Palermo Hollywood, Buenos Aires, Argentina
The woman on the plane was justifying her seventh Argentinian vacation.
“We could go to Florida, but in Argentina it’s summer,” she said. “The days are longer and it’s a more interesting place.”
She’s right. Here we walk leafy tree-lined streets, sit for meriendas, Argentinian Afternoon Tea with picadas, tapas-style dishes, coffee, wine, beer at sidewalk cafes, enjoy seasonal fruit including my favorite fragrant, juicy peaches, apricots and plump cherries and see light in the sky until almost nine in the evening.
When I began writing letters home from the road, I did not think that food would be a central focus of our life. But I come from a food family, where simple and real food is prized. If someone asks if we are hungry we have a saying: You can always eat.
My best childhood memories are food. My youngest brother, crawling through the garden, white, cotton diaper pointed to the sky, picking snap peas off the vines. The summer my father was in the hospital facing bland, gray meals, my mother and I sat in the yard plucked beefy tomatoes, warm from the vine, a sprinkle of sea salt, the juice dripping down our chins.
When I met McGyver he had a food test. No meat-and-potatoes man for me, he must enjoy food, all food, sauteed red cabbage, grilled eggplant, roasted beets and garlic. Despite being a child of the processed-food 60s, he’s learned to eat most of it.
The meals in Buenos Aires are delightful. A meal is more than food, it’s location, setting, presentation and portions, all contribute to the experience.
In many neighborhoods, the four corners of the intersection have a restaurant or bar, because it’s summer there is outdoor seating. A community atmosphere is created. The restaurant exteriors are beautiful, brightly painted stone walls, tumeric and paprika, or sleek, gray modern industrial. The chairs are large, wooden patio chairs, comfortable for extended sitting or canvas directors chairs.
At Grappa, at the corner of Carranza and El Salvador where three of the four corners have restaurants, McGyver’s $16 tenderloin, plated in its juice on a bed of arugula lettuce with cherry tomatoes, melted in my mouth, no gristle or sinew to chew. My favorite meal, also in Palermo Hollywood, at Voltaire Cafe and Deli, a vegetable tart, the chef’s grandmother’s recipe, wafer thin slices of eggplant, zucchini and tomato, grilled, slightly charred at the edges, layered with Feta cheese, topped with cubes of grilled red and yellow peppers and crumbled Feta and accompanied by green and burgundy lettuce leaves, crisp enough to stand on their own, not industrial-grown or even hothouse-grown, this lettuce came from a garden, lightly kissed with extra virgin olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar.
Outside America, cultures view food differently, prizing quality not quantity. In addition to the typical McDonald’s offerings there is an Argentino-style espresso, a chicito cup of four ounces, with a similar small glass of sparkling water and a chocolate cookie the size of a quarter, sitting in its own platito (little plate), all on a tray. Beautiful to see. Satisfied not stuffed.
In America, it’s still size that counts. “The plates were huge,” a driver told me recently recommending a Cajun chain restaurant. “I was full up to here (pointing to his eyeballs).” But asked, three times, if the food was good, he could only assure me that the portions were huge.
If it’s not food that turns our world, it’s technology. We are seasoned travelers with 30 years experience each visiting foreign countries. Between the two of us, we have been to every continent except Antarctica, almost all major regions, but not yet to the South Pacific, China and Russia.
When we started traveling in the early 80s, communication was slightly more sophisticated than smoke signals. Travelers left notes pinned to bulletin boards at hostels or mailed letters to embassies or American Express offices. We promised to meet at hotels and waited a couple of days to see if the other show.
Lonely Planet changed traveling, giving us a common guide book and trap line. The Australians we met in Thailand, we saw again in Laos and Nepal and India. Countries developed backpacker zones where travelers find cheap lodging, food and travel, Khao San Road in Bangkok or the Paharganj in New Delhi.
In 1998, I took a sabbatical from life, arriving in Indonesia with the explosion of Internet cafes. On every corner, for cents per minute, an air conditioned shop with rows of computers with dial up connections. Travelers traded Hotmail addresses sending tips and suggestions or appealed to the Bank of Mom and Dad for cash.
