Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Super Panchos!

There's a thunderstorm going on with big rods of lightening - serious business. It's still a perfect temperature - it never seems to deviate from 70 something here. It's been raining for most of four days. I've been sick for three. Course, I went out to stuff anyway.

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Some days are lucky and some days are a bit of a loss. People here are so averse to the US I keep considering saying I'm French, just to see how they like that. My accent is American mixed with Italy - today I got interrogated as to where I'm from by the dude at the hardware store, the butcher, the ice cream man, a bar keep, and this Israeli punk-ass in my Spanish class. Guess what? Not one was a fan of Uncle Bush.

Today was my second day of intensive Spanish. I opted for a group lesson rather than private classes that are also popular here thanks to the weak peso. I like classroom learning. Unfortunately for me, there was this Israeli male in my group. He didn't seem to realize it wasn't a private class. I switched classes for tomorrow - two days of bad Spanish, interruptions and raised voice in my earhole were bastante. We got a variety of teachers - all charming except for one awkward woman. Our homework was to write about a controversial person in the past tense. I wrote about Anna Nicole Smith. She seemed to hold me personally responsible for the fact that she didn't get the reference when everyone else knew who Anna Nicole was. She picked at me for the next hour and a half - a good reminder for me of how bad a bad teacher can be. I'll remember to be good when I'm back at work. I hope the morning class is better at that school.

My apartment is the product of some real luck - my roommate is too. The apartment is a duplex set back from the street in the best part of this city. It's a block from a small square with markets all weekend and bars and cafes open all night. There's great people watching from the sidewalk seating and street musicians, shops, and restaurants. Deisel is on one corner and a great restaurant is on the other. The menu changes daily and the dollar is worth three times its value. This is Palermo Soho - a Lower East Side/Soho/West Hollywood blend.

The apartment has high adobe ceilings and early 1900's window-doors. I'm in the enclosed loft over the kitchen that looks out on the living room through two hollow, adobe windows. The architecture here is mostly French - Paris with a hint of Latinamerica. There's a corridor that leads from the street back to a garden off our living room. The front gate stays locked and our place is often open to the outside garden with sun and breeze. Two boys live upstairs - one from Chicago the other Canadian - both dual citizens. Marcela is my roommate - she's from here, my age, works in a restaurant and studies eastern healing. She practices Reflexology and is buying a house on the beach in Uruguay for next to nothing. She's beautiful and "tranquila" and tolerates my poor excuse for local Spanish. She loves NYC.

There's a gorgeous big white dog - Japanese something - named Lobo (Spanish for wolf). He's so nice I can't believe him - no drool, no barking or jumping, just greets everyone at the door wagging his tail and is a gentle guy who hangs out at my feet. Lichi is a nutty kitten who rebounds off the garden corridor walls and leaps from the roof to the next. There's a shiny guitar here that the last tenant left. I started lessons with Gustavo who I met on Craigslist. This apt was there too - Craig is everything.

The rain is welcome - like in NYC it cleans this dirty city. Here there are families who sort through trash in the afternoons - moms in dirty tshirts throw the recyclables on the ground and point to the kids to bag it all up. There are poor girls of 9 or 10 who work on the streets selling sundries at the outdoor seating at restaurants. There's horribly suffocating deisel fumes on the major avenues. Poverty exists outside of the bubble of Palermo and the wealthier neighborhoods with doorman buildings. And there are landmines of dog poo to navigate everywhere. Salad dressing is oil and vinagar and salt. With the greatest steaks ever at $2 a slab, they can't seem to figure out salad dressing or any sauce for that matter. It is macho territory where the potential to step in poo doesn't seem to be a nuisance and plain meat, no side dishes does them just fine. And though it often looks and feels European, Argentina is third world for much of its population.

I'm often lost here. For someone who loves maps and exploring new spots, I'm frustrated by the fact that the city maps all point different directions. I mean they are laid out in a variety of ways wherein southeast is north and northwest is south or east is up and north sideways. This creative approach to mapping the urban center has me turned around all the time. I've kind of given up and just keep my retarded map with me all the time and bust it out to find out where I am.

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Friday I went out to eat steak with a group of locals - friends of an Argentine girl I met at Palermo House. They were so much fun I actually seemed to speak Spanish well and kept up with the conversation and jokes. Later one girl asked me if I like Depeche Mode. I said I didn't the first time, but now I like them all right. I explained that I'm older and she had some trouble contemplating thirty three as my age. I remembered that at twenty, it's all good times. Big up to the youth.

