Stop Being Ironic, Austin



Tracy Chan’s Austinist article, Stop Being Ironic, Austin (summarizing a NY Times Article articulates what irritates me about a lot of hipster culture. While there’s nothing wrong with silly for silliness’s sake, I think the irony is an attempt to deal with the self aware shallowness.

Christmas Lights

The Day After Thanksgiving

Christmas Lights

What we do after thanksgiving…

I never thought this would be me but here I am on November 23rd, listening to Christmas music while Annette decorates the house with lights. I’ve never liked Christmas much, except for advent calendars, which catered to both my obsessive-compulsive and chocolate-loving nature.

"As with most friendships it was never a matter of growth or doubt. Friends are born in archaic horizons; they were shaped with the Pteraspis in Siluria; they have nothing to do with the accident of space." Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams

What are the characteristics of a good friend?

"As with most friendships it was never a matter of growth or doubt. Friends are born in archaic horizons; they were shaped with the Pteraspis in Siluria; they have nothing to do with the accident of space." Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams

“As with most friendships it was never a matter of growth or doubt. Friends are born in archaic horizons; they were shaped with the Pteraspis in Siluria; they have nothing to do with the accident of space.” Henry Adams in The Education of Henry Adams

As a GED Instructor I would teach essay writing. We’re talking straightforward, vanilla 5-paragraph essays. Now the thing about these hyper standardized essays is that they must ask something that anyone at all could answer without having to read anything (it’s seperate from the reading test). The unintended result is that the questions can often be very personal, ranging from “Who was someone who changed affected your life and how did they affect it?” to “What’s your favorite _____ and why?”

The prompt “What are the characteristics of a good friend?”, led to an interesting class discussion.”You can always depend on a friend, no matter what.” said one student. “You can always call them, even at 2am and they’ll listen to you.” said another. “They will always lend you money.” said a third. The class got a little quiet and stopped calling out characteristics. “Who here has a friend?” I asked. Silence. “No one here has any friends?” I asked again. “Fuck friends. They stab you in the back!” said a girl and the class rumbled in agreement. “Yeah, I’m better off without friends. They’re liars.” said another girl.

What followed was a long discussion about realistic expectations. The students had an unrealistic expectation of good friends (they, of course, didn’t want to receive 2am emergency calls any more than their “friends” did). Instead of seeing friendship as a negotiated understanding between two people it was a monolithic junior high school ideal that they could never have. We will never have the same type of BFF friendship that we had as teenagers because situations and resources change.

Honestly, I was in the same boat as my students, not seeing myself as having more than a friend or two at any given time. My experience left me wondering, are we all unrealistic or simply lower expectations and retitle aquaintances into friends? Are they people one facebook who like our updates, essentially a mix between passing notes in class and cooing over a baby?

As an adult, what are the characteristics of a good friend? I’d like to know.

Writing a comic


I’ve started writing a comic book. It’s going to be about 20 pages long and its about my ill-fated first day as a substitute teacher. Often with creative projects coming up with a useable workflow can be a substantial part of the battle. Currently I’m using Scrivener to outline and the ipad app Noteshelf to do the page thumbnails and rough outlines. Noteshelf is great because I can have a customizable background page template. I’m not sure what program I’ll use to draw the final artwork.

What’s your workflow? I’m very open to suggestions!

Sorting stuff with my mom


This is what we do before we give away childhood toys.

iPad art

I got an iPad from work and I used it to make some drawings on the plane.


Epic Fail

Failure Resume

Epic FailI just finished my online portfolio. I recently listened to this NPR Commonwealth Club with Tina Seeling who suggestd writing a resume of failures to outline the experiences that you’ve had that have put you where you are today.  It was pretty interesting and I recommend doing it.  It makes you realize that it’s the risks you’ve taken that have put you in the great situations that you’re in now.  While it was interesting, I don’t recommend posting it as it’s a little personal.

I just got a bike

It’s not the best bike in the world but it only cost $30.  I got it from a girl at a party. She was moving and wanted to get rid of the bike because she’d bought a better one. We hit it off and she offered to sell it to me for $20 and I was going to buy it for Annette. Well, I hadn’t mentioned that it was for Annette… or anything about Annette, which might have been why it was only $20. The only issue was that there were a few things wrong with it and I doubted Annette was interested in installing a gear shifter before being able to use it.  So I really wanted the bike for myself but never called the girl, fearing the low price. Months later I ran into her at a veggie dog eating contest and she was upset that I’d never called. However, she still had the bike and, to compensate for any hurt feelings, I gave her $30.  It cost $17 for a very lazy bike store to install a new gear shifter… Plus another $30 for some slick tires for the road.

I changed the tires today and rode the bike to ColdTowne where I did the Sunday free Allstars show.  Halfway there it got really hard to pedal and I was wondering at how out of shape i was. I hardly made it!  Well, I dismounted near the theater and as I pushed the bike indoors, I noticed that the back wheel wasn’t even turning. I’d put the wheel on loose and it had become off center while I’d been riding.  So it turns out that I’m more in shape than I’d previously thought!

