Thursday, September 25, 2008

One month later...

It has been one month to the day since Nick and I boarded our Air Mexicana flight on the northern side of America and disembarked a day later on the southern side. In these thirty days, we have seen different parts of the city, the heart-breaking and the heart-warming, and everything in between. From friends chatting serenly at cafes, to angry portenos holding Saturday-night-vigils outside the Casa Rosada, to classic Spanish architecture lending a royal flavor to city blocks, this city is indeed an unpredictable and indefinable patchwork. Here are some of the images Nick has captured along the way...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Feliz Primavera

Our wooden tea cup caked with water-soaked tea leaves, pastry crumbs sprinkled in-between the keys on my computer (and probably Nick's too, but I'm hoping he won't notice...), clean but wet laundry hanging from the windows, the scent of chai boiling from the stove, and Cecilia's dog Theo curled up next to us in the living room...These are the trappings of our new home...

Our new apartment is small, but its huge living room window and wall-sized mirror open up the space, filling it with light during the daytime, and paper lanterns hanging from the wall make it cozy at night. The kitchen is teeny, but with enough counterspace to provide some serious elbow room for some serious cooking. The cupboards are filled with jars and jars of unlabeled spices and herbs--Cecilia has been on a natural food diet since April, foregoing any meat and sticking only to raw sugars, spices and herbs that serve as natural remedies, and tons of vegetables marinated in eccentric herbal broths. Everything from anise to crushed seaweed powder (which she swears has supernatural powers) can be found in our new kitchen.

The cabinet Cecilia designated to me and Nick is much less exciting, filled with the normal cans of vegetables, boxes of rice and pasta, tins of sugar, and bags of coffee with which we both filled our shelves back in Washington. However, there are a few exciting additions that lend clues of being in Argentina to the culinary viewer. Our first bag of mate tea leaves stands in the middle of our shelf, proudly looking out at me every time I open up the cabinet. A glass jar holds our modest collection of spices that the grocery store sells unlabeled in little plastic bags. We think we have cumin, maybe tandoori, and definitely some red pepper flakes. We have been desperately seeking curry, but have been unlucky as of yet...At some point during the day, I usually have a wrapped pastry somewhere on the shelf, but it rarely makes it to the night, and definitely never makes it through the night...

The bookshelves have a random assortment of books, some Cecilia's and some leftover from the various (other) foreigners that have lived with her from time to time. A picture of our actress/belly-dance-teacher roommate in her theatre makeup is the only picture in the living room, but Asian fans, semi-melted candles, a Charlie-Brown-type palm tree, and various other trinkets dot the rest of the table and shelf space of the common rooms. It is an eccentric and cozy mix.

Cecilia is teaching us a lot about what it means to be a portena today. She is constantly running around from the theater to home to her friends' houses, knowing almost everyone she passses in the streets of San Telmo along her way. On the weekends, her friends come over, and their day is centered around cooking a meal (complete in its natural herbal goodness) and then taking their time enjoying the fruits of their labor. She is generous and welcoming, always offering us slices of the cakes she has made or scoops of the homemade jam that line the refrigerator door in jars, or cups of the homemade chai that boils on the stove. Coming home after class to Cecilia everyday is a great comfort in a new city, and I can't help but to think of how lost we would be without her, as everyday she points us in new directions for groceries, hair-cuts, movie rentals, quaint shops, classic bars. She is Ms. San Telmo, and she has really helped both Nick & I to feel at home here.



Being in school now all day long is keeping us from being the hyperactive tourists that we were the first week after our arrival, but it is teaching us about different, more intimate sides of Argentina that we couldn't discover on the pages of our travel guides. Our instructor, Gaby, is a beautiful and brilliant tri-lingual language trainer, interpreter, and translator. A native portena, she swears she will live in Buenos Aires for the rest of her life, and recounts to us the reasons why. She sips mate all day long during our classes, and on Monday, to celebrate the first day of spring, we sat outside where we passed around cup after cup of mate. Gaby taught us the proper way to partake in this Argentine ritual, with one person designated as the water pourer, and every drinker drinking all of the water in the cup before passing it on, making sure to never move the straw and thus clog it with the herbs. During class breaks such as this mate drinking session, Gaby speaks of her family and their Italian heritage, the days of the Argentine financial crisis in 2001 when the peso went from matching the dollar to falling to one-fourth of that value over night. She speaks of the beautiful town she lives in 45 minutes north of the city, and of her boyfriend, who is a trainer for the San Lorenzo soccer team in Buenos Aires, which always makes the British rugby player in our class, Hugh, remind Gaby of her promise to bring him a jersey. Gaby, too, is helping us to feel at home here, at home within her home.


