My lunch companion told me this classic quote from Robert Duvall:
"You get good vibes down there [in Argentina]....In the morning everybody kisses each other. By the time they stop kissing, it's lunch time."
My lunch companion told me this classic quote from Robert Duvall:
Besides the most obvious mental growth that's gone on during my first months in Argentina--the ability to think in phrases not words, in sentences not phrases (sometimes), the confidence that what needs to be expressed will somehow, no matter how imperfectly, eventually erupt from my tongue--what's struck me most is the inexorable, seemingly voracious spread of the aura of normalcy. During the first few weeks in a foreign place, I (and, I presume, others) experience the repetitious beat of discovery, the kind of discovery exemplified by the phrase "The discovery of the New World." Columbus obviously didn't discover the Americas; they'd existed here for millenia, populated by animals, people and plants. But, it felt, to him and to anyone who didn't know about them, as if they'd been discovered.
At some basic level, every expat goes through this sense of false discovery, replete with the wild generalizations and stereotypes this implies. I am certainly not immune from this tendency, as the reams of blanket observations in the previous posts imply. I felt, and still do regularly feel, that I'm discovering something about Argentina when in fact I'm discovering differences between Argentina and the United States. "No one obeys stop signs," for example. True, yes. And odd to an American. But not on the observational level of discovering a heretofore unknown quark, for example. The same with, "No one cleans up after their dogs," or, "No one respects the public institutions" (which explains, in part, the first two observations).
There is something wonderfully childlike about this steep early slope of the learning curve, a sense of wonder. And it is something I wish to never lose, and to feel again in the U.S. when I return. But what is interesting now, in the evolutionary sense, is the oozing spread of normalcy. These petty oddities, like yellow cabs ("Why not orange, or acid green?" I now ask) and health costs in New York, now seem almost normal. These frippery honks that seems to distract one from all else at the beginning of expatdom seems to be fadding into ignorable background noise, amusing and notable but not overwhelming, and the true differences, the emotional core of here vs. there, seem to be showing themselves in bas relief. As I've been interviewing expats for a story about New Yorkers in B.A., some more eternal truths (celebrations and, yes, complaints), about the Argentine pace of life and pleasure, the myopic nature of local commerce, the role of inequalities in education and real estate in Argentina's murky future, all seem to be laid closer to bare. More on those later--I've babbled to much here--but suffice it to say we've moved in from the skin and closer to the heart.
Last weekend, for Argentina's 9 de Julio Independence Day celebration, our friend Lucho invited us to an asado--a BBQ--down in La Plata, put on by some of his friends from high school and college. To say that the meat was ample would be to insult it with faint praise; to say that the house was an architectural marvel would do the same. Lucho's friend Manuel, a forestry engineer, lives in the house, which was designed by his architect parents. A former stable for the nearby racetrack, the rooms are fashioned from stalls, replete with the old split doors that used to let the horses stick their heads out without escaping. Behind the house, Manuel and his brother, an architect who lives in Barcelona, are building a hyper-conceptual slab-cement house. And, a balcony on the old house is reached through a frightening staircase biult from old wire-frame bottle delivery containers (either seltzer or wine; no one could remember). The food was fabulous and the company great. And, as one woman at the party said, Gustavo's son Juan Cruz (above) proved himself to be (via his love of all things meat) "A true Argentine child." Rather than describe the scene in debilitated words, then, a photo essay.
In our weekly quest to break free from a constant diet of meat and pasta—and thus make the beauty of said constant diet shine even more brightly in comparison—Cintra and I visited Bajo Flores to test B.A.'s Koreatown. Spurred by Grant D., whose site listed this joint on Calle Saranza, we hopped the 101 colectivo but, as happens occasionally, instead of following its prescribed route the 101 got creative and we stepped off near Nueva Pompeya. You might wonder why someone would name their barrio after Pompeii (considering how badly the original met its end), but then you haven't seen this part of "New Pompeii." (more after Read more!)
Alongside the northeastern edge of Parque Almte. Guillermo Brown, a Villa Miseria ("misery village" i.e. a shantytown) sprawls. Telephone kiosks advertising rates of 23 cents/minute to Bolivia and Paraguay describe the demographics of this and so many other Villas Miserias, whose residents form a large part of the cartoneros who troll through city streets each night, picking cans and cardboard (cartón) from people's trash. The houses are largely ad hoc affairs, built from scrounged bricks and roofed with corrugated tin; streets are dirt-pack and there is little electricity, giving some of these sweaty-close neighborhoods an almost rural darkness at night. Villas Miserias have become so prevelent, in fact, that they've begun to spawn poverty tourism of the kind that's seen in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro (here's a blog post I did on the subject on Gridskipper.com.) Packs of dogs wander the streets, the gutters smell of sewage, and practically everyone we walked behind smoked pot, presumably to make it all a little more palatable. It is truly desolate, and shameful for any country that's part of the first world.
