Thursday, July 29, 2010

Learning the language

"England and America are two countries separated by a common language" -- An overquoted witticism of George Bernard Shaw's that nonetheless rings true to me.

Of course, you could say the same of the Spanish spoken in Latin America as opposed to in Spain, the Portuguese of Brazil as opposed to that of Portugal or Angola, etc.  It is even more extreme in the Arab world, where very little is mutually intelligible between say, a Moroccan and a Saudi, if they are speaking in dialect.

Those of you who have learned another language know firsthand the difficulties, frustration, joy, hilarity, bewilderment and satisfaction that result!

Language was probably my primary motivation in going to South America, and definitely the main factor in choosing Argentina over Brazil, Spanish being my Moby Dick.  I had spent two years at university in Spain, but besides my Spanish being rustier than I liked, there was always the knowledge niggling at me that I hadn't really put in the effort to learn the language as well as I could have.  That I went to an American university there was not really a factor--I had chosen that beforehand.  But fate, circumstance and, most significantly complacency and comfort, saw me surround myself with English-speaking friends.

As much as I love Madrid, I never really felt a connection to Spaniards my age; those at St. Louis University kept to themselves and were probably not the best representatives, to be fair.  So despite leaving Spain fairly fluent and able to more or less communicate what I wanted to, I always felt I'd sold myself a bit short in that language experience, and I would never feel really good about it until I'd returned to the fray and harpooned the beast.

My linguistic foray into Argentine Spanish thus started with some trepidation, but rapidly turned into one of the most fun language-learning experiences I've had.  Rioplatense is the name given to the version of Spanish spoken by those living near the banks of the Rio de la Plata in Argentina and Uruguay, and what an expressive and exuberant little bugger it is!  Since there are so many people of Italian heritage, the cadence is much more noticeable than in other Spanish dialects.  And if you don't know how to use your hands, 'olvidalo, che!' ('forget it, maaan!')  Besides the sing-song tone and the wild gesticulations are the expressive sayings and vocabulary of lunfardo, as the slang of the capital is known.  I was fortunate enough to hear of Che boludo! which is an absolute must read if you are going to be in Buenos Aires for any significant length of time.  The phrase "Che boludo" roughly means "Hey, dude" and is ubiquitous.  Of course, it suffers from overuse by foreigners trying to fit in, but you will hear it aplenty if you spend time with Argentines.  Following are some of my favourite phrases, words, and expressions gleaned from the pages of Che boludo! and from many many conversations throughout the year.  The book also covers (if somewhat briefly), the differences between the standard Spanish 'Tu' and the very Rioplatense 'Vos'.

Che - Hey, man, dude, bro(seph), buddy, etc.

Boludo - Idiot [when used with friends, a term meaning dude, man, bro, etc.]

Viste? - You know? [literally Did you see? Not a word exclusive to Argentina, but this particular use is]

Tipo - 1. Guy [literally type]  2.  About/Like [E.g.  'Vamos al shopping tipo diez' - We're going to the mall at about/like 10]

Mina - Chick, girl

Quilombo - Mess [The normal Spanish word for mess is 'lío', so if you use 'quilombo' Argentines will love you for it.]

Chabón - Guy [used in reference, but not normally to get someone's attention]

Boncha - Chabon.  This is an example of a phenomenon in lunfardo where you reverse the syllables of a word to get the same meaning.  So feca = café (coffee) and sope = peso (their currency)

Bondi - Bus

Te parece? - How about it/You think?  [Once again, not exclusive to Argentina, but this use is. *This is not a sarcastic You think? like in English]

Re - Really

Fiaca - Laziness  [As in: 'Me da fiaca (hacer algo)' - I can't be bothered (to do something) OR 'Estoy haciendo fiaca nomás' - I'm just hanging out, not doing anything]

Nomás - Just (roughly translated)  Used for emphasis ['Pasá' - Come in.  'Pasá nomás' - Come on in.]

Pedo - Fart [literally, but used as in conjunction with different prepositions to mean a variety of things]:
            En pedo - Drunk
            Ni en pedo! - Not even drunk! [I.e. No way (am I doing that)!]
            Al pedo - Useless, Doing nothing ['Estoy al pedo' - I'm not doing anything]
            A los pedos - Very fast ['Ibamos a los pedos!' - We were booking it!]
            De pedo - By chance

Que garrón/embole/bajón - Bummer!/That sucks!