Saturday was a show I'd been waiting for - Los Peyotes (www.myspace.com/peyotes). They were playing somewhere called Salon Dorado. I went with Ciara(24) from LA - a cool friend I met while apt hunting.
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Daniel was the taxi driver who picked us up at Plaza Serrano. He warned us about going to places full of young guys. I told him he was pretty much wasting his breath and translated for Ciara. He said that here in Argentina there are plenty of available older guys - that everyone is divorced by their thirties. He noted that he himself has had three wives at fifty. He gave us the names of places to go with a thirty-something crowd and didn't seem to approve of the folks in front of Salon Dorrado. "Hippies!" he exclaimed. "Nah! These are good for one night only, nothing more." He was right that the 18-21 age range wasn't ideal for a long term intro. But I was sick anyway, I told him, and not on the prowl tonight. He told us to beware of the hippies and twenty-somethings with tiny brains and he drove away. I love these cabbies.

The show opened with a band doing eighties covers. There were two of the cutest girls ever up front, singing and strutting with matching outfits and great bodies and style. They made me forget that I'd heard Nancy Sinatra and The Stray Cats way too much already. The lighting was dope - so was the Pat Benetar-esque female drummer. The room was impressive - it was an old government hall. The space had gigantic ceilings, chandeliers, and ornate wall hangings describing signings of treaties. It was a faded palace and made for the perfect backdrop for an underground rock show.

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Los Peyotes were fascinating and explosive. I had a fever and I was so glad I was there anyway. Six sloppy- bodied dudes in red turtlenecks and pants with fur vests and fake sabertooth necklaces rocked and screamed. They had Ringo hair and they had massive energy. Plus their songs were good and made you have to bounce around. I sat in a chair and took it in. Somehow they reminded me of what hot dogs here are called. Super Panchos!!!

This video was on the tv in the subway station when I went to school downtown today. The dated trains have industrial fans and open windows in the tunnels. I keep expecting a piece of old pipe or a junkie or something to fly through an open window.

Tomorrow night is fixed price sushi in a rented storefront. An American girl I know went last week and is now dating the Argentine sushi chef. Maybe he has a friend. Or an uncle? She's twenty too.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Where train tracks divide Hollywood and Soho

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The sun is rising over the buildings in Parlermo Viejo, Buenos Aires and I've left the house in the old factory district. Juan was the taxi driver who helped me move from the pretty house in Barrio Barracas to a hostel here downtown. I missed the St. Patrick's Day parties - I couldn't wait any longer to move downtown. I'm so happy I did.

There's a wall of windows to my left. I'm up on the third floor sitting on a leather recliner and there are plants and a hammock to my right. I'm alone in a long room with black-tiled floor and bright blue and green walls. I'm facing a unit of connected, burgundy-colored, waiting room chairs kind of H&R Block. It's 7am and everyone is still out at the boliches or sleeping. I just heard a couple getting some after-boliche nookie.

I got here at 3am and chatted with the guy on the hostel night shift - Alfonso from Cartegena. We drank some great wine I got at the grocery store today for about $1.75. We talked about South America and about being a tourist. It's so good to get out of English and into Castellano. The only English I want to do is writing. I have a mound of Spanish to learn.

I went out and wandered around the neighborhood and at 5:30am there was bar after café after club with people sitting out at sidewalk tables. Kids were hanging out in the small central plaza and there were an amazing amount of places to choose from. The streets are full of great looking 20 and 30 somethings out all night. It's like Ibiza meets the Lower East Side plus, unlike New York, the male to female ratio is in my favor.
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The most impressive thing is how well people get along with each other here. They're next-level friendly. I'm in an incredible neighborhood for shops, cafes, and night spots. It's worth the trip just to hang out in this one neighborhood -Palermo Viejo divided into Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. With prices that would put their namesakes at about 1983. Now the sun is up and it looks like it will be a beautiful day.
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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Asado y Portenos

I don't have pictures for you. Of the architecture, of the tango dancers on the boardwalk, and of the incredible steak. I wish I could blog the smell of the asado (bbq) and the sound of the wind blowing through the old hotel in the dunes with the stray dogs howling across town at each other under the moon.

Here, strangers you talk to are kinder and warmer than any stranger you've met. Argentines are Portenos and their language is Castellano (with ll's pronounced "sh" - "Castayshano"). It's easy to love Argentina.

