Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Trying to Learn Spanish

Trying to learn Spanish, like trying to learn any language, is so difficult, but there are bright moments where the clouds clear and you think, as cliche as it sounds this process can be so rewarding. New languages produce new thoughts and ideas, and it is all so awakening. But Spanish is particularly beautiful (in my biased mind). Even when you do not comprehend the words, the language is so fluid, so melodious, so thick with feeling. For example, in the Pablo Neruda book of poems that Nick gave me for my birthday last year, the translator advises the reader, "Even if you do not speak Spanish, I urge you to read the original poems. The words have notes, they resonate like a song. Our translations can never aspire to exactly replicate the rhythms and colors of Neruda's words..."

And it is true. Take for instance the following stanza from Neruda's poem, "Unidad":

Me rodea una misma casa, un solo movimiento:
el peso del mineral, la luz de la miel,
se pegan al sonido de la palabra noche:
la tinta del trigo, del marfil, del llanto,
envejecidas, destenidas, uniformas;
se unen en torno a mi como paredes.

These words in English can be translated to mean the following:

Just one thing surrounds me, a single motion:
the weight of rocks, the light of honey,
fasten themselves to the sound of the word night:
the tones of wheat, ivory, of tears,
aging, fading, blurring,
come together around me like a wall.

The meaning is beautiful in a simple, universally understood way: nightfall brings the unity of everything so that all the colors of our day fade into one wall of darkness. It is hard to appreciate the beauty of a poem without first understanding its meaning. But once you understand the meaning of these words, and you read it again in Spanish, as the translator says, the melody and harmony of the original Spanish syllables will sing more than the translation ever could. And it is the realization of this kind of unique harmony that pushes me on to find out what all of these beautiful words actually mean.

After three months of living in Argentina, I am embarassed to say that I am still very much a beginner when it comes to the Spanish language. (Some may even say pre-beginner...) Not to make excuses, but teaching English for a living makes learning Spanish a bit difficult. Difficult, yes, but impossible, no--something I must keep reminding myself.

Little-by-little, poco a poco, I notice small feats, which give me hope and encouragement. From daily interactions, things such as directions, food, and monetary transactions are becoming much easier. I get so excited when someone on the street asks me for directions and I can respond without thinking (too much). It is just that when it comes to emotions, ideas, and feelings, I stumble, fumble, and panic. After two months of teaching, I feel very close to many of my students, but because many of them are just beginning to learn English, there are many obstacles in our ability to clearly communicate. I am dying to ask them how they feel about lessons, how they learn, which methods of learning they prefer, but I lack the language skills to properly do so...

But despite the obstacles, the small feats, such as providing directions correctly in Spanish, give me just the positive umph I need to keep on going. Plus, I have my secret weapon: Nick! He really amazes me everyday in that he never stops focusing, never stops paying attention to all the new words swirling around us. He reads all the store-front window signs, listens to the conversations going on around us, buys newspapers in Spanish, and never hesitates to ask anyone a question regarding Spanish. He is a sponge when it comes to the Spanish language, and I really am so impressed everyday. He is a great motivator to me, and really helps me learn along the way. Together we have made some language goals to help us in our Spanish pursuit. At night this week, we have been turning on the news in Spanish, and we have also resolved to use some of our free time in the evenings to learning new verbs. We have been researching undergraduate classes at universities in Buenos Aires so that we can audit a class, something that will hold us accountable to keeping up in Spanish, something that will force us to learn more words than we would ever voluntarily learn in our free time. And in the meantime, we are reading The Little Prince in Spanish--El Principito. One of the sweetest books in any language, it is so much fun to re-read this book, to re-discover it with different words. Also, who can deny that once again, Spanish comes through with its uniqueness, as what could be a cuter word for little prince than principito?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bienvenido a URUGUAY

After spending three months in Buenos Aires, it has begun to feel familiar, comfortable--like home. That is, of course, a blessing, as we learn the street names, and walk them easily without always having to glance at our maps, or ask kiosk merchants for the nearest subway station (although we still have to ask them for the nearest bus station, but the buses are a wholeeeee different animal...). But of course, often with familiarity comes the forgetfullness of daily wonder, and I think I had begun walking the streets with my head down rather than remembering to look all around me, remembering to remember that I am in SOUTH AMERICA. And Saturday was an exhilarating wake-up call.