, eh? - Used to add meaning e.g. 'Gracias, eh?' - I appreciate it (as opposed to a simple thanks)

Me mataste - You've got me [when you don't know the answer to something.  Literally You killed me.]

No hinches, che! - Don't be a pain!  [Literally Don't bust my...well, you know.]

These words are powerful, my friends.  Use them wisely.  Suerte!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Teaching Experience

My teaching experience in Buenos Aires was as different as I expected it to be from that of Ankara.  In Turkey we were put up in some pretty nice digs on the university campus, with return airfare, health insurance and meal tickets to boot.  It was also (supposedly) Turkey's most prestigious university, a gargantuan, not-so-smoothly-oiled machine of bureaucracy.  On the other hand, my quest to find a job as an EFL teacher in Buenos Aires, while not lengthy, involved a bit more elbow grease, such as a lot of emailing and hoofing it round in an Argentine summer to various institutes, resume/CV in hand.

As providence had it, one of the apartments I went to see--and which I eventually chose--also happened to double as an English institute in the room above our place, the director (and half of the staff) also being the landlady of the apartment.  But that would only provide me with enough hours to fill half the week, so I had to keep looking.  Fortunately within three weeks of arriving I'd landed a job at IdiomaNet, a business English institute on Viamonte in the financial district of downtown Buenos Aires.  This turned out to provide the lion's share of my teaching, but it was nice to be able to finish the day's teaching above my apartment and to already be home.

I won't lie and say teaching English in Buenos Aires is anywhere near as lucrative as elsewhere in the world, for example as it can be in the Middle East or the Far East.  But nor was I nearly as bad-off as many local people, so I couldn't really complain.  If I'd wanted to I could have survived on what normal hours of teaching would have made me.  But it didn't take long to determine that if I wanted to travel around Argentina and the rest of South America a bit I would have to work as many hours as they could give me.  So I did.  No two days were the same in terms of schedules, but some went from 8.30 am to 9.30 pm, and none ended before 7.30 pm.  This wasn't solid teaching throughout the day, however; the system worked as follows.  IdiomaNet would either host classes at the institute, or if the company preferred (remember it was all business English), send the teacher to their company building, where the class would take place.  I would get the train into Retiro every morning, and walk to the institute, where several days of the week I taught my first class.  Otherwise I would get a bus from Retiro straight to whatever company I was teaching my first class at.  Throughout the day I was constantly crisscrossing the city on its underappreciated but very overused, extensive network of buses.

Depending on the particular day and hour, this could mean stopping for a leisurely coffee or lunch someplace in between classes, or, as was more often the case, a mad dash for the bus stop the second I could get out of class in order to ensure I got to the next class on time.  The upside of this system was that it was rarely monotonous and I got to (if in a sort of perverse way) 'see' some of the city.  The downside was that we didn't get paid for our travel time, of course, nor were we reimbursed for the insane amount of bus fares that inevitably added up.  More frustrating even than that is that the bus system, at least the vast majority of lines while I was there, operated on a coins-only basis, which meant you were constantly having to either a. make sure you had enough coins to last the day before you left home or b. buy chewing gum and other sundry items you didn't need throughout the day in order to have enough coins!  Of course this latter option (which I inevitably had to resort to on most occasions) meant shrewdly calculating, at a frantic pace while rushing for the next bus, what item you could buy, based on the bill denominations you had in your wallet, that would mean the vendor would give you enough change for the bus, but not so much that he or she could give you a bill back, thus stymying your efforts to make your next lesson on time because you couldn't take the bus or had to make another useless (and increasingly expensive) purchase.

It all worked out in the end.  I made some friends through my classes, which were a lot more relaxed and low-key than in Turkey, since in Turkey we were not supposed to 'fraternize' with the students.  Their words, no joke.  There were also plenty of good-natured and somewhat heated debates on the various pros and cons of Spanish vs. English, to say nothing of all the political, sporting, business, cultural, gossip, religious, and philosophical bases we touched on.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The beautiful game

Everyone knows football reigns supreme in Argentina, and nowhere is this more the case than in Buenos Aires, which plays host to El clasico, the derby between the capital's ultimate rivals: Boca Juniors and River Plate. (Yeah, weird name I know, pronounce it like you would in English but with a Spanish accent--It comes from Buenos Aires' iconic Rio de la Plata, or River of Silver, which apparently was mistranslated by early British residents.  I need to check on that, though.)

