Saturday, August 15, 2009

un día en el campo, part 2

These two men were charlando- across the tables - over a choripan. Classic.

I really wish I could sleep like this...

This guy drew the short straw and was in the cage next to the peacocks.

¡Que rico! Chocolate-covered, dulce de leche filled churros...

Boina? Check. Impressive moustache? Check.

Yes, that's a sheep.

Oh, and I completely forgot to mention another favourite part of the fair - the propinquity of the cows to the parrilla (Argentina BBQ). I tried to capture just how close the live cows were to their less fortunate brethren...

On the left, the parrilla; on the right, the cows. The journey from "field" to plate has never been so short.

The complete bizarre-ness of the scene seemed to be completely lost on the argentinos. Maybe it was just weird for me, a former vegetarian, for people to be eating bife while 10 feet away, this was staring at you:

And yes, I know it's just part of life, the Circle of Life, if you will (cue Mufasa's monologue.) People eat animals. I would even say it's natural. But still, I prefer not to have my meal-in-its-former-life stare at me. Sure, it's just a cow, but I could see it in his eyes - he was judging me. 

un día en el campo

About a week and half ago I went to La Rural for the “fair.”

Every year prize-winning animals from across Argentina are brought to La Rural for an “Exposición de Ganadería, Agricultura, e Industria Internacional”, or a sort of state fair-esque event. Cows, horses, chickens, sheep, and the like are brought on display for porteños and their children to gawk at. Or so I thought.

I initially had no intention of going – the thought of thousands of loud kids running around barnyard animals had no appeal to me. But after several of my students had explained that it was typically Argentine event and represented a different part of Argentine society, I thought I would give it a go.

Ok, in reality I heard that in addition to the animals, there were vendors selling artisanal cheese, cured meats, dulce de leche and other sweets. Moreover I was told that free samples were involved, and lots of ‘em. I’m convinced that there are certain universal pleasures in this world, things that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, no matter your circumstances. And no, I’m not waxing profound…I’m simply alluding to things like bubbles, magnets, miniature horses, and free samples. Seriously, if you randomly saw a miniature horse walking on the sidewalk (as I did on my way to La Rural), would you not fail to smile? As for bubbles and magnets, maybe that’s a bit puerile, but come on – how cool are magnets?

But I digress. So it was the prospect of free samples more so than animal-gawking that drew me to La Rural, but I was extremely glad that I went. I had tried to go on Sunday, but upon seeing the 5-block-long line, I decided against it. (I later read in a newspaper that around 100,000 people attended La Rural on Sunday alone.) I tried again on Tuesday, and despite it being the last day, it was not too crowded.

And for me, it was magical.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been in the concrete jungle of Buenos Aires for too long, or perhaps it’s because I’m from the suburbs and have some glorified notion of farms, but it was refreshing (metaphorically, not literally; the entire place smelled of hay/shit) to see the animals. I’m not a big fan of zoos or spending an afternoon staring at caged animals, so initially I was a bit turned off by the whole set-up. But this repugnance was quickly taken over by sheer wonder. Yes, I’m just talking about cows, but these were cows. Not just any ol’ Bessie. While I had thought that I would brush quickly by the animals and head straight for the food, I found myself gawking and pointing in amazement along with all the porteño children I had intended to avoid.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I expected the animals would be such a bore. El campo – the farms and countryside – has always been the heart of Argentina, a country which is, to a great extent, an agricultural country. Argentine beef is renowned throughout the world, so it’s no surprise that the country’s most-prized animals are impressive. And fuckin’ huge!

I would have to say that the cows were my favourite, followed by the sheep – all different varieties – and chickens. Again, barnyard animals can seem so mundane, but these animals were truly beautiful (and it’s not just because of my untrained eye.) Here are some photos, though as always, I don’t think they do the animals justice (but I’ll blame that on the cages and not my mediocre photography skills.)

(Ok, scratch that, I'll do a separate post with pictures; my computer is acting up.)

Beyond the animals, the people were my favourite part of the fair. So I have this weird thing about taking candid pictures of old and interesting looking people…it’s a bit creepy, I know, but it’s what I do. And La Rural was full of just those kind of people. Many were older and wealthy - I assume they own a lot of land. With their fur coats and multiple diamonds, they reminded me, to a certain extent, of the country club crowd back in the States (not that I have frequented a country club.) Others, however, were the more traditional farmhands and workers. Here are some candid pictures – pardon the blurriness, I was trying to be stealthy (although I almost always failed and was noticed, but the men didn’t seem to mind that I was taking their picture.)

Again, I'll post them later...

As strange as it sounds, I was completely inspired by the fashion…at the agricultural fair. Seriously. If I were a dude, I’m pretty sure I would grow a thick mustache, don a boina (beret), some bombachas de campo (gaucho pants), thick leather boots, a poncho, and look like these guys:

I did buy myself a boina, and I’m determined to make it work. There are some people who wear hats and look impeccably chic, and others who look tragic in hats, no matter the style. I unfortunately fall into the latter group. But these boinas were adjustable, meaning it actually fits my big head, so I haven’t given up hope…yet. I will rock a boina, it’s just a matter of time. 

The free food samples did not disappoint, either. I’m pretty sure my new favourite words en castellano are “Vení a probar!” (Come and try!) And come and try I did…several times. Outside were the cheese, cured meats, and pastry vendors. After making the rounds – several times over – I decided to actually sit and have a choripan. Oh, how I loves the choripan. It’s so simple – a chorizo (sausage), bland white bread (which I otherwise dislike and avoid) and chimichurri….lots of it. I topped it off with a dulce de leche-filled, chocolate-covered churro. Divine. After which, I felt like this:

So all in all, a wonderful afternoon. It fit in well with the book I am currently reading, Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a fascinating account of the state of crisis in American agriculture and how this crisis reflects a broader crisis of values in American society. Though it was originally published around 30 years ago, its themes still resonate today.