So now I have a bike and I’m very very happy.

Subbing: First Day

My first day of subbing was at a middle school on Austin’s east side. Later I found out from Annette’s mom, it was the worst part of the city in which to sub. It was far out of town in the middle of nowhere with only factories, strip-malls and pawnshops to dot the countryside. When I arrived I was told that there were 17 subs requested for the school that day. Partly it was because there was a teacher in-service that day but mostly it was because someone had shot at the police with an AK47 and now neighborhood was on lockdown and teachers were having trouble getting to work.

The teacher I was subbing for was doing the in-service onsite she told that she would be back at the end of the day. She also told me that they were great kids and that if they misbehaved to use the suspension forms. This should have given me a hint as to what was going to happen. Every teacher tells the sub that their class is good. She is the only one who ever told me to use suspension forms. All I had to do was hand out some tests and then an assignment. Easy.

First period was tired and they just tested me out a bit. They were loud and out of their chairs and screaming. The class talked, shouted, was rude, used foul language, etc. Second period was worse. They’d learned from the first period that I was unprepared. The kids thought the funniest thing was to ask for pencils and then break them, to ask for a test or handout and destroy it. I didn’t get a single test even handed back to me at the end.

In middle school teachers have little leverage because far and away the most important thing to most students is what their peers think of them. Every moment is an opportunity to be awesome or stupid in the eyes of their classmates. Cute girls who’re just becoming sexual and learning that they can command attention by getting boys to act out. In every class boys said and did all kinds of imbecilic things for the sexual bones that the girls threw their way: a smile here, a piece of eye contact there. While mysterious and seductive to their male peers, to someone twice their age their flirting was as subtle as a caveman dance. One 13 year old in first period left me a paper neatly folded on her desk: “My name is . My number is . Please call me.” It was shocking.

Paper was thrown; kids hit each other. When I got hit in the head with a rubber band I finally called school security. Without asking anything the man said “I’ll be right there’. Just before he arrived the kids shut up. They began working away quietly and when the security officer showed up at the door he asked what the problem was. I sheepishly told him that the kids had been out of control but they were fine now. He looked at the little angels and asked: “Are you guys being out of control?” That was all they needed and the room erupted in front of him in a blaze of insanity probably designed to show off how completely in control they were. “I wasn’t being disruptive. He was!!” said one. “It wasn’t me,” shouted his friend, hitting him. All hell broke loose. The security man made some brief threats about calling their parents and then he left and with him any semblance of authority. Looking back, it was all screwball comedy. This Asian kid who hardly spoke English came to me almost in tears. In a despairing voice: “Don’t call my parents! I’ve been working so hard!!!” As if there was any accountability at all.

The class’s reputation was so bad that by the last period, eight kids who wanted to do their work immediately abandoned ship and left for neighboring classrooms. “This sucks, is said one kid who stayed. Now it’s going to be all quiet in here.” And it was. Quiet and controllable. There was a conversation that went on and on… But that was ok. A cute girl flirting with her cute boys, an annoyance, not a threat.

While it felt like I was trying to stand in a cold rushing river for a few hours, for me the hardest part of the day was leaving. I tried to clean up the floor on which her class had used to store the contents of their backpacks. I wanted to let her know how the day had gone.

“It went ok.” I lied. “Nothing too bad.”
“Yeah, I heard they were out of control,” she said.
“Well, thanks.” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. And it was over.

She was stacking books and never looked at me during the exchange. The office told me I didn’t have to sign out. I left; feeling cheap, a call girl hired to keep the class busy while the girlfriend was away. Somehow I had misunderstood my role in the educational process and it stung. It was the toughest 75 bucks I’ve EVER earned.

the move ends

Change is stressful and requires a lot of attention. There are so many new things to learn and do that it’s easy to lose oneself in the muddle. The emotions you experience are more intense and you see things as if for the first time. Until now it’s been impossible for me to write to an audience about coming to Austin. Writing about things in the moment, as they are happening takes more self awareness and multitasking skill than I currently have.

But, like every other move I’ve made, the dust clears and you no longer need to find an apartment, get furniture, look for a job, etc. Well, perhaps I still do need to do a lot of those things but the urgency is gone. I have all those essential slots temporarily filled and I can concentrate on exploring where I have landed.

I want to start writing more about Austin, especially through the eyes of someone who is just returning to the United States after three years of being abroad and who has never before had pretensions of living in Texas. Austin is a really amazing and I can’t wait to start writing.

austin house hunt and alori property managers

I should warn you that this post is just a bunch of whining. Mostly about a really bad property management company. Coming to a new place is tough in a lot of ways. If one were all settled. One of the toughest is getting started (housing and job) while not having either of the two. Here’s a story of Alori Property Managementand how they made the process a little harder.

The first job is housing. It’s hard to apply to jobs without a home so it’s good to get that first. The last I looked for housing in the States was four years ago and craigslist was the way. Now, however, while there are lots of advertisements for places, it seems to have been co-opted by property managers or agents, both of which take their cut. Our experience was probably typical. In our first day looking we saw maybe 7 different places. There were a few nice ones and at the end of the day we decided on one we liked a lot.

