Of time and departures

Six months, dear readers, of my precious and quickly waning youth have passed since my arrival here in Buenos Aires. And, as such, the day of my departure draws quickly nigh.

My dwindling days in the city have been spent very much like those that came before them. I wander. I drink cortados in cafés in Palermo. I stroll the ferrías in San Telmo and Recoleta. I eat empanadas and sip maté all afternoon.

I have the odd feeling that some of me has already gone, fled northward to evade the onset of the heart of winter.

Time has taken on the character of liminality. Somehow the present dissipates into the past and the future and I feel neither here nor there, neither in this city nor the city for which I am bound.

The traveler never grows accustom to this, the bizarre nature of departures. Strange and wonderful, terrible and terrifying, these moments mark the itinerant and they are, in the end, why one travels. To be strange to those around you, to speak strangely and to put yourself into the spaces in which you find yourself strange, in which you find yourself other–this is the best reason for all reasonable travel. This otherness is most salient just as one arrives and, again, just as one departs.

So, in this state, I am off to my own despedida. I hope that you, oh followers of mine, will forgive my waxing poetic for a moment. Departures have that effect on me. I think they have that effect on all true travelers. We are a melancholic and nostalgic bunch, would-be poets all.


Of white wine, scallop gonads and Chilean despedidas

So, my patient followers, my dearest friends, my truest joys, I must pontificate (as I am so often want to do) about my return to Santiago and my final days in the splendid country that is Chile.

I left Valparaíso early on Thursday morning to fit in a tour of the Casablanca Valley vineyards. This isn’t Chile’s primary wine-making region but they know how to make some very tasty Sauvignon Blancs. Really the purpose of my little jaunt into the valley was less the wine (though it was fine indeed) and more the chance to see a little bit more of the country. The fog on that crisp morning had yet to dissipate as we drove towards the first viña (in Argentina vineyards are referred to as bodegas–not so in Chile). At Casa del Bosque I sipped a bit and wandered a bit and got a good look at the strange post-post-post pressing which produces the juice for wine that the vintner only sells in Asia because no one anywhere else seems to have a taste for the stuff. The final detritus from this process looks like bright purple paste. Best part about Casa del Bosque, you ask? They play soft jazz for their wine when its fermenting in the barrels. All day. All night. I asked the guy why not Reggaeton and he said he figured that wine would be way too ready to party for the wine-enthusiast’s refined palate.

From there I went on to a biodynamic vineyard called Emiliana. Better wine at this second viña and, best: llamas, peacocks and chickens all help keep things sustainably running. The vineyard also makes some very tasty olive oil I had the pleasure of sampling.

A little tipsy but happy as can be I was delivered to the bus station and off I went to Santiago. I arrived at my hostel without incident but it was so freezing inside that I had to take myself out to an early dinner. I went to Liguria in the Providencia neighborhood and enjoyed the best fried fish sandwich I have ever had. Seriously.

Speaking of fish: I must pause to mention one very important difference between the Chilean and American preparation of a particular fruit of the sea, the oh-so-delicious scallop. Called ostiones in Chile, scallops are cooked with the gonad still clinging to the body of the mollusk. Why we insist on removing this delectable portion in the U.S. is beyond me, though it may have something to do with the fact that some discomfort is likely to be provoked by the term ‘gonad’ when it is spoken in reference to cuisine.

Aside from enjoying the food upon my return to Santiago, I was also offered the special treat of an invitation to a Chilean despedida. I have written of the phenomena of despedidas before, of course, but it was a pleasure to be able to partake in Santiago’s version of the ritual. I met up with my friend Maria and we made our way through the city to the home of a few young Chileans with whom she had been working during her stay. The send-off was for Maria who was winding down her final days in the city. We sipped Chilean wine and Escudo, the local beer. We talked about architecture and language and the locals in attendance made fun of me for speaking like a porteña. As the night wore on, speeches were given, toasts were made, pizza was eaten and, finally, around one in the morning we all rose up and danced and danced and danced. Oh my what a fine way to while away the hours. And because I too was leaving in the morning, for Buenos Aires, I got to share in the boisterous pre-departure party. The next morning I made my way without incident to the airport and back to B.A.

Ahhhhhhh, Chile. May I return to your sweet shores once more. May I climb your heights and traverse your vast and diverse territory. May I, oh fine country, once again come back to be warmed by your tender welcome. For now, alas, I must bid you adieu.

No te olvides de mi y te digo, Chile, que nunca me podríaolivdar de ti!


Of Valparaíso and La Ciudad Abierta

Valparaiso is a Latin American port city (though it feels more like a town) with a character entirely its own. Crowds of multi-colored houses on hills huddle together against the Pacific. Winding concrete staircases and funiculars let both itinerant visitors and locals alike climb up the hills to enjoy indescribable views of the city. There is a long running tradition of both mural painting and graffiti in Valparaíso that make it an ideal place in which to get lost. You make a wrong turn somewhere (which you are bound to do–Valpo is very difficult to navigate) and you stumble on colors you’ll swear you’ve never seen, palimpsestic paintings on walls, impossibly constructed houses clinging to the steepest slopes.