Oh, and did I mention that my wonderful cousin Sam is in town? Look, Sam, you’re on my blog!

But seriously, it’s great to have some family in town (and not just because she has treated me to dinner several times…and by ‘she’ I mean my aunt and uncle – thanks, Ro & Jeff!)

She’s studying abroad here, and listening to her talk about her experience thus far makes me nostalgic for my year in Bologna. Today I’m even more nostalgic, as one year ago today I left Bologna…but enough of that. I’m going to check out Caminos y Sabores (another foodie event at La Rural) and Terra Madre Argentina…


Friday, July 24, 2009


This past weekend I went to Colonia, Uruguay to get my tourist visa renewed.

Side note: Tourist visas last 90 days, meaning that every 3 months you need to leave the country – if only for several hours. If you overstay your visa, you will have to pay a fine upon leaving the country. While this used to be less than the cost of the trip to Colonia, it has recently been raised to $300. (A round trip ticket on the one-hour ferry costs about $280.) I’ve heard that if you overstay your visa more than three times, you are henceforth banished from Argentina. I don’t how true this is, but it’s not something you want to find out the hard way.

Colonia is a quiet town which boasts a light house and a quaint (if a bit touristy) historical center. It has the obvious bonus of not being Buenos Aires,  meaning it’s quiet and you can breathe and think more easily. When we went three months ago it was the end of April, and we slept on the beach after enjoying a long lunch outside. Upon waking up, we found a great little café where we devoured delicious chocolate chip cookies and watched the sun set. It was, in a word, wonderful.

This past Saturday was cold and misty/rainy, putting a damper on our six-hour trip. So instead of wandering around the cobble-stoned streets, we found a restaurant with a warm fire and decided to stay there.

I’m not sure what prices are like in the rest of Colonia – the more modern, less touristy part of the city – or the rest of the country, for that matter. but most of the restaurants we saw were very expensive. We were told that 1 peso argentino = 5.5 pesos uruguayos; luckily all places seem to accept pesos argentinos. But our lunch – which consisted of two chorizos, a morcilla (yea, I know it’s gross, but I’m obsessed and can’t help it), papas fritas, provoleta, and three aguas came to AR$150, or $50 each, plus tip. Slightly ridiculous, when considering that we ordered the cheaper items. In Buenos Aires, chorizo and morcilla are often sold on the streets, and even when in a nice parilla they are served as appetizers and cost about $6. So be prepared for the inexplicably higher prices in Colonia. 

I think I had mentioned the chocolate chip cookie café in another post. We made an effort to find the café again, and considering Colonia’s size it was not difficult. Though I’m a bit reluctant to give up the name of the café, lest it become too well-known, it would be a bit presumptuous of me to think that one comment in my blog would send masses of people to overwhelm this gem. Besides, it’s a great spot that deserves business, in my opinion. So check it out – Lentas Maravillas, Santa Rita 61. It lives up to its name of un lugar sin apuro; if I had more time I would spend hours pouring over their collection of art and cook books and foreign literature (with caffé and chocolate chip cookies as fuel, obvio.)

As my second trip to Colonia, it conveniently marked – albeit a bit prematurely –  the six-month point of my Buenos Aires experience. After my initial how-the-hell-has-it-already-been-six-months? reaction, it immediately put me in a contemplative mood: what have I done so far, what have I learned, how have I changed, and what do I hope to do and learn and see in my remaining time in Argentina? There are frustrating moments of reflection when you think, “I’ve been living here for a while, and yet I still sound like blabbering fool whenever I speak Spanish”  or, “I’ve only really been in Buenos Aires, and even still I’ve only seen a quarter of the city.” Such thoughts beg the question, what have I been doing all this time?  In such moments, I like to remember that often it’s the seemingly innocuous or mundane moments which constitute much more of our lives than we sometimes would like. Yet these moments are not devoid of value; although the change they bring is more imperceptible, it exists nonetheless. Almost inexplicably you are not the person you once were; you seem to change imperceptibly. But once you look back, it hits you, and you realize that the right combination of the quotidian and the extraordinary have brought you to where you are today.

In my attempt at profundity I fear I have become, yet again, quite incoherent. To be more concrete, I’ll say that last week, when I went to an institute that I work for, I started speaking in Spanish with the secretary.  Upon hearing my Spanish my boss, who was in her cubicle and couldn’t see me come in, got up and asked who was speaking Spanish so well. (Pardon my bragging.) It was in that moment that I thought, despite all the frustrations inherent in learning a foreign language, I have been making significant progress. Sometimes the external reinforcement is needed to make us stop and take stock of how far we’ve come.

Moreover, I’ve gotten to what is, for me, one of the most fun parts of learning a language – picking up on all the little words that people use, the accompanying hand gestures, and then realizing how many people say the same words in the exact same manner. For me, once I get to this point, I feel a certain sense of ownership, like I have cracked the secret code, making the language mine. I don’t mean to say that it’s my language, or the language in which I predominantly speak or think in, merely that it’s mine. I suppose its one of those things that you have to experience to understand. In Italy it was words like cioè, guarda, dici, and che cazzo ne so?, (which, deprived of a context and tone are meaningless) among others which made Italian mine. En castellano, it’s words like este, mirá, dale, todo bien, and even the particular way of pronouncing “ehm” which I love. Yes, I know these are all very basic vocabulary, but for me they are much more, as they have connected me to castellano in a way which I didn’t feel for quite some time. And when you don’t feel connected to a language, it is distant and impossible and discouraging.

