Monday, June 15, 2009

The last abnormal ramble

After enough time abroad, you're not really abroad anymore. Most of my friends who preceded me in a move to a random foreign country were very connected to their home life for the first six months. I was the same. Look at how the postings have dwindled lately. In my case, the job is playing a large role. June is the busy season around here, something nobody really told me about ahead of time. But more than that, the difficult thing is that your life abroad just becomes your life. You don't remember what's different about the new country you're living in - and probably things back home would seem strange if you went back to face them again. So this may be my last post in a long time about "those wacky South American things." Because after this, I can't tell the difference anyway. So without further ado, here are some quick hitters...

I've gotten pretty good at closing doors to taxis. This would seem like a simple process, but I was universally hollered at every time I got out of a cab for the first six months or so. It took me a while to even figure out why. The thing is, these cab doors are always really flimsy. They don't make the big gas guzzlers like we have in the states. They might as well be adobes. Plus, since I'm a big strong dude (at least by Argentine standards), I couldn't help it. Finally, I've managed to find my touch with the doors and have learned how to cierre suave. In fact, sometimes I start so weak I have to close it again. Yay me.

I had been seeing these signs all over town and had no idea what they were:
Clarence Beeks is running!

Apparently they're school crossings, but it's a bit goofy, no? I suppose the kid has a briefcase in his hand, but do you know any kids who take their briefcase with them to school? It could also be a boombox or perhaps a really big sandwich. Anyway I don't exactly see the drivers slowing down when they encounter one of these.

For the first time in my life, I have a maid who comes to clean my house. While I'm sure my mom would not approve (because these are things I should be able to do myself), the fact that she comes once a week, spends five or six hours in the apartment, and only costs 50 pesos per visit (current street value: 13 bucks), it's hard to pass the opportunity up. The thing is, both the maid at my house and the people who handle cleaning at work don't exactly do a phenomenal job. The bathroom and kitchen are relatively clean, but it's not exactly the overhaul I would like (yes, 13 bucks - I'm not complaining). The biggest thing is that they tend to rearrange things that don't need rearranging. OK, in my house maybe that makes sense. She's paid to clean the place, and if she has the urge to move one set of T-shirts to some other random drawer, who am I to complain? But at the office, the cleaners are constantly moving papers into different piles and onto different desks. In Schaumburg, the papers (those who've worked with me know there are always some piles) were always untouched, but not here. I find this more strange than unnerving, but shouldn't they be cleaning up the medialuna crumbs instead of trying to help me with my filing system?

A friend recently had a new daughter and immediately had her ears pierced. I knew they did this in India, but didn't know that it was common in any Western cultures, but here pretty much everyone does it. Also, they frequently shave the newborn baby's head because it's a "cleaner look." This is something I'm not close to getting used to.

There are a lot of US shows and movies that are very popular here. That's probably no surprise. The Simpsons trumps everything, although Friends is quite close - especially with the women. That said, I was very, very surprised to find the following array of DVD packs together on the shelf in a local bookstore:
Did you know there were four Critters movies? Did you also know that I'd rather watch them than the OC?

Any and all public construction projects take forever here. Yet it is not uncommon to see people working well into Saturday night on a new sidewalk or underground pipes. The most egregious example I saw was when they repaved the street around the corner from me. We had similar problems in Chicago. My friend Steve used to say that it appeared that the guy who comes to strip away the old street always forgets to tell the guy who's supposed to come and put down the new street that he's done his job. But here, it's like they don't even know that each other exist. I think it took over three months to get the new street put down. Yet the new high-rise next door to my apartment is going up in a real hurry. I hope it's structurally sound.

I haven't talked much in this space about mate because until recently I didn't drink it much. Thanks to the visit to Villa General Belgrano and under Belu's tutelige, I've become a fan. Mate is an herbal tea that is generally served in a hollowed out gourd and sucked down with a metal straw called a bombilla. It has a slightly bitter, but very natural flavor. The cool thing about mate is that it is meant to be shared amongst friends. The mate is filled with the herbs first (yerba) and then with hot water. Once a person has finished the water contained therein they pass the mate to the next person. It's got quite a kick and once you develop a taste for it, coffee seems less appealing. Here's a guy talking about his way of preparing mate:

Everyone here uses graph paper. I have yet to see a notebook with standard lined paper. And I'm totally used to that now. Also, they have been taught here that there are only six continents. North and South America are part of a joined big one. Doesn't that kind of blow your mind? Kind of like this

"Where's Waldo" is called "Donde está Wally?"

My team recently moved from the extremely posh office (universally believed to be the nicest office building in Buenos Aires) to the main Nielsen office. That was obviously a bummer for us, but the company is going to save a ton of money thanks to the move. There is one thing, however, I will not miss form that place. The stall door in the bathroom in the old office wouldn't just creak, it sounded like a train wreck that could be heard across the entire floor. It was pretty much like you were declaring: "Hey everybody! I'm gonna take a dump now!" Then, when you finished your business and opened the door again, the same screeching noise: "Hey everybody! I'm finished with my dump!" Also, it nearly locked you in there every time. So your post-dump announcement could come pretty late. The move-out day was really surreal. People came to buy all the furniture that hadn't already been moved out. It was a ghost-town of an office, only we were still working in it. I can't imagine what that must feel like for people when their business actually shuts down. Anyway, the new place is not nearly as nice, but at least you can use the bathroom without such a public declaration of your activities.

