Monday, May 18, 2009

Mother Nature Takin' Over

'Cause it's the new Mother Nature takin' over
It's the new splendid lady come to call
It's the new Mother Nature takin' over
She's gettin' us all
She's gettin' us all

Oh yeah, that's right, I'm shamelessly quoting The Guess Who. But you know, it just really fits my mood right now. Why? Because Cordoba is filled with nature. Buenos Aires may be majestic in its man-made concrete wilderness (FLASHBACK: standing on top of the Palacio Barolo and looking out over the MAZE that is Buenos Aires, realizing that everyday millions of people some how make their way through all of that). But Cordoba is majestic in its divinely natural splendor.

Cordoba city sits like the hub of a wheel, the epicenter of a dozen spokes leading to country towns scattered throughout the hills. These country towns are indeed tiny. Their city centers can be tracked in 20 minutes tops. Their paths around the surrounding hills can be easily found, and the must-see tourist sites uniquely boasted by each town can be seen and enjoyed within an afternoon. These little towns make for short-and-sweet day trips, mini-vacations that give you respite from the urban hustle-bustle. They are truly lovely. So far, we have visited three of these hidden gems: Jesus Maria, Alto Gracia, and Villa Carlos Paz. I've already regaled you with the tales of Jesus Maria, so I'll bypass that verbal tour and skip straight ahead to Alto Gracia and Villa Carlos Paz.

First, Alto Gracia. This is where you go for a walk down Revolutionary Road. Che Guevara's childhood home is all the rage in this tiny town, and it is a definite must-see. Converted into a museum, it houses the famed motorcyle, as well as the lesser-known bicycle that Che pedalled through 14 Argentine provinces before he embarked on his pan-South American motorbike tour. The house is decorated with framed photographs of the Guevara family and preserved relics from their past. You leave the museum with a sense that the revolution lives on. I can't quite pinpoint exactly what leaves you with this feeling, but perhaps it's the room devoted to documenting Fidel and Hugo's joint visit to the house/museum in 2006. Their photographs, quotes, and signatures cover the walls in that final room, leaving you with a definite sense of...Wonder? I'm not quite sure what to call it, but it was definitely an interesting peek into a revolutionary and a revolutionary culture!

Outside the museum the town is very sleepy. There are delicious pastries to be eaten in the city center, a beautiful Jesuit mission that gives you a wonderful sense of pervading calm, and a stream and hills waiting for your playing feet. Our day in Alto Gracia was indeed a day well-spent!

Alright, now it's time to move on to Villa Carlos Paz. Though this town has decidedly less to offer than a Che museum, it certainly does have its own brand of charm. It truly is nestled into the sierras, and as you walk along you see those dusty, rustic hills on all sides of you. The lake of Villa Carlos Paz is the central point, and there are paddle boats just waiting for you to jump in and whirl around the lake! A little ways away from the lake is a ski lift that will take you up and into the sierras, giving you an amazing view (I am sure of that, although it was closed when we were there and we couldn't try it!).

But, really nothing in Villa Carlos Paz beats the Reloj Cu Cu, or the Cuckoo Clock. The Reloj Cu Cu was built in 1958 to promote tourism in the town. Located in the city center, it is a wooden structure, literally, an over-sized wooden cuckoo clock. It is very charming in a kitschy way, but unfortunately, we couldn't see the cuckoo bird chirp the time--the cuckoo bird was apparently stolen about a year ago, believe it or not. Oh, Dear Lord, I would LOVE to see the footage of that--a conman on the run with a wooden cuckoo tucked under his arm, slipping through the unsuspecting streets of Villa Carlos Paz. Well! It all just goes to show that there is always an adventure waiting for you in the Cordoba province.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Adventures in Cordoba

We have now reached the 2-week mark in Cordoba, and we are honestly loving every moment of our stay here. The city has enchanted us, with its deserty backdrop and its history-infused city-center--the colonial churches and centuries-old Jesuit missions looming aglow on either side of you as you wander the streets of downtown.

