Of technology and insomnia

As happens to me occasionally, my dearest readers, I have been experiencing a recent bout of insomnia. This is not so terrible a problem in a city where people are very frequently out until five or six in the morning. But when you’re at home on your own until the wee hours, it isn’t exactly copacetic.

One does not write much of worth at 5 a.m., nor does one read with particular concentration. The Internet, however, can offer a more, shall we say, low-intensity activity for the insomniac. This would, were I living in the States, be a fine way to pass the time but far away from my native land it can be somewhat dangerous. The ye ole interwebs, as I like to call them, in addition to providing me with fantastic research tools and access to news and information of a wide variety (plus those lovable LOLcats), are also my main means of communicating with friends and loved ones in the Northern Hemisphere–far more so than they ever were when I was living in Los Angeles. E-mail, Skype, Twitter, the blog,* these are the social lifelines of itinerant me. But a bleary-eyed itinerant me, somewhere between 4 a.m. and sunrise, needn’t reach out to that larger world lest she embarrass herself with ill conceived tweets, posts, messages, etc. Emotions run high during those hours of the a.m., particularly if one hasn’t been sleeping too well. (You are all, I’m sure, familiar with the dangers of what is commonly referred to as ‘drunk dialing.’ Insomnia-induced communication via internet, or IICVI, is similar in nature and only slightly less likely to invoke feelings regret and shame once you’ve recovered.)

Needless to say, I have tried put the kibosh on my IICVI before any major damage has been done. (No, I did not send out mass e-mails detailing my irritation at the absence of grapefruit-flavored Gatorade in the United States and my elaborate plan to smuggle in shiploads of the stuff upon my return, but I thought about it.**) The point is, if you noticed typos, poorly constructed sentences, a general haziness in the last few posts you can blame this wretched affliction. And worry not: I’ll do my best to erase any traces of IICVI with my close edits in this and other forums.


*No, I am not on Facebook. I am not getting on Facebook. Do not send me an invitation to join Facebook. As should be perfectly clear from this and previous posts, the last thing I need is another way to spend (or waste) time on ye ole interwebs. This may make me something of a contemporary Luddite, but I must insist. And, hey, clearly I’m no technophobe as evidenced by, among other things, this blog.

**O.K. LOLCats out of the bag! It’s true. I love Pomelo Gatorade. It is so delicious. I could pay a mule handsomely, if you know what I mean, to transport said beverage northward.

Play of the day

A play of the other day, really, what follows is the story of the thirty minutes I spent helping a nice, old porteña lady walk to her apartment.

In order to alleviate the terrible suffering caused by a day spent trying to write something to elicit funds from the impoverished California University system I left the building for a walk. It was a holiday so the streets were relatively empty but as I turned a corner I noticed a gang of young men hanging out on a stoop a block ahead. I, despite my striking beauty and stylish manner of dress, don’t get a lot of piropo (or cat calls) here• but during my years of urban travel and residence I have developed the habit of avoiding such groups. I crossed the street so as not to walk through this small crowd of rat-tail sporting boys. Just as I stepped onto the sidewalk on the other side, an old lady asked if I might accompany her a few blocks. She was having considerable trouble walking with her cane and I agreed. When she realized, rather quickly, that I was foreign she looked a little startled but once she could see that I speak Spanish she relaxed, grabbed my arm, and (very, very slowly) off we headed together towards her apartment.

She told me about her grandchildren, about the other foreigners she’d met. She asked me about Obama and lamented the bad deeds of the Bush administration. She complimented me on my Spanish and talked a little about lunfardo. It was a pretty great little break in the day and I can now say, officially, that I’ve helped an old lady cross the street. Several streets, actually. And, better still, that I did it in a foreign city and spoke to her in a language that isn’t my own. Not bad for a day’s work. One question: can I put that in the ‘service’ section of my C.V.?