I got here a week ago. Mindy went with me to the airport and took my coat, hat, earmuffs, scarf, gloves, and boots with her on the train back to Brooklyn. I got on a plane to Sao Paulo, Brazil - luckily it was late like me. I think time treats me better in Latin countries. The flight was fine though confusing in Portuguese. I was happy to board the Buenos Aires flight and stumble through the accent.

I'd arrived at the end of Argentina's summer and removed my NY layers. It was a humid, overcast day and I couldn't believe I'd made it. I was met at the airport by a cabbie holding "Eve Hyman La Menesunda Hostel" and Carlos became the first of a string of taxi driver friends who'd insist we go for a drink sometime.

I got to the hostel and it was really cute - bright colors, clean, and run by Hernan during the day (he's adorable, 22, and tried to get me to do E with him last night at a disco). At the hostel I went to sleep right away. I slept for most of two days - only going out to eat the most amazing steak I'd ever had. I went to an old restaurant with a menu of two pages of beef options and enjoyed the 14% alchohol red wine. On my way home I noticed a group of people hanging out in front of a storefront with people in the windows upstairs. I walked in, went upstairs, and paid $5 pesos to join an audience for a community theater show. There was a Brazilian singer, a guitarist and a clarinet player. The music was great and was followed by a cool sock puppet show, then by two clowns doing a cross between stand up and physical comedy. I found out these community spaces exist all over the city with shows by local actors, musicians and artists.

The next day it poured and I slept all day. That evening I met an Italian staying in the hostel. Andrea had just come back from traveling for two months in Bolivia, Peru, and northern Argentina. He's from the border of Italy and Austria and works in his family's business. He's a former soccer player turned butcher (fyi eating steak with an Italian butcher is serious business). Like many people I've met this past week, Andrea thoroughly dislikes the US.

We spoke a strange Italian/Spanish that was easy for both of us and found a local kind of bar/ late night food spot full of locals drinking beer and eating (asado) barbecue out on the sidewalk tables. I ate empenadas and we drank red wine while he explained why the desert in Bolivia is the coolest place he's ever seen. We talked a lot of politics. I didn't tell him how much I'd disliked Italian guys when I lived in Florence. I did let him know that I found it funny to listen to him explaining why he's anti-American while he's dressed in O'Neil long shorts and flip flops and with his Rasta tattoos.

The next day we went downtown. We went to the Japanese garden at BsAs' (Buenos Aires) version of Central Park. Dude bought a fake Samurai sword. Every cabbie and waiter asked us where we were from. He proudly proclaimed his Italian nationality and was well-received by people who are mostly of Italian heritage here. The cab driver or waiter would eventually refer to my being Italian as well and Andrea would scoff - "Her, she's not Italian. She's from "Los Estados Unidos" - in Italo/Spanish and with disgust. I eventually let him know he was being an ass. It's true that Italy gets much respect here and there are posters and graffiti on the street proclaiming Bush to be guilty of genocide and demanding "Bush Fuera." I thought it meant out of Latin America, because his stankness followed me here. Apparently, it means out of office. People here want him impeached, which really takes global village to the next level - other nationals are calling for an American president's impeachment.

That night was Friday and Italy and I went dancing in a neighborhood called Palermo Hollywood. Ha! Italy and I in Palermo Hollywood, I didn't realize how perfect that was, right? Palermo is BsAs' village and is divided into sections - Palermo Hollywood and Palermo Soho. We followed Hernan's advice and went to a club called Niceto. It was hipster night. Andrea had never seen hipsters. He wanted reggae and no one was dancing to the pinche New Wave so we wandered around the barrio for a second. We found an around-the-way spot with kids dancing to cumbia, reggaeton, and rock. They had big beers for a dollar. The night here gets going at about 2am and goes until 6am. There were plenty of people out and blocks of bars and clubs.

Saturday I moved into a house and then I hopped a bus out of town to the north coast. Italy went back to Italy.

Tango, Heidi, and Balnearios

Franco was the taxi driver who picked me up in Constitucion - the worst subway stop in Buenos Aires. He told me I should never be there at night again and got a little dramatic about what could happen to me there. The house I found on Craigslist is beautiful, dates from the 1800's with italian tile and marble in the entrance and high ceilings and doors with windows and old school locks. It's bedrooms are along a hallway within an outdoor courtyard. It's a bit like New Orleans' French Quarter with lanterns and climbing plants. It's also too far from the city center and the nightlife and the nearest train station is full of perros de la noche. I'm moving to Palermo on Monday.

