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.

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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.

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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.

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