Learning more intimate sides of Argentina means learning the good & the bad; learning the reality. One reality that is always going to be difficult to accept is the massive amount of poverty that is visible everywhere in the city, from the wealthiest neighborhoods to the poorest neighborhoods. Even in Recoletta, a very fashionably posh and aristocratic barrio, cartoneros, or garbage collectors, line the streets every night, sifting through the trash to find still edible food and/or recyclables that they can turn in for a small sum. Many of the cartoneros are very young children, and to see their slight frames and determined eyes wide but seemingly without fright; to see these young children alone in a big and dangerous city without their parents in sight is heart-breaking. Perhaps what is so heart-breaking is how normal it is. But it is not something we can judge, for we as outsiders do not know the struggle that every Argentine has gone through in his or her own way, through military dictatorships and massive economic catastrophes, so to say that people do not care is incorrect and insensitive; rather we have to learn how to help out in whatever small and culturally sensitive way that we can. Whether that is to give an apple to a child on our way to school, or to help our friend Vera volunteer at organized play activities for cartoneros, we will find a way to contribute where we can.

On another note, my friend Anna woke up on Saturday morning with a seering pain in her stomach. As the day progressed, she could hardly move from her bed without falling over from pain. Her boyfriend took her to a hospital where the doctors told her that her appendix had ruptured and she needed an apendectomy immediately. Because the pain was so acute, neither she nor her boyfriend had the wherewithal to think the decision over, to even ask about how much it would cost. Anna spent the night in the hospital, the surgery was successful, and the doctors kept a close eye on her in the days afterward. When it was time to go, she and Jose prepared to pay whatever fee was required. The doctors laughed, and shooed them out of the hospital; it was free of any charge. Anna could not believe it, could not believe that a surgery that would have cost her a fortune in the country where she was a legal and tax-paying citizen was free in a country that she had entered simply with a passport. With this event, we have surely realized that when the reality brings the heart-breaking, it always brings the heart-warming right alongside.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Learning English, Teaching English

A Sunday afternoon in Recoletta, the first warm and sunny day in nearly two weeks. In just two weeks more, the city will hatch from its winter cocoon into a full-fledged spring, with the purple blossoms blooming everywhere, sweaters shed, the cafe patios teeming with patrons far into the evening every day of the week. I am awaiting the warm weather, but these last thawing days of the Argentine winter are peaceful.

Nick and I are sitting outside at a cafe that is filled with people bundled in sweaters but soaking up these rare rays. A musician is playing in the plaza, portenos in berets and pashminas are strolling by, the Recoletta Cemetery stands across from us, regally and stoically. It feels so good to sit in the sun and rest our minds after our first week of class.

Class is an intensive mix of learning the rules (and more often, broken rules) of our native tongue, and learning how to teach these rules (that are so hard for even us native speakers to memorize) to non-native speakers. From 10-5 we learn from our instructor, Gaby, and demonstrate our knowledge through skits, presentations, and lesson plans. We were excited as well as exhausted by Friday night.

On Thursday and Friday evening everyone in our class taught his or her first two lessons. I was an anxious mess in the hours before my first class, but as soon as I stood up in front of the students and realized they were there solely to learn, without expectations, I relaxed and really had fun.

My first class was a group of beginners that called me "Miss Teacher," and made me laugh so much with their good-natured teasing. One older woman in the class, Hebe, gave me a chocolate and kissed my cheek when class ended. Nick's Friday class was especially interesting. He taught an advanced class, choosing American politics as the topic. As he walked in, he was abuzz with nervousness, and when he walked out, he looked elated.

"How was it?" I asked him.


It turns out the advanced class is extremely advanced, understanding how to express complex concepts in English, and they come to the class so as to practice conversational English. That being said, Nick's students allready knew the political terms he introduced, and they moved swiftly into a political discussion. The students had a profound understanding of the American political system, and shared with Nick their views on McCain, Obama, healthcare, immigration, and foreign policy. Nick had one man in the class perform a skit in which the student acted as McCain and presented his platform to the class. The student was hilarious and told the class he was going to "drill for oil in Alaska, cut taxes for the rich, leave everyone on their own for healthcare--because that is the price of freedom--, and kick some ass in the world." Then another student stood up and pretended to be Obama, explaining that he would "give everyone a choripan [a sausage sandwich] and a glass of wine everyday, move troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and send them to Argentina and Venezuela instead, and move all American factories to Mexico so that at least the US environment was preserved." They were having so much fun with the exercises and discussion, and Nick was amazed at their familiarity with US politics and their ability to express these jokes and views in English. We both were humbled by our students' knowledge and realized we need to step up to the plate and be just as well-versed in Argentine politics (and, eventually espanol...eek!).