I’ve also somehow become a real teacher. A new teacher at the one of the businesses I work for shadowed two of my lessons last week, so I found myself explaining the general structure of my lessons, the materials I use, etc. As I’m normally on the other end of this conversation, it was a bit odd to be talking as though I knew what I was doing. (Sidenote: I’m pretty much convinced that none of us every really knows what the hell we’re doing, it’s just that some people are better at pretending than others.) But then I realized I do, in fact, know what I’m doing, at least to a certain extent. I’ve amassed two binders full of materials, much of which is activities I have made myself.  How did this happen? Slowly, but surely.

Of course, as soon as you begin to feel connected it seems like it’s time to go. While my time has not yet come (put that way it sounds like I’m dying rather than just going home to Baltimore), I have been sort of feeling the phenomenon of pre-nostalgia, or of nostalgia-for-things-that-will-be. (Is there a better word for this? I’d love to know.)  Meaning, quite simply, that even though I’m still in Buenos Aires, I get sad thinking of the things that I will miss once I’ve left. Which is stupid, to a certain extent, because I’m unnecessarily becoming sad, but also good, to a certain extent, because it makes you realize how lucky you are and makes you want to take advantage of the time you have left. I won’t go into all the little things that induce feelings of this type of nostalgia; I’ll save that for a later date.

This particular brand of nostalgia is not to be confused with another, that of nostalgia-for-things-that-never-were. Our memories often play tricks on us, and I’ve also been experiencing this emotion more frequently than I care for. It has been induced most often after talking with my family on Skype and hearing of summer crab feasts and get-togethers, among other things. I find myself longing for home, though it’s usually a fleeting feeling, lasting only until I remember that life back in the suburbs of Baltimore, while not awful, was not particularly stimulating. I remember this and take a deep breath, knowing that I’ll be going back before I know it; I can deal with all the conflicting emotions then.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

bust out your barbijo, here comes la gripe porcina!

So it seems la gripe porcina - swine flu - is on the rise in Argentina. According to the New York Times, 35 people have died "locally", which I assume means the entire province of Buenos Aires. It was announced yesterday that schools and universities will close starting next Monday. Normally, the last two weeks of July are winter break, but the government has decided to start the break early as a precaution. One of my students is a doctor, and according to him, the current situation is much worse than the media and government would like us to believe. When I mentioned the death count, he said that in reality the figure is much higher. Well, isn't this magical?

Oh, and Happy Canada Day! Here's a little piece (from the NY Times, again) about what some Canadian expats miss about Canada.

What do I miss about Canada/Montréal? I would have to say Jean-Talon market, the biggest open-air market in North America, is up there on my list. And the bizarre/ugly/awesome québécois accent. Loonies and toonies are great, especially because they are easy to come by - imagine not having to ration your change! And the obvious, "eh?" It's such a great and versatile word, eh? (Wow, I'm clever.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

fin de junio updates & recommendations.

Yet again, I have neglected my blog. Apologies. And yet again, I find myself sans excuse. As the five-month-mark approaches, I feel the need to write something, however brief, to keep my faithful readers (Hi, Mom) updated.

My last post ended on a bitter note: I was bitching – my normal state, it seems – about the lack of heat in my home, and at the time I had had enough and was ready to pack up my shit and go. As soon as I found a new place, I said, I was outta there, and my roommate would have to deal.

Funny story. Turns out I’m still writing from good ol’ calle El Salvador. I haven’t moved. In the end, I am the one having to bancarsela.

Shortly after I told my roommate about my plans to move, she gave in and bought an electric heater for my room. So now I can live, work, and sleep quite comfortably in my room. Granted,  I’ve remained somewhat isolated here, as the rest of the house is still uncomfortably cold. But beggars can’t be choosers, eh?

Moreover, the apartment search was going no where fast. I saw about 10 places or so, and none of them were just right. Perhaps I was too Goldilocks-esque in my criteria, but at the end of the day I didn’t find anything that would justify paying significantly more rent. And I’m lazy. When the prospect of actually having to pack up all shit started to materialize I thought, “well, everything’s here now…it might as well stay here.” So stay I have and stay I will.

Also, there may (or may not) be a slight change of plans, if all goes according to plan. Meaning there’s a slight possibility I’ll move to another part of Argentina for an apprenticeship (no, not internship; apprenticeship – how 19thcentury/bad-ass is that?) in August or September – in which case I might as well stay put for another month or so. I’m waiting to hear back from my potential hosts, and until then I’m loath to divulge any more details. Hopefully by the end of this week I’ll know more.

So, what have I been up to? Good question. The past couple of weeks have gone by so quickly, and when I look back on them and try to recount everything that has happened, not much comes to mind. Really I’ve just been busy with classes; somehow or another I’ve gotten into a routine: I teach several classes a day, and then plan for the next day’s lesson at night. Yes, the routine is good: teaching is becoming more easy, more natural, and I have less and less material to create as I’m recycling my lessons. But I’m also the sort of person who begins to chafe once I have settled a bit; as soon as I’m comfortable part of me wants a change of scene (although yes, there is the lazy part of me that whines but it’s so comfortable here!) I’m itching to get out of BsAs and travel, but I also know that it would be better to keep working now and travel later when the weather is better.

Yes, here in the southern hemisphere it’s winter. Though it was nice to rub it in everyone’s face when I was sunbathing at February, now I have to listen to my family’s tales of picking crabs on our deck in the warm summer sun. I’m a bit jealous, to say the least. If I had been smart, I would have planned to go home right about now so that I would have two summers in a row. Beat the system, if you will. But not really, because four months abroad, for me, is not enough.

