Monday, July 4, 2011

I went to Argentina this summer

There are many, many translations of “miss” in Spanish (and here I’m referring to “miss” as the verb and not as in “senorita”). While we’d use the same word for “I missed the bus” or “he missed the goal” or “I’m sad that you’re leaving; I’ll miss you,” there is no single way to express each of these in Español. For the first, you might switch the direction of agency around and say, “El colectivo se fue” (“The bus left”). For the second, I’ve heard futbol announcers use “perder,” as in “se lo perdió” (“He missed it”, though I may have the in/direct objects wrong).

But for the third way to say “miss,” there are two very lovely Spanish terms. One is “echar de menos” and the other, esp common in Latin America, is “extrañar.” I think you know where I’m going with this, Broad Readership, for it’s the eve of my departure from Argentina, and I’m feeling that distinctive mix of happiness to be returning home (and at no point am I ever more acutely aware that the USA is my home than when in a foreign country for a long stretch) and threshold nostalgia for the place I’m about to leave.

Pictured above: View south from my depto balcony. Intersection of Vicente Lopez y Azcuenaga in the foreground; Recoleta cemetery on the left; residential hi-rises of Bs As stretching into the distance.

Let’s not confuse aforementioned incipient nostalgia with unequivocal regret at the end of an undifferentiatedly good time, as when you’re a kid and you’re heartbroken that your day at Disneyland is over. Arg has been enormously enjoyable, and I’m absolutely happy to have spent this time here. But this is not at all inconsistent with the ups and downs that accompany a given travel experience. My time here was much more in the nature of travel (quasi-residency, really) than vacation, hence my bristling when people said things like “enjoy your vacation” or whatnot.

Vacations are meant to be escapist and unreflectively enjoyable. Carnival cruises. Trips to Magic Mountain. Tropical “luxury” resorts. And whatnot. The goal of these experiences varies, but the idea is that at every moment you’re relaxing and enjoying yourself, at least ideally if not in practice. You come home with various smiling pix and think about how carefree you were (or, by contrast, how much of a total bust the experience was given that you had a crappy time despite expecting to have an exhilarating and/or escapist experience). No essay better captures the aim of vacationing better than DFW’s inolvidable “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Travel, by contrast, is not meant to be hedonically enjoyable in the same moment-to-moment sense, but instead aims at being on-balance and long-term broadening and enriching, so that you come back from traveling a wiser and more textured person (again, ideally—you might just come back tired and diseased and pissed off). Hence travel can often suck, and there were moments here in Argentina that were far from great.

I’ve blogged mostly about trips to glorious Iguazu and zany madcap hijinks at kosher sushi joints, but there were also a number of downs to these ups. Getting on the wrong colectivo and finding myself lost as hell (more than once). Wandering around freezing trying to find a decent place to eat and finding that somehow each of the five places I’d short-listed were full or closed. Trying to speak Spanish only to commit some awful error or just failing completely to understand what someone is saying, and in either case feeling like a total idiot. Suffering through a hideously ass-kicking flu/cold that lasted a week and took a major chunk out of my time here.

And I would not have had it any other way. The nature of travel, and the reason that I prefer it infinitely to vacationing, is that it has authenticity in several senses. First, it is authentic in the sense that it is a simulacrum of real life, which (obv.) has ups and downs galore, rather than a false and escapist experience in which one is sheltered from life itself and made to feel “pampered” or “luxurious” or some such. Second, the ups of travel feel much more authentic because of the downs. The suckinesses are necessary to get to a point where you realize and appreciate the great parts. Making a fool out of myself in Spanish was a necessary step toward getting to a place of conversational ease. Getting hopelessly lost on colectivos was a necessary step toward understanding how to use them to navigate across the city. &c.

Third, and probably most importantly, the unplanned and inherently jagged nature of the travel experience enables the kind of spontaneous, and sometimes miraculous-seeming, moments of enjoyment, and possibly of joy itself, that aren’t really available in the escapist, heavily-architected setting of a vacation. For this, I’ll not explain long-windedly, though I’m clearly not averse to that, but instead illustrate by way of the best thing that happened to me when I was in Buenos Aires.

It was only just last weekend, and I was pleased with myself for getting to la Boca via colectivo, and I was also pleased at the collection at the Museo Benito Quinquela Martin, and I was wandering around the museum’s third floor, which is redone to replicate the residence of BQM himself, including an antique piano set in a small room lit by the fading afternoon sun. During my third-floor wander, and seemingly out of nowhere, a woman dramatically and darkly beautiful in an Elvira-ish way sat down at the piano and started playing songs that my untrained and unsophisticated ears could not place but still found enchanting and haunting and gorgeous.