We love taking jogs in the Parque Sarmiento, losing ourselves in the hills and wooded pathways of the park. We love eating newly-discovered Cordoba-style empanadas at our favorite empanaderia, El Alamo. We love uncovering historical gems such as the Museo Superior de Bellas Artes, an art museum housed in a beautiful palace, with collections from conquistador times to recent dictatorial times.

We love continuing our Buenos Aires habit of stumbling upon cathedrals, such as the gothic-style Capuchin monk church, all shrouded in symbolism. Its one steeple stands alone, adjacent to a naked roof where another steeple should stand. The steeple's absence is there on purpose, to portray humanity's imperfection. The outside of the temple is decorated with sculptures of other-worldly beings, and a handful of statues of Atlas, meant to symbolize the crushing weight of man's sins and guilt.

We love all of these things unique to Cordoba, and we also love all the normal things of Cordoba. We love the produce vendor at the Supermercado Estrella, the Star Supermarket, who is always in a good mood. We love the little corner-market owner who makes sure to be extra nice to us because our wonderful landlord Maria gave him special orders to do so. Every time we walk in he praises our linda pais, our beautiful country, and the wonders there (such as Miami, apparently!). We love how the park is packed on Sunday nights with families and with joy-riding cruisers trying to pick up some cute Cordobesa ladies. We love the pizzaria Alfonsina, with its dark and cozy interior and folk music ringing out its walls. We love it all.

But mostly we love living with Ale & Maria. I think there is something to be said about living with a family while you are abroad. Of course, this can be an unlucky experience, such as was experienced by our sweet, sweet friend, when he was asked to find a new host family because he "didn't fit in." That of course is a very scary risk of living with a family in a different country. But if you are lucky, and end up with the right people, it can be the most wonderful, profound, intimate experience. It can give you a home in a place that can otherwise feel very far from home.

While I was in high school, I went on a study abroad exchange program to Australia, where I spent two months with a family on a sheep farm in the outback. When I was in college, I spent nearly five months studying at the National University of Ireland in Galway. Though I had an amazing experience in Ireland and made life-long friends, it is Australia that I think about daily, and I know it is because I lived with a family, I had a home there in the outback in a way I never did in Ireland. We have only been in Cordoba for two weeks, but already, our memories here have a depth of the familial that we didn't experience in Buenos Aires until Caitlin came to stay with us, nearly eight months into our stay there. We are very thankful for this new chapter in our Argentine experience...

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Grapes of Grappa

Our arrival into Cordoba was marked by not only a changing landscape but also by a changing landscape. As we left behind the humid, people-packed palms of Buenos Aires for the desert-swept, cracked-earth interior arms of Cordoba, we also left behind the English words that swirled around us in the Capital for the Cordobesa sing-song Spanish that we have now collided with. Although we were lucky enough to make many friends from either Argentina or from other parts of South America while staying in Buenos Aires, all of our friends spoke far better English than we spoke Spanish. That being said, whenever we reached a communication bump, we all resorted to the formerly stated language. This fact of our BA life was a blessing in that we could clearly express ourselves and build deep relationships with little miscommunication. But it was a major curse in that it allowed us to be lazy and not bend-over-backwards in our pursuit of la idioma espanola.

But, our hour of allotted laziness has expired--because we have arrived at the Casa Roca, where Spanish is the dominant tongue. And we are learning to swim so as not to sink.

Casa Roca is headed by Alejandro and Maria, and their adorable two-and-a-half-year-old hija, Abigail. They are incredibly patient with us, repeating-repeating-repeating and taking it slow-slow-slowly. (And they always give me a second chance and help me correct myself and take my foot out of my mouth when I fake an understanding by saying "si" when the correct answer is apparently anything BUT si.) As we eat dinner together nearly every night, Nick and I are learning a lot, and fast, thanks in huge part to Ale and Maria's patience. We're not always completely sure of what is going on, but it always works out for the best.

A good example of not always knowing what is going on is the situation last weekend. On Saturday evening, Nick and I were making dinner when Maria walked in and invited us to go and visit the town where her mom was from, Jesus Maria, with her and Ale and Abi on Sunday. The town was apparently very lovely, with a UNESCO Jesuit mission and beautiful countryside. It sounded great--we were totally game.

