Sunday, April 29, 2007

Got a new camera--Blog functioning at full capacity

My nephew, John, and his novio, Tenaya, are visiting from Seattle. They arrived on Thursday morning and, well you know how it goes when you have out-of-country guests—not much time to update the blog. They are in Iguazu for two nights, so I’ll give you all an update. And . . .they brought me a new camera so the blog is back to full operation.

Thursday was our last tutoring session with Nieves. We had previously arranged to go out to sightseeing for our last class, and she said it was fine to bring John and Tenaya along.

We went to the Recoleta Cultural Center to see an exhibit on the Malvinas: Islands of the Memory . . . Public Images, Private Objects. It was very moving.

The war took place 25 years ago. My understanding is that the military dictatorship was growing increasingly unpopular and decided to express its territorial claim to these small islands off the southern coast. The islands are claimed by Great Brittan who refers to them as the Falklands.

Argentine troops, poorly trained and equipped, arrived on these islands, located near the Antarctic Circle, in fall as weather was getting cold. This was the first time many of these young men even knew the islands existed. They were not dressed for the weather and the Argentine military command did an inadequate job of re-supply.

The war began on March 19 with the Argentine reoccupation and ended on June 14 with the Argentine surrender. Argentina had 649 killed, 1,068 wounded, and 11,313 taken prisoner. For the British, 258 were killed, 777 wounded, and 106 taken prisoner. In the past 25 years, over 300 Argentine Malvinas veterans have committed suicide. That is more than the total of British war dead.

“Y por qué? Por nada,” I often hear. I have also heard that the 11,000 prisoners were well cared for by the British. I have also been told that the veterans have better feelings about their adversaries than their own superiors over how the war was carried out. I don’t know. It is just what I have been told. Mostly, it is just a sad thing. I believe Argentina has a legitimate claim to these islands. All the maps here show them as Argentine territory.

Argentine dead were buried quickly and only much later repatriated or placed in marked graves. The original wooden crosses that marked their graves are displayed in a moving three-dimensional array fronted by insult covered silhouettes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

From there, we walked to the University of Buenos Aires law school. John and Tenaya are both lawyers in Seattle. We had a good discussion with Nieves about law and political attitudes of young Argentines.

John keeps kosher. For his first night here in Buenos Aires, he had found a kosher parrilla in Barrio Once. The four of us went out for kosher asado. It was nothing remarkable, just more expensive. The most fascinating aspect of the evening was the young Orthodox Jewish family at the table next to us. A young man, his infant son, and totally beautiful wife. Tenaya pointed out to us that she was wearing a wig. Not only that, but it was actually a really good wig, and tasteful make-up, nice boots with stiletto heels and a skirt to the top of the boots. She was very fashionably and totally in keeping with Jewish conservative rules of dress.

Friday, while Helen studied, I took them out for a sightseeing walk. We walked to Plaza San Martin, then down Avenida Florida (always an adventure) to Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada. We saw the famous balcony where Eva Perone (and later Madona) made her heartfelt speech announcing she would not seek the office of vice president. Oddly, the speech is not made from the main balcony of the Government House, but from a smaller balcony much closer to the ground where people could have almost touched her.

From there, we walked to Puerto Madero—the new and trendy barrio where once abandoned brick warehouses have been refurbished into trendy restaurants and the like. I have been several times, but I have never been on the 19th century Fragata Sarmiento, a floating museum that was once an ice breaker. This is an example of what I love about Argentina. A docent in naval uniform welcomed us aboard, told us we were welcome to explore the entire ship except where indicated, to take as many photos as we like, to go below, to go above, and be careful and watch our heads. That’s it. We were left alone to negotiate the slippery decks, the steep ladders, and the low passageways. There were no nervous attendants telling us not to touch things, there was no part of the ship that someone else decided was too dangerous for us to explore. If we wanted to go below and thought we were physically capable of going up and down a steep staircase, go for. Take responsibility, make up your own mind if you can do it, assume the risk, and do it. Just don’t complain if you get hurt—he did tell you to be careful.

We headed back to the apartment in Recoleta and got ready for an expat gathering that night at Cheff Iousef restaurant in Palermo. The event was the monthly gathering of the BAExpats group. There were about 40 members and friends there that night to meet and have Lebanese food. I knew several: Pericles, Maya and Tom, Alan, Kiki, and I also met Igor who was very helpful some months back when I had computer trouble.

Buenos Aires has an active expatriot community that is valuable for newcomers. These people have been here and made all the mistakes already. That didn’t stop me from making the same mistakes, however, because I didn’t know what mistakes I was going to make until after I had already made them. This group, however, let’s me know I am not alone. We also send news of ATM trouble, where to find peanut butter, and the best place to find sushi, a tutor, or how to start the residency process.

