What little girls are made of

PART THE FIRST: WHEREIN BROWNIES ARE OBTAINED

Today I went to an expat blogging meetup that was in a cookie factory called Sugar and Spice. Frank, who owns this gingerbread house of a store, was very generous and hospitable to invite us. And the spread was delectable.

This is a man full of cookies
TOO MANY COOKIES
For me the most interesting thing was that he chose to have his Buenos Aires blogging meet up at 10:30am till 12:30pm on a Thursday. This is highly convenient if I, like most expats, roll out of bed at 11am in time to arrive fashionably late for some milk and cookies for breakfast. As it so happens I have a job and it was fairly inconvenient. Unless I wanted to take a day off work and eat desserts. So personally I was ambivalent but I think that the sheer audacity of the planning speaks to the fluidity of the expat schedule (or lack thereof). It also could have been that the store was small and Frank didn’t want 50 people all crowding in to get free samples. As it was: GOOD JOB FRANK FOR A PERFECT EVENT! He also promised to be hosting a wine and savory cookie event very soon. Please email him with questions as to the particulars. We hope it will be soon. Frank was so kind and gracious that he gave us all little gift bags with delicious brownies, which leads me to the second part of my post.

PART, THE SECOND: WHEREIN THE BROWNIES ARE EATEN

The six brownies were immaculately wrapped in a beautiful orange cardboard case with a ribbon running all through it. Much of the food experience is presentation and let me tell you, had the King of Argentina himself walked in through the door at that moment I would have felt proud to give him part of one of my brownies. But he didn’t and after work I gave the woman at the art store one of the brownies and, in turn, she gave me lots of little 10% off coupons and a kiss on the cheek. I hopped on my bike and headed to painting class.

Image of Nathan and Diva
I SLYLY PUT THE MOVES ON DIVA

My painting teacher has been talking about folks bringing in food since we began the class. Last week someone bit and brought in 3 bottles of “expensive” wine ($4US = expensive). It was lovely and to return the favor I decided to cut up The other 5 into fourths and for my classmates.

Everyone was very appreciative until one girl, not knowing who brought them, said “This is all fine and good but these brownies aren’t really something Argentine.” As if the nationality of the food somehow had some relevance. I said “Hey man, this is cultural exchange.” And the teacher said, “What do you want him to do, make a locro?”

The box it came in was orange and beautiful and the girl liked it. At the end of the class, after she’d taken the last bite of the American cookie, I gave it to her.

cooking with porteños

Porteños will sometimes deceive you, by seeming to go crazy, mixing anything they find in the fridge into a stew. This is an illusion because they will only do this if the fridge only contains 6 ingredients.

Marc returns


WHEN I HEAR “UNITED STATES” THIS IS WHAT I THINK OF

When coworker of mine recently got back from the States he was immediately faced with an array of questions from the US expats in the office: What was it like to be back? What had changed? What were the differences? As he spoke we savored the Indian curries, rolled our eyes at the anal retentive scheduling, cringed at the corporate box stores. “Our country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, but we live here…”

Cruel 2 B Kind Game

EVERYONE LOVES A PILLOWFIGHT

EVERYONE LOVES A PILLOWFIGHT

The infamous pillowfight at the Planetarium last year showed that viral marketing, a healthy sense of fun, and interactive public games are all coming to Buenos Aires. In the States large games like this are not unknown. A great example is Cruel 2 B Kind, a new twist on the classic game of Assasins where you have to “kill” people (usually with squirtguns). The change here is that you register as a group and “fight” other groups by hurling compliments. Alliances can form. Etc. Etc.

Pillows are one thing and registering and showing up is another. I don’t know if Buenos Aires is ready for this but if anyone is interested in helping to organize this game like this, let me know.

Kitschy Kitschy Coup!

I read on the internet that there was an exhibit of Kitsch (not be confused with kitch, which is kitchen witchery) and decided to check it out. Kitsch is a word I never felt comfortable using for two reasons: 1) It always struck me as overly pretentious perhaps because 2) I never quite knew what it meant. Luckily Wikipedia was invented and now it’s definition is accessible to all:

Kitsch is a term of German origin that has been used to categorize art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style. The term is also used more loosely in referring to any art that is pretentious to the point of being in bad taste, and also commercially produced items that are considered trite or crass.

