Argentina

From late June to early August 2012, I spent six weeks in Buenos Aires trying to learn how to speak passable Spanish at the Amauta language school. I was also there to conduct research on the famous and beloved Argentine children’s author, María Elena Walsh. Here’s some of the mischeviousness I got up to during that time, as documented in the “Bienvenidos a Buenos Aires!” blog that I kept while I was there.

While I don’t think that this blog measures up to my South Africa one, it’s still fun to read.

This archive is admittedly mostly for me, and I don’t expect anyone to read all of it. If you’re looking for a general overview, then Hustle and Bustle captures the mood of the city pretty well. You can also just scroll through to look at the handful of photos that I wasn’t too embarrassed to keep.

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June 24, 2012 (approx.)

Donde en el mundo estoy?

You know what it’s like taking Spanish in high school/college. (Or German, or French, or Japanese, or any other language for that matter.) You shuffle into class every day, absorb the bare minimum of material needed to garner an acceptable grade on the test, and then—as if your life depended on it—desperately discard all the knowledge you can as soon as you leave the classroom.

¿Recuerdes? (Vous souvenez-vous? Erinnern Sie sich? 覚えていますか?)

After all, it’s not as though you’d ever be expected to actually use those pithy “language skills” you begrudgingly picked up in high school. Right?

Nope. No such luck. (No way. De ninguna manera. Geen manier. Niente da fare!)

As I’m sitting here in my hostel room in Buenos Aires, I’m beginning to wish that I had practiced my Spanish maybe just a tiny little bit more (un poco más). Sure, I can read it fairly well, but let me tell you—the ability to figure out cognates in written text doesn’t help much when you’re trying to asking someone directions to the nearest ATM, or trying to listen to JLO diss the contestants on Q’Viva! (Apparently JLO, and her show, is very popular here).

But hey—I should give myself some credit, right? After all, I successfully understood the hostel manager when he told me that I was going to have to switch rooms. I chatted, albeit sparsely, with the rotund and cheerful man who picked me up from the airport & safely delivered me to the doorstep of my hostel. Maybe this means I’ll do half-decently on my placement test tomorrow morning!

Pero, un momento. (Just a moment. Bare et øjeblik. Só um momento).

Perhaps I should explain, briefly, just exactly why I’m in Buenos Aires, capital of Argentina, home of 14 million people. It all began with a children’s book. María Elena Walsh (1930-2011) was a famous Argentine children’s author, known for her fantastical and humorous style. Her book Dailan Kifki, in which a young girl befriends an elephant and embarks upon a whirlwind of adventures through the land of Argentina, is strikingly similar in style and tone to Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland. Over the past academic year, I’ve been working with my adviser to research Walsh’s life and works. My goal to learn more about María Elena, combined with my desire to finally achieve fluency in Spanish, prompted me to travel to this brick-paved, plant-filled, loud & colorful city.

So far, I’ve only been in the country for one day. I haven’t ventured far beyond my hostel, preferring to stay in close range lest I drop into a fit of narcolepsy prompted by my largely sleepless 10-hour intercontinental flight. Tomorrow, though, will bring a fresh wave of new experiences. At 8:40 AM sharp, I’ll take a placement test at the Don Quijote Language School and begin my 6 weeks of intensive Spanish language training. In the evenings and on the weekends, I plan to pop on an autobús and take a ride downtown to ALIJA, the Asociación de Literatura infantil y Juvenil de la Argentina. ALIJA is the national Argentine section of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People. At this vast yet specialized library, I hope to find more information about Walsh, and read more of her highly entertaining books.

A final language lesson for those interested: The double-L (“ll”) and “Y” sounds, as in pollo or mayo, are pronounced differently in Argentina. Rather than the hard “Y” sound that we use in English (think “Yo-Yo” or “young”), the Argentines say “sh.” So villa is “vi-sha,” caballo is “caba-sho,” and mayo is “ma-sho.” A bit strange, no? It’s going to be difficult teaching myself to use a lisp on purpose!

A todos los viajeros, buen suerte, y buenas noches!

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Monday, June 26th, ca. 11 PM

La Selva (The Jungle)

The streets of Buenos Aires are lined with trees. Or at least, that’s what most streets in the Belgrano area where I’m staying are like. Balconies are brimming with plants, whose hanging tendrils often stretch for 2 or 3 stories uninhibited. To me, the effect is like that of a jungle, a city overflowing.

I’ll admit rather ashamedly that it took me a full day to acknowledge this new form of metropolitan beauty. I’ve become too accustomed to Chicago, where glass-encrusted skyscrapers rise gracefully and effortlessly upwards. Chicago is windswept, wiped clean and bare. At first I thought Buenos Aires was inconceivably messy. Leaves everywhere, buildings packed tightly together, and the greatest abundance of shrubbery that I’ve ever seen in a city. The buildings are close, huddled together in dense blocks of concrete and plants such that it’s difficult to see very far in any direction. It makes me feel a bit claustrophobic, to be honest. One gets the sense that the city must stretch onwards forever.

