Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Local Wildlife

What you may or may not know is that Buenos Aires is crawling with critters: pigeons & other birdies, insects, dogs, cats and more cats. Ok, so not exactly wild animals, but I can't get enough of the free-roaming pets. As everyone knows, I'm kind of afraid of dogs, and usually only admire them at a distance. But the dogs here-both leashed pets and strays, are so cute and friendly that I want one myself. It's hard to resist the urge to go on a petting spree, especially since I'm not sure if it's rude or not to pet people's dogs. Sometimes I can't help myself, and my hand finds itself patting the furry head of someone's Golden Retriever. Speaking of breeds, dogs are like a status symbol in my neighborhood. Remember last summer when everyone North of 14th Street in NYC had an expensive French bulldog? (of course you wouldn't, unless your name is Temnete Sebhatu) But anyway, I bet half of those poor bulldogs are sitting in a pound somewhere, out of fashion now. Well, it's kind of like that here. Popular breeds are Golden Retrievers, shizus, huskies, and poodles, which are dragged around by little old ladies (I feel bad for the huskies-it's way too hot here for them!). And of course there are the dog walkers, who haul around like 30 dogs of various breeds and sizes, and leave shit all over the sidewalk. Jose, my beloved security guard, has 15 dogs (and 4 cats). Fifteen! Graciela says Jose is "loco," because dog food is so expensive. He told me that most of his pets are "mestizos" (mutts) he rescued from the streets, and that he lives in the Provencia so he has plenty of space for them. People take their pets seriously here. No animal ever seems to go hungry, even the strays. I was petting a group of cats in a trash heap in the park the other day and noticed plates of cat food set out for them, presumably by kind old ladies (like in the Recoleta Cemetery) who can't bear to see cats go hungry. Other hotspots for stray cats are greengrocers and the Botanical Gardens, where clusters of cats lounge under the pruned hedges. As if I don't look crazy enough as it is petting dirty cats, I've taken to photographing them on a regular basis. Some of my favorites are the little orange fellow how lives and few blocks from me, the little gatito who lives at the fruit stand on my way to school (the boys who work there are amused by my obsession), and this fat fluffy gray one that lives behind the fence of some sort of top-security compound. And of course Reni, Graciela's eccentric "boyfriend," who sleeps in between couch cushions and comes into my room at weird hours making all sorts of noise.
I've heard that only Westerners (ie America, Europe) make a big fuss over pets, but considering how well-groomed, obedient, and bountiful domesticated animals are here, I think pet obsession is a universal bourgeois privilege.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Instant coffee: a series of long-overdue posts

I must admit, I was surprised (at my own cultural insensitivity, no doubt) that not all Latin American food is spicy. Graciela patiently explained to me that all Americans expect spicy food, since we're so used to peppers and hot sauce in Mexican/Tex Mex cuisine, but here they don't eat their food with added spice. Aside from meat and a few popular regional dishes, Argentine cuisine doesn't especially stand out in flavor, unusual ingredients, or originality. However, I don't want you to get the impression that the food here is boring. Yeah, you could eat crappy hamburgers and pasta all the time, but I think the Argentine (with Spanish and Italian influence) classics are the way to go if you want culinary satisfaction. Food is rich: meats and cheeses, tartas, creamy coffee, alfajores (cookie layered with dulce de leche and covered in chocolate), freshly baked breads and desserts, winter vegetables, eggs and/or dulce de leche served with everything. It's slow, and meant to be savored and enjoyed with wine or beer, and always with friends.

Breakfast is fairly simple and solitary: every morning I eat two pieces of toast spread with marmeledas or dulce de leche, fruit, orange juice, and instant coffee with azucar.
Since lunch is on my own, I usually head down to the confiteria (panederia to all you other Spanish speakers) and buy a couple of freshly baked empanadas (filled with jamon y queso, roquefort, carne picante, spinach, pumpkin, or chicken, depending on the day) for 3 pesos each. Other days I'll buy some fruit and bread from the supermercado, or nuts and snacks from the health food store. Most afternoons I get a cafe and a snack, like medialunas (sweet croissants) or helado, both of which are cultures of their own here.
I've heard horror stories from other students about their host families depriving them of basic nourishment and/or being terrible cooks, etc, so I guess I can consider myself lucky living with Graciela, who is very health-conscious and provides a variety of nutritious meals. Dinner usually consists of protein and a vegetable, with very little carbs, grease, or dairy. Here's a sample menu of dinners from the past few weeks:

-roasted peppers, choclo (corn), and baked chicken
-corn/red pepper quiche
-eggplant and pasta
-pollo milanesas, calabaza (pumpkin), and fresh sliced tomatoes
-porkchops with salsa de mostaza, or baked with apples
-grilled steak and salad
-soups (cream of cebolla, chicken)

sides: sweet potato, lentils, tomatoes, carrot, peppers, pumpkin...basically whatever's fresh and in season
dessert: fruit, with dulce de leche

I don't go out to eat a lot, because a) there's no such thing as a quick meal here. And b) it's pretty expensive. But I've had enough experience in the BA restaurant/cafe scene to compile a fairly legitimate "Best Of..." list:

Best empanadas: Chantilly Confiteria (best price too-can't beat 3 pesos each!)

Best dessert: churros and hot chocolate at Cafe Tortoni, although an alfajor will satisfy your sweet tooth

Best coffee shop: el Potosi, for cafe con leche, Coco Cola in glass bottles, sandwiches with unusual fillings, and a cozy brick atmosphere. It's a local place I discovered a few weeks ago, and I go several times a week. The old men who sit outside with their friends are so cute and friendly I want to put them in my pocket. And the waitress knows me now that I've been there so often.

Best cocktail: clairivoska (vodka, lime, sugar)

Best (cheap) beer: Quilmes

Best wine: Malbec, duh.

Best savory snack (to enjoy with a beer): picada, a plate of olives, cheese, and cubed deli meats (salami, ham, prosciutto)

Best snack for anytime: medialunas

Best brunch: Oui Oui (the girls and I had a Valentine's Day brunch of eggs, bacon, french toast, waffles, and of course, cafe con leche)

Best all around: steak (de asado). Yes, I do eat meat now. And I'm not going to pretend I'm not enjoying it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

la moda de los Porteños

I can't help but notice how beautiful and glamorous most people are here. Of course there are the subcultures of the disenfranchised (blah blah blah) and plastic surgery is very common, but there is definitely a specific standard of beauty. So here's a few observations about what Porteños (that's the word to refer to people from Buenos Aires) are wearing, how they're grooming themselves, and what defines beautiful. It's like they don't allow ugly people on the streets!

Viejos: sad eyes, wrinkles, balding heads, a collared shirt (with stripes or plaid) tucked into belted khakis, orthopedic shoes, and a cane.

los chicos: hipster-meets-guido-meets-soccer player is the look right now. They wear Toms, Havanas flip flops, or rad hightops, long denim shorts and futbol jerseys, (but shirtless preferred, which is ok, because they're all super-fit). They sport slicked back ponytails (ala David Beckham cerca 2002-2003), mullets, piercings, and yes, rat-tails. hola guapo!

las chicas: anything goes with the ladies, but denim minis, cute sneakers, tank tops in all colors, and sandals are a must. Hair is worn long, straight, and dyed various shades of blonde. They actually don't wear much make-up, they're just that pretty.

ladies of an older generation: they are usually very elegant-long skirts, tailored pants, blouses (cleave!!), comfy yet tasteful sandals, and dangly earrings.

Cigarettes are a popular accessory for everyone but las viejas. And people wear their book-bags on the front. Seriously.

other things

Even though I love it here (both good and bad experiences), there are a few things I miss about home. And a few things I don't like about this city! (sorry to copy you Tas)

Me extraño:

1. Of course, my family, my friends, and my boyfriend

2. Bojangles. And any breakfast food like pancakes, cereal, etc.

3. Gender equality. Yes, there's even a woman president here, but there are subtle ways in which men treat women like inferiors. And I can't go some places/walk home at night alone.

4. Riding a bike

5. Fixed prices. I'm waiting to buy a few souvenirs until I can speak better Spanish, so I can get my haggle on!

6. Unnoticeable sewage smells. Enough said.

7. Late-nite transportation/food

8. Not feeling like an outsider.

9. Politeness. Ok, like I said, people are friendly. But not necessarily super tactful. Maybe that's just honesty, and I'll get used to it. For example, I asked this girl for directions the other night in Spanish, and she rolled her eyes and said "I bet you my English is better than your Spanish." I mean, I would never say that to someone attempting to speak English! So I said, unkind back in rapid English, and she made no comment, so I guess she didn't understand. Take that, bitch!