Last but not least, here's an ad from a publication we saw in Villa General Belgrano. I think it speaks for itself.
Translation: You find quality in Dick House

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Semana Santa en Villa General Belgrano

Note - this post comes very late. I'm way behind here, thanks largely to a busy work schedule. Please be patient...

One of the hardest things for me to accomplish here has been progress with my book. It's not that I haven't been eager to push forward with it or been struggling with writer's block. I simply don't have much time. My job keeps me very busy, Big Red Ultimate is now meeting three days a week, and then there's my often busy social calendar. On top of that, I'm putting a lot of energy into learning Spanish, even if it doesn't take up a particular chunk of time. The other area where I've been failing to do all I want is travel around Argentina. This was partly by design. I wanted to understand the city first, and wait for the travel until after my Spanish had improved a bit. But thus far, aside from the fabulous frisbee tournament in Monte Hermoso, I have been largely city-confined.

Belu had a great idea that would serve to jumpstart both of these endeavors. We could go off to the country and spend the long Easter weekend in a cabin where I could make some real progress with my writing. So we planned a trip to the province of Córdoba. Easter weekend is the longest holiday of the year, with everyone having Thursday and Friday off from work. This made for a troublesome beginning. All the extranjeros I know here have raved about the buses - that they run on time and are luxurious. Sure, compared to Greyhound, this is true. But the Wednesday night before a big weekend is not the time to be hanging at the BA bus station. This was a clamjamfry of epic proportions. But eventually, we were on our way.
This picture is just a small portion of the mess. I'd estimate that there were easily over 20,000 people at the station that night.
The bus trip passed fine, and when we awoke we were on the edge of the Cordobian Sierras. It's a bit weird to wake up on a bus in a foreign country to the squawking of the elderly ladies seated behind you. But weirder than that is the fact that we were, quite suddenly, not in the city anymore. There was actual landscape. The air wasn't just more crisp in our lungs, it looked cleaner. We still had a couple hours to go which allowed us to wake up gradually.

I really didn't know what I was in for. All I knew was that we were going to the mountains to stay in a cabin. It was probably the first time I'd done such a thing since my time with the Boy Scouts, although, I should say that there are cabins and there are cabins. This one had indoor plumbing, for instance. Our little area was several blocks outside of town and perfectly peaceful. All we could hear was the occasional bird.

This was certainly unlike any other place I'd been. The whole point of this little town is to highlight its German influence. All signs in town are on carved and painted wood. That seemed really weird to me since we're in Argentina. There is a long history of German immigration to Argentina, but it's still kind of weird to actually see it because in the city it's relatively nonexistent.

Things were a bit crowded in town. This is their biggest tourist weekend of the year. But that didn't stop us from taking an easy stroll around town. Here's Belu hanging out in front of a scenic arroyo.

Our plan was to be as self-sufficient as possible. We packed our own food. Belu was on mate detail. But it's kind of hard to bring fresh tomatoes on a long bus ride. That meant we had to hit the grocery store. Belu and I are both big fans of writing it all down and having a shopping list. Unfortunately, we stupidly forgot to bring a pen, and there was none in the cabin. So being the former boy scout in the group, I improvised. A charred matchstick would have to suffice.

Note the final item.

Our shopping resulted in some excellent, simple, and healthy meals. It's funny that nowadays we are hardly ever cooking at home, but we go on vacation and make every lunch and dinner ourselves. But breakfast was another story. It happened to be identical every morning, but delivered right to our door. An excellent loaf of bread, medialunas, and café con leche is a fine way to start any day.

Especially when can eat outside with a view like this one.

Nature was around, though mostly quiet nature. The most fascinating thing that happened was a group of ants who had come across a dead centipede. They spent the better part of a day trying to get it home. After moving it across our patio, they then had to take it up a five foot cement wall. This proved difficult as there either were not enough ants or not enough places for ants to help with the pushing. But it was amazing to watch.

Here's a shaky video of their efforts:

The poor little guys tried for hours to get this thing home. This is when our friend came into the mix. While we ate our breakfast, a neighboring bird was also eating his, darting around and finding bugs in the ground. He hung out very close to us, tweeting and eating. It took him more than a morning to realize that what the ants were up to on the other side of the building. But eventually he figured it out and ambled on by with an open beak.

In a matter of seconds, he swooped down and stole the centipede, probably along with a few ants who went along for the ride. He hopped away, seemingly content. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the little guys. To honor their futile efforts, we went out and got some tea. I mean, you're not going to stop at a casa de te named Hoffmeisterhaus? Of course you are!

Slightly buzzed from the tea served from the cutest tea-cozy ever, on our last night, we decided we'd had enough of the kitchen and deserved a dinner out. The town was overrun with tourists and we were forced to wait a very long time to sit, get menus, get a waiter, and order. But eventually, we took in some hearty German cuisine.

Not as good as my mom's, but a tasty finish to a long day. In the end, we had a wonderful time, both peaceful and fun. And perhaps the most important thing was that I got a lot of writing done for the first time since I arrived in South America. I just need to take more vacations like this, hunker down over the laptop, get a good mate buzz going, and occasionally put my feet up a bit to watch the sunset. With any luck, the book will be done before I have a kid going to college. But I'll have a great time writing it...

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