Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Today was Censo Argentina 2010. Census day. Unlike the U.S. where we drag out the census compilation over months, Argentines shut down their entire country for 12 hours and mandate that people stay home until they have been counted by the censistas. I was no exception.

In a way, I live in a sort of bubble here in Buenos Aires, oblivious to the bigger world around me. Being a foreigner without competent languages skills puts you into survival mode. I focus on my day-to-day activities: Go to school. Maintain my business. Dance tango.

I am not completely unaware, but my tactic is to watch and learn, rather than inquire. I find that asking questions only leads to frustration when the answer does not turn out to be "" or "no." My brain turns to dulce de leche when I have no clue what people are saying to me. Slight obliviousness, I find, is a much easier state of being.

Luckily, Spanish teacher Fernanda keeps her students well informed and warned us yesterday to go grocery shopping as there would be nothing open today. Nada. No cafés, no supermercados. Everyone will be at home waiting to be counted, she explained.

Sure enough, all was quiet on the streets of Buenos Aires this morning and at about 10 o'clock, the censista buzzed my door. The questions were in Spanish; I understood little. Luckily, I have a sweet, non-English-speaking portera (sort of like a superintendent) in my building that accompanied the censista to my apartment and answered most of the questions for me. Number of bedrooms and bathrooms? Are there utilities? The usual census stuff, I think. I answered regarding my date of birth, where I was from and that I used a cell phone and computer. And that was that.

At about 8 o'clock tonight, a swirl of activity began on the streets outside. It was like rush hour only worse. The porteños must be antsy from being cooped up all day. I decided to take a little walk myself and see if my favorite heladeria was open. It was not, but I observed an enormous mass of people walking toward Plaza de Mayo which I live only a few blocks away from.

Must be protesters peeved about the way the census was handled, I thought. But they seemed a little more subdued than the usual Argentine protests I've witnessed. Lots of people had their kids with them, and there was no banging of drums, chanting or clanking of pots and pans. Maybe it's just an after-census celebration? I wandered around a bit to get a feel for it. Calm. A few banners and signs I couldn't read other than the name "Kirchner" which I know to be the president.

Realizing that I still needed to satisfy my sweet tooth, I ventured for the only open café I could find. It was crammed with people, but I found a tight spot at the bar, ordered a banana licuado and glued my eyes to the television which was fixed on the news.

Suddenly, I realized where I was. "Murio Nestor Kirchner," the TV headlines read. Holy cow, the president's husband is dead (I think)! Is it possible I've been wandering around a vigil for the former president (and first-husband), Nestor Kirchner, completely oblivious?

I finished my licuado which somehow ended up being peach instead of banana, but still delicious. (Note to self, work on your Spanish enunciation.) I went home, turned on the TV, and poked around on the internet. Yep. Kirchner died of a heart attack this morning.

Hard to say how this will impact the country as he still had his hand in politics via his wife, the current president, and he himself was expected to run for president again in the next election. Some view him as the savior of the Argentine economy after it crashed in 2001ish. Others see him as the puppet master of his wife's presidency. This already shaky country may get a little bit more unsteady after this turn of events.

My own state of obliviousness has also been shaken a bit. Time to pay more attention to the world around me, I guess. Time to be brave and start asking some questions. My first one, a yes or no question. Did Kirchner get counted in the census? Just curious.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Scratching the surface

A disheveled, elderly woman cuts in front of me as I wait in the lengthy reception queue at the clinic of Hospital Alemán. I look around to see if perhaps I missed something and if, in fact, I may have cut in front of her somehow. She turns to me, embarrassed and wide-eyed as she realizes it was, indeed, her mistake.

She rambles something to me in Castellano, which I understood to be an apology and an offer for me to return to my rightful place in line. I shake my head and gesture that she can remain ahead of me and meekly explain, “Hablo un poquito español.  Her eyes grow even wider.