A WOMAN AND HER CONCH

A WOMAN AND HER CONCH

The most interesting thing about the definition is how it’s reflexive: placing the viewer in comparison to the viewed. Calling something kitsch is essentially a judgement: “You think you are all that but you are wrong and you are making a fool of yourself because you are just like everybody else.”

As “bad taste” is generally in the eye of the beholder, the exhibition spoke much more about the curators and much less about the folks with bad taste. Fads were easy pickings and I recognized a lot of Yanqui style stuff but a lot of the things they picked on just seemed random. This next example is not so much kitsch as it might be Edward Gorey’s children:

LOOKS LIKE AN EDWARD GOREY POSE

LOOKS LIKE AN EDWARD GOREY POSE

Coming from Kitschlandia (thank you, jen) my biggest surprise was that many of these things labeled in the museum I saw as simply dumb cultural iconography that were a little over the top: wooden birds. The museum tried to explain their choice with notes explaining why the various items were in bad taste but I was not convinced of the museum’s own kitschproof credentials. As I walked through I was forced to wonder if the choice to back the paper with fleorescent pink and green was intentional or mistaken.

They seemed to be particularly ruthless on images of children dressed in finery.

BAD TASTE IN CHILDREN?

BAD TASTE IN CHILDREN?

They did have some good finds among which were a jesus painting that changed as you moved throughout the room and an old photo of a girl who had just got her hair cut with the hair attached to the photo. But anyone who is actually interested in seeing some real kitsch doesn’t need to shell out the 3 pesos for the museum when any feria americana, San Telmo market, or most porteno’s house will furnish a much more complete collection. For example, I took this photo one block from the museum. It is as fine a specimin as any you will find in the exhibit. I assume the gentleman is a brazilian golliwog?

THE DARK MAN HAS MUCH COFFEE

THE DARK MAN HAS MUCH COFFEE

Was this just an example of a museum being [gasp]
elitist? Or was this an example of a few dedicated individuals trying to educate the public? In a land where the mullet is high fashion I didn’t know and I didn’t care. For me, the far more interesting exhibit was the games collection next door. The museum had a collection of some games and toys historically played by Portenos.

But what we found when we entered was two men arguing loudly about the state of affairs in Argentina 30 years ago. To be fair, it was actually it was one man, the curator, haranguing a man who was trying to leave. I think that shouting about politics in a museum is something that could only be acceptible in Buenos Aires. The man left and the curator looked pleased with himself. He came up to us and told us to take as many pictures as we wanted. This had the curious effect of making me not want to take any more pictures. I asked the curator what exactly they were discussing and he said “No no… we weren’t discussing!!! We were… talking. Nothing but talking…” This was the last thing I understood for the next few minutes because he started explaining to me how Argentina had been on the verge of nuclear weapons in the 1940s but had stopped its programs because it was too peaceloving, how a neighbor of his who lives in Cordoba found a nugget of gold the size of a football while digging for potatoes and about many of the finer points of macroeconomics.

HOW ARGENTINES LEARN ECONOMICS

HOW ARGENTINES LEARN ECONOMICS

As we escaped from the museum he implored us to take more photos and spread the word about wonderful, peaceloving Argentina.

Moving to Buenos Aires: Living Alone

For the first 18 years of my life I lived with my parents. After that I left for college and for the next 8 years I mostly with friends and, every odd summer or so, with my parents. When I came to Buenos Aires I lived with my friends Lysa and Juan for the first few months. Then I decided to move out into an apartment by myself.

 

I MOVED FROM HERE...

I MOVED FROM HERE…

I had never lived alone before and it was incredibly intimidating on a few fronts. However, as both of those facts made it more attractive, I decided that it was now or never. For a multitude of reasons ranging from economic solvency to fear of themselves many people never get the oppurtunity to live alone and I took it with gusto. I’m interested to hear what other solitary expats feel about living alone in Buenos Aires but this is my experience.

I was faced with two options. I could rent a fully furnished place for the prices you see on craigslist. That wasn’t going to happen. Or I could find a nonfurnished place that didn’t need a garantia because I didn’t have one. (I write about garantias over here.) Well, a coworker of mine was luckily vacating his apartment and I moved right in. It was one bedroom, one dining room, one kitchen and a den. Unfortunately they were all combined into the same room. There was also a bathroom. I should explain about the kitchen. It wasn’t really a kitchen. It was a “kitchenette” which is the what the foldaway bed is to a real bed.