*This was the cause of some anxiety a few days ago when the subject of Argentine piropo came up in my Spanish class. The professor was quick to tell us that while foreign women are sometimes offended by the catcalls, porteñas feel ugly or fat if a day goes by that they don’t receive a few objectifying shouts from male passersby. Um, so, how should I feel about the fact that the only men who’ve cat-called me during my time here have been in their late sixties, obese, and very obviously drunk? It has happened a total of three times in the two and a half months I’ve been wandering around Buenos Aires. What, prey tell, could this mean? In order to avoid a potentially disastrous crisis of confidence I choose to believe that the lack of overt, public flirtation directed my way is due entirely to my devastating good looks and general self-confidence. The poor souls are merely intimidated by the spectacular phenomenon that is me.

Of the wonderous phenomenon of temporary living spaces

I have spent a handful of late nights sitting, along with a crowd of others, around a long, low, wooden coffee table in a place fondly referred to by residents and visitors as Casa Pasco.

Casa Pasco is a sort of half-apartment, half-hostel. Owned by an Argentinian young man it’s really two, very old French-style brownstones which share a large terrace. What you see above is the glorious view you get if you look up from the terrace at night. The place is pretty run down and dirty but entirely functional and the mild disrepair contributes to its charm. The ashtrays on the coffee table are always over-flowing. There are empty liters of beer cluttered together on the floor and the counter tops. Dishes are often stacked in the sink. The tile on the floor is badly scratched but I think original. My guess is the place was built sometime in the early 20th century. French doors, balconies, marble staircases.

I don’t really know how many bedrooms there are in Casa Pasco, but I’d venture somewhere around ten, plus three kitchens and a few common areas. The bedrooms are rented by travelers who plan to spend more time in Buenos Aires than would merit hostel accommodations but less time than a traditional lease would require. The residents come from all over the place. I’m never clear, when I’m sitting around the aforementioned coffee table at some odd hour of the morning, who actually lives there and who’s just present for the party. On an average Friday night there are usually at least three languages spoken. The crowd is often composed of a handful of Americans, some French women, a Brazilian or two, an English man, a Bolivian, four or five Colombians, three or four porteños and two cats. The make-up can always change though because Casa Pasco is, more than anything, a meeting place for the young, itinerant population of Buenos Aires. This makes it a kind of magical place, a weird sort of liminal space in which time dissipates slowly in the air, mingling with cigarette smoke and late-night laughter. (I am aware of how ridiculous and trite this may sound, but can think of no other way to describe it.) I love Casa Pasco. It is the sort of spot where you are distinctly aware of the temporary, the ephemeral; where the energy and absurdity of youth and travel serve as a constant milieu. Its a no-place, which makes it the perfect place, to sit around a coffee table in a smokey room and talk about anything or nothing into the very early hours of the morning.

And it burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire, that ring of fire!

So, dear comrades, what you see above is what I saw out of my kitchen window this fine evening.

Let me give you a little context so you can understand the situation well: I had an extremely lazy day. No class because it was a dia de feriado. This particular holiday (a group of days, actually–it’s a four day weekend) was initiated last year by Argentina’s President, Cristina Kirchner. Officially it is El Día de la Memoria por la Verdad y la Justicia. The holiday commemorates March 24th 1976–the day of the coup d’état that brought the last, and horrific, military dictatorship to power. I’ll skip the details of the terror wrought by the junta during the period that followed because I assume most of you know how bad things were. Needless to say it merits more than a day of consideration. What follows, however, is entirely unrelated to that political history and should prove, if I write it well, a stark contrast to the utterly devastating human capacity for cruelty demonstrated by that epoch.

To the point: After many hours of procrastination and general fiaca, I decided what I needed was a little exercise. Because of the aforementioned laziness, I chose to do a little at-home workout. You know, the jog around the studio while watching internet television kind of thing. About half-way through my half-hearted workout I began to smell the fire. I assumed it was just the typical Argentine B-B-Q. The parilla is, after all, a favorite porteño pastime. But I happened, during a dull portion of ‘Californication’, to jog into the kitchen and notice a little smoke. I looked out the window only to discover not a parilla somewhere below but the flames you see above.

It seemed like the fire was awfully close to my building so I paused my internet T.V. and prepared to depart. My heart rate, mind you, was considerably elevated by what was the view from my window. Far more so than it had been during my ‘jog.’