For the next few minutes, as we waited in line, we had a tiny dialog in Castellano. She wondered how I was going to tell the doctor of my ailment if I didn't speak Spanish fluently. She worried for my health. I told her I hoped the doctor might speak a little English and that my issue was minor, not an emergency. I would be fine, I assured her. She seemed unconvinced.

The surface of Buenos Aires is pretty grimy and sad. Homeless families commingle with the monstrous piles of trash on the streets. The colectivos spit chunky black exhaust in your face, leaving your lungs congested and coating the buildings with greasy soot. Inflation is so ridiculous that even I have noticed the price increases already. 

Yes, of course, the newness has worn off; I've been here over a month. It's easy to see the shortcomings of a country that has seen very difficult times. But that's not why I am here.

Tango? Yes, I can tango anytime of day, and that’s nice. But, honestly, tango isn’t the only reason for me to want to stay here or even to return. Baires is so much more than tango, even to me now.

Many, many wonderful things about Buenos Aires when you look beyond the grime and grit. Elegant architecture. Delicious empanadas, dulce de leche helado (ice cream) and malbec. Traffic stopping cultural events to stumble upon like a symphony at the base of the Obelisk on a random Saturday, or the ten-hour (no exaggeration) parade of costumed Bolivianos dancing down Avenida de Mayo last Sunday. The Subte can get you across town in under 30 minutes (when there isn’t a labor strike) for about a quarter. But, if you dig just a little deeper than the superficial surface, you will find the real gems of this town. The people.

Ah, yes! ¡La gente de Argentina! ¡Los porteños de Baires! The people of this amazing place are my reason to love this city more everyday. On first  impression,
 porteños seem to be a rather dour citizen—understandable considering all the troubles they have had to bear over the years. (They are used to getting shit on by their government, quite frankly.)

Argentines rarely smile at you on the street, although they will stare pretty intently. They don't greet you enthusiastically when you walk into a store or restaurant; you may get a "Buen día," on occasion, but don't expect much more than that. Even the street vendors are a melancholy crowd compared to their overly aggressive counterparts in, say, Mexico or Jamaica.

However, when you have the chance to converse with an Argentine, even for just a few moments, even in very broken Castellano, you become their friend. They develop a genuine interest and concern for you, as if for a member of their family. Upon introduction, they welcome total strangers with a warm embrace and kiss on the cheek. Even men to men. Even doctor to patient. They are very touchy people. Kind, warm and loving. You just have to scratch the surface a bit.

Thirty minutes after my little conversation with the elderly porteña in the clinic queue, she found me still sitting in the lobby awaiting my consultation. She approached me, kissed me on the cheek, held my hand, looked me in the eyes and assured me all would be well.

"Todo está bien," she repeated several times, pointing at me to make sure I understood that she meant I would be fine.

"Sí, sí, señora, estoy muy bien," I nodded and smiled back to assure her I was definitely O.K. In the back of my mind, I ran through the short conversation we had earlier to see if I may have mistakenly told her in my broken Castellano that I was dying of a dreadful illness. But no, she is just a concerned Argentine. I scratched her surface and, just like her city, what I find is sparklingly brilliant.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

My mates and mate

Yesterday, a chilly, spring-time-in-Argentina day, my classmates and I got a happy warm-up with a surprise from nuestra profesora, Fernanda, when we returned from our 11 o'clock recreo (recreational break). I was so excited when I saw her purplish thermos and small wooden cup sitting in front of her, filled with green herbs and silver straw standing on end in the middle. Fernanda, who looks like Eva Mendes and makes us all speak solamente castellano while we are in class, was smiling. I knew what this meant.

I suddenly got goose bumps from anticipation. After four whole weeks in Argentina, I thought this day would never come. And here it was, my first time! Fernanda was about to share with me and my classmates one of the most ingrained traditions of Argentina—the sharing of yerba mate.

If you know an Argentine, chances are they drink yerba mate (pronounced share-buh mah-teh). It is the drink of choice (over coffee or tea) for 90 percent of Argentines, but from what I can see on the street, I believe that statistic is wrong. It must be at least 98 percent.