To be fair, winter in BsAs (so far) has not been that cold. It’s been in the upper 40s recently, and though it will probably get a bit colder (July being the coldest month) it won’t be getting Canada-cold, and so I shouldn’t complain.

But even so, the cold weather has completely fucked with my sense of time. The other day, for instance, I thought of Christmas, and got excited because, hell, it’s cold, it must be Christmas soon! Right? Hold the phone, not so much. But Christmas or no Christmas, I’ll be mulling some Malbec soon enough.

So as much as I hate to say it, it’s been same old, same old around here, at least in my day-to-day life. I have a couple café/restaurant recommendations, so here goes:

Status – Virrey Cevallos 178, Monserrat – I’ve been to this Peruvian restaurant twice and have enjoyed it both times. It’s great food at a good price. I’m no connoisseur of Peruvian food, but the crowds of people make me think that this is the authentic stuff. There are many fish dishes (which are very welcome in this city) and some are even spicy (do mine eyes deceive me? Spicy…in Buenos Aires? Yes, they are indeed a bit picante.) I went a couple days ago with two friends, and we each got a pisco sour and split three main courses (all of which were fairly large portions.) I ordered the ceviche mixto – a mix of raw calamari, mussels (possibly?) and some kind of fish – and though it’s not exactly a winter dish, it really hit the spot. Ceviche is kind of my latest obsession…I know, a raw fish dish isn’t exactly craveworthy for most people, but damn, it’s good.

Oui Oui – Nicaruaga 6068 – This is a small café in Palermo Hollywood. Actually, there is a café and then almacén, or small, general store, but both places seem to have the same café menu. It’s a cozy, French-style bakery/café that is very popular, particularly among the expat crowd. I’ve been there several times and English always seems to be the dominant language among the clientele. One possible explanation is the bagels (as in Europe, bagels in Buenos Aires are practically non-existent.) Other menu items – fresh salads with legitimate lettuce (I’m sorry, iceberg doesn’t count) and savoury ingredients like avocado, goat cheese (!) and sun dried tomatoes and whole wheat bread sandwiches - also attract the expats. So if you’re willing to put up with crowds and pay a bit more (a salad is around $25 AR, but in my opinion, it’s worth it), check it out.

La Poesía – Bolivar y Chile, San Telmo –  This is a favourite haunt of mine; it’s one of those places where you can sit, have a caffé and then spend the whole afternoon reading and people-watching. It’s quite cozy, though it can get a bit loud with people coming and going. It’s no secret, so you’re likely to find crowds of tourists and porteños alike. It’s a five-ten minute walk from Plaza Dorrego, making it a great place to relax after perusing the (amazing) antique fair on Sundays.

Los ojos del surrealismo – Abasto Shopping –  This is an exhibition of over 230 works by the brilliant Dalí, including a series of Tarot card and Don Quijote-inspired pieces. Though I’ve been to many Dalí exhibitions, he never ceases to fascinate me; this one was no exception. Here’s an article (en castellano) about the exhibit:

It opened a couple of weeks ago, and if I’m not mistaken will stay until August. At AR$35 it’s a bit pricey (though there’s a discount for students on weekdays), but I think it was worth it.

Chipá vendors – Retiro – I won’t go into my chipá obsession again (see my last post). Suffice to say I was in the Retiro neighbourhood (ok, in reality I went 15 minutes out of my way to get there) and so hit up one of the chipá vendors. I was not disappointed. This particuar chipá was excellent: a lot of cheese, probably more than the traditional chipá, in fact. There was also a bit of anís, which I had not had before. I may or may not be planning another trip there for some time this week.

Finally, elections (congressional, provincial, and municipal) were held yesterday. I’m still trying to catch up on Argentine politics, so I’ll just post a link to an article in the New York Times lest I sound like an ignoramus.

And thank you, Governor Sanford, for making the word “hypocrite” easier to explain to my students. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

food & frío.

Here's another interesting article about Buenos Aires, this time focusing on the food scene:

I haven't been the biggest fan of the food here - blame it on my preference for fresh fruit and vegetables and my year in Italy (once you've gone to da Michele, you will never be the same. I guarantee it.) I came here with an open mind - I knew it would be folly to try to go back to vegetarianism - and an assumption that high quality produce would be readily available. I've been disappointed. Yes, verdulería are a dime a dozen, but the quality is often sub-par. And don't even get me started on the bread. The bland, white bread. It really is a shame. 

However, I've been here for four months now, and in that time I've found places where I can get better produce and (believe it or not) some really good bread. I highly recommend Hausbrot - a German style bakery-chain with several locations in the city. I've been to the one right outside the Alto Palermo Shopping and in Jumbo on Avenida Bullrich. I go there once a week to get my loaf of Fermento Natural de Centeno (natural rye) and a couple whole-wheat, veggie-stuffed empanadas. Es muy rico. 

Anyway, I've managed to deal. But that doesn't mean that I can't bitch every now and then about the general lack of flavour and spicyness. It's a common complaint among expats, and this article seems to sum up the sentiment. 

I've been meaning to explain the chipa/empanada induced coma that I mentioned a couple posts ago, so here goes. 

Thanks to a reader's comment on this blog, I found out about cooking courses offered by a woman, Teresita, in her home in Adrogué, a suburb located about 20 km outside of Buenos Aires. After checking out the website - - I signed up for the empanadas cooking class. It seemed like a great idea for anyone who 1) loves food and is trying to learn how to cook; 2) wants to learn more about Argentine culture (food being the consummate manifestation of culture) 3) wants to show off to their friends back in the States. I mean impart one's knowledge. So I contacted Teresita, booked a place in the class, and hopped on a train to Adrogué. 