But enough description. ¡Acción! Today was my first day of classes at the Amauta language school. I took a placement test to determine my level and was immediately relieved not to be placed with the beginners. Fighting exhaustion, I nevertheless enjoyed my four hours of language instruction con Omar y…I forget his name. They are patient professors, but evidently a bit disturbed by how long it takes us Americans to formulate a complete sentence en español.

Yes, you read that correctly: “Us Americans.” Perhaps unsurprisingly (for Americans are particularly susceptible to international travel & exorbitant school fees), the other two estudiantes (students) in my class hail from Kansas City, MO and Manhattan. it’s comforting to know that we’re all coming from roughly the same place, but it’s also a bit of a drawback to all be from los Estados Unidos as speaking in English is entirely too tempting. The three of us went out for a delicious dinner of Argentine pizza and neglected to speak any other language than English—and rather loudly at that.

I haven’t taken a proper Spanish class in nearly 2 years, and trying to recall past knowledge of the language evokes a curious sensation. Prepare yourself: I’m going to make a dramatic metaphor! My memory is like the sea. (La memoría es como el mar). I can remember some things immediately—indeed, I never lost them in the first place. (Puedo recorder algunas cosas inmediataments; de versa, nunca las perdí). But other things take ages to float to the surface. (Per otras cosas…) while others I can’t remember at all. Even more strangely, there are a few words that I seem to remember at first, but then their meaning flits away as quickly as it came.

Pero Buenos Aires es una ciudad bonita, y día por día entender más y más español. Maybe eventually I’ll abandon that deer-in-the-headlights look that I’m sure I wear whenever I detect a hint of Spanish, and instead respond with a resounding “Sí! Te entiendo.”

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Saturday, June 30, 2012 6:15 PM

Pesos tras pesos

Time got away from me! I’ve been in Buenos Aires nearly a full week now. Tuesday through Friday I was in school, of course—a total of 20 hours of instruction. I think that my Spanish is probably improving, even if in very small increments. At least I hope so!

Like all travelers in foreign lands, I’m having trouble sticking to the budget I set up for myself. There are so many foods to try, handmade goods to buy, and beers to drink! On Thursday night, Brittany & I went on the Buenos Aires Pub Crawl. As you might have guessed from the name, the Pub Crawl is run by a group of American ex-pats. In addition to receiving a free shot at each bar you pass through, the Pub Crawl is also a nice way to get to know the neighborhood of Palermo. After 3 or 4 pubs (I’m not sure how many, exactly), we went to the infamous Club 69. It reminded me of the dystopian “Alice in Wonderland”—bright costumes, flashing lights, an eerie sense of claustrophobia…I won’t say anymore about it here, but trust me, I took pictures!

Today I was determined to do some proper sightseeing. I met up with the lovely Jasmine in the Recoleta area near the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta, where Evita is buried. (I’m not sure “buried” is really the right word to use—more like immortalized? The tombs are all huge & decadent; most of the coffins are actually above ground, I think). We walked through the Recoleta open air market, admiring the handicrafts, leather goods, and jewelry. Pricey stuff, but all beautiful.

After some delicious helado (ice cream), I continued on to Barrio Norte. At the intersection of Av. Callao and Santa Fe, I found the world’s 5th most unique bookstore, El Ateneo. (At least, that’s how some American magazine rated it.) It’s absolutely gorgeous—an old theatre converted into a 3-story bookstore with a café. I insist that you look up pictures.

Tomorrow I plan to either go to La Boca or San Telmo…I’ll keep you posted!

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July 4, 2012

El Día de la Independencia (United States)

This is the second year in a row that I’ve been out of the country on the 4th of July! Not that I’m complaining—I love traveling, of course—but hey, I kinda get a little sentimental about watching fireworks and chomping down on hotdogs, you know?

Determined not to let the holiday pass us by, all of us American gals from the Spanish school (plus Hannah, who’s from Italy, but was nonetheless excited by the prospect of a celebration) went to the Hard Rock Café in Recoleta. Several platters of food and antiquated rock music videos later, we felt as though we had done the day justice.

In other news, I feel that my Spanish might actually be starting to improve! I’m beginning to understand the Argentine accent a little better as well. I still feel extremely tongue-tied whenever I try to speak, but a little less so than when I first arrived. I also bought a copy of “Vanidades,” an Argentine fashion & beauty magazine, so I can use that to practice talking about materialism. Funny what my homework is like, right?

Practice with Spanish comes in a variety of unexpected ways here in Buenos Aires. On Monday, Kansas City, Vermont, and I went to the Belgrano Multiplex cinema to see Woody Allen’s A Rome Con Amor (To Rome with Love). Although the movie was in English, the subtitles were in Spanish. For the first 10 minutes or so, I thought I wouldn’t have to bother with the subtitles. But turns out half the movie is in Italian! So I was desperately trying to read the subtitles as quickly as I could so that I could follow the story.

We’ve got a new teacher this week, too. A Elvis-like character with a shock of black hair that falls over his forehead. Argentines, it seems, aren’t afraid of standing out. The women favor platform sandals and boots in vibrant reds & purples. Men will wear bright yellow scarves and, contrary to what I expected, enjoy wearing t-shirts printed in English with the names of bands from the United States. And straight hair is very, very in. In some ways, amid the advertisements for hair straighteners and the plethora of “Green Day” t-shirts, I feel like I’ve been transported back to the early 2000s.

