Thursday, March 23, 2006

¡Oh Solomillo!

Miramar. San Juan, Av. 1999. Ciudad de Buenos Aires Tel: 4304-4261

Doubling as a cornerstore and restaurant, Miramar is a classic bodegón in the neighborhood of San Cristóbal. The look is unchanged from whenever its doors first opened: a tile floor and wood paneling.

As a map of Galicia on the back wall suggests, there is plenty of fish and seafood on the menu, a rarity in this most bovivorous of nations. Octupus (pulpo gallego), a personal favorite, is frighteningly expensive at 65 pesos, but the rest of the menu is fairly reasonable.

There are, in fact, two menus: a wooden board that circulates around the room, which has the specials of the day and a menu of more standard fare.

Last Thursday, the plates of the day were the following: besugo (fish), merluza (ditto), rabbit, pork tenderloin, and one or two other things that I can’t remember.

Unfortunately, they were out of the rabbit, so I settled for pork tenerloin (solomillo), which was huge, delicious, and served with apple sauce and sauerkraut. I don’t think that’s a typical Galician dish, but I don’t care.

Moira, who had been kind enough to accompany me all the way across town, had the merluza, which was served in a ceramic dish, big chunks mixed in with onions and potatoes.

For dessert was mamón con queso: canned papaya with cheese. Should have gone with my standby dulce de membrillo (quince paste) with cheese, but that’ll have to wait until next time.

A meal for two (two main plates, two desserts, and one café con leche) cost $60 (US $20). Not a steal, but well worth it.

Biking in Buenos Aires

To those of your familiar with local driving habits, biking in Buenos Aires may sound like a very bad idea.

On the other hand, the city is mostly flat and vast, so getting around on two wheels makes a lot of sense. Additionally, there are a few places where biking is ideal: the Costanera along the River Plate, the Ecological Reserve in Puerto Madero, and the Bosque de Palermo.

I didn’t buy a bike immediately. First I took a tour with La Bicicleta Naranja, an outfit in San Telmo, which, as it name suggests, rents orange bicycles. On a Sunday morning, I joined a group of Argentines, mostly from the province of Buenos Aires, and a guide. We did a big, slow loop of San Telmo and downtown, before visiting the National Immigration Museum.

For the next few weeks, I shopped around and observed the streets. It being summer, I noticed plenty of bikers.

I took a look at some used velocipedes at two bicicleterías that are located on the corner of México and Tacuarí (Monterserrat/San Telmo). For about $120 (US $40) you can buy a beater. Ugly and barely functional, but cheap. Another shop in San Telmo, directly in front of the Parque Lezama and the Museo Histórico Nacional, sells new and used bikes.

Ultimately I bought myself a new, chrome playera – a beach cruiser, for $225 (US $70). The frame was a little small, so for an extra 5 pesos, they put on chopper handlebars. My chrome is shining, just like an icicle...

So the bike is pretty sweet, though I’ve had a few problems with the chain and have, in the course of six weeks, had five flats. Last weekend the bike mechanic declared that I was cursed. Then again, the cobblestones on the last few blocks before I reach home glitter with broken glass.

Still, the playera is an enjoyable way to get around the city. You quickly learn to avoid big avenues without bike lanes (most of them) and the narrower streets that have a lot of bus traffic (like Marcelo T Alvear / Charcas). Sunday, I have discovered, is the best day to ride because the streets are nearly empty.

The web site of the City Government has a map with bike lanes (carriles preferenciales) and bike paths (bicisendas).

The sweetness of my bike, I should add, is completely annulled by the fact that I wear a helmet. This makes me an enormous dork. At last count there are four of us who wear helmets while biking in the city. Which makes some sense, because no one wears seatbelts, either.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Beware of the Wobblies!

Rubí, a pocket-sized friend from Valencia, once called Buenos Aires as the “City of Dancing Flagstones.” Her description is not only poetic, it is true: instead of poured concrete, the sidewalks of the metropolis are lined with flagstones that over the course of time chip, crack, and wobble.

As the fiercely devoted readers of these chronicles will recall, Buenos Aires loves to imitate Paris. Beyond the big lines of sight of Haussmann-inspired boulevards, these cities share another common feature: the sidewalks are dotted with dogshit.

Taking these two factors into account, you are advised to step deftly when en flânant dans les rues of Buenos Aires.

After a heavy rainfall, you need to be especially cautious. (And, as I write, it has been raining two days straight.) Within a few days of my arrival here, I stepped on a teetering flagstone, which sent a jet of blackish water upwards, soaking my shoe and covering my pant leg.

Then it happened again. And again. There is a 72% chance that it will happen tomorrow.

The other night I was having dinner with some folks at the Club Eros. The Club Eros is not what its name suggests, you pervert, but an old athletic and social club in the middle of über-hip Palermo.

A new acquaintance and I transitioned nicely from small talk about weather to the dancing tiles of the city.

And like a good porteño, Fede started to sing a tango:

Igual que baldosa floja,
Salpico si alguien me pone el pie
(Just like a loose flagstone
I splash if you step on me

Monday, March 13, 2006

Up and Up

Sitting at a café, I discovered on the table before me a copy of La Nación, the stuffy, venerable daily founded by the historian, military man, and President Bartolomé Mitre in 1870. Though it is not my newspaper of choice, I am fond of reading and, to paraphrase Cervantes, will pick up anything, even torn papers found on the street.

