she nor her parents have known any leader besides Fidel, who's been in power since 1959.]

[Digression II: At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the communists who were victimized by the Argentine dictatorship have their own little dictatorship going on down in Cuba now and are victimizing whoever they see fit. (I'm pretty sure absolute power does something. If only I could remember what!)]

Before I lived here, I knew that Fidel had a lot of defenders in Latin America. But I'm not sure I understood exactly why.

Here's the thing: Many of his defenders are hardly communists and they're not blind to the hardship and injustice of Castro's Cuba. But in a region that has often been abused, manipulated and battered by U.S. foreign policy, it's hard to sell short the enormous appeal of a single man on a tiny island who has defied the United States for decades.

Friday, February 22, 2008

No, I am not blogging

I have a houseguest for a few days.

Andrew is someone I met within a week of coming down here three years ago. Now that my time here is almost up, he's back again. (Although he's not here because of me.)

He was in my apartment for only a few minutes before I sat down at the computer.

"What are you doing?" he asked. "Blogging?"

"No! I am not blogging." I use my computer for other things, you know. Like reading other people's blogs. And killing time between writing blog entries.

Five minutes later we were talking about the lunar eclipse I had watched off my balcony the night before.

"Did you blog about it?" he asked.

As if I would blog about something I just saw out my window.

In any case, there is more to my life than just this blog. For instance, there is my other blog. I am still trying to figure out what to do with it. It's slow-going, but there has been a little progress and I remain hopeful that I can either get money or a little more exposure for it — ideally both.

Aside from all that: This week, when not at my computer, I have been doing even more walking around this city than usual.

I sometimes think about the idea of opening a restaurant. Sometimes I think about what I might name it. One name that never crossed my mind: Crack.


And here's an amusing name for a cheese shop. If you don't speak Spanish, you won't get it. But let me just take this opportunity to assure that anyone who does speak Spanish is unleashing peals of hysterical laughter right now. Honest.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Chow


Months ago I pitched a story on Buenos Aires to Chow.com. The good news: They loved the idea! The bad news: Someone had beaten me to the punch; they already had a Buenos Aires piece in the works.

Not what I wanted to hear.

In an act of semi-desperation — or consummate pluck, depending on how charitable you're feeling — I even followed up a few weeks back with an editor there: "Say, are you guys still doing that Buenos Aires piece? 'Cause if it fell through, I'm totally available!"

Their Buenos Aires article hadn't fallen through and now the package is finally up on the web site.

The concept is that visitors should move beyond the tourist-saturated Palermo neighborhood and focus on San Telmo.

I don't know if I can go along with the idea that visiting San Telmo is likely to make you feel like you're mingling with locals — it's pretty far along the same path of gentrification (and tourism) that Palermo has followed. But I do like the idea of exploring the city's neighborhoods. And San Telmo is a great neighborhood, with just enough tourism to be traveler-friendly without being completely overwhelmed. That is, if you get here today. At this rate, it could be played out by tomorrow.

The Chow piece starts off like this:

Beautiful, decrepit, hedonistic, and temperate. Buenos Aires is a city of charming contradictions. You’ve heard about the steak and the Malbec, but you can also get arguably the best Italian food outside of Italy, and the world’s best gelato.

I probably would have written something similar.

Reading that made me remember the biggest reason I started this blog: People kept asking me what Buenos Aires was like and I never had a good answer. If you've been here or have been reading any blog about Buenos Aires, you'll recognize that's because it's a mix of the familiar and the foreign, full of contradictions and extremes.

So I don't envy anyone the task of writing a paragraph that purports to summarize Buenos Aires.

One hundred seventy-five posts on this blog and I don't think I'm any further along in that goal than when I started.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Crossing

This city must be tough on people who aren't nimble and able-bodied. I know it's tough on people who are nimble and able-bodied. And it can't be easy to navigate the broken sidewalks and the intersections with no traffic lights or stop signs if you're blind, in a wheelchair, or just old.

Twice in the last 72 hours I've had elderly people ask me to help them across the street.

And of course, I helped them — after we negotiated a price.

No, no. I'm just kidding, of course.

The prices are non-negotiable.

All right. Fine. I did it for free. Now you're beginning to see why I'm flirting with financial ruin.

Now, I don't have much occasion to use the formal "Usted" form of Spanish, but if you're old enough to ask me to help you cross the street, you can bet I'll call you señor(a) and refer to you in the third person.

