Of ice cream and how language eats

In an effort to prevent a bounty of comments in which my dearest readers (that’s you, by the way) complain that all I discuss anymore is food, I’d like to insist that you take note of the portion of this post’s title which comes post-coordinating conjunction. I talk about language too. Its the only thing I love more than I love food.

Now then, carrying on: Argentines love ice cream. Really, really love it. While it’s been the summer season during my stay, I’m told that even when colder weather descends upon the city the Porteño persists in his commitment to helados. I’ll confirm this claim for you when I can, but there is evidence to suggest its accuracy. How else could the local economy sustain such an outlandish number of ice cream shops?

Yesterday, after an afternoon of running about the city (my guess is I clocked around five miles of pavement pounding), I decided to stop by the shop a few blocks from my apartment for a cone. Let me clarify that, like most Argentine cuisine, the ice cream of Buenos Aires is greatly influenced by the Italian tradition. It’s gelato, really. I chose menta granizado (yep, mint chocolate-chip) and it was absolutely divine. This is my second jaunt into the sweet world of helados here.* The first was a few weeks ago, (bigger cone, half raspberry, half lemon) also gloriously delicious.

Now if one were going to discuss the fact of having enjoyed or planning to enjoy an ice cream cone in the local language of Buenos Aires, one would have to be aware of the following: In Spanish there are three basic verbs for ingesting: comer (normally translated as ‘to eat’), beber (to drink), and tomar (to take or to take in). In Argentina beber is used infrequently. When a waiter wants to know what you’d like to drink he asks, “Querés algo de tomar?” though ‘drinks’ are ‘bebidas‘. Drinking (as in alcohol) is tomando. But there are some important subtleties of usage that require our attention. One does not use the verb comer when the object of the verb is ice cream or breakfast, but rather tomar. That means you don’t ‘eat’ an ice cream cone and you don’t ‘eat’ breakfast.

The import of this usage was explained to me by a Spanish teacher as follows: Breakfast isn’t something you eat in Argentina because it’s usually just tea, coffee or maté and maybe a few medialunas. And you don’t eat ice cream, you lick it or take little bites with your very small spoon.

This may appear to some as a relatively small distinction, between eating and tomando, but I don’t think it is. The language is indicative of a pretty big cultural divide. It isn’t that Argentines don’t eat. (Boy do they ever: huge slabs of meat and thick, extra-cheesy pizzas are the standards for dinner, it seems.) It’s that they think differently about some meals and about some foods than do, well, Americans, for example. And when you think differently about certain meals or certain foods, you behave differently. You socialize differently. You organize your days differently. I dare hypothesize that by using tomar when ‘breakfast’ is its object, Porteños have more or less prevented the development of a brunch culture. In my mind this is a terrible loss for them, considering brunch is the best thing to happen to the weekend, ever. I would venture to claim, too, that by using the verb when ice cream is its object, they’ve opened up a fantastic cultural space in which ice cream can be taken in at any time and in any weather. This, in my mind, is a major gain for them. Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, dear readers. And maybe I am. But I know this: I’m pretty sure I’ll be tomando un helado again, y muy pronto.


*Most Americans I’ve spoken to in the city are shocked by how little ice cream I’ve eaten. One friend of mine spent his first exploratory months in the city going from one Freddo (the most ubiquitous ice cream chain in B.A.) to another. But the truth is I’m just really more of a savory character than a sweets girl.

P.S. I realize the titular image is of little real relevance to the post, but I liked it. And (this is so obvious to those of you who know me as to make the following statement superfluous) I look just like that when I eat ice cream.

P.P.S. The second sentence of the post-script above may or may not be true.

Play of the day

Hands down play of the day: My lovely Colombian friend Angie batted her eyes and begged the waiter at El Fracés, (you guessed it) a French restaurant in Palermo, to serve us a plate of house-made pâté even though it is a delicacy only offered to the the dinner crowd and we were enjoying a late (5:30 p.m.) lunch. They served it with delicious wheat and walnut bread, a side of marmalade and a handful of arugula. I nearly died a little death from the pleasure of consuming it.