I kept checking on the progress of the fire, though, and noticed that others in my building (and the surrounding complexes) were just calmly watching the blaze from their balconies. I heard sirens shortly thereafter and soon the bomberos had arrived and were working with a calm distraction–you see the same basic look in the faces of temp workers in cubicles.

At one moment, when I was looking down, I heard a neighbor yell: “Oye, bombero!” The firefighter responded, “Decíme.” “Hay llamas en las ramas arriba también.” “Gracias,” said the bombero and went about what was apparently the very boring business of hosing down the fire. Here’s a translation:

Neighbor: Hey, fireman!

Bombero: Tell me.

Neighbor: There are flames in the branches up here, too.

Bombero (in a completely uninterested, perhaps slightly annoyed tone): Thanks.

I closed the window and went back to the ridiculous activity of jogging around my one-room studio. And that, excluding the lingering bar-b-que smell, was it.

I guess the moral of this little story is that people go about the business of saving other people, most of the time, without much production. When circumstances aren’t extreme there seems to exist a basic, even banal, good nature in us. We can be pretty crappy creatures when things get nasty but, all in all, we aren’t averse to helping a fellow human out now and again. Or, at least, that’s what I’d like to take as the lesson of the day. It might be, however, that what I should learn from all this is that jogging is better done in a park and not a one-room apartment.

Play of the day

Yesterday, I spent a fine and extremely lazy Sunday in my apartment. Two American friends came over for a late brunch. I made New Mexican breakfast burritos: yes, real green chile and real cheddar cheese that I made my mother smuggle into the country. While my own didn’t quite match the inimitable breakfast burritos of the Frontier (pictured above and a breakfast mainstay in my hometown), they were delicious.

We passed the afternoon sipping mimosas and chatting in English and so, when night fell and I finally left the house for a little walk, I was a bit startled to remember how far from home I still am. That’s the play of the day, folks: Nothing like walking out into a Buenos Aires night to heighten the contrast between where I’ve been and where I am.

Of Lunfardo

The time has finally come, dear readers, to let you in on the fascinating and ridiculously difficult phenomenon, specific to Buenos Aires, known as lunfardo. Lunfardo is the bizarro and glorious dialect of Spanish often spoken in the city. Birthed from the conventillos (tenements) of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this particular language (one scholar calls it “a devilishly bastardized Spanish” and “the most widespread linguistic product of twentieth-century Buenos Aires”*) arose as immigrants to the country mixed their own languages with that of their new home: Spanish, Italian, French, Galician, Catalan, Yiddish, Russian, Arabic, French, Polish, Greek, Turkish–you name the language and you can probably find a word in lunfardo with a corresponding root. It’s fabulous and fabulously difficult to understand, particularly because (like all dialects) it continues to change. In addition to mixing these languages, lunfardo also depends upon inversions. Not unlike the French argot, verlan, lunfardo inverts syllables of common words. For example café becomes feca, mujer becomes jermu. These are the easy ones, however, because sometimes adept lunfardo speakers invert words that are already mixes of Spanish and any of the myriad other languages which help compose the dialect. When that happens, needless to say, if you aren’t a local, you’re lost.

That’s not all. Lunfardo is the best known local dialect but another, cocoliche, also fought its way into being at the turn of the century. A pidgin between Italian and Spanish, cocoliche seems to have more or less vanished by the 50s, but my bet is its influence on the spoken language of the city was strong enough to leave a lingering vocabulary in its wake. It’s nice to know, however, that these ways of speaking are so flexible, so tactical in their responses to the dominant idiom that sometimes two contemporary, life-long local speakers can misunderstand each other. Makes you feel a little less bad as an outsider.

And a final note on the porteño way of speaking: They use ‘vos’ instead of ‘tu’ in addressing the second person singular. ‘Vos’ is a sort of bastardized version of the now relatively antiquated Spanish ‘vosotros.’ The voseo porteños use means you can’t conjugate verbs in the present tense or in the command form when the subject is ‘you’ the way you would in, say, Ecuador (where I happened to learn my Spanish). Instead of “de donde eres” to ask “where are you from,” you ask “de donde sos.” Instead of “tienes algo de comer” for “do you have something to eat” you ask “tenés algo de comer.” When you want to use the command form it isn’t “ven” for “come,” it’s “vení”. This is absolutely confounding when you first arrive, but when you start to get the hang of it, you love it. It’s like a prize you win for sticking it out. At this point I switch between the more common ‘tu’ form I learned oh so many years ago and the ‘vos’ form I’m picking up here. They understand me either way, but I bet I sound pretty ridiculous.