I eventually had the presence of mind to produce my iPad and record her playing. Each song seemed to go on for a long time while it was happening (esp as I was trying to hold the iPad perfectly still, which was harder than it may sound), but in reality they were only a couple of minutes each. I remember thinking at one point, “How long is this going to last,” and then, just like that, the lovely pianista stopped playing, and the music ended, as must all good things, verdad?

That was my summer in Argentina. Chau, Broad Readership! Hasta la próxima.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Driving in Bs As

First, let us speak of taxis. They are ubiquitous in Bs As, moreso than in any other city I’ve seen with the exception of NYC (and I’ve made every effort to block out my memories of not-beloved NYC, so I can’t really make the comparison with any confidence). They are cheap and very convenient. I take them all the time.

But what really distinguishes the cabs in this city is the controlled insanity with which they are driven by their taxistas. Driving in a Porteno cab can be terrifying for foreigners (or at least those of us from the EEUU) in that the drivers absolutely, positively no sense that it is necessary to given neighboring vehicles a buffer zone any larger than what is minimally, barely necessary not to hit them. They will drive up exactly behind a car in front, squeeze into any possible space left between two cars, and do it all at pace and while honking constantly but not aggressively.

(This is also an interesting feature of driving. Cabs and cars and buses here honk all the time, but it does not seem to mean the same that it does in the US, where a single brief honk can set off a horrific road-rage slaughter. Rather, honking here seems to be a basically polite but firm way of saying, “Hey now, hurry up and/or move there, fine fellow,” and because it is not the same act of apocalyptic rudeness that it is in the EEUU, it’s done more common. If you want my opinion (which I’ll presume you do), I prefer the Argentine approach to honking. Not that it would be possible to replicate in the US, for obvious reasons related to the difficulty of changing social norms and also perhaps to Americans’ annoying sense of delicate emotional entitledeness.)

Anyway. Taxis here are good and fun and all, but what I really love are the buses, or as they’re locally called, “colectivos” (which means, a Brazilian guy explained to me, simply any collection of things, which didn’t really do much to illuminate the meaning of the term as applied to buses). Bus travel has never been my thing, as I usually prefer subway or trams with fixed, easily understood tracks. And when I first got here, I’d choose to walk for like miles rather than take a bus that went along exactly the same route.

The aforementioned reluctance was partly because of the initially confusing nature of bus fare usage, which requires one to tell the driver exactly what street you want to be let off at, whereupon he gives you whatever fare applies. I found a way around this, though, by simply telling the bus driver the max fare (one peso veinte centavos), thus obviating the need to have a complex discussion about my destination. (The max fare is 1.20, but even a short trip costs like 1.10, so the difference is so trivial that it’s not really worth bothering over. We’re literally talking about pennies.)

But after I took a few of them, I figured out the drill for the fare (including getting a SUBE card, which allows one to just debit a charge electronically, as opposed to paying with monedas (coins), which is still done but takes FOREVER for each passenger and has interesting implications that I’ll describe more below), and really got into the idea of the colectivos. These buses are colorful, again literally—they are often painted in bright colors indicating the number of the line and, helpfully, the name of the destination(s). Inside, there are often curtains over the windows, and in older buses, even images of the Virgin Mary with prayers for automotive safety.

Said prayers are really quite necessary because of the cavalier way that the buses stop and start. Because the lines of passengers are often long and the process for paying fares can be protracted, hurrying colectivistas often start driving while people (e.g., self) are still standing on the steps of the bus waiting to enter, and in one even as a passenger (e.g., self) was on the final step leaning out of the bus. Much the same is true of stops, which when dinged last only long enough to let the requisite number of passengers off, so that the colectivo doesn’t really stop entirely and one must jump out onto Puerreydon or Azcuenaga or Sta Fe or wherever, in motion.

It’s really quite exciting. Driving in LA, for all its many charms, is going to seem quite tame by comparison.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Communication consternation: final chapter

There is always an awkward pause when locals ask me what I like best about Buenos Aires. It’s not that I don’t like anything about it. I really do have much affection for this place (more, e.g., than I did for Zurich last summer). It’s just that this doesn’t seem to translate directly into a specific, identifiable thing-preference. This is a city better savored slowly, hence its appeal is atmospheric rather than (at least for me) easily separable. But I’ve come up with a response to this question that is true, if not pleasing to Portenos, who seem to love their city in an unconditional, beyond-qualities sense.