Saturday, Helen and I took John and Tenaya to La Boca. What is there to say about la Boca? Well, like it or not, it is the iconic image of old Buenos Aires. Its colorful buildings and dilapidated wharf are symbols of a storied past. Today, however, it is little more than a tourist stop—and not a very good one. I think we spent more time in the colectivo coming and going than we did in the barrio. I did get to see the Bombanera—the Boca Junior’s home football stadium.

We got our required “pose in front of the Caminito sign” photos, watched some street tango, browsed some souvenir shops, and headed back. John and Tenaya had a much better time in Coto—the grocery store. Grocery stores are really fun. Seeing how the whole food thing works in another culture is really fascinating. While taking them through the store, I was lamenting that we didn’t have anyone to walk us through our first time: “Efectivo? Un pago? Disco Plus? Para enviar?” all these embarrassingly awkward moments could have been avoided.

This morning, we took them for a quick look at the Recoleta Cemetery before their remise picked them up for two nights at Falls Iguazu. Helen and I are planning a trip there, so John and Tenaya can return the favor and give us travel tips when they return Tuesday (for one night before they head out to Bariloche).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

I am sooooo tired . . .


. . . of feeling stupid.

There is a woman in my hometown of Frederick Maryland who is a medical doctor from Russia. She moved to the USA recently and thought, although she had limited English, that her medical skills and education would be valuable in the job market. She knew she couldn't be a physician, but surely she could get some job in the healthcare industry.

She sells shoes at Payless.

Customers tell her that they can't understand her and that she can't possible be competent enough to help them find a pair of shoes. They ask to speak to the manager. This Russian doctor is not qualified to sell shoes?

I have a doctorate. I am an English professor.

I coinsider myself to be pretty smart. I can be witty, and charming, and have interesting things to say.

But not here in Buenos Aires. Here, like the Russian physician, I am incompetent. Take today, for instance.

We gave our notice to the woman, Ana, from whom we rent because our stay here is nearing an end. This morning, the Internet stopped working.

Any URL I entered I got this (see above) screen. Now you tell me. What would you think if you received this message? (Go ahead, click on it, and see it in detail.)

OK, so I spent the entire day on this—going to Internet cafes, on the phone, trying different work around—and it turns out that this is just a promotion, a commercial, an attempt to get me back as a customer. All I have to do is click on the little box that says (to me, anyway) “No thanks, cancel my account,” and I am restored to full access. Once I bothered Ana all day with this, and only after she made several calls to Fibertel and then patiently explained it to me, did I finally figure it out.

Ah dios mio, this is frustrating. I felt so stupid.

It (Argentina) is very humbling. At home, I am totally in the moment. No nuance, no detail, no aspect excapes me. Here, it is like I am mentally retarded. Conversations go on, and I nod, and smile, and hear the words. I even understand most of it. But I am not in it. I am on the side. I am peripheral. I am not integral.

It must be very difficult for people who come to a new country without the language, without money, and without support to survive. No wonder they cluster together in communities and hesitate to integrate. No wonder they keep to themselves. No wonder they seek anything familiar.

I know I have learned something very important today. It is, however, going to take me some time to figure out exactly what that is. I'll have to ask the Russian doctor what she learned.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The mystery of the missing monedas (Ken)

There is some oddness that goes on here with the money. After four months of observing it, I am sure it is not my imagination.

You have to manage your money here. I don’t mean saving, investing, and budgeting. I mean you have to make sure that you have a variety of bills and coins at all times. This is not as easy as it sounds because people don’t like to give change or break big bills. Also, the ATMs dispense $100 bills unless you request an amount under 100. For example, if you punch in $400, you get four 100-peso notes. If you punch in $390, you get three 100-peso notes, four 20- peso notes and one $10. You are still stuck with those $100s that no one wants to take.

“¿Tienes más pequeño?” seems to be the mantra for all sales clerks here.
However, the coin situation is even more odd. First, there are no one-centavo coins (well, there are no one-peso bills either). So everything is rounded up or down to the nearest five centavos. No problem there; it all seems to work out: sometimes in your favor, sometimes not, but it all works out over time. But the strange thing is that no one wants to GIVE coins, they only want to GET coins.

If my purchase if $17:55, the clerk will ask, “¿Tienes cincuenta y cinco centavos?” OK, so if I dig through my pocket and give her $20.55, she gives me back $3. However, since there are no one-peso bills, she needs to give me back a $1 coin. I have even been in the situation where she gave me back six 50-centavo coins because she was running low on $2 bills—and that is AFTER she just asked me to give her 55 centavos in coins.

