Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Out of the closet and into the attic

I went uptown to Belgrano for dinner on Saturday, joining my friends D., C., M., and some of their friends whom I had not met previously. The main drag on this side of town is Avenida Santa Fe, very popular and commercial all of its length, and after it passes through Barrio Norte and Palermo into Belgrano, its name changes to Avenida Cabildo. That's about all that changes, it continues to be the prime street for shopping and dining.

There were eight in our party at La Farola de Cabildo, a bustling restaurant that is part of a small chain in the capital. The fare is mostly traditional Argentine, emphasizing pastas and milanesas/supremas (breaded and fried slices of beef or chicken, similar to a schnitzel). Portions are generous and with the accompanying pan (bread) and papas (potatoes), it's unlikely anyone will leave hungry. I ordered the Pollo del Caribe, a chicken breast smothered in a strawberry sauce with peaches, pineapple, and pears. When it arrived at the table, the glistening scarlet sauce and fruit caused one of our group to comment that it appeared more like a postre (dessert) than a main dish. It was quite tasty but not as sweet as one might expect from the described ingredients. I was rather surprised to find it on the menu. Fruit and meat combinations seem like a culinary choice more apt for California than Argentina. Argentinos are not known for being particularly adventurous in dining; I'd guess that 90% of the menu items in non-ethnic restaurants are some variation of the basic beef-pasta-potaotes food pyramid.

One couple in our group (we'll call them Dorian and Gray) aroused genetic envy in me. Obviously they have an attic and store their portraits there. Both appear a good ten years younger than their ages, so they have either an Oscar Wilde magic going or DNA that could be patented. They were charming and friendly, as well as being very goodlooking as so many Argentinos are. A cute couple, obviously smitten with each other, they weren't timid about showing affection in public. Nothing flamboyant, just simple things such as holding hands or resting an arm on the other, but it's something not commonly seen here. Buenos Aires is probably the most gay-friendly city on the South American continent, with civil unions and anti-discrimination laws, yet gays are mostly ultra discreet in public.

I found it very refreshing. After so many years in Los Angeles, including the time I lived in the gay Oz of West Hollywood, it was nice to see a couple acting normally. In other words, acting heterosexually. Straights here aren't shy about handholding or kissing so there isn't any cultural taboo about public affection in general. Ergo, why shouldn't gay couples behave naturally? It's fairly controversial here, much as it was in California years ago: the old debate about creating a backlash if we are too visible and straight society starts feeling uncomfortable or threatened. Of course, I can't see whát's so distressing about tenderness but perhaps one has to feel macho before one's machismo can be threatened. Anyway, I applaud the lads and hope they keep on being true to themselves.

Price for 8 meals and 9 beverages: 192 pesos (US $62, about $7.75 per person).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I'm dreaming of a white ... Fourth of July?

Well, it wasn't the fourth, it was actually the ninth of July (nueve de julio), which is Argentina's equivalent of the U.S. holiday. Back in California, we celebrate with fireworks and picnics, barbecues, or pool parties. With summer in full swing and the mercury rising, it's a great day to enjoy the great outdoors. Here, it's the dead of winter and it freakin' snowed! Obviously, the Argentine patriots of 1816 were not planning ahead or they would have waited six months so future generations could enjoy summertime activities on Independence Day.

Anyone who knows me also knows that cold weather and I are not bosom buddies. I loathe cold. I'd never been to Buenos Aires in winter but I did my due diligence before deciding to move. I checked dozens of sources and they all said pretty much the same thing: BA has a temperate climate, mild winters, lovely springs and autumns, and hot summers. There was not one single mention of snow. Can somebody tell me if my move came with a money-back guarantee?

I have lots of luck, but it depends on your point of view as to whether it's good or bad. This was the first snowfall in the capital in 89 years and I was here for it. Out and about on the streets, everywhere I looked were parents and children, the tykes bundled up and standing on the sidewalk in front of their apartment buildings so the parents could snap once-in-a-lifetime photos. Trust me, it was the topic of conversation with everyone here for several days.

It was way cold for several days around the 9th but this is a big city which means there's a lot of urban-industrial heat. So the snow mostly didn't stick around, melting moments after landfall. There was a nice white coating in the parks, on top of parked cars, and various other spots, but even that was gone by the next day. My friend D. took this pic of some rooftops near his home.