Nick and I wondered what was in store for us the next day, and figured it must be a little day-trip of sorts. I began to nurse images of a countryside dream, picnicking (perhaps frolicking) in the fields with Ale, Maria, and Abi. While I fed those little daydreams, Nick and I ate dinner, watched a movie (The Big Lebowski), and went to bed. When we woke up, the house was filled with little voices shouting, "Tio!" We went downstairs to see what all the commotion was about, and that's where we were met with Maria's entire extended family, apparently all set to take the trip to Jesus Maria as well. Okay, I began to realize that my picnic fantasies were a silly pipe-dream (really, where had they come from?! how ridiculous!). Using the evidence on hand, Nick and I pieced together that Maria's mother must still live in Jesus Maria, and that this was a family visit. Alright, we got ready to be a part of the fam for a day! Language barrier or not, we were ready!

I'm not quite sure why, and I know this is completely ridiculous, maybe it was fostered by the name of the town (Jesus Maria), but on the bus ride to the country, Maria's mother took shape in my mind as a tiny, ancient woman shrouded in black veils and weighed down by rosaries. I pictured us staying the day in her quiet and holy house, having a very special experience. Which is why I was (ridiculously) surprised when we pulled up and were greeted by Maria's very normal and very cute mother, wearing a salmon short-sleeved shirt, khaki pants, and woven clogs. An adorable abuela! Cooking a delicious-smelling stew over the stove, next to her equally normal and adorable (and very jolly and welcoming!) husband, Maria's father. I really am no good at predicting outcomes, am I??

I took in my new surroundings, laughed at my daydreams of yesteryore, and settled in. True to form, everyone was so patient with us and spoke slowly, simply, and carefully. We ate ate ate the amazing stew, snacked on bread with home-made jam (made from a cactus fruit!), sipped on mate and wine, and played with the kids in the backyard. It was lovely, and far better than any ludicrous day-dream I could have conjured up.

Around 3 pm, Alejandro said loudly, above the extended family din, "Nick y Sarah, listo? Vamos!" Nick and Sarah, ready? Let's go! Okay, we guessed it was time to go. Short and sweet, we concluded, and hopped into Maria's brother's van, to the bus station we guessed.

Once again, we guessed wrong, a conclusion we realized as the van parked right outside beckoning iron gates guarding a stone mission. Ah, UNESCO! Another surprise, this time an 18th (I think!) century estancia, or farm, that was built to provide the Jesuits income with which they could use to pursue their educational endeavors (and conversion endeavors, too, perhaps?) in South America.

It was architecturally an amazing site, with winding stairways and hallways letting in mysterious and limited shafts of light. Walls preserved artwork from the beginning of Jesuit history in Argentina, and rooms preserved religious relics from days of yore, as well as mementos left behind by all the pilgrims and tourists that have passed the mission by (from almost every country I can think of!). As always, my imagination was running wild, and it was eerie (in a fun way) to think of the Jesuits swishing around the ancient property with their robes swaying, lighting their way with torches, writing letters back to the Vatican from their drafty, candle-lit quarters.

But alas, as with any "preserved" site, the mission was a teensy tiny bit on the stuffy side. There were too many guards lurking in the corners, ready to snatch your camera at a moment's notice. There were too many old lady regular visitors sitting on benches watching you, making sure you were appreciating everything as you very well should. There were too many rules and a bit too much cleanliness. Don't get me wrong--it was amazing, of course, just a tad-bit on the stuffy side (as all protected historical sites very well need to be!). I'm not arguing against it, I'm just saying it gives me a bitty case of the nervous giggles. Which is why I enjoyed our next stop so so very much...

The next stop: the winery! After the estancia, we cruised on over to the Bodega, or the local winery, where an adorable young lady showed us the up's and down's of that house of vino. We saw the wooden barrels, the steel barrels, the catacombs where the wine was stored back in the day (its walls stained a deep, dark red), the grape thrashers, the grappa-processing room, the whole shebang. And, at the end, the wonderful guia gave us a taste of it all--a bit of the Chardonnay, a bit of the Merlot, a bit of the Malbec, and a bit of the grappa. I had never had grappa before, but it certainly was potent! Made from the third go-round of the grapes (the first mashing produces bottled wine, the second produces boxed wine, and the third produces the grappa), it's extremely alcoholic, and tastes a bit medicinal. But, with a little honey thrown into the mix, it is actually quite good (I think!). And what's more is it cleared my sinus problems right up! Voila! Who needs antibiotics when you've got grappa?!