As if on cue, on July 1st the weather underwent a rapid shift. June 30th was humid and in the high 60s; July 1st was rainy and cold. There are periodic thunderstorms and rainshowers. Good thing I have my handy paraguas (umbrella) to keep me dry!

The people who work at Hostel Dreams are incredibly nice. Now if only I could wake up in time for breakfast, or summon the courage to talk to them…Homework for tomorrow!

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July 8, 2012. 11:07 PM

The Professional Sightseers

¡Dios mío! All the things I’ve done in the last few days! I’m not doing a very good job of keeping up with the blog, my goodness.

In South America, Buenos Aires is known as the city that never sleeps. It’s an accurate description, and it’s definitely a city to rival New York. In an attempt to keep up with the pace set by the porteños, I’ve shoved loads of places & spaces into the last few days.

Thursday’s Spanish class was…interesting. Very educational, to be sure. In an attempt to teach us how to speak like “real Argentines,” our teacher decided to tell us all the curses in Spanish that he knew. My personal favorite? ¡Andate a patear calefones! Which, roughly translated, means “Go kick a boiler!”

Thursday involved an excursion to the Buenos Aires zoo, and that night,  as part of an expedition organized by the school, nearly everyone from Amauta went to Palermo Soho to “La Viruta Tango,” a bar/restaurant/dancing venue filled with salsa dancers and tango-ers, ranging in age from the teens to the fifties. And everyone, of course, was wearing his or her best tight-ass pants to dance in.

Something about Buenos Aires just makes me want to dance! Although I don’t have pictorial proof, I successfully took part in a salsa dance, a tango, and 3 merenges. I do believe the mojito I drank had something to do with it…

Coming back from La Viruta was somewhat difficult. Bus drivers in Buenos Aires are extremely mean. If you aren’t exactly at the stop the moment they arrive, they’ll just drive right past you. And if they don’t feel like picking you up, they’ll ignore you completely. Earlier today, there was an exhausted looking couple with a little girl trying to catch the bus, and the bus driver completely ignored them even when they tapped on the door! So anyway. We ended up having to wait over an hour for the bus. As a result, we didn’t get back until very late at night, which means that on Friday I wasn’t feeling up to doing much.

Hanna (from Italy) & I ventured out yet again to the Belgrano Multiplex to see “El Hombre Araña” (a.k.a. Spiderman). Watching the movie was an extremely strange experience. It had been dubbed in Spanish, so naturally I understood almost nothing. But Emma & Andrew were clearly saying English words, although allegedly they were “speaking” Spanish! Here’s the trailer in Spanish…http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgDNwl54aeM…see what I mean??

I hate to criticize, but I’ve got to point something out: Argentine food is absolutely tasteless. I don’t know how they do it. I’ll order a plate of meat & vegetables and it will taste like…nothing. Maybe American food is “spicy” like they say? The exception, of course, is the desserts. There you can definitely taste the Italian influence. My favorite is the “Submarino,” a delectable take on the watered-down hot chocolate in the U.S. It’s a process: You are given a glass full of frothy, hot milk. On the accompanying plate are two chocolate bars. Open the wrappers. Drop the bars in the glass. Stir & watch them dissolve. Heaven.

submarino

On Friday night, Kansas City & I attempted to keep up with a group of young Argentines in their quest to stay up all night singing Beatles songs. Damian, a proud 90% Italian, hosted the get-together in his apartment. Eager to please the Americans, the Argentines graciously belted out song after song in English. Until you have crowded 10 people into a small room (so that the pobre vecina won’t wake up), and sung all of the Beatles’ greatest hits with guitar accompaniment as loudly as you can until 6 AM, you have not experienced Buenos Aires, my friend!

After using Saturday to recuperate, I went with Hanna this morning to see the Botanical Gardens. Lovely, lovely, amazing that trees can grow in the winter. I’m so used to seeing dead & bare Chicago that Buenos Aires looks lush in comparison.

On we went to La Boca, bus line 152. La Boca (“The Mouth”) is a favorite with tourists. Filled with colorful houses, curio shops and, of course, swarms of tourists, La Boca is a must-see.

Well, I think this blog post is certainly long enough. But one last tidbit of wisdom before I sign off for the night. Beware the Villavicencio mineral water! It’s absolutely delicious, but has saddled me with a chronic case of hiccups!

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July 10, 2012 (approx.)

Hustle and Bustle

Buenos Aires is overflowing. I went on an hour-and-a-half walk today down Avenida Cabildo, one of the longest streets in Buenos Aires. Because of the cyclical nature of the advertisements & stores (Farmacity, McDonald’s, Cupside Books, Tienda de Café, Pepsi, Panadería…), the towering apartment buildings, the buses, the crowds, and the traffic, I had to keep checking my map to make sure I hadn’t turned around by accident. It’s like Chicago’s famous Magnificent Mile, only endlessly long and 10 times as busy.