The restaurant at Calle Saranza 2135 was closed when we got there at the appropriate Argentine lunch hour (2 p.m. or so), so we wandered up the nearby Avenida Carabobo. In a working class neighborhood of two story buildings and cracked sidewalks, the street was lined with Asian grocers (I had begun to worry that there was no bok choy in Argentina; my worries have been put to rest) and kiosks. Finally, at Avenida Carabobo 1559, it offered up a restaurant helpfully named "Restaurante" (above).
Like Asian joints everywhere, the furnishings consisted of plain black formica tables, a drop ceiling, calendars in several languages and—its signature element (though we couldn't explain its presence)—a pastel painting of a ski boot. As we walked in the owner came over to remind us that this wasn't a parilla joint with steak and the like. "Korean food?" he said. We nodded. "Asian food," he said. Yes, we said, we understood. That's what we wanted. 'Ethnic' food doesn't have the hold here that it does in New York, to put it mildly.
There was no menu so we chose the one plate (of two offered) that we recognized: Bulgogi. The side dishes were good, the kimchee proficient, the meat nicely marinated, and the price—29 pesos, or about $13, for food and beer for two—was like Korean BBQ everywere, not low-budget (for B.A.) but not bad. Highly recommended for anyone who needs a Korean fix.
It's a standard stereotype that Argentines are crazy for soccer. But how do you prove that under the "Show, Don't Tell" law? This photo may help. During a soccer match of any importance, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of locals hanging outside Buenos Aires appliance stores, cable company offices and bars—anywhere with a free TV. Above, at a local Frávega store during Argentina's sad 4-1 loss to Brasil in the finals of Confederations Cup, the halls were half full of Porteños sad at being thwarted by Brasil again.
...Cindy Loose, who wrote this piece (Buenos Aires, Always in Style) in tomorrow's Washington Post. There's been a boom in travel writing about Argentine, sometimes bad, but often very interesting stuff. This makes it hard for a writer because, well, it's sorta all been done. So, instead of try to outdo existing articles or come up with a unique angle, Loose has chosen a fascinating conceit for her piece: she writes as if no one else has ever written about the country or, really, even visited it. As the first American to discover Buenos Aires, she is therefore free to indulge any observation that comes to mind. What arises is a fascinating compendium of every B.A. cliche known to man. It's actually endearing if you look at it as a kind of "meta" travel piece commenting on the state of travel writing today.
Some gems of observation:
"There's a high beauty quotient among the people of Argentina, and they dress with flair."
"...Paris, which I've come to think of as the Buenos Aires of Europe."
"...visiting Buenos Aires is like going to Europe and finding that everything is half-off American prices."
And of course, the obligatory dance reference:
"...tango, the sultry heart and most internationally recognized symbol of Buenos Aires."
One of the wonderful things about moving abroad is discovering the fascinating plasticity of your brain. Language flows in; you struggle; you grit your teeth; suddenly, you have a conversation without thinking and you leap for joy. You also learn something more distressing: your brain is of a finite size. I, for example, am discarding one English word for each Spanish one I take in. In English I've begun placing adjectives after the nouns, as one does in Spanish: "The coat old is mine." The title of this post actually came out of my mouth. And so did, "In order to see the greatest spectacle, it is needed to bring binoculars"--a translation I made from a class workbook, admittedly, but one that I thought to be in perfectly reasonable English. Tha's me, El Ian: Proficient in Two Languages, Fluid in None.
Today, Cintra and I were told that there was a saying in B.A., "If you only visit two countries, see Japan and Argentina." We obviously asked for an explanation, as this seemed to be one of the more baseless sayings we'd ever heard (and perhaps not a saying per se but a random invention of the teller). Well, she told us, to see the whole range of what the world is capable of, you should see a country that was very poor that became rich--Japan--and one that was very rich that became poor--Argentina. Which led to other Japan/Argentina issues, such as, Cintra noted, that Argentina has the second highest rate of anorexia in the world--behind Japan. (In response, the government is forcing clothing stores to stock more large sizes so that tight-fitting clothes won't inspire 15-year-old girls to get all drastic and barf. I somehow suspect there are more factors than a snug waistline at work. See Argentina's fashion police target rake thin teens.)