The apartment was run by a property manager called Alori Apartments. We went to the place and filled out the application and put a deposit down. The first bad sign was that they seemed to have called it a day at 5:30 and were already drinking in the office. Everything seemed in order but it was odd because they didn’t seem excited about renting to us.

We both have impeccable credit but they were only interested in our rental history (we had none from the USA, only Buenos Aires) and if we had jobs (we just got into town). So they asked for a two guarantors. This was fine but when I asked if one would be ok, they got snippity. I asked for a few other questions like how the deposit worked, what happened in case of breaking the lease, and if we could look at the lease. They didn’t like answering any of them. I assume it was the alcohol.

My dad agreed to guarantee us they faxed him a blank form saying basically he guaranteed us. He asked for a copy of the lease (or something saying how much we were paying in rent, etc.) and they refused to provide it. He said he’d like to know what he was guaranteeing.

When I called at 11am the next day, they said that there’d been a terrible mistake and apparently they’d rented the apartment to someone else who had put in a deposit before us. I asked them why they’d accepted our deposit and he said it was a clerical error. He refused to say anything more or explain how it had happened. I asked him if it was usually their policy to accept deposits on a property while not telling applicants that they were considering other people. The man refused to answer.

It makes no sense why they did any of that. I really doubt someone was actually in front of us. Someone else just probably arrived after us but had a rental history and a job and so after taking our deposit they decided on someone else.

It was frustrating and emotionally draining because we had really like the apartment. It was strange too because Alori never actually told us that they preferred the other people, just that we weren’t fast enough in getting all our information in, something that they had been holding up.

So not a big deal, but it is really indicative of our experience here. It’s weird that a company like this could be so cavalier and unprofessional but it’s something that’s been coming up a lot. From the temp agency who doesn’t answer their phone to the tutoring agency who wanted me to sign a contract saying I wouldn’t tutor for any other company for two years.

It’s Texas and people here seem to make their own law.


It’s ironic. I do so little but feel like things are moving so fast. Life is a whirl of meeting up with old friends and family who I haven’t seen in years.

Now that I have a nice new computer I can actually use it to do something. I’m taking full advantage of being in San Francisco to have my brother teach me what I need to know about creating interactive web apps (python, django, plone, etc.). My head is bursting with new information and my brain is craving more and more knowledge. Getting back in touch with this isde of my personality makes me feel stable and at home, an old friend I’d missed.

While I was away in Buenos Aires, I dropped all things computer. It’s interesting because while I was working in an e-learning company, I was shunted away from programming. Management didn’t like groups to interact or share each other’s skills. Not unlike the learning it instills, the job was an information production line, nothing more nor less. It’s exciting to think about another job where, like previous jobs, I will be encouraged to bring all my skills to the table.

I can hardly wait.

Reverse Culture Shock: Energy Drain

I’ve been back for about three weeks and shock is just about setting in. It’s as total as it is indescribable. I know it only by its symptoms. I am exhausted all the time. The actual tasks I need to do are easy: going to the mechanic, calling a friend, driving to the bank. It’s ironic because both the bureaucracy and the language is easier for me to navigate than it was in Buenos Aires.

The feeling is like having ice skated or roller bladed for a few hours, on taking the skates off you feel like you’re walking on air. You feel like you can run faster than a cheetah, nothing can stop you, your shoes have never been more comfy. But then you don’t know why you’ve walked just a few blocks and you’re out of breath already. The answer? Reverse culture shock.

Things seem like they should be easy, after all, I’ve done all this stuff and I didn’t even speak the language, I didn’t know anyone, I had fewer resources. I have none of these problems here in the States. It is not the difficulty of the tasks that is overwhelming, it’s that neurons in my brain are firing after having gone years without being accessed. My body is reconstructing relationships that it hasn’t considered in years.


“In my country there’s a problem, and that problem is transport.” -Borat

For my first year in Argentina my car (an 89 Camry) sat unused in my parents’ garage, so I gave it to a friend of mine who needed it. Now that I’ve returned she kindly fixed it up and handed it over. The car made it from Seattle to Portland just fine but then, on the way to Sacramento, the engine overheated and died.

It’s frightening to have your car die on the highway. When I started driving I used to imagine situations in which I’d imagine what I’d do in case I lost control of the vehicle. In this case the engine died and I lost power steering and brakes. Armed only with an unwhieldly wheel, an ebrake and some emergency blinkers for luck we somehow were able to coast into an Arco station. I poured in a $12 jug of coolant and it poured right out the bottom of the car. After some cajoling a guy working at the neighboring Subway came out and promptly disappeared under the car. He emerged, pronounced a leak in the water pump and recommended us a hotel where he and his girlfriend had spent the night the previous weekend.

We stayed at the Motel 6 slept hard. We’d spent so much time sitting and waiting for the car to cool, I’d eaten only some yogurt, a sandwich and some trailmix. Luckily we were just blocks away from Perry’s Automotive Service so we showed up bright and early with our broken car. They quoted us $460 to fix it (4 hours of labor at $80/hour) and, though it’s probably more than the price of the car, I decided to do the deed.