Here’s the great thing about such linguistic mutations, though. My own weird little enunciations in all the dialects I’m trying to speak here, somewhere down the line, might do a thing or two to change the way castellano is spoken in Buenos Aires. If it weren’t for the massive waves of immigration that came some 100 plus years ago lunfardo could never have come into being. Making mistakes in a language you don’t quite yet speak might just be the way, in the end, to make it your own.


*Adriana J. Bergero, Intersecting Tango: Cultural Geographies of Buenos Aires, 1900-1930. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008. Pg. 95.

Of Tigre and river deltas in general

I took a little trip, before the cool set in on the city, to Tigre. It’s about 40 minutes outside of Buenos Aires, a river delta where houses on stilts dominate much of the landscape and there are restaurants and little ‘corner stores’ that you can get to only by boat.

The water is muddy, coffee-colored, and when it’s hot out there, all you want to do is jump in.

Tigre is a favorite summer getaway for porteños, and has been for a very long time. Were it not for the stilts and the commerce, I’d think of it something like Rio Chama in northern New Mexico.

I once spent an immensely pleasurable afternoon knee-deep in the mud-banks on Rio Chama and had I the ability to drive a boat or the money to rent somewhere to stay on stilts, you can bet I’d be spending more than an afternoon floating around in Tigre’s waters.

The Klee-esque argentine painter, poet and creator of languages Xul Solar had a house in Tigre. The red door to it is now in the museum in his honor in Buenos Aires. He was a good friend of Borges and, seeing Tigre, you understand a little better why he and his friend were so truly odd, and so truly wonderful.

Solar in particular believed in all sorts of things that we might call, for lack of a better term, ‘new age.’ He developed not one but two languages which he thought might unite all of Latin America and, eventually, the world in peace and mutual understanding. He designed and built a board game whose point is not to win but only to play. He’s weird and lovely and was more interested in color than any painter I know of. If you travel along the canals in Tigre you start to get the sense that this might be as much a result of geography as of fantastic imagination.

Maybe it’s just my limited experience, but it seems to me that river deltas can do a lot to a person. Think of what the Mississippi delta did to Blues. Think of New Orleans and jazz. Think of the long and fascinating history of the Nile. Maybe its the combination of warmth and water and the occasional but deeply felt sorrow that can accompany floods. Maybe it’s the weird way the water changes the way you have to get around or farm or live. Whatever it is, Tigre is an example of the magic of such geological phenomenon.

Of wine and olive oil

I love wine. I really, really love wine. I blame my father who thought it a reasonable idea to give me little sips of the good bottles as soon as I could hold a glass. Among my very small crowd of mostly beer-drinking friends here there is one young woman who went as far as to call me la reiña del vino. I’ll take the title merrily, particularly considering my recent trip to Mendoza.

The region is beautiful. It sits at the foot of the Andes and it’s warm and dry. It is best known for Malbecs. I visited several bodegas, or wineries, that make exceptional malbecs (though some of the best stuff we drank was made from other varietals, even whites–a sauvignon blanc from a big industrial winemaker called Lopez comes to mind).*

The city (Mendoza is the name of both the city and the region) is equally wonderful. There is an enormous park, which we only began to explore. What’s best, if you have a little dough to spend, is the food. I hate to say it (sorry, porteños) but they out-foodie Buenos Aires by leaps and bounds. Every dinner I ate was fantastic–as good as the best meals I’ve had in Los Angeles. My top restaurant pick is 1884. I had a mushroom risotto that was ridiculously delicious. The place is gorgeous as well, and in a bodega in the city itself (as apposed to Maipu or Lujan de Cuyo where most of the vineyards one travels to Mendoza to visit are situated). If you are ever in Mendoza, make reservations, pay for the taxi, let the sommelier pick something for you and be stunned at the glory of your dining experience. Also: the whole shebang–bottle of wine, appetizer, two platos principales, a desert and a cafe cortado–was less than 100 U.S. buckaroos. My god. I may need to move to Mendoza.