This, of course, led me to consider the shortage of good sushi in B.A. (though there are cartoons; for more on the Claudio Furnier one at left click here). This happens to all new residents exactly 46 days after arrival--or following their 74th steak, whichever comes first. You realize that you love steak, that the meat is earthshattering, that you're even passionate about it, but you wonder if there isn't something else? What about...fish?
I've yet to be given a satisfactory explanation of why there's so little good sushi around or why 90% is salmon (or, as my friend Heather says, "Not really raw salmon. Lox. Lox on rice.") or why you'll get canned tuna in a tuna role. If Argentina is a Serious Country--Un Pais En Serio, as it claims--that's not acceptable. I've been told that fish doesn't fill you up (my response: eat more) and that we're too far from the ocean (but there's sushi in Vegas). I've had a lot of hypetheses floated at me; now, let's get to the fish.
This thought caused my brain, being wacky and such, to jump to another Japan-related question: considering that Peru's ethnically-Japanese ex-president, Alberto Fujimori, was for some incomprehensible reason known to Peruvians as "El Chino," is sushi in Peru called Chinese food?
I get so vomitastically tired of earnest travel books and blogs--you know, "We went here; it was beautiful," "We visited there; it was breaktaking," "We saw X, site great tragedy Y; it was poetic." aaack!--so it was with a nasty "thank friggin' god" that I read missmimesis's Nerve.com diary. A straight girl and her gay friend prowl Buenos Aires looking for clubs, boys and really good coke. Honestly, good clean fun doesn't come any better than this. And here, an except:
Eventually, late in the night, a very short – almost microscopic – boy in a white t-shirt and black came up to me and started talking and said to me, in an extremely loud and high-pitched voice that can only be described as a screech: “Are you gay?”
Still screeching, “Is your friend gay?” This is a very conventional question in Buenos Aires.
At that point he grabbed me and started making out with me. I didn’t really respond but also didn’t really resist. It lasted a few minutes and then he screeched, “See you later” and started to walk away. I figured it was worth a try: “Do you know where to get pills?”
Just as a truly earnest tourist to the
Once you slip the clutches of Buenos Aires’s inevitable box-store and car-lot outer suburbs, most every sign of civilization falls away to reveal acre upon acre of soy and cattle grazing fields, sparsely punctuated by an occasional dusty town, ranch compound or fertilizer plant. The land is as flat as Wyoming’s high plains and patterned into a subtly beautiful agricultural plaid by various crops, some the brilliant green of a southeast Asian rice patty, some the clay brown of cut corn, others patchy with the living and dead earth tones of cow-grazed grass. Every 20km or so, a bouquet of small billboards sprout at the roadside, proudly announcing Roundup Ready soy or other genetically modified crops. “Frankenfood” might be a dirty word to European artesenal cheesemakers, but
What does not sprout is people. As if an uneasy but lasting truce had been struck with the cows over the division of pampas and cities, there are essentially zero human beings visible outside of rushing vehicles. It’s said—and like many truisms about Argentina, this bears investigating—that the U.S. and Argentina experienced similar tsunamis of (mostly) European immigration in the 19th century, but while U.S. immigrants were able to buy land and build farms that grew into towns, transit hubs and cities, by the time immigrants landed in Buenos Aires most Argentine land had long been divvied into huge agricultural and livestock superfincas. The newly-arrived Italians and Spaniards remained in the city, far from the maddening cows.