I should have prefaced this story with a brief explanation of my obsession with chipá. 

Ok, so I am obsessed with chipá. What is chipá, you ask? I'll save you time and summarize the Wikipedia entry (but you should definitely do a google images search of it.) It's a traditional cheese-bread of Paraguay, making it paraguayo. (Sidenote: 'paraguayo' ties with 'uruguayo' for my favourite words en castellano. Altogether now: pah-rah-gwah-sho. And, oo-roo-gwah-sho. If saying that doesn't bring a smile to your face, then nothing will. Well, except maybe some fresh chipá.) It's made with manioc flour, giving it a distinct texture; when made well, it squeaks as you chew it. It sort of reminds me of an asiago cheese bread, but much better. It's not very popular here in Argentina; I've read (yea, I'm that cool and did some research) that in Paraguay there are chiperos - chipa vendors - selling fresh chipa every day on the streets. I've come across it in several confitería in Buenos Aires, but the real stuff (or at least what I think is the real stuff) can be found at the main bus station in Retiro. I'm not normally in the Retiro area, and because the area around the bus station is quite the clusterfuck, I try to avoid it. And so, sadly, I rarely get good chipá. But no worries - you can also find it wherever there is a large Paraguayo population, which tends to be in a lower-class neighbourhoods, such as the area around the Constitución train station. Oh, and would you look at that - I just happened to be taking the train from Constitución to Adrogué. (this in no way encouraged me to go to the empanadas cooking class.)

So I obviously hit up a couple chipá vendors - for purposes of comparison - before taking the train to Adrogué. Being only a short train ride - about half an hour - away, the ticket was cheap, though finding out which train to take was a bit more difficult. I ended up on the wrong train, but, quickly realising my mistake, got off and switched trains. I may or may not have hit up another chipá vendor while waiting for the right train. 

I soon made it to Adrogué and headed straight to Teresita's home. The little that I saw of the town seemed nice; the quiet and slow pace were a great respite from the busy-busy-busy of Buenos Aires. Upon meeting Teresita, I was immediately informed of a problem - "no hay agua." Why am I not surprised, I thought. I suppose it was a bit comforting to know that it's not just my shitbox apartment (more on the bitterness later) that suddenly and inexplicably loses running water. I was quickly assured that we could manage without water and off we went. 

It's always a treat to go into a real home when you've been living in an apartment for a while, but Teresita's home was particularly warm and inviting. We learned how to make two types of empanadas, one with a beef filling and one with a corn filling (empanada de humita.) First we made the filling, which is normally made the night before left in the fridge overnight. As everyone naturally wants to eat their creations, we just put the filling in the freezer after we made it. After chopping the vegetables and other goodies - peppers, onions, olives, corn, and hard boiled eggs - Teresita explained how to make the filling. While she did this, we all had a glass of white wine - a Torrontés, I believe. Then, we moved onto the dough. Making dough, though it seems labourious, is actually quite easy and fun and definitely worth the extra time it takes. Once we made the dough, we let it rest for a bit and then divided it into little balls. We then rolled the balls with rolling pins (which were actually fashioned out of broomsticks, and were perfectly suited for the task.) We then generously stuffed the empanadas. As Teresita said, there's nothing worse than a half-empty empanada. Agreed. It was a bit difficult how much filling was needed - too little is a disappointment, and too much makes for a sloppy empanada. We were taught the braided technique for closing the empanada, which is actually more difficult than it seems (or maybe I'm just a bit inept.) There were five students, myself included - a couple from the States who was staying at the bed and breakfast attached to the house, and an English/Portuguese mother and daughter. I think we made close to 40 empanadas, some (everyone else's) being better than others (mine.) Teresita glazed the dough with some sort of egg mixture before cooking them - half in the oven, half in the deep fryer. While we waited for them to cook, we relaxed outside in the beautiful garden and enjoyed another glass (or several...) of wine, this time a Malbec (obvio.) Teresita then served us our creations and we indulged in an empanada feast. Teresita sprinkled some sugar on the deep-fried empanadas, a nice touch which one doesn't often see. I think my favourite were the deep-fried beef empanadas. So that, plus several glasses of wine, along with my chipá tasting earlier, was the cause of my coma. And it was totally worth it.

I definitely recommend taking a cooking class with Teresita. She's a knowledgeable and kind host, and it's a great way to see another, more authentic part of Argentina. There are many tourist traps in Buenos Aires (El Caminito comes to mind), so this is perfect for getting outside the bubble and immersing yourself (if only for a couple hours) in the local culture. Plus, who doesn't love empanadas? The class cost $45 US, and was well worth it, in my opinion. 

In other news, I'm moving. Or at least I hope so. I've mentioned several times all the little problems that make my current place of residence "interesting" (which, if you couldn't tell, means "it really pisses me off, but what the hell; this place is cheap and I'm young and broke and can put up with it.") The weather has gotten predictably colder - it's winter, mas o menos - and for the past few weeks now the temperature inside my room has been the same as the temperature outside my room. Yes, after living in Buenos Aires I will never take insulation/central heating/any kind of heating for granted. Because no hay nada. Na-da. 

My complaints about the lack of heat begs the question: You've been living there for three months...did it really take you that long to realise there was no heat? Well, no. As soon as I moved in I remember thinking to myself, " could get a bit chilly in here come June." Turns out daily cat-naps in the late-summer sun make you forget such moments of prescience. I suppose my attitude of "fuck it, I'll deal with it later" was bound to bite me in the ass sooner or later. 