In Argentina I hardly ever used cars and never for long distance transportation as the interior of an Argentine bus looks more like an airplane than something you’d expect to have wheels. While I miss the freedom of the open road, it’s been wonderful to avoid the tragedy of a roadside breakdown. At least when you’re the one paying for it.


2 Girls, 1 Worldview




Today was my first day where I wasn’t formally employed while in Buenos Aires. It felt good not to have anywhere special to be and it brought back this conversation I’d overheard about a week ago while standing at the bus stop. There were two blond American girls. You can tell Americans by their hair, their clothes, and that they speak English loudly in American accents. I sidled closer to try hear if they were speaking English. Finding people who speak English thinking that no one around them understands is an amazing voyeuristic pleasure. When we got on the bus I was able to get closer and overhear. One was telling her friend about her plans now that she had been living here in Buenos Aires for about 6 months.

“Why would I work for $10 an hour. In a few years I’ll make ten times that. Why not enjoy my time here? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“Yeah,” her friend said, “You don’t want to waste it.”

And here we have a whole worldview. You see, there is this idea in the states that during your adult life (called Real World) if you’re not contributing to corporate America then you’re shirking your duty. Children, the senile, the mentally handicapped, and students are generally excepted from this. But on graduation, every student knows what they’re in for. These girls, I assumed from looking at them, had just graduated. Many new graduates take a parentally funded trip abroad to “experience the world” before heading on to the Real World.

Now you may think I’m about to judge them for thinking that they are immature and lazy. On the contrary, traveling is an amazing way to find yourself. However, working in another country enhances the experience you’d have and does not diminish it. There are tons of jobs you can get in other countries which you would never be qualified to do back home. But in a worldview where you work for money, work can be seen as a chore rather than an opportunity. These girls were trying to avoid the Real World (which is a pretty terrible place) by putting off working, but work isn’t the issue.

If you do it right, most fun things are lots of work. The only thing is that because you enjoy what you’re doing, you don’t call it “work”. Getting paid for doing what you want to do is the goal, but apparently these girls seemed to have such a dreary idea of work that they were willing to pass up the experience of getting out into the community in order to avoid it.





It was the last day of a coworker, a fellow expat. We had been hired on the same day almost three years earlier and now he’d decided to go back to England to try his luck. I asked him if he wasn’t worried about the economy. “When it’s time it’s time.” He said. And I knew in my heart that at that moment that it was my time too. But such a big move can be scary and and it can be easy to ignore your heart when a good paycheck and a comfortable life are on the chopping block.

Perhaps to make sure I wasn’t going to back out, about 4 months before my intended departure date I told my manager that I was leaving and asked him how much notice he wanted. He said a month would be ideal but that two weeks would suffice in a pinch. I assured him he’d get it. Then every two weeks or so he’d ask me about it and I would assure him that there was no change of plan. Then, one day, he said he would really like to know so he could plan a little. I said I’d let him know in a week, it depended on my friend taking vacations with me. A week rolls around and I haven’t talked to my friend (he’d been sick) and my manager wants me to give a month’s notice. I let him know about the situation and tell him I’ll let him know Monday (it’s Friday). He explodes.

Manager: You said you’d tell me today.
Me: Yes, and now i’m telling you it’ll be one workday later.
Manager: But I need to know today.
Me: Do you need this information for any particular reason? Are you going to do something today with it?
Manager: I told the owner I’d meet with him about what to do about your position.
Me: Well, it’s a month in advance so I can just get you off the hook and email him telling him that you were under a false impression and I’ll take full responsibility. It won’t be on you.
Manager: It’s not about that. He doesn’t care. But you gave me your word, this is about personal integrity.
Me: You told me you wanted a month’s advance notice and you’re going to get it. It’s more than a month. You don’t need the information today. You asked me for a favor. I said ok. Now I’m telling you that you’ll still get your favor but one day later. And you’re telling me that, though you don’t need it, it’s about personal integrity.
Manager: Well, if you don’t want to pick a day, I’ll just pick a day for you. We’ll say that your last day is July 11.
Me: You’re firing me?
Manager: [looking shocked] No. I’m just telling you when your last day is.
Me: Isn’t that the same as firing someone?

The conversation continued in about the same way for awhile and eventually ended with his taking the high ground and letting me have till monday to decide. My mind cleared of all doubts, it was a joy to tell him.


Let me just briefly explain the title of the blog:

It started with EXNAT, my blog about being an expatriate in buenos aires (expat+nathan=exnat). Now, after what will be three years abroad, I’m moving to Texas. Yes, Texas.

I once drove around the country for 3 months visiting 36 of our 50 fine states but when I never messed with Texas. My friend and I drove over 20 hours across the state to avoid sleeping there. Texas has always been a bit of a scary place to me. It was the mythical place that cowboys came from. Not cowboys from Westerns, the cowboys in my high school who chewed tobacco and always looked like if they ever actually noticed me they would beat me up. I’m from Sacramento and the “cowboys” from Sacramento are just working class white idiots who dress that way for the image. They’re not idiots because of dressing that way. They’re idiots for the chewing tobacco, among other things.

