Friday, August 21, 2009

The Argentinean kiss

In Latino cultures, kisses on the cheek as a greeting are commonplace, and they typically occur between people of opposite sexes (unless a young boy kisses his dad, of course.) But in Buenos Aires, men greet men friends with a kiss on the cheek.
I was invited by a colleague to give a presentation at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes.
When he greeted me, he smiled and kissed me on the cheek. It caught me by surprise and I tried to cover it up by giving him a hug.
After the class, he invited me to his house for dinner. He introduced me to his wife and children, two boys and a girl. There were kisses for everybody.

My friend said: “Here, we greet with a kiss; I noticed you felt awkward when
we met.”
I enjoyed a delicious empanada dinner with the family, along with lots of laughter and red wine. When I said good-bye, I was completely comfortable with man-to-man kisses.

Run, Elio, run

Argentina claims to have the widest avenue in the world. Avenida 9 de julio —July 9, in honor to its independence day— is 460 feet wide. The “Obelisco,” a monument located in the middle, is a city landmark. White and tall, it resembles the Washington Monument in Washington D.C.
This avenue has 16 lanes, and it looks like a boulevard with benches, trees, flowerbeds and fountains. You can try to cross it in one attempt, but you won’t be able to do it merely by walking fast. The one-minute you have between light changes won’t be enough. I crossed it successfully but had to almost jog. A taxi driver told me that some old folks take a cab to go from one side to another.

Tango for everybody

When you think of Argentina, the first thing that comes to mind is the tango. It can be sexy and elegant but also voluptuous and extravagant, depending on the style and the venue. In Buenos Aires, porteños (people from Buenos Aires) capitalize on the tango’s fame and practice it in public. Tourists gather around couples who dance on streets and in plazas and parks. They often leave money for the dancers.
Tango is not a popular dance among youngsters. As in other Latin American countries, rock and pop music rule. However, young people are aware of the dance and proud of it. In recent years, the tango has enjoyed resurgence. A version is performed to electronic music from groups like the Gotan Project
and Tanghetto. (Remember that sexy scene with Jennifer López and Richard Gere in “Shall we dance?”) The traditional tango is presented in a variety of venues. One of them, “El Viejo Almacén,” established in 1969 (declared a “site of cultural interest”) is in the San Telmo neighborhood. It’s a beautiful locale that offers tango shows every day of the year. The two-hour show is spectacular.

Coffee and water

When you order an espresso beverage, it comes with a glass of water. Espresso also is served this way in Italy. A lot of Argentineans are of Italian descent (and that’s probably why they speak Spanish with an Italian accent.)
The particularity of this custom is that the water comes in a tiny glass, which would be strange for Americans — especially water without ice.

Water, soda, wine?

Wine is consumed with every meal. When you go to a small eatery and ask for the fixed priced menu, your drinks of choice can be soda water, regular soda or wine. Wine, clearly, is very cheap in Argentina. Malbec is a typical red wine from the region of Mendoza, and it can be found in the wine stores and supermarkets of Buenos Aires. As in the United States, wine prices vary, but local wines, whatever the grape, are definitely cheaper. I remember getting a decent bottle of vino blanco for $2.

Beef and more beef

Argentineans are known by their beef consumption. The most common cuts served at restaurants are the bife de lomo and the bife de chorizo. The first one comes with no fat, and it’s a little more expensive. Both are boneless, juicy and tender. I usually asked for one-half bife, which was plenty. Side dishes include papas fritas (French fries,) papas rejilla (crispy round fries with holes,) puré de papas (mashed potatoes,) pureed pumpkin and salad. They’re ordered separately. At an average restaurant, a good bife goes for $12-$14 and the sides for $6-$7. That’s a lot of food.
There are many other beef cuts, of course. If you ask for a parrilla,
it comes with tripe, kidney, sausage and other meats. It will feed at least two very hungry people.

Empanadas, yum!

Argentineans give themselves the honor of having invented the empanada. I didn’t want to argue with them about it. I grew up eating empanadas (especially on Sundays) and I am Peruvian. However, empanadas are everywhere in Buenos Aires. These delicious stuffed turnovers come with different savory fillings. Among the common ones are beef, chicken, ham and cheese, Salteña (with potatoes to extend the filling) and humita (corn.) They are usually baked but sometimes fried, and they’re deliciously crispy. You can see how they’re made at some restaurants, and you can identify the filling by scrutinizing the shape of the empanada. They’re cheap to eat, too. They usually sell for 3 or 4 pesos ($1 U.S. equals 3.8 pesos).

Chicken has a place, too

If you’re tired of beef, Milanesa and Suprema are good alternatives. They both are boneless and breaded chicken cuts, flattened like sheets, seasoned and fried to crispy perfection.
“What is the difference between a Milanesa and a Suprema?” I asked a waiter at a restaurant in the swanky Puerto Madero area. “Milanesa is made with dark meat and Suprema with white,” he responded. I understood then why Suprema is “supreme,” but I still liked the Milanesa better.
Order it with a salad or mashed potatoes instead of just fries. Otherwise it can taste a little dry.