Upon entry, our passports had been stamped with the date August 26, 2008, with a warning in all caps stating, ¨TOURIST VISA, GOOD FOR 90 DAYS.¨ Seeing as it was November 22, 2008, our grace period was almost up. So, we hopped on a ferry to Uruguay so that we could re-enter the country and get a refreshed stamp for a refreshed 90 days. The ferry left from Tigre, a small coastal resort town an hour train ride from the city. It was called the DELTA CAT, and she took us clear across the Rio de la Plata. The Rio is so wide--it took us three hours to cross over to Uruguay--that you forget you are sailing across a river and not an ocean. It left the Tigre station at 11 am, and as mid-day approached, the heat escalated, and Nick and I and the friends we were travelling with began to burn as we sat on the boat deck and watched the passing shoreline. As we crept closer and closer to Uruguay, we passed abandoned and rusting ships anchored next to the shore; giant sailboats and pontoons with Spanish flags, Italian flags, and Argentine flags; little motor boats cruising in our wake; and kayakers swiftly paddling away. The closer we got to Uruguay, the greener the shore seemed to become, and as we sailed into the Carmelo harbor, we were greated by the site of smooth beaches stretching before us.

Enter Carmelo, Uruguay. As we disembarked the boat, we were immediately confronted with the smell of pine trees. No buses, no traffic, no smog, just the smell of pine. There were trees with purple blossoms--jacarandas, I think--that gave off a soft and flowery scent, and left the street stained purple from fallen petals.

One kiosk had its doors open, and the rest of the shops, restaurants, and bars had signs that warned us not to disturb during siesta.

The streets were so quiet, and the five of us--Nick, Brenna, Nick, Lisa, and I--were the only people walking down the road. As we walked, Lisa commented on how everything was flooded with color, and it was true--a pink house, a purple restaurant, an orange house, a yellow house, a white house with a rainbow of a garden, a red bridge. We crossed the red bridge, and passed a simple green sign that advertised ¨COLONIA¨ in the direction we were walking. As we looked at the highway it pointed towards, we saw a two-lane country road, flanked by fields without people, without houses, without farms. Not to sound too cliche, but it looked like a scene from Motorcycle Diaries, and I felt a rush of reminder, We are in Latin America!!

After the bridge, we turned right, following the sign to the Playa Sere, the BEACH! The road to the beach passed houses and one restaurant-bar, with an old black lab sitting in-between the plastic patio-tables. The ground was grassy and covered with pine needles, and in-between houses were dirt paths leading to the residential side of the beach. As we approached the shore, we entered a wooded campground, with horses tethered to trees and grazing on the grass.

The beach sand was so smooth and light, and there were plenty of trees for shade. We unfurled a blanket and sat down to picnic on the rice salad and ham sandwhiches we brought in our backpacks. The shade was so cool and refreshing, but the water was so, so clean, and even though none of us had brought our swimming suits, we could not resist wading in.

The bottom of the river was so smooth, and the water was the perfect temperature. I of course had to take it all a step further and totally submerge myself, soaking myself and my dress, the only clothes I had for our day-trip to Uruguay. But it felt amazing. I swam about a hundred meters out, and there were groups of kids playing in the water, which was so shallow you could still stand even that far out. The kids were so cute, all there camping with their families, and Lisa, our Spanish whiz, heard them all talking about where they were from...It was so cute to see these children who had just met playing like they had grown up together. They were just splashing about, doing mini-dives while plugging their noses, chasing each other in the water. When I looked around, it was just beach and sparkling water for as far as I could see. It was beautiful...

We didn't have much time in Uruguay, as the ferry left the port at 6:30 pm. So, after a couple of hours on the beach, we dried off and walked down the road to the purple resto-bar we passed, the one with the sleeping dog. We walked up to the patio, where one table was occupied by customers and another was occupied by the waitress and the cook, chatting and resting in the shade. We sat down around a shaded table and ordered three literes of beer for the table. The waitress brought it out, and the dog took a position right next to our table for a nap. We drank the beer and chatted, taking note that the Quilmes-tasting beer had a Uruguayan label we had never seen before. At 5:45, it was time to head back to the port, and we paid the tab--360 Uruguayan pesos, only about 30 Argentine pesos, but the huge number really throws you off!