The alamcen across the street is one of the worst where this is concerned. One day, after Helen told the woman she had no monedas, the woman opened a drawer under the register that was FULL of coins. (This is also the woman who likes to say she has no 5-centavo coins and offers a small piece of 1-centavo candy in its place)
It is like people hoard coins. And we all need them. The colectivos only take coins and there is no one on or near the bus to give change.

To break the big bills, we have to wait in line at a bank—usually the bank where the ATM was that we got the big bills in the first place. But, because people here don’t use checking accounts and pay all there bills in cash at the bank, the lines are long. You have to take a number like at the deli counter. So I have worked out an ingenious solution to the big-bill dilemma: The race track.

Hipódromo de Palermo is a short colectivo ride away (and 80 centavos that I have to make sure I have ahead of time). At the race track is a huge slot machine casino with many cash cages. I take my big bills and go from cage-to-cage saying, “Cambio por favor,” until I have changed my big bills to small bills. There are no coins though. You feed bills into the slot machines and get your winnings in the form of a paper voucher that you take to the cash cage to exchange for money. So, I need to make sure I have the 80 centavos for the colectivo ride back home.

So I have devised a work-around for the big-bill situation, but I am still puzzled by it. I have been told that there have been coin shortages in the past. Argentinos remember them all-too-well and the stores have developed these practices to make sure they never run short of coins. But the big-bill aspect of it all is confusing. Wouldn’t it be easier to close out a register at the end of the shift by counting big bills?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Rain and Mosquitoes (Ken)

I read in the newspaper yesterday that Buenos Aires Mayor Tellerman said that the rainstorm we received earlier this weekend dumped as much water on the city in one hour as it usually gets during the entire month of April. If that were not enough, see the current weather forecast:

Buenos Aires Weather: Friday 20 April 2007

Today: Rain. High 64F. Winds SE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 80%. Rainfall around a half an inch.
Tonight: Steady light rain this evening. Showers continuing overnight. Low 58F. Winds SE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 70%.
Tomorrow: Cloudy with a few showers. High 68F. Winds ESE at 10 to 15 mph. Chance of rain 30%.
Tomorrow night: Rain likely. Low 58F. Winds E at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 90%.
Sunday: Rain. Highs in the low 70s and lows in the low 60s.
Monday: Rain. Highs in the upper 60s and lows in the upper 50s.
Tuesday: Showers possible. Highs in the mid 60s and lows in the mid 50s.

There were huge floods in the city. The mayor asked the city residents to stop littering (a problem here by North American standards) because the trash is clogging the storm drains and causing the street flooding.

I mentioned this before, but it is worth repeating: the windows in Argentina do not have screens. That is particularly important because the city continues to be invaded by mosquitoes--billions of mosquitoes. It was nearly 90 degrees yesterday, so the windows had to be opened in our non-airconditioned apartment. As the evening cools, the mosquitoes enter before we can shut them out.

The TV news reported this morning that the mosquito problem is going to continue, por lo menos dos semanas mas. This is not the first mosquito prediction I have heard. Last month we were told to just wait until the weekend was over and the mosquitoes would be gone. But they are worse than ever.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Our day (Ken)

Apparently, there are two routes for colectivo #37. The one we took got us nowhere near the MALBA this afternoon when the driver told us to get off because this was the last stop on his route.

We were right near the US Embassy. The flag was at half mast in respect to victims of the Virginia Tech tragedy. It is tragic news here. The story has been on the front page of both Clarín and La Nacion for the past two days. People here ask me about it and why things like that happen in the United States. I have to tell them I don’t know.

It’s not because I don’t think I have enough Spanish to explain. It is because I honestly don’t know. If I had a clue as to why this seems to be a USAmerican problem, I’d certainly try and explain it in my broken Spanish. But I just don’t know. It’s not that we have a lot of guns. Canada has a lot of guns. It’s not that we have a lot of violence. I read everyday here in the news that someone was shot because he resisted a robbery. But the rest of the world does not seem to think that killing dozens of people followed by suicide is an appropriate means of self expression. If I had a clue, I would try my Castellano-best to explain. But I just don’t.

So we finally made our way to MALBA. We passed the planetarium. (I mention that simply because it gives me an excuse to use an old photograph, as my stolen camera is yet to be replaced.) There is a new exhibition of Brazilian artist Alfredo Volpi that was interesting. But we went to see the David Lachapelle photo and video exhibit. That stuff was intriguing. They also had a showing of some of his music videos. They were live-action realizations of his photos and a bit redundant. We watched Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera do just about the same schtick in two separate productions.

We made out way home—on foot and (eventually) by collectivo. I used some of the spices Suzie sent us to make chicken parmesan that turned out pretty well.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Feria de Mataderos (Ken)

There are many fairs throughout Buenos Aires each weekend. We have been to Recoleta, San Telmo, and Puerto Madero, but, by far, the best we have been to is La Feria de Mataderos—the Fair of the Slaughterhouses. This fair has Argentinos in mind—not tourists—and it is a fascinating and fun afternoon.