Boca Juniors (home colours: blue and gold), erstwhile club of Maradona, is Argentina's most well-known and supported club, particularly outside the country, but within the country, River Plate (home colours: red and white) isn't too far behind.  As soon as an Argentine finds out that you care in the least about football, they will inevitably ask you, "De quien sos hincha?" ("Who do you support?") And woe betide whoever gives the wrong answer!

One thing that sets the teams apart could be said to be class.  Although I've been met with half-hearted rejections of the theory (most often from admittedly well-to-do River fans), most would agree that the fan base of Boca is by and large the working class, while the patrons of River, although they come in all shapes and sizes, are more often than not...shall we say...more financially stable?  The location of Boca's and River's stadiums, La Bombonera and Monumental, respectively, speaks volumes in this regard.  While La Bombonera is on the banks of the noxious, reeking Riachuelo canal in the dangerous southern barrio of La Boca, Monumental is in the more affluent northern Belgrano/Nunez neighbourhoods with their peaceful tree-lined avenues and upmarket eateries.  The stadiums themselves reflect the economic difference, too: Monumental hosts international matches, and can seat 66,000 spectators in relatively comfortable conditions.  The Bombonera, on the other hand, though only able to seat 49,000, is by far the most atmospheric football experience to be had in Argentina.

La Bombonera, with its steep, close stands

My first experience with Monumental and Argentine football in the flesh was at an international match between Argentina and Peru, a rather important one in fact--a qualifying match for FIFA World Cup 2010.  The opportunity came about unexpectedly; I sometimes worry that I am too much of a plan-oriented person and envy those into whose laps adventure seems to fall because of their spontaneity and willingness to let the wind carry them where it will.  This is one of the reasons I chose Argentina although I didn't have a particularly good reason to go there or anything lined up.  It's also the reason I jumped at the chance to see go to my first international match in Argentina despite being in a bit of a financially tight spot at the time.  I was hanging out with some friends in Recoleta one Sunday afternoon when Johan, a Colombian-American friend mentioned he had an extra ticket to the match he would sell to anyone who wanted to go.  A bit later that afternoon I was debating going and after finally deciding to, I went back and told  him I'd take it...only to find out he'd just sold it to another friend!  But they suggested I might be able to get a ticket at the gate from a hawker, so that's what I did, and after a bit of haggling by yours truly, it turned out to be not only cheaper than theirs, but in a better position!  Of course the downside of this was that I was alone in a row of strangers for the match...

But it was a good experience anyway.  I got to see Maradona pacing the sideline in his requisite tracksuit (which he never seems to be without), a bit of Messi magic (although he definitely disappoints a bit on the international stage as opposed to when he plays for Barca), and an absolutely torrential downpour.  It was possibly the heaviest rain I've ever experienced, and that while sitting passively out in the open with nothing to shelter under!  It started around halftime and never let up significantly for one moment.  In the last ten minutes, I retreated to an upper level of the stands to stand under a very inadequate outcropping of cement.  In fact, by the end it was so torrential that, Peru having equalized on the 89th minute, I was turning to go when I sensed some buildup from the noise.  Sure enough, as I squeezed my face in between the squelching and slick flanks of two stout supporters, Palermo notched Argentina's second of the night in the last minute of injury time, sending the whole stadium into wild paroxysms of joy.  The crowds outside made the prospect of and my futile attempt at taking public transport home totally unrealistic, so I walked the 25 odd blocks home in the deluge, my trainers squeaking and splashing every step of the way, but a smile on my face.

My next experience was at the hallowed grounds of La Bombonera, once again with Johan and co., although this time I was seated with everyone.  I should say standing, because at a Boca match there is pretty much standing room only.  Although the action on the pitch was forgettable--it was a 0-0 draw with Colon, the atmosphere was as electric as at any Boca match, bar only El Clasico.  The stands were a riot of blue and gold, the air heavy with chants of "Vamos, Boca, vamos!" and many other less savory cries that I won't print here.  A word to the wise though: if you ever go to a Boca match, it's a good idea to make sure you DON'T get a ticket in the La doce section (not sure if you can anyway, if you're not a season ticket holder)--this is Boca's notorious firm of hooligans.  It gets crazy in there, let me tell you.  The above picture is me at the match, with a (crazy) Argentine friend of Johan's.