10. Parliament Lights.


It's taken me about a week to make my observations and get a feel for this place. although I haven't done everything, I've definitely tested the waters. I'm more of a wanderer than a planner, so I've taken to going on a daily adventure (yes, mostly alone, but no worries). Some of the best and most memorable times I've had have come about by my tendency to wander, and try a few things with no real direction or plan. Sometimes it works out, sometimes things fall through, but wandering is the best way to get to know a city and immerse myself in the culture. It's too easy to get into a groove, speak basic Spanish when necessary, and get into the routine of going out to all the same places on weekends with all the same people. Here's a few things I've learned by myself (or with a friend or two), that I think are more valuable than anything a guidebook can provide:

1. Make friends with the doormen of your building. The guys that work the desk are called Mario, Raoul, and Jose. Jose told me if I wanted to practice Castellano, I could always chat with him. He gives me directions, useful information about things to do, and always makes sure I'm going somewhere safe. They've got my back.

2. Find a neighborhood cafe. The cafes on Cabildo (commercial area in my barrio) are expensive, impersonal, and crowded. Luckily, Alison and I found the perfect spot near our building today. Much cheaper and much comfier!

3. Take buses/el subte as much as possible. Taxi drivers sometimes try to rip you off, and it's so cheap ($1.10 pesos= 30 cents) and actually a lot safer (I've heard stories about them kidnapping girls?!)

4. Don't speak English when you get on the bus, and throw your coins in the machine like you know what you're doing. Usually the bus drivers don't care if you've paid enough of not, but if you get flustered and whatnot, he'll let you keep putting coins in the slot until you've paid for more than one ride. That being said, the colectivos (colloquialism for bus) are a lot of pressure, because you pay after the bus starts moving and you're always rushed.

5. On that note, always carry monedas (coins) with you. They're hard to come by, and people hoard them. There's a national coin crisis (literally) right now because of obsessive hoarding. I think the problem would be solved by bus cards (they take coins only), but that's just me. And people at stores hate giving change in coins, so give them as small a bill as possible so you at least get a couple of monedas back.

6. Avoid bars blasting American music. I'm already sick of (most) Argentinian guys, and they hang around those places to pick up American girls.

7. Don't walk in huge groups (more than 4 or 5), especially on the subte's. It's a dead giveaway you're a tourist, and it's obnoxious. I was riding the subte by myself when a group of American girls got on. They were so loud and annoying-no wonder people think the stereotypes are true. When I spoke to them in English, they nearly jumped out of their skin--I was sitting quietly like everybody else, so I guess they thought I was a Porteño?

8. Go see movies on Wednesday nights, because it's much cheaper. $15 pesos>$26

9. The streets here are surprisingly clean, at least in my barrio. Actually the city is very well-kept. Even the graffiti has its charm. But no one picks up their dog's shit, so watch where you're walking!

10. Order randomly off menus (only if you eat meat!) because you'll usually get a nice surprise.

11. The ham here is so much better than at home. I don't know why, but even something as simple as a jamon y queso sandwich is delicious.

12. Apparently restaurants don't believe in tap water. It's perfectly safe/tasty to drink, but for some reason people always drink bottled water (agua sin gas or con gas) and it's more expensive than, say, a glass of wine. If you order water at a restaurant, expect to pay 6-8 pesos for it.

13. People here seem like they're racist, but I think they just acknowledge those differences without...tact. Every time a person of Asian origin is mentioned, someone always pulls back the skin around their eyes. Yeah. We get it. Unnecessary, but it's not like they don't like Asians. It's hard to explain, but I guess race has always been an issue in Latin America.

14. Not all people here are out to get you, as apparently our programs would have us believe (with horror stories of rape/robbery/etc). Most are friendly, will give you accurate directions (they'll even ask if you need help if you look lost), and are just trying to make a living. Of course, there are creeps and shady cab drivers and whatnot, but some Americans I've met are very cynical about the locals. As long as you say hello, how are you?, please/thank you, goodbye, people are polite right back.