On the back page of the first section, there is an article whose headline reads: “In the last 30 years, Buenos Aires has lost 30% of its homes.”
A few paragraphs down one realizes that the headline is a bit sensationalist. It is not that Buenos Aires is suffering a massive housing crisis, rather 30% of one or two floor dwellings have disappeared and been replaced by apartment towers over the past three decades. How this matches up with a other big cities, I’d like to know.

The article cites the middle class neighborhoods of Caballito, Villa Urquiza and Palermo as the areas that have seen the most growth.

In Palermo, the neighborhood where I am living, the bristling line of high-rises that begins on the Avenida Santa Fe is quickly overtaking autoshops, compact “chorizo” houses and newer brick chalets. Realtors for some time now have taken delight in subdividing the neighborhood with aspirational labels. Palermo Viejo has experienced a speculative mitosis and contains Palermo SoHo and Palermo Hollywood.

Billboards that conceal the ground level of construction sites display glossy, computer-generated images of the building-to-come whose accompanying text touts the future structure as a sound investment. Whether or not these are enjoyable places to live is taken for granted.

The article in La Nación interviews the spokesmen of several construction and real estate associations, who worry that the city’s infrastructure won’t be able to keep up with the rapid growth that is regulated by a building code they feel is restrictive.

An editorial piece titled “An Acceptable Tendency” accompanies the article, which encourages the continued build-up, though offers a word of caution: vaguely alluding to “scientific” studies, the author warns us of the psychological damage that children suffer from splitting time between a twentieth floor penthouse and a weekend country home. Apparently they develop antisocial behavior. If only we all could.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Una cubana grossa

To learn more about mullets (aka "cubanas"), click here.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


This quiet corner of Barracas, a neighborhood adjacent to La Boca, is sandwiched between railroad tracks and an elevated freeway. A number of years ago, the painter Marino Santamaría decided to paint his house with bright colors and playful patterns. Neighbors liked it so much, I guess, that now most of the houses on the pasaje Lanín and a few surrounding streets have similarly flamboyant facades.

Last year I went halfway across town to visit my favorite barber in Buenos Aires: Román Lamas, a fourth-generation barber from Galicia who has been cutting hair at the same locale (1991 Suárez, Barracas) for nearly 50 years. After cutting my hair to Wagner, he took me outside and showed me around.

On Sunday I went back, armed with a camera.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Café of Babel

I was sitting in a café in Palermo, reading the Sunday magazine of Clarín, Argentina’s largest newspaper. Included in the magazine was an article dedicated to the profusion of English words that have found their way into Argentine Spanish. Many, like brainstorming, public relations and workshop predictably come from business; others, like ambient, cool, fashion, and top, probably find their way into the language through television and movies. Argentines, both in the press and in conversation, banter these words about, sometimes replacing perfectly functional Spanish words in what is often an unconscious attempt at sophistication.

On this note, I should mention another category as well: words and phrases that are used in a different context or not at all in English: for example, after beach, flash and SMS.

Now, before you accuse me of being a linguistic purist, à l'Académie Française, let me point out that 1) I naturally have an unfair advantage in this game and 2) there are certain foreign words – much like grapes when transplanted to a different climate – that acquire a richness in their new environment. For example, though I find it silly to say fulltime instead of a tiempo completo, there is no one simple translation for the particularly Argentine expression a full, which can mean totally, all out, completely, full, nuts, etc. Full, incidentally, didn’t even make it into the article, probably because it’s so commonly used.

Additionally, we English speakers have long been guilty of this, at least since 1066 and probably before. In more recent history, H.L. Mencken dedicates a big chunk of his The American Language (1921) to presenting foreign borrowings as evidence that Americans have bettered the British tongue.

Then again, if you ever catch me saying “Let’s have a little après-ski,” please shoot me.

Anyway, so I was sitting in this rather fashion café in Palermo when a middle-aged woman and her father sat down a few tables away from me. After squinting at the chalkboard at the other end of the restaurant, the woman announced:

“I’m going to order a frappuccino.”

“A what?” asked her father.

“A frappuccino,” she replied. “You know, it’s like a cappuccino. It’s like a mocha, but a mocha has chocolate.”

Her father looked puzzled.

“They serve them at Starbucks. Star-bucks.”

The poor old man looked even more confused.

“It’s a chain of cafés in the United States. It’s named after a character in Moby Dick.”

The name of the book seemed to ring a bell, but, still, the sidestepping definition of frappuccino satisfied neither the old man nor me.

Finally, the waitress approached and he asked for a clearer explanation.

“Es como un cappuccino, pero está frozen,” the waitress said.

The father ordered a cappuccino, his daughter a frappuccino, which is like a little hooded man, but it’s congelado.

*The photo of Claxon Bajadi seen above was taken in Punta del Este, Uruguay. Uruguay, according to the CIA factbook, is also a Spanish-speaking country. And the CIA never makes mistakes.