We walked back past the houses drenched in color, back across the bridge and past the Motorcyle Diary highway, past a few Uruguayans peddling on bicycles, past the miniature Greek-style plaza, and finally to the awaiting DELTA CAT. We stopped before embarking to buy croissants with ham and cheese, sparkling waters, a box of wine, and some pastries. And we took off, sadly leaving sleepy Carmelo behind us.

The five of us were sun-soaked and exhausted, and we closed our eyes inside the boat for the first hour of the trip. When we opened our eyes, dusk was approaching, and we all headed out to the deck to watch the passing scenery. Nick brought the box of wine and we poured it into our empty water bottles, taking sips as we passed sailboats, houses on the shore with smoking asados, couples cruising on jet-skis, and rickety motor boats trying to catch a wave from the DElTA CAT's ripples. The sky was all different colors, and the waves rocked the reeds on both sides of the shore.

As we pulled into Tigre, the setting sun illuminated the tops of the palm trees and the soft city lights made the town glow gently. We passed through customs and held out our passports to be stamped, thankfully allotting us more time in Argentina.

Being in a new place was such an amazing wake-up call of where we are living. Although we have been having wonderful days here, enjoying our classes, learning about our students, trying new foods, spending time with new friends, I think I had started to put these activities into the cruise control part of my brain, to take them for granted--going to work, meeting with friends, going to a restaurant, etc. I was forgetting to stay alert, to remember each day as something unique, as a day holding experiences I have never had before. Going to Uruguay was a reminder that this is a new land, with constant surprising offerings, lessons, experiences, sights, beauty, people...I remembered how Nick and I dreamt and planned for almost a year before coming here, how we spent every lunch hour looking at pictures on the Internet of sites in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the rest of South America, day-dreaming of the places we would go. Or how we would spend our work-breaks and train rides home practicing Spanish, imagining the situations in which we would use this new language. As I remembered what it took to get here, the planning and the acceptance of the unknown, and also the hope that coming here gave us, the hope of following our dreams, I reminded myself not to go on autopilot...To remember that each day is brand-new and has everything to offer that you can not even imagine, something that life everywhere has the potential to offer, but a lesson that travelling can remind you of. Carmelo was not only a beautiful, peaceful, sandy-pine-tree oasis, but also a beautiful reminder to not take anything for granted...To soak up everything.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Comida a la PERU

I woke up with visions of last night's dinner, visions that I fear will not leave me for a very long time. I am worried no meal can compare to the cuisine of yesterday eve, and that I will be having food envy for a past meal for days, perhaps even weeks...I have two words for Buenos Aires residents or travellers: El Rey.

El Rey is a Peruvian restaurant on Aguero right off of Avenida Corrientes, across from the Abasto Shopping Center. A truckload of us went there last night--Nick, Brenna, their roommate Clara and her two friends, Jenny (our roommate from the homestay), Jenny's two friends, and of course, our Peruvian, emapanada angels, Leonor and Elsa. The twelve of us reserved a giant table, and gathered round. Leonor and Elsa ordered a series of plates for us all to share and we ordered bottles of Quilmes to be passed around. While we waited for the meal, we munched on french bread dipped in Peruvian dipping sauces--some spicy, some with cilantro, some with onion. And then the dishes began to appear.

First came leche de tigre, or tiger's milk--a delicious medley of sweet milk (maybe coconut) with seafood, hot peppers, and cilantro. We passed it around the table with one spoon as if it were mate. It became the communal leche de tigre, and it was too delicious to worry about germs. Then came meat with potatoes in a cheesy sauce over rice, which got absolutely gobbled up. Then came chicken with spicy rice, and then the corazon de vaca, or cow heart, which was absolutely delicious. Finally, a plate of chicken covered in spices accompanied by a giant plate of french fries was placed in the center of the table. We were all so full, but we could not leave one bite leftover--it was too good to waste even a morsel. So we ate and we drank and Leonor and Elsa explained the recipes, and chatted with us about Peru, about the religious festivals, about the Inca, about the family culture, about Lima and the sea, about the different foods (including 3 kilo papayas), and about their own lives there.

At the end of the meal, the Peruvian waitress brought out twelve glasses of refreshing, pear-flavored champagne, which we all used to toast to our wonderful hostesses, Leonor and Elsa. And which we followed with more bottles of Quilmes, all set to the beat of the mariachi father-and-son group who sang famous Mexican ballads such as Bessame Mucho, all accompanied by a guitar and a trumpet and of course in traditional mariachi sombreros and suits. We were at the restaurant for four hours, but I don't think any of us noticed how much time had passed as we listened to the music and ate El Rey's amazing cuisine.