15. However, people think Americans are too polite. Argentinians are more direct, and we tend to give indirect answers such as "well, i don't know," "maybe..." etc. People can actually be kind of blunt, but they appreciate direct answers.

16. Walk as much as possible. It's the best way to get the know the area (which in turn makes it safer for you) and see things you wouldn't have otherwise seen. Alison and I discovered a beautiful park and coffee shop today, just by wandering for a few hours around our own neighborhood.

17. There's no need to rush anything. Argentinians are punctual for class/work/etc, but they take their time when it comes to leisure. Like going out at night--it's unnecessary to arrive anywhere before midnight, because most people take their time eating dinner/getting ready. Going out shouldn't be a chore, and being too early/meeting people at an exact time makes it not fun. As with eating out or taking a coffee, waiters aren't rushed to bring you the check; they just assume you'll sip and talk and enjoy yourself, without having to be somewhere in 15 minutes. That's why there's no real fast food here--if you're going out to eat, be sure you have plenty of time. I like that mentality; it makes spending time with friends so much more enjoyable. Like the other day some friends and I planned to go to a museum, but we ended up sitting for three hours at a cafe and having a great time instead. The waiters even brought us free ice cream! I guess they liked our un-American attitude :) So why rush anywhere?

18. Bring a notebook and pen everywhere. That way you can sketch out maps, write down directions before you go so you don't have to consult a guide, take notes on street names and places you want to go in the future, and just write down thoughts about experiences and sensations.

19. Get the feel of a place before you engage in eating there. Look at the owner's/waiters'/patrons' faces when you walk in. You'll know immediately if you're not welcome (as a non-local or a woman). If you decide to stay, you can expect poor service and to be ripped off.

20. Above all I guess, practice speaking Spanish. I wish more than anything I spoke better Spanish, and that I'd studied harder before I came. Foreigners who can communicate faster and better and to a wider group have to best experiences and find off-the-map things to do/see. Like today, I asked a guy where that roaring noise was coming from, and he brought me to a futbol stadium! Ok, he did speak English, but if I hadn't stopped him to speak to him in the first place, I never would have gone. Ok, so I didn't actually go to the game, but now I know a) where the stadium is b) how much tickets cost/where to get them c) that some guys here are actually decent!


Saturday, February 6, 2010

la esquina de O'Higgins y Olazabal

Since arriving last Friday, I've already done and seen so much it would seem I've been in Buenos Aires for a lifetime. That's the thing about cities-they swallow you whole and digest you at warp speed. My memory of the past week is a blur of images--of palm trees, sunshine, clean white and red brick, tree-lined avenues and silhouetted crowds in smoky bars. Most nights I dream in Spanish, waking up in a hot sweat. When I'm sleepless I sit by my bedroom window listening to the whir of the ceiling fan and the echoing sirens, staring out at the geometric shapes of the high-rises in my barrio. By day, the city is distinctly itself. But at night, it's transformed into a glittering metropolis: crowds of people sitting at cafés, brightly lights, tiny cars weaving in and out of the endless traffic. It could be any city anywhere.

So far, I've visited the Recoleta Cemetery, seen the National Museum de Bellas Artes, visited Boca and San Telmo, and of course toured Plaza de Mayo, home of la Casa Rosa, the national Cathedral, and the history of political upheaval in Argentina. One memorable afternoon I went down to Almagro in search of an elusive libreria, but ended up sitting in the park watching skaters. And of course I've started classes already-five hours a day of español. And I've eaten my fair share of empanadas and carnitas and helado and dulce de leche.

I live in Belgrano, a very nice barrio (neighborhood) in the northern part of the city. My host "mom" is Graciela, a retired lady with two-grown up kids, a love of gardening, and a cat named Renado (Reni), who she says is her "boyfriend." As crazy as I am about cats, I couldn't believe my luck. Anyway, Graciela and I eat dinner together every night (around ten) and we watch telenovelas and the news. She always explains to me what's happening in simpler terms. We speak Castellano (one of the Argentinean dialects), and she asks me about my boyfriend, my family, and the like. And of course corrects my awful grammar. Give it another week, she says, and you'll catch on.