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After finding the house and moving my stuff, I did what anyone coming from New York winter would want to do; I went to the beach. The mode of travel in Argentina is luxury buses. They're double deckers with chairs that turn into beds. I caught one at 1am and got into Mar Del Plata at 6am. At the bus station in Mar Del Plata I didn't know where to go to catch a cab. I saw a girl I recognized from the bus and asked her if she wanted to share a cab. Florencia spoke great English with a German sounding accent and looked like she could be from there with light hair and beautiful blue/green eyes. She's Argentine and told me she was in Mar Del Plata to see some friends' band play at the festival. When I couldn't get a hotel room immediately, I went with Flor to meet her friends for breakfast. They were a group of indie musicians, their managers, and friends staying in a hotel otherwise full of retired folks on holiday. Mar Del Plata reminded me a lot of Miami.

After breakfast Flor and I went to nap in one of the band's rooms. I ended up spending the day hanging out with her and talking about music, life, and travels. We wandered around Mar Del Plata and she helped me get a cellphone and find a hotel. Later that night I met her at the Hotel Provincial - this old, grand hotel on the beach which houses the city casino and banquet rooms where the festival was held.

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We walked through a beautiful lobby of marble, gold brocade, velvet and frescoes into a room full of hipsters facing a stage in anticipation. Flor took us backstage where the band was playing and drinking. She told me she had to find out which song she'd be singing. I was excited to learn she was going to perfom - she hadn't mentioned that she plays too. Or she might have said so in Spanish during one of our conversations where I only understood 60% or so of what was said. She told me Cat Power is her favorite artist and she sang a lot like her. The band is called Los Alamos - they were good and so was Flor. After a couple hours of hipster life I headed back to the hotel.

The hotel had an Italian name and was in the style of a chalet. The region of the Argentina's north beaches are dominated by German mountainesque architecture. The beaches are of dunes with pine trees and the German immigrants who settled there offered an alternative to the French architecture of BsAs and of Mar Del Plata. The smaller towns are all Swiss Family Robinson - gnarled wood facades and sloping rooves.
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Mar Del Plata was a lot of high rises and a super crowded beach - like Miami meets Coney Island minus the rides. I went to the beach Sunday and was kind of disappointed to see the beaches are brown sand and that they aren't topless. There were people selling things on the beach and calling out their wares - the way men sell hot dogs at the ballpark - "helados, churros," etc. I saw the only black man I've seen here - walking along the beach selling silver jewelry. The continents of Asia and Africa are not really represented here. There is every version of European and Euro/Indigenous person possible Amerindian, Mediterranean, Nordic, Slavic - and all speak of themselves as Argentine without distinction. A lot of the people I see look Spanish or Italian or German and they're more open and friendly than the average stranger you might meet in Europe or the US.

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I left the crowded, rather littered beach and walked up to a part of the boardwalk where a group was watching a show. It was an open invite to the crowd to Tango - accompanied by a cd and a hostess who was selling Tango mixtapes. A cross section of couples had accepted the invitation and danced along while a couple hundred people looked on. There were older and middle aged couples with the most endearing facial expressions. There was a super cute thug kid dancing with his mother. There was a couple of high school girls in school uniforms, knee highs and pumas. One took the mic from the hostess to encourage the audience to join in the dance. She got the crowd laughing and was totally comfortable addressing a big group of strangers to lecture them on the benefits of joining in the Tango. The way people interact here is impressive - the level of comfort and warmth. Like it's a country of friends with all the charm of the southern US. I left the boardwalk and went back to the Heidi hostel. I wanted to go to the casino.

I played craps, black jack, and poker in a country where the peso is three to the dollar. It's a lot of fun not being poor after Manhattan living for the past four years. I won at craps and didn't enjoy the poker. This was the big casino - the Hotel Provincial takes up roughly two large city blocks - but the playing room wasn't more than two tables of each game and a few rows of slot machines. People here seem to be cash poor - I'm told the middle class has all their money invested and there doesn't seem to be a lot of money to go around generally. With all its plush buses, huge steaks and fancy architecture, Argentina is still the third world. A friend here told me Argentina is a third world country that likes to think it's first world. The casino didn't lie. After I lost some at poker, I won it back at craps and cashed in.