We left that Bodega goodness with bottles for all, for us, for Maria and Ale, and for Maria's adorable parents. It was so delicious! With our wine and the sting of the grappa still zinging our tongues, we headed back to the ranch and joined the rest of the party. Once back with the rest of the fam, we drank some more mate and ate some more bread and jam.

Well, last weekend we really had no idea what we were getting into, but was it ever worth the risk of the unknown!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Argentine Cooking Classes!!

Okay, so I know I said that we were ready to leave Buenos Aires, but that was said before I found out about Cooking with Teresita--a cooking class run by a spunky portena who teaches you the nitty-gritty of Argentine cookery right in her cozy home, and of course all the while serving you Argentine wine as well. I was emailing back and forth with her daughter about the course, and this is what she wrote to me about the classes:

My mother's cooking classes are for people who are interested in more than just learning a recipe; they are designed for those who would like to learn and shaer a day at an Argentine's home while learning how to prepare one of the most traditional dishes of Argentina.

Sounds pretty great, huh?! I took a peak at the website, and I saw that the next upcoming class is really the cream of the crop--it is the Empanadas class! The class will cover empanadas de carne (beef empanadas) and empanadas de humita (corn empanadas), and the scrumptious empanadas will be pared with the most appropriate wine (in this case, apparently, a Malbec). This class is held on Mondays, costs US $45 per person, which includes the wine and all the ingredients for the empanadas (which you get to devour once they are ready to come out of the oven). So I think that is a really fair price!! Think about the lessons you are getting--learning to cook empanadas like a portena! That is pretty priceless.

If you are interested, you should check out Teresita's website-- It's chock full of the cooking classes offered, pictures of the cook in her element, and raving testimonials, including this one:

Teresita's passion and knowledge for food makes this class a "Must Take" in Buenos Aires.

Well, that pretty much sells me. If I was still in Buenos Aires, I would be signing up for this class like it was my job!

And, as if you needed any more conviction, check out these pics of Teresita doing her thing:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Waving Goodbye To Buenos Aires

Our Buenos Aires chapter closed in two parts. The first part came last Monday when we packed Caitlin off into a taxi and asked the driver to take her to Izeiza Airport. The second part came last Thursday when Nick and I boarded the double-decker bus at Retiro Station and headed west. Destination: Cordoba.

First for the first part. The last week of Caitlin's stay, we became sponges--soaking up the city with every pore. We ate Brazilian, savoring every bite of our feijaoda and revelling in every sip of our caiparinas. We rocked out a jazz bar where an Australian tourist told the wicked keyboardist to "let loose and cut-it-up!" We saw the best view of Buenos Aires on a crystal clear day from the top of the Palacio Barolo. We had friends over for La Fachada emapanadas washed down with Fernet, and we curled up almost every night to watch a comedy (from Stranger than Fiction to The Royal Tennenbaums). We ate one last meal from Pura Vida and did one more round at the Sunday San Telmo Antique Fair. We read in the Palermo parks and we walked the walk of the La Boca El Caminito. We swayed to Argentine folk at a porteno pena and we shared a Quilmes (the cheapest thing on the menu!) at the ever-so-posh Cafe Tortoni). We did it all, and we did it in style.

We went out with a bang. In our last week in Buenos Aires, we celebrated Buenos Aires. And what better way to say good-bye to such a multi-colored city than to rejoice in its splendors? Our 8 months in Buenos Aires were complicated--so many up's and down's, and so many lessons in the good, the bad, and the ugly. We are so thankful for the depth and the intimacy of our stay in Buenos Aires, as it is its very profundity that will keep the city in our hearts forever. But a farewell should really be joyful, a rejoice and celebration for all that is good enough to miss.

So that is how the three of us said our goodbyes to Buenos Aires, and to each other. And it was perfect.