One of the great—or terrifying, depending on your point-of-view—things about driving on Argentine highways is what one might call the “diversity” of speed. As you pass a cattle truck driving 80km/h you may pull to the left to dodge a pokey Peugeot doing 70km/h in the passing line, only to find the headlights of a tiny Suzuki Fun—an insectile fastback doing 145km/h as it straddles two lanes—poking your rear. But to avoid pat stereotypes—you know, “crazy South American drivers” and all—it’s important to note that Argentine traffic, while fast, isn’t bloodthirsty aggressive in the speed sense. Rather, like a bunch of minor misdemeanor parolees, Argentine drivers are adamant that they’re mature enough to be left to their own recognizance. In
Surprisingly, this godless combination of moderate speeds and unregulated, unlit movement seems to lead to a high number of near misses but relatively few car-on-car collisions. That said, pedestrians are not so lucky. As our friend (and cardiologist) Nestor rightly told us, “In
At 300km from
Under a steel-grey sky we walked past the monument to the riverfront, where hundreds of road crews frantically prepared for
Walking back along the pedestrian mall, we stopped at a
Like a never ending game of SpyHunter, no matter how many trucks we passed ever more appeared on the horizon. Adding to the Sisyphean weirdness, we listened to our two new—and only—albums eight times in alternating sequence, memorizing and interpreting every lyric to within an inch of its metaphoric life. It was hard not to worry that if we did splatter in a fatal crash, the rescue workers would pick through the detritus and, with pinch-lipped nods of disapproval, say, “Shakira fans.” Moods were shaved delicate, nerves frayed. It was the kind of driving that causes the teeth-grinding lip biting arguments that break lesser relationships. When we arrived in
With about 1.3 million people and a label as
The NH Panorama is part of a Spanish chain that goes for a sort of modest Philippe Starck motif, with square furniture, mustard hues, and hip hotel uniforms. One of the four top hotels in the city, the starkly attractive joint sports just enough scuffs to fit perfectly in
Though constant and unrelenting,
But if Argentina can handle the most convoluted aspects of quotidian life well, why is cleaning up your pooch’s sidewalk droppings such an impossible task that it feels as if one haven’t lived here until you’ve stepped in Dulce de Perro at least fifty times? (Perhaps they don’t believe in the institution of the pooper scooper.) Why is so much of the money counterfeit? How are there so many Harare-style shanty towns? Why can’t they lower import duties so that a $10 answering machine doesn’t cost $50? Is there an embargo on contemporary music, or does the post-junta 1980s era have such a nostalgic hold that people are simply unable to step back from the latest “Best of Queen” collection, a Top 40 fixture here? [In one three day period, I managed to watch Starsky & Hutch on the “Retro” channel and hear Alicia Bridges’ “I love the night life (I got to boogie)”, Alphaville’s “Big in Japan”, Kool & The Gang’s “Cherish (the Love)”, the themes from Ghostbusters and Beverly Hills Cop and more Phil Collins than one country, no matter how large, should possess.] And why—to digress—are there no black people in
In the rain, our cursory tour of
Alta Gracia: Golf, the Communist Sport
After our nine hour drive to
Lining the streets on the way to the nearby Museo Casa de Ernesto “Che” Guevara, abandoned mansions punctuate a middle class neighborhood. Beautiful relics with cement block-filled doorways, they speak of the flush years of Alta Gracia, of a time where there was plenty of money and time to install cornices and detail the front porch. As real estate-obsessed New Yorkers, of course this lush decrepitude sent us into paroxysms of desire. There’s nothing like a $10,000 14-room mini-castle with a six foot cactus growing out of its roof to make a Manhattanite go apoplectic with acquisitive need.
The museum itself fills one of Che’s childhood homes, a cute, modest six room square filled with Guevara paraphernalia and photos—including the types of motorcycles he used to circle
Late on the first night we visited Alta Gracia, we visited the nearby event hall to hear Rodrigo De la Serna, the actor who played Che’s co-hort in the Motorcycle Diaries, who was scheduled to tell stories gleaned during the movie’s filming. When he did not show up after 30 minutes, we asked one of the waiter/bartenders whether he was still scheduled: “He was to fly in from
Judging by the resignation with which the rest of the crowd was waiting—Who would expect a event to proceed as scheduled?—we decided to return the next night for a presentation by one of the archeologists who found and exhumed Che’s body from the unmarked grave in Bolivia in which is had been dumped after his execution by the army there.
The next day we made a thwarted attempt at a hike through La Quebrada del Condorito, a canyon condor habitat. Slowed down by a Stephen King-ish fog, we stopped at a mountaintop café for a late lunch and then finally found our way to the unmarked park entrance and down a mile-long walk to the park station at 3 p.m. The clouds mystically opened and the sun warmed the air into summer. The dusty hills rolled clearly into the distance, a perfectly empty paradise of scrub and sandstone outcroppings. It was the first vista of more than 50 feet that we’d seen in three days, and it felt heavenly open.