It’s like being caught in an endless series of déjà vu moments. The architecture sometimes makes me think I’m back in Germany, and the American Embassies on every corner (read: McDonald’s) are eerily familiar. Just drink in the beauty, the sophistication, the golden arches in 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires’ widest street!

Yesterday was Argentina’s Independence Day, so we didn’t have school. Instead, I went on an excursion hosted by Juan, one of the teachers, to El Centro of the city. First up was the 9 de Julio, an impressive mammoth of a street where pedestrians and motorists are locked in an endless battle over who gets to cross / turn first.

In the middle of the main intersection of the 9 de Julio is the Obelisco, a slightly smaller version of the Washington monument. Argentines are divided over whether it’s actually useful or even aesthetically pleasing.

Next up was the Plaza de Mayo, the heart of the city where protestors against the government/society/laws/etc have been staging demonstrations for decades. Since it was a holiday, it was a fairly quiet day, but there was still a string of painted banners strung up near the Casa Rosada.

Casa Rosada

The Casa Rosada (literally, “Pink House”) is so named because of its unusual rosy hue. In the years when the Casa was being built, Argentines used to make pink paint using cow’s blood. A little morbid, but it did make for some very interestingly colored buildings!

El Catedral

We continued on to the San Telmo neighborhood where an impromptu antique car show was taking place. The narrow streets, quaint shops, and flocks of people were reminiscent of Salzburg, Austria.

And hey, guess what? In a not-so-surprising turns of events, Hanna informed me that I speak Spanish with an American accent – sort of like Penelope Cruz in reverse. No wonder everybody’s always asking me, “¿Hablas inglés?

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July 12, 2012 (approx.)

Cultural Notations

WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THIS HOSTEL AND TOILET PAPER. SERIOUSLY. You’d think there was a world shortage of it. None of the 3 bathrooms in the hostel are currently equipped, nor does the kitchen have any paper towels on hand. I’m going to have to resort to stealing TP from the language school.

Sorry. Just had to get that off my chest.

The name of this post comes from a particularly good blog that I’m trying to emulate. The author frequently records short “notes” on the culture where he’s traveling, and I thought it would be a good idea to share my observations about Argentina. (Besides, you know, the usual ones that I write on this blog). I mulled over “what’s different” about Argentina while drinking a café con leche and munching on 2 medialunas, and came up with this short list.

1). A wise person once remarked that you can often tell a lot about a country by observing their public transportation system. Well, if I could, I’d give Buenos Aires’ Subte (read: subway) system a gold medal. The trains are extremely fast & much cleaner than the El in Chicago (which often smells like urine, especially in the dark of the night) and the people aren’t pushy or rude. They don’t say much (probably a result of the trains usually being overcrowded), but they’re very courteous and young/healthy people frequently give up their seats for old women.

2). People read WAY more here than they do in the United States. Borders should have built some shops here; they probably wouldn’t have gone out of business if they did. I’d say there’s an average of 2 bookshops (librerías) per city block. And they’re all light-filled & lovely! In a way, the popularity of the written word shouldn’t be a surprise here, as I don’t think that many people can afford fancy electronic gizmos. I haven’t seen a single Amazon kindle here, and I’ve only noticed one person using a tablet computer. Either the Argentines don’t like reading off of a screen (or realize that it’s even worse for your eyes), or they’re very romantic about the idea of holding a book in their hands. Another thing: new books tend to come wrapped in plastic. It seems like a bit of a waste to me, but I suppose it’s a good way to prove that a book is, indeed, new.

3). While we’re on the subject of materials, I should mention that I haven’t seen a single piece of styrofoam the entire time I’ve been here. I think the lack of this ecologically horrifying material probably makes up for the plastic-wrapped books.

4). Carryout here is a bit different. You’re not supposed to eat on the street (I get stared at if I even so much as snack on a biscuit while I’m walking), and restaurants wrap your food in paper instead of putting it in a (styrofoam) box. And they don’t bother with the cumbersome phrase, “Would you like this to go?” Instead, they opt for the much simpler “para llevar?” (literally, “to carry?”)

5). Now, something that I didn’t expect at all: Argentina food is the BLANDEST, most tasteless stuff that I’ve ever eaten in my entire life. Sorry, Buenos Aires. But your food doesn’t have any flavor at all. The Argentine guy I was sitting next to on the plane, who was returning home to Buenos Aires after a trip to Los Angeles, complained to me about how American food is “too spicy.” I thought he was crazy—American food, spicy?! Vietnamese or Thai, maybe. But then I got here and ate a few utterly tasteless meals and began to understand what he meant.

6). As bland as the main courses are, the desserts are sickeningly sweet. They taste wonderful, of course, but I usually can’t finish them. (Those of you know know me well know that I have an enormous sweet tooth—so when I claim that I can’t finish a dessert,  it’s very serious indeed). In fact, Argentines have such a sweet tooth that they gobble up all the chocolate in sight. On Monday I went to the big Coto grocery store a few blocks away and was stunned to find that there was not a single piece of milk chocolate left in the store. Granted, this was after a 3-day holiday weekend, but still!