Yerba mate and the traditional gourds, bombillas (silver straws with a filter on the end) and thermoses used to serve the drink are carried everywhere in Buenos Aires, everyday. Instead of carrying a Starbucks coffee in hand like we do in the states, Argentines carry their thermos of water tucked under their arm. If you pass a building with a security guard, he or she usually has a gourd with silver straw nearby. I have rarely been to a milonga where I didn't see at least one milonguero with a thermos and gourd sitting on their table, and if there is a restroom attendant, she is inevitably sipping mate as she doles out the toilet paper and paper towels. Vendors sell it on the street and all of the supermercados have almost an entire aisle dedicated to the herbs. (You only have two brands of toilet paper to choose from in Baires, but about 50 brands of yerba mate.)

An Argentine home is not complete without at least one gourd and bombilla, including my own apartment. I was also furnished with an electric water pitcher to make preparation quick and easy. I have been anxious to try out my supplies if the time ever came.

So now you are probably wondering why the heck I didn't just go out and buy myself some herbs. Got the equipment. It's readily available. What's the big deal?

Well, you see, I am a bit of a traditionalist and yerba mate is the drink of friendship. Although the Argentines drink it on their own, it is traditionally meant to be shared by friends, from the same cup and bombilla, along with a great conversation.

I wanted my first try to be an authentic experience. I didn't want to just order mate in a café or ask the grocer at the corner market how to make it. I wanted an Argentine friend (or at least a knowledgeable expat) to make it for me, to tell me how they like it best, to show me how they make it, and then have a great conversation about love, and life, and philosophy. At the very least, I hoped that I may happen to be seated at a milonga with a group of friendly women that just happened to be sharing mate and were willing to offer it to the yanqui.

But, I have to be honest. As much as I pondered about the ritual of drinking mate, I never thought I would actually like the drink. I am not a tea drinker, and I do not like coffee. My drink of choice has always been water, and since yerba mate is usually described as "bitter," I really couldn't imagine acquiring a taste for it.

Fernanda filled the little wooden gourd with water and passed it first to Grant from New Zealand on her right. "No, gracias," he said, shaking his head, cheeks turning crimson, "no me gusta."

"You've tried it before?" Fernanda asked, in Castellano. "Try just a taste of mine," she urged, "everyone makes it different, you might like it this time."

He took a quick sip, made a face, shook his head again, ears crimson now, too, and passed it on to Australian Bridget. Fernanda gave a big laugh.

Bridge tasted, stifled a yucky face, giggled and then tried to pass it back to Fernanda with a "Muy bien, gracias." 

Fernanda continued to laugh. "No," she explained, passing it back to Bridget, "you drink until the liquid is gone and then I refill it and pass it to the next friend." Bridge sipped again, her blue eyes suddenly reflecting a connection to the tradition. She smiled, and finished the small pool of herb infused water.

Fernanda took the cup and filled it with more water. She then handed it to Brazilian Carla. Mate is popular in parts of Brazil as well, but Carla admitted she wasn't too keen on it. She was, however, respectful of the ritual and sipped her portion with a smile, too, before passing it on to Tilde from Sweden.

As the gourd was passed around from classmate to classmate with varying degrees of approval, I anticipated my own reaction. Would it be horrible, I wondered? How bitter is bitter? These people are all coffee drinkers and they are making faces. What am I going to think?

Suddenly, Irish Brian next to me was finished, and with a quick fill up from Fernanda, it was my turn. I put my lips around the silver straw and took a small sip, unsure. The bombilla warmed to almost too hot as the liquid rose through metal, passed my lips to my tongue. I, too, smiled, surprised by its sweetness.

"¡Es muy bien!" I exclaimed, and then tried to put sentences together to explain myself.