Of the aged and odd

Today I witnessed two fantastic incidents of old people, in two different parts of the city, doing weird and awesome things.

The first: Walking on 25 de Mayo just off the Plaza de Mayo was a woman, probably in her mid seventies, who was literally and purposefully leaving a trail of breadcrumbs behind her. There were no birds to feed or anything of the sort but every few steps she’d reach into a grocery bag and scatter a handful of crumbs beside her. She was walking very slowly and deliberately but the expression on her face suggested total distraction.

The second: Walking on Avendida Cordoba was a man, also in his mid-seventies, dragging a very old, bright orange vacuum cleaner behind him. There are more obvious explanations for his behavior than there are for the trail of breadcrumbs (perhaps he was taking the vacuum to be repaired, for instance) but it was still an odd thing to see on a crowded street, particularly given the garish color of the machine.

Both of these little vignettes were made all the more arresting by the drizzle that has, as of just moments ago, become an all-out rain.

May I pause to pontificate*: Old people doing weird things are so much better to watch than young or middle-aged folks doing weird things. It has something to do with the way in which we tend to attribute great wisdom and calm to the elderly and something to do, at least for me, with a strong desire to believe that the freedom to discard basic social norms afforded to the very young will resurface when we reach our twilight years. When I reach a certain age (perhaps 76) I, for one, have every intention of chain-smoking in public places (which by then will surely be entirely illegal), owning a veritable mountain of hairless cats, yelling at passersby whatever comes to mind as relevant to them or to me, drinking gin martinis at all hours and eating anything I want whenever the hell I want it. Considering today’s observations, I also think it an excellent idea to traverse a large city leaving a trail of breadcrumbs in my wake–just to see what that feels like.


*It seems to me somewhat superfluous to write this phrase in a first-person journalistic endeavor such as a blog. Of course I’m pontificating. That’s all I do when I blog. (Caveat: that’s sort of all I do anywhere.)


I may have spoken too soon when I lamented the lack of high quality cheeses in ye ole Buenos Aires. I recently purchased an Argentine-made Camembert that, while it tastes nothing like what I think Camembert should taste like, is outrageously delicious. The brand is ‘Wapi,’ a word I love to say with as thick a Porteño accent as I can muster. I do not, however, recommend their goat cheese.

I was also recently told that Argentina makes fantastic prosciutto–a claim I personally confirmed. My life is, more than anything, an endless search for delicious cheese and pork products. If I could somehow convince someone to pay me for this task to which I devote myself with fervor, I would be (if you’ll pardon the pun) in hog heaven.

Play of the day

Walking home today along the famous Calle Florida, I was handed but one promotional flyer. This is somewhat unusual as the street is always packed with folks flicking little advertising leafs in their hands and passing them, somewhat aggressively, to those that wander by. But today nobody handed me ads for tango shows, nor for restaurant deals. No; I received only one rectangular invitation to visit the “Show Para Mujeres: El Mejor Lugar Para Festejar Cumpleaños, Despedidas, Divorcios.” Pictured under the title is an extremely muscular, hairless Adonis, looking right at me with a sultry come-hither stare.  The fellow whose job it is to hand out these little gems literally walked across the street to shove it in my hands. Keep in mind I was absolutely not the only woman strolling past, nor even the woman closest to him. I guess I just have that ‘I’m the sort of lady who wants to (has to?) pay men to remove their garments’ type of face.

In order to spare you, my dear readers, from having the haunting visage of the previously described gentlemen seared into your memory forever, I have chosen instead to offer you a picture of Calle Florida in its glory days. While machismo was undoubtedly rampant during this epoch, I venture to opine that nobody would have run across a crowded street to offer me this particular suggestion as to how I might spend my money and my time.