And as for the "didn't you survive a Montreal winter sans-heat?" question: Yes; during my second year at McGill my roommates and I never turned on the heat in our apartment. The difference? The heat from the bottom two apartments rose to ours. Oh, and I wasn't outside. Sure, -40 degrees is cold, but at least you're inside an insulated building. Though it's only 40 degrees here, I'm already wearing two pairs of pants, a turtleneck, and two sweatshirts. This isn't a matter of drinking some tea and sucking it up, believe me. 

But I was even prepared to buy an electric heater and buckle down for winter. And then, one morning, on her way to work, my Argentine roommate told me that she would be increasing rent quite substantially each month because things had become expensive. This arbitrary hike quickly converted my attitude from one of, "bueno, estoy pensando en mudarme" to "basta, me voy, hay que bancarsela." (Mom: that's "well, I'm thinking about moving" and "that's it, I'm outta here, deal with it.") At this point, I'd rather pay more for rent to be comfortable (crazy, right?) And it's not just about the heat - I have no work space (trying to work on a coffee table really kills your back, trust me) and no decent teaching space, either. So I figure I'll spend more money on rent for the rest of my time here, and save money when I'm living at home (ugh, part of me just died writing that.) 

Thus the Great Apartment Search, Buenos Aires edition: Part II, has officially begun. Hopefully I'll find a place before I freeze to death (it's a joke, Mom.) The silver lining to this cloud? Having learned the phrasal verbs, "to sweat one's balls off" and "to freeze one's ass off," my students have attained a more authentic manner of speaking. 

Thursday, May 28, 2009

a bit of reading...

I recently read two interesting articles about Buenos Aires - the city, its culture, and history. I thought I would share both of them:  

The first one is from the current issue of Smithsonian magazine:

It talks a bit about the expat scene in Buenos Aires, which has been getting a lot of attention recently. One often hears, "Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America"; most people agree that this is little more than a marketing ploy. One also hears, "Buenos Aires is like Prague in the 1990s", or right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'm not sure about this one either - if you mean a vibrant artistic and cultural scene paired with a weaker currency, then fine. But I think that's as far as the comparison goes. But then again, ¿qué sé yo? (Sidenote: this is one of my favourite expressions. It basically means, "What do I know?", but the manner in which Argentines say it - accompanied with the Italian-esque hand gesture - it's usually closer in meaning to "What the hell do I know?" It's very informal, and can be considered rude - so it's not advisable to say it to your boss, professor, or grandmother, for example. Everyone else is fair game. At least I think.)

The comment in the first page about the prevalence of English is a bit misleading - yes, if you hang out exclusively in Palermo, you will hear English quite a bit, and mostly of the American (United States) brand. But once you get out of the Palermo bubble - and you must - you're less likely to hear English. As for the businesses set up by expats - I've been to the Natural Deli twice, and have enjoyed it both times. It's a bit more expensive (at least for my budget) but it's a good place to check out to get some work done and get your fix of vegetables/health food. I haven't been to CBC (California Burrito Company) yet, though I've heard generally good things about it. They've just opened a second branch in Palermo Soho (I believe on Thames, but I'm not sure...) so sooner or later I'll make my way over there. The Argentimes is a great resource - they have a lot of information about upcoming events as well as interesting and pertinent articles about life in Buenos Aires. And finally, I live next door to the Peruvian martini bar, Mosoq. I haven't been there yet - again, a bit out of my budget, and when I do go out to dinner I prefer to go out, and not just right outside my house. 

Here's the link to a second article:

It's an extract from the book, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Alan Beattie. It discusses how the United States and Argentina - which both began the 20th century in a similar position - have developed over the past century, and how different policies have determined their current states. Many people don't realize that in the beginning of the twentieth century, Argentina had just as much appeal as the United States for immigrants from the Old World. Indeed, the similar culture and language of Argentina attracted many Italian and Spanish immigrants (unfortunately, however, the Italian immigrants failed to pass on the recipe for a true Napoletana pizza...¡qué garrón!) 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

la vida verdadera de una profesora de inglés en Buenos Aires

Several people have recently asked me about the reality of teaching English in Buenos Aires. Though I have briefly mentioned different aspects of my current job in other posts, I thought I would write something a bit more coherent and organized. And since a chipa/empanada-induced quasi-coma (oh sure, you laugh, but it's real) has confined me to my room, I figure there's no better time than now. (More on my chipa-obsession and empanada cooking course in a future post.)

Before coming to Buenos Aires I had heard several opinions about the prospects for teaching English here. "How easy is it to find work?" and "Can you make enough money to live on?" were the most frequently asked questions, and rightly so. I tried to read up on the subject as much as I could, but in the end I said, "Fuck it, I'll just figure things out when I get there." (an attitude which, for better or worse, has determined the course of my life thus far.)

So this is what I have found out over the course of the past three and a half months. Obviously everyone's experiences will be different, so I would keep that in mind when planning your own adventure. 

For my first month here I took an intensive TEFL Certification course at TEFL International. It's a big investment - about $1600 US for a four week course - to be sure, but one that I feel was worthwhile. Do I use the teaching methods I learned there in my lessons? Well, not really. Because all of my current classes are individual lessons, it's difficult to apply certain techniques. But that's not to say that I don't apply what I learned; it's just in a more general approach sort of way, if that makes any sense. 

Once I finished the course, I sent out my CV to many - probably around 20 - institutes. My school gave us a list of English teaching institutes in Buenos Aires, and while it was not entirely up to date (some schools had moved or closed) it was enough to get me started. I had interviews with several institutes; all of them were extremely informal and I have never been asked for a copy of my TEFL Certificate. 

