Snippet: An evening with the biddies

I come downstairs to see both tables set, the special occasion pink-orange and blue tablecloths, and now I understand the shopping list I saw on the table earlier.

“Who’s coming?” I ask Marisol, who is pulling empanadas out of the oven. She offers me a cheese one and I quickly accept. I am no fool– everything Felisa makes is delicious, especially for special occasions.

“Twenty friends from high school,” she says. Normally Marisol wears a tank top and a ponytail when she comes to clean the house, but today she wears a pretty blouse and dangling black earrings. She fusses with her hair between empanada batches. “They’ll be here from 6-8. I’m waiting to greet them.” I have never seen Marisol here on a Friday evening.

“How long will you stay?” I ask.

“Until she tells me I can go,” she replies.

Since the occasion clearly calls for beer, I go to the chino and buy a bottle of Stella and mini pizza crusts at the bakery along the way. I pour Marisol a glass; she and I have talked many times about our love for beer.

“You served me?” she asks, surprised. She shakes her head. “I can’t drink this early.”

I tilt my head toward the glass on the counter. “Bueno, I guess I’ll drink it, then…”

She grins and picks up the glass. “Well.” We hold the glasses up to toast.

“To the old ladies,” I say.

“To you, that everything goes well,” she responds. We clink glasses. This is probably the last time I will see Marisol– I am leaving the house for good.

We spend the next twenty minutes talking about the cats and the ridiculous amount of money that her boss and my landlord, Felisa, charges to the foreign students who live in the house next door. (20,000 pesos a month, or 4,000 a pop.) “She understands how to make money,” Marisol says. Marisol makes about 100 pesos a day cleaning three houses for Felisa’s family. I ask her how long she’s been working for Felisa and she tells me eight years; the pay’s not good but she would never be able to find such a flexible schedule with anyone else. We keep chatting as Marisol puts more empanadas in the oven and tells me about the other girls who have lived here, like the divine girl from Mexico she once went to Uruguay with, and how Felisa and she used to cook together in the mornings when Felisa was 20 kilos heavier.

I eventually go upstairs with a new glass of beer and hear the first visitor ring the bell a little while later. The earliest guests are perfectly within schedule per Argentine standards: it’s 6:40. Felisa has not arrived yet.

Over the next couple of hours I work on my laptop with the door open, listening to the women come in. Part of me pretends to be annoyed that such a large amount of people are over, but I’m secretly happy to hear the biddy voices coming from below. In the beginning, when there are fewer women, I can hear each woman’s personality– who is dominant in the group, who is genuinely friends with who. Their voices are assured, confident in a room without men.

I listen to the women fill the room with their voices, punctuating the conversation with calls to Marisol:

“Tiiiiiiimbre!”

“Cerra la puerta!”

I go downstairs and see the wonderful long tables full of women, each chair occupied. I smile and greet them, call them lindas, and feel a little shy at all the attention. One woman asks me if I’m the roommate and for some reason I say no. I search for Felisa at the table and find her slouched in the corner, a smile on her face. Her eyes quickly pass over me and return to the table as if I am a moth that has entered the room.

I approach her and ask if she wants me to take a photo of the event. She looks at me as if I have asked for permission to shave my head with the lawnmower, a typical Felisa response. “No, no, no,” she says, shaking her head. I can feel the women watching her, so I ask her if she’s sure, thinking one of the women will pipe up and say yes. But Felisa says no and so I put the camera back into my pocket and pour another beer, my excuse for coming downstairs.

I text Pablo and he suggests going out to dinner– he is kind enough to rescue me from the evening. When he comes to the door, I walk down the stairs, smile at the women, and slip out the door, a moth escaping back into the night.

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A helpful reminder

Because that’s just how things go.

What changes are happening in your life lately?

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¡Un año en la Argentina!

Today I celebrate one year of living in Argentina.

This is me in the teacher’s office at my language institute.

Milestones may be reached, but the show must go on.

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The best guerilla surprise ever

A couple weeks ago I was in the bathroom when the door rang. I heard someone else answer the door and I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I took my sweet time before coming out. But when I stepped into the foyer, this is what I found:

reenactment brought to you by Laura V. Holcomb and Lauren Stephenson

The last thing I expected on a regular Thursday afternoon: one of my closest friends, Ms. Laura Vaughn Holcomb, here to surprise me in Buenos Aires (while wearing a gorilla mask, no less). When I saw her it actually all made sense– I knew she’d been traveling in Brazil with her husband but we’d never talked about meeting up somewhere while she was in South America. Turns out she had sneakily e-mailed some of my friends to find out my address and surprise me with a visit. It was a perfect, unexpected moment– I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to see her.

