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.