Oh dearest readers (dwindling in number though you may be, just as the time I have remaining in this fine city), I have for you a set of photos from both outside and within my favorite building in Buenos Aires. It is an old Art Nouveau structure on Avenida Rivadavia. A friend of mine used to work on the second floor and offered me a little tour yesterday before he gives up his keys to the joint for good.
He claims the place is haunted (not to worry, he also says the ghosts are quite friendly). Ghost stories abound in this city. Myths and legends of all sorts, really. And you can see why in buildings like this. These incredible structures, built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (often, as with this office, modeled after the European architecture that was popular at the time) are more concentrated in San Telmo, Recoleta and Barrio Norte, but they pepper the streets of all the central neighborhoods. This building is in Congreso, just a few blocks down from the plaza.
These buildings are set apart from their European counterparts both by their relative disrepair–with a series of political and economic crises following their construction many suffered stretches with no one to care for them–and by their context within the surrounding architecture. Often they sit next to brutal, barren high rises, or share walls with cheaply-constructed apartment buildings.
They have been among my favorite things the city offers to those who traverse it. Little sparkling treasures that pop up in the oddest of places to stop you in your pedestrian tracks.
If I were a ghost, I’d haunt these places too.
Ohhhh, the empanada. It is a culinary mainstay in this country and these little pockets of foodie fun can be found anywhere in the city. Ideally, the encasing is just crisp enough on the outside to offer some buttery resistance to your bite and, on the inside, just soft enough to begin to integrate with the cheesy or meaty or veggie center. Every once in a while they’re deep fried, but the common porteña empanada is baked, a kind of pocket calzone.
I enjoyed a veritable panoply of empanadas at a late Tuesday lunch. Jamon y queso, cebollo y queso, napolitano, roquefort, carne picante and an emanada de pollo were among the special little treats we ordered at a well-known Argentine joint near my apartment, El Sanjuanino.
Visitors to this country often sample empanadas all over the place, but few know of the signifying capacity of the doughy outsides. The way you fold an empanada indicates what lies within. I know of only a few indicators–ham and cheese empanadas are like little hearts, empanadas de carne have ruffled, twisted-rope edges like those pictured above, veggie empanadas have edges pressed down with a fork. Sometimes small marks are made in the center of the empanada as well. I’ve discovered this handy chart which will give you some idea of the complexity of the signifying system of the fold.
The point is this: even eating the local food requires a certain amount of semiotic acrobatics. Just one more reason why Buenos Aires is a little linguistic (and delicious) wonderland.
Last night I enjoyed a very typical Saturday night here in the city of the good winds. Typical, I say, because in true porteño fashion the festivities did not commence until I sat down with a few friends for a late dinner (I ate around midnight) and didn’t end until this morning (at around 5 a.m.). Also typical in that I drank too much Malbec, hence my Sunday resaca. My hangover, thankfully, was mitigated this afternoon by the arrival of two fantastic American companions and the delicious pizza we shared at the famous local joint, El Cuartito.
But back to business: The play of the day is really the mishap of yesterday. My long and alcohol-fueled night was spent at a bar in Palermo called Caracas. There’s a terrace upstairs and a DJ spins dance music while lovely waitstaff serve up delicious Venezuelan treats. The place was packed and a comrade of mine and I whiled away the hours betting on where the folks crowded around, downing cocktails and bobbing heads, hailed from. We’d pick a target, make our guesses, and then introduce ourselves to verify. There were a few hits and a few misses. A guy we were sure was from California turned out to be from Venezuela. We correctly pegged a crowd of Colombians. The very tall, blond American celebrating her birthday was a dead give-away.
One great miss: I spotted what was sure to be a gringo hipster. He was too tall to be a local. The guy also had a mustache and was sporting a hoodie. My guess was Los Angeles and, were I truly a risk-taker, I might have ventured that he shared a flat with his performance-artist girlfriend in Echo Park. But, lo, how wrong I was. We approached and, as it turned out, he was Canadian! A beautiful, tall, Canadian hipster! This fine northern gentlemen even informed me that he’s working on his Great Canadian Novel!! A bildungsroman, no less. Obviously, I swooned. All I’ve ever wanted in life, after all, is a creative type with facial hair who’s citizenship gives him access to socialized medical care. Sure that I’d found, at long last, the love of my life,* I commenced flirtation. I sharpened my wit. I batted my eyes. I even tried a little trick a friend taught me of laughing ever-so-merrily as you place a hand on the fellow’s arm and lean your face into his neck.