Today I was listening to Andrés Calamaro's double album Honestidad Brutal on my iPod when a hunched-over man waved at me. "Would you just help me to that street corner?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

We chatted while we waited for the light to change. He told me that he had some amiguitos (little friends) waiting at the cafe for him, some of the few who were still OK in the head. They were going to talk and watch a little television. The owner of the place was a friend of his.

The light changed and he grabbed my arm while he started to inch across the street. He told me about his joint problems, and how he had just fallen and injured his knee. He said he hoped he wasn't being a bother. I told him not to worry about it. I was going to cross the street anyway, wasn't I?

When we got to the door of the cafe, he stuck out his hand and said, "¡Señor! ¡Muchas gracias!" I think that's the only time someone here has addressed me as something other than "che." I patted him on the shoulder and told him to take care of himself.

Before I put my headphones back in, my mind played back what he had said to me when we started crossing the street:

"I'm 80 years old, you know? My joints are no good. My body isn't what it was. But I still have the mind of a 60 year old!"

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Gulp

Lady and gentleman, I give you: The World's First Expat Blog drinking game.

Do not attempt while operating heavy machinery — not that it was ever really a good idea to read this blog while you drive a forklift.

Take a drink every time I:

Make reference to how poor I am.

Mention inflation, pizza, gnocchi, ice cream or wine.

Write about how few people read this blog.

Visit the cheese store.

Make the easy joke.

Make the cheap joke.

Make the bad joke.

Fail to leave well enough alone.

Portray myself as kind/generous/hilarious.

Lament how little time I have left in Argentina.

Reflect on X and how it makes me feel a little Y (drawing a chorus of ZZZs).

Read something in the newspaper and then rant about it.

Elicit a sigh, a groan, or a roll of the eyes.

Mine my insecurity and self-critical nature for cheap blog fodder.

End a sentence and then follow it with a sentence fragment for supposed comic effect. Like this.

Make you wish it were summer in Chicago already for God's sake so I could go back to writing that other blog.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Fugly II


You thought the Hospital Naval was ugly — and it is.

But a few blocks away, the Hospital Durand practically spits in your face.

It's a public hospital. Argentina — unlike one country I could name — provides health care to everyone. Are there problems with the public health system? Yes. A lot of them. But at least it exists.

We might be upside down here, but we're not completely backward.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sold!


In the last few days I've sold off two cameras and some computer equipment.

More important: Today I finally sold that pizza idea that's been kicking around in my head for months. An airline magazine wants a few hundred words on it.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm really happy about selling the article. What kills me is that I made more money selling my dusty electronics on Craigslist.

The article does, at least, pay more than blogging.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Ugi's


To call Ugi's a no-frills restaurant is really insulting to restaurants without frills.

It's a big pizza chain with rock-bottom prices, and it is sort of an institution.

Most restaurants have a menu. Ugi's? No. Ugi's has a price list.


They always have the price of a large mozzarella pizza posted in the window on a nearly unadorned page.

For a while the large mozzarella was 6.90 and then not too long ago I noticed it was up to 8 — even 9.20 at some locations.

The government should stop fabricating inflation data and just go with the Ugi's index. People might actually swallow it.

You can see from the price list above that "sodas are sold only with a straw." I think that means that you can't get a glass for your soda, but it also makes it sound like they're going to foist a straw on you whether you want it or not. (Actually, that's probably the case. Heaven forbid you drink straight from the bottle.)

Want a box for your carry-out pizza? 50 centavos, please.

The crowd is usually a mix of blue-collar types, teenagers and families, depending on the time of day and location. Yesterday I walked by one and saw a guy passed out at a table.

For as cheap as it is, Ugi's doesn't look dirty. The kitchens are open — so you can watch as the guy sneezes on your pizza. The interiors are bright, mostly white tile and plastic. I wouldn't be surprised if they just hosed down the whole place a few times a week and let it drip-dry.

Ultimately, the pizzas are the least interesting thing about Ugi's. At 8 pesos — even at 9.20 — you pretty much get what you pay for.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Swiped


Finally!

I wondered how long it would take before I got pick-pocketed on the subte. I was beginning to think my money was no good.

Today I really had it coming. Honestly, I was a complete idiot. Hell, I would have pick-pocketed me.