Play of the day

Comrades! I spent a fine Sunday afternoon drinking maté and playing chess in the riverside neighborhood known as Puerto Madero. It was hot and sunny and Puerto Madero, particularly the area alongside the nature conservancy, is a good place to be if you can find a spot to sit in the shade at one of the parrillas there, outdoor grills or restaurants where they serve grilled meats. (It’s also a good place to eat a chory-pan, which I indeed did.)

I also purchased my very own maté gourd today in preparation for a brand new stimulant habit (I am already a terrible coffee addict but I feel varying the sort uppers I intake will assure better health). Everybody here has a maté set which includes a gourd, like the one pictured above, with a metal straw whose base serves as a filter and a thermos to keep hot water in. You fill the gourd to the brim with the tea, pour in the water, pass it around among those in attendance, repeat ad infinitum. A single gourd-full of the stuff lasts for several refills of water.

Because we were so near the San Telmo Sunday market, we took a little stroll down Avenida Defensa where I purchased a pair of vintage Argentine cowboy boots. These are exactly like my nearly-dead American cowboy boots. In addition to caffeine, I’m addicted to boots. Good thing leather is cheap in this town.

Now the play of the day to which the title of this post refers is neither my purchases, nor any of my chess moves (my game is improving, but I lost) nor even the fact of enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon outside. No, the play of the day was not a play I made at all, but rather that of an Argentine dude I saw walking in Plaza Dorego. His was perhaps the greatest rat tail yet spotted in this city so full of them. His head was entirely shaved except for a horizontal strip clinging to the lower back of his skull, a skinny little rectangle of hair. It was more the representation of a rat tail than an actual tail, but absolutely and astoundingly hideous.

I must give proper thanks to one Nicholby Howe for spotting this atrocity. His vigilance in the realm of the rat tail is unmatched.

Long awaited, now delivered

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, comrades and friends, I finally managed to get my proverbial excrement* together and have purchased a card-reader (by the way, this was far easier than anticipated. It turns out to be called un lector, literally ‘a reader’). See below images of my lovely studio and my sweet home-made hipster kicks.

*As I have vowed to keep this blog more or less free of expletives, I had no choice but to resort to this somewhat pompous phraseology.

Of el Tango

Last night I went to a milonga. These are a kind of party held in halls where people congregate to dance tango. Typically you see a large central dance floor surrounded by tables where people sit and drink and look out for partners to dance with as they watch those already on the floor. This particular milonga was part of a tango festival so in addition to the normal dances were a few “shows” (pronounced ‘chose’) where a well-known couple takes the floor and dances, ellos solos, for a song or two. Sometimes the music is live, and this is always fantastic–especially so if there’s a good accordion player. Last night the music wasn’t en vivo, although there was a brief interlude in which an accordion virtuoso offered a solo.

There were four couples last evening who danced for the benefit of a happy audience. Two young couples and two much older couples. All were wonderful to watch. There’s something particularly great about watching the older couples for no reason other than you get the sense that they’ve been dancing this way for decades, that they know something more about what it means to dance the tango.

For lack of a better way to describe it, the tango looks a lot like a performed interpretation of foreplay. It’s all hesitation and delivery and hesitation again. I have been watching for weeks now, trying to figure out how the women know when to move and in which direction and as of yet I haven’t a clue.  The torsos of the dancers remain very close to each other and somewhat rigid but the their legs move fluidly and there are all sorts of sweeping gestures and kicks, little flourishes that vary with each dance. Imagine the dance version of a woman lifting a single leg as she kisses a man.

What’s most enjoyable about a good milonga is the variety of people in attendance. Last night the crowd was a little cheto, which is to say wealthy and potentially a bit snobby, but there were nonetheless a sizable portion of young hipsters, foreigners and the like. These dances go all night as well. When I left at 3 a.m., it was still standing room only in the hall.

Tango originated in lower class, immigrant neighborhoods at the close of the 19th century. It was appropriated by the Argentine aristocracy and thus became a more broadly practiced dance and more commonly played music in the early years of the 20th century. But, at least according to a friend of mine, as a popular pastime it was mostly absent–which is to say dangerous and more or less prohibited–during the years of the dictatorship. It, like any folk practice, falls in and out of favor. At the moment, though, it seems a legitimately popular way to while away the night. And while I don’t know a step, I love to sit and watch.