7). The wonderful table service, however, nearly makes up for the bland food. According to Hanna, who’s from Italy, good service is something to be expected. Usually, the waiter will bring you a fresh tablecloth, open & pour your drinks in front of you, and bring you fresh silverware after you have finished your entrada (appetizer). It seems quite fancy to me! And it’s quite nice, also, that people in Buenos Aires aren’t as rushed as we are in the United States. You’re allowed to keep your table for as long as you like—but on the flipside, after performing all those fancy table services and bringing you your food, the waiter completely disappears. As a result, I don’t think I’ve had a meal yet that’s lasted less than an hour—you literally have to flag the waiter down or yell at them quite loudly. Which, thankfully, isn’t considered rude.

8). Argentines aren’t as crazy about replacing stuff as we are. They don’t feel the compulsory urge to refresh & redecorate every 5 years. As a result, a lot of things are, well…old. Earlier today, for example, I yanked an old doorknob completely out of the door. Oops. Good thing nobody saw me…

9). A short language lesson. “Permiso” means “Excuse me, I need to move through this insane mass of people crowded right next to the Subte door because this is my stop so please move right now, thank you.” In contrast, “Perdón” means “I’m so sorry, I accidentally touched your elbow with my elbow! Please, excuse my forwardness. I only hope you can forgive me. (Smile).

10). The traffic lights here are brilliant. They move from green → yellow → red → yellow → green again. In other words, drivers get a yellow light letting them know not only when to stop, but also when to start revving up their engines so that they can scare the hell out of the poor pedestrians struggling to cross the crowded streets. But I jest—I actually think it’s a wonderful idea that makes things much safer for pedestrians, too. I’m always given fair warning before another taxi tries to run me over.

This has been “10 Cultural Quirks of Buenos Aires.” Hope you enjoyed!

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July 24, 2012

Metronome

¡Lo siento mucho! Hace una semana y media que escribí la última vez. Perdóname, por favor.

Since it’s been more than a week and a half since I last updated this blog, naturally a ton of things have happened. In fact, (and I do believe this counts as a valid excuse), the primary reason that I haven’t written anything in a while is that I’ve been keeping insanely busy!

So let’s start from the top, un bueno lugar para empezar. Two Thursdays ago, on the 12th,  I joined Megan from Vermont, a couple of Dutch kids, and a proud New Yorker on an expedition to the famous Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Fine Arts).

Not to sound like a museum snob, but I have to admit that neither Megan nor I were particularly impressed by the collections there—on the ground floor, that is. Ten minutes before our scheduled departure, we stumbled upon the optical treat that was the 2nd floor: a collection of interactive modern art pieces. We ran around pressing all the buttons to make the pieces flash/twirl/swoosh while the guards watched, amused by the antics of 2 American tourists.

On Saturday the 14th, Hannah (from Italy), Gabriela (from Brazil), and I decided to make it a sightseeing day. We started off at the Museo Evita which, while providing possibly less information about Evita’s life than did the movie starring Madonna, did demonstrate that Argentina’s most famous first lady was a very stylish gal, indeed.

From there we proceeded to Café Tortoni near the Plaza de Mayo in the city center. It’s a very famous restaurant, probably the most famous in all of Buenos Aires, a reputation that was corroborated by the fact that there were more foreigners dining there than native Argentines! Gabriela kept pointing out everyone who was speaking Portuguese, and I definitely heard a few other American accents.

Cafe Tortoni

The Café used to be a gathering place for some of Argentina’s most famous intellectuals, such as Alfonsi Storni, Arthur Rubenstein, and Jorge Luis Borges. More recently, the Café has been visited by a number of politicians and public figures, including Hillary Clinton and Robert Duvall.

After a very expensive lunch (that’s the price you pay for being pseudo-academic), we continued on to the Recoleta neighborhood, nicknamed the Beverly Hills of Buenos Aires. Despite its well-deserved nickname, Recoleta hosts a bustling artisans’ open-air market every Saturday where unique, hand-crafted good can be had for a relatively reasonable amount in USD.

Tired of walking, we succumbed to the temptation of watching a movie in English at the Recoleta Mall. (But hey, there were Spanish subtitles, so I at least got some practice, right?) (Another side note: (double parentheses!!) for those of you who have not seen Friends with Kids—don’t! Spare yourself the agony!) Watching the movie in English was, again, a strange sensation. As possibly the only fluent English-speakers in the audience, we kept laughing loudly at the jokes while the rest of the audience sat in stony silence. Just goes to show you how much can get lost in translation..

Speaking of translating, I was starting to fear that my Spanish hadn’t improved very much. But Italy & Brazil assured me that it had, so it looks like my time at the Amauta Spanish school has provided me with a perceptive skill increase after all.

The only thing I wish I could do to improve my comprehension is to control the speed at which Spanish people speak. I was grumpily contemplating how much I still don’t understand in Spanish when I thought that everything would be fine if only I had a metronome! When I was young, I took piano lessons for several years. Much as I hated that annoying little instrument that kept time in an endless series of loud clicks, it was a useful tool for teaching myself how to gradually play a song faster and faster. If only I could use a metronome for Spanish! Right now I think my comprehension is somewhere around Adagio (“slowly”).