With time I have been able to create a full-time schedule (mas o menos.) I currently work for two smaller institutes and a small business started by an American. I have the most students with the latter, and so far the experience has been great. I also have one private student. The pay ranges from place to place. Originally I told myself I would not work for less than $30 AR an hour (which is about $8 US. I usually avoid making the conversion, as every time I remember I'm making less than $8/hour I start to question my decision to stay here - cue the existential crisis and before you know it I have been rocking back and forth in the fetal position for a good two hours.) But I soon found that this salary was too much to expect from an institute, and that I would have to settle for less. Right now I am making anywhere between $23-26 AR an hour through institutes, and I charge $30 for private lessons (which is a steal, if I do say so myself.) 

In terms of how I spend my time...I have a different schedule each day, and some are busier than others. Evenings seem to be prime-time for lessons, as most business men and women want class after work. I had heard that travel time was one of the biggest disadvantages of teaching - it takes time to travel, time for which you are not paid. I'm pretty fortunate with the situation I have right now in that most of my lessons are in my neighbourhood - Palermo - and several of them are in my home. I have one student in Belgrano, a more residential area to the north, which is about 40 minutes from my home (well, really it's closer, but it takes me a while to walk to the bus stop) and two students in Microcentro, which is a 15 minute subte-ride away. So I can't really complain too much about an absurd amount of travel time. But it's definitely an important consideration to keep in mind. 

Classes generally last 1.5 - 2 hours, and when I'm not teaching I'm usually preparing for the next lesson. It's weird because even though I'm only teaching about 4-6 hours per day, the days have been going by so quickly. It's May 21st, and I still don't know how that happened. 

As for my students themselves, they are great (mas o menos.) They all have different levels, and it's been an interesting experience trying to adapt to their levels and interests and trying to figure out what type of exercises and activities fit each of their needs. In many cases they enjoy just talking - having a conversation, allowing me to correct them, and then continuing. This not only makes my job easier, but it's also a learning experience for me and a cultural exchange of sorts. For example, I read an article in the NY Times about a car-bullet-proofing trend in Sao Paulo and brought this up with my Brazilian student. This topic immediately got him talking about his position on Brazilian society and government, and I was shocked to find out that he had been held up at gunpoint at several times while driving through his native Sao Paulo; one time he was thrown out of his car and the people made away with his car. For his part, he was shocked to learn that when in the US I can drive with my windows down and feel safe, and not have to check out my rear view mirror every five seconds. I've also heard stories (some of them incomprehensible) about life in the South Korean army from my Korean student. After serving for two years (military service is compulsory for South Korean males), my student was discharged in March and then arrived in Buenos Aires two weeks later, not knowing a word of Spanish and only a handful of words in English. Classes are always interesting with Helen Chicken-Killer Keller (ok, this warrants an explanation. During one lesson I was trying to explain 'nickname.' I gave a couple of examples, and then, satisfied that I had got my point across, continued. Ten minutes later, my student started talking about driving a tank and how it had damaged his hearing: "I can't hear because of tank. My nickname - Helen Keller!" Well, I thought, at least he understands what a nickname is. At a different lesson, we were discussing foods, and he told me how much he loves chicken: "My nickname - chicken killer!" Hence, the ultimate nickname, Helen Chicken-Killer Keller, was born.") and they always put things in perspective for me - sure, I complain about how difficult Spanish can be, and how certain things about Argentine culture irk me. But at least this is somewhat familiar, not entirely overwhelming, and I can still speak my native language often. It's the quite the opposite for Helen Chicken-Killer Keller, and yet he's doing really well. Any situation is whatever you make of it, I suppose.

But I digress. So, is it worth it, this teaching English? Absolutely. True, I'm not really making enough money to live on, and my bank account (which has never recovered from my year in Italy) proves this. But it is possible to make a living teaching English down here - private students and a frugal lifestyle being the best ways to go about this. 

But I look at my situation this way: teaching English abroad has been a goal of mine for many years now, and not for financial reasons. You gain more from the experience than your paycheck (or envelope stuffed with cash) shows. Hell, I'm 21 years old and living in Buenos Aires. I came here with the intention of not only teaching English, but learning Spanish and learning about a part of the world I had never been to and did not know much about. And as far as these two more significant goals go, I think I'm doing pretty well. 

I've learned a lot about myself over these past three months, and I'm thinking I'm getting closer to answering that question that plagues so many post-college students, and I guess people in general - What the hell am I doing with my life?

Originally I thought I would start in Buenos Aires, get some experience, and then move to a more lucrative ESL market - South Korea being the country that most people mention. But being in Buenos Aires has reinforced something that I think I always knew, but never wanted to admit. I'm not good in big cities, and goddamnit, I like my comforts. So maybe Seoul or Tokyo are not for me, just in terms of size, and maybe the third world is not a good fit. They are locations that are undoubtedly unattractive and deserve to be seen and experienced, but they're not somewhere I would want to live, at least not right now.

So if not teaching, if not Argentina/South America, then Where? This probably is a shock to no one, but it begins with an I, ends with an -TALIA. Italians in Italy always complain about their country and how much they want to leave, but when leave, as so many of them still do, they just bitch about how their new home isn't Italy. Granted, this is a generalisation, and I'm sure it could be said about immigrants from many countries. But I've found it's particularly true with Italians, and now I know why; I'm going through the same withdrawal. To be honest, I would have a hard time trying to articulate what I miss about Italy (which means I'm probably romanticizing my time there, but so be it). Pero mi manca. Un sacco. 

I also somewhat naïvely thought that once I started teaching English, I would fall in love with teaching, have an epiphany, realise my purpose in life, etc. We all have those moments, and then almost always the "Really? How I could ever think that/am I really so self-unaware?" moment follows. Or at least that has been my experience. So no, I haven't fallen in love with teaching. Do I enjoy it? Yes, a definite yes, but it's not something I want to do as a real career.