My Friday calss was at an intermediate level and they were so much fun to work with--so animated and so interactive. I chose music as the class subject, teaching musical genres and instruments in English. Nick came up with a wonderful idea for that lesson--to have one student act as a journalist and "interview" another student pretending to be a rockstar. I asked Lucy, a fashionable and extremely sweet middle-aged woman, to interview Fernando, an older professor-ish gentlemen infatuated with dancing who had grabbed Nick in Thursday night's class and tangoed with him. In their skit, Fernando explained that he was a musician that was "very deep," and "saw the whole world in one person." He explained how his concerts played "music inspired by the problems in the world, and his band threw live frogs into the audience to be crazy." He had us all cracking up, and left Lucy wondering if she had understood him correctly.

It was such an amazing week, brain-draining but inspiring and motivating. We are both pumped to teach some English.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bienvenidos a La Boca

A high-pitched cat call and all of a sudden I was knocked to the side as a fish-net stocking-clad, knock-out of a woman threw herself into Nick´s arms, fitting a top-hat onto his head along the way. She pursed her perfectly lipsticked mouth and situated Nick´s arms around her so that the two of them appeared to be in a perfect tango embrace. I snapped a picture and laughed.

An older, equally made-up woman took the top hat from Nick´s head and turned it upside down.

¨Twenty pesos.¨

Welcome to la Boca...

Once the stomping grounds for Italian immigrants in Buenos Aires at the turn of the twentieth century, the area idealizes its Italian past, the locals making a lucrative business out of posing as the mafia dons and tango queens of yesteryear. The main strip of La Boca has made museums out of the old houses painted with the bright yellow, pink, green, blue, and red hues that are now considered show-case worthy but were once an embarassment, as the Italian immigrants were too poor to afford new paint and scraped by with any leftover color they could find, resulting in this ecclectic rainbow.

Below these preserved multi-colored houses stretches a cobblestone road, home to vendors selling mate cups, pashminas, kitchy Argentine trinkets, and grossly overpriced Argentina jerseys, the blue and white stripes going for 300 pesos a pop in this part of town. Amidst these wares and vendors are old men in three-piece suits crooning away to their acoustic beats, dancers tangoing with stoic expressions, and restaurant connoiseurs trying to con you into buying milanesa (breaded chicken patty) sandwiches for twenty pesos, when on the next block over they can be eaten for seven. Although it really is a must-see,it is all a little overwhelming--a tourist trap du jour.

After making sure--to our relief--that our dinero was still in our pockets, we walked to the water--the Rio de la Plata. La Boca means "the mouth" in Spanish, and the barrio is named this because of its portside location on the mouth of the Rio de la Plata. Overlooking the river, it was a beautiful sunny day and the water sparkled, but the view is humbling as it reminds you of what lies across the other side. Everyday, ferries chug across the rio to the suburbs that sprawl across the water. But these are not suburbs in the American sense--these are slums marked by poverty, built by those who can not afford to live within the city limits of Buenos Aires, due to a variety of factors, among them the peso crash of 2001 and the rampant inflation (30% in this year alone).

These suburban people ferry across the polluted waters of the Rio everyday to work in the barrios like La Boca. Outside of the main tourist strip of La Boca, the barrio is very poor. It is dangerous at night and every tourist guide warns you not to venture there after dark. This neighborhood speaks of a life fitted with challenges we can not imagine, and yet to those across the river, this neighborhood is filled with the promises and opportunities some can not imagine.

With this humbling reminder, Nick and I headed back to San Telmo to catch the subte back to Paula's. Along the walk we passed the Boca Junior's stadium, a gigantic structure painted in bright yellow and blue, the team's colors, fitting in perfectly with the homes of La Boca. Soccer is EVERYWHERE in Buenos Aires--school children dribble balls on their way home, still clad in their parochial uniforms; on Saturdays kids of all ages kick the ball in the street, dodging cars just in time; and every evening the parks are filled with impromptu games between teams of all age groups.