But anyways, it’s time for me to ride off into the sunset towards Texas country. Why Texas? A girl. Her name is Annette.





Ex Exnat



Friends, Portenos, Expats: Lend me your ears.
I come not to praise exnat, but to bury it.

That’s right, after months of not posting, it’s time to put a fork in this little blog: it’s done.

My first blog, triptrap, was the travel blog I wrote in until I arrived in Buenos Aires and was written from the point of view of a traveler. As obvious as this might seem, it’s worth mentioning because when I ceased to be a traveller, when I began to feel at home, I needed something else.  Here I was in a home. Not my home, rather I was a semipermanent visitor in someone else’s home. With this newfound existential angst I needed a new blog and here exnat was born.

I loved writing this blog and I loved the comments I received and the community I became a part of. I also loved plunging the depths of the expat psyche. It’s been lovely but all good things must come to an end.

But don’t worry, I will still be writing a blog.  The difference is that this will be a blog about a real passion of mine: games. I’m just starting it and it’s called twoifiplay.  While I’ll probably write about expat things every so often, it’s really an opportunity for me to share interesting games with people who might not otherwise come into contact with them.

So for those who update your blog subscriptions, I’ll be seeing you soon.  And for those who don’t, goodbye and it’s been pleasant.


Perhaps… Perhaps… Perhaps…

I recently heard this poem read and I found it very inspiring.

for the loneliness of an author

Perhaps these thoughts of ours
will never find an audience
Perhaps the mistaken road
will end in a mistake
Perhaps the lamps we light one at a time
will be blown out, one at a time
Perhaps the candles of our lives will gutter out
without lighting a fire to warm us.

Perhaps when all the tears have been shed
the earth will be more fertile
Perhaps when we sing praises to the sun
the sun will praise us in return
Perhaps these heavy burdens
will strengthen our philosophy
Perhaps when we weep for those in misery
we must be silent about miseries of our own

Because of our irresistible sense of mission
We have no choice.

by Shu Ting
translated from the Chinese by Carolyn Kizer

My Nature



One of the big changes for me in moving to Buenos Aires is from small city to big city. I have no idea how many people live in Buenos Aires but I’m told 12 million. That’s a lot. A LOT. But the consequences aren’t so much in having a barrage of folks around you at all times (which is new for me) but more than anything not being able to escape so easily. Everywhere I’ve ever lived before there has been nature of one form or another around but in Buenos Aires all you have are parks. Admittedly fairly close there are tree filled places but it’s not that accessible to get there without a car and no one I know just goes there for the nature.

When they think of nature most folks think of Tigre which is a lovely little vacation place just up the road. It’s at a river delta and there is a maze of islands you can get to by quaint wooden ferry boats. This weekend was freezing but I needed my nature fix and headed with some friends to what I can only call their vacation house in Tigre. It’s more of a cabin on stilts than anything as there is no running water or bathroom. However, that just makes it all the more attractive.



It was cold. Unusually cold. So cold, in fact, that it snowed for the first time in over 50 years. I am not making this up. It was really really cold. That didn’t stop us from participating in the awesome outdoorsy tradition of campfire cooking. We stepped out from Argentine asado tradition by having only roasted veggies. No meat. Yum! And there was something about the cold that made the intensity of the experience, the sheer feeling of being alive and out of the city just incredible.



Being away from the natural world has been a huge change for me. It felt wonderful to get back to my hippy tree hugging roots. Even as snow comes down outside, Spring is coming soon and I’m looking for good places to go camping on long weekends. If anyone has an idea, let me know 🙂

Expats and the porteño food experience

Cooking Torta Frita

I like Argentine food. I like pretty much all of it. However I have noticed that there is a certain distaste among some expats, especially Americans, for Argentine food. Every expat has had their love affair with the juicy steaks, red wine, and dulce de leche on everything. This lasts about a week. Then they begin to get bored, then to whine a bit, then the real bitching starts. “I hate empanadas.” “Not pizza again.” “Please, gets me a real salad.” They complain that pizzas here tend to be overloaded with cheese, inevitably somehow involve ham, boiled eggs, or something similar.

Sure, things aren’t going to be the same as at home but they have a point: the flavors rarely change and there is little diversity. The same ingredients are repeated over and over. The classic place has eight flavors of empanadas and some places can boast 10 or 12 but really everyone here orders the same thing anyway. Porteños simply do not demand or want a variety in the dishes they are served. Pasta is traditional and good but they tend to stick to very strict ingredients and recipes — no crazy pink vodka sauces to be found here.

Going to the spice aisle, even in a very large store is at an exercise in frustration. Here, the idea of a large selection means 10 brands of salt, 10 brands of pepper, and five brands of Parsley. Porteños look on with fear as their expat friends add spices that they had to buy Barrio Chino .