Talk about setting the bar for future visits, no? :)

We spent the next two weeks exploring the city and doing many things I hadn’t gotten the chance to try yet: we went to a puerta cerrada (closed-door restaurant), a play, a soccer game, biked around my neighborhood, and made so so so much guacamole. Check it:

shopping at the ferria in San Telmo

gettin’ silly and tryin’ on hats

For several days the weather was bad, but that didn’t deter us– we went to the national cinema which shows movies for 10 pesos ($2.25!) a pop, and we also saw a great one-man theatre show:

Teatro Anfitrion

free movies on Wednesday afternoons at Teatro Cervantes (if you haven’t seen El Lado Oscuro del Corazon, rent it)

We also went to a really cool drum show here (love this picture):

Rest assured we also ate our way through the city, hunting for gluten-free specialties (Laura doesn’t eat wheat, oat, etc.), and we found some amazing treats:

gluten-free pancakes with berries and honey for Laura and apple French toast with sugar-toasted almonds for me

One night we went to an amazing puerta cerrada restaurant called La Cocina Discreta. There are a number of puerta cerradas in Buenos Aires– these are restaurants that typically operate out of someone’s home, where a chef makes special meals one or two nights a week. You call to make a reservation and then the owner reveals the address to you. I’d been to one before that a yoga friend owns, but it was neat to try one in my own neighborhood:

A small room of 6 tables

Laura totally had the winning dish– a steak wrapped in bacon and covered in a chocolate-coffee sauce. Plus some fantastic potatoes. DROOOOOL.

tasty meatballs in a simple tomato sauce

We also went to a parilla with Pablo one night– I was a very happy girl with two of my favorite people in the same room together. :)

Parilla Elisa la Salteñita

happy meat eaters

One of my favorite days was when we rented some bikes and went exploring:

We also took some time to check out the pretty ecological reserve:

It was such a wonderful visit. Laura knows me well– that I would LOVE having her here as surprise, and we’ve always traveled well together on all of our adventures, from when we first reconnected after college on a trip to Nicaragua in 2008 to our Cucuyo work in the Dominican Republic. She is one of my soul sisters for sure.

Gracias por venir, amiga. Te espero la proxima vez… o mas probable, nos vemos en la Republica Dominicana. :)

Mil besos,

L.

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Mi nueva casita!

A couple of weeks ago I moved into my new house– and it’s wonderful! Let me show you around:

walkway to the house

Courtyard– with parilla! (grill) Above is my own private terrace. :)

The house has two bedrooms– mine upstairs and the master bedroom below, which is occupied by the owner of the house, Felisa. She’s an interesting lady, about 60 years old, who works as the building administrator for several apartment buildings around Buenos Aires. Felisa reminds me a lot of my grandmother Pat– rough around the edges but good on the inside, once you find her chocolately center. She loves her grandkids more than anything else in this world. She’s also a damn fine cook who lets me stick my paws into whatever she’s making.

The house is in a great neighborhood called Villa Crespo. There are a ton of meat and vegetable shops and Arabic restaurants nearby. Plus it’s close to lots of public transportation and two neighborhoods that have a lot going on. So, I’m very happy with the location and the house!

the kitchen, with Felisa in action

weekends are days of disorder/cooking. :)

the stairs up to my room

my private bathroom– can you taste the 70’s?

cute welcome sign that Felisa’s granddaughter Lucia made. Starting Monday, I’ll be teaching English classes to Lucia and two of her buddies!

my bedroom! nice large bed with plenty of space.

seriously sufficient space.

It’s hard to see, but the room has two pretty accent walls painted turquoise. Bonus if you can figure out what the commercial on the TV is about.

And somehow, in yet another house I’ve managed to find a terrace. This time, I’m the only one who has access to it! (Except for two really cute cats who live outside. It’s the perfect pet scenario: they’re not allowed in the house, so I can go out and pet them for 30 seconds and then shut the door. No cats on keyboards/hair all over the bed for me.)

terrace! (with kumquat tree)

My bedroom is pretty large– large enough, in fact, to fit another mattress for anyone who might visit (which one friend has already taken advantage of, can’t WAIT to tell you about it). So, consider this an official invitation to come visit and stay with me. :)

Hope you’re taking care of yourselves!

Love,

L

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La marmota vuelve! (The groundhog reemerges)

Hey there! I’m not dead!