...TO HERE

…TO HERE

My first problem was that I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have plates or silverware to eat the food that which I could not cook without pots and pans. I couldn’t even buy food in the meantime because I had no fridge. I ate a lot of empanadas for the first few weeks. I should also mention tha, while I had no sheets, bed, or lamp, I did have a futon which my friend Alexis had given me on her departure back to the States.

The lack of these items exposed other, more glaring issues like 1) I did not know how or where to get them and 2) I did not know how to ask. I was still at that stage where people think that because you speak like a 4 year old you must have the same needs and desires as a 4 year old. While this was actually true I had the additional “adult” responsibilities of being a consumer and buying my own toilet paper.

Starting from scratch and getting all the items to live in an apartment was very difficult for me. I don’t really know why it was so difficult but I think that I was so overwhelmed by other things that it was always impossible to get the bigger picture of what was going on, what I needed to do what I wanted to do. This was made much more difficult by the insane, nagging eternal question: “When are you going home?” I didn’t have any idea and my life was a constant weighing of things that would never have seemed like a big deal: should I buy chairs and a table if I’ll be here for a year? How many chairs? How big of a table? and so on. Even after a year and a half, with no immediate plans to return and an apartment full of everything I need, I still play this game: Should I buy a washing machine if I’ll only be here one more year?

KITCHENETTE

KITCHENETTE

... AND BATHROOM

… AND BATHROOM

So living alone not only brought up these very existential questions, it also isolated me from my friends and from an immediate social support network. Now if I were feeling down, or even just wanted to hang out, there wasn’t anyone automatically there. I would actually have to pick up the phone and call folks. This would have been great in a world where I already had a social network but, in retrospect, I was asking for trouble by doing it. This isolation was compounded by the fact that this was the first time I was living in a city anywhere close to as big and bustling as Buenos Aires.

Looking back a bit over a year later I’ve moved to a bigger and nicer place, am much better adjusted, and love not having to worry about other people’s dishes. I also love that I have my own furniture and can do whatever I want.  It makes me feel more solid, less transient. Living alone helped me in the long term, perhaps, but taking the plunge so soon, without having fully acclimatized set me back overall and made the integration process more difficult than it had to be.  If you are moving to Buenos Aires and you are deciding between the two and have never lived alone before, approach it with care. It’s not for the faint of heart.

NOW I LIVE HERE

NOW I LIVE HERE

THE ANTI-ANTI-ANTI TOUR OF BUENOS AIRES

FIRST THERE WERE TOURS…

THEN THERE WERE ANTI-TOURS

THEN THERE WERE ANTI-ANTI-TOURS

NOW THERE’S THE ANTIDOTE!!!

In a highly postmodern, deconstructionist tour, you now have the exciting oppurtunity to pay me money NOT to take you on a tour. You hire me to anonymously and authentically interact with you as you wander lost in Buenos Aires. I will ask you for directions in Spanish, invite you to sit at my table, even invite you to my estancia for the weekend. Or maybe I won’t! That’s the beauty of it! As you will not actually know if it is me (or one of my employees) you will be GUARANTEED to have an AUTHENTIC EXPERIENCE in a safe*, paid-for environment. Or maybe not. That’s why it will be so unique.
Signup for your tour now!

*We cannot guarantee your safety.

Expats and the porteño food experience

Cooking Torta Frita
MAKING “FRIED TART”

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.

The Chilecito Spirit Cemetery

Though it isn’t the 30 pages that I promised Diva, here is an excerpt from my travel diary:

The air in Chilecito was crisp and we walked around the town checking in and asking about various things: where to eat, where to look for property, where to buy artesanias, what we could visit and how. I’m not big on visiting things and I was very happy to just chill out and join Juan and Lysa as they explored the neighborhoods looking at plots of land. We walked up and down the streets, until we came to a very cheerful looking Cemetery. Lisa was a bit worried about living right by the cemetery because of the spirits. “You shouldn’t worry so much about the spirits from the cemetery,” I said, “It’s the spirits from outside the cemetery that you should watch out for” I joked.

 

CEMETARY SUBURBIA

CEMETARY SUBURBIA

The cemetery was kitschy: no graves, only tombs painted all kinds of colors with brass ornaments and other gaudy accouterments. In the center of the cemetery is a completely unnecessary overlarge 40 foot cross. As I explored the place, looking for photo opportunities, I heard voices of visiting relatives. I felt strange taking pictures of peoples’ intimate things. I tried to avoid the visitors because I imagined I might be a little worried if I saw someone taking a picture of my mother’s grave. It gave me a weird feeling to gawk at the finery of the dead, especially as I was taking my photos ironically. As it was, the disembodied voices were always just around the corner, but never “caught me in the act”.