Argentines have a lot of respect for their cooking tradition. As a culture folks here don’t like mixing in random things and experimenting with the same “no rules” attitude typical of Americans. One thing that’ll be interesting to see is if Starbucks’ presence pushes local coffee menus into offering more iced drinks. It might not be so. Diva provides one porteño reaction in her blog entry: Just say no [to Starbucks]. It’s a really interesting read and it’s good to see porteños aren’t just opening the door to US corporate culture. God knows how many expats are here just to escape Starbucks…

While many American expats miss the crazy diversity of home, perhaps there’s a method behind the staid and conservative Argentine cuisine. Apart from the famous eating disorder problem, perhaps this explains their thinness when compared to their yanqui counterparts. I was recently listening to a radio show about rethinking our ideas about thinness and one caller mentioned a very important point: that in places where they sense of cuisine, people feel more connection and derive more pleasure from their food than in places where folks are confronted by many choices, none of which they have cultural connections with. In turn, this connection and pleasure has been linked to gaining more nutrition from the food one eats, allowing for smaller portions. Personally, I think that this sense of cuisine helps porteños maintain their weight, even in this dulce de leche culture of medialunas, alfajores, and cream sauce.

Tales of the Carrefour

Cold Rose

I live a block from Carrefour but if I go there, even for just a few items, I bargain for 45 minutes at least. The reason why is that it’s a is a place where you get lost. By USA standards it’s just a normal store but for Argentina it’s huge. Today Carrefour was crowded. Very crowded. Everyone got paid for the month and it was a Saturday evening of insanity in the aisles. And the checkout lines were even worse. I had 15 items and could have gone for the 15 items line but it was so long that I just couldn’t bear it. So i went to the line where the pregnant women get priority.

There’s something about supermarket lines in Buenos Aires that’s completely infuriating. It’s actually not so bad but for someone pampered on the USA “check yourself out” system, waiting for the bus seems like a short exercise. I was pessimistic and wanted to get home to make my butternut squash soup (without the butternut).

That’s when I saw the checkout lady. Girl. Checkout girl. She was a girl. And she was worth checking out if just because she was the only smiling person in the store. I don’t know why she was smiling but she was and it was infectious. I got a strange sensation that she didn’t actually work there, that somehow she didn’t fit in. It was as if she were only doing this checkout gig as a favor to and that she was happy cause it was fun compared to what she normally did and she was helping someone out.

She looked over me and I looked away. I always look away. Everyone checks each other out here, are you supposed to look away? I look away for sure. Whatever. I had a strange idea that she would ask me why I was in the pregnant woman line and not in the 15 items line and I could say “oh you were smiling and I just wanted to be in your line” as a compliment. But then i remembered that “line” (cola) also translates to “butt” and I didn’t want to say that. I gazed at the Gillette Mach 3 razorblades. I felt like I was in an episode of Peepshow.

It was my turn and she was friendly. She wasn’t like anyone I’d ever seen at that supermarket before. She looked happy. She looked me in the eye and she made smalltalk. We talked about how the store was busy, how she was hurrying. But she didn’t hurry with me. She asked me who knitted my scarf and I told her I knitted it. She said she could see because of the errors in it.

We came to the last item. I asked her her name. She told me it was Janeen. Or Jaleen. I didn’t understand but it didn’t really matter. I walked out on air.

The point of this story is this: As you walk about in the world, you reshape your universe. Not just in the passive way that you view the world through filters. Your very filters interact with the world. Her smile made her day. And then mine as well.

Looking for a woman

I’m looking for a woman,
That will work to set me down,
I’m looking for a woman,
That will work to set me down,
I’ve bin looking all night long,
She can’t be found.

When I was travelling in Peru I saw this sign and thought it was funny:

Looking for a girl or a woman

The sign says: WE NEED A WOMAN OR A YOUNG WOMAN. I thought it was so sexist it was funny so I snapped my photo and forgot all about sexist Peru.
Buenos Aires is a cool place: big, cosmopolitan, and advanced. But sexist as all get out. So this business is offering a few different jobs on Monster.com. Here are two of them.

The one for the men to apply to:

Monster.com notice for men

And then the one for women:

Monster.com notice for women

Any coincidence that the project leader should be a man while the person who gives tours should be woman? This is so common here that they will actually say “No. We’re looking for a man” or “Sorry. Only women.”

Machismo society is what it is. I have to be really honest and say that I don’t know why I’m shocked. But for some reason I am.

So how long will you be here for?

Palermo Chico

Expats leave the country for different reasons: from not being able to stand four more years of Bush to trying to ditch that coke habit, from starting up your own third world sweatshop to just needing some fresh air and a change of perspective, we expats troop around the globe. We bring our culture and, more often, our money to exchange for some local flavor.

But for many of us there is an expiration date printed in a place where we just can’t see it. Sooner or later it comes up: that innocent question that hangs like a noose around the neck of every expat. It’s like asking a college graduate: so what’s the next step? It’s a mean question because most college graduates are facing a time of their life where there are fewer clearly defined steps. A better question would be “Do you have another step planned out?”