I had come out of a shop with a lot of small bills as change and stuck them in my pocket in a hurry. They were a mess, so when I got into the subte, I took them out of my pocket and tried to rearrange them a bit.

Which is a nice way of saying: "I took lots of money out of my pocket and waved it around on the subway."

This bedraggled woman who I had seen begging for coins near the escalator was right next to me. I very rarely give out money. But here I felt a little bad, since I had just sorted through a stack of money, including a lot of 2 pesos bills. I thought to myself, "I don't even know how many 2 peso bills I have here, which means I sure as hell won't miss one if I give it to this lady."

So I gave her 2 pesos (60¢).

She took it. She didn't say a word. And she gave me the strangest look.

I thought maybe it was because I had just made her day with a 2 peso bill.

Now I realize it's because she had lifted 50 pesos off me and here I was — what? — tipping her?

Whatever. I'm not even that upset. She probably needed it more than I do.

I would have only spent that money on cheese.

* * *

I went to the cheese shop today for the first time in a few weeks. I picked up some smoked gouda with peppercorns, some fresh mozzarella and some dates (not cheese, but really good with cheese).

When I walked in, the woman was sweeping up. I asked her how she was doing. She said: "I'm good. I was starting to wonder about you, though. I asked myself the other day if you were ever going to come back."

Yikes! How will I find the words to tell her I'm leaving for good?

* * *

Before I hit the cheese shop, I stopped a few blocks away at the Italian bakery. Do you know how you know it's a genuine Italian bakery? Mmm. . . OK, yes, the woman in line ahead of me was speaking Italian to the baker. Good answer.

I would have also accepted: The sign outside depicts a man with an authentic Italian mustache.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The ideas


Hey! Look! It's the Aguas Argentinas building again.

If I put that building on top of every post where I just ramble on about what's happening inside my head, I'm going to condition you to cringe whenever you see it.

Hopefully we're not quite to that point yet.

So. . . there is nothing worse than a coy blogger. And I've made references to articles I'm trying to sell without saying what they were about.

This made sense up until a little bit ago. Initially I kept mum about the stuff I was working on or trying to sell because I didn't want anybody to rip off my ideas. It's hard enough trying to push this crap as it is — I don't need more competition.

I admit this attributes an exaggerated importance to this blog. Because — what? — hordes of travel writers scour my blog for ideas? Hardly.

In any case, now that I have seven weeks left, what the hell? If you want to try to pitch and write these stories in the next two months, be my guest.

• Wine bars in Buenos Aires. I would almost think they would be a widespread phenomenon. They're not. But I do notice more and more cropping up. And if you visit Argentina and aren't able to get to a wine-producing region, you should still be able to drink some stuff you might not find at home.

The pizza heritage of Buenos Aires. Mmm.... pizza.

• Cafe culture beyond the guidebook. I am so sick of seeing the same tired cafes trotted out as recommendations for experiencing a slice of porteño life. The city has a list of 50 cafés y bares notables that includes a few of those well-worn spots, but is also a good departure point for exploring other options.

There you go. You got it out of me.

For what it's worth, I haven't given up on the ideas yet. If you want to pay me to write them — or know anyone who might — you know how to find me.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The plan


If you've looked at the photo above, you've already seen all the Buenos Aires content this post has to offer. It's the Aguas Argentinas building on Avenida Córdoba. I'll come back to it soon, because it's worth a few more shots for anyone who hasn't seen it before.

But from here on out, this post is unabashed navel-gazing.

I started selling off my things today.

My old digital camera was collecting dust, so I Craigslisted it and made enough money to pay my share of the building expensas this month. Score!

There's more to sell: a 35mm SLR camera, an iPod nano, an espresso machine, some great computer speakers, a wi-fi router and a cordless phone.

Everything must go!

Well, not everything. But I look around my apartment and realize that in seven weeks, it all needs to fit in two suitcases.

My mom asked me the other day if I had a lot to do before I left. I told her there was stuff I was trying to do — loose ends to tie up, restaurants to visit, articles to sell, etc. But if I had to, when it came down to it, I could just fill two suitcases (jeans, T-shirts, socks, underwear, Campers), call a car and hop on the plane.

That's kind of a great feeling.

* * *

I'm not a huge fan of surprises or spontaneity, so I get really nervous when I don't have a plan.

That's why I'm glad to have a timeline coming into focus for me. You may also find it interesting. Or not. Perhaps it will serve as a guide as to whether you should furiously reload this blog or delete it from your bookmarks.