THE BENT CAST IRON GATE

THE BENT CAST IRON GATE

Far in the back was a bent cast iron gate, a thing out of place in this garish world of pink houses. Through the gate, I could see only a wasteland of rocks and dirt, which I found out later was an ancient incan burial ground. From where we stood it looked desolate, as if the tombs were beautiful shops in which the spirits work and at night they go home to the slums in which they really live. Or perhaps there are neighborhoods of spirits and we are in the nice rich neighborhood, looking out at the wasteland of poverty like a twisted mirror of the world of the living.

CEMETERY MAIDEN

CEMETERY MAIDEN

“This place is dead,” Lysa half jokes, and she and Juan start leaving through the central path. I follow a bit behind and as I reach the central cross I find three young women standing by it. They cannot be more than 18 years old.

“I can’t check out the 18 year old girls in a cemetery.” I think. “That’s just wrong.”

As I approach I lower my eyes respectfully. And with the look of the Recoleta cemetary’s cats they wait for me, watching my every movement with interest lazy. Just as I pass, one says, “Chau” in a seductive voice. “Chau” I mumble as I stumble off. I had the most distinct impression that these maidens of the cemetery were just that, and I walked away without looking back.

Chilecito or bust

Last week I took a vacation to La Rioja, to a town called Chilecito. It was my first vacation within Argentina since I went to Mendoza over a year ago. Even that was just for the Semana Santa long weekend. Overall it was very cold. And it snowed a little. It was really nice for a change from the humid Buenos Aires weather.

 

FREEZING

FREEZING

The place is untouched to all tourists except backpackers on their way to somewhere else. The reason for the trip is that a friend of mine is looking into buying land to move there to get away from the hustle and bustle of the big city.

CHILECITO

CHILECITO

Though land in Chilecito is quite cheap (she’s looking at spending about $2000 dollars) there are some complications. The first item, which could theoritically be good or bad, is that everybody knows everybody and, in a strange Twin Peaks kind of way, they’re all in eachothers business. As La Riojas doesn’t produce many professionals like (doctors, engineers, etc.) these guys come from outside and form a bit of a ruling clique. This means that the folks who own the land are not locals but rather are from Cordoba, Mendoza and the like. Each time we went to a restaurant or confiteria to meet someone about seeing a house or advice on a property we would see a group of 8-10 older men talking easily around a big table. The person we were going to meet was invariably meeting with others we would see later. I am not used to this small town process and I distrust it.

This is made altogether more sketchy by the nature of the second complication which is that, like most provinces in Argentina, about 70% of the land does not have acceptable paperwork of ownership. And it is precisely this kind of land that sells for the $2000. People told us stories about how, because the paperwork is disorganized sometimes folks sell the same land to two different people because of the way things are filed. I’m used to a system where there’s a kind of a process. There’s a law that says you have to pay lawyers an amount to verify such and such a claim and there are consequents if people cheat. Here it’s not so much the case. It’s a free country: wide open.

 

CHILECITO BOASTS AN ABANDONED MINE

CHILECITO BOASTS AN ABANDONED MINE

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.

Menem spelled backwards is Menem

Menem spelled backwards is Menem

So Carlos Menem is back and he’s launching his political bid from La Rioja. If, like me, you don’t know who he is, I will give you a few hints. The first is to consult the obvious fountain of knowledge: his entry on Wikipedia. The second place to check out is his bio at carlosmenem.com, which seems to think he still is President of Argentina. I’m not sure about the factual accuracy of the bio but I could not help but be impressed by its description of his daughter:

In his activities tending to the maintenance of exterior relations, one can mention the role carried out by his daughter, Zulema Maria Eva Menem, in an outstanding position as his father’s and President’s company in the frequent official visits around the world. His daughter impeccably represents the role of First Lady, giving some freshness to the rigidity of the protocol. She has always seemed to be prepared to comply with the rules of the ceremonials subject to the different customs and cultures of the countries she knows. Her elegance in manners and dress, added to her spontaneity and sympathy does not pass unwatched among the highest personalities of foreign governments.

This would be her:

Zulema Mar�a Eva Menem

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.