Either way, like dogs that sniff each others butts, expats ask eachother this question and then judge eachother by it. Keep in mind that part of the expatness of expats is that they’re not naturalized into the country. If you’re immigrating you’re a local that just doesn’t know the language yet. An expat is still keeping their origin as their defining characteristic.   A big part of the definition is that expats are NOT Argentine.*  Expats are always foreigners so there’s a weird status to who’s staying longer and each one of us tries to figure out the trajectory of the other almost immediately.

*Actually this is just one definition… the one I’m using right now….

Life Takes Visa

I just read this article called Monopoly ditches cash, goes plastic. My understanding is that this is relatively old news but then… Visa Takes (on) the Game of Life.

This is nuts! Games are meant to teach things. One of the only redeeming qualities of Monopoly is that it teaches small kids to count cash and, hopefully, use it wisely. Life is similar. For little kids, who are realistically the only people who will enjoy these two games, should be learning arithmetic. The Visa Card essentially puts a branded calculator in the boxes. Except it’s worse. Research, which I heard somewhere once, says that people spend about 15% more with credit cards than with cash so we’re certainly teaching them something, but what?

Supermarkets: Buenos Aires

I had two great supermarket experiences yesterday:

I brought some nice lentil soup to work and then thought to run to the supermarket to buy some bread rolls. So it’s lunchtime and there’s tons of people at the bread counter. You grab a number. Unfortunately I was holding mine (98) upside down and I thought it was 86. So the helper lady calls out the next number (me) 98 and it takes me a second to recover. Only a second but in that time someone has already said “I’m number 99!” and been helped. She commiserates with me “Oh. You shouldn’t hold your ticket upside down” she says. Yeah. I know. So in theory I should be the next person. The lady behind the counter knows this but she still calls out “Ok. 100” WHILE LOOKING AT ME. So I say “Oh, I’m 98.” All I want is two pieces of bread. But then this guy (Number 100) says “Hey, all I want is…” and then he lists off a few things but he does it like he’s ordering it. He’s way sly, like he just completely cut in front of me, KNOWING that he’s screwing me over for the second time. I say “Ok. Well I’m first and all I want are two pieces of bread.” So he and I have both said what we want and as far as I’m concerned it’s up to her to decide who to serve first. The lady behind the counter looks at me, waits, almost as if to say “Do you really want to go first?” I get the distinct idea that I’m breaking some cultural rule by taking my rightful place in line. The guy chimes in in this pleading voice: “I have these raviolis and they’re getting cold. Please let me get out of here without my raviolis getting cold.” The counter lady slowly goes towards the bread and, still with this look on her face as if I am forcing her, takes out the bread, puts it in a bag, weighs it, and gives it to me. The guy says “Oh. you only wanted to get bread. I thought you wanted to get facturas and sandwiches and… Oh, you’re just like me. You just wanted to get something small.” He is still talking as I walk away.

It’s so crazy because when I first got here I would have just bowed out and let the guy go first. After all, I’m a guest in his country. I think becoming a legal resident has given me this kind of backbone I didn’t have before. It’s hard to respond quickly when you don’t speak the language (which is what started the whole episode) and when I return to the States I vow to respect people who don’t speak English as their first language a bit more.

I was returning from work and I went to this large supermarket near my house. It’s an upscale neighborhood and I always see things in the supermarket that seem interesting and new. So this time near the cheese section I see this dried fish for really cheap. So I buy 5 pesos of it and am going to take it home to see what it is and what it tastes like. I feel adventurous, putting it in my basket.

What I really came to the store for was some onions and while I’m getting them the guy who weighs the vegetables asks me how to prepare my dried fish. “I know you can’t just take it home and eat it” he says. “Right” I say, faking like I know what I’m talking about. “So how do you prepare it?” he asks. “I don’t know exactly” I say. In reality I don’t even know what it is and if it didn’t say it was fish on the label, I wouldn’t have been able to tell him. “Right. But you have no idea at all?” “No. I really have no idea at all.” He looks at me like I’m crazy. I don’t know what to do so I just say “I’m buying it for a friend.” That seems to satisfy him. He finishes weighing my vegetables and, as I walk away adds, “I would buy some if I knew how to prepare it but I don’t have any idea. All I know is that you can’t eat it like it is now. You really have NO IDEA?” I smile bravely as I walk away, but as soon as he’s turned to help another customer I sneak the dried fish back to it’s place on the shelf, where it belongs.

Visiting Friends

One of the things all expats love and dread is the visiting friend. “Oh, you’re in Buenos Aires? How lovely! I’ll stop by. I only have a few days but we can go see all the sights together!” There is that delicate balance because living abroad means that you haven’t seen these guys for awhile and you aren’t going to see them again for awhile.

It’s great to see them but I get the same feeling as when I’m at a tourist site. It’s like I feel obligated to “do” things. Like there’s something I ought to be doing. This is, of course, all in my head. The friends actually don’t really care at all. Much like families at Christmas, expats tend to imagine the “ideal” visit to Buenos Aires and prepare it all for their friends.