Now through March 31: Buenos Aires

April 1-5: Mexico City

April 6-30: Chicago

May 1-10: Los Angeles

May 11-June 1: Japan

And then it's back to Chicago to sell fruit and look for a real job.

About that last item: I told a friend the other day that I was more anxious about rejoining the rat race than I had been about coming down here three years ago with nothing lined up.

Then I started thinking about how it would be nice if I didn't have to rejoin the rat race at all. I don't want to sound too precious here. I understand that life sometimes involves doing shit you don't love in order to pay the man, etc.

But part of me also feels like I've taken myself off that track — which is not easy — and I'm not dying to get back on it.

When the Slow Food couple was here, they asked me if I'd be staying here longer if my circumstances were different. I hadn't bothered to ask myself that question because my circumstances aren't different. But I realized the answer was yes, I would be staying here longer if I could.

That answer rattled around in my head for a few days and I felt a little rotten about it.

But why would I be staying here exactly? Because I love it here? Or because of inertia?

The answer is probably a little of both.

In any case, I felt better when I reminded myself that it's better to leave someplace before it wears out its welcome with you — while you still feel like you'd love to go back.

That is, after all, why I'm so excited to return to Chicago, even as I dread leaving Buenos Aires.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Licuado weather


We've had quite a run of gorgeous weather. And then today it was a little too hot. It's not the mind-bending, brutal heat we had over the holidays, but it's hot enough — especially at mid-day.*

It's perfect weather for siestas and licuados.

You don't need me to shed any light on taking a nap, but I do have a few words to say about licuados.

Licuados are what we'd call smoothies in the States. They can be made with milk or water, and you're usually given a choice when you order. You can combine fruits or go with a single fruit.

In my mind, the single greatest measure of a licuado is weather fresh or canned fruit is used. If I order a licuado de durazno and you make it with canned peaches in February — in the freaking height of peach season! — you'd better hope you can run faster than I can, because I am going to come after you. Once I finish my licuado, obviously.

Experience has taught me that some licuados are more typically made with canned fruit than others, though of course it depends on the restaurant or cafe. Pineapple is a risky flavor — more often than not the licuado tastes as much of the pineapple as the tin can from which it came.

Peach can go either way. Melon and strawberry tend to be good bets. Banana is a good bet, too, especially if you want a licuado made with milk.

Given the spotty quality and the prices at cafes, I usually make them at home.

But I had the licuado in the photo above at a cafe in Palermo and it was good. It was made with strawberries and milk. Usually I prefer my licuados with water, but the waiter took the time to recommend the milk, so I went with it.

As I'm typing this, I realize that in the photo to the right — in the "About Me" section — I am drinking a peach licuado. (And wearing my "sad robot" T-shirt!)

OK, so that's it on licuados. I guess now's a good time to read the footnote if you didn't before.

* You know that you can type "Buenos Aires weather" (sans quotes) into Google and you'll get a five-day forecast at the top of the results, right? And you know Google will do math for you, too, right? Like, if you enter "15*39" in the search box, it will give you 585. And if you want to convert units, it will do that too, e.g. "25 gallons in ml."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Abasto


I went back and stuck a photo on that post about buses. You deserve blog posts with photos and I consider it a personal failing when I am unable to deliver. Also, I used the word "astonishingly" twice in that post. Thank you for not saying anything. I went back and fixed that, too.

Isn't it marvelous to think that every post on this blog is marching steadily toward perfection? Delusional, but marvelous.

More photos of the city's colorful buses may sound like a great idea, but at 30 I feel like I'm too young to die. And a few days of attempted bus photography has me questioning the wisdom of getting close enough to take good photos. So we'll see how that goes.

Taking pictures of buildings is much safer. So walking through the Abasto neighborhood today, I snapped a photo of this great theater building.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Comedor Nikkai


Because I have a blog, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing that everything I do is interesting.

Easy for me, I mean. Not for you.

You know better.

But I may have done something slightly interesting today in having lunch at Comeder Nikkai, the dining room of the Japanese Society of Argentina. The nigiri were delicious as usual. But it's the service here that always blows my mind. It's so good. Zero attitude, friendly, considerate.

