It Takes Two

May 28, 2015

IMG_3576It’s easy to understand how tango can become  a metaphor for Argentina and for life.

It’s so much more than a dance, although it starts with defined steps.  It’s the music, which is about losing one’s girlfriend and being down on one’s luck and carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders.  It’s about the couple, who lean in on one another in a way that helps to explain why the tango (outside Argentina) was considered something not to be done in polite company.  And it’s about the footwork between the steps — I never realized how complicated, how precise, how specific, how sexy the footwork between the steps could be.

Celia and Mauro brought us to a milonga, which is not a floor show but a hall where ordinary Argentines go to dance.  It was in an old building that Celia said used to be a tearoom that her grandmother would take her to after they had seen a movie.  And indeed, it definitely had the Schraft’s look — wood and marble paneled walls, Casablanca fans, high ceiling.

The music was piped in; the people were old and young, but mostly regulars who greeted one another (and exchanged partners with one another).  Several of the couples had clearly been dancing together all their lives — a bit more metaphor there as well, come to think of it — there were also several matrons who had arrived alone and who were dancing with young professional partners. Many of the women had kicked off their street shoes in favor of the spiked heels of the dance. Many of the women were in pants — remember they must have come directly from work — but it’s the kind of dance that really requires a dress and long legs as well as the aforementioned spike heels.  A class was going on in the corner, and waiters were plying coffee and water and soda.  And remember, this was what I call dinner time and Celia calls afternoon but definitely just after the workday was over.

Even though this was a milonga, at some point the club’s professional couple took the floor.  I had thought the amateurs were good (which they were).  But now we saw what it was all about.  The leg moves.  The sinuous steps.  The closeness of the couple and the fact that the man definitely leads.  Very little of the exaggerated backward extension that we think of when we think of tango — or at least which appears in the posters.

At some point this week we heard a story that in the early 20th century, the Pope had come out and said that tango was an obscene dance and shouldn’t be tolerated.  This was, of course, a terrible thing for the Argentines, until someone had the smarts to bring a dancer to the Vatican and dance for the Pope, who then agreed that the dance was acceptable for polite society.  I don’t think that the Pope saw what we saw last night …


Malvinas vs. Falklands

May 27, 2015

I only remember Celia losing her temper once during the 10 months she lived with us.  We were talking about world history of all things, and I mentioned that Magellan had “discovered” the Falklands on his way around South Africa.  She replied that no, Ma-he-yan-es had discovered the Malvinas.

We quickly agreed that Magellan was merely an Anglicization of Ma-he-yan-es.  No problem there.  But I said the islands were the Falklands, and proved it by showing her the name on a National Geographic map.  Celia was practically in tears when she said that the map was wrong, the name of the islands were the Malvinas.

A decade later, the world was introduced to the Argentine passion for the Malvinas.

To recap the history:  The islands are a remaining vestige of Britain’s empire.  They are on no particular use to anyone … or at least, they weren’t in the ’70s.  The 2500 or so people who live on the islands come from England and think of themselves as British, so if a plebiscite were held today, it’s clear which way they would vote.  Meanwhile, the islands lie off Argentina, and their economic life is via Argentina, and Argentina considers them to  truly belong to Argentina. As it happens, the story of the Malvinas is something that every Argentine school child learns, and learns it as a lesson of how a colonial power took unfair advantage of an emerging nation and stole the islands away, and how, once Britain realizes her obligations to the world of nations, the islands will revert to Argentine rule.

So all my National Geographic map proved to Celia is that the maps are drawn by the victors.  No wonder she was so upset.

A decade later, the Argentina’s military dictatorship  wanted a distraction from the economic mess they had created, and apparently they thought that Britain had problems of its own and would not  stop Argentina from seizing the islands.  Wrong again.

Maybe if Maggie Thatcher had not been prime minister, the story would have ended differently.  But the Iron Lady needed a distraction of her own.  She had just broken the coal miner’s union, but feelings were  running high.  To quote someone, a small war far, far away can have its benefits.  It took about three days after Argentina invaded the islands for London to respond:  The British revved up the engines of the Hermes aircraft carrier, assembled a naval fleet, and steamed off to the South Atlantic.

Argentina had no aircraft carrier, and the land bases were too far for the Argentine pilots to do more than make a quick run before they needed to return to shore.  They were brave, but they weren’t many, and they didn’t have a chance.

They also didn’t get lucky — one of the pilots saw a blip on the radar that he thought was the Hermes, but it turned out to be a cargo ship.  Had the Argentines hit the Hermes, the outcome might have been extremely different.