It just might have worked, too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids! And when I say kids here, I mean it. Just when I was ready to move in for the proverbial kill my fair northerner and I happened to be discussing stage-of-life matters and (oh woe is my fate) he let slip his age. As it turns out I spent an hour flirting with a teenager, ladies and gentlemen. Nineteen. The man cannot buy me a drink in my own country, with or without his ironic mustache.
That, readers, was my clear cue to gracefully exit the situation. I did, clutching my glass of wine and what was left of my dignity with my wrinkled 30-year-old hands. As I made my departure the weight of a great nostalgia for the long lost days of my youth settled heavily upon my shoulders. Sigh…
*As those of you who follow this blog already know, the real love of my life is a nameless Argentine repair man. But as the cruel hands of fate plucked him from his proper place in my destiny I am now forced to search for other, lesser loves. Such is the nature of my itinerant life.
There are, on any given day, a bounty of small indicators that the life I live here in Buenos Aires is distinct from all those myriad lives I led back in Los Angeles or anywhere else. This is one of the many pleasures afforded the traveler. Little but remarkable differences offer a way to ground yourself in the present, even on the days when you don’t leave your departamento or when you find yourself surrounded by folks who share your language.
Among my first and favorite of these small tokens of difference are the kind of keys people use here. Above is a common set, my own. The key on the right lets you into the building and the one on the left allows entry into my specific studio. I like to run my fingers over their tiny indentations and soft corners. They don’t look or feel like any other keys I’ve owned.
Live more than a month in any place and you’ll find the novelty of it is quick to dissipate. You build routines and habits, find favorite places, begin to retrace routes. Soon, what were the trappings of the itinerant become stuff more static. That’s when you have to start working to notice where you are, even if you want to call that place home.
I won’t say I’m particularly good at living in the present. I have the very unpleasant tendency, particularly when suffering from insomnia, to give myself over to a kind of dire nostalgia. But that’s what these keys are good for. You can grab a hold of them in your pocket and, even after their texture and shape become familiar, know that they open only one door, in one specific spot, in one city.
In no particular order, here are a list of the other quotidian markers of place I enjoy: maté cups and thermoses on the counters of kioskos, or on the tops of desks in offices, or being passed around sitting crowds at the parks; little metal ‘E’s that are scattered on the sidewalks anywhere construction is underway (I don’t know what purpose they serve but they are everywhere here); milk in bags; medialunas displayed on shelves in the windows of every confitería; huge dangling earrings on thin, short and beautiful porteñas; the rat tail that I’ve come to love adorning the napes of young men’s necks; the smell of cooking sugar wafting from the carts where men make and sell garrapiñada; dog-walkers with upwards of six, oddly calm perros strolling along crowded sidewalks; old men walking slowly or sipping cortados at the cafes…
So, here’s the thing, queridos lectoras y lectores: An American abroad does things she would normally ignore and avoid at home. Case in point–tonight I watched the Bulls vs. Heat NBA game at a well-known ex-pat bar in my neighborhood. I even ordered a plate of hot wings. Bless the flying buffaloes from whence those alitas came! They were a.) actually picante and b.) delicious. I suppose I should be clear that I love hot wings at home, too, but oh how disproportionately tasty they are in a far-away and virtually spice-free land. I should also be clear (and you will have figured this out by now) that I couldn’t care less about NBA games State-side, excluding the occasional basket-ball themed gathering with a few boys in Atwater Village who can explain things to me. Somehow here, though, I love them. U.S. sports touch the weird, if shriveled and black, American heart in me. And sometimes it’s just so comforting to be present in a room full of people who share your fatherland.
This was a particularly good day for sports in Buenos Aires, not so much for the NBA game (obviously) but because today the local futbol rivals went head to head for the ‘Superclasico,’ title. The Boca Juniors and River had quite a show down. Boca took down River in a 2-0 home win. I passed a bar where folks were watching the game this afternoon in Palermo just as the winning goal was made. The ‘gooooaaaaalllllllll’ screams could have been heard for a good mile but there I was, entirely accidentally, amid the hinchas.