First, I wanted to describe the flavor, like a green tea, but richer, more flavorful, distinctive. Spicier, perhaps. I wanted to tell Fernanda how excited I was to finally be able to share this ritual. To let her know that I was honored to be served by her and thrilled to be sharing this experience with my seven classmates from all around the world. I wanted to thank her for sharing such a brilliant tradition in a way that could not be more special and memorable. I wanted to gush! I wanted to be eloquent! Crap.

With only four weeks of lessons in Castellano (OK, four weeks plus over four years of Spanish between high school and college over 16 years ago), I could only piece together something like, “¡Yo no tomo té o café, solamente agua. Pero es está ¡muy bien!”

Fernanda, kindred spirit that she is, read the exclamation marks in my spoken phrases. She understood what my enthusiasm meant, in spite of my lack of vocabulary and sound grammar. She beamed at me as I finished up my turn, passed the gourd back to her for a refill and then handed it over to my fellow estadounidense, Chris. 
Fernanda explained that she uses peppermint infused yerba, as she showed us the bag, and sweetens the water when she puts it in the thermos so the outcome isn't bitter. She shared with us the benefits of mate—how it is good for the immune system and the digestive tract, and that it is a natural appetite suppressant and gives you “mucho energía.”

For the next hour-and-a-half, we passed around the little gourd from amigo to amigo, mate to mate, Fernanda refreshing the herbs as necessary, using the filter at the end of the bombilla to remove the depleted yerba and prepare each fresh batch. Annie, the other Swede, shared her cookies, and Carla dug out two packages of crackers from her backpack to pass around.

Our conversation passed from yerba mate to our favorite love songs and movies, our families and beloved pets, the culture of our countries and Johnny Cash. We spoke in broken Castellano, none of us, other than Fernanda, native speakers, but we all understood each other. And we all appreciated the importance of great conversation, mates and mate.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

¡Chau, mi amiga!

Carmen was my first friend in Buenos Aires. We met at a milonga two weeks ago and bonded over our misadventures in the tango scene. She was here for a month and left today to go back to her home in Montreal.

We had a good time eating and drinking too much and schlepping from milonga to milonga. She introduced me to the Abasto Coto (the BsAs version of Super Target) and La Cabrera (a super swanky steakhouse in Palermo Soho with Argentine prices); I tried helping her master the cabeceo and loaned her my Happy Tango guidebook.

I mentioned when I first arrived in Baires that commiserating is like breathing. For the past week, Carmen helped me breathe again. We were in the same boat—solo women trying to navigate this crazy tango world. I will miss her company. ¡Chau, mi amiga!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Milongas, money and a new pair of shoes

What a relief to have cash again! Two weeks with no ATM card in a city where cash (in small bills) is the preferred method of payment, often the only accepted method of payment, put me on a pretty tight budget. I celebrated the delivery of my long awaited PIN with a trip to Comme Il Faut on Wednesday afternoon. 

Not sure exactly when I turned into a woman willing to shell out over 100 U.S. dollars for a pair of shoes, but it happened somewhere between the first time I heard DiSarli over two years ago and the day I first walked into a tango shoe store in Buenos Aires last year. The flashy colors, glitter and smell of new leather somehow re-wired my brain. In my defense, a good pair of dancing shoes (even with three-inch heels) really does make the difference in foot comfort when dancing for hours on end.

Comme Il Faut shoes are highly regarded in the tango community, but I had no luck last year finding the perfect pair. My trip to the tiny boutique in Recoleta this week was a little different. The first pair presented to me ultimately ended up being the one I chose, but not before trying on over a dozen pairs ranging from simple to shiny, glittery to down right gaudy. (Honestly, some are just plain tacky and ugly.)

After plunking down $500 pesos (you can do the math, and I did get a $20 peso discount for paying in cash) for my pink, turquoise and black patent leather beauties with a tulip design on the heel, I did start to feel a little guilty. First, I really am not a woman that splurges on frivolity. Designer names have never been my thing. I shop clearance racks for clothes and, prior to my trip last year, had never spent more than $25 on a pair of shoes. Well, maybe $50 for my first few pairs of ballroom dance shoes, but I found them to be a poor substitute for a quality leather Argentine tango shoe. Second, the economy in Argentina is bad. Most Argentines don't have $500 pesos for dance shoes. It feels a little "rude American" to strut around at a milonga in a brand new pair Comme Il Fauts.