Right now I'm sort of in that "By jove, I think I've got it!" upswing. I think I've had a lot of difficulty figuring out what to do with my life because of my many disparate interests. I also felt that, while I was interested in and liked many things, I was never passionate about any one of them in particular.  And as trite as it sounds, I have always thought you should find something you love and you should do it well. I'm at a point now where I feel my interests - history, languages, cultures, peoples, education, and most importantly, real, good food - seem to be converging. Or there's the potential for convergence, and right now I'm trying to work out the details. I'm applying for a Master's degree in Food Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Yea, that's right - food fuckin' culture. Ok, I need to wrap up this post, so I'll just recommend two books that I'm reading right now, that can best sum up my current state and the path I would like to pursue: "Slow Food Nation" (by Gigi Padovani) and "Slow Food Nation" (by Carlo Petrini - who currently holds the "Dopest Cat Alive" title in my book.) 

So take the plunge. Come to Buenos Aires to teach English. Sure, I didn't find exactly what I was expecting or hoping. But I've found so much more, and it's only May.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

life in BsAs

Wow, has it really been a month since my last post? I blame it on a combination of busy-ness and laziness and I'll try to get back in the swing of things. 

The past month has been interesting, wonderful, thought-provoking, frustrating, anxiety-inducing,'s been up and down, and just about everywhere in between. It's life in BsAs, and in my third month here I'm getting used to this range of experiences that have come to define my experience as an English teacher. 

As for the wonderful and breath-taking...
...paragliding over the Andes in the outskirts of Mendoza. Ever since I went bungee-jumping last year in Italy I have wanted to try another you-have-got-to-be-crazy extreme sport. Mendoza, a city located in the shadows of the Andes near the Chilean border, provided the perfect opportunity. After spending a day biking through the wine country, visiting several bodegas, and tasting wine and olive oil (also wonderful) my friend and I decided that we wanted to see the mountains; we soon found ourselves in the back of an old truck, barreling up a narrow mountain path. My fear of heights was mitigated by the breath-taking view of the Andes, which I tried to focus on - rather than look over the side of the truck into the abyss.
Once we reached the mountain top, we were quickly thrown into the harnesses and ready to go, or at least our expert guides (with whom we would jump) thought. Needing specific instructions, I began to drill my guide in a mix of broken Spanish and English made incomprehensible by the 'what the fuck am I doing about to run off a mountain?' thoughts running through my head. "When I say run, you run" was the only instruction we received. Ok, fair enough, I can do that...
Though it took us about ten minutes to get the perfect gust of wind, eventually we were off. I immediately understood why more specific instructions were not necessary - you pretty just run until you hit the edge of the mountain, and then you are swept off your feet - literally. Then it's just a matter of sitting back, relaxing (as much as that is possible) and trying to take it all in. The ride itself probably lasted about 15 minutes, my favourite part being the end, when we did some "acrobatics" in order to lose altitude. Being a novice and huge clutz, and I fell forward on my knees on the landing. But lack of grace aside, it was truly amazing. Indescribable. If ever you have the opportunity to go paragliding, ignore the rational voice in your head and run off the side of a mountain. You're not likely to regret it. 

As for the interesting...
I almost have a full-time teaching schedule - ideally I would like to teach between 20-25 hours per week, and right now I'm at 18 or so. In addition to the two institutes I have been working for since April, I have started working for a new, small tutoring company started by an American. My boss, Lindsay, understands the frustrations and limitations of working for a big company - namely the travel time needed to get to classes, low wages, and lack of connection between students and teachers - and has started her own company based on her own philosophy of teaching, one which I agree with. So far I have three students through her and hope to start with more in the near future. Most of the students come to my home for lessons, which is brilliant - though I have conquered the collectivo (bus) system, the lack of monedas sometimes makes a bus trip impossible. As for my students themselves, I'll have to save that for another post. 

As for the frustrating...
I don't want to dwell on the negatives too much; I'll preface this by saying that after living abroad for several months you begin to notice the many little things that bother you, the cultural differences that just don't seem to make any sense, and a certain nostalgia always seems to lurk in the back of your mind. For me, it's a nostalgia for things that never were; or rather, I, like so many others, forget all the things that frustrated me, that were suffocating, about life in the 'burbs. Really, when I stop and think about it, I'd take Argentine idiosyncrasies over the humdrum routine of Phoenix, MD any day. Yes, I'm not as comfortable as I was back home, but what was so great about that comfort anyway?
But enough with the ambiguity, the generalisations. 
The most frustrating thing in the past weeks has been my house. Remember how I said that considering the low rent, there were bound to be many little surprises along the way? Well, occasionally not having running water has been one of those surprises. Ok, so it's only happened twice, but in both instances we were without water for an entire day. It's never to good to start your day seeing several workers in your kitchen, dirty water everywhere, and when you ask, "¿Hay un problema?" they respond, " tenés agua." My response, "Motherfucker!" I'm pretty sure they understood that. My other big concern is the lack of heat in my room. I could not ask for better weather right now, but as it's fall, the nights are starting to get chilly, and I've already woken up several nights shivering. Ok, so I exaggerate. But a space heater is needed...and soon.

As for the thought-provoking, anxiety-inducing...
...I've been thinking about my future. I've realised that sooner or later, I will have to move back home and find a job (easier said than done) to save up money for my next big step (which, without going into too many details, involves getting back to Italy and studying gastronomy...) So I'm trying to mentally prepare myself for this while at the same time thinking in the present and enjoying my time in Buenos Aires. Because, despite the downs, life in Buenos Aires is good.