Javier, whom I last saw in Panama about 3 years ago, was in BA last week during the snowfall and he thought it was great fun. Go figure, a tico (Costa Rican) who loves Siberian temperatures. Maybe it's the novelty of change from the tropical climate he normally enjoys? I considered asking him to smuggle me back to Costa Rica in his baggage but decided it would be wiser just to book a regular trip in the near future. I haven't decided on the exact date yet, but probably in September or October you'll be reading my postings from Costa Rica for a month or more.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Supping with a chucked fetus

Next they'll just chuck a fetus down the runway! (Edina in Ab Fab, whining about how the models get younger every year)

On Thursday I talked to Robert, whom I hadn't seen yet since I arrived. We met during my first trip to Argentina in 2005 and, as usual for me, stayed in touch off-and-on. Robert is stunning, which is saying a lot considering the elevated standard of male beauty in Buenos Aires. He works as a print and runway model in a city that has at least one potential model per hundred feet of sidewalk. He had been working in Brazil for a while but now that he's back we decided to get together for dinner and catch up on things. He's one of the very few people I know here with a car, so he came by my apartment, picked me up, and off we went. It's his city and he knows where to eat, so I concentrated on our conversation and left the driving to him. Only when he slowed down to look for parking did I realize that we were on El Salvador in Palermo Viejo, just a few blocks from my former apartment.

We were at Mott, a very trendy upscale restaurant. It has a spacious feeling, high ceilings open all the way to the second floor balcony, with a somewhat minimalist decorative style which accentuates the space. One doesn't feel crowded or overwhelmed like in many BA restaurants where space is at a premium. The chairs are more like comfy armchairs than the standard-issue rigid highbacks we normally find.

Mott self-describes its cuisine as cocina de mercado (market cuisine), implying that it emphasizes fresh wholesome ingredients. One restaurant review defines their menu as European eclectic and another calls it nouvelle argentine. I would say all of the above are true; it is eclectic with touches of Italian, Asian, Mexican, French, and of course, Argentine. The food seems more healthful than typical Argentine cuisine with less breading-and-frying and salads having a prominent place on the menu.

We shared a chicken caesar salad as an appetizer. It was quite lovely, the greens some of the best I've had yet in BA, a crunchy mix of croutons and Thai-style chunks of chicken breast, shaved Parmesan, and a dressing that was bright but not overpowering. Robert's main course was Lomo Crépine, a beef tenderloin that looked delicious. I chose Pollo Mex, a nouvelle approach to Mexican cuisine with seasoned chicken breast pieces in an open pastry shell, served with corncakes and frijoles picantes (spicy beans).

The service was more attentive than usual in porteño restaurants. Most of the time, your waiter will not pop by to check on you after your food is served. If you want something, you look for him and catch his attention. It's just the way things are, the assumption is that you want to dine in peace and will let the mozo (waiter) know if anything is required. Mott's staff is a bit more proactive but not intrusive; we didn't have a Cindy or a Shawn hovering over us all night, becoming our new best friend.

Mott is on the pricy side for restaurants here, with entrées ranging from 32-47 pesos. It also features a full bar.

Price for 1 salad, 2 entrees, and 2 beverages: 119 pesos (US $39).

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chaos and crooks (Part II) and a respite from insanity

The C&C theme contined full blast on Friday. Before I left California, I mailed myself packages of books, personal documents, photos, mementos, and similar stuff: my life reduced to some cartons of essentials. They were supposed to arrive in 4 to 6 weeks but are just starting to arrive now, after 10 weeks. On Friday, I trudged down to the central post office for international shipments to pick up the first two packages. They don't deliver them to you and collect postage due/customs fees or even let you pick them up in your neighborhood post office. No, everyone has to go downtown to the central office and join in the crazed melée, what could be more fun?