What I say is that my fave thing about summer in Bs As is the chance it’s given me to practice the espanol. And this, Br. Rdrsp., is indubitably veracious. Though I’m still not in the promised land of Fluency, I can see that promised land from the not-so-bad neighboring territory of Comfortably Conversational, and I’m pretty pleased with that outcome.

This still entails ups and downs. To wit, this AM on the way to stop in at my language school, I found myself picking up instinctively and easily snippets of conversation as I passed people by. A man holding a little dog came up to a woman and said, “Mirá que te traigo!” (“Look who I’m bringing you!”) A woman walking past with her daughter said, “Éso no querría.” (“I wouldn’t want that,” with the difference being that “querría” is conditional while “quería” would be past imperfect, and I totally heard and was pleased that I noticed this.)

But just when I was feeling pretty good about the old espanol, I got on the bus and said to the driver, “Uno veinte” to indicate the fare I wanted, and he said, “Yes?” in English, suggesting that I’d somehow failed to communicate this very basic and simple information acceptably in Spanish. (I refused to capitulate, repeating slowly “Uno. Veinte,” which worked but did not make me feel like a bilingual champ by any stretch of the imagination.) And again this afternoon when chatting with a waitress at Locos x Futbol, all of a sudden, poof! I had some context and then I lost it, and in an instant failed to really fully understand what she was saying, which was/is really embarrassing.

The thing is, of course, that while sometimes there are quantum leaps in language understanding, it’s a process that also includes moments of failure (and even requires them for trial-and-error reasons) even when you more or less get how to speak. And there will always be snooty folks who point out that you’re clearly not a native speaker by responding to you in the tongue indicated by your accent or, worse, pretending not to understand. Maggie, the jefa at my language school, speaks perfect English, but told me that she often has trouble following English when its spoken too quickly, or in a dialect, or with mucho slang.

So the good news in all this is that my Spanish is much, much better than it was when I got here, and that the idea of speaking Spanish with something like fluency no longer seems like a ludicrous pipe dream. But learning a second language, at least after childhood, is a long, slow, and never-quite-perfect process, as even people who are well-versed enough to teach classes in English (as a second language) have told me. This all is perhaps best captured by the observation of a very-Spanish-fluent acquaintance who remarked that you’re pretty good at Spanish when locals tell you you’re quite good at Spanish, because they mean that for someone who obviously doesn’t speak it as a first language, you’re doing well. But you’re only really good at Spanish when locals never remark that they’re impressed by your Spanish, because they take it for granted that you can speak fluently, and are no more likely to compliment your language skills than they would those of a native speaker. The first of these thresholds I crossed during my time in Buenos Aires. The second still remains far away.

On Food

Bar Federal in San Telmo.

I just now got back from my fave restaurant here in Bs As, el Café del Lector. Fave, I should emphasize, not because it has the best food ever (the Lector, bless its heart, does not), but fave in the sense that it’s become a weekly or so tradition for me to head over there, through residential side streets, up and down several Roman-feeling stone staircases, past typically Bonarense statuary and the British Embassy, to the Café itself, located in the shadows of the hulking Biblioteca National.

The appeal of the Lector is that it’s an ideal place if you want to eat while also spending several hours solo reading and/or working (something that would not be acceptable, or even possible, I suspect, in most other Bs As restaurants). That said, however, the moment seems ideal to at least briefly review my experience of and thoughts about food here in the SA antipodes.

These guys are everywhere selling various varieties of roasted nuts. I was not particularly interested in partaking in this fare, and never did.

Let us begin with an overview thought. People often remark at the mention of any foreign country, “The food there is delicious!” This is not right for two reasons. First, the food in any country varies, and one’s experience of the food will also necessarily vary with it. In Spain, for example, I had outstanding tapas and disgusting ones. Moreover, whatever regional variation there may be in a given local cuisine can be generally distasteful to one, in which case what’s “good” there may be gross to a given visitor.

So to the extent that one might ask “How is the food in Argentina,” my response would be “At its best, excellent. At its worst, forgettable.” And this statement is more or less true of any country one might visit, even the grand old EEUU. Hence this post seeks to review and describe my experience of, rather than uncritically laud, the food here in Bs As. That said, let us begin with

Steak. I have had many steakses since arriving here, and they’ve been generally very good. And for the amount I paid for them, they’ve been downright insane bargains. I don’t think I’ve paid more than US$20 for a steak since arriving, and many of them have been enormous and delicious for the same amount that might fetch you shoe leather at a Sizzler back home.

Bacon-wrapped bife de ojo at el Lector.