I texted my reservations to Matthew as I waited for the Subte, my sleek Comme Il Faut bag in hand; the locals gawking at my billboard of shame. "Too fancy for the town they were born in?" He replied. "They should be ashamed." Still, I thought, perhaps I should just save them for when I get back to the states. That didn't happen.

My new Comme Il Fauts got a double dip in the milonga pool that night when my friend Carmen and I went to Salon Canning after discovering that the quality of dance partners at Confitería Ideal on a Wednesday evening was down right horrendous. My urge to break-in my new purchase won out over my sense of decency. Tourist venues, is my partial justification. My shoes really didn't stand out amidst the other Comme Il Fauts, Neo Tangos, and other top-dollar dance sandals on the floor. I am employing Argentines by buying and using them, right? (Big sigh.) Or maybe I really am just another rude American.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The walk to mi escuela

Every weekday I walk about 3/4 of a mile from my apartment to my Spanish language school. I take different routes everyday and it's a delight to discover what's around the next corner. Here are some favorites...

I start my daily walk down these three flights of stairs in my apartment building. I do worry about taking a tumble since I am usually running late.

 Not so much greenery in my barrio (neighborhood), but this gentleman is out every weekend mowing and pruning this tiny plot of vegetation located just across the street and a few doors down from my building. Such dedication.

 This is the Supermercado that has scary dairy and questionable meat products. I steer clear of those. I do buy my 6-liter jug of water from here every week because it's my closest market. Six-liters is heavy so you gotta buy close to home. I have several other nicer grocers in the area to choose from when I need to stock up on provisions. 

Right across the street from the scary market is Iglesia de San Juan Bautiste. It's a beautiful structure. Devout Argentines cross themselves as they pass churches. Being a recovering Catholic myself, I find that amusing to watch.
 I risk life and limb everyday by crossing the infamous Avenida 9 de Julio. It is one of the widest streets in the world.

 If you count Lima and Bernardo de Irgoyen, the streets that flank it on either side, 9 de Julio is 20 lanes wide. On several occasions I've meant to count myself, but I always get distracted. I will try again tomorrow. 

Three medians help keep pedestrians safe from the insane amount of traffic coming from all directions. I am only able to make it 3/4 of the way across in one go. I am going to try to get all the way across some day. I did watch a man make in one light, but he was sprinting. (This median probably had grass in its better days.)

When you are standing in the middle of the chaos whizzing by, you can calmly enjoy a great view of the Obelisk. And get an update of the traffic up ahead.

Or enjoy this statue of Don Quixote near the corner of Avenida de Mayo.

The architecture in Baires is reminiscent of Paris. Lots of wrought iron and stone detail.

If you don't look up once in a while, you miss some of the most gorgeous parts of the city.

Unfortunately, you also have to spend a lot of time looking down. Walking is hazardous in this town. You may survive 9 de Julio only to get gobbled up by a hole in the sidewalk. As careful as I try to be, I stumble almost everyday and worry about twisting an ankle. Not a pretty fate for a tanguera.

If I take the route down Avenida de Mayo on a clear day, I get an amazing view of El Congreso.

 I just find it funny that they have a place called Wini Dogs. This is one place I will not be eating at.

Next to the entrance of my school is this painted plaque. I think it says, "On this site stands the house in which Carlos Gardel lived in Buenos Aires from 1893-1900." (To my Castellano speaking friends, feel free to correct my translation.) This a happy coincidence; Gardel is sort of the patron saint of tango.

This is Rolando, the school's cheery doorman. He greets me every morning with this bright smile when I arrive and bids me "Ciao" when I leave.