Apologies for not updating much; I spent the last couple of months working a lot, complaining, and then freaking out about finding a place to live. (Three delightfully useless activities.) Now that all of those issues are settled, I wanted to share some things that have been going on recently:

1. Goodbye, Leentje

My good friend Leentje returned to her homeland of Belgium this week. She arrived in Buenos Aires just one month before I did, on a sabbatical from her job as a ceramics teacher. Leentje is also a well-known tango dancer in Belgium, and she came here to dance in every milonga (tango club) she could find, winning a ton of friends in the process. We met after briefly living in Fernanda’s house together. I love being friends with Leentje because she’s the kind of girl who will help you with anything you need– she’s like sunshine. Golden. Happy. Radiant. A really lovely girl who I will miss a lot. (I nicknamed her Lenteja, or lentil, because her name is hard to say in Spanish. It’s pronounced Leen-chuh.)

Check out Leentje dancing the tango on her last night in Buenos Aires:

The Friday night before she left, Leentje prepared one last delicious meal for Fer, Juli, and me: moussaka! (Recipe at the end of post)

moussaka-making

Fer, Leentje, Juli, yo

Good luck/friendship bracelets Fer brought back from her recent trip to Brasil

We’ll miss ya, doll– come back soon! :) xoxo

2. Apartment nonsense

In April, my friend Juliana and I started looking for apartments together. We had both been living in Fernanda’s shared house for some time (me, six months; Juli, more than a year) and we wanted a place that we could truly make ours, without the rotating cast of characters. So we began our search and right away found a BEAUTIFUL apartment the next block over in San Temo. It had everything we needed– furnished, no credit guarantee necessary– but it was really expensive. After talking with the intermediary, a man who was helping the owner rent the apartment, we got him to lower the price a bit so it was manageable. I wasn’t crazy about the price (a little high for my tastes), but I was really excited to live with a friend and share a home with her, so we put down a small deposit.

Cut to June– just four days before we were supposed to move in, Juli realized that we should inquire about the price of the apartment in pesos. (Que QUE?! you ask?) Here’s one thing you have to know about apartment prices in Buenos Aires: they’re often charged in dollars. (This is especially the case with furnished apartments for foreigners and tourists.) This habit stems from a time a little over ten years ago when the Argentine peso had the same value as the American dollar; you could often use them both interchangeably in the city. However, in 2001 Argentina suffered a crippling financial crisis where the government defaulted and many people lost a good portion or all of their savings and many families were thrown into povery. Argentina is still struggling to recover from this crisis, and as a result of that time, many landlords request rent in dollars because dollars are the surer financial bet over a long period of time. Some people (an estimated 10% of Argentines) convert their savings into dollars for this same reason.

But the biggest reason today why some landlords charge rent in dollars is that they can sell those dollars on the black market (here it’s called the blue market) for significantly more value than the official value set forth by the government. For example, if the official value of $1 USD to ARS (Argentine peso) is 4.55, the blue market value might be closer to 6.00. This has gotten worse in the past couple of months as the government has tried to pesificar (peso-fy, or cut reliance upon the dollar) by limiting people’s access to dollars. This currently means that Argentines and foreigners alike cannot buy dollars without special permission– so the blue market value of dollars has soared. The blue market value today is 6.23, significantly higher than the official value. So if a landlord charges $1,000USD in rent, they could turn around and sell those dollars and receive 6,230 pesos instead of 4,550 if they did so through legal means. That’s a lot more money.

So, Juli was thinking about this and called the intermediary to ask what value of the peso we would be paying for our rent. (I had assumed we would pay the equivalent of the official value; at the time, I didn’t understand that many landlords charged a considerably higher exchange rate.) The intermediary wanted to charge us the blue market price but said he would offer us a good deal of something in between, “five something.” (How generous.) That pushed the monthly price beyond our means and Juli and I had to let go of the apartment– four days (!) before we were supposed to move. This pushed us both into panic mode, trying to figure out what our living options were.

Fortunately, everything worked out well– I had been subletting the apartment of a friend of a friend and I was able to stay there for another month and look for apartments. Juli had an amazing stroke of luck and found a great studio apartment through one of her colleagues and was able to move in right away. During the last week of my time in the apartment I was renting, I found a great setup– I will be renting the only spare bedroom in the house of a wonderful woman named Felisa, who lives in a great neighborhood. I have all the furniture I’ll need AND a private terrace! I spent some time with her and her family last Saturday and I can already tell that it will be a great place for me. Meanwhile, for the next two weeks,  I’m staying at Fernanda’s house (home sweet home, ha ha!) until I move in August 11. Pictures to come!