Nick and I passed the two days that lapsed between Caitlin's departure and our departure working, packing, and saying good-bye to friends (and renting more movies). It all felt very anti-climatic, but in a nice, calm, meant-to-be way. It felt truly that it was the time to move on to a new place. So with little fanfare and many hopeful promises to see our friends in the upcoming months, we dragged our rolling suitcases and hikers' backpacks to Retiro one last time and jumped aboard the Sierras de la Cordoba omnibus and headed toward more deserty lands.

As we passed through Buenos Aires, it was strange to see the city fade away, knowing we will not see those now-so-familiar signs for a long time. But sadness is a happy part of a goodbye, as the wonderful Sallycat says, as to be sad in your goodbye means that you were so happy in your hello.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Wine Tasting in Palermo

A few weeks ago, Nick, Caitlin, and I were invited to a wine-tasting by our favorite English Institute, In English. Thinking that it was a party for all the English teachers employed by In English, I was quite shocked, and thinking that the Institute made a mistake by inviting me, when I realized it was a party for potential clients. Here's the story of that evening glory...

The first thought I had when I stepped into the chic wine bar was a panicked, I don't belong here!! Classiness oozed from the walls, the choicest bottles of wine lay sparkling in their wooden cradles. The lighting was dim and made all the sleek, slim, and well-dressed attendees glow. I felt nerdy behind my glasses and a bit on the rough side in my well-worn jeans and frayed heels.

Breathe, I told myself. I smiled at all the other party-comers and pretended to consider buying a $200 bottle of wine...And that's when I spotted the platters of appetizers dotting the corners of the room. Salami lay glistening in delicate little rolls, slices of bread beckoned, begging to be smothered in the creamy dip that lay resplendant in a porcelain bowl. Cheese called out my name; olives shone in the light. I put down the Malbec I was pretending to examine and waltzed (perhaps skipped is a more appropriate verb) over to the comida.

As I gleefully popped a tower of salami, cheese, olives and bread into my watering mouth, I realized at the last moment that no one else was following my lead. I was the only person in the joint who had flocked to the food!!! I was THAT American...That stereotypical American fatty. Oy vey, I was about to hang my head in shame...When...Out of nowhere stepped a laid-back and filled-with-class chabon who looked like he was in charge--in a very relaxed way. This guy tapped his wine glass, and suddenly all eyes were on him.

Hi everyone! Welcome welcome, we will begin the wine tasting in just a few minutes. But in the mean-time, please welcome yourself to the food that is laid out for you!

I was liberated! Suddenly everyone was prancing to the platters...Nothing like some finger food to lighten the mood (I was just ahead of the curve, that's all). Soon everyone was talking, and everyone was talking so nicely!! There were people there from all walks, from employees of major coorperations like General Mills, to do-it-yourselfer-type small business owners, to intriguing journalists. And they were all just so down-to-earth--excited to be at a wine tasting, and excited to meet new people. Suddenly, the wear-and-tear of my jeans didn't seem to matter, and my heels started to feel classy enough to be clipping along at a wine tasting. I was chatting away when the man in the suit mysteriously re-appeared, tapping away at his wine glass to catch our attention.

Hi again, everyone. My name is Alex, and I am your co-host for tonight, along with Emily and Valeria from In English. Welcome, welcome. Why don't you all get situated and we will taste some wines. Now we are going to try three different wines tonight, two reds and a white...

And so it began. I took my place in the circle of wine tasters waiting to wet their palates with some vino. First came a white, and the lessons that went along with that beautiful chardonnay...Crystal clear and crisp, it slid down my throat and warmed my toes with the first sip. I watched as people around me swallowed in satisfaction, and I listened as Alex explained the origins of that divine glass. Then came the first red, and the same thing happened, only this time it was through rose-colored glasses. And then came the third, and by that time I knew I never wanted to leave that cozy, classy little wine shop. But alas, I had to set my glass down like everyone else, and take my place outside the door...I said goodbye to all the chic bottles of wine that looked so tasty on the rack, and waved goodbye to all the new acquaintances I had made in that wine-soaked night. And walked home in a rose-tinted glow.