My goal right now is a nice Andante (“walking speed”). But perhaps one day I’ll understand Spanish prestissimo! (Which, according to what I’ve heard, is how they speak in Spain all the time).

But back to the sightseeing. On Monday the 16th, Kansas City, Vermont, Italy and I attended a music show at the Konex Cultural Center. Initially I was skeptical given that the group’s name was La Bomba de Tiempo (“The Time Bomb”), but actually they turned out to be a fantastic assortment of rhythmic musicians playing everything from the drunks to the electric guitar to the cowbell. Yes, the cowbell.

On Thursday the 19th I experienced Buenos Aires’ own flavor of hipster bar. The entire structure consisted of 3 very cramped floors. Everyone on the top floor (an open terrace) was bathing themselves in cigarette smoke. On the second floor was a makeshift gallery filled with pop art. (Side note: Marilyn Monroe is INSANELY popular here. I wonder how much Andy Warhol’s estate makes in royalties every year from Buenos Aires alone?) And finally, the ground floor consisted of a jam-packed performance space filled with bearded individuals listening to an earsplitting live band. Interesting, but needless to say that Italy and I didn’t stay long.

I must admit that I much prefer the street performers here in Buenos Aires than the (usually offkey) aspiring rappers in the El stations in Chicago. Over the past few weeks, I have been treated to countless street performances—and the surprising thing is, most of the musicians are good. I’ve seen a couple of accordion players, 3 or so saxophonists, and, most recently, a cello and oboe duo. And the passengers riding the Subte enjoy the spontaneity and always clap after each song.

Yesterday, Monday, Hanna and I decided to do some more sightseeing. (Imagine that!) We walked for quite a while trying to locate the Danish Church mentioned in our guide books, and on the way realized that we were in the quaint neighborhood of San Telmo.

Momentarily forgetting our task to find the Church, Hanna and I wandered around for perhaps an hour in San Telmo’s famous Mercado. Filled with antiques, the market offers a beautiful and nuanced look into the last 50-100 years of Argentine history. (Actually, the market first opened in 1897, so some of the items might be even older than that!) Excuse me for a moment while I borrow a few sentences from the guidebook to describe its appearance: “The market stands out for its excellent iron structure roofed with metal sheet and glass. Open everyday, it has stands that sell everything from fresh fish to antiques to works of art.”

Hanna and I also got distracted along the way by a couple of bookshops and (surprise, surprise) an international communist store. I had to buy my requisite Che Guevarra t-shirt (he is Argentine, after all). Definitely interesting—never been in one of those before!

Eventually we did find the church, however. It was made of very pretty red bricks but was, alas, slightly disappointing as it was closed on Mondays. We consoled ourselves (ok, let’s be honest: we didn’t really care that we couldn’t get into the church) by indulging in some retail therapy in the antique & retro shops in the area. One, called Antigüedades, was absolutely stunning and better than a museum! The shop was featured in the Italian Marie Claire a few years ago. Here’s a link to the shop owner’s website if you’re interested: http://www.sp-antiques.com/web/gallery.php

And today, determined to douse ourselves in yet another dose of culture, Italy, Las Vegas (a new student this week) and I went to Puerto Madero to see the very upscale Club de Pescadores (Fisherman’s Club). Don’t let the name deceive you: The place is very swanky. Think country club.

The Club is situated on the Río de Plata (Silver River) which feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. We dined (yes indeed, “dined” is the correct word to use here) at the beautiful restaurant across from the ballroom on the 3rd floor. We had a spectacular view of the river. The salad I ate was easily the best one I’ve ever had and, considering the surroundings, still very reasonable at $13 USD!

And on the research side of things, es todo bien. The librarians at the ALIJA library are very accommodating, and the library itself is housed in a beautiful old stone building.

There is also, as I expected, an abundance of books by María Elena Walsh in the bookstores here. By the time I get back to Chicago, the library where I work will have the best collection of material related to MEW in the country. (Apart, perhaps, from a few Argentine ex-pats with small children who happen to live in the U.S.)

To round off this novel of a blog post, I have 2 cultural notations for you today.

1). Every once in a while I’ll run across ads or signs written in English that don’t quite make sense. Take, for example, the clothing store “Kill.” Yep, just “Kill.” I have a feeling that the store might not fare so well in the United States. Another particularly funny example is the abundance of the verrrry non-PC “Rhodesia” chocolate bars.

2). I know I’ve already complained about the mean-spirited bus drivers here, but I’ve got to make another point about driving in Buenos Aires: IT IS INSANE. People are absolutely nuts. The way people tear down the street – it’s a wonder I don’t see an accident every day. And you know what doesn’t help? The lack of lanes. That’s right. Most of the streets (with the exception of the really busy ones like the 9 de Julio) don’t have marked lanes. Which means that everyone is crammed together, running over each other, making up lanes as they go along. AHH!! And I thought the traffic in San Antonio was bad!

Pues, terminé! Hasta pronto.

——————————————–

July 31, 2012

Shoes, Boat Rides, and El Gato Viejo

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already spent 5 weeks here in Buenos Aires. By this upcoming Sunday, I’ll be back in the United States where everything seems…well…normal. And so English!