Musings on dwelling in a language you don't call home

So I spent last evening chatting with a friend of mine, a local, about American music and culture. We speak only in Spanish, although he is proficient in English so I may occasionally ask him to help me translate a particular word or concept.

Brief aside: I often, when I’m speaking in Spanish, can’t remember the most basic facts about American pop culture. For example, the names of actors or bands escape me. This carries over even to conversations in English with ex-pats. Suddenly, I can see Brad Pitt’s face, I just can’t remember what the hell his name is or any of the titles of the films he’s been in. There’s a lot of “oh that movie, you know, where the guy starts that club with other men where they fight each other?” It’s a thing. The mother tongue, as it turns out, really is a kind of home.

Back on topic: What I find most frustrating about these kinds of exchanges, and indeed this is not particular to my own experience, is that I am not really me when I’m speaking in Spanish. I’m sure something of who I am comes across but I find myself trying to explain, at length and with a stunted vocabulary, what it is I feel about a given subject. But it’s like explaining a joke in a YouTube video to someone who has yet to see it. Something is just completely lost. You can’t narrate who you are. You just are.

There are benefits, of course, to being a foreigner with a capacity (albeit meager) to speak in the language of the locals. You learn a lot of slang and common expressions in the process of trying to communicate. They let you pontificate on the evils of American consumerism (and tend to be, at least here, both surprised and pleased that a real, live American would make such critiques), and they always lie and say you speak such great Spanish. But the exchanges go something like this:

Alli: Capitalism bad! The U.S. has problems.

Porteño: Really? I’ve not heard many Americans laub that critique.

Alli: We exist! We are just not the usuals.

Porteño: It’s difficult to articulate our position because so much of our cinema and music is influenced by American culture, despite our resistance to American cultural hegemony.

Alli: Capitalism bad!*

Speaking this way is a sort of exaggerated version of a bad first date. You have these conversations and then later want to return to explain this or that aspect of your perspective once you’ve thought it over and can actually find (by which I mean look up) the words. Luckily, when you’re dating a country, there’s always tomorrow. I’m pretty sure Argentina, despite my tiresome struggle with its language, will call me in the morning.


*Caveat: I can’t deny that some of my conversations in English, with other English speakers in the U.S., have progressed, more or less, in exactly the same manner.

Of dairy products

Consider this post a kind of addendum to my previous list of remarkable differences between here and there. I’d like to discuss, briefly, the state of dairy products in Buenos Aires.

First off, let it be known that while I may not be a connoisseur, exactly, I really, really love cheese. Within walking distance from my apartment in Los Angeles was (and remains, though I’ve departed) the The Cheese Store of Silverlake. I was a frequent customer of said cheese shop and they had much in the way of fantastic imported and local cheeses. Now here in B.A. there is no dearth of cheese shops, little corner stores which offer Argentine-made reggiano (sometimes called reggianito here), provolone, queso fresco and–a real favorite of locals and truly delicious–queso roquefort. I must admit, though, that the quality and diversity of the cheeses you can find leaves much to be desired. Sure you can buy brie or camembert, but only President–the Kraft of France. And cheddar? Alas, not at all, unless you count the single slices of American cheese as some corrupt form of the original.

The other thing they lack is milk that doesn’t terrify me. Milk is sold here in boxes or bags and isn’t refrigerated. They even serve it at room temperature most of the time. This is entirely common throughout South America in my experience but let me tell you, as a lover of cereal it pains me to be without the milk to which I have grown so accustomed in my short life on this, the loveliest planet.

So, my American readers, in my honor I beg of you, be happy in the vast diversity of cheeses you can find in the States. Be joyous each morning as you slurp the sugary, cold milk that remains when all the Fruit Loops have been eaten and know that while we may not be France, we can really rock the magical world of dairy.