I may be a lover of chicken wings but sports don’t really don’t it for me. Except, of course, when they are a phenomenon so specific either to the culture into which I am trying to enter or the culture from which I hail.
Last evening, oh readers of mine, I went out for dinner to celebrate that little baby chil’ whose birth you read about in my previous post. (Worry not: no baby talk follows–even if I am an Aunt, I remain committed to dark humor, an extremely guarded optimism, and a deep appreciation for the futile).
The selected restaurant was Sarkis. It happens to be the first place I ate a meal in this country, lo those many months ago. Sarkis serves Mediterranean food in the posh Palermo neighborhood. There is always a line and those crowded around the entrance waiting are usually highly attractive porteños between the ages of 25 and 35–though a few of the jet-setting older crowd join in as well. As it happens, I very consistently arrive a bit before the folks I plan to dine with and thus have ample time to gaze, longingly, at the bearded hipster types* and their outrageously attractive girlfriends as they smoke and chat on the corner waiting for their names to be called.
It’s really a scene. The doorman is megalomaniacal. If you know him well enough to exchange kisses, you get bumped up on the list. Each time I’ve gone up to put my own name in I can see the joy of absolute power light up his eyes–especially when he notes the foreign accent.
But once you do get in, it is sooooo worth it. Some of the best food I’ve had in this city. Falafel, tabbouleh, hummus (although why they won’t use the fantastic olive oil this country produces is beyond me–even if whatever it is they are using is a cost-cutter). Last night we went with lamb kabobs, a Greek salad, and one of the greatest versions of vegetarian moussaka I’ve ever eaten. And oh did we eat. ALL of it. Plus dessert and Turkish coffee. Walking a few blocks after our dinner to catch a cab home one of my comrades and I were dangerously close to passing into a cuisine-induced coma.
Ahhh, Sarkis. How I adore thee. Tonight, for dinner, I’ve been invited to a friend’s house for Colombian cuisine. So, off I must go, in search of the avocados I’m charged with supplying. Happy eating, readers, wherever you are!
*I’m no longer sure if this is an appropriate expression in English. Here, in Spanish, it is common to refer to a man (not necessarily a hipster, just any fellow) as “un tipo.” It functions as a very informal pronoun, though my sense is that it can, if inappropriately deployed, be derogatory. It is also quite common to refer to a man as “el man,” although this may be more common among the Colombian crowd. “El man,” if mishandled, can also be derogatory.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the play of the day belongs to one Taos William Moldenhauer! Who is this, you ask? Well, just a bit after the sun rose over the West this fine Thursday morning, the 12th of May, tiny Taos was born. He is my nephew. Itinerant me is an aunt!
This is one day, probably the only day of my life, that I will admit to longing to be in a very different, very far away city: Dallas, Texas. That’s where the little guy is right now with his fantastic parents and glorious grandparents.
Break out the champagne, kids. A brand new sort of wandering has just begun. Welcome to the world, Taos! This big crazy place has no idea what it’s in for!
I would describe my recent attempt to send a few postcards back to the states as a vain effort to communicate to the outside world via a vast and and confounding network, the workings of which I am sure are controlled by corporate and governmental conspiracies working to prevent the conveyance of any and all meaning.* For your amusement, I detail the experience below:
First, of course, I had to buy the postcards. I did so at a typical tourist shop on Calle Florida. Nothing too thrilling, but I picked out a few functional cards. I inquired if indeed they had the stamps to facilitate the travel of the cards I selected. The answer: ‘Yes, of course. Special stamps for international service.’ Great. Lovely. I purchased the appropriate number, spent the evening scribbling out messages to a few of my loved-ones back home, and the next day set out to slip them into an appropriate mail box.
I first stopped at an OCA office down the block from my apartment. I was under the mistaken impression that ‘OCA’ was an acronym for ‘oficial correo argentino,’ but alas. Not so. I have no idea what OCA really does stand for, nor am I sure any longer that it is an acronym for anything. (I might have payed a bit more attention to the fact that ‘oficial‘ as an adjective should follow, not precede, the noun it modifies). The friendly folks at the OCA office, however, were happy to tell me that they only send packages and only within the country. They were also kind enough to direct me to the actual and truly official post office, which by then was closed.