I’d just like to start by pointing out that Buenos Aires’ name (literally, “Good Airs”) is somewhat misleading. I don’t want to complain too much about this city—it is beautiful, after all—but the combination of smog, traffic exhaust, and secondhand smoke makes it a bit difficult to breathe at times. I’ve been wondering, actually, whether Buenos Aires is more polluted than either Chicago or San Antonio. It doesn’t seem likely, yet I never seem to be conscious of the air being dirty when I’m in Chicago. Then again, that might just be because I’m complaining too much about how cold it is in the frozen north. Thank goodness I’m heading back to 100-degree Texas for a month before I have to return to Evanston!

Now, in defense of Buenos Aires, I have to say that I haven’t felt unsafe in this city for a single moment. (Knock on wood). The businessman on the plane who I talked to on the trip over kept telling me about all the stuff I needed to avoid—the trains, most of the buses, the streets at night, and the subway at rush hour. ISOS, the international security warning system, advised that I: “Avoid trains and buses as pickpocketing is likely.” Puh-lease! How the heck am I supposed to get around the city if I don’t use the subway?!? I cannot take a private taxi everywhere I go! Sheesh.

So, throwing that advice aside, one might well wonder: How does Alina tell when an area is safe?

It’s easy! Just use the “shoe rule!”

The women (and men) are much, much more stylish than their counterparts in the United States. I’ve already mentioned that los porteños aren’t afraid of color—they aren’t afraid of platforms, either! When you buy a pair of sky-high electric green booties with studs on the sides and wear them to do grocery shopping, then, and only then, my friend, have you embraced the Buenos Aires style.

So usually, when surrounded by all of this eclectic footwear, I feel quite safe. I perform a hasty calculation of the shoes encircling me, and then sigh in relief. With my boring (comfy!) gray sneakers that I bought on sale at Filene’s Basement before it closed, I feel more than capable of running away from any potential robbers much faster than any of the poor Argentines in their 3-inch heels. And the shoes make me look poor, too! So much for having to avoid “ostentatious displays of wealth”—my laid-back American style did that for me already.

Moving on to the more tourist-friendly section of the post… On Thursday, July 26th, Hanna and I visited the Museo Judío (National Jewish Museum) of Buenos Aires. Though initially skeptical given my halfhearted appreciation of museums, I ended up being very glad that we took the tour of both the synagogue and the museum proper.

Our tour guide was a lovely little old lady who spoke perfect English, albeit a bit less rapidly than I’m sure she would have talked in Spanish. (After discovering that both Hanna and I were here in Buenos Aires to study Spanish, she reprimanded us for not asking her to give us the tour en español! Oh well.) I learned a great deal about the Jewish population in Buenos Aires, which I previously did not even realize existed. The synagogue was, of course, beautiful, though the curios in the gift shop were a tad expensive.

On Friday, I went to the “Manzana de las Luces” with Hanna and Lauren. In case some of you reading this know a bit of Spanish, the answer is no: We did not go see a giant apple made of neon lights. “Manzana” usually means apple, but can also mean a small group of houses situated in a city block. So, technically, we visited the “Small group of houses of the lights.” Bad translations aside, the “Manzana” was interesting—basically, it consisted of a group of houses and a set of subterranean tunnels built/constructed by monks over the past 400 years. I was very excited by the prospect of the underground tunnels, but unfortunately the view aboveground was much more impressive.

Our guide, though, was pretty entertaining. She was a very proud porteña and kept going on and on about how lots of famous Argentine politicians & writers had their own special booths in the aboveground cathedral. I mostly stopped paying attention after that, until we were below the ground in the tunnels and she started talking about the ríos de sangre en la calle (“rivers of blood in the streets”). What blood? Why rivers? Your guess is as good as mine!

On Friday I also met with the lovely Nora Lía from ALIJA, who gave me a VERY HEAVY bag filled with articles, books, and essays by & about María Elena Walsh! *Sigh. I’m such a nerd. I felt like Christmas had come early!

Nora was extremely helpful (and also quite easy to understand, thank goodness!) and told me the 3 predominant texts on Walsh’s work. I promptly headed off to the bookstore and bought the 2 I didn’t have, as well as a study of the censorship under the 1970s-1980s dictatorship. I feel much, much better about my research project now—especially since I am allowed to make photocopies of whichever essays & articles I need!

Now—after several weeks in the heart of Buenos Aires, Hanna and I felt like we needed to take a weekend away from all the hustle & bustle.    So we took the day off and went to El Tigre, a quaint seaside town about 45 minutes away from the city. And you won’t believe the price to get there—1.10 pesos (25 cents!!!!!). After a delicious lunch on the outside balcony of a café, we purchased 60 peso tickets ($13) for an hour-long boat cruise. The (ahem) “steep” fare was well worth it!

Tigre 1

The city is so named because of the tigers that used to roam the area. Unfortunately, the European settlers killed all of them off. Nevertheless, tiger drawings adorn most of the signs & boats in the town.

Apart from some rather cute children screaming in Spanish and a few teenage couples pretending to reenact the famous scene from Titanic on the boat rails, the cruise was lovely & just the break that we needed.