On the way home, without warning, a torrential downpour started, and when we hopped off the bus 3 blocks from our apartment, we were drenched within seconds. We hailed a cap for those last few blocks, got home, and drank a glass of fernet and Coke while listening to the rain. In the morning, the 90 degree humid weather was a distant memory, and an unseasonable chill had taken over, reminding us of a November day in the States. I went to teach for a couple of hours, Nick and I met up with a friend for coffee, and then we made a traditional Argentine dinner that, although it couldn't compare to the comida a la Peru that we had revelled in the night before, was still an exciting new culinary discovery: milanesas.

Milanesas are a popular Argentine type of meat--a thin cut of beef breaded and lightly fried, like a beef version of chicken parmesan. Nick and I hadn't tried them yet, but one of my student's provided me with a recipe, so we decided to take a stab at it. Soaking the slices of meat in egg yolk and parsley, we then dipped them in bread crumbs mixed with minced garlic, and then lightly fried them in olive oil. After the patties were done, we laid them in a pan, topped them with mozzerella, and then Nick's amazing homemade tomato sauce--full of onion and oregeno and hot pepper. After baking for 10 or 15 minutes, they were ready, steaming and looking delicious. We piled them onto our plate and poured glasses of Quilmes and dug in. They were good!! More than that, it was exciting to try a new Argentine recipe, something we will bring home to the States with us as a tasty reminder of life here. ¡Buen provecho!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Correo Argentina, Take Two

I have been defeated again by what is quickly becoming my South American nemisis: Correo Argentina. For some reason, my skewed mind thought that it would be easier sending a package rather than receiving it. So, as my sisters' birthdays are fast-approaching, this morning I packaged up their gifts, sealed them in a box, and headed to my first class, planning on going to the International Correo right after the lesson.

After my lesson, my student asked me what was in my bag. I told him I was sending my sisters gifts for their birthdays. Immediately his face clouded over. ¨Do you want them to receive this package?¨ Was this a trick question? ¨Yes...¨ I responded. ¨Well then, don't send it through the Argentine postal system. At the very least, use OCA [Argentina's version of UPS], and even that is not guaranteed. My advice is to not trust any Argentine enterprise for international mail.¨ Hmmm, great. This was going to be a long day.

I left the lesson unsure of what to do, but finally headed to the only OCA I knew of, right across from the Obelisko in Microcentro. I popped out of the subte and headed into the nice, line-free, air-conditioned building. I pulled out my shabbily-taped box and explained in horriffic Spanish that I needed to send this box to the United States. The OCA employee shook his head and said two loathsome words: ¨Correo Argentina.¨ He proceeded to then explain directions of how to get to the nearest office. Apparently it was in a tunnel near-by. Of course it would be.

Why on earth was I rejected on the spot? My only guess, my hopeful guess rather, is that it wasn't personal, but rather OCA must operate only within Argentina. (???) I decided to save face and go with that theory. Moving on, I walked the twenty meters that the OCA man had instructed to do, walking and sweating down Avenida Corrientes until sure enough I saw a stairwell descending into what looked like nothing-ness, a nothing-ness with a big red sign that said ¨PASAJES.¨ Hmmm, I though, Pasajes, here I come.

Enter Pasajes. Seemingly a strange underground shopping center, with kiosks advertising kitschy Argentine goods, a few stores with electronic goods, and of course, good ol' Correo, which was, true-to-fashion, accompanied by a line of homicidal looking people, a line which I joined both physically and emotionally.