The restaurant is one of those consummately Buenos Aires places that doesn't look like much of anything from the outside, certainly not like anywhere you would expect to eat. In this case, on the street you see a double wooden door — sometimes open, sometimes closed; sometimes with a doorman, sometimes not. If there's a sign posted, I've never noticed it. Through the double door is a hallway with a skylight, below which stands the sliding-door entryway to the restaurant itself, framed by two lanterns.

I've been going there occasionally for a few years, but I've really stepped it up lately.

So why haven't I mentioned it before? Principally because I am ridiculous.

I was worried that mentioning it on the blog would drive people there. No, really. I was.

But now I only have two months left here. And I am not too concerned about ruining the restaurant for myself in the space of 60 days. So go nuts, people. Tell them the guy who sits alone and reads Clarín sent you.

They're so nice there, they'll probably pretend that means something to them.

After lunch I took the bus to the neighborhood of Agronomía, home to the Agronomy and Veterinary Sciences School.

Outside the school is something of a jarring sight in the city: a field full of horses.


* * *

Every day I comb through the site traffic numbers for this blog, hoping to glean some insight into how I can trick more people into visiting. I am happy to report that if readership growth continues apace, I will have two — possibly three! — more regular readers by the time I wrap up this blog.

What else do the numbers show? Thanks to advanced Google technology, I can tell how many times you roll your eyes when you're reading this blog. I can also see how long you spend on the page before your head hits the keyboard and you wake up.

But amidst all the data, one thing always tickles me: seeing the number of visits spike on the 29th of every month, on gnocchi day.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

4 crashes, 7 buses, 58 wounded


Yesterday was not a good day to take the bus, as Clarín notes.

Why so many crashes lately? To paraphrase a man who has studied the issue: January is especially dangerous because fewer traffic jams means the buses can actually move, which increases the risk of collisions.

Everybody here has colectivo stories — brushes with death.

Last week I was on a bus that was so far onto the railroad tracks when it stopped that the crossing gate was hitting the top of the bus as it was coming down. The driver did not seem bothered by this, but the passengers objected so he backed up.

For those of you not acquainted with the city or its buses, here's the short version: If you took the bus system from any other major city in the western world and then stripped away the components that made sense, you would have the bus system here.

I'm not saying it doesn't work. Remarkably, it sort of does.

What I am saying is that all the buses look different and are owned by different private companies. Most make an unholy racket and belch astonishing amounts of exhaust. In rush hour, they're unbearably crowded. They're often old and in bad repair. They don't follow straight lines or any pattern, nor do they follow the same route going one way as they do going the other (one way streets make this impossible). The route signs are often missing, incomplete, outdated, indecipherable or just wrong.

The buses are colorful, though. I should take more colectivo photos.

I'd often thought it would be great to compile a book of such photos. As with most of my best ideas — take blogging, for instance — it turns out I was not the first person to have this idea.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Boedo

The New York Times has an article in its Travel section about this city's Boedo neighborhood.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Recommendations


I know plastic bags are evil. But when there are no more plastic bags, what will children use to create makeshift kites on breezy summer mornings?

This kid was having a great time.

I watched him as I waited near the farmers market for the Slow Food couple.

They showed up and we talked about their meals here so far.

I get so nervous when I give out recommendations. Because restaurant experiences can vary, right? Maybe the chef takes a day off, maybe the server has a bad day, etc. So I only recommend places I've been to several times. But even then there's always the nagging voice in the back of my head saying, "It might not be as good as the last time you were there, Dan."

So I was happy to learn this morning that they had enjoyed their meal at El Trapiche the other day: steak (lomo), chorizo and fries.

To help them navigate wine lists here, I had given a few pointers on well-regarded wineries, too. This also made me nervous; I don't know what kind of wine they drink at home. (I know what kind I drink, which lies somewhere above the wine I refuse to drink and somewhere below the kind I'd love to drink.)

But I got lucky here, too. They had a chance to try two Malbecs I had suggested — Luigi Bosca and Rutini. They liked them both. Given my anxiety on the subject, I was more relieved than outright pleased.

We went into the market and spent some time talking about what "slow food" and, say, "organic" mean in a place where some people grow their own food out of necessity rather than culinary fetish.

We bought plums, grapes, pears and tomatoes so that they could try them all. I also bought a jar of dulce de leche and finagled some spoons. The dulce de leche at this market is bar none the best I've ever had. They spread it on slices of pear and swooned.

The market is right next to the Chacarita cemetery, so we headed there next.