This fair is in the barrio of Mataderos, or Nuevo Chicago on the edge of Capital Federal. It is called that because it is the former area where all the cattle were brought to be slaughtered, just like Chicago in the USA.

This fair began in 1986 as a place where Argentinos could explore their cultural roots. Unlike the other city fairs that focus mostly on Porteño culture, like the tango, this fair focuses on the culture of all the provinces.

Over the past 20 years, it has become a place for all Argentinos to gather and share their common culture. There are three basic types of culture: traditional crafts and food, artistic crafts, and Gaucho skills.

Dance groups and music groups from across the country are scheduled as featured performers each weekend. Additionally, fairgoers can participate in traditional dance right in the street—many in traditional costume, many not. Everyone is welcome to join the dance.

The most fascinating event is the Carerra del Sortija—the Race of the Ring. A strip in the center of a city street is covered with an inch or so of sand. Upon this surface, men race their horses at full gallop toward a small ring suspended from a metal frame 100 meters away. They stand in the stirrups and attempt to spear a ring—no bigger that the diameter of an American quarter dollar coin—with a pointed stick not much bigger than a pencil.

Because this is Argentina, spectators can stand as close as the wish to the action. They can experience the thrill and power of a horse at full gallop less than a meter away. When the gaucho spears the ring, the crowd cheers. He returns holding his trophy high as the boys and girls hold their hands high to see if he will give them this souvenir.

This was the first Sunday of the regular season for the Feria de Mataderos. It is a long bus ride—about an hour on the 92 colectivo from Recoleta—but well worth the effort.

Thanks for the pictures, Tom

Saturday, April 14, 2007

There is no hot water---but there's TACOS!!!! (Ken)

We have not had hot water for two days now. And it is not going to be fixed until Monday at the earliest. The only comfort we take in this situation is that the portero, encargado and dueña of this apartment also live here and also have no hot water. If there were possibly something they could do to get it, they would. So, I guess we all bathe in the sink with boiled water for a few more days.

However, I got a call from José Luis, the portero, this morning to say I had a package downstairs. It was from my sister-in-law, Suzie. She sent us some spices that we can’t find here and two packages of taco seasoning. We have not had anything like tacos since before new years.

I went to the supermercado to see if I could fill out the remaining ingredients. Tomatoes, lettuce—no problem. Sour cream—well, mendi cream will do. But what about tortillas? I looked in the aisle where the empanada shells were and was thinking they would work. They are more like a pastry shell, but this is Argentina and one must improvise (that may even be the national motto).

Just then, a Porteña came up to give me advice on the brand of empanada shell I should use. Apparently I had selected an inferior product. When I gave her the deer-in-the headlights look, she said, (and I translate) “Oh, you don’t speak Castellano.”

“A little”, I said. “Well try English and I’ll see if I understand you.” I went for it in Spanish.

(Again in translation) “I am trying to make a Mexican meal, and I am looking for tortillas. There are two types: corn and flour.”

“Oh, I know what you want. Follow me,” she said.

She led me to an isle and pointed out the Bimbo brand Rapidadas. They sure looked like flour tortillas to me. “Muchisimos Gracias!” I said. And I was on my way.

So, tonight we had what was a very close approximation of tacos. I ate waaaaaay too much, and will most likely pay for it tomorrow. But it was worth it.

Helen was much more restrained.

But it will still be until Monday before I can take a shower.

P.S. Thanks Suzie!!

Friday, April 13, 2007

Shopping (Helen & Ken)