But my favorite iteration of the local red-meat culture has to be the parrilla. This is a term for BBQ that I might be misusing, as it could refer only to the BBQ itself and not to the food you get. Point being, restaurants that call themselves parrillas (and there are many) may serve steak, but they may also serve up the classic option, which begins with a buffet with salad and whatnot, and then proceeds to proffer up a gut-busting series of meats served successively on a platter. The parade of deliciousness typically begins with sausage (including my fave, morcilla, or blood sausage), and then includes things like ribs, T-bone steak, steak, additional steak, other kinds of steak, and concludes with steak. There is also chimuchurri, which is the closest thing one can find to spicy sauce in these parts, and for dessert there is often steak-based flan on offer. It is a self-consciously overdone spectacle, perhaps seeking to show off Argentine largesse with food, esp to foreign visitors.

Let us now speak of empanadas. These are turnovers, more or less, full of various things—some have cheese, or vegetables, or sausage, or spicy (“spicy”) meat, or non-spicy (“bland”) meat, or turkey. You get the picture. These are best experienced, in my view, as appetizers. An empanada or two with a drink is a great way, for example, to presage a parrilla (see above). As a full meal, they’re kinda heavy, though this did not stop me from consuming many full-on empanada-only meals at my fave empanada place, Romario, up in Palermo Jardin. Somewhat charmingly, you can tell what kind of empanada you’re eating by matching the edge of the turnover to the particular usage of the restaurant (see Romario’s, below).

Empanadas with handy guide from Romario.

The least obvious of the great Argentine triumvirate of food (or “chow” though not “chau”), as I’ve come to think of it, is Italian food. Well-nigh one-third of Argentines are of Italian descent, as a quick glance at the names of locals will make abundantly clear, and they’ve imported along with them many fine examples of their cuisine. I’ve lost count of the number of excellent pizza and pasta dishes I’ve had, though my fave place is just down Azcuenaga, a classic example of the Italo-Antipodean style called Quentino. My only reservation about Quentino is that the guy who always ends up waiting on my table is a damned mutterer, hence I can hardly understand a word he says, and I always leave feeling bitter about the state of my Spanish.

At this point it should be clear that the classic triad of Arg cuisine—steak/parrilla, empanadas, and Italian food—is wonderful and delicious at its best, but fails in two ways. First, this fare is muy rico, as the Spanish man sez, but it is in no way spicy. At Quentino, I asked the waiter for some red pepper to go with my pizza and he looked at me like I were crazy (and no it was not just the language barrier, as I confirmed by finding a pic of red pepper on my iPad and showing him). Nor is there hot sauce of any sort. Locals warned me of the spiciness of chimichurri, which was well-meant but really laughable since the local chimichurri packs all the picante punch of a liberal dose of black pepper.

Sort of related, the very riqueza of local food, in combination with its obvious heaviness, can cause it after a spell to seem enormously heavy. (At which point I should also mention that a possible fourth classic food worth mentioning is the milanesa: A piece of meat pounded flat, breaded, fried, and then covered in sauce and toppings. At my local fave joint, el Club de la Milanesa at Uriburu and Las Heras, they serve up a milanesa so delicious and so dense that it requires me at least a two-hour nap to recover from the inevitably ensuing coma.) In my time here, it took about two weeks of constantly engorging myself with pizza, pasta, empanadas, steak and the occasional milanesa to reach a point where I pined for the kind of light healthy fare one finds with such regularity in Californ-eye-ay. Broad Readership, I found myself craving a damned salad. Things were desperate.

Unrelated to the current topic, this is a guy selling "mates" which are gourds for yerba mate, which is a beloved local drink that is an herbal, though I'm told no less intense, alternative to coffee. I had mate in saquitos but it didn't really do much for me.

So what does one do when one hits the Argentine food-wall? There are options. Consider:

Sushi. There is a lot of sushi around here, and the quality of the fish is generally high. My only reservation is that there is a local desire to fill every possible sushi roll with an ample complement of cream cheese. This is not only kind of gross (not being a fan of the Philly Roll generally) but also kind of undermines the project of finding a cuisine light enough to offset the otherwise dense character of the Argentine diet.

Health food: Tea Connection. Oh, B.R., do I have a hot investment tip for you. Come to Bs As and open up a location of the chain “Tea Connection” (name in English), which serves relatively light fare, like chicken sandwiches and organic-rice stir fries, and mixed-fruit drinks. For while I found this restaurant a great change from the usual fare, I rarely went there because both of the two locations near me were so busy during all hours of the day as to almost inevitably require an awful and protracted wait outside in the freezing plein-air. But it seemed to me from my many many failures to eat at the invariably crowded TC that there is a real supply/demand mismatch here in Bs As, and that anyone who opened a location would be raking it in.