For me there’s historically been a crazy: my world here is different than back home. I feel a bit schitzophrenic because they think I’ve changed but I haven’t. It’s more like I just have a different life because stuff here is different from home.

You realize all these crazy things about yourself, about your friends, about your life and about the city. It’s a crazy litmus test. It’s essentially travelling without travelling.

It’s pretty amazing to be able to invite another world to sleep on your couch.

barely legal: getting a work permit for argentina

When I was first hired as a project manager I asked about a work permit. My boss told me that we should wait a year and then see how useful I was to him. A year later I asked again and he said we should start the process. That was last September.

For a US citizen, the process begins with getting an original birth certificate and a background check from the USA. These then need to be certified, translated by an official translator into Spanish and then apostiled, a word with which I have become intimately familiar. This is probably easier if you are in the United States but I wasn’t and basically my mom did all this. It took her a few weeks and it only worked because we have a family friend who is a notary public.

These items were then sent to me and the long slog of bureaucratic bungling began. The forms were sent off to my company’s lawyer and a few months later we heard back from them. After weeks of wrangling over trying to get clarity of what I did or did not need, the office secretary assured me that everything was ok and that I should just relax. Every week I asked her if things were going well with my application and every week she reassured me that she had called the lawyers and that all was fine. After about two months of this it was discovered that about the only thing that our secretary was doing was embezzling lots of money. She was fired and it became clear that no progress had been made on my application.

After the new secretary was hired, things began to bumble along. There was an English guy at the office applying at the same time and it was good to go through the ordeal with someone else. It was hard to imagine the level of disorganization. One of the things we had to do was to get fingerprinted. We called the lawyer to get a date to do this. He said Monday. However, when we arrived at his office, he was not in and his secretary had not heard of us. His assistant glared at us drunkenly because we had displaced him from his seat. After waiting for 45 minutes the lawyer was located and the assistant was instructed to take us a few blocks to the fingerprinting place where we would meet the lawyer. He turned out to be a tall, thin fellow who looks like he is consolieri to the Argentine mafia. He explained to us that it was his understanding that we were to call him to confirm that we were coming and, as a result, he had not done what he had said he would do. This was an absurd lie but since the secretary had made the appointment, there was little we could say.

The next and final step was to go to the consulate in Uruguay. He told us that there was no need to book this because they were always available. Later he told our secretary that we would need to wait another month or so.

But the point is that this is something that CAN be done, despite the ridiculous bureaucracy, and yesterday my coworker and I went to Uruguay and received our Permisos de Ingreso to enter the country as legal workers.




In Buenos Aires, the big craze is MSN messenger. The first thing we do when people start at my office is get them a .net account and download the latest version of messenger. It’s crazy. We all sit in rooms surrounded by people with headphones on and we “chat” by typing into our computer. It’s like a library. I feel bad to talk.

People live a lot on this thing. They use it to keep in contact with distant friends, to share pictures and songs. A little message displays their mood, a quote or even what song their listening to. Being someone’s internet buddy can be quite intimate.

But then the time comes to stop being internet buddies. Perhaps you broke up in real life, perhaps you just don’t want the bother of having to make idle chitchat with old friends. Whatever the reason, messenger includes the option of making yourself disappear completely from someone’s life. They can never tell if you’re online, any messages they send get lost in the mail, and the best part is that they don’t even know you blocked them. At least… until now.

For awhile now there’s been this thing called CheckMessenger which allows you to check to see who has blocked you. This revolutionizes the idea that you can anonymously disappear. Undesirables still can’t send you messages but now at least they know you don’t like them. Furthermore there’s a badge of shame associated with checkmessenger because if you use the service it temporarily replaces your name with an advertisement for their site. As you log in, there are a few seconds that all your friends can see that you don’t trust them and are checking to see if you don’t like them.

but… are there bagels?

I love the Lonely Planet Thorntree. It’s this place where people who really have no clue at all can ask folks who’re actually in the places they’re going. And it totally works. They get real (conflicting) opinions! It’s great and you can give as well as get.

I was just visiting the Uruguayan Thorntree thread and there was this question there.

are there bagels in Montevideo? how to get them there?

I have a child visiting Montevideo on a term abroad. He misses two things: his cat, and BAGELS. Anyone know of anyplace in Montevideo where a bagel can be found? Anyone heading there in the next few days or weeks and willing to take a dozen for me/him? Any ideas on shipping from here to there? Help!


Wow. Fun vacation. I realize that the bagel is for the kid… but what kind of a kid goes to Uruguay of all places and has to have his bagel? I can’t imagine the Uruguayans visiting the States and pulling this: “But mummy, how can I go to America without my special mate and the medialunas that I adore!” I think it’s really interesting how people want to take their homes with them. It’s different than not simply having faith that they’ll have a place to stay and nice food to eat… They want the food they have at home. Aside from being further from home, why are these people travelling? I dunno. I’m probably overreacting but if that kid is over 4 years old, it should be able to understand that different countries have different foods.

However, big surprise for me: There are bagels in Uruguay.