I wandered the hills, was lifted to views by the funiculars, climbed staircases and generally stared in awe. I visited Pablo Neruda’s favorite holiday house. He had an office on the final floor which might explain his great capacity to play with language. With a view of the ocean and the architecture below inspiration would come easier, I think.

I was granted the luck of a solitary travel in Valparaiso. I met a young woman, an architecture student from Romania who had been living in the city. She not only guided me around her favorite hills and took me to one of her preferred restaurants (I had Ostiones Parmesanas–Jesus they know how to make seafood in Chile) but also took me on a little adventure. We caught a bus that ran through nearby Viña del Mar and then up the coast. We stopped in what seemed to be nowhere along the highway and made our way onto the dunes that lead to the ocean and into the campus of La Ciudad Abierta.

The place has a short history. It began in the 70s as a sort of artists’ commune where poetry and experimental architecture could meet. It continues as an unusual satellite campus to the Universidad Catolica’s school of architecture. It is nothing less than awesome–in the original sense of the word. I offer no pictures of this place, as of yet, because my Romanian friend and I are planning to put together a lecture on this particular space and urban and extra-urban practice in Chile in general, but those Spanish speakers among you would benefit from a little online digging on the La Ciudad Abierta. There is a cemetery there which we reached just as the sun was setting. It might be the most beautiful place the dead have ever rested. The only folks buried there are former members of this esoteric and artistic community. They take their eternal sleep on the dunes, with a view of the sea. The architecture is simple and all in brick and concrete. I would not hesitate to say that their final home is among the most lovely spaces I’ve visited on the planet. Which is, I suppose, as it should be.

Tourists don’t normally get to visit La Ciudad Abierta. When, the next morning, I spoke with a couple from Santiago, both architects, about my visit they were shocked that I’d been able to go and get in. (Despite it’s name, the campus is closed to the public and, indeed, to all who don’t have a code to get through the gate and passed the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the community).

I met up with my Romanian friend again in Santiago upon my return from Valparaíso. But for the details of that adventure, you will have to wait.

Should you desire photographic evidence of my time in Valpo, go here.


Of Santiago de Chile

Oh my! A poor pseudo-porteña like myself (actually, a poor pseudo-porteña that was myself) is typically ill prepared for the cold that awaits her in Santiago de Chile at this time of year. The rain, luckily, had stopped for a bit when my plane landed a mere three hours late and so finding the subway and making my way to the hostel in the frigid night air was far easier than it might have been.

Santiago gets a bad wrap where the metropolises of the Southern hemisphere are concerned and, I feel, undeservedly so. There seems to me to be much to do and, more importantly, much to eat.

My first day in the city was spent roaming, hopping on the subway, roaming again. Much of said wandering was less aimless than fishwardly. The seafood market near the port is astounding and chaotic. As you move in crowds along the smelly, cold rows of freshly caught creatures the fishmongers compete, half-cat-calling, half-hard-selling, to get you to choose from their various and vast selections. I refrained from purchasing any of the tasty, if slimy, offerings in the knowledge that I was kitchenless and thus bound to eat out on the town.

From the fish market I made my way to two key hilltop views of the city. From Cerro Santa Lucía, the lower of the two, you get a fine panorama, not to mention a good look at some stunning fountains and what remains of the days when the hill served as the site of a military fort and lookout.

On your way to the second major hill you pass the hyper modern and exceptionally designed Centro Gabriela Mistral. A ministry during the dark years of the Pinochet regime, the building was later burned and recently revamped. There is no dearth of fantastic architecture in Santiago, but this building has got to be in the top ten. Well worth a visit (and a stop at its high end but wonderful café for a creamy cortado).

Cerro San Cristóbal offers the best view of the city and unlike Santa Lucía, you don’t have to hike the whole way up thanks to a rickety funicular. That and the presence of a large statue of Nuestra Virgin make the view all the more magical. Particularly nice if you can get there at dusk, as I did, to see the city begin to sparkle.

I closed the day off with a seafood feast at Azul Profundo in Barrio Bellavista and a few pisco sours at a bar in the nearby Patio Bellavista. Of the seafood, you will hear more. It was delicious–piles of squid, rock fish and scallops, oh my! Go. Eat. Walk. Eat. Drink. Eat. Be very, very merry.

For photographic documentation, go here.


Of la ópera

Prior to departing for a week-long journey in Chile, oh fine readers of mine, I spent one fabulous and rainy night at the opera. This is, in Buenos Aires, a truly spectacular event not only because of the world class singers who take the stage, but because that stage is in the famous Teatro Colón. This enormous theater and national landmark is considered to be among the globe’s greatest opera houses and I can indeed confirm its glory.

We saw Puccini’s Il Trittico and oh how lovely it was. What Puccini really constructed were three mini-operas, each its own act and each regarding a few of the gravest of sins. There’s avarice, adultery, murder, even suicide! Wowzah! Who knew so much badness could make for such musical goodness? Well, Puccini did, obviously.