There are two major teams in Buenos Aires: Boca Juniors and River Plate (named after the Rio de la Plata). They are rivals, and before we arrived in Buenos Aires, we were told that our most important decision would be "our team." Wanting to know more about the teams, we learned that the Boca Juniors are the "working man's team" and River Plate is the more aristocratic team. Seeing the Boca Stadium was so interesting after learning these social facts, as this stadium sits in the middle of one of the poorest barrios, while the stadium for River Plate sits literally on the opposite side of the city, in a very upscale barrio called Belgrano.

As much as this may speak of inequalities that may be hard to swallow, it was wonderful to see the pride that the portenos de Boca have in their team. Walking down the slightly gritty streets, we saw families sitting outside their houses, grilling chorizo on the sidewalk and frying homemade tortillas, their dogs and cats and children running in-between them, the ladder all clad in Boca Jerseys and kicking around soccer balls. The next day in San Telmo, Nick and I laughed as vendors kept hand-held radios pinned to their ears, shouting the Boca play-by-plays to each other. One thing is for sure, the Boca J's definitely lend some buena ondas to the barrio!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Vamos San Telmo

Craigslist: 35 year old dance teacher seeking a roommate. $400, Palermo. Palermo…Nick and I fell in love with Palermo on Wednesday night…$400…A dance teacher? We could do this! The number…15-6813-8611. Beep…beep…beep… “Hola?”
“Hola, es Cecilia?”
“Hola, Cecilia, es Sarah, de Craigslist?”
“Oh, si, si…”
“Si, okay [not trusting myself to continue in Spanish, I switched to English, speaking slowly], can Nick and I come and see your apartment today? In the afternoon?”
“Oh, you are the girlfriend of Nicholas?” (Nick had written the inquiry email to Cecilia regarding the apartment.)
“Si, si!” Recognition in Cecilia’s voice.
“Oh, okay, yes, come at 5 o’clock.”
“Okay, perfect.”
“Okay, see you then!” We hung up. Nick and I smiled at each other, in nervous hope of who Cecilia would be, if this could work out, or if this was just another first step in what can be a frustratingly, seemingly futile ride of Craiglist run-around’s. Well, we had nothing to lose, so we packed our bags, left the Internet café, and headed for Palermo.

—Enter Palermo—
Leafy trees, broad boulevards, fruit stands, posh restaurants on the boulevards, quaint cafés tucked onto corner streets, beautiful apartment porches overlooking the calles below. We loved it during the day as we had during the night. We stopped at a fruit stand, and asked for tomates, uvas (grapes), and bananas. (It is so much fun, even if a food is a food we eat in the States, saying it with foreign flavor of the word gives it a new taste…) And we headed to the park. Where I promptly fell asleep on top of woodchips and grass.

I woke up an hour later to see Nick reading under a tree, watching out of the corner of his eyes two porteños playing soccer.

“You should join them,” I said.
“I’m not nearly good enough,” he said back (although I know he is).

We began our walk to the intersection Cecilia listed on Craigslist, stopping for a chorizo from a street vendor, and stopping to admire a gigantic mosque that stretched across an entire city block, its huge minarets a surprising sight in this Catholic city. We reached the intersection, and called Cecilia at exactly 5 o’clock. I was so proud of us for arriving on time!

“Hola, Cecilia. Es Sarah. We are in Palermo!”
“Palermo? I am in San Telmo…” (another barrio all the way across the city).
“Oh, San Telmo? We thought the post said Palermo?”
“Oh, that was for my friend! I made her post.”

Both of us were a little disappointed; we had had high hopes for our future in Palermo. San Telmo? Hmmm…Okay, we could hop on the subte (Buenos Aires’s subway) and be there in one hour.

“Okay, I’ll wait,” Cecilia said.

One hour later we arrived at Calle Piedras. San Telmo was much different than Palermo—busy bustling, with hole-in-the-wall empanadas restaurants serving Quilmes and grande pizzas for only 10 pesos. Down walks Cecilia, tiny with black hair halfway a little past her shoulders (think: Michelle Gabella), wearing a black ballerina dress and poofy, black I-Dream-of-Genie pants, topped off with red bowling shoes.

“Hola!” she laughed as she kissed us both on the cheek.

