09.06.2008 11 °C
Now that the weather has picked up (thank god!), the word has spread amongst the moquito community that my face is a guaranteed tasty and nutritious meal. How annoying! So now I'm sporting a a fair number of bites, but only on the right side of my face and right upper arm, making me think that it was a mass sneak attack in the dead of night, or perhaps one obese mosquito which in return for its gluttony is now unable to fly. I hope it's the latter.
I realised that I haven't said much about my daily life here, or described in much detail the quirky bits of Buenos Aires that make it such an interesting place to live. One of the things I love about my barrio, San Telmo, is that the more you walk around it the more you notice. Every day it's as if bars and cafes have appeared out of nowhere, in places you hadn't observed before. The other day, I went with Raul and another friend to a concert in San Telmo, and behind an inconspicuous door and up some stairs was a venue maybe the size of the great hall in Leeds, where we have our exams and graduations and various other stuff. For those of you who have not had the privilege of Sophie's-tour-of-Leeds (or indeed those who don't study there), suffice to say that it was big, and you wouldn't have imagined it even existed from the outside.
I have invested three pesos (US$1) in a big bottle of soda. The sifón de soda is quite the revelation to me – always the cheapest drink in restaurants (cheaper than sparkling water), you get a big glass bottle delivered to you with a sort of lever and a nozzle, from which you may dispense as much or as little water as you wish. The first time I ordered a sifón, either I was a little enthusiastic, or the lever was a little too sensitive, but I proceeded to drench myself rather embarrassingly, and a chuckling waiter had to come and give me a new placemat etc. That he didn't change the bottle makes me think that it was probably me that was faulty, rather than the sifón. Anyway, despite a problematic beginning, I love the sifón purely for its novelty value, and I have one on my desk so I can top up my water then and there. I know that it's probably not much more exciting than a normal bottle of water, I just like the thrill of the level and nozzle element.
One drink that I've not managed to get to grips with is mate. Mate is a kind of tea – you fill up a little mate cup to the top with leaves and add water (or as Raul does, water heated with a little milk and honey). Then you drink it out of a metal straw, I forget its name, and keep topping up with hot water. Mate is a massive part of Argentine (and Chilean?) culture, and if people get together to drink mate it's a case of passing it around and one person always being responsible for topping it up. In fact, in the Motorcycle Diaries (the book) every half page 'Che' seems to be drinking more mate. People walk around the markets with a mate and a thermos flask so they can top themselves up. It's all really cool, and I would love to love mate but unfortunately it's really disgusting and I have no idea why people are so in love with it! Even with the slightly more tolerable milk and honey additions it's just really bitter. Like sucking on a piece of bark (I imagine). I'll keep trying.
The food here is great. Everywhere sells empanadas (bliss!), fugazzeta and delicious, delicious steak. Indeed, one of the loveliest steaks I've had recently was in a place down the road from my apartment called Manolo's which is untouched by the guidebooks, loved by locals, super cheap and extra yummy for it. By 9 the place is always rammed, and people stand around waiting for a table. When you order a steak here, there's no messing around. You are delivered a slab of meat, and that's it, so you have to be careful to get your potato product of some sort and a salad (the feel-less-guilty aspect of the meal). The meat is awesomely lean and juicy, and in general astonishing. Worth a trip, if any of you were thinking about it!
I have tried, since moving into the apartment, to cook for myself more than eating out, and now apart from the odd meal I restrict myself to a coffee or hot chocolate and 'churros' – like donuts, but straight – in one of San Telmo's many lovely little cafes. For things that I can't get from the friendly man in San Telmo market, I have to go to the supermarket around the corner, which makes a desperate attempt at emulating the Tescos/Wal Marts of this world, and calls itself 'Leader Price'. It's one of the weirder super markets I've ever experienced. For example, there are about 5 shelves occupied only by salt for about 3 meters. The vegetables are hidden away at the back, near the synthetic rubber masquerading as 'mozarella'. Among the tinned vegetables, which boast about 4m x 5 shelves of sweet corn, beans or chickpeas are not to be found. They have, at least, a good pasta selection, although no sauce to be found, and it took me a week of visits before I encountered any tinned tomatoes. Suffice to say the peculiarities of my local supermercado have limited a little my cooking efforts – no ground black pepper and no spices (although I finally found some in a random street stall in a little plastic bag for a peso).
Yesterday's San Telmo antiques market boasted, amongst other things:
a sword concealed within a walking stick
an old unexploded grenade
a swastika rubber stamp (perhaps a result of the escape of many Nazis to South America..)
mate cups of all manner of shapes and sizes
books dating over a hundred years old.
After a wander around, we hopped on a bus and headed to a gaucho market at the very edge of town. Apart from selling lots of pretty things, and tasty food (I've some delicious olive oil, cheese, olives and all manner of goodies, and my friend bought some lovely salami and cooked ham too, so we really feasted last night!), there was a stage with chacarera – another Argentine music/dance tradition, and a very different sort of thing than the tango. It certainly has the feel of a country dance, with drum and charango (a sort of tiny guitar) and singing and it's really, really great. It helped that the stage was in the middle of a really beautiful old square which was heavy with the smoke from an outdoor parilla selling choripan (hot dogs) for 5 pesos. Another street leading off the square was transformed into a horse track, and gauchos (cowboys, really) were racing their horses down the track at high speed, and with a tiny stick were catching a loop of metal about the size of a keyring which was suspended from a sort of football goal (but higher!) It sounds really random, but on a horse travelling at a fair rate of knots, it was really impressive that anyone was able to get it. As well as the older guys there were a few little chaps on horseback having a go too (for which they lowered the height of the loop!). Rather frustratingly I forgot my camera, but hopefully I'll get to go back in a week or two.
That evening, after a shower, we had planned to go to my friend's hostal and eat all the goodies we'd picked up. I bumped into my friends just outside their hostal, just as a drumming band had started playing. Everyone here can dance, and joined in, apart from us, since we can't really dance like latinos can. At all, in fact! It was an awesome atmosphere, and very much the kind of thing you bump into in S.Telmo.
After that, we walked past Plaza Dorrego, hoping for a quick drink before settling down to our meat and cheese feast and there was an outdoor milonga going on, with some lovely guitar music, so we stopped to watch, spied a ringside table and sat down with a chopp (draught) each of Quilmes (the local beer). Unfortunately, I think that being sat right by the dancing means that you'd like a dance, and before I knew it I was hauled up to the dance floor despite my protests that really, I can't dance tango – I've had one, very basic, lesson. After the first five minutes of trying to get me to position myself correctly (for which, I think, wearing high heels would actually be beneficial), it wasn't that bad, and fortunately my dancing partner was extremely patient with me! By the time I went to sit down my friend had vanished, and I looked around but couldn't see her. Then I sat down and realised that she'd been hauled up for a dance too – although she's had a few more lessons, I think she felt the same amount of alarm as I did! All very amusing. We went to her place and had our meal, and met an incredible young brazilian guitarist who played various sambas. I'll find out his myspace and post it because he really was exceptional. A generally pleasant end to the day, and I sloped back home tummy full of lots of lovely, lovely food and wine.
Anyway, enough for now, hope you're all well and please do keep e-mails and stuff coming, it's so nice hearing how you are!
All my love
PS: another 3 interviews lined up for this week, whoop!