My final football-spectating was a River Plate match at Monumental at the end of November '09, just before I finished my time in Argentina.  A student, Rodrigo, was kind enough to invite me to go with him, so I took him up on the offer.   Being a much more spatially open stadium (La Bombonera's stands are very steep and the atmosphere is almost claustrophobic because of the proximity of the rectangular stands to each other and to the pitch), Monumental doesn't have the same atmosphere, but the match itself was fun to watch as the sun dipped over the stand opposite ours and the heaviness of the warm summer evening set in.  The final result was a 1-1 draw with Estudiantes, which was fielding Juan Sebastian Veron himself, ex-Boca, Inter, Man Utd and Chelsea midfielder and a regular callup to the national side.  Also notable was another of Argentina's former national team members, Ariel Ortega, who scored River's exciting equalizer on the 90 minute mark.

I'm having troubles uploading any pictures of Monumental, I'll try again later.  Both photos above courtesy of Johan.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Eating in Buenos Aires

I just may think about food a bit too much.  I will often be wandering around a new city in the morning and find myself more focused on what to eat for lunch, what succulent morsel or guilty pleasure to indulge in, than the 800 year-old cathedral or world-renowned museum I am in, or the charming shop facades passing by.

Well that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but food is often on my mind, so what would this blog be if it didn't include a paean to foods of the world, in this case Argentine cuisine?

First and foremost, of course, is the asado.  From the verb asar, to roast or grill, the asado is basically the Argentine version of the barbecue.  But it is so much more.   While Americans and Brits fire up their portable grills in the summertime, Argentines have asados year-round, come rain or shine, snow or hail.  Thus they not only have a term for their grill--parrilla, but also for the hut/area in which it is housed in anticipation of inclement weather--quincho.  And it's no wonder--if you have tasted Argentine beef from its fertile pampas, expertly seasoned (although often salt is all that is needed and used) and grilled to succulent perfection--you will know just why they eat it year-round and never get tired of it.  Whether it's chorizo (a type of sausage), asado, or vacio (both different cuts), or what's more common, a large helping of all--the asado is something not be missed if you ever travel to Argentina.  I didn't experience as many as I would have wished for, but some notable ones were spent on the terraced rooftop of our apartment with my roommates, not to mention a memorable one at Ezeiza park with a friend, Fabian, and his family.  Below is my humble attempt to evoke an evening on the rooftop with good food and good friends.

Ode to the Asado
Beneath the fading sun of southern skies,
Parrillas coaxed to life on terrace tiles,
Chorizo and vacio hiss and fry,
As sultry tango floats, porteño guile,
Across the rooftops.  In reply--the scent
Of charcoal, meat, and sizzling fat, and sweat
And tears and blood and thirty years' dissent
And football hopes and laughter, no regrets.
     The meat is off the grill, the sun is gone,
     And wine and jokes flow till the break of dawn.

 With Diego, roommate/the best asador (griller) I know!

Argentina, but specifically Buenos Aires, owes its incredible and unmissable pizza and pasta prowess to its Italian heritage, which accounted at peak times of immigration during the 20th century for almost as much as its numbers of Spanish immigrants.  Pizza is a funny thing, you know.  When I first arrived in Buenos Aires I couldn't get enough of this new style; it is different from American pizza, both the fast food and gourmet varieties, although both thin-crust and deep-dish styles exist there.  But by the end of my year (actually well before), I was craving p-p-pepperoni, which is nowhere to be found there!  American and Argentine pizzas both have their charms, though.

Food can be incredibly cheap down there, too; my regular local haunt was a place by the name of Fabrica de Pizzas, which offered medium-sized cheese pizzas (definitely better than your average fast-food cheese pizza this side of the Panama Canal) for anywhere from--depending on inflation--5 to 7 pesos ($1.29-$1.80).  Aaah!  A staple for me during my time at Calle P.I.Rivera 3720 B.  Another favourite--though slightly more expensive at 10 pesos a pizza--was Ugi's, very popular among the masses (trans-lingual pun, some of you out there will get it).

Sing, muse!  Enough cannot be said about the joys of empanadas.  Whether it's carne picada, carne suave, jamon y queso, roquefort, or pollo; whether it's cooked al horno (baked) or frito (fried); whether it's an empanada salteña (from Salta) or an empanada porteña (from Buenos Aires).  One of my regrets (the other being only taking one class of tango) is not learning to make empanadas while I was there.  It is basically a semi-circular pastry with a filling inside, either baked or fried, and muy cheap.  Normally 2 pesos a pop, occasionally 1.50, four easily made for a nice little meal, though of course if my finances were in good shape 5 or 6 never failed to hit the spot!  "Barriga llena, corazón contento" (gracias, Carlitos!)