30 minutes later, I was up. Once again, I pulled out my box. The postal employee looked at me, looked at my box, and looked back at me. Finally she opened her mouth. ¨No me peudo.¨ I can't do it. ¨OHMYGODTELLMEYOUAREJOKING!¨ I shouted--in my head. In reality, I meekly asked why not, to which the postal employee responded that I need a Correo Argentina box to send something. I asked her then politely if I could please buy a box from her so that I could send my package. ¨No, we don't sell them here.¨ Obviously. Why on Earth would the post office sell the boxes that you need to send something through the post office? That would make life far too easy. I focused on her nose-ring to distract myself, a tiny silver dot in the lower half of her left nostril. A nose-ring that seemed out of place on this bored-looking, middle-aged red-head wearing a white-collared shirt, who was in other words, very proper in every way besides the jewel in her nose. Should I feel some connection, some compassion perhaps towards her, as a fellow-nose-ringer? I tried to let her nose-ring and the question of its purpose distract me from the rage that was slowly collecting within my intestines. Maybe that focus worked, or maybe it was telepathy and she too felt a need to feel a connection with a fellow-nose-ringer, as she finally took some mercy on me and wrote out the address of the store at which I could buy the necessary box.

The store was six blocks away, on Libertad and Sarmiento. I walked there, pushing my way through the mid-afternoon Microcentro crowds. I arrived at the appointed corner, and there was no store to be found with the name the postal employee had given me. I double checked, walking the area again and again, checking in every window. No where. I surrendered and decided to walk home, drink some ice water, and look up a UPS store online.

I got home, chugged some ice water, and did some research until I found the address of the nearest UPS store. It was only a short bus ride away, so I grabbed monedas and went to catch the bus. As I approached the UPS store, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass reflection. Today was not my best day. Sweat was visible even in a store-front reflection, literally glistening from my face. My hair had ceased to be curly and had instead turned into a massive knotted glob of yellow frizz. I decided to grin and bear it, and I opened the door to UPS, only to trip and fall, and send my shoe flying. Even the homeless man standing outside looked sorry for me. Oh Lord, I was almost there.

Inside, the UPS employees were as nice as could be and the room was so refreshingly cool. I explained what was in the box, and they weighed the contents. Weighing in at not even three kilos, this box came to a whopping total of $116 US DOLLARS. That is 360 pesos, over two days of work. Oh my goodness, my bank account could not afford this. ¨DOLLARS, US dollars?¨ I asked the UPS employees. ¨Yes,¨ they told me, looking sorry even as they said it. ¨Oh my gosh, I can not send this,¨ I told them, thoroughly embarrassed and blushing a fire engine red. They laughed, and I laughed, too, in utter relief of their response. ¨It is very expensive to send things from Argentina,¨ they informed me. ¨I can see that,¨ I told them. ¨Our advice is to pack it in your suitcase when you go home.¨ Oh no, but Lizzie and Colleen...

My poor sisters. I did not send the package. I left without my dignity, with the presents still in their box, still in my hand. But I can promise Lizzie and Colleen that their gifts will of course be waiting here as good as new whenever they come and visit, along with their Christmas gifts and other goodies along the way. I hope they are not upset!!

On the way home, I grabbed four cans of beer for me and Nick, and here I am, sitting at the computer with a can of Quilmes, revelling at how complicated the Argentine postal system is. One blogger commented on my previous post about Correo Argentina, saying that they grew up in Argentina and now cherish the US Postal System as one of the perks of living in the US. I could not agree more! Nick and I were laughing that here we are dealing with the Pony Express. :-) But at the end of the day, it is chalked up to a funny story and a good lesson, of which there are many in Argentina. One of my students told me the other day that living in Argentina is like reading a 1000 page book on life lessons. I think that may be one of my favorite expressions I have heard yet in these three months.


Other than Correo adventures, this week has been wonderful. Nick has been working for the past month for one company that he has come to really love, and which has come to really love him--they offered him two new classes this week! So he is very busy teaching, getting more comfortable in the profession with every passing day. He is reading up a storm, currently reading Ghost Wars, the book Barack Obama is also currently reading. :-) He continues to follow the news religiously regarding the President-Elect, and he has also found time to become very good at Scrabble, beating me in 4 out of 5 games this week. Yikes!