Then, however, a park ranger told us we couldn’t start the hike because at five hours for its full length, the sun would set before we returned. Figuring that logic was on our side, Cintra pointed out that we could in fact turn back early. We pointed to our watches and tried to look sensible. We didn’t want to be stuck in a dark park any more than she wanted us to be. “We’ll only walk for 20 minutes,” Cintra said. “But…no. It is too late,” the ranger said. “In half an hour we’ll turn around. Really. It took nine hours to drive here and we have to go back to
But having set her heels, the ranger was having nothing to do with reasonable arguments. “People say half and hour. And then they walk and walk,” she said. “They do? We will turn around,” Cintra said. “No, no. It’s too late. We’re closed,” the ranger said. “When do you close,” I said, as the bureaucratic truth—if we left her day was over—come clear. “I…at…earlier, much earlier. One, two, twelve, eleven maybe,,” she answered. Then, sensing an escape, she threw out a hook: “Where did you park?”
Although the Argentine papers and TV news shows are littered with tales of home invasions—a criminal practice that dovetails with the local distrust of banks and concurrent hoarding of cash (usually American) in mattresses—there’s also a propensity to exaggerate danger among locals and expats alike. The taxis will always give you counterfeit change, your pockets will be picked, you’ll by jumped as you walk the streets. Or, perhaps, condors will steal your car. It’s as if such danger makes Argentine truly a Pais En Serio—Look, our criminals are very much first rate. A TV station—Cronica—even largely dedicates its 24-hour broadcasts to local crime coverage, photos of car crashes, bedside interviewees with mugged pensioners and the like. Imagine if Fox ran a local crime channel.
When the ranger learned the truth—that we’d parked on the highway—she switched her attitude to that of a caring but stern teacher. We had to go back. Run even. We were parked on the highway. The highway. Not just any highway: The dangerous, dangerous highway. We’d be robbed, if we hadn’t already been. Our car would be stolen. We’d be lucky to live. It happened all the time, she said. “All the time?” we wondered. But with a seed of doubt planted, we couldn’t stay. Back we jogged from the beautiful open plain into the eerie Salem’s Lot haze and then 2 km to our car. It was unmolested, of course, but as if scripted, more park rangers drove up to assure us of our nascent paranoia, the constant robberies, the swirling criminals on this abandoned road. Highwaymen, I thought. How often do you get to use that word?
That night, at the finale of the archeologists’ presentation on Che’s exhumation, an audience member with wounded patriotism—or at least the desire for the right of first refusal—stood and asked accusingly, “Why was the body sent to Cuba [for a state burial] instead of Argentina?” The issue of Che and his place in Argentine history is a contentious one and echoes both with the national pride and thwarted patrimony that bathes the Argentine political identity. Recently, the
Such is the theme of inevitable Argentine Pride and Shame speech: Where did we jump the track and how great could we have been? Whether it’s Peron’s wealth redistribution, taxpayer intransigence, bureaucratic corruption, the military junta, excess pride, too many immigrants, Menem, not enough immigration or just a location far from the center of things, everyone has a drum to beat. Having dinner two weeks later with an aged psychiatrist and an older politician from the Radical party—the intellectual minority opposition party that, in its own mythology, could govern with beneficent grace if only its leaders weren’t so painfully honest and if only the working class better understood its own interests—I received my version.
“We were the eighth largest country,” the politician said. “
“After WWII we were the 8th largest, from selling the armaments to both sides.
“No one’s neutral,” the shrink interjected.
“Well, we sold goods to everyone,” the politician said, waving the philosophical question aside. “When Peron took office, he was a little fat and there were pictures of him trying to walk through the treasury. There was so much gold, and he was fat, he couldn’t fir down the aisles.”
“Yes,” the psychologist answered
“But by the end of his presidency, it was all gone. From paying off the people. Everyone worked for the party. The election workers, their union, was absorbed into the party. Into the state. So the people counting the votes worked for the party in power.”
“And the maintenance people too, and then the doctors,” the psychiatrist said.
“Everyone worked for the party. The poor, they loved Peron because he made them a little less poor. But they learned that whatever they needed they went to the party. The party just bought them things. If they wanted food, the party told them to go to a certain place once a week. Like a feed trough. People became like cows. They had a place to eat. It was Nazi-Fascist-Totalitarianism. They say if Hitler had learned from Peron how to run a Totalitarian state, he would have died at 80 in his bed. He wouldn’t have killed so many people and he would have kept his country. He would have died like a king.”
The psychiatrist nodded.
“And when Peron was done paying off everyone to vote for him, the gold was gone.”
“It was a religion,not politics,” the psychiatrist said, “because it had no ideology.”
“No ideology. No views,” said the politician. “There was just the power.”
The next morning’s return drive delivered us into sunlight. The gray, unproductive storm that had parked atop