The polar opposite of what I'm currently writing about. This burger is on offer at local BKs and is called the "BK Stacker." It rises a full five patties high, and offers "Sabor 5.0" according to the ads. I actually first thought this was a joke mocking gluttonous Americans. But it's not. So the next time you hear a foreigner making light of our gross diets, cite the BK Stacker to illustrate that the only thing grosser than US fast food is the metastatic version of US fast food that people apparently consume with wild abandon abroad.

Vegetarian food: Happiness House. In my fifth week here, I found along Rodriguez Pena, totally por casualidad, one of like three vegetarian specialty shops in the entirety of Bs As. This one also has an English name, interestingly, and is a buffet where you can load up a box with all manner of Arg-veg specialty delights like empanadas, carne de soya, etc., though the overall theme was basically Asiatic, and the place was run by Asian folks who spoke perfect Spanish which always vaguely amused me for reasons that remain unclear. This developed into a very fun tradition whereby I would spend four hours in the AM at my really very fun and cool Spanish school, VOS, and would treat myself afterward to a cheap and delicious vegetarian feast at HH, which made whatever ensuing heavy dinner I’d inevitably consume seem not so artery-threatening as it probably still was.

And of course this entry would be incomplete without a reference to dessert, which in my case was always delectable and wonderful flan. Flan is not, of course, unique to Argentina, but what makes the experience of flan here so delectable is that it’s usually accompanied by dulce de leche, which is a scoop of caramel that has more … structural integrity than the caramel sauce one might get in the states, and is also much richer and delicious, so much so that I could eat an entire serving of it solo. And, embarrassingly enough, did—several times (record for portions of flan + DdL eaten in one meal = 3).

Flan with dulce de leche.

This list is necessarily incomplete. I’m reminded of many other memorable food experiences that I don’t have time to detail--eating at Fiselle, just across the street from my depto, and practicing Spanish with voluble owner Ricardo; grabbing choripan from carts off the street; those mobile nut-roasteries that smell intriguing if not particularly delicious and that I never got the nerve to try; long AMs spent writing over a desayuno completo (perfectly enjoyable but over-named); outstanding café y medias lunas at Martinez (the Porteno Starbucks but still excellent); and of course hours and hours spent at my personal fave, la famosa La Biela. But there’s much blogging to be done, B.R., and little time remaining, so I’ll have to leave the rest to your fecund imaginationses.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Iguazu redux

You may have thought, broad readership, that last week's Iguazu Falls video tour was the only post I'd be offering ye about the Iguazu experience. Well, you'd be wrong about that, and herein lies your correction. For Iguazu was not the kind of experience that can be contained in but a single post, and while I am not going to bore anyone--self included--with a series of useless superlatives to describe the waterfall, there were salient details of the trip that bear retelling, which I will herein retell.

Firstly: the Iguazu trip began early on a Sat AM, at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery. This is the point of departure for domestic flights within Argentina, and is commonly known as the "aeroparque" as opposed to "Ezeiza" which is the international hub. The destination was Iguazu (obv.) in the state of Misiones, which is a nub that protrudes out of the northwest of the country up toward its intersection with Paraguay and Brazil.

The first impression I had upon landing in Misiones was the blessed, blessed warmth of the atmosphere. Bs As is many good things, but during the "summer" (June-Aug, that is), it is not warm. But Misiones, happily, was, and the tropical sunrays were a blessed change from the dank citification of BA.

We had but a moment to change and regroup before heading out from our very nice hotel out to an open-topped jeep that was taking us to various excursions. The first was ziplining, which triggered DF's well-known fear of heights quite intensely. Despite aforementioned fear, I managed to zipline very efficiently, and my only regret was that the experience ended so quickly that I barely had time to realize I'd conquered my vertigo and that I was enjoying myself.

Then came rapelling, which raises all manner of double-entendre possibilities (e.g., "repelling", "repellent" "I repel myself"), but in fact required us all to launch ourselves backward off the lip of a steep cliff and bounce laterally down to a creek bed below. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. Easier, because it's all managed by competent Arg gentlemen who more or less assure that even if you freaked out and flailed like a newborn, you'd avoid death. And harder, because if you don't manage to execute it quite right, you can go into a tilt or a spin and find yourself humiliated if not in danger.