As it was, 700 young men died on the Argentine side, 200 on the British side, plus three islanders were killed by British fire.  After about 10 weeks Argentina capitulated.  Within a year the military government was gone, undone by its own overreach.  In the years since, neither Argentina nor Britain has changed their position on the islands, so the young people who died in the war absolutely died for no reason.

And today, the maps of the world — except those printed in Argentina — give the name of the islands as the Falklands. As for me, I can never think of them without thinking of Celia’s frustration and tears.  To me, they are better off left unnamed.

And, oh, yes:  Today we know there are oil reserves in the waters off the islands.


Girl From the Pampas

May 27, 2015

IMG_0004When Celia came to live with us, she was a sophisticated young lady from Buenos Aires, truly a world capital.  But some of the teens in the small town we lived in, across the bay from San Francisco, could barely find Argentina on a map.  The less clever of my friends treated Celia as if she had just wandered in from a one-horse town somewhere, and had never seen a mall or knew what to do with an escalator.
Celia tried explaining that Buenos Aires was a big city, and when that didn’t work, she developed a persona to fit the stereotype in question. “I’m just a girl from the pampas,” she would say.  “I’m a gaucho.  I wear a poncho, not a dress, and I usually ride a horse to school.  Isn’t that what you think of me?”

IMG_0015It was a pretty smart move, because it got the point across without getting mad, and it turned other people’s idiocies into a joke.  And in actuality, it was easy for her to do, because her grandfather owed  a farm that was a family vacation home.

Anyway, when Celia and I were planning this trip and sightseeing, going to the pampas was high on the list.

The pampas are cattle country, and basically start where the city ends.  Mauro drove us west around 100 kilometers, across flat (really flat) land.  Most of the cattle are in feedlots now, and the land has been turned over to corn and soy.  In fact, we saw more horses than cattle.

IMG_3570Our destination was San Antonio de Areco, self-defined center of the gaucho culture.  We enjoyed a small museum in an old estancia, or farmhouse, and lunch and shopping around the town square.  The date on the town church — 1730 — spoke to the age of the place and the age of Argentine culture in general; the silver in the museum spoke to the place that gauchos once held both in the mystique and economy of the area.


Family Barbecue

May 26, 2015

IMG_0093There’s nothing wrong with a country where the national meal is a barbecue, or asado! Celia brought the family together — that’s her brother Diego and his family, sister Gloria and her family, the kids (teens to adults) and assorted girlfriends, and of course her husband Mauro and son Francisco.  We met everyone except her 95-year-old father, who wasn’t up to it, and son Sebastian, currently in postgraduate studies in Germany.

The venue was Diego’s house, where he has a barbecue pit in the back of the garden.  We all squeezed around the table, and the food just kept coming.  We started off with chorizo and blood sausage, then moved along to ribs, then tenderloin and pork.  There were several kinds of potatoes, plus corn, plus salad and bread, and at some point I got lost.  We moved back to the living room for dessert, and even it came in courses.  I remember dolce du leche from Celia’s year living with us — her parents must have sent a jar at Christmas time.  Celia said that she had sent a jar to her son in Germany, so that memory makes sense.

The teens were great.  They wanted to know all about their Aunt Celia, and what she was like as a teen.  I had found some old photos of us, which they appropriately giggled at and passed around for all to admire. One showed Celia in her formal gown for the senior ball, and they wanted to know how it worked:  I explained that the young man showed up at the house and made small talk with the parents, that he brought a corsage (of the color and style of the girl’s choosing); that he paid for dinner and the evening and had to rent his tux; that my parents had a new car that they allowed my date to drive; all that.  I must admit is all sounded pretty ridiculous.

They asked the names of our dates, and I said I absolutely couldn’t remember — Celia’s only comment was that they were both tall.  I concur! I guess we’ve figured out what was important!

Independence Day in Argentina

May 25, 2015

2015-05-25 08.52.05Americans are celebrating Memorial Day today, and if we were at home, Frank would be marching and I would be preparing deviled eggs.  But here in Argentina, May 25 is Independence Day, and we had a very different kind of national holiday.

Celia and Mauro picked us up at 9:00 and we headed for the administrative center of the Capitol.  Have I mentioned that Buenos Aires is a beautiful city?  And that many of the major public buildings are late 19th century Victorian.  Our first stop was the Congresso, and then we turned and walked down toward the Pink House, which is Argentina’s answer to the White House.  You know it for the balcony where Evita (and every other leader) spoke to the people.