I loved the opera, I loved the opera house, I even loved the ridiculously expensive glass of champagne I bought at the first intermission.

If ever you find yourself in Buenos Aires as the winter is beginning to paw at the city with its cold, wet claws, spend the night warming your heart with sweet sounds in this wonderful theater.


Of el bandoneón

A few nights ago, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, I went to a milonga in barrio San Telmo. The dance-hall, Maldita Milonga, may be my favorite in town. It is fabulous in part because if it’s name (which means ‘damned milonga’) and in part because it works to live up to this title. It is very dark inside and the main room’s vaulted ceilings give it a cavernous feel. A few strands of Christmas lights hang above the bar in the back–their dim twinkle lures the thirsty. The air in Maldita Milonga is palpably heavy with weight of mischief and this is only as it should be for a damned dance-hall. The band and the crowd both, appropriately, seemed wayward, ne’er-do-well types, which is to say, just my types.

My companions and I were late arrivals but showed up just in time to see the orchesta típica close up the night with its final official number plus a few encore tangos. The group is something of a hipster version of your standard orchesta and in keeping with the spirit of Maldita Milonga, they’re known as El Afronte (in English, ‘the affront’). In this merry band there were, ladies and gentlemen, not one, not two, not three but four bandoneón players, young men all.

The musicians who play this region-specific instrument wield their charge over their knees, usually with some kind of cloth–a scarf, a t-shirt, a napkin–draped over the leg on which it rests. They use their knees to help spread the accordion-like apparatus apart with a kind of bounce that accompanies the striking punctuations of the tango.

To my ear, albeit untrained, the bandoneón makes the tango what it is: absolutely glorious. And on this lovely evening I must say my eyes were not on the whirling long legs of the dancers, but on the stage. Oh sweet, if damned, hipster musicians. I’d rather be doomed and in their company, I think, then full of grace and asleep at a reasonable hour.


Of porteño street food

Loving, as I so deeply do, all things edible and adoring, as I so truly do, all things urban there is little in the world that pleases me more than street food. By this I mean any sort of vittles you can buy on a downtown corner, from a truck or a cart, served from baskets or coolers, out of trunks or passed through windows.

Here in Buenos Aires there are a handful of street foods that I like to nosh on as I stroll about the city. For your reading pleasure I detail my top picks below.

First and foremost among the urban edibles here in the port city is garrapiñada, pictured above. Men and women set up blue carts all around Buenos Aires (though the highest concentration of vendors of this urban delicacy seems to be in and around the Plaza de Mayo). In round copper pots they cook a pile of sugar until it melts and boils and then mix in peanuts or almonds and stir until the nuts are coated in caramel-colored, crispy goodness. The going rate for a small bag of garrapiñada de maní is two pesos. If you want almendra, three. This stuff is radically addictive, especially because when you’re walking around you can get whiffs of the boiling sugar and it leads you, powerless against its olfactory magnetism, to the nearest bubbling pot. They’re best enjoyed calentita.

A very close relative of these nutty little treats is tutuca. This isn’t actually prepared on the street but there you can find it, usually right alongside garrapiñata. It’s sweetened, puffed corn. Imagine a sort of simpler version of Corn Pops that taste more like Honey Smacks. Sometimes the vendors have big trash-bags full of the stuff that they’ll divvy into smaller, take-away sizes. So airy and delicious and just the right amount of sweet. I’d say Kellogg’s is in for a run for its money.

Pan relleno is another must-try metropolitan treat. A little harder to find on your average weekday, but always available from a variety of bakers who stroll the weekend markets with baskets full of them, warm and fresh. This is literally just stuffed bread–easily encountered are the typically Argentine gustos, jamon y queso; queso, tomate y albahaca; or the ubiquitous carne. I myself prefer the more thrilling flavor combination that is zapallitochoclo y cebollo. If you want the best pan relleno I’ve tried in this wonderful place, hit the Sunday fair at San Telmo and look for a young man with long curly hair who ties a huge basket of his freshly made and portable feasts to the front of his bicycle. Usually ten to twelve pesitos and well worth every centavo.

Finally I must commend the industrious coffee slingers who walk the markets, the corners, the busiest streets. They usually have a plastic crate equipped with shoulder straps in which sit five or six thermoses of coffee. This java may not be of the creamy cortado quality you find in the city’s notable cafés, but it’s to-go and will do in a pinch. Warning, though: if you ask for it black you’ll get some sugar already in the mix. A sad fact about Argentine street coffee is that they mix the sugar in with the grounds. Just no way around it.

And, finally, speaking of sweets: porteños love sugar and all the ways you can consume it. This means that at every market and anywhere folks are selling foodstuffs you can find someone offering churros filled with dulce de leche, doughnuts rolled in white sugar, slices of cake and more. Just the other day I was walking up the steps of a subte exit and a couple was offering these little postres for a couple of pesos a piece.

All this means, of course, that if you’ve got some spare change and a little shoe leather to spare, you can spend a fine, palate-pleasuring time in this city without ever setting foot in a restaurant. Fast food made friendly.