Other big news with us is that we are currently on the look-out for a new apartment. Although we have loved living in San Telmo and living with Cecilia, some things have convinced us that it is time to move. For one, San Telmo is relatively expensive for Buenos Aires, as it is very popular with tourists. In addition, unfortunately, Nick and I were robbed last week. However, for an unlucky situation, we were very lucky in that neither one of us was hurt at all--only our wallets suffered. Although a robbery is something that could happen absolutely anywhere, we feel that because San Telmo has so many tourists, it might at times proove to be a good target for thieves. So, we are taking extra precautions, taking cabs at night if we are alone, not taking anything valuable with us when we go out, etc. We have told Cecilia that we will be moving on December 15th and are currently looking at some nice and very safe areas, like Caballito, Almagro, and Villa Crespo--areas that are a little more removed from the city center, but seem to be very safe and have a community all their own. It is exciting looking for a new apartment--we will be moving in right around Christmas time, and will bring in the New Year in a new home, with new lessons under our belt, and a new chapter of our Buenos Aires adventure. We will keep you posted with descriptions and pictures of the new home we decide upon! Until later, ¡buen fin de semana!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Night to Remember

A Palermo apartment overheated by the massive glob of Americans & Argentines and made warmer by the oven working over-time to keep the swing-state food warm (genius idea donated by the Cunninghams). There were jalapeno poppers from New Mexico, corn from Indianna, rice and beans from Florida, an oreo cream pie from Ohio, and of course, the Victory Lemon Meringue Pie. CNN was projected onto the blank white wall, and Celeste, our amazing host, was running around making sure everyone was set with food and drink. The hours ticked by: one, two, three ,until it was four in the morning, and although we all had jobs, classes, and appointments to make in just a few hours, nobody cared about time or lack of sleep on this particular Tuesday night.

Watching one of the most historic elections in history thousands upon thousands of miles from home was a unique experience. I think that perhaps Nick and I feel a special kinship with other Americans here, simply because we are all in the same boat, and so far from our native port. Throughout the last leg of this election, that kinship has made watching the debates and now the final moment of truth electric. Living in Argentina has made Nick and I fall in love with this country, undoubtedly, but also become thankful and respectful of our country as well. Argentine friends share stories of being paid to vote for certain candidates, of seeing their savings disappear as the peso becomes devalued, of rampant cronyism accepted by other government officials and unable to be commented on by government-controlled media. These stories leave us in awe of the resilience of the Argentine people, of their amazing ability to keep moving on, to stay so welcoming, despite the disillusion that has colored their lives. And these stories also remind us to be thankful and respectful of the institutions and relative stability we experience in the US--for the relative freedom to vote for the candidate of our choice, for the relative transparency through which our government operates, and for the relative freedom to express discomfort and disagreement with the government, and therefore in a way govern those that govern. With these feelings of respect and gratitude comes a great desire to show the world our best face, the face we were so proud to see named the next President of the United States on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008.

As Barack Obama was announced the winner, Celeste's apartment erupted in screams. I could not stop crying, my friend Rebecca could not stop crying, a handful of our crowd ran to the balcony to shout in celebration, and my friend Elena uncorked the champagne. Nick and I looked at each other and remembered to remember this moment forever.

At 4 am, Nick and I walked to Avenida Santa Fe and caught the #64 bus home. As we sat in the bucket seats of the bus, we felt our repressed fatigue hit us full force, as the anticipation and excitement melted away into relief and happiness. The next day my students greeted me with ¨Obama!¨ shouts and we spent the first moments of English lessons watching our President-elect's acceptance speech on youtube. It is wonderful to feel proud of our country's decision, and it is wonderful to proudly represent two votes of that decision here in Argentina.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Feliz Compleanos!!

It began with a candle smooshed into a pre-packaged cupcake and a bunch of fellow TEFL grads singing a well-intentioned and hilariously-off-key Happy Birthday, while in full costume attire. It was midnight on Halloween, officially the first of November; Nick was turning 24 in Buenos Aires.

Bringing Nick's birthday in at our friend's Halloween party was perfect. Almost all the people we know in Buenos Aires were in one place, and we all on silly outfits. There was a great rendition of Joe Six Pack, a Sarah Pallin dead ringer, an impressive Marie Antoinette, a unique David Bowie, a wonderwoman, and a few more goodies. We listened to music, drank wine, talked with friends, and headed home when we realized it was allready 4 am.

The walk home took 45 minutes, and by the end of it, we were starving. We walked to Independencia, the major street two blocks from our apartment, and popped into the only open restaurant we could find. The restaurant was a very narrow two-story dive decorated like a ship, with anchors and fishing nets serving as the decor. It was perfect in every way save for the techno that they insisted on blasting. We ordered a grande mozzerella to go, and ten minutes later and thirteen pesos poorer, we were heading home with watering mouths. Within minutes of arriving home, the pizza was smoked and it seemed later than late. It was time to call it a day.