My result was adequate if not spectacular. I managed to avoid any major fracases but did not descend as gracefully as I might have. The trip to the bottom also afforded the chance to explore the creekbed, and a nearby waterfall that provided a small taste of the Iguazu experience the next day, at least in the sense that taking a bath prepared Titanic victims for the ship's foundering.

Night came, and back at the hotel I looked forward to a decent night's sleep free from the noises of the various deafening clubs located infelicitously downstairs from my otherwise very nice depto. Hence the borderline-tragic irony when just about when I was heading to bed, I heard the couple in the room next to me stumble noisily through their door. Their mighty battle with the lock forced me to look outside, and I saw them struggling with the lock, clearly too inebriated to perform basic motor functions. Another bad sign: Down the hall, where they'd just passed, someone (i.e., one of them) had ripped a painting off the wall and smashed it on the ground, casting glass about everywhere.

So you can guess what happened next: Domestic disturbance! Nothing violent, mind you, at least not that I could tell. I think what happened was that the woman of the couple passed out, and the man went into a drunken rage, as I could hear him bellowing "hijo de puta" and whatnot constantly, as well as slamming doors, and generally raging, and someone (not me) called the police, who knocked on his door for the next hour asking him to open it (him: "no!"). This was not only enormously disruptive to my attempts to sleep, but also puzzling. Why were the police being so polite? Why didn't they just barge on in?

Anyway, the fracas ended around 1am, and I finally managed to sleep, up relatively early the next day for the big Iguazu tour. Iguazu may be in a rain forest, but it's extremely well-developed in an almost Disneyland-style way. There are touristy shops selling Guarani crafts all over the place, there's a train that takes you around to the various parts of the falls, and the falls themselves are accessed through paths and steel walkways that are packed with pic-snapping tourists so that you have to jostle your way to the front to get a peep of the falls.

I won't say much about the falls themselves, and instead will let the videos and pix do the talking. But I will relate one event, the final activity that we all did after much falls-goggling and mild hiking and a gut-busting parrilla. When all this had finished, we all descended a slippery staircase down to a dock and were trundled into a speedboat. We put our belongings in waterproof bags, and then the boat took off into the lake, doing several rounds until it revved up and charged straight into one of the massive falls. This was indescribably exhilarating, especially for the few moments that it initially appeared that the driver was going to drive us all the way up into the crushing falls themselves (which, of course, he did not--rather, he pulled away at the last minute, leaving us soaked but alive, which was a fair tradeoff).

Besides the massive effervescing of the old adrenaline, the other major advantage of the boat tour was that, after we'd charged the falls thrice, the boat sped down a back section of the lake at exhilarating speed, and also happened to be across the international border, so that now I can officially say I've been to Brazil (though sadly not Paraguay, as I'd hoped), if briefly.

By then it was late afternoon, and we were all deposited back in the main Iguazu Falls shopping area for a gratuitous hour obviously designed to maximize the chances that we'd purchase commercialized Guarani goods, though I spent the time trying and failing to get a feed of the US/Jamaica Gold Cup quarterfinal game, and also cursing petulant Apple for freezing out Adobe (which was why I could not get aforementioned game).

Then the bus ride to the hotel, and the napping and the showering and the dinner, and the sleeping and the plane back to cold harsh Bs As the next day, where I sat next to a friendly Argentine gentleman who explained that he made his own wine that magically did not leave its consumers with hangovers (NB: not sold in stores--I asked).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Two views of la Boca

After visiting la Bombonera in la Boca on Sat, I walked south toward el Caminito and the port, which are the other two heavily visited sites in the area.

The Boca is one of my fave districts of Bs As, pretty much the polar opposite of the fancy Recoleta where I'm staying. It's a working-class port district, right on the scuzziest part of the Riachuelo (hence its name--it's at the mouth (boca) of the river). But like many working-class districts, it has a real charm and sense of spirit, no better seen than in its many buildings painted in bright colors.

My Porteno friends, well-meaning all, warned me that la Boca can be dangerous, but enough of it is carved out for tourists that it's hard to find too much danger if you take the tourist bus to la Bombonera and then to the Caminito. The latter is a pedestrian walkway that swerves at a diagonal between main streets and down to the port itself, and is populated with artists' stalls vending works of variant quality, and is lined with classic Bocense variegated buildings.

El Caminito is also horrifically touristy, and it's hard to find any authenticity in the area, sort of like Hollywood Blvd in LA. That said, the street and the port are essential places to visit, just to see, while keeping in mind that they're not the real working-class Boca itself, which exists only blocks away but is almost entirely unvisited by tourists.