You’ll be happy to know (especially so if you are my liver) that in addition to wine, Mendoza produces some amazing olive oil. My olive oil standards, mind you, are particularly lofty. I’m constantly chasing the epicurean high that was the olive oil from a little farm in Lesbos, Greece. While the stuff I found in Mendoza doesn’t quite match the artistry of the oil I had the pleasure of drinking (yes: for a week all I sipped the stuff, dipped bread in it, poured it over everything I ate) on that fair island, I’d still probably be willing to try directly injecting it into my veins.

It also made me rethink the whole ‘getting a PhD’ thing. Why not just drop everything, move to the tranquil outskirts of Mendoza and learn to press olives? I might be a little tipsy at work after the three-glass lunches, but if I was pressing olives instead of writing esoteric marxist materialist critiques on contemporary urban practice, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Also: they still take siesta in Mendoza. From one to four or five o’clock each afternoon businesses close and people actually nap! For now, let’s just say that it’s a very strong Plan B, maybe strong enough to displace the functional unemployability that will very likely come with my Plan A.**

Needless to say I’ve come back bearing a few extra pounds and a pickled liver (plus three bottles of wine and two of olive oil). Good thing the vacation is over and I’m returning, today, to high-paced (does it count as aerobic?) city life.


*Here are a list of the bodegas we visited, in no particular order: Trapiche, Lopez, Carinae, Finca Flichman, Palo Alto.

**My friend Angie also has a good saying for this. I’ll give it to you in Spanish once she can confirm for me that I have the phrasing right, but it’s more or less something like “you’re better prepared than the chicken and we can’t even eat you.”

Of plants and living in a strange land

I have done so many, many thrilling things in the last two weeks thanks in large part to a visit from my mother. And soon, my dearest comrades, I will recount to you all the glorious highlights. But as my dear mother has just headed out for the airport to return home, I wanted first to post a little musing on my basil plant. The link will become clear shortly:

Living here has meant, for me, spending lots of time alone. Sometimes days go by and my only interactions with other human beings are commercial in nature.* While solitude offers a lone traveler much needed time for reflection, reading, writing and and the like and while it verifies a number of annoying clichés (whose capacity to irritate me, in fact, causes me to omit them here) it also is sometimes the cause of a gnawing loneliness.

How does one remedy this occasional suffering? Well, basil. Obviously.

A few weeks after my arrival I bought a little basil plant. During my mother’s jaunt southward I harvested most of its leaves for a (delicious) dinner we made. In the hopes it would continue to grow, we went to one of the city’s very common street-corner flower vendors and bought a little bag of soil and a bigger pot into which to transfer it.

As of today, the sad day of my mother’s departure, it is flourishing. Lots of little new leaves at its base. It seems happy. And here’s why it matters: that little basil plant is a good fellow to talk to in the absence of human beings. It responds to me when I feed it. It’s always willing to stay for dinner. It’s green and alive and it might die on me (hey, anybody might) but it certainly isn’t going to tell me it doesn’t understand my Spanish or that it needs its freedom or that I should get out more. Sweet, sweet Señor Albahaca. I love him.

So those of you lone travelers out in the world, wherever you are, know this: plants rule! In a really nice, unpretentious, non-megalomaniacal kind of way. They are also poly-lingual. Or at least they listen in all languages. And if they stop listening? Eat them.


*This can be extremely liberating. I am particularly fond of flirting with the kioskeros, the young gentlemen who work at the 24-hour corner stores, selling cigarettes, candy and soda. There is zero risk of rejection; they always have to sell you your gatorade anyway.

Play of the day

My mother and I spent an hour or so this afternoon walking around this famous B.A. cemetery in Recoleta. It’s where the rich of the city have been buried for a long while. The corpse of Evita eventually found its way here, as did that of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and a good handful of other well-known Argentines. It is gorgeous and bizarre and all things great about death and wealth and monument and the city. We spent our time wandering through the the place and talking about (well, predictably) death and dying and funerals and graves. Above are a few of the highlights.