Another day passes and I head to the real post office. Post offices in Buenos Aires, as it turns out, are like DMV offices in Los Angeles. The lines are very long, the workers grumpy, the posted information inevitably inaccurate or entirely unhelpful. I grab a number and wait an hour. Yes. An hour. No one in the office appears to be sending or receiving any mail, but large quantities of cash are exchanged and everyone seems to be filling out paperwork.** I also notice that many people come in, take a number, and depart. The locals, I assume, have a better sense of the waiting time than idiot tourists like myself.
When lucky number 71 is finally called I go up to show my cards to the extremely irritable young woman behind what appears to be bullet-proof glass. She explains to me that no, these stamps won’t work at the official post office but that I can send the cards from a kiosko down the block. In order not to have wasted an entire hour in the office I use my unpleasant face-time with the office worker to buy more, different, but apparently official postcard stamps. If I apply those to a card, I’m told, I can send it from the office.
Feeling somewhat defeated, I proceed to the kiosko and slip my cards into a metal box that sits under the postcard rack and appears never to have been used at all, much less frequently-opened. The lock on the thing looks to be so rusted as to bar even the bearer of its corresponding key from entry. The kioskero assures me, however, that I am indeed depositing my epistles in the appropriate place.
If you never receive a postcard from itinerant me, my dearest readers, please attribute that fact not to my neglect but to the labyrinthine network of competing mail services of Buenos Aires and to the unseen but omniscient forces that are trying, as usual, to destroy me.
*Come to think of it, I would describe pretty much all of my attempts to communicate to anyone as vain efforts made via a vast and and confounding network, the workings of which I am sure are controlled by corporate and governmental conspiracies working to prevent the conveyance of any and all meaning.
**I suspect the folks at the post-office are paying debts owed for services rendered. Bill-paying in Argentina has very often struck me as an extremely complicated process. People line up outside nondescript office buildings that must house various arms of the governmental bureaucracy, and they stand in those lines for hours. Or at least that’s what appears to be happening. I’ve never directly inquired, but the irritated look on the faces of those waiting along with the stacks of complicated-looking paperwork suggest as much. You should see the indecipherable three-page-long water and electricity bills. Amazing. Apparently the check is not very often in the mail (and, having visited the post office, I think I understand why).
The short and sweet play of the day, folks, was the sighting of a strange, somewhat dishelved old man who I passed on my walk home this afternoon.
He stood, distractedly gazing into the window of a clothing store in Barrio Recoleta. He held a grocery bag and in it I spotted but one item: an old, pink toilet seat.
My insomnia may be deepening my appreciation for the bizarre but it was oh-so-nice to be met in the outside world with a vision not altogether unlike those I might encounter were I to have the pleasure of sleeping, perchance, to dream.
This afternoon I went with a few classmates of mine to a well-known cafe in San Telmo called La Poesía (pictured above). It’s a typical porteño cafe, on a corner. Big windows with two-person tables lined up out front on the sidewalk. Inside, one can sit and chat under the swinging fiambres and feel, well, literary. (Most of the tables at La Poesía are adorned with tarnished metal plaques indicating the great writers who might have sat in your very spot, composing their master works while sipping cortados or tragos into the wee hours).
Buenos Aires has a strong cafe culture–not unlike Paris. During rush hour the tables throughout the city fill up with cigarette-smoking locals and guide-book-toting tourists alike. They drink coffee or order liters of beer and chat until the traffic subsides or the dinner hour arrives. Also, as in Paris, the cafes are fantastic locals to eves-drop on debates about literature, foreign policy, local politics, or anything else people are talking about. And any time you’re wandering the city, you can’t go more than two blocks without finding an open cafe–no matter the hour.
What’s more: The city has developed a list of ‘cafés y bares notables‘ all of which hold some kind of historical or architectural significance. The bureaucrat who had the job of selecting these places is one lucky bastard. As is the one from the Ministry of Culture who chose all the pizza joints in the city-sponsored book, “Pizzerías de valor patrimonial de Buenos Aires.”
If you, dear readers, can keep a secret I’ll tell you something: I like to steal the tiny espresso spoons from the restaurants and cafes I go to, here or anywhere. I snuck one from La Poesía into my boot and hobbled home, a good two miles, with the thing pressed against my ankle. But don’t worry. I always leave a good tip.