Then, at the bottom of El C where it meets the unutterably scuzzy Riachuelo are two outstanding museums, and this comes from a guy who does not like museums all that much. One is Proa (referring to the prow of a boat) and has rotating exhibits of modern art (as well as a truly terrifying statue of a titanic spider outside).

The other is the Museo Benito Quinquela Martin, and is devoted to 20th c art inspired by the Boca, and is just about the best museum I've ever seen. collection is modestly sized, but hits all the right notes. There's some really excellent art from the late 1800s and early 1900s inspired by the port culture of la Boca; an awesome collection of effigies from the prows of old ships (there must be a word for these--they're often half-human, half-animal); and a great series of work by a modern Argentine painter named Julio Racioppi, whose art depicts and really captures the tenor of life in the city, as for example, with scenes of hulking grey apt buildings sitting in the afternoon sun.

So consider these two videos. First, I walked from la Bombonera to el Caminito, which took me ever so briefly through a part of the Boca that is not (or at least not that) touristy. I stopped to get a "choripan" (sausage in bread) from a guy on the street, and for at least that moment had a sense that I'd escaped the tourist hordes at least for a moment, which you can see here:

This seems like a pretty good indication of la Boca--it's a little run down, but homey, and you can see la Bombonera in the background, as well as a brightly painted buildings. Also, love the guys waving. I showed them the video afterward, and told them I was going to post it on my blog, which is very famous in the US. They were all like, "You, famous? Liar." Fair enough.

Then I strolled on down to the Caminito and eventually to the Museo Martin, and you can see my sojourn along the former here:

This about captures it--camera-toting tourist hordes, but colorful and interesting nevertheless. Right after I finished the video, a bunch of guys--some clearly drunk at like 3pm in the afternoon--crowded around to look at the iPad. At first I thought they were going to rob me, but really they just wanted to check it out, and they were all like "Miracle! Amazing!" which is really a pretty understandable reaction to the iPad.

After all this, it was late afternoon and I hopped on the local 53 back up to the Recoleta. It was the first time I really felt like I had a grasp of the city and its geography and could get around with ease and instinctive knowledge. As I was waiting for the 53, the cheesy open-topped "Buenos Aires Tour Bus" rolled by and I shook my head in contempt. Damned tourists.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Observationalismo: amusing Argentine signs and unrelated Porteno facts

There are many one-off observations I've made about Argentina that don't warrant a blog post in themselves. There are also many pix I've taken of amusing crap that also don't warrant independent posts. So, like the chocolate and peanut butter of yore, I've decided to start a thread that combines the two. Here are my first forays. I'll likely add to this. Or, I won't. You'll have to wait and see, Broad Readership.

First off: Portenos love dogs. There are dogs being walked all over the place, often by dog walkers, often wearing amusing sweaters (the dogs, I mean, though the walkers may well have been wearing foolish-looking sweaters as well--I didn't really notice). My fave example was just this AM when I saw a man walking his small dog down Puerreydon, with the dog clad in an albiceleste sweater with "Messi 10" on it.

But Portenos do not seem to love cleaning up after their dogs nearly as much as they love owning them (cf. also Berlin). I have had to develop a habit of walking down sidewalks while always looking at my feet to make sure I don't step in something foul, and I'll risk tempting fate to report that so far I've been fortunate to avoid such foulness (unlike the elegantly dressed woman I saw who stepped out of a cab directly into aforementioned dog foulness, and immediately exclaimed "la concha!", which was my first experience of what appears to be the Argentine swear du jour.

Speaking of pets, it took me a while to figure out what's weird about this sign, then I got it--it's in English! No idea why they didn't say "Lavadero de perros."

Second: There are quasi-homeless folks one sees on the street quite frequently hauling around rickshaw-like devices stacked with cardboard cartons for recycling. Called "cartoneros," these people are not environmentalists, but make a living (barely) by collecting and recycling cardboard cartons.

This was apparently a practice that first began during the Argentine economic disaster of about 10 years ago, and has persisted since. The cartoneros often seem to have a pretty well-oiled operation, wearing pullover workers suits with reflective tape (they're not city workers, to be clear--this is an informal but tolerated, and I suppose at least marginally socially beneficial practice). Nor do these people seem completely abject and dissheveled in the sense of, say, a homeless drunk moldering on the street. I'm not sure if this is heartening because it means that they're doing more OK in life than one might suspect, or if it means that there are more Argentines close to the poverty line than is immediately obvious to visitors.

This pic is actually from Colonia, Uruguay, and explains that the big public chessboard in the city square near the old castle is only for the kids of the area. Something about this made me think of property and public goods at the time, though looking back I suspect the children of Colonia were all like, "Really, chess? You couldn't have spent public funds on a damned Wii?"