Some structures there are gleaming and others are in disrepair. This bit was interesting because wooden braces were in place to keep it intact — not something I'm used to seeing.


I don't know if I'll see this couple again before they leave on Monday. But they're regular customers of the farm, so I know I'll see them again starting in June.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Avenida Córdoba


I was walking back from coffee with the Slow Food people in Recoleta when I noticed Córdoba Avenue was weirdly deserted. So at 7.30pm I stood in the middle of the street and snapped this photo.

Every so often I post photos of beautiful buildings here. The thing is, that's only part of what Buenos Aires looks like. This is the other part. I defy you to find a beautiful building in this photo. Most of them look like they've been beaten with the ugly stick. Or bludgeoned with the hideous cudgel. OK. I tried something there and it didn't work. But you get the idea: the buildings are ugly.

I talked to the Slow Food couple and gave recommendations for ice cream, for pasta, for wine. We made plans to meet up Saturday at the farmers market and then we parted ways.

On my way home I started thinking about dinner. A single thought bubble formed: "Holy crap! I've got to have pasta, wine and ice cream right freaking now!"

I stopped at Multipasta for some spinach and cheese ravioli, at the chino for a bottle of Nieto Senetiner Malbec and then at La Flor de Almagro for a quarter kilo of ice cream with two flavors — banana with dulce de leche and chocolate chips, and fig cream with walnuts.

Honestly, I don't know why I got so excited about this meal given that it closely resembles 97% of my meals here.

But it was so good.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Falklands


I've mentioned the Falkland Islands before. References to these islands, over which Argentina fought and lost a war, are everywhere. There's a memorial to the war dead downtown, and most cities have a street named Malvinas Argentinas (Argentine Falklands).

It also crops up in some odd places. The ice cream shop down the street is named after the islands. And I've gotten receipts from stores bearing the slogan "The Falklands are Argentine!"

When Stu and I were in El Calafate, we saw the side of a bus painted with a map of Argentina. My eyes drifted toward where we were, toward the bottom of the map. Of course, the Falklands were included as part of Argentina.

Plotting in my above-ground lair

I am going to visit Japan this year. Traveling to Japan requires money. Also, I have several articles I would like to sell before I leave here, and time is running out.

All this means that I have kicked my job search into high gear.

This blog is not about my travails as a freelance writer — joke's on you, really, because this blog is not about anything — so I won't go into excruciating detail. But let me just say that if there's anyone worse at being a freelancer than I am, I would like to meet him (though that's probably out of the question as he's likely died of starvation).

I am doing what I can.

The other day, I applied for an online writing job. (The ad requested writing samples and said that blog entries were ideal. I sent a few pages from your blog. I hope that's OK.)

I also sent out an email to my college alumni Listserv asking for help selling four story ideas. I got quite a few emails back. A few from friends I hadn't heard from in a while. A few from well-meaning strangers offering advice.

One woman wrote back and said that she loved all the ideas and wanted to wish me luck. Her last name was not Newhouse or Sulzberger, so this was pleasant to hear but ultimately not fruitful.

Fortunately, something did come of all my scheming and searching: I have a job interview today at a wine shop. It sounded great, initially. Then I called up and the woman told me the job would consist in part of distributing fliers on the street and in part of high-pressure sales.

Considering most of the pressure I exerted on people at my last sales job was NOT to buy things (Definitely don't buy those peaches; I wouldn't get those cherries if I were you, etc.), it's hard to see myself thriving in a high-pressure sales environment.

I do feel upbeat about my chances of getting the job. One of the requirements for the job is fluency in English. In the phone interview, the owner asked how my English was and how I had come to speak it. I told her I was from the United States of America. She expressed surprise and complimented my Spanish.

Wait till she hears my English!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cuba


I'm a little late to the party with this one. The blog in question was featured last month in the Wall Street Journal.

But if you haven't seen it, you should click around a bit. It's called Generación Y. It's written by an unorthodox Cuban woman, in a place where orthodoxy is everything.

She lived in Switzerland from 2002-04, but ended up moving back to Cuba. Now she posts about daily life in what she calls "Stalinism with conga drums."

The Journal notes that the $3 she pays for half an hour of Internet access is nearly a week's wage for many Cubans. And of course, in a society where freedom of expression is sharply curtailed, there's no guarantee that she'll be able to keep posting.

It's written in Spanish, though some entries are available in imperfect English by clicking on the "versión al inglés" link at the top of the page.