Ice cream
Though asado remains my favourite staple among Argentina's cuisine, its ice cream surely comes a close second.  Another throwback to its large Italian immigrant population, helado finds its roots in the semi-fluid gelato, and Buenos Aires' barrios have refined the art to a perfection.  It may be a case of natural bias, but I honestly found nowhere in all my rambling and roaming of the capital that had as delicious ice cream as the ice cream parlour across the street from my apartment, Lucca.  People will try telling you Freddo, Persicco or Jauja.  Believe me, they don't come close.  Some standout flavours were Tiramisu, Pear, and Sambayón.
If you ever find yourself in Buenos Aires of a warm afternoon, hop on the Bartolomé Mitre train from Retiro, and get off at the station Coghlan.  Incidentally, the barrio (neighbourhood) of Coghlan was named after the station, rather than vice-versa, as one might expect.  Crossing a little bridge over the tracks and going down the stairs on the other side, you pass through a leafy little plaza where some kids will be playing football and some men who have seen better days will be boludeando at the stone tables or day-dreaming on the benches there.  Continuing through the plazoleta, half a block up on the left you will find Lucca: Helados Artesanales.  You never spent a better 6 pesos in Buenos Aires.

Just to the Southwest of Lucca (down and to the left) is the train station, along with its leafy little plaza.

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

"Bienvenido a Argentina...sos yanqui, no?"

I approach the customs and immigration desk nervously, hoping they don't ask me how long I plan to stay in Argentina.  What will I say?  Not the best time for a crisis of conscience, but knowing that I'm entering on a tourist visa with plans to find a job there and work illegally, I can't help but wonder.

Feigning nonchalance I step up, hold my breath...and blink, surprised, as the official stamps my passport and utters an entirely unconvincing "Bienvenido."  I'm through!  Following some wrangling in my rusty Spanish with a bus driver outside the terminal, I'm on my way to the downtown.  My guidebook gives me a rough idea of where I need to get off to find a hostel, and I ask the driver to please let me know when we get there.

Highways and fields give way to suburban sprawl, which in turn yields to the more compact, taller--and noticeably older--buildings of the city center.  Rose and beige-coloured stone buildings cram together, jostling for space on narrow sidewalks and the traffic follows suit, the free-flowing autopistas becoming avenidas becoming calles chockablock with the sounds, smells, and sights of city life.  The long road leading into the city of Buenos Aires is known as Rivadavia--it's reputed by porteños (the capital's residents) to be the longest street in the world.  Of course, I'll come to learn during my year in Argentina that Argentina also boasts the widest avenue in the world, not to mention being the nation to invent the ballpoint pen and the bus.

Despite hearing from various sources that Buenos Aires is the "Paris of South America", I can't help but note more similarities in architecture with Madrid as the bus groans and hisses through barrio after barrio.  Finally the bus driver shouts a hoarse "Che!" in my direction, and signals that it's my stop.

As I step off the bus on the corner of Avenida 9 de Julio and Rivadavia my senses are overwhelmed by surroundings at once completely unfamiliar--it is my first time in South America, my only unvisited continent to date except for Antarctica--and vaguely reassuring.  October 23, 2008: not quite yet the sweltering humidity of a Buenos Aires summer but all vestiges of winter long gone.  The tiles on the pavement, the warmth and sunshine, sidewalk cafes--all remind me of the Middle East, especially Morocco; while the language swirling around me and the architecture echo Europe--Madrid especially comes to mind.  I think I'm going to like it here.

I readjust my gargantuan hiking backpack (a hand-me-down, light green, sporting a conspicuous tag reading "WOMEN") and try to get my bearings, when I hear the heavy beat of a bass drum, followed by the trrrrrrrrr! of a snare drum.  A mass of people with blue banners that mirror the cloudless sky overhead is advancing up the avenue towards me, the percussionists in the vanguard.  It's not going fast enough to be a "wave of humanity"--more like a sluggish river flowing inexorably towards its destination, but in no hurry to get there.  Ah, the famed South American demonstration, or 'manifestacion'!  I'm aware of a goofy smile on my face at this first 'cultural experience' and quickly try to muster an appropriately solemn and commiserative face for this unknown cause, as I weave between the stragglers towards the hostel implied by Lonely Planet to be the best bang for my buck.

An unassuming building on Calle Hipolito Yrigoyen, it's not hard to find, and without much ado I book in.  My Argentine adventure has begun.