I got weird looks from people during my first few weeks here when I said "Que pasa?" as a greeting. Apparently this does not mean "What's up?" as it does in Mexico and Spain, but rather "OH MY GOD WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON," so I've since stopped and now say "Como anda?" (how's it going) or "Todo bien?" (everything all right?).

At stores, one must buy fruit separately from a dour guy who weighs it and sells it to you from a stand. The rest of the stuff you get from the proprietors, who are without fail Chinese. In fact, markets often have Chinese names, which initially made me think there was a weird profusion of Asian specialty-food stores here, while in fact these are regular, mainstream Argentinian stores that happen to have names referring to their Chinese proprietors.

You can barely see it given crappiness of my iPad camera when it zooms, but there is a street here called "Estados Unidos," which filled me with nationalistic pride. I even chanted "USA" a bit when taking this pic, but no one seemed to notice or care, and to be honest I was disappointed at the lack of reaction.

There is no iced tea here. Hence I've had to resort to my old caffeine standbys, Diet Coke ("coca lite") or coffee. The latter is really quite excellent. There are no frou-frou coffee drinks here in Arg, but only strong, quality coffee often cut with a bit of milk. The latter is my drink of choice, and it's called a "cortado", which I often amp up to a "doble cortado."

And while the Starbucks leviathan has made inroads here, I've never been to one since arriving in Bs As, instead preferring local joints or even the Argentine equivalent of Starbucks, Cafe Martinez, which is a chain found everywhere around here but has damned fine coffee that I'll miss upon returning to the states (when, I swear, I'm going to kick diet coke cold turkey and go back to a limit of 1-2 coffees a day, max).

This sign was in Palermo Jardin, and in it a guy professes love for his wife/girlfriend. When I first saw this, I thought it was a pretty impressive gesture that took a lot of creativity and work, but then I started seeing these signs everywhere and realized that they're a commonplace gesture in Bs As. It would be as though you were at a restaurant and people came out with a cake singing "Happy Birthday"--if you'd never seen that whole tradition before, you'd be blown away. "Wow, you came up with a song and thought up this whole spontaneous event just to celebrate your friend's b-day!" But then once you eventually got that it was something commonplace, it would seem a lot less impressive.

In a class touch that the US would do well to imitate, water and non-alc drinks (e.g., diet coke) here are served in wine glasses. Makes you feel like a movie star! The TV presenters (including guys talking about sports) even have wine glasses with water on their desks during their shows.

This is one of a series of ads I've seen a lot of in the Subte (which I've stopped taking because it's not only far from where I live, but also hellaciously crowded and gross, and colectivos are a much better option). This one in particular amuses me because of the way the girl's head looks weirdly detached from her body. I suppose they don't have the latest version of Photoshop down here.

When I came down here, everyone remarked that Argentines are an attractive people. My verdict: No more or less than anyplace else. As with any country, some people here are gorgeous, some ugly, and most somewhere in between. I think there may be truth to the assertion that Argentines are better dressed. This winter, long colorful coats are in for women, many of which are leopard-print, which is a particularly good look. And the sloppy, slouchy look that is so popular among US youth (and which I've been guilty of adopting sometimes--not that I'm a youth), is not much seen here. A colleague said in advising visiting Americans that Portenos are "more conscious of their appearances" than Americans, and I think that about captures it.

Not only do Argentines have cologne specifically for children, but they also market it quite aggressively. If we have this in the US, I'd rather not know about it. Seems creepy. Though we have sexy beauty pageants for six-year-old girls, so I guess we're not really in a position to judge.

There's an election here in Argentina later this year, which explains at least in part, I think, the profusion of election posters and graffiti. The posters that have really grabbed my attention are for a fellow named Filmus, who appears to be running for Jefe del Gobierno of Bs As on the Judicialist (e.g., Peronist) ticket. The posters that I am fond of say "Porque estoy con Cristina, estoy con Filmus." The move here is pretty obvious--Filmus is trying to leverage Cristina's popularity. What's strange about some of the posters (like the one below) is that Filmus doesn't even appear in them. It's all Cristina. This isn't really that bad from an aesthetic perspective, but the attempt to use Cristina's appeal to get votes for Filmus is so transparent that it seems to reflect badly on the guy. Can't Filmus even be in the damn picture? Doesn't he have any redeeming qualities? Or is he just a total Peronist/Judicialist figurehead? (These aren't rhetorical questions--I really don't know.)