Today we are traveling with an iPad and a cellphone. Virtually every restaurant in the Palermo district where we are staying has a WiFi Zone label in the window. We have checked the weather – it rained Wednesday, sunshine is forecast for the remainder of our stay – Googled the area where my Argentinian cousins live, checked the opening times of museums and galleries and of course email from home.
We also purchased an unlocked cellphone for this trip that accepts a SIM chip. It’s when we travel outside the US that we see the stranglehold that American corporations place on its home customers.
Unlocked cellphones are common around the world. In the US they are locked. A fingernail sized chip makes the unlocked cellphone local anywhere in the world. We purchased the $100 Samsung phone through Amazon.com before departing. In Buenos Aires, we visited Movistar, a service provider, and purchased a SIM chip for $2.50US which activated the phone, giving us a local phone number and allowed us to receive calls and text messages. A second card, $5US, charged the phone with enough money to pay for a dozen short calls or texts. This allowed my cousins to reach us, making it easier for them to play host.
When we go to Bangkok in February, we will purchase a Thai SIM chip, creating a local Thai cellphone so friends there can reach us easily.
On this trip, we learned a variation of my father’s code of life: Dress for the job (seat) you want not the job (seat) you have. Since this is a city trip, restaurants, museums, art galleries, McGyver wore his cashmere sports jacket, ten-years-old and still like new.
We arrived at the airport to find that the American Airlines seats we had chosen when we booked, two side-by-side isle and window seats, had vanished. We were left with the dregs, middle seats in a row of five at the back of the plane.
Part of America’s new economic world is that there are no employees, making us doubt that the unemployment rate will decrease anytime soon or that consumers will spend more soon. Not only are supermarkets and drugstores forcing customers into a do-it-yourself world of scanning and bagging their own groceries and items – eliminating middle-class cashier jobs, which, while paying little in wages are going to people who spend their entire paycheck in their local economy, we cannot all be executives – the airlines have us checking ourselves in. Scanning our own passports – which is now apparently OK in our high-security world because it saves the corporation money, inflates the stock price and translates into huge bonuses for the executives – tagging our own baggage and dragging it to the carousel.
When we asked the attendant about our seats, she shrugged and said: “This is only check in, I don’t know, you have to ask at the gate.” By the time we get to the gate there will be two middle seats at opposite ends of the plane left.
Cutting a sophisticated figure in his sports coat, McGyver asked again, politely, when we picked up the bar-coded baggage tags. This time the attendant let his fingers do the exploring and came up with two side-by-side aisle seats. We took them.
Since we have premium credit cards, we were “guests” in American Airlines’ Admirals Club, its private lounge for its preferred customers – the world is slowly morphing into a place where people with money to spend, even a little makes a big difference, and computers are separated from everyone else – where we asked the hostess to check our return flight seats. She couldn’t get into the computer so she told us to phone American Airlines reservations. They said phone American Express that’s where you booked. American Express said phone Travelocity, which is how we discovered that we did not book this trip through American Express even thought we were on the American Express website. AMEX lends its brand out. Each person McGyver talked to would do nothing. He returned to the lounge hostess, who now miraculously and thankfully, was able to unlock the computer and give us side-by-side seats on the return flight.
Life With No Fixed Address made a tactical error on this trip. It’s my fault. Worried that about increasing airfare, I pushed McGyver into booking a package deal, airfare with hotel. While I crossed the same threshold as Evita Peron at the Baucis Boutique hotel, built in 1915 as a house for a political leader, it was not the best choice. It’s showing its age in a charming way, the house has a front entrance, a parlour and kitchen, stairs to an upper floor and beyond the parlour is an open-air courtyard, ground floor rooms with 16 foot ceilings, paint faded and rusting. More rooms up a flight of back stairs.
We should have rented an apartment, even if the airfare was a little more, the total price would have been almost the same. The hotel does not include Internet, it is $10US per day extra, a cardinal sin in McGyver’s books, and there’s no sofa for lounging, another must-have amenity for people who spend so much time in a truck. A little kitchen would have allowed us to pick up our own meriendas, snacks and drinks, at the corner grocery stores.
Next time….. but now off to see what seats we really have for the return flight.