The real adventure didn’t start until we got back to Buenos Aires, however. One of our teachers from Amauta, César, told us about a really cool gallery/restaurant in the center of town. Ever the adventurers, Hanna & I decided to try to find “the place behind the old train station” as César had described. Eventually, our wonderful cab driver found it: “El Gato Viejo.” (The Old Cat). I dearly wish that I had taken pictures. As it was, I was too surprised by the atmosphere to remember to pull out my camera.

“El Gato Viejo” is split between a very modern art gallery and a very non-committal dining space. The art gallery section was filled with what many would probably call “junk art”—appropriately, perhaps, because the artist used sawed-off pieces of metal and discarded garden tools to construct animals, airplanes, and trains. Amid what at first glance seemed like rubble, I found myself enchanted by a spindly-legged giraffe made out of tin cans, old metal rods, and screws. Hanna and César were equally taken with the semi-destroyed cars that were plopped unceremoniously amidst the general cacophony of metal & colors.

After contemplating the art for a while, we snagged two old, barely-holding-themselves-together chairs and invited ourselves to sit down at one of the already-occupied tables in the dining area. I was alarmed at first by the lack of menus—but then Hanna explained that at “El Gato Viejo” they serve “inspired” food. The “inspiration” consisted of fluffy bread, unidentifiable meat soup, baked onions, somewhat spicy salsa, pita bread, and guacamole. Sound weird? It was delicious! Meanwhile, a London-based fashion designer overheard our distinctly not-Argentine accents and chatted with us for a while about cultural differences in Argentina, the uniqueness of our surroundings, and the absolute steal we were getting with the exchange rate. (You know, typical yuppie foreigner conversation).

After perhaps 20 minutes, a transvestite in a slinky black dress and blonde wig ascended the stage on the other side of the dining room. She told a few choice jokes in Spanish (which I’m sorry to say were above my head) and then proceeded to sing opera. Yes. A transvestite singing opera—you never know what life will hand out next! She treated us to quite the lovely rendition of Léo Delibes’ “The Flower Duet,” and then continued on with a number of other European classics.

All of a sudden, a bewildering man appeared.

He plopped himself down at our table, helped himself to the bottle of wine already sitting there, and slurred at us in Spanish. Having noticed that Hanna & I had already finished our first set of beers, he loudly yelled, “¡JUAN! DOS CERVEZAS ESTE MOMENTO! UNA CORONA Y UN QUILMES!” We got our beers, thanked him, and then proceeded to stare at him in amazement as he began loudly booing the opera-singing transvestite. Only it was a rather unique kind of “booing,” as he ended up sounding more like a sheep.

“BAAAAAAAAAAAA! BAAAAAAAAAAAA! BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

Only much later, after we had left “El Gato Viejo,” did we discover that the hobolike-man with the apparent drinking problem was the owner.

Still reeling from our experience at the restaurant, Hanna & I climbed into a taxi & headed over to my friend Damian’s apartment. I owe a bit of an apology to Damian and his friends at this point—I met them the very first week that I was in Buenos Aires, yet have failed to mention them in this blog so far! I’m always a little unsure of whether or not I should talk about people in a public blog, but Damian, Lala, Ivan, Jojo, Jonatan, Damian II, Daniel, and the many, many others, deserve to be mentioned! They are a fantastic group of people, and without them my experience in Buenos Aires would have been significantly less exciting!

I originally met this set of fun-loving porteños while out on the Buenos Aires Pub Crawl. Ever since then, every Saturday without fail they have invited me to join them as they belt out Bob Dylan & The Beatles with the help of a single guitar, downing Isenbeck & Jaigermeister all along. We stay up until the sun rises, exchanging words of wisdom in broken Spanish & English. I’m happy that they have accepted me, even though a lot of the time I don’t really understand what they are talking about, and I am going to sincerely miss them after I return to the United States.

Unfortunately, I either had a little too much “inspired food” or had one too many Quilmes…or maybe I was just getting sick for a while—but on Sunday & Monday I was completely out. I usually hate it when people complain about getting sick abroad, so all that I will say is that I spent most of the last 2 days sleeping.

The Irish in me doesn’t tolerate sickness for long, though, and by this morning I was back to my fully-functioning self. After school this morning, Hanna & I went downtown again to barter with the artisans on Florida street—one of the city’s most famous shopping hubs. I found some truly exquisite jewelry in green/blue, black, and turquoise…and the vendors were all happy to hear that I was buying them for my tía!

That pretty much brings everything up-to-date. But there are just a few more photos that I need to share before I sign off…

First, a picture of the Amauta Spanish Language School. Considering that I’ve logged over 100 hours in this institution, I figure it deserves at least one photo on the blog!

Amauta 1

Second, I just had to include another picture of the scrumptious desserts here in Buenos Aires. Below is a chocolate-chip brownie topped with marshmallow-whipped icing…oh, the decadence!

DUUUUULCE

Annnnd finally, below is a low-quality photo that I snapped of a street sign on the way to the cinema. I couldn’t resist—it’s not every day that you see a crossing sign addressed to “Mister Pedestrian”!

Mr. Pedestrian

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