Ken and I still laugh-cry every day about our shopping experiences. It is just so different.
I wanted something to read and so we found our way to the english book store. And, of course we chose exactly the wrong day to shop there. It was the Saturday before classes begin, and all the students who attend english institutes buy their books there. The word crowded qualifies as a classic understatement. Ken even refused to go in, but I dragged him. The store is not very big, and much longer than it is wide. The back half of the store was roped off (no idea why). The front half of the store was literally shoulder to shoulder and back to front. I know this sounds like exaggeration, but I promise you it is not. I squeeze and wiggle and push my way to the paperback books looking for Maeve Binchy. I find her!! I claim my square foot of space and look thru her section until I find "The Copper Beach". Meanwhile, thank God, Ken has found the number-ticket machine and taken a number. They are on number 79 and we have number 1,240 (Ok, that is an exaggeration). We wait our turn and when she calls my number I worm my way to the front and hand her my book. I also ask how much another small paperback book that is located behind the counter costs. Many minutes pass. She looks it up. God forbid the price should be actually ON or Under the book. 110 pesos!! Nevermind, I'll just take this. More minutes pass and she produces a computerized 8" x 6" sheet of paper with the name of the book on it. I try to hand her my money, but she directs me to another line. I have no idea why she cannot take the payment - that is just the system. I stand in the payment line. I wait again. At this point we notice the store is thinning out. My turn!! 32 freaking pesos for a paperback book!! This is a lot of money if you live on pesos.
Meanwhile, the reason the store is thinning out, is because it closes early on Saturday. The security man has not only locked the door, but lowered the security gate. The security gate has this little Hobbit door in it that is about 3 feet tall by 18 inches wide. Each customer must bend down and squeeze thru this little door to exit the store. This is common.
One last thing about the book. As I am reading page 24, it ends with the sentence, "Perhaps she thought her daugher Madeleine was intended for something more elevated than workin in .... page 25..."Jesus, you're a stubborn woman". HUH? I look again. OK, now I am on page 153. I assume the pages are out of order. I look for page 153 expecting it to be missing. Nope. Its there. I have pages 153-184 of another book called "Out of the Shadows" by Kay Hooper, and am missing pages 25-56 of "The Copper Beach". Confundas? Try shopping here.
Now for Ken - -

Here is a picture of Helen and Monica in Córdoba at the neighborhood almacen getting some groceries. Notice that the store is a fortress. Unless you know what they have, you can't buy it. Often we do not know the names for items here, but we can bring them to the counter and buy them anyway--in this case, if you can't ask for it, you can't have it.

I bought some shoes the other day. I was very proud of myself that I could use my Castellano to tell the girl what I wanted and what size and then ask for a different style and size. Then, once i had the right size and style, I began to walk around a bit to see how they felt. "Señor, no puedes." she says. (You can'tdo that). ¿Por qué? I ask. "Porque es sucio. (Because it is dirty), she replies. She tells me I cannot walk in the shoes I want to buy because I will get them dirty! Ana--the woman from whom we rent and whom we like very much--says that many shoe stores have a small length of carpet that customers are welcome to use to tryout the shoe. This store had no such accommodation.

To paraphrase Waylon Jennings: "It 'aint wrong--it's just different."

Cementario Recoleta

Yesterday, Helen and I went on a guided tour of the Recoleta Cemetery. We took the English tour with an international group of about 15. There were about 6 or 7 USAmericans, two Canadians, some French, Swiss, and an Argentina.

Our guide, Florencia, we charming and witty. She would often say, "Come close. There are gossips I must tell."

I have been to the cemetery at least a half-dozen times before, but just wandering around by myself. With Florencia, we were shown the historical, the interesting, and the downright strange.

"All the streets of Buenos Aires are buried here," she told us as she began to show us the tombs of Argentinas political and historical figures. There are many past presidents, military heroes, and a large mausoleum build for a Nobel Prize winner.

The cemetery is full. There are over 30,000 structures there. Rent is due each month, and cemetary property can be seized for tax auction after 40 years of non-payment. The catch is, there is no pre-paying. The rent must be paid every month. The currency here is so volatile that the cemetery board is afraid that next year's rent--paid in advance--will be nearly worthless when next year arrives. What makes it more difficult is that Argentinos do not use checks to pay bills. Almost everyday, we see lines outside of bank with people cued up to pay their bills in cash. All-too-often, the person in front of us in the supermarket line, who looks like he has but a few items, will reveal a stack of bills he wants to pay. Each of these must be paid individually. Anyway, back to the cemetery . . .

Florencia also told us that whenever there is a financial crisis, old, establish, aristocratic Argentine families will sell their cemetary property. These properties sell for almost the price of an apartment to well over a million dollars--not pesos--dollars. While we were there she pointed out some sarcophagi that were for sale and one that had recently sold. that one was open and being repaired. We peered inside and were surprised to discover how deep the tomb goes--at least 10 meters.

Of course, Evita is there. Now anyway. Florencia joked that Argentinos travel more in death than they do in life. Several times, she told us of political grave robbers who would hold remains ransom for political gain or political statement. Eva Peron's died in 1952 and she was embalmed--something that Argentinos do not regularly do. She was not buried, however. Her embalmed body was found by the military dictatorship that overthrew her husband, Juan. Fearing that she would be made a de-facto saint by her throngs of impoverished followers, they sent her off to Italy to be buried under a false name. It was later discovered who and where she was, and Juan Peron, having been re-elected and restored to power, arranged to have her returned in the early 1970s; he died before that could happen. His wife, who was his vice president and successor, did not want them--Eva and Juan--buried together, and gave the body to Eva's sister who had her buried in the Duarte Family crypt.

It is rumored that Evita's coffin has a glass cover over where her face is so that her family can view her embalmed remains.