IMG_0002It was a national holiday, and not much auto traffic, but the busses were already beginning to arrive.  Christina Kirchner, the current president, had arranged a rally in support of the Peronist party, and the timing is prescient, because a national election is scheduled for this fall.  Christina (it’s like Hillary; she’s known by her first name) is term-limited, but she has a hand-picked successor.

IMG_0077Celia made it clear that the demonstrators are either paid to come to the city  — maybe with money, maybe with coercion. She pointed out that most of the demonstrators are young (very true) and her comment was that they were too young to remember the ‘7os, when the military dictatorship a la Peron brought economic disaster — and military disaster as well via the Malvinas/Falklands war — to Argentina.

Christina has co-opted Argentina’s blue and white to be Peronist colors — just as in our country the conservative wing co-opted the American flag as their symbol — so everywhere was blue and white banners and flags and balloons.  The drum is another Peronist symbol — Mauro explained that the drum is the instrument of the poor — and there were plenty of drums banging away in the background.

It’s also clear that Christina has an Evita complex.

IMG_0049Celia had wanted us to sightsee early, before too much activity had started, and for the most part we were walking through a staging area, with the speeches planned for this afternoon and evening, when there will be a  light show.  I was happy to get no more than what we got, which was plenty.

It would be easy from the size of the crowd to think that the Peronist party will win overwhelmingly, but then, remember, these are paid activists.  Still, Celia thinks the Peronists will win in the fall, and this does not make her happy.

IMG_0058The Pink House is at the far end of the old Spanish plaza, along with the Cabildo and Cathedral.  The Cathedral is rather short and neo-classical by European standards; this is where the current Pope Francis lived and worked before his recent ascension. I asked if he had been back for a visit, and Celia’s answer was that he had not, that the Pope was aware that he might be used for political reasons. We also saw the church offices/dormitory where the Pope lived, and I assure you, they are as humble as the man.

Inside, Mass was starting, and so we got a look at Pope Francis’ successor, as well as the tomb of San Martin, the national hero, with his standing guard.

Then we returned to the car, and drove by several more monuments, and the Opera House, and the monument to the dead in the Malvinas/Falklands war. Their’s were lives lost for no reason:  The military had started the war thinking that Britain wouldn’t react, but Maggie Thatcher needed a distraction from the coal miner’s strike, and the war in the far-away South Atlantic served her political purposes well.  I was working at Aviation Week at the time, and I can tell you:  The Argentine pilots flew with bravery, but they never had a chance.



My Foreign Exchange Sister

May 25, 2015

IMG_0035Forty-four years ago (not that anyone’s counting!) I had an AFS exchange sister from Buenos Aires.  It was her gap year — my senior year in high school — and my family lived in Alameda, CA — across the bay from San Francisco.  Celia was scheduled to go on to pre-med upon her return to Argentina; I had no idea what I would do other than liberal arts and college. We spent our senior high school year together, complete with intracultural interactions and sibling rivalries.

We’ve remained in touch.  Not always, and that’s part of the story that will come later, but in touch.  She went on to med school, became an oncologist and married Mauro, a surgeon. They have two adult sons, one a doctor and one not.  I’ve seen Celia three or four times in the 44 years that have intervened — always when she and Mauro had professional meetings in the States.  I’ve never met the family members.  And no one from my family ever visited Buenos Aires.

Until today.

IMG_0038This morning the plane touched down in B.A. after an overnight flight from Houston and Celia and Mauro were at the airport to greet us. We fell into each other’s arms.  Yes, she has crow’s feet and a few wrinkles, but when she opens her mouth she sounds just like Celia. And there’s no social niceties going on:  She knows all about my family anyway, so there’s no point in pretending.

It gets even better.

Some months ago I happened to mention to a business associate that Frank and I were planning to come to B.A.  I thought Mark might be interested because I knew his wife was Argentine.  He didn’t even take time to breathe:  “Oh, you must stay in our apartment,” he said.  It turns out that, in anticipation of his retirement and for their current once-yearly visits, Mark has purchased a two-bedroom condo in Recoleta, which only happens to be the most fashionable district in B.A. (But I would expect no less from Mark!)

And so here we are, proud inhabitants of what can only be described as a “Park Avenue apartment,” with local friends as tour guides and the city of Buenos Aires at our feet.  My biggest problem:  What do I do for hostess gifts to even attempt to repay this hospitality? More on that later.

IMG_0013We got to the apartment, then Celia and Mauro left us on our own for a nap, and then picked us up for lunch (an American lunch of salads that lasted  one hour — not an Argentine lunch lasting three courses and four hours).  Then we went to Recoleta Cemetery, where the greats and near-greats of Argentina are buried. Celia had arranged for a tour guide, and she proved worth her weight in gold.  It turns out that a trip through Recoleta Cemetery is really a trip through Argentine history, with emphasis on the personalities.