The next day, it was time to celebrate in earnest. We made coffee and a big lunch of bruschetta and sauteed vegetables. It was a beautiful day, 75 degrees and sunny, and we ate with the windows wide open. As soon as we finished our food, we piled the dishes in the sink, threw on shoes, grabbed the Scrabble board, and headed to the park. En route to Parque Lezana, we stopped at a bakery and ordered three pastries and four cans of Quilmes. We were set.

When we arrived, we staked out a patch of grass and set up shop, sipping on Quilmes and Scrabbling away. Two hours later, half the beer was consumed, the pastries had long been gone, and Nick had beaten me fair-and-square by twenty points. We packed up the board, opened the remaining cans beer, and read our books stretched out on the grass. It was my favorite afternoon in Buenos Aires.

After our beers were gone and the sun had moved so that we were now in the shade, we packed up and headed home. We made more bruschetta and some sangria and turned on Van Morrison. Nick and Brenna and our friend Katarina came over, and we listened to music, drank sangria, and munched for two hours. When all was finished, we grabbed our jackets and headed down Defensa to our very first parilla--Disnivel.

The restaurant was great--filled with happy diners and bustling waiters, pink walls, and countless framed pictures. Nick and I ordered a famous Argentine steak, and it was delicious--tender, juicy, and full of flavor--well worth its international reputation. The four of us toasted Nick and gobbled up our meals.

After dinner, it was again later than late, but we were the kind of tired that comes happily after a day well-spent. I could not hold my eyelids open any longer and I drifted off as Nick was opening his presents and reading his card. He didn't seem to mind, though, and we called it a day, a happy birthday day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Correo Argentina

Lisa Maxwell strikes again. No matter how hard the obstacle, she will find you. In high school I went to the Australian Outback for two months, and week after week, her packages found their way across the desert to PO Box 153, Lake Grace, Western Australia. In college, though I was a mere 10 minute drive down I-43S, St. Nick's always began with a package delivery via campus mail to my dorm room. When I studied abroad in Ireland and subsequently celebrated my 21st birthday in Galway, I think the little Gaelic post office was overwhelmed by Lisa Maxwell's love affair with the courier system. But nothing compared to my year in Washington, DC. Week after week something arrived on my porch covered in styrofoam peanuts and wrapped in packing tape. I think Ro once asked me if my mom had considered buying stock in UPS, because it might have served to be a good investment at that rate. Needless to say, 3903 Morrison Street would have had much less flavor without those packages...

It was only a matter of time before Lisa Max's package service found its way to Calle Piedras. However, getting here proved to be quite a maze, and a prime example of Argentine efficiency operating at its best.

The saga began a week ago from Friday when a slip of paper was shoved under our apartment door notifying me that I had a package to be picked up at the nearest post office. Only three blocks away--not bad. True, I wondered why the mailman couldn't bring the package to me if he could bring a slip of paper to me, but I figured it could be a lot more painful. My first free morning came three days later, so Nick and I headed down the block for the p.o.

Five minutes after arriving, I was up. This is easy, I thought. I handed over my ID and package notification to the postman. He mumbled something into the microphone and looked at me expectantly. Ahhh, I was lost. ¨He needs your passport,¨ Nick translated for me. Oy, I didn't think of that. ¨Uno momento,¨ I told the postman.

15 minutes later, Nick and I had raced home and raced back, only to find we had to take another number and get back at the end of the line. 15 minutes after that we were up again. Feeling relieved that this was about to be over, I proudly handed over my passport. The postman looked at it, nodded, and took my notification slip into the backroom. Expecting to see him walk back with a beautiful, cardboard box sparkling with packing tape, my heart sank when I saw him return with another piece of paper. I knew it couldn't be easy, I cried on the inside.

In contrast to my about-to-scream insides, the postman looked quite pleased with his findings.

¨Here you go, seƱorita,¨ he said as he handed me my new notification, taking the courtesy to circle the new address to which I must travel. Apparently, I needed a notification to receive the official notification for which I needed to receive my actual package. Receiving a package in Argentina is akin to embarking on a scavenger hunt, and one that will teach you a lesson in patience.

Allright, let's get 'er done, I resolved. The new address was in Retiro, a neighborhood where I was scheduled to teach on Friday until 2 pm. Perfect, the post office closed its doors at 5 pm, so I would have plently of time to hippity-hop over after my lesson and pick up the goods.