Visiting the cemetary, we were told, is something that is odd to Porteños. It was strictly a tourist thing. Until ten years ago, nobody visited the cemetery. Now, with its popularity with tourists, the school kids take field trips there.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Fellow Blogger Contest (Ken)

If there is one thing that bloggers like, it is knowing that people are actually reading their blogs. We all post links to our favorite bloggers so that our readers can easily check them out. My friend, Alan, told me about his friend Ceasar, and a win-a-steak contest he is having to try and get some new readers the website he and some friends have.

Steak or not, I am always willing to help out fellow bloggers, so here are my three favorite posts from Argentina's Travel Guide. (Just click the underlined word to read the post.)

1. Because Helen and I are planning trip to Iguazu, I enjoyed Danielle Del Balso's description of the boat ride under the falls.
2. Ushuaia was in the news quite a bit recently as President Kirchner was supposed to make a major speech there on the 25th anniversary of the Malvines/Falklands war. I was hoping to get south, but with colder weather coming, and not having proper clothing with me, I guess I'll have to settle for Samantha Walters' description.
3. Finally, I enjoyed Danielle Del Balso's description of grocery shopping in Buenos Aires. My post on the same subject got quite a lot of discussion.

Happy reading!

Profesores Particulares: formal and informal (Ken)

While I continued with the next level of classes at Universidad de Buenos Aires, Helen began studying with a private tutor--una profesora particular. Now that my UBA classes are over, I decided to do the same.

Helen and I brought our textbooks from the USA that are used at my college for Spanish 101, 102, 201, and 202 classes. Our tutor, Nieves, is using these materials as well as her own materials to teach us.

Helen has come up with a pretty good way of setting up her lessons. She writes narrations using present and past tense about what she has been doing or what she did the day before. Nieves then reads them and teaches the finer points of the language and usage. Helen is now branching out and writing in different verb tenses--what she would like to do, plans to do. She hopes to work up to the very tricky verb construction of "what she would have done."

I am currently reviewing preterit and imperfect verbs. I took a few weeks off to let them sink in, and they seem to be making sense to me now. I am able to remember and use them better.

The young people at the café continue to be our tutors as well. We have coffee there later in the morning when the place is empty. Often, we are the only customers and they talk with us for what seems like a really long time.

We talked about the differences in Easter/Pascuas customs. Rather than an Easter basket, in Argentina, they get a large, hollow, chocolate Easter egg--huevo de Pascuas chocolate--that is filled with candy. They also don't have the hide-the-eggs tradition here. No ham and potatoes au gratin here, Melissa had pasta for Easter dinner.

We also had a lengthy discussion about women's underware yesterday--Helen can give you the details on that one. Some days, a relaxing cup of coffee is anything but. It becomes an on-your-toes conversation with on-the-spot mental translation.

Another of our informal tutors is Laura. She works in the fiambiaria on the corner. We met here way back with the "jamón común" episode. She is very nice and takes an interest in our Castillano progress.

Then there are the guys in our building--José Luis, the portero; and Miguel, the engargado. They meet and greet us whenever we enter or leave the building. Aside from the social-courtesy exchanges (Hola, que tal? Como andan? Todo bien?) they ask us where we are off to and what we have been doing. That makes us use past and future verb tenses.

So that is where we are in our studies now. Our informal teachers are sometimes more valuable than our formal teachers.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Protest march for Carlos Fuentealba (Ken)

There was a big protest march today in Buenos Aires.

Teachers here in Argentina have been protesting all across the country for better wages and working conditions. The national minimum wage for teachers was just raised to $1040 per month (about US$335 or about US$4,000 a year). In the province of Neuquén, in Patagonia, teachers were protesting last Wednesday when a police officer fired a tear gas canister, point-blank, at the head of Carlos Fuentealba, a chemistry teacher, fracturing his skull. He died over the weekend.

Teachers in Buenos Aires, and from all around Argentina, gathered with other social and human rights organizations beginning at 10:00 this morning. As a teacher myself, I went to march with them.

(Photos are from Clarín as you are now aware of my unfortunate camera incident. I did, however, take some video.)

Everyone gathered at the Obolisco and marched down Diagonal Norte to the Province House of Neuquén at the corner of Maipú where there were many passionate speeches about civil and human rights and state repression at the hands of the Federal Police.

All along the route, I saw some interesting protest signs. Let me translate a few for you:
"We work--they exploit us.
We negotiate--nothing changes.
We protest--they kill us."
"Chalk will not write in blood."
"We are in the street because our friend was "assasinated."
The protest made its way to Plaza de Mayo, where all protests inevitably find their way.
Many other city services shut down in protest as well: public schools were closed, Buenos Aires University cancelled classes, many of the colectivo driver unions stopped running between 2 and 4. The hospitals refused to see all but emergency patients after 9:30 this morning.
I marched with a groups of teachers from Capital Federal. Everyone was calm. I encountered a group of Zona Norte protesters who were a bit agitated and scary, I got away from them. There were so many people, I had to leave the march and walk down parallel streets to get to the back of the speaking area to hear the speeches.
It will be interesting to read the papers tomorrow and see how much I missed. I was in the middle of a crowd and had a difficult time seeing the forest for the trees.