During the time that I spent looking at apartments– I looked at at least 25, no joke– I learned a lot about the renting market and environment in Buenos Aires. Charging rent in dollars is extremely common; legally, the owner has to let you pay in pesos, but the set value of your rent (official value or blue market value) can be set by the owner. I encountered people on all points of the scale– some who posted a set monthly rent in pesos, some who would only except the blue market value equivalent, and others who wanted to negotiate a complicated rental price in between the official and blue market value. But fortunately there are a number of people in this city who actually advertise fair amounts of rent (in pesos!), and I was finally fortunate enough to find one of them. The next time that I rent an apartment, I will have a much better understanding of the market, my rights as a renter, and how to deal with my own sense of panic at not having a place to live (I may have gotten worked up a few times.) And, most importantly, Juli and I remain friends, with this housing mini-disaster safely behind us.

3. Pablo!

This is Pablo. He my boyfriend! (Que guapo, no?) We met during my vacation in February at the bus station in Jujuy. I was wandering around wondering where my bus was and I went up to him and his friend Leandro to ask if they knew anything– and they were waiting for the same bus! Turns out they were both from Buenos Aires, also vacationing in the north. After that, due to a quilombo (clusterfuck) of weather problems, we ended up traveling together for nine days. Then, when we came back to Buenos Aires, we started spending time together, and now I get the pleasure of annoying him with my company every week.

A little bit about him: he’s 25, works full time doing QA for a bank and also goes to school full time (a very hard worker). He’s a wonderful person– really kind and also spectacularly weird, which you know I enjoy. Plus he’s good about giving me a kick in the ass when I need it (read: often). Who’da thought I’d find another Metallica-loving weirdo like me down here in Argentina? :D

4. Buenos Aires, te quiero

For the next couple of weeks I am enjoying some downtime from my freelance work, so on Monday I went to take advantage of a yearly tradition in Buenos Aires– La Rural!

As I described it to my friend Charlie (miss you, goddamnit), La Rural is basically the 4-H of northern Argentina. People from the northern provinces bring their best livestock (chickens, cows, horses, pigs, sheep, llamas, chinchillas, and more) to be judged and gifted with ribbons. There are also vendors who sell food and wares from the north. I spent a few fun hours walking around stuffing my face with apple strudel and marveling at chickens that had feathers like lions. Take a look!

baby got back

Doesn’t this cow’s hide look fake? Extraordinarily beautiful. Also, this cow was enormous.

vecinos

I got to pet a four-day old goat! (Not that kid, the other kid.)

Let’s get onto the important part: food

strudel de manzana

Spoils: salami, queso, pan de campo (bread from the countryside), and a bottle of vino patero, a sweet wine (Ma, clear some room in your stocking, this has your name all over it)

Just another funfest in this city that I love.

So all is well– I hope you are the same. Won’t you leave a comment and let me know how you are doing?

Much love,

L

Leentje’s Moussaka

Ingredients:

-one potato, one eggplant, a hunk of nice cheese like Reggiano, one small container plain yougurt, tomato sauce, salt

Make a nice tomato sauce with onion, tomatoes, and oregano. Let simmer for a while (tip from my friend Gustavo: don’t stir your tomato sauce or you’ll introduce too much oxygen).

Cut potatoes into thin slices and line on bottom of pan. Cut up eggplant and salt heavily. Let sit for 30-60 minutes. Rinse thoroughly.

Introduce eggplant and tomato sauce to pan in any combination you wish. Throw half the cheese somewhere in there. Then, mix together some yogurt and cheese and oregano so the mixture looks chunky. Put yogurt mixture on top of moussake.

Bake at 180 degrees C (350 degrees F) till the cheese looks wonderfully brown. Test a portion to make sure the potatoes at the bottom are cooked through.

Serve and bless your now worshipping adorers.

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Happy Father’s Day!

Happy Father’s Day to all you men, biological fathers or no, who took time out of your lives to make a kid feel loved.

This especially goes out to my own dad, who is an amazing father in his own right, but also someone who spent a large part of his life looking after the students at his middle school, where he worked as a guidance counselor for 30+ years. For all the wonderful memories that I have with my dad, I also have many memories of him doing something for one of his students– whether it was buying an extra Christmas gift for a kid who he wasn’t sure would receive one that year, counseling his most troubled students in groups or one on one, or cheering on his nerdiest kids as they performed at the talent show. He always spoke of these moments not with pride for himself but with pride for his students and the people they were developing into.

So Happy Father’s Day, Dad! I miss you so.

Dad visiting in Buenos Aires

at Fenway Park

Freshman year of college!

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