On Thursday I texted my friend John to see if he wanted to get a drink with me and Nick that evening. ¨At the international post office,¨ was all his reply said. It was 3 pm. Could he possibly mean he might be busy at the post office through the evening? This could not be a good sign.

Well, John ended up making it out, and upon arrival proceeded to down two liters of Stella Artois by himself. As the alcohol relaxed him, he began to recount his boiling frustration after sitting at the post office for three hours, an unfortunate circumstance that led him to rip open his mother's carefully wrapped care package right outside the building in Retiro, miles away from his homestay. After tearing open the box, he proceeded to chomp his way through the packets of gum his mom sent, and begin to read the book she had enclosed, David Sedaris' latest, Engulfed in Flames. Laughing at Sedaris' imitation of Parisians while chewing the heck out of some Orbit apparently made John feel better about his situation, and he headed home and came out to meet us. Hmmmm, my Friday chore was beginning to sound ominous...

My time arrived and I surrendered to Correo Argentina at approximately 2:15 pm Friday afternoon. Chin up, I walked in, tried to ignore the massive herd of homicidal-looking people stalking the waiting room, and took a number. #86. I looked up at the board to see a neon #30. Okay, I can do this, I thought to myself, and I opened up my book. About 30 minutes later, my number was up. Whew! That was relatively pianless. This time, I came prepared and had my official, official package notification ready with my passport. The postman, a glorious Argentine with snow-white hair, a deep tan, and a half-unbuttoned white collared shirt, nodded approvingly at my passport, stamped my notifications, and disappeared in back...Only to come out with another notification.

You are kidding me, I thought. There is no way. Just no way. But, oh, it turns out there was a way. The postman handed me my new slip and circled the six-digit number at the bottom. ¨Go the other room and wait for this number to be called,¨ he instructed in Spanish. Sweating profusely at the anxiety of the postal system and also at trying to understand Spanish in such a hectic environment, I nodded my understanding with wide eyes, and obediently headed to the next room.

It looked like an emergecy room waiting room, just as desperate, just as manic. Rows and rows of fold-out card-table chairs, filled with rows and rows of feverishly angry yet knowingly helpless people sitting with their heads down, eyes glued to their slips of paper where their holy 6-digit saving grace was printed. I listened to the numbers being called off the loudspeaker, and immediately my over-worked pores poured. The announcer was listing off these 6-digit numbers so quickly, and without pause in-between patrons, I panicked. How was I going to understand him?? I was going to miss my number and this whole debacle will have been in vain. Oh, pobrecita!

To help me, I wrote down my six-digit number in every possible way it could be called. Uno siete ocho nueve uno cero. Dies-y-siete ochenta-nueve dies. Uno siete ochenta-neuve dies, etc., etc., so that my slip was now covered in written accounts of possible verbal translations of my number. Okay, that made me relax a little and I proceeded to stare at my numbers, my eyes glued to them everytime the announcer came to the mike.

One hour later, I wasn't hearing my number. It was allready 4 o'clock. I thought for sure I had missed it, I was going to go home packageless, I was never going to see what my mom had sent. I resolved to wait until the post office closed, and maybe I would be lucky and they would call everyone who did not respond to their called number. Just hold tight, I told myself, as I looked around and felt like the obvious Americana with deer-in-the-headlight eyes, grasping my number with a grip like the jaws of death.

45 minutes later, I heard it. My number, my glorious number was called, and I understood it! I raced to the back to pick up my package and joined the queue of the others who were just called. When I got up to the window, I proudly handed over my ticket, and the postman just as proudly handed over my package. Hallelujah!! I was so elated I literally felt 20 pounds lighter, and I bounced out of the post office, shouting to every postal employee ¨Buena fin de semana!!!¨ on my way out. They looked at me like the crazy Americana I am, but I was too relieved to feel self-conscious.

I arrived home at 5:30, three hours after my journey to the p.o. began, and Nick and I tore open the package. Scrabble!!! Lisa Maxwell had saved the day by sending a Scrabble board--and just in time, as Nick is really beginning to worry about his post-Tuesday life when there will not be anymore polls to read or pundits to analyze. :-) Scrabble, a box of chocolates, a candle, and a pair of purple loafers that I have not taken off for three days. It was so worth the wait. Lisa Maxwell indeed strikes again.