The next morning I planned to go to a smaller beach town. Before leaving, I visited the port - the main port of the country. It's famous for its congregation of sea lions and for a graveyard of rusting ships. I took a quick tour by taxi and tried to decipher the cabbie's heavy accent. I leared at the hot, young dockworkers in uniform jumpsuits sweating in the sun.

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The bus ride was two hours to Villa Gesell which I was told would be a very pretty beach town. I was pretty sure I'd like it. I got in and got a cab to the hotel. No one was on the streets and what I saw was a lot like suburban Baja. The nice lady who owns the hotel told me everyone was at the beach and that the streets were empty because of that. It reminded me of an old Star Trek episode where the crew lands in a ghost town. I took myself to the beach to join the town. It was a significant improvement on Mar Del Plata - the same brown sand, but more space. There was the same litter and there were a lot more chalets. I gawked at the architecture and the ATV's. It was windy and the day was ending so I went to check out the shopping. If you're Californian you know what I'm saying when I tell you Gesell was a Latino Solvang. I found it kitch and not really in a good way. But there were some good crafts to buy and I ended up getting colorful baskets and furry mates, great homemade shopping items imported from the north of Argentina and from Peru. That night I went to go eat at a restaurant I'd read had a great asado (grilled meat). There was a wait so I went down the street a bit to look for a bookstore I'd read about. The guy working in the bookstore was very friendly and wanted to speak English with me.

Eduardo told me about different authors he thought I should read and about the summer in Gesell. He said he was waiting for a friend and was going to close the store to have an asado at his house in the back. He invited me to join the group of friends. I declined at first but when I met Nadia I decided I shouldn't pass up a homemade asado with a group of friendly bohemians. We went behind the store to a big backyard with a grill area in an enclosed space - a large open oven, fridge, and tables. Nadia's boyfriend is French and he did the cooking. They told me how they'd met traveling in Patagonia, a large nature preserve, and how they split their time between France, Italy, and Argentina. They spoke perfect English - occasionally switching into Castellano. Juan had been working as a supermarket manager and wasn't satisfied with his life in Paris. He decided to quit his job and travel for a while. He never went back - he and Nadia own a hostel in Gesell and make Euros in Tuscany during the off season. They gypsy around and seemed really happy not knowing what they'd do year-to-year.

The next day I took a local bus through the backwoods to another town called Pinamar. I was happy to leave Hansel and Gretel and the ATV's and go to the Porteno version of Laguna Beach. In Pinamar I got a room in a depression-era hotel surrounded by dunes. It was delapidated and beautiful and I got there just as the summer season ended. The hotel was empty and spooky and I left my things and took a run on the overcast beach. I passed closed balnearios (beach bar/restaurants), stray dogs and large beachfront houses of every style from Spanish adobe to Dada.

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I walked along the sand roads to the town center a half mile away. I tried to go to a balneario I'd seen was open but it was protected by a large barking dog. The dogs in Argentina have a fantastic life. They roam freely and eat well. There are no leashes or fences and plenty of canine company. At night, alone in Pinamar, I wondered at the likelihood of getting mauled by a free-spirited German Shepherd. Instead I was adopted by one for my walk to town. He stayed with me the whole way to the restaurant - greeting friends along the way and making me feel safe on the dark road.

The town center was a string of shiny, new shops and wide avenues. I found the parilla (pareesha) with a salad buffet and all you can eat of every cut of cow.
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The waiter at the parilla kind of filled in for my dog friend - he was this great looking, human stand-in. He hung out at my table for most of my dinner. His accent was hard for me. Gerrardo is from the northern city Tucuman and works in different resort towns following the tourist seasons of snow and beach. He was really good-looking and kind of macho in a formal, polite way. I decided to decline his invite for coffee and left to go to the internet cafe after dinner. Sitting at a computer an hour later, Gerrardo showed up unexpectedly. He insisted on walking me to the taxi station, then decided to ride with me to his apt near my hotel. I got a little nervous when he got out of the cab with me and graciously paid the taxi on the dark, deserted, sandy road. But he just gave me a hug goodbye and walked off into the dunes. The boys here are as good as the steak.

The next day was cloudy too and I left the haunted hotel in the dunes and went back to Buenos Aires. There was a party Hernan was going to Thursday night and I wanted to go back to Palermo.