I headed down to Retiro, another huge combination subway-commuter train station, next to the central bus depot and about 5 blocks from the international postal facility. I didn't walk into the post office, I squeezed in because it was literally jammed wall to wall with people. I took a number (47) from the dispenser and waited my turn. When they called the next number, 33, I was delighted...only 14 ahead of me! I thought maybe all of those people were there for something else. The next few numbers went by and I was relieved that I would apparently be served in just 10 or 15 minutes instead of the hours I had assumed when I first edged through the door. Then they called 38 verde (green). That's when I realized I was doomed. I had a yellow number, so there were actually 114 people ahead of me. To make matters worse, they call out the number like auctioneers, barely pausing for a breath between them. People can't possibly navigate through the jammed herd to one of the three counter spots before the clerk has already skipped ahead one or two numbers. At one point, that caused some shouting and scuffling and I thought back to Tuesday, wondering if I'd end up being crushed in a postal riot instead of a train riot.

Two hours later, mostly spent admiring a very cute Argentino who was also waiting outside, I finally got called, forced my way to the counter, and presented my notices. That's when I realized I'd forgotten to bring my passport. The color scan in my wallet wasn't acceptable nor was my California license/photo ID. No, here the passport or DNI (kind of an internal passport) is everything. The clerk sent me home so that I could go back next week and experience the chaotic joy all over again.

That night I was logged into MSN and got the most unexpected instant message of my life. Denis, the thief. He pleaded for forgiveness and essentially said he did it because he was desperate for cash and wanted to go home to Chaco (in northern Argentina). I finally got him to confess how much he had sold my stuff for (my original cost was about US$ 450). 200 pesos. That's US$ 65. I would have paid him double or triple that just to get it back. Qué tonto (how stupid)! Equally stupid was him not thinking about my 20 years as a programmer. While he was telling me he'd gone back to Chaco using his ill-gotten gains, I was backtracing our connection and seeing that he was actually chatting from right here in Buenos Aires. Tip: everything you do online leaves a trace, never forget that! I've got a nice little chart of his movements by backtracing chats and emails, so I know which parts of the city he frequents, which internet cafés he visits, and so on. Our story isn't over yet, I've been making plans for him ever since he pilfered the goods.

Ultimately, I figured out what the purpose was of this contact. He wanted to know if he was a wanted man or not. He asked if I'd notified the police and when I told him the police had said he'd get at least 6 years in jail for the crime, he begged me to drop charges. He had no reply when I asked him why I would want to do that and he logged off soon after. I have no doubt he'll be back, with a new angle to get me to absolve him. That's fine, every contact just gets me closer to where I am going: obtaining justice (or perhaps it's revenge?).

On Saturday I enjoyed a respite from the institutional insanity and the graspings of larcenous acquaintances. I met with my friend Alex, one of the few new friends here who has been nothing but honest and sincere. He works for a superstore similar to a Walmart combined with a super-grocery and we met a few days after my arrival when I was shopping there. At that time he was working in customer service and he came to the register to help when I was fumbling in Spanish trying to pay with my credit card. He walked me all the way out of the store to the street and said he would enjoy getting together sometime to practice his English (which is already very good). Alex is straight with a wife and daughter, so don't leap to any conclusions!

Since then, we've gotten together occasionally to chat over a coffee or coke. He insists each time on taking turns to pay for the drinks, unlike the majority here who just expect that the "rich" American will pick up all tabs for all things. He's very polite, earnest, intelligent, and well read. If he were gay, I'd drop to my knees and propose (OK, maybe I wouldn't propose immediately after dropping to my knees). Seriously, I greatly enjoy his company and it's nice to spend time with someone who doesn't have an ulterior motive. We've discussed the problem here of so many people wanting what they can get right now without consideration for the future or other people. He's an astute thinker and I appreciate his insights into his country and his people.

On my way home, I helped a confused American couple find their subway stop. After my time with Alex, when they commented how nice and friendly the Argentine people are, I actually smiled and agreed.

Chaos and crooks (Part I)

On Tuesday, I went to Migraciones (Immigration) in Microcentro to file some papers about my resident visa. It was my first visit there and of course I got lost. It's on Avenida 25 de Mayo, a rather small street that leads to the Casa Rosada. I mistakenly assumed it was on Avenida de Mayo, one of the grand boulevards of the city which also leads to the Casa Rosada. This isn't unusual in Buenos Aires. There are sets of streets such as Peña, Saenz Peña, and Rodriguez Peña. There are even two streets that cross, whose names are pronounced identically, so the only way to be sure you're in the right spot is if you agree to meet at the intersection of H. Yrigoyen and B. Irigoyen.