—Enter Cecilia’s apartamento—

First hallway: Cecilia’s computadora, posted quotes decorating the wall. Living room: huge windows looking out onto Calle Piedras, half of one wall red, a comfy sofa. Kitchen: tiny, but enough elbow room to go crazy cooking. Two chairs. A cabinet full of the herbal foods of vegetarian porteno. Picture: Cecilia sitting on the ledge of the kitchen counter, hand rolling a cigarette, Nick and I sitting on two leather stools up against the kitchen wall, the three of us passing around a cup of maté, as if we had known each other for much longer than twenty minutes.

And we sweated, and pushed ourselves to have our very first, Castellano conversation…Cecilia spoke slowly for us, helping us and correcting us, congratulating us when we expressed something correctly. Whenever Cecilia left the room for a moment, we looked at each other and laughed, at the two of us winding up in a kitchen in San Telmo drinking maté with a stranger that felt like a friend.

“Okay, chicos, buenas ondas…”


“Good waves. That’s what we say here in Buenos Aires for a good feeling. Beunas ondas.”


We left feeling like we were riding the best wave, not wanting Cecilia to think we were desperate, too eager for a good place to live and a Castellano friend, but we were overjoyed at the prospect and couldn’t help but show our excitement.

The next day we took the subte to San Telmo, and explored the neighborhood up and down. Old, old architecture is the marker of this barrio, the colonial-style buildings covered in paint rings of Buenos Aires’s history of immigration, tango, revolucion, redemption, porteno pride. The city’s Socialist headquarters are found here, as well as tango club after tango club. The onda was indeed buena.

After walking down San Telmo’s main cobblestone calle, Defensa, we stopped at Bar el Federal for a Quilmes. Bar el Federal has been a resto-bar (the Argentine slang for restaurant/bar) since the 1800s, and because it is an established landmark—a bar notable—it is preserved in its original form. Old bottles line the upper shelves, the wooden bar lying underneath beautiful stained glass, the floor brick. And it is at Bar el Federal that we decided the waves were too good to pass up. So we called Cecilia.

“So, you want to live with me?”

“Yes, yes!”

“Okay, perfect. Let’s meet tomorrow to discuss details.”

Done and done. Muchos besos. We had a home! In San Telmo! With Cecilia. We ordered another Quilmes to celebrate. And another. And went home exhausted, ecstatic after another day of walking for all the hours of daylight.

On Sunday we headed back to our new hood to do some more exploring. Domingo is the day of the San Telmo antique fair, which stretches from the Basilica and Convent de San Francisco—an astounding basilica with arching ceilings and a golden cupola, with floors, ceilings, and corners painted with symbols—all the way to the Plaza Dorego, a distance of at least a half mile.

The vendors sell heirlooms, hand-made jewelery, paintings, frames, Argentine trinkets of Evita and Juan Peron, maté cups, churros, empanadas, and of course, shirts and shirts of Che. We walked through it all day on Sunday, and although we spent hour after hour exploring the wares, there was too much to take in during one afternoon.

As we sat having a late lunch at a small café, Cecilia texted to invite us to her boyfriend’s band recital at one of their friend’s houses. Despite being nervous and self-conscious among Castellano-speaking portenos, we were excited to reach out to our new roommate, and excited to see the culture of young portenos, so we didn’t hesitate to say yes.

While waiting until it was time to meet Cecilia at our future home, we wandered through the Parque Lezama and took a quick tour of the Museo de Historia Nacional, a small museum housing a private collection of Argentine historical artifacts from Italian immigrants, Juan and Eva Peron, and other presidents. In the park we watched Brazilian dancers, mothers drinking Quilmes as their children ran around them, little boys playing a game of soccer, little girls stealing the ball and kicking it out of bounds, and people napping and reading, enjoying their Sunday afternoon. And then it was time to face the Portenos.

We met Cecilia at her/our apartment, hopped on the subte to a barrio of which we still don’t know the name, and jumped into a taxi. Then we arrived at a casa with a beautiful courtyard, and ten-twenty portenos milling about, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking Quilmes from shared bottles and plastic cups. Then the music started. There was a base, a trombone, drums, an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, and a keyboard. There were flamenco songs, rock songs, blues songs, jazz songs, and fusions, all with Argentine Castellano sung with intensity. As we sat there among people who didn’t speak a word of English, it was so scary, but so exhilarating, and I wanted to bottle that feeling—to remember that feeling forever of pushing ourselves to go into an uncomfortable situation where we were more than a little out of place, but welcome nonetheless, and inspired, inspired to learn and be a part of this culture.

And thus, that was our weekend. A new roommate, a new friend, a new world to learn…

And here is our new building. It's not as rough as it might look :)