For the sweet tooth

There is nothing better than an alfajor, two cookies stuffed with dulce de leche and covered with glacé (a smooth paste of icing sugar dissolved in a little water, which is spread straight onto the alfajor), chocolate or simply powder sugar. You can find them at eateries, restaurants, bakeries, cafés and even convenience stores all around Buenos Aires.
Alfajores are of Arab origin and they arrived in Latin America via Spain.
They're a staple in Argentina but can be found all over Latin America. The name “alfajor” remains the same in other Latin countries, but the filling, a sweet caramel-like cream made with milk, sugar and vanilla, is called “dulce de leche” (sweet of milk) in Argentina. Peruvians call it manjarblanco, Colombians arequipe and Mexicans cajeta.

Plug it (the right way)

Outlets still have three holes but in different directions: one prong is vertical while the other two are diagonal. It’s always important to check on those details before you travel. Electricity is 220 volts, so you will need a converter. Fortunately my computer and my phone had their own converters. Once you get to Buenos Aires, you may need to run to the hardware store and get one.

Colorful fake money

In Buenos Aires, bills come in different colors and designs. Colors indicate the denomination and the quality of the paper helps you identify whether a bill is fake.
Despite using mostly buses and trains I couldn’t resist the occasional convenience of a taxi. But beware! Taxis are usually where you get counterfeit bills.
“It’s sad but taxis are the place where you get a false bill,” leather goods salesperson Marita told me when I shared my story. “Taxi drivers identify you as a tourist and they give you change with bad money.” Giovanna, an employee at a cashmere goods store at Florida Street, said “when you take a taxi, you pay with the exact amount, always.”
A friend and I took a taxi to go see a tango show and we paid with a 100-peso bill. All our change came back fake. In the dark and in the rush to arrive on time, I just placed the money in my wallet.
When the show was over, we took another taxi back home. When I paid the 12-peso fare with a 50-peso bill the driver held it up and said, “This is fake.” I was dumbfounded. I gave him another bill and his answer was the same. I didn’t know what to do, as he was getting uneasy. “That’s not my problem,” he said. I asked him to take us to an ATM to get money. My friend rushed to the ATM and came back with two 100-peso bills. I gave him one, as I was getting ready to exit the car. “I have no change for 100,” he said. I couldn’t believe it. By that time the meter showed more than 16 pesos.
“What do you suggest we do then?” I asked. “Give me whatever you have,” he responded immediately. I handed him seven pesos.
The day after, when I was shopping with that 100-peso bill, I realized the taxi driver had switched the ATM real bill for a fake one. “That’s a known practice,” Marita, the saleswoman, told me with a shy smile.

Bookstores galore

I was impressed by the number of bookstores in Buenos Aires, especially in the Recoleta neighborhood. Most of them are independent. (I didn’t see any Borders or Barnes & Noble stores.) Argentina is an important book publisher in Latin America.
Roaming through books is an activity that offers quiet and solace in a bustling city like Buenos Aires and people walk through aisles constantly.
El Ateneo” is the bookstore that impressed me the most. Located in an old and elegant theater —whose original name was “Grand Splendid”— on Santa Fé Avenue, the building has been adapted for its new purpose. The foyer is magnificent and ornate; the seating area (where most of the bookshelves are located) has been cleared and made level with the stage, which has been turned into a coffee shop. When you enter the theater, you see a bluish stage filled with patrons chatting and skimming books. Patrons read in the balconies, and the mezzanine has more books. The painted high ceiling is magnificent and has been refurbished to its original glory.

Do I want a wimpy ice cream?

Just like businesses in other countries, Argentinean companies like to use foreign-sounding names sometimes. I ran into two examples that made me laugh. One was an ice cream store next to the Plaza del Congreso named Wimpy. I wondered whether the store’s owner knew what the word “wimpy” would mean to Americans.
While walking in the posh Retiro area, there was another store that caught my attention: Breeder’s. It’s not a fertility clinic or a sex store; it’s an upscale furs goods store.
Translations for English speakers can also lead to misinterpretations.
When you exit the Cathedral in the main plaza (Plaza de Mayo) where the Casa Rosada (the presidential house) is located, you’ll find a box asking for money to support the worship. They have translated worship as “cult.” Quite different.

The mullet

I was intrigued by the haircut common among the men of Buenos Aires. It’s “mullety,” and the men look as if they’re stuck in the late ’70s. They reminded me of David Cassidy in “The Partridge Family.” I noticed this first while I was on the plane bound for Buenos Aires. Then, while walking around the city, I started paying more attention. I saw lots of guys with the same kind of haircut. It was usually on the long side and very different from the styles popular in the States now. No crew cuts, spiky shapes or pointy tops.

Cats in the park

I am a cat lover. When I visited the Jardín Botánico (Botanical Gardens) in the Palermo neighborhood (open daily and it’s free), I saw a cat at the entrance. I grabbed my camera and shot a picture of the welcoming feline.
The gardens are a peaceful area in the middle of the noisy city and have samples of plants, trees and bushes that the public is allowed to touch.While following the curvy paths of the garden, I started to see more cats frolicking in the sun. It got my attention.
Then I saw a black cat and I followed him. All of a sudden, he became agitated and began climbing trees in a frenzy. I think he thought he was a puma.
This garden is home to more than 100 cats. They are tame and come to rub their bodies against you. They also follow you around. A woman entered the gardens, and all of a sudden, cats came from everywhere. It looked like a scene from a Hitchcock movie. They knew she had something in her bag for them.As for dogs, owners walk them – just like in the States. With fall temperatures in the high 50s, I saw dogs dressed in colorful jackets. Tourists should be careful while walking. Owners don’t always feel compelled to clean up after their pets.