We met a Nobel prize winner, a boxer, and several girls/brides who met untimely deaths on their way to the altar.  The Major Draw, of course, is Eva Peron, who lies here after a rather adventurous afterlife that includes mummification and a trip to Europe.  Never mind.  Evita has (hopefully) made her last stop here, in the heart of Buenos Aires, as she is in the heart of her people.

IMG_0026I learned many lessons from Celia 44 years ago, and in her letters in the years since. About politics.  About economics.  About human nature.  I realized on the flight yesterday that Frank and I are not here to see Buenos Aires — we are here to meet Celia’s family, and experience Celia’s city. Evita is extra.  We’re not here for her.

And what a city this is. I mentioned to Frank tonight that Buenos Aires is much more a capital of Europe than it is a capital in Latin America.  Of course we are in the high rent district.  But all I have seen are parks and monuments and cafes and outdoor living.  Celia mentioned this afternoon that it was only when we went to Mexico City during that senior HS year that she first saw beggars on the street.  That was in 1971 — Beggars didn’t exist then in either the US or in Argentina.  Like I said, I feel like we are in Europe.

But Europe that is very far away from the rest of the world.  Did you know that Buenos Aires is further south than Cape Town, SA?  But that’s part of the story as well.  More tomorrow!





Move Over, McDonalds

May 23, 2015

I stopped reading the business section of the newspaper when I got out of the corporate world, but even I have skimmed the multiple articles over past months about how McDonalds is losing out to its competitors.  Now, here in the Boothbay Region we don’t have much opportunity to eat fast food even if we wanted to: There’s a Subway at the gas station, and that’s about it. The nearest Mickey D’s is 45 minutes away in Brunswick, and other than stopping there for a cup of coffee on the occasional early morning run, I haven’t indulged in years.

Other fast food emporiums are equally foreign to me, and so I have been intrigued by newspaper article(s) saying that Mickey D’s is losing out to Five Guys and Chipolte.  Intrigued because I’ve never been to either.

So last weekend,  when Frank and I found ourselves driving to Connecticut just about at dinnertime, and we made the conscious decision to stop at a Chipolte’s.  It was quite the experience.

First, the place was swarming with 15-25 year olds.  Swarming. The marketing people at Macs could hope for that kind of key demographic, all while they are tied to kids’ Happy Meals and  Play Areas and a clown named Ronald. All the Chipolte customers were waiting patiently in line (if you call playing with their I-phones patiently waiting), and the line moved fast enough.  The restaurant’s menu is remarkably small, and really, all the items are variations on a theme, so the number of ingredients is quite low.  You can have tacos, burritos, enchiladas or a fourth version I’ve forgotten, with your choice of three or four meats and a half-dozen other ingredients.  The value proposition is  100%  mix-or-match.  For Frank, who really isn’t into Mexican food, it was torture.  For everyone else, the point is that each order is made to order.  Plus, we were surrounded by the signage touting the lack of growth hormones in the meat, making it clear to the customer that this fast food is not only cool, it’s healthy.

Then, this week, I found myself on the road  at lunchtime and I took the opportunity to visit a Five Guys.  Again, the place had a remarkably limited menu, but again, everything was organized and cooked to order.  Sacks of potatoes lined the middle of the restaurant, mute  statement that the fries are “hand cut” (whatever that means). All I can say is that it is hard to imagine McDonald’s fries ever having been part of a potato, let alone entering the restaurant in spud form.  I wasn’t expecting much from the hamburger because we all know that fast-food hamburgers don’t taste like much of anything, certainly not hamburgers, but this one was remarkably juicy and meaty, and of course I had it my way.

All this while  McDonald’s makes change by increasing its already burgeoning menu, and let’s face it:  Nothing one eats in McDonald’s tastes much like food or even gives much hint of its origins as plant or animal.

I remember in high school that our local McDonald’s carried the sign, “more than 5 million served.”  That really dates me, doesn’t it?  I remember the “millions” number growing incrementally all the way to “more than 100 million served” and eventually being replaced by “billions and billions served.”  That Macs, by the way, had the original golden arches.  The ones that held up the roof, not the ones that form the “M”of the McDonald’s name.

How will all this play out?  Who knows! I will watch with  curiosity and some sadness.  Curiosity, because it’s always interesting to watch Goliath go up against change.  And sadness, because a corporate icon from my youth is  clearly showing its age,.


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