10-4-07 UPDATE: La Nacion says there were 30,000 people there yesterday. CNN also has a story. The Washington Post also covered the event.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Felices Pascuas! (Ken)

Helen and I were both born and raised Catholic. Although we don’t really practice, we go to the Easter Vigil each year. Our younger daughter, Katherine, usually goes with us. But tonight, we were in Recoleta. So we went to Inglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

We were amazed how the service was just like home. Same fire, same candles, same melodies of the hymns. It was rather reassuring to lean agains the cool wall of an 18th century church and watch the Easter vigil just like people have done for almost 300 years.

Tomorrow, we will get up and have coffee with our Rosca and have Easter dinner together.

Felices Pascuas! mis amigos

Friday, April 06, 2007

17 things I like about Argentina and . . . (Ken)

After over three months, I am ready to make a list of things I like about this place:

1. I am tall here.
2. Eating in restaurants and cafés.
3. Public Transportation
4. The "Live and let live" attitude.
5. The ketchup, mustard and mayonaise that come in bags instead of bottles and jars.
6. I don't have to drive anywhere, ever.
7. The bread.
8. Really good street musicians.
9. The weekend artisan fairs.
10. I can afford to drink nice wine.
11. The weather.
12. Empenadas
13. The people are really nice looking here.
14. Universal health care.
15. Personal responsibility.
16. Parrillas and asados
17. Exploring the city on foot and on my bike.

. . .and 17 things I miss about home:

1. My dog.
2. Variety in (and good tasting )beer.
3. Speaking English.
4. Quiet.
5. Trees.
6. Playing music with other musicians.
7. The ease of buying things.
8. CNN and NPR
9. Reading the Sunday paper and watching the Sunday political talk shows.
10. Feeding the birds in my backyard.
11. Seeing the stars at night.
12. Working on projects in my yard.
13. Window screens.
14. Spicy food.
15. Following local politics.
16. Making good coffee at home in the morning.
17. Going to work, being with my students and my colleagues.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

. . .and again! (Ken)

You will notice that there is no photograph accompanying this blog entry. That is because my camera was stolen from me today on the street in the middle of the afternoon. Helen and I were taking a city tour. I was looking at some architectural features of a particulalry interesting building when I felt someone crash into me, wrap his arm around me to hold me still, rip my camera case from my belt, and run across Ave. de Mayo.

It took two seconds.

Ironic, isn't it. I write about crime and the next afternoon become a crime victim.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Crime and crime again (Ken)

Last Sunday, I left my building and noticed two federal police walking into the café across the street. As they entered, Leo, one of the mozos who is very helpful to us, was gesturing in a manner similar to describing the height and build of a man.

Helen and I stopped in for coffee yesterday and I asked him why the police were there Sunday. He told us he had been robbed. It was pretty much the classic MO I hear very often here in Buenos Aires. According to Melissa, a man walked in acting very friendly, “Hola! Qué tal? Como te va? Then his pulled out a pistol and stuck it in Leo’s ribs and said, “Darme todo de la plata!” Leo handed all the money over and the guy left the café and hopped on the back of the motorcycle driven by his waiting accomplice.

We told José Luis, the portero in our building, what happened and he told us, “ésa es tres veces” (That makes three times now). I don’t feel unsafe in this neighborhood; I am always cautious, but when it happens that close, it is disconcerting.

Another favorite is the “Bird dropping” trick. Almost every week someone posts on the BAnewcomers discussion board that it happed to them or someone they know. It is so prevalent that the police call them “The Bird People.” Here is how it works: a kind man or woman comes over and points out that you have a pigeon dropping on your clothes. On cue, an accomplice arrives with water and paper towels to assist (paper towels in Buenos Aires should be your first clue that something is not right). As the accomplice distracts you with the cleaning, the other goes through your pockets or purse helping himself to your wallet, money, credit cards and digital camera.

Our only experience, that we know of, as potential victims, happened at the bus station in Retiro when we returned form Córdoba. I was waiting for our bags when I felt a hand go in the front pocket of my pants. I thought Helen had joined me, but when I looked over, I saw a woman moving swiftly away. Nothing was taken.

Helen was given, and unwittingly tried to pass, counterfeit money. She gave the pharmacy a 10 peso note and the cashier handed it back to her and said "falso", then made the action for her to tear it up. We kept it to bring home.