If you're looking for a place to start, I recommend "Un día sin mercado negro." (English version here.)

Friday, January 18, 2008

Time and energy

A few weeks back, the president declared that moving the clocks ahead one hour would alleviate the energy crisis (read: persistent blackouts). One day she announced the time change, a few days later the congress approved it, and a week or so later we were all changing our clocks.

(It reminded me a lot of when her husband declared a new national holiday with about a week's notice.)

Alas, now one of the provinces says it's not happy with the time change and will be switching its clocks back. Those clock-watching surrender monkeys. Why do they hate this country so much?

Meanwhile, a rebounding economy and consumer credit have meant a sharp rise in the purchase and use of air conditioners, which has strained the electrical grid. So the other brilliant strategy for taming the energy crisis is an air conditioner census. Since the air conditioners themselves are unable to fill out the census forms, the collaboration of the city's doormen has been requested.

A survey has been sent out asking them how many air conditioners are in the building.

The government is convinced that if it could just get a handle on how many air conditioners there are in which neighborhoods it could . . . it could what exactly?

It doesn't even matter. After people pitched a fit, the government clarified that participating in the census was voluntary. If you don't want to tell the government how many air conditioners you have or don't have, that's fine.

So now we have self-selected respondents answering a meaningless question.

Such a waste of time and energy.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Protests


The place I went for lunch — the place I crossed the city to go for lunch — was closed.

(Why didn't I call ahead? Assuming I could even find their number, they could easily be open but not picking up the phone. So not getting an answer would mean nothing.)

I ended up at La Americana for pizza, for the third time in a month.

I grabbed a table and flipped through Clarín. I almost did a spit-take with my grapefruit soda when I read that the city has identified 12 areas where garbage accumulates. Twelve? Really? Not, like, 13 or 14? Just 12?

OK.

But the main headline of the day was the city and national governments fighting over what to do about the protesters that choke the main arteries of the city.

The national government is far too populist to curb the protesters. It would pay too high a price in its working-class support if it cracked down on these protests over pay raises, working conditions, etc. More to the point, such confrontations have a history of getting violent and spiraling out of control.

The city government, on the other hand, does not draw its support from the working class. As far as it's concerned, the protesters should not be bringing traffic to a standstill and should have the required permits.

This may sound eminently reasonable to some people, but the rules of engagement are very different here.

I looked up from Clarín when I heard the steady beating of drums outside. A line of police was forming outside the restaurant. Protesters had cut off Avenida Callo.

Some fresh-faced First Worlders outside stopped to gawk and snap photos of the protesters.

An old woman in a purple suit sat at a table by the window. She watched the protesters for a bit, too. Then she finished off her beer and fished a mirror out of her bag to check her lipstick.

I paid and as I was leaving, a woman waved me over to her table. "Can I have that newspaper?" she asked. "I'll take it back when I'm done," she added, motioning toward the counter. She thought it was the restaurant's newspaper.

"Well, I was going to take it," I said. She looked a little taken aback.

"It's my paper," I added quickly.

"Oh!" she said.

"But, here, take it." I thrust the paper toward her.

"¡No! ¡Por favor!" she said. She wouldn't hear of it.

"No, really. It's OK," I said.

Again, she wouldn't hear of it. So I left, newspaper in hand.

I was standing on the corner outside the pizzeria, waiting for the light to change and listening to the unholy racket of the protesters' drums. Inside the bank across the street, a cop stared out the window, thumping his fingers on the glass in time to the rhythm of the drums.

This place is by turns so civil and so confrontational.

I ran back to the pizzeria, dropped my paper on the woman's table and darted back onto the street before she could say anything.

Is this a good time to mention that I'm considering keeping a parallel blog to record all the times that I'm a raging asshole? Just for the sake of balance.

* * *

I saw today that the subte is having a writing contest. First prize is 3000 pesos (US$1000). Second prize is 2000 pesos. Third prize is 1000 pesos.

This is great. If I can win first, second and third prizes, I can pay for a trip to Japan this year.

Some of you are probably scoffing at the notion of my winning first, second AND third place. And, really, I'm with you: It is hard to imagine me finishing third.

But I'm not going to be talked out of this plan.

Because you know what? They said I'd never have a blog!

Oh. Wait. I said I'd never have a blog.

Well. Someone definitely said something about a blog.

Don't change the subject.