Immigation sent me off on a wild goose chase to have my birth certificate officially translated. I had done that in California, prior to leaving, as per instructions of the Argentine consulate. I paid a certified translator and then got official stamps (notarization and apostille) for everything, the original documents and the translations. Here, they said so sorry, these aren't legal, you need to do it all again using an Argentine translator and they sent me off to the Colegio de Traductores Públicos in Balvanera. When I arrived there, the receptionist explained that they don't actually do any translations there and that I should go to their website to find a list of certified translators to contact privately. Couldn't Migraciones just have told me that, before I trekked all the way there?

Next I went to Constitución to meet my friend Ulises for a late lunch. He works a block from the combined train-subway station, one of the largest in Buenos Aires. We had a nice visit and meal at a restaurant inside the station's concourse and afterward we stood around talking a bit before going our separate ways. Suddenly, he grabbed my arm and said "you have to go to the subway now!" I was puzzled about his odd outburst until he said "look, they're closing the gates, we need to get out of here." Last month there was a major riot at Estación Constitución when the trains were shut down. One of the largest rail stations in the city, with 400,000 people passing through daily, commuters were enraged when they found themselves stranded, unable to get home to the provincial suburbs. So, Ulises was rightly alarmed when he saw the possibility of history repeating itself. In the 60 seconds or so between his outcry and the time I started hustling toward the stairs down to the subte, the crowd pressing against the rail platform gates swelled from a handful to several hundred. I did not want to wait even a few more minutes for it to grow to a horde of irate thousands so I hightailed it down into the bowels of the subway and headed home.

That same day also brought more conniving behavior by a so-called friend or acquaintance named Luis. I met him online long ago and since I arrived in BA, we would meet once every week or ten days for coffee and chat. At first I thought he might be an okay guy. He appeared more stable than some others I had met, such as my camcorder thief, 40 years old with a decent job in public relations. However, he didn't fail to disappoint me given enough time! After about a month, he casually asked to borrow 20 pesos (US $6.50) to buy a card to refuel his cell phone minutes. I saw it as a test, a relatively cheap way of finding out if he was another deadbeat looking to scam a foreigner. He promised to pay it back when we met for coffee again the next week. Never happened. Instead, the next week he said he couldn't meet for coffee because his poor old mom was very sick...and could I lend him 50 pesos to buy her medicine? Then his mom was in the hospital and needed 200 pesos for therapy. He didn't take me up on my offer to visit her in the hospital and cheer her up, wouldn't a surprise visit from an exotic foreigner lift her spirits? I had visions of him scouring hospital rooms, seeking an old lady who would pretend to be his mom for half the take. On Tuesday, apparently mom hadn't died yet because he asked to borrow 150 pesos to buy her a birthday gift.

Where in the world is Striezel?

Find out for yourself! Use this interactive map of Buenos Aires, courtesy of the city government. I think it will help orient those of you unfamiliar with the city when I write about places I go. I don't think there's an English version but much of it ís pretty self-explanatory...buttons to click for moving around, zooming in, and so on.

It opens with an overview map of the 40+ official barrios of the city. Recoleta is in the upper-right section of the map and you'll see Palermo, where I used to live, right next to it. If you want to see where I'm living now, look on the lower left for a box labelled Localizador de Direcciones. Enter Bollini where it says Calle and Pacheco de Melo where it says Intersección, then click Buscar (Search).

Microcentro (downtown) isn't shown as an official barrio but it comprises all or parts of Retiro, Recoleta, San Nicolas, and Montserrat, which are on the right side of the overview map. That's where many government offices and important buildings are located, including the Casa Rosada (presidential palace) and Obelisco (the monument that symbolizes the heart of Buenos Aires).

The map only displays what is known as Capital Federal, an autonomous city within Greater Buenos Aires. It's somewhat comparable to our District of Columbia, a self-governing federal district distinct from the provinces (states). Capital Federal has a population of about 3 million with another 10-12 million in the surrounding metropolitan area.