We have been told that this was not so much of a problem before the 2001 economic crisis. People here became so desperate that many turned to petty crime. Still, it is not an unsafe city, and you just need to take the same precautions you would take in any major city.

I do feel badly for Leo, though. When he handed over the money there was not quite $1000 pesos. The robber was angry that there was not more money. No one deserves to be threatened with a gun for a few hundred pesos. I am sure he was frightened. He has a young daughter and a child on the way.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Adriana (Ken and Helen)

Our neighbors back home in Frederick, Maryland, Julio and Maria Euginia, are from Argentina. Julio’s son died last year and his widow, Adriana, lives in Palermo Hollywood here in Capital Federal. Maria has been encouraging us to visit with Adriana. However, Adriana does not speak English and our Castillano, well, you know . . .

Anyway, after some phone tag, we made plans to have lunch at her home on Saturday. Remember, this was a telephone conversation, so we were pretty happy that we got the day, time, and address correct. Helen was very nervous about going because she was certain that she would either clam up totally, or babble in incoherant spanish all day.

We had to take two busses to get there, which was a small victory. Arriving at Adriana’s, we were happy to be expected. We were greeted by Adriana and her daughter, Guadalupe, and Monica, her housekeeper. We spent the next four hours speaking nothing but Spanish. Lupe knows some English, but she is shy and uncertain and would not attempt to use it. We understood totally.
We sat and talked and shared photographs. It was funny to see pictures of our Maryland neighborhood and Washington DC while sitting in a living room in Buenos Aires. Monica made us a wonderful meal and we settled in at the table. For the most part, the conversation was smooth and easy. Adriana spoke slowly and, we are pretty sure, simplified her vocabulary. We know that our verb tenses were not always correct, and we sometimes had to look up a word or two on Helen’s pocket translator, but we were right there in the conversation the whole time. It was very generous of Adriana to be so welcoming and patient with us. At one point Helen even asked her if she understood what we were saying, and she very kindly assured us that she did.
She didn't spend the day correcting us, or speaking beyond our ability, she just very aptly crafted a day of conversation that made us feel really good and gave us a lot of practice.
Adriana is very pretty, interesting, and pleasant to be around. She showed us some photos of her wedding party from about 25 yrs ago. They had slowly roasted an entire cow over wood coals on an iron cross for the party. It was facinating. She was very young and just as cute as can be.
We had just a wonderful afternoon. What we thought would be an awkward day of language humiliation turned out to be a lovely day with lovely people.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Good Bye Charlie... and other stuff (Helen)

Charlie came and went like the wind. Definately the worst part about his being here was that he went back home. Ken blogged on everything that he did and saw, but Ken didn't mention what a good guest he was. First of all, I was in awe of his stamina. He arrived with some kind of chest cold that I was fairly certain was on its way to pneumonia, but he never complained. Ken kept him on the move constantly - I stayed home for half the activities because I am a wussy - and he just kept going. Also, the walking, walking, walking - if you don't do it all the time can wreak havoc on the feet. I know b/c I spent the first month here with my feet covered in bandaids. We didn't even know Charlie had blisters until practically his last day. And also, he is incredibly low maintenance! He slept on an air mattress on the floor, ate whatever, whenever, and was always happy. He even brought us things we needed from home, and complimented me on my spanish skills! What a saint.

Now for other stuff: We have been here for half of our time now. Like anything, the more you learn, the less you know. I realize how little we know about the people here. Not what they eat, or how weird they are about the coins, or how they dress, but about their social opinions, expectations, prejudices, fears, etc. Our conversations are too superficial, and our ability to evesdrop too limited. One example of unstated, yet understood, behavior is the open display of disobeying the law. They even have a spanish expression for this behavior. But, they do follow codes of behavior, which are too complex for Ken and me to understand in this short amount of time. By contrast, US citizens are rule followers. We drive in the lines on the street and will reprimand anybody who does not do the same. If a sign says to stay off the grass, by god, we stay off the grass! And if somebody else walks on that hallowed grass we yell at them "Can't you read the sign!". We follow laws that we think are ridiculous because it is the law. Occassionally we engage in civil unrest to change a law, because if we don't change it then we have to keep following it. With the exception of big-business, we don't bribe our policemen or local officials. It is against the law. We don't butt in line.


Codes are more subtle, but just as effective. This whole chaotic, seemingly random driving technique, for example, is really a very organized dance with accepted and unaccepted behavior, that appears to have nothing to do with the rules. There are, of course, the codes between gender. Women board the bus first. Seats are always surrendered for older women. On the flip side, women do not look men in the eye on the street. If I came here to find a man and get married, I would have no idea how to play the game.


These are the beginnings of some things I am starting to understand - unless, of course, I am totally wrong.